2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1

There is an age-old debate on whether Spring or Fall is the ultimate sports season (though Winter and Summer are hardly shabby if you are interested in more than just major league team sports). What I have found year after year, is that I am most enthralled by the Spring and for one simple reason: Playoffs. Lots of it.
As much as I love basketball, nothing quite matches the intensity of the NHL playoffs. There is just something about the Stanley Cup itself that inspires the play, inspires the bearding, ratchets the already breakneck, feverous pitch of a hockey game. And you know what, even with a shortened season (and maybe specifically because of one), we are about to have one heck of a playoff season.
Let’s get to it.
Eastern Conference
The rich get richer. The Penguins were already kicking butt with one of the most star-studded rosters around but adding Iginla, Morrow, and Jokinen made them just nasty. The real question will be whether they can form the sort of chemistry that is needed for a deep run at Lord Stanley’s eternal glory. As we know from the NBA’s Lakers, sometimes it’s just too much to ask with that many egos and mouths to feed. They certainly should not overlook the Islanders, who come in with a young core of players who have been growing together and have said chemistry. A hot goalie can do wonders in the playoffs and Evgeni Nabokov is a good one. If the Penguins sleep on these Islanders, it could make for a long series. Still, I think this is a lock.
Pens in 5
This one’s kind of a double Cinderella story, honestly with both the Sens and Habs over exceeding all expectations to even be where they are. The Canadiens finished last place a year ago and while they’ve earned the seed, they’re still a mismatch for any of the conference’s elite teams if and when they run into them. In this round, though, they get a Senator’s team that isn’t even supposed to be in the playoffs really with all the injuries they endured at critical positions no less. The Sens are getting their defensive stud, Karlsson back at the right time which makes them dangerous because they’re playing with house money and no pressure as they weren’t even expected to have competed this well. They’ll grind and grind and put the pressure entirely on the Habs to justify and live up to their seeding and just might eek one out. This will be a great series between two teams just glad to be here. Love it.
Canadiens in 7
The Capitals really improved as the season went on after a fairly bland start. It obviously coincided with the coaching changes and as soon as Oates took over, we started to see Alex Ovechkin really take over and thrust himself into MVP talk. However, as solid as they are, the Rangers are in position to bump them off. With a goalie like Lundqvist, of course, that is entirely possible because he’s exactly the type of goalie that can will this team through the playoffs like he did last year when a scrappy Rangers team found its way to the conference finals. Will it be enough to get by the Caps? Not if they play listlessly as they’ve played most of this season. As much as I like what Ovie is doin over there in the capital, I have a feeling the Rangers figure it out and get through.
Rangers in 6
Classic NHL match up between two marquis franchises. Unfortunately, it is also a mismatch despite what the seeding will tell you if the Bruins start playing the way they had been earlier in the season. They’re stumbling into the playoffs but were able to take three of four against these same Leafs during the regular season. They have all the components that they need: offensive production, elite defense, depth and of course a solid goalie. They draw divisional rivals that, although tough, don’t play particularly good defense and can be overmatched as Reimer will be under duress all game, every game. I think the Leafs might serve as the perfect first round opponent for Boston to get it going and try to carry some momentum deep in the playoffs.
Bruins in 5
Western Conference
While it would be nice to see the Wild get it done against the Hawks by grinding those secondary lines into the boards and forcing them to work, I fear there’s just too much firepower on Chicago. They got off to a crazy hot start and rode the momentum into the top seed. The Wild are going to be strong in the years to come but it is quite the mismatch with injuries to key players. I don’t anticipate the Hawks getting bounced this early but don’t be surprised if their seeding is a mirage.
Hawks in 6
You already know my pick; I wouldn’t dare pick the Ducks against my Wings after the number they pulled on us when the roles were reversed years ago and Babcock was their coach. However that isn’t the only motivation. Truly, the Wings pose a problem for the Ducks. They have the offensive firepower to score and although their defense is not as stout as it used to be with Lidstrom manning the blue line, the Ducks have limited star power up front beyond Getzlaf and Ryan. Even more alarming for them is that Detroit has played them very well this season taking two of three head to head and looked dominant in the two they did. The Wings are underdogs here and for good reason and will have to really rely on Howard, who has been their best player for stretches of this season when goals weren’t coming, to steal a couple games. That said, I’m still going with my team.
Wings in 6

I’m not sold on the Canucks and it is mostly because I don’t trust their goaltending situation. They have decent enough even strength play to where they’ve earned their seed but they have many questions starting with who will play in goal and whether or not they’re tough enough to make a run. The Sharks retooled and changed their identity and, though streaky, are tough when they’re on. More importantly (and contrasted to the Canucks), Antti Niemi is the guy between the pipes and has been awesome. The Sharks slipped this year after years of being hyped and truly it’s mostly because of their inconsistency. If they play like they play when they’re on, they’ll resemble the three seed here far more than the Canucks will.
Sharks in 6
I live in the L.A. metroplex and as a result have quite a few friends who are Kings fans whose ire I probably will draw at some point in these playoffs when I commit them to elimination. Whereas the Kings got ridiculously hot at exactly the precise time last year, they come into the playoffs now expected to win and without the element of surprise. They are still big, strong and a chore to grind with but then again so are the Blues whom they swept last year. I don’t know about you but I’m sensing a rivalry brewing and, seeing as how these two teams are young enough and deep enough to be in this sort of tangle for years to come, I’m excited. There’s a temptation to pick the Blues on account of sweet revenge. They’ve added some pieces and are older and wiser. But then again so are the Kings. This will be one of the best first round matchups and I’m thinking it goes the distance; I just don’t know if St. Louis is ready quite yet.
Kings in 7
As always, remember: I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Dig it.

Oakland Raiders 2013 NFL Draft

The Reggie McKenzie era is really just starting to get under way.

Last year was technically the beginning of the McKenzie chapter but the trainwreck he inherited is still as undentable this season as it was last season when there were only a handful of picks to play with come draft time. This time around, Reggie Mack replenished our pick bag with solid trades that didn’t give up too much and that not only increased the total number of picks but also allowed us to still get the talent we coveted in positions we needed it in.

I may be a homer in doing so but I do give this draft weekend a B+ grade. I’m not a fan of “grading” drafts because we don’t really know how any of these prospects will turn out really but it is safe to say that they are all very strong decisions given both talent level and character. I am grading the decision making by the Raider war room and grading their intents. I cannot grade the talent. At least not yet…
I’ve done a bit of research and watched lots of “tape” on these guys and these are select videos I felt could give others an idea of the guys the Raiders just drafted. They are in draft order starting with the First Round pick, DJ Hayden. Let’s get to it.
DJ Hayden, CB: 
I didn’t like the idea of the pick at first only because, like so many other Raider fans, felt we really needed a defensive lineman. But more on that later. As for Hayden, I’ve grown to really like this pick. We traded down from the 3 spot, gained a 2nd round pick and still got the best corner on the board. I like Hayden more than Milliner. He has superior speed and covers tighter to the receiver. This is a guy who won’t need much safety help up top reducing mismatches and blown coverages in the secondary. Health issues with the freak accident back in November are a non-factor as every NFL Team’s doctors cleared him to play for them. Still, go read up on that and how amazing this kid and his story really is. As for the football stuff, having a shutdown corner does not make you a Super Bowl contender but it allows you to do many, many other things with your defensive personnel. This pick is a win. 
Menelik Watson, OL: 

Remember what I’m about to tell you right now: the Raiders are going to have one of the top offensive lines in the NFL for the next half a decade at least. Watson is a curious pick to most who feel that drafting a guy who came from England to play basketball and has only played football for a couple of years is crazy talk. That’s understandable. But look at this kid. He’s a MONSTER. He’s got Michael Oher written all over him. Sometimes offensive line isn’t about the football (which can be taught); it’s about all the things this kid already has. He has all the physical tools, lots of smarts (you should listen to him speak, he’s a great kid) and as a soccer player, a basketball player and a boxer, brings a level of athleticism that is beyond just being big, strong and fast. Watch the video. He became a starter and an excellent one in no time at one of the top programs when it comes to offensive line, Florida State. Also, Raiders OL coach Tony Sparano is one of the elite lines coaches in the NFL even if he couldn’t hack it as a head coach; you better bet Watson will learn the position at an elite level. Along with Veldheer and Wiz, this line is shaping up to be a strength of the team moving forward. Very exciting.

Sio Moore, LB: 

Boy, I love this pick. This dude comes out of nowhere and is already talking smack about all the other linebackers in his draft class saying he’s easily the best one. That’s big talk but watch his video; he really is pretty good. Coming from UConn (underrated program as far as defensive players go but that’s another story) he doesn’t get much love but he was an absolute beast at the Senior bowl and was easily the most exciting player on the field, flying all over the place, exploding through the offensive line to find the QB and to chase guys in the backfield. As he puts it, he plays with “juice” and after having rostered lameduck linebackers like McClain and Curry, we’ve got a guy with energy who will likely come in and challenge for an outside position alongside Roach and Burnett. I love football players who play with a chip on their shoulder. This is more of what the Raiders need, not prima donnas expecting star status and treatment. 

Tyler Wilson, QB: 

Understandably, most Raider fans were confused by drafting a QB after we just acquired Matt Flynn and while we’re still rostering Terrelle Pryor. But this move makes all the sense in the world. For one, let’s just be honest: we got a guy here who would have been 1st or 2nd round easily a year ago when many expected him to declare eligibility much like Matt Barkley. Sticking around an extra year and enduring the Petrino circus killed the Arkansas program as a whole and likewise his stock. This is a cheap fourth round pick for what is essentially first round talent. Secondly, Wilson is a tough motha (excuse la francais). He gets knocked around, bounces up and throws missiles. He has mechanics issues with his footwork and loses some oomph on the deep ball and while he is considered to be NFL ready, he isn’t brought in to start right away (Flynn is far more NFL ready). Let him learn, those things are fixable while what he already has isn’t. This is a win. And as far as having Flynn and Pryor around already? Let them all compete. Competition brings out the best in everyone. I have no doubt the best player at every position will emerge and earn the job.

Nick Kasa, TE: 

We grabbed two tight ends in this draft and within a short while of each other. I was monitoring the twitter feeds and facebook and I caught a lot of Raider fans (and haters) questioning this. Let me set you all at ease: Kasa is one of the best blocking TE’s in the draft class and is absolutely critical if we are to have a strong running attack this season with the return to the power running scheme. He can catch too but he is primarily a block specialist and is a big, athletic body. The Raiders parted with Myers at the end of last season and are not sold on Gordon or Ausberry (who might be converted back to WR if he cannot compete with newcomers Kasa and Rivera). Either way, worst case scenario is that we have three TE’s instead of one. I like this pick… but not as much as I like the other guy we picked up further down the line 🙂

LT Murray, RB: 

I cannot wait to watch this guy in silver and black. The great thing about studs from small insignificant programs is that a lot of times, nobody notices them and then you get all these fans who don’t know anything either and don’t really watch any college football to begin with all asking “who?” Well, meet Latavius Murray who is already shaping up to be the steal of this draft for the Raiders. Quick, strong, smart and high character. Able to reverse field. Can explode through to the second level and make safeties and corners miss on big runs even though he doesn’t have elite speed. But he does have above average speed even while being built like a tank. Hard to tackle. A great complement to McFadden. And once the Raiders start getting that power running scheme going again, the combination of McFadden, Murray and Reece will be electric. Trust me on this. This guy is probably my favorite pick of the whole draft.

Mychal Rivera, TE: 
As much as I like Kasa, this is the TE I’m most excited about. He’s a natural passcatcher with excellent hands, vision and football smarts. He’s strong and can block, too but he’s clearly more of the catching TE than Kasa is. And let’s face it, this is now a two TE league (see what New England has done). The versatility that this dude Rivera brings when combined with the other tools at Coach Dennis Allen’s disposal will allow the Raiders to run multiple looks out of TE sets; play actions, short routes, power runs, the whole nine. Rivera looks explosive in his video reel and when groomed and taught the game at the pro level can become a productive TE in the mold of Tony Gonzalez as he has the size, skills and awareness needed for that. I’m really excited about this dude suiting up in the silver and black, too.
There’s your defensive lineman lol. The truth is, it is very likely that our need at defensive tackle has been overstated. Kelly was pretty lazy, Seymour was a liability and all in all, that combination cost us a ton of money. The guys Mac has already brought in (Walker, Sims, etc) may not be pro-bowl elite tackles but hell if they aren’t hardworking, veteran pros who come at a cheap pricetag. Furthermore, Lamarr Houston was a great tackle in college before being converted by the Raiders into a DE. Anyway, about this dude McGee, he’s athletically gifted and has all the makeup of a contributing, strong defensive tackle. Like just about all these other rookies (save maybe Hayden), he’s going to need instruction at the pro level before they can contribute as starters but that is to be expected as the point of the draft is to grab talent, not experience. If coached correctly, McGee will clean up what is basically his only weakness which is his attitude. This is a different Raider team now… there aren’t other cancerous folks around to proliferate bad attitudes. McGee takes some plays off, that’s his knock but honestly, being a 6th round pick means he won’t cost much. If he doesn’t learn and buy into the program, he gets cut and the Raiders lose nothing. This is yet again another example of how much smarter this new regime in Oakland is. 
Brice Butler, WR: 
Great value for a wideout this late in the draft. The Raiders had, like they do at several positions, a glaring need at wide receiver. Carson Palmer last year didn’t really play all that badly and in fact most of the time was the only reason the Raiders even looked competitive but he had a group of underperforming, young and inconsistent receivers. Outside of Streater and Criner, everybody else was either hurt, inconsistent or horrible. Butler is a good gamble. He comes cheap, has a lot of game and can be taught as he, like just about all these other picks, has a great attitude. I’ve watched this dude’s tape and I like how he runs his routes, deliberately, makes good cuts to get open and sees the ball into his hands on the reception. Great value here.
David Bass, DE: 
Sack, Sack, Sack. He gets after people and is explosive. The Raiders had one of the worst passrushing teams in the NFL last year which may have exposed the secondary and made it look even worse than it already was… which was pretty bad lol. With a revamped secondary and an emphasis put on improving the passrush, the Raiders are hoping that Bass can come in and compete for an edge rusher spot in the rotation and give us that pressure on the QB we sorely lacked. The dude gets sacks. I don’t care that the level of competition isn’t SEC or whatever. The dude gets sacks. He has the instinct and the physicality to translate to the next level but like all other draft prospects, needs proper coaching. The regime in Oakland has changed and I trust the coaching staff. If this guy works hard at getting to that level, he will be an awesome DE for us for years to come.
There were also some additions to the team after the draft was completed. In a lot of ways, the undrafted rookie signings are where the fun really is. Every team has guys on its board they know or think will slip out of the draft altogether because they’re diamonds in the rough and they bank on them being unclaimed when the draft is over. These guys are brought in to bolster competition and to push the guys that ought to have starting jobs into earning them. And sometimes, they themselves become the starters. Remember that some of the game’s brightest stars are found this way; Arian Foster is a perfect example and Reggie McKenzie made a living finding these kinds of guys when he was with the Packers like with Tramon Williams.

Kentrell Harris, DE, Virginia Union
Lamar Mady, G, Youngstown State
Kyle Magnuson, OT, Wyoming
Dexter McColl, S, Tulsa
Sam McGuffie, RB, Rice
Kyle Padron, QB, Eastern Washington
Conner Vernon, WR, Duke

John Wetzel, OT, Boston College
Deunta Williams, DB, Cal
Tim Wright, WR, Rutgers

There are a lot of guys that are on this list, all of which are unproven but enticing talents, but the one guy I’m most excited about is WR Connor Vernon out of Duke. I hate comparing guys to existing NFL guys but this is that Welker, Amendola type of WR, great motor, hands, toughness, energy level. The Raiders can certainly use that sort of guy in the offense to add versatility and big play ability. Obviously he’d need a lot of polish as there are some issues with his game but he stands out to me as a guy who can make the team and contribute as part of our young and promising receiver corps. 

The Oakland Raiders have been a much maligned organization for the past decade, now. It has been hard for many Raider fans to have any kind of faith in this thing getting turned around. Doesn’t help, of course, that Raider hate is always strong and plenty of people are going to say horrible things about the team, its leaders, its current players, its future ones, its fans and everything else that comes to mind. However, there is hope. Lots of it, even. This draft class is proof of that. 
And remember, the Raiders gain a ton of cap space next year as a lot of those awful contracts that McKenzie inherited and has been jettisoning will be coming off the books allowing for him to really shop the free agent market. Real talent and balance will come to the Raider organization very soon. The Raiders may have to endure a tough season this year but it won’t be because of a lack of effort or chaos in the system. If they are outplayed by far more talented teams, so be it. But the Raiders are turning the corner and haters beware: the autumn wind is a swirlin’ and it has a name.

2013 NBA Playoffs Round 1

Keeping it simple and sweet…
Eastern Conference

The Heat are overwhelming favorites to win out the East and, to a lesser extent given the talent out West, repeat as NBA Champs. They enter the playoffs with the best record in the league by a lot, on an eight game winning streak, and are getting healthy at just the right time. I like the Bucks and think they are an understated team in the field but they draw a near insurmountable task of knocking off the defending Champs in the first round. Miami’s depth, excellent defense and championship pedigree handle business here.
Heat in 4
Oh goody. We get our favorite territorial rivalry of all sports: New York v Boston. Here, the Knicks are favorites as one of the hottest teams in the league with a near unconscious Carmelo Anthony scoring in bunches right now. They’ve basically been in cruise control in the Atlantic since the get-go of the season and should move on against a Boston team that, while talented, has been no better than a .500 club this season. A lot can be said about KG and Paul Pierce’s collective heart and have been rested down the stretch but they’re still facing an uphill battle trying to win four against the Knicks. It’ll be an entertaining series only because of the bad blood between the two teams and the history between the two cities. But
Knicks in 5
This should be a good series as they split four head to head meetings this year and are evenly matched talent-wise. The Pacers have been slipping as of late and without Grainger are not going to be able to make a serious push at a deep playoff run. They are likely to sneak out of this first round matchup with the Hawks who are also stumbling into the playoffs but even that isn’t a sure thing as Horford and Smith are still as solid as they’ve ever been. This one might go the distance.
Pacers in 6
It’s hard to make out this series as both teams are relative underachievers. In a sense, the Nets ought to be stoked they make the move to Brooklyn, open a new arena and make the playoffs as a four seed in their first season but there have been all sorts of questions about the effectiveness of their rotation and highly paid stars Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace. The Bulls, on the other hand, have been waiting on Derrick Rose all season and still won’t get him in time and though they are solid through the roster, they don’t have any elite scoring options and are going to be trotting out a banged up and, recently, less-than-effective Joakim Noah. The Nets are poised to take the series if they play as well as they’ve been playing down the stretch.
Nets in 6
Western Conference

James Harden is back in OKC. He leads one of the most prolific offensive attacks in the NBA into his old stomping grounds where the Rockets will try and blitzkrieg their way past the top seed in the West. That’ll be a tall billing though as Durant and Westbrook have had great years once again and Harden’s replacement, Kevin Martin, has picked up the slack meaning Oklahoma City should be able to score plenty, too. The Thunder are the superior defensive team and should have no problems shorting Houston’s scoring enough to win four games first and are in position for another run at the NBA finals.
Thunder in 5
Although the Spurs have been dominant this season in amassing a stellar record and challenged for the top spot in the West until late, they may very well be the perfect first round match for the Lakers as they might be the only team they can beat. Both teams are old and dealing with injuries although Kobe’s loss will be more significant than a hobbled, less-than-100% Ginobili or Parker. That said, the Lakers are still rostering three proven stars in Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol and can take this series if they can dominate the paint and the boards. I’m still anticipating that the Spurs get to the next round but if there was ever a team the Lakers could beat, it’s this one so don’t be shocked.
Spurs in 6
At first, my inclination was that the Nuggets were the team the Warriors did not want to see in the first round. As a Warrior fan, I was hoping they would slip following Gallinari’s injury and be overtaken for the three seed by the Clippers whom Golden State dominated this season. Instead, Denver’s steady and balanced roster went on a tear since the injury and, though possessing not a single all-star, can run up and down the court with the best of them and play strong on both ends. The Warriors’ success in the playoffs will depend on Andrew Bogut’s effectiveness and it has to be encouraging that he was able to suit up and log nearly 20 minutes in the final game of the season. Still, the issue with Bogut will be his ability to keep up with Denver’s breakneck pace which is probably not going to happen meaning he will likely not be on the court much at all making it very hard for the Warriors to contend with Denver at the rim. I’m calling this thing to go the distance regardless of outcome but my heart is telling me to go with
Warriors in 7
Rematch. This was one of the more wildly entertaining series of last year’s postseason as it went 7 and was chippy from start to finish. The two teams boast the same record and two polar opposite playing styles; the Clippers are flashy and like to score a lot of points and the Grizzlies like to keep teams from doing that by playing some of the best defense in the league. The Clippers’ fates run through CP3 and Mike Conley plays him tough making that the matchup to key in on. How LA’s bigs guard and manage Gasol and Randolph will also determine if this series ends up like last year’s with the Clippers sneaking into the next round. I’m calling a Clipper let down; after a sizzling hot start, they’ve looked solid but not elite and have shown to have trouble with teams that shut them down outside of the paint. But it’s still going the distance and it’s still going to be wild as all hell to watch.
Grizzlies in 7

Dig it.