Why the Giants Can Win the NL West Without Melky Cabrera

by Elijah Abramson

Melky Cabrera’s suspension on August 15 for use of a banned substance was a huge blow to the Giants’ offense.

At the time, Cabrera was leading the National League in hits and was battling Pittsburgh star Andrew McCutchen for the league batting title. The follow-up drama with the fake site to justify his steroid use added to the disrupting media coverage surrounding the Giants most productive hitter.

But in the games since the suspension, the Giants have more than held their own. In three series that included the rival Los Angeles Dodgers and contending Atlanta Braves, the Giants have won seven of 10 games, with a five-game win streak headed with a sweep of the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

That was the first time the Giants have swept the Dodgers in five years.

Matt Cain has continued to hold up his end of the rotation since the suspension, going 2-0 in 15 innings of work with only 2 ER. Surprisingly, the same cannot be said of Ryan Vogelsong, who led the league in ERA earlier this year at 2.27.

Vogelsong has a posted an abysmal 6.39 ERA in the month of August.

While there is certainly hope that Vogelsong can rebound, other starters in the Giants rotation have picked up the slack and will be critical down the stretch.

Two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum is pitching tonight for the Giants. While his ERA is a disturbing 5.30, he has the opportunity to salvage his first month this season with a winning percentage above .500 and is hoping to improve upon a 3.10 ERA since the All-Star break.

And after a forgettable start against the Mets at the beginning of the month, the Giants have won all of Barry Zito’s last four starts.

While that may have more to do with offensive output during his starts, performances like Zito’s last start (8 IP and two ER in the ninth inning due to Affeldt’s inability to prevent Zito’s two baserunners from scoring) might be enough to hold up the back-end of the rotation.

Buster Posey’s batting average is north of .370 since the beginning of July, which has held the Giants offense together—and put himself in the discussion for National League MVP.

Hector Sanchez has helped take some of the wear and tear off of Posey, and even though Sanchez’s offensive numbers of late are less than stellar he has proven to be capable of handling the Giants rotation—no easy feat for an inexperienced catcher.

Although he may be well under the radar, Joaquin Arias is an important player for the Giants to be successful. During Pablo Sandoval’s mid-season injury, Arias stepped up and his flexibility defensively is something that the Giants are very lucky to have.

Hitting .420 in the month of August is not too shabby, either.

While a closer-by-committee situation is less than ideal, the Giants do have multiple capable late-game relievers. Bruce Bochy is probably doing the right thing by riding whichever pitcher is hot, whether it’s Affeldt, Romo or Casilla.

The second team in the NL West
 that Gonzalez has played for.
The recent blockbuster trade between the Dodgers and Boston Red Sox may worry Giants fans, but the reality is that it should not.

This season, Beckett has 11 losses and an ERA above 5.00. Carl Crawford has had season-ending Tommy John surgery and even though Adrian Gonzalez is a powerful bat in the middle of the order, he is not worth the $100+ million he is due over the next six years.

With no other real competitor in the NL West, if the Giants can hold off the Dodgers and continue to get timely contributions from their entire organization, the division championship trophy will soon be sitting in San Francisco.

2013 NBA Award Winner Predictions

With a plethora of superstars from Kevin Durant to LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and many more, the NBA has more than enough talent to compete for its most prestigious awards. But after predicting the fate of the 2013 NBA season, it is a little bit clearer as to who should take home the trophies.

Here is a complete preview of all six major awards from coach of the year to most valuable player.

Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers, BOS

Doc Rivers has put together an impressive run of playoff appearances and may only have one championship to show for it, but 2013 will be a year that he may lead the Celtics to another deep playoff run (or more).

With a revamped roster that features Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, the Celtics have the potential to make a championship run and will fend for the two-spot in the eastern conference (behind the Miami Heat).

A 2012 poll of NBA players found Doc Rivers sitting atop the list of coaches “you would like to play for most.” Rivers motivates his guys and maintains the respect of the entire spectrum of rookies to Hall of Famers.

Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, LAL

Already a three-time defensive player of the year, Dwight Howard should not fall short of a fourth in his first season as a Los Angeles Laker.

Needing a change of scenery (and new faces to surround himself with), Howard chose to partner up with Kobe Bryant in a franchise that is rich in its history of big men, from the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the most recent dominant force in Shaquille O’Neal.

He averages 13 rebounds and over two blocks a game over the course of his eight-year career. And at 26 years old, he is just now hitting his prime.

Dwight Howard could be the first player since Dennis Rodman in 1997 to get over 16 boards a game.

Most Improved Player of the Year: Avery Bradley, BOS

Avery Bradley has already shown glimpses of a very bright future. At face value, Bradley had a mediocre season, with only 7.6 points and 1.4 assists per game.

But looking a bit deeper, you’ll see his per 36 minutes stats show 12.7 points per game average to go along with 3.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.1 steals per game.

Perhaps most impressively was his performance in the month of April: 15 points per game, more than 50 percent shooting on field goals and three-pointers, six games scoring over 17 points and 28 against the playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks.

Unless his injury limits him to less than 100 percent, Bradley should be a shoo-in for MIP, especially with an MVP-contending point guard running the show.

Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden, OKC

James Harden is capable of becoming the first player since Detlef Schrempf in 1992 to repeat as sixth man of the year. Harden would be a starter on most other teams and probably should be traded for the sake of Oklahoma City’s title hopes but has proven to be an important cog of Oklahoma City’s deep playoff runs.

Harden averaged 17 points per game in 2012—that’s solid for a starter. Even though Harden had a disappointing Finals showing, he should be able to rebound for a second consecutive Sixth Man of the Year Award.

Rookie of the Year: Harrison Barnes, GS

While popular opinion gives the nod for rookie of the year to number one overall draft pick Anthony Davis, Golden State’s used their (lucky?) number seven pick to grab former Tar Heel Harrison Barnes.

Barnes has more than a good shot at winning ROY after the Warriors traded away small forward Dorell Wright, who would have been the starter at the beginning of the season. With Wright gone, the job is Barnes’ to lose.

If Golden State makes the playoffs and Barnes contributes a reasonable amount, he will win it over Davis and the struggling New Orleans Hornets.

Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, MIA

Injury is the only thing between LeBron James and a fourth MVP award.

Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo are among the other viable MVP options but LeBron James is the best player in the league. An unstoppable train, James has proven he can get to the basket at will. Most of the NBA just gets out of the way rather than get wrecked by the 6’8” and 250-pounder.

At 27 years old, James is in the prime—a scary thought considering what the “young” LeBron has already accomplished. The field will have a tough time beating the reigning MVP who has 27.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.7 steals and nearly a block per game over the course of his career.

This article was originally published on B/R.

2013 NBA Season Preview and Predictions

Since most of the dust has settled in a busy off-season, here is a look ahead at the full 82 game season. From playoff seeding to must-watch first round matchups and a thrilling Finals matchup, this is Bases and Baskets complete 2013 NBA season predictions.

It will no doubt be a very exciting season, with multiple big names changing the letters on the front of their jersey. Bubble teams have improved and will challenge the lower seeds for playoff spots and some of the league’s best have only gotten better.

Dwight Howard, Jason Terry, Ray Allen and Andrew Bogut highlight the big moves that have taken place over the past four to five months. The question is: will all of them make the playoffs?

(Check out last season’s playoff predictions where I had nearly every single winner correctly chosen, including the Finals matchup and champion. Those predictions were made just prior to the commencement of the postseason—after the seeding was already set.)

Eastern Conference

Teams to watch: Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Brooklyn Nets

The Dwight Howard trade was one of the biggest blockbusters in NBA history. Philadelphia managed to sneak into the trade, and almost quietly move Andre Iguodala.

Not only that, but the 76ers—not the Magic—ended up with star center, Andrew Bynum. They will be an exciting team to watch while the Magic will struggle mightily.

Brooklyn picked up Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, which was almost a disappointment considering they had been in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes for the longest time period. Add a Brook Lopez max-contract and the Nets move to Brooklyn hopefully has more excitement than flashing cameras.

And the Cleveland Cavaliers may sneak up on the rear end of the conference. If they miraculously land the eight-spot in the playoffs, Round 1 would be a very entertaining matchup in the east: LeBron James vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Wouldn’t you watch that just to see Dan Gilbert’s face? Then again, he already looks rather foolish after his infamously passionate all-caps guarantee that Cleveland would beat Miami to a title.

Here is the playoff picture in the east.

8. Chicago Bulls

With Derrick Rose’s injury sidelining him until March, the Chicago Bulls will far fall short of their 50 win season last year. In fact, they will barely scrape into the playoff picture.

Unless Rose heals much sooner than expected, this will be a season to forget for Bulls fans—a sad repercussion from one bad decision at the end of a playoff game.

7. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers have a surprisingly well-rounded roster with Jrue Holliday, Nick Young, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Jason Richardson, Spencer Hawes and the newly-acquired Andrew Bynum.

Unfortunately for the 76ers, the eastern conference is not as weak as it has been in years past. The Sixers will make a run at the seven-seed in the east, but that is their ceiling unless Bynum averages 20 and 14.

6. Brooklyn Nets

The additions of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson to Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries will be enough to put the Nets in the middle of the playoff hunt.

Although they seriously lack depth—which will cause problems late in the season and into June—the star power that they possess will carry them above the likes of the Sixers and the Bulls.

5. Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks will remain a middle-of-the-road team as their roster has remained essentially static. But with the Chicago Bulls dropping more than a few spots because of Derrick Rose, the Hawks will, by default, land the number five spot.

Trade talks have swirled around Josh Smith, and if he is moved then the Hawks may finally commit to a rebuilding process of sorts. But when it comes time for the playoffs, they have given playoff contenders like the Boston Celtics trouble in years past. Although it makes for entertaining basketball, the front office will not be satisfied with one-and-done seasons for much longer.

4. Indiana Pacers

Frank Vogel and Larry Bird put together a very cohesive unit in Indiana.

Although the loss of point guard Darren Collison may be a bump in the road for the Pacers, their depth will be what puts them over the Brooklyn Nets. If Roy Hibbert continues his upward trend after signing a max-contract of his own, the loss of Collison may be overcome by the seven-footer who is still only 25 years old.

3. New York Knicks

After losing Jeremy Lin to the Houston Rockets, the Knicks are truly Carmelo Anthony’s team.

Things will change (for the better) in 2013 because the Knicks will have the buffer of a couple rounds before they even have to see the defending champions. The acquisitions of Ronnie Brewer and Jason Kidd will help Anthony and Amare Stoudemire.

Iman Shumpert is an exciting young player to watch and is capable of taking over the role as point guard for the Knicks. According to 82games.com, when Shumpert ran the point, the Knicks won 54 percent of their games—not bad for a rookie.

2. Boston Celtics

Avery Bradley has the potential to be a perennial all-star. With the addition of Jason Terry as a three-point threat to support Rajon Rondo and (the re-signed) Kevin Garnett, the Celtics will climb up in the standings.

Look for Rajon Rondo to make a run at league MVP en route to a number two spot in the eastern conference.

1. Miami Heat

There isn’t much explanation necessary for this pick. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will carry the Heat to the number one spot and possibly a 60-win season. Place a few NBA moneyline bets on the Heat this year and make some cash.

Western Conference

Teams to watch: New Orleans Hornets, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves

The Warriors glory days have been few and far between since the “We Believe” days of 2007. 2013 will renew hope for the Bay Area faithful and if the core can stay healthy, the Warriors will be in great position to make a run into and possibly deep into the playoffs.

The Hornets and Timberwolves are in similar positions, having very limited playoff experience of late. Anthony Davis holds the keys to the Hornets future, but there is more than one door between New Orleans and the playoffs.

Minnesota will make a very strong case in the West. If they can remain healthy, the Timberwolves will surprise a lot of people in 2013 with a strong core in Kevin Love, Andrei Kirilenko and Ricky Rubio.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves

Speaking of Minnesota, look no further than the final spot in the West for Kevin Love & Co.

If things click with Kirilenko, Love, Pekovic and Brandon Roy can add a punch, the Timberwolves will be in good hands. The blue and black will have to wait for Ricky Rubio to return until December, but he will not have to rescue the T’wolves but rather help them compete for higher seeding.

7. Golden State Warriors

With the additions of Andrew Bogut and first-round draft pick Harrison Barnes, the Warriors (like the Timberwolves) will make the playoffs in 2013.

Stephen Curry no longer has to compete with Monta Ellis for scoring and playmaking which will prove to be a huge difference for the Warriors. Curry, Jarrett Jack and Klay Thompson make an excellent guard rotation. David Lee and Bogut make the perfect “Vanilla Towers” duo. Health has been and will be the biggest issue and limiting factor for the young Golden State team.

If they stay healthy, a nice playoff run may be within reach.

6. Memphis Grizzlies

Although many experts and fans have had high hopes of the Grizzlies, Memphis has consistently disappointed come the playoffs. While this has not had much of an impact in regulars seasons past, some contention may arise within the Grizzlies organization in 2012-13.

But as long as you have Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay to go with some solid depth, there will be a place in the playoffs for a team like Memphis.

5. Denver Nuggets

With the acquisition of 76er star Andre Iguodala, the Nuggets will only improve. Ty Lawson and the young group that general manager Masai Ujiri has assembled nearly shocked the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2012 playoffs and will look to make it past the first round in 2013.

After losing Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, the Nuggets looked like they were a franchise left behind, but they have turned it around much quicker than expected.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and now Lamar Odom provide a second team in Los Angeles that is more than a mere shadow of the purple and gold. Paul has proven to be one of the league’s best point guards and Blake Griffin is a monster in the making.

While Griffin’s overall game is still raw, his double-double average in 2011-12 shows that he is more than just a highlight-reel player.

3. San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio took the league by surprise last year—something that is hard to do when you have future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and four-time NBA champion head coach Gregg Popovich at the helm. Coasting into the western conference finals with a 20-game winning streak, San Antonio met their match in the Oklahoma City Thunder.

While there is no doubt that the Spurs are still a great team, they won’t be the number one seed going into the 2013 playoffs.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

On paper, Los Angeles is stacked. Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, MWP, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. Unless the injury bug derails the Lakers, there is no place lower than the number two seed already reserved for Kobe’s team.

The place where L.A. may falter is late in the season and into the playoffs, but when you have three—maybe even four—future Hall of Famers in your starting lineup, there is no excuse you should not win a championship.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

Similar to the final standings last season, the better team may not always end up with the higher seed. San Antonio beat out OKC for the #1 seed in 2012 but, as previously mentioned, the Thunder would advance farther in the playoffs than the Spurs.

Similar things can be said about the 2013 seeding. OKC’s squad does not have the well-rounded talent that Los Angeles does, but three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant is the league’s second best player.

Playoff Predictions

Final seeding:

Western Conference                           Eastern Conference
(1) Oklahoma City Thunder
(1) Miami Heat
(2) Los Angeles Lakers
(2) Boston Celtics
(3) San Antonio Spurs
(3) New York Knicks
(4) Los Angeles Clippers
(4) Indiana Pacers
(5) Denver Nuggets
(5) Atlanta Hawks
(6) Memphis Grizzlies
(6) Brooklyn Nets
(7) Golden State Warriors
(7) Philadelphia 76ers
(8) Minnesota Timberwolves
(8) Chicago Bulls


Eastern Conference

Miami Heat (1) vs. Chicago Bulls (8) – MIAMI wins, 4-1

Indiana Pacers (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5) – INDIANA wins, 4-2

Boston Celtics (2) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (7) – BOSTON wins, 4-2

New York Knicks (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6) – NEW YORK wins, 4-2

Western Conference

Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (8) – OKLAHOMA CITY wins, 4-0

Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Denver Nuggets (5) – DENVER wins, 4-3

Los Angeles Lakers (2) vs. Golden State Warriors (7) – L.A. LAKERS win, 4-2

San Antonio Spurs (3) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (6) – SAN ANTONIO wins, 4-2

First round notes:

If the Warriors have a completely healthy roster by the time the playoffs roll around, Golden State is capable of upsetting the Lakers. (Remember “We Believe”?) But that is a tough proposition based on recent history with injuries to Stephen Curry and former Warrior, Monta Ellis. Similar things could be said for the Celtics vs. Timberwolves series.

A Clippers vs. Nuggets matchup should go an entertaining six or seven games and Los Angeles definitely has a realistic shot at winning the series.


Eastern Conference:

Miami Heat (1) vs. Indiana Pacers (4) – MIAMI wins, 4-1

Boston Celtics (2) vs. New York Knicks (3) – BOSTON wins, 4-2

Western Conference:

Oklahoma City (1) vs. Denver Nuggets (5) – OKLAHOMA CITY wins, 4-1

Los Angeles Lakers (2) vs. San Antonio Spurs (3) – L.A. LAKERS win, 4-2

Second round notes:

Each of these matchups should provide no surprises. The only chance something unexpected happens is if the San Antonio Spurs remain as impressive in 2013 as they were in 2012. But Dwight Howard should be able to keep Tim Duncan well under control which should mean a relatively easy win for the Lakers if Kobe Bryant can be a cooperative teammate.


Eastern Conference:

Miami Heat (1) vs. Boston Celtics (2) – MIAMI wins, 4-2

Western Conference:

Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (2) – OKLAHOMA CITY wins, 4-3

Conference finals notes:

Déjà vu in the eastern conference? Don’t expect it happening any other way. And do not foresee it ending up with different result unless Avery Bradley becomes an elite scorer. LeBron James is still hungry and he is at the top of his game. With the pressure removed of winning his first title, LeBron James has the knowledge of what it takes to win and will prove that he is much more than just a “one-and-done” player.

In the west, the Thunder are not about to back track. The upgraded Lakers won’t intimidate Scott Brooks’ young studs—although they will certainly give OKC a run for their money.


Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA Finals preview:

The last time two teams appeared in consecutive NBA Finals was in 1997 and 1998 when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls played Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz.

Just like in the late 90s when the same result occurred the second time around, so will the Miami Heat repeat as NBA champions. The addition of Ray Allen to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh is the best in the business and with reasonable back-ups, Miami will raise another championship banner in 2013.

Oklahoma City needs changes within their starting lineup if they are to beat LeBron & Co., and even then it will still be tough to beat the reigning regular season and NBA Finals MVP.

MIAMI wins, 4-2

(For a bracketed version of these predictions, check out this link.)

Keep checking back in on Bases and Baskets for our picks to win the 2013 NBA awards and be sure to voice your agreement/disagreement with these picks.

7 Reasons Minnesota Timberwolves Will End Playoff Drought in 2013

The Minnesota Timberwolves have been sitting on their couches during the playoffs for nearly the past decade. And once Kevin Garnett departed for greener pastures (the Boston Celtics), Minnesota appeared to possess little hope of returning to the promised land.

But there is a plethora of talent within the Timberwolves organization going into the new NBA season.

Here are (the lucky number) seven reasons that Minnesota will end their playoff drought in 2013.

Andrei Kirilenko will add a punch on defense

After signing a contract with the Timberwolves for 2-years/$20 million, the Timberwolves have added a versatile small forward who has a well-rounded game.

Over the course of his NBA career, Kirilenko has only once averaged below 10 points per game and has a career average of 2.0 blocks per game. His brief stint last season in Russian basketball has really “helped his body…He feels as good as he’s ever felt,” according to Timberwolves president and general manager David Kahn.

Also, the retirement of Brad Miller makes the Timberwolves an even younger team. But at 31, Kirilenko will add a veteran presence necessary when Minnesota is ready to make a late-season playoff push.

Utah and/or Dallas won’t make the playoffs

Even with the signing of former Memphis Grizzlies’ star O.J. Mayo, the Dallas Mavericks are on the rapid decline. A mere season after beating the Oklahoma City Thunder en route to an NBA championship, the Mavericks went down in a sweep to the Thunder in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.

Similar sentiments can be expressed for the Jazz, who lost in a sweep to the dominant San Antonio Spurs. With little depth behind Al Jefferson, Utah is not in a position to compete as aggressively as the Timberwolves are.

Look for the younger squads to make a run—the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves will take over the final playoff spots come 2013.

Ricky Rubio will return ready

When Ricky Rubio tore his ACL last season, the Timberwolves knew it would be a very tough season. The flashy European point guard excited not only the Minnesota fan base but also the entire NBA.

Watching plays like these can’t help you but to watch in amazement at someone who has the potential to become one of the league’s premier facilitating point guards.

If Rubio can return healthy—in what seems to be no earlier than December—then the Timberwolves will have someone to lead the way on the offensive side of the ball and dish to Kevin Love, Brandon Roy & Co.

Kevin Love continues to dominate

The all-star forward in Minnesota is reminiscent of another big-time big man who played in the blue and black. Comparisons have been (and will be) continually made between Love and Garnett.

The tendency of some analysts and fans to discredit Love’s efforts because of the lack of supporting cast is not valid. His night-in and night-out efforts have paid dividends and the results have followed.

Love is one of the premier players in the NBA.

Just look at the numbers that he put up just last season: 26.0 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game to go along with a respectable 37 percent three-point shooting percentage.

His player efficiency rating (PER) was top-five in the league.

Derrick Williams, Greg Steimsma and Nikola Pekovic will support Kevin Love

When your worst-case scenario is a “more athletic Antawn Jamison,” experts definitely have high expectations of you. And that is exactly what was said about the Minnesota draft pick, Derrick Williams.

At 6’9”, Williams is a power forward who will likely spend time as the back-up and/or splitting minutes with Kevin Love. Greg Steimsma has also showed that he is a very capable role player in the minutes he was on the court for the Celtics in the 2012 playoffs.

Nikola Pekovic is a 6’11” and 290-pound center who has established himself as a respectable big man. In 47 games played, Pekovic had an impressive 18.5 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes.

With Love, Pekovic, Williams and Steimsma, the Timberwolves just may have one of the deepest front lines in the NBA.

Brandon Roy will contribute enough—and maybe more

A former superstar, it was a very sad story to see Brandon Roy tell the Portland Trailblazers that he was retiring due to nagging knee injuries in 2011.

But the Timberwolves managed to pull the three-time All Star out of retirement in 2012 free agency. According to NBA.com, Roy has shot .421 on field goals in game-tying or game-winning opportunities over the course of his career.

As GM David Kahn said in that same article, “Brandon’s talent, experience and leadership will be helpful…[he] is one of the best shot-makers and clutch performers in the NBA.”

If he doesn’t get re-injured (which is by no means a guarantee), Roy could be the piece that really helps Minnesota compete with the best in the west.

Youth capable of competing late into the season

The Oklahoma City Thunder have shown over the past two years that age does not amount to much.

Making playoff-savvy teams look like nothing is a credit to the culture that GM Sam Presti and coach Scott Brooks have created in OKC, and Minnesota is capable of creating something similar.

While they don’t have a Big Three of their own, the Timberwolves have a host of players capable of putting together a good season. With Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Andrei Kirilenko leading the way, Minnesota will land at least the number eight seed in the west in 2013.

Dwight Howard Trade Doesn't Mean L.A. Lakers Will Top Oklahoma City Thunder

On paper, the Los Angeles Lakers have it all: incredible scorer in Kobe Bryant, gifted facilitating point guard in Steve Nash, and the league's best center in Dwight Howard.

Add MWP, one of the league’s premier defenders and a still capable forward in Pau Gasol and the Lakers may rightfully be favorites to win the western conference.

But a closer look at the top two teams in the West shows that the reigning champions (of the conference) are still set-up to repeat.

First, a look at the run that the Oklahoma City Thunder made last season shows that they are an elite team. Although they didn’t win the NBA Finals, their playoff run was one for the ages. 10 of the past 14 NBA champions were one of the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs or the Dallas Mavericks.

Oklahoma City beat each of those teams in one playoff run—not to mention they beat a Spurs team that was riding a 20-game winning streak.

In those three playoff series until the Finals, the Thunder had a combined record of 12-3. OKC more than held their own against some of the league’s most playoff-savvy teams.

It should not come as a surprise that the Miami Heat were able to demolish a worn-out Thunder team. Miami only had to defeat the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers in the first two rounds. While that’s not meant to discredit Miami’s run in any way—they were deserving champions—Oklahoma City’s run was impressive in its own right.

With the Big Three in OKC still young and hungry for a title, they will come to play. Dwight Howard in Los Angeles will not intimidate them. Add on the fact that it is a contract year for James Harden and Serge Ibaka (both have team options for next season), and the youth in OKC will continue to show that they are at the top of the NBA.

Kevin Durant’s name hasn’t even been mentioned yet.

The three-time scoring champion is a quiet, lead-by-example player who has ice in his veins (as he showed in the playoffs against MWP and the Lakers) and is only 23 years old. His personality allows Russell Westbrook to take the shots that he does.

Think of it this way: in Kobe Bryant’s heyday (or even now), could a Westbrook and Kobe duo work?

The answer to that question is a self-evident, resounding no.

Kevin Durant is as unselfish a scorer as possible, maybe with the exception of LeBron James. He is the ideal teammate for those precise reasons—he is talented, unselfish and hungry.

Now let’s have a look at the new-look Lakers, whose lineup presumably will look something like this: Steve Nash (PG), Kobe Bryant (SG), MWP (SF), Pau Gasol (PF) and Dwight Howard (C).

As great as Bryant and Howard were on their own, they were both big fish in the pond. Remember how the Bryant-Shaq pairing turned out?

Kobe Bryant may say that he is all about winning, and the media does encourage those thoughts, but he relishes the comparisons to Michael Jordan. He wants to be the greatest individual player of all time.

Add on the fact that Kobe will not be the primary ball-handler with Steve Nash running point and it will be easy to see Kobe complaining that the Lakers early season struggles are not his fault. Remember how he railed Pau Gasol in the playoffs last season?

With age comes impatience for a waning superstar and Kobe only has a couple years left (at least according to his word). If he does not perform like he expects to, Bryant will find a teammate or coach to place the blame on.

Moreover, Andrew Bynum’s three-pointer, among other occurrences last year, showed that Mike Brown didn’t have the respect of his players. Following in the path of Laker legend Phil Jackson isn’t (and won’t be) easy.

Scott Brooks, on the other hand, has already proven that his players say and do the right things both on and off the court.

OKC defeated Tim Duncan, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol last year. Overcoming Dwight Howard won’t be much more difficult.

5 Reasons the San Francisco Giants Will Make it to the World Series

For the first time in years, the San Francisco Giants have a respectable offense. Led by the trio of all-stars in Melky Cabrera, Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, the Giants have put together an impressive season thus far offensively.

Only one team in baseball has two players in the top-10 in batting average (Cabrera and Posey) and the Nationals are the only team other than the Giants to have two starting pitchers with ERAs under 3.00.

Put together the following five reasons and the Giants have more than just a realistic shot at the National League pennant.

1. Buster Posey is an MVP candidate almost solely based on his second half play

As mentioned in the introductory slide, Posey’s .332 average is good for one of the best in the majors.

That number is even more impressive when you consider his mediocre .289 first-half average. The nearly fifty-point increase has occurred in the 27 games since the All-Star break in which Posey has hit a scorching .449 with nine home runs.

Posey may not look like the prototypical middle-of-the-lineup slugger but he gets the job done efficiently and effectively. He is a leader in the clubhouse and on the field, and someone who the Giants will certainly lean on when they make their playoff push.

He showed he was capable of carrying a heavy load in their 2010 championship and has only gotten better and gained experience in his nearly two years since then.

2. Melky Cabrera is leading the offense to the best it’s been in years

Nobody could have expected Melky “The Melk Man” Cabrera to have the year he is having for the Giants.

Earning All Star Game MVP honors, even rival Dodger Matt Kemp told him, “you can hit.”

His .348 average does not lie. Cabrera is becoming one of the games’ best, and the Giants could not be happier. He is a jovial player and someone who fits nicely into a clubhouse with personalities like Pablo Sandoval.

The question is, though, would the Royals traded Cabrera if they knew what they now know?

Probably not.

3. The starting pitchers may look slightly different, but they are just as dominant

Ryan Vogelsong is a Cy Young candidate with his impressive 2.72 ERA.

Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner are top-5 in the league with identical 1.03 WHIP (a sabermetric statistic that measures baserunners per inning pitched).

Tim Lincecum has been much worse than one would expect of a two-time Cy Young Award winner, but the Giants will retain hope that he can figure it out and decrease his abysmal 5.35 ERA.

Even Barry Zito, the most overpaid player on the Giants roster, is having his best season as a Giant. His 9-8 record is just above .500 and he has put together some rather impressive starts over the course of the regular season. (And yes, Zito’s “best season” only means so much considering he has never had a winning record in a Giants uniform nor a season with an ERA below 4.00.)

As fellow B/R featured columnist Kyle Brown pointed out, San Francisco’s bullpen may be a weak spot. But if the starters can limit the innings for the bullpen, that weakness can be hidden.

4. Hunter Pence’s best baseball is ahead of him

Hunter Pence’s contract may be daunting, but if he plays to his true ability, he will be more than worth it.

Pence has undoubtedly gotten off to a very slow start with the Giants, hitting .154 with one home run in 12 games in the orange and black. However, his energy is something that will benefit the Giants down the stretch and he does not have the same pressure that Aaron Rowand did when he came over from the Philadelphia Phillies.

His three-run home run to give the Giants the lead in Sunday’s game against the Rockies may be the trigger that settles Pence down. Not only that, but he has Cabrera to lean on in the outfield. Pence will find his niche with the Giants.

Once he does that, the San Francisco offense will be right there with the best in baseball.

5. The Giants have playoff experience

The current Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates are all very new to the playoff race. The Braves and the Dodgers are not even the best teams in their division, even though they are certainly legitimate threats in the playoffs.

The core nucleus of the 2010 championship team is still in San Francisco, and even Melky Cabrera and Hunter Pence had some playoff experience (as members of the New York Yankees and Phillies, respectively).

San Francisco still is not given the respect they deserve—and have earned—but they will once again show the nation that Giants baseball is here to torture not only Giants fans, but also the rest of baseball.

View this article, which was originally published on Bleacher Report, here.

Why 2013 Is Already Make or Break for Oklahoma City Thunder’s Young Core

With the added pressure of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, 2013 will put a lot of pressure on the young studs that Sam Presti has brilliantly drafted as general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

They have made tremendous strides since their days as the Seattle SuperSonics but deep playoff runs only mean so much if you don’t have a ring to show for it—just ask LeBron James.

Russell Westbrook (23 years old), James Harden (22) and Kevin Durant (23) all have years before they’ve even reached their primes, which is a very scary thought.

But they have and will be sure to demand the money they are worth.

And then the question becomes: can Oklahoma City hold onto all of their Big Three? And should they if there is no championship banner?

Some of the cellar teams can afford to spend a year or two fine-tuning a roster or sticking with a player that has potential they haven’t quite lived up to. But Oklahoma City was three wins away from a title in 2012.

They have excellent team chemistry behind bright, young coach Scott Brooks but they don’t have offensive support in the post. The Miami Heat can look to Chris Bosh and the Los Angeles Lakers now have Dwight Howard (and, of course, the San Antonio Spurs still have Tim Duncan).

If they can’t pull it together next year, something has to change.

There is no way the front office will be satisfied with these playoff appearances—and they should not be. When you have Kevin Durant to build around, you should be a perennial championship contender.

And there is no way that Durant is going anywhere.

So that means each and every other player in the starting lineup will be open to trade talks. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are elite defensive presences which could provide viable trade bait for the Thunder.

Russell Westbrook is a top-10 player in the NBA which warrants the consideration of a big man from possible suitors if the Thunder can figure out the right deal. And James Harden may be the odd man out after his abysmal performance in the 2012 NBA Finals that included back-to-back games shooting 20 percent from the field.

Which starter(s) the Thunder deal depends on four factors: 1) Perry Jones III, 2) potential trades available, 3) 2013 performance and 4) money demanded by the player.

If Perry Jones III pans out to be a respectable forward/center at 6’11” then Oklahoma City may be more inclined to get rid of the $9 million that Perkins is due in 2014. Jones performance could also warrant an addition to a trade if OKC decides to trade Westbrook or Harden.

In terms of how they play in 2013, if it ends up in a championship then Presti will do everything in his power to retain the young core that the Thunder have.

But if Ibaka and Harden demand too much in free agency and the Thunder haven’t won a title they will be on the trading block with Westbrook in the midst of a 5-yr/$80 million contract.

There are endless permutations of possibilities for the Thunder to work with—and one thing is certain if 2013 doesn’t pan out the way 2012 did for Miami: things will change and players will be moved.

View this article, which was originally published on Bleacher Report, here.

5 Skills That Serge Ibaka Can Learn from Hakeem Olajuwon

The Oklahoma City Thunder may eventually have to part ways with Serge Ibaka (or Kendrick Perkins) but are for now blessed with a big man who has sky-high potential.

Hakeem Olajuwon would be the perfect tutor for Ibaka for various reasons. Olajuwon has shown he is willing to reach out to current NBA players like LeBron James and Dwight Howard, so if Ibaka can manage to spend some time with one of the NBA’s greatest centers of all time, he would be wise to take full advantage of it.

Olajuwon has already reached out to OKC coach Scott Brooks regarding Ibaka.

Here are five skills that Serge Ibaka could learn from Hakeem Olajuwon and make a push at becoming an elite center/power forward.

1. Offensive post moves and footwork
The consensus last year was that the Oklahoma City Thunder really needed an offensive post presence.

Although it was masked by two of the NBA’s most prolific scorers (three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook), Ibaka and Perkins did not provide nearly enough lift offensively.

Most often, Scott Brooks would have to choose one or the other to play center and have Kevin Durant play power forward because having two players who cannot score the basketball on the court at the same time is a huge liability.

Not only that but it allows an extra man (and a half) guard Durant or Westbrook whether they sag off Ibaka or Perkins or simply double a scorer.

Olajuwon is known as one of the best offensive big men of all time. In fact, Pete Newell said Olajuwon has “the best footwork [he’s] ever seen from a big man” (per NBA.com).

You don’t get much higher praise than that.

So, if Ibaka could figure out something even remotely similar to the Dream Shake (video above), he could become more of a weapon and less of a liability for the Thunder.

2. Get defensive rebounds more effectively and efficiently

Over his career, Ibaka averages less than seven rebounds per game.

That needs to change—especially if he is going to be a primary big man.

While there is truth to the statement that defensive presence is more than just statistics, rebounds do have quantitative value: namely preventing offensive rebounds and allowing your team to get transition opportunities.

Hakeem Olajuwon averaged over 11 rebounds in his career. He could likely briefly watch some tape of Ibaka and suggest the best way for Ibaka to improve his rebounding.

It may be something as simple as effort and boxing out, or it may be more intricate—perhaps transitioning better from being a shot-blocker to a rebounder. Either way, this would be something that would significantly improve Ibaka’s overall game.

3. The mindset of a big man

Although Ibaka is already approaching the league’s elite big men, his offensive game isn’t quite there.

Perhaps more importantly, his mindset and outward appearance isn’t there yet.

Too often we see Ibaka running up and down the court looking too much like a nice guy. The center position isn’t meant to be friendly—people don’t call it “battling” for rebounds for nothing.

Hakeem’s sustained success in the NBA can always come back to his mental composure and appearance. Just look at some of the league’s best centers in recent memory (Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard): something in their swagger is intimidating.

Breaking backboards does tend to do that to an opponent.

4. Shot blocking

To be fair, Serge Ibaka is already one of the league’s best shot-blockers.

In fact, his league leading 241 blocks was over 100 more than the second-place finisher.

But just imagine where Ibaka could be if he got some tips from the NBA’s all-time blocks leader. And going back two slides, if Ibaka can learn how to rebound and shot block effectively he will be right up there with Dwight Howard as the league’s best defensive presence.

5. How to play with other great players

All of the aforementioned skills are useless if Ibaka cannot coexist with Durant and Westbrook.

That’s not to say that he hasn’t been already, just that offensively Westbrook likes to handle the ball a lot and shoot early in the shot clock while Durant is capable of taking over games with the ball in his hands.

Hakeem knows what that’s like, having played with one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players, Clyde Drexler (who I have interviewed).

Preparing Ibaka to gameplan with Durant and Westbrook and prepare to create opportunities for himself is critical in order to remain on the floor and in an Oklahoma City uniform.

He already has a decent jump shot—if he can become more of an offensive threat he will make his way up near/to the top of the NBA’s best big men.

This article can also be viewed at Bleacher Report.com

Exclusive Interview with Dream Team Player and Hall of Fame NBA Superstar Clyde Drexler

In an exclusive interview with one of the NBA’s greatest players of all time, Clyde Drexler talks with me about everything basketball. Going from the Olympics to comparisons to the Dream Team and his life after basketball, Drexler and I had a friendly 15-minute discussion.

Drexler is an absolute class act and was a pleasure to interview, talking as if we were old friends. Here is what he had to say:

Elijah Abramson: First let me say that I really appreciate the time that you are taking.

Clyde Drexler: It’s my pleasure.

EA: So what do you see as the significance of LeBron James’ triple double in the Olympics [first in US Olympic history]?

CD: He is by far and away the best player in the game. He does everything all the time.

EA: Definitely. So with LeBron and Durant doing what they’re doing, how do you think that they’re going to fair against the rest of the field, in particular, Spain? Is Team USA a lock for the gold medal?

CD: I’m really impressed with how well they’re playing. They’re putting it out there on the line and having great success. I was impressed when I saw them play Spain in an exhibition game before the Olympics and they beat Spain, in Spain, by 22. Spain really thought they had the US.

That was a convincing moment for me to say that I don’t think anybody is going to come close.

EA: On that same subject, there’s been a lot of talk about limiting the Olympics to the younger guys in the NBA, like Anthony Davis. Do you like that or do you prefer seeing the best the NBA has to offer going out and representing the US?

CD: You can’t go wrong either way, but an age limit should be around 30.

EA: You don’t think Kobe should be playing?

CD: No, I think he should be allowed to play and it’s a wonderful thing. He’s a phenomenal player—still the best offensive player in the game. 30 is a good age to have if you have to have a limit. As long as it’s the same [for all sports].

EA: I wrote an article comparing you and the Dream Team to 2012 Team USA. How do you think the two teams compare and what do you think of Kobe and LeBron’s comments on that comparison?

CD: Those guys have every right to say the things that they do because they’re very good. Obviously I’m a little bit biased. It would be close, but at the end of the day we would beat them by 25 to 30.

EA: So you think it’s going to be close but you’ll beat them by 25 to 30?

CD: Yeah, that would be close. (laughs)

Actually…I don’t think there should be an age limit, [the older athletes] get so much fan support. Why would you want to limit that? I’m going to change my comment. There should be no age limit.

EA: What about the NBA fans and owners who are worried about injuries? Teams don’t want their best players going out there because they are making their money in the NBA.

CD: I can understand that aspect because you play hard for nine months and your body needs to rest. By doing the Olympics, your body does not get to rest. Guys have to gauge where they are and learn how to manage.

EA: Being from the Bay Area I don’t have too much affection for Bryant and the Lakers but what do you think about the comparisons that have been made between Kobe, Jordan and LeBron?

CD: Comparisons? They are all phenomenal. I’ll take any of them as teammates. (laughs)

And you got someone who might become one of the all-time greats down there in Golden State. Klay Thompson can shoot it.

EA: Yes, he played really well last season.

CD: There really should be no comparison between those guys (Kobe, LeBron, Jordan). I mean, who is to say which one is better? You could throw about ten other guys into that mix. Just give me any of those guys. (laughs)

EA: In terms of age limit, do you like the rule that the NBA made that makes players go to college and the subsequent one-and-done road that John Calipari has instilled? Or would you prefer to see guys come out as teenagers?

CD: Like I said, as long as you keep it the same between all sports that’s good. Education is worth its weight in gold. Make no mistake about it. But remember we’re only talking about two or three kids a year.

For the most part, these kids need two to three years in college before the NBA.

But if you’re such an exception, it should be an opportunity. One-and-done is not a bad rule. All kids need to figure out how to manage their time as young adults. But whatever you do [about age limitations], do it for hockey, baseball, basketball… The double standards are ridiculous.

EA: Talking a little bit about yourself, what was more important to you: your gold medal with the Dream Team or your NBA championship in 1995?

CD: Oh, that’s like choosing what child you like best. (laughs) You’re just trying to do the best you can. It’s just an honor to play the game and do things of that nature.

EA: Now you’re a color commentator for the Rockets, how has that been?

CD: It’s been great, keeps me involved with the game. My son and I go to a lot of the games.

EA: As a former player, do you ever get that itch to play or are you ready sit back and see your kids play?

CD: I retired at 35 in ’98 and thought there’s only one place to go and that’s downward. I retired at a good level. I was at peace after 15 years—I was lucky to play that long.

I love the game and played from 13 to 35 almost every single day. Since I retired, I haven’t woken up one morning and said, “you know what? I’m going to go play basketball!” But I just did the SF Half Marathon last year, so I still stay in decent shape.

[Basketball] was a job. It was a lot of hard work but I was glad when it was over—it was like running a marathon.

EA: You mentioned you retired when you were still productive, so what do you think about Kobe’s comments about retiring at 35? He said he would retire then when he was coming into the league.

CD: I think there is a lot to be said about that because you put a lot of pressure on your cardiovascular system and it’s tough on your long term health. I think if you’re lucky enough to make it 15 years, [you need to realize] that’s a lot.

EA: Great, thank you again for your time.

CD: You are quite welcome.

If you would like the chance to speak with Clyde Drexler, he will be chatting live with USA Basketball and Olympic fans in ConnecTV’s Watercooler this Friday, August 10 at 1:30pm ET.