For a large percentage of the American population, the World Cup is the only international soccer tournament that garners the attention of the masses. But there is a massive regional tournament getting ready to take place: the CONCACAF Gold Cup. And for what it’s worth, it is a tournament filled with rivalry match after rivalry match, so tension is ratcheted up as the tournament progresses.
So, what is the CONCACAF Gold Cup?
The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, way easier to just say CONCACAF, holds the Gold Cup tournament every two years. The USA won the last Gold Cup in 2013.
A total of twelve countries qualified for the 2015 Gold Cup. The countries are divided into three groups of four. The groups are:
Group A – USA, Honduras, Haiti and Panama
Group B – Costa Rica, Jamaica, El Salvador and Canada
Group C – Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala, Mexico and Cuba
The tournament runs from July 7-26, and a couple of games are being played in our own backyard here in North Texas. Toyota Stadium, home of FC Dallas, will kick off the tournament today with Panama vs. Haiti, followed by USA vs. Honduras.
The tournament favorite is Costa Rica. They boast the highest FIFA world ranking of any nation in the tournament at 14th. No other nation is in the top 20. From the last rankings, Mexico has dropped one place to hold the 23rd spot, and USA moved up one spot to 27th in the world.
Tune in to our live pregame coverage from Toyota Stadium from 3:00-7:00pm Central, as Jamie Kelly, Steve Davis, and a host of fantastic guests get you ready for the USA-Honduras match! Just search for KTSR on TuneIn, or click here.
Matt Molina is a Contributor at The Scoop. Follow him on Twitter at @MattMMolina.
All eyes are on a once-in-a-generation player, about to join a once-proud franchise looking to turn a corner.
When Connor McDavid strides across the stage this week in Sunrise, Florida, he will join the likes of Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby.
It’s almost unimaginable how the fortunes and optimism of a city and an organization can turn the minute a “generational player” is all but locked down for a hockey team.
If you haven’t heard, by now, Connor McDavid is lined up to become hockey’s “next one” for the team that was the home of “The Great One.” For at least the past three years, the hockey world has been abuzz about the kid from just outside Toronto.
For every Crosby and Lemieux, there is an Alexander Daigle and Greg Joly waiting, but every hockey expert from Moscow to Moose Jaw has the 18-year-old poised to be hockey’s next all-world, all-consuming, all-watching, talent.
Fans, players and executives of the NHL are on pins and needles to see just what kind of impact the kid will have on hockey, and especially on one of the most success-starved franchises in the league.
Oilers Looking for a Lifeline
Seven days before the 2015 NHL Draft Lottery on April 18th, the Edmonton Oilers completed another embarrassing and painful season, finishing 24-44-14. For the third time in their past six seasons, the team had finished at least 20 games below the .500 mark, and 2014-15 marked their ninth season in a row without a post-season appearance, which only the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Timberwolves could truly envy.
But it wasn’t always this way.
The Oilers were once one of the most enviable franchises in sports. Borne out of the ashes of the old World Hockey Association, the 1980s in Edmonton were the epicenter of a hockey renaissance thanks to Gretzky and Messier and the team’s legendary Stanley Cup run that featured five wins in seven seasons.
Like all great teams, the success faded in the mid-90s, but with some savvy trades of their fading and expensive stars, they climbed out of the basement and returned to some measure of competitiveness. Always battling for a playoff spot at the bottom rung of the conference standings, the team remained relatively competitive, but never enough to truly satisfy the fan base, which hadn’t seen a conference final in 14 years since their last appearance in 1992.
The fan-base that was craving a return to prominence finally got a serious taste during a magical Stanley Cup run in 2006. But, like all things ‘magic,’ the fan-base and the organization were completely deceived into believing this was the start of a positive upswing or a return to the halcyon days of the 1980s, which was so long ago that back then Bill Cosby was a loveable ‘Dad’ and not a ‘suspect.’
The run eventually became the organization’s biggest Achilles heel. While it bought the overlord of the franchise, former Oilers defenseman Kevin Lowe, more time, all it really did was expose that the team, the media and the fan-base were living in the past with no plan for the future.
Over and over again, and with seemingly every hire of a former player, the organization became the most incestuous and ineffective old boys club in sports.
The nine years of hell that this organization put their fan-base through featured a parade of ineffective and puppet coaches, one of the worst draft records by any team in any 10-year time frame outside of the first round, a pro and amateur scouting department that some estimate was 20 years behind the times, and an incompetent management team more interested in protecting their own personal legacies than making the moves necessary to get the franchise moving forward.
Since the glory days, the ‘small town’ attitude that has pervaded the organization is ultimately what sent this once proud franchise into irrelevance and laughing-stock status. The culture of the team became so toxic that any dissension in the media (including threats to pull media accreditations), among the fans or within the organization was defined as treasonous disloyalty. The Oilers have been so pathetic in the past decade that in spite of three first overall picks since 2010, the team became the biggest laughing-stock in hockey, with seemingly no way to get out from under it.
It’s the type of environment where an absentee billionaire owner who lives 12 hours away was given a free pass, and the local media, the organization and large groups of the fan-base continued to believe that the organization was always just ‘one or two players away’ thanks to a media strategy that featured an endless string of news conferences and tributes to the past with an unending parade of jersey retirements, all designed to placate the fans, but offer nothing in terms of anything resembling a ‘plan’ for the future beyond being in the draft lottery every year.
In spite of a wealth of draft talent in the first round, including three first overall draft picks in a row from 2010 to 2012, management literally had no answer. In fact, the amazing culture that was the lifeblood of the team during its heyday had become its ultimate undoing, all culminated within the last two years, and it all started with yet another news conference.
A Tale of Two Aprils
It was April 2013, and the Oilers were announcing the re-hiring of former golden era stalwart Craig MacTavish as GM. A former assistant and head coach who only generated three playoff appearances in eight seasons was now given the reins of the franchise as the General Manager, with zero experience at a management level and with his best pal Kevin Lowe as President of Hockey Operations, there was no clear line of demarcation. Perhaps the only demarcation was to take the heat off of Lowe, who was already starting to have his credibility questioned leading into what the organization tried to call a ‘fresh’ hire. Lowe started as a player, but has held virtually every title you can think of: Assistant Coach, Head Coach, General Manager, President, President of Hockey Operations, etc.
But it was what happened during that news conference that ultimately led to where we are today. Lowe, when questioned about his abysmal record as a hockey executive by a local reporter, literally went off with the arrogance, incompetence and horrific culture that had driven this team for years.
Lowe’s suggestion of “two tiers of fans” — one they listened to, which didn’t endear him to the faithful — but that was only the beginning of what has become the most legendary news conference in this area since we bid farewell to #99 on a sad Friday 27 years ago. Lowe capped things by stating that, “Only one person working in hockey had as many Stanley Cups as he had.”
The only missing element was this fact: Lowe won his last Cup as a player 21 years ago, and outside of the lightning-in-a-bottle 8th place finish, and the miracle in 2006, he’s pretty much been as close to the Stanley Cup as an executive as I have to becoming the career all-time passing leader for the Dallas Cowboys.
It was this news conference where the cracks started to form. The management team’s worst coaching hire followed (Dallas Eakins), and two more lost seasons, but it was after his “I know something about winning” comment that Lowe and MacTavish were doomed to the fan-base.
The fan-base was getting louder with their second year of demanding changes at every level, took to buying advertising, campaigning on social media, producing bumper stickers and holding rallies in bars.
After more than a decade of incompetence solely based on the myth that only former Oilers could run the franchise, the fan-base finally grew up and demanded better. Nearly 20,000 people signed up on social media, advertising was purchased, and even the media, who protected the regime more fiercely than the regime itself, had started to raise questions.
As the end of the 2015 season approached, one would think that the optimism of a new state-of-the-art arena would help, but even a new building set to open for the start of 2016 was clouded by the performance of the team and many fans openly complaining about how the new arena should be empty based on the performance of the team.
But then, April 18th happened, and with a slightly better than one chance out of 10, they pulled off what some are calling a miracle, and some have even wildly suggested that they pulled off the crime of the century.
While there was no sketchy, and some say culpable, Zapruder Film like in 1985 with David Stern and the NBA Lottery, those who love a good conspiracy theory believed they had some mileage when you consider how abysmally the Edmonton Oilers have handled the development of four first-round draft picks in just six years (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov), and they have an arena to fill.
It was a beautiful attempt based on the parallels, but outside of Gary Bettman and the Oilers brain trust checking the envelopes personally during the live broadcast, this lottery will never reach the conspiratorial heights of Stern in 1985.
As this was happening, ConnorMcDavid had completed a 120-point season, the endorsements of every hockey ‘expert’ from coast to coast, and picked up every major junior hockey award you can fathom, including a gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championship, and the MVP, Scholastic Player and Prospect of the Year trophies.
Just as the announcement of the Knicks in 1985 sent shock waves, consider the impact in Edmonton; the McDavid effect is no small force.
Prior to April 18, the management team had vowed to stay the course, building slowly and deliberately while offering no insight on the timetable for when the team would be competitive again, in spite of the treasure trove of first-round picks.
This was a team that prior to April 18,wasn’t changing any aspect of their organization, but, when a player who recorded 285 points in 166 games in Junior fell into their laps, the team realized that rather than meander as it had the last nine seasons with no palpable results, its entire future was firmly at hand.
The timetable moved up substantially and dramatically:
After the envelope was unsealed, six days later, Craig MacTavish was fired as GM (although he took a lesser role as “Assistant GM”) and replaced with Peter Chiarelli, who built the 2011 Bruins Stanley Cup championship team.
The team’s CEO and defacto leader of community-based projects was fired.
The new arena, which was shrouded in controversy and bad press over the seemingly ‘bad deal’ between Edmonton’s City Council and the Oilers, was suddenly and inexplicably the first answer when it came to ‘good news’ about the city.
Less than a month after that, the team had a new head coach (Todd MacLellan, ex of San Jose) who is clearly his own man, and who brought in his own assistants. Past coaching staffs were formed by management, and the coach was “given” his assistant coaches.
And, finally, even Kevin Lowe, of the owner and the firm leader of the franchise, was given yet another title. The title of “President of Hockey Operations” was removed, and he was moved to the new position as the “Vice Chair” of the newly minted “Oilers Entertainment Group.”
As a close friend of the owner Daryl Katz, who became pals in the glory years, the hiding and protection afforded to Lowe and his changing titles brings to mind how in the movie Casino, Robert DeNiro as ‘Ace’ was given every job title under the sun to ensure he could stay on to run the place. Seemingly, and on paper, he has been removed from all connections to the hockey team, and for many observers and fans of the team, fingers are crossed as the failings of this franchise for the past decade fall squarely at the feet of Lowe. Oilers fans are certainly hoping the latest change in job title actually means something this time, and keeps him away from the rink.
So as the Oilers plot a return to greatness, in just a few days, a pimply-faced kid from just outside Toronto will put on a ballcap and shove his head through a jersey, and once he emerges and the flashbulbs pop, an entire organization and a long-suffering fan-base holds its breath. Then the expectations start.
Here’s hoping this kid is ready and truly knows what he’s in for. But either way, an entire city and an entire sport, waits and wonders.
Kevin Donnan is a regular contributor to The Scoop and is a sports obsessed and self-confessed Pop Culture idiot savant trapped in a frozen, northern wasteland, yet, loves all things Texas and is the most “American” Canadian who has ever lived above the 49th parallel.
The 2015 NBA Finals for LeBron James was a microcosm of a career and a tribute to a once in a lifetime athlete
– Kevin Donnan
Some of you are preparing to *click* out of this article, and I understand.
Because outside of Tiger Woods and Alex Rodriguez, there is no more polarizing athlete on the planet than LeBron James.
You don’t need to be a NBA expert to know of LeBron James‘ career. Generational talent right out of high school, playing in Cleveland, “The Decision,” the flops, the money, the MVPs, the politics, “The Heatles,” the titles, the commercials, and of course “The Return.”
Through it all, whether you’re the obsessed or the casual observer, you typically reside in one of two camps:
1. LeBron James is an overrated, cramping, preening, flopper. Or,
2. You’ve named your children in tribute to the names of James‘ fictional Nike family, The LeBrons.
(Which means that those children, if not blessed with intestinal fortitude, will most certainly learn to acquire some as you try walking around with the names: Wise, Business, Athlete and Kid.)
Of course, James recently completed his sixth NBA Finals in 12 seasons. No matter on which side of the fence you reside, and in spite of his record falling to an overall 2-4 in the title series, this edition of The Finals, which was his fifth in a row, truly cemented his legacy as the greatest player of his generation, perhaps all time, and one of the most divisive players who has ever set foot in the sports arena in the eyes of fans.
After earning a split on the road in the first two games, clearly James was confident. As a road team, a split is the ultimate goal, and has set the stage for innumerable upsets and “can-you-believe-its.”
In Game 3, though, LeBron pulled out one of those rare moments in sports. Say what you want about The King, but very few have had the keen sense of the moment as he has over the course of his career, and Game 3 was another demonstration.
A minute or two before tip-off, James strode towards his place at the circle, stopped, and made eye contact with a legend. That glance has become a now legendary moment. James‘ simple bow of acknowledgment to Cleveland legend Jim Brown was one of the most beautiful gestures of respect, admiration and love that has ever been seen in sports, and one that will not fade from memory anytime soon.
Later, in an article on clevelandbrowns.com, Brown called the move “one of his greatest sports moments.” There is no way anyone can underscore the power of that statement when you take into account the legacy of Jim Brown, the athlete and the man.
The demonstration of respect to one of the most legendary athletes in the city and the country elevated James‘ status as a true sportsman, and a young man who is respectful and reverential of the past and those who helped blaze the trail without fear, and with nothing but courage and character.
With Cleveland entering Game 4 owning the only lead they would ever have, the Cavs mirrored their unabashed leader’s awkward fall under the backboard in the 2nd quarter. Detractors called it an embellishment that, might even make, yes, LeBron James blush, but his tumble into the camera lens rattled the Cavs. Once James emerged from the floor, this tumble was no joke, he was cut, required stitches, and was down for a few minutes.
(The sad fact, is that LeBron‘s skull was not the only, ahem, body part that was shown to the world in Game 4, but I really want this to be about basketball.)
It was the defensive plan of the Warriors where the pain really emerged for the Cavaliers. In his first start of the series, the Warriors started defending James with eventual series MVP Andre Iguodala. James shot a miserable 7-for-22, and had his lowest point total of the series with 20. Two games later, Iguodala was named MVP specifically for his defensive play against James.
The 103-81 blowout elevated the Warriors back into the confident and mentally unflappable crew that had dominated the league all season. With home court re-established, and Steph Curry finding his touch again, the clock was striking midnight on the supporting cast. A bench that likely didn’t realize just how they had caught lightning in a bottle began falling to earth in spite of the heroics of James.
For nearly all teams, losing two all-stars (Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving) in one season, let alone in one playoff tournament, typically spells complete and utter doom. But the sheer will of James, in spite of those losses, is what truly brought it all home.
LeBron was the first player in Finals history to lead both teams in points-rebounds-assists (38-PPG, 13-RPG, 8APG), and captured that amazing designation by literally playing all five positions at any given time. When he wasn’t posting up, he was bringing the ball up the floor as the point guard.
He also was responsible for more than 38 percent of his team’s points. Only Michael Jordan ever posted a higher share, and the difference is within one-tenth of a point.
After Game 5, he said that any team he played on could never be considered a true underdog, and that he was the best player in the world. While these remarks only stoked the fires of his critics further, it’s hard to argue with the inherent facts.
LeBron James is many, many, many things to many different people, and in so many ways this series represented the odyssey that began when he left St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. Brilliance, drama, passion, and of course, a little showmanship for good measure.
Love him or hate him, you can’t deny his ability and his desire to win, with all of the flops, cramps, televised “Decisions,” and everything else that goes with LeBron being LeBron.
I don’t understand why this superstar isn’t more embraced. From one end of the spectrum to the other, you simply can’t ignore or take your eyes away anytime he’s on the court.
Kevin Donnan is a regular contributor to The Scoop and is a sports obsessed and self-confessed Pop Culture idiot savant trapped in a frozen, northern wasteland, yet, loves all things Texas and is the most “American” Canadian who has ever lived above the 49th parallel.
There’s a saying that the hardest truths to see in life are the ones that are staring you straight in the face, right in front of you. Don’t quote me on that.
With regards to who should be this year’s NBA Finals MVP, the answer is so glaringly obvious that I’m surprised anyone would actually try and say otherwise. What’s the counter-argument?
“Oh, well, a member of the losing team hasn’t been Finals MVP since 1923.” Or whenever.
It’s 1969, actually, and the man to do it was Jerry West. His Lakers lost the series in seven games, but he led all players in the series in minutes, field goals, free throws, defensive rebounds, assists and points.
That’s pretty much exactly what LeBron James is doing. I don’t see how even the most irrational of LeBron haters can go to bed at night after watching him in this series without having gained a little more respect for him.
We shouldn’t forget that Golden State was ranked No. 1 in overall in defensive efficiency throughout the regular season. When the Finals started a week ago, I was a bit stunned to see LeBron begin to pick them apart like he did, and then to see him do it again and again.
Golden State hasn’t been in a position this year where the same team gets to game plan for you a maximum of seven separate times. We shouldn’t be surprised that this is happening, especially with a player like LeBron who is so hell-bent on delivering a title to Cleveland AND having to do it with a supporting cast from the local YMCA.
It reminds me of what Russell Westbrook did earlier in the year during his ridiculous run of triple-doubles. He had no other choice but to carry his team and the numbers reflected what needed to be done.
If we’re going to hold the term “Finals MVP” to what it really means, then yes, absolutely LeBron is the Finals MVP. Cleveland would be losing every game by 25 points without him. With him, they STILL have a chance to win the series against a far superior opponent, albeit one without any prior Finals experience.
Stephen Curry or Andre Iguodala would be the only other viable candidates at this point, and I received a hearty dose of skeptical laughter after I suggested the latter at a Game 5 watch party, but really, Iguodala has been LeBron‘s kryptonite for the last three games.
He nearly had a triple-double in Game 5, and Steve Kerr even calls him his “security blanket.” His veteran moxie and experience have been essential to Golden State not collectively crapping themselves on the biggest stage in the league with the world’s best player on the other end doing his absolute utmost to will the Cavs to a title.
Curry showed in Game 5 why, if LeBron doesn’t win the award, he is the most deserving of the award. His ball-handling, composure and shot-making ability combined to liven the Warriors’ collective spirits and give them the final boost of energy needed to put away a Cleveland team which refuses to die, even they were running on fumes just days ago.
For those who cast the ballots at the end of this series, which I think will be Tuesday, they shouldn’t let 46 years of history sway them from picking LeBron. If we’re taking the award for what it is, then LeBron is the clear-cut choice, no questions asked.
It would be an injustice to pick anyone else.
Zack Cunningham is a Contributor at The Scoop. Follow him on Twitter at @Zackerson.
As you have heard by now, the NFL stepped in it AGAIN. This time they banned the first ever National Fantasy Football Convention, just weeks before its scheduled opening.
Tony Romo has been the public face of the event, the NFFC, for the past several months. However, in the proverbial eleventh hour, the NFL put the deep-6 on the convention on, get this, moral grounds. The League had concerns about the event being held at a Las Vegas casino, because, of course, gambling does not look good for pro sports (see Tim Donaghy, Pete Rose, and the 1919 Chicago Blacksox).
The NFFC would have provided a great opportunity for players and fans to meet, greet and mingle. Not that anyone would want to help GROW the NFL brand, or anything.
Tony Romo, who only recently joined Twitter, thanks in part to the investigative work of our Founder, Jamie Kelly, said in one of the few tweets from his account:
NFL has canceled our fantasy football convention this year in Vegas and that is disappointing. I'm sad for the fans and players.
Fantasy football is a $3 Billion industry that affects every facet of the NFL. It brings in more fans who love fantasy sports, and it increases viewership, which obviously helps the League.
The NFFC was to feature Cowboys Romo, Bryant, and Jason Witten, and many other NFL stars, including Jamaal Charles, Antonio Brown, DeMarco Murray, T.Y. Hilton, Emmanuel Sanders, Randall Cobb, Eddie Lacy, Julio Jones and DeMarcus Ware. It was to also feature around a dozen media personalities, including Michael Fabiano of the league-owned NFL Network and NFL.com. Fabiano‘s participation alone further proves that the NFL has known about this event for some time, and simply chose to wait until it was beyond the point of no return to pull the plug.
This three-day event was scheduled to be July 10-12 at the Venetian Resort Hotel in Las Vegas. The NFL confirmed via email a Fox Sports report about the league’s longstanding policy that, “Players and NFL personnel may not participate in promotional activities or other appearances in connection with events that are held at or sponsored by casinos.”
HUH? The NFL won’t allow that, but they allow NFL owners to own stock in racetracks in New Jersey, Baltimore and Florida.
The NFL‘s indignation about gambling is a glorious, joke. It is estimated, conservatively, that anywhere from $70-100 BILLION is wagered on NFL games each year, and only a small part of that is done legally. I’m sure that many of you have participated in office pools, bought squares for a big football game, or even bet someone a Coke on a game. Obviously gambling boosts attendance and TV revenue. When you have money invested in something, you’re typically going to watch.
I’ll give you an easy example of how the NFL‘s actions are counter to what they say about gambling. The League requires each team to state before games (usually on Thursday) which players may have to sit out due to injury, and which players are questionable. Why? The information benefits gamblers. Does the League care that newspapers run the points spread? Of course not.
Just when you think it can’t get any worse… No, on second thought, I think we all agree that it can, and will, get worse. There are, in fact, several documented cases of the NFL getting in bed with either organized crime or big time gamblers.
1. The Chicago Bears
In the early 1920s, George Halas turned to a man who was a noted bootlegger, gambler, racetrack owner and known associate of Chicago’s Al “Scarface” Capone‘s mob to finance the Bears. His name was Charles Bidwell. Yes, THAT, Bidwell. Later on, Bidwell bought the Chicago Cardinals. Guess whose family owns the Arizona Cardinals? Yep. The Bidwell family.
2. The Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns were owned by crime syndicate bookmaker Arthur “Mickey” McBride, the head of the Continental Racing Wire, the mob’s gambling news service. The U.S. Senate’s Kefauver Committee called that news service “Public Enemy Number One.” In 1961, the team was sold to Art Modell, who among many things, was a partner in a horse racing stable with Morris “Mushy” Wexler, whom the Kefauver Committee named one of the “leading hoodlums” in McBride’s wire service. In 1969, Modell was married in Las Vegas at the home of William “Billy” Weinberger, who just happened to be the president of Caesar’s Palace, whose hidden owners included: Tony “The Big Tuna” Accardo, Sam “Momo” Giancana, and Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo. When he finally died in 1996, The Las Vegas Sun called Weinberger the “dean of casino gambling.”
3. The San Francisco 49ers
The Youngstown DeBartolo family, long involved in casinos and racetracks, owns the Niners. In the late 1990s Edward DeBartolo Jr., then the head of the 49ers, paid the Louisiana Governor $400,000 to get a riverboat casino license. The Governor went to jail for that crime, and DeBartolo got a slap on the wrist. He did have to leave the 49ers, but his family still runs the team while DeBartolo Jr. runs the company that is based back in Youngstown.
Now, here’s an oldie but a goodie. In 1969, a hypocrisy of all hypocrisies happens in the Big Apple. New York Jets quarterback, Joe Namath invested in a Manhattan bar. The National Football League told him to sell his shares because the joint had ties to big time gamblers and unsavory individuals.
The league said NOTHING about Modell‘s ties or the unsavory ties of numerous other team owners. The late Carroll Rosenbloom, a high roller with major interest in a mob-run casino, owned the Baltimore Colts AND the Los Angeles Rams at different times.
I personally think that the NFL got its feelings hurt because this National Fantasy Football Convention did not include them, nor were they going to see a red cent of monies from it either.
And, lastly, the NFL showed it’s immaturity when the NFL tweeted this to Tony Romo:
Was the league trying to be funny, or were they trolling Tony Romo? In either case, the league looks bad, and guess who’s the head of the NFL? Good ol’ Roger Goodell.
America! You can gamble on our games, but please don’t ask our players to have a meet, greet, and mingle with you at a resort because well, we have our integrity to protect.
Ronnie Garcia is the Voice of Reason at The Scoop. He is also an avid guitarist, educator, and all around smarmy guy. Ronnie co-hosts The Fanatics on Monday nights from 7-9pm on KTSR-db. You can follow him on twitter @TheRonMann.
The annual skirmish for the Larry O’Brien Trophy is here. Mister O’Brien was not only the NBA Commissioner for roughly a decade, but also a former Postmaster General, just ahead of future President, Lyndon Johnson, in the 1960s. For those of you keeping track, the trophy was first given this name for the 1984 NBA Finals: a classic duel between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. That series further solidified the reign of one team over another for yet another season, as the fans poured out onto a familiar hardwood court, filled with a rather familiar cloud of cigar smoke.
Believe it or not, a mere eight franchises out of a possible 30 have taken home this trophy during these 30 some-odd years. For the first time since 2006, we will see a brand new team added to that illustrious list, regardless of who happens to win. As for myself, at the end of it all, I really just want the same thing that most professional basketball fans want: a competitive, 7-game series, complete with controversial whistle-blowing and as many down-to-the-wire finishes as humanly possible.
By the way, the number of Game 7s for the NBA Finals SINCE that magical 1984 season is staggeringly low. There have been six occurrences: three on the back end of the 20th century, and three more, here, in THIS century. That’s an average of about once every five seasons. However, there is a good chance that we will see a six-game series, as this is a much more common result. Some would say that the NBA has little to no parity when it comes to competition. I would hesitate to disagree with that claim, except when it comes to the NBA Finals. You see, in order for there to be a Game 6, both teams have to have lost at least twice. Does anyone complain when a baseball game is tied in the 8th inning, but is decided before the bottom half of the 9th has begun? Do football fans want EVERY single game to go into overtime? The point is, Game 7s should NOT be an every-year trend in the NBA. If it happens too little, there might be no one interested enough to see it happen, but if it happens too often, the effects of diminishing returns might make the exciting moments a lot less exciting.
The focus of the 2015 NBA Finals, no doubt, is on the current MVP Stephen Curry and the game’s current, most dominant player, LeBron James. Is anyone else reminded of when Magic Johnson led the Lakers to the Finals in 1988? He was from Michigan, returning to Michigan, to try and defeat the Detroit Pistons. Stephen Curry, from Ohio, will return to Ohio to attempt to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Let us not forget about LeBron‘s deep roots from the area, too. How quickly things have shifted just in the past five years: the betrayal of his hometown team, the “underachieving” four consecutive Finals appearances in South Florida, the current chance at redemption for a city that hasn’t won a championship in ANY of the four major sports since the pre-Super Bowl era of the NFL. Does anyone else remember the last time a player participated in five straight NBA Finals?
Well, the two previous players to do so, overlapped each other to appear in 10 straight NBA Finals, during arguably the best era of the league. Yes, this would be Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Obviously, it is a very narrow list for LeBron James to be a part of, AND Michael Jordan is not ON the list with him, THIS time.
If there is any discussion about which city/area is hungrier for this championship, let me try and set the record straight: it is not even close! The Bay Area might have been a hungry sports town before the 1970s arrived, but since then, they have won eight Super Bowls, seven World Series Titles, and one NBA Championship. Yes, that is correct. The Golden State Warriors have won an NBA Championship.
It was in the year of 1975, led by Hall of Fame great Rick Barry. They were, in fact, a long shot to win it that year, but they overcame the odds, particularly in the post-season. For a more modern comparison, try and remember the story of the 1994-’95 Houston Rockets. It is eerily similar. As for this season, on paper, the Warriors have to be the favorites, but there is something strange going on over there in Cleveland. No matter how bleak things have looked for the Cavs, LeBron and company have managed to will their way all the way back to the Finals.
The Michael Jordan/LeBron James comparisons do not always add up: Jordan was a skinny Shooting Guard, while LeBron is a massive Guard-Forward hybrid. One guy played out three full seasons in college, while the other jumped into the league right out of high school. The dissimilarities, for me, are in much greater numbers than the actual similarities. However, if there is one similarity, it is definitely on the line right now. It is the legacy of domination. No, LeBron cannot be 6-0 in the Finals, but he CAN be 3-3. Jordan was the most dominant player for his time, AND he backed it up with both personal and team accolades.
When watching LeBron James in this series, think back to Michael Jordan in 1993, versus the Phoenix Suns, and 1998, versus the Utah Jazz. Those were the only two occasions in which Jordan‘s Bulls were the visiting team going in. Furthermore, 1993 was one of only two occurrences in which Jordan was facing the current MVP on the other side of the court. The other occurrence was in 1997, against the same team as in 1998. What did Jordan do in 1993? What did he do in 1997 and 1998? The answer is the exact same for ALL three of those sample questions, and THIS is why Lebron‘s legacy matters in 2015!
As for Stephen Curry, well, he need only think about what happened to those virtually unblemished MVPs inside of those aforementioned examples: Charles Barkley and Karl Malone.
The only thing either of them failed to accomplish was winning a championship, and they both failed versus the same dominant player. Curry is still young, but allow me to ask this quick question about the NFL great, Dan Marino: how many times did he go back to the Super Bowl after he reached that stage in only his second season as a pro?
Game 1: @Tampa Bay June 3
Game 2: @Tampa Bay June 6 Game 3: @Chicago June 8 Game 4: @Chicago June 10 Game 5: @Tampa Bay June 13* Game 6: @Chicago June 15*
Game 7: @Tampa Bay June 17* *if necessary
Tampa Bay Forwards
The Lightning has what are perhaps the top two lines in the league. Steven Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, and Alex Killorn are their first line. Midway through the conference finals series against New York, Stamkos finally found his playoff goal-scoring touch, and that line is dangerous every shift. The “Triplets” line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat are a nightmare for the opposing coach to match up his defensive unit. Johnson leads the league in playoff scoring with 12 goals, 9 assists and a +6 rating. The Lightning also have former Dallas Stars captain Brendan Morrow. Although he may be a role player, only getting 6-8 minutes a game, he can play his physical brand of hockey without taking the amount of punishment he took when he was in Dallas. Morrow is their veteran locker room presence and the oldest player on the roster by 5 years.
As good as the top two lines for Tampa Bay are, Chicago can answer by having the ability to roll all 4 of their lines without hesitation. They are led by Jonathan Toews and a healthy Patrick Kane. During their playoff run of 17 games, Toews has 9 goals, and 9 assists for 18 points, and is a +5 in playoff games, while Kane has mixed in 10 goals and 10 assists for 20 points, and a +6 rating. Chicago also has the only Conn Smythe winner in Tampa Bay history, Brad Richards, who should make his presence known to his former club. Brandon Saad has had an amazing playoff run, and is sometimes on a line with Kane and Toews. Some may say Patrick Sharp is “buried” on the third line, but it may be done on purpose. Sharp being on the third line presents a difficult defensive assignment for Tampa Bay to match up; it could be a huge mismatch that could prove to be pivotal in the series
As great as the top two lines are for Tampa Bay, the Blackhawk group has two lines to match them, and then two more to throw at the Lightning. The ability to run 4 lines throughout an entire game can wear on a defense. Maybe not the first or second game, but the end of the series could have the Tampa Bay will to win tested.
Tampa Bay Defense
The last series against New York gave me the confidence to say that the pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are one of, if not the best set of blueliners in the league. They can shut down the opposing top line and then dare the other three lines to beat them. If Tampa Bay has a fault, it is waiting to see if the bottom end of the defense can match the play of Stralman and Hedman. If not, they may be a liability.
If Hedman and Stralman aren’t the top defensive pair in the league, then Chicago has them with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Keith is second in the playoffs in minutes played per game, with 31:35. Niklas Hjarlmarsson is on the second unit, and has the ability to be a top defenseman in the league for years to come. The third pair of David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey could be where Tampa Bay tries to strike. If they can play well as a pair, goals will be hard to come by for the Lightning.
This is due to the experience of wins and knowing what it takes to make the final push to be the first team to 16 wins in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Netminder
Ben Bishop is coming up large when Tampa Bay needs him. Bishop may have had a bad game 6 against New York, giving up 7 goals that night, but he was perfect in game 7, where he was a 2-0 winner. Bishop has posted a 12-8 record with a 2.15 goals against and a save percentage of .920. He is the first goalie in history to send his team to the Stanley Cup Final with a road shutout in game 7 and the first to have two shutouts in his first two game 7s of his career. But as the game 6 outing against the Rangers showed, he can be prone to giving up goals in bunches.
Corey Crawford…the first thing I think of is experience. He had a shaky start to the playoffs, but once he finished off Nashville in round one, he has been solid. Crawford has put up a 9-5 record during the playoffs with a 2.56 GAA and a save percentage of .919. Crawford beat a great young goalie in the Western Conference Finals and should use that to fuel his play in the final round.
Even though I may see Chicago as having an advantage in the three areas of focus, it is by the slimmest of margins. This series should give us what all hockey fans want at this time of year: a seven game series with a few overtime games sprinkled in. In the end, I feel Chicago wins this in 7 games.
Matt Molina is a Contributor at The Scoop. Follow him on Twitter at @MattMMolina.