Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Another Christmas, another day of NBA Basketball

The last couple days it’s been hard to watch ESPN for more than 15 minutes and not see a commercial for the NBA Christmas Day games.  It’s become an annual tradition.  The first game starts at 12 noon and by the time the fifth and final game ends it’s no longer Christmas Day.  While Christmas and the NBA will never be as popular or the NFL and Thanksgiving, I don’t fault the NBA for trying to have a holiday of their own.

In having five games, one following the other, the NBA gives its fans the opportunity to see some of the best players and best teams in the Association and not miss a beat since none of the games overlap.  When you think about it, Christmas is good timing for the NBA to try and showcase its best talent during the winter.  Thanksgiving is for the NFL and New Year’s Day belongs to college football, though that has recently been rivaled by the NHL in the last five years with the inception of the Winter Classic.  So that leaves Christmas for the NBA.  The hard part is forecasting the prospects of the selected teams for Christmas Day.

The Brooklyn Nets host the Chicago Bulls in the first game at noon.  Both these teams have severely underachieved.  The Bulls lost their superstar point guard Derrick Rose again, and the Nets just lost their center Brook Lopez for the rest of the season.  But make no excuse, the Bulls made the playoffs without Rose last season and the Nets were thought to have improved in the offseason which ought to lessen the blow that was delivered when Lopez went down.   Here we are on Christmas Eve and the Nets are 9-18, and the Bulls 10-16.  I’m sure two sub-500 teams wasn’t the plan for a Christmas Day game.

The second game has the Oklahoma City Thunder traveling to the Big Apple to play the New York Knicks.  Much like the Bulls and the Nets, the Knicks are struggling mightily after making the playoffs as the second seed in the East last season.  The Knicks have the same 9-18 record as the rival Nets do and an uncertain future looms over the franchise as Mike Woodson may be on the hot seat and Carmelo Anthony may leave after this season.  No such underachieving for Oklahoma City as they sit at 22-5 and second in the West.

The third game has the two-time defending champions, the Miami Heat, traveling cross country to play the Los Angeles Lakers.  I’m sure schedule makers were relying on Kobe Bryant being back for the Lakers for this game and while he made his season debut earlier this month, he is now sidelined again by injury.  At 13-15 and 10th in the West the Lakers are going to have a hard time winning games without Bryant and the fact that their hovering around .500 without him for most of the season is probably their ceiling.  You would think Miami would handle the Kobe-less Lakers with ease tomorrow.

The two night games are the best on the schedule tomorrow.  The defending Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs host the Houston Rockets and the last game features the upstart Golden State Warriors home to the Los Angeles Clippers.  All four of these teams figure to be right in the thick of things the talent-rife Western conference throughout the spring.

So in running through the schedule what am I really saying? It’s hard to guarantee good games when teams are almost 30 games into their season by now.  Injuries and underachievers are bound to happen making the scheduled games not as compelling.  On the other side of the coin there are the overachievers and breakout players that make their presence felt in the first two months of the season that aren’t scheduled for Christmas Day.  Case in point this year would be the Portland Trail Blazers.  They lead the West and LaMarcus Aldridge is an early candidate for NBA MVP. The Indiana Pacers are another team that has come out of the gate strong.  What’s confusing though is that Indiana’s early surge isn’t as surprising after seeing them take Miami to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year.  So Indiana would have been a good team to schedule for Christmas Day and for whatever reason they won’t see action tomorrow.

I give the NBA credit for making the annual effort to draw attention nationwide to the Association.  But unlike the other sports on the winter holidays, I’m not sure there’s enough of a wow factor.  Thanksgiving and NFL Football have been synonymous for years.  The history behind the tradition makes football a part of most Americans’ Thanksgivings regardless of the quality of the teams featured.  There’s also a lot of history behind New Year’s Day college football as a lot of the bigger bowl games, most notably the Rose Bowl, are played on New Year’s Day.  While the Winter Classic has only been going on since 2008, the spectacle it creates gives the NHL some well-deserved attention on New Year’s Day as well.

The underachieving teams are the unknown about NBA Christmas Day games.  It’s so hard to know when scheduling what you think are the premier teams in the NBA, which ones aren’t going to live up to expectations.  I’m not sure they’ll ever try and call a surprise team either.  I think the person who suggested Portland for Christmas Day three months ago would have been laughed at…a lot.  So it comes down to a matter of luck.  Maybe one year the ten teams will all be contenders, and the five games will all be great.  The only thing to do is to keep trying.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Expectations for the Eagles stretch run with Les Bowen

Back in August, when the Eagles were wrapping up training camp and getting ready for the first season of the Chip Kelly era, expectations were not too lofty.  After the bottom had fallen out and the Eagles seemingly quit during a 4-12 season which put a disappointing end to the Andy Reid era, 7 or 8 wins would have been viewed as a success in 2013.  Fast forward to December 10, 2013, and take a look at the standings and you’ll find the Philadelphia Eagles all alone in first place in the NFC East already with 8 wins and three games to play.  I talked to Eagles beat writer Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News to get a feel for the new expectations for this Eagles team now that they seem to have exceeded those set back in August.

The playoffs certainly look to be a strong possibility, but Bowen said regardless of if the Eagles play into January, what’s more encouraging is that the Eagles seem to have brought in a good coach and may have found a franchise quarterback.  “Whether they make the playoffs or not, what you want to know is that you hired the right coach and I think we’re on pretty solid ground there.  The other thing you want to know is if Nick Foles is a franchise quarterback and we’re close to being on solid ground there,” Bowen said. 

                                                                                  Nhat V. Meyer
Nick Foles has been a catalyst behind the Eagles five-game winning streak.
Nick Foles finally threw his first interception of the season on Sunday against Detroit.  But Bowen said he was impressed with the way Foles responded and stayed poised despite the fact that the Eagles were looking to run the ball a lot in the snow.  “I think they really like his makeup,” Bowen said of the Eagles' coaches on Foles.  Now we will see if Foles can lead the Eagles to the playoffs.

Holding a one-game lead in the NFC East, the Eagles control their own destiny to make the postseason.  They travel to Minnesota this week in a game they should win with Adrian Peterson likely not to play for the Vikings.  Then the Eagles host the Chicago Bears before traveling to Dallas for the season finale.  “I expect them to beat the Vikings and the last two are probably going to tell the story,” Bowen said.  With Chicago and Dallas still very much alive in the playoff hunt, the last two games certainly will tell everyone a lot about who the Eagles really are.

While Chip Kelly is an offensive guru, one of the more impressive things about the Eagles in this five-game winning streak has been the evolution of Billy Davis’s 3-4 defense.  The Eagles were embarrassed back in September in a week four game in Denver, losing to the Broncos 52-20 and while Peyton Manning seems to light up just about any defense he faces, this performance from the defense was still very much alarming.  Following this game Billy Davis urged everyone to be patient and said that he was seeing progress despite not seeing results on the field.  Surely enough, his defense has shown progressive improvement since the disaster in Denver.
                                                                             David Maialetti
Billy Davis has his defense playing well at the right time of year.

Since that Denver game, the Eagles are 7-2 and currently on a five-game winning streak.  The Eagles defense has been very good in this nine-game stretch even in the two loses, divisional home games to Dallas and the Giants, in which the Eagles offense surprisingly let them down. “It’s really apparent now that early in the season they were struggling to figure out how to play in the 3-4, what the nuances of it were, and what guys roles in it should be,” Bowen said noting particularly the improved play of Nate Allen as an indictment on previous defensive coaches in the Eagles organization.  The entire coaching staff on the defensive side of the ball has proved they were good hires in Bowen’s opinion.

In addition to the defense, the single most important player on the Eagles roster has certainly asserted himself this season.  In a run-first offense (been a while since we can say that about the Eagles right?) tailor made for explosive plays from the running backs, Lesean McCoy looks to be on track to win the rushing title.  While Peyton Manning looks to be in the driver’s seat for league MVP, I asked Bowen if McCoy deserves to be looked at as a viable MVP candidate.
Lesean McCoy set an Eagles franchise record Sunday against
Detroit with 217 rushing yards.

“I haven’t really thought about that but if they make the playoffs and he leads the league in rushing it’s still going to be tough.  Peyton Manning probably has it locked up but if something were to happen to him we’ll see.  But a candidate…yeah I think he’s one of those people,” Bowen said.  Now while McCoy may not win the NFL MVP, it was worth asking Bowen about another NFL award.

Ron Rivera and Andy Reid seem to be two of the primary candidates for the coach of the year award.  Carolina has had their fair share of struggles in recent years but Rivera has the Panthers in the playoff hunt after a 1-3 start.  Andy Reid has turned a two-win Chiefs team into a virtual lock for the playoffs.  But given Chip Kelly is in his first year as an NFL head coach coming right out of college in a situation in which a lot of people doubted his schemes would be able to work in the NFL and was thrown into a tough spot given the way the last few years went for Andy Reid, doesn’t he deserve at least consideration for NFL coach of the year?

                                                                              Associated Press
Chip Kelly has had plenty to smile about recently and
figures to keep smiling if the Eagles can win the division.
“That’s a good question and another thing I haven’t really thought about.   Because people know Andy and are familiar with his story I think he has a bit of an advantage over Chip.  But if the Eagles finish with the same record as Kansas City, yeah I would vote for Chip, but I don’t have a vote,” Bowen said.
A lot of these speculations about what to expect from the Eagles the rest of the season and moving forward into the future hinge on if they are able to make the playoffs this season.  In a year in which the playoffs were a far cry from reality, to have this kind of a season so far, 13 games in, many would have said in August would be an overwhelming success.  So that left one more question for Les Bowen.

“I think they are.  They’ve impressed me immensely these last couple weeks.  They ought to be a playoff team at this point,” Bowen said when asked if it’s going to happen.  Chip Kelly has tended not to look much past the next game.  He was asked about the quarterback controversy between Michael Vick and Foles many times in the middle of the season and refused to answer until both were fully healthy.  He finally named Foles the quarterback for the rest of the season two weeks ago coming out of the bye.  Surely he is not looking ahead to the playoffs and is probably putting all his focus on Minnesota.  But if this keeps up, he might be putting all his focus on a home playoff game after winning a division title.