Friday, November 28, 2008

What We Know So Far...

If TSN hockey analyst Pierre McGuire was asked to describe Chris Bosh, I’m pretty sure we all know what his answer would be: McGuire would take a deep breath, scrunch up his face, and then fire through 50 words in 10 seconds before finishing with “he’s a monster”.

Through 14 games Bosh is second in the league in scoring, averaging 27.6 a game (only 0.3 points behind Lebron James) and is fifth in the league in rebounds with more than 10 per game. In his 40, 42 and 39 point performances over the last 10 days, he took just 19, 27, and 20 shots, remarkably efficient numbers that have pushed Bosh past the All-Star level and into a whole new realm. He’s finishing everything around the basket, getting all the calls, and has single-handedly carried the Raptors to a 7-7 record.

If Sam Mitchell doesn’t run him into the ground first, Bosh will be a MVP candidate. (Is he going to win? No, of course not. Lebron and Kobe are head and shoulders above everyone else. Dwayne Wade would be close but his injury history keeps him off the very short list of the true elite. Chris Paul is gaining, but still too inexperienced.) The problem is, right now Bosh trails only Stephen Jackson when it comes to minutes played, and he’s the only big man amongst the top eight. Bosh hasn’t played less than 38 minutes in a game this year, and he’s coming off a summer where he didn’t have a break. Including the Olympics, Bosh is entering month 15 of what must feel to his body like a 19 (hopefully 20?) month season.

If Sam (or fingers crossed, Sam’s replacement) doesn’t start curtailing Bosh’s minutes, he’ll be out of gas by February. At the latest.

As for the rest of the team, well, here’s what we officially know about the Raptors one fifth of the way through the season:

• Bosh’s beautiful jumper seduces the rest of our team. He has great range, can shoot it from anywhere, and deservedly has carte blanche when it comes to shot selection. If he has the ball in his hands, he can do whatever he wants. He’s earned it. Problem is that everyone else watches Bosh continually knock down shots and then believe they can do the same. Which they can’t. We have Kapono, Parker and Bargnani who all shoot pretty well and a host of others who are adequate at times. But they all need the ball in certain places and shouldn’t be allowed to shoot it from anywhere else.

• Jose Calderon’s hamstring injury is lingering. Calderon was never going to make an All-defensive team, but he made up for it offensively by turning the corner and getting a few easy lay-ins every night. Yes, teams are trying to take that away from him, but Jose is smart enough to capitalize on the tiniest opportunity and because of the hamstring, he can’t.

• We genuinely like each other. Guys get excited when someone else makes a big play, rush over to help a fallen teammate up, and communicate positively while on the court. Even Hasan Adams looks like he legitimately cares. This matters.

• Will Solomon has a little too much Mike James in him…and Roko Ukic doesn’t have enough.

• Kris Humphries should be a regular part of the rotation, even when Jermaine O’Neal is fully healthy (notice I used ‘when’ instead of ‘if’. This is me being optimistic. Strange, isn’t it?). The best starting five for the Raps includes three big men (Bosh, O’Neal, and Bargnani) with Calderon and Anthony Parker. That should mean 12-20 minutes a night for Hump, spotting any of the three a break or protecting someone who could be in foul trouble.

• Jamario Moon is pulling a reverse contract year. Instead of doing all the little things while working his butt off in an attempt to secure a multi-million dollar free agent contract, he looks like he’s trying to play himself out of the league.

• We won’t have to worry about a new Kanye song during pre-game introductions, because 808s & Heartbreak is mostly garbage. Let's put it this way: I know of only two people left in this world who continue to buy CD's rather than download them for free, and I'll use this space to tell them both not to waste their money.

• The Raps will inevitably come up short in any coaching battle. The only adjustment Sam Mitchell has made this year is back to glasses. During the current 4-7 streak that followed the 3-0 start, Toronto has blown 10+ point leads four different times and have gone on to lose three of those games. Sam is a decent motivator but as a tactician he’s awful. Lawrence Frank, Doc Rivers and Stan Van Jeremy have all mopped the floor with him, a list that will undoubtedly expand as the team heads West.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

If Manny became a Jay...

Let me start by saying I don't expect free-agent slugger Manny Ramirez to sign with the Blue Jays this winter. There have been several media reports suggesting Toronto is interested and Ramirez is willing to listen, but let's be honest: Manny doesn't fit J.P. Riccardi's profile of a player he's likely to pick-up.

Mainly, he's not yet washed up. (See: Mench, K.; Wilkerson, B. & Rolen, S.)

But let's pretend Manny did sign in Toronto. Maybe this is how the 2009 season would unfold:

April: Ramirez out-homers the rest of the Blue Jay roster combined, 9-8. Unfortunately all the extra long balls don't lead to a dramatic increase in wins, as Toronto continues their trend of mediocre starts. At least the Manny dreadlock wig night at the Skydome is a huge success.

May: Upon his return to Boston, Ramirez claims to have twisted both knees while stepping off the plane and is forced to sit out the entire three game series. No x-rays are needed as Cito Gaston informs the media, "we can tell there is some discomfort and the safe thing is to rest him". The Fenway crowd has no idea what to do with itself, so it basically plays dead as the Jays take 2 of 3 to edge above .500.

June: The Boston media make their first trip of the season to Toronto, but Manny makes himself unavailable for comment. During his first at-bat against his former team, Ramirez rips a double to the gap in left, poses at the plate for a moment, then decides to run the bases backwards, rounding third before stopping at second. New ESPN baseball analyst Donovan McNabb, who just retired from the NFL, says he had no idea a player couldn't head for third instead of first after a hit.

July: While in New York the Blue Jays traveling secretary files a restraining order against Ramirez and the team suspends him for a week after the slugger roughs up the team employee for only giving Manny 25 complimentary tickets for a game at the new Yankee Stadium. Ramirez issues a public apology that culminates with an ear-to-ear grin and an "it's all good." With Manny inactive, Roy Halladay throws two straight complete games to keep Toronto afloat.

August: Manny hits the longest homer in Skydome history, a moon-shot that actually goes over the fifth deck and breaks through a Renaissance Hotel window. Back in the dugout, Manny and John McDonald cap off the homer with their awesome celebratory handshake that’s fast becoming a youtube sensation.

September: With the Jays still in contention Manny's bat goes ice cold as he considers the real possibility of having to play in more than 162 games. He refuses to answer any questions verbally, responding only with a nod or shake of his head. Toronto loses 14 of their final 20 and finishes fourth in the closely contested AL East. Yup, still fourth. During his exit interview Ramirez hints that he wants his contract extended or re-negotiated, saying, "it doesn't feel like I'm wanted. I'm tired of all the BS, they need to show me the love."

Friday, November 21, 2008

10 Reasons to be Excited for Grey Cup Sunday

10. The East-West showdown between the Al's and the Stamps not only features the league's two highest scoring offences, but also its two stingiest defences. If the CFL had a Commissioner, this would be his dream match-up.

9. The half-time show does not include Nickelback. I repeat: No Nickelback.

8. It's the only Sunday of the year that offers the opportunity to watch ten straight hours of live professional football. Seven quarters of the NFL are a perfect lead-in to any Grey Cup party.

7. Another starring role for Rambo. Sure it'll be Ken-Yon of the Stampeders catching passes on the field instead of John dodging bullets in the jungle, but any game involving a guy named Rambo is better for it.

6. It's an easy excuse to get away with drinking more than a few beers on a Sunday.

5. The Hot Team versus the Home Crowd angle. Calgary has won five games in a row and nine of their last ten overall, while Montreal limped home with a 2-3 record to finish the regular season, so momentum is surely on the Stampeders’ side. However, an estimated crowd of 65,000 is expected to be in attendance, the over-whelming majority of whom will be cheering on the hometown team.

4. I have no idea if Montreal natives Emmanuelle Chriqui (Zohan, Entourage) or Elisha Cuthbert (24, The Girl Next Door) ever went to an Alouettes game, but Pamela Anderson was first discovered at a CFL stadium. Perhaps viewers will catch a glimpse of the next big thing?

3. The commercials. Okay, so it’s not the Super Bowl, but considering the American economy, maybe that’s a good thing.

2. This is the Alouettes’ sixth Grey Cup appearance in nine years, and on the surface that sounds dominant, but in those previous five finals they've only managed one championship. Can Montreal finally win another title and shed their label as the CFL's version of the 1990's Buffalo Bills?

1. Anthony Calvillo. The winner of the 2008 Outstanding Player award also happens to be one of the greatest quarterbacks in CFL history and is close to being this country's answer to Brett Favre. Calvillo returned for a 15th season after leaving the Al's at the end of last year to be with his wife after she was diagnosed with cancer, and a victory on Sunday could be the storybook ending to his hall of fame career.

Friday, November 14, 2008

R.I.P. - NBA Court Surfing on The Score

I found this obituary in a major Canadian newspaper this morning:

NBA Court Surfing died Tuesday, November 11, 2008, at 370 King St. West.

Court Surfing will be remembered with love by basketball fans across Canada for it's live look-ins to out of market games and it's no-nonsense approach to broadcasting. If Lebron was going off in Cleveland, or a marquee matchup between Phoenix and Detroit was going down to the wire, you knew you were in good hands and wouldn't miss a thing. Host Adnan Virk would send viewers back and forth from game to game, switching telecasts during timeouts and commercial breaks and generally treating the audience to superb coverage.

Court Surfing is survived by it's replacement show which continues with the same name, but bears absolutely no resemblance to the programming Canadian basketball fans came to love. In lieu of flowers, please send your condolences to The Score.

Ok, I made that up, but still: Court Surfing is dead.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why Goaltenders Are Over-valued

When the New Jersey Devils lost star goaltender Martin Brodeur last week for up to four months because of injury, speculation instantly turned to who they would get to replace him. The talk around the league wasn't along the lines of 'maybe they should look around to see who might be available', it was 'they need to make a move immediately'.

Not surprisingly, New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello (one of, if not the best in the business) has instead chosen to sit tight and play out the hand he was dealt. In handing the starting job to back-up Kevin Weekes, Lou has once again proven why he has more Stanley Cup championships to his credit over the last 14 years (three) than all other Eastern Conference GM's combined (two).

Goaltenders in general are over-valued. Not at the top-end, but those in the rank and file. The difference between the best goalies (Brodeur and Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks) and those ranked 3 thru 50 is similar to the gap that exists in the World Golf rankings between Tiger Woods and his nearest competitor. Beyond that, just as it is in golf, the difference is negligible. A golfer ranked 3 thru 200 can play well and win a tournament on any given week, and so can any of the goalies ranked 3 thru 50 in the NHL.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King has gone to great lengths over the last few years to explain why he thinks selecting a running back high in the NFL draft or giving them big money as a free agent isn’t a wise move. He argues that finding a serviceable running back is a lot easier than it seems, and the career span of a productive running back is shorter than most other positions. Basically if you don’t have an elite player, one of the top 4-5 running backs in the game, you’re better off picking somebody from out of the scrap pile or taking a chance on an unknown commodity than you are paying for someone who may turn out to be only marginally better than the average player.

I would use the same logic to describe the state of NHL goaltending, and here is the evidence:

Exhibit A: Where did this guy come from?
Halfway through the 2005-06 season Thomas was playing in the AHL when the Bruins recalled him. At that point Thomas had to clear waivers to get back into the NHL, meaning any team in the league could have claimed him for a little more than $100,000 (half his remaining salary). No one bit. Three years and 161 starts later, Thomas is now leading the NHL in save percentage (.944), goals against average (1.85) and is a big reason why Boston has gained contender status. I'm not saying Thomas is a franchise netminder or a guy you can build your team around. But he is easily good enough to be your #1 goalie for a handful of years.

Like Thomas, there have been a number of netminders who seemingly burst onto the scene out of nowhere to suddenly fortify an awful situation. Guys like Cristobal Huet, Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom, and Evgeni Nabokov had little hype surrounding their NHL debuts but have developed into extremely dependable goalies.

Exhibit B: The "Hot" Goalie

No, not Keanu Reeves in 'Youngblood'. (That was for any female readers out there.) These are the relatively anonymous goalies who somehow find the ability to carry their teams for weeks or even months at a time, only to crash at a later date. Roman Cechmanek, Patrick Lalime, Roman Turek, Johan Hedberg, Brian Boucher, and Chris Mason are only a few of the many who fit the bill. They may not be the long-term answer, but they fill in admirably during the short-term and you never know how long it could last.

Exhibit C: Goalies take longer to fulfill their potential
Like everyone drafted into the NHL, goalies are selected as 18 year olds. But unlike their peers, goaltenders rarely make an impact at the NHL level until their mid 20’s. For every Carey Price or Cam Ward, there is a Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Tomas Vokoun, or Dominik Hasek, players that were traded away or given up on before they grew into the number one position. You can just as easily have a guy fall into your lap as you can draft and develop him into a starter.

Exhibit D: They're all really good now...all of them
When you watch highlights from the 70's or 80's one thing that always sticks out is the abundance of moustaches. The other is how bad the goalies were. They were terrible. Now you've got goalie coaches on every team, video scouting reports, specialized training techniques, and regimented diets with the result being fewer weak goals and closer games. In short: every goalie in the league is capable of standing on his head and stealing a game (except those playing for the 2008-09 Colorado Avalanche).

Why would Lamoriello (or any other competent GM) move a top prospect or a first round draft pick to acquire a goalie when you can find a suitable one almost anywhere you look? I rest my case.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Solid Start for New-Look Raptors

A 3-0 start to the new season no doubt has many Toronto Raptor fans envisioning a run to the Eastern Conference finals.

While it's always nice to get off to a fast start and earn some recognition, it's probably wise to remember that the Raptors could very easily be 1-2. One or two plays going the other way in the game against the Bucks, or the Warriors, and the mood surrounding the team would be totally different.

But, with Jose Calderon and Chris Bosh performing at All-Star levels, and a shortened bench creating fewer opportunities for Sam Mitchell to mess up, the Raps sit atop the Atlantic division and are one of only six teams who have won their first three games.

(On the topic of Mitchell: Sam minus the glasses is going to take some getting used to. I spent most of the first two games wondering if Will Smith was secretly researching a head-coaching role and standing in for Mitchell.)

So far at least, the question as to whether Bosh and Jermaine O'Neal would complement each other and be able to co-exist seems to be answered. They appear very comfortable on the floor together, not getting in each other’s way on offence and more importantly combining to dramatically alter the entire defensive attitude.

O'Neal's presence in the paint has made it much harder for opponents to drive the lane, which will be shocking to many teams who have become accustomed to playing against a very soft Toronto squad. But Bosh also deserves plenty of credit. After earning considerable praise as the defensive anchor of the American Olympic team, CB4 has carried that intensity over to the regular season and it has rubbed off on everyone. How else can you explain Andrea Bargnani fighting for rebounds and blocking shots like he's Dikembe Mutombo? Fine, maybe it's more like Mike Dunleavy, but that's still an improvement.

The offence has been noticeably better to start the season as well. Players are swinging the ball around the perimeter the way they did two years ago, when the Raps won 47 games and captured the Atlantic division title.

The departure of Carlos Delfino has resulted in a significant improvement in shot selection. Last year Delfino would watch Bosh and T.J. shoot jumper after jumper at any time during the shot clock, and thought he could do the same. Then Jamario Moon would follow suit, and suddenly the Raps were a one-dimensional team that relied almost solely on jump shots.

Part of the blame for last year’s offensive mindset has to be attached to the deep bench that Mitchell constantly tinkered with. Guys like Delfino, Kapono, Humphries and Nesterovic never had their roles defined and were forever trying to prove they deserved more minutes.

Whether it was Mitchell deciding on his own to shorten the bench and tighten the rotation, or Bryan Colangelo doing it for him, the initial outcome has been extremely positive. I’m all for a situation where the Raps go only 9 or 10 deep, but playing Bosh and Calderon 42 minutes a night isn’t going to work over an entire season. And O’Neal needs to be kept in the 30-minute range if he’s going to be expected to hold up long-term.

Which brings us to Roko Ukic, who played 15 serviceable minutes in the season opener, but was a deer in headlights during the two weekend games. The Raps are only carrying 13 players right now, meaning they have two open roster spots, so they could conceivably sign a veteran free-agent immediately (Damon Stoudamire, Dan Dickau, Jason Williams) and not have to worry about eating a contract or trying to make a trade to fit the new guy in. However, Toronto is only $1000 shy of the luxury tax threshold so signing anyone would cost the team double whatever the contract actually is, and management has made it known they have no intention of paying into the luxury tax.

Judging by the early performance of Ukic and the training camp Will Solomon had, Raptors management may be forced to reconsider their stance at some point during the season if they want to give this team an honest shot to compete with the NBA’s best.

But just as it is too early to get overly-excited about the 3-0 start, it's also too soon to give up on the 23 year old rookie point guard.