timbersfan's WunderBlog

MLS 2012 team preview: NE Revolution

By: timbersfan, 12:55 AM GMT on February 25, 2012

2011 record and finish: 5-16-13 (Ninth place in Eastern Conference)

Additions: M Clyde Simms; D John Lozano; M/F Fernando Cardenas; M Kelyn Rowe; F Jose Moreno; D Tyler Polak; F Saer Sene.

Losses: F Milton Caraglio; D Ryan Cochrane; M Franco Coria; M Pat Phelan; F Kheli Dube; F Rajko Lekic; F Alan Koger; D Otto Loewy; M Andrew Sousa; F Monsef Zerka.

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Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
New England will look to build around the technically proficient Benny Feilhaber.
Key questions facing this team

1. How will the Revs adapt to life after Steve Nicol?

After four MLS Cup finals and 10 seasons in charge, manager Nicol was let go during the offseason and replaced by long-time Revs defender Jay Heaps. While deferential to Nicol and all that he achieved, Heaps hopes to, well, revolutionize the team. "We want to change the way we play and that takes time," he said. "We want to attack differently and be more of a high-pressure team as opposed to sit back. We want to put pressure on them and win games with our technical ability as opposed to just grinding them out."

2. Will the turnover frustrate progress?

The Revs have a long ways to go. In 2011, they ended dead last in the putrid Eastern Conference, winning the fewest games of any team in the league and conceding the second-most goals, scoring the third-fewest and tying for fewest points. The club has put a rookie coach in charge of a side that will look very different for a third consecutive year. The player transactions the Revs have made are not cosmetic, they are structural. Can the team mesh quickly enough to compete? And can it shore up a deeply dysfunctional defense at last?

3. Is Shalrie Joseph on board?

Ever since Taylor Twellman was forced to retire from the Revs because of sustaining one too many concussions, holding midfielder Joseph has been the club's icon and best player. Yet his recent seasons have been dogged by substance abuse and behavioral issues, not to mention a steady diet of rumors that Joseph wanted out. As New England tries to rebuild once more, Joseph will be badly needed to settle the midfield down. "He's very on board," said Heaps. "When you're looking at a player of Shalrie's caliber, you have to know where to reach in and push the buttons. I've known him a long time and he knows what to expect from me."

Biggest X factor: Benny Feilhaber

Heaps intends for his new-look Revs to control play and build the attack on technical players. Last year's midseason pickup, Feilhaber is as pure a playmaker as anybody in MLS, and the rare American whose technical ability allows him to control the pace of games. He was slow to assimilate into the team last season, given that it played a style that didn't suit him. Now that the philosophy seems written with him in mind, Feilhaber will be the linchpin to success. "We need Benny to really make the midfield go with penetrating balls to get us forward," agreed Heaps.

Breakout player to watch: Kelyn Rowe

One other such technical player who could play an outsized role for the Revs in 2012 is Rowe, the team's third-overall draft pick and a playmaker out of UCLA. The knock on Rowe in the run-up to the draft was that he was too small to function in the center of a professional midfield and too slow to play on the flanks. Yet he possesses a deft touch, passing ability and vision that could more than make up for those deficiencies. There will be opportunities aplenty on the Revs, and Rowe could be the surprise of this draft class.
Outlook

Like last year, this is very much a rebuilding year for the Revs. It's hard to judge how the team's three Colombian imports will change its fortunes, but with no other additions more notable than a pair average MLS veterans like Clyde Simms, the odds of the Revs getting better any time soon are slim. Add to that the change in playing style and philosophy and it appears that New England is destined for another year in the cellar.

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MLS 2012 team preview: D.C. United

By: timbersfan, 12:54 AM GMT on February 25, 2012

2011 record and finish: 9-13-12 (Seventh place in Eastern Conference)

Additions: D, Robbie Russell; M, Nick DeLeon; M, Lance Rozeboom; F, Maicon Santos; M, Danny Cruz; D, Emiliano Dudar; F, Hamdi Salihi; M, Marcelo Saragosa

Losses: M, Santino Quaranta; D, Marc Burch; M, Clyde Simms; M, Brandon Barklage; GK, Steve Cronin; F, Joseph Ngwenya; D, Jed Zayner; D, Devon McTavish; F, Blake Brettschneider

Key questions facing this team

1. Is the mix right?

Last season, United looked like a college team with a sprinkling of veterans. That was very much by design, according to Ben Olsen, who at 34 goes into his second season as full-time head coach. "We were very young last year and we knew we were going to have ups and downs that go along with having an inexperienced group," he explained. "We felt that's what last year was about, finding what young guys we were committed to and finding out what we need. This offseason we identified some of the things we needed, one was depth, one was more presence and leadership, and I felt we needed a little bit more bite, too. The team needed more experience and that's what we went out and got." Although United said goodbye to several long-serving players, they added seasoned players, as well, to complement 2011 MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario, a midseason pickup. They hope they've now gotten the formula between talent and experience right after treading water for four consecutive playoff-less seasons.

2. Can United finally take the next step?

For much of last season, United looked playoff-bound. It wasn't until forward Chris Pontius and center back Dejan Jakovic went down injured that the campaign got derailed. The team went a horrid 1-6-2 down the stretch. Olsen is confident United are a little deeper this time around, making a late-summer swoon less likely. And he argues the late slide made the season look worse than it was. "It was a good year," he said. "As low as we finished, it's still a pretty promising group." The next step toward competing for titles is attaining a consistency and finishing the season strong.

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3. Has the defense been shored up sufficiently?

During one 10-game stretch over July, August and September, United conceded six goals, -- three of which came in a 3-3 Aug. 6 tie with Toronto FC -- and took 1.6 points per game. Over the other 24 games, they gave up 46 and won just .95 points per game. Which is to say, when the defense is functioning, United are a contender. But for much of 2011, they weren't. "We've focused a lot on the defensive end and if things go better there, we could be a team that could make some real things happen," conceded Olsen. "Last year, offensively we were pretty good. We just let too many in." The addition of veteran defenders Robbie Russell and Emiliano Dudar should help, allowing Perry Kitchen to slide up a row, improving United in midfield, too.

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Claus Andersen/Getty Images
Branko Boskovic needs to raise his game to help add bite to United's attack.
Biggest X-factor: Branko Boskovic

Because De Rosario can't be expected to do it all alone -- even if he did for much of the second half in 2011 -- United's investment in Montenegrin attacking midfielder Boskovic needs to yield better results. Since being brought in as a Designated Player in the summer of 2010, Boskovic has given the team very little bang for its buck, playing 17 games, hampered by poor conditioning and a torn ACL. If he can return to form, set the tempo and link up well with his fellow Rapid Wien import and DP, striker Hamdi Salihi, and De-Ro, United's attack could be a terror.

Breakout player to watch: Andy Najar

Wait a minute. Wasn't Najar the 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year? Yes, he was. Last year, however, he showed up to preseason out of shape, got off to a very slow start and was constantly distracted by his national team situation, finishing high school and his young family. He nevertheless rounded into form and matched his rookie year's tally of five goals, while taking his assist total from one to six. A lithe winger, Najar still has untapped potential and could come to dominate the league in the blink of an eye with all factors now aligned. "Hopefully he has a re-breakout year," said Olsen.

Outlook

There's every reason to believe United will be better than last year, which, for the most part wasn't at all bad. Pontius will be back and healthy, forming a potent tandem of wingers with either Najar or Danny Cruz, rounding out a United squad that is looking solid through and through. If this team doesn't end its playoff drought, which at four years is the second-longest in the league behind Toronto FC's five years, it will have failed spectacularly.

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MLS 2012 preview: New York Red Bulls

By: timbersfan, 12:54 AM GMT on February 25, 2012

2011 record and finish: 10-8-16 (fifth place in Eastern Conference)

Additions: D Connor Lade; D Jonathan Borrajo; D Markus Holgersson; F Kenny Cooper; GK Ryan Meara; GK Jeremy Vuolo; D Wilman Conde; M Victor Palsson

Losses: GK Alex Horwath; D Michael Jones; D Tyler Lassiter; M Marcos Paullo; M John Rooney; D Teddy Schneider; GK Frank Rost; D Carlos Mendes; D Chris Albright; GK Bouna Coundoul; D Tim Ream; D Sacir Hot; M Matt Kassel

Key questions facing this team

1. Can the Red Bulls finally put it all together?

After a disappointing flameout in the conference semifinals in 2010 -- the first year of the Red Bulls' high-priced, star-powered makeover -- 2011 was supposed to deliver a championship. But after a 4-1-2 start, the wheels came off and the Red Bulls went 2-5-13 in an epic four-month slump. Although it's true they scraped into the playoffs, by then the Red Bulls had turned into a one-dimensional team with an offense that regressed into a clodding, primitive route one operation. Furthermore, chemistry was visibly bad as the team vacillated between trying to play a possession game and just collecting points.

In the playoffs, a conference semifinals matchup with eventual champion the Los Angeles Galaxy proved to be their last stop again. And yet, the Red Bulls gained a depth in midfield and up front this offseason that no other team in the league can compete with. Consequently, head coach Hans Backe has set his sights on winning the Supporters' Shield, the U.S. Open Cup and MLS Cup. Keeping in mind that last year he was aiming at winning only the Supporters' Shield -- a goal that proved far too lofty -- you wonder whether enough has changed for this grand experiment to turn the corner.

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2. Will the defense hold up?

With midfielders Rafa Marquez, Teemu Tainio, Joel Lindpere, Dane Richards, Mehdi Ballouchy, Dax McCarty and Victor Palsson and forwards Thierry Henry, Luke Rodgers, Kenny Cooper and Juan Agudelo in the mix, the Red Bulls will want for nothing in those lines. The defense is another matter. Tim Ream was sold to Bolton Wanderers, and Backe confirmed that Marquez's move into midfield is permanent.

Stephen Keel, a career minor leaguer who was serviceable for the Red Bulls last year, is the lone experienced holdover in central defense. He will be joined there by Wilman Conde and Markus Holgersson. Conde was very good in a previous stint with the Fire but has been hobbled by injury, while European imports like Holgersson have a notoriously spotty track record in MLS. Yet at least one of them will have to prove himself in the Red Bulls defense for the team to be competitive, especially with wing backs Jan Gunnar Solli and Roy Miller hell-bent on getting forward. So, too, concludes Backe.

"Our defense has to be much better," he said. "We conceded a number of goals not just from individual mistakes and unforced errors, but sometimes we defended too sloppy [last year], which we need to work on. For all successful teams, one of the main ingredients is to have a solid defense."

3. Who plays in goal?

Last season, the Red Bulls handed five different goalkeepers a start, none of them getting more than 11 chances. Now, all five have moved on, replaced by Ryan Meara (a draftee out of Fordham University) and Jeremy Vuolo, who spent a season in the second division of Finland after graduating from Syracuse. Both are supposed to be talented, but can the expensive Red Bulls afford to be backstopped by one totally or one mostly unproven rookie? "You never know, sometimes a good goalie just pops up," Backe thought wishfully. "Ryan and Jeremy are talented enough to perhaps take that spot. So far they've done well. We'll give them a chance."

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Mike Stobe/Getty Images
"If he has a good season, he will be a huge factor in midfield for us," manager Hans Backe said of Rafa Marquez.
Biggest X factor: Rafa Marquez

Sporting a disinterested look from the first time he set foot in Red Bull Arena, culminating in last year's very public criticism of his teammates, the team's high-priced Mexican designated player nevertheless holds considerable sway over the team's fortunes. The Red Bulls will rely on Marquez to play centrally in midfield, next to the holding midfield vacuum cleaner Tainio, and distribute to the wings and forwards. "If he has a good season, he will be a huge factor in midfield for us," Backe said. If he doesn't, the Red Bulls will be relegated to lumping high balls upfield again, the very strategy that derailed their 2011 season.

Breakout player to watch: Juan Agudelo

Watching him as a part-time player who made 12 starts and 15 substitute appearances in 2011, you got the distinct sense that Agudelo, 19, is just scratching the surface of his abilities. For him to make good on his talent, however, he'll need to climb up the depth chart. And he found himself even further down the pecking order after the Red Bulls acquired Cooper this offseason. But Backe has indicated that he's considering occasionally switching from his 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 formation, which could create a spot for Agudelo.

Outlook

If there were any excuses not to make the MLS Cup final in 2011, surely none remain in 2012. However, thin they are in the back and in goal, the Red Bulls are so stacked with talent elsewhere that failure will be intolerable. But banishing from the memory a season that turned sour as quickly as the last did one is never easy, and some teams never recover. This is a make-or-break year for the Red Bulls: Either make an appearance in the final, or break the team up and start from scratch.

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MLS 2012 preview: Philadelphia Union

By: timbersfan, 12:53 AM GMT on February 25, 2012

2011 record and finish: 11-8-15 (third place in Eastern Conference)

Additions: M Nizar Khalfan; F Josue Martinez; M Jimmy McLaughlin; M Gabriel Gomez; D Porfirio Lopez; F Chandler Hoffman; M Greg Jordan; D Raymon Gaddis; D Tom Brandt; F Krystian Witkowski; F Antoine Hoppenot; M Brandon Zimmerman; F Lionard Pajoy; D Chris Albright

Losses: D Juan Diego Gonzalez; GK Thorne Holder; M Justin Mapp; GK Chase Harrison; M Stefani Miglioranzi; F Levi Houapeu; M Morgan Langley; D/M Ryan Richter; D Joe Tait; F Veljko Paunovic; GK Faryd Mondragon; F Sebastien Le Toux; M Kyle Nakazawa

Key questions facing this team

1. Has the Union lost too much experience?

In a shocking series of moves, the Union said goodbye to its two most experienced players and its MVP this offseason. Veljko Paunovic and Faryd Mondragon returned to their home countries because of family issues, with Paunovic retiring for a second time and Mondragon re-joining his first club, Deportivo Cali. Meanwhile, perennial MVP candidate Sebastien Le Toux, who delivered 25 goals and 20 assists in the Union's two seasons of existence, was shipped to the Vancouver Whitecaps for allocation money. Head coach Peter Nowak received plenty of heat over the Le Toux decision but insists it all fits into a grand plan, and that the financial breathing room created by the striker's transfer fee will pay dividends for years to come. "We were able to have Carlos Valdes back and give a new contract to Roger Torres, and we believe that it was important to make this move for the long term," Nowak said. Question is, how hard will the losses hit the Union in the short run? Nowak is confident that the mountain of young talent he has assembled over the past two years is ready to perform. "The youngsters already have experience playing in this league," he said. "It's not like we're just picking up some rookies who don't know the league. We're not in a rebuilding year."

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Drew Hallowell/Getty Images
If Freddy Adu doesn't get the itch to try his hand in Europe again, his versatility will prove a major asset to Peter Nowak's squad.
2. Will Freddy Adu stick around?

Nomadic wunderkind Freddy Adu seemed to be getting his customary biannual itch this winter, admitting publicly that he wouldn't be opposed to turning his training stint with Rayo Vallecano into a permanent move. Although not the Union's best player, Adu looked promising in his first 11 appearances for the club; now that he's fit and settled in, he could be primed for the strong, complete season he's never had. Adu also gives Nowak the flexibility he craves to shift systems, as he can play in several different roles on the left and in the center of the park. That's if he sticks around, of course.

3. Can they weather the Olympics?

To the relief of many MLS coaches, the league's schedule now breaks for international games. But the Olympics and the qualifying tournament thereof could still wreak havoc on MLS rosters throughout the summer, and none more so than the Union's. Adu, Zach MacMath, Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo and Sheanon Williams are all potential starters for the Union -- but are squarely in the U-23 picture too. "I've got the calendar from the U.S. Federation and in the worst-case scenario, we can lose these guys for 16 or 17 games, which is half the season," Nowak lamented. He hopes to have created enough depth to compensate for their absence, but that's a lot of talent to cover for.

Biggest X factor: Rapid maturation

On its current roster, the Union has just four players over the age of 27. On average, the 24-man team is an incredibly young 23.3. As talented as they are, this bunch will have to mature quickly into a team that can build on the Union's strong 2011 season. "Not just to be playing attractive, but also effective," Nowak said. "This third year we have to combine playing effective, playing efficient, but also winning the games."

Breakout player to watch: Danny Mwanga

The Union's top draft pick in their 2010 expansion season, Mwanga, who still is just 20, has already yielded a pretty nice return. He scored seven goals as a rookie and five more in 2011, making him the second-most productive Union player of all time, while collecting eight assists too. Nowak has always used him conservatively and tried to bring him along slowly, starting him just 30 times over two seasons and taking great precaution with his knee injury last summer. With Le Toux gone, Mwanga is the favorite to see more minutes and step into the void.

Outlook

The Union, by its admission, was ahead of its own blueprint when it made the playoffs last season. Performance breeds expectation, though, even if a team's best player and two other starters leave. With a young core solidifying and growing up together, paired with Latin imports Gabriel Gomez, Josue Martinez, Porfirio Lopez and Lionard Pajoy, the Union should be competitive for a playoff spot. But don't expect them to go far in the playoffs just yet.

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MLS 2012 preview: FC Dallas

By: timbersfan, 12:52 AM GMT on February 25, 2012

2011 record and finish: 15-12-7 (fourth place in Western Conference)

Additions:F Blas Perez, D Hernan Pertuz, D Matt Hedges, D Alex Lee, F Walter Hines, D Ian Kalis, D Carlos Rodríguez

Losses: D Edson Edward, D Jeremy Hall, F Maykel Galindo, F Maicon Santos, M Marvin Chavez, M Jackson

Key questions facing this team

1. Will the made-over defense jell quickly?

FC Dallas has been forced to make a number of changes to a defense that had become one of the league's tightest over the past few seasons. After a transfer saga that seemed to take forever to play out, central rock George John went out on loan to West Ham with an option for the Championship club to purchase his contract in early March. John's potential return on the eve of the regular season would be a short-term boost, but in the meantime, the defense is taking shape around Colombian addition Hernan Pertuz, who has impressed in the early going. Rookie center back Matt Hedges has a bright future, but it may be early to expect too much from him. With Jackson and Jeremy Hall gone as options, Panamanian wing back Carlos Rodríguez will see plenty of time. With so many questions, the Hoops will lean heavily on veterans Zach Loyd and Ugo Ihemelu for leadership early on.

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2. Who's going to complement Brek Shea?

The central midfield is pretty set, with Daniel Hernandez backing up a five-man set and some combination of Andrew Wiedeman, Ricardo Villar and hopefully David Ferreira in the middle. In the 4-1-4-1 Schellas Hyndman prefers, wing play is crucial to getting on the scoreboard. Shea has the left locked down, but plugging the hole at right wing left by Marvin Chavez's departure will be critical. FCD will need more offensive production out of Villar and the return of a healthy Ferreira to complement the young American star.

3. With a less congested schedule, can Dallas return to form?

Last year, the Hoops withered at the end of a grueling season, falling out of form and stumbling to the finish line in both MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League. The hard times can be chalked up to depth. The club played 48 games in 2011 and had nothing in the tank at the end. With no Champions League this year, fixture congestion will be significantly reduced, but offseason attrition means little has been done to address the depth chart. The players brought in are capable replacements for the losses, but they don't move the needle much in terms of quality. And with six home-grown players on the roster, experienced players ready to step in are still missing. That leaves the Hoops vulnerable if any of their key players get injured, which raises the question: Can FCD take a step toward its 2010 form?

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Rich Lam/Getty Images
David Ferreira, who was the league's MVP in 2010, played only six games last season due to a broken ankle. His return to form will be a key component to FCD's success in 2012.
Biggest X factor: David Ferreira

The league's 2010 MVP played six games last season before a crunching Jonathan Leathers tackle left him watching from the sidelines with a broken ankle. Though the team did its best to make amends in its playmaker's absence, the injury proved a death blow to the Hoops' chances in 2011. Ferreira's return to form will be key to their success in 2012, but the Colombian seems to have some psychological baggage after the experience, so a full recovery is far from certain.

Breakout player to watch: Fabian Castillo

The Colombian U-20 international showed some flashes in 2011 but struggled for consistency. With a hole to fill on the right wing, Castillo will get plenty of chances to improve this year. The right wing is likely his on starting day, but Castillo may get a shot up front as well, where Hyndman says he can use the space and freedom to reach a higher level.

Outlook

One of the league's top teams over the past few seasons, Dallas may be in a little trouble in 2012. The Western Conference has gotten better, and the Hoops have failed to move aggressively forward during the offseason. They're no longer in the league of Los Angeles or Seattle in terms of quality, and upstarts such as Colorado and Portland could well be on the way to challenging them for playoff spots.

Much will ride on the uncertain form of Ferreira and the ability of Blas Perez, a veteran goal scorer signed from Mexico's second division, to put the ball in the net consistently. If an offer comes in for Shea over the summer, the writing may be on the wall for Hyndman's team. The Hoops have the quality in their starting lineup for a deep playoff run but little leeway. Hyndman's teams have historically started slow, and any further blips along the way could send Dallas reeling closer to the bottom of the Western Conference table than the heights to which the proud franchise aspires.

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A Big Win for Ryan Braun

By: timbersfan, 12:49 AM GMT on February 25, 2012

Ryan Braun will be in the Milwaukee Brewers lineup on Opening Day.

On Thursday, an arbitration panel upheld Braun's appeal and threw out a pending 50-game suspension against the reigning National League MVP. It marked the first time that a major league player has ever had a positive drug test overturned.

When news about the positive test first broke, a source close to Braun vehemently contested the charges. In a text message to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Braun wrote: “I am completely innocent. This is B.S.” Of course, many players before him had insisted in their innocence, too.

But the circumstances behind the Braun test were, at the very least, unsavory. Under baseball's Joint Drug Agreement, results are supposed to remain confidential. Yet Braun's were leaked to the media. As the Major League Baseball Players Association said in a statement today:

"A player's successful challenge to a suspension normally would not have been made public. The parties have agreed, given the particulars of this case, that an announcement is appropriate."

Meanwhile, Rob Manfred, MLB’s executive vice president for labor relations, released this statement:

“Major League Baseball considers the obligations of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program essential to the integrity of our game, our Clubs and all of the players who take the field. It has always been Major League Baseball’s position that no matter who tests positive, we will exhaust all avenues in pursuit of the appropriate discipline. We have been true to that position in every instance, because baseball fans deserve nothing less.

“As a part of our drug testing program, the Commissioner’s Office and the Players Association agreed to a neutral third party review for instances that are under dispute. While we have always respected that process, Major League Baseball vehemently disagrees with the decision rendered today by arbitrator Shyam Das.”

When Braun's results were leaked, the details of that test, and even the suspected effects of performance-enhancing drugs, were anything but definitive. Given how little we knew at the time, it made no sense to rush to judgment.

What Braun's successful appeal means for MLB's efforts to monitor and curtail PED use is open for debate. Probably nothing, other than make sure to use a collector who follows the rules. Braun reportedly successfully argued that his sample was not properly shipped for testing, and that mistake meant the results should be thrown out.

What we do know is that the 2012 Brewers' chances look better now than they were a couple hours ago. This was already a strong team even without Prince Fielder and with Braun potentially sitting out 50 games, thanks to a strong pitching staff and a defense that stood to improve with Alex Gonzalez replacing Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop. With Milwaukee's star player now exonerated, things can only get better.

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True or False: UEFA Champions League

By: timbersfan, 12:48 AM GMT on February 25, 2012

This Is The End Of English Rule

False: It is incredibly likely that no English clubs will advance to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Arsenal have an insurmountable deficit to make up against A.C. Milan and Chelsea will have to play out of their skins to stop the rampaging counterattack of Napoli. With the two Manchester clubs already going out of the competition in the group stage, it would be easy to conclude that England's stranglehold on the Champions League is loosening.

I think this is more a matter of coincidence than a sea change. United played key late group stage matches during a slump, City had the toughest group, Arsenal were probably punching above its weight class and Chelsea have forgotten how to punch altogether.

The money is still in England. The European football applecart might be getting upended by relative minnows like Napoli and FC Basel, but rest assured, we will likely see some of the better players on those clubs plying their trade in England next season. Follow the money and you'll eventually wind up in the Premier League.

Big Tournaments Create New Stars

True: Franck Ribery in the 2006 World Cup, Andrei Arshavin in Euro 2008 and Paul the Octopus the 2010 World Cup. When the eyes of the world — especially the media and directors of football from Europe's major clubs — are trained on one competition, new stars have a tendency to shine.

If you've watched any Serie A recently, then the bird-of-prey-like figure of Edinson Cavani swooping down on a goalkeeper is a familiar sight. But for the more casual fan, the Uruguayan's dominance of the game might be more of a surprise.


Cavani torched an admittedly over-matched Chelsea defensive line, scoring one (albeit with his arm/chest) and setting up another. After not playing particularly well in this past summer's Copa America, it's wonderful to see El Matador attracting the plaudits he deserves.

This Is Still Barcelona's Trophy To Lose

True: Both literally (Barca are the defending European champions) and figuratively. It is a tribute to the reputation of Pep Guardiola's team that, despite being 10 points behind Real Madrid in La Liga, Barcelona are considered the prohibitive favorites in this tournament. Watching Lionel Messi and Co. dismantle Bayer Leverkusen (or perhaps I should say Alexis Sanchez and Co.), it's hard to imagine anyone beating them over two legs.


What We All Want Is A Real Madrid-Barcelona Final

False: First off, the suits at Bayern Munich don't want that. The final will be played at the Allianz Arena, Bayern's home ground. Honestly, I don't want it either. Barca and Madrid already have a duopoly on the Spanish domestic league, we deserve a little variety in our football lives. Frankly, I can't think of anything more exciting (save, like, a sequel to Independence Day and a bona fide cure for hangovers) than Napoli versus Barcelona in the final.

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The Battle for Second Place

By: timbersfan, 12:47 AM GMT on February 25, 2012

Although there's still plenty of time between now and the NFL draft, the football world appears to have come to a consensus on one Robert Griffin III. Somebody is going to make a deal with the St. Louis Rams to trade up for the second overall pick in order to grab RG3. Nothing is written in stone before the Scouting Combine and Pro Days are completed, but the tablets are currently being prepared for inscription.

If that's the case, it leaves us with an exciting amount of wild speculation to put together. About a dozen teams could logically express some level of interest in acquiring Griffin, which should sound like hosannas ringing in the ears of Rams fans. The second pick could return a serious haul for a St. Louis franchise that hasn't had a winning record since 2003. How serious? Well, that's up for debate, along with a number of other topics, like this one:

Is it wise to invest in second best?

As impressive as RG3's Heisman-winning season was, it's almost impossible to figure that he'll surpass Andrew Luck and end up as the first selection of the Indianapolis Colts. That leaves him as, quite possibly, both the second-best player and the second-best quarterback on consensus draft boards. While other quarterbacks (notably Texas A&M passer Ryan Tannehill) might end up landing somewhere in the first round, there's a pretty big chasm between Luck, Griffin, and the rest of the signal callers in this year's draft class.

Of course, scouting and drafting is an inexact science, so the huge differences perceived by teams and fans on draft day don't always play out that way once the professional careers start. And when teams have had to choose between two viable top picks at quarterback, the one that goes second has usually been a disappointment.1 There have been four drafts since 1990 where quarterbacks were chosen with the first overall pick and then with one (or both) of the subsequent two picks. Those picks have not worked out very well.

Quartback Draft History

Year First Overall Top Three
1993 Drew Bledsoe Rick Mirer
1998 Peyton Manning Ryan Leaf
1999 Tim Couch Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith
2002 David Carr Joey Harrington
It's an incredibly small sample size, but that sure looks like four busts in five picks to me. Expanding it to the top five adds Philip Rivers (yea) and Mark Sanchez (nay). Because there are so few examples to work with, it's entirely possible that we could just be staring at a mirage, and there's nothing for a team drafting Griffin to be concerned about. On the other hand, there might be some sort of magnet effect in play here, where a quarterback at the top of the draft class lures another quarterback up to the top of the charts, even if he doesn't deserve to be there. Maybe fans and teams spend so much time comparing the two quarterbacks that they begin to overemphasize the relative strengths of the second passer, which causes them to rise up draft boards. That's what happened with Leaf in 1998, thanks to his otherworldly arm strength. Griffin has a level of athletic ability that Luck will never be able to touch. That's not to say that Griffin is the next Leaf, of course, but doing something important at a much higher level than the top player both at your position and in the draft class is naturally going to make you look good. It just might make you look too good.

How much will it cost teams to trade up?

This becomes a tricky question to answer for a variety of reasons. You may have heard about the draft value chart, which assigns every selection in the draft a numerical value for trade purposes. While some of the league's teams may use that chart in making trades, it's based upon the old draft salary structure that led to absurd deals for rookies. When the NFL renegotiated its collective bargaining agreement last year, rookie salaries at the top of the draft board were flattened severely. That totally changes the draft value chart, making top-five picks far more valuable than they were three or four years ago, since the penalty for failing (and paying a below-average player) is far less severe.

In addition, while the draft value chart can be useful for identifying fair value when two teams are negotiating a trade between each other, it doesn't really apply in situations where teams deal up for the first or second overall pick because the demand is so high and the trading team's leverage is so strong. If the 49ers want to trade up from 30 to the Lions' pick at 23 this year and the Lions want a king's ransom, chances are that the Steelers will be happy to take something resembling fair value with the 24th pick, and the odds are still reasonably good that the Niners will still get the player they want. The Lions aren't likely to get many other offers for the pick. On the other hand, teams only trade up to the second overall pick when they are desperately after one particular player, a guy who is almost surely coveted by several other teams and is impossible to replace with a similar player later in the draft.

Consider a situation similar to the Griffin scenario that's about to unfold with the Rams. As the 1998 NFL draft approached with the Colts on the clock, the Cardinals held the second overall pick. Like the Rams this year, they had a young quarterback who had shown some signs of promise, as rookie second-rounder Jake Plummer had gone 3-62 while nearly leading the team to an upset win over the 11-5 Steelers. They weren't quite as invested in Plummer as the Rams are in Sam Bradford, but they had plenty of needs besides quarterback and seemed unlikely to take Leaf with the second overall pick.

The Chargers, who picked third that year, could have hoped that the Cardinals would pass on both selecting Leaf or trading the pick to someone who would, allowing the Chargers to take Leaf for themselves without having to give up a single asset. Instead, they traded up one spot to ensure themselves a shot at Leaf and gave up an incredible bounty. Not only did the Cardinals get the third overall pick, but they received San Diego's second-round pick (the 33rd overall selection) and their first-round pick in the following year's draft, as well as two marginal players off the San Diego roster. Throw that into the draft value chart and it starts to smoke before collapsing in on itself.

Before Browns fans begin to sweat profusely, though, it's not usually that bad. When the Falcons dealt up from no. 4 to grab Michael Vick with the first overall pick from those same Chargers, they only gave up a pair of second-rounders and wideout Tim Dwight. The Redskins moved up to the third overall pick in the 2000 draft by trading the 12th and 24th selections in the first round to the Niners. Every team will have different assets to offer, obviously, but if we have to guess, Griffin's going to cost his new team two first-round picks above the fold.

Who's going to get him?

We thought you would never ask! Let's start by eliminating those teams who wouldn't have a logical interest in trading for RG3. That includes each of the 12 playoff teams. Well, sorta. Hold that thought for now. In addition to the playoff teams, we can also exclude seven clubs who failed to make the playoffs. The Buccaneers, Panthers, Eagles, Jets, Chargers, Titans, and Bears don't make sense as landing spots for Griffin because their quarterback chairs are full. That leaves 12 other organizations who should at least have a discussion or two about RG3 before draft day. Here are the teams with their picks in reverse draft order. Note: Tiebreakers for the eighth and ninth and 11th and 12th picks will be determined by coin flips at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Oakland Raiders: No first-round picks

Everyone who pretended to like Carson Palmer is gone from Oakland, namely head coach/de facto general manager at the time Hue Jackson, and it's tempting to imagine Griffin at the head of an offense with so much young talent at receiver. New head coach Dennis Allen has thrown cold water on the idea that the Raiders would move on from Palmer, though, and after trading the 17th overall pick (and a first- or second-round pick next year) to the Bengals in the Palmer deal, the Raiders would only have the assets to deal for RG3 by trading Palmer away for a similar haul. And the problem with that idea is that most teams these days have access to game film.

Dallas Cowboys: Pick no. 14

Jerry Jones splash RG3 Texas Cowboys Stadium Jason Garrett job Tony Romo choke RG3 local. No, that's not a complete sentence, but every sort of argument surrounding the Cowboys taking RG3 are just those buzzwords. Don't bother caring: The restructuring of Romo's deal basically ties him and the Cowboys together at the hip for another couple of years.

Arizona Cardinals: Pick no. 13

Hey, remember when the Cardinals solved their quarterback problem last year and gave Kevin Kolb that monster deal? Well, as it turns out, Kolb is sorta awful and that deal isn't so onerous after all. The Cardinals can cut Kolb in March without having to pay him another penny in actual money beyond the $12 million they shelled out for his 2011 campaign, although he'll put an $8 million hit of dead money on the cap for 2012. The problem is that the Cardinals already dealt away their second-round pick to Philadelphia in the trade for Kolb, so if they're forced to deal two first-rounders and more to the Rams in a Griffin deal, they're going to be missing a lot of top-level picks. It makes more sense for them to go after a veteran in free agency.

Seattle Seahawks: Pick no. 11 (tie)

The Seahawks were arguably above-average or better at every spot on the field besides quarterback last season, so it certainly makes sense that they would want to upgrade on Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst. Their huge investment in free agency last season, though, doesn't jibe with the idea of grabbing a rookie quarterback. In addition, general manager John Schneider came over from Green Bay, where mentor Ted Thompson is famously loath to trade away draft picks. Again, a free-agent signing makes more sense, like former Packers backup Matt Flynn.

Kansas City Chiefs: Pick no. 11 (tie)

Head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli have suggested that the organization might bring in somebody to challenge Matt Cassel, but the operative word is "challenge," not "replace." It's likely to be a veteran, but maybe the overlooked Ricky Stanzi will legally change his name to Pat the Patriot and carry a musket onto the field in the hopes that Crennel and Pioli will take him seriously.

Buffalo Bills: Pick no. 10

The Bills gave Ryan Fitzpatrick a $59 million contract during the regular season, but his numbers dropped off precipitously during the second half. The organization blamed rib and chest injuries, but Fitzpatrick's second-half numbers looked eerily like his previous career output. And that contract? Well, it was a lot like the deal Donovan McNabb got from the Redskins a couple of years back, where the extension only kicked in if the team decided to pay him a bonus at the beginning of the subsequent season. The Redskins passed on McNabb, and if the Bills don't want to pay Fitzpatrick a $5 million bonus on March 19, they can get out of their deal while owing him just $3.2 million. Even if the Bills make that choice, a team with this many holes would really be hard-pressed to give up multiple high draft picks for RG3.

Miami Dolphins: Pick no. 8 (tie with Carolina Panthers)

On the other hand, the Dolphins make much more sense. They have a huge hole at quarterback amid a deep roster with lots of young talent, so they would probably be able to withstand the hit of losing multiple first-round picks. Of course, after hiring former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to be their head coach, the Dolphins have also been heavily linked to Flynn. One idea that might work involves cornerback Vontae Davis, who might have worn out his welcome in Miami after showing up hungover to practice and getting into a fight with Brandon Marshall before being suspended for a game last season. The Rams desperately need cornerbacks, and Davis has Pro Bowl-caliber talent. Maybe the Dolphins could get a deal done with the ninth pick and Davis in a package.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Pick no. 7

We'll cover them in the Vikings section.

Washington Redskins: Pick no. 6

The offseason champs strike again! The Redskins desperately need a quarterback and love shiny new things! So this makes sense, right? Maybe. Does the Shanaclan really have time to develop a young quarterback, though? Under the ownership of Daniel Snyder, only one head coach has managed to last more than two years with this organization. That guy was Joe Gibbs, and he made the playoffs twice. Mike Shanahan's now entering his third year with the team, but his Redskins have gone 11-21 and haven't sniffed the playoffs. If Washington goes 6-10 again, will he be able to survive the chopping block? It just seems like they're another team more likely to shop for a quarterback in free agency than trade up for one on draft day.

Cleveland Browns: Pick no. 4

By a wide margin, the Browns are the team best positioned to go out and grab RG3 from the Rams. They have a huge need at quarterback and no problematic contract standing in their way. Because they were so bad last year, they only need to move up two spots to ensure that they can grab Griffin. Most important, after last year's Julio Jones trade, the Browns have an extra first-round pick lying around for this year's draft. The draft value chart suggests that moving up from the fourth pick to the second overall selection would cost a team 800 points, or roughly the equivalent of the 21st overall pick. The Browns have the 22nd pick to go with the fourth selection, so they're right in that ballpark. Even if the Browns need to send one or two more mid-level picks to seal the deal, they can make a Griffin trade without mortgaging their future.

Alternately, the Browns could sit tight and hope that Griffin falls to them at no. 4. It's possible to imagine a scenario where that happens. Let's say the Rams fall in love with Oklahoma State wideout Justin Blackmon or USC tackle Matt Kalil with the second overall pick. They would be hard-pressed to trade down to no. 4, since the Vikings could creditably take either player at no. 3. The Vikings, as we'll get to in a moment, are unlikely to take a quarterback at no. 3. If they can't negotiate a trade with a suitor for Griffin in their time on the clock, they would likely draft Kalil, Blackmon, or LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, leaving Griffin for the Browns at four. In either scenario, the Browns are the favorites to end up with Griffin on their roster.

Minnesota Vikings: Pick no. 3

But just in case you think the Vikings would consider Griffin at three, let's cover that. Both the Vikings and Jaguars have some right to be disappointed with their young starting quarterbacks, as both Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert struggled to varying extents during their rookie seasons. Would they consider giving up on their first-round selections from the 2011 draft after just a single season at the helm?

History suggests that it's very, very unlikely. Only one quarterback taken in the first round of the draft since the merger failed to throw a single pass after his rookie season, 49ers washout Jim Druckenmiller; 104 of the 108 other quarterbacks threw at least 100 more passes in the NFL. Their careers aren't over.

And the reality is that teams just don't draft quarterbacks with back-to-back first-rounders. It's only happened once3 since the merger, and there were some pretty strong extenuating circumstances. The Colts chose John Elway with the first pick of the 1983 draft, but only after Art Schlichter, the fourth overall pick of the 1982 draft, was suspended indefinitely for gambling on football during his rookie year. So expect Gabbert and Ponder to get at least one more season under center before their teams consider parting ways with them.

Two Crazy Trade Possibilities

OK, let's have some fun. Neither of these scenarios are even remotely likely, but they make at least some sense. There are two playoff teams that could make a case for going deep into the draft and grabbing Griffin, but there's a lot of moving parts between them and RG3. Let's move those parts for them.

Trade 1: The Hometown-ish Hero

The Texans might be coming off their most successful season as a franchise, but they have a lot of decisions to make over the next couple of weeks. Pass rusher Mario Williams is an unrestricted free agent, and franchising him would cost the Texans a prohibitive $22 million. Quarterback Matt Schaub is entering the final year of his deal, and while he's played at a high level, he's only managed to stay healthy during two of his five seasons in Houston.

Star halfback Arian Foster, meanwhile, is a restricted free agent. The compensation for restricted free agents has changed in the new CBA; while teams could previously restrict a star player by forcing interested suitors to pony up a first- and third-round pick, the maximum compensation in this current CBA is just the first-rounder. Foster's looked brilliant during his time in Houston, but he's also playing in a system that's made stars of unheralded backs going all the way back to the Terrell Davis days in Denver. If the Texans want to re-sign Williams, they might not have the cap room to lock up Foster.

There aren't many teams that need a running back very badly, but one that does is the Cincinnati Bengals, who just happen to have two first-round picks this year after the Carson Palmer trade. What if the Bengals pony up a huge offer sheet to Foster this offseason? Would the Texans match? If not, they could get the 17th overall pick from Cincinnati to pair with their 25th pick.

That would give Houston the ammunition to go after Griffin, who could learn from Schaub during his rookie season (and serve as a possible injury replacement) before taking over in 2013. The Texans would still have the ability to franchise and trade Schaub after the final year of his contract, when he could have more market value. Griffin would be able to stay in Texas, where he played both his high school and college football about three hours outside of Houston.4 If the Texans don't want to pay Foster and can't justify giving the injury-prone Schaub a huge deal, the RG3 option should be on the table.

Trade 2: Obligatory Tebow Discussion

Just kidding about the obligatory part. A Tebow trade would actually make a fair amount of sense right about now. The Broncos clearly aren't enamored of the guy, considering they were talking about benching him before he led them to a playoff win over the Steelers. If they really think Tebow is going to fail as an NFL quarterback, they would want to sell high on him now before reality sets in and his market value craters. Denver fans would undoubtedly be heartbroken to lose Tebow, but the best way to make up for losing him would be to draft a hot young quarterback like Griffin, who has said he wanted to play like John Elway.

The only problem is that the Rams would have no interest in Tim Tebow. That's where our third team comes in: the Jacksonville Jaguars. New owner Shahid Khan has already said that the team should have taken Tebow in the 2010 draft, owing to both his abilities as a player and as a ticket-mover. Tebow went to high school in a Jacksonville suburb, played at Florida, and remains active in the Jacksonville community; a trade for Tebow would be great box office for a moribund franchise that often struggles to fill its stadium.

Jacksonville wouldn't likely give up the seventh overall pick straight-up as part of a Tebow trade, but the Broncos could probably get it for Tebow and a mid-round pick or two. That would leave them with the seventh and 25th picks in this year's draft, which would be about as much as anyone besides the Browns can offer. If Cleveland decided to lowball the Rams, the Broncos could swoop in and make this deal.

It's a far-fetched proposal, but everybody wins here. The Rams get the 25th pick and maybe an additional third-rounder to move down five spots. The Broncos get to sell high on Tebow while acquiring a potential franchise quarterback and avoiding mass riots in Denver. And the Jaguars get the one player in football who is more valuable to them than any other team in the league. See? Everybody wins! Well, except for Blaine Gabbert.

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The Coolest Soccer Team in Europe The Coolest Soccer Team in Europe

By: timbersfan, 12:46 AM GMT on February 25, 2012

Napoli's startling 3-1 upset of Chelsea in the Champions League last Tuesday accomplished three important things. It put a formal timestamp on the moment everyone realized that Serie A had caught up to the Premier League.1 It launched a thousand "Andre Villas-Boas DeathWatch" columns, to the point that hasandrevillasboasbeensackedyet.com became a vital resource for soccer journalists. And it cemented Napoli's status as the coolest club in Europe and the default answer to the question, "If you're an American looking to get into European soccer, which team should you support?"

Seriously, if you're a fan in search of a club, how do you not consider Napoli at this point? Not only are the Azzurri not English — meaning you won't be lumped in with the 40 trillion bros who picked a Premier League club because that's what everyone else was doing — and not only are they a fun, overachieving young team, they're also, and this is putting it mildly, a sky-wide constellation of the elements that make sports amazing. They're perennial underdogs who come packaged with a glorious history. They're the agony object of a furiously loyal and continually heartbroken fan base,2 but within living memory they've also been the trophy-winning home of the greatest soccer player in the world. They're a team of crazy highs and pulverizing lows — basically the entire sports-fan experience in its most extreme and operatic form, all compressed into one club in a terrifying and fascinating city on a gulf at the foot of a volcano. Really, you'd rather root for Arsenal?

If you're still not convinced, then it is for you, my reluctant friend, that I have compiled the following list of aspects of the awesomeness of Napoli.

1. Naples

Most of the economic and political power in Italy is concentrated in the north, around Milan and Turin. Naples is the de facto capital of the south. Everything you need to know about this arrangement for soccer purposes is contained in the sick old northern saying "Africa begins south of Rome," i.e., the Neapolitans don't really factor in when it comes to assessing whom you have to treat like white people. Soccer tends to flower in close proximity to money, meaning that cartographically the top Italian clubs — Milan, Inter, Juventus — look like they're waiting for dark before slipping on a tuxedo and trying to sneak into Switzerland. Napoli is carrying the hopes of everybody on the wrong side of that geographic/cultural divide.3

And Naples itself is a totally broken, beautiful, lush, and dangerous city, run by the mob, with piles of burning trash in the streets (because the mob controls waste management), packs of wild dogs … and, incidentally, a lot of gorgeous architecture and an unbroken cultural tradition that predates the Roman Empire. Picture New Orleans, only with the Catholicism turned up to 14 and actual blood vendettas replacing voodoo bus tours.4 Also, there's this huge, sunstruck bay, with Mount Vesuvius looming in the blue distance. Also, Kiton > Brioni. This is an appropriate venue for your fantasies of European soccer to inhabit.

Plus, if you visit for a game, you can go see the ruins of Pompeii, which now include most of the Chelsea defense.

2. Maradona

It was at Napoli that Diego Maradona transformed himself from "talented but difficult Argentine player who can't quite make it work in Europe" to "figure of quasi-religious significance the mere sight of whom makes sane people break down weeping." Napoli bought him from Barcelona for a then-world-record (now-world-rounding-error) 12 million euros in 1984. He dragged Argentina to the World Cup title in 1986, carried Napoli to its first Serie A championship a year later, did it again in 1990, became an icon for anyone who's ever been unfairly kicked around or felt hopeless or stood on the wrong side of a track, and launched the wobbly cocaine spaceship he's been piloting, wine bottle in one hand, ever since.

Honestly, it's almost impossible to put into context what Maradona meant to southern Italy between 1984 and 1991 — this scrappy, unpolished kid shocking the world on behalf of a region that had always been locked out of its soccer-mad country's soccer hierarchy. What do you compare it to? If Michael Jordan had led the Cubs to the World Series in the middle of Beatlemania, it might have been close, although even that would have missed the weeping-statue-of-Virgin Mary religious overtones and the weird constant ground note of the Camorra.5 Maradona was hit with a 15-month ban for drug use in 1991 and left Napoli with his reputation in tatters.6 But this, more than any other club or city, was where Maradona happened. That's the huge and unmanageable legacy the club has been coping with ever since.

3. Money

Napoli went up in smoke in 2004, bankrupt and unable to field a team. (Be forewarned: This is the kind of thing that happens to Napoli.) The film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis7 reestablished the club the same year but wasn't able to buy back its history (!) until 2006. Since then, they've been improvising on a low budget — never a wise strategy in soccer — but have nevertheless managed to climb from the third division back into Serie A, where they are currently sitting, pretty astonishingly, in sixth place. It's both apt and very funny that the two English teams they've upset this year are Chelsea and Manchester City, clubs owned by a Russian plutocrat and an oil sheikh, respectively, and the world's two leading representatives of the football-club-as-billionaire's-plaything movement. Billionaires don't go to Napoli unless it's to get new suits.

The current team Napoli has assembled is a fast, fluid, counterattacking machine that scores goals for fun. (Only Milan has more in Serie A.) It's built on something like the classic Billy Beane model — undervalued spare parts and young players Napoli develops in-house — but you get the impression that the front office is reading sonnets and talking to gypsies rather than consulting spreadsheets. In 2007, they signed Ezequiel Lavezzi for 6 million euros, roughly a tenth what Chelsea dropped on Fernando Torres, at a point when he was a not-terribly-successful striker in the Argentine Premiera Division with the nickname el Pocho.8 He flew into town and promptly scored Napoli's first hat trick in 14 years. On Tuesday he scored a goal and repeatedly exploited Chelsea right back Branislav Ivanovic. Chubby nobodies with handgun tattoos blowing up on a big stage is what Napoli is all about.

(Also, Aurelio De Laurentiis? He's a crusty, sunglasses-wearing tyrant who's prone to fiery rants, once told his own manager "I won't beat you up because you're an old man," called Lionel Messi a "cretin," and threatened to chop Lavezzi's agent's balls off if Lavezzi thought about leaving the club. A couple of years ago, when several of Napoli's players were being linked with moves to England, De Laurentiis' tactic for convincing them to stay was to warn them that English women "do not wash their genitalia." "To them," he said, in a concerned, fatherly way, "a bidet is a mystery." This is the kind of thing that happens at Napoli.)

4. Edinson Cavani

It took me a while to appreciate Napoli's best player. The first few times I saw him play, I thought he seemed a little overly languid or casual, and while there's a great tradition in Serie A of Andrea Pirlo-style sleepy murderousness, it didn't quite make sense to me in a big striker who looked like he should be powering over defenders. Then I watched his hat trick against Juventus last January. The last goal was a wicked low-altitude scorpion kick, the sort of move after which, once you've seen it, you can't possibly doubt or even question the player who pulled it off:


Cavani is a sort of laboratory cross between Pippo Inzaghi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, endowed with both that mysterious right-place-right-time instinct that some players have and also the ability to score from any angle with what feels like an exhaustive karate repertoire. That languor I thought I detected was really just a subtlety, a way of feeling out space and playing for the killer gap. It's a joy to watch, and Cavani, who's scored 41 goals in 57 league appearances for Napoli,9 is probably the most undercelebrated player in world soccer — something that will surely change if he decides to take his chances with foreign vaginas in the future. Follow him before the fear lifts!

5. Italian soccer's glittering theater of masculinity

You could pick an English team. There are lots of good ones. But you would miss Serie A's compellingly hilarious peacock-vitelloni aesthetic of tough, competitive, and frequently violent men carefully tying back their lustrous ponytails before slipping into their hot-pink away gear to take the pitch, then celebrating big wins by crying and stripping down to their jockey shorts. For Americans used to laconic sports heroes in badly fitting suits, the sheer fabulousness of Serie A is either uncomfortably gay (if you are a bro who is bro'd out by that sort of thing) or an entertaining injection of pro-wrestling-style ego-theater into an otherwise serious sport. Either way, remember that Mario Balotelli, Manchester City's mohawked and elaborately be-earringed fashion bomb of a striker, came to England from Inter and only makes sense in the context of Italian soccer.10 Rooting for Napoli means that instead of watching brave English midfielders scowl into the cold week in and week out, you will be watching highly talented, self-indulgent fashion plates act out a never-ending cologne ad. This is a win, believe me. Their girlfriends are hotter than yours, too.

For these and many other reasons, I nominate Napoli as your new European club. Quick, fall in love now before Chelsea buys the whole team and everything reverses again.

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Mendilibar epitomizes Spanish football

By: timbersfan, 12:24 AM GMT on February 17, 2012

This week, a couple of days after his team's admirable 3-2 win over Barcelona that has all but sealed the La Liga title chase in favor of Real Madrid, Jose Luis Mendilibar celebrated his one-year anniversary as coach of Osasuna.

This likable, hard-working but largely unsung football man should probably start getting his desk's contents tidied into boxes and talking to his agent about which struggling Spanish outfit might pick him up next. Yes, this is the man who saved Osasuna from relegation on the last day of the 2011 season. Yes, this is the guy who has the team from one of Hemingway's favorite cities, Pamplona, sitting one solitary point off Spain's fourth Champions League qualification position. But Mendilibar is one of those production-line coaches whom Spain is so good at producing (think Juande Ramos) who often dart around from minor club to minor club before hitting a golden moment.

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Mendilibar's average tenure with the senior clubs in his career would be just under two years, and only with Valladolid has his expiry date lasted more than 24 months. His worst experience was being sacked at his beloved Athletic Club (Bilbao) after 10 league matches.

Until now, he has probably been a little bit better known for his interesting phrases than his success: "Unless my players run and run they aren't worth cow s---" and "Everybody thinks I'm a sergeant major, but if I was out and about and I bumped into one of my players, I wouldn't have a problem having a beer with him."

But that is just another of those unfair quirks. Mendilibar's work with Athletic Bilbao's youth system yielded sufficient numbers of good players to burnish his reputation. Keeping Valladolid up in La Liga for a couple of seasons, having won the team promotion, was no small feat. And there is another trait this serious-minded but admirably communicative 50-year old Basque can boast on his CV: He has taken footballers like David Silva, Gorka, Iraola, Asier del Horno, Joseba Llorente and many more at their formative stages and made them far more complete, more confident and more productive footballers.

Mendilibar has worked his magic again at Osasuna, with the fruits of his labor on display in the team's recent thrilling work against Barcelona (the Copa del Rey quarterfinal second leg in Pamplona last month was an equally convincing performance from Osasuna, irrespective of the European champions eventually winning 2-1). Dejan Lekic not only scored twice in last weekend's barnstorming victory, he also opened the scoring against Barca in the cup tie. For a variety of reasons -- not least the fact that the Serb has not developed a robust mentality, and occasionally his 6-foot-4 frame carries too much beef -- the 26-year-old has 12 appearances in league and cup this season. But he has five goals in that time, and against Barcelona he looked absolutely convincing.

Achieving that is one of Mendilibar's specialties. "When I was younger, I was short of self-belief, I had many little birds fluttering about in my head and sometimes I was a bit dozy," he explains. "That's one of the reasons I failed to achieve my dream of playing in the Primera -- I made a wrong choice which cost me joining the fledgling version of what became Super-Depo [Deportivo La Coruna from 1990-04]. So as a coach, I look specifically for guys like me. I'm not someone who likes to leave a footballer by the wayside simply because it seems he's not performing or he lacks confidence or he appears to have a weak mentality. My ability is to convince that guy that he's a top-class player, which he very probably is in the first place, or at least to let him know that if he hasn't 'counted' for another coach, then he certainly does for me."

Now, the argument isn't that Lekic will prove to be world-class under this hothouse tutelage that Mendilibar favors. But Osasuna has made minimal use of the transfer market recently, selling crown jewels such as Camunas and Juanfran while finding it hard to buy or loan replacements of equal quality. For the Navarrans, it is vital to make the most of promising footballers like Ibrahima Balde, the 22-year-old purchased from Atletico Madrid, or 31-year-old pocket dynamo Nino, rescued from Tenerife after two straight relegations and upon whom nobody else was willing to take a gamble.

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Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images
He's the one: Jose Luis Mendilibar has Dejan Lekic in strong form, with five goals in 12 league and cup appearances.
Lekic was signed for around 3 million euros 18 months ago in fierce competition with Racing Santander and was given a five-year deal. So far it looks like very moderate business. But under Mendilibar -- who has 15 wins and 11 draws in his 37 La Liga matches in charge of Osasuna so far -- the Serb is beginning to look as if he remembers why he signed. Perhaps the best thing the coach can do is fluff up the player's reputation and get some money back in the summer transfer market.

But those words will seem like heresy if Mendilibar & Co. somehow end up in the Champions League qualification slot by the end of the season.

Every Osasuna coach -- and Mendilibar will be no different -- has the giant shadow of Athletic Club (Bilbao) looming over him. The Basque-only team bends the rules slightly in player selection by claiming that Navarre, the region of which Pamplona is the capital, belongs to the Basque country. So it feels free to recruit there, including from Osasuna's youth system (cantera). For example, both Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez (each a World Cup winner with Spain) were born in Navarre -- Llorente in Pamplona itself, and Martinez bought by Athletic for 6 million euros as a 17-year-old Osasuna youth product.

Mendilibar wants to fight the good fight. "I'm a great fan of Spain's tradition of the cantera," he says. "I think it's wrong for a kid to go and play his developmental football 60 kilometers from home. I want the young guys in our system to enjoy their football, to develop believing that football is fun as well as lucrative. In my day, my parents probably came to see me play five times in my career, but now when a youngster needs to go and sign for a big club it's often his father who has to uproot with the kid and go live somewhere else. There is a lot of ego and self-regard in football and I'd like us to have a more global perspective, a view of what's generally good for a club and for the game."

Barcelona's Brilliance
Graham Hunter is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," available as an e-book on the iPad, Kindle and Kobo. The printed version will be available in paperback from Feb. 17 and can be preordered at BackPage Press.

Idealist, man motivator, raconteur. When Mendilibar's red devils toasted Barcelona last weekend they certainly did themselves, Real Madrid and those in Spain who yearn for an end of Barcelona's domination a big favor.

But I'm happy to report that Osasuna did us all the favor of underlining that the production-line coach who isn't stellar in reputation but whose values are sound and whose work will one day win him a golden patch is still the bedrock of Spanish football. Hats off to Jose Luis Mendilibar.

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Inside the mind of Fernando Torres

By: timbersfan, 12:06 AM GMT on February 17, 2012

LONDON -- The suburban London town of Cobham is where Chelsea striker Fernando Torres clocks in for work during the week. He extends a smile and a handshake to his visitor and easily slides into a chair for a brief chat before the morning's frigidly cold training session.

It is hardly a secret that Torres has started slowly this season. He is the first one to admit it. Athletes who play at the highest level like Torres have struggled before, and will struggle again.

Many recall New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter's dumbfounding 0-32 slump in April of 2004, one he eventually snapped by simply continuing to do the very things that got him to the highest level. Torres is no different. There is no need for anyone to send him their good luck charms. The man knows what he is doing.

"All my life I've been doing the same thing since I was a little kid," Torres said. "My managers taught me to work because that's the only way to get a reward. It's what I've always done and it's the only way I know, so I'll keep preparing for the games the same way."

So what's Torres doing to help shut out the cacophony of negativism that bombards him week in, week out? Away from the field, he continues to do the same acute mental preparation that he always has. It is not necessarily the traditional visualization techniques utilized by athletes like Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps, but more like making a withdrawal from his memory bank in the days before a match. After four-plus seasons in England, he has a good sense of what he will be going up against each week, especially at hostile away grounds where the chants can cut to the bone, to say the least.


It's such a strange feeling now because I am feeling better than ever physically. I am not finding the chances and when I do find the chances, I cannot score.

-- Fernando Torres
"Every player or athlete is different," Torres said. "I did some visualization in the past but it didn't help me. I don't do it here at Chelsea because I just find the way to prepare that works for me. When it's two days before the game, I start thinking about the other team and their defenders since I know more or less the weaknesses and strengths they have."

Off the field, the transition from Anfield last winter has been a seamless one. He and his family are happy to be in the London area, and his quality of life as a Chelsea Blue has exceeded his expectations.

Moreover, young players like Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge have joined Torres to inject a new enthusiasm into a side that has long relied on stalwarts like Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry.

"To be honest, after one year I was expecting things would be better than they are now," Torres said. "It is a difficult situation because I am happy in my personal life. We really like the club and we're very happy here to be involved with the staff and the players. On the pitch, it is a difficult time for Chelsea because we are not finding the results, but we're changing things like playing a different style and still we have a young team to do it."

There are hints that a goal is close for Torres, such as the astounding scissor-kick volley that rang off the crossbar versus Sunderland last month. Even after masterfully setting up Mata's wonder goal in the first half last week versus Manchester United, all anyone wanted to talk about afterward was how he passed up an open shot at United goalkeeper David de Gea.

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"He has looked close to scoring and opening the floodgates but you do wonder why, for 50 million pounds, a year and more has now passed and he is still struggling," said Jamie Jackson, a correspondent for the Guardian in the U.K. "It's very odd."

Looking at the numbers from a goal perspective, the disparity between Torres' time at Liverpool and Chelsea is nothing short of astonishing: In 142 matches with the Reds, he had 81 goals. As a Blue, he has managed just four goals in 45 total appearances. Coincidentally, Torres is also on pace to reach a career high in assists for a season, but for El Nino, it has become a cruel juxtaposition.

"Personally, I have to improve," Torres said. "In my time at Liverpool there were games where I would not be playing well or I would be doing nothing but every time I touched the ball, I scored. It's such a strange feeling now because I am feeling better than ever physically. I am not finding the chances and when I do find the chances, I cannot score."

Even after just 12 months at Chelsea, he has unwillingly become the center of transfer rumors. A move back to Liverpool or a return home to Spain to Atletico Madrid has been mentioned by the European press.

Yet with the famous $80 million price tag and five-and-a-half seasons remaining on his contract, even if Chelsea was interested in selling -- and the club says it's not -- suitable offers will be few and far between for the 27-year-old. At this rate, there is only one way it can unfold: Torres has to succeed at Chelsea.

"There's been a lot of speculation about Torres returning to Spain, but Fernando is only thinking about triumphing in Chelsea," said Javier Estepa, a correspondent for Spain's most widely circulated newspaper, Marca. "I don't think it's a good idea for him to return to Spain. His dream is to win in London and he won't stop until he gets that done."

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Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Torres: "To be honest, after one year I was expecting things would be better than they are now." The Spanish striker has just four career goals so far for Chelsea.
One man who can help Torres accomplish that goal is the aforementioned Mata. Mention the name to Torres and suddenly, he becomes more animated.

The crafty Asturian midfielder arrived at Chelsea over the summer from Valencia and has amazed Torres by how quickly he has adapted to the English game. The evolving link between Torres and the 22-year-old Mata could very well be the key component in getting Torres back on the right track.

"He's the kind of player I like to play with, especially when he plays in the middle behind the striker," Torres said. "He can assist and find the striker and make the last pass to put you in front of the keeper. You can see why the fans love him."

As for now, Torres will get back to the drawing board in hopes of snapping his streak Saturday at Stamford Bridge against Birmingham City in the FA Cup. One thing is for certain: The adamant look on his face suggests that the only end result at Chelsea is success.

"My present and my future are here," Torres said. "I have many things to do here and I want to do it because I always did what I wanted in every club I've been at, so this is not going to be different."

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Can Chelsea fans forgive Villas-Boas?

By: timbersfan, 12:04 AM GMT on February 17, 2012

Did you see the tsunami of apologies pouring out of Merseyside on Sunday? One apiece from Liverpool's striker, manager and managing director (though we've yet to get one from the guy responsible for the soggy meat pies at Anfield). Who cares if none was probably penned by the people who issued them, but were instead painstakingly handcrafted by John Henry and his NESV spinmeisters? Let's face it -- no one ever really means it when they say "I'm sorry" but it's always nice to hear even if it's a couple of months late.

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Darren Walsh/Getty Images
On a weekend when Arsenal gutted out an away win, Chelsea put up a weak effort against Everton at Goodison Park.
And in that spirit, it would be churlish of me not to add to the contrition fest. So I hereby apologize for wasting the previous paragraph discussing those apologies.

Anyway, now that Manchester United has accepted the Reds' groveling expressions of regret for their role in the most tedious EPL saga since Mario Balotelli threw a dart at Carlos Tevez's John Terry armband, even the reigning Guinness world-record holder for grudge nursing, Sir Alex Ferguson, has climbed down from the moral high ground and declared it OK to "move on."

Speaking of "moving on," I wonder where Andre Villas-Boas will be coaching next?

As preposterous as it might appear, Fernando Torres may not be the most expensive mistake that Roman Abramovich has made in the past year (and I'm factoring in that giant boat he bought that'll probably sink). Sure, AVB's three-year contract costs some $60 million less than the epically disappointing striker, but his team's ongoing spiral into mediocrity could cost Chelsea something far more valuable to the Russian's bloated ego -- his precious spot in the Champions League.

After surging ahead by five points in the Battle for Fourth, Chelsea's slide has gathered momentum -- winless in its past four league games against Norwich, Swansea, Manchester United and Everton -- with the Blues having been outscored 5-0 in their past 126 minutes.

If it hadn't been for Spurs' evisceration of Newcastle by the same margin, Chelsea might have found itself staggering about in sixth place. As it is, the Blues are still on the periphery of the Top Four, trailing Arsenal on goal difference.

Villas-Boas has been fortunate that the British press has focused its withering glare almost exclusively on the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra farrago. Otherwise it would be sifting through the smoking debris of the train wreck at Stamford Bridge. And now that everyone has kissed and made nice, can the hot sun through the magnifying glass be far behind?

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Darren Walsh/Getty Images
Against Chelsea, Landon Donovan worked hard on both sides of the ball and helped set up Everton's second goal.
Enough people witnessed Chelsea's lifeless display at Goodison Park to wonder whether the dour Blues of the 1980s had shown up in their old away kit. The Londoners were outhustled, outpassed and outplayed by an Everton side inspired by the Hello-Goodbye MLS loanee, Landon Donovan. (Hey Landon, stay in England. It's better for your game and Wayne Rooney can introduce you to a world-class hair transplanter).

You don't need to be a Chelsea Kremlinologist to divine what usually happens when Abramovich and his personal Politburo turn up at Chelsea's training ground twice in the same week and feel the urgency to address the deflated troops, as they did a day after the Everton debacle.

Having the Russian with the famously itchy trigger finger within sniper range couldn't have done wonders for AVB's confidence despite his claims that he doesn't fear the inevitable bullet, although the way he continually crouches on the sideline suggests he's intent on providing as small a target as possible.

Buying out Carlo Ancelotti's contract and paying Porto a wad of cash to release AVB cost Abramovich an astonishing $44 million. When you add in the price tags of Torres ($80 million), David Luiz ($34 million) and Juan Mata ($37 million), you're moving beyond the chump change boundary as Roman continues his quixotic quest for European glory. Do you have any idea how long it must have taken Abramovich to come up with that much money? At least a solid hour rooting around his couch cushions.

But rather than the procession toward the Champions League trophy he imagined, the Russian has bought himself a hot, dysfunctional mess, presided over by a 35-year-old whose youth, once lauded as proof of his prodigious talent, now hints at him being not quite ready for Premier League prime time. To be fair, AVB was never going to be The Special One 2.0 in his first EPL season, but as invidious as the comparison may be, AVB knew exactly the minefield he was stepping onto: Win. Win now. Win a lot. Or join the slag heap of detritus containing the seven other managers from the past nine years. Also, Roman's proclivity to buy expensive, shiny and ultimately useless objects such as Torres, Andriy Shevchenko and Juan Sebastian Veron was clearly understood when AVB entered his marital compact.

All the manager needed was a quick glance around the dressing room to realize that he would have to rebuild, starting with a decaying spine that is now far closer to the glue factory than to EPL dominance. Fading Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Michael Essien, Didier Drogba and Terry were all once world-class players, but age and physical wear have caught up and are now lapping them on the Prem's velodrome of death.

David Hirshey
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
• The table has turned
• Stoke is stoked
• Prem's ugliest feuds
• The Premier Liga
• Lessons of transfer window
• Manchester City's egos
• Is Arsenal disarmed?
• The more things change

But AVB was supposed to be all about breaking new ground anyway. What happened to all the brave talk about Chelsea's impressive youth academy embodied by the next Paul Scholes in 18-year-old Joshua McEachran, who after being unable to get anything but midweek league cup minutes is at least now getting a run about at Swansea City? True, Daniel Sturridge is young and dynamic, but AVB has, as yet, been unable to impose any discipline on his tyro's shoot-don't-pass game, though you can hardly blame him when he looks up and sees Torres as his strike partner.

If you cared about being equitable -- and Abramovich doesn't -- AVB has never had the chance to truly make this Chelsea side his own, given the terminally crippling presence of Torres. Even after AVB brought in the creative midfielder Mata with a view to serving tasty tapas for his fellow Spaniard to devour, the Blues are still launching balls for Torres to chase aimlessly into the corners as they did against Everton. The whole point of Mata was that he would able to thread quick, precise through balls to the striker on the counter, but it only works when Mata is playing in the hole behind Torres and for some reason, AVB has chosen to frequently isolate his playmaker out wide in a 4-3-3 formation that is as stodgy as it is impotent.

"I think today was one of our worst games of the season, if not the worst," AVB conceded afterward, failing to notice that his pep talk was being given at Ancelotti's final resting place, Goodison Park. And then in the spirit of the weekend, he, too, apologized. "I will take full responsibility," he said. Coming barely a week after finally confessing that the Blues have no hope of winning the Prem title -- piercing deduction, Sherlock -- all of this profundity might have Roman's helicopter hovering over the training ground for the rest of the season.

AVB has only his stubbornness to blame for his predicament. A choice of Torres or a blind uniped up top would be debatable, but selecting the Iberian no-hoper to spearhead the Chelsea attack over Sturridge is an act of Jobsian obduracy. His formations change with glacial frequency. His loyalty to Portuguese countrymen like Jose Bosingwa and Raul Meireles is culturally admirable but the height of tactical cluelessness. And why Sideshow Luiz is ever permitted to touch the ball within his own half is a question that only large dogs and small children can answer.

All good managers, of course, need time to imprint their personality on their team, but time is Abramovich's most penurious currency. If AVB doesn't nail down a Champions League spot for 2012-13 and advance to at least the semifinals of the CL this season, the Russian will find either another year-long high-cost rental, or pull a George Steinbrenner and rehire his own more stylish but less physically dangerous version of Billy Martin -- Jose Mourinho.

Now that's a handshake I'd pay to see.

Merci for the memories, Titi

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Michael Regan/Getty Images
Thierry Henry scored the winning goal against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, proving yet again that Arsene Wenger was correct in bringing the striker back on loan.
In hindsight, I was, to use Kenny Dalglish's petulant phrase, "bang out of order" to question the wisdom of Thierry Henry's loan deal. When I first heard that my favorite Arsenal player was returning for six weeks to play for our beloved club, I thought that Arsene Wenger had finally succumbed to an overdose of misty-eyed sentimentality. Or the wily Frenchman was using Henry's feel-good brand as his prima facia excuse for not bringing in any quality strikers to partner a desperately lonely Robin van Persie. But after Henry's two storybook match winners at the death, plus the final goal in the 7-1 emasculation of Blackburn, I must now beg forgiveness for ever doubting the greatness of Wenger and his brilliance in inviting Cardinal Henry to return to the Emirates Papacy. I bow my head, beg for clemency and promise to chant, "Wenger is my lord, I shall not want. Thierry is legend."

My only disappointment is that Wenger couldn't beguile the Red Bulls into extending Henry's stay through the North London love-in with Spurs at the end of the month. I mean, if David Beckham could muscle the Galaxy into allowing him to swan around Milan beyond his original loan deal, why do the Red Bulls have to be such buzz-killers? It's not as though New York's MLS team is some fine-tuned juggernaut. Will having Henry for the first two weeks of preseason make that much of a difference to his fitness or his delicate understanding with Luke Rodgers? Imagine moving from playing next to the most dangerous striker in English soccer to partnering a Notts County washout and you can see why Henry is in no rush to come home to his $15 million Tribeca triplex. Once back in the Big Apple, he'll be playing 15th fiddle behind Jeremy Lin and any and all New York Giants.

Similarly, are Arsenal fans now supposed to be filled with confidence when instead of Henry coming on for the last 20 minutes, we are likely to get Marouane Chamakh, who has scored a total of two goals -- or one fewer than Henry -- since arriving at the Emirates in November 2010? We all know that the Moroccan would have butchered Andrei Arshavin's sublime (now there's a word you haven't seen next to the Russian's name in a while) cross in the 90th minute against Sunderland like a beef cow at a Texas barbeque.

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That said, it's time to give Wenger some credit for having the guts to make bold, attacking substitutions when Per Mertesacker went down in an even clumsier heap than is his norm. Rather than plugging in a like-for-like replacement (although Dolph Lundgren doesn't sit on the Arsenal bench), he chose to bring on Aaron Ramsey, Henry and Arshavin. Yes, that Arshavin. Ramsey scored the equalizer with a shot that pinballed between both posts, while the much-maligned Russian, who caused a near mutiny two weeks ago at the Emirates when he came on for wonder boy Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and promptly lost his mark on the winning goal, is still feared enough that two Sunderland players, Phil Bardsley and Sebastian Larsson, both tried to close him down on the left wing. With that Arshavinesque vision of old that has been painfully absent this season, the Russian found a sliver of space between them to squeeze in a cross to the only spot in front of the Sunderland goal where it could neither be cut out by a defender nor grabbed by the keeper. Instead there was Henry, with the speed and intelligence to brilliantly judge the flight of the ball, opening up his body just enough to latch onto the pass and, with a flick of his ankle, lift the Gunners into fourth place.

If by some miracle Arsenal can hang on and qualify for the Champions League, it should erect a statue in Henry's honor. Oh, sorry …

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What Do You Do About a Problem Like the Wizards?

By: timbersfan, 11:59 PM GMT on February 16, 2012

The Washington Wizards are not the worst team in the NBA. That distinction goes to the Charlotte Bobcats, who somehow managed to lose to the Wizards twice this season. But when it comes to dysfunction and the flexibility to rapidly rebuild, nobody beats the Wiz.

The Wizards began what appeared to be a long rebuilding process by firing head coach Flip Saunders. Saunders was originally tasked with trying to get more out of the trio of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, and Caron Butler. When all three of those "stars" left town, Saunders shouldered a lot of the blame for not doing a job that no longer existed.

While getting rid of Saunders was a necessity, it was just the first step in a multiple-step process that could lead the Wizards back to playoff contention in the near future. So what is the blueprint for the Wizards to rebuild? They must follow a strategy that combines more front-office personnel changes, building through the draft while simultaneously removing trouble players, and cashing in on the assets they do have.

Grunfeld's Gotta Go

Ernie Grunfeld has run the Wizards since 2003, and made shrewd moves that assembled the core of Arenas, Jamison, and Butler. Unfortunately, it's all been downhill from there. While Grunfeld cannot be blamed for the Arenas gun incident, he can certainly be blamed for overrating the quality of his own personnel. And the result of that misevaluation cannot be understated. He committed to huge, cap-crippling contracts for Arenas and Jamison, going "all in" on that Wizards trio.1

Worse than that, however, was Grunfeld's inability to recognize that the team was not a contender and needed to rebuild around young players. After the Wizards won 19 games in an injury-plagued 2008-09 season, most NBA people realized that the Wizards needed to rebuild. Instead, Grunfeld chose to sacrifice more young assets, choosing to trade the fifth pick in the draft (and other players) to Minnesota for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. Minnesota selected Ricky Rubio with that draft pick. In fact, the Wizards burned so many draft picks that they only have two of their lottery picks on this current roster: John Wall and Jan Vesely.2

Only when the Wizards' 2009-10 season got off to a disastrous start, followed by the Arenas gun incident, did Grunfeld decide to start the rebuilding process, years too late. In the press conference following Saunders' firing, Grunfeld commented on the Wizards' plan, saying that they had to acquire cap space and assets. To Grunfeld's credit, he has done that well over the last few years, including getting rid of that awful Arenas contract for a less awful Rashard Lewis contract.3 The Wizards have cap space and flexibility.

But the problem is they also have Grunfeld, and his continued employment is causing two huge problems for the Wizards going forward:

1. The Wizards have been so atrocious the last few years, a seemingly attractive free agent destination has become a wasteland. The Wizards have cap space next year,4 yet the big-time players don't seem to have any interest.5 Surely this is not a reflection on the fan base or the city's willingness to rally around the Wizards, as a few years of leading the Wizards to the playoffs resulted in a wax statue for Gilbert Arenas at the Madame Tussauds museum in Washington, D.C. This reflects on management and the lack of confidence that superstars in the NBA have in Grunfeld.6

2. How these assets are used will determine the career of John Wall and the fate of Washington basketball for the next several years. Given the disaster over which Grunfeld has presided, can anyone really trust him to build a championship roster around Wall?

Hit on the Draft Pick, Remove the Disgruntled Players, and Cash In on Assets

This is easier said than done, obviously, but the Wizards are poised to have a high draft pick this year,7 and if they hit on that pick, they can add him to a core of young players that includes John Wall, Jan Vesely, and Chris Singleton. Fortunately for the Wizards, this is a very deep draft. Even if they don't get the top pick and end up picking around the fourth or fifth spot, they will likely have opportunity to select an impact player such as North Carolina's Harrison Barnes or Ohio State's Jared Sullinger.

As much as the Wizards need to bring in talent, one of the main things holding them back is the selfish attitude of several players on the team, who seem content to launch shots from wherever they are on the court in attempts to score points at all costs.

The Wizards have decisions to make on several of these players. The players they have under contract are Rashard Lewis, Andray Blatche, John Wall, Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin, Chris Singleton, Trevor Booker, and Jordan Crawford. Out of those players, the no-brainers to keep are Wall, Vesely, Seraphin, Singleton, Booker, and Crawford, all young players with good contracts. Out of the free agents the Wizards might lose (and have to make a decision on), the most compelling are JaVale McGee and Nick Young. Other free agents on which the Wizards can make a decision, based on how other events play out, are Maurice Evans, Ronny Turiaf, Roger Mason, and Shelvin Mack. But there are no clear answers as to what to do with Blatche, Young, McGee, and Lewis.

Andray Blatche

Blatche epitomizes everything that is wrong with the Wizards: talented athleticism coupled with a selfish attitude on offense. The problem with getting rid of Blatche is his contract. He is due over $23 million over the next three years. It is very difficult to imagine anyone giving up anything of real value for Blatche. If they can't trade him, they should amnesty him, which creates another problem: If Blatche's salary comes off the cap number, the Wizards will be flirting with the minimum salary line. But that shouldn't be a major issue if the Wizards are willing to spend money in free agency and/or take on contracts via trade.8

Nick Young

Young is averaging 15 shot attempts per game and a little over one assist. He is also shooting a career low in FG percentage and near a career low in 3-point percentage. He is a free agent, and there is absolutely no reason to bring him back. His mere presence appears to be stunting John Wall's growth, and if the Wizards want a black hole on their team, they would be wise to get one that is at least moderately efficient.

JaVale McGee

McGee's greatest hits include the aforementioned self alley-oop, the most embarrassing triple double in NBA history, and more recently, apparently having no idea what an offensive rebound is.9

He is due a qualifying offer, which the Wizards should extend. This will make McGee a restricted free agent. If McGee signs, he will be with the Wizards for one more year, after which he would become an unrestricted free agent. The Wizards definitely prefer this option.

Another option for McGee will be to sign an offer sheet with another team, after which the Wizards can match that offer or let McGee walk. If this scenario happens, the magnitude of the contract obviously matters. If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have said they should match. But the evidence is piling up against McGee, and there has to be concern that this is just the player he is going to be. The Wizards have a tough decision to make if someone gives McGee a big contract (say, $8-10 million a year for several years), and I don't know which way they should go. If they end up with a high draft pick and someone like Connecticut's Andre Drummond is available, it will be time to turn the page. Luckily for the Wizards (and all teams), the draft precedes free agency, so they will have ample opportunity to construct a team before making a decision on McGee.

Rashard Lewis

Remarkably, Lewis' contract on paper constitutes more than half the committed salary the Wizards have for next year. But his contract is actually a lot friendlier than that. Only roughly $7-8 million10 of that contract is guaranteed for next season. This affords the Wizards four options with Lewis:

1. Pay Lewis the full amount of his contract (guaranteed and unguaranteed portions) and keep him. The only possible logic for this is the minimum salary level. If the Wizards refuse to spend money on other assets, they might need Lewis' contract to comply with the CBA.

2. Amnesty him (provided they don't amnesty Blatche). This would require the Wizards to pay the guaranteed portion of his contract anyway. The benefit here is that the guaranteed portion won't count on their cap. Given the Wizards' situation, this could actually be a detriment with the minimum salary in play. This only makes sense in the unlikely event that they actually need more than the roughly $30 million in cap space that buying out Lewis will afford them.

3. Buy out the contract. This makes a lot of sense. Save $15-16 million, with the remaining $7-8 million counting against their cap and being paid to Lewis.

4. Trade Rashard Lewis. This represents the Wizards' best chance to bring in real, tangible help. Unfortunately, this also represents the greatest risk. Why would anyone want to trade for Rashard Lewis? The premise is simple. A team has some bloated contracts they want to get rid of. Since Lewis is due $23 million on paper, that is his number for trade purposes. That means a trade partner can send the Wizards roughly $20-30 million in players for Lewis, then buy out Lewis for the guaranteed portion of his contract ($7-8 million).11 Who are possible trade suitors? It is too early to tell, but every year teams are trying to get rid of contracts, and the Wizards can be opportunistic. The downside is that by definition, this strategy involves absorbing contracts that another team doesn't want. But the Wizards' cap situation is friendly enough that this is certainly a viable and worthy strategy to pursue.

Bright Future?

One of the fascinating things about this particular franchise is that they are not that far away from being a good team — IF everything breaks properly. They have a young PG with All-Star potential (Wall), two young forwards that they selected in the first round last year (Vesely and Singleton), a sure-to-be-high first-round pick in the upcoming draft, and one of the best trade assets on the market (Lewis' contract).

A smart general manager, taking proper risks, focusing on the character of new acquisitions, and constructing a roster that mixes their young nucleus with solid, role-playing veterans can turn the franchise around and send it in the right direction. At the very least they can jettison some of the players with attitude problems, replace them with some veterans with character to serve as role models, and help lift the franchise out of the malaise in which it is mired. Saunders' dismissal was the first step. That move needs to be followed up with the removal of Grunfeld and the hiring of a general manager that can execute a smart player-acquisition strategy. Maybe next year at this time, the Wizards can be making headlines for their positive play on the court, rather than having the national spotlight only shine on them when something embarrassing happens.

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Linsanity Bag

By: timbersfan, 11:54 PM GMT on February 16, 2012

It's really hard to get your own mailbag from me. As far as I can remember, it's only happened once: when Bernard Karmell Pollard wrecked Tom Brady's knee in 2008. But with America going Linsane in the Membrane, we didn't have any choice — it's time for the all-Linsanity mailbag. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.

Q: Over/Under on Jeremy Lin references in your next mailbag: 13.5. Who could blame you for going over? You wrote the Bible of basketball, so you can provide context. Have you ever seen anything like this?!
— Chris H., San Diego

SG: Take the over. And … no.

Q: Doesn't LeBron James have to be kicking himself watching Jeremy Lin light up Madison Square Garden? LeBron could be the man lighting up the Garden, and he would be legendary for revitalizing basketball in New York! If he was ever to question his "Decision," you'd think it would be on the night Lin put up 38 and drew "MVP!" chants against the Lakers.
— Casey, Dell Rapids, S.D.

SG: Poor LeBron — he really does get blamed for everything. Although you're tapping into the single most important point of Linsanity … something that, from a "shaping the history of the league" standpoint, probably transcends anything Jeremy Lin will do for the Knicks. You know, unless he wins three titles or something. Let's keep going.

Q: Isn't what's currently going on with Jeremy Lin in New York the ultimate example of why Lebron should have signed there? The kid had a few good games and now OWNS the biggest city in America. Imagine what Lebron could have done there ... I know it's beating a dead horse at this point, but what a cop out.
— Steve, London, U.K.

SG: It's not beating a dead horse. It's a crucial point. One more e-mail on this …

Q: Do you see how the Garden is electric with Jeremy Lin? He's a legend in NY in less than 2 weeks. That's what LeBron never realized. If he came to The NYK every single game would be like that. We as a city are so starved for basketball success that if he brought us a championship he would have been a Greek god in NYC just walking along with the mortals. I hate LeBron.
— KDubb, Queens, N.Y.

SG: You shouldn't hate LeBron. You should hate the judgment/instincts/business acumen of his "advisors" (the numbskulls who pushed him toward Miami and/or didn't talk him out of it); how he walked away from the single biggest basketball challenge (winning a championship with the star-crossed Knicks, which would have made him immortal); his bizarre choice to play with his biggest rival over trying to beat him (who does that???); the fact that he played in Madison Square Garden FOR SIX SEVEN STRAIGHT SEASONS without realizing there's a different energy in that building (????); or this current NBA culture in which people look at themselves as "brands" instead of "basketball players" and make every decision accordingly (and ironically, no decision for LeBron's "brand" would have been better than LeBron saving the Knicks).

Look, I love the Lin story — I can't get enough of it. I have been following the NBA my entire life; it's always the other leagues that had Fernandomania, Fidrych or Teeeeeee-bowwwwwwwww! Basketball isn't supposed to have surprises like this. On a basketball court, talent always wins out no matter what game you're watching. It happens at every level — whether you're playing pickup, high school ball, intramurals, college ball, D-League, whatever. You always know who the best player is; you can always tell substance from sizzle; you can always differentiate the gamers from the frauds; and even when we have a late NBA bloomer (like, say, Bruce Bowen), it's always someone who clearly had an elite skill, then figured out how to augment it with just enough other stuff to become a valuable player. People don't come out of nowhere in the NBA. That's why Billy Ray Bates was the go-to reference these past seven days — what else were you going to say? Even someone like Ben Wallace (a more modern example of a normal "late NBA bloomer") excelled as a bench player for Washington before exploding for Orlando.

What's happening with Lin right now? Unprecedented. I have never seen it before — shit, I've never even seen a homeless man's version of it before. And we're going to hit some of my favorite things about his ascent throughout this mailbag. Just know that LeBron's shadow lingers over all of it. He could have owned New York, and more important, he should have owned New York. There was — literally — no reason that it shouldn't have happened other than greed, hubris and (I hate to say it) just a hint of cowardice. I refuse to believe that, after playing in that building in front of those fans for seven years, it didn't dawn on LeBron that he could have been immortal in New York. How could someone not see that? My friend Lewis (a die-hard Lakers fan) went to Friday's Lakers-Knicks game as well as Game 7 of the 2010 Finals — he said that the crowds were identical. Think about that. Chew on it. That's what LeBron James passed up. And I'll bet anything that, at some point in his life, he's going to regret it.

Q: You joked that Disney would call the Tebow movie "Fourth and God." What's the Lin movie going to be called?
— John, Berkeley, Calif.

SG: My first instinct was to give it a cute title like Linning Time, but when you consider this is following the real-life Rudy or Rocky script — and he's more talented than either of them — wouldn't we have to call it Jeremy? And have Pearl Jam remake "Jeremy" with lyrics that center around a Taiwanese-American Harvard grad saving the Knicks instead of, you know, a bullied kid destroying everyone in his class?

Q: What if Jeremy Lin is the Manchurian Hoopster, created and unleashed by ESPN to provide storylines during an otherwise dead sports period? I thought of this five minutes ago. Now I can't fully talk myself out of it. It would be the absolute nadir (or pinnacle I guess, depending on perspective) of the evil powers of the NBA and ESPN combined. Please, talk me out of this being feasible.
— Jerod, Dallas

SG: No way — for that to be true, he would have to have attended a college filled with evil brainiac professors with a vested interest in brainwashing/corrupting him, and David Stern would have had to have gotten an honorary Ph.D. from that same college.

(Hey, wait a second … )

Q: As Jeremy Lin continues to hit game-winners by day and sleep on Landry Field's couch by night, many are comparing Tim Tebow's improbable run to Jeremy Lin's. What's the difference you ask? Just think about the questions that went through your head as you watched Tebow and Lin the first few times. When you watched Tebow, you probably wondered things like: "How did Tebow just miss that throw? How is this guy even starting?! OH MY GOD how the hell did Tebow just win that game?!?!" But watching Lin, you ask questions like: "How did a guy this good go to Harvard? How did nobody draft this guy!? HOW THE HELL were Toney Douglas, Iman Shumpert, and even Mike Bibby's corpse starting over him?!?!" And there's your answer.
— Alex, Eugene, Ore.

SG: Absolutely. You nailed it. The best thing about Tebow: We knew it didn't make sense and we didn't care. We just held on for the ride. (While assuming that ride could end at any moment.) But Lin? I watched his last few games thinking, I don't get it. How can 29 teams whiff so badly? He can beat people off the dribble, he can shoot, he rose to the occasion when it mattered at every level, he's not a dick, he can run high screens, he has a high basketball IQ, and it's not that he's too small or something. Also, the league revolves around point guards in 2012 more than any other season before it, and we're coming off a playoffs in which a similarly unique offensive weapon who killed it in college and eventually evolved into an asset as a scoring guard (J.J. Barea) just helped Dallas win the title.

So how did everyone miss? Yeah, he's not the greatest defender. Yeah, he's too careless with the basketball (at least right now, as a young player). But when you remember he won AND produced in high school and college, it's strange that nobody ever gave him a real chance. A friend of mine knows Jeremy and says that when Jeremy got waived by the Warriors, he couldn't believe it and started to wonder if he would ever get a fair shake. At no point did Lin ever feel like he didn't belong in the league. He just wanted one chance.

On the other hand, if you zip through everyone's rosters, it makes a little more sense: Either teams had already invested draft picks in young backup points (Jimmer Fredette, Avery Bradley, Josh Selby, etc.), traded for ones that needed to play (Goran Dragic, Jerryd Bayless, etc.), overpaid for them in free agency (Bassy Telfair, Jordan Farmar, etc.), made moves for a backup before Lin became available (Utah, New Orleans, Atlanta, etc.), couldn't get rid of the ones they had (Derek Fisher, Chris Duhon, Beno Udrih, etc.) or were already stacked at the position (Denver, the Clippers, Portland, Philly, etc.). The only teams that had no excuse: Golden State (who had him!), Washington (unless you're a big Shelvin Mack fan), Phoenix (who never should have invested in Telfair to begin with) and, of course, the Lakers (who totally whiffed). Of course …

Q: This just hit me: If Stern doesn't veto the Lakers/Rockets/Hornets trade Jeremy Lin would still be a Rocket. Houston couldn't keep Lin because they already had 3 PG's with fully guaranteed contracts (Lowry, Dragic, Flynn). If the trade is allowed to go through, Lin would have been able to take Dragic's spot on the roster. Instead Stern vetoes the trade, and now Lin is singlehandedly saving the Knicks season, and keeping them out of the lottery. Oh ya, Houston owns New York's first rounder (top 5 protected). Is it possible Stern knew all this, and this was his actual reason for vetoing the trade? Also is this Stern's way of getting back at Houston for booing him after Game 7 of the NBA Finals? Let's be honest, the man isn't above grudges.
— Adam Spolane, Houston

SG: I love when Daryl Morey writes me with the alias "Adam Spolane." And yeah, you're right — if the Gasol trade goes through and Houston follows that up by signing Nene (something the Rockets believe would have happened, even if the rest of the league is dubious), here's Houston's team right now: Kyle Lowry, Courtney Lee, Chandler Parsons, Nene and Pau Gasol (starters); Jeremy Lin, Marcus Morris, Patrick Patterson, Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger, Free Agent 2-Guard to Be Named (bench). Pretty interesting. Daryl will now light himself on fire.

(PS: Did you notice Houston was awarded the 2013 NBA All-Star Game last week? My buddy House is convinced that was Stern's way of apologizing for screwing the Rockets over. It's like Warden Norton letting Andy Dufresne shine his shoes right after he killed Andy's buddy who could have testified that Andy was innocent, and throwing Andy in the hole for two months for calling him "obtuse." Sorry about what happened, Houston — here, shine my shoes with the 2013 All-Star Game!)

Q: Is Jeremy Lin the biggest star from Torrance since Eddie Adams?
— Matt, Los Angeles

SG: He's a big, bright shining star. It's a real point guard, Jack.1

Q: Do you know what impresses me most about Jeremy Lin? The genuinely giddy reactions he inspires from his teammates. Watch the aftermath of his game-winning shot against the Raptors: Jared Jeffries nearly dislocates a shoulder with a flying hip-bump, Steve Novak inexplicably begins humping Linsanity's leg, Tyson Chandler heaves him about two feet into the air. Not one teammate seems remotely jealous of his statistics, heroics, or instant worldwide adoration. And it's not just any team rallying around his success; it's the New York Knicks, the league's most perpetually dysfunctional franchise (that doesn't have Don Sterling's greasy fingerprints all over it). Isn't that more amazing than any shot he'll ever hit in his life?
— S.K.E. Banerjee, NYC

SG: And that's been one of my favorite things about Linsanity. The Knicks were going to miss the playoffs; even worse, it was genuinely depressing to watch them. Offensively, they looked broken — two ball-stopping forwards, no point guard, no shooters — and their coach was sitting glumly on the sidelines with one of those vacant "please, fire me, I'm not man enough to quit" looks on his face. Their fans were slowly starting to panic about Carmelo's crappy season, especially with Danilo Gallinari (whom they loved last year) emerging as a star in Denver. If that wasn't bad enough, anyone who lived in New York couldn't watch the team because the MSG Network disappeared from their cable systems. There was just a general plague hanging over the team. You could feel it. Especially when you went to the games. Stuck at 8-15 without Carmelo and Amar'e, you could say they were — unequivocally — at the do-or-die portion of their regular season.

Then, Lin starts playing at point guard … and within a week, they're acting like a 15-seed pulling off a March Madness upset (only game after game). And yeah, I know race is hanging over this story — sometimes that happens for phony reasons, sometimes it happens for real ones, and in this case, it's real and should hang over it a little. But if Lin happened to be white or black, I'd like to think this story would be 85 percent as fun — it's mostly about his style of play (wildly entertaining), the whole out-of-nowhere underdog thing (always our favorite type of story as sports fans), its effect on Knicks players and Knicks fans (basically, it's turned both groups delirious) and the fact that it's the Knicks (who have four generations of fans, play in our biggest market and needed a feel-good story more than just about any other team). You know what's really amazing? That he saved the Knicks' playoff hopes AND saved his coach's job has almost been an afterthought.

(Also an afterthought: What about Friday night's Lakers game, when Lin was staring at a mountain of hype, a nationally televised audience, that super-excited Knicks crowd and an almost certain letdown game … and instead, he rose to the occasion and enjoyed the best performance of his career? That performance single-handedly extinguished the "Is this a flash in the pan?" dialogue and made people recalibrate his NBA ceiling. Oh, and it ended up being the perfect ending to a sports movie that's now on its seventh or eighth ending. He could have faded into Flip Murray-esque obscurity after that Lakers game and still lived off it for the next 20 years. Instead, it's just a small part of a much bigger story. Incredible.)

Q: In ESPN fantasy, Lin went from 0% owned to 100% owned in less than a week. Is there anyone else in the history of fantasy sports that was picked up that fast?
— Tony, Plymouth, Mich.

SG: In my fantasy hoops league, every team has $83 total to spend on our weekly free agent auction. My buddy Hench paid $74 (everything he had left) for Lin on Sunday night. And you're telling me Linsanity DIDN'T deserve its own mailbag???

Q: Is Jeremy Lin the NBA's equivalent of CM Punk in the WWE this past summer?
— Billy M., Blacksburg, Va.

SG: Does this mean Carmelo is going to be Triple H — the egotistical, overrated star who couldn't handle that something good was happening without him, so he interjected himself into the storyline and ended up throwing a wet blanket on all the momentum? I sure hope not. That reminds me …

Q: How do Madison Square Garden fans react if Carmelo Anthony becomes a ball-stopping killer of the fun, "we're passing to, and pulling for, our teammates" brand basketball Lin has brought to the Garden? How does D'Antoni react? How does Dolan react? Does Anthony remotely care about how the NY fans (clearly he doesn't care about Denver fans) coach and owner reacts?
— William, Jersey City

SG: Are you kidding? This is one of the underrated Linsanity subplots — here's Carmelo Anthony, one of the league's best scorers and someone who desperately wanted to play in New York2 … only it didn't go well from Day 1 … only now, he's been given this mulligan (in every respect) because of Lin's ascent … only every Knicks fan is terrified that Carmelo is going to screw this up … and by the way, if he messes it up even for one game, they're going to turn on him faster than women turned on Angelina after she broke up Brad and Jen. Can you remember an NBA star dealing with more pressure from his own fans in the regular season than Melo playing his first MSG/Linsanity game? They will turn on him immediately if he screws it up. Repeat: immediately.

But here's the fun part: Carmelo is really, really good. We saw him rise to the occasion during the 2008 Olympics: Give him good teammates, a great crowd and a little pressure and he will NOT shrink from the moment.3 When Carmelo has it going, he starts taking it to the hole like a hot running back, getting into the paint again and again — which will only help open the floor for Lin. We also haven't seen Melo play with a point guard who can get him open jumpers or fast-break layups since he left Denver. So on paper, this partnership should work. But if New Yorkers turn on him and make him feel like it's a no-win situation from Game 1? He'll take it personally, he'll get a little sulky … and this will spiral toward a bad place.

Even on Friday night, one of my friends e-mailed me that he was leaving the Lakers game and heard five different giddy "What can we get for Melo???" conversations with Knicks fans. And that's the thing: They could get a ton for him. They could package Chandler and Melo for Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu's contract in about three seconds. They might be able to pull off a three-teamer that nets them Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and a pick (with Pau Gasol going to Houston). I'm pretty sure Golden State wouldn't turn down Melo (for Monta Ellis and Klay Thompson); same for Indiana (for Danny Granger, Tyler Hansbrough and a pick) or Memphis (for Rudy Gay and a pick). I'm pretty sure Boston would trade Paul Pierce and multiple first-rounders for Carmelo in about 3.3 seconds. Did any of these ideas seem conceivable as recently as two weeks ago? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Of course not.

Having said that …

I have enough faith in Carmelo's basketball DNA to say this with complete confidence: He will rise to the occasion. He will. You watch. This will not be HHH 2.0.

Q: I'm hoping somewhere in a New York playground, Rumeal Smith is challenging Carmelo Anthony to a one-on-one pick-up game.
— Woozie, Seattle

SG: That might be the single most obscure movie reference in mailbag history … and what really scares me is (a) I got it right away, and (b) it actually worked.4

Q: The Giants won the Superbowl. ESPN consistently ranks the Rangers as the best team in the NHL. The Yankees just fixed their biggest problem (pitching). And Jeremy Lin energized the Knicks to an unbelievable degree and pushed them onto a five game winning streak without their two best scorers. Lin makes the Knicks play defense and makes Jeffries an offensive threat. That means that New York could possibly sweep all four titles. Please describe in detail the depressive stint you'll go through if that happens. I mean in detail. A minute by minute breakdown of your breakdown please.
— Paul Leszczynski, New York

SG: I'm already operating under the assumption that this WILL happen. In fact, congrats to everyone in New York for sweeping the 2012 titles — it's going to be an incredible achievement (one for the ages, as Jim Nantz would say) and you should all enjoy the ride. You're going to make history this year. Congrats in advance.

Q: Jeremy Lin is a product of the packed-like-sardines-in-a-can NBA season. Fewer days, if any, between games means less scouting reports for unknown players. Lin has no outside jumper and he can't go left. Just like a 2-pitch rookie pitcher that starts 4-0 while not topping 88 on the radar gun, Lin will fizzle out when the scouting reports catch up.
— Peter Stiefel, Iowa City

SG: Come on, the scouting reports already caught up with him — everyone knows he can't go left, that he's sloppy with the basketball, that you shouldn't backpedal when it seems like he's about to drive, and that you should attack him on the other end (like Calderon did in Toronto). Did that stop him from scoring the last six points and making the biggest shot of the Raptors game? No. It is what it is — he's going to land somewhere between "J.J. Barea 2.0" and "Poor Man's Nash" as a basketball player. Doesn't mean we can't enjoy the hell out of the ride.

Q: It has been such a thrill to watch the emergence of Jeremy Lin. In fact my only regret as a Knicks fan is we didn't have him on the team last season so that Dolan could have included Lin in the package to Denver.
— Robert, Santa Monica

SG: (Applauding.)

Grantland's Jeremy Lin coverage
Our ongoing coverage of Linsanity.

• Simmons: Linsanity Mailbag

• Kang: Person of Interest: Jeremy Lin

• Browne: Jeremy Lin: Still Awesome

• Mays: Beyond the Buzzer-Beater — How Lin and the Knicks Beat Toronto

• Kang: Immediately Stop What You Are Doing and Watch This Jeremy Lin Tribute Video

• Browne: The 10 Best Lines About Jeremy Lin's Big Night
Q: I just watched the Lin post-game interview after he dropped 38 on the Lakers. In the interview, he calls D'Antoni "an offensive genius." Honestly, if you're D'Antoni do you start believing in God real hard core? I mean this guy basically came out of nowhere, saved his job, makes him look like a genius, and talks about God non-stop. I think if you're D'Antoni you believe this guy was sent to you directly from heaven. That sounds totally weird and totally rational at the same time.
— Geoff, New York

SG: Weird because it's insane, rational because it's true — D'Antoni was maybe two more losses away from getting fired, then taking over some ailing Division 1 school and reinventing himself as a run-and-gun college coach. If that didn't work, the WNBA was the next stop. And by the way, if you don't think any of this sounds realistic, check out Paul Westhead's Wikipedia page.

Q: How would you rate Jeremy Lin's unbelievable week in the context of NBA history? Has anyone else ever leapt from an "about-to-be-cut" player to a marquee team leader in such a short time?
— HK Chia, Singapore

SG: Everyone keeps bringing up Billy Ray Bates, but there's just no comparison — Bates came out of nowhere to help a 38-44 Blazers team sneak into the 1980 playoffs during an era when (a) there was no Internet, (b) barely anyone had ESPN, (c) there were no sports radio or talking-head shows, (d) there were no League Pass or TNT/ESPN contracts, (e) fans cared so little about the NBA that CBS routinely tape-delayed playoff games or didn't show them altogether. It's really hard for me to believe that Bates resonated even 1/100th as much as a 1980 Portland Trail Blazer as Lin is resonating right now as a 2012 New York Knick. Only after David Halberstam's classic The Breaks of the Game (the best sports book ever) was released did Bates develop any real legacy beyond Brent Musburger breathtakingly pimping him before a Round 1 Sonics-Blazers game on CBS. And that's the BEST comparison to what's happening with Lin — something that didn't even come close to working.

Q: Forgive me, for I am only 22 and grew up in Cleveland. Is Linsanity cooler or less cool than Fernandomania?
— Andy, Chicago

SG: That's the better comparison — came out of nowhere, played in a big market, invigorated a franchise, submitted a series of quirky/entertaining/remarkable performances, generated a ton of hype and kept living up to it, and if that's not enough, tapped into a collective pride for an ethnic group (Mexicans for Fernando, Asians for Lin) that turned it into a much more meaningful story and transcended typical rooting interests. I'd put Fernandomania ahead of Linsanity only because Fernando was a better player — remember, he won the Cy Young Award as a rookie — and because Americans cared more about baseball in 1981 than they do about basketball in 2012.

At the same time, it's easier to experience Linsanity: You can see every game or at least monitor every moment of it. For instance, I missed last night's game because I went out with my family for Valentine's Day; when Lin hit the game-winner, my BlackBerry blew up with texts, my Twitter feed blew up, and within an hour, I was home watching a replay of the fourth quarter (thanks to League Pass) on my iPad. Linsanity is more inclusive than Fernandomania. Unless you're a Time Warner customer in the New York area.

Q: I can't get enough of this guy. I feel like walking into a bar and ordering a Jeremy Lin.
— Matt Allen, De Nang, Vietnam

SG: That's another reason why this is 100 times bigger than Billy Ray Bates — do you really think anyone living in Vietnam in 1980 had an opinion on Billy Ray Bates???

Q: Can we not do better than "Linsanity"? I mean who really wants this young man to be tied in any remote way to Vince Carter?
— Marcus, Pensacola, Fla.

SG: Great point. We should probably drop "Linsanity" and any other cutesy puns playing off Lin's name or ethnicity, even if they've been fun these past 10 days — he should just be Jeremy and that's it. Who's the defining "Jeremy" in sports right now? Jeremy Roenick retired years ago. Jeremy Shockey never quite made it. Neither did Jeremy Hermida or Jeremy Giambi. I think the "Jeremy" one-name status championship belt is wide open. Why fight it?

Q: Can you please ask Dork Elvis what he didn't see in Jeremy Lin?
— Jack, Boulder

SG: Hold on a second … didn't 27 teams pass on Lin? Why is everyone pointing at Houston and Golden State like they did something wrong here? Houston had too many guys with guaranteed contracts and two point guards (Lowry and Dragic) ahead of him on their roster. Golden State waived him to create cap space so they could make their ill-fated run at DeAndre Jordan before eventually settling on Kwame — you're right, that was pretty dumb. But the whole league dropped the ball here, not just Golden State and Houston. And don't forget the part where, for a couple of weeks after Lin joined the Knicks, Mike D'Antoni never acknowledged him or called him by his name. A source close to Lin tells me that this was 100 percent true. D'Antoni had totally checked out; if Baron Davis came back two weeks sooner, the Knicks probably would have cut Lin before Linsanity even started. So blame the whole league for blowing this. Besides, hasn't Dork Elvis suffered enough?

(Wait, he hasn't? Hold on … )

Q: Dear Jeremy Lin,
Clearly you've watched Batman Begins too many times and it's affecting your brain. Please, just let Gotham crumble and die.

Sincerely,
The Rockets 2012 draft pick
— Matt, Dallas

SG: That's another crazy wrinkle of Linsanity — Stern vetoes the trade, Houston waives Lin, New York's season gets saved by Lin, and Houston loses a potential lottery pick. Put it this way: We're almost definitely doing another 30 for 30 series starting this fall. There's a 99 percent chance we're doing a 30 for 30 called "Linning Time" ... and a 60 percent chance we're doing a 30 for 30 called "The Veto."

Q: What would you say if I told you that an undrafted Asian-American point guard from Harvard would set the NBA on fire?
— @dantevacca (via Twitter)

SG: As you can tell, we're leaning toward "Linning Time."

Q: Watching Lin and Chandler run pick and rolls together and then low-five is like watching the most bizarre buddy cop movie ever.
— Drew, Tucson

SG: Agreed. And by the way, Chandler has gotten lost in the shuffle here — he's the perfect high screener for Lin's pick-and-roll game and a big reason why Lin has been playing so well. If you put Lin on, say, the Wizards with JaVale McGee instead of Chandler? This would not be happening. And also, the Knicks never would have signed Chandler had Dallas re-signed him OR Golden State just sucked it up and offered him $64 million, which means they would have kept Chauncey Billups, which means they never would have signed Lin … (seriously, how many "what ifs" can one situation have?).

Q: It just hit me after watching Lin put up 38 against the Lakers — he's a younger version of Roy Hobbs. Both came out of nowhere. Both are in New York. Carmelo is Bump. D'Antoni is Wilford Brimley. I could even imagine a scene where D'Antoni said to Lin, "Basketball practice ... be there," and Lin replies "I have been. Every day." Look for Lin to get a girlfriend, go into a slump, then rebound and the Knicks make the playoffs.
— David, Gurnee, Ill.

SG: I like this real-life version of The Natural much more than the version we already have going … you know, the one in which Kim Basinger plays Gisele Bundchen.

Q: Please tell me that watching a volleyball game on NBA all star weekend between the all stars would not be the most entertaining thing you could watch ... besides Jeremy Lin. But seriously, they are both awesome.
— Brett R., Jericho

SG: Can't we have both? I'd much rather watch NBA players play volleyball over whatever always happens on All-Star Saturday. By the way, let's say Rose can't play in the All-Star Game because of his ailing back and the league says, "Screw it, we know this is wrong, we know this violates the sanctity of this process, but we can't help ourselves ... we're replacing Rose with Jeremy Lin and we're doing this because the game will be more fun with Jeremy Lin, and really, that's the only reason." Who would object to this? Do you know a single person?

Q: Like everyone, I've been watching the Lin circus for the past 6 games. I hate to be a downer, but if we go on those games alone (the others he barely played in and don't count) he'd be leading the league in turnovers. Why hasn't anyone brought this up? I love a Cinderella story as much as the next guy, but cmon dude, take care of the ball!!!
— David W., Adelaide, South Australia

SG: All fair points, just remember that (a) he's basically a rookie, (b) he went from not getting any real run for nearly 21 months to playing 38 minutes a game, (c) the Knicks were playing without their best two offensive weapons, which meant Lin had to be their sole creator, and (d) starting with the Lakers game, every opponent approached the Knicks by saying, "We need to stop Jeremy Lin to stop the Knicks." Once Carmelo comes back and Lin gets more comfortable, the turnovers will come down. By the way, e-mails from South Australia and Vietnam?!?!?!? How could you doubt the wisdom of a Linsanity mailbag???

Q: I was walking my dog and like every other Asian-American in America, watching every Jeremy Lin youtube clip I could get my hands on and realized that Jeremy Lin sounds EXACTLY like Matt Saracen. Then I started to delve a little deeper into this half-baked thought.

1. Both were thrust from outsider status into the spotlight under unexpected circumstances and subsequently thrived.
2. They are both quiet, humble leaders, and their teammates love them
3. Both became instrumental to their team's success and turned around what seemed to be hopeless seasons.
4. Seriously, have you listened to JLin talking? It's uncanny!
5. They're best friends with a guy named Landry.
That's probably where the similarities end as Jlin comes from a good family, is very religious, and went to Harvard, but that just makes it sound even more like a movie script. More than Fourth and God starring Zach Efron on steroids as Tim Tebow. If someone submitted the script with the plotline of "an undrafted Asian kid from Harvard dreams of making it in the NBA and turns an entire franchise around and sets the nation on fire" as a movie, it'd get rejected for being too unrealistic.
— Stuart, Los Angeles

SG: My buddy Gus made this point on Twitter — we're not allowed to say "Hollywood would never make this script about Lin." Have you seen the scripts Hollywood makes? They'd absolutely make this script! They just made The Vow and The Grey! Shit, 15 years ago, they made a movie about Whoopi Goldberg getting plucked out of the stands to coach the Knicks and turn their season around. You're telling me they're turning down the Asian American Rocky/Rudy crossed with Hoosiers set in New York?

Q: Linsanity is all fun and games now, but the biggest loser out of this has to be Derrick Rose right? Next year will be the first time that the Asian vote will actually distort the All-Star lineups. If Lin's on the ballot, Rose may never start in the All-Star game again. We didn't ever have a problem with Yao Ming since he was always one of the best centers anyways, but Lin over Rose?
— Larry, Los Angeles

SG: I don't think there's ever been a better example of a "let's cross that bridge when we come to it" e-mail.

Q: Please tell me why so many people are missing the main issue with Jeremy Lin. The reason he "came out of nowhere" and people "can't believe so many colleges and scouts missed the mark" is because of his race. Why does this issue get swept under the rug by all the analysts like it wasn't the MAIN reason why he didn't get any colleges scholarships, didn't get drafted and got cut by two NBA teams? I find it amusing some people say Lin is getting all the attention because of his race and not for his play but the same reason he didn't get noticed is because of his race. It's like people are hatin' because of his race but don't realize his race is why "he came out of nowhere" in the first place.
— Rick, Philly

SG: People are starting to write about this, and they should — it's a good angle, although I'd argue that his Harvard pedigree caused people to overlook him just as much as his ethnicity. Still, the real problem was threefold: He didn't blow anyone away during his Golden State stint last year; he played a position that was pretty filled throughout the league; and because of the lockout, he didn't have a chance to blow anyone away during training camp. Remember, good players always make a leap from Year 1 to Year 2 — from what we've seen of Lin these past two weeks, it's safe to say that, without the lockout, the right training camp (and the right team) would have allowed his ascent to happen in a much more traditional way. Would it have been as much fun as Lin coming out of nowhere to save the Knicks' season and energize their fan base two days before he was getting cut while he was sleeping on a buddy's coach the whole time? NOOOOOOOOOOOO! Not in a million years! I'm glad it played out this way.

One last note on the race angle: I don't mean to shy away from it, because he's tapping into something much larger than just "saving the Knicks." There's been a subtle racism lurking behind everything that's happened these past two weeks; you can't help but notice it when they show someone holding a "Yellow Mamba" sign in the stands (which happened Friday night), or with the people who crossed the line on Twitter (that's still going), or even the late-night monologue-type jokes like "Of course Jeremy Lin would go well with MSG" or "Who said Asians couldn't drive?," which sound relatively harmless until you think, Wait, nobody would be making 'black' jokes if Lin were black. I asked two of my friends — one Korean American, one Chinese American — if this bothered them during these past two weeks. Here's what they said.

Friend No. 1 (Jay Kang, fellow Grantlander): "There's always going to be some shit kicked up by haters, but the outpouring of excitement and love has overwhelmed the usual racist clatter. That doesn't mean I haven't rolled my eyes a couple times or even gotten angry. But there's a difference between someone who says something a bit insensitive out of genuine enthusiasm and someone who is just trying to get off his bitter rocks. It's important to not hawk over Linsanity with that much vigilance; it's basketball and it's a bunch of dudes typing reactions on Twitter. There's just no reason to let a few racist assholes ruin the best party of the year. Yes, some of these comments have highlighted that we, as a society, don't treat all racism equally, but if you didn't know that already, you've been living in a hole somewhere. More important, if you can't look at Jeremy Lin and see why America is the greatest country in the world, well, then you don't understand America."

Friend No. 2 (my buddy Chen): "Yeah, there's a racial component  he's yellow, he looks like us, you're always going to be sensitive to certain comments. But the fact that his story has transcended race is the real story for me  who doesn't identify with him? Asian Americans, Harvard grads, New York City, working stiffs, religious people, people in the Far East, even anyone who's been dumped by their employer or their girlfriend  he's hitting multiple demos. Every single color and ethnicity on the rainbow identifies with the guy; it's gone beyond the yellow barrier. The real story to me is how this has crossed over — it's a business story because of the economic impact (merchandise sales, ticket sales, MSG stock) and a human story (something that transcends sports, actually). So you're always going to have a few things that are unsavory. A couple of unfortunate comments, maybe some people he knew trying to exploit it. Overall, I think it's one of the most amazing sports stories I can remember and that's what I am taking away from this."

(Me too.)

Q: For those of us in Brooklyn who live in rentals where satellite dishes are not an option, this story is the real Linsanity.
— Vincent, Brooklyn

SG: Great point. James Dolan is the best — he could win the lottery and somehow accidentally set the ticket on fire while lighting a victory cigar.

Q: In light of the recent emergence of Jeremy Lin (and the glorious pun possibilities that his name brings), My coworkers and I were discussing the inevitable Jeremy Lin song, a la Tim Tebow's Fire (anything would have to be better than that shit burger of a song). The best (or maybe the worst) we have come up with so far were "Lin" (remake of "Ben"), "Lin Beneath my Wings", and my personal favorite, "Lin in the End" (complete with a "Teen Wolf"-type montage). Your thoughts?
— Matt, Ridgeland, Miss.

SG: You're not topping Mark Safan's "Win in the End." Especially because it would be so easy to switch "Win" for "Lin" and tweak the lyrics.

I was down to zero
Still an unsung hero
Waiting for my ship to come to shore
I stood empty-handed
A Harvard star now stranded
Watching all the other players soar

I was slowly losing hope
Benched at the end of my rope
Watching Shumpert screw things up
I was going to extremes
Losing sight of all my dreams again
I never thought I'd win

I was blinded by the pain
D'Antoni was driving me insane
Sleeping on my buddy's coach
Inches from the NBA edge
Fingers clinging to the ledge again
I never thought I'd win
Lin in the end
I'm gonna win in the end
Lin in the end
I'm gonna win in the ennnnnnnnd

(Did I really spend the last 20 minutes figuring that song out? Yup, this is your sports columnist.)

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Catching up with Michael Bradley

By: timbersfan, 11:50 PM GMT on February 16, 2012

If the 2010 World Cup saw a lifetime ambition fulfilled for U.S. international midfielder Michael Bradley, it was promptly followed by a nightmarish 12 months in which his club career (first with Borussia Monchengladbach, then with Aston Villa) stalled and his father was sacked as coach of the U.S. national team. Now playing for Chievo Verona in Italy's Serie A, Bradley has found a comfortable place where he can develop his football in one of Europe's most competitive leagues.

Davidde Corran: It's been about six months since you arrived at Chievo, how are you enjoying life in Italy?

Michael Bradley: I'm enjoying it a lot. I really enjoyed the challenge of settling in to a new team in the Serie A. I've always been a big fan of Italian football, of their national team. I've always had a lot of respect for some of the players who have played in my position over the years, be it for the Italian national team or some of the clubs here. So to come here and have the opportunity to start to establish myself in this league, I think it's been very good.

DC: Once you heard the interest, you immediately told your agent to close the deal. Did you ever envision yourself playing in Italy?

MB: I did, yeah. Growing up I watched a lot of Italian football. Whether it was the Serie A, whether it was AC Milan when they played in the Champions League, whether it was the national team.

When I was growing up on Sunday on RAI international at 9 or 10 in the morning you'd get an Italian game from the Serie A and at that time, AC Milan was always the best team. So every Sunday my Dad and I would watch AC Milan. It was the same on Tuesdays when there were Champions League games. At 2:45 when I'd come home from school to watch a game, a lot of times it'd be AC Milan. I grew up watching them. I knew the players, I knew the teams.

When the World Cup came to the United States in 1994, I remember going to watch Italy train because they were stationed not far from where we were living at the time in New Jersey.

So I've always enjoyed watching Italian teams play, I think I've always had a lot of respect for the way that the teams play, the way that the players play and for me to come here like I said and start to establish myself here and really pick up things on the field that they value, it's been great.

DC: It must also be good to have some stability after a turbulent 12 months.

MB: That's a little bit of what I was alluding to. This Summer I was at a point in my career where I had played two and a bit years in Germany at Borussia Monchengladbach. It had gone well, but then the six months with Aston Villa had not. A very good experience, but as far as the pure number of games I played, it wasn't what I had hoped.

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So obviously you're in a position at that point where the most important thing is to get yourself into a club where they value you, where they feel that you're going to be an important part of things and where you're going to be able to have a chance to play. So like I said, when I learned of Chievo's interest, when I spoke to the people here, when I saw a little bit, it was an easy decision.

DC: At 24 years of age, if you had lost a season it could have had a huge effect on your career.

MB: Yeah, absolutely. Every footballer goes through times where, for whatever reason, you're not playing. It can be injury, it can be you're going through a stretch where the form is not what it should be, you can go through a stretch where a new coach comes in who doesn't rate you as highly as the previous guy. This is life, this is football. So there's no getting around that.

But to try and minimize that after you do go through it -- a five, six month stretch -- it's important to get yourself back and playing regularly in games. Like I said you can have one stretch like that -- you can even have two -- but when these stretches start to add up, not only are you losing valuable time for yourself just to develop and improve, but you fear becoming one of those guys who bounce around from club, to club, to club, to club and never really stick, never really get many games; that's not what you want.

DC: What has struck you as different in Italy and Italian soccer?

MB: Certainly when you're in Italy everything is very professional. Their attention to detail when preparing for games is incredible.

Everything is about Sunday, everything is about preparing for the game, everything is about making sure that when the whistle blows and you step on the field you're ready. That the team is ready to do whatever it takes to get a result and I really enjoy that.

Do they want to play good football, do they want to score goals? Absolutely, but at the end of the day let's not kid ourselves; they're not the most important things. The most important thing is getting points and getting results.

So that mentality is something I really appreciate and really enjoy. I enjoy being in a team that has that mentality because that's what it's all about: stepping on the field, a guy giving everything they have and fighting for each other to make sure on more days than not you're coming away with the points.

DC: The U.S. national team's next game is against Italy. What do Italians think of American soccer?

MB: I think there's a respect for our national team, without a doubt, considering how we've improved and the results that we've had over the past few years, even going back to the World Cup in 2002.

As far as the players, there haven't been many here in Italy so there's not much to base that on. When they talk about the MLS it's more they're intrigued like I think a lot of players in Europe are. What it's like, what the level's like, how the stadiums are. There's certainly a respect there more than anything.

DC: Has the team started to get a sense of where Jurgen Klinsmann wants to take this U.S. team and how he wants you to play?

[+] Enlarge
Mario Carlini/Getty Images
"Everything is about Sunday, everything is about preparing for the game, everything is about making sure that when the whistle blows and you step on the field, you're ready... I really enjoy that."
MB: I think first and foremost it's still about having a team that, by the World Cup, is ready to play together and play at a high level so it can achieve something special. So I don't think that will ever change.

The reality for our national team is there's no European Championships every two years. Obviously the Gold Cups are sprinkled in there -- and those are important -- but the reality for us is that everything revolves around getting to the World Cup and once you get there, having a team that is ready to play at the highest possible level and can take it as far as it can go.

So already the focus and the goal is first and foremost qualifying for the World Cup and what kind of team we'll be like when we get there.

Obviously we have a mix now of some veteran guys who have been around for a few World Cups, a group who have been in the team for five or six years -- played a lot of games, been to the last World Cup -- who need to start to take more of a role and, like always, there's a group of young guys coming through who are talented who need to continue to be pushed along so that by 2014, they know what everything is all about.

DC: Is it a good moment then for the national team?

MB: Yeah, absolutely. Despite what happened, this year was still a good year for me. The Gold Cup, any time you don't win there's going to be a sense of disappointment. I thought we played very well. The final against Mexico was a very good game. Finals are decided by little breaks here and there. So you give credit to them (Mexico); on that day they made a few more plays then we did and that's football.

Moving towards the end of the year, we weren't happy with ourselves, with how we let a few results get away from ourselves. To finish the year with a good win in Slovenia was good and as we move forward into this year, everything will come together quickly.

You get to this point and like I said, it's still all about the good results, and about having a team that knows how to go to, say, Honduras and get a result. That part of playing in CONCACAF is very important. Obviously we want to play well and we want to move ourselves forward as a team but still, at the end of the day, the most important thing, especially this year, is that we get the results and put ourselves in a good position to qualify for the World Cup.

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The Sports Guy's NBA All-Star Team

By: timbersfan, 4:34 PM GMT on February 15, 2012

You may have noticed the NBA announced its All-Star rosters Thursday night. The timing seemed weird because the season started three minutes ago. I found myself particularly intrigued by this year's choices because, along with fellow NBA writers Sekou Smith, Ian Thomsen and Doug Smith, I had selected the candidates for the All-Star ballot. That's right, this "VP of Common Sense" gimmick is really catching on.

We were instructed to pick 60 players for each conference (12 centers, 24 guards, 24 forwards); we had to pick five white guys in each conference (just kidding); every team had to have at least three candidates; and no team could have more than six candidates, a rule that unexpectedly came into play when we mistakenly ended up with seven Pacers on our first pass. Seven Pacers???1 We spent 60 solid minutes hashing out our choices, with maybe 110 of the 120 guys being no-brainers … and the other 10 being more of the "I can't believe we're putting this dope on the ballot" variety.

My favorite moment happened when I tried to convince everyone to put Boris Diaw's boobs on the ballot. And actually, I nearly pulled it off — the problem was, we couldn't decide whether his boobs should be two different candidates or grouped as one. We finally decided to just put Boris on the ballot, and if you wanted to vote for his boobs vicariously through that choice, you had that option. My second favorite moment happened when we argued for seven solid minutes about Gerald Henderson vs. Kemba Walker as Charlotte's third representative — if there's ever been a greater waste of seven minutes, I'd seriously like to hear about it. My third favorite moment was when we massaged the West's glut of quality forwards by making James Harden a guard; it was one of those "What the hell? We're in charge here!" moments where you feel like you're playing God and it's awesome. The fourth best moment was when I spent about 45 seconds making Jonas Jerebko's case and saying, "I just don't want him to come back and haunt us."

If you're scoring at home, Jonas Jerebko didn't come back to haunt us.

But that's the goal of the ballot every year — you want to make sure you don't leave off anyone who might make you look dumb. Like Paul Millsap a year ago. That's the worst-case scenario (if you can even call it a worst-case scenario, because honestly, who cares?) — getting raked over the coals by angry bloggers who CAN'T BELIEVE THAT YOU LEFT PAUL MILLSAP OFF when he wouldn't have made the All-Star Game anyway. So now that it's February and everyone is making All-Star picks, it's nice to know that we didn't screw anything up. There has been no haunting.

The following 10 players were voted in as starters by the fans: Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard (East); Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Andrew Bynum (West). You can't flip out over any of those choices except for Anthony, who stunk this season (for him) and shouldn't be starting for anything except for the Ewing Theory team. (Right now, he's making history as a Double Ewing Theory candidate. I don't think that's ever happened before.) We also have two Clippers starting — voted in by the fans, no less — which could only happen in the year 2012, as preordained by the Mayans.

Meanwhile, here are the reserves (as voted by the coaches): Deron Williams, Roy Hibbert, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Andre Iguodala, Lou Deng, Chris Bosh (East); Tony Parker, Steve Nash, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol (West). It's absurd to have both Iggy and Deng (sorry, you have to pick one); Nowitzki didn't show up ready for the season, had to miss games for conditioning purposes and never, ever, ever, EVER should have made it (but who cares? It's Dirk Nowitzki!); and even Roy Hibbert can't believe he made it over Anderson Varejao thanks to a little-known "When in doubt, kick the city of Cleveland in the balls" rule that covers all American team sports (including the MLS).

Who should have made it? I'm glad you asked! You're not going to believe this, but I have some opinions. Here were my choices for both conferences.

EAST STARTERS: Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Anderson Varejao

Notes: The first four guys are no-brainers, especially LeBron, who's having his greatest statistical season while unfairly getting blamed for everything bad that's happened these past 12 months, including the demise of Rick Perry's presidential campaign, Clint Eastwood's directing in J. Edgar, the Patriots choking in the Super Bowl, and Deena from Jersey Shore not being able to get laid. Hang in there, LeBron.

Howard deserves special kudos for excelling while remaining totally detached from his team, and yet not totally seeming like a dick, either. I went to Saturday's Pacers-Magic game and was shocked by (a) how hard he played, and (b) how he kept just enough emotional distance between him and his teammates that you left the building saying, "He clearly wants to leave, but they clearly don't take that personally." It was like watching Mark Wahlberg in Contraband. "Look, we all know why we're here — I want to get paid, you want to be in a movie, let's just get this scene over with so I can go back to my trailer." If I'm Orlando, I don't trade him for 60 cents on the dollar as long as he's playing hard. If he wants to walk away from $30 million extra this summer to play somewhere else, God bless him — nobody's ever done that before, nor will they, because nobody walks away from $30 million. Ten? Maybe. Thirty? No way.2

As for that fifth spot: I love the way Varejao is playing this season … and if you enjoy guys who put up 11 points and 12 rebounds every night, grab every big rebound in traffic, take monster charges again and again and shut down opposing big guys, you should, too. Isn't the whole point of the All-Star Game to pick players who are playing as well as they can possibly play? I never watch Chris Bosh and say, "Whoa, Chris Bosh! He's something! He's really turned it on!" Why do I have to pick Bosh as a starter again? And also, why should THREE Miami Heat players be starting on the All-Star team? You don't find this a little kooky? Are they the '96 Bulls or something? Please. Besides, Varejao has been more of an impact player this year — he's the best at what he does, and that's saying something. You win with what he does.

Meanwhile, Paul Pierce showed up overweight and didn't start looking like Paul Pierce until three weeks ago; he didn't deserve the starting spot. And Carmelo is having a below-average season (for him) on a below-average team before finally getting injured … and, of course, his team immediately started winning without him. I am a Carmelo defender and a Carmelo trade defender; I still believe he can become THE scorer on a championship team (a la Dirk last summer); and I still think it's hysterical that Timofey Mozgov nearly derailed that trade. But if there's anything less fun than watching Carmelo in full ball-stopper mode on a spiritless team with a coach dying to get fired, seriously, let me know. He actually sucked the life out of a seemingly healthy (if not a little doughy) Amar'e Stoudemire, who looked so useless that Roy Hibbert made the All-Star team over him.3 Varejao was never getting Carmelo's starting spot, but he deserves it. And if you don't believe me, you didn't watch the Cavs beat the Clippers without Kyrie Irving on Wednesday night.

EAST RESERVE GUARDS: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson

It's been fascinating to watch Williams keep that reprehensible Nets team competitive. Nobody feels sorry for him because he ruined the last year of Jerry Sloan's career, and for that he remains in NBA Purgatory — at least until he signs with Dallas this summer.4 As for Joe Johnson … he's the best 2-guard in the East after Wade. I know, it leaves me cold, too. In general, the 2-guard position has never been in worse shape — only 20 years ago, we had MJ, Drexler, Dumars, Reggie Lewis, Reggie Miller, Drazen Petrovic, Mitch Richmond, Dan Majerle, Ricky Pierce, Jeff Hornacek and Ron Harper. Now we have Wade and Kobe, and then … Joe Johnson, Monta Ellis, Manu Ginobili, Kevin Martin, Ray Allen, Eric Gordon … and wait … um, where's everyone else? Maybe Joe Johnson really was worth $120 million. (Thinking.) Nahhhhhhhh.

One more thing: I'm fine with leaving off Rajon Rondo (or Kyrie Irving, or the rejuvenated Brandon Jennings) because we're loaded at point already with Rose and Williams, even if Rondo is averaging a 14-10-5, shooting 50 percent from the field and still giving us those one-of-a-kind Rondo highlights. Am I slowly coming to the realization that I've been in deep denial about the Rondo era? Yeah, a little bit. Any smart team (like the Lakers last night) plays six feet off Rondo in tight games, daring him to shoot, paralyzing Boston's offense and leading to the dreaded "Clogged Toilet" play (Pierce ending up with the ball 25 feet from the hoop with seven seconds left trying to create something). It's almost like playing with a handicap. Screw that, it IS like playing with a handicap. It's also curious that the Celtics came alive defensively when Rondo missed eight games, mostly thanks to Avery Bradley, who flashed Tony Allen/Bruce Bowen-type potential as a perimeter defender (and that's not hyperbole).5 For the first time, I find myself hoping they deal Rondo — for instance, maybe it could be a three-teamer with Pau Gasol and Keyon Dooling going to Houston; Luis Scola, Goran Dragic, Kyle Lowry and L.A.'s 2012 no. 1 going to Boston; and Rondo and Jermaine O'Neal going to the Lakers. He needs a change of scenery, and really, so might Celtics fans. I can't watch another 84-82 game with his guy playing five feet off him. I really can't. Enough already.

EAST RESERVE FORWARDS: Chris Bosh, Andre Iguodala, Paul Pierce

Bosh gets the second power forward spot over Amar'e McAdoohaywoodmire. (Sorry, inside barb for every Knicks fan over 45 years old.) Iguodala gets Luol Deng's swingman/athlete/defender spot that Deng gave up by getting hurt; you could make a strong case for Iggy over Deng, anyway. I like having a Sixer since they're playing so well. And shouldn't Iguodala be rewarded for finally realizing what he is (a superb defender/athlete/glue guy) instead of what he isn't (someone who scores 20-plus a game and takes every big shot)? We always bitch about Josh Smith jacking up 20-footers — that's the reason I wouldn't discuss Smith for one of these spots, actually — but here's someone who finally started doing EVERYTHING he should be doing. And he's having a big impact on a top-3 seed. That's an All-Star to me. As for Pierce, now that he's rounded into shape (I'll withhold a sarcastic remark), he's one of the best players in the conference again and gives the Celtics a fighting chance against anyone on any given night. This will make 10 of the last 11 All-Star games for Pierce; he's becoming genuinely interesting historically. Were there 40 better players in NBA history than Paul Pierce? Were there six better Celtics? Have the Celtics ever had a better pure scorer?

(Hmmmmmm … feels like a potential column. Pretend I didn't mention this.)

EAST RESERVE CENTERS: Tyson Chandler, Roy Hibbert

I can't pick between them so we're taking them both, and hopefully not playing either that much because it's the All-Star Game and nobody wants to watch Tyson Chandler or Roy Hibbert. Chandler has been really good on the Knicks — even these last few games, when the Knicks were blessed to have their little bout with Linsanity, you realized that, "Oh yeah, when Chandler has a half-decent point guard who can get into the paint and find him, suddenly he's sneaky-good offensively."6 Is there a single Knicks fan who thinks Carmelo should have made the All-Star team over Chandler? Introduce me to that person — I want to block them on Twitter. As for Hibbert, put it this way: At no point during Saturday's Pacers-Magic game did I lean over to my buddy House and say, "How much fun is it watching the two best centers in the East?" It's a total farce to put him on this team … except for the part that the Pacers probably had to be represented with one guy. I blame Danny Granger for sucking this season. That was your spot, Danny. You gave it away.

By the way, if it's an All-Star Game and it's supposed to be fun, what's wrong with tweaking it a little and making it fun? Allow me to bring back one of my favorite ideas: Dumping the last "coach's pick" in favor of a "commissioner's pick," which would allow the Angel of Stern to say things like, "Tim Duncan is retiring after this season, let's give him the 12th spot for old time's sake."

(Thinking.)

Actually, after The Veto, maybe we shouldn't give Stern that kind of power anymore. So what about a "Fun Pick"? What if the fans were allowed to vote from a pool of players who — undeniably — would make the game more fun? For instance, we could dump the East's 12th-best All-Star (this year: Hibbert) for one of the following candidates …

Jeremy Lin — Only James Dolan could strike oil with a player, then arrange it so that nobody in the New York area could watch him.

JaVale McGee — Does something supernaturally dumb week after week after week. You might see him make a game-winning half-court shot in the wrong basket before everything's said and done.

Dr. Renaldo Balkman — The East's breakout "Chemist" this year, although he can't come close to topping Dr. Royal Ivey's career chemist year in Oklahoma City.

Ersan Ilyasova — This season's Crazy Box Score guy. He had a 19-rebound game two weeks ago. Nineteen rebounds! He had 12 rebounds in 21 minutes the other night. He looks like a cross between Ivan Drago, Josh Hartnett and Lurch. There's just a lot going on here.

Lou Williams — Jamal Crawford 2.0.

Greg Stiemsma — Compared by Tommy Heinsohn to Bill Russell this season. It happened.

Tyler Hansbrough — Developed into a momentum-swinging bench player for Indy, as well as the runaway leader of Bill Laimbeer Memorial "Player Most Likely to Get Punched in the Face at Any Point of Any Game" Award.

Boris Diaw's boobs — We covered this.

Anyway, I'm guessing Linsanity would narrowly edge Diaw's boobs and win the "Eastern Fun Pick" vote for five reasons: He's causing an Internet riot right now; he single-handedly saved the Knicks season and gave it life; he went to Harvard, of all places (even more incredible than him breaking the Taiwanese-American barrier, in my opinion); he's a shockingly intelligent offensive player (none other than Steve Nash blessed his game on Twitter recently); and most important, he's immensely fun to watch. I genuinely enjoy his herky-jerky game, the way he splits two defenders on the high screen, his deftness around the rim, his goofy jump shot, the way his teammates respond to him, his joy for basketball … it's just hard for me to believe that Lin is destined to become this generation's Billy Ray Bates (in other words, someone who catches lightning in a bottle for a few weeks and that's it). At the very least, he should be able to ease into a J.J. Barea-esque career as an impact offensive player who occasionally swings games off the bench. Anything less and I would be disappointed. Too bad we can't sneak him into the All-Star Game.

(In case you were wondering: Yes, we forgot to put Jeremy Lin on the All-Star ballot.)

WEST STARTERS: Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol

The first three are no-brainers, even if Kobe has been as selfish as ever and you can actually hear him counting his career points in his head. Anyone who voted for Griffin over Love needs to start watching League Pass instead of SportsCenter highlights; Love has been the best power forward in either conference, and by the way, haven't we all wanted to step on Luis Scola's face at least once? And I'm a huge Marc Gasol guy — he's the league's best all-around center and someone who always seems to get better when it matters. Smart defender, good leader, cagey passer. Seems like he'd be fun to play with. Helped keep Memphis alive in a brutally tough playoff picture without Zach Randolph. What am I missing? He's averaging a 15-10 for Memphis; Bynum is averaging a 17-12 for the Lakers. But Gasol means more to his team. I really believe that. And also, I fucking hate the Lakers.

WEST RESERVE CENTER: Andrew Bynum

Look, it's not like Bynum didn't make it. He's right here. I have to be honest — I think Bynum would be a 20-15 guy if Kobe hadn't reverted back to Teen Wolf mode. How can a polished low-post scorer who shoots 56 percent, has to be double-teamed and is allowed by officials to travel on every play somehow taking just three shots per quarter? This makes sense … how? In Bynum's last seven games, he made 54 of 90 field goals … and Kobe made 67 of 160 field goals. So Kobe missed three more shots than Bynum attempted. I guess that makes sense when you need to average 2,000 points per year over the next five to pass Kareem, but not when you're gunning for one of the eight playoff seeds with nine other quality teams. I continue to think the Lakers will miss the playoffs or come damned close.7

WEST RESERVE GUARDS: Russell Westbrook, Steve Nash, Tony Parker

Westbrook passed Rondo as the league's premier Table Test guy — in other words, nobody brings more to the table while also taking more OFF the table, but he brings so much to the table that it doesn't totally matter. He also plays his ass off and sincerely gives a crap. Why does he insist on chucking those terrible 22-footers, and why doesn't he defer to Durant more when Durant continues to be the most automatic two points in the league? I couldn't tell you. (Cut to Scotty Brooks nodding his head sadly.) Still, he's a destructive athlete and the main reason why OKC always makes its opponents feel like a boxer that's pinned against the ropes. Think Julio Cesar Chavez. They have NBA title pole position right now for that reason over anything else.

As for Nash, he's having another killer Nash year (15-10, 56-47-87 shooting percentages) at age 38 despite (a) playing in a ridiculously tough conference, (b) being saddled with the worst 2-through-12 supporting cast in that conference, and (c) having the life slowly sucked out of him by one of the worst ownership situations in any sport. There's no way, at his age, with everything else going on, that Steve Nash should still be doing THIS. I think he grew up near a Canadian nuclear reactor. It's the only possible explanation. And Parker's crunch-time skills kept San Antonio alive as a contender after Manu Ginobili went down — maybe you wouldn't want him around your wife, but you'd want to clear out for him in any big game. He earned that extra guard spot over Monta Ellis (another good stats/bad team year for him), Kyle Lowry (who had Parker's spot until a recent shooting funk) and Ricky Rubio (shooting 37 percent for a below-.500 team, unfortunately). Don't worry, we're not done with Rubio yet.

WEST RESERVE FORWARDS: LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, James Harden

If we're just talking basketball, I'm giving LaMarcus a slight edge over Blake — he's a better all-around player, he's better in crunch time, and he's a much better free throw shooter. Throw in the other stuff (dunking, charisma, entertainment, alley-oops, etc.) and it's suddenly a much better argument, and when you remember it's the All-Star Game — the kind of showcase that was literally created for someone like Blake — then that's when you start thinking, "Can we just give Blake all of LaMarcus' minutes?" I don't mind thinking this way for the All-Star Game, but when we're trying to win a Gold Medal in six months? This becomes a more meaningful debate.

As for the other spot, let's quickly address the coaches voting in Nowitzki. Call me crazy, but I don't even think the Finals MVP should get a mulligan for being totally unprepared for the start of a season. He even admitted it! Everyone knew that the lockout — if it ended — would end somewhere between Thanksgiving and MLK weekend. He's getting paid $19,072,873 this season. To my knowledge, he doesn't have a second job. He's the best player for the defending champs, who would have a bull's-eye on their backs all season. How can Nowitzki end up being blindsided mentally and physically because the lockout abruptly ended? Check out his stats: He's having the worst season since the strike season and stopped rebounding altogether. That may have been the all-time reputation-over-substance pick. He should fake an injury and give the spot to someone who earned it. Seriously. Do the right thing, Dirk.8

So who should get Dirk's spot? Most would pick Paul Millsap (17-9, 53 percent shooting for a surprisingly decent Jazz team) over Harden (17-4-4, 47 percent FG, 38 percent 3FG), but I look at it this way: The Zombies have the West's best team, by far, so giving them three All-Stars isn't insane; Harden's unselfishness, playmaking skills, 3-point shooting and general cojones are simply indispensable (you notice every time he's not out there for OKC); he's a mega-chemistry guy for them (better than Westbrook, that's for sure); and for the purposes of the All-Star Game, sorry, I'd much rather watch someone like Harden than a slasher/grinder like Paul Millsap. Why are we obligated to reward the best guy on a 13-11 team, anyway? Who cares?

I especially like Harden because he'll have moments during a game: You know, like Tuesday night against Golden State, when Ellis was playing out of his mind, the Warriors were making everything, the crowd was going bonkers with an 11-point lead … and Harden promptly swished consecutive 3s to keep the game from slipping away. (FYI: They ended up winning.) He does that shit all the time. You can go to war with James Harden. Some things transcend stats.

WEST "FUN PICK": Ricky Rubio

You were expecting anyone else???? Swap him for Parker and this is suddenly the most fun All-Star roster ever assembled. Just for fun, here were the other nominees.

Ty Lawson — Fastest dude in the league, morphing into a semi-impact guy.

Danilo Gallinari — Injured, so it's a moot point … but he's playing well enough (and he's been enough fun to watch) that it's officially unfair to bring this up around Knicks fans. Unless they root for the Giants. If so, do it. Please. Keep bringing it up.

Dr. Royal Ivey — He's to NBA Chemists what Gregory House has been to insane TV doctors.

Tony Allen — You know what the most randomly fun event of a 2012 NBA game is? Trick or Treat Tony deciding, "It's time for me to lock that guy down." He's the best perimeter defender in basketball by far. I went to a Clippers-Grizzlies game last month when Tony decided that Chris Paul wasn't getting into the paint anymore … and boom! It was on! Guess what else? Chris Paul didn't get into the paint anymore. Name me another defender who can handle everyone from Chris Paul to LeBron James. Even Bruce Bowen in his prime couldn't do that. Anyway, for "fun" purposes, imagine one of the East guys heating up in the second half … and Trick or Treat Tony coming in specifically to cool this person off. This would be fun. Period.

Gustavo Ayon — This year's top-20 guy from Hollinger's PER rankings who makes you pause and say, "Wait a second … who the fuck is that?"

Rubio — I will make this brief. It's the All-Star Game. It's supposed to be fun. As I have written roughly 10 million times, the quality of an All-Star Game ebbs and flows with the passing DNA of the point guards. This year's game is in relatively good hands (Paul and Nash for the West, Rose for the East), but you can't tell me that Ricky Rubio — a player blessed by no less than Larry Legend in my podcast this week as someone Bird's watching "every night" — wouldn't improve the game by 10 to 15 percent. Having an NBA All-Star Game without Ricky Rubio is like having a hot dog without mustard or ketchup. It can't happen again. Let's make this the last time. Please.

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Someone Still Wants You, Todd Haley

By: timbersfan, 4:33 PM GMT on February 15, 2012

Second chances aren’t only possible in pro sports, they’re pretty much guaranteed.

At least that seems to be true for coaches, unless you’re Jim Fassel, whose Las Vegas Locos, by the way, lost the United Football League title to Marty Schottenheimer’s expansion Virginia Destroyers this year — after which Schottenheimer was interviewed for the Buccaneers' open coaching slot. That would have been Marty’s fifth head-coaching gig.

In the real world, if someone runs a business into the ground by serving warmed-over hot dogs actually made of Labrador filet, the 7-Eleven across the intersection street doesn’t snatch him up to whip their place into shape. If NBC cancels Paul Reiser’s show after two episodes, Comedy Central doesn’t grab him to write jokes with Jon Stewart. But in the NFL, if someone gets fired for incompetence (usually two years too late), does a competing franchise immediately hire him? Well, yeah! Every year!

If Todd Haley felt the need to scan the ceiling for bugs (the CIA kind) before giving an interview four days before he was relieved of his coaching duties by the Chiefs in December, who are we to say he didn’t have good reason to be paranoid? Maybe GM Scott Pioli, a former protégé of Bill Belichick, had simply taken the Pats coach’s surveillance tactics to a new level. Massive operations tend to want to know what the lieutenants are thinking. (If I were you, I’d abandon landlines altogether.)

Haley’s woeful Chiefs posted a 5-8 record before he was fired — but he didn't stay unemployed for long. This month, the Pittsburgh Steelers announced that they had hired Haley as offensive coordinator.

This year, my own personal favorite NFL recycle is Bill Callahan. In his first year as Oakland's head coach in 2002, Callahan reportedly didn't change former boss Jon Gruden’s signals, and the Raiders got stomped when they faced the Bucs in Super Bowl XXXVII. Then, after Al Davis let him go, Bill Cornhuskered to Nebraska, then graduated to the Jets — spending a few years as offensive coach on a team with the mental stability and toughness of the offspring of Dexter, Gregory House, and Boo Radley. Then last month, the Cowboys hired him to be the offensive coordinator of a unit featuring the stable likes of Dez Bryant.

And look at Jacksonville, which replaced Jack del Rio with Mike Mularkey — who, as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator, watched the Falcons lose 24-2 to the Giants in the NFC wild-card game. After del Rio was shown the door in Jacksonville, John Fox brought him on as defensive coordinator in Denver.

Elsewhere around the league: Tony Sparano joined Rex Ryan’s Jets after he was fired by the Dolphins, and Jim Caldwell — sacked in Indy after a miserable season — will be Baltimore’s QB coach next year, and Brad Childress found a new home with Pat Shurmur and the Browns.

But the more you look at the new crop of alsos, to try to decipher the rationale behind this year’s group of recycled coaches, you have to go back to The Graduate, don’t you? To the scene where Benjamin tells Mr. Robinson that he and his daughter Elaine are going to be married, but that Elaine doesn’t know about it yet?

“Ben, this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked,” Elaine’s dad says.

“Oh, it’s not,” Ben replies. “It’s completely baked.”

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Zambia Beats Ivory Coast in Africa Cup of Nations Final

By: timbersfan, 12:51 PM GMT on February 15, 2012

Do you believe in miracles? No, me neither. But sometimes sports gets awfully close to changing my mind. Let me tell you about the Chipolopolo, Zambia's national football team, which just won the country's first-ever Africa Cup of Nations tournament on Sunday.

Zambia beat Ivory Coast on penalties, 8-7. This was an Ivory Coast side that has been called that nation's golden generation. It featured a lineup studded with stars who ply their trade in Europe's biggest leagues, including names such as Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou of Chelsea, Arsenal's Gervinho, Newcastle's Cheick Tiote and Manchester City's Kolo and Yaya Toure. Zambia didn't have any big-named players like that. However, after Sunday's final, you wondered whether something even bigger was possibly on their side.

In 1993, Zambia's national team boarded a flight from Gabon to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal. The plane crashed, killing 30 passengers, including 18 Zambian football players. Nineteen years later, Zambia returned to Gabon for the Africa Cup of Nations final, and they are leaving as continental champions.

It was an admittedly cautious game. Despite their wealth of attacking talent, Ivory Coast played fairly conservatively, which suited Zambia just fine. But whatever the match lacked in entertainment value during regular time it more than made up for when the result was decided with penalty kicks.

After the first 14 kicks were converted, Ivory Coach manager Francois Zahoui asked Gervinho to take a kick. The Arsenal winger refused and Kolo Toure stepped in, only to have his shot saved by Zambia's keeper, Kennedy Mweene. Chipolopolo defender Stophira Sunzu scored a few attempts later, winning the cup for Zambia.

One player who was not on that tragic 1993 flight was Kalusha Bwalya, then the captain of the national team. Widely regarded as Zambia's greatest-ever footballer, Bwalya was playing for the Dutch side, PSV, at the time, and was making his own way to Senegal. In the aftermath of the crash, he helped rebuild the national side, both as a player and as the current president of their football association. When Sunzu scored the tournament-winning goal the team went to celebrate with Bwalya. Gabon had once been the sight of Zambia's greatest football tragedies. Now it was hosting its greatest triumph.

After the match, Zambia manager Herve Renard said, "I told them if we got to the final we would play in Gabon where the plane crashed. There was a special significance in that. They found the strength. I don't know where."

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The Philadelphia 76ers and the NBA's Middle-Class Dream

By: timbersfan, 12:42 PM GMT on February 15, 2012

During the NBA lockout, the narrative unspooled by the vipers on the ownership side was that the league was in danger of being cleaved into two types of franchises. A small number were big-market teams in glittering, spired metropolises that collected superstars with the craven lust of billionaires taking trophy wives. The rest were clubs in backwater cow towns that collectively acted as a de facto farm system, nourishing ungrateful talent that fled to places with sunny weather and Fashion Weeks. It was heartbreaking enough to make Sweet Baby Gilbert cry.

But as we have seen in Miami, New York, and Los Angeles, a clusterfuck of superstars does not necessarily guarantee dominance. With the current salary cap, locking down three players with princely contracts means the rest of the roster will be fleshed out with unproven youngsters, waiver-wire offal, and veterans with one chipped hoof in the glue factory.

Maybe somewhere, though, between the Parnassian peaks where the haves frolic and the swamps where have-nots lurk, a third path exists. Yes, the NBA’s middle-class dream is alive in Philadelphia.


Despite a roster devoid of household names or blossoming young stars, the Sixers are 20-9. Resting atop the Atlantic Division, they own a four-game lead over the Celtics and are six and a half games ahead of the resurgent Knicks. Philly’s winning percentage is behind only those of Oklahoma City, Chicago, and Miami. No one is comfortable saying or really believing it, but the Sixers are one of the best teams in the NBA.

Just a few weeks ago, this team was dismissed as the beneficiary of a schedule that was less challenging than the syllabus at Waka Flocka Flame’s Geometry Camp. It was true. Over the first month of the season, Philly exploited the league’s underclass with the pitiless glee of a Rent-A-Center peddling plasma TVs in the South Bronx. They obliterated Washington three times, by an average of 21 points. They sacked Detroit twice, by an average of 22 points. Golden State was annihilated by 28. Sacramento by 27. In mid-January, they were dismantling opponents by an average of 14 points.

Critics pointed to several of the Sixers’ early-season losses as evidence that they were fat-bellied bottom feeders who couldn’t beat quality opponents. Fair. They lost by four to Portland. They lost in overtime to Denver. Over the weekend, they lost a nail-biter when Chris Paul’s fadeaway in the closing seconds eked out a Clippers win.

Starting in late January, the Sixers made the skeptics swallow their words. In a little over a week, they beat the Magic, Bulls, Hawks, and Lakers. Their only loss was a torching by the Heat. At this point, Philly has shown that they can play with everyone else.

In this compacted season, the Sixers have some advantages. First, they’re young. The faces of the team are Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, but they’re basically the only contributors who can rent a car without getting stung by under-25 liability fees. The Sixers’ collective hummingbird metabolism ensured they didn’t pack on a girdle of blubber during an offseason of inactivity.

Unlike teams who are baffled by trying to shove Carmelo-shaped objects into unselfish holes, Philly has plugged along with essentially the same group for several seasons. And its players have defined roles. Iguodala is a distributor. Lou Williams is a scorer. Jodie Meeks shoots. Lavoy Allen brings the ruckus.

Philadelphia is also deeper than the mind of Minolta. Williams, the team’s leading scorer, comes off the bench. This year, he has played better than Monta Ellis, whom basketball minds regard as a star. Per 36 minutes, they average almost exactly the same raw numbers: 22 points, three rebounds, and five assists. But Williams turns the ball over less, shoots better from 3-point range, has better offensive and defensive ratings, and has racked up much higher win-shares per 48 minutes. Thaddeus Young, a polished tweener forward, comes off the pine too. And so does Evan Turner.

The impact of young legs, identifiable roles, and a bunch more young legs has been profound. Spurred on by relentless motivator Doug Collins, the Sixers throttle opponents on defense. They have collegiate scrappiness, and Philly’s fast, undersized defense is more obnoxious than frightening. They sling themselves to the floor chasing every loose ball. They prod at every rebound. They even spring an occasional full-court press. When the Sixers trounced the Bulls in early February, it was easy to understand why the Chicago players wilted in the third quarter. “There is a lot of energy on that team,” Derrick Rose said, after the light drained from his team’s eyes. “They were hungry and wanted to prove a point.”

The Sixers’ transition from a team constructed around the singular, glowing talent of Allen Iverson to one composed of altruistic choirboys has not been pretty. Back in 2006, when the Sixers traded The Answer to the Denver Nuggets for a stinking bucket of fish guts, it allegedly marked the beginning of a rebuilding era.

Instead of curling into a fetal position and absorbing kicks until the NBA’s welfare system provided relief through the draft, the organization was quixotically dedicated to striving for mediocrity. It declined to trade Andre Miller, allowed Joe Smith to audition for free agency with substantial late-season minutes, and finished with a meaningless 16-9 spurt to ensure its collection of balls in the lottery dwindled. The following season, they scrambled to a 40-42 record and an 8-seed in the playoffs — a berth more indicative of neutral buoyancy than bubbling potential. Still, this faint aroma of success encouraged the signing of Brand, who became a cap-feasting albatross after playing only 29 injury-plagued games in 2008-09.

By refusing to ever punch the reset button, Philly missed out on Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, or any other young player that could alter the future as magnificently as a hot-tub time machine. When fate finally smiled upon the Sixers, handing them the second overall pick in 2010, they selected Turner, who just recently swapped his “bust” dunce cap for a “solid contributor” newsboy chapeau.

Even without any transcendent talent, the Sixers have amassed a ransom of complementary pieces that allows them to defeat less-cohesive teams. They didn’t dump quality personnel to free up cap space. They haven’t signed overpriced veterans. And they’ve done a slick job of drafting extremely young players and locking them down with reasonable deals before they hit their prime. Philly is suddenly a model for off-brand success — it’s impossible to tell if it can be duplicated, or if they’ve stumbled upon this formula by dumb luck. Shit, a cynic would still suggest that they figure out a way to trade half their roster for Dwight Howard.

The team’s rise is especially redemptive for Iguodala, who has been the subject of trade rumors since the ink dried on his six-year, $80 million deal in 2008. There were good reasons for jettisoning the team’s best player: He was overpaid, Brand’s immovable contract necessitated finding flexibility elsewhere, and the Sixers amassed a logjam of talent at the swingman position. But most of all, he wasn’t the type of player the organization hoped he was.

But, like the all the current Sixers, Iguodala is now being used correctly. He’s no longer the team’s first scoring option. In fact, he’s closer to its third. That’s OK. Someone else can take the final shot. Let Iggy be a plowshare instead of an ill-formed sword. In the Sixers’ win over Atlanta last week, Iguodala went 3-for-15 from the field and scored nine points. But he chipped in 10 assists and eight rebounds while limiting Joe Johnson to 16 points. A few days ago, Iguodala was named to the All-Star team for the first time.

For Iguodala and the Sixers, a surprising season keeps getting better.

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Person of Interest: Jeremy Lin

By: timbersfan, 12:39 PM GMT on February 15, 2012

I didn't want to do this. The last thing you want as a minority sportswriter is to be known as the guy who only writes about your specific brand of minority athlete. Short track speed skaters and midfielders for Manchester United have coasted right by me without garnering so much as a Facebook share. But back in January of 2010, I did find myself writing about Jeremy Lin, then a senior at Harvard.

What I was trying to describe was the very strange, specific, and rare pride one feels when watching one of their own succeed in a forbidden field. Basketball, more than any other professional sport, is an exhibition of the human body and therefore lends itself to heavy racial codification. The experience of seeing an Asian American body within that arena chased away all the standard emasculating stereotypes, at least for a while. Yes, Yao and his cohort of gawky, jump-shooting countrymen had already played in the NBA. But they didn't count. For this particular revenge fantasy, our hero needed to be able to understand every single racist thing said to him on the court and respond by dropping 30.

All that is still relevant, but the dimensions of Linsanity 2012 have expanded. It's not only about Asian Americans, Jesus, or postmodern think pieces about identity. (GLORY HALLELUJAH!) Yes, he will be claimed by all sorts of groups and converted into every imaginable symbol. But because Linsanity happened in New York, a city that collectively rolls its eyes at every overwrought racial or faith-based metaphor, his remarkable ascent has been processed through New York's peculiar, impassioned take on basketball.

And because I couldn't really ignore it much longer, I took the red-eye to New York to go see Linsanity for myself.

At shootaround about an hour before tip-off on Friday, Jeremy Lin worked on his 18-foot jumper. A small crowd of media people stood on the baseline to watch him work. The legend of Jeremy Lin says that his father, an engineer who had picked up the love of basketball in Taiwan, taught his three sons how to emulate Larry Bird's shooting motion. But if that's true, the lesson didn't quite take. When Lin shoots, the ball hitches at his shoulder and he kind of slumps over to his right. Every player in the league has a different approach to shootaround — Kevin Durant almost treats it like Mark McGwire treated batting practice and puts on a show. Lin, clearly frustrated with himself, went through his routine with a grim frown on his face and quickly jogged off to the locker room before any of the media could catch up with him.

At half court, Charles Smith, Anthony Mason, and Larry Johnson watched the newest member of the Knicks family go through his preparations. Rembert Browne, who accompanied me to the game, asked if the '96 Eastern Conference playoffs had just broken out at the Garden. I, too, felt a bit confused. The generation of Knicks fans who fill the luxury boxes and corporate seats at Madison Square Garden grew up with a very specific brand of basketball. They love nothing more than being haunted by the ghosts of playoff losses past. A style of play and a specific type of player has become emblematic, not only of the franchise, but also of the character of the city. Those Ewing teams created an expectation for their young fans. Unless you're old enough to remember Clyde/Willis/Bradley and the "city game," the prototypical Knick player is tough, can't really shoot, plays defense, and goes hard to the rim.

The sight of those old Knicks cast a reminder on the current version of the team. These Knicks have been absolutely awful. The Amar'e Stoudemire fashion show has been put to rest, the "let's give them time to figure out how to play together" honeymoon has ended, and the team now faces some very ugly truths. The first: They have a coach whose style of play is diametrically opposed to the gritty essence of New York Knick basketball. This would be fine if they were winning. They're not. The second: They are paying close to $37 million to STAT and Melo. The third: The salary cap will probably continue to shrink. The fourth: They went into the season with Toney Douglas as their answer at point guard. The fifth: Baron Davis just asked for a release to go star in The Nutty Professor 4: Pumpin' Klump.

Before Lin came around, the Grantland staff had discussed making the Knicks a staple of our running "A Fate Worse Than Death" series, in which various writers force themselves to sit through the worst games League Pass has to offer. The Bobcats and the Wizards were certainly worse, but no one team sucked the joy out of the room faster than the Knicks. How a team with Melo and STAT became the worst watch in the league is absolutely beyond me, as is the even weirder fact that a team that starts Jared Jeffries, Bill Walker, and Landry Fields has suddenly become the hottest ticket in town.

Even on Friday, just three games in, it already felt as if Linsanity had been going on all season. I suppose print has its own specific timeline, so if thousands of tweets, shares, blog posts, columns, and think pieces all get produced within the span of a week, that week can feel like a month. But the newness of Linsanity could be felt all over Madison Square Garden as the team scrambles to find ways to monetize the phenomenon. There were no official Jeremy Lin jerseys for sale. At a kiosk just above the entrance to Penn Station, a vendor was selling cheap nylon knockoffs. Inside, a rack of blue Jeremy Lin T-shirt jerseys sold out before the end of the first quarter. A sign outside the team store offered fans the chance to preorder custom Linsanity wear. An abnormally high number of Asian dudes were in the media workroom, including a cameraman who broke press-box code by wearing a blue no. 17 jersey. A security guard who had worked at the Garden for years said he had never seen as many Asian people at a basketball game before.

Yes, it's only been five games, but Linsanity should have some staying power over the course of what has been a particularly unwatchable regular season. The Knicks will sell out arenas on the road. Lin, himself, will sell thousands of jerseys, both here and in Taiwan. At some point, Nike will probably put him in a commercial. He's already inspired hundreds of nicknames and a revolution on Twitter.1

So why did it take this long to happen? And why didn't it take off in Golden State, the team that initially signed the undrafted free agent out of Harvard?

In retrospect, the pressure might have been too much for Lin to handle. He played at a small high school in Silicon Valley. He spent most of his college career torching Brown, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Yale. His great moments — the dunks against UConn, the infamous John Wall footage — far outpaced his actual basketball ability. Lin's signing was one of the first moves made by the Warriors' new ownership group. The rationale made sense: Bring back the hometown kid and put him in front of the most Asian crowd in the NBA. The marketing that followed Lin's arrival at Oracle felt predictable, and frankly, a bit disappointing. He was featured during Asian American appreciation night. Any sportswriter with Asian roots was summoned to Oracle for a series of press conferences. (At the time, I had published exactly two pieces for a blog that no longer exists. Even I got a credential for Asian American Jeremy Lin night.) Lin has said he just wants to be known as a basketball player. Maybe the Warriors should have presented him as one.

It's also a mistake to think that athletes of an anomalous race can only succeed in cities where their "peoples" are well represented. Seattle has a large Japanese population, sure, but Ichiro would have been a superstar in nearly any ballpark in America. And unless the player can sustain his excellence over a long period of time, the novelty wears off quickly, especially for those fans who might start getting a bit embarrassed by the anomaly's level of play.

On the basketball front, he never seemed comfortable within Keith Smart's run-and-gun offense. Lin's strengths, detailed below, come in the half court, where he can use a variety of moves to get into the lane. It's tough to do that on a team with Monta Ellis and Steph Curry flying up and down the court the entire game.

So, why, exactly, has it worked out with the Knicks?

Quick answer: He can get to the hoop. Lin has been most effective in the pick-and-roll, which makes up about half of his possessions. He employs a series of hesitations, crossovers, and spin moves to get into the lane, an old-school style reminiscent of Sam Cassell's early days with the Rockets. Like the young Cassell, Lin uses his size and lateral quickness to shake defenders. Both have the ability to remain composed while driving to the basket. It's this quality, more than the scoring totals, that has contributed to the Knicks' five-game winning streak. Unlike Iman Shumpert, who seems to pre-program whatever he's going to do before he receives the ball (a good quality for a power forward, but a terrible one for a point guard), Lin seems to quickly run through a litany of options every time he touches the ball.

The early comparisons to Steve Nash are ridiculous, sure, and probably have more to do with Mike D'Antoni than with either player. But, like Nash, when Lin dribbles the ball at the top of the key, there's almost a teetering effect, where you don't quite know if the player knows what he's going to do. This is an immensely difficult style of point guard to consistently defend, especially if he can step back and shoot the ball from beyond the arc.

That's where Lin still needs work. He's shooting just 38 percent on his jump shots, which lies somewhere in the 50th percentile of NBA players. If he wants to keep up his run of 20-point games, he will have to start figuring out ways to get easy baskets. The Wizards sagged off of Lin for most of the first half and took away his driving lanes. Lin responded by dominating the ball around the free throw lane and ended the half with eight assists. But there will be nights when Lin will go up against long defenders who can challenge his shot at the rim. In those games, he'll need to augment his driving game with a few open jumpers, or at least a reliable pull-up or teardrop shot in the lane.

It's been suggested that Lin's scoring will regress back to something reasonable. But Lin's never really been anything but a scorer. If we hold him to his record, he has far more in common with Dajuan Wagner than with the young Steve Nash. I'm sure we'd all like to peg the humble Asian kid as unselfish, but Lin can be a bit of a black hole. Some of his most exciting baskets have come on drives that start around half court. In the game against the Lakers, there were a few possessions where Lin looked like he was playing one-on-one with Matt Barnes.

Then there's this very sappy reason for why Linsanity has taken off in New York: Basketball is at its best when five guys who love to play with one another outhustle and outplay a more talented opponent. It's why March Madness still remains a viable institution, despite a gulf of talent separating college ball from the pros. It's why every basketball movie follows the same storyline — some cute cartoons are outmatched by some cartoon aliens. They use teamwork to make the dream work. The Linsanity Knicks run hard, play unselfishly, chest-bump, and play with a swagger that has nothing to do with the other team. They aren't the Ubuntu Celtics — nobody's out there trying to prove that he's tough. All this good energy has spilled over to the defensive end of the floor. Tyson Chandler has been among the league's five best defensive players for years now, but on Friday night, he held Andrew Bynum to three points without once calling for a double-team. Kobe finally got around to torching Landry Fields late in the third quarter and carried it over to the fourth, but that wasn't because Fields wasn't playing hard. Sometimes, Kobe just torches you and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it but try to make the next possession harder. And there's Lin, who busts his ass on D and disrupts passing lanes with his quick hands. Over the four-game win streak, the Knicks have given up six points less per game than they had before. What was once a team built around two prolific scorers has become the league's scrappiest team, with Lin, Jeffries, Fields, Chandler, Walker, and Steve "the Novakalypse" Novak leading the way.

Lakers at Knicks

Rembert and I do not sit on press row. There's no way I'm not yelling my ass off during this game and I don't need to get frowned at by Peter Vecsey. Unfortunately, a family with two young kids is sitting in front of us. The crowd at the Garden doesn't look particularly more Asian or less Asian. But they are pumped for the game. Justin Tuck, Hakeem Nicks, and the Rock are in attendance. Spike Lee, of course, is at his usual courtside seat.

FIRST QUARTER

7: 35 — Linsanity! Lin has a direct hand in the first 15 points of the game, with nine points and three assists. The Yellow Mamba nickname, while somewhat offensive (eh, not really), kind of works. When he's feeling himself, Lin possesses some of Kobe's aggression. Like a young Kobe, he's got about six different dribble moves. The difference, of course, is that young Kobe could string all six of those moves together into one uber-move while Lin, like all of us mere mortals, has to settle for one move at a time. The Lakers, who lost won an overtime game against the Celtics the night before, look absolutely exhausted.

5:25 — Lin has his first black hole moment when he can't quite shake Derek Fisher. On this possession, Fisher set up on Lin's right and dared him to cross over back left. Lin stubbornly spun to his right, trying to get an angle to the basket. So here's a dirty little secret: Lin can't go left. When he gets trapped going right, he tends to spin and then go right again. This is pretty cute, but he'll need to either figure out how to shoot a mid-range jumper or finish on the left side of the rim.

3:45 — The first non-Lin basket of the game! The Knicks lead 19-8. The Knicks fans start chanting Jer-e-my, Jer-e-my.

2:31 — Mike Bibby comes into the game for Lin. The crowd groans. This is like swapping out a GT-R for an '88 Pontiac LeMans with a fucked-up door and a few mysterious stains in the backseat.

SECOND QUARTER

5:37 — Lin throws the ball away on consecutive possessions. The first on a failed lob to Chandler, the second on a wild behind-the-head pass back to the perimeter. Spike Lee jumps up from his courtside seats and implores Lin to calm the hell down.

2:57 — Lin shows a real flash of competitiveness. After Fisher scores on a step-back jumper, Lin goes straight at him, backs him down, and buries a difficult (and probably ill-advised) fadeaway jump shot. On the next Knicks possession, Lin crosses over Fisher, spins past him, and scores at the rim. Spike does the "We're Not Worthy" during the ensuing timeout.

For what it's worth, that's my favorite part of Lin's game. He's fiery. Back in college, whenever someone in the stands or on the court said something racist to him, he'd use that as motivation to play better. I'm sure he heard Kobe's dismissive remarks about Linsanity prior to the game and made sure to put on a show.

THIRD QUARTER

9:24 — Lin goes to the line. The MVP chants start up. The crowd's a bit drunker now and the energy in the stands has been outstanding. You can literally feel the collective joy of 19,000 people who have been waiting all season for a reason to cheer on this team.

2:26 — Kobe buries a turnaround jumper to get to 16. I ask Rembert how many points Kobe will score over the next 14 minutes of game time. He says 24. Kobe, of course, hits his next three shots. The crowd grumbles a bit, but good lord, what can you say when Kobe starts hitting a bunch of impossible shots? You're just lucky you were in the building to see it happen, I guess.

1:26 — Lin hit two free throws to get to 27 points. Maybe it's all the time I've spent watching Kobe this year, but Lin's 27 are almost a quiet 27. He's just very consistently gotten to the rim and knocked down a couple jumpers. Kobe, in the meantime, is lighting up poor Landry Fields. I wish I had Spike's seats right now so I could offer up some words of solace.

FOURTH QUARTER

10:42 — Kobe drags the Lakers back into the game. This is the one game this season where I've really felt like Pau and Bynum were dragging ass and Kobe really had to shoot 25-30 times. The kid sitting next to us can barely talk because he's so stunned at Kobe's display. After I wrote a column on Kobe, I got a lot of e-mails and tweets from Lakers fans that accused me of being a Kobe hater. Quite the opposite! I love watching Kobe Bryant play. How could you not?

5:35 — That was just the best six minutes of the regular season, to date. Lin and Bryant trade buckets. I can't believe I just typed that. Jeremy Lin and Kobe Bryant going head-to-head is the best six minutes of an NBA season? As Lin gets to 34, I get a bit choked up. Never seen a crowd at a regular-season game with this much joyous intensity. If only Vic the Brick Jacobs were here ...

2:29 — Kobe's heroic act falls a bit short, but he's not leaving the battle of the differently colored Mambas without getting his. Lin stalls out at 38 points and then misses a jumper that would have gotten him to 40.

After the game, Lin answered questions from the assembled media. There's an earnestness in the way he deals with reporters that's endearing — you can tell he's still trying to figure out which clichés to drop. A Chinese reporter asked about his relationship with Yao Ming, to which Lin responded, "I talk to Yao after every game. He's taking me out to eat every time we're in the same city. He's a role model and mentor to me." At first, I thought Lin was kidding. Why the hell would Jeremy Lin talk to Yao after every game?

It has become standard issue for successful Asian Americans to just sort of avoid talking about race. This, I guess, makes sense along the spectrum of assimilation, but it's an inherently elitist stance that plays a bit too coy, especially in a country that has largely decided to turn a blind eye toward racism against Asian Americans. I have no doubt, given his comments in the past, that Lin thinks about his peculiar role in America's blackest network TV show. But for now, he and the Knicks have not said much about anything, really. In preparing for this story, I spent the better part of three days trying to pin down Jeremy Lin or his family. I, and the rest of the sportswriting world, got shut out, including a young reporter at a major magazine who knew Jeremy from Harvard, had written about him in the past, AND had offered to tutor a Knicks official's kids in exchange for 20 minutes of alone time. And maybe, for now, that's for the better. Because no matter how perfectly he fits into a sports-talk discussion or a talking-heads show, Jeremy Lin won't mean anything to anyone if he stops playing well.

In the tunnels outside the Lakers locker room, Ron Harper and Charles Smith chatted up Metta World Peace. Seeing those three together reminded me of the last reason why New York is the perfect place for the Jeremy Lin show. Traditionally, the New York City point guard dribbles too much, can't go left, can't shoot, finishes at the rim after contact, plays with an edge, and, perhaps most important, came out of obscurity to be the city's underdog hero. How else would you describe Jeremy Lin?

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The Reducer: Week 25, Your Hand in Mine

By: timbersfan, 12:37 PM GMT on February 15, 2012

Game of the Week: Manchester United 2, Liverpool 1

In England, there is the idea of the "Big Club." There's no algebraic equation that determines whether a club is "big" or not, but if there were it would read something like years in existence + number of trophies x stadium capacity + worldwide following . And going by that equation, or just simply the eye test, you would be right in saying that the two biggest clubs in English football history, Liverpool and Manchester United, played one another on Saturday.



United and Liverpool exude an aura of importance and permanence. Even when the results are not going their way, they manage to maintain their stature. It's that aura that attracts new players to their locker rooms and new fans to their gates. But no matter how fixed clubs want their positions in the world of football, and in the hearts and minds of their supporters, they are still ultimately judged by the actions of those who represent them.

On Saturday, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez made his club look small.

Suarez is very much the kind of player that makes supporters of whatever team he is playing for (formerly Ajax, now Liverpool and the Uruguay national side) say, "He might be a bastard, but he's our bastard." To see him feigning injury, diving, biting, fouling, and then pleading innocence to the referee or, most infamously, blocking an opponent's shot on goal with his hand during a World Cup match, is to see a master of all the little things that can change the course of a match. These are the dark arts of football, and Suarez is a magician.

He also has magic at his feet. While injuries and exhaustion have limited his effectiveness for Liverpool this year, he is still one of the Premier League's most dangerous attacking players. His season came to an abrupt halt in late December when the English FA banned him for eight games after he was found guilty of racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra during a match in October.

After the October match, when the accusations first started flying, and throughout both his public trial via the world football media and official FA-conducted investigation (if you don't have time to read that one, here's a shorter version), Liverpool unequivocally, some would say even blindly, stood by Suarez. Even after he was banned, his teammates wore T-shirts emblazoned with his image, out of support for the player. Throughout the ordeal, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish ardently defended his player, maintaining that the issue was one of a cultural misunderstanding rather than of racial abuse.

After serving his ban, Suarez returned to action last week against Tottenham. Moments after entering the game, he kicked Scott Parker in the stomach, seemingly unintentionally, though some would argue otherwise. He also gave Liverpool another dimension to their play, darting across wings, trying to get behind the Tottenham back line. All at once, we saw both the good and bad sides of the man and his magic.

Saturday we saw the worst side. Liverpool was playing United in the first league clash between the two since the October match when the Suarez-Evra incident occured. The ceremonial pre-match handshake, which involves smiling for cameras and players paired with children, was the subject of much debate beforehand. Would Suarez shake Evra's hand? Would Evra offer his? Would a line be drawn under this regrettable incident?

Ferguson insisted his player would shake Suarez's hand. Dalglish claimed Suarez would shake Evra's. But when the moment came, Suarez appeared to skip by Evra on the line, enraging the Frenchman as well as his United teammate, Rio Ferdinand.

I can remember the details of the match about as well as I can remember the motivations of characters in The Hurt Locker. It hardly seemed to matter. Your attention was focused on the ticking bomb, not the people around it. Even though, on the whole, I've seen nastier Manchester United-Liverpool matches, few felt this tense. At halftime Suarez booted the ball toward the United bench, and while United keeper David de Gea was walking into the locker rooms, someone allegedly spat on him. It was a nasty and edgy game that United won, 2-1, Wayne Rooney scoring both for the Red Devils and Suarez netting Liverpool's only goal.

Immediately following the final whistle, Evra began an extended victory lap celebration. Then, in talking to the media afterward, Ferguson launched into a scathing attack on Suarez and Liverpool, saying, "For a club with their history, I'd get rid of him, I really would. He is a disgrace to Liverpool Football Club. That player should not be allowed to play for Liverpool again. The history that club has got … and he does that today. It could have caused a riot."

Initially, Dalglish stood by his player, practically incinerating a reporter who asked what he thought of Suarez avoiding the handshake, "'I'll have to take your word for it, I wasn't there. Ask him, take it from him … I think you're very severe and bang out of order to blame Luis Suarez for anything that happened here today. Both sets of fans behaved really well, there was banter between each other, no problem."

A day later, Dalglish's defiance would seem embarrassingly misguided. By Sunday, the club's managing director, Ian Ayre, made a statement that was almost as strongly worded as Ferguson's: "We are extremely disappointed Luis Suarez did not shake hands with Patrice Evra before yesterday's game. The player had told us beforehand that he would, but then chose not to do so. He was wrong to mislead us and wrong not to offer his hand to Patrice Evra. He has not only let himself down, but also Kenny Dalglish, his teammates and the club."

If you look around, you will still see some shouting out in defense of Suarez, claiming that Evra moved his hand. Some have suggested that Dalglish and and the team would still be standing behind his player were it not for the influence of Liverpool owners John Henry and Tom Werner, or Liverpool club sponsors Standard Chartered. It's the money; it's a conspiracy; it's the media; it's Ferguson.

No. It's on Suarez. When I first became acquainted with Liverpool (and for the sake of transparency, when I first became a fan), I was overcome with how romantic the club was. Its history was full of triumphs and tragedy. It seemed to have a familial air to it, with the fans in the famous Kop End of Anfield singing, "You'll Never Walk Alone." You don't have to be a Liverpool supporter to understand this romance. You only need to watch the below video, of A.C. Milan fans singing the Liverpool anthem, just days following the Hillsborough disaster, to understand the affection, empathy, and admiration this club engenders.


Like Barcelona, Liverpool seemed like more than a club to me. It was an idea about what a sporting institution could mean to a local and global community of fans.

When Suarez failed to grasp Evra's hand, he failed to grasp what Liverpool means to people. To shake Evra's hand would not have been a capitulation to Ferguson, to anti-Liverpool media bias, or anyone or anything else; it would have a been a statement that said, "What's done is done." It was simply the right thing to do.

Suarez failed to honor Kenny Dalglish, a man who helped lead the club out of the dark days following Hillsborough, who has been the beating heart of the club's revival since Henry and Werner took over. And in that he failed to honor Liverpool itself. Often, as a player, Suarez behaves like a child, and he's rewarded for it — with goals, with free kicks, with psychological advantages over his opponents. On Saturday, he needed to be a grown-up. He needed to repay the faith his manager, his teammates, and his club's fans had put in him. He failed to do that. He looked small. And he brought Liverpool down to his level.

Step Overs

There was, believe it or not, plenty to praise and be excited about over this past weekend. Let's take a quick run through the biggest results:

Tottenham 5, Newcastle 0



As goal after Spurs goal went sailing past Newcastle keeper Tim Krul, Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp became more and more visibly elated. This could have been because he was high on inhaling that freezing North London air, scented with the distinctive smell of "freedom." Or it could have been that with every brilliant passing movement, with every elaborately constructed goal, the price the English FA will have to pay to get Redknapp to manage the national team in the summer's Euro 2012 tournament went up just a little bit.

If the latter is true, I hope Newcastle boss Alan Pardew is getting a percentage of the profits. He set Newcastle up to play a suicidal, high defensive line, which Emmanuel Adebayor, Gareth Bale, and new Spurs signing Louis Saha dismantled with their physicality and speed.

Arsenal 2, Sunderland 1



In a weekend where the lustre came off some legends, it was nice to see one player have a fairy tale ending. Thierry Henry scored the second game-winner of his second (and likely final) stint at Arsenal, nudging in a fantastic Andrei Arshavin cross. I can't decide which of Henry's accomplishments is more impressive: Somehow getting Arsenal into fourth place or somehow making Arshavin look like a decent player again.

Norwich 3, Swansea 2



This was secretly the best match of the weekend. Week after week, the Canaries and the Swans prove that they belong in the Premier League, and on Saturday they played an excellent game. Special mention should go out to Swansea's Danny Graham and Norwich's Grant Holt. Both are new to the Premier League after spending time in England's lower division. Players like this were not so rare in the years before the Premier League. These days it's more common for promising players to be snatched up by bigger clubs in their teenage years, but Graham, 26, and Holt, 30, both have worked hard, scored goals, and bided their time in the lower leagues. It's hard to have Cinderella stories in a league so dominated by cash flow, but Graham and Holt and their respective sides have been just that.

Fulham 2, Stoke 1



The Clint Administration! I really need to just push everything off of this column's proverbial desk and write a prose poem about how incredibly well Clint Dempsey is playing this season. One of the announcers tried to say Dempsey's goal was a bit lucky because Thomas Sorensen mishandled it. I think Sorensen's just lucky to have a hand at all after that shot. Dempsey himself is rather lucky to still be walking after Wilson Palacios went in with a real two-guns-up tackle.

Goal of the Week: Jamie Mackie, QPR



Mackie is another guy who rose through the leagues. He's also lucky to still be playing the sport after suffering one of the more horrific leg breaks that you will ever not want to Google at all, especially not after you've eaten.

Quote of the Week: Roy Hodgson

On Wolves boss Mick McCarthy, following his West Brom side's beatdown of McCarthy's team: "I think he's done an excellent job and continues to do an excellent job. I'm always saddened that those jobs don't always get recognized. On the other hand I don't want to appear naive. I know it's part of the game nowadays and it doesn't matter whether you're God Almighty or Mick McCarthy, people are going to think there's people out there who can do it better."

McCarthy was fired on Sunday.

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NBA Rookie Rankings VI

By: timbersfan, 12:36 PM GMT on February 15, 2012

Outside of Ricky Rubio and Kyrie Irving, this year's draft class could be remembered for how many quality big men it introduced to the NBA. More than half of the players ranked this week are centers or power forwards. So why are the big boys suddenly surging? Rookie big men have longer NBA learning curves. They must adjust to the speed of the pro game, the sophistication of its coaching schemes, and the grinding physicality of playing down low. More often, guards can just go out and play. Thirty games into the season, the bigs are starting to figure things out. And with top rookie Kyrie Irving missing games last week with a concussion, we have a new no. 1, at least until Irving returns.

1. Ricky Rubio

Rubio is struggling with his shot right now, but his scoring hasn't suffered too much because he finishes well at the rim. Rubio shoots 53 percent around the basket in non-post-up situations, according to Synergy Sports. He's able to convert these shots because he uses his body to create space and protect the ball when he goes to the basket. Let's look at three shot attempts from the past week.


COURTESY OF SEBASTIAN PRUITI

COURTESY OF SEBASTIAN PRUITI

COURTESY OF SEBASTIAN PRUITI
In the first image, Rubio drives baseline for a layup. Instead of going up with his shoulders perpendicular to the backboard, Rubio squares up, gets his shoulders even with the backboard, and drops it in. This means that if a defender wants to block Rubio's shot, he's going to have to go through Rubio's body and commit a foul. In the second image, Rubio drives the lane as Tyson Chandler rotates over to block the shot. Rubio, however, jumps slightly into Chandler's body, which grounds the shot blocker's momentum and forces Chandler to jump to avoid the foul instead of jumping at Rubio and the ball. Finally, in the third image, Rubio drives baseline and shoots a reverse layup, putting the rim between himself and his defender and creating enough space to release the shot.



2. Klay Thompson

With Kyrie Irving and MarShon Brooks, two of this season's top three rookies, sidelined with injuries, Thompson has leapt up the rankings. We've already examined Thompson's spot-up shooting, where his 1.434 points per possession put him in the top 2 percent of NBA players. Thompson, however, doesn't just stand on the perimeter and wait to shoot. He's performing well as a mid-aughts Rip Hamilton-like scorer, using screens and moving without the ball to create shots. Thompson is shooting 52.1 percent on shots that come after he uses a screen.



Thompson rarely comes directly off screens. He almost always sets them up with a slight hesitation or a step in the opposite direction. He changes speeds to lull defenders to sleep or get them going in the wrong direction. He sets up screens so well that the Warriors can run the same play multiple times against the same opponent and have it result in open jumpers again and again.

3. Kawhi Leonard

Leonard has played most of his minutes at small forward and a few at power forward. His offensive rebound rate of 8.4 is well above the league average of 5.3, according to Hoopdata.com. On the defensive end, the 6-foot-7 Leonard's size allows him to be a very effective post defender. When players try to post up against Leonard, he holds them to 15.8 percent shooting and allows them to score only 0.458 points per possession. That places Leonard in the 98th percentile of NBA individual post defenders.



When small forwards try to post up Leonard, he does a good job of edging them out of the paint before they catch the ball. Once he's got them there, he's usually too big for them to back down. The result is often Leonard forcing players to shoot quick turnaround jumpers, and outside of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, not too many players have looked good taking those shots.

4. Enes Kanter

Last week, we looked at Kanter's ability to cut and move without the basketball. This week, let's focus on one of his weaknesses: scoring in the post. Kanter puts up 0.627 points per possession when he posts up; that places him in the bottom 17 percent of all NBA players. He shoots just 34.2 percent and commits turnovers 17.6 percent of the time when he gets the ball on the block. Two things stand out about Kanter's post game. First, he gets fantastic deep position. Second, he doesn't know what to do with that position once he gets the ball.



Kanter has no finesse and no go-to move in the post. He just tries to power his way to the rim. That doesn't work against defenders as big and strong as NBA big men, and it leads to turnovers. Kanter either travels, gets called for offensive fouls, or gets the chair pulled on him. Right now defenses are wisely exploiting Kanter's weakness by staying in front of him and just waiting for him to make mistakes.

5. Iman Shumpert

Shumpert has been all over the place in these rankings. He's been in the top three, at the bottom of the list, off the list, and now he's back in the top five. His recent surge is largely thanks to Jeremy Lin's impact on the New York Knicks. Now that Shumpert is playing with a true point guard, the rookie's performance is improving. But it's not really because Lin is getting the ball to Shumpert in positions to score. Instead, teams have been focusing so much on Lin and denying him the basketball that defenses are becoming stretched out, opening driving lanes for Shumpert.


COURTESY OF SEBASTIAN PRUITI

COURTESY OF SEBASTIAN PRUITI
In these images, look where Lin and his defender are on the court. Ricky Rubio, guarding Lin, is in the passing lane, trying to prevent a pass to Lin. That leaves him out of position to help on dribble penetration. This allows Shumpert to use his first step and beat his man to the basket. Shumpert went from playing out of position at point guard, to playing shooting guard alongside bad point guards like Mike Bibby and Toney Douglas, to playing next to Lin, who just had one of the most astounding weeks in recent NBA history. Shumpert no longer has to worry about running an offense. He just has to be aggressive and try to score when an opportunity opens up. That's something Shumpert can do very well.

6. Brandon Knight

Brandon Knight continues to struggle with turnovers. Young point guards are expected to turn the ball over a little too much in half-court situations, but Knight is also giving the ball away in transition. Knight scores one point per possession in transition, which puts him in the bottom third of NBA players, and it's mostly due to turnovers. Knight commits turnovers on 22.4 percent of his transition possessions. Knight still hasn't adjusted to the speed of NBA defenses, even on three-on-two fast-break situations. Eventually, Knight should figure things out, and when he does his statistics and his ranking will rise.

7. Kemba Walker

The Charlotte Bobcats are a terrible team. However, they have one bright spot and one fun player to watch, and his name is Kemba Walker. That said, Walker has struggled all season long to run the pick-and-roll. First, Walker is too loose with the ball. He turns it over on 11.9 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions. More troubling is Walker's tendency to settle for jump shots. When he uses ball screens, Walker takes jumpers 78 percent of the time. Only three players with at least 40 pick-and-roll possessions are taking a higher percentage of jumpers. The problem is that Walker isn't knocking down these shots. He makes 32.9 percent of them. The Bobcats really want Walker to become a pick-and-roll point guard. He runs it on 30.8 percent of his total offensive possessions, and if Walker wants to be more successful he should start attacking the rim.

8. Markieff Morris

We're past the "pleasant surprise" phase of Morris' career. Now the Suns expect him to perform night in and night out. Morris' biggest fault is his inability to score off offensive rebounds. According to Synergy Sports, he shoots 31.3 percent on putbacks. Morris' biggest problem in putback situations is that he doesn't keep the ball high after getting a rebound. Instead, he tends to bring it down. When he does that, it gives bigger defenders time to get in position to bother Morris' shot. Morris is crashing the offensive boards well, but he needs to score after grabbing those rebounds.

9. Derrick Williams

Williams should be higher on this list. He has fantastic athletic ability, he's knocking down spot-up jumpers, he's scoring in isolation situations, and he plays with Ricky Rubio, a point guard who makes the guys around him better. So why is Williams close to the bottom of these rankings? Because he struggles in the pick-and-roll. Williams sets the screen in pick-and-roll plays on about 14 percent of his possessions, but he shoots just 29.6 percent when he rolls to the rim and gets the ball. That number should be much, much higher. The big problem with Williams' pick-and-roll play is that he pops out 63.9 percent of the time in these situations. As I mentioned before, he plays alongside a gifted passer in Rubio. If Williams rolled to the rim more often after setting screens, Rubio would find him for easy baskets, and Williams' numbers would improve.

10. Chandler Parsons

After being on the fringe of these rankings for a long time, Parsons has finally cracked the top 10. He earned his spot thanks to his work on the offensive glass, where he posts a 6.4 offensive rebound rate, according to Hoopdata.com. And, unlike Morris, Parsons converts his offensive boards into points at a high rate. According to Synergy Sports, Parsons scores 1.269 points per possession on putbacks, placing him among the top 20 percent of all NBA players. This ability to turn missed shots into points is a big reason why Parsons is on the court for the Houston Rockets.

The Rest: Ivan Johnson, Nikola Vucevic, Gustavo Ayon

Injured List: Kyrie Irving, MarShon Brooks

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Call it a comeback

By: timbersfan, 12:29 AM GMT on February 09, 2012

As someone who has known the pain of epic second-half collapses (see The 4-4 Nightmare at St. James' Park and my recent back surgery), I almost felt sorry for Chelsea on Sunday. Here they were, decimated by injuries, suspensions and John Terry, up three goals on Manchester United at home and threatening to make Sir Alex Ferguson's head explode. What's not to like?

Oh, right. Their fans. What in the name of weird bearded Russian billionaires were they thinking, jeering Rio Ferdinand's every touch? Was this their subtle way of blaming him for the fact that his brother Anton had the "pleasure" of being racially abused by John Terry? Or were they booing because Rio diabolically took over the captaincy the last time Terry screwed up and then treated the armband with the respect it deserved until it was stripped from him and given back to the Chelsea defender?

Either way, stay classy, Chelsea fans. I'm not saying that you brought your second-half implosion on yourselves, but … you kinda did. No wonder so many supporters slunk away from Stamford Bridge in the final five minutes of United's life-affirming 3-3 draw to get a head start on the postgame prawn sandwiches. After all, they knew no matter how many times they witlessly chanted "There's only one England captain," it couldn't possibly blunt United's ferocious desire and indomitable spirit.

And to think that only 40 minutes earlier, Chelsea had its foot on United's neck and was looking to crush the life out of its title challenge. Not that falling behind Man City by three points would have been necessarily fatal, but there's no denying the psychological boost it would have given their neighbors if United's humiliation at the Bridge continued apace. Yet if there's one thing that is abundantly clear in Sir Alex 's long and imperious reign, it's that you write off his teams at your own peril. Not only did United surge back from the abyss to earn a critical point, it once again reminded Man City that the only way it'll lift the trophy is if it prises it from the grasping, gum-scented talons of a ruddy 70-year-old Scot.

If Roberto Mancini needs advice as to how to handle this relentless pressure, let me suggest that he ignore any friendly phone calls from Kevin Keegan or Rafael Benitez.

This was a game that in their infinite ratings-seeking wisdom, the programming gods decided was safe for the Great Unwashed (i.e., those without cable) to view as a sort of exotic amuse-bouche whetting the appetite ahead of the more carnivorous entertainment of the Super Bowl. (Oh, and where the Blues could have learned a thing or two from Big Blue about how to put away a fierce rival. And yes, I'm "Tucking" as I write this.)

And from an EPL perspective, you could have hardly drawn up a more thrilling, surreal advertisement for the self-proclaimed greatest league in the world: high scoring (six goals, including a Spanish fantastico fashioned by Fernando Torres and Juan Mata, and drilled past a third Iberian, David De Gea); controversy (a couple of dodgy penalty calls); big-time personalities (Wayne Rooney nervelessly slotting away two penalty kicks while sporting the world's first transplanted faux-hawk; Torres delivering the cross of the season but choking in front of goal with a Chelsea victory on his right foot); nostalgia (Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes rolling back their 138 combined years to orchestrate United's fight back in the last 30 minutes); comedy (a Jonny Evans own goal and almost everything de Gea did until stoppage time); last-minute heroics (two stunning, acrobatic saves by de Gea); and, of course, several shameless dives (we're looking at you, Daniel Sturridge, Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck).

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Judging from the number of guys decked out in Giants jerseys jumping up and down at my local watering hole when United equalized, the "game before the game" turned out to be a pretty nifty marketing gambit. Too bad it had to conclude with that most un-American of endings: a draw. Still, if this wasn't a draw that makes draws exciting to the U.S. audience, then that draw doesn't exist.

But who in their right mind would have envisioned the 3-3 denouement after 51 minutes? Even though Stamford Bridge tends to bring out the worst in United -- the Red Devils haven't won there in ten years -- Sir Alex must have liked his chances with Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Terry all missing from Chelsea's lineup (while Jose Bosingwa and Florent Malouda were in it).

And then there was the added benefit of having Howard Webb, England's World Cup final-ruining "premier" referee, clutching the whistle. While referees are known to lack bias, the last person who was this loving to Sir Alex was probably the one who gave birth to him. Thus, you can imagine Fergie's shock and fury when the Webb Master forgot to throw Blues debutant Gary Cahill off the field for his 11th-minute WWE takedown of Welbeck on the edge of the box as the United striker burst in on goal. Never a man to keep his opinions to himself, Sir Alex exploded out of his seat, arms flapping like de Gea coming for a cross, and gave the fourth official a powerful hairdryer blast while threatening, in no uncertain terms, not to renew Webb's contract.

Fergie's tantrum only added to the fractious atmosphere at the Bridge, where Terry sat out with a bad knee and a ruptured ego. The Blues hardly missed his voluble leadership in the first 50 minutes with Michael Essien imposing his muscular authority on the midfield, and Sturridge owning Patrice Evra on the right flank. It was from one of the ex-Man City winger's scorching dribbles that Chelsea scored its first goal. Leaving Evra hopelessly flat-footed in his slipstream, Sturridge dragged a pass back from the byline only for de Gea to stretch out his leg and deflect the ball off Evans' chest and into the goal.

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Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Though his assist for Juan Mata's goal was sublime, Fernando Torres was again wasteful in front of goal when Chelsea needed him most.
Whatever Ferguson said to his men at halftime was hardly the stuff of Lombardi-esque legend, as, within six minutes of the restart, United came out with all the energy of a "Downton Abbey" dinner party. Chelsea was ahead 3-0 and secure in the knowledge that it had never lost a Prem match when three goals to the good.

Game over? Not quite. First Evra surged into the box, looking for a penalty, and was promptly obliged by Sturridge. (Ironically, Sturridge's clumsy foul came moments after Andre Villas-Boas lambasted his striker for not tracking back enough.) Rooney, who has hardly been money from the spot this season (missing against Chelsea at Old Trafford), displayed his granite-like stones by stepping up and crushing the ball into the top corner. Continuing to try to make it up to Sir Alex for his earlier lapse, Webb pointed to the spot after another egregious Welbeck stumble (this time over Branislav Ivanovic's completely stationary foot). Rooney slammed this one into the other corner, making it 3-2 and taking United's gift total to four penalty kicks in its past two games.

In the 77th minute, Torres had a glorious chance to put an end to United's remarkable fight back, but the Spaniard is as much a threat in front of goal as Webb is invisible, and Abramovich's $80 million man continued his streak of not scoring a goal in 4½ months by dithering and dallying until a man in red kindly relieved him of the ball. It's gotten to the point that mocking Torres for his haplessness isn't even fun; it's just Sarah Palin-sad.

But you couldn't blame El Nino for the woefully slack defending that left Javier Hernandez hilariously unmarked in front of Petr Cech's goal for Giggs to find him in the 84th minute for a fierce, equalizing header. That honor goes to Sideshow Luiz, who was apparently too busy picking out the latest nest of birds taking up residence in his bobbing locks to notice the Little Pea ghosting in behind him.

So United's staggering comeback was complete, and while Villas-Boas was too shell-shocked (and possibly panicked about his job security) to comment on the Webb of intrigue that surrounded the result other than to say "Maybe Howard was compensating," my guess is that Roman just added the name "Jose Mourinho" back into his speed-dial.

Who says Arsenal can't score goals?

Maybe it was the sight of Thierry Henry smiling and high-fiving with Robin van Persie as the goals flew in, but for one glorious Saturday morning I time-traveled back to those Invincible days when Arsenal cut teams to pieces with jaw-dropping regularity and I didn't need three beers before 10 a.m. to calm my jangling nerves. Yes, I know it was a 7-1 evisceration of a Blackburn team currently swirling down the Prem drain -- not only carrying the worst defensive record in the league but forced to play the final 50 minutes a man down -- as opposed to a prime-time beatdown of, say, Manchester City. But it was still a much-needed balm for the ravaged soul of my beloved club after a month of listless performances and mutinous protests at the Emirates.

One win in their last six games had dropped the Gunners to seventh place and forced them to contemplate the unthinkable: the absence of Champions League soccer for the first time in 15 years and a possible sad end to the stylishly attacking and debt-free era of Arsene Wenger. But all that was forgotten within 82 seconds when Theo Walcott, one of the most vilified hood ornaments of Arsenal's underachieving season, steered a low, seeing-eye cross through a tangle of Blackburn defenders and onto the he's-not-going-to-miss-from-there foot of van Persie to begin the deluge on poor Paul Robinson.

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Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was electric on the left wing against Blackburn, scoring his first pair of Prem goals in just his fifth EPL appearance.
By the end, both Walcott and van Persie would have hat tricks -- the former with three assists and the latter with three goals -- and the Gunners would exact sweet revenge on a team that arguably handed Arsenal its most embarrassing defeat of the season. It's one thing to get mauled by United 8-2, defending champions and highly pedigreed side of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney, but to be scalped by woeful Rovers at Ewood Park on two slapstick own goals after being spotted a 3-1 halftime cushion was for me the absolute nadir of this maddening campaign.

So when Morten Gamst Pedersen equalized with a sublime top-corner free kick in the 31st minute, I felt my blood chill, and implored Shirley, the bartender at Kinsale Tavern, with the four words she had come to know all too well this season: "I'll have a Stella." It was 8:30 a.m.

But before I could even take a sip, RvP once again proved why he, even more so than David Silva, is the EPL's MVP. Alex Song, given freedom by Mikel Arteta to maraud forward, took out four Blackburn defenders with his perfectly measured through ball to Walcott who once again looked up to see the Dutchman in front of goal. Two-one. From there, it became the Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain Show, or, as I like to call him, "What Theo Walcott Always Promised To Be When He Grew Up."

The 18-year-old winger was starting his fourth straight game in the absence of Gervinho (African Nations Cup) and Andrei Arshavin (Useless) and had impressed with his speed, touch and intelligent movement off the ball. But on Saturday, we learned something else about the former Southampton tyro: Feed the Ox and he will score. Two superb goals -- in which he demonstrated the kind of cool in the box that has eluded Walcott on so many occasions -- earned him a standing ovation from the crowd, and though it's far too early to proclaim him the new Robert Pires, if he can continue to exude the kind of swagger he displayed against Blackburn, then maybe, just maybe, he will take some of the pressure off van Persie to score all the Gunners' goals.

As it is, RvP now has 28 goals from 28 starts in all competitions, with only his unselfishness preventing him from making it 29. With the goal gaping in the final seconds, he magnanimously laid the ball off for Henry, his Highbury mentor, to score the seventh on what may be his last home appearance before he goes back to his glamorous MLS life with the Red Bulls.

As Henry did his post-goal valedictory lap, there was unbounded joy all around the Emirates. The treble is still on, Wenger knows what he's doing, and all is right with the world.

Until next week.

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So Your Team Just Blew the Super Bowl ...

By: timbersfan, 3:40 PM GMT on February 08, 2012

I have to tell you. I've seen better weekends, fan-wise. First, on Saturday, nationally ranked Alma Mater goes down to South Bend and gets shot out of the building by a freshman named Pat Connaughton, who played his high school ball about 15 minutes from this machine, and who was taught in high school by the very same Xaverian Brothers who once threw me into the dog pit with algebra just for laughs.

(Connaughton went to St. John's Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts. I went to St. John's in Shrewsbury. To avoid any, well, clerical errors, the Danvers school was always The Prep.)

(And, just for the record, there is nothing I hate — H-A-T-E — worse than losing to Our Lady of The Plains down there in Indiana. I'll take 12 losses against Wisconsin a year rather than suffer just one to that Papist minstrel show, and I say this as a cradle Papist my own self.)

Then, of course, came the extended exercise in misery yesterday. I knew things were going to go bad when I saw that shot of New England owner Robert Kraft sitting in his owner's box with Rush Limbaugh and the manufactured remains of Steven Tyler. Why Kraft chose on this day of days to surround himself with aging drug addicts remains a mystery. But it didn't bode well, and I knew it.

I am a fan of some teams — the Red Sox, the Celtics — from birth. I picked up some teams — the Patriots, Marquette basketball — as my life weaved its way from field to arena and back again. I am a Montreal Canadiens fan in a very strange land, for reasons that we will explore in a later column. (Short explanation of the foregoing: It's the fault of my late father the hockey coach, and of Jean Beliveau.) I am also a fan of the Sydney Swans down under, thanks to the early days of ESPN, and of Kerry's GAA football club in the ancestral homeland. (And that was a horrible soft call we got against the Dubs late in this year's final.) I am also a fan of some teams that I've met through my work; I will always cheer for the Magazine Rattlers down there in Arkansas.

But there was a hole in my roster of favorites. I needed a soccer team, specifically one in the Premier League in England. I am not as soccerphobic as many of my American colleagues. I once spent 13 scalded days in Qatar, before we turned the place into an aircraft carrier with luxury hotels, watching the Asian zone World Cup qualifier that included Saudi Arabia, Japan, Iran, Iraq, and North and South Korea. Throw out the record books when those traditional rivals tee it up. I also met a guy whose skiffle group in Liverpool once lost a battle of the bands to John Lennon and The Quarrymen, and who was still pissed about it. (He was in Qatar because the ruling emir had hired him as a snooker instructor.) So soccer has been good to me and I bear no grudge against it.

But I have only one soccer team — Albirex in Japan, which plays in Niigata, the town in which my father was a port director during the occupation after World War II. Albirex draws better than most teams in the Japan Football League: over 38,000 fans per game to Tohoku Denryoku Big Swan Stadium. (Tohoku is the local power company, which gives the whole thing a homey touch, if you ignore the fact that the local power company has 7.6 million subscribers.) But that's strictly a family deal, and there is no likelihood that I'll ever see Albirex on my TV. And I don't really care much about the Continental European leagues — Serie A and all the rest — although I occasionally pick up a live game from Mexico on Univision, only out of corporate loyalty for having once been a Univisa employee myself. But, with the Premier League teams, I can both watch them live and understand most of the broadcast, although much of it is spoken in soccer, a language in which my skills are rudimentary.

The problem was that I had no criteria on which to base my choice. I picked up Albirex because my father worked there, and Kerry GAA because my grandparents all came from there, including my beloved grandmother, a former shepherd. But I certainly had no family or ethnic ties to any place in England. (I have relatives who were asked to leave Ireland because of disputes on this very point.) I knew I didn't want any part of Manchester United or Arsenal or any of the real brand names. I needed competitive and plucky. I had no idea where to start, but I knew I had acquaintances who followed their sides with great passion. So, I did what every member of the New Media does these days. I threw the decision up for grabs on my Facebook page.

(Pro tip — do not go to that page today. The calumny thrown toward Notre Dame alone does not put me in a good light at all.)

A spirited discussion broke out. One of my editors, a proud Texan by birth, put up a strong case for Fulham because of Clint Dempsey, their talented striker from Nacogdoches, and he had plenty of support, as did Everton. Another friend appealed to me on ethnic grounds, pointing out that Sunderland is often called Sund-Ireland, because they're known for giving the Fenians a chance to play. There was some support for Aston Villa, which always has intrigued me as a name, since it sounds like a restaurant in the North End that has glass grapes in the lobby and an autographed photo of Al Martino above the cashier's desk. But the color scheme on the uniforms — claret and blue? Honestly — put me off. I was intrigued briefly by Newcastle United because their fans are called either The Magpies or The Toon Army. I wouldn't mind being part of The Toon Army, under the command of Staff Sergeant Yosemite Sam.

However, when it came down to it, I took the advice of my buddy Bateman, newly arrived back in The World from a tour in Afghanistan with the actual Army. He's cruising the Spanish Main right now with the lovely Kate, but, when he gets back to work, he's going to be posted in London. Turns out, he went on the same quest I did, with much the same ground rules. (Bates grew up near Cleveland, which means he's better at seeking out hopeless, plucky underdogs than I'll ever be.) In response, he told me:

"Confronted with the same problem, I did my research among my British peers, all of whom had very deliberate thoughts. Being from Cleveland, I too didn't want an Arsenal or a Manchester team, and wanted something of an underdog with a reputation for doggedness. I got lucky in picking the then 7th place (maybe 9th) Tottenham Hotspurs. (Now 3rd, with a bullet.) They play in London (one of the several teams there) in a small stadium in the NW of the city. I recommend them to you."

Sold.

So that's my new team, Tottenham Hotspur. Cool name, with just enough Shakespearian resonance to it — plucking bright honor from the pale-faced moon and all of that. A proud history of standing up to bigotry (the Spurs have a large Jewish following, which has prompted some anti-Semitic stupidity among the followers of the other clubs). A long and solid history in the game without being obnoxious about it. Plus, the new boss likes them. We now sit in a perfectly respectable third place in the standings — oops, The Table — behind the two Manchesters, and our manager, Harry Redknapp, is in the middle of a tax-evasion trial that includes a serious public row over whether or not he lied to Rupert Murdoch's News of the World a couple years ago.

"I have to tell the police the truth, not Mr. (Rob) Beasley," Redknapp said. "He's a News of the World reporter."

Damn, I thought, this reminds me of the Patriots. It's like coming home. Now, if we can just keep Limbaugh out of the owner's box, we're home-free.

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The Fearless Super Bowl Recap

By: timbersfan, 3:38 PM GMT on February 08, 2012

Eli Manning is all grown up. Sure, he finished his 2011 season on Sunday by winning the Super Bowl and taking home the game's MVP trophy after completing an instant classic of a fourth-quarter drive, just as he did at the end of the 2007 campaign. The differences between the process enlisted by Old Eli and New Eli, though, are stark. The old Eli Manning struggled through an uneven regular season before raising his game to unforeseen heights during a shocking playoff run. The new Eli Manning? He's been playing at an excellent level all year and rose to something even higher during the playoffs. In 2007, while Manning may have been playing the position traditionally associated with leadership, he wasn't anywhere close to the best player on his team. He did not lead his team to a title; he was dragged, kicking and screaming, by a dominant defense. Four years later, Eli Manning stood at the helm and dragged a flagging defense to a second World Championship. This, so much more than 2007, was Eli's title.

The numbers don't lie. In each of his two Super Bowl runs, Manning has followed a four-year stretch with a playoff performance that dramatically improves upon his established level of play. Notably, during his two title runs, Manning has been able to essentially avoid interceptions while becoming a much more accurate quarterback than the guy he had previously been.

A TALE OF TWO ELIS

Year Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Y/A QB Rating
2004-2007 987 1805 54.7% 11385 77 64 6.3 73.4
2007 Playoffs 72 119 60.5% 854 6 1 7.2 95.7
2008-2011 1304 2116 61.6% 16194 108 65 7.7 89.5
2011 Playoffs 106 163 65.0% 1219 9 1 7.5 103.3
Forget about the numbers, though. Consider the excuses that we could come up with when trying to analyze Manning's performance from four years ago, and how few of them actually apply now. The famous "Helmet Catch" from 2008 was one of the most memorable and exciting plays in NFL history, but it was a dangerous throw and a miraculous catch as opposed to some sort of perfectly executed decision. Manning's throw down the sidelines to Mario Manningham also required a brilliant catch, but the play worked because Eli hit Manningham with an even more impressive pass. The Helmet Catch, somewhat infamously, was preceded by a terrible Manning decision that saw him launch a would-be season-ending interception to the sidelines, only for Asante Samuel to let the clinching pick go through his fingertips. There was no such play this time around. The Helmet Catch oozed luck and good fortune. Manning-to-Manningham oozed a different class of skills.

Those Giants were also a different team, something we discussed in the Super Bowl preview. That team was built around running the ball and playing tough defense, two things it did with aplomb. Those Giants averaged 4.6 yards per carry, good for fourth in the league, and had an offensive line that was so good it garnered MVP discussion the following year. It created a play-action passing attack and provided easy reads for its limited quarterback. These Giants averaged a league-low 3.5 yards per pop and looked shambolic at times over the past two weeks. Eli was able to throw the ball in spite of them, not because of them.

The defense from 2007 was above average before raising its game in the playoffs, notably dominating the Patriots on the line of scrimmage and sacking Tom Brady five times. This year's defense was below average by most any metric, including a 25th-place finish in points allowed. To put that into context, Eli Manning just won the Super Bowl with a defense that allowed more points per drive this season than the Rams did. They were able to get pressure on Brady during the final two drives of the fourth quarter, and forced a safety on Brady's first pass attempt, but both the safety and two sacks appeared to be coverage-caused pressure. Either way, most of the crutches Eli might have relied upon to boost his production in 2007 don't seem to stand up very well in 2011.

Eli's big win also started the chatter about his legacy and eventual case for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. That's where we pull the brakes. Winning two Super Bowl MVPs is a remarkable achievement, one pulled off by just four other players. Of those four, three (Joe Montana, Bart Starr, and Terry Bradshaw) are in the Hall of Fame, and the fourth (Tom Brady) will be voted in at the first moment of eligibility. So he's off to a good start. You'll probably hear that Manning has won two Super Bowls before finishing his age 30 season, just as Joe Montana did in San Francisco. That's true. On the other hand, remember how we noted Manning's improvement from 2008 to 2011? Those were his age 27 through age 30 seasons, and over that time frame, he was 13th in the league in cumulative completion percentage, eighth in yards per attempt, and 10th in passer rating. Montana, during those same seasons in his career, was first in completion percentage, third in yards per attempt, and second in passer rating.1 For Manning to take the next leap forward from very good quarterback and playoff hero to elite, surefire Hall of Famer, he has to continue to play at the new level of ability he established during the two Super Bowl runs. If he can do that, even for a few years, there's no way the Hall of Fame will be able to keep Manning out.

That's all gristle for another day, anyway. Right now, it's time for Eli Manning to celebrate a title all his own. He's finally led his team to a Super Bowl victory.

Extremely Lucky? Incredibly Close

Super Bowl XLVI ended up being quite interesting, even if it wasn't always all that pretty. It felt like a game that was constantly teasing to become a classic shootout, always one play-action fake and a long look downfield away from suddenly morphing into a track meet. Both teams attempted to take away the deep pass by sacrificing yards underneath, which turned the game into a chess match of pick plays, sweeps, and passes into the flats for small, consistent gains. Outside of the Manningham catch, the longest play of the game was a 21-yard reception by Chad Ochocinco on a two-man route, one of the rare occasions where the Patriots did go with the play-action and provided Tom Brady with maximum protection. On that play, Brady had eight blockers; most of the time he had five as part of an empty backfield look that was designed to stretch the Giants horizontally and create an open receiver before the pass rush had a chance to get home.

As frustratingly cliched and simplistic as it is, this game came down to two big plays and a smattering of luck. When Wes Welker got open up the seam for a huge play with 4:06 left in the fourth, a catch might have sealed the game for the Patriots. If Welker went on to score a touchdown, the Pats would have led by 10 points with four minutes (and one Giants timeout) to go. Only the Cowboys can blow that kind of lead to the Giants. Even if Welker were tackled and the Patriots stopped, they would have been able to kick a field goal and go up six points with about two minutes to go. Instead, the pass didn't go quite as planned. While Welker was open, Brady had to throw the ball away from the safety in the middle of the field to keep Welker from getting creamed. In attempting to do so, he overthrew the pass and forced Welker to make an awkward turn for the ball. Welker still could have made the catch, but it was far more difficult than it needed to be. The receiver has tried to take responsibility for the play, but it's likely more on Brady than it is on Welker. Welker dropped his game-changing bomb, and when the Giants were backed up on their 12-yard line two plays later, Manningham got free up the left sideline and caught his. Flip the success on those two plays and the Patriots win.

Those plays aren't lucky, of course, but what happened with the game's two fumbles was. Fumbles from Hakeem Nicks and Ahmad Bradshaw bounced dangerously on the Lucas Oil turf, but the Giants were able to get to each ball and fall on it before the Patriots could recover. The Bradshaw fumble would have been particularly devastating, as it would have given the Patriots the ball on the Giants' 11-yard line early in the fourth quarter with the chance to go up two scores. A third Giants fumble was recovered by the Patriots, but came on a play where New England had 12 men on the field, which returned the ball to the Giants and wiped the fumble off the books.

Now, angry Giants fans, let us clarify what "luck" means in this context. The Giants were not lucky to win Super Bowl XLVI because they fumbled twice and fell on both of them. They played a very good football game against a great football team, but it's pretty clear that this game was close enough that either team could have won without the other team feeling like they had something stolen from them. In tight games like this one, the reality is that the difference between winning and losing often comes down to the bounce of a football or some arbitrary fluke of timing, like who gets the ball last in a shootout or (under the old rules) won a coin toss at the beginning of overtime. That doesn't mean that the Giants were lucky to win! It means that the two teams were so close that an act of randomness was important enough to dramatically shift the game in their favor.

If Bradshaw's bouncing fumble was picked up by the Patriots and returned for a touchdown as part of what eventually became a Patriots win, would the Giants be any less talented of a football team? Would they have deserved to win any more or any less? Of course not. There's no shame in getting the breaks. Someone's got to get them, and they're incredibly valuable. The Giants recovered eight of the 10 fumbles that hit the ground during their four playoff games, and had they failed to recover either of the Kyle Williams muffed punts or the Bradshaw fumble on Sunday, they might not have won the Super Bowl.

A third factor, of course, were the effects of Rob Gronkowski's high ankle sprain. After two weeks of talk about how Gronkowski was 100 percent, he was just the latest victim of that dreaded injury, struggling through a game where he was clearly a shell of his normal self. Gronkowski caught just two passes for a total of 26 yards, and according to ESPN Stats and Information, he played a season-low 72.6 percent of Patriots plays. He was the intended receiver on the lone turnover of the game, a bomb where Gronkowski was one-on-one against Giants middle linebacker Chase Blackburn. That would normally be a huge mismatch for the Patriots, but Brady underthrew his pass and Gronkowski wasn't able to make a creditable play on the football in the air, allowing Blackburn to pick off the pass.2 Of course, Gronkowski was also unable to come up with a deflection off of the Hail Mary on the final pass of the game, and while it's not clear that he would have been able to do so with a healthy ankle, it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't have had a better shot at it.

It didn't take an injured Gronkowski, some friendly bounces of the ball, and a win in the biggest two-play exchange of the game to get the Giants to win this Super Bowl. They might have been able to beat a healthy Gronkowski, get past a long completion to Welker, and even survive a lost Bradshaw fumble. They only play each Super Bowl once, though, and in the game that played out on Sunday, those tiny differences qualified as the margin of victory.

Thank You for Not Coaching

In the World Series, two of baseball's worst in-game tacticians engaged in something resembling a comic slapfight of idiocy. Not so in the Super Bowl. Despite the huge stakes and the veteran nature of each coach, both Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick were aggressive in trying to improve their respective teams' chances of winning, even if it meant doing something that most coaches would never consider. In fact, while he'll never admit it, Coughlin may have deliberately broken the rules and been absolutely, positively right to do so.

Let's skip to the fourth quarter and take on the game's three big coaching decisions in chronological order. We'll start with Bill Belichick's decision to throw the red challenge flag out on Mario Manningham's enormous catch for 38 yards with 3:46 left, a play that finished virtually right in front of Belichick on the Patriots' sideline. Neither Belichick nor his video people likely got a chance to review a replay before throwing the challenge flag, which is normally a sign of a terrible challenge, but this was a situation where throwing the flag made total sense. It was a low-risk, high-reward challenge.

Why is that? Well, the reward is obvious: If Manningham happened to step out of bounds, the Patriots wipe the game's biggest play off the books and send the Giants back to their 12-yard line. It's an enormous shift in field position, particularly in a game where big plays had been so hard to find. If you believe in the power of momentum, a replay review would calm down the Giants-friendly crowd and give the Patriots a chance to recover from the shock of the play, even if the challenge ended up unsuccessful. The risk of losing a challenge is basically nil, since the Patriots had two challenges left with just under two minutes of game time to go before they lost them. The risk here is that you lose one of your three timeouts, and as it turned out, the Patriots ended up wishing they had that timeout when they were trying to stop the Giants near the goal line. Had the Patriots been able to stop the Giants short on three consecutive plays after the two-minute warning, they could have held Big Blue to a field goal attempt and still had plenty of time to try a drive for the win with Brady. That's why it's low-risk and not no-risk. Every decision like this in a close game carries a certain amount of risk and reward; a good coach considers risk without being unnecessarily averse to it. Bill Belichick, as you might suspect, is a good coach.

Next, Belichick sullied all that is right about the game of football by allowing the Giants to score on an Ahmad Bradshaw run with 1:04 left in the fourth quarter, giving the Giants a four-point lead while allowing his team to get the ball back in an attempt to drive for the winning touchdown with some reasonable amount of time. Bradshaw now-famously realized what was going on mid-play and tried to delay himself from scoring, but let's review the decision-making heading into the play. What should each team have done?

Win Probability charts aren't perfect because they don't adjust for the teams involved, but they're the best tool for answering a question like this. Here, the Giants-Patriots WP chart on advancednflstats.com notes that the Giants had an 89 percent chance of winning the game when Hakeem Nicks picked up a first down on the New England 7-yard line with 1:09 left. From there, the Giants could have chosen to kneel three times, force the Patriots to use their final timeout, and then attempt a game-winning field goal with seconds on the clock without ever giving the ball back to the Patriots. The model might even be underestimating their chances; history suggests that an average field goal kicker will convert a 24-yard field goal about 96 percent of the time, and the Giants were playing on turf with the options to both move the ball onto Lawrence Tynes' desired hash mark while falling on the ball and trying again in the case of a bad snap. And if you think Tynes is a terrible kicker, note that he's 56-of-57 on kicks from 20 to 29 yards during his career.

Instead, when Bradshaw scored the most mournful game-winning Super Bowl touchdown in history, the Win Probability analysis suggests that the Giants' odds of winning decreased to 85 percent. That's right: Bill Belichick was likely correct to allow the Giants to score, and the Giants should have taken a knee and decided to kick the chip shot field goal instead.3 If you use the 96 percent win expectancy that we're suggesting instead of the model's 89 percent, it's patently obvious that the Giants should have kneeled and kicked.

Instead, they scored and got to sweat out an exciting final minute of football before the confetti shower began. They might even have exploited a funny little loophole in the rule book. With 17 seconds left, Tom Brady took a snap and desperately searched around for an open receiver. He eventually launched a pass to a well-covered Aaron Hernandez that fell incomplete, but not before eight seconds had passed and a flag had fallen to the ground. The penalty? The Giants had 12 men on the field, a five-yarder that would allow the Patriots to replay the down from their own 49-yard line, but not reclaim the time on the clock.

In a situation where a team needs a touchdown with 20 seconds or so left in the game, time can be far more important than yards. Trading eight seconds for five yards there is a decision the defense will take every time, and even if the Patriots had the ability to get off a free play, the Giants had 12 men on the field and were more likely to stop such a play from succeeding. It's brilliant. It's illegal. But was it on purpose?

Normally, we wouldn't accuse a coach of employing such a strategy. Tom Coughlin certainly doesn't have a reputation for stretching the rules. But fellow Grantland contributor Chris Brown pointed out that there's a precedent for such behavior: Buddy Ryan's "Polish Defense" tactic, a move he employed near the goal line. Take it away, playbook:

THREE EXTRA LINEBACKERS GO INTO THE GAME.

Situation: The opponent is inside the 5 yard line going in to score. There is less than 15 seconds left. We want to stop their offense from scoring and in the process, we want to run the clock down to where they have enough time for just one play. So, we will stop them, get penalized half the distance to the goal, but leave them with enough time to run one play. We will then go back to our regular goal line defense and stop them to win the game.
Chris' post also notes that Ryan later placed 14 men onto the field for a last-minute punt while considering the same sort of strategy, and actually got away with it when the referees failed to recognize the extra men and didn't throw a flag.

It's easy to see how this might work for the Giants. By taking eight seconds off the clock, they force the Patriots into a situation where they essentially will have to throw a Hail Mary on the next play (or, in the worst case, two plays later). In fact, just as Ryan lamented not having 15 men on the field for the punt, the Giants probably should have run 13 men4 onto the field for the play, ensuring that a completion was almost certainly not forthcoming before taking their lumps.

In reality, the Giants probably just screwed up and put 12 men on the field amid all the excitement and drama of the final series. But don't be surprised if an NFL team remembers this situation next season, refers back to Ryan's mantra, and throws 14 players on the field for a key defensive snap inside 30 seconds. The NFL would be smart to close this loophole in the rules and turn the defensive 12-men penalty into a true free play, allowing the offense to either take the result of the play or the option of accepting a five-yard penalty with the time run off from the play added back onto the clock.

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The Disturbing Anti-Animal Nickname Trend in the NFL Playoffs

By: timbersfan, 3:36 PM GMT on February 08, 2012

Something strange is happening in the NFL, and it's about time someone had the courage to speak up. The results of recent playoff and Super Bowl games reveal a deep anti-animal agenda that is frankly alarming in this supposedly "enlightened" age.

Serious accusations deserve some serious facts, and I'm ready to be the Edward R. Murrow of the NFL's emerging anti-animal controversy.

A. There are 32 teams in the NFL.

B. Of this group, 16 have human nicknames.* Fifteen have animal nicknames.** One has a nickname that is neither animal nor human.***

*The Giants and Titans belong to this category. Are they human? Debatable. Are they human-based? Yes. Ditto for the Saints. You can't be canonized until you're dead, and thus no longer technically human, but they're still conceived in our image.

**The Buffalo Bills belong here, because they have a buffalo logo on their helmets, their mascot is called Billy Buffalo, and they have basically made the PR choice to be represented by that stoic prairie creature. Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

***The Jets. Unless they're named for the American gang in West Side Story, which seems unlikely.

C. In the past five years, no team with an animal nickname has won the Super Bowl. The odds against this are astronomical. There's only a 3 percent chance it would happen, given a random sample. And that random sample wouldn't include men like Peyton Manning.

D. In that same time period, only two animal teams even reached the Super Bowl. They both lost. One, the Arizona Cardinals, lost in mysterious last-minute fashion, and the Saints resorted to trickery to beat the Colts. Both results are more than a little suspicious.

E. In the 32 playoff games pitting an animal team against a nonanimal team, the nonanimals are 20-12. Again, the success rate is unrealistic for a random sample. If you're looking at the real world, on the other hand, humans are typically far more successful than animals, a few shark attacks aside.

F. Of the 20 teams to make the championship round in the past five years, only six had animal nicknames. In his time as commissioner, Roger Goodell has not addressed this disparity even once. But perhaps the media is to blame for not holding him accountable. Go ahead, try to find another story about this. Nothing's out there. It's like we're all complicit in the scandal.

G. However, when you look at all the teams that have made the playoffs over that span, the edge is only 31-27 for the human teams over the animals, which is what you'd expect based on the makeup of the league.

H. Therefore, we can conclude that teams with animal nicknames are faring poorly in the playoffs, to a degree that can't be explained by mere chance and can only be part of a larger conspiracy.

So what's happening, and why? How can we explain this phenomenon? In 2007, I studied the data and found that there was a distinct neo-Luddite strain running through the NFL playoffs. In other words, the bias was against humans and against technology. Now, something else seems to be true. Teams with human-based nicknames are enjoying great success at the expense of their animal brethren.

Has the NFL gone too far? Should Goodell have to answer to the mounting evidence of an anti-animal agenda? Should humans take precedence over animals? Should we sweep this under the rug and call it the natural order? Or should the league take steps to ensure parity? Also, what does PETA think?

Stay tuned. I have a feeling this is only the beginning of what will become a very explosive issue. Good night, and good luck.

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NBA Rookie Rankings V

By: timbersfan, 3:34 PM GMT on February 08, 2012

The rookie wall is upon us. Well, not us, unless you're Gustavo Ayon or some other NBA rookie. But it's that time of year again. Rookies coming out of college played close to 30 games last year. By now, most NBA teams have played 25 to 30 games, and thanks to the breakneck pace of a lockout-shortened season, the rookies are starting to look tired. The grueling schedule may be responsible for the volatility in these rankings. Seven rookies listed in last week's rankings have dropped. But one player's struggles can be another's opportunity, and the rookies who have managed to play well despite fatigue are vaulting up the list.

1. Kyrie Irving

We've already seen that Irving is one of the best isolation players in the NBA when looking to score. But Irving deserves more credit for his passing out of isolation situations. Right now, Irving's teammates shoot 66.7 percent while posting 1.357 points per possession after Irving finds them out of a one-on-one play. That puts Irving in the top 10 percent of all NBA players. Combine that with Irving's scoring numbers and his overall isolation PPP comes to 1.129, which is in the NBA's 98th percentile. Twenty-two games into his pro career, Irving is already playing like an elite NBA point guard.



Irving does a very good job of reading help defenders when he isolates at the top of the key. The threat of making the right pass once the helper commits makes that defender think twice about leaving his man on the next play, because he knows that helping against Irving will probably lead to an easy scoring opportunity for his man. This opens up more opportunities for Irving to take his man one-on-one and score. And that scoring ability makes it harder for the help to stay home on D. When they help, Irving sets up his teammates. When they don't, he scores. For defenses, doubling Irving has been a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't strategy.

2. Ricky Rubio

During his final season in Spain, Rubio shot 40.5 percent in unguarded catch-and-shoot situations. When he was guarded, Rubio shot 18.5 percent on catch-and-shoots and 23.5 percent off the dribble. But Rubio does have some shooting ability, and he's shown it in the NBA. According to Synergy Sports, this season Rubio is shooting 51.7 percent on unguarded catch-and-shoot plays. He scores 1.517 points per possession in these situations, which makes these next statistics somewhat surprising: Rubio is shooting 0 percent on guarded catch-and-shoots (he's only attempted eight of them) and 32.2 percent off the dribble. This drop-off is a result of Rubio's footwork. He shoots one way when he spots up and a totally different way off the dribble. Watch these videos of Rubio shooting and concentrate on his lower body in the different situations.





When Rubio shoots a spot-up jumper without dribbling, he's a set shooter. This means that he isn't jumping very high or exploding off the ground. Instead, he jumps slightly, keeps his balance, and gets off an accurate shot. When Rubio shoots off the dribble, he turns into a jump shooter. When he jumps higher on his shot, his balance looks a little off, and he drifts on the shot instead of rising straight into the air. It's hard to be consistent with footwork like that. Once he straightens things out — literally — his shooting stats off the dribble should improve.

3. Kawhi Leonard

While other rookies have faltered, Leonard is still playing well. This is because offensive rebounding and putbacks are such large parts of Leonard's game with the Spurs. Even when his shooting falters, Leonard will still find scoring opportunities by crashing the boards. Currently, Leonard grabs 8.7 percent of all available offensive rebounds while he is on the court. The league average offensive rebound rate is 5.3. Leonard is fantastic at bum-rushing the paint from the perimeter, reading how the ball will bounce off the rim, and getting his hands on the basketball. But what I like most about Leonard's ability to convert offensive rebounds into points is his patience.



When big men get offensive rebounds, they're taught to keep the ball high and go straight up with a putback. This is absolutely correct, but Leonard is a small forward. When he grabs a rebound, he can't always go straight up against taller players in the lane. Leonard is patient enough to dribble out of the paint, look for an opening, and then shoot. This patience allows him to convert a high percentage of his offensive rebounds into points.

4. Klay Thompson

So far this season, Klay Thompson has taken 86 jump shots. That makes up 80.4 percent of his total offensive possessions, according to Synergy Sports. For most players, that's probably too much, but it's easier to accept from a shooter like Thompson, who knocks down 48.8 percent of his jump shots. He scores 1.233 points per possession on jumpers, which is in the top 3 percent of all NBA players. Even though Thompson spots up on most of his shots, he isn't just standing around and waiting for his teammates to find him. Thompson is very good at moving without the basketball.



Thompson really knows how to create passing lanes for his teammates. He slides into position on the perimeter in a way that shortens the distance of his teammates' passes to him while also giving him enough separation from his defender to get a shot off. As well as he's shooting, more looks for Thompson would probably mean more points and more wins for the Golden State Warriors.

5. Enes Kanter

Kanter broke into the bottom half of these rankings last week thanks to his work on the offensive glass, but his lack of offensive polish was glaring. In the post, he tries to bull his way into the lane instead of using spin moves, hook shots, or ball fakes. Kanter's 29 percent shooting on the block and 16.7 percent turnover rate are proof of his struggles. So how did he jump into the top five? He found another way to create offense. Kanter has done a very good job of moving without the ball. When his teammates drive into the lane, he finds space around the rim, catches the ball, and finishes in traffic. Kanter scores 1.192 points per possession while cutting away from the ball, and this puts him in the top 50 percent of NBA players.



Kanter's problem in the post is that he doesn't have the moves to beat a defender and get to the rim. But when he cuts, Kanter receives the ball at the rim, where he can make a quick move and then finish.

6. Brandon Knight

Even before Knight broke his nose Saturday against the Hornets, he was having a tough week. Knight's problem, as it has been all season, is committing turnovers. Unlike fellow rookie point guard Kyrie Irving, who thrives in isolation situations, Knight struggles. It's not because Knight can't score — he shoots 56.5 percent on isolations. Knight's lack of efficiency, however, stems from the fact that he gives the ball away 25 percent of the time in one-on-one situations. What's worse, Knight turns the ball over nearly as often in other situations, too. He commits turnovers 22.9 percent of the time in transition and 10.6 percent of the time in pick-and-roll situations. Knight is way too careless with the basketball.

7. Iman Shumpert

Shumpert was a top-five rookie in previous weeks thanks to his abilites to move without the ball and to create his own scoring opportunities. However, no matter how well you play off the ball, you still need to make shots. Shumpert is shooting just 27.3 percent and scoring 0.680 points per possession on spot-up jumpers this season. That's worse than almost 80 percent of all other NBA players. Knicks fans should be most concerned by the fact that Shumpert can't even shoot well when he's unguarded. Shumpert hasn't been guarded on 63.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot jumpers, according to Synergy Sports, but he has scored on just 36.4 percent of these open jumpers. The Knicks' offense is creating open looks for Shumpert, but he isn't converting them.

8. Kemba Walker

Walker had fallen in the rankings because of his difficulty running the pick-and-roll. He has been using ball screens on 29.9 percent of his offensive possessions, but with all these pick-and-roll opportunities, Walker hasn't been effective. The Bobcats are scoring a combined 0.789 points per possession on ball screens for Walker. This means that Walker runs the pick-and-roll worse than 68 percent of all NBA players. Walker shoots 31.5 percent when he comes off ball screens, and his poor shooting allows defenses to avoid trapping, double-teaming, and hedging — the defensive schemes needed to stop point guards who can score off the pick-and-roll, but which also create chances for other offensive players to get open and score. Since Walker's not a threat, defenders don't have to help against him; they can stick on their men. This means the other Bobcats get not-so-great looks when Walker passes to them off pick-and-rolls. Walker's teammates shoot just 40.9 percent when he passes in these situations. Their 0.874 PPP is in the bottom 25 percent of all NBA players. If Walker can improve his shooting in pick-and-roll situations, his teammates will benefit with better scoring opportunities of their own.

9. Markieff Morris

Morris has dropped in the rankings because of his poor defense. He's in the bottom 10 percent of all NBA players in points per possession allowed in three separate defensive categories. One problem is that Morris fouls too much. He commits fouls on 11.2 percent of his total defensive possessions. He's at his worst when hedging on ball screens and defending the post, where he fouls 20.3 and 19 percent of the time, respectively. These numbers indicate that Morris is still adjusting to the speed of the NBA. He gets caught out of position too often, and once that happens the only way he can stop opponents from scoring is to foul. As Morris continues to adjust, he should find himself in better position more often and committing fewer fouls.

10. Andrew Goudelock

With Steve Blake sidelined with a rib injury, Goudelock has performed well as the Lakers' backup point guard. He's not a true point guard, and he has struggled in pick-and-roll situations, where he commits turnovers 15 percent of the time. But Goudelock looks like a legit NBA player, especially when he moves without the ball. Goudelock is making 73.9 percent of his spot-up jumpers. His 1.593 points per possession in those situations places him in the 99th percentile of all NBA players. If the Lakers still ran the triangle offense, Goudelock might have been a perfect successor to Derek Fisher. However, now that they run Mike Brown's more conventional offense, Goudelock will have to learn how to run the pick-and-roll. Nonetheless, his shot making has been a pleasant surprise that should put a smile on Lakers fans' faces.

The Rest: Chandler Parsons, Jon Leuer, Isaiah Thomas

Injured List: MarShon Brooks

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The Fabulous and the Flops of the Super Bowl

By: timbersfan, 3:32 PM GMT on February 08, 2012

All good things must come to an end. After a long season filled with twists and turns, our coverage of the 2011 NFL season finishes up today with the Super Bowl XLVI edition of "The Fabulous and the Flops." What's that? Are you crying? Oh, you're so sweet. Now we're starting to cry a little bit, too. Don't worry! We'll be back during the offseason with NFL stuff, and with no lockout on the horizon, we can safely say that Week 1 of the NFL season is less than … seven months away. Oh dear. How does this baseball thing work again?

As we have during previous playoff weeks, our goal here is to identify players whose successes and failures were not the obvious takeaways from the games everyone just saw. Yes, we know Eli Manning played great. We wrote about it yesterday. And instead of dwelling on the negatives, let's break format in this final column and recognize three members of the Giants who played fantastic football games, even if they haven't gotten a ton of recognition for it.


New York Giants

Fabulous: Justin Tuck, who was the one member of his team's vaunted defensive line to have an enormous impact on the game. Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora went quiet on Sunday, combining for no sacks and a total of just three quarterback hits between them. Tuck, though, was the best player on his defense. It was Tuck who spun through the line and kept churning to get to Tom Brady on the Patriots' opening play from scrimmage, creating a safety when Brady was forced to throw the ball away.

Tuck then went quiet for a bit, but he showed his versatility on a third-down sack of Brady for a key three-and-out in the third quarter. Nominally a defensive end, Tuck dropped back off the line of scrimmage into a zone, serving as a potential spy for any Brady scramble and another body to get in the way of a short crossing route. The Giants dropped eight into coverage and only rushed three, preventing Brady from finding an open receiver, and when Brady began to scramble, Tuck sprinted toward the line of scrimmage and wrapped up a bumbling Brady for his first sack of the day. He finished up with a sack on the final drive, beating guard Logan Mankins to put a serious crimp on any comeback hopes. Tuck made his name in Super Bowl XLII with a dominant game, mostly against Mankins, that made him a rightful candidate for the MVP award. Eli deserved the award this time around, but Tuck was the second-most deserving candidate on his team.

Fabulous: Hakeem Nicks, who became the primary receiver when the Patriots doubled up Victor Cruz and served as Eli's security blanket for most of the game. Nicks gained 109 yards while catching 10 of 13 passes, with several tight grabs on dig routes to extend drives. Eight of his receptions resulted in first downs, including three that moved the chains on third down. The only real blemish on his day was a third-quarter fumble, but the Giants were able to fall on it and save his blushes.

Nicks ended up having a pretty impressive playoff run, especially for a guy who was struggling with injuries toward the end of the regular season. He finished with 28 catches, 444 receiving yards, and four touchdowns in four playoff games. Pro-rate those numbers to a full season and Nicks would have put up a 112-1,776-16 line. As it were, Nicks finishes with the second-most receptions and second-most receiving yards for one player during the playoffs in NFL history, with only Larry Fitzgerald's memorable 2008 campaign beating him out.

Fabulous: Steve Weatherford. Yes, the punter. About 14 months after the Matt Dodge disaster against the Eagles, the Giants had a punter offer up a significant contribution to their Super Bowl victory. Big Blue got stuck in no man's land several times and had to punt four times between their own 40-yard line and the Patriots' 40-yard line, which is generally a good way to lose football games. If your punter creates excellent field position for you, though, it's not the worst thing in the world. Weatherford booted one punt into the end zone for a touchback, but his other three punts were downed between the 4- and 8-yard lines. Afterward, he clowned Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff for letting him go. It was a fun day to be a Giant.

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The Shootaround: NBA News, Notes, and Just Give Me a Sixth Ring, Damn It

By: timbersfan, 3:30 PM GMT on February 08, 2012

Round of Applause

At this point in my life, I am honestly more into Kobe Bryant as an interview subject than as a basketball player. I appreciate how we're back into Kobe-as-performance-artist territory. I'm sure they are studying his newest piece, If I Don't Get to Play With Chris Paul I Am Going to Attempt Field Goals Until I Blow Out My Rotator Cuff, at the Tate Modern right now. It's stirring stuff. But for me, the more entertaining character comes out when Kobe is off the court, answering questions in front of a camera.


Kobe Bryant became the NBA's fifth-highest all-time scorer on Monday night. Everybody, save possibly Shaquille O'Neal (whom he passed on the list) salutes him for his accomplishment. Kobe went on something of a media offensive, perhaps pegged to this offensive milestone.

What transpired was some typically candid talk from one of pro sports' most amusing interview subjects. I could seriously listen to Kobe talk about anything. He talked to Colin Cowherd about his past relationship with Shaq: "There was an interview that I heard Shaq do which he kind of threw down the challenge of me not being able to win without him. After I read that, I said, 'Aw, that's it.' Some comparison that he made with me and Penny Hardaway, and once I read that, I said, 'You know what? I can't finish my career with people saying that. There's no way.'" Extra credit for throwing Hardaway under the bus there.

The other day I was listening to Henry Abbott and David Thorpe talk on ESPN's NBA Today podcast. Thorpe was talking about his "Royal Jelly" theory, which is basically that many (not quite all) basketball players are created equal, it's how they are coached and motivated that separates them.

Bryant is the exception here, and not because of his (obvious) athleticism. There are few players who are able to self-motivate the way he does. Bird was like that. Jordan was like that. It's that ability to look at the simple existence of other people doing the same job as you as a challenge to your own supremacy. It's an amazing mind-set and you can see it in play, both on the court and off.

Save a move for Dwight Howard (and possibly, even if they do move for Dwight Howard), we could be witnessing the twilight of this iteration of the Lakers — of the Kobe-Lakers, really. And of course, his own mortality and the fallibility of the franchise where he has spent his entire career just motivates Bryant more. After Monday's 95-90 loss at Philadelphia, Bryant accepted plaudits for his career accomplishment gracefully. And then turned his attention to the only thing that matters to him: "I just want no. 6, man. I'm not asking for too much, man. Just give me a sixth ring, damn it."
Around the League

Speaking of Kobe's homecoming to Philadelphia, the Sixers crowd was typically welcoming toward him. Especially the old white man in the below video (via the awesome 700 Level).

Kevin Love is very sorry for stepping on Luis Scola's face. "I feel like it was a learning experience for me and definitely it won't happen again. … It's been a chippy year," said the Timberwolves forward. Love will serve a two-game suspension, which his coach, Rick Adelman, is not thrilled about: "What do you want me to say? They do what they do and that's it. There's nothing you can do about it. Do I think it's fair? No, absolutely [not]. I don't know the reasoning. They don't tell you the reasoning. I don't know the reasoning why two games."
Tonight's the Night …

For Paul Pierce to pass Larry Bird as the Celtics' second all-time leading scorer. To be fair, I could probably become the Celtics' second all-time leading scorer against the Bobcats.

Quote of the Day: Mike D'Antoni

This soliloquy was pointed out to me by Katie Baker. It is … majestic:

"Indulge me for a second: Anybody who boos Jared Jeffries has got to reexamine their life a little bit. I love our fans and I like Madison Square Garden, the arena, but here’s a guy who came back to us, minimum contract. He could’ve gone to a lot of other teams."

THERE'S MORE!

"He plays as hard as anybody could possibly ever play, with injuries, everything you ask him. He takes every charge, every dirty play, every rebound. He works every second. And there are people that look at that and go, ‘I think I’ll boo him.’ I have a hard time believing that. It’s like, oh he missed that. I understand the frustration."

KEEP GOING, MIKE!

"I understand that. But you boo what is good about America? To me it’s like, are you kidding me? Are you serious? To me, that’s not good. I love him anyway. He played unbelievable."

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The Reducer: Week 24, Why We Fight

By: timbersfan, 3:28 PM GMT on February 08, 2012

"It was a great game for the neutral watching," said Sir Alex Ferguson, in what might have been a knowing nod to the many Americans — new or newish to the English game — who had just casually watched Manchester United play out a six-goal draw with Chelsea on Sunday. Had United come up short in their comeback, or had they never mounted one at all, Fergie would probably not be feeling so concerned about the experience of the neutral, American or otherwise. He would have been too busy turning purple, inventing new Scottish profanities, and finalizing plans to sell Jonny Evans to a third-division club in Kazakhstan. But as it happened, all was full of love.



And who am I to disagree with one of the greatest managers to ever point at his watch in an exasperated manner? It might not have been the most elegantly played match, looking like, as Jacob Steinberg astutely pointed out in the Guardian, something of a throwback to the tactics-free early '90s of English football, but it was easily one of the more entertaining and compelling games of the season. Here are some takeaways:

• One of the wonderful things about football is how important a role narrative plays. Manchester United only took a point from Stamford Bridge, but what the draw might have done for them as a team is incalculable. Sir Alex Ferguson, like Jose Mourinho or Kenny Dalglish, or any great manager, is also a great storyteller; an expert in shaping the way people perceive his club. When he wants you to focus on his players, he puts the spotlight on them. When he wants people to overlook their performances, he sheds light on, well, other things:


This draw with Chelsea provides Ferguson, as well as professional and amateur United watchers, with a chance to sing an old, favorite hymn: "You Can Never Count United Out." No matter that the comeback was aided greatly by two debatable penalty calls, Ferguson will use this match as a mythmaking, motivating text from which to inspire his team during the final few months of the season.

• For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Which is to say: That match might have cost Andre Villas-Boas his job. Throwing away a three-goal lead at home could be almost as hazardous to the Chelsea manager's continued employment as any of the other embarrassments he's suffered through in his tough first year at The Bridge (I'm thinking, specifically, of losing, 3-5, to Arsenal and the rumor that he demanded his players celebrate goals with him — which turned out to be false, but was still funny). With Roman Abramovich making impromptu stops at training and rumors of Jose Mourinho returning, the young Portuguese manager has had a tough beat. The only thing that could have made this all worse for Villas-Boas is if Javier Hernandez had run over to him, after heading in United's 84th-minute equalizer, and said, "Don't be mad, UPS is hiring."

• Speaking of "Chicharito," he could, to borrow one of Arsene Wenger's old chestnuts, be "like a new signing" for United. After suffering from various knocks (ankle, head), Hernandez has grabbed two goals in two games. It's hard to relegate a player of his quality to the role of supersub, but he certainly gives Ferguson an incredible option coming off the bench. According to Opta Sports, Hernandez comes alive in the closing minutes of matches, scoring 10 of his 21 Premier League goals in the final 16 minutes of matches.

• Scoring is something Fernando Torres used to do, by the way. Remember that? The Spanish striker has been so bad since arriving at Chelsea that my memories of his 2008-09 Liverpool season feel like they were filmed by Michael Bay. That was a pinpoint cross he sent in for Juan Mata's volley, and it shows that he can be useful doing other things besides scoring goals. But if I were a Chelsea fan, I'd be worried about his body language more than anything. Watch Torres whenever a free kick was about to be taken near the United goal; his head was dropped, like he was almost dreading the possibility of the ball being kicked toward him.

• As entertaining as the football was, as brilliant an advertisement for the game as it was, this match also had a lot of the more annoying and flat-out embarrassing elements of English football. First off: the refereeing. I feel for Howard Webb, who has to deal with what looks like a steady stream of abuse from the first whistle to the last one 90 minutes later. No one man should have to be sworn at that violently by Paul Scholes. And no one man should have all that power. Willingly or not, he became a central character in the action, rather than just a third-party observer/supervisor. United's two second-half penalties definitely had the whiff of "payback for earlier mistakes" from Webb (the Bosingwa-on-Young tackle and the Cahill-on-Welbeck).

And then there were the managers. I can understand Villas-Boas grasping at straws in light of the mounting pressure on his job. But even in a draw (which felt like a victory), Ferguson managed to sound like a sore loser, moaning about linesman Darren Cann and decisions he had made against United … in completely separate games.

• The other embarrassment was far more shameful than any referee decision or postmatch griping. Whatever soft spots in my heart I may have for Torres, Villas-Boas, Michael Essien, or Mata, it was hard to stomach the prospect of Chelsea winning, much less drawing with United yesterday, given the behavior of some of their fans. I try to stay away from judging or even really getting too mixed up in the hyperpartisan behavior that goes on inside football grounds, because you just get into a whole who-did-it-first/who-was-more-stomach-churningly offensive back and forth. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Rio Ferdinand was booed and abused throughout the match. Why? Because Rio Ferdinand is the brother (and vocal defender) of Anton Ferdinand, the Queens Park Rangers center back who was, allegedly, racially abused by Chelsea and England national team captain John Terry. Chelsea "fans" let Ferdinand have it every time he was involved with the game, ridiculing his short-lived England captaincy and much worse. To his credit, Ferdinand, who has not shied away from speaking his mind about the Terry case, gave it back to the Chelsea fans, letting them know they spurred him on during the game: "I got booed by the CFC fans today — well done guys. Thanks for inspiring me and the lads! That's like fuel to me!"

• Ah, England's bravest, John Terry. The media-savvy defender, who was out with an injury, could not have been ignorant to the fact that television cameras would no doubt capture him passionately embracing his teammate Ramires following the Daniel Sturridge/Jonny Evans goal. So he can't possibly be racist then, right?

Boring, Boring Arsenal



Only children and sore losers and only children who are sore losers (bingo!) know this trick well: You're playing FIFA and you get smoked by the computer, and to take out your revenge on the universe you switch the setting back to "Amateur" to give your ego and stats a boost. That's basically what Arsenal got to do against Blackburn on Saturday.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was brilliant, Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie were executing cutbacks like they were Pires and Henry (OK, not quite that good), and having Bacary Sagna back in the side clearly gave the Gunners some horizontal balance and defensive structure that they had been sorely lacking. But come on, playing Blackburn was pretty much like setting the computer on "Amateur." Even before Gael Givet went off with a red card, this match had "demolition site" written all over it. You could tell that when Scott Dann practically gave Francis Coquelin a mulligan on his cross, which led to the pass to Walcott, which led to van Persie's first goal.

One interesting note, personnel-wise and tactically, for the Gunners was the use of Tomas Rosicky as part of Arsenal's midfield three. He was assuming the role usually handled by Aaron Ramsey, who has looked rather gassed as of late. Rosicky worked very well with Mikel Arteta and Alex Song, and his long, low pass to Theo Walcott to set up Oxlade-Chamberlain's second was the kind of safe cracker that we used to see semiregularly from Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. The club has a few key cup games (Champions League and FA Cup) coming up. It will be interesting to see if Ramsey returns to the starting lineup or if Wenger sticks with the squad that brought him seven goals.

Last thing on this match: I know the Gunners have been bad, it was mighty cold in London over the weekend, and watching Blackburn play football is a bit like watching drivers in Los Angeles negotiate a bit of rain, but really, the Emirates looked disturbingly Middlesbrough-esque in its attendance. Are you not entertained? No, I guess if I had watched Arsenal-Bolton, I wouldn't be either.

A Tale of Two Cisses

Two January signings, one a new arrival to the Premier League, one a veteran making his return to the English game, both with very different weeks. Am I writing about them because I thought of this subheadline? You bet your signing bonus I am.

Djibril Cisse, a collector of horrifying leg breaks and equally horrifying facial hair, made his first start for QPR Saturday against Wolves, after scoring last week in his first appearance for the club. Cisse is part of a midseason makeover for the relegation-threatened West London team, joining the club in the January window along with Bobby Zamora and Taye Taiwo.

There are plenty of exceptions, but usually it takes some time for new players to get used to the pace of the league or the patterns of play in their new teammates. But Taiwo, Cisse, and Zamora were involved in a "WHAT WAS THAT" moment in the early second half that suggested they had been playing together since childhood.



Taiwo passed to Adel Taarabt, who took a break from talking up his inevitable move to PSG in the British tabloids long enough to make an outside-of-the-foot pass outside the boot pass to Cisse that would be worth any transfer fee Paris wanted to pay for him. Cisse hit a wedge shot into the box for Shaun Wright-Phillips, who, in turn, backheeled a pass to Zamora, who slammed a chance past the Wolves keeper.

Unfortunately for Djibril, the game would end on a sour note when he went after Roger Johnson after being dangerously tackled by the Wolves defender. If you want to know why he reacted so badly, go to YouTube and search "Djibril Cisse leg break." You'll be sad you did!

Up in the Northeast of England, another Cisse, Papiss Demba Cisse (no relation, in case it needs to be said), was making his own debut for Newcastle. Cisse, who was brought over to England from Germany in the January window, is partnering with his Senegal national teammate Demba Ba. Ba has been one of the success stories of the season, and whatever magic recipe he has for scoring, he's passed it along to his countryman.

Cisse's winner (Goal of the Week, below) was a hero-making shot in front of a Newcastle crowd that loves to create and celebrate heroes. Everbody's got their own preferences and prejudices when it comes to supporting a football team, but despite my own, I'm pulling for Newcastle in a big way. No matter what adversity they've faced, be it in their front office or with injuries crippling their defense, they've been entertaining as hell this year. Seeing the club qualify for Champions League play would restore my faith in football, if not humanity.

Goal of the Week: Papiss Demba Cisse, Newcastle


Here's Newcastle boss Alan Pardew on his new striker: "If you are going to wear that jersey [Alan Shearer's no. 9] at Newcastle, you need a good start, and he [Cisse] has had that. It was boys' annual stuff, that goal, but his all-round performance, any Newcastle fan would have been nudging their mates and saying, 'We have got a good 'un here, he looks all right.'"

Quote of the Week: Emmanuel Frimpong, Arsenal

The Arsenal player, on loan to Wolves, will miss the rest of the season with another knee injury. We've lost a fine player, incredible hothead, and great character for the next few months. Anyone who has read this column knows Frimpong is basically my spirit animal. At least he hasn't lost his sense of humor:

"I also wanna ask you to pray for my cruciate injury as I will be taking all the punishment it deserves as he or she have been very naughty."

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2010/2011 nba

By: timbersfan, 1:24 AM GMT on February 04, 2012

2011

No. Team Player Pos.
1. Cavaliers Kyrie Irving PG
2. Timberwolves Derrick Williams PF
3. Jazz Enes Kanter C
4. Cavaliers Tristan Thompson PF
5. Raptors Jonas Valanciunas C
6. Wizards Jan Vesely SF
7. Kings Bismack Biyombo PF
8. Pistons Brandon Knight PG
9. Bobcats Kemba Walker PG
10. Bucks Jimmer Fredette PG
11. Warriors Klay Thompson SG
12. Jazz Alec Burks SG
13. Suns Markieff Morris PF
14. Rockets Marcus Morris PF
15. Pacers Kawhi Leonard SF
16. 76ers Nikola Vucevic C
17. Knicks Iman Shumpert PG
18. Wizards Chris Singleton SF
19. Bobcats Tobias Harris PF
20. Timberwolves Donatas Motiejunas PF
21. Trail Blazers Nolan Smith SG
22. Nuggets Kenneth Faried PF
23. Rockets Nikola Mirotic SF
24. Thunder Reggie Jackson PG
25. Celtics Marshon Brooks SG
26. Mavericks Jordan Hamilton SF
27. Nets JaJuan Johnson PF
28. Bulls Norris Cole PG
29. Spurs Cory Joseph PG
30. Bulls Jimmy Butler SF

1. Heat Bojan Bogdanovic SF
2. Cavaliers Justin Harper PF
3. Pistons Kyle Singler SF
4. Wizards Shelvin Mack PG
5. Kings Tyler Honeycutt SF
6. Nets Jordan Williams C
7. Clippers Trey Thompkins PF
8. Rockets Chandler Parsons SF
9. Bobcats Jeremy Tyler PF
10. Bucks Jon Leuer PF
11. Lakers Darius Morris PG
12. Pacers Davis Bertans SF
13. Bulls Malcolm Lee PG
14. Warriors Charles Jenkins PG
15. Hornets Josh Harrellson C
16. Lakers Andrew Goudelock SG
17. Clippers Travis Leslie SG
18. Hawks Keith Benson C
19. Grizzlies Josh Selby PG
20. 76ers Lavoy Allen PF
21. Trail Blazers Jon Diebler SG
22. Pistons Vernon Macklin PF
23. Magic DeAndre Liggins SG
24. Cavaliers Milan Macvan PF
25. Celtics E'Twaun Moore SG
26. Lakers Chukwudiebere Maduabum PF
27. Mavericks Targuy Ngombo SF
28. Lakers Ater Majok C
29. Spurs Adam Hanga SG
30. Kings Isaiah Thomas PG



2010
1. Wizards John Wall PG
2. 76ers Evan Turner SG
3. Nets Derrick Favors PF
4. Timberwolves Wesley Johnson SF
5. Kings DeMarcus Cousins C
6. Warriors Ekpe Udoh PF
7. Pistons Greg Monroe PF
8. Clippers Al-Farouq Aminu SF
9. Jazz Gordon Hayward SF
10. Pacers Paul George SF
11. Hornets Cole Aldrich C
12. Grizzlies Xavier Henry SG
13. Raptors Ed Davis PF
14. Rockets Patrick Patterson PF
15. Bucks Larry Sanders PF
16. Timberwolves Luke Babbitt SF
17. Bulls Kevin Seraphin PF
18. Thunder Eric Bledsoe PG
19. Celtics Avery Bradley SG
20. Spurs James Anderson SG
21. Thunder Craig Brackins PF
22. Trail Blazers Elliot Williams SG
23. Timberwolves Trevor Booker PF
24. Hawks Damion James SF
25. Grizzlies Dominique Jones SG
26. Thunder Quincy Pondexter SF
27. Nets Jordan Crawford SG
28. Grizzlies Greivis Vasquez SG
29. Magic Daniel Orton C
30. Wizards Lazar Hayward SF

1. Nets Tibor Pleiss C
2. Heat Dexter Pittman C
3. Kings Hassan Whiteside C
4. Trail Blazers Armon Johnson PG
5. Wizards Nemanja Bjelica SF
6. Pistons Terrico White SG
7. Bucks Darington Hobson SF
8. Knicks Andy Rautins SG
9. Knicks Landry Fields SF
10. Pacers Lance Stephenson SG
11. Heat Jarvis Varnado PF
12. Heat Da'Sean Butler SF
13. Lakers Devin Ebanks SF
14. Bucks Jerome Jordan C
15. Timberwolves Paulao Prestes C
16. Suns Gani Lawal PF
17. Bucks Keith Gallon PF
18. Heat Latavious Williams SF
19. Spurs Ryan Richards PF
20. Mavericks Solomon Alabi C
21. Thunder Magnum Rolle C
22. Celtics Luke Harangody PF
23. Hawks Pape Sy SF
24. Clippers Willie Warren PG
25. Jazz Jeremy Evans SF
26. Timberwolves Hamady N'diaye C
27. Pacers Ryan Reid PF
28. Lakers Derrick Caracter PF
29. Magic Stanley Robinson SF
30. Suns Dwayne Collins PF

2009
1. Blake Griffin Clippers PF
2. Hasheem Thabeet Grizzlies C
3. James Harden Thunder SG
4. Tyreke Evans Kings PG
5. Ricky Rubio Timberwolves PG
6. Jonny Flynn Timberwolves PG
7. Stephen Curry Warriors PG
8. Jordan Hill Knicks PF
9. DeMar DeRozan Raptors SG
10. Brandon Jennings Bucks PG
11. Terrence Williams Nets SG
12. Gerald Henderson Bobcats SG
13. Tyler Hansbrough Pacers PF
14. Earl Clark Suns SF
15. Austin Daye Pistons SF
16. James Johnson Bulls PF
17. Jrue Holiday 76ers PG
18. Ty Lawson Timberwolves PG
19. Jeff Teague Hawks PG
20. Eric Maynor Jazz PG
21. Darren Collison Hornets PG
22. Victor Claver Trail Blazers SF
23. Omri Casspi Kings SF
24. B.J. Mullens Mavericks C
25. Rodrigue Beaubois Thunder PG
26. Taj Gibson Bulls PF
27. DeMarre Carroll Grizzlies PF
28. Wayne Ellington Timberwolves SG
29. Toney Douglas Lakers SG
30. Christian Eyenga Cavaliers SF

2008

NO.

PLAYER, SCHOOL/COUNTRY

TEAM
1 Derrick Rose, Memphis Chicago
2 Michael Beasley, Kansas State Miami
3 O.J. Mayo, USC Minnesota (traded to Memphis)
4 Russell Westbrook, UCLA Seattle
5 Kevin Love, UCLA Memphis (traded to Minnesota)
6 Danilo Gallinari, Italy New York
7 Eric Gordon, Indiana L.A. Clippers
8 Joe Alexander, West Virginia Milwaukee
9 D.J. Augustin, Texas Charlotte
10 Brook Lopez, Stanford New Jersey
11 Jerryd Bayless, Arizona Indiana
12 Jason Thompson, Rider Sacramento
13 Brandon Rush, Kansas Portland
14 Anthony Randolph, LSU Golden State
15 Robin Lopez, Stanford Phoenix (from Atlanta)
16 Marreese Speights, Florida Philadelphia
17 Roy Hibbert, Georgetown Toronto
18 JaVale McGee, Nevada Washington
19 J.J. Hickson, NC State Cleveland
20 Alexis Ajinca, France Charlotte (from Denver)
21 Ryan Anderson, Cal New Jersey (from Dallas)
22Courtney Lee, Western KentuckyOrlando
23Kosta Koufos, Ohio StateUtah
24Serge Ibaka, SpainSeattle (from Phoenix)
25Nicolas Batum, FranceHouston (traded to Portland)
26George Hill, IUPUISan Antonio
27Darrell Arthur, KansasNew Orleans (traded to Memphis via Portland)
28Donte Greene, SyracuseMemphis (traded to Houston via L.A. Lakers)
29D.J. White, IndianaDetroit (traded to Seattle)
30J.R Giddens, New MexicoBoston


2007

NO.

PLAYER, SCHOOL/COUNTRY

TEAM
1Greg Oden, Ohio StatePortland
2Kevin Durant, TexasSeattle
3Al Horford, FloridaAtlanta
4Mike Conley Jr, Ohio StateMemphis
5Jeff Green, GeorgetownBoston (traded to Seattle)
6Yi Jianlian, ChinaMilwaukee
7Corey Brewer, FloridaMinnesota
8Brandan Wright, North CarolinaCharlotte (traded to Golden State)
9Joakim Noah, FloridaChicago
10Spencer Hawes, WashingtonSacramento
11Acie Law IV, Texas A&MAtlanta
12Thaddeus Young, Georgia TechNew Orleans
13Julian Wright, KansasNew Orleans
14Al Thornton, Florida StateL.A. Clippers
15Rodney Stuckey, Eastern WashingtonDetroit
16Nick Young, Southern CaliforniaWashington
17Sean Williams, Boston CollegeNew Jersey
18Marco Belinelli, ItalyGolden State
19Javaris Crittenton, Georgia TechL.A. Lakers
20Jason Smith, Colorado StatePhiladelphia
21Daequan Cook, Ohio StateMiami
22Jared Dudley, Boston CollegeCharlotte
23Wilson Chandler, DePaulNew York
24Rudy Fernandez, SpainPhoenix
25Morris Almond, RiceUtah
26Aaron Brooks, OregonHouston
27Arron Afflalo, UCLADetroit
28Tiago Splitter, BrazilSan Antonio
29Alando Tucker, WisconsinPhoenix
30Petteri Koponen, FinlandPhiladelphia

2006

NO.

PLAYER, SCHOOL/COUNTRY

TEAM
1Andrea Bargnani, ItalyToronto
2LaMarcus Aldridge, TexasChicago
3Adam Morrison, GonzagaCharlotte
4Tyrus Thomas, Louisiana StatePortland
5Shelden Williams, DukeAtlanta
6Brandon Roy, WashingtonMinnesota
7Randy Foye, VillanovaBoston
8Rudy Gay, ConnecticutHouston
9Patrick O'Bryant, BradleyGolden State
10Saer Sene, SenegalSeattle
11J.J. Redick, DukeOrlando
12Hilton Armstrong, ConnecticutN.O./Okla. City
13Thabo Sefolosha, SwitzerlandPhiladelphia
14Ronnie Brewer, ArkansasUtah
15Cedric Simmons, North Carolina StateN.O./Okla. City
16Rodney Carney, MemphisChicago
17Shawne Williams, MemphisIndiana
18Oleksiy Pecherov, UkraineWashington
19Quincy Douby, RutgersSacramento
20Renaldo Balkman, PhoenixNew York
21Rajon Rondo, KentuckyPhoenix
22Marcus Williams, ConnecticutNew Jersey
23Josh Boone, ConnecticutNew Jersey
24Kyle Lowry, VillanovaMemphis
25Shannon Brown, Michigan StateCleveland
26Jordan Farmar, UCLAL.A. Lakers
27Sergio Rodriguez, SpainPhoenix
28Maurice Ager, Michigan StateDallas
29Mardy Collins, TempleNew York
30Joel Freeland, United KingdomPortland
(1) Boston acquired Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff and a second-round pick in 2008 from Portland for Dan Dickau, Raef LaFrentz and the rights to No. 7 Randy Foye.
(2) Chicago acquired the rights to No. 13 Thabo Sefolosha from Philadelphia for the rights to No. 16 Rodney Carney, a 2007 second-round pick and cash considerations.
(3) Dallas acquired a future second-round pick from the L.A. Lakers for the rights to No. 58 J.R. Pinnock.
(4) Dallas acquired a future second-round pick from Boston for the rights to No. 49 Leon Powe.
(5) Houston acquired the rights to No. 44 Lior Eliyahu from Orlando for cash considerations.
(6) Indiana acquired the rights to No. 31 James White from Portland for the rights to No. 45 Alexander Johnson and two future second-round picks.
(7) L.A. Lakers acquired Maurice Evans from Detroit for the rights to No. 51 Cheick Samb.
(8) Memphis acquired the rights to No. 45 Alexander Johnson (via Indiana) for a future second-round pick.
(9) Milwaukee acquired the rights to No. 59 Damir Markota from San Antonio for a future second-round pick.
(10) Minnesota acquired the rights to No. 7 Randy Foye from Portland (via Boston) for the rights to No. 6 Brandon Roy.
(11) Philadelphia acquired the rights to No. 37 Bobby Jones from Minnesota for a future second-round pick and cash considerations.
(12) Philadelphia acquired the rights to No. 56 Edin Bavcic from Toronto for cash considerations.
(13) Phoenix acquired a future first-round pick from Boston for Brian Grant, the rights to No. 21 Rajon Rondo and cash considerations.
(14) Portland acquired the rights to No. 2 LaMarcus Aldridge and a future second-round pick from Chicago for Viktor Khryapa and the rights to No. 4 Tyrus Thomas.
(15) Portland acquired the rights to No. 27 Sergio Rodriguez from Phoenix for cash considerations.


2005

NO.

PLAYER, SCHOOL/COUNTRY

TEAM
1Andrew Bogut, UtahMilwaukee
2Marvin Williams, North CarolinaAtlanta
3Deron Williams, IllinoisUtah
4Chris Paul, Wake ForestNew Orleans
5Raymond Felton, North CarolinaCharlotte
6Martell Webster, Seattle Prep HSPortland
7Charlie Villanueva, ConnecticutToronto
8Channing Frye, ArizonaNew York
9Ike Diogu, Arizona StateGolden State
10Andrew Bynum, St. Joseph (NJ) HSL.A. Lakers
11Fran Vazquez, SpainOrlando
12Yaroslav Korolev, CSKA MoscowL.A. Clippers
13Sean May, North CarolinaCharlotte
14Rashad McCants, North CarolinaMinnesota
15Antoine Wright, Texas A&MNew Jersey
16Joey Graham, Oklahoma StateToronto
17Danny Granger, New MexicoIndiana
18Gerald Green, Gulf Shores Acad (TX)Boston
19Hakim Warrick, SyracuseMemphis
20Julius Hodge, North Carolina StateDenver
21Nate Robinson, WashingtonPhoenix
22Jarrett Jack, Georgia TechDenver
23Francisco Garcia, LouisvilleSacramento
24Luther Head, IllinoisHouston
25Johan Petro, FranceSeattle
26Jason Maxiell, CincinnatiDetroit
27Linas Kleiza, MissouriPortland
28Ian Mahinmi, STB Le Havre (France)San Antonio
29Wayne Simien, KansasMiami
30David Lee, FloridaNew York
(1Utah traded the Nos. 6 and 27 picks and a future first round pick to Portland in exchange for the No. 3 pick.
(2) Denver traded the rights to No. 22 Jarrett Jack to Portland for the rights to No. 27 Linas Kleiza and No. 35 Ricky Sanchez.
(3) Phoenix traded Quentin Richardson and the rights to No. 21 Nate Robinson to New York for Kurt Thomas and the rights to No. 54 Dijon Thompson.


2004

NO.

PLAYER, SCHOOL/COUNTRY

TEAM
1.Dwight Howard, SW Atlanta Christian Aca.Orlando
2.Emeka Okafor, ConnecticutCharlotte
3.Ben Gordon, ConnecticutChicago
4.Shaun Livingston, Peoria HS (Illinois)L.A. Clippers
5.Devin Harris, WisconsinWashington (1)
6.Josh Childress, StanfordAtlanta
7.Luol Deng, DukePhoenix (5)
8.Rafael Araujo, BYUToronto
9.Andre Iguodala, ArizonaPhiladelphia
10.Luke Jackson, OregonCleveland
11.Andris Biedrins, BK Skonto Riga (Latvia)Golden State
12.Robert Swift, Bakersfield HS (Calif.)Seattle
13.Sebastian Telfair, Lincoln HS (New York)Portland
14.Kris Humphries, MinnesotaUtah
15.Al Jefferson, Prentiss HS (Mississippi)Boston
16.Kirk Snyder, NevadaUtah
17.Josh Smith, Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.)Atlanta
18.J.R. Smith, St. Benedict’s Prep (N.J.)New Orleans
19.Dorell Wright, South Kent Prep (Conn.)Miami
20.Jameer Nelson, St. Joseph’sDenver (2)
21.Pavel Podkolzin, Varese (Italy)Utah (3)
22.Viktor Khryapa, CSKA Moscow (Russia)New Jersey (4)
23.Sergei Monia, CSKA Moscow (Russia)Portland
24.Delonte West, St. Joseph’sBoston
25.Tony Allen, Oklahoma StateBoston
26.Kevin Martin, Western CarolinaSacramento
27.Sasha Vujacic, Snaidero Udine (Italy)L.A. Lakers
28.Beno Udrih, Breil Milano, ItalySan Antonio
29.David Harrison, Colorado Indiana
(1) The Washington Wizards traded Jerry Stackhouse, Christian Laettner and the draft rights to Devin Harris to the Dallas Mavericks for Antawn Jamison and cash considerations.
(2) The Denver Nuggets traded the draft rights to Jameer Nelson to Orlando for a future first-round pick.
(3) The Utah Jazz traded the draft rights to Pavel Podkolzin to the Dallas Mavericks for a future first-round pick.
(4) The New Jersey Nets traded the draft rights to Viktor Khryapa to the Portland Trail Blazers for Eddie Gill and cash considerations.
(5) The Phoenix Suns traded the draft rights to Luol Deng to the Chicago Bulls for the draft rights to Jackson Vroman, a future first-round pick and cash considerations.


2003

NO.

PLAYER, SCHOOL/COUNTRY

TEAM
1.LeBron James, St. Vincent-St. Mary HS (Ohio)Cleveland
2.Darko Milicic, Serbia & MontenegroDetroit
3.Carmelo Anthony, SyracuseDenver
4.Chris Bosh, Georgia TechToronto
5.Dwyane Wade, MarquetteMiami
6.Chris Kaman, Central MichiganL.A. Clippers
7.Kirk Hinrich, KansasChicago
8.T.J. Ford, TexasMilwaukee
9.Mike Sweetney, GeorgetownNew York
10.Jarvis Hayes, GeorgiaWashington
11.Mickael Pietrus, FranceGolden State
12.Nick Collison, KansasSeattle
13.Marcus Banks, UNLVMemphis (1)
14.Luke Ridnour, OregonSeattle
15.Reece Gaines, LouisvilleOrlando
16.Troy Bell, Boston CollegeBoston (1)
17.Zarko Cabarkapa, Serbia & MontenegroPhoenix
18.David West, XavierNew Orleans
19.Aleksandar Pavlovic, Serbia & MontenegroUtah
20.Dahntay Jones, DukeBoston (1)
21.Boris Diaw-Riffiod, FranceAtlanta
22.Zoran Planinic, CroatiaNew Jersey
23.Travis Outlaw, Starkville HS (Miss.)Portland
24.Brian Cook, IllinoisL.A. Lakers
25.Carlos Delfino, ItalyDetroit
26.Ndudi Ebi, Westbury Christian HS (Texas)Minnesota
27.Kendrick Perkins, Clifton J. Ozen HS (Texas)Memphis (1)
28.Leandrinho Barbosa, BrazilSan Antonio (2)
29.Josh Howard, Wake ForestDallas
(1) Memphis trades rights to Marcus Banks and Kendrick Perkins to Boston for rights to Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones.
(2) San Antonio trades rights to Leandrinho Barbosa to Phoenix for a future first-round pick.


2002

NO.

PLAYER, SCHOOL/COUNTRY

TEAM
1.Yao Ming, ChinaHouston
2.Jay Williams, DukeChicago
3.Mike Dunleavy, DukeGolden State
4.Drew Gooden, KansasMemphis
5.Nikoloz Tskitishvili, ItalyDenver
6.Dajuan Wagner, MemphisCleveland
7.Nene Hilario, BrazilNew York (1)
8.Chris Wilcox, MarylandL.A. Clippers
9.Amare Stoudemire, Cypress Creek HS (Fla.)Phoenix
10.Caron Butler, ConnecticutMiami
11.Jared Jeffries, IndianaWashington
12.Melvin Ely, Fresno StateL.A. Clippers
13.Marcus Haislip, TennesseeMilwaukee
14.Fred Jones, OregonIndiana
15.Bostjan Nachbar, SloveniaHouston
16.Jiri Welsch, Czech RepublicPhiladelphia (2)
17.Juan Dixon, MarylandWashington
18.Curtis Borchardt, StanfordOrlando (3)
19.Ryan Humphrey, Notre DameUtah (3)
20.Kareem Rush, MissouriToronto (4)
21.Qyntel Woods, Northeast Mississippi CCPortland
22.Casey Jacobsen, StanfordPhoenix
23.Tayshaun Prince, KentuckyDetroit
24.Nenad Krstic, YugoslaviaNew Jersey
25.Frank Williams, IllinoisDenver (1)
26.John Salmons, MiamiSan Antonio (5)
27.Chris Jefferies, Fresno StateL.A. Lakers (4)
28.Dan Dickau, GonzagaSacramento (6)
(1) New York trades Marcus Camby, Mark Jackson and the rights to Nene Hilario to Denver for Antonio McDyess and rights to Frank Williams and a second-round pick in 2003.
(2) Philadelphia trades rights to Jiri Welsch to Golden State for two future picks.
(3) Orlando trades rights to Curtis Borchardt to Utah for rights to Ryan Humphrey and Jamal Sampson.
(4) Toronto trades Tracy Murray and rights to Kareem Rush to L.A. Lakers for Lindsey Hunter and rights to Chris Jefferies.
(5) San Antonio trades Mark Bryant and the rights to John Salmons and Randy Holcomb to Philadelphia for Speedy Claxton.
(6) Sacramento trades rights to Dan Dickau to Atlanta for a future first-round pick.


2001

NO.

PLAYER, SCHOOL/COUNTRY

TEAM
1.Kwame Brown, Glynn Academy (Ga.)Washington
2.Tyson Chandler, Dominguez HS (Calif.)L.A. Clippers (1)
3.Pau Gasol, SpainAtlanta (2)
4.Eddy Curry, Thornwood HS (Ill.)Chicago
5.Jason Richardson, Michigan StateGolden State
6.Shane Battier, DukeMemphis
7.Eddie Griffin, Seton HallNew Jersey (3)
8.DeSagana Diop, Oak Hill Academy (Va.)Cleveland
9.Rodney White, UNC-CharlotteDetroit
10.Joe Johnson, ArkansasBoston
11.Kedrick Brown, Okaloosa-Walton CC (Fla.)Boston
12.Vladimir Radmanovic, Serbia & MontenegroSeattle
13.Richard Jefferson, ArizonaHouston (3)
14.Troy Murphy, Notre DameGolden State
15.Steven Hunter, DePaulOrlando
16.Kirk Haston, IndianaCharlotte
17.Michael Bradley, VillanovaToronto
18.Jason Collins, StanfordHouston (3)
19.Zach Randolph, Michigan StatePortland
20.Brendan Haywood, North CarolinaCleveland (4)
21.Joseph Forte, North CarolinaBoston
22.Jeryl Sasser, Southern MethodistOrlando
23.Brandon Armstrong, PepperdineHouston (3)
24.Raul Lopez, SpainUtah
25.Gerald Wallace, AlabamaSacramento
26.Samuel Dalembert, Seton HallPhiladelphia
27.Jamaal Tinsley, Iowa StateMemphis (5)
28.Tony Parker, FranceSan Antonio
(1) Chicago trades Brian Skinner and rights to Tyson Chandler to L.A. Clippers for Elton Brand.
(2) Atlanta trades rights to Pau Gasol to Memphis for Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
(3) New Jersey trades rights to Eddie Griffin to Houston for rights to Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins and Brandon Armstrong.
(4) Cleveland trades rights to Brendan Haywood to Orlando for Michael Doleac.
(5) Memphis trades rights to Jamaal Tinsley to Indiana via Atlanta, finalizing earlier trade.


2000

NO.

PLAYER, SCHOOL/COUNTRY

TEAM
1.Kenyon Martin, CincinnatiNew Jersey
2.Stromile Swift, LSUVancouver
3.Darius Miles, East St. Louis HS (Mo.)L.A. Clippers
4.Marcus Fizer, Iowa StateChicago
5.Mike Miller, FloridaOrlando
6.DerMarr Johnson, CincinnatiAtlanta
7.Chris Mihm, TexasChicago (1)
8.Jamal Crawford, MichiganCleveland (1)
9.Joel Przybilla, MinnesotaHouston (2)
10.Keyon Dooling, MissouriOrlando (3)
11.Jerome Moiso, UCLABoston
12.Etan Thomas, SyracuseDallas
13.Courtney Alexander, Fresno StateOrlando (4)
14.Mateen Cleaves, Michigan StateDetroit
15.Jason Collier, Georgia TechMilwaukee (2)
16.Hidayet Turkoglu, TurkeySacramento
17.Desmond Mason, Oklahoma StateSeattle
18.Quentin Richardson, DePaulL.A. Clippers
19.Jamaal Magloire, KentuckyCharlotte
20.Speedy Claxton, HofstraPhiladelphia
21.Morris Peterson, Michigan StateToronto
22.Donnell Harvey, FloridaNew York (5)
23.DeShawn Stevenson, Washington Union HS (Calif.)Utah
24.Dalibor Bagaric, CroatiaChicago
25.Iakovos Tsakalidis, GreecePhoenix
26.Mamadou N'diaye, AuburnDenver
27.Primoz Brezec, SloveniaIndiana
28.Erick Barkley, St. John'sPortland
29.Mark Madsen, StanfordL.A. Lakers
(1) Chicago trades rights to Chris Mihm to Cleveland for the rights to Jamal Crawford and cash.
(2) Houston trades rights to Joel Przybilla to Milwaukee for the rights to Jason Collier and a future first-round pick.
(3) Orlando trades Corey Maggette, Derek Strong, the rights to Keyon Dooling and cash to L.A. Clippers for a future first-round pick.
(4) Dallas trades a future first-round draft pick plus cash to Orlando for the rights to Courtney Alexander.
(5) New York trades John Wallace and the rights to Donnell Harvey to Dallas for Erick Strickland and the rights to Pete Mickeal.

Updated: 12:33 AM GMT on February 09, 2012

Permalink

Philly in flux

By: timbersfan, 1:21 AM GMT on February 04, 2012

For most managers of up-and-coming teams, the sole purpose of the MLS offseason is to make minor tweaks to an already strong roster. Perhaps acquiring a veteran for a key part of the field is all that's needed, or maybe shoring up the team's depth in a few positions is the primary objective.

Leave it to Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak to put his own twist on how to conduct an offseason.

Philadelphia had already lost Justin Mapp in the expansion draft and Veljko Paunovic to retirement, and cut Stefani Miglioranzi. But then, in a 24-hour span, not only did Nowak lose veteran goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, but he had the audacity to trade leading scorer and 2010 Best XI performer Sebastien Le Toux to the Vancouver Whitecaps for allocation money. Factor in Freddy Adu's desire to head back to Europe and the rumors that Danny Mwanga was being shopped around, and one gets the impression that Nowak is hell-bent on blowing up that which he's spent more than two years building.

[+] Enlarge
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Sebastien Le Toux's superb form for the Union was tempered by off-field uncertainty, prompting Peter Nowak's decision to trade the 26-goal man to Vancouver.
In a Tuesday conference call with reporters, Nowak stated there was an internal logic to every decision he has made so far, including the acquisitions of midfielder Gabriel Gomez, forward Josue Martinez and defender Porfirio Lopez. Mondragon's departure was due solely to family considerations, with the 40-year-old returning to his native Colombia. Besides, Zac MacMath impressed during a seven-game stint while Mondragon was injured last year and looks ready to take over.

As for Mwanga, Nowak insisted the forward was never being dangled as trade bait, and would meet up with the team in Florida this Monday following a training stint with EPL side Aston Villa.

"There are a lot of teams, MLS teams, they dream about having Danny Mwanga, and they try to spin it in the wrong direction, telling everybody that we are shopping him," Nowak said. "That is completely false and not true. Then it comes out that he is not needed here. That's not the case here. We are going to welcome him with open arms and hopefully more experience."

In a text message to ESPN.com, Nowak relayed similar sentiments about Adu. The U.S. international had spent time training in Spain with La Liga side Rayo Vallecano and made no secret of his desire to return to Europe, telling ESPN.com that if a permanent move was put on the table, "I'd have to pursue it." This from a player whose nomadic tendencies have been much more of a hindrance than a help during his career.

Yet Nowak insisted that observers were getting the wrong impression of the itinerant attacker, stating that Adu had looked "great" in preseason both for Philadelphia as well as the U.S. U-23 national team.

"I'm sure, at some point, he would like to come back to Europe like any other youngster who did smell big football out there for quite some time," Nowak said. "I will not stay in his way if he gets this opportunity again."

But most of the angst being directed Nowak's way has to do with his decision to trade Le Toux. Not only did the Frenchman score 26 regular-season and playoff goals over the past two seasons, but he was the proverbial face of the franchise. The fact the team purchased the contract of on-loan midfielder Roger Torres will do little to reduce the level of teeth-gnashing in the City of Brotherly Love. And yet, Nowak stressed he was thinking long term, and had to think of the team over just one player.

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"It's not easy letting players go," he said. "It's not an easy part for any of us. But we want to reinvest in the guys that are going to be here in the future. We have a couple of guys on the roster right now that we want to improve the contracts, because they have the contracts from the past years and they are not financially strong, but they contribute to the team, so we want to reward the players as well. One is [defender] Sheanon Williams. That's the part where we want to improve this thing and keep these guys for a couple of more years."

Nowak also said that Le Toux's rather public pronouncements -- namely that he preferred to play as a second striker and not in midfield -- had no bearing on his decision. But looking beneath the surface, there were multiple moving parts that appear to have impacted Nowak's thinking, the biggest of these being Le Toux's contract.

"I can understand as a fan how you'd be a little upset," said former U.S. international Taylor Twellman, who served as the Union's television analyst last year. "But [Le Toux] is in the last year of his contract. I am sure that they've had discussions about a contract, and I'm sure that Philly valued him at one number and Sebastien valued himself at another number. Instead of dealing with that headache later and maybe losing Seba at the end of the year for free, I would get rid of him if you ask me. If my option is to lose Le Toux at end of year for nothing, and get something now, then I want something, plain and simple."

A published interview with Le Toux in The Delaware County Daily Times confirmed Twellman's hunch. In the article, Le Toux said that he asked Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz for a raise to around $400,000, just under designated player level.

There are also other monetary considerations. The Union will be on the hook for every cent of Adu's considerable salary this year -- according to the MLS Players Union, Adu's annual guaranteed compensation last year was $594,884 -- instead of the prorated salary-cap hit that took place last year.

[+] Enlarge
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images
With Le Toux's departure, can Danny Mwanga shoulder the load as the Union's main attacking prospect?
As for Mwanga, his status as a Generation adidas player meant he had zero impact on the salary cap the past two years. But the forward "graduated" from the program at the conclusion of the 2011 campaign, meaning his salary-cap hit this year will be significant. Mwanga earned $226,250 in guaranteed compensation last year.

"Mwanga's and Adu's contracts, I think that's where the dilemma starts," Twellman said.

It's a logical explanation for why Le Toux went on trial at EPL club Bolton Wanderers at Nowak's behest. And when it didn't work out, Le Toux had even less leverage than he did before to extract a raise out of Philadelphia, either now or in the future. In the same interview, Le Toux said he "would be happy to just retire than play for Peter again," and when looked at in that context, the decision to acquire some value for an unhappy player while there was still something to be gained makes more sense.

But without question, Nowak is taking an incredible gamble. The pressure on Philadelphia's stable of young forwards -- a group that includes Mwanga, Martinez, 19-year-old Jack McInerney, and top draft pick Chandler Hoffman -- will be considerable. If they don't compensate for Le Toux's immense production over the past two years, the Union will be hard-pressed to return to the playoffs. Nowak, for his part, isn't putting his young charges under pressure just yet.

"We're going to help [the forwards] out as a coaching staff to develop the right way and get them ready for the season and we will see what will happen," he said. "Now, it's too early to say who is going to score 15 goals. I don't work in a hypothetical world. I live in reality, and I see these guys every day and I'm sure they will fulfill the responsibilities."

For now, Union fans can only sit back and hope that Nowak is right.

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A cautionary tale for Jose Mourinho

By: timbersfan, 1:20 AM GMT on February 04, 2012

At a time when the Leonardo DiCaprio movie "J. Edgar" is playing large at cinemas around the world, I liked the image of Jose Mourinho turning up in Marbella on his day off to spy on CSKA Moscow. Not that there was a hint of him looking for Communist Party sympathizers in the squad -- which will be Real Madrid's next opponent in the Champions League -- but the timing and synchronicity were just too delicious.

For those who neither follow social history nor cinema, J. Edgar Hoover was the FBI director who disliked left-wingers, liberals, exhibited a worrying degree of curiosity and, allegedly, was experimental in his clothing tastes. If you weren't with him, then you were most definitely against him, and you could expect a wiretap or a knock on the door.

Mourinho -- well, he obviously shows none of the above tendencies. In fact, Cristiano Ronaldo is functioning quite nicely on the left wing for Madrid these days.

But if you step back and adjust your sights from the short term (Madrid versus Getafe in La Liga this weekend) and try to put Mourinho's next few months in focus, the big question, even ahead of whether he will leave the Bernabeu for the Premier League in the summer, is what could possibly prevent him from adding the Spanish title to his bulging chest of silverware?

The hard fact is this: Only if Mourinho and his squad somehow tie their own shoelaces together is there any real prospect of them tripping up. One way for the coach to avoid that is to take in the Hoover movie and tell himself, "I won't do that, I won't do that."

It's as simple as that. Barcelona is Madrid's only rival for La Liga. Los Merengues have a merited seven-point lead; Mourinho has never squandered even a three-point lead atop the Portuguese, English or Italian championships; and Madrid possesses a significant advantage in fit, talented players right now.

It should be a shoo-in.

I know, I know -- Catalan cheerleaders will point out that this is precisely the kind of situation in which Johan Cruyff's Dream Team (with cerebral command in the hands of one Josep Guardiola, midfielder) used to consistently win the Spanish title in the 1990s. Twenty years ago, Guardiola won his first title when Barca beat Athletic Bilbao 2-0 on the last day of the season and Madrid conceded a lead and lost 3-2 in Tenerife. Twelve months later, Guardiola and Cruyff managed a 1-0 win over some more Basques, Real Sociedad, while Madrid lost 2-0 to the same opponent, Tenerife.

Even if you skip forward to Xavi's first title, in 1999, Barcelona was ninth on Matchday 15 when the young midfielder's solitary goal won a victory against Valladolid that saved Louis van Gaal's job and sparked a fight-back. Some of the Barca sheen, certainly before this era of domination, came from their rear-guard underdog action in La Liga.

The current squad is so good that an odds-against fight-back can't totally be ruled out, even if the side is decimated by injury. But logic would dictate that if Madrid plays to anything resembling its potential between now and May, then even losing the remaining league Clasico would hardly be disastrous. Barcelona would still have to make up the four remaining points, and then match Real result-for-result to retain its title. (Spain works on a head-to-head rule -- if two sides finish equal, then the results between them dictate who wins).

What does remain a threat to Madrid, however, is team harmony.

Thus far I've made the point repeatedly that the patent disagreements on subjects like playing style, formation and media policy are not yet at a level that they will divide sufficiently to derail Mourinho and his squad.

It is clear that there are some Spaniards in the Real Madrid side who disagree with Mourinho over how to defeat Barcelona, over the attacking philosophy in other Liga games when Madrid finds itself on top, over how to defend, and over what kind of public persona is expected of a Real Madrid manager.

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Javier Soriano/Getty Images
Conflict between Mourinho and Real's Spanish players such as Sergio Ramos isn't enough to derail the team's success.
What counterbalances that dissent is the fact that Mourinho possesses a group of players -- particularly Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain and the core Spaniards -- who are driven by the need to lift silverware, are accustomed to winning and are low-maintenance for the manager.

It may very well prove to be the case that some of the Madrid players actually knew all along, better than Mourinho, how best to confront Barca, but that's a different argument.

What can still threaten Madrid, despite all the previous points, is if the Portuguese coach is determined to seek out, identify and punish those whom he believes have been leaking information to two newspapers: El Pais, where the excellent Diego Torres has had a keen and interesting source from almost the first week of the "Special" reign, and Marca, where the catty exchanges between Sergio Ramos, Iker Casillas and Mourinho were reported on the front page after the second leg of the King's Cup quarterfinal against Barcelona.

Whether the source proves to be a coach, a medic, a physio, a player, a club executive or Alfredo di Stefano, the very process of seeking out dissenters and traitors is corrosive and dangerous by nature. Unity is stripped away, team spirit is crippled and it is next to impossible to keep the competitive edge at its sharpest. The media will be dragged into such a storm; a magnifying glass will be applied to every gesture, raised eyebrow, failure to celebrate winning a corner adequately -- you can imagine.

One of Mourinho's great strengths thus far has been man management. He won extra admiration from me when he took the flurry of criticism from his senior players after the defeat at Levante and the draw in Santander earlier this season and assimilated the information rather than lashing out in anger.

Barcelona's Brilliance
Graham Hunter is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," available as an e-book on the iPad, Kindle and Kobo. The printed version will be available in paperback from Feb. 17 and can be preordered at BackPage Press.

The result? A stream of power performances, a flood of goals and a significant lead at the top of La Liga because Barcelona couldn't keep pace.

Right now, with Barca about to try to paper over the cracks against Valencia in the Copa del Rey, with the sublime story of third-division Mirandes having made it to the other semifinal, and with the Champions League knockout stage just about sneaking into view again, there is a danger that winning and losing the league is seen as something that only happens from April onward.

Not so. If Mourinho plays his hand poorly right now and decides to seek out and punish dissenters, J. Edgar Hoover-style, chaos could result. If the Portuguese is shrewd and serves his revenge dish cold -- that is, after the season is over -- then Madrid is not only well-placed, it should be uncatchable.

Don't miss a minute, as this is a human drama as well as sporting theater.

Renewable energy -- how appropriate

I guess one of the principal reasons for sponsorship is not just that established brands compete for our attention, but that if a company chooses its medium well, it can tell a story that introduces us to something we knew nothing about in the first place.

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Ander Gillena/AFP/Getty Images
Valencia's Roberto Soldado & Co. celebrate on the pitch, but it's off the field where the club has really got its act together.
As such, I'm going to break one of the normal rules for a columnist and admit ignorance. I had never heard of the Chinese company JinkoSolar before it announced Tuesday that it is the new shirt sponsor of Valencia CF. Call me a dolt if you must.

However, there are two things I love about this deal. Number one: What could possibly be better for this phoenix-like club than a sponsor that deals in "renewable energy" at a time when Valencia is fighting its way back from the brink of financial insolvency with a formidable debt-reduction plan, an audacious sales policy, and the announcement that it is restarting construction of the new Mestalla?

Renewable energy? This is a full-scale resurrection.

And that's point two. I'm sure that when Valencia recently sat down with the banks, the local council that bailed the club out of trouble and the constructors who must work on good faith to kick-start the new Mestalla building project that this Chinese sponsorship deal must, at least, have been in the pipeline.

What this represents is one more piece of good news, on top of Valencia's consistent debt reduction, its overachieving in La Liga and its European revenue that will allow all its creditors -- all those they need to stand close to them in these recession-plagued times -- to garner a little bit more confidence.

And I write not as a Valencia fan or shareholder but as an independent, whose love for Spanish football across the board means I feel it is time for all good men (women and children) to come to the aid of the party.

Valencia and Levante's debt repayment and football performance are nothing short of miraculous. And let's not forget the wave of intelligence, hard work and optimism at Real Betis, plus the new stadium and rising league position at Athletic. Taken together, it can serve as something more than a motif for unilateral rebirth; I hope it acts as a template for all other right-minded clubs across the top divisions of this country.

I "heart" Copa

Finally, a little love letter, straight from the heart, to the Copa del Rey. Anyone who was raised in the UK would understand the sway of the FA Cup in England. And as an Aberdonian, how could I forget that it was winning Scotland's FA Cup that gave my city's club the gateway to its greatest glory -- defeating both Bayern Munich and then the mighty Real Madrid in the final of the Cup Winners' Cup?

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In Spain, it has been traditional to view the domestic cup with a bit of an upturned nose. Real Madrid, in particular, thought for many years that to try "too hard" in the Copa del Rey was a little blue-collar, only for the hoi polloi.

But since moving to Spain a decade ago, I have been at some absolutely earth-shatteringly good cup ties. I was a spectator at the 1996 final between Barca and Betis, and I will not forget the drama, noise and wonderful football for as long as I live.

So to see little Mirandes playing with such enormous panache, aggression and confidence to reach the semifinal versus Athletic Bilbao means that the final is absolutely guaranteed a barnstorming story.

Both Barcelona and Valencia, in the other half of the draw, are serial winners. If one of them triumphs, fine. But romance for the rest of the world it ain't.

Should Mirandes get to the Copa final despite its first-leg defeat then, for its community, the world will either stop spinning or seem like it's spinning at treble speed. Life will change forever. Should it be Athletic (without a win in this tournament for nearly 30 years), then a grand old dame of the Spanish stage will get a change to rouge up and avenge the bitter defeat she suffered in 2009. That's when, on the pitch in Valencia's Mestalla, the Basque players wept with the sheer effort of having given their best and come up second to a mighty Barca side that was en route to its treble trophy win in Guardiola's first season.

Right now I'm sending imaginary hearts to the Copa, to Athletic and to Mirandes. Football poetry.

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Man up, Mancini!

By: timbersfan, 1:18 AM GMT on February 04, 2012

Man City's midweek plummet back to Prem parity at Goodison Park gifted us with a kaleidoscope of jolting images: the protester who handcuffed himself to the goal, adding new meaning to the maxim "dumb as a post"; Everton's blue-collar defender Tony Hibbert, stuffing the no-longer-so-fearsome Sergio Aguero into his back pocket; or even United washout Darron Gibson finally doing something that made people at Old Trafford happy to hear his name.

But there was one image that I found to be truly shocking: the dangling thread on Roberto Mancini's Armani overcoat.

Given that the Italian is usually so flawlessly attired he makes Jose Mourinho look like Kevin James, it could only mean one thing: City is starting to fray at its expensive seams. And it might not have a good enough tailor to keep either Mancini's outfit or its title chase together.

Mancini himself -- who has spent a frustrating week failing at his numerous attempts to exorcise the demon seed that is Carlos Tevez from his Eastlands flock -- chose the path of self-immolation after his team's 1-0 loss to Everton. "I didn't prepare well for this game," he said. "I thought it was maybe easier."

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Michael Regan/Getty Images
Sergio Aguero has cut a frustrated figure of late.
As admirable as it is for a manager not named Ian Holloway to shoulder responsibility -- can you even imagine Sir Alex or Lord Wenger engaging in that level of accountability? -- Mancini is nothing if not wily. And Ferguson, in particular, has been around the say-one-thing-mean-another block far too many times to be fooled.

"When an Italian tells me it's pasta on the plate, I check under the sauce to make sure," he famously said before playing Inter Milan in the 1999 Champions League quarterfinal. "They are the inventors of the smokescreen."

But where there's smoke, there's often a flame, and if Mancini is to avoid the Mark "Your services are no longer required" Hughes exit door, he'll need to locate the Etihad fire extinguisher, pronto. Have you looked in Mario Balotelli's bathroom, Roberto?

Tevez's festering presence represents both a challenge and an opportunity for Mancini. The Argentine whose face once adorned a huge downtown billboard proclaiming "Welcome To Manchester" is apparently not welcome in either Milan or Paris despite his cutting-edge snood-centric fashion sense. Mancini, ever the pragmatist, has even gone so far as to include the peripatetic striker on his 25-man roster for the rest of the EPL season, while once again blowing smoke with his straight-faced comment that "Tevez has no problem with me."

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Seriously, if Tevez has no problem with Mancini, then Luis Suarez has no problem with United fans.

Yet does anyone not think that in one of those dark nights of the soul, Mancini hasn't entertained the thought of a rehabilitated Tevez in his front line, especially with the recently subdued play of Aguero who, despite scoring 14 goals this season, hasn't found the net since Jan. 3? For a player who depends on his Usain Bolt-esque quickness off the mark, he has appeared strangely leaden in front of goal, a drought compounded by Edin Dzeko's frustrating lack of aggression in the box. Meanwhile, for all of Balotelli's wondrous gifts, he's not exactly a consistent threat, except to himself.

And so, with no striker in dominant form, opponents are able to pack six men in the penalty area at all times and dare David Silva to do it himself. But the stylish Spaniard -- so adept at decimating teams on the counter when there is plenty of room for his speed, vision and passing range -- has been flummoxed when trying to pick the lock of a massed defense.

All of which explains City's impotence midweek at Goodison Park. While the game against the Toffees was always going to be sticky -- the Sky Blues have won only once at Goodison in their past 14 visits -- this was City's fourth defeat in the past nine games. During this anti-streak, the team has morphed from an unstoppable soccer blitzkrieg to a far pricier version of Stoke City, and the juggernaut that had scored an Xbox-like three or more goals in 14 of 23 games has only caused that kind of damage twice since Christmas Day. The weather, the year and Mancini's tailoring have all turned. Can regression to his previously preferred "parcheggiare il bus" tactics be far behind?

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Michael Regan/Getty Images
City fans let Carlos Tevez know what they think of him in October. But Mancini has included the striker in his 25-man roster.
While City's early-season scoring binge leaves it atop the Prem on goal differential (imagine if crushing United by five goals early on proved to be the difference-making margin in May), it is not the idyllic, secluded view it enjoyed before the new year. Once again, Sir Alex's indomitable Scottish refusal to concede anything to anyone has United sharing the top spot, and while the rest of the London teams are reduced to scrambling for fourth place, Spurs remain annoyingly relevant.

And therein lies Mancini's firefighting challenge. No amount of Sheikh Mansour's black-gold lucre can purchase the experience required to navigate the rigors of a title run-in. With little trophy-hunting practice over the past 51 years to fall back on, the struggle for City will be to conquer the asphyxiating pressure that Ferguson has made an art form out of exploiting.

Sir Alex's United teams have been defined by their ability to nervelessly ride out the hot streaks of various EPL title pretenders before ruthlessly emasculating them down the stretch. Who doesn't remember Liverpool's brave charge for Prem glory in 2008-09, its most recent full-blooded attempt to end its gloriously long title drought? How will-sapping it must have been to see Fergie's boys constantly closing in the rearview mirror until four goals from Andrei freakin' Arshavin at Anfield caused the Reds to run off the road and cede United the prize.

But while that car wreck foreshadowed Rafa Benitez's slide into irrelevance, there is no guarantee that Mancini will suffer the same grim fate, even though every dropped point brings him that much closer to the precipice. Mourinho's latest sniffing around the backsides of affluent Prem sides certainly cannot be helping Roberto's agita.

With the pressure mounting, Tevez begrudgingly returning and negative results accumulating, you can't really fault Mancini for trying to deflect blame from his players, who must be psychically exhausted by all of this season's sideshows. The distractions are borderline legion: In addition to the Argentine tango, there's the loss of the influential Yaya Toure to the African Cup of Nations for a critical month; the latest suspension for City's seemingly only in-form but out-of-whack striker, Mario the Mercurial Balotelli; and the collapse of the back line during Vincent Kompany's four-game spell on the sidelines while serving a dubiously deserved punishment. While Tevez and his parasitic agent continue to serve as the entree in this feast of dysfunction, the mind boggles at the pain that Mancini must be feeling now that he's been forced to give up on Wayne Bridge.

Fortunately for Mancini over the next month, City faces a pretty straightforward run of cannon fodder -- Fulham, Aston Villa, Blackburn and Bolton -- assuming it can rediscover the ruthlessness and self-belief that defined its torrid start to the season. Will City's deep squad and deeper pockets be enough to secure the title and Mancini's salvation? I know one person who's rooting against it. Clue: His name rhymes with Jose Mourinho.

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Zakuani on the road to recovery

By: timbersfan, 1:17 AM GMT on February 04, 2012

TUKWILA, Wash. -- You knew it was bad, but not this bad: potentially career-ending bad, the kind of life-changing injury that caused a 23-year-old rising star, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 MLS draft, to start thinking of new ways to make a living. That's exactly what Steve Zakuani, the Seattle Sounders fan-favorite midfielder, found himself contemplating one night last June, two months after a tackle by Colorado's Brian Mullan had broken the tibia and fibula in his right leg.
Zakuani was on crutches. He had lost 18 pounds. And, worst of all, unexpected nerve damage meant he couldn't feel anything in the lower part of the leg. "For the first two or three months I had zero feeling there. Zero," he says. "I wouldn't know if someone was touching my leg. I couldn't even wiggle my little toe. It got to the point where I thought I might never play again."
The play that sidelined Zakuani is seared in the memory of anyone who witnessed it. Brian Dunseth was standing a few feet away, working as a reporter for Fox Soccer Channel's broadcast of the game last April. He remembers each moment: seeing Mullan lose the ball and throw up his hands looking for a foul; seeing Zakuani track back to gain possession, nutmeg Kosuke Kimura and start dribbling upfield; and seeing Mullan come in hard -- and high -- on Zakuani, who had planted his right leg in the turf.
Dunseth will never forget the haunting sound, a double snap that echoed like gunfire. "I can still hear it almost a year later," he says.
For Zakuani, the next nine months would bring multiple surgeries, extensive rehab and the doubt that comes with questions about your livelihood. Mullan, for his part, would face a 10-game suspension -- the longest in MLS history -- and paralyzing bouts of guilt and remorse. For two of the league's most respected players, 2011 would be the most challenging year of their careers.
***
Steve Zakuani smiles. He's wearing a black knit cap on an overcast winter day at the Sounders' training complex, and he couldn't be happier. He's practicing again. On every third day, he trains at full-speed with the rest of his teammates. The next day he'll split his efforts between the team and working out on his own. After that he'll spend an entire day doing drills to the side. Then the process starts over again.
"It's not 100 percent yet," he says in his London-accented English. (Zakuani was born in Congo and moved to London at age four.) "The sprinting and some of the movements still aren't there, but the basic touches and awareness on the pitch are coming back. The hardest thing is going to be getting back to not just playing, but playing at a good level."
Late May or early June would be a realistic time for him to return to an MLS game, he says. His right foot now has 70 to 80 percent sensation, thanks to the slow process of nerve regeneration, but the feet are so important to a pro soccer player that he won't be what he was until full sensation returns.
There's no doubt that Zakuani was a budding star when the injury happened. A blazing left-winger, he had two goals and two assists in the first five games of the '11 season and seemed certain to build on his 10-goal, six-assist league campaign from the previous year. "I felt like I was taking my game to the next level," Zakuani says.
Had Zakuani's injury been limited to the broken tibia and fibula, the two leg bones under the knee, he could have returned before the end of last season. But he suffered additional complications that made the damage far worse, says Michael Morris, the Sounders' medical director and orthopedic surgeon. Zakuani developed compartment syndrome in his right calf, a condition in which swelling increased the pressure inside the muscle, threatening to prevent blood circulation and cause severe muscle damage.
Doctors in Colorado rushed Zakuani into emergency surgery, where they inserted a nail into the tibia and released the lining of the muscle compartment, cutting the thin layer of fascia surrounding the calf like an envelope from the bottom of the leg up to nearly the knee. The muscle was allowed to swell and survive, but Zakuani suffered from scarring and fibrosis and would eventually need a skin graft to replace one of the two fascia incisions that didn't completely heal.
The other complication was even scarier: nerve damage that was limiting Zakuani's ability to use his right foot. "With the nerve injury, if he didn't recover function, he wouldn't have been able to play [again]," says Morris. "With compartment syndrome, sometimes it's hard to tell how much muscle has been involved. Initially, he had a lot of stiffness and difficulty with mobilizing his ankle. We thought he'd get back to doing normal things, but to play high-level soccer requires so much control of your foot that we were concerned he might not be able to get back. But I'd say he has made a remarkable recovery from all of that."
It hasn't been easy. Zakuani spent five days in the Denver-area hospital -- Seattle coach Sigi Schmid and minority owner Adrian Hanauer visited him there -- and due to the severity of his injuries the Sounders organized a private jet to take Zakuani and his mother, Cecile, back to the Pacific Northwest. Physical therapy was nearly unbearable at times. Zakuani would set new milestone goals for Fridays, and the big ones started falling: Get off one crutch. Get off the other crutch. Start walking. "Things I couldn't do a month before would come naturally," he says. "I've celebrated every little victory."
Words of support poured in. Zakuani was surprised to get an e-mail from David Beckham. Encouragement came on Twitter from Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies. There were long talks with his former University of Akron teammates (Teal Bunbury and Darlington Nagbe), and his agent, Richard Motzkin, and an inspiring conversation with Thierry Henry, one of his heroes growing up in North London. Then there was his coach. "Sigi was there from beginning to end," Zakuani says, "knowing when to tell me to take time off and when I should keep pushing."
Of all the MLS players who checked in, former Sounders teammate Pete Vagenas, a close friend and the owner of a Sahara-dry sense of humor, might have been Zakuani's favorite. "Pete is the only one who can make a joke out of this and not hurt my feelings," Zakuani says with a smile. When Vagenas's Vancouver team traveled to Seattle for a reserve game last year, the fans started singing Zakuani's name when he showed up on crutches at the small Starfire stadium. Vagenas sidled over to his friend and said, deadpan: "Stop milking this s---, Steve. It's time to get back to playing." Zakuani nearly doubled over laughing.

Seattle fans have continued to show their support for Zakuani's recovery.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Some stadium visits were harder. The first time Zakuani attended a Seattle MLS game, a month after the injury, he was so down he wouldn't talk to anyone. But other moments lifted his spirits, like the salute more than 36,000 Seattle fans gave him during the game after his injury, lifting placards with his number 11 during the 11th minute of a victory over Toronto. "They had this huge banner that said NUMBER 11: UNBREAKABLE," says Zakuani, who saw the video on YouTube. "I have those pictures up in my house. It's something I'll keep the rest of my life."
Zakuani also has written inspiration: four boxes of handwritten letters from fans that he only plans on opening as he gets closer to playing in an MLS game ("to remind me of how far I've come"). He also credits much of his positivity to reading the Bible nearly every night during his recovery.
When you have an injury like Zakuani's, the challenges are both physical and mental. On the physical side, it probably helped that his right leg had gone through another trauma before. In 2003, not long after he left Arsenal's youth program in London, Zakuani had a moped accident that caused severe damage to his right knee, including a nerve injury. The memory of that recovery helped remind him that nerves regrow slowly, that he had to be patient.
On the mental side, Zakuani says, Schmid has offered him the use of a psychologist from the start. "The closer I get [to playing games], I'll probably do that, meet someone I can talk to and give my concerns to," Zakuani says.
The mental aspect, after all, can be the hardest part. Brian Mullan knows.
***
He starts talking for a second, then stops and chokes up again. This won't be easy. Nine months have passed, and Brian Mullan is giving his first lengthy interview about his tackle that broke Zakuani's leg. Mullan takes a deep breath. He has been asked how much Zakuani's injury has occupied his thoughts since it happened. "Obviously, you can tell right now," Mullan says. "I still have a hard time with it. It wakes me up in the middle of the night, and I can't get back to sleep thinking about it."
Until that fateful night last April, Mullan, 33, was known mainly for his rampant success on the soccer field. An energetic winger, the 12th-year veteran had raised the MLS Cup trophy five times, tied with Jeff Agoos for the most in league history. Players in the league described Mullan as "hard-nosed" but not "dirty." Before last April 22, he had gone 131 MLS games and five seasons without a red card.
And then, in the matter of a few seconds on a soccer field, everything changed. "I lost the ball and saw an opportunity where I thought I could get it back," Mullan says. "And unfortunately the outcome was" -- he pauses -- "devastating."
Mullan wishes he could take back what he said immediately after the game, that "it was a tackle I've done a 100 times, and I'd probably do it again." He wanted to communicate that there was no intent to injure in his tackle, but it came out horribly wrong, considering Zakuani was heading into emergency surgery at a nearby hospital.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't know the extent of [the injury] until I was on my way home from the stadium," Mullan says. "I had done the interview after the game and had no idea of the severity. It came down pretty hard afterward."
Mullan says he tried to get in touch with Zakuani in the days afterward, not least because he wanted to visit him in the hospital and apologize face to face, man to man. "Especially somebody who I respect as much as Steve as a player, I thought that was the least I could do," Mullan says. Zakuani wasn't ready though. "Completely understandable," says Mullan, who continued letting Schmid and (through common friends) Zakuani know that he wanted to speak to him at some point.
On June 25, two months after Mullan's tackle, he got a text message from Zakuani. Mullan's 10-game suspension had ended, and he was set to return to action the next day against Columbus. Zakuani's message was simple: There are no hard feelings. Don't let this tackle affect the way you play the game. Good luck!
Mullan was stunned. "He's such a great guy," Mullan says, "and to reach out to me like that was incredible." Mullan texted him back and asked if it was OK to call him. Zakuani said yes.
"He was very apologetic, asking if there was anything he could do," says Zakuani. "I know guys who've played with him, and they say he's a nice guy. I told him it was fine, I'm working my way back. I think it gave us both a sense of closure."
In their conversation, Zakuani made clear that while he expected Mullan would be booed by Seattle fans, he wouldn't be encouraging them to do so. Their two teams will meet on April 14 in the Pacific Northwest. Mullan says he'll be ready. "Fans are going to say what they're going to say. It's part of the game," he says. "They have their rights and opinions as well. It's just something that will be dealt with."
But April 14 also represents an opportunity. "It'll probably be the first time I'll see Steve," Mullan says. "And I'll reiterate my apology and shake his hand and finally be able to say it to his face. That's what I'm looking forward to."
On more than one occasion, Mullan says this story isn't about him, but rather about Zakuani. "He's the one going through this," Mullan says. In some ways he's right. In some ways he's not. Mullan has gone through his own journey, seeing a mental therapist "a number of times," he confirms. He has gotten additional support from Colorado teammates and coaches, former MLS coaches like Frank Yallop and Dominic Kinnear and, most of all, from his wife, Kersten.
Mullan and Zakuani will be forever linked. But it doesn't have to be all about a horrific tackle. "I want to praise him for his character," says Mullan. "To come through this with a positive attitude, that speaks loads about him."
Zakuani signed off their phone conversation last June with this: "I'll see you next year. And I'll be playing."
***
Zakuani isn't there yet. Not quite. The last stages of the recovery process could take a while, to go from part-time to full-time training, to playing reserve games, to making the 18-man roster for MLS games and finally becoming a starter again. He still needs to regain full sensation in his right foot, and that requires time.
"I think his best soccer is going to be in 2013," says Schmid, the Seattle coach. "I would expect we'll see soccer from him in 2012. When, exactly, I'm not sure. He's such a high-quality player that even Steve not at his best is someone who can function and play well, although that slashing guy who may be the top winger in this league, that guy may not be there until 2013."
Schmid flashes a wry smile. "He may only be in the top five or six [this year.]"
Nothing is guaranteed. And yet Zakuani has already come so far that he says he can't help but have a bright outlook.
"I'm just in general a positive person," he says. "I look at it from the perspective where it's a nice challenge: Can I get back to where I was before? If I fail, I fail. But I'm going to give everything I have to do it."


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Sharing Staples: Two Franchises, One Home

By: timbersfan, 1:13 AM GMT on February 04, 2012

It's January 18, a little less than half an hour before the Clippers are set to tip off against Dallas at Staples Center. From each corner of the downtown L.A. arena, smoke machines funnel into small fans. There’s a faint cloud hovering over the court. It feels like a low-budget rock concert before the lights have gone down.

At game’s end, the announced attendance will be 19,252 — another sellout — but as both teams go through pregame warm-ups, the lower bowl is lined with stretches of unfilled seats. The first row behind the baseline is empty, and throughout the section, pieces of paper have been taped to seat backs: Next time, pay a much lower price for these great seats. Season ticket packages for 2012-2013 now available.

Since David Stern’s decision to steer Chris Paul away from the Lakers but not away from Staples, the conversation around Los Angeles and the NBA has been about the converging paths of this city’s franchises. As the aging Lakers appear on their way out of the NBA title conversation, the Clippers have begun their ascent — the 2011-12 “Rise Up” slogan stamped on banners around the building becoming rather fitting. As of tonight, the results have mirrored those thoughts. Four days prior, the Clippers beat the Lakers 102-94 — despite 42 points from Kobe Bryant.

For all the talk of how the hierarchy of basketball in Los Angeles is changing, there is still a sizable gap in the stronghold each franchise has among Angelenos. A week earlier, the local ratings for a Lakers-Jazz game were more than 60 percent higher than those for Clippers-Heat. As part of a short swing out west, the Mavericks are in town to play both teams over the course of three days, and over those two nights, the differences at Staples are enough to show how much further the Clippers have to go. It starts high in the rafters, where 16 yellow banners hang in the dark. On either side, two gray sections of concrete feature projections of the Clippers logo. Two nights earlier, with the banners lit, the logos were gone, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d never know two franchises called this place home.

Two hours before the Lakers' Monday-night game, the empty arena helps show off how fundamentally similar the two setups are. The seating for each team is almost identical. The capacity for each team hovers around 19,000, with the main difference coming in the alignment of seats around the floor. The Clippers have two rows of seats along the baseline, while the Lakers have one surrounding the entire court. Everything about a Lakers game at Staples is designed to promote the feeling of an exclusive event. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the lighting.

As Pau Gasol goes through his pregame shootaround, the floor is already lit like a stage. While the Clippers use a larger set of lights that shine on the entire arena, the Lakers have thin strips of lights focused on only the court. The effect isn’t cheap, reportedly costing about $2 million, but the result is pure Showtime.

The crowd begins to fill in. Entertainment Tonight cameras trail Khloe Kardashian and Kris Jenner to their seats, which aren’t even courtside. Those who have managed to secure seats on the floor include LL Cool J, Don Cheadle, George Lopez and — of course — Jack Nicholson. The Kardashians will be back two nights later when the Mavericks and Khloe’s husband, Lamar Odom, take on the Clippers, but the cameras will be absent, and the most recognizable face joining them courtside will be the guy who’s always bringing bad news in the Final Destination trailers.

The not-so-famous segment of the courtside Lakers crowd carries its own weight. The faces that I can’t recognize still feel like somebody. Even those who are dressed down are in sneakers that clearly cost more than my couch.

The air of a Clippers game skews more toward accessibility, and a scan of the crowd as the teams warm up has the look of a family night out. Dancing kids dominate the JumboTron. Chris Tucker is replaced with a man whose daughter is seated on his shoulders as he snaps pictures. The Clips haven’t been without celebrity faces this season — Rihanna has been at a handful of games — but on these two nights, the Lakers game is still the place to be seen.

With about two minutes left on the Lakers' pregame clock, a video comes onto the JumboTron and Chick Hearn’s voice blares over the speakers. The next few minutes are filled with famous faces and moments: Mikan, West, Abdul-Jabbar, Worthy, Baylor, O’Neal, Johnson. The Clippers have a video, too, and it contains not a single moment before 2010.

The pregame introductions continue this feel of the old versus the new. A few minutes before the lights go down for the Lakers, the crowd watches a series of classic Los Angeles shots, over a backdrop of “I Love L.A.” After the opposing team’s starting lineup is announced, the lights go dark, and a circular white curtain drops from the JumboTron to the floor. A short video is projected onto the curtain, and when it falls, the crowd is reminded that this is the franchise with 16 world championships, and “Baba O’Riley” kicks in.

The Clippers trade in The Who for an original song that I can only assume is called “Get Loud, Everybody,” after the instruction is repeated over and over. The white curtain is replaced with green lasers that cut through the smoke that has been gathering for the past couple hours. If the Lakers are a Broadway show, the Clippers are a KISS concert.

Nearly everything about the Lakers game presentation is an exercise in the understated, an indication of a franchise that needs no introduction or explanation. When the players move to the bench for a timeout, the Laker Girls come onto the floor, perform, and are escorted off the court by the PA announcer with nothing but, “Laker Girrrrrrls.”

The Clippers, like many NBA teams, have what seem like game atmosphere coordinators, a trio of microphone-toting personalities who never let the entertainment stop. Just about every timeout features a sponsored game or logo-ed outfit for the Clippers Spirit dance team — HotelPlanner.com musical chairs, Mandalay Bay T-shirts (“You’re not a tourist, you’re a resortist”), the Chumash Casino shooting game. Once a game, the spirit squad introduces its MVP fan of the game, a longtime (or sometimes short-time) season-ticket holder, an ode to those who have dedicated themselves to the franchise. On this night, it’s Luis Jimenez, who’s had his tickets since 2005. Because of how quickly things have changed, it’s easy to forget that even in Los Angeles, the Clippers operate like a small-market team struggling for a foothold.

The games are similarly ugly. Coming off four straight games of 40 or more, Bryant does his best to shoot the Lakers out of it by going 7-of-22. The seven third-quarter points for Los Angeles is good for the second-lowest quarter total since the NBA-ABA merger, and Dallas does its best to add to the fun by going 4-of-26 from 3-point range.

The Clippers are without Paul, who is sitting with a left hamstring strain, and despite Mo Williams’ 26 points, it’s clear how lost the team is on offense without its new point guard. Chauncey Billups leads the team with 19 shots, and the ball movement moves between stagnant and nonexistent.

But equally bad play from the Mavs keep both teams in each game, and with nine seconds left, the Lakers have the ball with the game tied at 70. As two Dallas defenders moved toward Bryant, he swings the ball to Derek Fisher, who buries a 3 with 3.3 seconds left, and with that, the purple-and-gold crowd erupts for one of the few times all night.

Two nights later, the situation is almost identical. Except now, with five seconds remaining, the Clippers are down by one, and it’s their star (Blake Griffin) finding a different aging point guard behind the arc. With a little more than a second remaining, Billups hits a 3, and the reaction from the crowd is indecipherable. A completely packed Staples Center explodes, and for the second time in three nights, a fanbase completely invested in its team on the floor is rewarded with another win.

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Four Lessons From This Week's Premier League Action

By: timbersfan, 1:11 AM GMT on February 04, 2012

Manchester City Is Throwing It All Away

That might sound a bit hysterical, but listen, all y'all, it's a (self) sabotage. What are these guys doing? Coming out of Christmas, the title was City's to lose. But if Sir Alex Ferguson has taught us anything (aside from how to creatively use a hairdryer) it's that your team needs to hit its stride right after the new year, when the finish line finally comes into view.

This month, City went out of both domestic cup competitions. It means less games for players who could probably use a quick trip to Dubai for some R&R and Aquaventure Waterpark, but it took a bit of the luster off their season, and suggested they might not quite be ready for primetime.

Added to which, they were handily beaten by Everton on Tuesday. You have to wonder what is going on at the Etihad.

Part of this is down to the absence of Yaya Toure (away on international duty with Ivory Coast) and Mario Balotelli (away on suspension for trying to treat Scott Parker's head like a jabulani). Part of it might be down to the slowing down (David Silva and Sergio Aguero) and not-showing-up (Samir Nasri) of some of their big-name players. Whatever the reason, City needs to get some points against Villa and Fulham in the coming weeks. Because their neighbors might have just figured out their glaring midfield problem.
Paul Pogba Is Real

All season long, Manchester United has battled injuries and adversity to stay in the title hunt. Understand, this is not a good United side. 2007-08 Cristiano Ronaldo spits on this team. While their defense has been a M.A.S.H. unit and their multimillion-Euro keeper has started calling in sick for work, the real problem has been the center of the park, where older gods Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have been trying to keep the car running.

But against Stoke on Tuesday, Paul Pogba -- a highly rated, teenage midfield sensation from France -- made his Premier League debut in United's 2-0 win. Guess what? He's apparently a boy wizard.


If Pogba can keep up his form and Tom Cleverley can return healthy, Ferguson might not regret buying a midfielder in the summer after all.
Everton Won the Transfer Window

Which is pretty strange, since Everton is has the operating capital of Pookie from New Jack City. Owned by theater impresario Bill Kenwright, Everton have seen some of their best players leave Goodison Park over the years, unable to compete with the Premier League's financial heavy hitters.

This season the Toffees have had a really up and down -- but mostly down. So it was pretty incredible to see them so creatively active in the January window. Sure, they lost Louis Saha, their most reliable striker, but they brought in Nikica Jelavi, Darron Gibson and Steven Pienaar (on loan). Along with earlier arrivals such as Landon Donovan (who continues to be an assist machine ever since he returned to Everton) and Denis Stracqualursi, David Moyes is now showing the rest of the clubs how to play a personnel game called No-Moneyball.
When You Have Martin O'Neill, You Don't Need Tactics

The new Sunderland manager is widely regarded as a master motivator. He's also thought to be somewhat straight-forward with his tactical directions. Get the ball to the wingers, wingers get downfield, get the ball to the strikers, repeat. But the combination of G'ing up the previously in-the-dumps Black Cats players and give them a simple plan to execute. Sunderland have won four of their last six matches and now have the impressive Fraizer Campbell back among their ranks.

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Ode to the War Daddies

By: timbersfan, 1:10 AM GMT on February 04, 2012

Football is a beautiful game. The NFL knows this. But how is the sport marketed? Mostly with quarterbacks. Maybe some receivers and a running back or two. But if fans watch the game to see men performing almost superhuman tasks, stuff that is like what most people can do but is more kinetically gorgeous than anything we see in daily life, then I don't want to watch quarterbacks. Instead, I want to watch a 300-pound man do things that no one should be able to do, typically to some other colossus who stands in his path; in short, I want to watch the New England Patriots' Vince Wilfork pulverize some other enormous human.

Here's an example. Late in the AFC championship game, the Baltimore Ravens trailed the New England Patriots 23-20, with the ball on the 33-yard line and less than three minutes to play. It was fourth and 6. Baltimore shifted into a four wide receiver set and the Patriots made a late adjustment to confuse the Ravens. After New England shifted its front, Baltimore's pro bowl center, Matt Birk, was left one-on-one with Wilfork. Birk is 6-foot-4' and 310 pounds, and he had no chance. As soon as the ball was snapped, Wilfork had beaten Birk. He got underneath Birk — Wilfork's arms were firmly planted on Birk's chest, while Birk flailed his arms to try to regain some semblance of leverage. With his back flat and leaning forward, Wilfork drove Birk backward; in coach-patois, he put Birk on "roller skates" and slid him directly into Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Wilfork eventually grabbed Flacco's jersey, forcing a desperate heave out of bounds, but as much as anyone else it was Birk, driven backward by Wilfork, who disrupted the play and sent the Baltimore offense off the field. Wilfork, through force, speed, and technique, had turned Birk into another New England defender. Such performances are beauty and truth, all in one 330-pound package.

Despite these moments of mastery, the Patriots defense has not been very good this season. The statistics are ugly and the defenders themselves are a motley group of undrafted rookies, castaways, and converted wide receivers. But no team wins a Super Bowl in today's salary cap-limited NFL by assembling a perfect roster. What New England coach Bill Belichick has is a jumble of defenders with varying skill sets who are all anchored by one immovable object: Wilfork. And good coaching is about making the most of what you have.

Aside from discussions of its general mediocrity (or worse), the hottest topic about the Patriots' defense has been how hard it is to define. Is it a 3-4 defense (the three-defensive linemen, four-linebacker defense that Belichick has run for two decades)? Or is it a "4-3" (the four-defensive linemen, three-linebacker set that New England has favored this year)? The truth is that they play a bit of both.

Then again, simple labels like 4-3 and 3-4 don't tell the full story. These 4-3 and 3-4 teams typically differ in a key respect: which "technique" their defensive linemen use. Usually, teams must commit to one technique or the other, as each choice has all sorts of other implications for the defense. It's truly a philosophical choice. Yet Belichick and his vagabond defenders have found a way to get the best of both worlds (relatively speaking) to best fit the Patriots' strengths. To understand Belichick's strategy, we have to understand how these techniques have evolved over time.

Playing defensive line is all about technique (although it doesn't hurt to be enormous and incredibly athletic). But it's about more than just large men pushing each other around. A defensive lineman must always be in the right position. Big running plays don't happen simply because one team wanted it more or because they knocked the other guy off the ball. It's all about angles and leverage, along with the technical savvy that makes the difference between a stuffed run and a 50-yard touchdown. And the first question for a defensive lineman is always, Am I playing a 2-gap technique or a 1-gap technique?

"Gap" refers to the area between offensive linemen. A 1-gap technique is just what it sounds like: The defensive lineman lines up in front of the gap he is responsible for and his job is to attack and control it. If nothing else, a defender must not allow a runner to go through his gap. While defensive linemen attack their gaps, the linebackers behind them are responsible for their own gaps. These are the defense's "run fits," meaning how they fit into an offense's blocking scheme to take away running space.


COURTESY OF CHRIS BROWN
The 2-gap technique, by contrast, sounds physically impossible. How can one player occupy two separate gaps? He does it by controlling the blocker. At the snap of the football, a two-gapping defensive lineman does what Wilfork did to Birk. He leads with his hands, gets leverage on the offensive lineman, and takes control of the blocker. From there, the advanced techniques kick in. On run plays, the defender reacts to where the blocker tries to take him. If he is double-teamed, he'll try to split the blockers and either shoot into the backfield or occupy the blockers, thus freeing up his teammates to make tackles.

In short, while a 1-gap player attacks gaps, a 2-gap player attacks people. Football's conventional wisdom states that an effective 2-gap lineman, particularly one who lines up in the middle of the defense like Wilfork does, must be enormous. Coaches refer to them as "war daddies." But size is actually less important than athleticism and smarts. The line between touchdowns and stops in the NFL is exceedingly thin, and it's footwork and feel that are the difference. It is the most violent, most complicated, and most beautiful ballet I can think of.

So how did these techniques develop and evolve? In the early days of football, essentially everyone used a 2-gap approach. It was all about beating blockers. One-gap techniques existed in blitz schemes where defenders were sent to specific spots, but as a general matter almost all defensive fronts for the pre-modern era of football relied on some kind of 2-gap concept.

This trend became more entrenched around 1940, when "T formation" offenses came into vogue. These offenses were among the first to organize players in the way familiar to us now. Before them, most teams used shotgun-based offenses with multiple backs in the backfield, any one of whom might run, block, or even pass. Often, the "halfback" was the leading passer.1

The T formation put the quarterback under center while others in the backfield ran in all directions. It was misdirection and confusion for the defense. And its most famous game was the 1940 NFL Championship, when Bears coach George Halas unveiled it against the Redskins, who had defeated them just a few weeks earlier. The result was different this time, as the Bears nuked the 'Skins 73-0 and Washington had no answers for Halas' new attack.

Defenses needed an answer. The response was the "5-2 Monster" defense, which essentially dominated football for the next two decades. The 5-2 Monster involved five defensive linemen, each playing a 2-gap technique over a specific offensive lineman. This allowed linebackers to roam free and match the offense's ball carriers. The "Monster" referred to the safety who came down and created one of the first true eight-man front defenses. The combination of five two-gapping defensive linemen with three second-level defenders, each attacking the ball and following the potential runners, helped counteract the T formation offenses' misdirection.

In the NFL, defenses varied more owing to the need to stop passing teams, but even those variations typically relied on Monster-based principles. But eventually, this approach was forced out by the wishbone, triple-option offense. The wishbone never took hold in the NFL, but that doesn't mean its effects weren't felt there, albeit indirectly.

The 5-2 Monster and its related defenses couldn't handle the wishbone. Great wishbone teams, beginning with coach Emory Bellard's University of Texas squads, began decimating defenses. In 1971, Oklahoma averaged over 472 yards rushing per game with the wishbone, a record that stands to this day. By not blocking some of the Monster's 2-gap defenders to instead "option" off them, wishbone teams could trick the defense every time. A 2-gap lineman can't "control the blocker" if the blocker doesn't engage with him at all. And because the offense chose not to block certain people, it had a numbers advantage against the rest of the defense. The 5-2 was out-leveraged and outnumbered \against the triple option.

But the story of football schemes is always one of punch-counterpunch, and the wishbone helped usher in the modern NFL defense. In 1979, Oklahoma State, a team whose schedule was perennially loaded with great wishbone teams, hired a defensive-minded coach named Jimmy Johnson. In addition to his NFL experience with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson had also served as defensive line coach at Oklahoma. He was even there during 1971, where he faced that record-setting rush attack in practice. Johnson saw every day how much trouble his defenders had with the triple option, given the Monster concepts he'd been teaching them.

Johnson's response was to reinvent the 4-3 defense with an almost entirely new underlying framework. And although this new 4-3 began at Oklahoma State, it is now known for the school Johnson brought it to next: the University of Miami. The 4-3 had been around for a long time. Legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry even had his own variant named after him, the "Landry 4-3 Flex"; but Johnson concocted his version as anti-wishbone medicine. Instead of telling defensive linemen to 2-gap and watching them get fooled by the option on every play, he switched entirely to a 1-gap system. Johnson simplified things for them by giving them one job and telling them to attack. We still see this principle now; Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, himself a former 4-3 defensive line coach, only slightly exaggerated when he said his playbook for defensive tackles consists of two words: "Kick butt."

In Johnson's Miami 4-3, aggressiveness, playing your assignment, and, above all else, speed, ruled. He famously made linebackers out of safety recruits and defensive ends out of linebacker recruits. His 1-gap scheme allowed him to use smaller, faster, more athletic players. Johnson also lined his cornerbacks up near the line of scrimmage so they would be available to stop outside runs, while the safeties aligned deep. All together, Johnson's defense was sound against the wishbone. The middle linebacker covered the infamous fullback dive up the middle, while the other defenders — the defensive end, outside linebacker, safety, and cornerback — could account for the quarterback and pitch running back. Nowadays, whenever you see a defense smother a poorly run speed option on the sideline, you're seeing Johnson's principles at work.

But then a funny thing happened. It turned out that Johnson's 4-3 defense, designed to stop the wishbone (a so-called "college offense"), was extremely effective against almost everything, including NFL offenses. Johnson proved this by winning a couple of Super Bowls as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys using the same Miami 4-3. Johnson's 1-gap approach was so effective it almost completely took over the NFL within just a few years. In fact, all of the "Tampa Two" defenses that later became popular were directly derived from the Miami 4-3.

Such trends are always easier to see in the past. Here in the present, amid various strategic schemes and approaches — 3-4, 4-3, 1-gap, 2-gap, spread offense, pro-style, and so on — the trends swirl about and collide without any discernable pattern. In recent years, defenses have undergone radical changes and even have come back to the 2-gap (and even 1-gap) 3-4 schemes. Meanwhile, offenses have gotten more varied and spread than ever. Right now, there is no clear-cut favorite between 2-gap and 1-gap approaches. 1-gap defenses keep schemes simple, but in a world of wide-open offenses, the 2-gap approach allows defenses to keep extra players in coverage and to blitz from unexpected spots. We see lots of different defensive systems in the NFL right now because schemes in general are in flux.

This is precisely the atmosphere in which Bill Belichick thrives; he's comfortable amid shifting ideological currents. In addition to being a veteran defensive coach, Belichick is known as something of a football historian. His father coached for a very long time, including roughly four decades at the Naval Academy. Belichick grew up around football coaches, and he has witnessed this strategic evolution.

So what has Belichick done with his oddball assortment of defenders, anchored by Vince Wilfork? Did he choose 3-4 or 4-3? One-gap or 2-gap? Traditionally a 3-4 coach, Belichick ran this system even when almost every other NFL team was mimicking the 4-3 defenses popular in Dallas and Tampa. But Belichick now finds himself in a time when, by desire and necessity, he has largely moved to a four-man line approach. And yet, in typical Belichick fashion, he has chosen not to rely solely on the 4-3 or 3-4 or a 1-gap or 2-gap approach. Nor does he just alternate between 3-4 and 4-3 looks from play to play. Instead, Belichick has essentially combined both approaches in the same play. How?

The Patriots run a 3-4 to one side of the field and a 4-3 to the other, all on the same play. The key to all this is Wilfork. He lines up over the center and assumes his traditional spot of run-stuffing, blocker consuming, two-gapping war daddy. Belichick fills out the rest of the pieces based on the strengths and weaknesses of his other defenders.

In the traditional 4-3, there are two basic fronts: over and under. In Belichick's hybrid 4-3 "over," Wilfork is responsible for controlling (that is, destroying) the center and thus the gaps to either side of him. To Wilfork's left, the defense functions just like a regular 1-gap 4-3 scheme, with the other defensive tackle attacking the gap between guard and tackle and the defensive end covering the tight end. The strong-side linebacker aligns to this side, and there will often be further run support, either from a safety or a cornerback. To the other side, however, it's all 3-4. The defensive end to Wilfork's right is a 2-gap player, and there are two linebackers to that side as well, lined up as they would be in a traditional 3-4.


COURTESY OF CHRIS BROWN
The traditional 4-3 "under," which Monte Kiffin made famous with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has the defensive line slide away from the tight end while the strong-side linebacker lines up facing the tight end on the line of scrimmage. This gives them something of a five-man front, in a nod to the old 5-2 Monster. Belichick's version is no different, except he again uses Wilfork to anchor the defense as a true 2-gap player in the middle. This time, the 3-4 side is to Wilfork's left, toward the tight end, and the 4-3, one-gap side is to Wilfork's right.


COURTESY OF CHRIS BROWN
By combining these techniques into one defense, Belichick achieves what seems most important to him these days — versatility. He's able to plug different guys into different spots while knowing he has Wilfork anchoring the middle. As NFL offenses have become more and more spread, Belichick's defenses have become more versatile. With at one or two players 2-gapping on a given play, the outside linebackers in particular are free to blitz, drop into coverage, and attack running backs all over the field. Belichick rarely lets his scheme turn into a true 4-3; more often, he'll use the same assignments for each defender but use 3-4 personnel. The variations are endless. And it all works because Wilfork is in the middle, dominating his gaps and putting his blocker on skates.

Of course, nothing Belichick does will transform the Patriots' defense into a great one; they don't have the talent. But coaching is about more than talent. It's about taking the talent that's available and giving it the best possible chance to succeed. And that's something Belichick does incredibly well. So while this New England team may never be known as a great, or even good, defense, they're hoping to be remembered as something much better: a Super Bowl-winning defense.

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The Fearless Super Bowl Breakdown

By: timbersfan, 1:09 AM GMT on February 04, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI is only a rematch of Super Bowl XLII in the vaguest sense of the word. While both the head coaches and starting quarterbacks will return, they're part of a small group. Just 20 of the 106 players across the Patriots' and Giants' Super Bowl rosters will return, 12 of whom are starters. The overhauled Patriots defense will bring back just one player, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, from the unit that gave up 17 points to the Giants four years ago.

The changes in personnel have come with more meaningful changes in style. The downfield passing attack that drove the Patriots to record scoring levels is mostly gone, replaced by an offense that thrives on constantly picking up yards after receptions. Their star receiver, tight end Rob Gronkowski, was an 18-year-old college freshman at Arizona who was in the crowd at nearby University of Phoenix Stadium for that stunning Giants upset. He might be forced to watch Sunday's game from the sidelines, thanks to a high ankle sprain that remains the game's biggest question mark. New York, on the other hand, has lost the dominant rushing attack that sustained its offense in 2007, and has replaced it with a deep passing game driven by its trio of devastating receivers. The Giants' breakout player in 2011 was Victor Cruz, who at Super Bowl XLII was two years away from starting his first game at Football Championship Subdivision Massachusetts.

In turn, expect to see a higher-scoring game than you did that February, when the two teams combined for 27 points after putting up a total of 73 in their Week 17 battle. There were only 44 points between them when the Giants narrowly defeated the Patriots in Week 9 of this season, 24-20, but that game consisted of a bizarrely score-free first half before the offenses took over. Fans won't have to wait that long for points this time around.

You can safely expect the Giants to start with the ball first, although that prediction would have seemed more obvious a month ago. Since Tom Brady tore his ACL in the opening game of the 2007 season, the Patriots have won the coin toss 28 times and deferred their decision on whether to take the ball to the second half every single time. The Giants, meanwhile, have won the coin toss 35 times and chosen to receive on 33 occasions. Seems like a lock, right? Well, those two times the Giants have chosen to defer their own decision have occurred over the past month, as they passed on the ball against Dallas in Week 17 and then again versus the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.1 So we'll just say that it seems likely for the Giants to begin Super Bowl XLVI with the ball and start our preview there.

Giants on Offense

The offense's performance against the Patriots in Week 9 could end up serving as a funny little microcosm of the entire Giants season. Despite some crippling injuries, the Giants were able to get past a devastating third-quarter turnover and a late deficit with a dramatic, come-from-behind drive that allowed them to triumph at the last second. It's a bit of a stretch, but Eli Manning did drive an offense missing four starters 80 yards in 81 seconds to win the game on the road. That's pretty impressive.

Those four starters — center David Baas, halfback Ahmad Bradshaw, fullback Henry Hynoski, and crucial wide receiver Hakeem Nicks — should make the process of scoring points a little easier for the Giants this Sunday. Then again, when they were down to bare-bones personnel against the Patriots, Manning struck by attacking the backups in the New England lineup. On that fateful drive, Manning completed a third-and-10 pass up the seam to Jake Ballard for 28 yards and then finished it with a one-yard toss to Ballard for the game-winning score. On each play, special teamer Tracy White was stuck in coverage, thanks to an injury suffered by middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. The Giants only got the ball to the 1-yard line after backup safety Sergio Brown committed an unconscionable pass interference penalty upon Victor Cruz on a play where Manning was trying to throw the ball away. Brown was only in the game because star safety Patrick Chung had been injured earlier during the drive. Spikes and Chung missed most of the second half with assorted ailments, but each has contributed to an improved Patriots pass defense during the playoffs.

The presence of Nicks is key — both because of his innate abilities and because his presence creates mismatches elsewhere throughout the lineup. The Patriots aren't likely to stick with one particular cornerback on each receiver, instead choosing to alternate matchups and coverages, but Nicks should see sophomore corner Devin McCourty more frequently than any other defensive back. Although he's struggled mightily this season, after making the Pro Bowl during his rookie year, McCourty has the best pedigree and track record of any Patriots cornerback and is their closest thing to a no. 1 guy.

That leaves, um, friendly matchups for Cruz and Mario Manningham. Cruz is likely to spend most of his time in the slot. There, he should see — and this is where the stomach begins to turn for Patriots fans — Julian Edelman. Oh boy. In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots matched up Edelman against Anquan Boldin out of the slot, hoping that Edelman could keep up with Boldin's physicality at the line of scrimmage, but a blown coverage on a key third down late in the game produced a huge play and nearly set up the Ravens for a comeback victory. The Patriots might also try out right cornerback Kyle Arrington against Cruz, but as Boston Globe NFL writer Greg Bedard notes, Arrington would still need help.

The reality is that Cruz has become the Giants' most important player on offense (besides Eli Manning) during what basically amounts to his rookie season.2 He caught just under 63 percent of his targets this year while averaging nearly 19 yards per catch, figures that neither Nicks (57 percent catch rate,3 15.7 yards per catch) nor Manningham (50.6 percent catch rate, 13.4 yards per catch) could match.

That was even more prevalent on third down, where Cruz was Manning's most important target. On 40 third-down targets this year, Cruz caught 27 passes (for a 68 percent catch rate) and got enough for the first down 22 times, for a 55 percent conversion rate. Manningham and Nicks only caught 29 of their 62 targets (a 47 percent catch rate), and they picked up first downs less than 34 percent of the time. Belichick can't structure his defensive scheme to stop Cruz the same way that the team went after Marshall Faulk and Brian Westbrook in previous Super Bowls, but don't be surprised if the Patriots double Cruz with Edelman (or Arrington) and either a linebacker or a safety on virtually every play in bracket coverage.

Of course, among Cruz's contributions to the playoff run are those two long catch-and-runs in Weeks 16 and 17 that pushed the Giants into the big dance. Both those plays came after missed tackles,4 which raises a question: Is a presumably well-coached, disciplined team like the Patriots less likely to miss those tackles and allow a big play?

The statistics give a murky answer. On one hand, the good news is that the Patriots don't allow a ton of yards after the catch. Just 38.4 percent of the passing yards against the Patriots came after the catch, which was the lowest percentage in football, and the Patriots allowed a 10th-best 4.95 yards after catch per reception. On the other hand, that might only be the case because the Patriots were so friendly with allowing big plays through the air without requiring receivers to force missed tackles. Against the Patriots, 20.5 percent of the receptions went for 20 or more yards; the only team in the league that allowed big plays more frequently was Kansas City. The Giants ranked 21st in YAC5 percentage, even with those two long Cruz plays, but they went for 20 or more yards on 18.7 percent of their receptions on offense, which was good for seventh in the league.

The Niners eventually bottled up Cruz and the rest of the Giants offense in the second half by getting heaps of pressure on Manning, creating sacks, checkdowns, and throwaways that ended drives. That's something that the Patriots would love to reproduce, but it's hard to figure that they have the personnel capable of pulling that off. During the first game between these two teams, the Pats failed to sack Manning once, though they did knock him down eight times in 39 dropbacks. That was when the Giants were without starting center Baas and while the Patriots had Andre Carter, their top pass-rusher, in the lineup. With Carter done for the year, New England's best hope might be another dominant game from Vince Wilfork, who blew up the pocket more than once against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. Wilfork's a fantastic player, but he can't deliver that sort of impact on a weekly basis. Expect the Patriots to try to get Wilfork up against utility lineman Kevin Boothe, starting at left guard because of the injury to Will Beatty, but the Giants will double-team him with Baas no matter where he lines up. Unless they get a great game from former Texans castoff Mark Anderson, it's hard to see how the Patriots will get a steady rush on Manning without blitzing.

Therein lies the big decision for Belichick. Ironically, he would like to execute a game plan very similar to the one that the Giants and then-coordinator Steve Spagnuolo put together against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. There, the Giants were able to get pressure on Brady from their front four without blitzing, allowing Big Blue to drop seven into coverage and take away the deep throws. By the time the Patriots adjusted (and the Giants pass rush slowed down) by throwing shorter, quicker routes, it was the fourth quarter. Of course, the Patriots don't have Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck or Justin and Aldon Smith up front, which makes this a far more difficult task. If Belichick blitzes to create a pass rush, then his cornerbacks and safeties end up in single coverage downfield and become susceptible to big plays.

In the end, it may be a case of Belichick picking his poison. He can blitz and hope that the pass rush gets home, forcing Manning into survival mode and possibly creating turnovers in the process, while realizing that his team is likely to give up a devastating big play or two or five in the process. Alternately, he can play a conservative scheme with his young, inexperienced defense, give up the short pass up and down the field, and hope that his players can step up in the red zone and force the Giants into field goals while hoping for a gift from Manning, like the interception he threw in the end zone in the third quarter of the first game. Based on how the Patriots have played over the past couple of seasons, the latter approach seems more likely.

Patriots on Offense

In the Year of the High Ankle Sprain, it only seems natural that the biggest game of the year could end up being decided by the season's most frustrating injury. By Sunday, Gronkowski will have had two weeks to rest the ankle injury he suffered against the Ravens, and while most observers expect Gronkowski to suit up on Sunday, there are no guarantees that he will be anything resembling the wrecking ball that scored 17 times this year.

Bill Belichick is known for keeping the wraps tight on any Patriots injuries, and Gronkowski's ankle sprain is no exception. Both standard ankle sprains and high ankle sprains have different levels of severity, but there is virtually no history of players suffering any sort of high ankle sprain and contributing at a high level within two weeks of the injury. This year alone, we saw Adrian Peterson and Sam Bradford each expect to come back within seven days of a high ankle sprain and instead miss two or more games. Ben Roethlisberger played 11 days after suffering a high ankle sprain against the Browns and was dismal in a loss to the 49ers before skipping the following week. He was visibly worse during the final two games of the Pittsburgh season. Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey also suffered a high ankle sprain, in the AFC Championship Game last season, and was unable to suit up for the big game two weeks later.

Andre Johnson played the week after he suffered a high ankle sprain last season, but then re-aggravated the injury during the game and was forced to miss the following week's action. The bits of hope to which Patriots fans have clung during the downtime also don't hold up. Gronkowski was able to come back into the Ravens game and block on Tom Brady's sneak for a touchdown, but remember that Roethlisberger made it back into the game against the Browns and still played poorly in the ensuing weeks to come. Gronkowski shed his walking boot on Monday and made it back to limited practice on Thursday, but it took Peterson two full weeks from the day he removed his boot to make his way back into even limited practices, and then nine more days from beginning practice to showing up on game day. Because of that, it's hard to imagine that he's really all that far along on the injury recovery process. Even if Gronkowski is able to get a painkiller injection before the game and play, he should be extremely limited and is subject to a significant risk of re-aggravating the injury.

Of course, it's also worth considering the subterfuge angle here. The word first got out about the severity of Gronkowski's injury when his father casually mentioned it to a Western New York television station. Then, instead of just listing the injury on their injury report as an "ankle" injury, the Patriots went out of their way to note that Gronkowski was suffering from a high ankle sprain. Would you really put it past Bill Belichick to tell the elder Gronkowski to "accidentally" mention that his son had suffered a high ankle sprain and then keep him out of practice before the Super Bowl? Heck, the Bears did this to the Vikings earlier this year out of spite. Not saying this is what's happening, but let's not rule it out as a possibility, either.

If you want a prediction for Gronkowski's role on Sunday, given all the factors involved, expect him to play limited snaps and serve primarily as a blocker. Even if he doesn't run a route, his presence at the line of scrimmage forces the defense to account for him and scheme accordingly, which can open up mismatches for the players around him. That will be crucial in the red zone, where Gronkowski has played like few others from the past ever have. His regular-season numbers in the red zone, relative to the rest of the New England roster, are staggering:

PATRIOTS OFFENSE

Red Zone Cmp Att Cmp% Yds Yds/Att TDs TD %
Gronkowski 20 28 71.4% 192 6.9 12 42.9%
Rest of Team 47 83 56.6% 342 4.1 16 19.3%
Despite the fact that teams have known about Gronkowski's prowess in the red zone for most of the season, he's still scored touchdowns in the red zone more than twice as frequently as the rest of his team. New England has the league's fourth-best offense in the red zone, and much of that is result of the work done by Gronkowski. If he's limited, New England will need somebody to step up.

In the first game between these two teams, a healthy Gronkowski was held mostly in check until the fourth quarter. He had caught just four of the nine passes thrown to him for a total of 35 yards up to that point, but finished by going 4-of-6 for 66 yards and scoring what looked to be the game's winning touchdown on fourth down. Gronkowski is one-of-a-kind, but the Giants have had some success this year against tight ends by virtue of their defensive personnel, namely safeties Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips, and Deon Grant. Rolle, in particular, serves as the prototypical cover safety that teams look to acquire to guard the new generation of dominant tight ends around the league. The Cardinals drafted the 208-pound Rolle out of Miami as a cornerback, but eventually moved him to free safety because of concerns about his coverage abilities. Rolle isn't an elite cover corner, but moving a guy from corner to safety is like moving an outfielder from center field to right; the standards are lower, and what was once an average level of skill plays up into something more effective. Rolle's mix of size, speed, and coverage ability allows him to handle the likes of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the passing game. The Giants have also gotten solid work out of Phillips and Grant, the latter of whom has served as an excellent nickelback despite being cast off by the Seahawks after turning 30 two years ago.

The other way they can slow down Gronkowski and prevent the Pats from stretching out a relatively thin set of Giants cornerbacks is by getting a heavy pass rush on Brady, but their ability to do that is up in the air. As we mentioned in the NFC Championship preview, the Giants' impressive run in this year's playoffs has occurred without an improvement in their pass rush. Let's run the same chart that we put in the NFC Championship Game preview about their defense, but update it with the numbers from the 49ers game:

GIGANTIC DEFENSE

Type Comp % Pass Y/Att Run Y/Att TOs/Game 3D/4D Conv Sack Rate
Regular Season 61.3% 7.5 4.5 1.9 39.5% 7.5%
Playoffs 54.9% 5.8 5.0 2.0 28.2% 7.4%
The biggest difference between the Giants defense from the regular season and their current level of performance is their ability to get off the field on third down. Remember, they held the Niners to one third-down conversion on a meaningless drive as the clock ran out; otherwise, the Niners went 0-for-12 on third down. To put it in context, the Giants have gone from being a slightly-below-average defense on third down to suddenly becoming the best third-down defense in the league, by a pretty substantial margin, despite playing two of the six best teams in the league at converting third downs during the playoffs. In the Patriots, they'll get to play the league's fourth-best team on third downs, but one that they held to a 5-for-15 showing during their Week 9 tilt between these two.

Of course, one of the easiest ways to extend drives is to break tackles and pick up extra yardage for first downs, and that's where the Patriots really give the opposition fits. This year, the Patriots had three of the league's top 10 YAC producers in Wes Welker (first), Gronkowski (fourth), and Aaron Hernandez (ninth). In addition, 50.2 percent of New England's total passing yardage came after the catch, which was the third-highest rate in the league. While the Giants got those two long plays from Victor Cruz to end the season, they finished a distant 21st on offense in YAC percentage.

Welker was the player the Giants couldn't stop during the first game, but that's a spot where they might be better during this second contest. In Week 9, he caught nine of the 10 passes thrown to him and gained a total of 136 yards, as the Giants struggled to find a way to cover him with one player. During that game, though, the Giants didn't have rookie corner Prince Amukamara available, who has been an effective third corner during the playoffs for a team that was terrible against third wideouts during the season.

In Super Bowl XLII, the Giants dominated the Patriots in the trenches, sacking Tom Brady five times and creating a number of premature throws. The game served as the national arrival of Justin Tuck, then a rotation end behind Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, as he dominated Logan Mankins on the interior of the defensive line. Can the Pats slow down the Giants pass rush this time? Well, they've got a better shot this time around. For one, their personnel is better. The consistently subpar Nick Kaczur has been replaced at right tackle by talented rookie Nate Solder, who has the raw athleticism to match up with the likes of Tuck, Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul. The line will be without starting center Dan Koppen, but there's been no evidence that the offensive line is struggling as the season has gone on in the way that it did in 2007. Consider the table below, which has the sack rate for the 2007 and 2011 Patriots, split for the half-season at Week 9 (coincidentally, the week of this year's Giants game) and through the Conference Championship game:

GETTING SACKED

Sack Rate Weeks 1-9 Weeks 10-17 + 2 Playoff Gms Super Bowl
2007 2.9% 4.0% 9.4%
2011 4.7% 4.5% ???
One thing the Patriots tried in the first game that may offer some respite is to go with six offensive linemen. During the first game, they had then-starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer available, but Vollmer has missed the last six games with injuries and only returned to practice on Wednesday. If Vollmer is able to go on Sunday, they could return him to the starting right tackle spot and go with Solder as a sixth offensive lineman and quasi-tight end. The Patriots did that on 18 plays versus the Giants during their first game, including 11 times on first down. When the Patriots ran the ball with six offensive linemen on first down this season, they averaged 4.23 yards per carry; when they ran it with five offensive linemen, that figure fell to 4.08 yards.

Special Teams

Neither team shined very brightly on special teams during the Week 9 contest, as each fumbled a punt away to the opposition during a sloppy third quarter. Of course, they each also benefited from sloppy special teams in their respective Championship games. During the season, the Patriots had the league's second-best punt team and would be up against the NFL's fourth-worst punt return unit, but the Giants have been just slightly below average during the playoffs in that regard.

Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski also missed a 27-yarder wide left at the end of the first half in Week 9, which was his first miss inside 30 yards since 2008. If Gronkowski isn't his usual self in the red zone, the Patriots might need perfection from Gostkowski to be able to eke out a victory.

The Prediction

In a year where there was no truly great team, the Super Bowl might end up coming down to who does a better job of hiding their weaknesses. The Patriots will need to dredge up an ambulatory pass rush, while the Giants will need each member of their secondary to keep up while remembering how to run the ball in the case that they do get a lead. The game should resemble the second half of the Week 9 contest between these two teams, with a mix of impressive offense and occasionally sloppy play on both sides of the football. Well, resemble it in most ways. New England Patriots 27, New York Giants 23.

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The Half-in-the-Bag Super Bag

By: timbersfan, 1:07 AM GMT on February 04, 2012

After cranking out 10,000 words about the NBA season earlier this week, a creatively winded Bill Simmons faced a Thursday-night deadline for his Super Bowl preview. He was working out of a hotel room in downtown Indianapolis, fighting off bronchitis, fading mentally from Indy's vegetable/fruit shortage and inexplicably referring to himself in the third person. That's when he realized something: If I'm in an old-school city like Indy, I need to go old-school! He walked to Dunkin' Donuts, bought his first D&D coffee in years, headed back to his hotel, turned on his laptop and leaned on the Pippen to his Jordan, the Mini-Me to his Dr. Evil, the Shane Stant to his Jeff Gillooly. That's right, he leaned on his readers.

A few hours later, he had cranked out a Super Bag, made a Super Bowl pick and even stopped referring to himself in the third person. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.

Q: I don't believe for a second the Pats beating the Giants will somehow offset what happened in Super Bowl 42. The Pats were one game away from a perfect season and the Giants took it away. No amount of wins will ever make up for that. That was a once in a lifetime situation and the Giants destroyed it. You can say "Oh we beat them in the rematch" and they'll always be able to counter with, "We ruined your perfect season." Now nod your head shamefully and keep lying to yourself.
— Mike, Westerly, R.I.

SG: For the record, I conceded this point on Tuesday night. I was flipping channels, noticed ESPN2 was showing Super Bowl XLII's highlight video, muttered to myself, "Don't do it, you've avoided every article, feature, sound bite and highlight from this game for ten solid days, DON'T DO IT," tried to turn the channel … and felt compelled to keep watching. Just a grisly 30 minutes. I had blocked much of the carnage from my mind: Brady recovering his own fumble (then having it stolen away); the Giants somehow recovering two of their own fumbles (including one that improbably bounced for a first down); the vaunted Pats offense somehow only scoring seven points in three quarters; Jacobs converting that do-or-die fourth-and-1; Asante Samuel dropping that game-ending pick; Eli nearly getting stripped by Rosie Colvin on the final Giants drive; and Brady taking that killer sack on first down with 35 seconds left. And that's without mentioning everything that happened on That Play, or the third-down Hail Mary that Moss missed catching by nine inches. The worst thing about that game for Patriots fans? Not just that we lost, but that our team played so poorly at the worst possible time and deserved to lose in, as Mike described it, a "once-in-a-lifetime" situation.

The only way to really "avenge" Super Bowl XLII? A miracle comeback on Sunday — in other words, exchanging 2008's Stomach Punch loss for a 2012 Stomach Punch win. But even that wouldn't totally avenge 2008, because it wasn't just the championship at stake that day — the 19-victory season represented invincibility, superiority and immortality. It placed that Patriots team on any "Greatest Teams Ever" list that any human being would ever make. They'd have to be mentioned. Always. Every time. Now, 18-1 is the first thing anyone mentions about the Belichick-Brady era — ahead of the incredible Rams upset, three titles in four years, the Snow Game, 26 straight wins, Brady starting five Super Bowls or even some of the quirky innovations Belichick unearthed over that time. It's a little unfair, but it's sports, and that's just the way these things work.

But let's say the Patriots win a fourth Super Bowl on Sunday. That would put them one away from a chance at five titles (no coach/quarterback combo ever pulled that off) and six Brady Super Bowl starts (a record for QBs). They would have to be mentioned in any "greatest NFL runs ever" discussion, which wouldn't be as sexy as "19-0" from an immortality standpoint but packs a similar punch. Especially if they beat the Giants (who broke their hearts) on Sunday in Indianapolis (their most hated rivals) in a stadium filled with Giants and Colts fans.1 Has any Super Bowl team ever had FEWER fans rooting for them at a Super Bowl? Has any team ever played the big game under legitimately hostile conditions? The Patriots may as well be playing the Cowboys in Dallas while wearing "Obama 2012" jerseys. Beating the Giants on Sunday would be a tougher victory than you think. You know, if it happens.

(Did I make the case against Mike's point well enough?)

Q: I'm sorry, but you can't really believe that a 2012 Patriots Super Bowl win will atone for 2008. As a sports fan, you know that not all championships are equal. The 2008 Super Bowl was the equivalent of someone punching you in the face, stealing your wife and posting an Internet video of them having sex (which your friends occasionally played just to mess with you). You now meet this man in 2012 and are trying to get revenge by keying his new car. Good Luck!
— Jesse, Ann Arbor

SG: (Apparently not.)

Q: Was reading your Championship Mailbag intently until I got to the part where you said "I visited Bristol on Tuesday, ran into Eric Mangini, and … ". All I could think of for the rest of the mailbag was "Simmons has met Eric Mangini and your first reaction wasn't to grab him and reenact the 'I Knew It Was You Fredo' scene from The Godfather Part II?" You would have received temporary Paul Revere status if you did. I'm sure that there was a tiny part of you that wanted to do that, right?
— Darius, Paris, Ky.

SG: More than a tiny part. As soon as Mangini started pushing Baltimore's chances, I made an "Of course you like them, you hate the Patriots!" crack, followed by Mangini smiling it off (he's clearly heard that joke about 10,000 times working in middle Connecticut these past few months) and going into a "That's not true, I have a great deal of respect for Bill and those guys, remember I worked with Bill for a lot of years" routine. Hard to argue with that one. We always forget that WE care so much more about this crap than the actual principals do. With that said, I'm looking forward to doing some fishing with Eric this summer at ESPN's annual Lake Tahoe getaway.

Q: The only thing I'm grateful for after brutal Ravens loss is that the world ends in less than a year, so I can't suffer from the loss for more than a year. In the meantime, at least Baltimore has good drugs.
— CJ, Baltimore

SG: Sincerely, Demi Moore

Q: Liked your thing about fantasy league booby prizes (in the last mailbag). For our fantasy keeper basketball league we decided to create "The Rick Fox Award" for the last place finisher. Basically, it's a smiling framed headshot of Rick Fox, fake signed with "We will always have Peru, love, Rick Fox", that the loser has to put on their living room wall for a year until next year's last place finisher gets it. Photo here
— Jimmy, N.Y.

SG: That's one of the best ideas in mailbag history. I will now spend the next eight months searching for the worst possible autographed photo for my league's 2012 fantasy doormat. Here's the leader in the clubhouse right now.

Q: As a Pats fan, is this not the single worst-feeling Super Bowl run of all time? The Patriots did not beat a single team over .500 during the regular season, we got the worst team in the postseason for the divisional matchup, we beat the Ravens off a missed field goal with Tom Brady playing one of the worst postseason games of his career, and in the Super Bowl we aren't going to get to see Tom Brady regain the mantle as best QB in the league by beating Aaron Rodgers; instead, we get to either play the third or fourth worst team in the NFC. This sucks. Thoughts?
— Cal, Los Angeles

SG: Ran that e-mail just so you got a feel for the mental state of Patriots fans right after that Ravens game. FYI: Nobody feels that way anymore. The two-week break between games murdered all momentum: good (for the Giants) and bad (for the Patriots). It's a 60-minute football game split into four 15-minute quarters. The team with the highest score wins. That's it. I think you'll find those same dimensions at our gym back in Foxborough.

Q: Given John Parr's woeful rewrite to Tim Tebow's Fire, can't we expect other artists to do the same? Given the Giants ascendency to the Super Bowl, I would like to nominate Naughty By Nature to rehash their classic OPP to JPP. You down with JPP?
— Mo, San Francisco

SG: Yeah, you know me. By the way, if John Parr can bastardize "St. Elmo's Fire" by changing it to "Tim Tebow's Fire," couldn't Madonna energize the Super Bowl halftime show by coming out in a wedding dress and singing "Like a Tebow"?

Q: Eli threw the ball 58 times in the NFC Championship game on the road against the NFL's best defense who also caused the most turnovers in the NFL and he did it in the cold, rain, and heavy wind, with absolutely no running game and he didn't turn the ball over once and won the game. Where would this rank on your all time playoff performances?
— Erik Sawyer, Westport

Q: Eli Manning averaged 5.4 yards a pass, should of had two for sure picks if 49ers' secondary didn't run into each other, and couldn't lead the Giants for the game winning score once in the three drives following David Akers field goal with five minutes left. Against the Packers he beat the worst defense in the league with the 20th ranked pass defense in a game the running game won for them. I turned on SportsCenter today and saw Merrill Hoge and Trent Dilfer say that they would rather have Eli than Brady. Am I missing something or is everyone really overrating Eli?
— Billy, Tuscaloosa, La.

SG: I'd say the answer lies somewhere between those two e-mails. I thought Eli played like a man's man in that game — it was one of those Timex "takes a licking and keeps on ticking" performances. At the same time, Alex Smith and the Niners had the ball on their own 29-yard line, with 1:47 to go, and a chance to kick a field goal to go to the Super Bowl.

Q: BERNARD KARMELL POLLARD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!
HIDE YOUR KIDS HIDE YOUR WIVES HE'S ON THE LOOSE AGAIN!!!!!!!!
— Dante Sacco, Westfield, Mass.

SG: "I shot him six times! I shot him six times! I shot him in the heart … I shot him six times! Six times! He's not human!"

Q: Do you realize this is every dream of Indy sports fans? The Pats are coming to town, and we get to make this feel like a road game. We get to watch Brady fail at avenging the murder of the perfect season. Our town's hero little brother gets to come into town, while we all assume big brother will never suit up again. Welcome to Indy.
— Brandon, Indianapolis

SG: Great to be here! I will now lock the door to my hotel room and start drinking tiny bottles from my minibar.

Q: If you and Aaron Schatz do another Super Bowl Podcast where you laugh at the Giants chances to win the game again and jinx the Pats I am going to kill you. Yes, I will put on a Mike Myers Mask break into your house while you sleep, wait for you to wake up tilt my head slightly to the right and kill you. I will then attend your funeral and put a Kobe jersey and a tape recorder that plays "this is our Country" on loop for eternity. I will see to it that your daughter grows up and becomes a WNBA player and marries into the Manning family and not even Eli or Peyton but … Archie. I will see to it that your son grows up and becomes a Yankee, Lakers, Colts and Canadiens fan. He will go to Boston College and then go to work for The Justice Department and makes stopping gambling his #1 priority. Lastly I will do something with "the Dooze" and her corpse, not sure what just yet but you won't like it. So in conclusion later today I don't want to hear you and Aaron Schatz talking about how the Pats are going to win easily, reverse jinx the hell of this.
— Edward, Boston

SG: And … that's why Aaron Schatz didn't appear on the B.S. Report this week.

Q: P.S., I forgot to mention I'll marry the Sports Gal and "Break the BYU Honor Code" with her wearing a Isiah Thomas mask.
— Edward, Boston

SG: That too. That was the other reason.

Q: After watching Niners-Giants, I have decided that anytime I have to listen to someone over-explain a situation, it will be known as being "Hochuli-ed". I think it should go mainstream.

"Honey, did you pick up the milk at the market?"
"I was planning on picking up the milk, but I remembered that we had a coupon for a free gallon of milk here at home, so in the interest of saving money, I calculated that the additional gas it would take to come home and go back to the market was outweighed by the savings on a free gallon of milk, so I chose to not get the milk today. First and ten, 49ers."
— Mark Derr, Fort Worth, Tex.

SG: Here's the problem with that idea — doesn't every wife already pull a Hochuli 365 days a year? What wife doesn't take five times too long to explain something? How would I know if my wife was pulling a Hochuli or just pulling a My Wife?

Q: Just bought a pair of Penn State sweatpants for $5 at TJ Maxx. That's the Sandusky effect!
— J. Sawyer, Sewickley

SG: Will we ever see another human being write the sentence "That's the Sandusky effect!" in a seemingly positive way? I'm gonna say no.

Q: It's the day after the NFC title game. I'm an eagle fan, stuck at san francisco airport, with a delayed flight to Newark, with about 200 giddy giant fans. Is there a shittier situation to be in on the planet?
— Dan, Philly

SG: I mean, you could be at a T.J. Maxx celebrating a pair of $5 Penn State sweatpants …

Q: If you are Peyton Manning and you know you are 100% healthy, don't you want Indy to cut you? Indy is in total rebuilding mode and drafting your replacement — do you really want to waste your last 2-3 years on a team going nowhere? Here's my idea, Peyton should wear a neck brace when he meets with the Colts like an old school wrestling heel trying to get out of a fight. Indy then cuts him thinking he's done, he goes on to a contender for less money and gets his revenge. Is it possible this has been Peyton's plan all along and we've all just gotten worked?
— Chris, N.J.

SG: Love the way you're thinking. If you noticed, he's now saying that his neck is 100 percent healed, but HIS VELOCITY hasn't come back yet. Supposedly he's only throwing about 80 percent as well as the old Peyton. Hmmmmmmmmm. Could you blame Peyton if he was pulling a Verbal Kint, easing up on his velocity, making himself seem like slightly damaged goods, and angling for a buyout (maybe 40 percent of that $28 million) so he didn't have to spend his last few seasons playing for Jim Irsay on this mess of a Colts team with Andrew Luck breathing down his surgically repaired neck? If that's the plan, he's a genius. As long as a healthy Peyton doesn't end up on the Jets. Because then … I'd be pissed.

Q: I think that in all fairness if you are going to have an all football mailbag that you should also follow it with an all nba mailbag. There are already enough qualified writers out there covering football that you should realize that your opinion doesnt mean shit. Please go back to what you are good at … over analyzing the nba. Thanks.
— PD, Yonkers

SG: Maybe you should go back to what you are good at — sending sarcastic e-mails to Internet sports columnists! Yeah!

Q: Are you going to wager on the Pats since they are only favored by 2.5? I'm just wondering how your heart will be smashed into pieces this time. I'm envisioning the Pats being up 5 or 6 late in the game. 4th and 8 with no timeouts left. Eli under pressure let's one fly down the seam. Travis Beckum doesn't even get his head turned around but the ball gets wedged between the seat of his pants as he crosses the goal line. The Asscheek Catch would have to be somewhere between 5 to 312 times more painful than the Helmet Catch. God Bless You.
— Domenic, Somerdale, N.J.

SG: The Asscheek Catch sounds just realistic enough that I just raided my minibar for more of those tiny bottles.

Q: Die-hard Patriots fan here living in NYC. If Gronkowski is really injured, please tell me how this doesn't COMPLETELY destroy the Patriots chances of winning this game. I've been racking my brain for a week and can't come up with anything. Not only does it make our passing game impotent, but it seriously hurts our running game, which is going to be crucial with this Giants pass rush … should I start packing my bags and getting ready to leave NY? Or prepare my jump off the Brooklyn bridge? PLEASE give me some reason for optimism.
— Fred, N.Y.

SG: (Calling the front desk for more tiny bottles.)

Q: I know you're doing a Super Bowl mailbag because you did a mailbag the other weeks and the Pats won. You are so predictable. At the very least could you please pick a couple of Super Bowl props and throw them in there? Do something useful for once Simmons.
— Nick, Nashua, N.H.

SG: Fine fine. Let's go with these: "Giants will receive the opening kickoff" (-260) … "First score of the game will NOT be a touchdown" (+155) … "Patriots WILL convert a fourth-down attempt" (+115) … "Gronkowski will finish with between 111 and 120 receiving yards" (+2,000) … "Mario Manningham will score the first touchdown" (+1,200) … "On Sunday, Kobe Bryant will score 1.5 points more than the Patriots" (-115) … BenJarvus Green-Ellis will finish with +14.5 more rushing yards than Ahmad Bradshaw" (-115) … "The Super Bowl MVP will thank his teammates first" (+200) … and "Al Michaels will make a thinly veiled gambling reference in the last five minutes" (+150).

Q: Please stop writing about Tebow. Stop posting emails from your readers who write about Tebow. Stop talking about him in your podcasts. And don't interpret this as an example of how fascinating and divisive a figure he's become. He's a below-average quarterback.
— Chris from Greensboro

SG: How long do you think it took before John Elway settled on the pseudonym "Chris from Greensboro?" Five minutes? Ten?

Q: On a scale of 1 to Christina Hendricks laughing at your junk, how much is Eli beating the Pats in the Super Bowl for the second time going to hurt?
— Graham, Muncie

SG: It's not going to hurt because I have already walked through, in my brain, every possible terrible scenario that can happen. On The Bachelor, you know how most of the girls who get dumped are totally blindsided, but there's always one or two that act like veterans, give the Bachelor a hug, stride to the limo with pride and take their exit like a champ? They had mentally prepared themselves for the worst. That's me on Sunday if the Patriots lose. In 2008, I was the crying girl in the back of the limo wondering what happened and saying things like "I don't understand what I did" and "He's making a BIG mistake." Not this year. My heart is made of steel.

Q: Are you concerned that Tom Brady just built a home in Brentwood? Let's hope in 15 years he's not riding in the back of a Ford Bronco with Gronkowski on the phone yelling "It's Gronk dammit, you know who this is!"
— Eric, Fremont

SG: Only he'd sound like Butthead. "Huh-huh, uh-huh … you know who this is … huh-huh … it's Gronk … huh-huh … I got TB in the car … Yo Soy Fiesta!"

Q: Patriots in the Super Bowl. In Indy. Against Peyton's little brother. And you write two NBA columns. Aren't you supposed to be here, excoriating my home town? Hmmm? Well, you can't snub us! We snub you! Stay out of our surprisingly warm for February city! Harumpff!
— Joe Pearson, Indianapolis

SG: I can't believe anyone would think, in a million years, that I'd ever be anti-Indiana for anything. You know Larry Bird and David Letterman were my two heroes growing up. You know how I feel about Jimmy Chitwood and Hoosiers. You know I have a soft spot for the Midwest, as well as for cities that are trapped in the late-'80s from an eating/drinking/smoking/caffeine/liquor standpoint. You know (or maybe you don't) that, in my basketball book, I blew up the Basketball Hall of Fame, re-created it as an Egyptian pyramid and moved it to Indiana.

So spending Super Bowl week here is totally fine with me. Maybe it doesn't pass the Vegas/New Orleans/San Diego/Miami test, but fuck it — everything is within walking distance from downtown (including the stadium), the locals couldn't be nicer (or happier for everyone to be here), the weather came through (at least so far), and if I could pick any city outside the Big Four for one random Super Bowl, why wouldn't it be this one? As my buddy House said, "It just feels alive — it's like surround sound. Since the moment we got here, I felt like something was going on in every direction." Isn't that what a Super Bowl should feel like? I couldn't be happier to be here. So there.

Q: Seriously? Who are your male readers marrying that they can't go camping in December or watch the freaking Super Bowl? Granted, I don't have a huge number of girlfriends, but I don't have ANY girlfriends that are as shrew-ish as the guys that often write in make women seem. Either I'm wrong and every girl I've never met is just effing horrible, or you all are just perpetuating some convenient, but insulting, stereotype. You're a fantastic writer, and I've been a devoted reader for years, but the "my wife won't let me do anything cause women are terrible and no fun" thing is bullshit, and worse, it's hacky. Stop it, you're better than that. Sorry for the scolding, but some of us like sports and don't suck.
— Lauren, Pittsburgh

SG: And just like that, "Lauren Pittsburgh" became the no. 1 search on Facebook by horny single guys who like sports.

Q: Does anyone know why Chad Ochocinco is still on the Patriots' roster? And if someone does, could we have Ed Hochuli explain it in a TV special during the 12 hours of Super Bowl pregame?
— W J Hayes, Mount Vernon, N.Y.

SG: We finally figured out why Chad was on the Patriots' roster on Tuesday, when he finally drew double coverage in the form of a 300-person Media Day crowd that made everyone else's lives easier for an hour. I'm convinced that's why Belichick didn't cut him — he was probably thinking, "Well, at the very least, he'll make Media Day easier for me."

Q: Can you break down the Super Bowl match-up without using any statistics or any other traditional football metric? Try to include MHK, Eli surpassing Peyton, or any other idea that could affect the outcome of the game without actually being on the field.
— Tom, Brockton, Mass.

SG: Sure, this will be fun. Let's see …

The "Nobody Believes In Us" edge: Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is picking the Giants +3 this week. EDGE: PATS.

The "Playing For Someone's Memory" edge: The Pats dedicated their season to Robert Kraft's late wife, Myra, wore her initials on their jerseys, mention her frequently and genuinely seem to believe that they need to win the Super Bowl to honor her memory. The Super Bowl loves feel-good stories. This would be a feel-good story. EDGE: PATS.

The "Giant Horseshoe That Lives Up Eli Manning's Anus" edge: Still lives there, as we see every time he throws into double coverage for a sure interception that somehow gets dropped while concussing one or both of the DBs. EDGE: GIANTS.

The "Are We Really Prepared For Eli To Have Twice As Many Rings (And Counting) As Peyton?" edge: I mean, think about that for a second. EDGE: PATS.

The "Curse Of Bridget Moynahan" and/or "The Curse Of Gisele Bundchen": Brady broke up with Moynahan in 2006 and started dating Gisele a few months later. Since then: Spygate, 18-1, Bernard Pollard, no rings. I don't like talking about this or thinking about it. EDGE: GIANTS.

The "Peyton Manning Is Having A Crappy Week, So Naturally, He'll Be Unhappy On Super Bowl Sunday" edge: Well, Tom Brady beating Eli Manning (Peyton's brother) for his fourth Super Bowl (four times as many as Peyton) in Indy (Peyton's city) while using the home QB's locker (Peyton's locker) sounds like a capper to a crapper of a week, right? EDGE: PATS.

The "Who Does Vegas Want To Win?" edge: Supposedly money poured in on Giants +3.5 and Giants +3 for the past 10 days, only they're terrified to move the line to "Pats by 2½" because, if the Pats covered that by three, they'd lose all the Pats -2.5 bets AND all the Giants +3.5 bets (in a repeat of Super Bowl XIII, the most famous gambling disaster in football history2). If Vegas got killed all the time, there wouldn't be a Gamblers Anonymous, Vegas wouldn't have dozens of casinos, and Allen Iverson and Antoine Walker would have more than $500 between them. EDGE: PATS.

The "Who Did Adam Carolla Pick?" edge: Remember Mush in A Bronx Tale? That's Carolla. If he wagered on the same team you wagered on, you might as well throw that bet in the fireplace and watch it burn. This weekend? Rumor has it that Carolla likes … (drumroll please … ) the Patriots! EDGE: GIANTS.

Q: On SI.com Peter King mentions that Tom Coughlin gave this speech to his team after beating San Fran: "All three of those guys [the honorary Giants' captains] would give anything to be playing in this game," Coughlin said with customary passion. "But their time was then. Their time has passed. Your time is now … " Very moving, except it is from The Goonies! Please tell me if this is a good sign or a bad sign for the Pats because no one rode up Troy's bucket in the movie!
— Jason Mulderig, N.Y.

SG: Let's add that to untraditional football metrics …

The "Team That Didn't Steal A Motivational Speech From The Goonies" edge: Belichick doesn't do that crap. EDGE: PATS.

Q; Can we agree that the most terrifying line on any active NFL player's Wikipedia page belongs to Ray Lewis? "The white suit Lewis was wearing the night of the killings has never been found."
— Aaron W, Gainesville, Fla.

SG: Absolutely. Unless the sentence "Eli became immortal after beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl for the second time in four years" gets typed on Sunday night.

Q: I hate to go all 19th century on you chaps, but anyone who thinks that a Pats win in Indy will make up for 2007 must think The War of 1812 made up for the American Revolution.
— D. Zimmerman, Brooklyn

SG: All right, all right, enough of these already. The 2011 Pats cannot avenge the 2007 Pats. I am conceding the point. Is it all right if we win just to win the Super Bowl and shut up all the cocky Giants fans? Is that enough of an incentive? Lemme know.

Q: Does anyone else think that Rex Ryan is going to overpay Bernard Pollard solely because he seems to hurt a Patriot every time he hits one? And then Rex Ryan sends him on a blitz every down? I need a drink.
— Matt, Wakefield, R.I.

SG: I'm already drunk. You can't tell by the uncharacteristically short answers? There's a 40 percent chance I'm going to be kicked out of either the Audi party or the Playboy party tonight for wobbling around like Kim Richards.

Q: I've got an overtime proposition: Let's do away with it. This is not a call for more tie games. Instead, the team possessing the ball when time expires should be utilized as the tiebreaker. Never again will you see three runs up the middle to force the other team to use their timeouts. Teams might even use all four downs! Possession is nine-tenths of the win! I'm entirely too excited with myself!
— Daniel S., Asher, Okla.

SG: Pretty weak. You did inspire me to think of another playoff overtime idea, though — instead of a coin toss, what if they did football's version of a jump ball, with five players from each team standing on their respective 35 yard lines, Ed Hochuli standing at midfield, then Ed lobbing the ball straight up in the air as high as he could (and running for his life), then both teams fighting for the ball as it comes down? Whoever gets the football gets first possession in overtime. How great would that be? Especially the part when Ed Hochuli gets trampled by 10 football players?

Q: If you were forced to put your life savings on one NFL star abruptly retiring to start a career in the WWE, wouldn't all your money be riding on Rob Gronkowski?
— Derrick Williams, San Diego

SG: Yes. Except I'd parlay it with "Rob Gronkowski will release a sex tape before 2013" and "Within the next four years, something funny will happen during a Rob Gronkowski interview that will become the Namath/Kolber interview moment of this decade."

Q: When the Pats beat the Rams in SB 36, on the first drive, Tebucky Jones hit a receiver so hard he broke the guys rib. THAT'S how the Pats need to come out on Sunday. Enough of this playing it safe, being careful of the Giant's pass rush BS. Pats need to knock the crap out of people and DO THEIR JOB.
— Matt, Boston

SG: YEAH! Now I'm fired up. Let's speed up to the big finish …

Q: When asked what the "over/under" for Kelly Clarkson's Super Bowl National Anthem was, I initially responded, "170 lbs" …
— Joe G., Horsham

SG: We're in range.

Q: I hear Kelly Clarkson will be doing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl this year. I was talking with a buddy and we got to wondering, what would the reaction be if Kelly Clarkson performed Ace Ventura style (i.e. bent over backwards pretending her ass was singing)??? Say the rendition was flawless and spectacular, only that she was acting as if her ass was doing the singing. Would it be a bigger story than Janet's wardrobe malfunction?
— Andrew, Bettendorf, Iowa

SG: Yup, these are my readers.

Q: You have remarked on the coincidence of certain songs bands have played at halftime of Super Bowls involving the Patriots. In 2002, U2 played Beautiful Day as the Pats stunned the Rams to win it all. But then in 2008, Tom Petty played Free Falling, which is exactly how New England's season ended. Madonna is playing halftime this year. Any songs we should keep an ear out for?
— Dave B., San Francisco

SG: You mean other than "Like a Tebow"? Here's how I could see Super Bowl XLII playing out …

Everything goes wrong for the Pats in the first half: Brady doesn't have enough time to throw and can't find a rhythm; Cruz and Nicks are getting open all over the field; Gronkowski plays a couple snaps and limps off; the Patriots' quirky ball control/no-huddle offense doesn't work; the Giants are confidently skipping around like they own the place; and the crowd is smelling blood and working itself into an anti-Patriot froth. By halftime, it feels like the Giants should be leading by 30 points, only they're up 13-3 … and yet, nobody can see the Patriots possibly coming back.

And I'm sitting there stewing in my seat, surrounded by crowing Giants fans, fighting off déjà vu, swearing at Bernard Pollard, barely holding on to a shred of faith, thinking luck finally ran out for this doing-it-with-mirrors Pats team.

Then the lights dim. Hundreds of workers run out and assemble the halftime stage. Hundreds of dancers surround the stage in a creepy circle. The announcer says, "Ladies and gentlemen … Madonna!"

We hear the first few chords of her first song …

Life is a mystery
Everyone must stand alone
I hear you call my name
And it feels like … home

That's right, that leathery broad from Michigan with a British accent is singing "Like a Prayer."

When you call my name
It's like a little prayer
I'm down on my knees
I want to take you there
In the midnight hour
I can feel your power
Just like a prayer
You know I'll take you there

And suddenly, just like that, I will believe. So will the Patriots. If 2002 was a "Beautiful Day" and 2008 was "Free Falling," then 2012 will feel "Like a Prayer." The Patriots will rally back, Gronk will make a few big plays on his ankle that suddenly doesn't hurt anymore, the Giants' front four will get tired, and the Belichick/Brady Patriots will start playing like the Belichick/Brady Patriots of old. Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Michael Strahan and Joe Buck will be unable to stop it from the stands. The noise from Colts and Giants fans will bounce right off the Pats like a Super Ball. Every ghost and every demon will be buried. And just when they're wrapping it up, and we see Bob Kraft and his son hugging in their luxury box, someone will spill a plate of nachos on Bernard Karmell Pollard.

That's not my pick … that's what I want to happen. But screw it, let's make that the pick.

The Pick: Patriots 24, Giants 19.

Playoffs: 7-3
Season: 127-130-9

Permalink

bsnba2

By: timbersfan, 1:55 AM GMT on February 02, 2012

NBA Season Review: 20 Questions, Part 2

In the conclusion of his review of the NBA season, the Sports Guy wraps up his self-Q&A session

By Bill Simmons on February 1, 2012 PRINT

hese past two days, we covered a few unexpected reasons that made the NBA's lockout-shortened season so compelling, and broke down relevant storylines with help from one of America's oldest and lamest column gimmicks ("20 Questions, Part 1"). Here's the second part of that "20 Questions" column.

11. Why hasn't #freestevenash evolved into a social media campaign along the lines of #occupywallstreet?

We still have time. This much is clear: Nash respects his leadership responsibilities and his legacy in Phoenix too much to ever become The Guy Who Asked For a Trade. Just look at what Carmelo Anthony did to the Nuggets last year, or Dwight Howard is doing to the imploding (and then some) Magic right now. Nash would never do that to his teammates; he'd rather miss the playoffs, flee Sarverville this summer and make one last run with a contender next year. That's why Sarver's Suns know they can hide behind the cop-out of an excuse, "Hey, it's up to Steve to ask us for a trade," despite knowing that (a) he took less money to stay back in 2009 under the assumption that the roster would always be first-class (and it's not), and (b) he'd never shit on his teammates like that. What a bunch of cowards. I hate professional sports sometimes.

Did that stop me from taking a Nash-inspired whirl on the Trade Machine? Of course not!

Let's see … barely conceivable trades with the Lakers (Nash and Josh Childress' horrific contract for Luke Walton, Derek Fisher, Darius Morris and a 2012 no. 1 pick), Pacers (Nash for Darren Collison and a 2012 no. 1 pick), 1 Mavericks (Nash for Jason Kidd and Roddy Beaubois) and Celtics (Nash, Grant Hill and Marcin Gortat for Rajon Rondo, Marquis Daniels and Jermaine O'Neal's expiring deal) are just that: barely conceivable (and unlikely). But what if the Blazers offered Raymond Felton, Nic Batum (whom they just passed on extending) and $3 million for Nash, with the wink-wink caveat that Phoenix then had to buy out his buddy Grant Hill's contract so Hill could sign with Portland? Could you go to war in the 2012 playoffs with LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby, Wesley Matthews, Jamal Crawford, Hill, Kurt Thomas, Craig Smith and a rejuvenated-by-the-Pacific Northwest-and-a-title-shot-and-Rip City Steve Nash? Hell yeah! I haven't been this excited for a fake trade in years. Naturally, that means it won't happen.

Quick tangent: I still watch Inside the NBA even though it's starting to seem like Shaq is a double agent hired by ESPN to ruin that show. Anyway, Barkley declared emphatically on Thursday night that Miami and Chicago were playing in the Eastern Conference finals and nobody else had a chance. With all due respect to the Chuck Wagon, can we really say anything definitively yet? I haven't seen a single 2012 team that made me say, "That team is ready to play in the Finals, they don't need anything." Sunday's Bulls-Heat game was a perfect example: Everyone came away thinking, "Chicago still relies on only one guy down the stretch" and "Miami still gets tight when it matters." Same for Clips-Oklahoma City the following night, when the Zombies tried their absolute hardest and got run off the court. Bad sign for their 2012 title hopes. I'm not sure people appreciate how fully wide-open the 2012 playoffs are, or how easy it would be for eight to 10 different teams to sneak into the Finals with one shrewd move. The 2012 title will be decided by injuries, deadline trades and luck. And not in that order.

So yeah, during a normal season, "Felton for Batum to rent Nash for three months and hopefully re-sign him" would seem excessive. But this season? You should bang it out without blinking. Same for overpaying for Anderson Varejao — an elite rebounder/banger/defender who's playing out of his mind right now — if Cleveland ever decided that they were better off converting him into draft picks and tanking 2012 over drifting into no-man's land (the fringe of the lottery, where it becomes impossible to improve your team). The Celtics, Clippers, Mavericks, Rockets, Nuggets and Grizzlies could offer 2012 no. 1's plus expiring contracts plus $3 million plus a young player with potential for Varejao. Hell, if I were Danny Ainge, I'd offer O'Neal's expiring, my 2012 no. 1 AND the Clippers' no. 1 for him. 2

Wouldn't you take your chances with a Rondo-Allen-Pierce-Garnett-Varejao quintet this spring? Or am I just a complete homer? That reminds me …

12. Are the Mavericks really passing on making a full-fledged title defense?

It's been the most fascinating moral dilemma of the season: The Mavericks finally breaking through and winning a title, then glancing around and saying, "Instead of re-signing Tyson Chandler and running this back, we're clearing as much cap space as possible while remaining relatively competitive, then keeping our fingers crossed for Dwight Howard and/or Deron Williams … and we feel good about this because, again, we already won a title. It's much more important to set up the next decade."

It's a defensible plan. I'm sure Dallas' first-class analytics posse supported its statistical wisdom. Then again, the 2012 title is wide-open. How many chances do you have to win the championship? I keep thinking back to that 2007-to-now Celtics run, when the Celtics left a second title on the table in 2009 (KG's injury) and 2010 (Perkins going down in Game 6 of the Finals). You never stop thinking about those lost rings. Ever. It's the same reason Kevin McHale limped around on a broken foot for the entire 1987 playoffs, altered the course of his career and, incredibly, would make the same choice again. When you're that close, you do whatever it takes. So watching Dallas halfheartedly contend with gimmicks like "96% Man / 4% Amazing," 3 Khloe & Lamar and "The Delonte West Roller Coaster Ride" while protecting its 2012 cap space and praying that Ian Mahinmi and Brendan Haywood can morph into a poor man's Tyson Chandler … I mean … I guess it makes sense. I guess.

Of course, the Mavericks somehow won 14 of their first 22 games without Chandler and with Dirk playing himself into shape; they could still flip the Odom/Kidd expirings, Beaubois, $3 million and two no. 1 picks into Howard and Hedo Turkoglu's contract atrocity faster than you can say "back-to-back." You never know. We've all learned not to doubt Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks. Hey, that reminds me …

13. What in the holy hell is happening with Dwight Howard?

You have to admit, making up fake trades, deciphering real rumors from fake ones and watching the league's only dominant center treat his final Orlando season with that same glazed/trapped/hostage-like look in his eyes that Katie Holmes has … it's been pretty fun, right? Not since 2007-08 Kobe (right before the Pau Gasol trade) have we watched a superstar put up killer numbers this effortlessly while remaining emotionally detached the entire time; it takes a special level of talent to dominate games while simultaneously mailing them in. 4 Even stranger, Orlando GM Otis Smith seems to be paralyzed by the proceedings — after Brook Lopez's broken foot knocked New Jersey from the bidding, Joakim Noah's trade value went in the tank 5 and the surging Clippers shook off Howard's overtures, poor Otis was suddenly left with Dallas and the Lakers as his only real suitors.

So what's taking so long with Bynum-for-Howard? Why the foreplay? Just pull the trigger, Otis! Save face by expanding the trade to include Nelson ($17.2 million remaining, expires in 2013) and the already floundered Quentin Richardson ($7.8 million remaining, expires 2014) for Matt Barnes (expires this season), the Lakers' 2012 no. 1 pick and a valuable trade exception (the $8.6 million opened by sending Nelson to the Lakers for Odom's exception). The final haul: Orlando chops $13.1 million from this season's payroll, dumps $11.85 million of 2012-13 salaries, picks up a draft pick and turns a two-dollar bill (Howard) into someone who's definitely improved to a dollar bill (Bynum If He Can Stay Healthy) for someone who's leaving anyway.

Of course, that makes too much sense, and we're talking about Otis Smith here. 6 What if Otis decides, "Screw it, I'm getting fired anyway for giving Dwight such a pathetic supporting cast that he practically put out Craigslist ads trying to get traded — I should just roll the dice with the 10 percent chance that he'd rather stay here next summer because we can pay him more"? Well …

14. What happens to the New Jersey Nets if they don't get Howard?

After gutting their team for Deron Williams (Derrick Favors and the no. 3 pick in the 2011 draft), New Jersey faces a potentially humiliating situation: If they can't land Howard within the next few weeks, they have to reverse course and frantically shop Williams over watching him play out his contract, then sign with his hometown Mavericks in five months. They can't move to Brooklyn this summer without a star to market, right? (Sorry, I don't think this picture is cutting it for 2,000 billboards in the tri-state area.) That means they'd have to flip Williams for an All-Star who's locked into a deal already. You know, someone like Pau Gasol (who might be past his prime, or close), Amar'e Stoudemire (and his uninsured contract) or even (gulp … ) Joe Johnson. Wow, it's hard to believe that things might play out badly for an NBA franchise owned by a free-spending Russian oligarch who splurged on Travis Outlaw, Johan Petro, Jordan Farmar and Anthony Morrow as his first four signings, hired Billy King, lost interest within nine months and decided to run for the presidency of Russia.

15. Hold on a second … it's totally conceivable the Lakers could flip Gasol for Williams and Bynum for Howard??? So the 2011-12 Lakers could end up with Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard AND Deron Williams?

(Nodding my head grimly.)

(Praying this doesn't happen.)

(Praying some more.)

16. What's your favorite dumb subplot of the 2011-12 season?

During pregame intros for a Knicks-Suns game at MSG, I noticed Renaldo Balkman had thrown himself into that James Posey-type role for the Knicks: In other words, he's the last guy every starter greets during the intros, and he's the guy who waits at midcourt before the opening tap for one last round of "good luck" hugs and hand slaps. That got me thinking … why does every team suddenly have someone like this? Did James Posey start it? Was it Damon Jones? Was it someone earlier than them? Do teams elect this player or is it more of an unspoken embrace of that role? Does the player elect himself? What if two guys want to play that role? And what should we call this person?

Anyway, Grantland's Rembert Browne and I came up with the perfect name for this job ("The Chemist"); in terms of office chatter, it's reached the point where Grantland's Jay Caspian Kang sends us e-mails from Clipper games like, "Reggie Williams Jackson — F+ performance as OKC's chemist tonight!!!!" From what I've seen, the best two NBA chemists right now are Dr. Balkman and Dr. Nate Robinson; they're like the Bird and Magic of that job. If you think there's a better one, e-mail us or tweet us at twitter.com/nbachemist — we're planning on cranking out an NBA Chemist Power Rankings later this season. And you're right, I'm a little too obsessed with this. At every Clippers home game, I'm muttering to myself, "For God's sake, Mo Williams, just let Reggie Evans be the Chemist! Your heart's not in it! Just let him do it!"

17. Is Kobe Bryant the most polarizing NBA player of all time?

Watching 2012 Kobe has been like watching 2003 MJ play with a better 2003 Wizards team — 25 shots a night, no conscience, no first step, no fast break points, more tricks and upfakes than ever, little consideration for making his teammates better, and somehow, you still finish every Kobe game thinking, I have a ton of respect for that dude, there's just nobody like him.

How much should we hold it against him that he's cranking out his numbers and hoping it will be enough every night? As always, it depends on what you value in a basketball player. I keep coming back to something Phil Jackson mentioned during our lunch last spring, when the then-Lakers coach candidly admitted that he never wanted to be coaching Kobe when Kobe stopped being Kobe. I got the sense from Jackson that he believed he was cashing in his Kobe poker chips at the perfect time (and for a pretty substantial windfall). Not even a month later, Dallas swept the Lakers and Jackson retired. I bet he doesn't have any regrets. You don't want to be coaching Kobe when Kobe stops being Kobe.

All right, so … when will Kobe stop being Kobe? Why aren't we there yet? Shit, why aren't we even close yet? How is this possible?

Even your staunchest Laker hater (you know, like me) has been inspired by Kobe cranking out these 30-point nights while fighting off a mangled wrist, aching knees, advancing age (16 seasons!!!), a highly publicized divorce and a monstrosity of an NBA schedule. Nobody plays harder, nobody cares more, nobody plays at a higher level while enduring more pain. He's one of the most incredible athletes we will ever see, something of a basketball machine, someone singularly devoted to his craft, someone who has convinced himself that he can become immortal simply by playing well for a longer period of time than anyone else. Kareem remained elite for nearly two solid decades (1969 to 1987), won titles 17 years apart and captured Finals MVP trophies fourteen years apart (his most amazing feat). Kobe seems determined to play 25 years and matter for at least 20 of them. Even if he can't be greater than Jordan, Kobe knows he can have a greater career than Jordan because of his era-specific advantages (dieting, training, surgeries, stem cells, Germany trips, you name it). That's what fuels him. I really believe that. Kobe Bryant wants people to look back 200 years from now, compare the raw numbers and say to themselves, "Who was better, Kobe or Jordan?"

That's why any Kobe watcher knew he'd keep playing with that mangled wrist. 7 You really think he would give up 10 weeks (and 1,000 points) after losing 16 lockout games (and another 500 points)? Come on. He's on a mission. If he cared only about winning, he would do his damndest to get Bynum (playing his best basketball ever) and Gasol (struggling without Odom, who was a terrific sidekick for him) more involved every night. If he cared only about chasing Kareem's record (and it sure seems like he does), then he'd match his 2006 scoring pace and just shoot 30 times a game.

What matters more? I don't even think Kobe knows. He flips back and forth depending on the night, or sometimes, even the quarter. Because he's saddled with such dreadful point guards, Kobe has the ball in his hands constantly — his 38.2 percent usage rate is his highest since his 2006 Teen Wolf season (38.7 percent), and higher than any Iverson season and any Jordan season except for 1988 (38.3) — making that ongoing internal struggle even more transparent. Unable to attack the rim with the abandon of his prime, Older Kobe works methodically at creating space for his 20-footers, turnarounds, leaners and double-pump jumpers. The degree of difficulty is off the charts — like watching someone throw for 300 yards a game without any decent receivers or something. He's remaining relevant simply because he couldn't stomach the thought of not being relevant.

Would you enjoy playing with him? Not this year. Not yet, anyway. But you'd respect him, marvel at him, remember him … and every night, you'd feel like you had a pretty good chance at winning. And so it goes for the most polarizing NBA superstar since Wilt.

You know what's really crazy? Somehow, this isn't the most riveting NBA story in Los Angeles. You know, because …

18. Are the Clippers really contenders? The Clippers???? IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING????

I'm saving my thoughts for a separate column. Just know this: I can't remember witnessing a better struggle between baggage and talent. Seriously, it's like a tug-of-war. They have two of the best 15 players in the league; they play their butts off; they already have a high-flying identity; they're talented enough that they already beat Miami, Dallas and Denver and whupped Oklahoma City; they're already embroiled in their first rivalry (a heated/bitter/hostile/awesome blood feud with the condescending big brother Lakers); they're a Kenyon Martin signing away from legitimately going nine deep (and they're the favorites to get him); and they can execute at the end of games because of Chris Paul (who's simply a maestro, and by the way, he's getting his own column, too). Anyone who watched Monday's beatdown of Oklahoma City knows that the 2012 Clippers are the most entertaining contender since the 2007 Suns. It's just a fact. If this were any other team, you'd think to yourself, What could possibly go wrong?

And yet …

There's Donald Sterling still sitting courtside with that grumpy look on his face …

And there's the immortal Vinny Del Negro still prowling the sidelines …

And there's 35 years of hard-core baggage hanging over everything.

Once upon a time, I watched my beloved Patriots suddenly shed four decades of skeletons, catch every conceivable break and pull off one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets ever. Ten years later, they have three trophies and they're gunning for a fourth on Sunday. It can be done. Maybe it's never been done by a franchise as fundamentally fucked-up as the Clippers … but it can be done. Just know that, if Donald Sterling is holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy in five months, we may as well just surround him with 200 Mayans chanting, "Ster-ling! Ster-ling! Ster-ling!"

19. What's been the biggest elephant in the room of the 2012 NBA season?

You mean, other than Clippers fans and Clippers season ticket holders (I include myself) believing they can make the Finals with Vinny Del Negro? Let's have RJ from New Orleans explain:

"Eric Gordon, our main get in the CP3 trade to the Clips, has played two games (TWO!) this season and may not be back until mid-March. He also turned down an extension, making him a restricted free agent come July. Are the Hornets now covered in the blood of the murdered Lakers-Rockets deal? Has David Stern effectively killed basketball in New Orleans?"

Poor RJ left out the declining asset of Minnesota's 2012 no. 1 pick (the T-Wolves are one win away from being .500 for the first time since one of Latrell Sprewell's checks cleared 8 ), although building around Gordon and two top-12 picks in a loaded draft (and secretly tanking this season) isn't the worst thing in the world. Having said that, why won't the league extricate itself from this Hornets mess? Last week, they failed to extend Gordon because, you know, DAVID STERN WOULD HAVE BEEN THE ONE SIGNING HIM TO AN EXTENSION! Really, we're just going to let this f'ed-up train of hubris and greed keep chugging along at 80 miles an hour and plowing into cars and pedestrians? Can somebody call Chris Pine and Denzel Washington and tell them there's a runaway on the loose? A thousand tomato juice baths won't help Stern shake off the stink of what happened … and by the way, we're still four months away from an even bigger PR disaster at the 2012 NBA Lottery drawing (New Orleans winning the no. 1 pick, or even worse, two of the top three). Tebow help us.

20. What's been the most entertaining under-the-radar subplot of the 2011-12 season?

Even if it's another topic that needs to be blown out into its own column, let's quickly address the shadow of the 2012 Olympics and the three sub-questions it has spawned:

• Which 12 players are getting picked? • Which five players are starting? • Why are we pretending this doesn't matter to every NBA star when it clearly does?

We know LeBron, Wade, Kobe, Howard, Rose, Paul, Carmelo, Durant and Love are making the team; we know LeBron and Howard are definitely starting; and that's all we know. That means three roster spots and three starting spots are up for grabs, a juicy little subplot that hangs over the court like a thought bubble every time LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin battle this season, or Kobe and Wade, or Durant and Carmelo, or Paul and Rose, or Paul and Westbrook, or Aldridge and Griffin …

Here's the best example from this season (that I've witnessed, anyway): When Chicago played the Clippers right after Christmas, Rose and Paul traded punches like heavyweights for three quarters. At least five or six times after Paul made a play, Rose demanded the inbounds pass and tore down the court to answer him. You could tell Rose had something to prove — that he was the reigning MVP, that he owned a starting spot in London, that maybe a month of "Where's Chris Paul going?" hype shouldn't have mattered as much as it did. He torched the Clippers down the stretch, put away the game, then left room for one last ankle-breaking crossover in garbage time (finished with a gorgeous alley-oop pass for a Gibson dunk) before getting pulled and defiantly stomping back to Chicago's bench. If you were there, you knew this went deeper than basketball. Derrick Rose did everything short of standing on the scorer's table and holding up his point guard world championship belt.

Anyway, London's starting five looks like Rose, Kobe (the "token veteran" starter who also happens to be outplaying Wade right now), Durant (a heavy favorite after Carmelo's early swoon), 9 LeBron (locked in) and Howard (locked in). Note to everyone who loves Spain in an upset pick: Rose-Kobe-Durant-LeBron-Howard double as our first-team All-NBA squad if the season ended today. It's the most loaded USA Hoops starting lineup of all time. Just remember that when you're talking yourself into betraying the country with a "Spain +600" gold medal pick.

As for Coach K's all-important second unit (remember, he plays 10 guys internationally), it's looking like Paul, Carmelo, Wade, Love and Tyson Chandler would be the favorites barring something crazy happening (like an injury, or Carmelo playing himself off this team). That leaves two more spots available for Griffin (the people's choice), LaMarcus Aldridge (a bigger body and a more logical choice than Griffin), Andre Iguodala (defense defense defense), Deron Williams (backcourt depth), Westbrook (ditto), Curry (long-range shooting), Chauncey Billups (veteran leadership) and Dr. Renaldo Balkman (chemist). If we're picking a basketball team and making sure we're covering every potential situation, then Aldridge and Iguodala should probably make it. If we're picking an All-Star team, then Westbrook and Griffin should go if only for their athleticism and garbage-time heroics (and the distinct possibility of Griffin trumping the Carter/Weis dunk). There's no easy answer, just like there's no easy answer with anything about this team.

In 1992, we knew the hierarchy: Michael leading the way, Charles and Scottie flanking him, Larry and Magic as the veterans, everyone else falling in line. In 2008, same thing: Kobe leading the way, LeBron and Wade flanking him, Kidd as the veteran, everyone else falling in line. There's a different feel to 2012, with everyone constantly battling for territory, turf and respect. Even watching that Clippers-Oklahoma City game on Monday, as Paul and Westbrook traded haymakers, I found myself thinking about London again. Is there more going on here? Are there telepathic messages being sent? Maybe it's a bad omen for our 2012 gold medal hopes, but that ongoing competitive edge — an Olympian one-upsmanship, if you will — is the cherry on the hot fudge sundae of an already compelling NBA season. Good times.

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By: timbersfan, 1:51 AM GMT on February 02, 2012

NBA Season Review: 20 Questions, Part 1

In his continuing review of the NBA season, the Sports Guy conducts a Q&A session —with himself

By Bill Simmons on January 31, 2012 PRINT

esterday: We covered a few unexpected reasons that made the NBA's lockout-shortened NBA season so compelling.

Today: We're breaking down the other relevant storylines with help from one of America's oldest and lamest column gimmicks. That's right, it's time to play "20 Questions!"

1. If the 2011 Miami Heat played the 2012 Miami Heat, who would win?

We would be treated to a remarkably well-played basketball game for 45 minutes, followed by both teams getting tight and unleashing a barrage of turnovers, bricks and missed foul shots as the fans in attendance said things like, "Did 2012 LeBron just put three pounds of Botox in his face?" and, "Is that a skidmark in 2011 Chris Bosh's shorts?" With the game tied in the final 10 seconds, 2012 LeBron would bowl over 2011 LeBron on an out-of-control drive into three guys, miss the first free throw, then make the second … but only after it hit every part of the rim. That would leave 2011 Miami enough time to set up one final shot: which, inexplicably, would go to Eddie House. Game over.

The good news for 2012 Miami: We could be headed for an ugly, disjointed postseason that becomes a war of attrition more than anything else (much like the NFL). You know, the kind of season when you want one of the most indestructible physical specimens in sports history (LeBron) on your side. Even if the Wade/LeBron partnership will never totally work — it's been like watching two signature lead guitarists awkwardly jamming at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert since Day One — LeBron's freakish consistency trumps just about anything else you'd want in a rushed postseason. During the last lockout-shortened season (1999), the Spurs prevailed because David Robinson and Tim Duncan gave them a decided physical advantage: Two athletic, durable bigs 1 who delivered the same numbers every night as the condensed schedule wore down their opponents. If Wade's body holds up — a big "if" — Miami would have a similar advantage. You would think. 2

Regardless, I'm starting to wonder if Miami will ever reach its considerable potential. It won't happen this season — it's just too hard for a three-man team to survive this kind of schedule 3 — and wearing a giant bullseye for 14 straight months has to be wearing those guys down. There's a joylessness about them some nights that just doesn't seem … healthy. Like watching Michael Fassbender grimly thrust his way through Shame. (And like Fassbender, the Heat are physically endowed, almost to their own award-winning detriment.) Jordan fed off the doubters and haters, used their vitriol like caffeine, kept pushing his teammates because he couldn't let those nitpickers win. LeBron isn't wired like that. You get the sense that he's still a little incredulous about how things changed, that he keeps thinking it's a bad dream or something. Of course …

2. Do you realize that LeBron is having one of the greatest statistical seasons of all time?

I always thought Jordan's 1988-89 season (32.5 PPG, 8.0 APG, 8.0 RPG, 2.9 SPG, 53.8 percent FG, 85 percent FT, 31.1 PER) was the most impressive statistical season by a modern perimeter player … and yet, here's LeBron averaging 29.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 55 percent shooting and a 33.38 PER (highest ever) during a condensed schedule. It's impossible. How can someone have their greatest season during THIS season? There have been games when LeBron backs down a smaller defender into the paint, uses one of the low-post moves he allegedly learned from Hakeem this summer — really just a drop step and a jump hook, but whatever — and makes it look so simple that you're sitting there thinking, "My God, he could rule everything that's holy if he kept doing that."

Does that mean I changed my mind and now believe he's coming through in the final 20 seconds of a nationally televised game? NO!!!!!!!! Are you crazy? After watching him choke in person yet again against the Clippers recently —it's getting to the point that Miami should just hire Bill Murray, Chris Elliott and Andie MacDowell to sit on its bench — I drove home wondering if we're witnessing the single weirdest professional sports career since Wilt Chamberlain. The seven best regular-season players of all time from a "grinding out the same game night after night after night for years on end" are Wilt, Kareem, Oscar, Michael, Mailman, Kobe and LeBron in some order. He's staying on that list no matter what happens. But there's another one that matters even more: The four most-gifted basketball players of all time are Wilt, Magic, LeBron and Michael in some order. Two of them got better when it mattered; two of them got worse. These are the facts until (or unless) LeBron James chooses to change them. To be continued.

3. What the hell is going on with Carlos Boozer's hair?

It's the NBA's biggest hair controversy since Rick Barry wore a wig during the 1975-76 season. 4

How does Boozer suddenly have Shane Battier's hairline? Is he coloring it in? Did he get miniature plugs? Is he wearing the first ever shaved-head toupee? Did he think we wouldn't notice? Did he do it to throw Bulls fans off the whole "Why didn't we amnesty Carlos Boozer?" question? And why haven't my bald buddies on PTI become the Woodward and Bernstein of this story? You know something serious is happening when you Google "Carlos Boozer" and the fourth-suggested result is "Carlos Boozer hair." As a reader in Poland named Sebastian e-mailed me, "How is this story overlooked by American pundits? Wayne Rooney's hair transplant was a major story on this side of the Atlantic!" Totally agree.

4. Rubio?

Ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuubioooooooooooooooo!

It's been a bittersweet ascent for me: Less than three years ago, I was driving the Rubio Bandwagon and excoriating Memphis, Oklahoma City and Sacramento for passing on him in the 2009 draft, writing things like, "If I had to bet my life on any 2009 prospect becoming a top-three player on a championship team, I'd bet on Blake Griffin, Ricky Rubio and Stephen Curry," "I'm excited for 'Thabeet over Rubio' to become the new 'Darko over Carmelo,'" and, "Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is going to regret not being more excited about Ricky Rubio on June 25, 2009." When he slogged along for two woefully unimpressive seasons overseas, I should have stuck to my guns and written, "I'm not giving up! I believe in Rubio!" and eventually, it would have become my greatest NBA prediction of the past 10 years, surpassing even, "Portland will regret taking Oden over Durant." Like a pussy, I caved. The reports from Europe freaked me out. I worried Ricky was a bust, that I overrated his incredible Gold Medal game performance in 2008 (only 17 and battling the big boys!), that he wasn't a step ahead of other players like I thought, that he didn't have the passing gene like Larry and Magic did, that his lousy outside shot would sink his career.

Nope. I don't know what happened in Europe, just what I see now … and what I see is someone who's a step ahead of everyone else, makes passes that nobody else makes, loves playing basketball to the point that it's actually contagious, aces the "Would You Like Playing With Him?" Test to the point that we should just change it to the Rubio Test, rises to the occasion when it matters (most recently with a game-tying 3 against the Clips with 20 seconds left in the game), beats anyone he wants off the dribble, plays with a Maravichian flair and, for lack of a better phrase, lights up the room. Only in this case, it's usually a room with 16,000 people in it. If you were having a "Which Two Teammates Would You Want to Build Around for the Next 10 Years" argument, LeBron and Wade would be first, then Durant and Westbrook, then Paul and Griffin … and Rubio and Love would be fourth.

It's the last point that matters most. Rubio and Love accomplished the rarest of feats: They're such good passers and possess such a hugh basketball IQ, that it actually rubbed off on their teammates. They're infectious. Watch the Wolves sometime — you'll see perfectly executed pick-and-rolls, gorgeous backdoor cuts, seamless three-on-ones and everything else I grew up watching. Once upon a time, I watched Larry Bird and Magic Johnson (the two most infectious NBA players of all time) turn black holes like Kareem and Kevin McHale into half-decent passers. It's happening again on a smaller scale in Minnesota. Well, with everyone but Michael Beasley. But it's a beautiful thing to watch, and for Kevin Love —who slogged through three crummy years wondering if he'd ever play with anyone who had a basketball IQ over 80 — he has to feel like he died and went to basketball heaven. I never thought Rubio would play this well or stand out this much. What a pleasant surprise. I feel gooey. Of course …

5. Why didn't Minnesota just sign Kevin Love for five years?

I can't resist …

KAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Yes, David Kahn gets immense amounts of credit for pulling off the 2009 trade for Washington's pick, drafting Rubio and — eventually — bringing him over. Getting credit for someone that magical trumps every other dumb move he made. And there were plenty. You know, like drafting Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry. Trading Ty Lawson. Blowing the fourth pick of the 2010 draft on Wesley Johnson (who, unfortunately, stinks). Overpaying for a slew of mediocre players (Darko Milicic, Ramon Sessions, Nikola Pekovic, Martell Webster, etc.). Hiring Kurt Rambis and trying to run the triangle with the youngest/dumbest team in the league. It's a long list. Picking Rubio, then resisting the urge to trade him for two years —even with Rubio floundering in Europe — made up for everything. When you have Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio on your team, the other 10 guys don't matter as much. Eventually, you'll find them.

Did Kahn decide to risk that last point almost immediately? Of course he did! Instead of giving Love their "designated max extension" slot (five years, $80 million), the Wolves decided to save that slot for Rubio and played hardball with Love … who's only one of the stubborn athletes of the league, and someone who once pissed off the entire state of Oregon (where he grew up) by signing with UCLA. Let's walk through this debacle quickly …

1. You're Minnesota. 2. You stink. 3. You have a 0.0 percent chance of ever in a million years luring a marquee free agent. 4. You have one of the best 10 players in the league. 5

5. You have a chance to lock up this player for five years and team him up with your other marquee player.

How does that lead to …

6. You sign that player for three years, then give him an opt-out clause for Year 4?

Is there any chance Love stays after 2015 now? The team just told him, "Yeah, we know Oklahoma City took care of Russell Westbrook for five years, but you're not as good, so screw you." Massive mistake. We're getting three and a half years of the Minnesota Rubio Loves, and then Kevin Love will sign somewhere else. It shouldn't have played out that way.

6. Who's the worst couple of the past 12 months — Sammi and Ronnie, Kim and Kris, or Carmelo and Amar'e?

Kim and Kris. It's no contest. By the way, I'm not willing to write off the Carmelo/Amar'e pairing yet — even if it's been a ball-stopping, disjointed, shoulder-sagging mess so far — until we see how they look with a competent point guard running the show. By writing them off just from what we've seen, you are basically saying, "Point guards don't matter." That's wrong. They matter more than any other position in 2012. So let's at least see what kind of effect Baron Davis (and hopefully not Baron Davis' love handles and herniated disc) have on this Knicks team before we make a final assessment. I mean, did you really think "Carmelo Anthony, point forward" was going to work? Or that Iman Shumpert was the answer? Come on. Give this a few more weeks.

(Has that stopped me from sending "Congrats on watching Spencer Haywood/Bob McAdoo 2.0!" jokes to my Knick fan buddies? Of course not!)

7. Will "Cleveland will regret taking Kyrie Irving over Derrick Williams" supplant "Orlando will regret taking Dwight Howard over Emeka Okafor" as the single dumbest thing I've ever written?

Irving is an absolute gem, so it's definitely in play. (The lesson, as always: Don't have a strong opinion heading into an NBA draft about someone you didn't see enough.) I wouldn't go so far as to call him "Kevin Johnson 2.0," if only because Kevin Johnson was really good. But Irving has three distinct K.J.-ish qualities: He's always going faster than it seems like he's going; when he drives to the basket bigger guys seem to bounce off him; and there's something about the way Irving dribbles that makes defenders instinctively back up, as if they're saying, "I don't know what's about to happen, but I don't want to get my ankles broken." He's also better in the clutch already than K.J. ever was. And he's only 19! It can't be forgotten how great it is to win the lottery sometimes.

8. Where does "What if the Clippers never traded Baron Davis?" rank among the all-time NBA What Ifs?

Definitely top 50. And climbing. It was already one of the dumbest NBA trades 6 of the past 10 years before the amnesty clause became part of the new labor agreement … at that point, it became one of the dumber trades in sports history. Should the Clippers be criticized for not guessing in January, with a labor stoppage looming, that the amnesty clause would potentially be in play? Yes and no — yes, they should have known, and no, they couldn't have known (because they're owned by a slum lord who has no idea what's going on).

Let's say they kept Baron, kept that no. 1 pick and won the lottery. Well …

• The Clips would have drafted Irving, teamed him with Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin, then had enough assets left over (DeAndre Jordan, Al-Farouq Aminu, Minnesota's no. 1 pick, Eric Bledsoe) to swipe Dwight Howard from Orlando this month. Would you rather have a Griffin/Howard/Gordon/Irving/Free Agent X nucleus, or Chris Paul's Lob City squad that just thrashed Oklahoma City last night in the single most entertaining game of the year? It's a great question. (I can't believe I'm saying this … but I think I'd rather have Lob City.)

• Chris Paul probably ends up on the Lakers (for Bynum) or Celtics (for Rondo and a couple no. 1 picks). Either way, an inferior basketball situation to the one he's enjoying now.

• Instead of building around Irving, the Cavs would be building around Tristan Thompson and I'd be writing "The lesson, as always: Tebow hates Cleveland" jokes.

• Baron would get amnesthized, 7 sign with the Knicks, then become their potential savior even though he's overweight and has a herniated disc. Oh, wait, that happened anyway.

My final verdict: If Howard ends up on the Lakers (and not the Clippers), the Baron nontrade becomes a Hall of Fame "What If" because the actual trade created new identities for two contenders (the Lakers and Clippers) and saved the most depressed franchise in the league (the Cavs).

9. Has there ever been a better year for point guards?

The short answer: No. It's like the quarterback boom in football — and if you want to extend the analogy, some of the NBA's rule changes last decade (dumping hand checks, speeding up the game) helped point guards much like the NFL's rule changes (changing the pass interference rules, protecting quarterbacks) helped passing. But you still need the talent, and fortunately, we're blessed with Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry (although his paper-mache ankles are starting to worry me), Tony Parker (another killer season for him), Kyle Lowry (morphing into a poor man's Fat Lever), Steve Nash, Ty Lawson (one of the fastest NBA players ever), Rubio, Irving, John Wall (coming on), Jrue Holiday (already came on) and Brandon Jennings (finally made a leap this year) … suddenly you're in good hands with half the league's point guards running your team. And we didn't even mention capable veterans like Mike Conley, the Semi-Rejuvenated Jose Calderon, Ray Felton and Andre Miller; The Artist Formerly Known as Jason Kidd; Baron (if he has anything left in the tank); works in progress like Brandon Knight (I'm a fan), T.B.H. Evans, 8

Roddy Beaubois (a possible late bloomer???) and Kemba Walker; or even Jimmer Fredette's abundant garbage time skills. 9

Look, it's not rocket science: Any basketball game is going to be more entertaining with competent-or-better point guards running the show. (Cut to Knicks and Lakers fans nodding.) Without the right point guard, you won't get fast break points or easy baskets (cut to Knicks and Lakers fans nodding), you won't have good ball movement (cut to Knicks and Lakers fans nodding), it's harder to get your post guys the ball in the right spots (cut to Knicks and Lakers fans nodding), and you might have to rely on one perimeter player shooting 25 to 30 times a game while everyone else stands around (cut to Knicks and Lakers fans nodding vigorously while fighting off tears). More point guards = more fun. 10

10. Now that Oklahoma City has extended Russell Westbrook for five years, does that mean we can shelve concerns for an Avon/Stringer ending with Westbrook and Durant?

I'll answer the question with a question: Did anyone else notice that Westbrook started playing out of his mind the moment Oklahoma City gave him $80 million (and he knew he was staying there)? That HAS to mean something, right? Travel back with me to last spring, when Westbrook (a terrific kid by all accounts) got ripped for his shot selection in the 2011 playoffs (most famously by the TNT guys), took those comments personally, went into a semifunk, became something of a scapegoat for Oklahoma City's collapse in the Dallas series, brooded all summer, then played the first month of the season (pre-extension) with a defiant anger that didn't totally make sense.

Or did it? Look at it from Westbrook's side: He probably believed he was just as valuable as his buddy Durant (and for the most part, he was right), only everyone loved Durant and never criticized him for anything … but when Westbrook did something wrong? He got slammed. That made it a no-win situation for him — even worse, he knew it — which was why Westbrook's teammates (Durant especially) spent an inordinate amount of energy those first few weeks worrying about Westbrook, cajoling him, praising him, rubbing his head, slapping him on the back, engaging him and doing everything else you'd do when you're trying to make sure someone doesn't drift away from your tribe. I caught them in person in Boston two weeks ago (during the height of the "Westbrook for Rondo" Internet frenzy) and was stunned by how angry Westbrook played. He seems better now. Eighty million has a way of making someone feel a little more secure.

Still, that doesn't answer the fundamental question: Can Oklahoma City ever achieve its potential without Westbrook accepting that he's the Pippen to Durant's Jordan? Avon and Stringer aren't the right pop culture analogy anymore; there's a better one. A New York reader named Yoni explains: "Is it just me or does this whole Durant-Westbrook situation remind you of the relationship between Russell Hammond (lead guitar) and Jeff Beebe (lead singer) in Almost Famous? Just as Jeff could never quite understand how Russell takes the band to a new level with his guitar, Westbrook doesn't quite understand that KD is a franchise player in a way that he can't ever be. And if OKC makes T-shirts, Durant will always be front and center, and Westbrook will always be in the background as one of the 'out of focus guys.'"

(Making $80 million from 2012 through 2017 … but still.)

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