Thursday, April 21, 2005

Get Ready to Hail to King James

LeBron James did his best last night to carry his team into the playoffs. King James has done his best all season to make a mediocre team a winning team. Last night his Cleveland squad needed a win coupled with a loss by the New Jersey Nets to grab the 8th and final spot into the Eastern Conference playoffs. LeBron scored 27 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and dished 14 assists in the victory – but it wasn’t enough. You can’t point the finger at this kid though, he’s done more than just lead his basketball team, he’s revitalized a losing franchise and he’s invigorated the entire league.

LeBron James was drafted first overall straight out of high school in Akron, Ohio by a team that won just 17 games the year before his arrival. He immediately put fans in the seats wherever he played and many thought he would bring some credibility to his hometown team. It was a huge gamble and major roll of the dice to rely on an 18-year old to lead a team – but he has done that and more…he’s led a league.

I’ll admit that I was very skeptical at first. Other great high schoolers like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant needed at least a year to develop into the NBA-game and it took a few years after their rookie seasons for them become All-Star caliber. Not LeBron, he’s been incredible from the start. Sure coming out of high school the questions were more about his shooting ability than his athleticism and if he could handle playing with men much older than himself. It’s apparent that LeBron didn’t want those questions to be a topic of conversation too long – he’s worked on his shooting and he’s handled himself more like a man who’s played in the NBA for a dozen years. He always says the right thing, in victory and defeat, and his shooting percentages have gotten so much better while his scoring average rose by more than 6 points per game, his assists by more than one a game and his rebounding by almost two a game.

His sophomore season stat line reads a modest one:
G GS MIN FG% 3Pt% STL Rb As Pts
80 80 42.4 .472 .351 2.2 7.4 7.2 27.2I

t’s a shame that we won’t have the opportunity to see LeBron in the playoffs this year – but we have many years for that…hopefully around twenty more years. The kid is now 20 years old and although the Cavs fell a part at the end of the season he’s doing a fine job. Remember, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls didn’t have a winning season in his first three NBA seasons and didn’t win a playoff series until his fourth season. James does need some help. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a good center, and Drew Gooden does a nice job at forward but this team needs more. The Cavaliers need another guy who can not only put up points but can also play good defense. Michael Redd, an Ohio native who played college ball at Ohio State would be a nice fit and could compliment LeBron much like Scottie Pippen did with Jordan. Redd can knock down shots and isn’t shabby on defense either. The possibilities in the off season are what will make this team for the future. If owner Dan Gilbert spends some of the money he’s making on this team and brings in another really good player it will just make LeBron happy and he’ll want to continue playing in Cleveland.

The last piece of the puzzle is a good coach who can make this team believe that they’re a solid team in the Eastern Conference. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Maurice Cheeks. Hire him, he’s a winner and will teach LeBron things about the game that will help LeBron become one of the greatest players in league history. The potential is there. He might not score like Mike every night, but he rebounds and assists better than Jordan ever did. His all-around game will be marveled and people will talk about him in the same breath as Jordan, Magic, Bird, Russel and Robertson.

Dan Gilbert – if you’re listening…Get Michael Redd and hire Mo Cheeks and you’re team won’t be worrying on the last day of the regular season about making the playoffs, they’ll be trying to figure out which #7 or #8 seed is coming to Cleveland to get pummeled by King James and the Cavaliers.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

D.C. - A Place to Cheer

If you would have said on April 19, 2000 that in five years the Washington Wizards would be a playoff team, the city of Washington, D.C. would have a major league baseball team again (and be in first place), the Washington Capitals and the rest of the NHL wouldn’t play a single game this season and the Washington Redskins would be coached by Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs, but be in worse shape than before he returned– I would’ve told you that you were crazy. But in fact, it’s all true.

The Montreal Expos have relocated and become the Washington Nationals – playing in old RFK Stadium in front of thousands of fans that have longed for the opportunity to watch and root for a team in D.C. They’re off to a great start, currently in first place in the National League East and playing with the enthusiasm of 25 guys that had never been given the chance. Most of the team played the last several years with the Montreal Expos were it was disgustingly common for 4,000 fans to show up to a game on any given night. On opening night the Nationals drew a sold-out crowd of more than 46,000 fans. I think it’s safe to say, that this team is here to stay.

The National Hockey League locked out the entire 2004-2005 season because of a players strike. Can you believe that? How can these players not play an entire season? Most of the European players from such countries as Switzerland, Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic are all playing in professional leagues in these and many other countries. It’s terrible. One team in Russia, AZ Bars Kazan, has fourteen NHL players on its roster. These other leagues are paying good money to most of these players, most of whom are playing close to home. Several all-stars have said that they plan on playing their final few seasons in their home countries instead of returning to the NHL. What a mess.

Don’t look now, but the Washington Wizards are one of the most exciting teams in the NBA and are finally going back to the NBA Playoffs this season. Led by Coach Eddie Jordan and guards Gilbert Arenas & Larry Hughes, this Wizards team has been one of the biggest stories of the entire season. They are young, athletic and play very good defense while sharing the scoring load. With only a few games remaining in the season the ‘Wiz Kids’ look as if they might be able to catch the Chicago Bulls for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs – if not they’ll be the fifth seed…not too bad for a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1997.

The Washington Redskins, one of the most storied franchises in sports history have turned into a debacle. When Daniel Snyder bought the team there were high expectations because of his seemingly unlimited bankroll, but the team is close to hitting rock bottom. After a playoff appearance in the 1999 season followed by back-to-back 8-8 seasons Snyder lured Florida Gators Head Coach Steve Spurrier to coach the ‘Skins. But the team had two straight unsuccessful seasons going 12-20 under Spurrier and the college coach quit. The only man that could turn things around for the Redskins could be their Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs. Gibbs was 124-60 with a 16-5 playoff record in his 12 year stint at the helm from 1981 to 1992 – oh yeah, he also won 3 Super Bowls and took the team to a fourth. Unfortunately, Gibbs had no luck with the 2004 team going 6-10 and things don’t look to be getting any better. This off-season the team has lost several key players – Antonio Pierce, Laveranues Coles and Fred Smoot while several other players want to leave or have expressed their dissatisfaction with the team - LaVar Arrington and Rod Gardner being the most prominent. The near future doesn’t look too good for Washington, but Gibbs had to have known what he was getting himself into…a project.

In just five years, Washington sports have turned around, upside down and sideways – but in most cases, things are good. The excitement of the city for the Wizards and Nationals will hopefully rub-off on the Redskins and the emergence of Washington, D.C. sports will be considered what it truly is – quality.

Monday, April 18, 2005

21st Century Curse of Steinbrenner

Oh boy, how I love watching the Yankees lose. It brings me such joy. Call me a hater or whatever you want because it’s true. I love seeing the look on A-Rod’s face when he fly’s out with men in scoring position. I love the befuddled glare on Jeter as he watches the opposing team shake hands after they beat the Yankees. But most of all, I love hearing how angry their pompous owner is.

It seems like they really haven’t won much in the last six months. After their monumental collapse last year in the ALCS against the Red Sox you would’ve thought that they were going to come into the 2005 season like a team ready to exact revenge and win another 100-plus games right? Well they did start out good, beating the Sox in the first two games of the season, but since then they’ve shown the world absolutely nothing. 2-8 since those two early victories. I love smiling when I read that. How is this possible? A team payroll of over $204 million, 7 of the highest 25 paid players in baseball and they are struggling?

After being swept by the Baltimore Orioles yesterday Steinbrenner issued a statement – doesn’t he always?
"Enough is enough. I am bitterly disappointed as I'm sure all Yankee fans are by the lack of performance by our team. It is unbelievable to me that the highest-paid team in baseball would start the season in such a deep funk. They are not playing like true Yankees. They have the talent to win and they are not winning. I expect Joe Torre, his complete coaching staff and the team to turn this around."

Do you think Georgie is getting annoyed that the Mets might become a more popular team in the New York area over the next several years? The emergence of Pedro Martinez and with young, talented players like 27-year old Carlos Beltran, 21-year old Jose Reyes, 22-year old David Wright and 23-year old Victor Diaz the Mets look like the team on the rise as the Evil Empire looks more and more like a team on the decline. They’re an older team now (average age is almost 35 years old) who trades away their young talent for veteran superstars and they don’t appear to have anything left in a once flourishing minor league system.

Look at the 7 guys in the top 25 of their ridiculous payroll - except for A-Rod and Jeter they're all old or now have big-time baggage (Giambi).

#1 Alex Rodriguez $25,705,118 Age 29 (turns 30 later this season)
#4 Derek Jeter $19,600,000 Age 30 (turns 31 later this season)
#5 Mike Mussina $19,000,000 Age 36
#11 Kevin Brown $15,714,286 Age 40
#12 Randy Johnson $15,419,815 Age 41 (turns 42 later this season)
#16 Jason Giambi $13,428,571 Age 34
#25 Bernie Williams $12,357,143 Age 36 (turns 37 later this season)

Will we someday write and talk about the “Curse of Mike Mussina” or the “Curse of Jason Giambi”? Since Mussina joined the three-time defending World Champion Yankees for the 2001 season they’ve been to two World Series and lost both and two other playoffs and lost. Giambi joined for the 2002 season has been to one World Series and was also a part of the 2002 & 2004 playoff losses with Mussina. I'd rather call it the "21st Century Curse of Steinbrenner."

It’s comical to think that maybe George Steinbrenner sold his soul to the Devil to bring those four titles back to the Bronx and now they’re a team cursed. I’m sure I’ll have the awful feeling of watching them win another World Series before the end of my days…but wouldn’t it be wonderful to never see them win it again? The only thing I can say is, they better start winning soon, or old Georgie might trade and fire them all.