Top Storylines of the NBA Season

Thanks to the NBA responding to the players’ complaints about the number of back-to-back games, the regular season is tipping off tonight, about a week and a half earlier than the usual start to the season. It was one of the most active and fascinating offseasons in recent memory. The flurry of player movement has contributed to this being the most anticipated NBA season since Lebron James and Chris Bosh joined the Miami Heat before the 2010-2011 campaign. Let’s dive into what should be the top storylines to follow up through the 2018 NBA Finals in June.

Did the Rockets and Thunder do enough?

The summer was interesting in that it seemed like some perennial teams made very little effort to get better, suggesting they were punting on the season as they came to grips with the reality of not being able to compete with Golden State. On the other hand, a few of the league’s better teams brought in high caliber complimentary pieces to surround their franchise players.

The Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder were far from being equipped to compete with the Warriors when the summer began. Both teams were led by elite franchise players in Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who coincidentally finished 1st and 2nd in the MVP voting, respectively. But in what has been proven in the NBA, it takes more than one great player to be a legitimate title contender.

The Rockets added Chris Paul to form one of the NBA’s most lethal backcourts. The Thunder brought in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony on what could very well be for one year depending on how things go. Both Houston and Oklahoma City look to be the best candidates to challenge Golden State in the Western Conference.

I don’t know how either of these situations will work out. But both will be fun to watch and I give a lot of credit to the teams by recognizing they were not good enough as they were constructed at season’s end and making the necessary moves to bolster their squads.

Cavs, Celtics and everyone else in the East

There is very little if any debate who the two best teams in the Eastern Conference are. Both the Cavs and Celtics finished atop the Eastern Conference a season ago and possibly got better over the summer. The Celtics improved by bringing in Gordon Hayward and possibly got even better when adding Kyrie Irving. Or at least they think they got better by making a blockbuster trade with the Cavs this past August.

I personally think the Cavs got the better of the trade as they acquired Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round draft pick, and Boston’s 2020 second-round draft pick. But who got better for the upcoming season may be up to debate. However, the Cavs also added Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, for whatever he can still contribute at this stage of his career.

Bottom line is that barring major injury, the Cavs and Celtics look like locks for 50+ wins, the top two seeds and destined to face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals again. After that, the drop off in the East is precipitous. The Wizards and Raptors are good teams that will likely grab the #3 and #4 playoff seeds.

Next, you have your group of mediocre to above average teams that could win anywhere between 35-45 games. In this category, I’d put the Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, and Detroit Pistons.

After that, you have your up and coming teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks who are likely a year or two away from making noise in the playoffs but likely have a ceiling as high as #5/6 seeds if all goes well. Both teams are similar in that they have elite, young talent but do not have quite the experience to be able to safely project where they will finish this season.

Who will win this year’s tank-a-thon?

While the NBA failed miserably in their attempt at lottery reform by evenly out the odds to acquire the #1 overall pick, there will be a competition for the rights to likely draft Michael Porter in the 2018 NBA Draft. Based on the activity of a few teams this past offseason, there appear to be a handful of teams on the quest for a top pick.

The Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night, a player who was in trade rumors for about a year. In return, they acquired draft capital and young guards, Kris Dunn and Zach Lavine. The Bulls will be fortunate to win 20 games and look to be a good bet to make it to the commercial on the night of the Draft Lottery.

After what seemed like several years of being a perennially above average team with zero hope of competing for a championship, the Atlanta Hawks look like they headed for a very lean year. The positive is that Atlanta finally will get out of NBA purgatory, assuming they are able to land a top draft pick with finding their next franchise player, a role that has been vacant for way too long.

What else is there to say about the New York Knicks? They have been the joke of the NBA for the past few years and will only be worse following the departure of Carmelo Anthony. While they hit on Kristaps Porzingis at #4 overall in the 2015 Draft, there have been rumblings that he wants out of New York. Can you blame him? Assuming their best player does, in fact, get dealt before the trade deadline, the losses and ping pong ball combinations will add up quickly.

ROY Race

This past draft class was the most hyped since the 2003 group that brought in Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Lonzo Ball, more thanks to his helicopter father got plenty of attention before being selected by his hometown Los Angeles Lakers at #2 overall. Lavar Ball possibly put even more pressure on his son and the expectations will be extremely high in his first NBA season.

Markelle Fultz, who the Sixers traded up for with their long-time bitter rival Celtics, was the top pick in the draft. Even with being the #1 overall pick, Fultz looks like a project who we may not see blossom until his third or fourth season. I don’t expect a lot from him in his rookie year. I’m more intrigued by his teammate, Ben Simmons as a “Rookie of the Year” candidate. Simmons missed his entire first season due to injury and has received rave reviews from scouts and coaches around the league. Some have suggested his skillset is a blend of Lebron James and Magic Johnson.

The darkhorse candidate may be Dennis Smith Jr., who was selected ninth overall by the Dallas Mavericks. His flashes of brilliance during the NBA Summer League have ignited the conversation that he may have been the steal of the draft. Smith was an explosive, exciting player at N.C. State who arguably would have been drafted higher if not for his injury history. He should be fun to watch and I wouldn’t rule him out to take home the award.

Top Trade Candidates

I’m very skeptical that DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis can co-exist in New Orleans. Talent-wise, they could form the most formidable frontcourt in the NBA. But they have a big, uphill climb in a very tough Western Conference. If the Pelicans get off to a rough start and if it’s starting to look like they’ll miss the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years, I could either guy getting moved before the deadline.

I already mentioned Kristaps Porzingis when making the argument for the Knicks being one of the teams to watch in this year’s tank-a-thon. When you combine the report of KP wanting out of New York due to the front office dysfunction along with the Knicks likely headed for a bad year, he looks like a prime trade candidate.

Despite re-signing with the Clippers in the offseason, I still won’t rule out Blake Griffin getting moved if the team struggles in the first half. By trading Chris Paul over the summer, I took that as a sign of waving a white flag on the 2017-2018 season. Given the Clippers’ lack of cap space and draft capital, I could see Griffin being moved if there is an offer that could jumpstart their inevitable rebuild.

The Final Four

I’m going chalk for the Eastern Conference, anticipating a rematch of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics. But I do not anticipate quite the drama that the networks will hype up leading into the series. I like the Cavs’ playoff experience and I think Kyrie Irving may end up eating his ungrateful remarks about playing with Lebron James when he discovers how much of a dropoff it will be in Boston. I go Cleveland 4-2.

It may take some time for Russell Westbrook to establish chemistry with newcomers, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. But they’re talented enough to be a Top 4 seed. I am going to bet on the Oklahoma City Thunder getting to the Western Conference Finals either by the conventional standards of getting the #2/3 seed and facing the Golden State Warriors or struggling initially, grabbing a lower seed, forcing an upset and getting there. Either way, I like them to give the Warriors a scare before losing in seven games, 4-3.

Cavs and Warriors, again. How boring. Unfortunately, while parody is common in the other three major sports, it is completely absent in the NBA. I don’t have any reason to believe it will be Golden State again, but I like the series to go seven, giving them the 4-3 win.

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The Case for the American Athletic (Power) Conference

In the latest Associated Press Top 25 College Football Rankings, a third team from the American Athletic Conference joined the list when Navy grabbed the #25 spot. The American is now tied with the prestigious SEC with having three teams. Outside of the three AAC teams in the Top 25, USF (#18) and UCF (#22) being the other two, there is only one other representative from the Group of 5, San Diego State.

Since the newly formed delineation of the Power 5 and Group of 5 in 2014, the American has easily been the best amongst the Group of 5. The conference has been responsible for several statement wins against major, Power 5 programs since the end of the BCS era and it was relegated from the group of BCS conferences to the Group of 5. The performance of these programs in the post-BCS era suggest the American should have never been separated from the SEC, Big 10, ACC, Big 12 and Pac 12 in the first place.

AAC Victories over Power 5 Teams

2014 Season  
AAC Winner Power 5 Loser
Temple Vanderbilt
East Carolina Virginia Tech
East Carolina North Carolina
Houston Pittsburgh
2015 Season
Temple Penn State
Houston Louisville
Memphis Kansas
East Carolina Virginia Tech
Cincinnati Miami
South Florida Syracuse
Memphis Ole Miss
Houston Vanderbilt
Navy Pittsburgh
Houston Florida State
2016 Season
Houston Oklahoma
Cincinnati Purdue
East Carolina NC State
Memphis Kansas
Connecticut Virginia
South Florida Syracuse
Navy Notre Dame
Houston Louisville
South Florida South Carolina
2017 Season (Through Week 6)
Houston Arizona
South Florida Illinois
Memphis UCLA
UCF Maryland

Looking back, we know that the demise of the conference, that is essentially the remains of the Big East, began with the rejection of a new television deal which gave potential newcomers like Boise State, TCU, BYU and San Diego State cold feet and caused them to back out of joining. The next domino to fall was the departure of Louisville, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh for the ACC and Rutgers for the Big 10. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, what was setting up to be a very formidable football conference evaporated into Conference USA 2.0.

You could argue that a conference with programs like TCU, Boise State, San Diego State, BYU, Louisville, UCF, USF, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Houston, SMU and Cincinnati would be a very strong one. At the very least, it would be a conference that would certainly deserve the status of a Power 5 conference.  

Instead, we are left with what has been the best Group of 5 conference and one that has been campaigning to be considered part of the “Power 6”. This has been based on the insinuation that they are in the same class as the Power 5 members. Despite the attempts to include themselves and the on-field performances which have backed up their claims, they’re still stuck in the rut of what is the Group of 5. Even if UCF, USF, and Navy continue to rise in the rankings and one of those schools make it to a New Year’s Bowl and defeats a storied program, the current system places a ceiling on what the conference can be.

The American will be up for a new television contract in 2020. The current deal is what separates the AAC from being on the same level as the Power 5. Currently, the Power 5 schools receive about $30 million annually from their television deals, compared to the $3.5 million per school in the AAC.

Despite the occasional great story like what is unfolding for UCF, USF, and Navy this season, none of it is sustainable. The American has become a breeding ground for new Power 5 coaches as a total of five left the AAC for Power 5 jobs just last offseason. Despite any feelings of loyalty or level of commitment those coaches may have felt to their programs, the decisions were a no-brainer when considering the imbalance of resources available to a Power 5 program.

This disparity makes so the story about Scott Frost of UCF isn’t about what he has done with a program that went winless just two years ago, but instead speculating which major program will pluck him after the season.

So what’s the solution? It all starts with television. AAC Commissioner, Mike Aresco has been very clear about his vision for improving the status of the conference. He has been very vocal about his league deserving more television revenue and has shown an ability to think outside the box to make it happen. The major positive for the American is their presence in major media markets like Houston, Dallas, Memphis, Tampa, Orlando and New York. The next step is figuring out how to capitalize on it.

I have to think there are a lot of conversations being had about exploring a contract with a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon. If they can act quickly and possibly secure a ground-breaking deal before any of the existing Power 5 conferences, that could be their ticket to closing the television revenue gap.

If you can close that gap and generate revenue at least in the same neighborhood of the current Power 5 conferences, the AAC will then have the argument on the business side to compliment the performance of their football programs to get a seat at the table and officially form the Power 6.

We have seen that the AAC has very strong football programs. These programs have accomplished a lot despite having roughly 10-15% of the resources of a SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12 or Pac 12 school. But if you give them the resources needed to keep up and compete long-term, the AAC could be one of the nation’s better college football conferences.

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NFL Power Rankings after the 1st Quarter of the Season

It’s hard to believe a fourth of the NFL regular season is in the books. While a lot can and will change, there is a decent sample size to assess where all 32 teams rank across the league.

1.Kansas City Chiefs (4-0)

It only took until Week 4 for there to be only one undefeated team left in the NFL. That happens to be the Chiefs and it has not been any fluke. The defense has been as good as to be expected, despite the loss of Eric Berry. The major difference has been the play of Alex Smith, who I’d like to think had a fire lit under him after the team traded up to draft Patrick Mahomes. It also hasn’t hurt that rookie, Kareem Hunt has been the best running back in the NFL through Week 4. Kansas City looks like a team primed for a deep playoff run.

2. Atlanta Falcons (3-1)

The Falcons are very talented on both sides of the ball and have everything it takes to make it back to the Super Bowl. Before a disappointing home loss to the Bills, they were less than a yard away from also losing to the Lions. Therefore, the Falcons could very easily be 2-2 and still have a lot of very tough games ahead on the schedule. As long as the offense plays up to its potential and the defense continues to build off last year, the Falcons should be playing in January again this season.

3. Detroit Lions (3-1)

The Lions have been one of the more impressive and surprising teams to start the year. If not for a heart-breaking and questionable loss to the Falcons in Week 3, Detroit would be the lone undefeated team in the NFC. The most encouraging thing about this team is how balanced they are. Matt Stafford is playing exceptionally well, the running game is solid with a healthy Ameer Abdullah and the defense just keeps making plays. If they can stay healthy and keep it going, they could be a very dangerous playoff team.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1)

While the Steelers have gotten off to a 3-1 start that has them in sole position of first place in the AFC North, the offense is yet to flash its full potential. It’s only a matter of time, given the plethora of offensive weapons. I can’t see a scenario where the Pittsburgh offense doesn’t get it together, win double-digit games and get back to the postseason.

5. Green Bay Packers (3-1)

The Packers picked up right where they left off, following a strong close out to the 2016 season. Aaron Rodgers has looked his elite self and is getting contributions from multiple players in the passing game. Mike Daniels may be one of the most underrated defensive players in the NFL, and when healthy helps the Green Bay defense function as an above-average unit. We know what the offense can do. The play of the defense will most likely determine if they can get back to the Super Bowl.

6. Philadelphia Eagles (3-1)

The Eagles are off to a 3-1 start thanks to a big second-year jump by Carson Wentz in addition to dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Generally, good QB play combined with strong offensive and defensive line play equates to success in football. The schedule-makers didn’t do Philadelphia any favors, being that they started their first two games and three of their first four on the road. The Eagles overcame the tough opening slate and have the makings of a legitimate playoff contender.

7. Carolina Panthers (3-1)

The Panthers are looking very similar to their 2015 team that went 15-1 and made it to the Super Bowl. In what was the biggest upset of the weekend, they went into Foxboro and defeated the mighty Patriots. Cam Newton isn’t quite playing in top form but he got a lot closer this past Sunday. If he can fully regain his MVP form from two years ago, Carolina could be in line for a postseason berth.

8. Denver Broncos (3-1)

The Denver defense looks like its dominant self through the first quarter of the season. The big difference and possibly the reason for being 3-1 has been the strong play of Trevor Siemian. The Broncos have been trying to solve the quarterback problem since the retirement of Peyton Manning. They’ve attempted to do so by spending a 1st round pick on Paxton Lynch, which is looking like a bust. The Broncos have enough talent on the roster to get back to the postseason as long as Siemian can keep up his performance.

9. New England Patriots (2-2)

It now seems pretty funny that there were a series of debates across the media landscape around the idea of the Pats repeating their 16-0 mark from ten years ago. The offense has been as potent as expected as they have averaged 32.3 points per game. The problem has been on the defense, which severely lacks a pass rush and has led to allowing 32 points per game. For as much of a defensive genius Bill Belichick may be, he has quite the challenge to sort out if he wants to get New England back to another Super Bowl.

10. Houston Texans (2-2)

It looks like Houston hit on Deshaun Watson and Bill O’Brien, who has been labeled a quarterback whisperer, appears to finally have a franchise QB to develop. The defense is elite, and there is very little evidence to dispute that through four games. The Texans will go as far as Watson and the offense will take them.

11. Washington Redskins (2-2)

The Redskins are coming off a hard-fought loss that can be seen as equally frustrating and encouraging. It was encouraging in that they were dominating the only undefeated team left in the NFL for most of the game Monday Night, yet frustrating in how it felt like they gave it away with mistakes and dumb penalties. Nonetheless, Washington is a solid football team that has greatly improved on defense. We’ll see how they deal with the loss of Josh Norman, but I think the Redskins will be in the mix until season’s end.

12. Buffalo Bills (3-1)

The Bills appear to have nailed their hiring of Sean McDermott, as he has led a team that due to their questionable roster moves in the offseason was not making winning a priority in 2017. Even if that was the case, McDermott surely didn’t get the message. They are coming off an extremely impressive win in Atlanta and find themselves in 1st place in an AFC East that the Patriots have owned for the past decade in a half.

13. Los Angeles Rams (3-1)

The Rams are one of the truly pleasant surprises in the first quarter of the season. Jared Goff looks like the QB that deserved to be selected #1 overall and Sean McVeigh is looking like a terrific hire. The offense has been very efficient and the playmakers on defense have done their part in helping the Rams get off to such a great start. It’s not crazy to suggest the Rams could win the NFC West.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)

Despite having a delayed start to the year due to Hurricane Irma, the Bucs are right in the thick of what appears will be a very competitive NFC South race. Their win against the Giants was a great indicator of how mentally tough this team is, considering how desperate their opponent was playing in order to secure their first win. Third-year QB, Jameis Winston has all the weapons to help him have a breakout season and lead Tampa Bay to its first playoff appearance in ten years.

15. Seattle Seahawks (2-2)

While it came against the lowly Colts, the Seahawks got a much-needed dominant win on Sunday Night Football to even up their record at 2-2. The defense is still one of the NFL’s best, but the offense remains a concern due to its dreadful offensive line. Unlike the Giants who have similar strengths and weaknesses, they have a very mobile QB in Russell Wilson who can buy time with his legs in order to make plays in the passing game.

16. Dallas Cowboys (2-2)

The diagnosis of the Cowboys is fairly simple. The offense is very good and the defense is mediocre at best. When you are very good on one side of the ball and bad on the other side, you have an average football team. Dallas sits at 2-2, an average record. They have playmakers in the front seven who will need to play even better in order to cover up for the inexperience in the secondary if they want to return to the playoffs this year.

17. Tennesee Titans (2-2)

The Titans were the chic preseason pick to come out of the AFC South. A lot of that rests on the health of Marcus Mariota, which is already a concern following an injury in Week 4. When he is in the game and mobile, Tennessee has one of the most dynamic rushing attacks in the NFL. The defense can be very vulnerable, as it showed list past Sunday when they were torched by Deshaun Watson in Houston.

18. Minnesota Vikings (2-2)

The Vikings have one of the best defenses in the NFL, with difference-making players at all three levels. The fate of their season rests on the health of Sam Bradford, which historically has been a pretty bleak bet. Case Keenum has played okay in relief and has managed to grab one win in three starts. But if Bradford doesn’t return soon, the ceiling for Minnesota is likely an 8-8 finish.

19. Arizona Cardinals (2-2)

The Cardinals have had a very up and down first quarter of the season as they sit at .500. Their wins came against teams with a combined record of 1-7 and losses are at the hands of teams with a combined record of 5-3. That is to be expected of a team who lost their best player, David Johnson in Week 1 but has enough talent on both sides of the ball to beat the bad teams.

20. Oakland Raiders (2-2)

The Raiders haven’t quite looked like the dominant 12-win team from a season ago. A lot of their hopes rest on the health of Derek Carr, who will likely be out for a few weeks following a back injury in Denver. Hopefully, EJ Manuel can hold down the fort and keep Oakland in the AFC West race until Carr returns.

21. Baltimore Ravens (2-2)

After starting 2-0 while outscoring their opponents 44-10, the Ravens have dropped their last two while being outscored 70-16. Sunday’s loss to the Steelers made me think they were still shell-shocked by the Jaguars in the drubbing they suffered in London. I don’t want to be too harsh because there is not another team in the NFL that has been hit by the injury bug as hard as Baltimore has. But they’ll have to figure out a way to right the ship or it could have the makings of a very long season.

22. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-2)

The Jaguars have been very up and down through the first four games. They have had two extremely impressive wins against the Texans and the Ravens and very bad losses at the hands of the Titans and Jets. The defense is playing very well as all of the top draft picks of the past few years are beginning to translate to results. Jacksonville’s season-long success hinges on a balanced offensive attack and needed improvement from Blake Bortles from last year’s disastrous campaign.

23. New Orleans Saints (2-2)

The Saints are off to a start that is very emblematic of who they have been since 2014, an average team that looks destined to be 7-9. The offense has been very good and Drew Brees looks like his usual elite self. Stop me if you have heard this before, but the defense is below average. The difference is the emergence of a few young promising players, specifically the rookie CB Marshon Lattimore. New Orleans is very much in the mix at 2-2 in what looks to be the best top-to-bottom division in the NFL.

24. Cincinnati Bengals (1-3)

The Bengals secured a desperate win this past Sunday after an abysmal 0-3 start. While Cincinnati has been an impressive 58-36-2 since 2011, the slow start to the season can very easily be attributed to the losses in free agency to their offensive line. They have dug themselves in an early hole, but still have enough talent and experience to go on a run and get back in the playoff race.


25. Los Angeles Chargers (0-4)

The Chargers may be the most disappointing team of the season to date. They have enough talent on both sides of the ball to suggest they could be a dark-horse candidate in the AFC West. With all of the talent, Los Angeles has had a tough time closing out games, which has been a chronic issue for this franchise. Three of their four losses have come by a total margin of seven points. If two of those games could have been converted to wins, the outlook for the Chargers would be looking a lot different. But like Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.”

26. Miami Dolphins (1-2)

The Dolphins are coming off a very embarrassing performance in London, as they were shut out by a mediocre Saints defense. They have beaten up themselves with penalties, which is something they have not been able to afford given their lack of playmakers on defense. Jay Cutler has been very underwhelming and the question has to be asked – Would the-the offense be any worse if it was being led by Matt Moore?

27. New York Giants (0-4)

Despite winning 11 games a season ago, the Giants could not have had a worse start to the season. The achilles heel has been their historically abysmal offensive line. This was their weakness in 2016 and one that the front office completely neglected in the offseason. Due to that, the running game has been nonexistent and passing game has been limited to quick hitters. They still have a very good defense, but it has not been enough to avoid an 0-4 start.

28. New York Jets (2-2)

It may be early. But its nothing short of remarkable that the Jets have already won two games in a season most prognosticators questioned whether they would win two games all season. Given the lack of proven talent on the roster and a true journeyman starting quarterback in Josh McCown, its a great of great coaching by Todd Bowles.

29. Indianapolis Colts (1-3)

As much as the Colts obviously miss Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett has been serviceable in relief. While he may be serviceable, he’s not good enough to make up for the talent deficiencies throughout the Indianapolis roster. If Luck doesn’t return soon, the Colts are likely headed for a 4-12 or 5-11 finish. If he can return and play at the level we can expect, the Colts have a chance to stay relevant throughout the season.

30. Chicago Bears (1-3)

While the Bears have a handful of promising young players on defense, the big bright spots lie within the dynamic running back combo of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Chicago may be a year or two away from competing for anything significant and it looks like the team has recognized that with their decision to start Mitch Trubisky for the upcoming Monday Night game against Minnesota.

31. San Francisco 49ers (0-4)

The Kyle Shanahan era has gotten off to an even tougher start than even probably would have imagined. The defense has put out two respectable performances in their losses to Seattle and Arizona, as they surrendered 12 and 18 points, respectively. The problem is that your defense has to be practically perfect in order to win with Brian Hoyer under center. San Francisco has a lot of promising young talent and it may not be until late in the season until we see that start to translate to tangible results.

32. Cleveland Browns (0-4)

After wondering if the Browns regret passing on Carson Wentz in 2016, they now possibly now doing the same with Deshaun Watson. Instead, they have to deal with the growing pains of Deshone Kizer as they attempt to evaluate if he can finally be the guy to end the QB carousel. At this point, that has to be the priority for the Browns as they are likely headed for another year at the bottom of the AFC North.

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