Predicting the 2015-16 NBA season

I can’t pinpoint when exactly I fell in love with basketball, but I remember when I fell in love with my favorite NBA team.

It was the 1997-98 season, and I was in the sixth grade. As a young, impressionable sports fan in a small New York town, I could have easily adopted the Knicks as my favorite team. Yet I was drawn to the out-of-town underdogs — an upstart Minnesota Timberwolves team featuring 21-year-old Kevin Garnett, 20-year-old Stephon Marbury and third-year head coach Flip Saunders.

That Timberwolves team went on to reach the playoffs and push the No. 2-seeded — and heavily-favored — Seattle SuperSonics to a deciding fifth game in the first round. Minnesota lost, but I was hooked. I’ve been a Timberwolves fan ever since, through ups and (mostly) downs.

With increased player movement in professional sports, it’s become easier for fans to detach themselves from players and other franchise figures. Why buy a player’s jersey if he’s going to leave as a free agent in a year or two? I try not to think like that. As someone who has worked in the world of sports media and met athletes from all walks of life, here’s something to remember — they’re just people, too. And as such, I am really going to miss Flip Saunders.

I didn’t know him personally, though I did see him around on the ESPN campus occasionally. And yet, I feel like I lost a friend. I’ve heard multiple times this week that the NBA is a close-knit fraternity. A family, even. Does that family simply consist of players, coaches and executives, or can it include fans? I believe it can.

Even though I’m 18 years removed from that Sonics-Timberwolves series, the memories won’t soon fade. Another NBA season kicked off this week, and Flip Saunders didn’t get to see it. That, for him and his family, is a tragedy. But his extended family of NBA players, coaches and fans can continue to honor his memory with basketball — playing it, watching it, loving it.

I usually have some fun by making predictions at the start of each season. Here’s my shot at the 2015-16 season:

WESTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS

  1. Los Angeles Clippers
  2. Golden State Warriors
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder
  4. San Antonio Spurs
  5. Houston Rockets
  6. Memphis Grizzlies
  7. New Orleans Pelicans
  8. Dallas Mavericks
  9. Utah Jazz
  10. Phoenix Suns
  11. Sacramento Kings
  12. Minnesota Timberwolves
  13. Portland Trail Blazers
  14. Los Angeles Lakers
  15. Denver Nuggets

EASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers
  2. Chicago Bulls
  3. Washington Wizards
  4. Toronto Raptors
  5. Miami Heat
  6. Atlanta Hawks
  7. Boston Celtics
  8. Milwaukee Bucks
  9. Indiana Pacers
  10. Orlando Magic
  11. Charlotte Hornets
  12. Detroit Pistons
  13. New York Knicks
  14. Brooklyn Nets
  15. Philadelphia 76ers

PLAYOFFS

East finals – Cavaliers over Wizards; West finals– Clippers over Thunder

NBA Finals – Cavaliers over Clippers

AWARDS

MVP – LeBron James, Cavaliers

Defensive Player of the Year – Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Rookie of the Year – Jahlil Okafor, 76ers

Sixth Man of the Year – Isaiah Thomas, Celtics

Most Improved – Bradley Beal, Wizards

Coach of the Year – Doc Rivers, Clippers

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#tbt: LeBron James and other bad NBA breakups

With the 2015-16 NBA season less than a week away from tipoff, here’s a fun look back at some of the most notable splits in league history.

My short post for ESPN.com went live on the five-year anniversary (July 8, 2015) of LeBron James’ “Decision” to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers via free agency and join the Miami Heat.

Among the other notable breakups: Dwight Howard leaving the Los Angeles Lakers in 2013, Pat Riley leaving the New York Knicks in 1995, and Shaquille O’Neal leaving the Orlando Magic in 1996. An excerpt on O’Neal:

Playing varying roles in his decision [to join the Lakers] were reported tension with then-coach Brian Hill and guard Penny Hardaway, a highly publicized Orlando Sentinel poll to which O’Neal took exception, and opportunities in the entertainment world. But the bottom line is this: O’Neal went on to win four titles (one with Miami), while Orlando has made just one Finals trip since.

Ranking the Star Wars (films) lightsaber battles

The snap-hiss upon activation followed by a simple, yet often haunting, humming noise. The vibrant array of colors and designs, each with its own meaning.

I ask you this simple question: Is there anything cooler than a lightsaber? That’s a rhetorical question, obviously, because the answer is no. I want one, you want one, anyone that likes amazing things wants one. But, sadly, we can’t have them (not yet, at least).

We are just about two months away from the world premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I’ve got lightsabers on the brain. So, naturally, I need to rank the lightsaber battles we’ve seen on-screen thus far.

My highly-scientific system will score each fight on a 1-5 scale (5 being the highest) in five categories: the actual fight sequences, the musical score/dialogue, the emotional impact, the re-watchability of the fight, and the overall legacy. I’ve also limited this to just the six live-action films thus far (sorry, Clone Wars) and actual clashing of lightsabers (no Episode II Jedi attack on Genosia, for instance).

Agree with my rankings? Disagree? Come nerd out, and let me know.

11. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. General Grievous (III)

Score: 9 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 4; Score/dialogue – 1; Emotional impact – 1; Re-watchability – 2; Legacy – 1)

Highlight: Grievous unveiling and wielding four lightsabers simultaneously.

Lowlight: Obi-Wan disarming Grievous’ four lightsabers in cliched fashion.

Summary: Poor General Grievous. He had so much potential as a character, but never felt like more than an extra in Episode III. This fight scene is a perfect microcosm of that. I maintain that the shot of Grievous approaching Obi-Wan, four lightsabers in hand (two rapidly spinning) is one of the more vivid images from the entire franchise. Unfortunately, the fight takes a pretty mundane and predictable turn after that.

10. Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Darth Maul (I)

Score: 11 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 3; Score/dialogue – 3; Emotional impact – 1; Re-watchability – 3; Legacy – 1)

Highlight: Darth Maul’s badass entrance, flipping in off his speeder.

Lowlight: It’s just such a tease.

Summary: This fight isn’t bad. It’s just so short, and so dusty, and so chaotic, that we barely get to appreciate it. I know that’s done intentionally – this fight merely serves as a preview of the climactic “Duel of the Fates” showdown. But, the score speaks for itself here.

9. Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker vs. Count Dooku (II)

Score: 15 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 3; Score/dialogue – 3; Emotional impact – 3; Re-watchability – 3; Legacy – 3)

Highlight: Yoda with a lightsaber? Yoda with a lightsaber!

Lowlight: Obi-Wan’s complete domination at Dooku’s hands.

Summary: Where to start with this one? I’m not the biggest fan of Count Dooku as a character, but Christopher Lee’s on-screen presence is undeniable. He convincingly defeats both Obi-Wan and Anakin while simultaneously taunting them. Yoda’s on-screen debut with a lightsaber is both entertaining and cheesy, but in the context of this scene, it’s the top moment.

8. Mace Windu vs. Darth Sidious (III)

Score: 16 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 3; Score/dialogue – 3; Emotional impact – 4; Re-watchability – 3; Legacy – 3)

Highlight: Windu’s epic death, and the effects on Anakin.

Lowlight: Sidious cutting through three Jedi like a knife through butter.

Summary: This scene is weird. I realize Darth Sidious is the most powerful Sith we’ve seen in the films, but why, WHY, are the other three Jedi with Mace Windu unable to survive for more than mere seconds? It’s silly. And the whole lightning situation. It’s still unclear why, in the context of the films, Sidious becomes deformed from his own lightning (and Luke doesn’t in Episode VI). Regardless, this is an important scene for Anakin, and for that reason alone, I’m willing to overlook the painfully-forced CGI of Sidious flipping around for no apparent reason.

7. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader (IV)

Score: 18 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 1; Score/dialogue – 4; Emotional impact – 5; Re-watchability – 3; Legacy – 5)

Highlight: The on-screen birth of lightsabers.

Lowlight: The actual fighting.

Summary: I refuse to knock this scene. After all, without it, we wouldn’t have any lightsaber debates (and that’s a world I shutter to think about). In the context of the films’ story, this scene is classic — Obi-Wan and Vader meet again, nearly 20 years after they’ve last seen each other. Obi-Wan’s self-sacrifice, and its impact on Luke, are crucial aspects of the entire saga. It’s just a classic scene. The fight sequences though … meh. But hey, it’s two old dudes. Let’s just appreciate this for opening the door.

6. Yoda vs. Darth Sidious (III)

Score: 19 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 4; Score/dialogue – 3; Emotional impact – 3; Re-watchability – 5; Legacy – 4)

Highlight: Sidious hurling Senate pods at Yoda.

Lowlight: The cheesy dialogue.

Summary: The on-screen action and musical score for this scene are on point. I’m not a fan of the slow build-up though. “If so powerful you are, why leave?” Dammit, Yoda. If so powerful YOU are, why are you standing there hurling cheesy zingers instead of destroying the Sith mastermind that just brought down the Republic? It also confuses me how Yoda simply gives up and accepts his “failure” at the end, but again, in the context of the saga, we needed both to survive this fight (obviously).

5. Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Count Dooku (III)

Score: 21 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 5; Score/dialogue – 4; Emotional impact – 4; Re-watchability – 4; Legacy – 4)

Highlight: Anakin embracing the dark side and defeating Dooku.

Lowlight: Obi-Wan once again having zero ability to match Dooku.

Summary: I love this underrated scene. It’s everything I wanted to see in the Episode II fight between these three. The dialogue is held to a minimum, and the surrounding space battle creates an awesomely eery mood. Count Dooku’s last line (“I sense great fear in you, Skywalker. You have hate, you have anger, but you don’t use them.”) is masterfully delivered by Lee, and helps increase the impact of Dooku’s demise at Anakin’s hands. This is a short, but crucial scene.

4. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader (VI)

Score: 22 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 3; Score/dialogue – 5; Emotional impact – 5; Re-watchability – 4; Legacy – 5)

Highlight: Luke severing Vader’s hand, echoing his own defeat in Episode V.

Lowlight: How quickly Sidious gives up in his attempt to convert Luke.

Summary: This scene is pretty timeless, though it’s not because of the lightsaber battle itself, which is arguably the best of the original trilogy. The ongoing dialogue between Luke and Vader is well-written, and strikes an emotional cord. So, too, does seeing an enraged Luke beat Vader into submission. What I’ve never understood is why Sidious moves from recruiting to electrocuting Luke so quickly. He spent years and years molding Anakin. Oh well. At this point I’m just being picky.

T-2. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader (III)

Score: 23 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 5; Score/dialogue – 4; Emotional impact – 5; Re-watchability – 4; Legacy – 5)

Highlight: Seeing how Darth Vader became DARTH VADER.

Lowlight: It drags on for a little too long.

Summary: And we have a tie! Episode III’s epic duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin (now going by Darth Vader) is undoubtedly mesmerizing. From a visual standpoint, the volcanic setting of Mustafar is the most striking of any of fights on the list. And though he was already Darth Vader by name, this shows how he came to be “more machine now than man, twisted and evil.” If I have one gripe with this sequence though, it’s that it drags on a little too long. We get it, this is THE fight of the Star Wars saga, and we get it, Obi-Wan and Vader are evenly matched. I’d have rather seen more of Anakin’s emotional fall to the dark side, or his relationship with Sidious. But hey, I’m being picky again.

T-2. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader (V)

Score: 23 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 3; Score/dialogue – 5; Emotional impact – 5; Re-watchability – 5; Legacy – 5)

Highlight: “No, I am your father.”

Lowlight: Luke jumping (to his death?) and ending up in an air shaft.

Summary: Without question one of the most impactful and timeless scenes in cinema history. Darth Vader’s reveal at the end of the duel is legendary, but this entire sequence is brilliant. The setting, tone and mood inside the carbon freezing station are chilling. You FEEL scared for Luke when Vader ignites his lightsaber. But you also feel hopeful when Luke, displaying his new-found powers (thanks, Yoda), escapes the freezing chamber and battles back. I never really liked Luke jumping, seemingly in a suicide attempt to escape Vader, but given how the scene developed, I’m not sure what alternative he had.

1. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Darth Maul (I)

Score: 24 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 5; Score/dialogue – 5; Emotional impact – 5; Re-watchability – 5; Legacy – 4)

Highlight: Everything.

Lowlight: Darth Maul’s death.

Summary: This is as close as we’ve come to a perfect lightsaber battle. Three incredible characters, all with distinct appearances and unique lightsabers. A visually-striking setting (generator room platforms). An incredible score (Duel of the Fates), with absolutely no cheesy dialogue forced into the scene. An emotional and impactful death (Qui-Gon). There’s really not much to critique here … except for Darth Maul’s death! Much like Boba Fett, Maul’s death came too prematurely and in disappointing fashion. And yes, I know he is now alive in canon thanks to The Clone Wars, but I feel pretty strongly that Maul could have (and should have) had a major role in the entire prequel trilogy. Say what you want about Episode I (and people say plenty, usually bad), but it gave us Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn and the best lightsaber battle to date.

#tbt: A life-saving gift

Another quick throwback post here, this time from a D3football.com column I wrote back in 2012.

John Stephens, a former linebacker for the Cortland State football team, helped save the life of then-two-year-old Clara Boyle with a bone marrow donation a few years ago. It’s a remarkable story, one of pain and suffering, but also incredible happiness and resilience.

All too often, sports stories are negative. I’ve edited and written countless articles about injuries, arrests, personal and professional scandals, and any other number of discouraging incidents. But stories like the life-long bond between Stephens and Boyle help restore my faith not only in athletes, but in people in general. There are good stories out there, sometimes you just have to look harder for them. And quotes like this one from Stephens help support that claim:

“It hasn’t really hit me yet, that what I did for her is allowing her to be there in that moment running around with my little brother. … I was able to do something so simple for me, the choice for me to make was so simple, and it changed this family’s life dramatically. It’s heartwarming for me and my family.”

Predicting the 2015-16 NHL season

Hey, a second straight predictions post! ‘Tis the season, I suppose.

After laying out my MLB playoff predictions — through one wild-card game, I’m already wrong — I’ll take a stab at forecasting the upcoming NHL season, which begins Wednesday.

Below are the teams I like (in no particular order) to reach the playoffs this season, followed by Stanley Cup and award predictions. Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

Eastern Conference playoff teams: Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens. Quick hits:

A return trip to the Cup finals is within reach for Tampa Bay. … Washington always seems to underachieve, but this could be a breakthrough season. … Henrik Lundqvist always makes the Rangers a contender. … Young Islanders star John Tavares could win the Hart Trophy this season. … Any team that has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is a threat. … The Blue Jackets are a popular choice as a surprise team, and for good reason. … Death, taxes, and the Red Wings in the playoffs. … I expect Montreal to slip a bit, but not out of the playoff picture.

Western Conference playoff teams: Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, Vancouver Canucks. Quick hits:

The defending champions certainly lost some key pieces, but enough talent remains for another deep playoff run. … The Ducks are one of the favorites this season. …. Young Blues standout Vladimir Tarasenko is simply nasty. … The Kings will be motivated after narrowly missing last year’s postseason. … I like Calgary’s team-first culture. … I see many outlets predicting a step back for the Jets, but I still think they’ll contend. … Nashville flies under the radar quite often, but they should compete in the West. … Minnesota should be in the mix, but I give the nod to Vancouver.

Stanley Cup prediction: Lightning over Blues. Tampa Bay was supposedly overmatched in last season’s Stanley Cup finals against Chicago, yet the series still went six games. With a healthy Ben Bishop in goal, and the continued improvement of young stars Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay is locked and loaded for another deep run. St. Louis has been eliminated in the first round each of the last two seasons, but I see a breakthrough this season behind Tarasenko and a deep, talented roster.

Award predictions:

  • Hart (MVP): Steven Stamkos, Lightning
  • Art Ross (Top scorer): John Tavares, Islanders
  • Norris (Top defenseman): Victor Hedman, Lightning
  • Vezina (Top goalie): Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers
  • Calder (Top rookie): Connor McDavid, Oilers
  • Jack Adams (Top coach): Todd Richards, Blue Jackets

Predicting the 2015 MLB playoffs

If you’re looking for an exercise in futility, you’ve made it to the right place. I’m about to predict the MLB postseason, which is usually about as pointless as trying to predict the NCAA tournament each year.

The scale is smaller (10 MLB teams compared to 68 for March Madness), but the unpredictability is on the same level. That’s why MLB’s history is full of out-of-nowhere champions like the 1969 Mets, 1997 Marlins and 2002 Angels, among others.

Teams get hot, teams get cold, pitchers get hot, hitters get cold. Over a 162-game season, trends have a way of evening out. It’s hard to be a “fluke” for six months, but it’s certainly possible in a six- or seven-game series.

But hey, it’s the playoffs! Let’s have some fun making inevitably incorrect predictions.

AL Wild Card: Yankees 3, Astros 2. I wanted to pick Houston here, but this just feels like a game the veteran-heavy Yankees will win.

NL Wild Card: Cubs 2, Pirates 1. Another tough one, but it’s hard to pick against Jake Arrieta right now. I give him the slight edge over Gerrit Cole.

ALDS: Royals over Yankees in 4 games. Kansas City didn’t exactly close out the regular season with a bang, but New York will struggle to match up pitching-wise, particularly after the loss of CC Sabathia.

ALDS: Rangers over Blue Jays in 5 games. Easily the toughest series to forecast. Both teams have been on a tear in the second half of the season. I just like Texas’ pitching, led by Cole Hamels, a bit more than Toronto’s offense, which although formidable, can be boom-or-bust.

NLDS: Mets over Dodgers in 4 games. It’s not easy to pick against Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, but New York’s rotation is just as imposing. I like the Mets here.

NLDS: Cardinals over Cubs in 5 games. St. Louis has advanced to the NLCS in each of the last four seasons. I expect that streak to continue, but Chicago will make it interesting.

ALCS: Royals over Rangers in 7 games. Another series that could go either way. I give an experienced Kansas City squad the slight nod.

NLCS: Cardinals over Mets in 6 games. St. Louis puts together a deep postseason run seemingly every year. New York will present a serious challenge, but I lean toward a veteran St. Louis team.

World Series: Cardinals over Royals in 6 games. Much like how the Giants reached three World Series in the last five years, I can see St. Louis doing the same. And if the Cardinals face their Missouri counterpart, I give the edge to the Redbirds.

#tbt: Not the “girl next door”

Samantha Prahalis is a wizard with a basketball. If you’ve never had a chance to see her play, watch this first. It’s not the definitive collection of her highlights, but it’s some of her better dishes from her days at Ohio State.

I had the chance to spend some time with Prahalis on April 16, 2012. That was the same day she was selected sixth overall in the WNBA draft by the Phoenix Mercury. She was remarkably unique and engaging. You can read my feature on her here.

“Honestly, I don’t think people ever accepted me for who I was. I’m just not that typical girl next door, and I think a lot of people saw me on the court and misunderstood me. I was emotional, I was fiery. At times a little too emotional, too fiery.

After a strong rookie season for Phoenix (11.6 points, 4.5 assists per game), she was surprisingly waived during the following season. Since then, she’s had stints with the New York Liberty, Atlanta Dream and Los Angeles Sparks, followed by a more recent deal to play in Romania.

Prahalis is still just 25 years old, so I hope she has plenty of basketball left in her. It’d be a shame for this kind of talent to go unseen and unappreciated.

Paul Goldschmidt, MLB’s quietest badass

If you follow professional baseball, you probably know who Paul Goldschmidt is. Actually, let me rephrase — if you follow professional baseball, I really, REALLY hope you know who Paul Goldschmidt is.

The Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman has cemented his status as one of the game’s most-feared hitters and well-rounded players over the last few seasons. This is common knowledge, particularly if you know him only in terms of his fantasy production, which is annually among the majors’ best.

He’s been named an All-Star in each of the last three seasons, and he has Hank Aaron, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards under his belt despite having played just four full seasons. He’s batting just under .300 for his career (.298, entering Wednesday night’s game), has led the National League in home runs and RBIs (36 and 125, respectively, in 2013), and this season added a rare 20-20 season for a first baseman to his resume.

Goldschmidt, 28, certainly isn’t overlooked in the fantasy world. He’s been ranked among the top five overall players each of the last two seasons, and he’s pricy in DFS ($5,800 on DraftKings for Thursday, second among all MLB hitters).

Again, you probably know most of this. But as a Diamondbacks fan (this native New Yorker latched onto the expansion team in 1998 and has yet to look back), I can share a little more with you about Baseball’s quietest superstar.

  • For starters, he does NOT have a Twitter account. This, in all likelihood, is the biggest factor in his lack of mainstream popularity. He does have quite a collection of fan accounts, though.
  • He just became a dad a few weeks ago!
  • While he might not have a social media presence, he looks at home in both a sombrero and a cowboy hat (he is from Texas, after all).
  • If baseball doesn’t always work out, he can pick up smuggling. Paul Solo? Or Han Goldschmidt?
  • One time … he was a zombie.
  • #goldschmidthappens