Monday, August 01, 2005

Playoffs? PLAYOFFS? WHO'S TALKIN ABOUT PLAYOFFS?

Apparently, the Houston Astros are.

Storming back from being mired in last place in the NL Central, the 'Stros are now in 2nd place and are leading the chase for the National League Wild Card by a margin of one game.

Much of this turn around can be atributed to the incredible offensive firepower delivered by one Lancelot Berkman, coming off of an offseason injury to jolt this offense out of it's dismal first month form. It also doesn't hurt that the Astros' pitching staff features arguably the two best pitchers in the entire major leagues in Roger "Fountain of Youth" Clemens and Roy "Dominance Personified" Oswalt.

So the question is should rookie GM Tim Purpura have made a move at the deadline for Adam Dunn or a slugger of that calibre to further boost this lineup? The answer depends. If the price was a few of our pitching prospects like Nieve, Astacio, and Wandy Rodriguez, then sure. But sources indicate the Reds balked at sending Dunn for a package that didn't include both Troy Patton and Jason Lane. I believe that this team can make the playoffs without said trade if some of the youngsters like Taveras can keep producing down the stretch.

Once in the playoffs, the Astros are among the favorites in the National League with a playoff rotation boasting Clemens, Oswalt, Andy Pettite, and last year's rookie standout Brandon Backe.

Could this team get past the Cardinals and on to the World Series?

Check back in October.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Shaq v. Yao

Who would have ever guessed that Yao Ming would outplay Shaq and the Rockets would still lose? Well, it happened, thanks to an inspired performance from Dwayne Wade and a generally awful defensive performance by the Rockets. The Rocketships allowed the Heat to shoot a cool 50%, much better than Jeff VG's team usually does. Watching the game, I could not really point out any specific problem. Rather, we just couldn't get it done.

So this is two straight losses now. I'd be getting worried but for our opponents, SacTo and Miami. Our next few games (Boston, Philly, Minn., LALakers, Chicago, and Indiana) will be a good barometer of how we are going to fair heading into the stretch run. These last two losses obviously have placed us below the 'elite' teams. What is important from here is how we are going to perform against teams that are at our general level (Minn., LA, Indiana), and how we will perform against the teams below us. Of these games we need to win a minimum of 4, and should be able to win 5 especially if Kobe still is not back.

Watching Yao really go toe-to-toe against Shaq could be a good harbinger. Coach Jeff seems to have done a good job rationing Yao's minutes to keep him fresh and this could be the payoff. Even more importantly than holding Shaq to just 15 points were two things: First, Shaq only had one offensive rebound. Shaq's O-rebounds are one of the most dominating aspects of his game and restricting those second and third chance shots is a necessity. And second, Shaq only had 5 free throw opportunities. Even though he doesn't make very many, you still don't want him at the line because that still gives the Heat free points and it means Yao is in big foul trouble.

So, as lame and cliche as it is, I would label this game as a "good loss". Ugh. What I really hate about that term is that it is so cliche that it is cliche to hate saying it. Ok, the "good loss" is officially played out. What is the opposite of a Pyrrhic victory? Maybe I'll just use a malapropism and call it a Pyrrhic loss. I wonder what the losing general's name was in that battle...

According to this site, the general's name was Publius Laverius Laevinius. Hm. Ok. From henceforth, let us dub the "good loss" a Publican loss. Does that work? I don't really like it but I'm going to go with it for now. Any recommendations are welcome.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Family Reunion

What could be better than watching the game last night, complete with what seemed like pseudo-retro uni's, Orlando fans booing McGrady every time he had the ball, and then being forced to head to the reverse turnstiles before the conclusion of the game? What could be better than McGrady taunting the Orlando fans during his halftime interview by claiming he "loved" the boos? Oh sweet, sweet homecoming.

Is this finally the point where the media stops talking about how Orlando got 'the better of the deal'? I sure hope so. What all the pundits seemed to ignore/forget is that the Rocketships had effectively maxed out how far they were going to be able to go in the Western Conference playoffs. As much as I love Stevie Franchise and Cat Mobley, it just wasn't a team set up to make a substantial run to the finals. If we had magically transferred to the Eastern Conference I think most people would agree we would have become instant contenders to make it to the finals. So what did the Rockets need? We needed to upgrade from a star player (Stevie) to a superstar player. In comes Tracy McGrady.

Unfortunately we had to relinquish one of our strengths last year - depth up front and at the guard spots - to create for us what will in the long term be a combo that will give us the potential to make a title run.

The team seems to be settling in and actually playing like a team. T-Mac and Yao are beginning to feel each other out and figure out ways for both of them to be effective. Last night Yao had what might have been his best game of the season; not necessarily numbers-wise, but through most of the game he had a near-perfect combination of both control and aggressiveness. How often do you remember seeing Yao explode up from the middle of a group of defenders and just slam the ball down? Well, he pulled that rare move a couple of times last night.

On a completely different note, Mel Kiper Jr. has projected USC's Mike Williams as the Texans' pick in the upcoming draft. Now, I know that the draft is still months off and there will be a lot of moving around, but doesn't the idea of Mike Williams paired with Andre Johnson just sound amazing? If that happens, we could end up having one of the best WR tandems of all time I do believe. Oh goodness, thinking about this is turning me on. I have to go.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Rockets Revitalization?...and the Astros continued decline

Over the last 13 games the Rockets have averaged 104.9 points. Over that period of games they have gone 8-5. Over the previous portion of the season they averaged 86.9 points with a 10-12 record. So, apparently we are better playing the opposite of "Van Gundy-style" basketball. Watching the game last night could be called nothing less than a sinful pleasure. Not just because we won; not just because I got to see Mark Cuban pout as the Mavericks fans cleared the stadium; but because we played exciting, emotional, at times dominant basketball. This was a team that looked like it could be a playoff force, even in the West. Are we at the Spurs' level yet? No, but by the end of the season I would not be surprised if we are the team nobody wants to draw in the playoffs.

The most important effect of opening up our offense, running, and pushing the ball is that it guarantees that all of our guys who want shots will have enough shots. When Van Gundy was imposing his lethargic gameplan, McGrady and Yao, in addition to the other players on the court, all seemed to be afraid to pass the ball because they didn't know how many more shooting opportunities they would have. Now the ball is flowing around the court opening up open shots and easy layups. Granted, this last game was against the Mavs, hardly a defensive stalwart, but we would have been scoring against any defense.

We also got to witness one more bit of evidence in the theory of "McGrady = God". After hurting his toe, McGrady got some halftime care and came back to have one of his best games of the season. He was driving and dishing, knocking down the outside shot, and even sparking the squad with a huge alley-oop. All with a hobbled foot. Brilliant, just brilliant. Throughout the game, McGrady was also vocally leading this team: telling guys where they need to be, giving encouragement, pushing anybody not completely in the game. This game is what everybody was expecting when we shipped of Stevie Franchise. Thankfully it looks like the Rockets are starting to put the pieces together because I was beginning to sink into a potentially bottomless depression brought on by the Astros' non-stop offseason debacle.

On that note, I update ESPN's list of players the Astros are now potentially pursuing. I do not think that I need to editorialize this list as the quality of the players speak for themselves: Sammy Sosa, Mike Cameron, Alfonso Soriano (for Backe and Chris Burke potentially), Jeromy Burnitz, Randy Winn, Danny Bautista, Jose Cruz Jr.

Does that make anybody else want to puke? Because I just did.


Sunday, January 09, 2005

He Gone...

Well, we have officially crapped out on the Carlos Beltran table. While this is upsetting, I think that we should focus on the fact that we will not be in the position of having an albatross-contract on our hands in a few years (remember when we tossed all that money at Hidalgo?...and he had a much better overall season than Beltran).

What I actually find much more upsetting is the rest of our moves this offseason. We let Wade Miller go for nothing. Clemens is now about as good as gone. Jeff Kent left town. Currently, according to ESPN's Rumor Central, the big free agent we are now targeting is...(wait for it)...Jeromy Burnitz. Yes, he seemed to be hitting better last year. But, yes, he was also playing half of his games at Coors Field. Now, if we had had a semi-successful offseason until now and were trying to bring in Burnitz as a temporary starter until Berkman is ready and then as a pinch hitter/occasional starter I would be fairly excited. I mean, the guy can really drive the ball, but if this is our BIG SIGNING...

What I am curious to see over the next couple of years is if the Beltran trade ends up setting us back a few years just as the Big Unit trade did. Granted, we did not give up as much talent for Beltran as Johnson, but this time we actually lost proven talent in Octavio Dotel. The only thing that we have going for us is that the Cardinals seem to have regressed slightly, even with the Mulder signing, and the Cubs are still the Cubs. Regardless, in the course of the last few months we have quickly gone from World Series doorstep to huge question mark.

By the way, has anybody else tried to figure out what our rotation is going to be? From the best that I can figure it could look something like:
1. Pettite
2. Oswalt
3. Backe
4. Hernandez
5. ???????

Is anybody else scared about having our #3 be Backe? Yeah, he was great at the end of last season, but c'mon. #3?!?! Ok, I am getting a little to depressed thinking about this train wreck. I will close by reminding everyone to get this week's Sports Illustrated featuring...MY #1 SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA TROJANS!!! Even though most of you are likely not pro-USC, you have to at least admit that you are anti-Sooner. What self-respecting person doesn't hate Oklahoma?

Fight on Trojans!

Monday, November 29, 2004

The Joy of ESPN's Gamecast

Ahhh. The inherent joys of watching a game against your bitter rival not on television but on the wonderful technology of Gamecast. See, when you live in a region of America that would preempt Vince Lombardi coming back from the dead to coach a game and instead show the Oakland Al Davises you really have zero chance of seeing your hometown Texans. So, as I also declined to shell out for the DirecTV plan, my only choice was to sit in front of my computer and watch the game online. In text and basic graphic form.

If you have never used Gamecast, I suggest that you give it a shot sometime. Preferably with a 12 gauge shotgun. Ok, it really isn't that bad, but it is incredibly frustrating and you lose the entire point of actually watching the game. See, remember at the end of the second half when you got to watch that crazy blocked field goal where every Tennessee Traitor on the field, including apparently Jeff Fisher, Bud Adams and Ernest Givens, was running around pitching the ball to each other like a madman. Yeah, you remember the crazed madness of that play? Well, here it is in gorgeous prose: Texans 41 yard field goal attempt blocked, recovered by Michael Waddell (TEN).

Beautiful, isn't it? Thankfully I do have ESPNews, which filled me in on the big plays, in addition to both Fox and CBS doing a decent job with periodic updates. But, regardless, when that Gamecast update "Steve McNair (TEN) pass right side intercepted by Marlon McCree (HOU). Returned for 24 yards." came in, the air smelled just as sweet. To be able to spit on our former team!

Having watched as many replays as I can, and from my vast knowledge garnered through Gamecast, there are a few things that I noticed about the game. First and foremost is our running game. This game could be the breakout game we were looking for from Domanick Davis. No, it was not quite a dominating performance by any means, but if our backs can average anything over 4 yards per game...

What is most impressive about this win is how it happened. Down 21-3 late in the 2nd quarter, and scoring 28 unanswered points? That sounds like a very un-H-town type of game. I guess the football gods can't figure out if the former Houston Chokers should be humiliated or the newcomers. Hopefully the curse on the Oilers franchise hopped in the truck to Tennessee (it certainly looks it with what has happened to them since the move) .

Although it is highly unlikely, I think that we still have an outside shot of making the playoffs. Yes, I know you need 10 wins minimum in the AFC this year. Yes, I know that there will likely be a 10 win team left out of the playoffs. But bear with me for a moment. Our remaining games are @ J-E-T-S, Indy, @ Chi-town, @ Jaxville, Cleveland. Chicago and Cleveland should be definite wins. We have already beaten Jacksonville and they are a team on the decline. Leftwich will likely be playing injured for the rest of the season, leaving them very vulnerable to a loss. The Jets are still not sure whether Pennington will be back or even if he will be able to play at 100% if he does come back. Yet another vulnerable team we are hitting maybe at the perfect time. And finally is Indy. I have already predicted that we will beat the Colts when they come to the Energy Dome. If our running game and defense continue to build off this win against the Traitors, we could come in and stun Indy. Suddenly, 10-6 and possible playoffs.

More realistically, however, I am looking for us to finish 3-2 for a very respectable 8-8 finish. One more offseason of building our offensive line, building our defense, and letting our youngsters mature should be enough to set us up for a very serious playoff run next season.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The NBA's Big Problem

As we all know by now, there was a massive brawl a few days ago at the end of the Pacers-Pistons game. As we also all know, the media has been in a massive uproar. Many media members in fact have been pointing to this event as an 'indication' of the Big Problem facing the NBA. Something to do with a 'disconnect' between players and fans, or some brewing resentment of some sort.

I think that this theory is just ridiculous. Athletes and fans not being peers? Athletes and fans haven't been peers since pee-wee league rules said that everyone had to play at least 2 quarters. Athletes and fans were not peers when Michael Jordan played. Hell, Wilt Chamberlain was much more enamored with the "celebrity" lifestyle than anyone currently playing the game and I don't know of any major brawls from that time.

No, using this incident to point out a flaw in the game is missing the point. Remember when ABC thought that the problem with Monday Night Football was the announcers? Remember, they hired Dan Fouts and Dennis Miller? Remember how that didn't work so they hired John Madden? (By the way, I can't decide if Dan Fouts' "The ball gets bigger because cold air expands" or John Madden's "That's how QB's and wide receivers talk--with their mouths and with their hands" comment is the best MNF color commentary of all time. If anyone has any ideas on this one, let me know...) Well, it turns out the choice of color commentary was not the "Big Problem" with MNF's popularity. Rather, ABC forgot about this little development called cable that has cut deeply into all broadcast ratings, something that Howard Cosell never had to deal with when MNF was setting the Nielsen bar.

But I digress. Basically, my point is that the Artest event was an isolated incident that people are focusing on while ignoring the pink elephant in the room. What especially makes me think this? Well, the fact that there have been tens of thousands of basketball games without anything remotely close to this ever happening, even when a player enters the stands (the Rocketships' own Mad Max).

So what is the problem? I think that it is almost painfully obvious: The play. The NBA is currently dealing with an unprecedented influx of youth and unbelievably inexperienced players. Instead of dealing with this situation like any sane person would do, Stern & co. has done nothing besides bitch and moan about 18 year olds entering the league. They wouldn't want to bitch and moan too loud because then they might lose revenue on those LeBron and Telfair jerseys. No, any sane person would take the NBA's Developmental League and turn it into a full-fledged farm system somewhat akin to what Major League Baseball does.

But, you say, what about the cost? Won't expanding the NBDL just be a loss leader for the NBA? Well, yes, but I counter by saying that the NBA doesn't seem to care about losing money on its extraneous investments. Case in point: the WNBA, which has lost more money than Charles Barkley in the VIP room of a strip club. In fact, I believe that making the NBDL a true farm system would in the long term create greater revenue possibilities for the NBA. With each team having a farm team, each NBA team would be effectively residing in two locations. Fans in minor league cities tend to follow their favorite prospects on through to the big leagues, typically rooting for the affiliated Major League organization.

But what about the players' money? Well, obviously the league would need to change the rules of the draft. First would be to extend the draft to five rounds. First rounders would have fully guaranteed "big-league" contracts for three years, just as they do now. Second rounders would have fully guaranteed "minor-league" contracts for a minimum two years. Third and fourth rounders would have a one year fully guaranteed "minor-league" contract. Fifth rounders would have the just-out-of-luck status that second rounders currently do.

How does this help the league play-wise? Well, it allows projects (Darko?) the chance to get real playing time and more hands-on coaching. It allows teams to better evaluate talent over a longer-term. It encourages teams to invest in real development rather than the draft and hope he learns on his own system currently employed. And most importantly, it increases the scope of the league within the United States. Do you think that a city such as Beaumont would get more excited about the NBA if they were the Rocketships' minor league affiliate? I most definitely think so.