Saturday, February 22, 2014

Portland Trail Blazers Struggles

Lopez, Aldridge, Matthews, Batum, Lillard
After going 31 and 10 early in the season Portland has struggled and now stand at 37-18.  This includes being 6 and 9 in their last 15 after a 5 game winning streak in mid-January.  Hot early Portland looked like they could compete with the big boys of the Western Conference.  Now, not so much but it shouldn't diminish what they've accomplished.  LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard made the all-star game this month and both deserved their selections.  
Aldridge (23.9 pts, 11.9 rebs, 2.8 asts - all career highs) has been a huge part of the Trail Blazers' success due to his outstanding play.  He is the rock that all teams want in their lineup every night.  Having Lillard (21, 3.6, 5.8) as one of the top points guards beside him has been a mojor part of his and the rest of the team's success.  Lillard can score, ensure the offense runs well and has shown he can close out games as he did in back-to-back games against Detroit and Cleveland.  While those two are definitely the main reasons for the team's success others are also doing their part.  SG Wesley Matthews is averaging a career high 16 points, and shooting well, while C Robin Lopez is having a career year.  SF Nicolas Batum is having a solid year and PG Mo Williams is having a playing great coming off the bench.  I like the mix this team has with their bigs and smalls who can all shoot the rock.  Portland has gotten what they had hoped from the additions of Lopez and Williams in the off season while Aldridge and Lillard have only gotten better. 

So while all looks good this team is still struggling.  Some of it has been the schedule getting tougher and some of it has been some injuries of late.  The defense still isn't on par with even average teams in the league (27th in the league) so it helps to have the best scoring offense.  I haven't been able to see the Blazers much so I don't have any great insight.  But just on what I have seen, read about and can see in the box scores I would like to see more from Dorrell Wright coming off the bench at SF.  Bench scoring is coming from Williams and rookie SG C.J. McCollum.  Wright's 4 points a game isn't doing much for the team especially considering he is shooting around 36%.  But really the team defense has to improve for Portland to be taken seriously.  This falls squarely on the shoulders of coach Terry Stotts.  Portland may not have great defenders but they have very good athletes and it is the job of the coach to design a scheme that allows them to succeed on defense.  Four of Portland's next five games are at home and are all winnable.  Hopefuly we'll see some improvement. 
This is a good team.  Not great but very good.  Unfortunately the Western Conference is stacked so it is all the more important that this team learn to play defense as well as get contributions from every player up and down the lineup.  If they don't the season will but a foot note and a we'll see a quick ouster from the playoffs.  Not trying to be negative but while the team is exceeding my expectations, the Blazers have 6 first round losses to show for the last 13 seasons which include 6 seasons of 48 or more wins.  So we've seen it before and I think there is pressure to not only have a good regular season but to also do well in the playoffs.  For now I'll enjoy the season and the success they are having. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: 2012-2013 Panini Threads NBA Trading Cards

This was a rack pack from a year ago I really hadn't had the time to look at much.  It was a 32 card pack from the local Wal-Mart.  Basketball cards at a decent price are hard to come by and I'm assuming I paid $4.98 for these but I apologize I don't remember for sure.  The fronts are nice looking to me.  The left sides of the cards are a hazy dark color that correlates to the team color with a partial muted team logo at the bottom left.  The team name (mascot) is in white just above the logo going from bottom to top.  At the top left is the players name with the first name in smaller print than the last.  They run top to bottom with the font in white.  The Panini threads logo and year are in the bottom right hand corner in a copper color.  The border to the bottom is also in this color and seems wasted considering there are no other borders on the card.  I like the photos but there is still something about them that I'm not completely a fan of.  I think that it is how tight the photos are.  That is usually a good thing as you get to see all of the player.  I won't say this is a negative because I can't quite put my finger on it.  Again I like the design and don't even mind that the player's position isn't listed here. 

The back of the card has the players photo in color from the front cropped to only include the head at the top of the card.  The card number and NBA logo appear to the upper left and the player's name appears on the smoky colored background similar to the front at the upper right.  That all takes up about the top 45% of the card. The personal information comes next with birthdate, ht, wt, then the stats from the last season - Yr, Team, G, FG%, FT%, 3PM, RPG, APG, SPG, Blk, Pts, PPG.  Not a fan of stat totals in basketball when everything in basketball is expressed in a "per game" manner.  Then they throw in some quick information on the player on a colored background.  The bottom third of the card contains the players position, uniform number, team, logo, Panini logo, and Panini and NBA information.  I like the color on the background.  Not dull at all.  My only gripe here is the lack of personal information.  College, drafted, how acquired, and hometown are just a few options Panini could have gone with.  Also the bottom third has quite a bit of wasted space.  Could have thrown more stats up top to provide more key information.  Overall though a pretty nice background. 

I think overall this is a pretty nice batch of cards.  I didn't pull many stars and only one insert (Bobcats diecut jersey card for Kimba Walker).  I'd recommend everyone at the minimum check out this set.  I think they might like what they see.

Atlanta Braves Sign Craig Kimbrel to Four-Year Contract

The Atlanta Braves signed Craig Kimbrel to a four-year contract for $42 million dollars.  Incentives for All-Star appearances, MVP and Cy Young voting can add bonuses of up to $3.5 million dollars.  Atlanta has a team option for 2018 for a price of $13 million.  The signing allowed both sides to avoid arbitration.  To me the numbers seem like a great deal for both sides.   

I love this move.  I believe a closer is crucial to any team.  Since they pitch only one inning nowadays it is hard to say they are more important than setup pitchers but as they are in there in the 9th inning they get the press.  And if a team doesn't have a good closer it can make for a long season. 

I had to endure watching the Braves of the nineties, specifically the early years, struggle with no proven closer.  Nothing worse than going to the last inning of a game after your starters give you a very good game only to see it all be for not due to the lack of a quality closer.

To that end, Craig Kimbrel is not a quality closer.  He is a dominant closer.  In three years as the Braves closer he has a 1.48 ERA, 11 and 7 record, 138 saves, 206 innings, 341 strikeouts (14.9 SO/9),  and a WHIP of .871 in 210 games.  Assuming no injuries or significant fall off in performance Atlanta has one of the most important pitching positions set for the immediate future.  Atlanta does not have the deepest pocket books so this is a huge signing for the Braves.  After locking up Kimbrel, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman to multi-year deals Atlanta is trying to ensure some stability for a team that won 96 games last year.  Great off-season for Atlanta.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review: 2014 Topps Baseball Cards Series 1

Baseball spring training is drawing near which means only one thing - baseball trading cards hit the shelves!  I picked up my first pack today, a Topps baseball series 1 rack pack (also called jumbo pack) containing 36 cards for $4.98.  I received a mixture of the base set that included league leaders, special recognition cards, rated rookies and future stars.  Also included were the different inserts among which I pulled red foil, blue border, green border, die cut mini, upper class and future is now cards. 
The front of the cards have a white border, both portrait and landscape in variety, the player's team emblem in the bottom left hand corner, the player's name in silver at the bottom right with their position in a silver filled circle above that, and the team name is located on the right in a die cut looking area going from top to bottom. 
The back contains all the stats you could want including minor leagues for the younger players.  Categories include G, AB, R, H, 2B, 3B, HR, RBI, SB, BB, SLG, OPS, AVG and what I think is the first time I've seen on a card, WAR.  Personal information includes Ht, Wt, Bats, Throws, Born (Date and Where), Home, Drafted, and Acq.  At the top of the card is the player's name in black, team name in appropriate color to the upper left with their position approximately center at the top in small black letters.  The card numbers is in black in the upper right of the card.  Under those items is a team colored swirl for lack of a better term.  A rookie fact line is just below the personal information which was next down with all of that followed by the stats.  The appropriate Topps logo, trademark info and MLB and players union info is at the bottom of the card.  
The card fronts are ok but definitely not something that blows me away.  Maybe I'll just say they are average.  There just isn't anything special here that wows me.  The logo is nice and sharp but that is about the best thing I can say for the design.  The pictures were great though.  Plenty of action shots to go along with the standard standing poses.  But again the quality is there.  Topps has been real good with their photography of late.  Definitely not something I can complain about.  The backs are fine but again nothing special.  The addition of the WAR stat is the highlight there.  Other sets, whether of baseball design or other sports, sometimes add a different or the same picture on the back.  Sometimes in color, black and white or even as a subdued background.  At least it is different.  If you aren't going to add a picture or logo at least make the back stand out with color.  Again all this is lacking from this card. 
I was very happy with the cards I pulled.  My favorite by far is the Yadier Molina card.  That look is priceless.  I'm in the St. Louis area and have grown to like Molina as the great catcher he is.  So this was a very nice card to get.  I also pulled the Cardinals' Jaime Garcia which I probably won't be able to give away.  Three of my Red Sox were in the pack to include the awesome World Series Game 6 David Ortiz card.  I love the picture and it of course brings back great memories.  From the Braves I have the Jason Heyward card with the beautiful looking catch as well and the National League leaders in RBI's card featuring Freddie Freeman.  Of the inserts the Bryce Harper card was by far the nicest looking card.  I'm not sure what you'd call what they did with the picture but I find it very cool.  The others were ok but nothing to write home about.  The mini die cuts are 1989 Topps replicas.  Not the most sexy card in the world but it goes along with what Topps has been doing for some time. 
Not sure I'll pick up another pack but who knows.  I only have Wal-Mart as a source for cards nearby to me so I may be stuck with these.  Hopefully some of the different Topps varieties will be available here or in other Wal-Marts soon.  Looking at the checklist there are some cool cards with retired players on them.  These usually peak my interest so I'll probably try to track some of these down.  I would never tell anyone not to pick up cards.  So with these I'll say to pick up one pack and see what you think before you sink too much money into them.  

Book Review: The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam

The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam follows the season of the 1979-1980 Portland Trail Blazers.  This book is a great read for anyone who enjoys basketball.  Being a Trail Blazers fan it resonates with me more than most but that doesn't change how good this book is.  You can read here Bill Simmons' thoughts on the author and the book upon David Halberstam's death in 2007.  I read the paperback version which is an oversized paperback containing 400 pages. 

While the book is centered on the 1979-1980 Trail Blazers team the book encompasses so much more.  The catalyst for much of the book is the team's heart and soul, Bill Walton, signing with the San Diego Clippers just prior to the season.  This is two years removed from Portland winning the NBA championship.  He leaves amongst much angst on both sides.  Bill Walton was maybe the best player in the league when healthy but health was something he would never have much luck with.  But he isn't the what the book is about but he is a key figure in it.

Coach Jack Ramsey and the rest of the team is what everything revolves around.  The team is in flux as new players come in from San Diego as compensation for the Walton signing.  Some players, key components in earlier years, are now older and injures are taking their toll.  Young players compete for minutes and their NBA life. The owner of the team, the general manager, scouts and even the doctors and trainers also play key rolls in the book.  Halberstam also weaves other key players from the NBA into the book.  

Lionel Hollins, Maurice Lucas, Jack Ramsey,
Dave Twardzik and Bill Walton
Halberstam does a great job providing the back story of not just each player but of the recent past of the league and key players around the league.  All important to where the league is in it's maturation process.  He does a good job of covering the league's transition to a predominantly black league and the struggle black players endured even into the late 70's. But again this was only one of the many important details touched on that make any season a long journey with many twists and turns.  Portland had to work through them all whether it be salary negotiations, egos, injuries, and playing time to mention just a few. 

Again Halberstam does a great job weaving the back story of each player into how they are not just a player but a person.  You really get to know each player and feel more connected whether reading about rookie Abdul Jaleeni, veteran Maurice Lucas or phenom Billy Ray Bates.  He does a great job of not taking sides allowing you to make your own decisions on each individual.  For me they all came off as likable people who are just different in their own right.  None were bad or wrong.  They were just individuals and their stories were all great ones that really allowed me to connect with each. 

Kermit Washington, Larry Steele
My one and only thing I take issue with is the lack of photos or statistics.  When published in 1982 there was no access to the internet so putting a face with the name was not so easy.  As a fan I'm familiar with many of the players but would have liked the photos and stats for quick reference.  This is a very small point and in no way takes away from the book.  I'm a big stats guy so I love looking back to see how things played out on the court in numbers.  I just kept my 2001-2002 Sporting News NBA Guide handy (a must for the NBA fan prior to the internet).  I was also surprised how there was little mention of rookie and first round pick Jim Paxon who in later seasons would be the star of the team.  On a team with so many guard problems such a disappointing rookie season would have been a huge concern to coach Ramsey and Trail Blazer management.  Paxon of course would go on to a brilliant career in Portland and is beloved by fans for his time on the team.

Basketball fans should read this book.  It is as good as advertised.  While it is Trail Blazer centric it touches on so much more and is just so well written it deserves the time. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Atlanta Braves Give New Contracts to Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward

The Atlanta Braves avoided arbitration with first baseman Freddie Freeman and outfielder Jason Heyward by agreeing to extended contracts.  Report have Freeman receiving $135 million over eight years while Heyward will get $13 million for two years.  I really like both moves for Atlanta.  Both are great young talents and not having to worry about contracts for either in the immediate future is nothing but good news for the Braves. 

Freeman has been as good as advertised at first base.  In three years he has averaged .285/.358/.466 while hitting 20 plus homeruns each year while topping 100 RBI's for the first time last year.  Freeman was also 10th in the majors in WAR last year while also second in batting with runners in scoring position.  Freeman has shown he is worth the approximately $16 million a year he'll be getting.  I think it is important to lock up young players who have shown they can play good ball consistently.  Assuming Freeman's numbers don't fall off dramatically I think Atlanta will be happy at the end of this contract.  He is 24 years-old so his best days should be ahead of him. 

Heyward has had a little different story in the majors having to fight through injuries to include missing 58 games last year.  His career averages are .259/.352/.443.  He has 73 homeruns over his first four seasons.  This two year deal gives both sides time to better assess what Heyward will be in his career.  If he can stay healthy and put up big numbers the next two years it will pay off with a big contract.  To that end I would have been comfortable with Atlanta locking him up for more years but this probably makes sense for both sides.  He is only 24 so no one probably knows quite yet who Jason Heyward the player really is.  After returning from injury last year he was put in the leadoff role and did well.  Hopefully that bodes well for his future. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

2014 NFL Hall of Fame Class Announced

Front row (from left): Ray Guy and Claude Humphrey and Derrick Brooks. Back row: Aeneas Williams and Andre Reed and Walter Jones.
The NFL Hall of Fame class of 2014 was announced this weekend.  I love the hall of fame's of each sport and Saturday's announcement was very fun.  While I was excited for the entire class (Claude Humphrey, Michael Strahan, Derrick Brooks, Walter Jones, Aeneas Williams, Andre Reed and Ray Guy) there are always those whom I'm especially happy for.  Ray Guy, Claude Humphrey and Andre Reed fall in to that category that this year. 

I grew up watching Ray Guy kicking the ball.  He was the best there was and was widely recognized as the best of the best punters when he retired.  I don't know why Guy, a punter, resonated with me.  Maybe because punting is something as a kid I always thought I could do since I didn't have the arm to be a good quarterback.  I was one of the thousands of kids who competed in the Punt, Pass and Kick competition in the 70's.  I didn't win but it was fun.  I'm sure part of my love of Guy was his being a part of the Raiders and the mystique that came with being one of the black and silver.  No matter why, I'm very happy to see him finally get in.  Not sure the reason voters have such a hard time voting kickers and punters in but hopefully this will help open the door to future inductions. 

Being a Buffalo Bills homer seeing Andre Reed get in is fun.  He'll join Thurman Thomas and Jim Kelly from the great Bills teams that went to four straight Super Bowls.  It is too easy to say that receivers accumulate numbers and that they weren't quote "Hall of Famers".  There is truth to that in some cases but it shouldn't obscure the fact that many of these receivers are legit hall of fame players.  Art Monk and Lynn Swann were others who had to fight this argument for years.  Back to Reed.  His is deserved of this honor and I'm always happy to see another Bill enter the hall.

Speaking of being a homer, Claude Humphrey of the Atlanta Falcons (and Eagles) also gained induction to the hall.  While I have scant memory of his playing everything I've read he has deserved this honor for some time.  Sacks weren't an official stat when he played but I've read that 122 is what he has been credited with including 14.5 sacks with Philadelphia helping them get to Super Bowl XV. 

Derrick Brooks was definitely a player I always enjoyed.  He was a beast on defense and helped Tampa Bay win their only Super Bowl title.  Glad to see him get in on his first ballot.  Walter Jones is also a guy who deserved to get in first time out.  Aeneas Williams was a surprise to me.  Having played for the St. Louis Rams I've heard talk about Williams quite a bit on the local radio stations.  While they all said the right things they weren't convinced he'd make it either.  Michael Strahan is a guy who while I acknowledge how good he was resisted his getting in until late.  I didn't appreciate him while he played mostly due to the fact his Giants kept beating Tom Brady in the Super Bowl.  But once he retired and I've gotten to see him on Fox and his morning show how can you not like this guy?  It opened me up to really looking at him as a hall of fame candidate.  And he deserves his spot among the other greats.

I can't argue with any of this year's class which is nice.  Of course with the NFL's back log of good players waiting to get in I may not have any good arguments for a while.  Big names who will be first time eligibles next year are Kurt Warner, Junior Seau, Orlando Pace, and Isaac Bruce among others.  I do like the NFL Hall of Fame selection process.  It is very unique in that voters get to be in the same room and make their case for players.  That is just too awesome.  I would love to hear some of those conversations.  Well only one more year to see who will get in.  I'm thinking Seau and Pace are locks but won't be surprised if Warner also gets in.  His career is a bit of an enigma so it is hard to define but that is a story for another day.  It will be fun talking about when the time comes and I'm sure I'll post something then.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Can we question Peyton Manning's legacy?

Can we question Peyton Manning's legacy?  This came up quite a bit leading up to the Super Bowl and again after Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos were dispatched easily by the Seattle Seahawks in last night's Super Bowl.  The answer to the question I pose is yes and no.  They're never simple are they?

First, for this conversation to be intellectual at it's core, you must understand that Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.  He has to be right up there with the best of the best in any discussion.  If you can't believe that, the answer is "no" you can't question his legacy.  That is because if you can't believe he is one of the all-time greats then I think you are not very smart in the world that is the NFL.  I think even old timers who watched the greats in the pre-TV era would say "Yeah, Peyton is great".  And anyone who has watched him should be able to say that without hesitation.  Unless you just don't get it. 

I won't sit here and argue where he stands among the greats as that will take too much time.  But I personally believe he is in the top three of quarterbacks I've been able to see play.  Unfortunately that only takes in the mid 70's until today.  But that is no slight to quarterbacks before that time.  I am someone who enjoys and honors those that played in different eras not readily accessible to us in any media thus making it harder to make comparisons. 

So now you know where I stand.  That being said we can argue Peyton's legacy among the all-time greats.  That is completely fair.  I will start here.  His stats are beyond compare and there are too many to even make it fair against others of the modern football era.  Five-time MVP is a great one though.  Uh yeah, nobody is in that rarified air with him.  Seven time all-pro.  He has a Super Bowl win.  Been to three Super Bowls.  All with teams who won't match up position for position with many of the great teams that have played in Super Bowl games.  So I'll say he helped carry those teams to some extent.  Look at the Colts the year he was out with injury.  That wasn't pretty.  Denver was very good when he got there and just needed a quarterback.  Still they weren't great.  This year their defense was good but was decimated by injuries.   

Again there are too many arguments to be made for Peyton Manning and the other great quarterbacks out there.  They are all great and have their own "legacy" conversations that can be had.  When I hear folks talk about Peyton's legacy I think it is a just argument in the right context.  One in which he already sits near the front of the line when it comes to all-time great quarterbacks.  It has to be hard for Manning to hear these things.  He already has to hear it from the media about how his little brother Eli has more Super Bowl rings than him.  Heck, he might even here from his little brother.   He isn't even done playing to our knowledge.  So this is a great conversation/argument that I love.  Anyone ready to have it is more than welcome to pull up a seat.  I'm just a little tired of the "legacy" argument being thrown around in a way that seems negative.  It might be if he wasn't already the superstar he is.  I would just like to hear the media put their conversations in a better context.  It is lazy and bad journalism when they don't.  I have said my peace.  Thank you.  

Seattle Defeats Denver 43-8 In Super Bowl XLVIII

There wasn't much about this game that was a surprise.  Yes the 43-8 score and the ease in which Seattle won wasn't expected.  But I heard so much leading up to the game how good the Seattle defense was and how it was built to beat a team like Denver.  Peyton Manning is not mobile, the Seattle defense would be able to get pressure on Peyton while the defensive backs were capable of staying with the Bronco receivers, among others. 

For each of those arguments there was of course an argument to be made for the most potent offense in NFL history.  So while conventional wisdom said Denver could win this game with their great offense and vaulted leader we should have believed in the Seattle defense we had seen on the field all year long. 

Seattle didn't get all complicated with their defense they just played their normal game and took it to Denver.  While Peyton played at going downfield with the passing game they had nothing.  Their short passes were all they really had to offer up against the Seahawk defense.  And that wasn't enough.  Seattle did get pressure on Peyton Manning and his receivers were never running free in the secondary.  Manning connected well enough on short passes but it seemed like a Seahawk defender was right there to wrap up the receiver as soon as the ball got there. 

Seattle deserved the win last night as the better team and for the work they did all year.  It paid off with a dominating performance that won't be forgotten soon.  Denver just ran into a buzz saw of a defense that looked as though it had 14 players on the field most of the time.  I heard both of those clich├ęs listening to the break downs of the game and was wondering if I could get them in here.  Score.  That just shows you what we got in the Super Bowl.  A whole lot of dominating play from one team.  Nothing worth analyzing in a ton of words.  I think you just have to enjoy what we saw.  The Seattle offense, while not showcasing "The Beast" (apropos considering his lack of participation in Super Bowl activities), was very efficient and took advantage of the opportunities given to them.

While I was rooting for Peyton and the Broncos I'm very happy for the Seattle Seahawks and their fans.  Every team and fan base deserves to the fun of winning a championship.  This was a fun young team whom it is very easy to be happy for.  I'll be curious to see how they react next season when everyone will be gunning for them.  Yes, I'm already looking forward to next season...  But this was a great one let there be no doubts.