Kevin Stefanski is Set Up to Fail

Cleveland Browns, Jimmy Haslam, Kevin Stefanski

What is one tangible attribute that suggests Kevin Stefanski will be a successful NFL head coach? He’s Ivy League educated. Paul DePodesta wanted to hire him last year instead of Freddie Kitchens. He’ll supposedly agree with hiring Andrew Berry, a former Browns executive now Philadelphia’s Vice President of Football Operations, as G.M. DePodesta, Stefanski, and Berry, in theory, will synergize the business, football, and coaching branches in Cleveland. I’ll ask again. What points to Stefanski having the skills and experience needed to be a successful head coach in Cleveland?

Jimmy Haslam still sits atop the organizational chart. Synergy is an excellent goal and one that all good businesses strive for. But Jimmy Haslam remains. Who will pay for the next slow start, or disappointing season? DePodesta put this together; he’ll be next on the chopping block. How long will his leash be?

Patience in this situation is paramount. First time head coaches need a long leash. Kevin Stefanski is a 37-year-old who has run an NFL offense for 20 games. He’s never been in charge of running a training camp. He’s interviewed with the media sporadically, not forced to sit in front of a microphone multiple times per week. Stefanski hasn’t experienced game day on an NFL sideline in charge of calling plays, challenging bad calls, and managing the game clock. He will make mistakes. A lot of them.

Will the fan base, media, front office, and players have the patience to allow him to fail? With Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham, Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry, and Myles Garrett on the roster, tolerance for losing is low. Twenty years of futility and the remnants of a disappointing 6-10 season are all Browns fans have. Will an 8-8 record be good enough to appease the starved fan base?

The patience required to tear down a dysfunctional organization and rebuild it in a manner conducive to consistent winning does not exist. The wounds are too raw; the thirst for wins too present. Kevin Stefanski has to win now, and he has to win big. Baker Mayfield has to become a Pro Bowl quarterback next year under his watch. Nick Chubb needs 275-300 carries, 1500 yards, and 12 touchdowns. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry both tallied 1000 yards receiving in down years. The sky is back to being the limit for one of the best wide receiver duos in the league.

They set Kevin Stefanski up to fail. While the organization tries to align all entities, history says the synergy won’t last long. What happens when a disagreement occurs in the draft room? Differing opinions over a free agent? Will the new three-headed decision making body hold hands and do what is best for the Cleveland Browns, or will they do what is best for themselves? Who will Haslam side with once the discord begins? Will he calm the waters once things get choppy? Or will he promote more backstabbing and power hording? Haslam likes the ego stroking that comes with infighting and inter-office politicking. No evidence suggests he has the leadership skills or discipline to create an environment free of this toxicity.

Haslam has proven in the past to be gullible and easily swayed by the last person he’s talked to. DePodesta won this power struggle against John Dorsey, but he’s put himself in the guillotine. Haslam won’t blame himself, won’t step back and let this simmer, and won’t fire another head coach after one year (don’t bet on it!). Any rumblings of discord, or a three game losing streak, or a perceived lack of readiness now rests in DePodesta’s lap. Is this organization now structured to withstand the minor potholes that become road blocks?

What proof is there that Kevin Stefanski can coach an NFL team? There is none. This organization needed a resolute, stable leader who’d been through the fires surrounded by successful people in a winning organization. The franchise needed a shape shifter at its second most important position, someone who knows winning and how to dominate opponents. Another first-year head coach, a roll of the dice, is a recipe for more failure. The best argument for the hire seems to be, “Other lightly regarded candidates have won before, let’s wait and see.” This organization has not earned “wait and see” status.

The Minnesota Vikings have been more successful than the Browns, but they have won nothing of consequence. Mike Zimmer has been their head coach since 2014. They’ve made the playoffs three times and won 2 playoff games, one on a fluke play. The Vikings are always good. Does anyone see greatness from the organization or coaching staff? What schemes or structures are considered innovative? Stefanski had help running their offense, Zimmer didn’t trust him on his own. How much credit should Gary Kubiak get for Minnesota’s offense this year? What did the Vikings do better than anyone else in the league? Who has left and been great anywhere else?

The Browns franchise no longer gets the benefit of the doubt. They’ve proved unable to make even the most basic decisions to field a competent team. It is possible that if you throw enough darts, you’ll eventually hit a bullseye. Even if Kevin Stefanski has the abilities needed to be a successful head coach, however, it is unlikely the environment in Cleveland will allow him to blossom. Good organizations with strong ownership and defined leadership can afford to hire unproven coordinators with strong upside. Unfortunately for Browns’ fans, the one in Berea cannot.

 

NFL Divisional Round

Divisional Round, NFL, NFL Playoffs

Who wins this weekend, and how do they get it done? As always, the pressure falls on the quarterbacks.

Minnesota @ San Francisco

Kirk Cousins won the biggest game of his life last Sunday, throwing two beautiful passes during the game winning drive. His 43 yarder, dropped in a bucket to Adam Thielen, and the touchdown fade to Kyle Rudolph showed the talent all knew Cousins possessed. Don’t slough at those who questioned whether he could win a big game, however. Cousins’ record against winning teams before Sunday was 6-30; his record on Monday Night is 0-9. The win in New Orleans was big and Cousins played brilliantly. The questions were legit, however.

Which quarterback do you trust? The forecast calls for 15-25 MPH winds, so two teams who want to run the ball will be more inclined to do so. Both teams rank in the top five in rushing yards per game, and both defenses are middling at stopping the run. Getting the lead will be paramount. Neither coach wants the game in their QB’s hands. This is especially true of Mike Zimmer and the Vikings. San Fran’s defense is the best in the league against the pass and third in the NFL in sack percentage. If they can force him to throw, don’t look for Cousins to repeat the successes of last week. Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams can lock up Adam Thielen and Stephon Diggs long enough to allow the 49ers’ front four of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner to put Cousins on his back. Dalvin Cook has to break multiple long runs for Minnesota to score.

Pay attention when either team gets into the red zone. Minnesota has an advantage on both sides of the ball deep in scoring territory. The Vikings score touchdowns on 62% of their red zone drives (10th in the league) and allow touchdowns on only 44% of their opponents’ red zone opportunities (2nd). San Francisco, meanwhile, is 21st offensively (53%) and 23rd defensively (60%) inside the 20s. If Minnesota pulls the upset, it’ll stem from their offense’s ability to score touchdowns while the D holds the 49ers to field goals.

How will Jimmy Garoppolo react to the playoff stage? He prepared as a backup in New England, but the step up will test his nerve. Garoppolo was awful in the Niners first loss of the season in overtime against Seattle, but made big throws late in victories in New Orleans and against the Rams. Jimmy G’s 13 picks on the season will be on Kyle Shanahan’s mind, though. The Vikings intercepted 17 passes on the season. If San Francisco has to throw, Danielle Hunter will force Garoppolo to throw quicker than he’s comfortable with.

San Francisco’s defense has been outstanding all year; their front four is the best in football. They’ll pressure Kirk Cousins into mistakes while their running back trio of Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Matt Breida wear out Minny’s defense.

San Francisco, 23-14

Tennessee @ Baltimore

Any doubt attached to this Ravens bunch disappeared long ago, but Tennessee must be John Harbaugh’s worst nightmare. The Titans revel in the physical style Baltimore wants to play. Tennessee will pound Derrick Henry and attempt to hit A.J. Brown deep after the defense has fallen asleep. Ryan Tannehill doesn’t turn it over, only throwing 6 picks on the season. These teams mimic the other’s style, but only one has Lamar Jackson.

Both teams want to run. Who can stop the other? The Ravens struggle to defend the run, giving up 4.4 yards per rush, 21st in the league, while the Titans fare better, allowing 4.1 (7th). Lamar Jackson is a different animal, however. The Ravens pounce on teams early while defenses are adjusting to his speed. A few designed runs gash opponents, causing them to inch toward the line of scrimmage. Jackson then throws it over their heads. Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards are coming for you too. Tennessee must stop them first.

Discipline from the Titans is paramount. Though it can lead to other problems, they must spy Jackson with Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown and Kenny Vaccaro. Mix it up; give Lamar different looks; just don’t leave him unattended. Corners Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson, along with safety Kevin Byard, must shut down Baltimore’s tight ends and wide receivers in one-on-one man match-ups to have any chance. All others on defense must focus on stopping the lethal run game.

Tennessee has to take advantage of Baltimore’s so-so run defense. Pound Derrick Henry. Mix in Dion Lewis’ speed for a change of pace. They’ll need at least one deep ball connection between Tannehill and A.J. Brown to put the Ravens on their heels. Baltimore has been stingy against the pass, allowing opposing QBs to complete only 58% of their passes and just 6 yards per attempt (6th lowest). Tannehill has had success taking the top off defenses, but Henry will need to cook to unlock this option for his offense.

Baltimore has been a juggernaut since losing to the Browns in Week 4. Lamar Jackson is the unquestioned league MVP. They have the highest scoring offense and 3rd stingiest defense in the NFL and are playing at home in front of one of the best crowds in football. Tennessee gained an enormous boost going to New England and knocking off the champs last week, however. The Titans aren’t afraid to take a punch and will dish out a few themselves. This one feels closer than expected.

Baltimore, 19-15

Houston @ Kansas City

This one looks ugly for Houston. Ten point dogs, the Texans struggled at home to beat a Buffalo team not ready for the playoffs. The Bills led until 4:37 left in the 4th quarter, and, though he tried, Josh Allen couldn’t get the Houston defense to take the ball from him. The Texans dropped 4-5 would be interceptions and couldn’t recover an insane lateral by Allen on Buffalo’s final drive that sent the game into overtime. Coaching blunders and clock mismanagement littered a poorly played game by each side. Now Houston must travel to Arrowhead to face a Chiefs team more prepared than ever to reach the Super Bowl.

Patrick Mahomes fought injury most of the season, missing 2 games and a half of another with a dislocated kneecap. While his yards and touchdown passes were down from a year ago, so were his interceptions, cut from 12 to 5. Mahomes’ injury and Lamar Jackson’s ascendance to an MVP level has allowed the Chiefs an unassuming entrance into the playoffs. Baltimore is bludgeoning people in the manner K.C. did a year ago. Will the relative quiet surrounding the Chiefs work to their benefit?

Even without Mahomes for 1/8 of the season, K.C.’s offense purred. Houston’s defense is ill-equipped to handle the myriad of weapons at Mahomes’ disposal. Tyreek Hill, who missed four games himself, and Travis Kelce are two of the best at their positions in the league. Add rookie Mecole Hardman and the fleet Demarcus Robinson to Mahomes’ arsenal and the Texans’ 29th rated pass defense is in trouble.

J. J. Watt played 50 of 81 snaps last week, an absurdity considering the team ruled him out for the season in October with a torn pectoral muscle. A behemoth, Watt must wreck the K.C. offense for the Texans to remain close. A possibility if healthy, the task seems insurmountable now. The Texans rank in the bottom half of the league in every imaginable defensive stat. They’re last in the league in giving up touchdowns in the red zone. They give up 6 yards per play, 30th in the league. Teams convert 3rd downs at a rate of 48% against them, and they allow 7.1 yards per pass, 24th worst in the league. Unless the Chiefs turn it over multiple times, Houston’s defense will get steamrolled.

While K.C.’s defense improved over last year, offenses can still get them in the run game. Chris Jones and Frank Clark are dynamic rushing the passer from the edges, and will force Deshaun Watson out of the pocket against the Texans’ weak offensive line. The Chiefs allow the 4th worst completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks and hold them to the 5th worst passer rating in the league. K.C. gave up 128 yards per game on the ground, however, and the Texans must attack here if they hope to stay close. They must lean on Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde to grind yards and clock. Designed QB runs with Watson could help slow the pass rush.

Houston’s margins are thin. Watson is fantastic, however, and can sway games on his own. The Texans have to push the envelope, going for touchdowns instead of field goals and taking chances on 4th down. Baltimore tried this strategy in week 3 before they began eviscerating the league. The Ravens ran the ball 32 times, were 3-4 on fourth down conversions, and went for 2 on 3 different occasions, including the first touchdown of the game. The Texans must use the same strategy. This won’t be another low scoring playoff game; the Chiefs offense is too good and the Houston defense is poor. This will take a massive effort from Deshaun Watson and Bill O’Brien. Watson may have a huge game. O’Brien out coaching Andy Reid is less likely.

Kansas City, 30-17

Seattle @ Green Bay

The toughest game of the week to call and a battle of two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Green Bay finished 13-3, but what do they do well? Aaron Jones established himself as a weapon both running and receiving while Aaron Rodgers became more of a game manager in 2019. Seattle wants to run the ball, but their strength offensively is in the passing game. Seattle’s defense is poor in every category, but they force turnovers. Ditto for Green Bay, but the Smith’s, Preston and Za’Darius, haunt opposing quarterbacks. This one may turn into a shootout.

The Seahawk defense is bad at everything. 22nd against the run, 26th against the pass; they don’t sack the quarterback and they give up touchdowns in the red zone. They were fourth in the league in takeaways, but don’t expect Aaron Rodgers to throw picks at Lambeau. Rodgers had only 4 interceptions on the year and hasn’t thrown one at home since week 6. He hasn’t torched defenses like in years’ past, but he also hasn’t had to.

Rodgers put up good numbers by other quarterbacks’ standards, but below average according to his. 4002 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 62% completions are all well under his career averages. Davante Adams failed to reach 1000 yards, and tight end Jimmy Graham again disappointed. Aaron Jones surged, however, the only member of the Green Bay offense to exceed expectations. If the Pack win on Sunday, Jones will have shredded Seattle’s porous run defense.

Green Bay’s defense doesn’t stop the run either, but can defend the opponent’s passing attack because of the Smiths. A combined 25.5 sacks have made opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. Russell Wilson can move, however, and the Packers have faced immobile signal callers all year. Wilson will slow the Packer pass rush on his own and pick up a few first downs with his legs. The likely second-place finisher in the MVP vote, it has taken an otherworldly season from Lamar Jackson to deny Russ the award.

Can Seattle’s offensive line give Wilson time? Injuries have ravaged the unit. Left tackle Duane Brown and guard Mike Iupati both missed Sunday’s game against the Eagles but practiced some on Thursday. They’ll help stabilize things in front of Wilson. Will the Seahawks force the issue in the running game? Marshawn Lynch has been dynamite in short yardage situations in his return to Seattle, and rookie Travis Homer and flashed on a couple of chunk runs against San Francisco the last week of the season, but only gained 12 yards on 11 carries against Philly. Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have made it no secret they prefer to run the ball. Russell Wilson represents their path to victory, however.

The last game of the weekend is a tossup. This one may come down to the QB who has the ball last.

Seattle, 31-30

 

Splitting up the Cavs’ Dueling Banjos

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, NBA

Point guard is the most important position in the league. Good floor generals control every aspect of an NBA game; they define winners and losers each night. The Cleveland Cavaliers have invested in lead guards over the past two drafts, but does either fit the position? They have to score, find teammates, and defend opposing ball handlers every night. No playoff team is deficient at the position. Have the Cavs found their leader?

Darius Garland’s game shows signs. The process has been slow; the rust he accumulated from not playing basketball for a year was clear over the first two months of the season. Unsure of himself and inefficient, Garland too often has been passive with the ball and hesitant to shoot open jumpers. He’s played an apologetic style, wanting only to stay out of the way to his teammates happy. The uneasiness is wearing away, however, buoyed by a growing confidence in his shot. Before Thanksgiving, Garland shot 34% from 3 on 4 attempts per game. Since then he’s at 39% on 5.5 shots from behind the arc. Garland’s NBA ready skill was shooting; Cavs operatives marveled at the pre-draft clinic he put on in Los Angeles from deep. His form is more consistent, and he’s getting shots on the rim quicker than earlier in the season.

His vision shows flashes. He’ll mix in a 5 or 6 assist game bunched around 1 or 2 dish contests. Garland will always shoot well; his playmaking will make or break him in this league. If he can hand out 7-8 assists per game he’ll become a potential All-Star. Against Charlotte last week, Garland had 8 assists and 1 turnover. The Cavs lost by 3, yet Garland was the only starter with a positive plus/minus at +17.

The ball fake, drive, and dish. Reads the defense perfectly. Superb by Garland

Garland sharing the floor with good defensive players has been beneficial for the Cavs. Though they’ve played only 14 minutes together, the Garland/Exum/Porter/Nance/Henson lineup has shown promise, outscoring opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions. The Garland/Henson pairing is being outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions in 130 minutes, the best net two man combination for the rookie. Not great, but it proves he’s better with a plus defender on the floor with him. The Cavs have two competent defenders in Dante Exum and John Henson. Allowing Garland to play minutes with those two will take pressure off defensively and give him more control on offense.

Though still early in both players’ careers, these numbers point to a need to stagger more of his and Collin Sexton’s minutes. Sexton is great in transition and has improved on defense. He’s a valuable NBA player. Sexton’s focus is on scoring. That’s fine; there’s a spot for him and his skill set on this team. Garland has a higher ceiling, however, and fits better with a broader range of players. In time, Sexton will be more valuable off the bench in the Jordan Clarkson role. The lead guard on a playoff team cannot be as one-dimensional offensively as Sexton. Too many Cavs’ possessions consist of Sexton dribbling the duration of the shot clock, the only player to touch the ball. He doesn’t purposely ignore his teammates, but he isn’t hunting them or identifying mismatches, either. The Kevin Love blow up from Saturday night resulted from Sexton being oblivious to Love’s mismatch in the post against Chris Paul. John Beilein took responsibility, but Sexton is the culprit here.

Garland’s skill set includes a wider range of talents. He sees the floor better and seeks his teammates. He’s a better shooter and is just as capable of getting to the rim in the half-court. Are they franchise changers? It’s too early, but both can grow into valuable pieces on a good team. This is the test for the higher ups in the franchise. Can they develop the talented young players they’ve drafted and set complementary pieces around them?

What’s What Around the League

1.The buzz for Michael Porter Jr. started over the summer, when reports from Denver raved about the Nuggets’ 2018 1st round draft pick. Back surgery caused him to miss the 2018-2019 season, but insiders claimed he would break out in 2019. Then nothing. He received 9 DNPs during Denver’s first 21 games and averaged 8 minutes per when he stepped on the floor. Something has changed over the past week, however. In the Nuggets’ last four games, Porter is averaging 20 minutes, 15.5 points, and is shooting 74% from the field, 50% from 3. A 25 point outburst in Indiana last Thursday on 11-12 from the floor has made the league take notice. Is this the Michael Porter we’ve been waiting for? If so, Denver is a title contender. Nikola Jokic has rounded into shape over the last month and looks like the Joker of old. They’ve won 17 of 24 and sit just 3 games below the Lakers in the West. If this Porter continues to show through May, the West becomes a three team race.

2. Zach LaVine is an NBA scorer. He averages 23 a game and has improved his 3-point shot throughout his career, from 34% as a rookie to 39% this year on 8 attempts per. But…… man, he just isn’t a smart, winning player. Down two against Utah with 30 seconds left and a full shot clock, LaVine buried his head and attacked the basket, only to find Rudy Gobert waiting for him at the rim. Next possession, down 4, LaVine takes an abhorrent step back 3. No chance, game over. LaVine is polarizing. His scoring and increased efficiency give some hope, yet he isn’t improving on defense. The Bulls are 9 points better on that end when he sits. Add it up and you have a losing player who the Bulls owe 39 million to in 2021 and 2022.

Attacking Gobert at the rim is a fool’s errand

3. Ja Morant puts asses in seats.

4. A win Thursday at home against Memphis snapped an 8 game losing streak for Sacramento. The Kings are the latest example why it’s foolhardy to trust poor ownership, no matter the talent level. While De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley have missed extended time because of injury, dysfunction in the Kings’ organization remains the primary culprit of their continued losing. Dewayne Dedmon, a nice free agent pickup over the summer, has fallen out of Luke Walton’s rotation and requested a trade through the media, resulting in a $50,000 fine. Buddy Hield complained last week about trust issues creating problems in the locker room. This coincided with a horrid 7 game stretch for Hield in which he shot 26% from 3. The Kings have the most talent on their roster since the Chris Webber days. If Fox can stay healthy, they’ll have a shot to make a run at the last playoff spot in the West, but the sniping and losing culture in Sacramento seems too strong to overcome.

5. It’s a make or miss league, and no one epitomizes that more than Mike Scott. The 76er bench is more beholden to Scott to score than it should be, and they’re vulnerable to the unpredictability of his 3-point shot. He’s shooting 35% on the season from deep, a respectable number, yet isn’t reliable game to game. In 12 contests he’s made zero threes; in 12 others, he’s shot 50% or better from behind the arc. Philly’s offense can’t get consistency from anywhere. A steady Scott would be a huge boost in the playoffs but, like everyone else on this roster, he’s impossible to predict.

6. The Rockets are fascinating to watch. Their energy and effort level leaves Mike D’Antoni wanting many nights, then James Harden starts cooking, and the show begins. A step-back 3 over an excellent defender in Al Horford, net. Guarded one-on-one by possible All-Defensive selection Ben Simmons, an easy blow by and layup. Jason Richardson’s up next, a long, quick, capable defender in his own right. Another layup. And another step-back dagger. Harden is one of the greatest scorers in the history of the NBA, and he carved an outstanding defensive team in Philly with ease on his way to 44. The Rockets aren’t always fun to watch, but sitting back and enjoying a dialed-in Harden is.

7. It’s a minute detail, but why is getting someone to in-bound the basketball after a made basket such a chore? If the point guard is the first one to the ball, forget about it. He’ll motion for a teammate to do the task instead of throwing the ball in play and calling for it back. Big men are busy trying to get back on offense. Wing guys are sprinting to position themselves in the corners. Good transition teams seem to have a better plan of action for this overlooked play, realizing they can take advantage of a sleepy opponent 3-4 times a game. Have a plan to start the offense as quickly as possible is all.

8. There isn’t a number that can define how important Marcus Smart is to winning. His shooting numbers are bad: 37% overall, 32% from 3. 11.5 points a game is fine, as are his 4.7 assists. His on/off numbers are even bad; Boston is 5.4 points better offensively and 1.1 better defensively when he’s on the bench. If there’s a loose ball, however, Smart gets it. Need a big stop on defense? Smart is there with a steal or a drawn charge. He’ll clang ill-advised 3’s off the back of the rim most of the night until he drains one with less than a minute left. The little things are an abstract measurement meant to describe the indescribable, and Smart is a little things poster child. Here, the numbers lie. You need Marcus Smart on your team.

9. What in Sam Hell is this guy doing?

10. Steven Adams is a bull, a one man road grader. Dig into the hustle stats; his name litters the leaderboards. He’s ninth in loose balls recovered per 36 minutes. Fourth in screens set, fifth in screen assists. He gums up opposing offenses, sitting fifth in contested twos per game (NBA.com). Oklahoma City has surprised this year and sits 7th in the West, comfortably in playoff position. Would they consider trading Adams, however? His contract is huge (25 mil this year, 27 mil next), and his timeline doesn’t match with the franchises’. A salary match makes a trade difficult, but if OKC moves him, watch Boston. Thin on the front line, playoff match-ups with Giannis, Joel Embiid and Al Horford, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, and Bam Adebayo loom. The Celtics are close, a threat to make the Finals, but size is lacking. A wall of a screen setter and elite rebounder could be the piece they need to push them deep into the playoffs.

 

There's Only One Choice for the Next Browns Coach

Cleveland Browns, Jimmy Haslam, Josh McDaniels

The Haslams broke the Cleveland Browns’ organization. The hirings, firings, draft busts, and free agent flops have piled up over two decades. This isn’t a normal situation. Jimmy Haslam has created a toxic environment where backstabbing and shadowy power moves are the norm. Any coach stepping into this labyrinth must have experience, confidence, and a plan. Forget competence as a play caller or scheme designer, those talents should carry no weight during the search because they don’t matter. The new head coach has to build a foundation for everything else to sit. The only guy available with a shot at success is Josh McDaniels.

For the record, I’m stunned that McDaniels has interest with other opportunities available, but still give him only a 15-20% chance at winning in Cleveland. The owner’s tentacles slither throughout the organization and suffocate a once proud franchise. A never-ending power struggle lurks inside the offices in Berea.

To wit:

Haslam hired Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi as team president and general manager after he bought the team. Two experienced football minds, Haslam never defined their roles. The front office was a “top-heavy, confusing mess” according to NFL insiders, and Haslam wanted things streamlined. After Banner and Lombardi fired Rob Chudzinski after one year and hired Mike Pettine, they themselves were canned, and the owner handed Ray Farmer the general manager job.

Farmer drafted Johnny Manziel, a quarterback the head coach wanted no part of. The NFL also caught him texting play calls to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan during games. Shanahan, under contract, approached the front office with a 32 point PowerPoint presentation asking for release from his contract to become offensive coordinator in Atlanta. They granted it to him. Pettine and Farmer got canned after two seasons. Shanahan is head coach in San Francisco, a Super Bowl favorite.

Sashi Brown became executive vice president and de facto general manager, Paul DePodesta, a baseball executive, took a position as chief strategy officer, and the organization hired Hue Jackson (a hire raved about across the league) while the franchise strategically tanked to horde draft picks. Onboard in the beginning, Jackson grew weary of the losing and complained about the front office and the analytics driven plan of action. Haslam abandons the tank midstream, canning Brown without letting him execute the multi-year tear down necessary to rebuild the talent level in the organization. DePodesta remains, however.

John Dorsey got the G.M. job, and Jackson remained before being fired mid-season in 2018 after continued head butting with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Dorsey hires Freddie Kitchens, Kitchens bombs, and despite the massive upgrade in talent made to the roster by Dorsey, using the picks and equity obtained by Sashi Brown, loses his job. Though still early, the whispers of a loss in a power struggle with dePodesta seem to have sealed Dorsey’s fate.

John Dorsey was the champion of a total remake of the Cleveland Browns organization four months ago. He drafted Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, and Nick Chubb in one draft. Picked Greedy Williams in the second round of the 2019 draft and Mack Wilson in the fifth round. These players will all be in their 2nd or 3rd year in the NFL next year and central to a franchise turnaround.

All drafted by John Dorsey, one of the preeminent talent evaluators in the league. Fired two years after being hired.

A complete and total malfunction of an organization. Coaches and front office executives hired on different timelines with mismatched objectives. None given the proper time to overcome the stench of this franchise. All the names above had success of varying degrees at different locations. While questioned, few of the hires were considered outright disasters when made. Pettine may have been the biggest reach, but if not for his failed tenure in Cleveland, his work with Green Bay’s defense would put him on head coaching lists around the league.

Each change brings a different power structure and alignment. New figures, all uncertain of their roles, all grasping for more power. No one working together. Everyone for themselves, blaming others for the franchise’s problems, searching for selfish solutions to team specific problems.

Greg Roman would be a fine hire for any other organization. He’s proved himself at different stops in the NFL and could very well be an outstanding head coach. Robert Saleh, the 49ers defensive coordinator, is young and smart. Kevin Stefanski, Eric Bieniemy, Mike LaFleur, and Brian Daboll are all fabulous coaches, all deserving of a shot at the head of the table.

But not here.

This job is too much for a first timer. The stress and pull of an NFL head coach is overwhelming for everyone. Time constraints during the week, along with the speed with which they must make decisions on game day, take a toll on all first-year coaches. The politics within the building in Berea, the frustrations from the fans and the media of two decades’ worth of losing, and the expectations to win with this roster will sabotage them. Jimmy Haslam gives them zero chance to succeed.

The franchise needs a strong leader on the sideline, one who has been a head coach before. Mike McCarthy? He’s won a Super Bowl and coached two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. In parts of 13 seasons in Green Bay, he made the playoffs nine times. But for all his success, McCarthy butted heads with Rodgers; everything from conservative play calling to the blandness of the receiver route tree. Rumors claim that Rodgers would insist receivers run his routes instead of McCarthy’s. The coach abhorred analytics. Does this sound like the mentality needed to reinvent the organization?

Josh McDaniels is the only hope. He’s strong-willed, perhaps too much so. His desire for total control led to his firing in Denver. He seemed out to prove something. Anything. He was right, and you all were wrong. His attitude and desire for control as a 33-year-old first time head coach without a resumé to back up his brashness lead to the quick hook.

McDaniels found his way back to New England after the fiasco in Denver, holding the title of offensive coordinator for the last eight years. The success of New England’s offense under his watch is indisputable. He coordinated the best offense in league history in 2007. They scored the second most points ever (589), have the highest point differential (+315), are tied for the most touchdown passes by a quarterback in a season (Tom Brady, 50), and have the record for most touchdown catches by a player in a season (Randy Moss, 23). He’s been a member of 6 Super Bowl winning teams.

Is this success because of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady? Absolutely. But McDaniels has been there. In the meetings. On the practice field. On the sideline. Making legacy changing play calls on 3rd down in Super Bowls. He’s studied the greatest coach in history his entire career. He’s called plays for the greatest quarterback in history. McDaniels isn’t the reason for the Patriots’ success. But no organization has won for a longer period on time, and he’s been a cog for almost the entire run.

Proximity to greatness is no guarantee of future glory. The organization has no choice, however. The leadership it will take to reinvent Cleveland football is not available. They have pursued every other avenue. All dead ends. McDaniels is imperfect, yet the only viable option.

Success in Cleveland will be virtually impossible. No one can overcome the destruction the Haslam’s have unleashed on a historic franchise with one of the greatest fan bases on earth. The city, the team, the fans; all deserve better. Jimmy and Dee Haslam are incompetent, however. Buffoons, clueless without a touch of self awareness. They shouldn’t be in charge of setting pins in a bowling alley. Yet here we are.

Josh McDaniels is not a perfect choice, and he will most likely fail. Ownership dooms the franchise for the foreseeable future, and it’s a sad reality. But if anyone on the market can rescue this city and franchise, it’s him. God help Browns fans.

 

Cleveland Cavaliers: Trading for Defense and the Youngn’s

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News

The Cleveland Cavaliers have strung some wins together, victorious in 4 of their last 5. The schedule has softened and the young talent is becoming more assertive on the floor. A need to free up minutes for Kevin Porter while also netting a return on a soon-to-be free agent allowed the Cavs to make a deal with Utah last week.

The Cavs traded Jordan Clarkson to the Utah Jazz for Dante Exum and two second round picks. A logical trade for each team, the acquired players better align with the timelines of their new teams. Clarkson provides the Jazz with much-needed scoring from their second unit. The Jazz rank 29th in the league, getting 26.7 points off the bench (NBA.com). A team with realistic title hopes entering the season, Utah has underperformed. Mike Conley has struggled with his new team, Rudy Gobert’s defense is ticking downward, and Donovan Mitchell’s ascendancy has plateaued. The Jazz have shown themselves to be a second half team under Quin Snyder, however, providing hope they’ll still be a force in April and May. Clarkson should help, and his expiring contract adds flexibility for the front office next summer.

The acquisition of Exum for the Cavs was the proper decision for multiple reasons. On the floor, Exum adds length and a defensive presence to a small backcourt. Friday in Boston, Cleveland’s lack of size was obvious. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward took advantage of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, shooting over the smaller guards and bullying them in the post. Exum showed upon checking in the effect he’ll have on his new team. A lineup of Nance/Exum/Porter/Henson/Dellavedova showed promise as a unit John Beilein can go to for defensive stops. An athletic five, the length of that lineup shuts off passing lanes and provides rim protection. The scoring, however, is suspect. For that five to get buckets, Kevin Porter will need to provide offense, and he’s still erratic. It’ll be an interesting lineup to watch.

Exum will help Garland and Sexton too. Splitting their minutes by placing either alongside Exum relieves pressure on the defensive end. He’ll guard the more dangerous offensive threat and should provide resistance to opposing offenses, something that’s nonexistent now. John Henson’s return from injury has caused a dramatic change in the Cavs’ defense when he’s been on the floor; Exum should provide the same.

Off the court, Dante Exum’s acquisition helps the books. The difference in the money of his contract compared to Clarkson’s (9.1 million vs. 12.5 million) gives the Cavs an extra 3.4 million cushion to play with in future trades. Just 1.7 million under the luxury tax level before the trade, the swap gives them extra cash to play with. Cleveland won’t go over the taxpayer level for a 25 win team. They need to avoid the tax line, or they’ll be subject to repeater penalties, costing Dan Gilbert even more money. This trade gives Koby Altman a touch more breathing room when discussing Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, or anyone else on the roster with other GMs.

The second round picks acquired give Altman another tool in his chest to grease the wheels on trades. He used 4 second rounders to trade back into the 1st round to draft Porter. Another interesting element is the years the picks fall, 2022 and 2023. Most expect the NBA to revoke the age limit for players eligible for the draft in either 2022 or 2023. There will be a college freshman class eligible and the first high school senior class available for drafting, doubling the talent of the pool. The value of picks in those drafts should only appreciate.

These are the trades and returns to expect from the Cavs in the coming weeks. While they’ll hunt for young players and 1st rounders, the pieces Cleveland can trade likely will bring back 2nd rounders and draft busts or oft injured players teams have lost patience with. Other than Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, the Cavs have no one of help to a contender. They don’t seem to be in a rush to trade those veterans, and shouldn’t be. Unless a team is willing to meet their high demands, keep both and allow them to continue molding the young talent.

What’s What Around the League

1.The L.A. battle on Christmas Day only re-emphasized the fact the Clippers are the Lakers’ biggest threat to the title. While the James-Davis duo is devastating and capable of carrying the team themselves, Doc Rivers’ squad matches up well against their arena mates. Patrick Beverley proved his determination on the defensive end again, blocking LeBron James’ final shot attempt despite giving 8 inches and 65 pounds to him. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s defensive reputations are beyond reproach, Mo Harkless is 14th in the league in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (3.5), and Montrezl Harrell has improved each year on that end of the floor. The fifth best scoring team in the league can lock anyone down and has the reigning Finals’ MVP in tow.

2. The 76ers also won on Christmas, but their future is murkier. Joel Embiid was fantastic, yet the team’s offense is too reliant on the whims of their 3 point happy center. Embiid hoists 4 threes a game, makes 33% of them, and has shot 2 less 2’s per game this year over last. Teams running an offense through a traditional center are clunky, yet it’s Philly’s best option. Embiid needs to work as hard each night as he did on Christmas. The Sixers are a unit that has never made an Eastern Conference Finals, yet flows in and out of games. They’re too inconsistent. Milwaukee failed to show on Wednesday, and Embiid defended Giannis superbly. In a seven-game series, however, I doubt those results hold.

3. Nikola Jokic made himself an easy target by coming into the season out of shape, but the Serb’s game is picking up. His vision and covert ball handling skills are exquisite.

4. Another byproduct of the NBA’s new challenge system is the annoying habit of players spinning their finger in the air after a questionable call, pleading with their head coach for a challenge. Coaches feel obliged when star players are making the request, and Nick Nurse succumbed to Kyle Lowry on Saturday night on a meaningless play in the first quarter. Toronto led by 7, and though the Raptors won the challenge, saving Lowry a foul, this isn’t the best use of the system for coaches. They need to implement a “no challenge until the fourth quarter” rule to keep the players off their backs. Since they’re permitted only one challenge per game, using it in the 1st quarter is a waste. Save them for crunch time.

5. While we’re on pet peeves: how come when a defender brushes a shooter’s elbow during a jump shot, referees have a quick whistle, yet if a player is on the ground with the basketball, defenders may jump on, grab, shove, and fight to procure a jump ball call? Once there’s a chance of a loose ball, anarchy ensues. The court turns into a football scrum after a fumble. Jumping unto a player already on the floor should result in a foul call, not a reward.

When there’s a loose ball

6. The Oklahoma City Thunder used an unprecedented amount of leverage against the Clippers in the Paul George trade, bleeding them dry of 1st round picks for the next half decade. The best asset acquired in the heist, however, was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A long guard capable of causing havoc on defense (1.2 steals per game), Gilgeous-Alexander has found his scoring touch. He shoots 36% from three and has raised his scoring average this year from 10.8 as a rookie to 19.8. He’s averaging 27 over his last 5, and he and Chris Paul have the Thunder comfortably in the Western Conference playoff bracket, sitting 7th with a 3.5 game lead on the 8th seed. SGA (that name sucks to type out over and over) is a franchise changer and, paired with Paul, has made the Thunder rethink the tank. While they’ll trade Paul to any taker (he’s due 123 mil over the next 3 years), the knowledge SGA is siphoning off Paul is invaluable. With the picks and Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder’s 5-10 year future is brighter than anyone else’s in the league.

7. Derrick Jones Jr., murderer of Defensive Players of the Year.

8. The Heat aren’t fading. Winners of 5 in a row, Miami is the second best team in the East. With a go to crunch time superstar in Jimmy Butler, a championship winning coach in Erik Spoelstra, and a do everything center in Bam Adebayo, the Heat match up with any other team in the league. They do almost everything well. Second in three point percentage (38.5%), seventh in defensive rebounding, eight in scoring, second in free throw attempts, eight in assists, fifth in field goal percentage, 10th in field goal percentage defense, and 12th in scoring defense, the Heat’s roster has few holes. They play hard each night and never get out-toughed. Other than against Milwaukee, it would be difficult to pick against them in a seven-game series in the East.

9. If you don’t already love Giannis and the Bucks, your tune will change after viewing their pre-game routine.

10. Trae Young’s offensive game is jaw dropping; a marvel to watch. Atlanta has 6 wins, however, worst in the league. If Young can’t at least try on defense, his wizardry with the ball will be for naught. 440th in the league in defensive rating (115.6), the only players lower are fellow Hawks’ teammates, injured guys, and a boatload of Wizards unaware that there are two ends to the court. Young should make the All-Star team for his offensive exploits, but will he ever pilot a playoff team? His size will never allow him to be a great defender, but his effort level and awareness have to improve or he’ll never be more than a fun sideshow.

Young (11) with little desire to stay in front of Sexton

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com.

 

Changes that will make the Cleveland Browns a Contender in 2020

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL

2019 was a typical season in Cleveland. The talent and hope acquired over the off-season was over-hyped and misplaced. The despair of 1 win over two seasons caused an abundance of optimism; fans expect the misery compiled over two decades to one day pay dividends. What if it never does?

The talent is still in place for a rebound in 2020. The attitudes and discipline must change, however. In a division alongside exemplary franchises in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, they cannot cut corners. Certain things need fixed if the Browns are to compete in the AFC North.

Baker Mayfield must become a leader. Quarterbacks in the NFL have no other choice. The position is too important; his teammates will follow his lead in whatever direction he goes. No more calling out teammates in the media, as he did with Duke Johnson last spring. If there’s a problem with the training staff, keep that in house. His intentions were to take heat off Odell Beckham when he attacked the team’s medical personnel; it’s still a bad look. Mayfield needs to mature. That’s fine, he’s only 24. But if he is to improve in 2020, it’ll start with his attitude.

Damarious Randall is a free agent, and he needs to go. Most thought the trade that brought him to Cleveland was a steal; a talented defensive back for a sub par backup quarterback, DeShone Kizer. Good organizations don’t let talent walk without reason, however. Green Bay knew what they had in Randall and gave him away. Freddie Kitchens suspended Randall for unknown reasons before the biggest game of the year in Pittsburgh. He was the most disinterested member of the team on Sunday against Baltimore, blowing coverages and allowing 3 of the Ravens’ touchdowns. Randall has an attitude problem, and the Browns are no longer in a situation to overlook discipline in favor of talent.

Randall is #23. This is nonsense

On that note, John Dorsey has to consider character in the draft. No more Antonio Callaway’s or Josh Gordon’s. The organization can’t afford to take fliers on guys in hopes they’ll rehabilitate themselves in the NFL. The franchise doesn’t provide an environment for struggling players to get better. Everyone deserves a second chance to prove themselves. Cleveland can no longer be that place. Take a lesson from Bill Belichick and draft intelligence over talent.

Sign Kareem Hunt. On the surface, this flies in the face of my last point. From the outside, however, it seems Hunt has made an earnest attempt to rehabilitate himself. A restricted free agent, the Browns can match any contract he’s offered or will receive draft pick compensation for him. The offense was at its best this year once Hunt returned from suspension. A Nick Chubb-Kareem Hunt backfield gave Kitchens a plethora of options and different looks to throw at defenses. Throw in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry and the offense’s ceiling remains high. If a coaching change is inevitable, give the next guy a chance with these weapons.

Other than quarterback, the ability to pressure the opposing offense without blitzing is the most valuable attribute on the field. On November 15, the day after the 1st Pittsburgh game, the Browns were 6th in the league in pressure rate at 8.33%, according to teamrankings.com. Today they’re 14th at 7.09%. When all were healthy and not suspended, the Browns’ defensive line was one of the best in the league at pressuring the quarterback. Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi, and Sheldon Richardson are the most talented group on the team. Don’t get cute by trying to trade out of a strength. If the defense succeeds in 2020, it will be because of the defensive front.

Draft offensive linemen. Dorsey has forsaken the line for other positions in his previous drafts, for good reason. O-line is best filled with late picks and free agents. Wyatt Teller has played well at guard since being inserted in the lineup, and they acquired him with a 6th round pick a week before the season. The skill positions have talent now; the front office can address other needs. Dorsey should try to get younger and more athletic at the tackle position through the draft. Safety, linebacker, and tight end are also holes on the roster. Expect a less sexy draft this year.

A complete organizational makeover must occur. It’s time for the power mongers in Cleveland to get serious about winning. Success is a mindset, built every day. The disappoints of 2019 can act as a wake up call if the Cleveland Browns treat them as such. The entire franchise needs audited. John Dorsey must flush selfish attitudes. If they ever expect to win, a sobering look in the mirror must occur. The knee-jerk reactions, preseason chest pumping, and smug approach to team and roster building can no longer continue. The Haslams must study accomplished organizations in all walks of life and change their philosophy and approach to running an NFL franchise. Sadly, this is the hardest change to make. If it does not occur, however, the Cleveland Browns will continue to be an underachieving failure.

The Whip Around

1.Many teams failed in 2019, but the L.A. Rams are at the top of the list. Sean McVay is no longer a delicate genius; Jared Goff now just an average quarterback. The Rams move into a new stadium next year and their owners were hoping a dynasty would reside in the new digs. What are the Rams now? The team of the future a year ago, things look murky now. Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks will account for 108.7 million of the salary cap next year, and the NFL projects the cap to be in the 200 million dollar range. Over half on five players. They traded their 2020 and 2021 first round picks for Jalen Ramsey. Gurley may or may not have arthritis in his knee, but something is wrong, and he’s only 25. Cooks dealt with concussions the entire year. Goff took a severe step backward. His cap hit is 36 million of that total. What a difference a year makes.

2. The Texans, week to week, are an enigma. They’ve beaten the Patriots and Titans in Nashville but lost to Denver and scraped by Tampa in the last four weeks. Their record is 10-5, yet they’ve only scored 14 more points than they’ve given up on the year. The loss of J. J. Watt was a killer to an already average defense and Deshaun Watson has cooled off. He’s only thrown 8 touchdown passes compared to 7 picks with a completion percentage of 62% over the past six weeks. Watson has to carry the Texans if they are to win in the playoffs. A first round loss to Buffalo is a possibility.

3. One of the best stories of 2019 has been Ryan Tannehill. His instincts on this touchdown pass to Tajae Sharpe are beautiful.

4. Alvin Kamara scored two rushing touchdowns in Tennessee on Sunday, his first scores since week 3. While he missed four weeks because of injury, it’s amazing he went that long without a touchdown, yet the Saints barely missed a beat. Drew Brees and Michael Thomas kept the New Orleans offense afloat, but they must lean on Kamara in the playoffs if they hope to advance. Brees will need at least the threat of him in the backfield to keep good defenses like San Francisco and Green Bay off balance. If healthy, he’s the most dangerous weapon in the league this side of Tyreek Hill. He’s key to their Super Bowl hopes.

5. What did we learn about Daniel Jones this year? The numbers are good: 62% completions, 2726 yards, 23 TDs, 11 picks. Three games buoyed his TD-Int ratio. Against Detroit, the Jets, and Washington he threw 13 TDs and no picks; otherwise he’s been average. Jones showed athletic ability, running for 253 yards and the game winner in his first start against Tampa. Not the bust many expected, the Giants need more weapons on the outside for him and Saquon Barkley to flourish. New York will be an interesting team in a poor division in 2020. If Jones and the defense improve, they have a shot in the NFC East.

6. The Steelers’ lack of talent showed itself on Sunday in a horrible loss to the Jets. With their playoff fate in their own hands, Mike Tomlin benched Devlin Hodges after throwing 2 picks. Mason Rudolph avoided the turnovers that earned him a seat next to the head coach earlier in the season, but could only generate 10 points. Pittsburgh is coaching rich but talent poor. The surprise is that they’re anywhere near the playoff race. Still, this was a bad loss against a weird Jets team. Will Ben Roethlisberger fair any better when he returns next year?

7. I’ve questioned Jimmy Garoppolo’s poise and playoff readiness all year. If he makes throws like this while pressured in January, the Niners will be in Miami come February.

8. Bad teams do dumb stuff. The Rams, Cowboys, and Browns all had horrible blown coverages in their games over the weekend that led to losses for all three. In week 16, one would be inexcusable, but three? There’s an attention to detail needed at the highest levels of everything; these teams and players are lazy in their preparation and execution. Talent is important, but having players who know where to be when 10 other guys are counting on them is essential.

9. Has any player single-handedly disrupted an offense the way Za’Darius Smith did to Minnesota’s on Monday night? 3.5 sacks. 5 tackles for loss. 5 quarterback hits. He’s making a late push for Defensive Player of the Year and giving the Pack an identity beyond Aaron Rodgers. He and line mate Preston Smith have combined for 25.5 sacks on the year and give Green Bay’s defense a chance against the high-powered offenses in New Orleans and San Francisco. They must be at their best for the Packers to compete in the playoffs.

10. San Francisco-Seattle
The only interesting game on a poor week 17 schedule, Seattle needs a good showing after 3 weeks’ worth of blah performances. Forced to sign off-the-street running backs Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin after a slew of injuries, its past time for Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to hand the reins to Russell Wilson. If the Seahawks win in the playoffs, it will be because of their quarterback. The conservative game plans must go; Seattle’s defense isn’t good enough to support 3rd down runs and punts on the opponent’s side of the field. Let Russ cook. See how far he can take you.

The 49ers need this one to lock up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. A Sunday nighter in Seattle should toughen this young team, but are they ready to win on the road in the playoffs? For San Francisco to have any shot at the Super Bowl, they need this one to keep them out of Green Bay or New Orleans in January.

 

NBA Meets Christmas Vacation

Christmas Vacation, NBA

Christmas is all about traditions. The decorating of the tree, the unwrapping of gifts, Cousin Eddie, the NBA on T.V. The pillars of the holiday are Clark W. Griswold and the chance to overindulge on basketball. Though two months old, most consider Christmas Day to be the unofficial start of the NBA season. The league takes full advantage of its ownership of the day by showcasing the best players and rivalries to viewers who may be tuning in for the first time. So whether you’re trying to catch up on the happenings in the league over the first quarter of the season, or looking for something witty to say to your family while the games play in the background during the unwrapping of gifts, here’s a preview of the Christmas Day games and an abundance of Christmas Vacation GIFs to help describe them.

Boston Celtics-Toronto Raptors


The day kicks off with the defending champs playing host to the Celtics, two Eastern Conference teams on the periphery of the title conversation. Boston’s young, talented forward duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, after disappointing seasons a year ago, are thriving once again. Both are in the conversation for All-Star game spots. Gordon Hayward has returned to All-Star form as well despite missing time with injuries. The biggest change, however, has been the switch from Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker at point guard. Irving is enigmatic and aloof. He clashed with his young teammates and struggled in a leadership role. Enter Walker, a more affable leader only looking to win after many disappointing years in Charlotte. The fighting and backstabbing has ended in Boston and the Celtics have the toughness to compete in the playoffs with Eastern Conference behemoths Philadelphia and Milwaukee. The Kyrie hate lingers in Boston, however, and is holding them back. They need it off their chests once and for all.

After winning the title, then losing Kawhi Leonard, most expected the Raptors to free-fall, even enter tank mode. Strong leadership from Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka, combined with Fred VanVleet’s ability to carry over his success in last year’s Finals has kept Toronto in the Eastern Conference mix. The reason for the Raptors’ early season success, however, is Pascal Siakam. He’s replaced Leonard as a legit MVP candidate, averaging 25 a game and playing elite defense. Siakam is torching the league.

Milwaukee Bucks-Philadelphia 76ers


Presumptive Eastern Conference finalists before the season, the Bucks have buzz sawed through the league. At 26-4 they’ve blazed out of the gate, owning the best record in the league without the help of a non-caloric silicon based kitchen lubricant.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is dominant. The obvious MVP choice to this point, he’s added the 3 ball to his game, shooting it at 34% on the season. He hit a career high 5 to defeat the Lakers last week. Bucks fans shouldn’t take him for granted.

The Sixers defense is smothering, as expected. Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Ben Simmons, and rookie Matisse Thybulle are all above average defenders. Philly’s offense, however, is, uh, clogged.

Embiid is the league’s most dominant smack talker, despite promising in the off-season to curtail his trash talking. After clashing early in the season with rival Karl Anthony-Towns, leading to a semi-wrestling match, it’s clear Embiid is a dog with a bone.

Houston Rockets-Golden State Warriors


After Klay Thompson’s ACL injury in the Finals, losing Kevin Durant in free agency, and trading Andre Iguodala, Steph Curry broke his hand early in the season and will miss at least two more months. The Warriors are a shell of themselves, a team gassed and torched after five straight Finals appearances.

Draymond Green is the only healthy reminder of what the Warriors were, and he’s slogging through the season, watching DeAngelo Russell jack up shots and a slew of journeymen and rookies desperate to find a home in the league. With the worst record in the NBA, it won’t get any better for Golden State.

The Harden-Westbrook marriage in Houston is proceeding as expected. Westbrook has taken a backseat to James Harden, allowing him to control games with his over dribbling, foul drawing, step back three taking style. It works, however, as Harden leads the league in scoring, posting an eye-popping 38.8 points a game. Viewers hate watching the Rockets, yet Houston doesn’t care what the rest of the league has to say about their style.

Problems will arise in the playoffs, however, if Westbrook can’t improve his 3 point shooting (23.7%). Playing off the ball, Russ will have to hit open jumpers behind the line to keep defenses from packing the lane.

L.A. Clippers-L.A. Lakers


Christmas’ marquee match-up, the two L.A. teams have hoarded top end talent and, along with Milwaukee, are the three teams most likely to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. A duel of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George vs. LeBron James and Anthony Davis is the best the league has to offer.

They’ll battle throughout the year. The Clippers, with Leonard and George, along with Patrick Beverley, have three of the best individual wing defenders in the league, and can shut down anyone defensively. Leonard proved his chops in last years’ playoffs and, despite some load management criticism, may still be the best player in the league come June. LeBron took offense to his torch being passed to Kawhi last off-season, however, and has teamed with Anthony Davis to form one of the best duos in the league’s history. If LeBron stays locked in and AD continues his MVP-type season, the Lakers are title favorites regardless of their so-so supporting cast. The rest of the league would love to rid themselves of these two juggernauts.

New Orleans Pelicans-Denver Nuggets


An attempt to showcase rookie phenom Zion Williamson by the league backfired as Zion’s knee injury lingers. The Pelicans, expected by many to push for a playoff spot, have floundered without the first overall pick. Many thought the rest of the roster would tread water until his return, but other than Brandon Ingram (averaging 25 a game) New Orleans has disappointed.

At first expected back by mid-December, the wait for Zion’s debut continues. Some reports have him returning after the All-Star break; others say he’ll miss the entire season. Fans’ frustration continues to mount, eagerly anticipating the debut of the best talent to enter the league in a decade.

While most of Denver’s roster worked out during the off-season in hopes of a run to the Finals, their MVP candidate, Nikola Jokic, took on all comers at the dinner table.

Jokic has been working his way into shape over the first two months of the season while his teammates have kept the Nuggets afloat, currently 3rd in the West. Denver is young and talented, but the road in front of them is steep. Without more from Jokic, rookie Michael Porter Jr., or a significant trade, a match-up against either L.A. team in the playoffs won’t end well.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

 

Here’s hoping everyone has a joyous Christmas season. Happy Holidays and much success for all in 2020!