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May 2013

Can Miguel Cabrera Grab Another Triple Crown?

in MLB by
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Miguel Cabrera is one of the most talented hitters to ever step on the diamond. Last season, he completed one of only 17 Triple Crowns in Major League Baseball history by hitting .330 with 44 home runs and 139 RBI. He is obviously now a member of a pretty elite fraternity.

However, given the pace that he is off to in 2013, it is not too hard to believe that he might become a member of a more exclusive club. He is in a position to win his second Triple Crown, and he would join only Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams as the only men to complete this accomplishment.

Right now, 52 games of the season are in the books, and here is how Cabrera stands in each of the big three categories. Keep in mind that he only needs to lead the American League in each of these categories in order to win the title.

In terms of batting average, he is currently sitting in first place with a .368 batting average. Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles is his nearest competition with a .356 average, but I would like to point out that Davis is notorious for his high strikeout totals and consequently low average. Over his career, he only has a .268 average which is definitely solid, and I do not mean to diminish that, but the odds of him keeping up with Cabrera are very slim. The next closest competitor is also from the Baltimore Orioles. Manny Machado is having a great rookie season, and he is hitting .336. However, with an over 30 point difference in average, Cabrera seems like a very safe bet for this statistical category.

It is not surprising that the home run category is competitive. Right now, Cabrera is sitting in second with 15 bombs. Not surprisingly, Chris Davis is also the top of this category with 19 home runs. Last season, he did hit 33 home runs, so there is no doubt that he has power, and perhaps he has taken that production to another level. I believe that this will be the toughest category for Cabrera to recapture.

Finally, he has a very familiar competitor in the race to dominate RBI. Cabrera is on top with 59 RBI, but Davis is right behind him with 50 of his own. Both of them are sitting in the middle of lineups that produce a lot of runs as well, so it is highly unlikely that either one slows down substantially. Cabrera has a slightly better track record than Davis, so while this race is far from over, I would have to assume that he has a little bit of an advantage.

Right now, if Miguel Cabrera is going to land his second Triple Crown, he needs to overcome the power hitting first baseman of the Baltimore Orioles Chris Davis. History would obviously lean in favor of Cabrera, but Davis has shown so much improvement this season that it is hard for me to write him off as a hitter who is simply going to cool off.

With this serious competition, Cabrera needs to stay hot. I think it is possible, but there is a lot of baseball left to play.

Plan Bledsoe

in NBA by
bledsoe

As someone that decided to attend Oklahoma State University about midway through the 2012-13 college basketball season, I felt weird watching the Cowboys play for the rest of the year as sure one-and-done prospect Marcus Smart developed into the best all-around player in the country. On one hand, I thought it was cool that I’d be able to say that I went to the same school as Smart and cheer him on in the pros, but on the other, I was sad that I wouldn’t be on campus to watch him play in Gallagher-Iba Arena.

As happy as I was to hear that Smart was making the unprecedented decision to pass up a sure top five selection to come back to OSU for his sophomore season, the Orlando Magic had to be equally depressed. The Magic, who have a pretty solid, if not unremarkable, foundation, are in need of a franchise point guard, and Smart embodies everything you’d want in your floor general: leadership, fearlessness, discipline and competitive fire. In a draft class devoid of a superduper star player, Smart and the Magic were the best match on the board as far as finding a team a cornerstone piece.

Losing out on the top selection because of a few stray ping-pong balls and ending up with the #2 pick doesn’t phase the Magic at all, it’s the absence of Smart’s name on their draft board that hurts the Orlando front office. Michigan’s Trey Burke is the top point guard prospect available in the draft this year, but he doesn’t bring with him the total package that Smart does and the Magic don’t seem to be in love with the idea of taking him with the second overall pick.

So Magic General Manager Rob Hennigan, who had an impressive first year on the job for a 30-year old, appears to be taking his search for a new point guard to the trade market. According to a report by ESPN’s Chad Ford, Orlando has shown interest in Los Angeles Clippers’ back-up point guard Eric Bledsoe. The specifics of the rumor are that the Magic are set to offer Arron Afflalo to the Clippers for Bledsoe as well as Caron Butler’s expiring contract.

The caveat with any rumor involving Bledsoe is that the Clippers are not going to part ways with him until they are 110% sure that Chris Paul is going to return to the team. Simply put: Bledsoe is their CP3 insurance. The obvious hurdle in any pre-draft deal involving Bledsoe is that the Clippers would not have Paul’s desire to return to Los Angeles in ink yet, so they’d be taking a risk even if CP3 has given them a verbal promise. Since the rumored deal doesn’t involve draft picks, the Magic could be the ones to take the risk by drafting a non-point guard with their pick and hoping that Paul doesn’t leave LA so that the Clippers will finally let go of Bledsoe.

While this is a pretty significant barrier between Bledsoe becoming a Magic, this is the rare rumor I feel like delving into because it makes quite a bit of sense for both sides.

It’s a no-brainer for the Magic.

Bledsoe brings many of the same aspects to the table that Smart does; Bledsoe is a much better athlete and Smart a much better pure passer, but each is a very complete player whose biggest weakness is their lack of a jumpshot. Bledsoe is a legitimate game changer on the defensive end and has the ability to put pressure on the defense via pick-and-rolls with his speed; teams smartly adjusted to Bledsoe’s ability to attack the rim by having their big man sag off him when he turns the corner and, again, that is where he has to improve to be an above average offensive player.

Afflalo was portrayed as the big grab for the Magic in the Dwight Howard deal, but it turns out that everyone involved in that trade got screwed except for the Nuggets, so trading Afflalo, and his sizable contract (three years left at $23.3 million), for a potential laden young point guard wouldn’t taint my opinion of the Howard deal (in fact, you can look at it like Bledsoe was Orlando’s big get in that deal). Acquiring Butler would help clear Orlando’s cap sheet for next off-season and could hypothetically Al Harrington his way through next season.

Trading away a player like Bledsoe is something that a franchise often grows to regret in hindsight, but with Chris Paul in tow, I doubt the Clips will be crying over spilled milk. There’s a case to be made for keeping Bledsoe and having one of the league’s best back-up point guards at your disposal, but Los Angeles has to know that they’ll never be able to extract the most out of Bledsoe as a back-up. Instead, they can trade the 35% of Bledsoe they get using him as a reserve and replace him with 100% of a solid two-way swingman like Afflalo.

Afflalo is an upgrade on both ends of the floor over Butler, and if the Clippers decide to retain Matt Barnes, they can roll into next season with a very good Paul-Afflalo-Barnes-Griffin-Jordan starting line-up. Afflalo offers the same spot-up shooting ability as Butler on top of the ability to do other things effectively in a pinch; Afflalo can come off screens and knockdown shots, he’s got an effective and nifty post-game with a nice touch on his turnaround jumper and he ran more pick-and-roll than ever last season, Though he’s not a great ball-handler, Afflalo can run secondary pick-and-roll or make plays one-on-one for a team that desperately needs the ball to swing to both sides of the floor on a given possession.

The Clippers are already locked in cap wise if they resign Paul, so the only way they are getting a role player of Afflalo’s caliber is via trade, and at this point in their development as a team, getting a perimeter player that can defend well and isn’t solely a spot-up guy offensively is a must. Bledsoe is a tough piece to give up, but sometimes it’s better to have a good pie all to yourself rather than a marginal slice of a very good one.

Texas Rangers off to a Blazing Start

in MLB by
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The Texas Rangers are currently the best team in baseball in terms of pure record. They are sitting at 27-14, and they are quite frankly dominating both sides of the ball.

Right now, they have scored the seventh most runs in baseball. An obvious contributor is Nelson Cruz. Even though his average is a little bit low at .264, he has clubbed 11 home runs and driven in 33 runs. Those 33 RBI rank him tied for sixth in all of Major League Baseball.

Of course, he is not alone. Adrian Beltre has driven in 26 runs and crossed the plate 26 times. Ian Kinsler is hitting .302 with 20 RBI and 24 runs scored. This lineup has so much production from top to bottom that it is hard to imagine them slowing down. They seem to have adjusted to the large hole that was left by the departure of Josh Hamilton, and they have regained their position as one of the top offensive units in all of baseball.

When you combine this type of offensive production with the type of pitching staff that is ranked fifth in ERA in all of the MLB. Of course, they are the top unit in the American League. That great performance comes largely from the strong bullpen work turned in by Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross. When you combine their numbers, these two men have pitched 37.2 innings and allowed a miniscule two runs. That is flat out ridiculous, but when you put that type of bullpen behind a staff led by men like Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando, it is no surprise that the wins are piling up.

Obviously, when you put together the two most important dimensions of the game of baseball and have success in both of them, good results are going to follow. The Texas Rangers are playing great baseball right now, and it will be interesting to see if they can maintain this level of performance for the entire season. They have done it for one quarter of it already.

Green Light

in NBA by
draymondgreen

As a rookie, playing in an NBA playoff game can be extremely nerve-racking. It’s very rare for a kid fresh out of college to be prepared for the pressure that comes with performing under a microscope, and the magnitude of the moment often overwhelms young players.  When that playoff game is in a hostile environment, just going through the lay-up line can make you nervous.

So, imagine you’re Draymond Green. As of 7:10PM central time, your head coach Mark Jackson has stated that he’ll stick with rookie Festus Ezeli as his starting power forward in game two, working under the assumption that Tiago Splitter or Boris Diaw would be starting in the same spot for San Antonio. But as the teams take the floor an hour later for warm-ups, Gregg Popovich finally shows his hand and now Matt Bonner starting at power forward was the news buzzing around the arena.

When Jackson got wind of this, he sent someone out onto the floor to tell Green, who was working up a sweat on simulated drives to the rim after passing on a pre-game stretching session due to some tired legs, that he’d be getting the first playoff start of his career and just his second start of the entire season.

Now, it’s not as if Green was buried on the bench next to Andris Biedrins or anything – he exceeded starter’s minutes in game one with 38 minutes of court time – but the designation of starter is still one that carries a lot of weight, particularly in a road playoff game. Getting off to a good start can set to the tone for the game and, especially in the case of the Warriors in game two, give a team an emotional lift if they are have any doubt about their competitiveness. Even if it was just a token start and even if Green was going to play the same amount of minutes regardless, being on the floor when the ball is thrown into the air is a huge deal to a second round pick.

The decision to start Green was a tactical one designed to neutralize the threat of a Tony Parker/Matt Bonner pick-and-pop comprising the Warriors’ defense. Golden State’s precision in the half-court on the defensive end is the main reason they were up in game one, and it order to preserve optimal chemistry on that side of the ball, Jackson sticks his most versatile perimeter defender on Bonner.

Golden State executes one of two coverages any time Bonner comes up to set a screen for Parker; either Green is going stick to Bonner’s body, giving him no space to receive the pass, much less get a shot off (also known as the “Dirk” coverage) or the Warriors will switch the action, putting Klay Thompson on Bonner and Green on Parker.

Now, you can count on one hand how many players in the league would be able to switch a 1/4 pick-and-pop involving someone as good in one-on-one situations as Parker (LeBron, Taj Gibson, Josh Smith, and Serge Ibaka), but the Warriors shifted Green onto Parker with no qualms whatsoever. Why, you ask?

Because Green had done everything in his power to earn the trust and respect of his coaches and peers. And, because it worked.

***

When Draymond Green got to Golden State, he was not informed by Mark Jackson that his primary role with the ball club would be as a defensive specialist. The Warriors didn’t draft him because they saw something specific on film that they thought would fit into their defensive scheme. Golden State took Green because they saw the same qualities – the high basketball IQ, the all-around offensive game, the advanced playmaking for his size – everyone else did, only they decided they couldn’t pass on him with the 35th pick in the draft. At that point in the draft, a “positionless” player is more than worth it if they have talent (as it turns out, being positionless has actually been extremely beneficial for Green and the Warriors).

Green’s rookie season was a very unique one to say the least. Throughout the entire year he battled knee tendinitis that hampered his ability to get into a rhythm with his jumpshot. When you see that a second round pick shot 33% from the field and 21% from three in his rookie season, it’d be logical to assume that all of those numbers came on one end or the other of a blowout.

That wasn’t the case for Green, though. For someone that couldn’t buy a basket to save his life, the 6’7″ tweener forward found himself as a rotation piece for the Warriors, playing 13 minutes a night in 79 games in his rookie campaign. This is far from a common occurrence in the NBA – most coaches would stick a rookie struggling so mightily with his shot on the bench and keep him there until he was forced to play him again.

But that’s where the beauty of Mark Jackson comes in. After spending just a few days around him, it’s abundantly clear that no coach believes in his players more staunchly than Jackson. Though overly ballyhooed, Jackson’s religious beliefs clearly factor into his career as a coach; he’s a man with unwavering faith in his players.

That’s how a rookie who that scored just .678 points per possession this season according to Synergy Sports Technology (second worst mark in the NBA of players with at least 300 possessions) never fell out of the rotation for the Warriors. Jackson kept relying on Green, and Green kept giving him reasons to put him on the floor. Even though he wasn’t finding his way offensively, Green earned his playing time by developing into a very reliable defensive player.

“No,” Green said when I asked him if he was told to expect a defensive role with the Warriors. “You just find your niche. I knew I was struggling with my shot and didn’t have my legs all the way under me. But you gotta find something that you can do to stay on the floor, and you can always play defense. That’s what I was doing, and I’m going to continue to defend. At the end of the day, defense wins game.”

Green wasn’t billed as a stalwart defender coming out of Michigan State; many doubted what position he would guard at the NBA level and he was a bit hefty in college, leading to questions about his lateral quickness in a league that gets faster by the day. But Green has worked diligently on reducing his mass – undergoing what I would call the Marc Gasol transformation – and is now sleek with toned bulk. And as far as questioning his defense instincts, shame on those who doubted a disciple of Tom Izzo’s defense-first program.

“Coach Izzo helped my defense a lot,” Green said of his former college coach. “In high school, my coach taught a pressing defense, so it was all about getting steals and trapping. When I got to college, Coach Izzo used to say ‘You’ve gotta defend! You’ve gotta defend!’ and stayed on me about moving my feet so I’d be able to guard guards. Because if I was going to make it in this league, I’d have to be able to guard guards.”

Guarding guards, or perimeter players, was Green’s specialty this season. While Thompson is likely Golden State’s best perimeter defender, Green is a close second, and over the course a long season, you’d like to save a guy like Thompson from the physical punishment of guarding star players. Green was happy to step up to the challenge, though, and he checked everybody from Kevin Durant to Carmelo Anthony to LeBron James. And, per Synergy, he was effective in that capacity, holding his man to just 29% shooting in isolation this season.

“It’s all about heart,” Green said about facing off against the league’s best scorers. “When you’re facing those guys, you just do your best to contain them.”

Green understands the nuances of the game and how important they are in order to win games in the NBA. His determination to win the small battles for his team never wavered even as he was in the midst of an extremely disheartening and season long shooting slump. Green never slumped his shoulders or pouted about the basketball gods being unkind, he simply continued to compete as hard as he could in order to give his team a jolt.

“I’ve always been the kind of guy that will do whatever it takes to win and to do whatever I can to make an impact,” Green said when I asked him about his game-winning shot against Miami earlier in the season.

“It’s not all about scoring, it’s not all about getting assists. Sometimes it’s just about doing the little things that don’t show up on the statsheet. I always try to be the guy that’s going to do those little things. Those little things will keep you on the floor, whether or not you are struggling with your shot or struggling with this or that.”

It’s impressive to hear such a young player willingly preach about the importance of subtle victories in a possession, and it makes easy to see why Jackson never lost faith in Green. And what has Jackson gotten in return for believing in a player that was so inefficient at half of the game all season?

An improbable and inspiring stretch of playoff basketball that has the Warriors in a position to make it to the Conference Finals.

***

It started in game two of the Denver series when Green knocked down a spot-up three. The impulsive reaction of basketball nerds was one of disbelief as one of the league’s worst marksmen had just defied the odds in a big game. And then he made another three in game three, and two more in game four and then two more in game six.

By the end of the first round, Green had gone from an offensive non-entity that was hurting team spacing because his man would willingly leave him to clog the paint or crowd Curry or Thompson to someone with a natural comfort in big moments. With the knee soreness all but gone, Green was punishing defenses for ignoring him and thus making himself an extremely valuable rotation player for Golden State; the defense was always there, but now that he was hitting shots, the reasons to keep him on the floor far outweighed the reasons to keep him off.

Green’s run this post-season is a product of his incessant and diligent work to regain his shooting form all season long. Not for a moment did he let this shooting slump deter his work ethic or impair his confidence. Green never doubted his ability to come through for his team. Watching from afar, seeing the countless hours of overtime this second round pick put in, Jackson was at peace with Green shooting the ball without hesitation because he saw Draymond lay the groundwork for success.

As Jackson’s theory goes: If you are constantly working on a part of your game on your own time, then he’s confident in you taking those shots in a game.

All Green needed was to see the ball go into the rim for him to go on a run, and as the Nuggets continued to leave him open, he continued to make them pay.

“Huge,” Green said about the confidence boost be received as his shots began to fall against the Nuggets. “Huge. I worked on it everyday, night in and night out, before practice and after practice. Coming back in at night and shooting the basketball to get my legs back under me. It took awhile, but it’s paying off at the right time.”

If anything, Green seems to have a great sense of the moment. From his timely game-winning lay-in in the final second against the Heat earlier in the year to his post-season explosion, Green has found a way to deliver at the most opportune times, and last night was no different.

***

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at San Antonio SpursAfter playing every second up to that point, Mark Jackson decided to try and get Klay Thompson a couple of minutes of rest at the eight minute mark of the fourth quarter, subbing in Green in his place. Immediately following Thompson’s trip to the bench, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker hit right elbow jumpers to cut the Warrior lead to six with just under seven minutes remaining. After stringing together a couple of baskets, the San Antonio crowd was on the verge of bedlam and the sense in the building was that the veteran Spurs were about to pull off another miracle comeback.

Desperately needing a basket to stave off San Antonio’s run, the Warriors put the ball in Jarrett Jack’s hands. He took the ball from a few feet above the key and attacked Gary Neal off the dribble, getting just enough of a step on him to force Matt Bonner to slide into the paint from the left wing.

Bonner was playing the percentages here and likely following the Spurs gameplan: cut off dribble penetration and force a 21% three-point shooter to make a shot. But unlike Bonner, a dead-on three-point shooter in the regular season that has struggled to produce in the post-season over the past few years, Draymond Green went through a pitiful regular season for that one moment in time.

Green caught the ball, wound up his release and calmly launched the three as Bonner flew at him to close out. Swish.

There was still plenty of time left in the game, but that shot by Green completely swung the momentum of the game for a possession, and winning those subtle possessions are what the playoffs, and Green, are all about.

***

Green is now 9-of-18 from three in the post-season after making just 14 triples in 79 regular season games. And seemingly everyone of those threes has come at a big moment; as defenses over compensate to prevent the Warriors’ stars from making shots, they leave Green open by choice, and he’s burning them at an extremely impressive 50% clip.

“Of course it motivates me, but it doesn’t bother me,” Green said about being left open. “I’ll take the open shots whether I’m shooting the ball great or not. Teams are never going to key on me; they’re gonna key on Steph, Klay, Jack. So the open shot is still going to be there, it’s just a matter of me stepping up and continuing to knock them down.”

Stepping up is one of the many ways we can define what Green has done this post-season. Even if it’s a small sample size, the development of Green’s outside shot in the playoffs has had a massive impact on the Warriors as a team. Even one or two threes a game from Green makes him worthwhile offensively, and that means Jackson can put in one of his best and most versatile defensive players without sacrificing spacing or scoring.

After the game, Green joked about coming into the game for Thompson as an offensive substitution specifically so he could hit that three.

“Well, Coach (Jackson) subbed me in the game for one minute,” Green said. “He told me ‘Hey, I need this big three out of you. I’m gonna take Klay out and put you in the game for the three because you’re my knockdown shooter!'”

Green had a big smile on his face as he said that, clearly soaking in everything he could about the crucial win on the road of the two seed in the Western Conference that he started and just helped clinch.

And, for a player that worked his tail off for six months both in and out of the public eye in order to be successful, it was hard not to smile back in appreciation of what diligence and desire can help someone accomplish.

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