An Open Letter to LeBron James

Dear LeBron James,

Dear King – can I call you King? Let’s go with King.

Dear King,

Please beat the Warriors this year.

I’m going to have to make a confession. I didn’t want you to make the NBA Finals. I was pulling for the Celtics by the time we got to the ECF, given that my Wizards ended in disappointing fashion, yet again. You see, my dear king, I am not a huge fan of continuity. I like new storylines, underdog tales, and team basketball. What you did in these playoffs has been nothing short of incredible. To me, you have cemented yourself as the second best player of all time. For a long time, I have pledged my allegiance to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who dominated the game of basketball for a whopping three decades, coined the most unstoppable shot in the history of the game, and still holds the bragging rights of being all-time leading scorer. However, eight consecutive finals appearances in the modern NBA is unprecedented. Bill Russell still has you beat by two (for now), but it was a different game back in his time, with far less competition (albeit Wilt Chamberlain was a heck of a rival).

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Speaking of Bill Russell, let’s get back to the Celtics. King, don’t take it personally when I say that I was pulling for Brad Stevens’ squad to upset you and your lackadaisical supporting cast. Let’s be honest – you carried this team to the finals this season. Does your back hurt? I wouldn’t be surprised. I liked how gritty the Celtics were; every player who got minutes actively contributed to the success of the team (even man bun). Despite Marcus Smart’s cringeworthy shot selection and the absence of Boston’s two best players, this ragtag bunch truly made me believe that your run had come to an end. But, just like every year, you singlehandedly proved everyone wrong.

King, I’m tired of seeing the Warriors dominate. Their finals run should have come to an end as soon as you put a 73-win team in their place, but they just had to go out and sign the second best player in the world. What kind of a world do we live in where a Chris Paul move to the Lakers gets blocked, but Kevin Durant is able to join a perennial Finals contender? Golden State barely scraped by the Rockets, thanks to a historically abysmal shooting night from three point range, and a timely injury to the team’s floor general. I cannot help but wonder about how differently things may have played out if CP3 was on the floor; the man is notorious for being able to make plays in any kind of situation. When Houston went cold, Chris Paul could’ve made an important triple to instill some confidence in the team. Nobody feels more confident when James Harden gets all of his points by getting to the line. It seemed like PJ Tucker and Clint Capela were the only players who really wanted it, and while Harden wasn’t bad, I simply needed more from the soon-to-be-MVP. Then again, this is the Warriors we’re talking about here. What is a team with one All Star supposed to do against a team with four of them?

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King, what impresses me the most about you is your stamina. You played 94 of 96 possible minutes in the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Cavs needed you for all of them. I remember Reggie Miller criticizing KD in the first half of their WCF game seven for not doing enough on the floor, but nobody else remembers that. Everyone else is going to see his 34-point stat line and say that the Slim Reaper led Golden State to their fourth consecutive finals appearance. In reality, having four All Stars on one squad gives players the luxury of taking a rest when they need to, allowing for an evenly distributed workload. KD can afford to play an abysmal first half. Klay Thompson can afford to pick up three quick fouls in the first quarter. If this was you, King, forget about it. Do you think Kyle Korver is going to pick up anyone’s slack? I don’t think so.

King, I know your supporting cast isn’t as talented as it was a year ago. I know you got dismantled in five games last year, even with a stud like Kyrie Irving by your side. I know that your chances of even taking the Warriors to five or six games are slim. But I can still hope. I’m a sucker for a good underdog story, and if there was ever a time to prove that you’re the GOAT, it is now. Winning the championship this year would put you right at the top in my eyes – even after losing to Dirk Nowitzki in 2011. I can’t think of a better way for you to solidify your legacy. So, for your sake, for my sake, for the sake of the NBA, and for the sake of every little boy and girl who aspires to be like you, please, please, PLEASE beat the Warriors.

Sincerely,

Ben Zeltser, unathletic basketball fan extraordinaire

We Need to Slow Down with how we Talk About the Cavs

The Cleveland Cavaliers trail 0-2 in their best of seven ECF series with the Boston Celtics, and the internet is going crazy. Some have been labeling it as the end of LeBron’s reign on the NBA. Others have been labeling it as a signal of LeBron’s departure from an underperforming organization that is still up for sale by its owner. Regardless of the storyline that we choose to employ, one thing is for certain: we are rushing to conclusions. And why wouldn’t we? The NBA has strategically (in addition to giving players more rest) awarded the Cavs and Celtics with a four-day break from their series, further elevating the excitement and giving fans ample time to think long and hard about why the Cavs are down 0-2. All of this free time has made for rushed opinions and ridiculous theories that can only be confirmed on the court. Here are four key concepts that we have forgotten, or have chosen not to think about.

1. The Media Controls the Narrative Around the Cavs

The media has been nit-picking LeBron James from the get-go. Despite coming back from a lackluster game one performance with a 40-point triple double, analysts and former players are all getting on the King, saying that he needs to attack the low post more. There is no doubt that he should be utilizing his physicality to a higher degree, but at that point, we are simply grasping for straws. The fact of the matter is that LeBron’s supporting cast is garbage. Volume scorers like Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson are shrinking in the face of the playoffs, and nobody is talking about it. There is a simple solution to the Cavs’ woes against the hard-working Boston Celtics, and it revolves around team basketball.

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As YouTuber MDJ explains in his video, “The Chamberlain Paradox“, team success is often undercut by an individual taking up a disproportionate amount of ball possession, precluding the rest of the team from getting in a rhythm, therefore resulting in worse team play. This is the argument that many analysts have taken as a reason to shoulder the blame on LeBron. However, this argument can quickly be diffused based on the talent on the Cavs’ roster. Kevin Love, Kyle Korver and JR Smith are certainly no Hal Greer, Chet Walker or Billy Cunningham (all HOFers in their own right). LeBron has to do what he does on a nightly basis, just for the Cavs to even be in the game. Don’t let the media’s focus on LeBron James distract you from the real issue that the Cavs deal with on a nightly basis: who is going to step up to help the King?

2. The Celtics Only Held Home Court

Many analysts have counted the Cavs out of the series already, as the Celtics have never lost a playoff series in which they started with a 2-0 lead. This statistic can be deceiving, as the NBA has constantly played around with the order in which they place home and away games in a seven-game series in the playoffs. In recent times, they have settled on what I believe to be the most viable solution; two home games to one team (the higher seed), followed by two home games to the other team, and then reverting to a home-away-home schedule in favor of the higher seed. This is the best solution because it minimizes the chances of creating too much or too little of an advantage for the home team, while also allowing for players to travel as little as possible to minimize unwarranted fatigue.

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Teams are generally expected to hold on to home court advantage and win the games in their respective buildings, and as the higher seed, the Celtics merely achieved what they were supposed to achieve. It still remains to be seen whether they can steal a game in Cleveland, at which point it may be time to call it a series in favor of Boston. This very well may be the case, but we must not rush to conclusions in this regard, as LeBron has proven to us time and time again that it’s not over until it’s over.

3. Ty Lue Needs to Stop Trying to Appease All of his Players

Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue has amassed notoriety for his tendency to be a players’ coach. His coaching decisions are partially motivated by the way that it would make players feel. While this may very well be the right course of action in the regular season, Lue must be more cutthroat in the playoffs when it’s win or go home. I get a headache seeing players like JR Smith and Jeff Green getting heavy minutes in playoff situations where they simply don’t cut it.

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We all know that Larry Nance Jr. has no prior playoff experience, but he’s the second most athletic player on the roster, so rewarding him with 15 total minutes in the first two games is unacceptable. Likewise, when the Cavs need a scoring spark from the rest of their roster, they need to rely more upon players who have proven that they can score in bunches once they get going. Rodney Hood was averaging 17PPG on the Utah Jazz before he was traded to the Cavs, but how can Lue expect to get this kind of scoring punch in 11 minutes of action in game two? Lastly, Kyle Korver has proven to be the second best scorer for the Cavs thus far in the series, so Lue needs to turn his 21MPG average in the first two games into at least 30 minutes every night for the rest of the series.

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JR Smith, a shooting guard, has made two buckets and zero three-pointers in the past two games. He needs to be benched without question, as it is visibly clear that Lue has a special place in his heart for the veteran. Lue needs to begin making these kinds of tough decisions if he hopes to change the Cavs’ luck in the rest of the series.

4. Kevin Love is All-Star Caliber, & he has to Act Like it

Kevin Love has been okay in the first two games of the series. Okay doesn’t cut it when you’re the second best player on a team that you’re hoping to take to the championship. Kyrie Irving made the game so much easier for LeBron, because he was able to take over as the focal point at any time in the game, allowing the King to relax on offense and therefore put in more effort on defense. LeBron looks fatigued when he gets back on defense because of how much he has to do on the offensive end. Love needs to demand the ball and make things happen for himself, rather than operating as a cog in the system run by LeBron. Love’s success will translate to higher team success; players will see that somebody besides LeBron can get going, which will elevate everyone else’s confidence. Love needs to average at least 25PPG and 10RPG for the rest of the series if the Cavs hope to have a chance against an extremely hard-working Celtics team.

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End of Season All NBA Predictions

The 2017-2018 NBA regular season just ended in dramatic fashion last week. The Nuggets took the Timberwolves into overtime before eventually falling and surrendering the final playoff spot to Jimmy Butler and KAT. Throughout the season, some of the biggest names in basketball continued to prove why they remain atop the NBA’s elite, and some previously unknown players are positioned to be staples in the league for years to come. Here are my predictions on how All-NBA team voting will go down.

ALL NBA FIRST TEAM

G: Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder)
G: James Harden (Houston Rockets)
F: LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers)
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
C: Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans)

Explanation

NBA fans are suckers for triple doubles. Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder clinched home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs last week by the skin of their teeth, after a season filled with dramatic storylines. Westbrook tacked on 20 rebounds to finish the season averaging yet another triple double. With plenty of competition in the guard slots this year, voting is sure to leave certain players in less than desirable positions. Westbrook may find his way atop these guards because voters will find it difficult to demote last season’s MVP after repeating the same feat that brought him the award last year.

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James Harden and LeBron James are no-brainers when it comes to making the first team. These two will likely lead MVP voting, with Anthony Davis following closely behind. Harden has led his team to the best record in the NBA by a wide margin, and LeBron is averaging a career high in rebounds and assists after doing the same thing last year. The last time he averaged more than his current scoring margin is 2009-2010: the last season of his first stint on the Cavs.

The legacy of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s breakout season was marred by the lack of success that the Milwaukee Bucks showed this past season, putting him a tier below LeBron and Harden in terms of MVP contention. That won’t stop the Greek Freak from making the first team this year, showing massive athleticism and continued development. He will also be in the running for the Most Improved Player Award, posting a career high scoring average that tops last year’s production by four points, along with 10 rebounds a game. He also managed to stay healthy all year, a feat that not many elite forwards in the NBA were able to accomplish this year.

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Anthony Davis becomes a precarious situation because he is listed as a Power Forward. He played the majority of his minutes at the four when Boogie was still healthy, but we will make a special exception based off of his ridiculous output, and he played at the center position late into the season. The Brow logged major performances on several different occasions this season, including eight games of 41+ points within the span of a month and a half. These numbers, coupled with Giannis’ dominating performance all season make it difficult to leave either of them off of the first team. Davis plays the five when Cousins is out, and was considered a center last season. Hopefully, the NBA can make an exception.

ALL NBA SECOND TEAM

G: DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors)
G: Damian Lillard (Portland Trailblazers)
F: Kevin Durant (Golden State Warriors)
F: LaMarcus Aldridge (San Antonio Spurs)
C: Karl Anthony-Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves)

Explanation

Damian Lillard’s latest push for All NBA First Team recognition in a recent interview will likely fall short because of the lofty competition ahead of him. I cannot stress how tight I expect the guard voting to be in this year’s ballot, but Dame’s Trailblazers hardly ended up clinching the third seed in the West, leading Westbrook’s Thunder by one game. This margin should not be enough to separate Lillard from the man averaging a triple double for the second consecutive time, at least in the eyes of voters. Regardless, Lillard posted consistent numbers for the third consecutive year, including an astonishing clutch factor and FT% of .916. The man deserves his recognition.

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Give DeMar DeRozan the recognition that he deserves. The Compton kid completely rebuilt the way he and his team play basketball, and perfected it to a tee. The fact of the matter is that DeRozan is the best player on the team with the second best record in the NBA, and that alone merits some recognition. An argument can be made that the Raptors’ success is predicated on team play, but DeRozan is the spearhead of that play style and has solidified himself as an elite player in this league. He’s that type of player who gets a ton of recognition from his fellow NBA players around the league, and everyone respects his game because of it.

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KD is a perennial option for First Team All NBA, and he very well might repeat the feat this year. Ultimately, I believe that it will be too difficult for voters to leave the Greek Freak out of the first team because he played the entire season, and had an incredibly high output. Regardless, KD would be a fine selection for the first team, despite the fact that his teammates take away from his stats.

The NBA’s most well-run franchise was without their best player for the entire season, but no skin off LaMarcus’ bones. Aldridge finally had a season that reminded people of his days in Portland, and the lack of depth at the forward position in the NBA could result in a second team nod. With 23PPG, his consistent play has kept a staggeringly lacking Spurs roster in the playoff hunt in a cutthroat conference. Kudos to LaMarcus.

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My hometown high school is rivals with KAT’s alma mater, and that will always be my claim to fame. The former number one pick showed improvement in shot selection and consistent numbers all year, even with the addition of Jimmy Butler. Towns has also stayed durable, playing in all 82 games, despite the fact that Tom Thibodeau likes to load his starters with heavy minutes. KAT took his game – and team – to another level this season.

ALL NBA THIRD TEAM

G: Kyrie Irving (Boston Celtics)
G: Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors)
F: Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder)
F: Jimmy Butler (Minnesota Timberwolves)
C: Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)

Explanation

The real best player on the Minnesota Timberwolves this year has been Jimmy Butler. Unfortunately, Butler was only able to play 59 games, but put up elite numbers in that time. He barely saw his production go down despite being on the same team as two star-caliber players. He also did it on both ends of the floor, tremendously improving a defense that would give up at the end of games last season. Butler took the ailing Timberwolves to their first playoff berth since 2004 in his first season; what does he have in store next?

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Kyrie Irving is yet another victim of missing out on higher All NBA Team status because of missing games. Perhaps voters are relieved, though, because of the large volume of competition among guards this year. Irving’s first stint with the Celtics and as the (seasoned) leader of a franchise ended with a second-seed berth, which could definitely be considered a success. This especially holds true due to the Celtics’ lack of Gordon Hayward all season. Regardless, Irving only played 60 games, so he is lucky to make the list.

The All NBA Third Team should be renamed the All NBA Injury team. Steph Curry, the former two-time MVP is due to miss the first two All NBA teams for the first time since 2013. Granted, he has everything working against him on the road to All-NBA greatness. He has three all-star caliber teammates, and has missed 31 games this season. Only Steph can miss basically half the season and still rank among the top 15 players.

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The fourth and final player whose All NBA stardom has been deterred from missing games is Joel Embiid. The Process looks to take his 76ers to the NBA Finals this year, and does so with freakish talent and consistent production. Notice how Embiid has won almost every single matchup that he has had with star big men this season (see Whiteside, Drummond). Such dominance just shows what is still to come in Embiid’s basketball career, and we can only marvel at the talent that he flashes until he can do so in a full season without a minutes restriction.

Paul George will round out the All NBA Third team. Most critics will say that the Thunder underperformed, but PG13 has stayed consistent all season on both ends of the floor. George is second in the league in steals and notably plays the most minutes for the Thunder. OKC knows that they can count on George to produce consistently with minimal hiccups, and even though he doesn’t gel perfectly with the team, he should have done enough this year to secure this spot.

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Sorry Oladipo.

Top 20 NBA Point Guards

Point guards in the NBA are essentially the quarterbacks of their respective team. Not many teams in recent history have been able to succeed without a marquis ball handler leading the team. Thus, as the league continues emphasize three-point shooting and ball movement, securing a talented point guard to lead the team down the stretch of the NBA season has never been more important.

Here are my rankings on the top 20 point guards in the NBA today. Let the record show that I am excluding combo guards such as James Harden, Jamal Murray and Jordan Clarkson, as it is too difficult to pinpoint their natural position. Additionally, my rankings are based off of current talent, and the players I list may very well be better (or worse) than their ranking come next year. Here goes!

Honorable Mentions:

Reggie Jackson: Jackson desperately wanted a change of scenery three seasons ago when he became unhappy sitting the bench behind Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Unfortunately, his numbers have been trending towards a slow decline after a good start in Detroit. He’s the type of player to be good enough to earn a starting role on a team but to not be good enough to be able to be the point guard of a playoff contender.

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Malcolm Brogdon: The Bucks went out and got Eric Bledsoe, moving Brogdon to the bench. The all-around reliable reigning rookie of the year will have to wait until he’s dealt to a new team before he can show his true pedigree. High floor, low ceiling.

Kris Dunn: This speedy ball handler out of Providence College was quickly touted as a bust after not panning out in Minnesota. However, a new change of scenery certainly took Dunn’s career off of the backburner, and he’s thriving under a rebuilding team in the Bulls. Dunn must hope to stay healthy and continue developing if he wishes to continue his career turnaround.

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Lonzo Ball: Lonzo definitely has game, but the man certainly needs a few years to develop. Ball is a triple double threat on any given night and a top five passer in the league, but the rest of his game needs too much work for him to make the list. His shooting percentage, free throw percentage, three point percentage and defense all need a tremendous improvement if he hopes to fulfill all of the promises that his father has made.

De’Aaron Fox: One of my favorite players coming up in the game, it would take an idiot not to see the raw talent that Fox possesses. Fox’s rookie year boasts relatively pedestrian numbers, but with the exit of George Hill and with the Kings out of playoff contention, he should see quite a bit of usage in the second half of the season. Fox is having that classic rookie season in which everyone can tell that his mistakes can be attributed to his lack of experience in the league, and these mistakes will surely lessen has his career continues.

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Tier 5: Playoff Caliber Point Guards

20. D’Angelo Russell: Russell barely managed to make this list simply because of the lack of body of work that we have seen from him thus far into his career. He definitely experienced some growing pains in his first two years in the league with the Lakers, but got to start fresh with the Brooklyn Nets following a trade. He jumped to a start that would have put him higher on this list, but unfortunately went down due to injury for a large part of the first half of the year. Russell is still working his way back to the same minutes that he had during his surge, but we must see how he comes back. His defensive game could use work, along with his free throw shooting, and his maturity level from a leadership standpoint must improve if he hopes to lead the rebuilding Nets in the future.

19. Elfrid Payton: Payton has been stuck on a stagnant sub-par Magic team for his entire career, so it’s nice to see him find a new home in Phoenix. Known by most for his hair and unorthodox play style to match, Payton has been absolutely killing it in his first few games with Phoenix. An underrated defender and passer, he needs to become more of a scoring threat if he hopes to take his game to the next level. In his short time in Phoenix, he has shown an ability to take on more of a scoring workload, but we will have to see if this trend continues.

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18: Ricky Rubio: Rubio is the perfect floor general for a team with plenty of scoring options. Unfortunately, he is on the Utah Jazz. Regardless, Rubio has consistently been an incredibly reliable defender and playmaker for both the Jazz and his former Timberwolves team, but needs considerable improvement on the offensive side of the ball. His percentages have slowly been trending upwards as he continues to develop his shot, and as he approaches his late 20s, he still has a few years to make it better.

17: Dennis Smith Jr.: This man is an athletic freak of nature. In just his first year, Smith has become a regular when it comes to churning out highlight reel dunks. As his career wears on, the Russell Westbrook reincarnation must make sure to take care of his body, as his talent is hinged on his athleticism. Smith plays solid defense and all around basketball, but his sub-par shooting percentages have floated under the radar. This will surely improve as early as next season, but for now, Smith is stuck at number 17.

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Tier 4: All-Star Caliber Point Guards

16. Dennis Schröder: Schröder can just smell his first all-star appearance. The German point guard is often overlooked because of the team he plays on, but he can match up against any guard in the league. Schröder is physically gifted, with a wingspan that turns his 6’1” stature into an afterthought and large hands that drew comparisons to Rajon Rondo coming into the league. Despite his raw talent and improving numbers as his usage rate increases, Schröder has been abysmal from three-point range this season, averaging .287 from beyond the arc. Granted, given the lack of talent on his team, he has likely seen far less open looks this season, and his previous good three point shooting seasons allow me to give him the benefit of the doubt. If these struggles continue, he may wind up losing his spot on this list.

15. Jrue Holiday: New Orleans was one of the first teams in the NBA to adopt the “positionless basketball” mantra that is expanding in popularity. However, their roster personnel is the main motivator behind their affinity to this play style. Not only do they have two big men in Boogie and AD, but they also have two floor generals in Rondo and Holiday. The former all-star has shown his multifaceted skillset by seamlessly fitting into the shooting guard slot, but that hasn’t stopped Holiday from taking on the point guard role when Rondo misses games or sits out. The former all-star is helping keep the Pelicans afloat amid tragic injury to a certain Demarcus Cousins, and he is doing so with career highs in field goal shooting and points per game. His assists have taken a slight hit from sharing the point guard role, but his 5.6 assist per game average is more than enough to categorize him into the point guard position.

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14. Jeff Teague: Teague has taken plenty of different roles in his time in the NBA, and his newest role features him on the Minnesota Timberwolves as its unsung hero. Prior to Jimmy Butler’s injury, the Wolves had plenty of scoring coming from all over the court, with three All-Star caliber players sharing a spot in the starting five. Teague, a former All-Star, is the fourth option on this team, but that is just fine. His shooting numbers have improved from last year, and he still ranks top five amongst point guards in assists per game. Teague, who once led an Atlanta Hawks team to 60 wins in subtle fashion, has never gotten the credit that he deserves. Point guards often produce the flashiest numbers among players on the floor, but Teague relishes in his opportunities to make the team better in any way that he can. Just because his role is smaller than some of the people above him on this list does not mean that he is a less effective player

13. Goran Dragic: Dragic was selected to his first All-Star team this year as a replacement, despite a dip in his numbers. This can probably be attributed to commissioner Adam Silver’s desire to reward Dragic for so many good seasons in the NBA without recognition. The Slovenian international is a shooting threat from all over the floor, and he can easily create for his teammates at any time. Dragic currently has a trash Heat team in playoff contention, and they can continue to look forward with such a reliable player to handle the ball.

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Tier 3: Special Players

12. Eric Bledsoe: This man just wants to play basketball. From acting as Chris Paul’s backup in his first few years in the NBA to being stuck in a three-man logjam in Phoenix with the two guards sandwiched between him on this list, Bledsoe has constantly been in bad situations. This season, he finally finds himself on a contending team with other pieces, and despite the Bucks’ early struggles to gel together, Bledsoe has shown his natural ability. At just 6’1”, the man is a freak athlete, hard worker, and also extremely strong with the basketball. His work on the defensive end especially has improved as of late, and look for his offensive numbers to follow as he gets more acclimated with the young Milwaukee Bucks roster. It’s exciting to see what Bledsoe does with his first opportunity to shine.

11. Isaiah Thomas: Everyone knows what Isaiah can do on the offensive side of the ball. However, last year’s MVP candidate finds himself so low on this list because he is quite literally useless on defense. Even if Isaiah wanted to play defense, he is matching up against guys who are simply too big for him to guard. If a 6’0” point guard is considered undersized, then what is Isaiah Thomas? Regardless, his ability on the offensive side of the ball alone is enough to put him in the thick of things on this list. Thomas has been fighting a hip injury for the past year and is still looking to get back into form with his new Lakers team, but once the tiny titan actually gets his powers back, everyone will be reminded of just how good IT can be. Let’s not forget that the man averaged 29 and 6 on stellar shooting last year for the first seed in the Eastern Conference.

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10. Ben Simmons: Along with Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons currently leads the ROTY race due to his unselfish play, unparalleled build for a point guard, and his basketball fundamentals. Simmons could be categorized as any position from 1-4, but as long as Markelle Fultz looks like a bust, Simmons is considered a point guard. Listed on ESPN at 6’10”, the 2016 first overall pick is a mismatch problem for any position on the floor, especially the point guard position. He averages incredible numbers all around as a triple double threat on a nightly basis. If he could expand his game beyond the three-point line and improve his free throw shooting, Ben Simmons could find himself among the NBA’s elite much sooner than even he himself had expected.

9. Kemba Walker: Cardiac Kemba sits just one spot out of the second tier, and that may be just because of the market that he plays in. On a team where the second offensive option is Dwight Howard, Kemba is averaging 23 and 6, steadily keeping up with his production from last year. The John Wall lookalike continues to improve his shooting as he adjusts to today’s NBA, and has rightfully received two consecutive all-star nods as a result. If he hopes to gain more recognition, Walker must either move to a contending team that receives more attention or help bring the Hornets into the playoff race. He’s stuck with them for the remainder of the season, so we’ll see if he takes this mediocre roster into playoff contention.

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 Tier 2: All-NBA Players

8. Kyle Lowry: Good NBA players make the most of their prime years and do as much as they can in the time that they are still at the peak of their game. Great NBA players adjust their game past their prime to prolong their greatness. This is exactly what Kyle Lowry has done. There is no question that, at the age of 31, Lowry is on his way out of the top ten point guards in the NBA. He is averaging 6 less points per game this year than his total in 2016/17. However, Lowry is still an All-Star talent, averaging career highs in rebounding, nearing his career high in free throw percentage, and leading his Raptors to the first seed of the Eastern Conference. He has effectively let DeRozan share more of the offensive load and has transitioned into becoming a reliable, experienced veteran point guard who can basically do anything on the floor. As long as Kyle Lowry helps the Raptors continue to contend, he will remain atop this list.

7. Mike Conley Sr.: Mike Conley is no longer overrated. Sure, he still hasn’t made an All-Star team, but that will likely come in the next few years. But the lack of exposure that he gets in a market like Memphis was offset when he was paid a hefty sum to continue being his reliable self. We are currently seeing exactly how much Conley means to Memphis in his time fighting injury. After starting out 5-1 with Conley, the Grizzlies have gone 11-34 since losing him for the season. His unavailability resulted in the controversial firing of head coach David Fizdale, and has also prompted thoughts within the organization of forcing a rebuild and starting over. I love the fact that the man has never received a technical foul, as it shows his character as a basketball player. Conley turns 31 next season, but his skillset is predicated on his basketball IQ rather than his athleticism, so we should see a few more good years from Conley after he gets healed up.

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6. Damian Lillard: There may be no player in the NBA with more ice in his veins than Damian Lillard. The man who doubles as a rapper is known for hitting clutch shots when the team needs him most, and has averaged at least 25 points per game in each of his last three seasons. He’s another small market player who misses out on deserved recognition for reasons outside of his control. Lillard has career highs this year in FG%, FT% and BPG, while maintaining all other parts of his game. His team currently sits in 5th place, right in the thick of things in the Western Conference. Some may have Lillard a bit higher on this list, and he very well may be deserving of that. Besides for McCollum and Nurkic, his supporting cast is rather mundane and could use some help to take the next step in his career. He could also improve on the defensive side of the ball, as the people ahead of him on this list are better all-around players.

5. Chris Paul: I honestly believed that this would be the year that Chris Paul’s numbers take a dip. Suffice it to say that I was wrong. CP3 is showing his worth on the Houston Rockets, a team that currently sits atop the Western Conference, even above the Golden State Warriors. With Paul, the team is easily a championship contender. The fact that Paul is able to simply walk into that building and immediately gel with his new teammates speaks to his basketball IQ and his ability as a basketball player, especially after seeing the early struggles of teams like the Thunder. The Rockets have only lost six total games on the season when Chris Paul has played. If that doesn’t do him justice, his career high FT% and continuous production from other parts of his game absolutely should. Paul also does it on the defensive end as he has done for his entire career, which could not be said for many of the players on this list and many of the players in the NBA in general.

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Tier 1: Perennial MVP Contenders

4. John Wall: Yes, the Wizards have a better record this season when John Wall is out. Yes, Wall is reeling from a season that had people predicting him as an MVP contender this season. No, he has not lost it. John Wall has the it-factor. Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook have it too. He wants the ball when the clock is expiring and he isn’t afraid of anyone. John Wall may be having an off year, but he was still named to the all-star team and he still does it on both ends of the floor. If these rankings were solely based off of defense, Wall would be in the top two between he and Chris Paul. On the offensive end, he is averaging a career high in the category that he needed to work on the most: three-point shooting. This kind of development makes me optimistic that Wall will come back with a vengeance from his injury. Just last season, the Kentucky product averaged 23 and 11, and we should see similar production later on as the Wizards make their playoff push. Wall should see considerable improvement before the playoffs, as his mentality can be compared to that of LeBron’s, who obviously kicks into a completely different gear once basketball starts becoming more important.

3. Kyrie Irving: I am obsessed with Kyrie Irving. I love the fact that he wanted to do it away from LeBron. It shows me that Kyrie has an alpha mentality and that he wants to be great. He knew what his legacy would have turned into had he spent all of his prime years being the Robin to LeBron’s Batman. Kyrie is considered an MVP candidate this season, as he has led a young, Hayward-less Boston Celtics team to the current most wins in the Eastern Conference. Due to coach Brad Stevens’ tendency to play unselfish, team basketball, Irving’s stats this season do not do him justice. He is the best ball handler and dribbler in the NBA, and is a top-five finisher around the basket. His shooting range extends throughout the floor once he crosses half-court, and his defense has been improving too. He is enjoying a career high FG%, and as long as he stays hungry, he will continue producing highlight reel plays and ridiculous stat lines. Look for him to take it up a notch in the playoffs, as well.

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2. Stephen Curry: This man is easily the greatest shooter that the NBA has ever seen. Kevin Durant is the second best player in the NBA and Curry is still averaging more points than him this season. This purely speaks to his shooting prowess and reminds people around the league of why he was our league’s repeat MVP just two seasons ago. Curry’s averages are right on par with where they have always been, and the fact that he still does it on a team with four all-stars is simply ridiculous. Curry will remain a part of the NBA’s elite until he retires.

1. Russell Westbrook: I want to clarify this: I hate Russell Westbrook. He is probably one of my least favorite stars in the NBA. He’s a great person and role model in professional sports, but I just cannot grow to like him as a player. However, that does not stop me from accepting the fact that he is the best point guard in professional basketball. As of right now, he is .5 RPG away from repeating the feat of averaging a triple double for the duration of an entire season. On a team with two other stars who handily score the basketball, Westbrook also leads the team in scoring by a sizable margin of three points per game. The man does it all on the basketball court. He drastically needs to improve his three-point shooting, but you can count on him to hit the three when it’s clutch time. Westbrook was our league’s MVP last season, and if the Thunder make a late playoff push that sees them capitalizing on their potential, Westbrook can probably emerge as a surprise candidate. Even though they went down in five games last season, I’m still amazed at the fact that he averaged 37 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in that short-lived series. The only other player that I can think of who can shoulder a team as much as Westbrook can just happens to be the greatest player in the world.

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Cuban Immigration Policy Continues to Affect MLB Player Eligibility

As the hot stove continues during the MLB offseason, it is important to consider an increasingly popular means of signing players: international free agency. This isn’t about the “Japanese Babe Ruth,” Shohei Otani, who will begin his MLB career with Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels. I’m instead talking about the dangerous side of international free agency.

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Shohei Otani (pictured) continues a successful tradition of baseball players coming to the US to play in the MLB.

The issue stems from a loophole in Major League Baseball and the United States Treasury Department rules surrounding the signing of Cuban baseball players. Since the beginning of the Cold War, direct trade talks between the United States and Cuba have been practically non-existent. On November 8, President Donald Trump announced that he would roll back achievements from the Obama administration in regards trade with Cuba. Despite icy relations between the two countries, Cuban defectors are able to come to the States and immediately set themselves on the pathway to becoming a legal resident. As legal residents, these players can declare for the MLB draft, where they can be chosen by any team setting themselves up to be paid around the league minimum salary, about $500,000. However, if defectors are smuggled into a second country before signing with an MLB club, they can be signed as an international agent and forgo low rookie contracts.

According to Baseball Reference, 76 Cuban defectors have played in the MLB since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959. MLB teams have identified Cuba as a hotbed for young talent. According to American sports agent Joe Kehoskie, “Cuba is a very close second in terms of overall talent…If you are comparing Cuba and the major leagues, if the major leagues are the American League East, Cuba is the American League West.”

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Jose Abreu (pictured) is one of many MLB players who had to defect from their country in order to play in the MLB.

Much of this talent is untapped as a result of the travel restrictions to Cuba. Despite difficulties in scouting players in Cuba, many defectors have been able to make it to the forefront of the MLB – this includes Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman and 2014 Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. There has been no shortage of success for Cuban defectors in Major League Baseball, but getting them into the country and into the league has proven to be a far more difficult task.

Yasiel Puig took the MLB by storm in 2013. That year, the 22-year-old Cuban defector hit for a batting average of .391 and an OPS of .925 with 19 home runs and 42 RBI in 104 games with the Dodgers. Throughout his career, he has been known for his eccentric behavior and questionable off-field antics. In 2013, he was arrested on a reckless driving charge for going 110 mph in a 70 mph zone. On a separate occasion, when asked why he licks his bat during the 2017 World Series, Puig replied, “I make love to the bat and he pays me back with hits.”

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Yasiel Puig (pictured) has had one of the more well-documented journeys to the MLB of any Cuban defector.

Puig’s journey to American baseball was similar to many other Cuban defectors. He was approached by a Miami air conditioner repairman, Raul Pacheco, who told Puig that he would be able to smuggle him into Mexico where he could take up residence before being signed as an international free agent. In return, Pacheco would get 20% of Puig’s MLB earnings. Puig was smuggled into Mexico by a drug cartel and held captive during negotiations between Pacheco and the cartel. Once negotiations were settled and Puig was able to escape, he was scouted by MLB clubs and signed to a seven year, $42 million deal with the LA Dodgers. Puig’s saga, however, was not over. On December 16, 2014, a Miami man named Gilberto Suarez was convicted of smuggling the Dodgers’ star outfielder to Mexico and was forced to forfeit the $2.5 million that Puig owed him after signing his contract. According to the Miami Herald, Raul Pacheco organized Puig and others’ escape from Cuba to Mexico, while Suarez smuggled the group into the United States. Suarez spent a month in federal prison for his crimes.

Gilberto Suarez was not the only smuggler to be arrested for trafficking Cuban baseball players. Sports agent Bartolo Hernandez was sentenced to nearly four years in prison and a forfeiture of $15.5 million on smuggling charges. Many Cuban MLB players, including Jose Abreu, testified to being smuggled into Mexico or Haiti using forged documents. In order for Cuban players to be signed as free agents, the Treasury Department needed to amend its stance on normalizing relations with Cuba. On March 21, 2016, United States President Barack Obama made significant strides towards implementing these policies by becoming the first president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. The trip was a highlight of Obama’s efforts to lift the Cuban embargo imposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. Featured on the trip was an exhibition baseball game played between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. The game was symbolic of progress made by the Obama administration. Just before his trip on March 15, 2016, the President announced that his administration would allow Cuban citizens to work in the United States. As a result, Cuban players would be able to be signed as international free agents right out of Cuba.

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Sports agent Bartolo Hernandez (pictured) faces four years in prison along with a forfeiture of significant funds due to his player-smuggling activity.

The change in policy never got a chance to influence Major League Baseball. On November 8, 2017, President Donald Trump’s administration announced its decision to overturn the decision made by the Obama administration to loosen restrictions on visitation and trade with Cuba. As a result, Cuban players are, once again, unable to be signed as free agents without having to take up residence in a third country. In light of this issue, there are a number of different policies that both Major League Baseball and the United States Federal Government should enact to lessen the threat to Cuban defectors playing in the MLB. Unfortunately, the MLB owners and the Players Union have already agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement through 2021. Hopefully, at that time, changes would be able to be made in regards to the integration of Cuban defectors into the MLB. One potential solution to the issue is to end the financial incentives that persuade defectors to take residence in a third country. The MLB would be able to force all international players to enter into the draft, meaning that whether a defector is signed from Mexico or from the United States, he would make the same salary. However, the MLB Players Association is one of the strongest unions in sports, and this legislation may seem like an effort to decrease player salaries, and likely would not be agreed upon. Another potential option would be to allow Cuban players to sign as international free agents from Cuba. According to the New York Times, the MLB is currently on board with this plan, but needs permission from the Treasury Department in order to engage in trade with Cuban players. Such consent from the Treasury Department seems increasingly unlikely given the Trump administration’s current policies towards trade with Cuba. There is still potential for a resolution to come from outside of the MLB, if the current administration changes its attitudes towards Cuban relations.

Unless MLB fans want to see the next Yasiel Puig or Jose Abreu subjected to drug cartels and kidnapping, they must call their representative in Congress and make several other initiatives to vocalize their support of normalized relations with Cuba.

Winners and Losers of World Cup Qualifying

World Cup Qualifying has come to an end and 32 teams have proven their worth to participate in Russia 2018. Like always, there are teams who qualified at the top of their group and showed amazing growth and potential leading to the World Cup Finals. To contrast, there are also teams who failed to qualify that shocked the world. We will be taking a look at the winners and losers of this year’s qualifying leading up to the World Cup this summer.

Winner: Brazil

After a disappointing 2014 World Cup performance and 2016 Copa America campaign, Brazilians looked to the board of directors and demanded change. Eight-time Copa America champions aren’t supposed to get eliminated in the group stages, but that’s exactly what happened. Brazilians sitting in Gillette Stadium on a windy June night were stunned as the Canaries were eliminated at the hands of Peru by a score of 1-0. In the following days, to every Brazilian’s relief, Dunga was fired, and a new manager was appointed. Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, better known as Tite was selected. Coaching Brazil is difficult because the fans demand perfection, but Tite was up to the task. The 56-year old has a history of success as in managing Corinthians to Copa Libertadores glory in 2012 and beating Chelsea in the Club World Cup final in December that same year. In 2015, Tite guided Corinthians to a Brasileiro championship by racking up a tournament-best 81 points out of a possible 114. Tite is a manager of the people and of the media, which is rare for a coach of Brazil. They say that when the coach has the same starting eleven as the people on the street, that Brazil will win again, Tite has been doing exactly that in World Cup Qualifying. He has been experimenting with young talents such as Gabriel Jesus, Luan, Alex Sandro, Ederson and Marquinhos, while also taking chances on veterans like Renato Augusto and Paulinho, which has seemed to pay off. The media loves him, the fans love him, the players love him and it shows on the field.

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Brazil finished on top of CONMEBOL qualifying with 41 points (10 points clear of second place Uruguay), scoring the most goals (41), and giving up the least amount of goals (11). The Brazilian samba way of playing is back, and the team is playing more fluidly than they ever did under Dunga. Brazil has also earned the number two ranking in the world according to FIFA. If Brazil can translate the performances from this past year to the World Cup, the spectators are truly in for some magic.

Loser: Chile

For the past three years, Chile has been on top of the soccer world. They won two straight Copa America finals (2015, 2016), beating Argentina on penalties both times, and advanced to the Confederation Cup Final this past summer (losing to Germany 1-0). They were in good shape to be in Russia next year, until the second half of qualifying. Chile finished their last five games with one win, one draw, three losses and overall poor performances. To be in the last three major tournament finals and not qualify for the World Cup is a disgrace.

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You can blame it on a lack of leadership, bad coaching, or whatever you want, but nonetheless, Chile will miss out on its first World Cup since 2006. This outcome caused confusion and heartbreak to several Chileans including Arturo Vidal, who retired, then unretired from international play stating, “This is not the end. Realistically, though, it is – Chile’s golden age is over. For Chile’s big three: Alexis (28), Vidal (30), and Vargas (27), this is the end. This was supposed to be the end of a great run. The Word Cup in Russia was going to be their finish line and whether they ran across the line in first place or not, fans would still applaud. Their efforts over the past four years will stick with fans forever, but they will unfortunately not have the sendoff they would have liked.

Winner: Germany

As of now, Germany is the best team in the world. Going 10-0-0 in Group C while scoring 43 goals and only conceding four has been impressive to say the least. Although their qualifying group wasn’t extremely challenging, the Germans put on a clinic in almost every match. This past summer, Germany defeated Chile 1-0 to lift its first Confederation Cup. Numerous awards were handed out to the Germans. Julian Draxler won the golden ball, Leon Goretzka won the bronze ball, Timo Werner won the golden boot, and Lars Stindl won the silver boot. Most of these players that Joachim Low brought to the Confederation Cup were very young, and this team was considered to be Germany’s B-squad. This only means that Germany’s future is bright – possibly brighter than the present.

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Germany was very convincing in World Cup Qualifying, thus being named the number one team in the world by FIFA a couple of weeks ago. Toni Kroos, who came off of two excellent seasons with Real Madrid in winning the Champions League and La Liga this past year, will be Germany’s number one man in the midfield. His vision and tempo have proved to help Los Blancos be successful. Hopefully, he can replicate his stellar club play to the international stage when he hooks up with Thomas Müller and Mesut Özil in their upcoming friendlies.

Loser: Netherlands

The Netherlands were rejuvenated after their World Cup run in 2010. With the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, they were a fun team to watch. After finishing fourth in group play and missing out on Euro 2016 action, soccer fans were starting to doubt the Dutch, as their core golden age players were getting old. The Dutch had a strong start to World Cup Qualifying, but dropped crucial points including an embarrassing 4-0 loss to France and a 2-0 loss to Bulgaria and would ultimately lead to their exclusion from Russia 2018. This is the end of an era for the Oranje and definitely a disappointment for the veteran players.

Winner: Peru

After knocking off Brazil in the group stages of 2016 Copa America competition, Peru’s future was looking bright. The Peruvian team finished in fifth place in CONMEBOL Qualifying with 26 points, barely edging out Chile on goal differential. Led by Sao Paulo FC midfielder Christian Cueva, Peru’s attack and chemistry has been convincing. Striker Paolo Guerrero has been another standout for Peru. The 33-year old plays for Flamengo in Brazil and is a highly rated striker amongst viewers of the Brasileiro Serie A. Failing a doping test in early November ruled him out for 30 days, thus missing the qualifying leg against New Zealand. Although the drug he used was undisclosed, a close source of ESPN Brazil said that it was a social drug. With all of this chaos going on and Peru missing their number one striker, they somehow pulled through and will be in Russia 2018. Their fans are one of a kind and I’m sure that they can pull off some surprises next summer.

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Loser: USA

Not much needs to be said about this one. The USA puts millions of dollars into their program and still didn’t qualify for the World Cup. As if the entire planet doesn’t have enough to poke fun at when it comes to the United States, they had to add getting knocked out of Russia 2018 by Trinidad to it. US Soccer took back their old coach in begging fashion, and he did a mediocre job and made a fool of himself on international television by stating, “I would love to see one of these hotshot teams from Europe come here and play in our CONCACAF qualifying and really get a taste of this and see what that’s about.”

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The only thing he did was put more pressure on his team and made the United States the laughing stock of the soccer world after they failed to qualify. After defeating Panama and putting on an excellent performance in Orlando, everyone expected them to bring the same energy to Trinidad, but that wasn’t the case at all. Everyone watching expected them to qualify in “USA fashion” in the last game at the last possible moment, but that didn’t happen either. The team simply didn’t show up and got exactly what they deserved, so now they will be watching the World Cup with the rest of us this summer – at home. The team was lead by Christian Pulisic, who is a kid. He’s 19 years old and hands down the best player on the squad. Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, who are supposed to lead by example, were ghosts for most of qualifying and especially in the last game. Some serious soul searching needs to be done within the program if the United States wants to be taken seriously by the rest of the world and by those “European hotshots”.

Loser: Italy

Italy is a four-time World Cup champion and has been a European powerhouse for generations. In the past few years, Italy has been known for their great defense, especially under Antonio Conte. The shape of the midfield and defense is what got them to the quarterfinal of the European Championships last summer. Key results against big teams like Belgium and Spain gave life to the Italians, but they would eventually be eliminated by Germany in penalty kicks. Italy finished second to Spain in a very weak qualifying group. They were matched up against Sweden in a two-leg playoff. Losing the first game in Sweden 1-0 (even though they dominated ball possession along with the game), Italy desperately needed a result in the second leg. Unfortunately for the Italians, they couldn’t get a goal and would ultimately miss out on their first World Cup since 1958.

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Head coach Gian Piero Ventura received much criticism on his tactics as well as for his lack of charisma. He was often compared to the previous manager, Antonio Conte, and it was never going to end well. Italy desperately needed a playmaker and Napoli midfielder Jorginho was waiting patiently. He failed to get a call up from Brazil so he and his agent waited on Italy. Ventura would eventually call up Jorginho for the qualifying playoff against New Zealand and after seeing his performance it was obvious that Ventura could have used him earlier. Anyone who watched the game saw how he controlled the midfield and looked so comfortable along with his Italian counterparts. Italy was missing a playmaker, but it was too late. Players like Buffon, De Rossi, and Chiellini have most likely played their last game for the Azzurri.

 

Defending Champs Watch: Pats Win Comfortably vs Struggling Broncos

Positives

Special Teams

It’s hard to take much away from great special teams play because it only really shows against bad teams. Isaiah McKenzie’s muffed punt against the Pats to begin the game was his fifth punt return fumble of the season. I don’t put too much into Bill Belichick’s left-footed punter philosophy (Belichick favors lefty punters because the ball spins a different way, confusing some returners), but the Broncos’ special teams coach should have benched McKenzie against a lefty punter when he clearly can’t even catch righties. A win on special teams speaks to the overall ineptitude of the opponent, and the consistency and preparation of Coach Belichick.

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Sunday night was a win on special teams. By the time the Patriots had jumped out to a 20-6 lead with 8:47 remaining in the second quarter, New England had scored 17 of their points off of special teams. Their first touchdown was a 14-yard pass to running back Rex Burkhead, which capitalized on starting at the Denver 24-yard-line as the result of McKenzie’s muffed punt. After a Denver field goal, Dion Lewis returned the kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown. In the second quarter, Burkhead’s blocked punt at the Denver 30-yard-line set up Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yard-field goal to take a 20-6 lead. Early special teams highlights helped the Patriots jump out to an early lead, and they didn’t look back.

Dwayne Allen

Congratulations to tight end Dwayne Allen for making his first catch of the 2016 season. Allen, who was acquired from the Colts for a fourth round draft pick, registered his first reception with a 11-yard touchdown catch.

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Tight Ends and Running Backs

The Patriots have seemed to find a new way to preserve Brady as he continues to age. Tight ends and running backs have been integral to the offensive scheme since Rob Gronkowski was drafted in 2010. This year, Brady has preferred targeting running backs and tight ends over targeting wide receivers. This may be the result of injuries to Malcolm Mitchell and, most notably, Julian Edelman. During Sunday’s game, 16 out of 28 of Brady’s completions were to tight ends, running backs, and fullbacks (57.14%). Competitively, out of Brock Osweiler’s 18 completions, just four were to running backs, tight ends, and fullbacks (22.22%).

Negatives

Malcolm Butler

Sunday night was likely Malcolm Butler’s worst outing this season. So far, Butler has had a subpar season in the last year of his contract, but showed improvement in the three games that Stephon Gilmore missed due to injury. Butler was mostly matched up in one-on-one coverage with Emmanuel Sanders, who is not very easy to cover. Sanders made six catches for 137 yards, including a 38-yard completion on Denver’s first play of the game. Butler was in position to make a play on most of Sanders’ receptions, but he was burnt several times. He must play more consistently in man coverage for the remainder of the season, and if he does improve, maybe the Patriots could resign him (unlikely, though).

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Run Defense

The New England run defense on Sunday night demonstrated the importance of Dont’a Hightower in the middle of the group. Denver rushed for 118 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per attempt. Hightower’s season-ending injury will force the Patriots to piece it together against the run, something that they have been having a difficulties with when he isn’t in the lineup. The Patriots currently rank 26th in the NFL in running yards allowed per game with 121.1 yards, ranking last in yards per attempt with 5.0 yards per attempt. Despite missing Hightower on Sunday, the Patriots held Denver to 16 points. However, like Julian Edelman, Hightower’s absence seemingly impacts the game at the worst possible time. For instance, in Week 15 the Patriots play the Steelers in a game that will likely decide home field advantage in the playoffs. With an aged Ben Roethlisberger and a prolific Le’Veon Bell, the Patriots will probably be forced to stop the run if they want the AFC Championship Game to be at Gillette.

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Challenge Flag

Bill Belichick’s mismanagement of the throwing the challenge flag during a catch by Rob Gronkowski was the worst in-game mistake that he has made in a while. It definitely was not as bad as his mismanagement of Jimmy Garoppolo (who he traded for the 49ers’ second round pick, when Cleveland was likely offering at least a first round pick over the offseason), but Coach Belichick is different than GM Belichick. On the Patriots’ field goal drive following Burkhead’s blocked punt, Rob Gronkowski appeared to make a diving touchdown catch that the officials ruled incomplete. Belichick called a timeout before throwing the challenge flag and have the call stand on replay. On a conference call with reporters Monday, Belichick admitted his mistake saying, “I could have just challenged it in the first place. I didn’t do that, I probably should have,” seeming as though he hadn’t thought about it until that very moment. I can’t remember Belichick admitting fault for a miscue on the football field. His acknowledgement of the blunder speaks to the magnitude of his mistake. That being said, first half timeouts are not as meaningful as second half timeouts, and the game was almost over at that point.

Next Game in Mexico City vs. Oakland

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The Raiders are too inconsistent to get a read on. After beating the Chiefs 31-30, they have lost 34-14 to the Bills and beaten the Dolphins 27-24. The secondary should have its hands full between covering Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, especially if Derek Carr is on his game. This is a streaky team and this game will really depend on what the Raiders are able to do on offense. Tom Brady could be in for a long day going up against Khalil Mack, unless the offensive line plays as well as they did this week.

Prediction: Patriots 34, Raiders 17