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Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Best Basketball Player In the World

  • Kirk GoldsberryESPN Staff Writer
  • ESPN

At 24 years old, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best basketball player in the world. He is the best offensive player on a top-five NBA offense. He’s the best defensive player on the No. 1 defense. As the catalyst of an incredible basketball system, Giannis has led the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the NBA and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

With respect to Houston’s bearded prophet, Antetokounmpo isn’t just this season’s MVP. He is the perfect two-way superstar for where the NBA is right now — and where it’s going.ADVERTISEMENT


A revolutionary throwback on offense

Let’s start on offense — specifically Giannis’ favorite spot on the floor.

Owning the paint

Antetokounmpo has quickly surpassed some dude named LeBron James as the league’s premier interior force. He also is doing things we haven’t seen since Shaquille O’Neal was in his prime.

Check this out:

Most Paint Points (Past 20 Years)

PLAYERSEASONPOINTS
Shaquille O’Neal1999-001,774
Shaquille O’Neal2000-011,480
Shaquille O’Neal2001-021,348
Shaquille O’Neal2002-031,312
Shaquille O’Neal2004-051,266
Giannis Antetokounmpo2018-191,226

If the NBA analytics era has taught us anything, it’s that the best shots in the game occur either beyond the arc or near the hoop. The Bucks bask in both zones. Giannis makes hay at the rim, yet he does it so much better than everyone else, partially because his team is woke to the spacing movement.

“If you don’t knock down shots, then everybody’s gonna be in the paint,” Antetokounmpo told ESPN.com last week. “[My teammates have] been making shots all year, so it gives me a lot of space to make plays for them and myself.”

Simply put, he has become the most self-sufficient dunker we’ve seen in decades. After dropping 19 unassisted dunks as a rookie in 2013-14, Giannis reached 116 this season — the only guy to top 100 for as long as the league has been tallying play-by-play data.

Most Unassisted Dunks

PLAYERSEASONDUNKS
Giannis Antetokounmpo2018-19116
Dwight Howard2006-0795
Shaquille O’Neal2004-0593
Since 1996-97

But Giannis plays a completely different game than those other two supermen. He handles the ball, he faces up, he drives. Those guys played in the low post.

“I think the thing that’s so unique and different about how Giannis is dominating in the paint is that lots of times he’s starting with the ball outside the 3-point line — and still finishing in the paint,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said.

And there’s just something especially satisfying about an unassisted drivingdunk. It’s such a dramatic display of dominance. It’s why in many of his best highlights, Giannis looks like a man among boys.

But then you remember this is the best basketball league on Earth.

Every NBA player would love to dribble up the court and slam it home at will. They can’t. Yes, that unassisted dunk stat is a little esoteric, and it might not translate directly to wins, but it does reveal just how unprecedented this kid’s dominance is right now.

Coaches design entire defensive philosophies around protecting the paint. Antetokounmpo doesn’t care. With only a dribble or two and some crafty footwork, he can transport the ball from the perimeter to the hoop and hammer it home. Basketball rarely looks so easy:

By surrounding Antetokounmpo with a fleet of long-range shooters and stationing them on remote perimeter outposts, Budenholzer has unleashed the NBA’s most dominant interior scorer.

“We have so much spacing,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’ve got stronger and I’m able to get in there, play through contact now, and go up and finish the play.”

In the NBA, stars aren’t born, they’re built, and Giannis has built himself in the weight room. All that extra strength is important. Remember this guy?

Yeah, he’s not creating 100 dunks at the NBA level. But this guy is:

Spacing starts at the rim, and Milwaukee’s ferocious interior minister is the most critical component of the most prolific 3-point offense in the Eastern Conference. Between Giannis’ physical development, his accelerated skills and Budenholzer’s offensive architecture, the Bucks went from 27th overall in made 3-pointers in 2017-18 to second in 2018-19.

Crucial playmaking

Sometimes finishing the play means dunking on some fool’s head, but other times it means doing this:

“His ability as a passer and a playmaker has been so important to us,” Budenholzer said. “And he’s already ahead of where any of us envisioned.

“He takes a lot of pride in being a playmaker.”

The passing highlights will never go as viral as the dunks, but they are more important. After creating only 8.4 assist opportunities per 100 possessions as a rookie, Antetokounmpo doubled that number this season (up to 17.0), per Second Spectrum tracking. He ranked fourth in the NBA in total 3-point assists.

Even if he is not great at knocking them down himself, Antetokounmpo has found a way to create easy treys. Milwaukee led the league in assisted 3s this season, but no player assisted on more of them than Giannis. It wasn’t close:M

Although the step-back 3 is quickly rising in popularity, more than 82 percent of NBA 3s are still assisted. The secret to increasing 3-point offense is finding players and actions that can generate clean looks on the perimeter. Giannis is one of those players, and Budenholzer’s playbook is chock-full of those actions, but the front office helped too.

The offseason addition of Brook Lopez was a stroke of genius. Last season, John Henson was the Bucks’ starting center. Henson can’t space the floor. He doesn’t shoot 3s. Lopez came in and immediately became the team’s most prolific deep threat. Opponents have to station a big man out on the perimeter even when Lopez doesn’t fire away; “Splash Mountain” has opened up the interior, helping Giannis become more efficient than ever.

“[Lopez] has done a lot, because his man is not in the paint,” Antetokounmpo said. “One thing that I tell Brook every time when the game is starting is, ‘Shoot the ball. Doesn’t matter if it goes in. Shoot the ball.’ Because I know the guy will have to come out and guard him.”

Antetokounmpo wouldn’t look this good without Budenholzer’s offense or his friends on the perimeter, but organizational competence shouldn’t hurt his best player case. His main competitor for the MVP award, James Harden, also benefits from the strategic alignment of front office, head coach and superstar. The best organizations in the league always have embraced some kind of fitting structure, and the most successful ones put their best players in conducive habitats, just as general manager Jon Horst and Budenholzer have done with Giannis.

Regardless, Giannis is probably not the absolute best offensive player in the league — at least not yet. But he doesn’t have to be. The Bucks’ offensive improvements have been remarkable — they ended the regular season with the best offense in the East — but as crazy as it sounds, that pales in comparison to Milwaukee’s defensive awakening.

Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Great defense and how to value it

There was always a defensive juggernaut buried in this roster. For years, the Bucks have had a reputation as one the longest, most athletic rosters in the NBA. But previous coaches just couldn’t crack the code. Last season, the Bucks ranked 18th in defensive efficiency. This season, they ranked first, and many of their NBA-best 60 victories have more to do with getting stops than they do with getting buckets. The entire culture around the team has changed. That’s most evident on defense.

Budenholzer redesigned the defensive playbook. Whereas last season’s team was overaggressive at the point of attack and gave up more layups than anyone, this season’s team is the opposite. The Bucks run arguably the most conservative pick-and-roll defense, happy to keep their big men in the paint and give up perimeter looks as long as they protect the rim.

Giannis is the best defender on the team and arguably the most versatile defender in the league. He can protect the hoop. He can guard on the perimeter. He is a nightmare in transition. His ridiculous mix of size, athleticism and length essentially enables the Bucks to have an extra big man on the floor at all times without getting slower.

Forget MVP for a second. You could argue Giannis should win the Defensive Player of the Year Award too. I’ll make his case right here with four quick stats.

  • Stat No. 1: Of the 216 players (almost half the league) who have defended at least 100 shots at the rim, nobody has been a more effective rim protector than Giannis. Per Second Spectrum tracking, opponents convert just 52.7 percent of their shots at the rim when Giannis is the closest defender. Jayson Tatum knows.
  • Stat No. 2: Antetokounmpo ranks second in the NBA in defensive rebounding.
  • Stat No. 3: Of the 206 players who have played at least 50 games and averaged at least 20 minutes per game, Giannis has the third best defensive rating — and the highest such mark on the team with the best defense.
  • Stat No. 4: Antetokounmpo and Robert Covington are the only wing players in the top 20 in ESPN’s defensive real plus minus.

When Antetokounmpo isn’t making plays as a primary defender, he is a terrifying free safety. Out of 78 players who have provided help defense on at least 300 drives this season, he has been the best, holding opponents to a measly 0.82 points per chance, according to Second Spectrum data. And when teams are silly enough to isolate against him, he has been fifth best at stifling that nonsense — among 135 players to defend at least 100 such plays — allowing just 0.74 points per chance.

The numbers are impressive, but the footage is even better. Giannis has the NBA’s best defensive highlights. Just ask Blake Griffin.

Imagine a defender as punishing as Rudy Gobert and an offensive star nearly as dominant as Harden. That’s Giannis.

Still, defense remains woefully underappreciated in player valuation. Not only is it hard to measure, but it’s boring. Whenever a decent scorer is also a strong defender, he is labeled a good “two-way player.” But here’s the thing: This isn’t football. Everybody is a two-way player in this sport, and its best players excel on both ends of the court.

For years, we didn’t have enough data to even try to quantitatively value individual defensive performances. In turn, even the most sophisticated MVP debates — Giannis vs. Harden, Russell Westbrook vs. Kawhi Leonard, you name it — can overlook the unglamorous arts of stopping dudes.

We still have a long way to go. Basketball has borrowed a lot from baseball, including an attempt to measure and catalog every statistical event. NBA defense isn’t event-based, and defensive play involves constantly doing stuff that is hard to tally in spreadsheets. The best defenders in the sport are constantly suppressing shots, intimidating opponents, stifling sets and disrupting offenses in ways that are inconvenient (or impossible) to count.

Basketball also has modeled its most prestigious individual award after America’s pastime. Major League Baseball introduced the most valuable player award in 1931, decades before basketball did. Trying to identify and award the best player in a sport at the end of the season isn’t unusual. However, those first two words — most valuable — make things weirder than going with best player or most outstanding or whatever. That’s how we end up in unanswerable debates.

No one will totally agree on what is valuable in the game of basketball. While the analytics era of the NBA has helped us quantify value in dozens of new ways, our accounting framework and discourse still remain skewed toward offensive numbers. It’s within this environment that terrible defensive players still get paid millions of dollars. It’s within this framework that the stank of superstars on the defensive end gets obscured by buckets.

This season’s MVP vote will probably be close. But the league’s best team has a superstar who is clearly the best two-way player in the world’s best two-way sport. What is more valuable than that?

Mandel’s Musings: Durant to Knicks Will Change Sleepy MSG into Dynamic HHG (Hip Hop Garden)

by Scott Mandel

If Kevin Durant joins the Knicks, this sad, bad, moribund franchise will immediately metamorphosize into the NBA’s version of the (old) Oakland Raiders. Or, more appropriately, a modern iteration of the Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boys.

Durant loves playing the “bad MF/villain” role. On this soft, pliable Knicks roster of nice guys, he would become the alpha dog, the Lester Hayes, Jack Tatum, the “Mad Stork,” Ted Hendricks of New York and the NBA.

Instead of hitting receivers crossing over the middle in the chops, causing snot and sweat to come flying off their faces, as the original sports assassin, Tatum, did for the Raiders, Durant would easily take on the role of being another kind of assassin – one with the ball in his hand, taking unmakeable shots from 25 feet away from the basket with a hand in his face that would put games out of reach. Or, getting a defensive rebound, going 90 feet with the ball, finishing at the rim by throwing it down in someone’s face.

Bad dude, that Durant (if he’s on the opposing team).

Durant got thrown out of yesterday’s Game 1 of the playoff series between KD’s Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers. It came after an altercation with another pit bull, Patrick Beverley of the Los Angeles Clippers towards the end of the game. They had been jawing at each other throughout but Durant, realizing his Golden State Warriors had the game in the bag, took the opportunity to get up in Beverley’s face and push him to the ground. Right in front of the referee and a national television audience.

Illustration for article titled The Beef Between Kevin Durant And Patrick Beverley Will Make This Inevitable Warriors Sweep Fun As Hell
Two tough competitors in Game 1 of Warriors-Clippers playoff series

Bad dude, that Kevin Durant.

He speaks to the media without much of a filter. He doesn’t hide his dislike for his opponents, inside the black lines and often, outside of them, either. He’ll tell the gathered media to shut the hell up and do their jobs, which in his view is to just cover basketball games. Or, he’ll ignore his professional responsibility to speak to the press after games, often telling us to “get outta my way.”

Bad dude, that K.D.

Knicks fans will love it. He’ll bring a mentality not often found in basketball. The Patrick Ewing Hoya Destroyers of the 80s, with guys like Michael Graham not allowing anyone to come into the lane without a physical message being laid upon them.

The 1990s Knicks, with Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason. A team that wasn’t a good fit for nice guy, and soft player, Charles Smith, a 6’10” power forward who played with finesse.

Image result for detroit pistons bad boys
Detroit’s Bad Boys of the 1990s won two NBA championships playing dirty, especially Bill Laimbeer

The Bad Boys of Detroit, with Rick Mahorn and that dirty, little Isiah Thomas, who would cut you up with his skills and toughness while smiling at you like Mona Lisa.

Related image
Jack Tatum of the Silver and Black Raiders in the 1970s

I could envision the Knicks pushing the toughness mentality with black (and orange) uniforms. I can even imagine them bringing back that tough old bird, Oakley, Ewing’s protector in the ’90s, to watch games from celebrity row, with Knicks owner, Jim Dolan posing for pictures alongside big “Oak.”.

And, if by some small 14% miracle, the 6’8″ 285 pound Zion Williamson becomes a Knick, to go along with Durant and Kyrie Irving (another tough kid with ‘tude), this will be Fizdales’ #@$ Dream.

Get ready for MSG being converted into HHG – Hip Hop Garden.

Kevin Durant will change everything because, K.D. is a bad dude with a ‘tude.

Mandel’s Musings: Spring Fever – Tiger Woods and The Masters, NBA Playoffs, Baseball in Full Swing

by Scott Mandel

This is what spring is supposed to feel like. It’s not just the longer days, the warmer temperatures, and the rosier outlooks.

No, it can’t be spring without first checking out the azaleas in Augusta, Georgia, where there is also a little golf tournament being played called The Masters. Or, paying attention to the real NBA season, aka, the playoffs. And, as idyllic a season as spring can be, the most idyllic of sports, baseball, is now in full swing.

One of the rights of spring remains checking out the leader board among those azaleas in Georgia, where globally-branded golf names appear from April 11 – April 14. One of those brands is named, Tiger Woods.

No athlete in any sport has been as polarizing over the past 20 years than Woods, yet, his comeback into the upper echelon of the sport is being met with levels of appreciation, if not affection, for his evolving story of what his fans hope will be redemption. The fun part for observers is the experiencing of his trials and tribulations in real time. We don’t know if history will be made in Augusta this weekend or not, but, it’s an emotional roller-coaster to watch it play out in front of our very eyes.

What makes his play even more compelling is knowing there remain many Woods’ haters. People who will never forgive his past mistakes nor his treatment of his fans and the media. So, like the political landscape across the world, there are vastly different points of view about this athlete which draws the most casual of golf fans to his events.

Image result for Tiger Woods 2019 Masters
Tiger Woods seems to be enjoying his job, finally


From notorious cheating husband to the incurrence of several career-threatening surgeries on his back and knees, Woods’ playing career was all but left for dead. The sport places such tremendous torque on backs and knees with every swing that nobody believed Woods, at age 43, could ever approach his former talent, let alone his ability to win tournaments, especially major tournaments, on the PGA tour after what his body and mind have been through over the past 10 years.

However, Woods currently finds himself, today, with the onset of the third round, one stroke back of the Masters lead with most of the nation of golf fans and, now, those casual fans of the sport, rooting hard for him to pick up his fourth Masters green jacket and first win in a major in over a decade.

At the same time, post-season playoffs are beginning this week in two major North American sports. The NBA and the NHL. This is the part of each sports’ seasons that actually matters. After interminably long, 82-game regular season schedules which began in October of last year, we finally have competition in which the participants actually care about winning at all costs.

Not to be forgotten or outdone, baseball season is blissfully in full swing, too, allowing it, in spring of 2019, to once more become the national pastime of the U.S., while football, driven by gambling, huge television contracts, and concussions, tries to sort itself out during its off-season.

But, it is on this day, on this weekend when we focus on the drama of watching Tiger Woods. An often surly human being/athlete, never fan-friendly or media-friendly, we suddenly care about his appearance on the Masters leaderboard. We care about the tremendous theater his skills on a golf course can create on a pretty weekend in April. We care so much so that it even keeps us sitting in front of our televisions on a warm, bright Saturday and Sunday instead of leaving our homes this weekend to enjoy a sunny day in the spring.

Related image
The Masters in Augusta is lined with beautiful azaleas





















Masters azaleas surround the beautiful golf course in Augusta, Georgia

St. John’s Would Make Huge Mistake By Choosing Cluess Over Rick Pitino as Head Coach

Reports are spreading that St. John’s is leaning towards choosing Tim Cluess, the 60-year old Iona coach, to be its next head basketball coach, replacing Chris Mullin. But, not Rick Pitino.


Nice.


Cluess, 60, could tell recruits he’ll be there at least until their sophomore season or until his first social security check arrives, whichever comes first.


Cluess is a nice guy. He’s been a good coach for mid-major basketball programs who probably deserved his shot at major league college basketball (defined as lots of tv games in a power conference, like the Big East USED TO BE) many years ago. One wonders why that opportunity didn’t present itself then, or, why he didn’t pursue it.


In any event, Cluess is a bad choice for any long term goals St. John’s may have for its basketball program.


If winning is your thing, and the coach’s age doesn’t matter, you pick the very best and most available college coach in America, Rick Pitino.

Related image
Tim Cluess appears to be leading candidate for St. John’s coaching job

Pitino, with New York roots, is a youthful 66-year old from Long Island who never lost his New York accent. His name and his track record of National Championships at Louisville and Kentucky would bring 5-star players to do their one-and-dones or two-and-dones on the biggest stage, in New York City and Madison Square Garden.

There are growing numbers of college head coaching jobs opening up as we speak. Pitino will get one of those jobs because he owns a .740 win percentage (770-271), ranks fifth all-time in NCAA Tournament history with 54 wins, sixth among coaches with seven Final Four appearances and has won two National Championships. He is also the only coach in college basketball history to take three teams to the Final Four (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville) and win championships with two different Division I schools (Kentucky and Louisville) But, for St. John’s and any other school considering him, he will change the basketball culture of those schools, change the financial structure, and will raise the national profile of a struggling program, as well as immediately bring in 5-star athletes.


Under Pitino, it is easy to imagine St. John’s getting to the Sweet 16 by year two, after he has had a few months to recruit the best high schoolers in the country. And, appearing in the Elite 8 by year three, all the while putting fannies in the seats at a packed Madison Square Garden for every game, making money. They’d be getting the back pages of the tabloids in town (if that’s still a thing), and re-generating interest in the struggling brand known as The Big East Conference, a conference which used to be known for its legendary coaches.


What about the future, scream the Pitino nay-sayers, if they hire an old coach like Rick Pitino, 66, who isn’t that much older than Tim Cluess? Why not bring in Richard Pitino, Rick’s son, currently the very successful head coach of the Univ. of Minnesota. St. John’s always priding itself on its “family” within the athletic department, could put its money where its mouth is, by bringing in a great young coach who happens to be in Pitino’s family.


Pitino seems like a perfect fit. That’s if you want to win basketball games.

Tim Cluess, at 60, would have been a nice hire for St. John’s a decade ago, when he was 50. He’s been a successful mid-major coach with an excellent track record winning games with two-star players up in New Rochelle, New York.


Cluess can be a steady presence for a few years, too, if that’s what St. John’s truly believes it needs. A nice, solid, steady, sleepy presence in New York City, which ain’t New Rochelle.


Will five-star high school players come to St. John’s, located in Jamaica, Queens, just so they could play for Tim Cluess? Nope.


Would they come to play for Rick Pitino at St. John’s?


What do you think?

Mets’ DeGrom Proves He’s Human in Twins’ Blowout

A day after the New York metropolitan area was basking in 80 degree sunshine, late winter made another appearance tonight at Citi Field for a Mets – Minnesota Twins contest. It was only the first strange occurrence of the day.

The other unlikely event took place when the Mets’ all-world, Cy Young Award winner, Jacob deGrom, took a beating from the Twins’ lineup of mostly no-names and underachievers at Citi Field, last night, with Minnesota winning the four-hour plus game, 14-8.

It was the third start of the season by deGrom, who has turned into this generation’s version of Sandy Koufax. The Mets ace had pitched 31 consecutive starts allowing three runs or less, a major league record.

Goodbye, record. It ended last night.

In an off-night (the Mets hope), deGrom got wrapped around for six runs in four innings, including three home runs.

“We found out he’s human, finally,” Mets manager Mickey Callaway said. “I didn’t think he was for a while.”

That’s not just managerial hyperbole. Dominance became the standard over the last 19 months for deGrom, who followed up a subpar outing on Sept. 5, 2017 (he allowed nine runs, five earned, in 3 2/3 innings against the Phillies) by producing a 1.66 ERA and striking out 321 batters in 249 innings over his next 37 starts.

Maybe the most shocking aspect of tonight’s outing by deGrom was how it was the light-hitting Twins, who came into Tuesday night with 35 runs, the eighth-fewest in the majors, and seven homers, tied for the fourth-fewest, was the team to administer such a beating.

“Missed a lot in the middle of the zone,” deGrom said. “Even a lot of the outs that they made, the ball was hit hard. Tonight’s on me. I was bad out there. That’s all there is to it.”

The Twins ended deGrom’s historic streak during a four-run third in which Eddie Rosario (who?) and Mitch Garver (who?) hit back-to-back homers.

“You’re sitting there and you think he’ll get out of this, he’ll snap out of it, he’ll punch out two in a row and get out of it like he has so many times,” Callaway said. “And tonight it just didn’t happen for him.”

The Twins scored once more in the fourth, when deGrom at least avoided the indignity of getting pulled in the middle of an inning. Callaway visited him with two outs and left him in to try and get the final out, which was recorded when Travis d’Arnaud threw out Max Kepler trying to steal second base.

Bad day at the office for Mets’ ace, deGrom

“I’ve been through (bad starts) before and hopefully I’m around long enough to have a couple more,” deGrom said. “There were a lot of good pitchers that had games like this.”

On a cold night, the sparse crowd, announced as 22,126 but looking closer to 5,000, was either too cold or too shocked to get into the game. It was a quiet Citi Field as line drives and homers were flying off the Twins’ bats as quickly as the winds whipped off Jamaica Bay.

“The whole time, I was still believing that I would be able to find it,” deGrom said. “Just didn’t happen. I don’t think I’ll ever be in a game where I’m out there and be like ‘I don’t have it.’ (Callaway) came out and said you’re at however many pitches, what do you want to do? I said I want to stay in there and continue to compete. I felt like I was going to be able to make some pitches, even at that point after giving up six runs. I still felt like I was going to be able to make a couple pitches when I needed to.

“It was just one of those days.”

Some pluses for the Mets to take from the game? Brandon Nimmo, in a season-long slump, led off the bottom of the third with a long home run off Twins starter, Kyle Gibson to make the score 5-2. Nimmo got two hits. Pete Alonzo, Robinson Cano, before Michael Conforto, off to a great start in 2019, walloped a Kyle Gibson fastballs for home runs with Conforto’s slamming into the facing of the Citi Field upper-deck in right field. It was Conforto’s third straight game with a home run, on top of his .385 batting average. Known for his slow starts, Conforto usually doesn’t warm up with the bat until June-July. And, Pete Alonso, the early favorite for Rookie of the Year honors and Hall of Fame candidate, hit two homers, the first multi-homer game of his career. But, it was too little, too late.

And, like the shocking change in New York City weather from one day to the next, Mets fans had to accept, if not endure, the fact that their Sandy Koufax could have days like this, too.

Mandel’s Musings: Mets’ Wheeler and Yankees’ Sanchez Are THE KEYS to 2019 Success

There are certain players on certain teams that are considered bellweather perfomers. On the Yankees, players like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Luis Severino are needed and expected to play up to the backs of their baseball cards for the Bombers to have any chance of winning a championship. On the Mets, the expectations of excellence falls on the shoulders of Michael Conforto, Robinson Cano, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard. Without those four achieving at high levels. the Mets have no chance to compete for a division title, let alone a World Series championship.

Which brings us to the other key players on the major league roster. The ones who are unpredictable, yet, so talented that if all of their bio-rhythms were in place, their mental and physical health were steady, and they played up to their talent, it would put both of these teams squarely in the race for the big trophy at the end of the season.

Sanchez banged out three homers for Yanks, yesterday

For the Mets, one of the keys, perhaps, THE key to their success in 2019 is Zack Wheeler, currently the number three guy in their pitching rotation.

For the Yankees, it is Gary Sanchez, the sometimes moody catcher with Hall of Fame skills but not always Hall of Fame focus and concentration.

Yesterday’s games showed us just how crucial these two players are to the fortunes of these teams.

The Mets know what they will be getting from deGrom and Syndergaard when they start games every fifth day. The question mark remains Wheeler, who was the second best pitcher in baseball from the All-Star break through October in 2018.

Wheeler, who was a number one draft choice, sixth overall pick, by the San Francisco Giants in 2009, has always been viewed as a potential ace, with a 98 mph fastball with movement, sharp breaking ball, and a flexible, live arm that could take the mound every scheduled outing and dominate opposing teams.

Sanchez, who broke into the majors and made himself an immediate Hall of Fame candidate after his first half season in 2015, has had more ups and downs in his still-young career than any future Hall of Famer should go through. Most of those downs have been of his own making, through not being able to understand or accept the tough love former manager, Joe Girardi, the old catcher, tried to impart to Sanchez the finer points of the game, especially, defensively.

Girardi was fired, some say, because of his relationship with Sanchez, in an era of players having more power than a manager.

But yesterday, we saw what Sanchez, still only 26, can do with a bat in his hand. In an era when any offense from a catcher is welcome but not necessarily expected by major league teams, the “San-chize” hit not one, not two, but three home runs in Baltimore. He drove in six runs. And, the Yankees had another cakewalk against the sad Orioles, 15-3.

He now has six homers in the season’s first 10 games, and looks to be a happy player.

Oddly, after the game, no one expressed shock at yesterday’s output from the young slugger. His teammates have seen him do this before, in bunches, as a rookie and in his second year. Last year, he hit .188. Nobody seems to know why yet, most baseball observers still consider his hitting talent to be the best in the Yankees lineup.

The dilemma with Sanchez is, we know he’s one of the scariest hitters in the game, when he has access to his full compliment of physical and mental capabilities. The question is, how do the Yankees keep him happy and thriving?

With Sanchez bashing, the Yankee lineup, is one in which nobody can be pitched around. It becomes a nightmare for opposing pitching staffs and it will lead to a season of fastballs for everybody, 1 thru 9.

Yesterday, Wheeler pitched against the Washington Nationals in a style reminiscent of the first eight years of his career. He lost his command on his fastball and curve, he lost his control, walking a career-high seven batters in five innings. He generally looked lost out there, a huge disappointment to a Mets organization that has been re-structured from top to bottom by new general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen. But still, at the major league level, this team is programmed to be dependent on its pitching arms.

Without Wheeler pitching with some semblance of his talent level, the Mets will turn into a version of the old Milwaukee Braves slogan, “Burdette and Sain, and pray for rain” from the 1950s:

“deGrom and No (Syndergaard) and pray for snow.”

Right now, the Mets are praying for the light to go on again for Wheeler. If it doesn’t, you are looking at Stephen Matz and Jason Vargas needing to pick up the pace to about 15 wins apiece. A tall order which almost guarantees a disappointing season for the Mets.

Archives: 2009: A 24-Year Old LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, One Year from Free Agency

Mandel’s Musings: Knicks Fall Again to James and Cavaliers

New York – Lebron James took his show on the road tonight to play in front of a jam-packed Madison Square Garden that included several players from baseball’s world champion New York Yankees, this town’s role models for what a winning franchise looks like. In stark contrast, James and his Cleveland Cavaliers were matched up on the court tonight with New York’s leading role model for a losing franchise, the New York Knickerbockers, who continued their dreary early-season play in what may turn out to be the dreariest of seasons as they were blown out by the Cleveland Cavaliers, 100-91.

Blown out? A nine point differential? Yup, it was a blowout, not including a late Knicks run in the final five minutes of the game. The Cavs led 40-21 at the end of the first quarter, 63-40 at the half, 77-58 at the third quarter mark and led by as much as nineteen with six minutes in the game and seats emptying quickly until the Knicks went on one of their too little, too late frenetic paces of steals and three point shots being drained before they ran out of game clock. This game was never in doubt.

What is in doubt, however has been the status for next season and into the future for the Cavs’ still-young superstar, James. As usual when the Cavs come to town, the conversation veers from the game itself to the more important question-and-answer game of “Will He or Won’t He” starring LeBron James. While this magical player continues to dominate every game he plays in, the buzz going around this arena remains about whether the Cleveland superstar, playing with an expiring contract, will opt to leave his Ohio roots and decide to play out the rest of his career under the bright lights of Broadway.

At halftime, Yankees pitcher, C.C. Sabathia, here along with several of his championship teammates to bask in the warm embrace of Knicks fans dying to cheer for a winner, ventured the opinion that James would indeed, take his next act to New York.

“I’ve told him there’s no better place to be a winner than in New York,” said the former Cleveland Indian hurler who got to know James as a high profile athlete in that town. “If I’m a betting man, I would say he will be here in New York next year.”

James scored 19 of his 33 points in the first quarter as this game became a huge snoozefest through three and a half quarters. His performance could only make Knicks fans swoon and sigh in a wishful manner.

James came to play on the night the Garden crowd was feted not only with the presence of baseball champions who play to the north of the arena, somewhere up in the Bronx, but with celebrities from many walks of life. Ah, to be young and rich and an admired athlete in the city that never sleeps.

“I got an opportunity to say congratulations to C.C. (Sabathia), A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez), Robinson Cano, and Joba Chamberlain,” said James after the game. “Obviously, it was an unbelievable season for those guys and they deserved it.”

James smiled at the thought of being a champion in a city like New York and an arena with the history of Madison Square Garden.

“There is a lot of tradition in this building,” he said. “A lot of great players have been through this building that have laid down a lot of statistical things as individuals and as teams. It is a great building. To be a part of that and be able to play the game of basketball at a high level is great.”

You could almost sense the sighing and wishful thinking may be a two-way street, with James imagining himself as a star in the Big Apple.

“It is a humbling experience for myself,” said James. “You grow up in a city like Akron, Ohio. It is a really, really small city. For me, as a kid, you always wish and dream to be on the NBA level. Now that I am here playing for my hometown team and then be able to go on the road to showcase my talent to people who appreciate the way I play the game of basketball at a high level is humbling. I thank the New York fans. It is great that they really respect the way I play the game of basketball.”

“It’s the atmosphere, here,” he continued. “A lot of stars in the building. It’s humbling to know that you have guys like the Yankees come out and J. Z. You see some of the Giants out here and John Legend and Chris Rock. You almost feel like you’re a performer sitting on the stage and they’re watching you perform.”

You can just tell this kid can imagine himself on the biggest stage of all, lighting up the old arena in a way it hasn’t been lit since Patrick Ewing’s heyday, maybe even further back to the Knicks championship teams of 1970 and 1973.

“When I was a kid, I visualized playing for all the NBA teams,” James said. “There’s a lot of great individual NBA players that I would love to play alongside of and try to contend for an NBA championship. At the end of the day, a max contract doesn’t really matter to me. It’s all about winning. When that day comes next summer, I want to put myself  in a position where I want to win. If I feel a team is capable of winning, I’ll make my decision like that.”

That has to make Knicks fans sink a little, hearing that winning is James’ sole objective in determining where he’s going to play next year. Winning hasn’t exactly been part of the Knicks tradition over the past 36 years or so. That 1973 championship was the franchise’s last.

The Cavaliers are in an interesting position as far as LeBron’s future is concerned. Many of their players, including James, Shaquille O’Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, have expiring contracts this year so the feeling is this particular Cavs team won’t have the same look next year, either.

Cavs guard Daniel Gibson had an interesting take on the Cavaliers’ position, given the fact so many of the Cavs’ players have expiring contracts. I asked him if the team’s approach to this season has a little more urgency to it because of the potential of having this team ripped apart after this season.

“I never thought about it until you just asked me,” Gibson said. “We approach it as, right now, he’s still a Cav so we’re not thinking about next year. For us, we need to take care of business right now. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next year in this league. Every year you play basketball, you play for the ultimate goal. The fact that he’s potentially leaving next year, I don’t think any of us are thinking about it.”

Ilgauskas took an interesting position.

“I can see coming to New York to play if you’re leaving a team to play for the Yankees, already a winning organization,” said the seven-footer they call Z. “But, coming to New York to play for a struggling team like the Knicks? I’d rather stay in Cleveland where I know I have a chance to win.”

Somehow, I don’t think the Knicks will be trying to sign Ilgauskas anytime soon.

Knicks fans will have to hope when next July comes along, and LeBron is sitting on his porch in Akron, Ohio pondering his next career move, he’ll think about what he can accomplish in an offense devised by Knick coach, Mike D’Antoni, a man most NBA players would take a discount in pay to play for because of his wide-open offensive schemes.

At this point, as we watch the Knicks record fall to 1-5, it’s about the only thing they have left to dream about.

Follow Scott Mandel at www.sportsreporters.com

Mandel’s Musings: Yankees, Missing Table Setter, Still Haven’t Fixed Lineup Issues

It’s early, of course, in the 2019 season but the New York Yankees, one of baseball’s favorites to win the World Series this year are looking very much like last year’s team, which fell short in the playoffs for one major reason. Their lineup of home run hitting sluggers was unable to put bat to ball when they faced top of the line pitching rotations like the Astros or the Red Sox.

This season, so far, has that same feel, know what I mean?

The Yanks’ lineup remains the most fearful in the game. From one through nine, a healthy Yankees’ batting order will do damage to most American League pitchers over the course of a season. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Luke Voit, Aaron Hicks, and Gleyber Torres will all hit more than 20 homers this year. Hell, they’ll all probably hit more than 30.

The question is, how many of these bashers will also hit .280 or better and strike out less than 100 times?

The Yankees dilemma this year is the same as it was last year. Hitting homers in batches, as the Bombers did in 2018 (266 – a major league record) puts fans in the seats, even bringing back the early-arrival fans who enjoy watching these very large men take their pre-game batting practice hacks but, it doesn’t win championships.

But, who are the table-setters?

Nothing wrong with power, in this age of weight-training, protein drinks, and any other enhancements used in professional sports. But, even in 2019, championship teams must possess lineups that include a smattering of hit-to-contact types so the bashers can get big, sweet fastballs to swing at with runners on base. Opposing pitchers prefer to pitch off the plate to big swingers, who tend to feast on fastball strikes but without ideal bat control, can be fooled by pitches that expand the strike zone to include breaking balls in the dirt. Base runners force pitchers to throw strikes, a good scenario for big swingers like Judge and Stanton and Sanchez.

But, who are the table-setters?

The Houston Astros’ second baseman, Jose Altuve, has, at 5’6″, 160 pounds made himself into a superstar by getting on base, not striking out, and making opposing pitchers jittery when he’s taking leads off first.

The Red Sox have Mookie Betts, who also knows how to make contact and does so to all fields with power, despite his diminutive body-type.

Guess which teams won the past two World Series? If you answered the Astros and the Red Sox, you’d be right.

I’m not saying the Yankees should have held onto a popular player of theirs from the past two seasons, Ronald Torreyes, but let’s just say, by getting rid of a “Torreyes-type,” they no longer have a diminutive contact hitter in their lineup who rarely strikes out. Brett Gardner is going to be 36 during this season, and never was a hit-to-contact type with a high on-base percentage. Tyler Wade has a lifetime batting average of .164. D.J. LeMahieu, a solid acquisition during the off-season, doesn’t fit the profile of an Altuve or a Betts, either.

Yesterday, the Yankees beat the lowly Orioles, 8-4. Their offense, third in the American League in strikeouts and at the bottom of the league in stolen bases, has been slumping for several games now.

Once again, the Yanks were in their collective offensive funk against Alex Cobb, the Orioles starting pitcher who will NOT be in the running for the Cy Young award, until the sixth inning. Cobb was treating this Yankee lineup as if he was pitching for the Astros or the Red Sox, in post-season games.

Baltimore, on paper the worst team in the sport, had a 4-1 edge going into the sixth inning, the Yankees lone run coming on, you guessed it, a home run by Gleyber Torres. Other than that, against Alex Cobb, zilch.

It wasn’t until the sixth inning when the pinstripes exploded against the putrid Orioles bullpen for four runs, on, yes, a solo home run by Sanchez and a three-run homer by Torres, his second of the game, coming after two singles by Bird and LeMahieu.

Image result for jose altuve
Altuve is the perfect table-setter for the Astros

Here’s the thing about home runs. They come in bunches and practitioners of the art of home run hitting tend to be streaky. They will hit 10-15 in a month, then, nothing but ground outs and strikeouts for a few weeks. Nobody seems to know why that is. It’s one of baseball’s mysteries that keeps this game interesting. But, it doesn’t help a team when most of its lineup is comprised of precisely those kind of bashers who have their hot and cold streaks during the season, but are especially cold during the playoffs, when the strikeouts and ground outs are almost a guarantee.

Note to Yankees’ General Manager, Brian Cashman: The Yankees will not win a World Series without scrappy, speedy guys with high on-base percentages to set the table for their sluggers.

Where have you gone, Ronald Torreyes?

SportsReporters’ NBA 2019 Mock Draft – Smile Knicks Fans

2019 NBA 1st-Round Mock Draft

1. New York Knicks: Zion Williamson, PF, Duke

2. Phoenix Suns: Ja Morant, PG, Murray State

3. Cleveland Cavaliers: R.J. Barrett, SF, Duke

4. Chicago Bulls: Jarrett Culver, SG, Texas Tech

5. Atlanta Hawks: Cam Reddish, SF, Duke

6. Atlanta Hawks (from Dallas): Rui Hachimura, SF/PF, Gonzaga

7. Memphis Grizzlies: Darius Garland, PG, Vanderbilt

8. New Orleans Pelicans: Jaxson Hayes, C, Texas

9. Washington Wizards: De’Andre Hunter, SF, Virginia

10. Minnesota Timberwolves: Coby White, PG/SG, North Carolina

11. Los Angeles Lakers: Brandon Clarke, PF, Gonzaga

12. Charlotte Hornets: Keldon Johnson, SG/SF, Kentucky

13. Boston Celtics (from Sacramento): Sekou Doumbouya, SF/PF, France

14. Orlando Magic: Romeo Langford, SG, Indiana

15. Miami Heat: Bruno Fernando, C, Maryland

16. Brooklyn Nets: Kevin Porter Jr., SG, USC

17. Detroit Pistons: P.J. Washington, PF, Kentucky

18. Oklahoma City Thunder: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, SG, Virginia Tech

19. San Antonio Spurs: Bol Bol, C, Oregon

20. Indiana Pacers: KZ Okpala, SF/PF, Stanford

21. Boston Celtics: Tyler Herro, SG, Kentucky

22. Boston Celtics (from Los Angeles Clippers): Talen Horton-Tucker, SF, Iowa State

23. Utah Jazz: Tre Jones, PG, Duke

24. Portland Trailblazers: Daniel Gafford, PF/C, Arkansas

25. Cleveland Cavaliers (from Houston): Naz Reid, C, LSU 

26. Philadelphia 76ers: Ty Jerome, PG/SG, Virginia

27. Brooklyn Nets (from Denver): Jordan Nwora, SF, Louisville

28. Golden State Warriors: Matisse Thybulle, SF, Washington

29. San Antonio Spurs (from Toronto): Cameron Johnson, SF/PF, North Carolina

30. Milwaukee Bucks: Dylan Windler, SF, Belmont

Duke’s Krzyzewski, 73, Did Not Coach His Team Like a Hall of Famer

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 44-year career is legendary in every conceivable way. He took a moribund Duke program in 1980 and firmly entrenched it among the all-time elite basketball schools in the history of the sport.

But, this year, 2019, Coach K dropped the ball.

Despite five NCAA Championships, 12 Final Fours, 12 ACC regular season titles, and 15 ACC Tournament championships, the questions about Duke’s icon are beginning to creep into the whispers among people who cover the sport and, take part in it.

It’s likely that no team Krzyzewski has had in his career contained the high-end talent of this edition of Duke, with three likely top-five picks and four projected first-rounders. Which is why No. 2 Michigan State outslugging No. 1 Duke, 68-67, in the Elite Eight on Saturday will haunt Krzyzewski.

In the one-and-done era, the best and biggest practitioners of the policy have been Krzyzewski and John Calipari, from Kentucky. These two have not run away from the concept of recruiting the very best players in America, most of whom have zero concern with academics or education.

Their sales pitch has essentially felt like, “come to our campus, to our program, to me, the shaper not of men but of NBA basketball players and leave nine months later. You’ll make more money in your first NBA contract at age 19 than 99% of the world earns in a lifetime.”

When asked about the missed opportunity this roster will come to represent, Krzyzewski didn’t flinch.

“To me it’s disappointing,” he said. “It’s not a [disappointing] year. Like, there’s a big difference. Like, this team put themselves in a position to go for it and had a chance for it. And, so, it’s disappointing that they didn’t get there. But I’m proud of them.”

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski pauses while answering questions at a news conference after losing to Michigan State in a NCAA men's East Regional final collage basketball game in Washington, Sunday, March 31, 2019. Michigan State won 68-67. (AP Mark Tenally}
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski pauses while answering questions at a news conference after losing to Michigan State on Sunday. (AP)

Williamson could well go down as the last truly transcendent college basketball star.

Williamson all but said he’s leaving for the NBA after the game, which is about as obvious as the color of the White House. The same is expected for Barrett and Reddish, who’ll both be gone in the NBA’s top five.

The caliber of Duke’s young talent failed to overcome the roster’s lack of depth and the inconsistency bred from injuries. And on Sunday, after 16 lead changes and seven ties, Duke couldn’t overcome a Herculean effort from Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston and a clutch 3-pointer from Kenny Goins to win the game with 34 seconds left.

Fittingly, it was Winston dribbling out the game’s final seconds as Duke failed to foul trailing by a point. Winston sprinted away from Williamson, the final snapshot of a day where they just couldn’t keep up with his 20 points, 10 assists, four steals and just one turnover.

Krzyzewski kept going back to Winston – the MSU star junior’s experience, his decisions, his resolve. Krzyzewski heaped infinite praise on Winston, calling him, “the best guard we’ve played against.” He doubled down on nearly a half-century of coaching to say Winston had “as good a performance as any player has had against us.”

When Duke won the national title in 2015, it highlighted Krzyzewski’s coaching paradigm shift. That team featured Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, all of whom skipped through Durham for a year before ending up being picked in the top 25 of the NBA draft.

At that Final Four, Krzyzewski bristled at the notion of Duke mimicking the blueprint of Kentucky’s program. But in reality, they stole Kentucky’s gameplan and got better at it, with this team’s 32 victories and No. 1 overall seed the supposed culmination of an evolution.

“This season has been a movie, honestly,” Williamson said amid the last cluster of cameras he’ll face in a college locker room. “Lights, camera, action, basically. Like ever since we arrived here on campus.”

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 31: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts in the locker room after his teams 68-67 loss to the Michigan State Spartans in the East Regional game of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Capital One Arena on March 31, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson (1) of the Duke Blue Devils reacts in the locker room after his team’s 68-67 loss to the Michigan State Spartans on Sunday. (Getty)

The one-and-done era essentially began after the NBA stopped allowing high schoolers to enter the league following the 2005 draft. In that time, Villanova’s model of building through veterans, defense and a culture of player development has proven more successful.

To decree this season a failure would be too bold. But it was clearly a missed opportunity, and perhaps Coach K’s last chance to coach a juggernaut to the national title. There will never be another Duke team under Krzyzewski with as much high-end talent as this one, which will fill Krzyzewski with as much regret as any loss in his career.