Archive for December, 2010

The renaissance of Jose Calderon

Posted: December 25, 2010 in basketball, Sports

Taken from my article on Raptors Watch

It’s a slow Christmas day in Raptors media land. A copious amount of people have their eyes spotlighted on Kobe’s 13th Christmas Day game in his 15 year career. Alas, that much-anticipated game doesn’t start until 5PM, and we still have over an hour to go until the first Christmas Day match-up starts.

So while we cool our heels, we might as well reflect on the resurgence of Jose Calderon this season.

The majority of us Raptor fans were dismayed when we learned that Michael Jordan got cold feet in a trade that would’ve sent Jose to Charlotte for Boris Diaw and Tyson Chandler (what a steal that would’ve been by Colangelo), but approximately 6 months later, it’s time to look at the positives.

Provided that Colangelo did indeed pick-up Diaw and Chandler, I’d say we would be looking at some more immediate success, and a better record than the current one the Raptors possess. Chandler in particular, would’ve provided an intimidating inside presence, and he would’ve been a perfect complement to Andrea Bargnani.

On the other hand, we’d see Jarrett Jack running the point night-in and night-out. It’s hard to speculate who the back-up point guard would be, but we do know that Jack isn’t a great defender, nor a consistent player.

When Jose learnt that Colangelo wanted to ship him off, and failed – the psychological impact on the Spaniard were clear for all to see. At the beginning of the season, Jose just didn’t look like the Jose that led the Raps to an Atlantic Division title back in ’08 – far from it in fact. His confidence was low. All the things that made him so good in his prime – driving to the basket, finding team-mates in good spots, not turning the ball over, and hitting long-range shots – disappeared completely.

It wasn’t until Colangelo pulled the trigger and traded Jack, Banks, and Anderson for Bayless and Peja, that Calderon started playing basketball that we know he’s capable of playing; and it’s now that we’re finally seeing the fruits and blessing of the collapsed trade with Charlotte.

What fruits and blessings do you ask?

  1. Shipping off Jack and Banks gave Jose all the confidence he needs, knowing that they count on him to run this team.
  2. Adding Bayless is a huge move for the future. Jerryd does all the things Jack can do – but only better. He can drive to the basket better, shoot better, and play defense better. Add to that, he’s also younger and has tremendous upside.
  3. Acquiring Peja’s expiring contract – a huge move in building for the future.

You see the spring in Jose’s step in the aftermath of this trade. His numbers are up, he’s shooting with confidence, playing aggressively on defense, and driving to the basket more.

Jose has also gained the respect of US media. From a recently published article on Hoopsworld:

Since Jack was traded, Calderon has started 12 games and is averaging 12.2 points on 54 percent shooting and 48.4 percent from three to go with 9.2 assists and 1.3 steals as the Raptors have won five and lost seven.  Toronto is 10-19 on the season.  Calderon has been playing some of the best basketball of his career as a starter this year.

Read full article: http://bit.ly/eBUd62

Now, there’s no telling what will happen to Jose in the future. He might stay and continue as the Raptors’ leading point guard. But if Colangelo still wants to trade him, it will be much easier to do so this time around as Jose’s trade value is as high as it ever was.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

Taken from my piece on Raptors Watch

Are the Young Onez not good enough to make an impact on the future?

The ESPN gurus have spoken once again.

Chad Ford and John Hollinger have ranked all 30 teams in the NBA, based on how bright of a future they have in the next 3 seasons. The Raptors were ranked 30th; and here’s their reasoning behind it:

The team has some young talent in Andrea Bargnani, DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis, Jerryd Bayless and Amir Johnson. However, we remain unconvinced that any of them will blossom to become the type of player that propels the Raptors back into contention. Thus, we’ve ranked them near the bottom in the players category.

We’ve also grown more cynical about the management of the team. It now appears that the Raptors are for sale, meaning their future is even more in doubt. We’re also struggling to see GM Bryan Colangelo’s long-term plan with the team. The offensive talent is there, but the Raptors remain a mess on defense and, despite a flurry of moves, seem to be stuck in neutral at the bottom of the East.

Before I go into analyzing their assessment of the Raptors, you might be baffled to know where some of the other teams ranked.

The ageing San Antonio Spurs are ranked 8th. A team that will have three of their main stars well into their 30′s in three years time.

If there’s a team that’s ageing even more-so than the Spurs, it’s the Celtics. Their only legit young piece is Rajon Rondo; yet they’re ranked 14th.

Kobe’s Lakers are ranked 3rd. I suppose this ranking is highly dependant on if Kobe (32) can continue playing at a high level.

Even more mystifying are the teams that ranked 12 and 13. New Jersey is ranked as high as 12th. They’re a team that rely on Devin Harris (OK, makes sense), Brook Lopez, and Anthony Morrow – who hasn’t shown any more promise than Derozan, Ed Davis, Amir Johnson, or Jerryd Bayless. Add to that: the fact that New Jersey isn’t in a significantly better position to get a higher draft pick than the Raptors.

Portland is ranked at 13th – which to me, is an ignoramus assessment. Yes – Portland is a young team; but the fact is that they’ve built their team around Brandon Roy, whose days as an elite NBA player are all but a sweet memory. Beyond question, Portland won’t be the same without his presence, and it’s really sad to see a stud like Brandon Roy have his career dwindle down due to health concerns. I’m a big fan of his game, and he’s a really classy guy both on and off the court.

Now, you’d be surprised to know while the rankings of other teams are open to debate, ESPN’s assessment of the Raptors is somewhat accurate – as much as Raps fans might hate to acquiesce to it. They could be higher than Detroit (25) and Philadelphia (24) – as neither of those teams are in a better situation than the Raptors – but overall, the Raps have no guarantee of having success in the next few years, and that probably won’t change unless the Raptors can acquire a superstar, either through trade or through the draft.

Yes, the Raptors have talent. Davis, Demar, Weems, Bayless, Andrea – these guys have upside, but they need a superstar to mesh their talents all together. Currently, the only player that wouldn’t be a 6th man on any other team is Andrea. Ed Davis has shown signs that he could, in a couple of years, develop into a Jermaine O’neal type of player; but that remains to be seen. He needs to bulk up first. Sonny Weems looks like he’ll be an inconsistent player all his life, but Demar and Bayless have the potential to be solid starters in the NBA.

As for the franchise being sold – it’s a bit nonsensicle to think this would affect the franchise in a negative way. Someone needs to tell them down at ESPN that even if the franchise does get sold to Rogers Communications (the most likely buyer if it happens), this will not make the franchise any worse than it is. The vision of each and every candidate is to make this organization grow and improve. Adding to that, this franchise has zero chance of relocating to another city.

To encapsulate this post, I would say despite their blemish about the possibility of the franchise being sold (research is your friend, ESPN), and the aberrant ranking of other teams; the actual ranking regarding the Raptors seems fair. Although I would have had them ranked a bit higher, as they have a talented team – more-so than some of the other teams ranked above them – and they have a solid chance at obtaining a high draft pick.

Adding to that, if Andrea can develop into an All-Star, and Ed Davis bulks up in to JO – accompanied by drafting a star, this assessment changes dramatically.

 

Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce... win

Taken from my latest article on Raptors Watch

“It was bouncing, it was bouncing. I was just praying, praying, praying. Thank you, Jesus. It went in”
– Raymond Felton on his game-winning shot

“I think we did a good job,” Bargnani said. “It was good defense by Calderon and what can you say about that shot? There is nothing to say about that shot.”
– Andrea Bargnani

Another Raptor career night, another entertaining close game – another loss. The Raptors will be shaken after seeing Raymond Felton’s game-winning 3 pointer find its way into the hoop after bouncing around the rim 5 times, but it was a positive performance… For one man anyway.

Andrea Bargnani

Last night, Andrea completely justified my claims. His career night was impressive in so many ways: He drove to the basket, hit 3′s, and knocked down mid-range jumpers. But put those amazing numbers aside for a second and look at his other stats. Andrea’s ability to pass out of the double team was efficient, and led him to grab 6 assists along with his 7 rebounds.

What’s even more impressive – he’s a center. 40+ for a center in a game is not that common these days. In fact, believe it or not, last night’s performance was the highest point total in a game for a center since Shaq in 2007.

We’ve waited 4 years for this performance – the propitious beginning of a golden era. Vote Canada. Vote, vote, vote.

Beyond Bargs

This is one of the few games I’d say the box score reflects the game pretty well. Even though it was a close one, you can’t expect Andrea to carry this team by himself offensively.

Beyond Andrea, the Raptors had good production from Demar Derozan who cashed in with 19 points  – 19 points that were largely achievable because he wasn’t settling for jumpers. By now, we’ve seen what works for Demar and what doesn’t. He struggles on nights where he camps outside the 3-point ark, and is prosperous when he’s active on the floor, moving, getting open, and driving to the lane. Hopefully he realizes this. If he doesn’t, someone on the coaching staff must pinpoint it.

Prior to the game, I talked about the woeful shooting from the Raptor wings – Barbosa, Weems, Kleiza, and Derozan: just 23-of-72 in the 2 games prior. Well, the only player to step up for this game out of that quartet was Derozan, as the former 3 went 8-for-25, on you guessed it – mostly long-range jumpers.

Calamitous 4th quarter

As we all saw last night, there was a series of unfortunate events that favored the Knicks late in the 4th. But before I get into that, Amare Stoudemire needs to collect his accolades. He’s turned this Knicks franchise around. His absurd number aside, his attitude and clutch play in the 4th quarter on a consistent basis is exemplary of an all-star player. He is the justification of why the Knicks are where they are right now. He was, of course, clutch again in the 4th against the Raptors – scoring 18 of his 34 points in the final frame.

Not taking anything away from the stellar Amare, but there was some questionable match-up problems late in the 4th. While Amir Johnson was on the bench – most notably due to foul trouble – Jose Calderon was stuck guarding Amare as a result of not being able to fight through screens. Andrea was stuck guarding Chandler out on the perimeter, and Linas Kleiza was playing the 4 spot. As you can imagine, Jose just got abused down low, while Kleiza’s help defense on Amare was deplorable. Not that anyone expecst Kleiza to be capable of containing Amare, let alone guarding two players at the same time, but the puzzle in all this is how Jay Triano didn’t opt to put a more capable body on him such as Ed Davis or Joey Dorsey. Even Amir Johnson, playing with 5 fouls would seemingly have been more efficacious.

The frantic finish to the game started with 57 seconds remaining. With the Raps down 110-107, Kleiza gets called for a 5 second violation – which at the time, seemed like the quickest 5 seconds in NBA history. If you’re like me, you’ve already watched the clip a few times, counting each second by the Mississippi. It was close. I won’t say whether or not it was the right call, but I will ask you this – Would that call have been made against Lebron James with the game on the line? We’ll leave it at that.

Andrea did eventually tie the game with a 3 pointer, only to see Felton’s game-winner cancel his effort out. I thought the last play call for Andrea could have been better coming out of the time-out, and perhaps Andrea could have just gone straight up and shot it over the much smaller Felton instead of trying to dribbling around him. But the reality is that Andrea gave it his all in this game.

Now, the Raptors will have to regroup and produce a collective effort from everyone as they look to avoid losing to the Nuggets on Friday and giving George Karl his 1000th win.

 

Benzema gains some much needed confidence

Taken from our discussion on the Perpetual Post.

Champions League Matchday 6

By Mike Cummings, Kiyan Sobhani and Howard Megdal

MIKE CUMMINGS: Play it again, Sam. And, aww, what the heck — while we’re at it, here’s looking at you, Arsenal.

With his goal for Arsenal in the 77th minute Wednesday against Partizan, Samir Nasri did a couple of things that could each qualify as A Big Damn Deal. First, he further established himself as the Gunners’ most consistent contributor and — more and more these days, with the disappearance of the artist formerly known as Cesc Fabregas — the team’s best overall player. Second, he made Arsenal the English Team To Watch in the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Whew. Who knew an insurance goal in a middling group-stage win could be so important? For the reasons why, follow me down the logical trail.

With that middling group-stage win, Arsenal at last qualified as the runner-up in Group H, a group the Gunners were expected to dominate. But after road losses to Shakhtar Donetsk and Braga, Arsenal was in real danger of finishing third as Matchday 6 began. Those fears were compounded when Cleo canceled out Robin van Persie’s opener and tied the score at 1-1 in the second half. Enter Theo Walcott, who scored what turned out to be the winner four minutes before Nasri.

But while Walcott’s goal was the game-winner, Nasri’s was the nail in the coffin, the ticket to the knockout stages, the soothing tonic for Arsenal’s cocktail of mixed performances over the past month.

And more than anything, it was all of those things, all over again.  In other words, this is not the first time Ol’ Sam (think he’s ever been called that?) has bailed Arsenal out this year. One of the best examples came over the weekend when he scored twice and pretty much ran the whole game in Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Fulham.

But that’s not the only example. Dating back to the start of Arsenal’s recent slump — a 2-1 loss at Shakhtar Donetsk on November 3 — Nasri has scored five goals in seven starts and has been his team’s best player. And that’s been a welcome development for an Arsenal team that’s been dealing with Cesc Fabregas’ injury and uninspired form.

So why is Arsenal The English Team To Watch? Because while Nasri has played well consistently, as a whole Arsenal has not. It’s nothing new to report that Arsenal has talent to win it all but also the inconsistencies to lose at any time. That’s the way it’s been for years under Arsene Wenger, especially since the Gunners won their last trophy in 2005.

This year is no different. At times Arsenal has looked great, but at times they’ve also looked very bad. As Wednesday showed, Wenger’s men obviously have to defend better if they want to win any trophies. Cleo had way too much time for his goal, and Arsenal’s defense seemed content to let him shoot unpressured.

But with that said, Arsenal is at the top of the Premier League, in the knockout stages of the Champions League, and still kicking in both the FA Cup and Carling Cup.

Simply put, anything can happen. And as Arsenal has repeatedly shown, it probably will.

So is this the season Arsenal finally puts it all together and wins a major trophy for the first time since 2005? At the moment the Gunners are at the top of the Premier League table, and despite showing inconsistent form during large parts of the season, they look as good a bet for the title as the rest of the Big (Shambolic) Four would. For now Arsenal is playing with lots of confidence after, apparently, having put their annual November-December hiccups behind them.

More than anyone else, the Gunners have good ‘ol Sam to thank for that.

HOWARD MEGDAL: To paraphrase another Casablanca quote, Mike, how extravagant you are, throwing away Spurs like that. Someday, English clubs may become scarce.

Or put another way, Arsenal qualified- but Tottenham Hotspur won their group, besting a strong group including Twente, Werder Bremen and some team that plays at San Siro- and they did it without a defense.

Well, they had people back there, sure. But the depth was nil. And Younes Kaboul missed the Twente game, while Michael Dawson hasn’t played in a Champions League match all season. Tom Huddlestone’s absence for ankle surgery doesn’t help matters, either, and he wasn’t 100 percent long before he took his leave.

As Harry Redknapp put it, You can’t say, ‘Well they’ve conceded goals’ as we’ve scored more goals than anybody.” What could lift Spurs to another level- and perhaps this is a greedy fan talking- is if they’d simply stop conceding so many goals.

Meanwhile, I think it is worth pointing out that the following Champions League teams in the Round of 16 will be unseeded: AC Milan, Lyon, Inter Milan and Arsenal. In other words, four of the group winners will receive these opponents- as a reward.

By the time it happens it will be February- giving Spurs the chance to both get healthy and add in the January transfer window. Clearly, they don’t need any more goals. But that defense should look very different in a few months. And astoundingly, that could mean Spurs makes a run in this tournanent.

KIYAN SOBHANI: While others were busy watching more important clashes such as Arsenal taking on Belgrade, I decided to tune into the demolition at the Bernabeu, where Real Madrid’s B team (minus Cristiano, who apparently plays – every – single – game) thrashed poor Auxerre 4-0. It was an insignificant result, as this group has been long decided – much like most groups.

But, this was a morale booster. For a second, let’s forget the fact that Auxerre was among the worst teams in the Champions League this year. What’s substantial here is that Karim Benzema had his best game in a Real Madrid shirt, scoring a hat-trick – including an alluring lob for his 3rd goal. It was a huge morale boosting game for Karim, who has no excuses now that Higuain is out for at least a month or so. Naturally, Benzema has no strikers standing in his way – and Madrid will need Benzema’s confidence to be sky-high if they are to go deep in all competitions.

So what’s next for Madrid? It’s intriguing to look at the potential teams that Madrid could face in the knockout round. Three of them – Lyon, Arsenal, Roma – are teams that have knocked out Madrid in the round of 16 in the past 6 years; while another fun team to draw would be Inter Milan, where Madrid would want to take revenge on Benitez who out-coached Bernd Schuster as Liverpool knocked out Real 5-0 on aggregate 2 seasons ago. Madrid would also rendezvous with former allies Sneijder, Samuel, and Cambiasso; while Inter gets a chance to prove to their former coach that they are indeed contenders without ‘the special one’.

The two remaining teams that Madrid could conceivably draw are Marseille and Copenhagen – both of whom would undoubtedly be Madrid’s easiest possible draw. Maybe that’s just what they need, because many Merengue fans feel that all they need to do is break the curse and advance past this deplorable round of 16 phase on their quest to ‘La Decima’ – their 10th European crown.

Taken from our discussion at Perpetual Post.

By Mike Cummings and Kiyan Sobhani

MIKE CUMMINGS: So Barcelona beat Real Madrid 5-0 on Monday, and footie commentators around the world over are falling over themselves to anoint Barca The Best of All Time. The Spoiler went for the phrase “looked like one of the truly great football teams,” and included a couple of current players in the club’s all-time best squad. Meanwhile Tom Adams claimed Barca currently has three all-time greats on its squad (though that includes only one of the two The Spoiler plumped for), and the Spanish press hailed a historic win for the “Azulgrana.” Me? For once I’ll side with Jose Mourinho: We will let time judge what this team has done.

Here’s what Barcelona has done so far this season: Taken 34 out of 39 possible points in La Liga, topping the table after 13 matches; beaten its biggest rival 5-0; and advanced out of a weak Champions League Group D. On current form, this team is more than capable of winning every competition it’s currently in. In fact, they’re probably the favorites to win every competition they’re currently in. But long seasons have a way of spoiling even the great teams’ best-laid plans.

For perspective, let’s look to American college football. Back in early October, the University of Alabama routed Florida 31-6 in a showdown between the last two national champions. Here’s what ESPN.com’s Pat Forde wrote about the game afterwards.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For the past 25 months, the prevailing theme in the Southeastern Conference has been Alabama and Florida on one level and everyone else down below.

After the Beatdown in T-Town, the upper echelon has been cut in half. It’s Alabama alone and everyone else down below.

This is a one-team league at the top.

In fact, this is a one-team nation.

With their 31-6 thumping of Florida, the Crimson Tide sent the following message around the South and around the country: When we’re on our game, nobody can hang with us.

Not yet two months later, Florida is 7-5, Alabama is 9-3, and the Crimson Tide’s biggest rival, Auburn, is one win away from playing in this year’s national championship. And to get into that position, Auburn had to beat Alabama when Alabama was on its game — at least for one half.

Here’s the point: After Monday night, Barcelona looks like it could be the best team in Europe and maybe even among the best teams of all time. But back in October, Alabama looked like the best college football team in America. Between now and the end of the club soccer season, Barcelona could either turn out to be the best of all time, a big-time flop, or anything in between.

The Champions League runs until May, La Liga runs until June, and history runs forever. For now, Barcelona is the best team in Spain. But let’s hold off on calling them the best of all time.

KIYAN SOBHANI: As a Madridista, you can imagine how I felt in the bar on Monday – I could only sit there while Barca fans all around me enjoyed one of the most memorable nights in their club’s history.

Thanks to my father, I’ve been a Madridista since I was born. Losing to your biggest rivals is never a joyous occasion, but this 5-0 battering will have a lasting effect on myself, and millions of other Madrid fans all around the World. What we can only hope though, is that the players won’t suffer this same kind of psychological blow. Madrid still have to play Valencia – without Ramos and Carvalho who are suspended – and Sevilla, so it’s a horrible time to have low morale. What’s more worrying, is that they’ll have to do this after learning the horrible news that Gonzalo Higuain will be out for at least 2 months. Thankfully, Mourinho is a psychologist. So as much as I didn’t agree with his tactics (I thought Pellegrini’s tactics in Camp Nou last year of pressuring  Barca high and not letting them pass the ball around was exemplary), I loved his post-game comments:

“I hope this game does not affect us psychologically. I have spoken to the players and told them the title is not gone. We can’t leave here crying. I left here defeated at the start of last season with Inter Milan and then at the end of the season we were playing in the Champions League final [having knocked out Barcelona], while they had to watch it on television.”

So although Mike makes great points about it being far from over, he forgot another important statistic: Inter lost last year to Barca in the Camp Nou in similar fashion. They didn’t let in 5 goals, but they did however touch the ball only a few times and really got dismantled. But we all know who knocked out Barca and went on to lift the Champions League trophy at the Bernabeu. At that point, no one remembered that earlier loss in the Camp Nou.

From a philosophical perspective, there are so many ways to look at this result. This Madrid team is quite new. They literally start from scratch every year with a new coach; while this Barca team has been playing together for years, and with a system that’s been implemented equally as long. Also, the Real Madrid players were just rattled. Gone are the days of Hierro, Roberto Carlos, and Raul – experienced players who know what it takes to play in the most imporant fixture in football. The new era of players from abroad such as Ozil, Di Maria, and Khedira were thrown into the hostile Camp Nou for the first time – and it showed.

Regarding the argument of whether Barca’s team is the best ever or not really depends on the outcome of the season. The way they ravaged Madrid really magnifies this argument as Madrid were enjoying a record-breaking season. So this wasn’t just ‘any’ team that Barca dismantled.

But the fact of the matter is that we’re not even half-way through the season and Madrid is still 2nd place in La Liga, and fighting strong in all competitions. There is a more than good chance that these two teams will end up facing each other in the knockout rounds of the CL. There is also a more than good chance that Mourinho and co. have learned from their mistakes in the 1st Clasico.

However way you want to look at it, I just do no not see a way that this will happen again to a team managed by Mourinho that has an abundant amount of talent and pride.