Will quarterback Alex Hornibrook and the Wisconsin Badgers earn some respect with a win over the Michigan Wolverines?
There’s only one more race left in the 2017 NASCAR season as a champion will be crowned this Sunday in Homestead, Florida. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Brad Keselowski are the four drivers who still have an opportunity to win the Monster Energy Series Championship, but there will be another story to pay attention to when the drivers rev up their engines this Sunday afternoon.
For nearly 20 years Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been a NASCAR driver and this Sunday will mark his final race on the circuit. Earnhardt will leave the NASCAR circuit without a championship, but he will forever be remembered as this generation’s “people’s champion”.
Earnhardt comes from a famous racing family which was headlined by his father Dale Sr. who was a seven-time Winston Cup Champion. The elder Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 as he was attempting secure a one-two finish for two drivers who were racing for Dale Earnhardt Inc. in Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr.
Fans immediately embraced the younger Earnhardt and he would do something that was powerful enough to make grown men cry when he won the Pepsi 400 in 2001 which was the first NASCAR race at the Daytona International Speedway following his father’s death. There was not a dry eye in the stands as well as on pit row. And when Earnhardt climbed out of Chevrolet Monte Carlo on the infield at Daytona, he was greeted by his crew, as well as that of Waltrip, and Kevin Harvick who was the driver that replaced his father in the Chevy Goodwrench.
In all Eardhardt has won 26 career races which included winning the coveted Daytona 500 twice as Daytona along with Talladega Superspeedway have always been kind to the Earnhardts. Earnhardt has had to duel with the likes of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson who have each claimed multiple NASCAR Championships during this era of NASCAR, but he has continued to be the circuit’s most popular driver which is voted on by fans. Earnhardt’s popularity has led to him securing cameo roles in Jay-Z’s music video for “Show Me What Ya Got” and in Will Ferrell’s film “Talladega Nights”.
Earnhardt is 43-years of age, but you can make the case that his decision to walk away was influenced from his time spent as a spectator last year when he suffered a concussion that forced him to miss the final 18 races of the season. And after Dale Jr. had to see his father killed on the race track, it would make sense for him to walk away after dealing with such a serious head injury.
So as Dale Jr. is set to climb into his no. 88 Nationwide card one last time, he will share the day with Matt Kenseth who has also decided to call it a career as it is now time for him to begin the next chapter of his life. Eardhardt recently got married and he and his wife Amy are expecting their first child next year. But as Earnhardt is set to bid farewell to the sport that brought him immense fame, he does it on his terms and obviously without any regrets. NASCAR is set to crown a champion for 2017 which won’t be Earnhardt. However there is always the possibility that Junior could surprise everyone and win his first race of the year which would be a fitting way for him to ride off into the sunset. And just like it was for Dale Sr., Junior is the people’s champion of this era.
It’s almost that time for the free agency sweepstakes around Major League Baseball. Next month’s Winter Meetings will be telling of how the off-season will go as deals will be made, but he is a look at some free agents and their potential landing spots during the off-season.
1. Eric Hosmer-First Baseman
In seven years with the Kansas City Royals, first baseman Eric Hosmer always had a nose for making the big play. In 2014, Hosmer came up big for the Royals in helping the franchise reach the postseason for the first time since 1985 as he would provide clutch hits coming down the stretch of the regular season as well as in the playoffs. And after the Royals fell one victory short of winning the World Series in 2014, Hosmer would emerge as a leader in 2015 to help Kansas City win it all.
In 2011, Hosmer finished third in the American League’s Rookie of the Year Award voting as he batted .293 with 19 home runs and 78 runs batted in. Hosmer is coming off of his best season at the plate as he hit .318 with 25 homers and 94 runs batted in. But Hosmer’s biggest contributions come courtesy of his solid glove at first base.
Hosmer is a four-time American League Gold Glove Award winner who acts as a vacuum at first base due to his ability to suck everything up. Hosmer just turned 28-years of age last month, and as he is in the prime of his Major League Baseball career, his glove, along with his leadership will be hot commodities on the free agent market over the winter.
Prediction: Boston Red Sox
2. Jake Arrieta-Starting Pitcher
After starting pitcher Jake Arrieta spent the first six years of his Major League Baseball career as an afterthought, he made a name for himself in 2015. Arrieta enjoyed a breakout campaign by going 22-6 with a 1.77 earned run average to help the Cubs reach the National League Championship Series, and in the process he would take home the NL Cy Young Award. Arrieta would follow this up by going 18-8 with a 3.10 earned run average in 2016 to help the Cubs win the World Series.
But Arrieta would not be as effective this past season as he was 14-10 with an earned run average of 3.53. Arrieta has only thrown at least 200 innings in a season once as his durability comes into question. However with a thin market for starting pitchers over the winter, Arrieta should be able to cash in.
Prediction: Los Angeles Dodgers
3. Yu Darvish-Starting Pitcher
In 2012, starting pitcher Yu Darvish bursted onto the Major League Baseball scene with a ton of hype. Darvish came to MLB as a prized free agent from Japan, and he would get his opportunity in the United States with the Texas Rangers who won a bidding war for his services. Darvish’s finest season with the Rangers came in 2013 when he went 13-9 with an earned run average of 2.83, while he struck out 277 batters. Darvish would finish second in the American League Cy Young Award balloting as the Rangers fell one victory short of qualifying for the playoffs.
Since then Darvish has been hampered by injuries which included him being forced to miss the entire 2015 Major League Baseball season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Darvish is an up and down pitcher, and he missed the opportunity to really solidify his chances of really striking it big in free agency.
This past July, Darvish was traded by the Rangers to the Los Angeles Dodgers as he was expected to help them with their postseason push. Darvish would make nine starts for the Dodgers during the regular season and he went 4-3 with an earned run average of 3.44. Darvish would help the Dodgers win the National League West, while they would reach the World Series for the first time since 1988. But in the World Series, Darvish would get rocked by the Houston Astros.
In two starts in the Fall Classic, Darvish would post an earned run average of 21.60 as he only managed to last 3.1 innings which included him not being able to get through 2 innings in Game 7.
Darvish is 31-years of age, and although that he has injury issues on his resume as well as a bad performance in the World Series, the lack of quality starting pitchers heading free agency will help his chance to earn a contract this winter.
Prediction: Texas Rangers
4. J.D. Martinez-Outfielder
After being an afterthought with the Houston Astros for three years, outfielder J.D. Martinez came into his own with the Detroit Tigers in 2014. That season Martinez would bat .315 to go along with 23 home runs and 76 runs batted in to help the Tigers win the American League Central. For Martinez’s career with the Tigers, he would hit .300 with 99 homers and 285 runs batted in.
The Tigers finished this past season tied with the San Francisco Giants for the worst record in Major League Baseball which resulted in them having a fire sale. In July, Martinez was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks and he would become vital to their push to the postseason.
In 62 games with the Diamondbacks, Martinez would bat .302 with 29 homers and 65 runs batted in to help Arizona reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
For the season Martinez would bat .303 with 45 home runs and 104 runs batted in as he only played in 119 games. Martinez is 30-years of age, and he picked the perfect time to get hot at the plate. However with many teams around Major League Baseball shying away from overpaying sluggers in free agency, Martinez might have a hard time finding a new team to play for in 2018.
Prediction: Arizona Diamondbacks
5. Jay Bruce-Outfielder
After outfielder Jay Bruce spent nearly nine years of his Major League Baseball career with the Cincinnati Reds, he has bounced around over the last two seasons. With the Reds in the middle of a rebuild, they traded Bruce to the New York Mets in 2016. At first Bruce was ice cold at the plate as he found himself “pressing”. However Bruce would get on track coming down the stretch as he helped the Mets secure the top wild card spot in the National League.
Bruce started this past season with the Mets as in 103 games with the club, Bruce batted .256 with 29 homers and 75 runs batted in. However the injury bug would get the Mets this past season, and once they fell out of contention, Bruce and his expiring contract became expendable. The Mets would trade Bruce to the Cleveland Indians and in 48 games with the club, he would hit 7 homers, while driving in 26 runs to help Cleveland win the American League Central for a second consecutive year.
Bruce will be 31-years of age when the 2018 Major League Baseball season rolls around, and he falls into the category of a player that can used in multiple roles. Bruce is primarily a right fielder, but he can play first base, as well as being a designated hitter for an American League club which will make the pursuit of him during the winter rather interesting.
Prediction: Los Angeles Angels
6. Wade Davis-Relief Pitcher
After Wade Davis spent the first five years of his Major League Baseball career as an up and down starting pitcher, he found his true calling in 2014 as a relief pitcher. Late in the 2015 MLB season, Davis became the full-time closer for the Kansas City Royals after an injury sidelined relief pitcher Greg Holland. Davis would save 17 games for the Royals and he came up big during the postseason as Kansas City was able to win their first World Series Title since 1985. Davis would save 27 more games for the Royals in 2016 before he was traded to the Chicago Cubs prior to the start the 2017 MLB season. With the Cubs, Davis was able to save 32 games as he helped them win the National League Central.
Now Davis will hit free agency at the age of 32, while he is one of the premier closers in the game. Davis won’t get a long-term deal, but you can bank on him getting a contract within the three-to-four year window. And with the importance of a needing strong bullpen being more prevalent than ever, Davis should get paid handsomely this off-season.
Prediction: Houston Astros
7. Mike Moustaksas-Third Baseman
This list is littered with players who helped the Kansas City Royals win the World Series Championship in 2015, while also suiting up for the club this past season. And you can add another player to that list in third baseman Mike Moustakas. Moustakas was the second overall pick of the 2007 Major League Baseball Draft by the Royals and he has been with the big club regularly since 2011. Moustakas struggled to begin the 2014 season which resulted in him being demoted to Triple-A, but upon returning to the Royals, he was a different player.
Moustakas batted .284 with 22 homers and 84 runs batted in during the 2015 Major League Baseball season to help the Royals win the World Series. And after an injury plagued 2016 season, Moustakas came back very strong in 2017 to have the best year of his career. Moustaskas batted .272 to go along with 38 home runs and 85 runs batted in while also earning his second All-Star Game appearance.
Moustakas 29-years of age, and although he is not a player that can carry a team, he is someone who’ll fit nicely into the middle of the lineup for a contender, while also giving them leadership as well as championship experience.
Prediction: Los Angeles Angels/San Francisco Giants
8. Neil Walker-Second Baseman
Throughout the nine-year Major League Baseball career of second baseman Neil Walker, he has been “Steady Eddie”. Walker has a career batting average of .272 to go along with averaging 20 homers and 80 runs batted in per season. And aside from being a solid hitter, Walker backs this up with a good glove in the field.
The last two years have been injury filled for Walker as he has combined to miss 98 games. And even though that Walker is 32-years of age, the fact that he can contribute to a team at the plate as well as in the field will lead to him finding a new franchise to play for this winter.
Prediction: New York Mets
9.Eduardo Nunez-Shortstop/Third Baseman
There are not that many quality utility players around Major League Baseball which means that when a solid one comes down the pike, he will be in demand. Infielder Eduardo Nunez has been in MLB since 2010 and he has bounced around as he has suited up for three different teams. But with Nunez’s ability to play shortstop, second base, and third base, teams will love to have his services and versatility.
Prediction: Boston Red Sox
10. Lorenzo Cain-Outfielder
Lorenzo Cain is another one of those players that was a key contributor to the success of the Kansas City Royals, but now it is time for him to hit free agency. In eight Major League Baseball seasons, Cain is a lifetime hitter who can provide a contender with leadership in the clubhouse as well as a solid glove in the outfield who can play multiple positions.
Prediction: Cleveland Indians/New York Mets
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
2. Washington Wizards
3. Boston Celtics
4. Toronto Raptors
5. Detroit Pistons
6. Milwaukee Bucks
7. Miami Heat
8. Charlotte Hornets
Charlotte Hornets vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavs win series 4-1)
The road to a fourth consecutive Eastern Conference Championship continues for the Cavaliers.
Miami Heat vs. Washington Wizards (Wizards win series 4-2)
The size and defensive ability of the Heat will frustrate the Wizards, but not enough to eliminate them.
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Boston Celtics (Celtics win series 4-3)
It will be a fierce battle between Bucks small forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving.
Detroit Pistons vs. Toronto Raptors (Raptors win series 4-3)
The Pistons are a go-to player away from being a consistent force in the Eastern Conference.
Toronto Raptors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavs win series 4-1)
It’s the same old song for the Raptors as they’ll once again come up short versus the Cavaliers in the playoffs.
Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards (Celtics win series 4-2)
The Wizards have the talent, but they lack the mental makeup to that the next step.
Conference Finals Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavs win series 4-2)
The Cavs will advance to the NBA Finals, but not without getting a fight from the Celtics.
1. Golden State Warriors
2. San Antonio Spurs
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
5. Los Angeles Clippers
6. Houston Rockets
7. Denver Nuggets
8. Portland Trail Blazers
Portland Trail Blazers vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-1)
The Trail Blazers will only be a speed bump for the Warriors in their quest to win another NBA Championship.
Denver Nuggets vs. San Antonio Spurs (Spurs win series 4-0)
There is something about the Spurs excelling in the spring.
Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (Thunder win series 4-2)
This will mark the second consecutive year in which these two teams met in the first round, but things have changed as Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook now has reinforcements.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (Timberwolves win series 4-2)
The Timberwolves could be one of the most dangerous teams in the postseason due to the mismatches that they can create.
Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-2)
The Timberwolves are closing the gap, but they are still not in the class of the Warriors.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs (Spurs win series 4-3)
This could be one of the greatest playoff series’ in NBA history.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-2)
The Spurs will put up a valiant fight, but it won’t be enough to get the best of the Warriors.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-1)
It’s time to look at this Warriors team as one of the best to have ever done it.
X-Washington Wizards 50-32 (2)
Three of the last four NBA seasons have seen the Washington Wizards reach the playoffs, but they have been unable to advance past the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Last season the Wizards won 49 games for their highest win total since the 1979 which was their last trip to the NBA Finals. The Wizards would give the Boston Celtics all that they could handle before they bowed out in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And although that we’ve heard this tune before, will the Wizards be able to take the next step in order to become a title contender?
Scott Brooks has one year under his belt as the head coach of the Wizards. And like any good coach, Brooks has been known to get most out of his players and then some. That was evident last season as under Brooks, Wizards point guard John Wall was able to take his game to the next level. Wall is a perennial All-Star point guard, but he became more of a scoring threat last season for Washington as he averaged a career-high 23.1 points to go along with 10.7 assists which was second in the NBA. Wall was also second in the NBA in steals as he averaged 2 per game and in the process he has become the complete point guard. At 27-years of age, Wall is in the prime of his career, and after he signed a contract extension with the Wizards over the summer, the future is bright for him in D.C.
Wall’s tag-team partner in the Wizards back court is shooting guard Bradley Beal. But since the Wizards drafted Beal in 2012, the injury bug has gotten the best of him. Beal appeared in a career-high 77 games last season, and like Wall, he enjoyed the best campaign of his professional career. Beal is the perfect complimentary player to Wall as they give the Wizards one of the fastest back courts in the Eastern Conference. Both Beal and Wall have tremendous explosiveness in order to get to the basket which will once again make the Wizards a force.
In the Wizards front court they have some players that play with a bit of an edge. Center Marcin Gortat averaged a double-double for Washington last season, while at 6’11”, his size can be a menace at each end of the floor for opponents. Power forward Markieff Morris has always played with a chip on his shoulder throughout his six-year NBA career, while he provides the Wizards with a solid scorer in their front court that can knock down the mid-range shot as well as get physical on the boards. The Wizards will miss Morris’ production to begin the season as recovers from hernia surgery, but when he does return to the lineup the intensity for this team will increase.
Washington also has a pair of emerging players in their front court in the form of small forward Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre. The Wizards selected Porter with the third overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft and he is maturing into the player that he was expected to be when he entered the league. Porter’s numbers have increased in each of his seasons in the NBA. Porter is a slasher at the small forward position, and his versatility at each end of the court make him the poor man’s Paul George as it would not surprise me to see him in the mix to earn his first All-Star Game selection this season.
Oubre is set to begin his third NBA season. It was Oubre’s athleticism that got him to the NBA, but now he is developing the skill needed for him to be a consistent factor. Like Porter, Oubre is a slasher who should see more minutes playing alongside Wall and Beal in order to run the floor and be another threat in transition.
Last season the Wizards had what it took to play with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference, but will they be able to seize the moment in order to get past these clubs in the postseason?
Y-Miami Heat 42-40 (7)
The Miami Heat are coming off of a 41-41 season while they also failed to earn a playoff appearance for the second time in the last three years. However the Heat still have to be given credit for having a successful season. Miami began last season with a record of 11-30 as they were rapidly barreling to one of their worst campaigns in franchise history. But the Heat would rebound by winning 30 of their final 41 games to finish at .500, while missing out on the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot due to losing the tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls. And as the Heat finished the 2016-2017 NBA season as one of the hottest teams in the league, will they be able to carry it over to the new campaign?
Heat team president Pat Riley is beginning his 22nd season with the franchise, and his time in South Beach has seen a commitment to winning. After the Heat lost small forward LeBron James in free agency in 2014, he nor anyone within the organization took the time to feel sorry for themselves, and instead have attempted to get this team back to being a championship contender. Miami attempted to expedite that process over the summer when they attempted to recruit small forward Gordon Hayward to South Beach. Hayward would ultimately opt to join the Boston Celtics which hindered Miami’s chances of being a title contender, but not their opportunity to make the playoffs.
For Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, he has one of the better centers in the NBA in Hassan Whiteside. Since joining the Heat in 2014, Whiteside has emerged into one of the better big men in the NBA. At 7’0″, 265 lbs., Whiteside has tremendous athleticism which led to him leading the NBA in rebounds last season at 14.1 per contest. Whiteside was not the force at the defensive end of the floor like he was during the 2015-2016 NBA season when he led the league in blocks with 3.7 per game, but his length can once again be a factor as long as he is able to remain out of foul trouble. Whiteside is still unpolished on offense, but he is developing into a decent perimeter scorer, while being a terror in the paint. Whiteside’s ability to rebound allows him to score consistently off of put backs, while he continues to develop his offensive repertoire in the post.
Point guard Goran Dragic is coming off of a season where he was able to tie a career-high by averaging 20.3 points. Dragic has always been an underrated player throughout his NBA career, but will he be able to become the leader that the Heat will need him to be in order to become a playoff team this season?
The Heat came out smelling like a rose when they signed guard Dion Waiters in the summer of 2016. Waiters earned less than $3 million last season, but he averaged 15.8 points per game and became a difference maker during the second half of the season. The Heat would re-sign Waiters this past summer and he’ll once again be an impact player in Miami. Waiters is a classic “tweener” as he is too big to be a point guard, and too small to be a shooting guard. But what Waiters brings to the table is that he is a gritty player that will do whatever it takes at end of the floor.
Small forward Justise Winslow was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Heat in 2015. Winslow is an emerging player for Miami, but his progression was derailed last season after he missed the majority of the campaign due to a torn labrum. Aside from Winslow, the Heat also have several other young players who they are high on in shooting guard Tyler Johnson and small forward Josh Richardson. The Heat shocked most basketball observers during the summer of 2016 when they gave Johnson a four-year deal for $50 million. But Johnson began to emerge for the Heat last season as he averaged 13.7 points per contest, while also being one of the team’s better perimeter shooters. Like Winslow, the Heat will need Richardson’s length and ability at each end of the floor on the perimeter as they look to make the playoffs.
Defense is always the name of the game for Spoelstra as Miami was fifth in the NBA in points allowed last season, while being 15th in rebounds. Miami should once again to difficult to score on this season; especially after they were able to sign center Kelly Olynk.
Collegiately for the Gonzaga Bulldogs, Olynk was known more for his offensive game which led to him being the West Coast Conference’s Player of the Year in 2013. But since Olynk came to the NBA, he has developed a reputation as the defensive end of the floor. Olynk gives the Heat size coming off of the bench, and for a big man, he knows how to move up and down the floor.
The Heat will be a tough matchup for their opponents this season due to their size and athleticism. Dragic is a good point guard in transition and I can see Spoelstra opening up the offense more this season which should help Miami’s chances of making the playoffs.
Y-Charlotte Hornets 39-43 (8)
The best way to sum up the Charlotte Hornets is that they are consistently inconsistent. The Hornets made the NBA Playoffs in both 2014 and 2016, while missing out on the postseason in 2015 and 2017. Steve Clifford has been the head coach who has overseen the Hornets for the last four seasons, while general manager Rich Cho has been with the club since 2011. The combination of Cho and Clifford have been working to improve the Hornets roster in order to make them a consistent playoff team. And with the Eastern Conference not expected to be super competitive this season, will the Hornets be able to advantage of that in order to qualify to the playoffs?
Any potential success for the Hornets this season begins with point guard Kemba Walker. Walker has been with Charlotte since 2011, and in each NBA season his productivity has increased. Walker is an improving scorer and the same can be said about his court vision. To me Walker is the poor man’s Steph Curry as it does not take that much for him to get going in regards to being a dangerous scorer. Walker is coming off of the first All-Star Game selection of his NBA career, and his ability to be a long rage shooter as well as getting to the basket will once again make him a candidate to receive the honor once again this season.
During the off-season the Hornets were able to beef up their front court when they acquired center Dwight Howard from the Atlanta Hawks. During Howard’s 14-year NBA career, he has led the league in rebounds on five separate occasions, while also being a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Howard is 31-years of age, and although that he still has plenty left in the tank, what has plagued him throughout his career is the fact that he not been consistent at the offensive end of the floor. At this point it is what it is for Howard on offense, but if he can find a way to be a force at the defensive end of the floor, while also being able clean up on the boards, and playing off of Walker through pick and rolls as well as put backs, it’ll be a positive for the Hornets; especially since they were tied at 15th with the Miami Heat last season in rebounding.
Center Frank Kaminsky continues to be an improving bench player, while the return of small forward Nicolas Batum will be a welcome addition for the Hornets as he provides them with another quality facilitator.
The Hornets should be a competitive team all season long which will keep them in contention for a postseason berth.
Orlando Magic 35-47
The Orlando Magic have been swimming upstream in the Eastern Conference for far too long. The Magic have not made the NBA Playoffs since 2012, while they have not advanced past the first round since 2010. The Magic have been plagued for far too long by bad front office decisions which has included them missing on their first-round picks consistently. But as Frank Vogel is set to begin his second season as the head coach of the Magic, does he possess the necessary formula to get things turned around in Orlando?
In 2014, the Magic used a first-round pick on power forward Aaron Gordon. Gordon quickly developed a reputation as far as being a dunker. But dunking the basketball alone won’t keep a player in the NBA for long and Gordon falls under that umbrella. However in each of Gordon’s three years in the NBA, his production has improved and he has the potential to be a breakout player for the Magic. Gordon is only 22-years of age and now he is beginning to add finesse to his athleticism.
Aside from Gordon, three more emerging players for the Magic are small forward Evan Fournier, center Nikola Vucevic and point guard Elfrid Payton. Fournier led the Magic in scoring last season at 17.2 per contest and he figures to be one of their better scoring options during this campaign. During the seven-year NBA career of Vucevic he has averaged just a shade under 10 rebounds per game at 9.9 per contest. Vucevic should once again be one of the better rebounders in the Eastern Conference which will benefit the Magic. Payton was selected in the first round by the Magic in 2014 and like Fournier, his production continues to increase. But in order for the Magic to cast their reputation of being an afterthought in the Eastern Conference Playoff race, Payton must become more assertive in regards to being a floor general. Payton was able to average 6.5 assists last season, but for the Magic to push for a postseason spot this time around, that number must improve to at least 8 per contest.
Throughout Vogel’s coaching career in the NBA, his teams have been solid at the defensive end of the floor. However Orlando was 22nd in the NBA last season in points allowed which is something that must changed if they are going to be a playoff team.
The Magic are still a young team and hopefully for their sake they will be able to take advantage of a weak Eastern Conference in order to qualify for the playoffs.
Atlanta Hawks 34-48
Very quietly each of the last 10 NBA seasons have seen the Atlanta Hawks reach the playoffs. But a big reason why the Hawks success has gone unnoticed is that they have never won a championship, more less a trip to the NBA Finals. Mike Budenholzer has four years under his belt as the head coach of the Hawks, and after he spent nearly two decades with the San Antonio Spurs as an assistant coach, he has brought some of those successful philosophies with him to Atlanta. The Spurs believe in ball movement as it more about the team than the individual, and as the Hawks have embraced this philosophy under Bundenholzer, it has led to plenty of regular season success. But the 2017-2018 NBA season will prove to be the toughest that Budenholzer has had to endure so far with the Hawks.
Three of the Hawks top scorers from last season are no longer with the team which includes power forward Paul Millsap who was the team’s leading scorer and center Dwight Howard who led the club in rebounds. And with the departure of so many key players, the keys to the Hawks franchise have now been handed over to point guard Dennis Schroder.
Schroder was the Hawks first round pick in 2013, and it is now his time to be the guy. Schroder has always possessed explosiveness at the point guard position and now it is time for him to develop some leadership. Schroder has the ability to penetrate a defense in order to get to the basket, but it is up to him to now improve the players around him on the Hawks better by becoming a better facilitator.
But unfortunately for the Hawks, the talent pool around Schroder is not that deep. Schroder should enjoy a career year, but the lack of talent in Atlanta will more than likely result in this team missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2007.
When Mark Dantonio became the head football coach of the Michigan State Spartans in 2007, he vowed to make his program a consistent contender in the Big Ten Conference. In Dantonio’s first season at Michigan State, he led the Spartans to their first bowl game in four years. Michigan State’s bowl appearance would be a signal of good things to come for the Spartans as they would rattle off nine consecutive trips to a bowl game. Included in that run for Michigan State was five seasons in which they won at least 11 games, three consecutive top ten finishes in the Associated Press Poll, a pair of Big Ten Championships, a Rose Bowl victory, and an appearance in the College Football Playoff. But Dantonio’s biggest accomplishment has been the dominance that his program has enjoyed over their in-state rivals in the Michigan Wolverines.
The Wolverines are considered to be one of college football’s blue blood programs and their dominance within the Big Ten over the years has typically come at the expense of Michigan State. But that has not been the case recently as following a 28-24 comeback victory by the Wolverines in 2007, Dantonio took exception to the post game comments of former Michigan running back Mike Hart who considered Michigan State to be Michigan’s “little brother”. Since then Michigan State has only lost twice to Michigan which included getting a 14-10 victory last month in Ann Arbor. Michigan has found out the hard way that it is no longer a formality that they’ll beat Michigan State as this a team that you’ll have to pack a lunch for in order to defeat. And packing that lunch isn’t a guarantee of getting a victory as the theme for this program under Dantonio has been “Spartan Tough”.
It was a rough go in 2016 for Michigan State as they finished 3-9 for their worst season since 1991. The Spartans were also only able to win one game within the Big Ten last season. But in typical Michigan State fashion they have bounced back in a big way this year.
The victory over Michigan last month signaled that the Spartans were back, while they helped to solidify that by upsetting the Penn State Nittany Lions at home this past Saturday. Michigan State’s conference record of 5-1 currently has them in first place in the Big Ten East, and with the Ohio State Buckeyes being upset this past Saturday at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes, the Spartans control their own destiny in order to qualify for the conference championship game next month.
The toughness for the Spartans begins on defense as they are ranked 12th in the nation in the total defense. Sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie leads the team in tackles with 77, while as team Michigan State has been stingy on third down as opponents are only converting on 30.7% of their opportunities. Michigan State has also kept it close to the chest on offense as they are 63rd in the nation in total offense, but they have found a way to be sixth in time of possession as they know how to play keep away from their opponents.
Unlike Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State, Dantonio doesn’t consistently get the five-star recruits to come to East Lansing, but he does find players that will fit into his system which includes them doing whatever it takes in order to win.
So now as Michigan State is sitting on an overall record of 7-2, they control their own destiny in order to win the Big Ten for the third tine under Dantonio. A victory over Ohio State would put the Spartans in a good position to win the Big Ten East. And although that it won’t be easy, the Spartans won’t be intimidated by having to go to Columbus due to the fact that they’ve won their last two road games versus the Buckeyes.
In 2007, Dantonio got to work in order to make the Spartans a consistent contender, and he did the same following a disastrous 2016. After the Spartans poor campaign last year, it appeared that they were ready to concede power in the Big Ten East to Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. But Dantonio and his team have foiled the plans of the people who spoke prematurely of their demise.
When quarterback Deshaun Watson entered National Football League, he had the look of someone who was ready to do some special things. Watson came to the NFL fresh off of leading the Clemson Tigers to a national championship. In Watson’s last two years at Clemson, his combined record was 28-2 which included him getting his team past the always tough Alabama Crimson Tide this past January to win it all. However Watson’s collegiate success would not prevent him from being passed over in the 2017 NFL Draft.
The Cleveland Browns entered the draft in the possession of the first overall pick and many people felt that they needed to select a quarterback. The Browns would bypass Watson in favor of defensive end Myles Garrett. However the Browns had multiple first-round picks in the draft, and when the 12th overall pick came around, Cleveland was set to select again. But instead of taking Watson, the Browns would make a trade with the Houston Texans who were more than eager to select Watson. And to the delight of the Texans, Watson appears ready to rewrite the history books for their franchise.
In preparing Watson to become a starting quarterback in the National Football League, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien had a good game plan. O’Brien was not ready to immediately commit to Watson as far as being the Texans starting quarterback as that honor fell to Tom Savage. And with Watson on the sidelines, it gave him the opportunity to observe the game. But when Savage was ineffective in the Texans Week 1 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, O’Brien could no longer delay giving Watson the keys to the franchise.
Watson would replace an ineffective Savage as he led Houston to their only touchdown drive versus the Jags. And since then Watson has not looked back.
There was plenty of excitement and anticipation for theTexans Week 2 contest versus the Cincinnati Bengals as Watson would make his first career start. Versus the Bengals, Watson was not a fantasy football stud as he was just 15-of-24 passing for 125 yards, but he helped the Texans in the most important category which was getting the victory.
Since then the game has slowed down for Watson as he is not a wide-eyed rookie on the National Football League stage. In Week 3, Watson faced the New England Patriots who are the defending Super Bowl Champions. And in that contest Watson was 22-of-33 passing for 301 yards as the Texans fell just short of getting the victory. In Week 6, Watson had the opportunity to face the team in the Browns that passed up on him twice. Watson would give the Browns a ringside seat of what they passed up on by going 17-for-29 passing for 225 yards and 3 touchdown passes as the Texans won the contest 33-17.
Last Sunday saw Watson make sure that no one in National Football League would forget his name anytime soon. Watson and the Texans would travel to the Pacific Northwest to face the Seattle Seahawks who possess the best secondary in the NFL. The Seahawks secondary features a trio of All-Pros in cornerback Richard Sherman, strong safety Kam Chancellor, and free safety Earl Thomas as they have been known to make life difficult on opposing quarterbacks.
But the names on the back of the jerseys of the Seahawks secondary didn’t faze Watson who led the Texans on a touchdown drive to begin the contest which concluded when he connected on a 59-yard touchdown pass with wide receiver Will Fuller to give Houston the early 7-0 advantage. However the Seahawks secondary would soon show why they are the best in the business in regards to what they do. On the Texans next drive, Watson was picked off by Thomas who returned it 78 yards for the tying score. However Watson would be immediately shrug it off as he led the Texans right back down the field in order to regain the lead at 14-7.
All afternoon Watson dueled with Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. And with just under five minutes remaining in the contest, Watson put Houston in position to win as he connected with wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins on a 72-yard touchdown pass to give his team the lead at 38-34. After Houston stopped Seattle’s offense on their next possession, Watson and the offense could not run out the clock which resulted in them giving the football back to the Seahakws. And with just 21 seconds left in the contest, Wilson would find tight end Jimmy Graham for the game-winning score.
The Texans would fall just short of defeating the Seahawks, but when it was all said and done, Watson had gained the respect of his opponents as many of Seattle’s players congratulated him after the contest.
On the season Watson has 1,699 passing yards with 19 passing touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Watson has also managed to complete nearly 62% of his passes, which is the result of him being a cool customer in the pocket.
But just as the Texans were rallying around Watson as he also appeared to be a shoe-in to be named as the National Football League’s Rookie of the Year, the unthinkable happened this past Thursday at practice when he suffered a torn ACL which abruptly ended his stellar rookie campaign as well as the playoff hopes for Houston. And although that we won’t see Watson do anymore great things for the Texans on the field in 2017, he has still given this organization hope for the future.
Watson will now have the chance to reflect on the impact that he had on the field for the Texans this season, while also looking to get more familiarized with the Texans offense. Watson won’t be at the Texans practice facility, but he can still take it upon himself to study film as well as the team’s playbook. Watson has a personality that makes those around him gravitate towards him which is a reflection of his humility and poise and that impact will be felt for the Texans once he returns.
Now the job will be to get Watson healthy for 2018 as he along with defensive end J.J. Watt who was limited to just five games this season after he suffered a fractured leg are two of the cornerstones for this team. In a brief stretch Watson was able to give the Texans a glimpse towards the future which looks to be very bright if they’ll be able to keep their signal caller healthy and on the field.