All posts by Ben Zeltser

Five Bold Predictions for the 2017-2018 NBA Season

The NBA has recently been widely commercialized like no sport has ever been before, showing a clear-cut direction: up. Of course, this only refers to its popularity; many die-hard NBA fans have been quick to dismiss the recent NBA’s excitement because of its modern-day lack of competition. Nonetheless, we see that professional basketball’s popularity will not cease anytime soon, with its seemingly continuous stream of headlines ranging from what shoes LaVarr Ball is wearing, to rumors of Kevin Durant’s multiple twitter accounts. This is compounded by a newly introduced NBA Awards show, a platform for annual NBA recognitions to be commercialized and dramatized in order to milk as much money as possible out of NBA fans all over the country. With all of this being said, one thing is clear: businesses will always be businesses; but where there is demand, there will always be fandom.

My NBA fandom continues to grow, which means that even though I grow tired of hearing Kyrie Irving have to explain his decision of asking for a trade to the media despite his complete liberty to advance his career however he wants, I still continue to speculate about how this next season will go. Here are some of my bolder predictions (cue the Law and Order “dun dun” sound):

Avery Bradley will be an All-Star and First-Team All Defense

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The Detroit Pistons have a glaring flaw on their roster without a clear-cut scorer. My grandma can shoot better free throws than Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson is a roster nightmare, Tobias Harris is good but not great and Stanley Johnson talks big but doesn’t back it up. This opens the door for the Pistons’ only promising offseason acquisition: Avery Bradley. Bradley was a huge snub for All Defensive Team honors this past season, and the same mistake won’t be made again, as he will show his worth on both ends of the floor for Detroit. Bradley has always been one of my favorite players for his gritty play that doesn’t always show up on the box score, but he gets buckets too! Bradley has seen his scoring average increase over the past three seasons, and the same can be expected as he joins a team with much less talent and depth than that of his former team, the Boston Celtics. He’s a hard worker with a solid three point shot, and while his team may not make any noise this upcoming season, you can expect Bradley to make headlines on both ends of the court.

Boogie Cousins will be a Wizard by the Trade Deadline

My Washington Wizards are for real, but Marcin Gortat showed his age and his lack of versatility in the 2017 Playoffs. The Wizards clearly need one more star player to compete against the Cavs and the Celtics, and with a solidified backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal along with Otto Porter Jr. on a max contract, that player should play the four or the five role. Cousins works perfectly into their roster, as he and Wall were college teammates at Kentucky and got along beautifully – something which not many teammates of DeMarcus Cousins could say.

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The Pelicans experiment is definitely interesting, with a talented roster including Cousins, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo, but a lack of expected success could lead to bickering among teammates and the necessity to make some tough decisions in the front office. The West is now loaded, making a team that has the talent to be a 1-4 seed have doubts about whether it could achieve that success. In a situation where there may be nothing wrong, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Pelicans quickly go into panic mode after falling behind teams like the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, Timberwolves, and possibly the Nuggets, Grizzlies, Blazers, Jazz and Clippers. WOW. With all of this kind of talent in a conference, compounded with the fact that Cousins is set to be an unrestricted free agent come next summer, it would be mutually beneficial for both the player and the team to make a switch. Cousins would gel easily into a team that plays in the East, and the Pelicans will be able to get some assets that they can work with in order to build for the future.

People Will Remember How Good of a Player Melo is in 2018

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Whether Carmelo Anthony plays this upcoming season for the Cavs, the Rockets, the Trailblazers, the Knicks, or some other team, there is no doubt in my mind that Anthony will have a revitalizing season in 2018. Everybody loves the “Hoodie Melo” videos surfacing on the web, featuring several impressive offseason basketball showings by Anthony while sporting a hoodie, but nobody has stopped to think about whether or not this will translate into the regular season. I think that it will. Carmelo Anthony hears everyone’s criticism, and he is eager to respond. His ranking as the 64th best player in the NBA by ESPN was the icing on the cake. Meanwhile, the oddsmakers at Sports Betting Dime give Carmelo 12/1 odds to finish in the top 10 in scoring this season. Phil Jackson’s triangle offense never gelled with Anthony’s playing style, and assuming that he stays on the Knicks, he has plenty of young support around him to help propel him into being a highly effective veteran leader. A weak Eastern Conference provides a clear-cut opening for the Knicks to possibly make a run for a seven or eight seed, with only the likes of the Sixers, the Heat and the Pistons to stand in their way (assuming that the Celtics, Cavs, Raptors, Wizards, Bucks and Hornets all make the playoffs). The Eastern Conference provides a huge opportunity for Melo to make a comeback, be it as an All-Star, or simply as one of the top scorers in the East.

De’Aaron Fox is your Rookie of the Year

Oddsmakers have five different rookies above Fox as favorites to win the ROTY award, but my money is on the speedster from Kentucky. Lonzo Ball is the favorite, but Ball is a high-volume passer, not a high-volume scorer. Ball could very well have a better season than Fox, but the award has historically been given to players who can primarily put points on the board. Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz rank second and fourth on odds sheets respectively, but their productivity could nullify each other in their rookie seasons. Along with Joel Embiid, a high-volume scorer in JJ Redick, a developing Dario Saric looking to improve on his stellar rookie campaign and more young guys looking to get their names out there, it will be difficult for anyone to especially distinguish themselves. Last but not least comes Dennis Smith Jr., who has wowed fans with his inhuman athleticism. Smith is an interesting prospect who may very well vie for the award, but he is very raw at this stage in his career and most likely could have used another year or two in college if this was a different era of basketball. Fox looks to be more talented defensively, has a better assist to turnover ratio, and most importantly shines more as a leader on the court. Smith can dunk the basketball better than any other rookie in the draft, but today’s game is about spacing the floor, and Fox does a better job of this than Smith does.Fox_Summer_League.0
De’Aaron Fox got drafted to a team that is desperately searching for a new face of their franchise. George Hill and Buddy Hield are solid, but Fox truly has an opportunity to stand out. He may not even start at the beginning of the season, with the depth chart projecting him to be Hill’s backup, but the Kings will soon change this as they begin to fall out of playoff contention. The Kings’ roster features plenty of young talent, and fans can expect Fox to rally these guys together and produce a great rookie season.

The Timberwolves Will Win 50+ Games EASILY

 Bleacher Report projects Minnesota to win 39 games in the 2017-2018 season, but I think that they could even eclipse 55 wins if they play their cards right. Minnesota didn’t just address their obvious flaws this past season, but they also addressed their underlying ones. Problems like being able to finish games out and play better in the fourth quarter (which was one of their biggest problems last season) were nullified with the addition of one of the best late-game performers in the NBA. Butler isn’t afraid to take that last-minute shot, but more importantly, he can guard anyone in the league when the clock is ticking down. Karl Anthony-Towns was absolutely robbed of an All-Star berth this past season, and hopefully, history doesn’t repeat itself as Minnesota gets more national viewership with its stacked roster. People also forget that Jeff Teague ranked seventh in the NBA this past season in assists per game, trailing five high-usage players in James Harden, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and LeBron James, along with Ricky Rubio. Aside from Paul (who handled the ball every time the Clippers marched down the court last season), no other player in front of him played more minutes. Teague will surely get players like Andrew Wiggins, KAT and Butler involved, while scoring on his own at the same time.

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The team has also managed to acquire depth that puts them among the most solid rosters in the NBA. Shabazz Muhammad returns on a bargain deal that puts him with promising rookie Justin Patton, defensive stud Taj Gibson, starting caliber big man Gorgui Dieng, veteran scoring threat Jamal Crawford, and the human alphabet Nemanja Bjelica. With capable deputies in every position, this team looks set to completely do a 180 on their 31-win season.

While this team certainly looks good on the stat sheet, we must also account for team chemistry. Newcomers in Butler, Crawford, Gibson and Teague look to play big parts in the team’s game plan next season, so it is important that the team gels well. This would normally be a bigger concern of mine, if the coach of the team wasn’t Tom Thibodeau. Thibs has had a storied history coaching Butler and Gibson in Chicago, and will have no problem rallying this team together to win even more games than he did with his 50-win Bulls in the 2014-2015 season. Minnesota looks primed for a playoff run, and expect that to come sooner rather than later.

Umar Farouk Osman Wins Gatorade Men’s National Player of the Year Award

For the third time in six years, the prestigious Gatorade National Soccer Player of the Year award has been presented to a promising Ghanaian talent. Umar Farouk Osman came to America to not only play soccer, but to build relationships, live out his dreams and for an unprecedented education.

Osman received the award directly from 2015 recipient, Jack Harrison, who currently plays as a winger for NYCFC of the MLS. At the young age of 20, Harrison currently ranks second on the team in goals, only behind former international Spanish superstar David Villa, exemplifying the bright future that lies ahead for any recipient of the Gatorade National Men’s POY Award.

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Jack Harrison (right) presents the award to Osman (left). Photo by Gatorade.

When discussing Osman’s potential and future, Harrison said, “We both came to the states for an education, but at the same time, we were able to be here because of soccer. Through his hard work and dedication, he’s driven himself to this award and hopefully to many other things as well.”

Harrison also said, “I played against him before. (He) showed immediate talent and (he’s) got lots of potential. (Umar’s) very exciting to watch.”

Osman’s journey began in Ghana, where he faced immediate competition. Umar said, “There are ten regions in Ghana and the soccer scouts travel around the 10 region (circuit) to recruit soccer players. I traveled around the 10 regions to compete against over 400 kids. Out of the many soccer players, they chose 11 of us to go to Right to Dream for the finals tryouts.”

Right to Dream is a highly selective charity academy in Africa that helps young, talented soccer players reach their true potential. Founded in 1999 by Tom Vernon, the goal was to provide children and their family with the opportunity to build a better life for themselves through the sport of soccer. The program has since grown to become a residential international school that offers scholarships to players like Osman all across Africa.

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Right to Dream has been highly successful on the international stage. In 2015, their U15 squad (pictured) beat Genoa 4-3 in the Manchester United Premier Cup World finals to take home the trophy. Photo by News Ghana.

Recent developments include the opening of a women’s program in 2013 and the installation of a $2.5 million all-purpose facility in 2010, which has led it to gain acclaim as one of the best training academies in the world. Right to Dream has since established partnerships with several American high schools, such as The Hotchkiss School, where Osman has attended.

“At Right to Dream, I was assessed in terms of my character, soccer ability and academics. I was at Right to Dream for about three years before heading over to the states. During my three years, I was challenged in many ways. I had to compete every single day to earn a starting spot on the team and if my grades weren’t good enough, I didn’t get to practice with my teammates,” Osman said.

His goals and his aspirations are high, and he is only able to reach that high with the strong support system that he has. Osman said, “My mom is my biggest motivation. She supported (me) in every decision I made. She allowed me to leave home at the age of 10 to go chase my dreams. It’s hard sometimes, but my mom knows I’m in safe hands, so it’s all good.”

Chasing Osman’s dreams have not come without some hardships. In his first game for Hotchkiss, a private school in Connecticut, Umar broke both his clavicles and missed most of the season. He responded to such adversity by scoring a total of 63 goals and assisting 45 times to conclude his high school soccer career. Not too shabby for a 5’9”, 150 lb midfielder out of Ghana.

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Photo by The Hotchkiss School

Outside of his mother, Osman has plenty of people in his life to look up to, both on and off the pitch. He said, “Jack Harrison and Tom Vernon (founder of Right to Dream) are my biggest inspirations. My inspirations (when) growing up and learning how to play soccer were David Silva and Lionel Messi, although I support Manchester United. (In Ghana), Asamoah Gyan is a player everyone is looking up to. He’s done a lot for the national team and he cares about his country.”

Osman will be thinking about such contributors when deciding what to do with the $1,000 grant that he receives on behalf of Gatorade along with his award. This money goes to a cause of Umar’s choice, with the opportunity of raising that sum to $10,000 by writing a short essay about the subject.

On the pitch, Osman describes his biggest skill set to be his speed and his fearless mentality when attacking defenders. Other coaches have been quick to laud his size, technical skill, and his dedication to playing both sides of the ball, offensively and defensively.

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Photo by Vimeo.

Osman is slated to attend the University of Michigan and play for their men’s soccer team. He said, “I will have to stay at school and work extra. I really want to be a professional soccer player in the near future. I’m planning on getting my degree first before going pro. I’m excited for that because Michigan has the right facilities and faculty to help me attain my dreams in life.”

Umar has developed a close relationship to his community upon arriving in the States, showing the content of his character. “Shout out to the Black Rock team for winning the state cup this year and for representing Connecticut in Nationals. I really had a good time playing with the guys. They’ve been very supportive, especially Theo, Noah, Cole and Stephen. They’ve always been there for me and couldn’t have asked for a better teammates,” he said. Sounds like Osman has found a home away from home.

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Photo by The Hotchkiss School.

“It means a lot to me to win this award and it tells me whatever I’m doing, people are watching and they appreciate what I’m doing. Winning this award serves as a stepping stone to work extra harder (towards) achieving my dream. My next goal is to settle in college and get used to the style of play and then move from there,” Osman said. Umar plans to play in the MLS, and hopes to stay close to his friends in the process.

**Cover photo by USA Today.

Figures In Sports, The Media & The Fans: A Love Triangle

Aside from the Jersey Shore relationship of Ronnie and Sammi, there is probably no other relationship that has more ups and downs than that of the love triangle between the media, important figures in the sports world and the fans that support those figures. This was highlighted by the comments made by Steve Kerr at the end of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, for which he was fined for criticizing the referees. However, when a newsperson asked him about his thoughts of the officiating, was he supposed to praise it? Even if Kerr would be wrong in criticizing the officiating of Game 6, a man is entitled to his opinion. Or is he?

Enter the fans. Fan support when it comes to the practice of sports is absolutely vital to the supported team’s success. Players don’t just say, “we couldn’t have done it without the fans,” for no reason. It is a statistical fact that teams have a better chance of winning games when they play at home, where there are more fans cheering them on. Regardless of this, it is also undeniable that the vast majority of fans are unaware of a plethora of key details that would have them view certain discrepancies in the sports world in a different light. To the average Warriors fan, the $25,000 fine imposed by the league towards Kerr would seem absolutely heinous. Most Warriors fans, though, wouldn’t know that all athletes and coaches in the NBA have a clause in their contract in which it explicitly states that they are not allowed to criticize officiating to a certain extent, which is affirmed by the NBA as a means of protecting their brand. So, while Steve Kerr may not have been able to criticize the referees to the extent that he did, is the imposition of this rule ethical?

All sources point to no. First of all, the media acts as somewhat of a little brother to athletes and coaches in sports, in the sense that they egg their big brother on until they are forced into saying something that they will regret saying later. To contrast, a part of being a professional in the sports world is knowing how to deal with the media and not losing your cool. But at the end of the day, we are all human. It’s a complicated cycle where there is no right answer. Humans, however, have certain basic rights that continue to be denied by contractual obligations today. The freedom of speech, for one, cannot be exercised without a fine, even when the person “at fault” is asked a question that they choose to answer honestly.

The first step to fixing a discrepancy that clearly involves all three parties mention would be to either clarify or nullify the part of the contract that Kerr violated. Whether you think that sports figures should be able to say whatever they want, or that they should at least be able to honestly answer questions presented by the media, something needs to be changed. Because nothing is changing, a constant cycle is emerging where figures in sports say something that they shouldn’t have said because it is pushed out of them by the media, which forces a punishment from the league that they play or coach in. The fans then interject with their surface-level knowledge and add fuel to the fire by ostracizing that league for penalizing their favorite figures in sports – for what they see as no reason. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This cycle produces a bad look for every party involved – the media is always perpetuated as the antagonists (even though they are just doing their jobs), players and coaches are portrayed to have short fuses (even though they are only human) and the league is seen as the evil disciplinarians ((I had to look up how to spell that) even though they just want to clear their name)). And all of the criticism is generated by us, the fans.

As a response to this cycle of negativity, a certain message must be sent to each party involved.

Sports Figures – Stay calm. Stick through it. Sports figures who face adversity are (or at least were at some point) successful.
Media – Keep doing your job. Being a journalist is one of the most difficult jobs in the world because you will almost always be seen as the bad guy. And sometimes you have to be.
Fans – EDUCATE YOURSELVES. Before you share strong feelings about a certain subject in sports, understand why it happened. You may be missing an important detail that could alter your opinion on the subject.
Leagues – The fourth wheel in the love triangle. Stop limiting the free speech of athletes and coaches! Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams was fined last season for sporting pink accessories in memory of his mother, who passed away due to cancer. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE! Free speech should always be exercised.

Rules are meant to be broken, but some rules aren’t meant to exist in the first place.

Small Ball is Ruining the Game of Basketball

Regardless of who did end up winning the NBA Finals last season, game seven of the NBA Finals gave fans something that was seemingly nonexistent in all but one of the other six games: a show.

Last season’s NBA playoffs seemed to have a recurring theme – most games were blowouts. Whether the winners of individual games ended up winning the series or losing the series, it seemed unavoidable that most playoff games last year had been decided by double digits. The Western Conference seemed to be stronger than it had ever been, boasting the record-breaking Golden State Warriors, the star power-heavy Oklahoma City Thunder, the deep San Antonio Spurs and the unlucky but talented LA Clippers. For the first time in four years, the Eastern Conference’s playoff teams all boasted winning records, showing a considerable improvement in competition in the East, as well. Despite these landmarks, most playoff games continued to be decided before the fourth quarter.

Game 7 of the NBA Finals was only the second game in the series in which the Cavs and the Warriors actually competed with each other, and the evolving NBA strategy of small ball is to blame. In the past, when the game was based around getting to the paint and strong play from the center position, we would see games come down to the wire on a nightly basis. Today, as the three-point shot has become the go-to shot for almost every team in the NBA, we see the intensity of NBA games decrease substantially, due to the frequency of blowouts. This happens because when a team is centered around long 2s and 3s, it is easy to get into a funk. Every player has a bad shooting night here and there, which would normally prompt that team to look towards their big men for consistency in the paint. However, because they have stopped looking to big men as frequently, NBA teams have begun to focus on coming out of a funk by simply shooting through it. This results in horrendous shooting numbers, and, a blowout. Long range shots in the NBA are all about momentum; every team in the NBA has players that can hit 3s, but when they have no momentum, they will have no confidence, and when they have no confidence, their 3P% for the game will average under .300. When a game is all about momentum, it is easy to see why so many games in the NBA this season have been complete blowouts to one side.

The reason that the Warriors’ record was as good as it was could have been because of the fact that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson simply had less off-shooting games than the star shooters of other NBA teams, and when one of them had an off game, the other one shot the lights out. While small-ball is clearly the strategy that works in the NBA today, is it positive for the game of basketball as a whole?

The answer is, absolutely not.

Today, it is so much harder for a fan to get his money’s worth by going to an NBA game. Every fan of any NBA team loves to see his favorite team decimate their opponent, but not at the expense of being decimated by another team the next night. Fans want to see close, hard-fought NBA games, especially in the playoffs, when many fans find that their NBA team hasn’t made it into the postseason and they just want to see good basketball. Likewise, with every kid in America wanting to be Steph Curry, an unavoidable emerging trend in our youth will develop. Every kid who plays basketball is going to be popping 3s, nonstop, which will go well for about 5% of the nation.

The NBA has been going in a 3-pointer-centered direction for the past couple of years, and the results of this are beginning to materialize. It doesn’t take a mathematician to understand that three points are more than two, but it also doesn’t take an NBA analyst to understand that consistent blowouts are boring to watch. If the NBA hopes to retain its appeal as an exciting league where a comeback can happen at any second, NBA teams should revert back to mixing it up with post moves, rolling to the basket and high percentage shots. However, with the success of teams like the Warriors and with the early playoff exit of more old school teams like the Spurs, such a reversal of trends is unlikely to happen. Just wait until the 4-pointer is invented.

All NBA Team Voting in Dire Need of Revision

Every NBA season, “All NBA Teams” are chosen based on votes made by a panel of sports broadcasters & newswriters. It’s a given that they’ll miss the mark per occasion – like when Tyson Chandler won DPOY honors, yet found himself on the All Defensive Second Team listing, or when the same thing happened to Marc Gasol the following year – but last year’s All NBA Teams showed how the current system is flawed.

All NBA Teams insist on following the standard lineup, with two guards, two forwards, and a center. If this was a set rule that applied to every end-of-season NBA ranking system, this would be acceptable, but this is not the case. The 2014 All Rookie First Team featured a total of four guards and one forward. The 2012 All Rookie First Team, which featured a grand total of seven players due to ties, included five guards and two forwards. Perhaps the biggest head scratcher would be the 2014 All Rookie Second Team, which included a ridiculous four centers and one forward – not a single guard. Since the standard lineup rule doesn’t seem to be a general application, why should it only exist on the pinnacle All NBA Team? Why is DeAndre Jordan (who should be under Boogie and Andre Drummond in the first place), a center, on the first team over Kevin Durant?

Look, I get it. There’s a TON of talent in the NBA today. Enough talent, in fact, for all 15 players chosen to be deserving of an All NBA Team mention. However, some of this year’s snubs are absolutely absurd. James Harden, who is number one on the All NBA Snub Team, got more votes than LaMarcus Aldridge did! If the NBA wasn’t jam-packed with talented guards, Harden easily could have received a mention, which doesn’t sit well with me. It’s time to abolish the restrictions between position and to honor those who were deserving of a mention.

Anthony Davis’ slipping through the cracks was among the most unfortunate snubs. Coming off of an All NBA First Team season, Davis came into the 2015-2016 season as one of the favorites to win MVP. Much to the dismay of Davis fans, his season was cut short due to injury to his left knee. However, Davis only played seven fewer games than last season, boasted a career high in rebounding and even developed a three-point shot over the offseason. He ended the season shooting a respectable .324 percent from the three point line, which is most certainly a big step forward as a big man. Davis did not even make the Third Team, even though one writer even voted him onto the First Team this season. If he had made an All NBA Team, he would have received a $24 million bonus, which he most definitely deserved. Voters should have rewarded Davis with a spot, especially if they want to give DeAndre Jordan a First Team mention with such a low free throw percentage and PPG.

Regardless, there are snubs every season. The only problem that should be fixed involves standard lineup that All NBA Teams feature, which keeps some really good players from getting the recognition that they deserve. With all of the talent in the NBA today, the NBA should consider even adding a fourth team to the ranks. If the NBA wishes to honor its players for their regular season accolades, they MUST seek to improve their accuracy.