Kawhi Leonard – The Under-publicized NBA Superstar

Leonard just may be the best player in the world

by Scott Mandel

The Toronto Raptors season has always been about pacing themselves for the playoffs. The Raptors have tasted regular-season success plenty in the past, but it never tastes so great when the seasons always end in the same way: With too-early losses in the playoffs.

That’s why general manager Masai Ujiri made the gutsiest move of the last offseason in trading franchise centerpiece DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for the Spurs‘ disgruntled superstar, Kawhi Leonard. It was risky on many different levels. One was that the Toronto fan base adored DeRozan, and DeRozan adored them back, and you just don’t sever those types of relationships without feeling very uncertain about your decision.

Another reason was that Leonard was coming off a bizarre season lost to injury, a mysterious quad injury where the Spurs often felt left in the dark and out of step with Leonard and his camp. When the Raptors made the trade, they could not be sure if they were sending the beloved DeRozan for a player still capable of being a Finals MVP – or whether they would be getting, in exchange for their franchise player, an ex-superstar who was now damaged goods.

But the risk, Ujiri deemed, was worth it. The DeRozan-led Raptors era felt tapped out as a very good regular season team that wasn’t built for playoff success. A Leonard trade was going for it: Ujiri pushing all of his chips to the center of the table. Perhaps the biggest risk that Ujiri was taking was to trade for a superstar who was in the final year of his contract, and who had made well known his desire to return to Southern California. The Raptors would have one season to capitalize on the talents of Leonard and their impressive surrounding pieces. Succeed there – say, make an NBA Finals – and it would all be worth it, even if Leonard decided to leave in the offseason anyway for SoCal.

Which brings us to Sunday evening in Philadelphia. The Raptors were in a pickle. In Game 1, they dominated at home, with Leonard showing – as he has these entire playoffs – that it might be him, not LeBron James and not Kevin Durant and not Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is the best player in the world. This was close to the best version of the Raptors, even if the contributions from the bench were less than you’d hope.

Now the Raptors were in trouble. Lose this one and they’d be heading back to Toronto having to win out to win the series. In all of NBA history, only 11 teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit in a seven-game series. It can happen – just ask noted Raptors killer LeBron James – but it is not the situation any team wants to find itself in. Especially when the alternative, losing in the second round of the playoffs after planning an entire franchise future around this moment, would likely portend close to a total franchise rebuild. The pressure was on. This felt like the last time Toronto could do anything of note in the postseason for a long, long time. Lose here, and the Raptors were about to take a huge step back as a franchise. Who knows when they’d ever find themselves back at this point.

So what did the Raptors do on Sunday? They stood up to the challenge and were close to that best version of themselves. Even with a visibly struggling Pascal Siakam, who had been listed as doubtful with a calf contusion but gutted it out anyway, the Raptors had their most complete game of the series. Leonard was machine-like in his efficiency. This wasn’t just the same Leonard who was a top-five player in the NBA before his injury-riddled 2017-18 season. This was quite possibly a better Leonard, at least on the offensive end: 39 points on 20 shots, 14 rebounds, 5 of 7 from 3, including the dagger in the final minute. It was another Jordanesque playoff performance from Leonard. But even Michael Jordan needed Scottie Pippen to win championships, and it was the stellar supporting cast that pushed the Raptors past the Sixers. Kyle Lowry was aggressive, and at times he looked like a younger version of himself, a.k.a. an All-Star. Danny Green didn’t shoot much, but he played good defense and got to the free throw line, making all eight of his attempts. Most importantly, Marc Gasol showed why Ujiri made his trade-deadline move to nab him from the Memphis Grizzlies. Gasol played his finest game of the playoffs, playing his typically excellent defense while scoring 16 points and reminding the Sixers they have to respect him as an outside shooter. The Raptors outscored the Sixers by 13 points while Gasol was on the floor, the best plus-minus on the team.

It is here where we should note that one big reason the Raptors were able to steal one on the road was because Embiid was very clearly not himself. He was playing without the aggression he brought to his incredible Game 3 performance, and without the joy, too; Embiid ended up with only 11 points on just seven shots. Head coach Brett Brown offered up an explanation afterward: Embiid had texted him at 6:20 a.m. and said he wasn’t sure he could play. He’d been up all night throwing up and got an IV hydration early in the morning. It was, apparently, a virus, and unrelated to the stomach bug that hampered him in Game 2. Whether it’s a stomach bug or a virus, knee tendinitis or too many milkshakes from the night before, it’s become even more clear during these playoffs that the Sixers need Embiid close to 100 percent in order to fulfill their very large potential.

Still, this should not take away from the Raptors’ complete and dominant performance. They regained home-court advantage after a Game 3 where they looked wholly outclassed. They leaned on their superstar, but they got important contributions from their supporting cast.

In so doing, they extended this era of Raptors history. Maybe the era will end this week, or maybe it’ll go well into June. They played with urgency, but it never felt like desperation. With more performances like that – where their superstar plays like the best player on Earth, and their supporting cast doesn’t turn into a collective pumpkin at the mention of playoff pressure – the Raptors could very well be playing later this season than they ever have.

Mandel’s Musings: Mets/Matz Enjoy Day of Redemption in Win Over Brewers

by Scott Mandel

Coming off of two losses to the Brewers at home in this three-game series, the Mets were reeling a bit as their two aces, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, each got ripped by the Milwaukee lineup in their starts on Friday and Saturday nights.

Having dropped to a .500 record (13-13), the Mets needed a win. Badly.

Today’s starting pitcher, Steven Matz, was coming off a start that was easily the worst of his career. Against Philadelphia on April 16th, Matz never retired one hitter, allowing eight runs (six earned) in the first inning before Mets manager, Mickey Callaway mercifully came out to get him.

Matz needed a win, ideally, or, at least to pitch a whale of a game. Badly.

Today was redemption day for the Mets. Mission accomplished on both objectives.

Going a season-high seven innings, Matz tamed the Brewers’ hot bats — they had scored 18 runs on 28 hits over the first two games of the series — and the Mets continued an early-season trend of scoring in the late innings, leading to a 5-2 victory at Citi Field Sunday afternoon.

“[Matz] was awesome today,” first baseman Pete Alonso said after the Mets snapped a three-game losing streak and improved to 3-3 on their 10-game homestand. “He gave up a home run, but he was damn-near perfect.”

“If you look up there, it’s amazing he has an ERA that he does when he got no outs in a start and gave up that many runs,” manager Mickey Callaway said, referring to Matz’ last outing against the Phillies. “He’s pitched tremendously aside from that one start where he didn’t record an out.”

The Brewers started Gio Gonzalez today. Yes, that Gio Gonzalez of Washington Nationals fame who had been without a team this season until the Yankees signed him to a minor league deal with short-term limitations. The Yanks had to commit to bringing him up to the major leagues by April 20th or Gonzalez could choose to become a free agent again. His outings were spotty at Triple-A Scranton so the Yankees opted not to sign him for the big club.

Gonzalez was hoping to join the Mets, but instead re-joined a Brewers club he spent a couple of months with down the stretch last year.

Today, he started out extremely hittable as Mets hitters weren’t fooled by his soft tosses. Gonzalez, though, settled down enough to give the Brewers five pretty good innings, allowing only two runs while spacing six hits.

The Mets hope they don’t regret their decision not to sign the 33-year old lefty to a one-year deal to provide depth in their starting ranks, which has been shaky, so far. Gonzalez loves pitching in Citi Field, having entered today’s game with a career mark of 11-2, along with a gaudy 1.75 ERA against Mets lineups over his 12-year career.

“The Mets were huge, they were great,” Gonzalez said Saturday. “They were definitely in there. I think they had such a great rotation, a great group of guys, it was a tough decision. The Brewers came in and met my expectations, met my needs. Either way, it was a win-win for me.”

A Ben Gamel two-base error led to pinch-hitter J.D. Davis’ go-ahead single in the seventh, and backup catcher Tomas Nido, recalled earlier in the day from Triple-A Syracuse after Travis d’Arnaud was designated for assignment, stroked a two-run double in the eighth.

Working ahead and mixing his pitches well, Matz (3-1) was even better. The defensively challenged Mets, entering the day last in the National League with 22 errors, supported him in the field, turning a pair of double plays to end innings. But with two outs and a runner on in the seventh, Matz hung a 2-1 slider and Moustakas parked it, ruining the shutout. Matz snapped at the new ball he received, and proceeded to retire Hernan Perez to finish his afternoon.

“He did all those things we’ve been talking about: Getting ahead, controlling the count, executing his pitchers. He was tremendous,” Callaway said. “He just went out there and made pitch after pitch. He deserved to go seven, he deserved to get the win. He got both of those.”

Former Mets pitcher Nelson Figueroa Making His Mark as Baseball Pundit on Television

One of the fun parts about covering a baseball game at the major league level is in the pregame preparation reporters and journalists involve themselves in.

Usually, we meet with each manager before the games to get some background on lineups and injuries, etc. Often times, we get to hobnob with players and other members of the media, in our own market as well as reporters from the opposing team’s city.

Tonight was one such night when we had the pleasure of sitting down in the Mets dugout with former Mets right handed pitcher, Nelson Figueroa. Figueroa pitched for the Mets from 2006 2012, with varying degrees of success. In nine years in the big leagues, Figueroa compiled a 20-35 record with mostly bad teams. But, he pitched in “The Show” for nine years. Not many can say that so in his case, the phrase, journeyman, is one he proudly carries.

Figueroa was born in Brooklyn and attended Abraham Lincoln High School, better known for its basketball teams and NBA stars than baseball, though it has produced a few major leaguers like Lee Mazzilli, Dallas Williams, a number one draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 1977, and yes, Nelson Figueroa.

“I was 5’10’, 145 pounds in high school so nobody at the college or professional level looked at me,” said Figueroa, as we chatted in the Mets dugout before tonight’s game. “I was throwing between 80 and 85 miles per hour so they weren’t exactly knocking my door down to recruit me.”

Part of what led to Figueroa’s eventual success as a major league pitcher came from being in the right place at the right time, to be seen by scouts who had no particular interest in watching him pitch. He just happened to get into a game.

“After my senior year in high school, there was a baseball consortium that brought a bunch of high school players from New York City up to Waltham, Massachusetts for a week of games and practices. It was a chance for different colleges to get a look at kids who weren’t recruited but might have a little college-level talent.”

Figueroa was off to a side, warming up, when he was approached by a man who introduced himself as the coach of the college baseball team at the college located in that same town of Waltham, Massachusetts, Brandeis University. It was not exactly a hotbed of baseball but the coach liked what Figueroa was throwing and, as they say, the rest is history.

Figueroa accepted a baseball scholarship to Brandeis, a Division Two program. The rigorous academics of Brandeis was right up his alley, as he was planning to attend Stanford, on his high school grades and board scores, alone. This was not a kid without talent in many facets of his life.

“I chose Brandeis because, one, they offered me the opportunity to pitch. And, two, I thought I could be a big fish in a small pond up in Waltham, and possibly get noticed if I dominated competition at that level.”

The turning point for Figueroa came in the summer of 1994, when he was invited to play in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer Baseball League, which, to this very day, showcases and produces great major league baseball players. The competition is considered the best summer program in the country for college-age players.

Figueroa and Mandel before tonight’s Mets game

Mandel’s Musings: Americans, Especially Sports Fans, Are Too Busy to be So Politically Divided

We Should Stay off of Social Media and Stop Watching Partisan News Outlets

By Scott Mandel

I’ve been wondering just how “divided” the U.S. populace truly is and how much of that divisiveness is driven by media outlets and social media.

Admittedly, different outlets constantly pound away at us with different political messages, based on their leanings or agenda. But, for many of us, during our day to day activities, be it work or play with family and friends, I don’t believe most of us carry the weight of political meanderings on our shoulders.

It seems to me, it’s only when we get to our computers or television sets in the dark of night, after the dishes have been cleared and kitchens cleaned, that we fall into our nightly habit of exhibiting “which side” we’re on. Social media has become such a protective device to complain or yell about the “other side” without risking our life and limbs while allowing us to assimilate, socially, into like-thinking groups of people, most of whom are not really friends.

But then, we fall asleep (a little agitated, perhaps, from our self-inflicted political activism and side-taking).

When we wake in the morning, with a full schedule of activities or job to attend to, the couple of hours of political debate we invested in the previous night have mostly been forgotten. We live our lives, we laugh with our friends, we do our homework, we make our money, and we don’t really feel divisive from millions of Americans who are perceived to be on the “other side” during our day-to-days.

That is, until the dishes are put away and the kitchen is cleaned, once again.

And then, it begins. Again.

Mets’ Jacob deGrom, Cy Young Award Winner, Sent Home for MRI on Pitching Elbow

by Scott Mandel

Breaking News:

Jacob deGrom, the New York Mets ace pitcher and reigning Cy Young Award winner, has been sent back to NYC from St. Louis to have an MRI on his throwing elbow, which is suddenly causing him pain. The Mets are taking no chances.

During deGrom’s last home game start, on April 10th, he was hit hard by a light-hitting Minnesota team, allowing three HRs in four innings. His velocity was somewhat lower than his usual 95-97 mph but the Mets expressed no concern that evening.

It’s premature to predict anything but the Mets are hoping, of course, the 30-year old righthander, who already had Tommy John surgery in 2010, will not be facing that prospect for a second time.

DeGrom also had surgery in September, 2016 to repair nerve damage in that same right elbow.

He just signed a contract extension with the Mets during this past off-season, for five years, $137.5 million after winning the National League’s Cy Young Award last season.

Image result for degrom's new contract
deGrom signed a new deal with the Mets for 5 years, $137.5 million

How One NFL General Manager Runs the College Draft – Dave Gettleman of the NY Giants

Senior Vice President and General Manager David Gettleman Pre-Draft Press Conference — April 18, 2019

Opening: Good afternoon. I would like to begin by thanking our Director of College Scouting Chris Pettit and the staff, Chris Mara, Kevin Abrams, Mark Koncz, Pat Shurmur and the coaches for all of their diligence in putting together this year’s draft board. I really can’t thank them enough. With the college draft a week away, we are coming to the second part of what I call the roster building season. Football is the ultimate team game. While it may be difficult for some to understand, building a roster is not just about collecting talent. It is not just about how fast, strong or talented a player is, but does he fit athletically, intellectually and culturally into what you are trying to accomplish, that is to win a Super Bowl.

Recently, there was an article in USA today written by Dan Wolken. I recommend that everyone read it. What he did was, he was discussing two of the premiere college basketball programs in Duke and Kentucky. The article was written after they had been eliminated from this year’s NCAA tournament. The final paragraph really put what I believe into a nutshell. And I quote: ‘As long as Krzyzewski and Calipari are still coaching, they are going to get their share of the best recruits every single year because of the pathway they have established to the NBA. Both programs have discovered in the tournament that elite recruiting and good roster construction don’t mean the same thing.’ 

As Lou Lamoriello most recently said, ‘players win games, teams win championships.’

The only major transaction I have not talked to you guys about since the last press conference was about Sterling and getting him extended. Obviously, we feel Sterling is a very important part of who we want to be moving forward. He earned this contract and we are thrilled to have had the ability to get him extended. 

This is a pre-draft presser, so let’s talk about the draft. Let the games begin.  


Q: You said this is a really strong draft. What about it makes you say that?
A: Frankly, we have pretty much set the board. We are tweaking it a little bit here and a little bit there. The scouts went home. I sent them home for the holiday. It gives me a chance to do some work on my own, some additional work. The board is really basically set. I am looking at it and we have more players rated as first, second, third or fourth-round values that I have had in any draft. This is my eighth draft as a GM. In terms of the volume of players on the board, this is the thickest. 

Q: Is selecting a quarterback a priority for you?
A: The priority is to select the best players. Last year, we could not pass up on Saquon. He was the best player in the draft. You can’t do that. We have had this conversation before. Eli is closer to 40 than he is to 25. We can do that math. At the end of the day, we are going to take the best players. 

Q: At number six, do you need a gold jacket guy or is that too far down?
A: For me, you are riding on the edge. There are gold jacket guys that never got drafted. That stuff happens. It is still about value. Who is going to give you the most value at that spot? When you start reaching for the need, you get into trouble. You can never have too many good players at one position. 

Q: Is it important to look at every pick you guys have, you have 12, that you need to get 12 starters or do you take the approach of looking at first round talent and seventh round talent?
A: If we get 12 starters in this draft, I would have one hell of a time on Cape Cod. All kidding aside, having 12 picks is crazy. One of the things I have talked about is that you don’t want to draft a player that you are going to cut. Every guy you draft, there is a reason you are drafting him and a reason that he should make your club. First, second, third round draft picks at the very least, you are looking for a big rotational player. Everyone talks about the way the league is going down, 65-70 percent of the time you have your defensive sub package in. You can easily make the argument that your nickel is your starter. You can make that argument. Your third wide is your starter. That is what you are looking at. Guys that walk on the field and help you win now. Anything after that is a huge bonus. Earlier, David Diehl was a fifth round draft pick and a 10, 11-year starter. That is what you are looking for. 

Q: You mentioned that you have a lot of value in rounds 1-4. Does that give you more flexibility if you want to move around?
A: Absolutely. Obviously, every position is different. There are some positions that are thick throughout. Some positions, it gets thick late. Some positions, you are thick, nothing, thick. It varies. Obviously, when your turn is coming up, you have to give it a look, especially when you have a number of guys that you can look at with equal value at different positions. 

Q: You’ve said before that a franchise QB has to be one that you love because it is such an important position. Does that also apply to the second first-round pick? There could be a guy that you like but the value is there. Could you see yourself not being in love with a guy but taking him with that second pick or is this too important of a position?
A: With as heavy as this draft is, to answer that question, we are at 17 so I would be shocked, very surprised if there was someone there that I did not like. 

Q: Could it be a guy that you are in love with?
A: Absolutely. 






Q: Are you talking about QB specifically?
A: Who knows?

Q: At 17, you said you would be shocked if there was someone there that you didn’t like?
A: A player, yes. 

Q: Not a QB?
A: It could be. It could be a corner, a wide receiver. It could be a sports writer. 

Q: QB is so important that you don’t want to force it but if he is sitting there at 17, the value might be just too good.
A: The value might be too good for what? If we have a QB rated in the first round, we love him. 

Q: Is there a lot of ‘what ifs’? A guessing game?
A: It is so crazy now. You read all the info and you have 85 mock drafts. There are about 20 guys that are in everyone’s first round. History tells you, you can bet the ranch that those guys are going to go. Times have changed. My very first draft, I was an intern with the Buffalo Bills. And Norm Pollum, who recently passed away, he has a legal pad and at that time there were 28 teams. He had 28 teams and 28 names. He turns around and gives it to me. He says take a look. I am looking at it and he says, that is the draft. He had 26 of them. That is when people didn’t have phones and there wasn’t a whole series of smokescreens and lies. And people just kibitzed. At the end of the day, you can’t count on teams taking this guy or that guy. You just have to relax. It is just a process. You relax and see what happens.

Q: Is there a better chance this year of marrying value with the position of need?
A: Yes, because it is about volume. 

Q: You said that if you have a QB with a first-round grade, it means that you love him. I am curious if there are traits that lead you to a guy like that?
A: A lot of it is physical ability to play the game. One of the things that I really believe is, this is not taking a shot at anyone so don’t twist my words, please. Being a quarterback of a team in this type of market is a load. It is a mental load. You have to really vet out the background of these guys. Just like being the head coach of this team is a load, being a quarterback is a load, too. It is more than just looking at a guy’s physical talent. It is about his makeup. A lot of you guys were here Eli’s first year. He starts the last nine games of the year and there were a couple games early on, the Baltimore game, where he was what, 4 of 15? Something like that. He is there and then we are playing Dallas in the last game of the year. We are on the six-yard-line going in and we have no timeouts. There is 12 seconds left in the game and he has the cujones to audible to a draw. If we don’t score, we lose the game. You have to have a mental toughness about you to play the position here in New York. Or to play the position anywhere. That is a huge piece of it. It is important. If you don’t think it is, you need to re-think it. 

Q: Getting the 17th and 95th picks were a big part of the return in the Odell trade. Any extra pressure knowing that those guys will be compared to him?
A: No, not for me. I don’t mean to make light of it, but no. We are going to get good players with those picks. 

Q: You have the 12 picks, two in the first round. You want to get every draft right. Does the draft pick at the top, you said you put extra value on them. Does that put extra importance in getting those right?
A: There is pressure getting it right every year. Even last year, we had five picks. That is all we had. There is no less pressure or more pressure with 12 than there was with five. It does not make a difference what job you have. You have pressure and deadlines. There are people that look at you, I look at you and say, how do you do that? You have a 4:25 start. The game ends at 7:15. You better get your crap in in about 25 minutes but you don’t have time. By the way, the game just ended and you have to run down and get interviews. You guys have pressure. It is what you do. You just roll with it. That is what I do. I don’t feel that pressure. 

Q: Is it valuable for these QBs that you evaluate to have handled adversity in the past to see how they have handled it?
A: Exactly. It is a hell of a question. Back in the fall, I was talking to Pat (Shurmur) and we were having that conversation. He said, there are a lot of guys that never had adversity. You will have adversity up here. I don’t care how great a player you are. I could sit down over a year and you could give me any Pro Bowl player. I can make you a 25, 30 snap tape and you will look at it and say that you have to be kidding me, he is getting paid that kind of money. You have to be kidding me, he went to the Pro Bowl. Then, I will make the other 25-minute tape and you will say, oh my God. Everyone has adversity. Everyone. Who is mentally tough enough to say, OK, it happened once, it is not happening again. With a lot of these guys, it is a very legitimate question. You have to dig so deep to see where they have had adversity. It is painful but it is part of the evaluation. 

Q: Do you need a defensive playmaker in this draft?
A: You sat there and watched it. We went 4-4 the second half of the year and we had three games that if we make a stop, we are 7-1. Obviously, you can’t have too many playmakers. You talk about roster construction, I have always been a big believer that if you look at the great defenses, they have a lead dog in every level. A legitimate playmaker at every level of their defense. I said it at the postseason presser and I will say it again, we need some defensive playmakers. 

Q: Do you have a lead dog on your defense right now at any level?
A: Ogletree. Alec. Our two safeties that we brought in, Antoine and Jabrill. Antoine has been a lead dog. We are getting there.

Q: Upfront is where you think you need?
A: Listen, we are thrilled with B.J. and we are thrilled with Dalvin. We have to keep adding to that mix. The young guys on the outside, Lorenzo made a lot of strides last year. We are getting there. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Q: If you had a QB rated in the first round, is there any reason why you would wait to the second pick to take him?
A: Depends upon who is available. If you would have said that last year, I would have given you the same answer. You would have seen what happened. We will see.

Q: Is it important to have that battery going from defensive tackle to center to QB to RB where you want your lead dogs to be before you build outside?
A: I don’t know. I don’t think football is any different from any of the three other major sports. Strength up the middle is critical. Your lead dog can be an outside linebacker or an outside pass rusher. What you want is talent. That is what you want. 

Q: Is between 37 and 95 a place that will be hard for you to watch 60 players come off the board?
A: Yes, it is. It won’t be fun. 

Q: What position has impressed you the most in this draft?
A: The wides (wide receivers) are real thick. The offensive tackles are thick. The secondary is thick. Corners and safeties. When I say thick, I am talking about up and down the draft. Rounds 1 through 7. 

Q: How does what people in front of you do complicate things and change the dynamic of what you are going to do?
A: We are going to sit there and see what is cooking at six. We will go from there. 

Q: Have you had any conversations with the Cardinals?
A: I am not going there. 

Q: There are only five teams that pick ahead of you.
A: Look at that, you have done the math. 

Q: The guy you pick will be ranked higher or not that much lower at all because you don’t have to. You won’t force that for any position at all?
A: No. You are up at six.

Q: If you don’t have a QB in the top six, you aren’t taking one with that pick, is that safe to say?
A: I am just saying I won’t force a pick. You can’t draft for need. You will get screwed every time and make a mistake. 

Q: So a QB is not its own special category?
A: No, it is not. 

Q: When you look at this draft, is there a chance you get to six and all of these top stud defensive players are gone?
A: A chance that they are all gone? No. 

Q: Do you see a spot this year where there is a drop off?
A: It is a really good draft. I fully expect, if we don’t move, at six and 17, we are going to get a really good player. I am not going to panic. It is going to be a good player. I do not want to sound arrogant. 

Q: Do you have your guy right now hoping he is there at six?
A: We have to finish doing the board. We are still screwing around. I have an open mind. 

Q: Any gold jacket guys in this draft?
A: Yes. I don’t want to put a number on it. This is a draft that has been well ballyhooed by the volume of players and the depth. It is legit. 

Q: What do you think about this QB class?
A: It is good. Thick. 

Q: Better than last year?
A:  I am not going there. Come on now.

Q: Ernie Accorsi always says that you draft QBs to win Super Bowls. Are there any QBs in this draft that you think are Super Bowl ready?
A: There are a couple of really good quarterbacks in this draft, yes. 

Q: What is the level of urgency to land a franchise QB right now?
A: If you put a lot of pressure on it, you are going to make a mistake. I am not going to put a level on that. You let the draft come to you. We went into last season with Eli and thought he had plenty left. He proved that. We will just see how it goes. 

Q: What about the level of urgency to get the KC model in place?
A: I said ‘the KC model’, people have been doing that for years. This is just the most recent one. How about the Green Bay model with Rodgers and Farve? He sat two and a half, three years. That is what you would like to do. Eli is a pro’s pro and you guys know that. To allow a quarterback to learn at the feet of Eli, it would be a sweet deal. Kyle (Lauletta) is working on that right now. Don’t forget about Kyle. You would prefer that be the situation. You would hate to take a young kid and just throw him in there.

Q: As you continue to construct this team, do you feel that you can win now and in the future?
A: We won two more games than the team did the year before. Then, you had all those games where we lost by a point, two points. We lost eight games by a touchdown or less. The NFL is tight. A few more players get you over the top and you win more. 

Q: You have hit on small college guys before. What do you have to see on film to judge them?
A: A million years ago, I am scouting at Kutztown State and I am looking at John Mobley. It is October and everyone since August was telling me to go to Kutztown, have you been there yet? I said, what do we have here, Superman? So I went and watched John play. The closest Division I school is Penn State. I had to ask the question and I tell the scouts this all the time, if I am watching John Mobley, can I picture him starting at Penn State. That is the litmus test. When scouts talk about DI, II, I-AA, will he start at a big DI program. They all go to big DI programs, so they should be able to answer. 

Q: Will you move if there is urgency?
A: Look at my history. I have traded up a bunch of times in Carolina. Last year, we had to sit. We only had the five picks. I was not going to take picks from this year’s draft to move up in last year’s draft. We are going to do what we need to. If the situation calls for it and there is guy there that we feel can really help us but he is a few picks in front and we are not confident or comfortable that he will fall to us, if we feel the need, we will make the move. I am not afraid to do that. 

Q: First four rounds are loaded ,would you move some picks in the back and try and get into the first four?
A: It is possible. You may. Anything is possible. 

Q: Does that include moving picks from next year’s draft?
A: Maybe. 

Q: How does the dynamic change when you have two first round picks?
A: I have never had that. It is fun. I am excited about it. It is weird. After you make that first pick, you can’t go get dinner. I am excited. You are going to draft two guys that you will have for five years, which is a big help with the cap now a days. I am looking forward to it. 




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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?