Bill Belichick Coach of the Year for Kicking in OT

By Sean McAlevey

MJ’S CHILDHOOD BASKETBALL COURT, NC, Earth — Bill Belichick is a genius. Let’s give credit where credit is due.

Personally, I hate the guy. And about 98% of everyone outside of Bastan agrees with me. (We all have that one friend who isn’t from New England but LOVES the Pats anyway.)

But let’s take nothing away from Belichick and the Pats today. When faced with the choice of receiving or kicking in OT, Belichick did the unthinkable and decided to kick to the seemingly invincible Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

The scowling Bill Belichick made the gutsiest call of the NFL season in deciding to kick to the Broncos in OT

The scowling Bill Belichick made the gutsiest call of the NFL season in deciding to kick to the Broncos in OT

Now, I shouldn’t make him out to be a total ballsy hero just yet. He had two key factors going for him. For starters, he had the NFL’s new overtime rules, which among other things state that if the receiving team converts a field goal on the opening drive, the kicking team has the chance to answer with at least a field goal (to tie) or a touchdown (to win). Of course, the receiving team could just score a touchdown on the first drive and the game would be over. But barring that immensely plausible scenario (we’re talking about Peyton Manning; there’s no barring anything here), the Pats were going to get the ball back with a chance to answer the Broncos. And with the way Tom Brady was moving the ball in the second half, Belichick must have felt comfortable with that thought in mind.

The second thing going for Belichick was the 20-mph wind. Belichick chose to take the wind at his back, which was essentially the same as choosing to kick because there was no way the ultra-conservative Jack del Rio wasn’t going to have the Broncos receive. The winds were blowing viciously all night; Chris Collinsworth and Al Michaels made sure we understood that fact thoroughly. With the wind at the Pats’ back – and perhaps more importantly, in the Broncos’ face – Belichick felt his team had enough left in the tank to make a quick stop and get out on the attack offensively.

The favorable wind gave Belichick and the Pats a long field with which to work defensively. The Broncos now had to get to the Patriot 30, at least, to even think about attempting a field goal. (The Patriot 25 to 27 would be more realistic given the length-shortening effect on kicking in cold weather.) And if the Pats got possession, they would only have to reach the Bronco 35 to attempt a reasonable field goal; though with the cold weather, the 32 would be more realistic. On top of all that, if there was any punting to be had (oh would it be had), the winds were going to shift the field-position game in favor of the Pats. With all this going for him, Belichick and his evil genius of a mind decided that kicking (really, choosing which direction to go, knowing that his team would end up kicking) would be more effective than receiving.

Well, the Pats ended up stalling the Broncos’ opening drive around midfield, giving Brady and co. a chance to win with only a field goal. Then, after one of the most ridiculous non-calls happened (an obvious pass interference on receiver Kenbrell Thompkins), the Pats were forced into a fourth-and-more-than-one and had to punt. In both cases the wind probably added a total of 20 yards of field position to the Pats. But now the Broncos had the chance to win with only a field goal. Still, the wind was at New England’s back, and the crowd was clearly messing with the Bronco offense.

The Broncos’ subsequent drive stalled once again around midfield, giving the Pats the ball back deep in their own territory. After a quick 17-yard completion to Julian Edelman (who, by the way, had an awesome game), the Pats went three-and-out and were forced to punt the ball back to the Broncos. And here’s where Belichick’s call to go with the wind turned from a ballsy call into a genius call.

With Denver’s return man Trindon Holliday having trouble handling returns in the bitter Boston cold, Wes Welker was sent in to return the punt. Amidst audible “Wel-ker, Wel-ker” taunts from the home crowd, the former Patriot collected himself and camped out under rookie Ryan Allen’s booming punt. But after seeing that it wasn’t worth an attempt to return, Welker backed off and yelled to his teammates to do the same… except that fellow Bronco Tony Carter didn’t hear the call in time and was caught right in the flight path of the waywardly spiraling punt. Sure enough, the ball spiked up into Carter and the Pats pounced on it to gain possession. The game ended three plays later on a Stephen Gostkowski chip shot field goal.

Former Patriot Wes Welker replaced return specialist Trindon Holliday on the fateful final punt return of the game

Former Patriot Wes Welker replaced return specialist Trindon Holliday on the fateful final punt return of the game

The wind wasn’t entirely to blame. The majority of the blame has to fall on Carter, for unfortunately being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Welker, for backing out on a returnable or at least fair-catcheable punt and not making the “poison” call soon enough or loud enough. (The New England crowd definitely deserves credit for its loud taunting of Welker before and during the play.) But there’s no doubt that the wind played a significant role in getting the Pats the ball back on the Bronco 12, as the swirling, 20-mph randomness of that Boston air confounded the hell out of Welker and the rest of the Broncos as to where that ball was going to land.

And just like that, as if written in football lore, the wind became Belichick’s MVP and won the game for the Pats in the waning minutes of overtime. Belichick was a genius for taking the wind for two reasons: 1) the Broncos were forced to march 5-10 yards further than typical in order to attempt a reasonable field goal, while the Pats were given 5-10 yards more field to do the same; 2) punts would travel at least 10 yards less than typical for the Broncos and 10 yards further for the Pats, giving New England a huge field-position edge. When you add up all of those totals (10 yards here, 5 yards there, etc.) the case could be made that Belichick essentially stole an extra possession for the Pats. Now, I don’t know the exact numbers on that statement – it’s just a rough guess – but it seems that the Pats surely had a key field-position advantage for the entire extra period.

And all of this is without mentioning the fact that through the course of the game both offenses were noticeably more effective going with the wind than against it. Manning only looked like Manning in the second quarter, when he had the wind at his back, while Brady only looked like Brady in the third and fourth quarters and overtime, two of which had the wind at his back. Coincidence? If this was Blaine Gabbert versus Ryan Fitzpatrick, maybe. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning? The wind was clearly affecting the future Hall of Famers’ throws.

Here’s the thing. If the Patriots lose in overtime, no matter what the reason, Belichick is the goat for making the “dumb” call to kick. (“WHO WOULD VOLUNTARILY GIVE PEYTON MANNING THE BALL,” I can imagine Skip Bayless shouting with neck veins protruding.) There’s no way he lives down that decision to kick. No way. Not in today’s media-driven world.

Belichick deserves all the credit for making the ballsiest, and maybe smartest, call of the NFL season. He’s got my vote for coach of the year.

Advertisements

Kentucky Fatally Flawed With Calipari as Coach

By Sean McAlevey

SHAWN BRADLEY’S THERAPIST’S OFFICE, USA, Earth — With 1:15 left in the 2008 national championship game and the Memphis Tigers leading the Kansas Jayhawks 62-58, Memphis’ Chris Douglas-Roberts went to the free-throw line for a one-and-one. After bricking the front end and allowing Kansas to cut the lead to one possession, 62-60, the All-American went back to the line, this time to shoot two with 16.8 seconds remaining. He missed both. And finally, with 10.8 seconds remaining and the Tigers’ lead still at 62-60, Player of the Year Derrick Rose found himself at the charity stripe with the chance to guarantee Memphis it’s first national title in school history.

Rose infamously connected on only one of two, and the game went to overtime after the Jayhawks’ Mario Chalmers drilled a miraculous clutch three with only seconds remaining in regulation. And the rest, as they say, is history. Kansas went on to take home the title after stealing the game 75-68 in extra time, while Douglas-Roberts, Rose, and the rest of the Tigers were left to hang their heads in anguished regret. The national title that was theirs if they’d only been able to execute the most rudimentary aspect of basketball outside of the layup – the free throw – was gone in a matter of minutes.

Former Memphis coach John Calipari and his star freshman Derrick Rose almost took home the 2008 national title, but missed free throws cost them dearly.

Former Memphis coach John Calipari and his star freshman Derrick Rose almost took home the 2008 national title, but missed free throws cost them dearly.

That, of course, was 2008. But that ominous scenario is all too familiar to former Memphis head coach John Calipari, now the current head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats.

Calipari is that coach – slicked-back hair, a smooth talker with the swagger of a used-car salesman. He brings to mind the uncle with a new get-rich-quick scheme up his sleeve at Thanksgiving dinner. You know it’s a bad idea to listen to his pitch, but he’s not taking no for an answer, so you give him five minutes. Soon enough, you’re selling off-brand silverware door-to-door just to recoup your initial investment in a pyramid scheme.

Coach Cal is the type that can walk into any recruit’s home in the country and in five sentences over a cup of coffee convince a prospect and his family that his only future is at Kentucky… or Memphis… or Massachusetts… or wherever he happens to be coaching before he gets run out of town for his standard every-five-years NCAA violation that leaves his former school mired knee-deep in sanctions. (His dubious ethics, however, is an entirely different story – to be touched on in a separate piece.) He’s always put together good teams built around NBA-level talent. Whether it was Marcus Camby at UMass, Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis, or John Wall and Anthony Davis at Kentucky, Calipari knows how to recruit. But understand: he isn’t just good at recruiting. He’s the best.

Coach Calipari brings to mind the archetype of a used-car salesman in both appearance and attitude.

Coach Calipari brings to mind the archetype of a used-car salesman in both appearance and attitude.

Since Calipari arrived in Lexington in 2009, Kentucky has never not had the top-ranked recruiting class in the country. Five years at UK and five years of the nation’s best recruits. (Kentucky is set to have the best class in the country next year as well.) But at the same time he’s just not a very good coach, at least in the traditional sense of the word ‘coach’. For all the talent he attracts, he can never seem to get it done when it matters most, his lone national title in 2012 notwithstanding. Why? Because what’s most important when it’s all said and done is fundamentals, and Calipari is horrendous at teaching one of the most fundamental of skills – the free throw. Either that, or he just doesn’t teach it at all, which says all you need to know about the used-car salesman masquerading as a college coach.

Calipari seems to be of the new school of coaching theory that puts more emphasis on overall talent than old-school virtues, you know, like scoring off an uncontested, untimed 15-foot shot from the exact same spot on the court. FREE THROWS ARE FOR THE WEAK AND TALENTLESS. Who am I, a mere arm-chair columnist, to be criticizing a man that’s made the NCAA Final Four four times in his coaching career? Clearly off-the-backboard alley-oops and reverse slams are more important than layups and free throws. Hell, I’ve never been able to call a reporter of Latino descent a “fucking Mexican idiot” and lived to tell the tale. Evidently, we all need to start sipping that Calipari Kool-Aid, because there’s something working for the guy.

But when you consistently rank near the worst in the entire country at the most coachable aspect of the game, even the most casual of viewers can tell there’s something you aren’t doing right.

Since 2005, Calipari’s Memphis and Kentucky teams have combined to shoot a brutal 66.88% from the charity stripe. That’s Dwight Howard-on-a-good-day bad. If you’re truly a blue-chip coach, like many believe Calipari to be, that just doesn’t happen. The last time Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski let his team shoot below 70% was in 2007-08, when the Blue Devils shot a respectable, but not great, 69.7% from the line. (Coach K’s Dukies typically hit between 71-76% from the line, and it’s no surprise he’s widely considered one of the greatest coaches, if not the greatest, in NCAA history.) That’s because Coach K is a real coach, one that teaches young men how to play the game, not a Don Draper wannabe using the NBA’s one-and-done rule to suck up pro-level talent so that he can go puff $30 Cubans in his office jacuzzi while his team of blue-chippers coach themselves to tournament appearances and Final Fours.

Nerlens Noel and his Kentucky mates are notoriously poor at connecting on their free throws.

Nerlens Noel and his Kentucky mates are notoriously poor at connecting on their free throws.

How many times have you heard Dick Vitale talk about the importance of free throws in the NCAA tournament? Free throws, baby, there as important to the game as apples to apple pie. They’re awesome with a capital ‘A’! Vitale, Clark Kellogg, and the whole college basketball lot that emphasize the importance of free throws in March couldn’t be more spot on in this regard. When the talent level is relatively even, as it is after the first weekend of the tournament, the only aspect of the game that separates the contenders from the pretenders is fundamentals: hitting layups, making crisp passes, boxing out, and of course, making free throws. And because raw talent alone can generally account for success in the first three, it’s that much more crucial to be effective at the line.

Memphis didn’t cough up the ’08 title because of lacking talent or tough player matchups or bad calls; they let it go because they shot 1-for-5 from the line in the final minute-plus of regulation. If they had made one more free throw – bringing their percentage from an embarrassing 20% to a still-embarrassing 40% over that time frame – there would have been no way for Kansas to come back, no point for Chalmers to drain that three with seconds remaining, no Jayhawk title, period. Memphis clinches its first title in school history, and that ’07-’08 Tiger team is hailed as one of the greatest of all time after finishing their season 37-1. Missed free throws – the simplest, easiest, most teachable aspect of the game – are the only thing to blame for that scenario never playing itself out. (Bill Self’s Kansas squad shot a mind-blowing 14-for-15 (93.3%) from the line in that national title game. I’ll let you draw the obvious conclusion from that stat.)

Interestingly, NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon recently commented on the importance of free-throw shooting in a Fran Blineberry NBA.com piece discussing his current pupil Dwight Howard’s struggles from the line: “I won’t say that you can’t ever win a championship as a big man if you don’t shoot free throws well, because Shaq did it four times. But it can be a deciding factor, so you want to fix it.” A deciding factor – the understatement of the century; but the Hall of Famer was being politically correct in criticizing his student’s struggles. Obviously Olajuwon, a career 71.2% free-throw shooter with two NBA championships to his name, understands the importance of free throws, especially in regard to winning championships.

Calipari’s stacked Kentucky squad is justifiably one of the favorites to go the distance this year. And with A-level talent, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be on the short list of title favorites. But they’ll only go as far as their fundamentals can take them. Whether that’s the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, or Final Four is up in the air. I’d be willing, however, to place a reasonably sized wager that the Wildcats won’t win a title this year. I know, I know – that’s an easy call to make; every team except for one doesn’t win, so I’ve clearly got the odds on my side. But I’ll give anyone who’s willing to take me up on my offer 7/1 odds that Kentucky wins a title this year. (The Wildcats are currently 5/1 favorites, so you’re better off putting your money down with me than with Vegas.) And that’s not just lip service: I put my money where my mouth is, and this year it’s saying that there’s a small, small chance the Wildcats take home the national title, purely because they’ll likely trip up down the stretch against a quality team by missing key free throws – or failing at some other overlooked aspect of the game, like making unadvisable passes that lead to easy transition points for opponents, for example. My email is seanmcalevey@yahoo.com; let’s tango if you think I’m wrong in my judgement here.

The Wildcats are fatally flawed as long as Calipari is running the show. Hear me now; quote me later.

Retired Allen Iverson Greatest Player of Post-Jordan Era

By Sean McAlevey

THE ROLLER COASTER, MORON MOUNTAIN, Toon Land — With Allen Iverson officially retired from the NBA as of the Philadelphia 76ers’ home opener against the Miami Heat on Wednesday night, Heat forward and reigning MVP LeBron James made it clear he views the former Sixer as one of the greatest to ever play the game.

In a recent piece on ESPN.com, Tom Haberstroh reported that James considers Iverson “pound-for-pound, probably the greatest player who ever played.”

“He was one of the greatest finishers we’ve ever seen,” James continues. “You could never question his heart. Ever. He gave it his all. A.I. was my second favorite player [to Michael Jordan] growing up.”

Who can blame him for speaking so highly of the former MVP? The NBA world was utterly consumed with The Answer at his peak in the early 2000s. Iverson’s passion, athleticism, and signature crossover made him arguably the most popular player of the post-Jordan era. His cornrows and arm sleeve were iconic. It’d be more surprising if James, who was at the impressionable age of 12 when Iverson entered the NBA, weren’t particularly impressed with the retiring star.

But for James to heap quasi-GOAT praise on Iverson was entirely unexpected – but understandable when you consider his career in context.

* * *

Officially listed at 6′ but really closer to 5’10”, Iverson was drafted first overall by the Sixers in the 1996 NBA draft. The Sixers were taking somewhat of a gamble in using their coveted first pick on an undersized guard with character issues and a legal record, but many were convinced Iverson’s coach at Georgetown, John Thompson, had successfully steered the troubled athlete away from his poisonous adolescent past and turned his primary focus to basketball. No one doubted Iverson’s raw talent, but it was questionable if he’d ever reach his full potential.

Those worries were quelled almost immediately. Iverson took home Rookie of the Year honors in the ’96-’97 season after averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 assists per game and showed flashes of greatness. His impressive speed, agility, and ball-handling skill overwhelmed even veteran defenders. Just take 16-seconds to watch, or more likely re-watch, the oft-replayed crossover that broke MJ’s ankles in Iverson’s rookie season:

Whether he had troubling personal issues or not, it wasn’t affecting his on-court play, the true bottom line in professional sports. As long as he continued to avoid run-ins with the law and killed it on the court, why worry? The 21-year-old was a perennial All-Star in the making.

Iverson became the talk of the league in his third season, ’98-’99. In addition to leading the Sixers to their first playoff appearance since 1991, he captured his first scoring title (26.8 ppg) and received All-NBA First Team honors. Iverson and head coach Larry Brown were occasionally at odds, but the two found a way to manage their differences as the team – and particularly Iverson – improved each season.

Iverson was playing near an MVP level by his third season in the league

Iverson was playing near an MVP level by his third season and captured the award in 2001.

Following another early playoff exit in 2000, Iverson elevated his game to win the MVP award in the 2000-01 season. He led the league in scoring  (31.1 ppg) and single-handedly secured the hapless Sixers the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Despite ultimately losing the Finals in five games, the 2001 playoffs were the peak of Iverson’s greatness; it was there that he became the legend to which retro Philadelphia “3” jerseys and arm sleeves pay homage.

After barely defeating Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors in an unforgettable seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals that ended on Carter’s missed last-second jumper, Iverson and the Sixers squeaked past the good, but not great, Milwaukee Bucks to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1983. Meanwhile, their to-be Finals opponent, the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal-led LA Lakers, were ripping through the Western Conference playoffs, running the table with a perfect 11-0 record prior to the Finals. (I attended one of those 2001 Lakers games in the Western Conference playoffs. My memory’s hazy as to whom the opponent was – I think it was the Sacramento Kings in the conference semis, but I could be wrong – but the one thing I do remember about the game was the multiple household brooms present to commemorate the playoff sweeps. There must have been at least three visible to the naked eye from my seat, with sign and witty statement included of course.)

The public perception of the Finals was that a Laker sweep was imminent: oddsmakers had the Sixers as 11.5-point underdogs in Game 1 of the series, which took place in LA, and 18-1 ‘dogs to win the series outright. But Iverson drastically changed that perception in Game 1. After exploding for 41 points in regulation, Iverson stole Game 1 for the Sixers in overtime with seven points, two of which came off an ankle-breaking crossover and jumper in the face of a falling Tyronn Lue, whom he memorably stepped over in disgust after the shot fell. That overtime jumper from the baseline epitomized Iverson: his signature crossover and unparalleled quickness created space for the shot; his smooth, confident release extended the lead; and his passion, heart, and competitiveness – his absolute love for the game – manifested itself in a step of  competitive dissatisfaction over a defeated Lue:

From that deadly baseline jumper to the end of the game, the Staples Center crowd stood in stunned silence, utterly confounded at Iverson’s preternatural performance and the Sixers’ incomprehensible upset. Baffled TV hosts and columnists struggled to explain the outcome over the ensuing hours and days. David had turned the tables on Goliath: the 18-1 underdogs of 53 game-time minutes prior looked like the 18-1 favorites. There would be no Laker sweep, no perfect playoff record. Iverson had flipped the sports world on its head for a moment.

The Lakers, of course, went on to win the next four straight and clinch their second championship in as many years. (They won their third title in a row the following season.) But Iverson’s legend had already been cemented. He was the face of basketball of the post-Jordan era. And for the next five years in Philly, Iverson continued to light up the NBA.

After the 2001 Finals – which would turn out to be his lone Finals appearance – he secured two scoring titles, five All-Star nods, and reached the playoffs three times; he averaged an impressive 29.8 points, 6.6 assists, and 2.4 steals per game over those five subsequent seasons in Philadelphia. But the character questions that plagued his early career began to resurface: whether it was feuding with Brown and his successors (Jim O’Brien and Maurice Cheeks), showing up late to games and team events, or failing to practice, Iverson became a lightning rod for controversy:

Iverson was then dealt to Denver at the quarter-mark of the 2006-07 season for a slew of veterans and draft picks after he demanded a trade due to issues with Sixers management. For the first time in his career, he was paired up with another dangerous scoring threat in Carmelo Anthony. The two played fairly harmoniously together in Iverson’s two seasons in Denver, reaching the playoffs in both years. But two first-round playoff exits irked Nugget management the wrong way, forcing them to deal Iverson and his mammoth $19 million salary to Detroit.

* * *

Iverson’s career continued for two more years, but he was only a shell of the player he once was in Philadelphia. He bounced waywardly around the league – from Detroit to Memphis and then back to Philly – never coming close to resembling the old Iverson. His legs had slowed just enough to render him ineffective. His style of play was solely predicated on his speed, so when he lost a step with age, his effectiveness tailed off rapidly. In hindsight, his career was really over by 2008. But in those prior twelve years, beginning with his rookie campaign in 1996, Iverson was indisputably one of the best players in the league, if not the best.

One could point to O’Neal, Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Steve Nash and make a fair case for each during the same time period: O’Neal took home four titles (three with LA and one with Miami) and one MVP award; Bryant, three titles and one MVP; Duncan, four titles and two MVPs; Nash, no titles but back-to-back MVPs in 2005 and 2006. But all of said players, except Nash, needed the help of complementary superstars to win their titles.

O’Neal needed Bryant to win his three titles in LA just as much as Bryant needed O’Neal. Make no mistake, there would have been no Laker threepeat – and likely no titles at all – without Shaq and Kobe complementing each other. O’Neal then needed Dwyane Wade to win his fourth title in 2005 as a member of the Heat. In the same vein, Duncan needed David Robinson to win his first title in San Antonio and the combination of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to win his next three. Neither O’Neal, Bryant, nor Duncan would have won as many championships as they did without the assistance of complementary superstars.

Nash, however, was mired in mediocrity for his career, like Iverson. (To be clear, I’m only using “mediocrity” here to refer to team success.) When he was young and raw he was teamed with a similarly young and raw Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, but the two hadn’t yet developed into the stars they would eventually become and achieved little meaningful success together. Then, in 2004, when he was reaching his prime, Nash was shipped to the Phoenix Suns, the team that originally drafted him. In Phoenix, Nash found some success in the mid-2000s as he teamed up with a budding Amar’e Stoudemire, at times making deep playoff runs. But Nash and the Suns never got further than the conference finals; Stoudemire, for as good as he was, wasn’t a complementary star in the same sense that players in the above paragraph were. By the time Nash landed in LA in the summer of 2012 and paired with Bryant and Dwight Howard, he was on his last legs and injuries kept him off the floor for nearly half the season as the Lakers were swept in the first round of the playoffs.

With regard to the lack of quality supporting talent, Iverson’s career was similar on the whole. To paint a picture, here’s a list of the notable players he teamed with in the first twelve years of his career: Aaron McKie, Dikembe Mutombo, Andre Iguodala, and Carmelo Anthony. McKie – a fantastic, defensive-minded sixth man – was never a star. Mutombo was indeed a great player, but he was a liability on the offensive end and only spent one full season in Philadelphia. Although Iguodala has recently grown into an All-Star caliber player, in his early years with Iverson he was no more than an above-average small forward. The point? That Iverson was perpetually surrounded by mediocre talent in Philadelphia. He was never matched up with a complementary interior force in the same way that great inside-out duos have found success: Dennis Rodman and Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and John Stockton, Shaq and Kobe, Duncan and Parker/Ginobili, the list goes on.

Carmelo Anthony was an offensive force in his years with Denver.

Carmelo Anthony was an offensive force in his years with Denver, but was a liability defensively.

Anthony, however, was and is a superstar. Not on the level of James or Kevin Durant, but at the very least he’s your boilerplate offensive-minded ‘superstar’ – great on offense, so-so on defense, consistently takes the last shot, big ego, big contract, etc. But the problem was that both Anthony and Iverson were high-volume offensive scorers, which didn’t give the Nuggets any substantial advantage other than outside scoring prowess – and that was only when the two were willing to share the ball. There was no inside game, and Anthony was (and is) lackluster on the defensive end, which left an aging Iverson to pick up the slack on perimeter defense.

The Nuggets were good with Melo and A.I. together, but it would be unfair to say that Iverson benefitted greatly from his time with Anthony. If Anthony were six inches taller, fifty-plus pounds heavier, played primarily on the low block, and was an in-the-paint defensive presence, it would have made perfect sense to combine him with Iverson. But since that wasn’t the case, what was Denver thinking in taking on another high-profile outside scorer? They doubled down on their best feature and failed to diversify their one-sided offensive attack. Instead of Iverson’s unique small-man game flourishing in a suitable environment, the Nuggets unnecessarily sucked him up and put his playing style in competition with Anthony’s.

Moreover, Iverson was already in the latter half of his prime before he was traded to Denver. At 31, when he arrived in Mile-High City, his aggressive, attacking game had already worn his legs substantially. He’d lost a just a fraction of a step, but he still managed to play solidly for the next two years with only a slight decline. But that lost fraction of a step would grow rapidly with time – especially after he led the league in minutes played in the 2007-08 season – so that by age 33 his legs were so thoroughly spent that he was left to grind out his massive contract as a has-been journeyman.

* * *

At first glance, he doesn’t seem to compare to players like Duncan, O’Neal, and Bryant, and their armfuls of championships. But it wouldn’t be unreasonable to imagine that Iverson would have won his fair share of titles (pick a number, 1-4) if he’d been paired with, say, an O’Neal- or Robinson-type of dominating inside presence.

In Philadelphia, Iverson proved he could carry a piecemeal team of role players deep into the playoffs all on his own. He was essentially in the same situation as LeBron in Cleveland, except he never got the invite to head to South Beach; he stuck it out in Philadelphia for ten years and singlehandedly kept the Sixers competitive despite waves of bland supporting casts. When you consider Iverson’s career in context, it’s clear that it’d be unfair to dock him for a lack of titles. Instead, what’s fair would be to look at how he played given his circumstances, and it’s a pretty indisputable fact that he was a master at extracting maximal productivity from mediocre teammates. He was forced to make the best of bad situation after bad situation.

LeBron James was stuck with mediocre teammates year after year in Cleveland.

LeBron James was stuck with mediocre teammates year after year in Cleveland.

Ask yourself the following. Would you perceive LeBron to be worse if he’d instead stayed in Cleveland, and as a result of a lackluster supporting cast, had yet to win a title? Of course, if he’d stayed a Cavalier he still would have been the same player, accomplishing the same personal feats with the same individual talent and physical attributes; there’d be nothing fundamentally different about him – only his teammates would be different. For all intents and purposes, we would have to admit that both versions of LeBron are equally as good – because we’re talking about the same person. But instead most people would intuitively believe that a hypothetical version of LeBron that stayed in Cleveland and had yet to capture a title would be worse – “he can’t win the big game,” “he doesn’t have leadership qualities,” etc. – than the actual version of LeBron, who already has two championships since leaving Cleveland for greener pastures in Miami. Which is absurd. A team achievement like winning a championship is obviously not a measure of individual accomplishment.

Just as LeBron left the mediocrity of Cleveland to win championships in Miami and cement his career among the pantheon of NBA greats, Iverson could have done the same. But because he stayed in Philly for his youth and most of his prime shouldn’t reflect poorly on him; if anything it shows that, for all the hoopla about Iverson’s poor character and clashes with Sixers coaches and the front office, he was able to successfully manage his dissatisfaction with the team for nearly a decade and grind out All-Star performances year after year.

So what can be definitively said about Iverson and where he stands among the best of his contemporaries?

His career averages speak for themselves: 26.7 points, 6.2 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per game. He ranks 6th all-time in points per game, 46th in assists, and 9th in steals. He’s third in usage percentage – the percentage of total plays in which a player ‘used’ a play, i.e. took a shot or turned the ball over – ranking just behind Jordan and Wade, and just above Bryant (4th), Anthony (5th), and James (6th). He ranks fourth all-time in total minutes played per game (41.4).

As for the hardware, he made the All-NBA First Team three times, the Second Team three times, and the Third Team once. He was Rookie of the Year in 1997, played in 11 straight All-Star games, and was the All-Star game MVP in 2001 and 2005. Most indicatively, he took home the 2001 MVP award and supported it with an unforgettable run at the seemingly unbeatable Lakers in the Finals.

Just on stats alone, Iverson is one of the greatest players of the post-Jordan era. The fact that he lacks a championship is as much his fault as it was James’ that he never won a championship in his eight years in Cleveland. (Maybe that’s part of reason James has such an affection for Iverson: you appreciate another’s circumstances a whole lot more when you’re forced to experience them yourself.) Iverson played his heart out every single time he was on the court. Never did he receive criticism for a lack of on-court effort. He was, as James aptly described him, “a true warrior.”

“You could never question his heart or his will to win,” James told Haberstroh for the ESPN piece. “I hate the fact that his career ended the way it did. But he had an unbelievable career.”

Indeed.

* * *

Although it’s hard to definitively call anyone the greatest over any time period, if there was one during Iverson’s NBA tenure it was likely The Answer himself. That’ll be taken as a controversial, but it shouldn’t be. The claim that Iverson was the best player during his time in the league is not that surprising. One could still consistently believe that, say, Bryant or Duncan are better because they’ve achieved more in their longer careers, or that James is better since his career only began in 2003.

Now retired, Iverson once broke changed the way the game was played and inspired generations of youth.

Now retired, Iverson once broke changed the way the game was played and inspired generations of youth.

It shouldn’t be that hard to accept that for those early years in the post-Jordan era, Iverson was the face of basketball, the best player in the game. He was an icon, an inspiration. He changed the game; he broke down the age-old paradigm that height is necessary to be successful at basketball.

At more than an inch under 6′ and with the weight of a high school senior, he had the audacity to be the best in a big man’s game – and was, for a time. Just as stories like Jordan being cut from his high school team encourage generations of kids to never quit, Iverson and his small stature inspired a generation of kids too small by traditional standards to pick up a basketball anyway – because hey, who knows? They might just be the one with the next deadly A.I. crossover. He inspired those who played to be even better by showing them that obstacles are only obstructive if you let them be. He was the inspiration for the next generation, the next Jordan.

James, more than anyone else, understands that.

* * *

Teddy Bridgewater for Eli Manning?

By Sean McAlevey

MADISON SQUARE GARDEN WHERE THE MONSTARS STOLE PATRICK EWING’S TALENT, NEW YORK, EARTH — As the 0-6 New York Giants, a mere year-and-a-half removed from their 2012 Super Bowl win, continue their bizarre descent into the rabbit hole of a winless season, the talking heads of the sports world have begun to do what they do best: make ridiculous, inflammatory suggestions.

A shockingly poor start to the season has some suggesting Eli Manning be traded/released to make room for Teddy Bridgewater.

A shockingly poor start to the season has some suggesting Eli Manning be traded/released to make room for Teddy Bridgewater.

The hot topic has been two-time Super Bowl champ Eli Manning and whether or not he should be dumped at the end of the season to make room for college phenom Teddy Bridgewater. The junior Louisville quarterback is, along with South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, considered a potential first-overall pick in next year’s draft. And with the G-Men looking like legitimate contenders for the top pick, there’s been rampant speculation about whom they might select should they ultimately suck their way to the dubious honor.

Clearly the Giants need a fix; no one doubts that. With the league’s worst defense in terms of points allowed per game (34.8), a nonexistent running game, and a coach whose bread is slowly but surely going extinct, Big Blue is in desperate need of some positives, somewhere along the board. Quarterback, however, is not one of their positions of need.

It’s true that Manning has been playing absurdly poor football to start the season. Fifteen interceptions through six games – which projects to 40 at season’s end – has him knocking on the door of George Blanda’s single-season record of 42. Which is absolutely off the wall considering that it was only February of last year when he led the Giants to a Super Bowl win. But that, of course, is the point: Manning has been so uncharacteristically bad that he’ll inevitably regress back to a more reasonable playing level in the future.

We all know Manning is at his core a quality quarterback. If two Super Bowls wins aren’t enough of a testament to his talent, leadership, and composure, Manning has for his career averaged over 22 TDs and 3,300 yards passing per season to boot. In eight full seasons as a full-time starter (not including his rookie year, when he started only seven games), Manning has never had a losing season. Even when the Giants fail to make the playoffs, he has them in the postseason conversation. That’s why this year is the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. But let’s nonetheless entertain the Bridgewater-for-Manning suggestion.

Teddy Bridgewater has put up remarkable passing stats in his two-plus years at Louisville.

Teddy Bridgewater has put up remarkable passing stats in his two-plus years at Louisville.

For the sake of a direct comparison, let’s look at college stats. Bridgewater has put up utterly pristine passing stats in his three years at Louisville. Since permanently taking the reins of the offense in the fourth game of his freshman season, he’s thrown for a total of 59 touchdowns against 22 interceptions and compiled a 157.4 passer rating as a Cardinal. And through six games this year, he has a remarkable 191.8 passer rating against only two interceptions.

Manning, on the other hand, had praiseworthy stats in his four years at Mississippi – 81 TDs, 35 INTs, 137.7 passer rating – but nothing as impressive as Bridgewater’s, unless you account for one overlooked factor: the difference in strength of schedule. Manning played in the Southeastern Conference which was, and still is, the clear-cut toughest conference in the country. (It’s not an accident that the national champion has come out of the SEC for the last seven straight years.) To provide historical perspective, SEC West rival Louisiana State was a* national champion in 2003, Manning’s senior season at Ole Miss.

*Although LSU was the 2003 BCS title game winner, USC finished the season ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll. Many consider the two co-champions, while some maintain that LSU is the sole official champion.

The Big East, the conference in which Bridgewater played his freshman and sophomore seasons, and the newly created American Athletic Conference, in which he currently plays, have a laughably inferior level of competition compared to the SEC. Bridgewater has no doubt reaped the rewards of playing in two conferences brimming with hapless opponents. Adjusting for level of competition, then, one could reasonably conclude that Bridgewater had a very similar collegiate career to Manning.

(Here’s where everyone who disagrees points to Bridgewater’s Sugar Bowl performance against Florida last season, when he led the Cardinals to a 33-23 upset win over the Gators. Considering the dominance of the Gator defense, no one doubts his 266-yard performance was impressive. But was it just a lucky game? Could he consistently repeat that performance? I’d like to think so, but we’ll never know because his schedule is filled with a bunch of cupcakes.)

If they performed similarly in college, we can safely assume that the level Manning’s at now is Bridgewater’s ceiling. But just like any quarterback prospect, his floor ranges from David Carr to Joey Harrington. There’s just as good a chance that he’s Ryan Leaf as there is that he’s Manning. And even in the best case scenario, Bridgewater is a few years away from producing any sort of Manning-esque numbers. If the best you can do is merely replace the skill set of your current quarterback, why get rid of him in the first place?

Many consider 37-year-old Peyton Manning the best quarterback in the NFL.

Many consider 37-year-old Peyton Manning the best quarterback in the NFL.

Of course, the age difference plays a role. Bridgewater, still unable to legally drink a beer at age 20, has a world of potential in front of him, while Manning, 32, is by conventional wisdom on the downswing of his prime. But is 32 really that old? In today’s NFL, where 34-year-old Drew Brees, 36-year-old Tom Brady, and 37-year-old Peyton Manning are the talk of the league, 32 seems young. Manning has five yearbefore he’s as old as his brother Peyton, and if this season has taught us anything, it’s that Peyton’s age is his best asset. Unless Bridgewater-for-Manning proponents think the Giants are so dysfunctional that they won’t be able to field a decent team in the next half-decade, they’re off their rockers to begin the hunt for Manning’s replacement now.

In fact, despite his abhorrent interception numbers, Manning’s actually playing respectable football so far this year. He’s averaging 7.5 yards per pass attempt, which is 0.4 yards greater than his career average of 7.1 – a significant difference for all those not familiar with that statistic – and has the offense humming along at .309 first downs per play – 16th-best in the league. Meanwhile he’s facing relentless pocket pressure, having been forced to take a sack on a career-high 6.5% of passing plays this year. (To put that in perspective, last year’s rate was 3.4%, meaning he’s taking nearly twice as many sacks this year as he did last.)

As a result of the ineffectiveness of the Giants’ runners and offensive line, opposing defenses are entirely abandoning their run-defense schemes and using their front seven to bring creative pass pressure on every play. Opposing safeties don’t even have to pretend to care about the threat of a run, allowing them to roam disadvantageously deep in the secondary. On the other side of the ball, the Giants have major holes, especially in their secondary. And if I had Peter King sitting here next to me, he could probably rattle off a dozen other issues. But since I don’t, I leave it at that.

What the Giants are experiencing is something unique to the NFL. They had all of the above issues when they made their Super Bowl run in 2012. But for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, the NFL is structured to create parity, leading to unpredictable outcomes that at times can’t be explained by anything other than an appeal to luck and randomness. We have trouble ascribing outcomes to luck, but it’s inarguable that there’s an intrinsic level of uncertainty in the NFL.

Just as shitty teams can play unpredictably great football, great teams can play incomprehensibly shitty football. It’s exactly what’s happening to the Giants this year. That Super Bowl team from 2012? The core of it is still donning Giant blue: Manning, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Jacobs, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, Corey Webster, Antrel Rolle – the gang’s all there. Perhaps the biggest change was an overhaul of the linebacking unit, otherwise the current Giants have the same same air-it-out offense and ferocious pass rush that were staples of that 2012 team.

Just like Eli Manning, South Park Elementary's janitor, Mr. Venezuela, cleans up after others.

Just like Eli Manning, South Park Elementary’s janitor, Mr. Venezuela, cleans up messes left by others.

The most reasonable explanation for this seemingly perplexing situation is the following: the 9-7 Giants that won the Super Bowl in 2012 were somewhat lucky, while the 0-6 Giants of present have been somewhat unlucky. Manning isn’t the cause of the mess they’re in. He’s the overworked janitor doing his best to keep up with unrelenting waves of urinal deuces plaguing the local high school’s bathrooms; just because there’s a fudge monkey staring right back at you every time you take a leak doesn’t mean the janitor’s the one pinching ’em off, m’kay. I like to think that metaphor really brings home the point for the 15-to-28  male demographic.

Not only is Bridgewater for Manning not a solution to the Giants’ woes; it would actually create more problems than it solves. And even if Bridgewater has the potential to become a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback – which is, needless to say, highly doubtful – it would be wise for Giants management to head the oft-ignored truism:

A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.

NHL Realignment Leaves Atlantic Division Hamstrung By Florida

By Sean McAlevey, Ben Garyfalakis, and Warren Cotton

IN LINE FOR OVERPRICED TOON FOOD, MORON MOUNTAIN, TOON LAND — In a recent piece on thespec.com regarding the new NHL realignment for the 2013-14 season, Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau is quoted saying, “I guess we’re the team that’s going to travel the most in the (Eastern Conference).”

He’s not exaggerating. Along with moving Detroit and Columbus to the Eastern Conference and Winnipeg to the Western Conference, the new NHL structure establishes two divisions in each conference – the Pacific and Central in the West and the Metropolitan and Atlantic in the East; each contain seven (West) or eight (East) teams. Under the old structure, there were three divisions per conference and five teams per division.

While the realignment has successfully reduced travel times for certain geographically disadvantaged teams – such as Detroit, Columbus, and Winnipeg – it has also curiously increased travel times for others – most notably Florida and Tampa Bay, and the Atlantic Division in general.

Tampa Bay and Florida will play in the northern-centric Atlantic Division

Tampa Bay and Florida will play in the northern-centric Atlantic Division

Previously, the NHL’s two Florida teams played in the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference, along with Washington, Carolina, and Winnipeg. The division made sense geographically from its inception in 1998 to 2011, when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to the Canadian heartland and rebranded themselves the “Winnipeg Jets.” Coincidentally, this move was the catalyst that prompted the NHL to restructure its conferences, the manifestation of which is the current conference alignment.

Under the new alignment, Florida and Tampa Bay reside in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference. They’re accompanied by three Canadian teams – Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal – and three northern American teams – Boston, Buffalo, and Detroit. Which means Florida and Tampa Bay will indeed be traveling the most in the Eastern Conference.

For comparison, the other Eastern division, the Metropolitan, houses Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Columbus, Washington, Carolina, and the New York Rangers and Islanders – all teams within a reasonable vicinity of the mid-Atlantic region.

The result is two absurdly different travel dynamics for the two Eastern divisions. While the Metropolitan Division maintains geographic continuity and limits travel distances, the Atlantic Division fails to demonstrate any semblance of a cohesive region, leaving a stark division within a division. It arbitrarily forces the the Eastern Conference’s northernmost teams into a division with its southernmost.

Why might the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman have structured the East this way?

Here’s the theory.

There is a shockingly high number of Canadians living in Florida. One immigration site claimed that in 2004, Florida had 99,139 Canadian-born residents. And there’s reason to believe that number has increased dramatically since.

“There’s a clear Canadian infatuation with Florida,” says a PolitiFact piece from 2011. An absurd 9% of all Canadians – 3.05 million out of 34 million – visited Florida at some point in 2010. (Adjusting for size of population, that would be the equivalent of 30 million Americans – or the entire state of California – visiting, say, British Columbia in a year.) What’s more, Canadians account for 7.92 percent of all Florida home sales. The piece concludes:

As one Canadian-turned-Floridian-real-estate-agent joked in a National Public Radio report on the housing phenomenon, “If there ever was an 11th (Canadian) province, it probably would be Florida.”

While Canadians continue to flock en masse to Florida, a Forbes article from 2012 ranked Tampa Bay’s and Florida’s fans third- and fourth-worst in the NHL, respectively, in terms of sales – tickets, concessions, TV, jerseys. Naturally, the Canadian fans that move to/retire in Florida will be more inclined to buy tickets to Florida Panthers or Tampa Bay Lightning games when their team comes to town. If they can’t attend the game, they’ll be more inclined to watch it on TV. Etc., etc.

So, the theory goes, the league would put its two Florida teams in the same division as its three eastern Canadian teams in order to increase the number of matchups between the two groups. With teams playing 30 intra-divisional games, there will be plenty of Maple Leaf and Canadien and Senator visits that will inevitably attract Canadian expats living in Florida to buy tickets to a game.

This, of course, would explain why the Eastern Conference realignment looks bizarre. The Atlantic is in blue; the Metropolitan, in green:

The NHL's realignment has left the Metropolitan Division sandwiched by the Atlantic.

The NHL’s realignment has left the Metropolitan Division sandwiched by the Atlantic.

If the only goal were geographic continuity, the best alignment would have been with Pittsburgh and Columbus in the Atlantic Division and Florida and Tampa Bay in the Metropolitan (the name would have to be changed, of course). Instead, the Atlantic is a Frankenstein division – a forced association of two distant regions of North America.

Whether Bettman and the NHL went through this exact thought process during realignment discussions is unknown. But based on Bettman’s lack of a soul and general lust for anything resembling a profit, we can presume that at least part of the reason for the Atlantic’s curious structure was monetary. Which is fine – unless your team is from the Atlantic, or worse, Florida.

Further, the uneven number of teams in each conference is another unresolved issue: as it stands, the West has 14 teams, seven per division; the East has 16 teams, eight per division. Since the new rules dictate that the best-three teams from each division clinch a playoff spot – the other two spots go to the next highest ranked teams in each conference – it’ll automatically be more challenging for Eastern Conference teams to make the playoffs. So not only will the Atlantic Division be forced to endure unnecessarily long travel times, but it’ll also be challenged by an eighth team competing for the division’s three playoff spots.

No wonder Gary Bettman’s booed whenever he speaks in public.

Ichiro Suzuki and the Quest for 4,000

By Sean McAlevey

When Ichiro Suzuki first suited up for the Seattle Mariners in 2001, becoming the first Japanese position player in MLB history, you could immediately tell he was unique. He took no more than eight major league games to make a name for himself, promptly gunning down an overly ambitious Terrence Long on a frozen rope from right field to third base in what has since been dubbed “The Throw.” Ichiro then went on to put together a mind-boggling streak of ten straight 200-hit seasons, including a 262-hit 2004 season in which he set the single-season record. Aside from ten All Star nods and as many Gold Gloves, the slap-hitting right fielder has accumulated three Silver Slugger awards, a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP, and 2,717 hits in his career. These, however, are only his American accomplishments.

Ichiro had a remarkable career with the Orix Blue Wave in NPB, accumulating 1,278 hits in his nine seasons.

Ichiro had a remarkable career with the Orix Blue Wave in NPB, accumulating 1,278 hits in his nine seasons.

Prior to his MLB rookie year in 2001, when he entered the league at age 27, Ichiro played Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan, beginning his career as an 18-year-old call-up in 1992. If his American career weren’t illustrious enough, he totaled seven All Star appearances and three MVP awards to go with 1,278 hits. He even won an NPB championship, a feat he has yet to accomplish in the United States.

There’s a reason I mention these accolades. Ichiro, a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, is currently only five hits away from reaching 4,000 hits total, NPB and MLB combined. Most will object that there’s no fair way to combine the Japanese and American totals, urging that the two be kept separate. That’s a fair point; it’s even something with which I can sympathize. But this is an achievement that needs to be acknowledged.

If Ichiro had begun his MLB career in 1992, when he was called up in NPB, and batted at his career pace of 217 hits per season for those nine years prior to the start of his MLB career, he would be sitting at 4,671 hits right now. Of course, it’s unreasonable to assume that an 18-year-old Ichiro would be able to instantly start hitting at his career pace right out of the gate. Even the best take a year or two to develop. Nonetheless, it’s still interesting to consider.

How about this? Let’s play the devil’s advocate and assume Ichiro would average 175 hits per season for the first nine years in MLB. Why 175? Because there would be some early learning years to trudge through, but by the time he’s 21 or 22 he’d be hitting somewhere near his career average of 217 hits per season. That would average to around 175, give or take 10. Now, if he averages 175 per season for the first nine years, that puts his career total at 4,292 – nearly 300 more than where he currently stands, and 36 more than Pete Rose’s all-time total of 4,256.

Ichiro with the Seattle Mariners.

Ichiro with the Seattle Mariners.

Why would I assume Ichiro would produce more hits in the United States than in Japan? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to assume he would have less hits in MLB than in NPB?

Interestingly, it might actually be harder to rack up hits in NPB. First, the Japanese league only played a 130-game season during Ichiro’s time there. That means Ichiro had, theoretically, 288 less games to collect his 1,278 hits in his nine years than any American player would in the same time span.

Moreover, NPB fields are reportedly much smaller than MLB fields. Apparently, some are so small that they would violate MLB rules for the minimum size of a park. This, of course, helps homerun hitters like Sadaharu Oh, who amassed a ridiculous 868 homers in his career. On the other hand, this severely disadvantages singles hitters like Ichiro. Somehow, despite these significant hurdles, a 20-year-old Ichiro set the single-season record for hits in NPB with 210 in 1994.

Naturally, there’s the counterargument that pitching must be worse in NPB than in MLB. While there is definitely some truth to that claim, consider that most American scouts treat the Japanese league as “AAAA,” more competitive than AAA ball but less so than the majors. Scouts also consider NPB fielding superior to MLB, making it even more challenging to accumulate hits.

Smaller park, better fielding, worse pitching. Where does that leave us? I’d argue it leaves you just a tad below MLB. Pitching is unquestionably a crucial factor in the ability of a player to produce hits, outweighing the smaller park and better fielding considerations. However, we must remember that Ichiro had up to 288 less games to post his 1,278 hits. When you consider all of that together, there’s hardly a reason to assume his NPB hit total is worth anything less than the same number in MLB. Indeed, it might even be worth more.

Remarkably, Pete Rose played until the age of 45.

Remarkably, Pete Rose played until the age of 45.

Of course, all of this is subjective. But it’s reasonable, too. Regardless, even those most fervently opposed to accounting for any totals from NPB would have to recognize that Ichiro began his playing career when he was 27. For the sake of fairness, that’s the age from which we should compare Rose’s and Ichiro’s totals. Rose amassed 3,357 hits from the age of 27 and beyond. That’s still more than Ichiro’s current MLB total of 2,717. But, remember, Ichiro is only 39; Rose played until he was 45. Limiting Rose’s stats to a comparable frame, Ichiro has collected 166 more hits than Rose (2,551) from age 27 to 39.

Still, durability is as much a part of a career hitting total as skill. Rose’s ability to play until 45 was exceptional. It remains to be seen if Ichiro has the same durability. If, however, Ichiro does manage to last in the majors until 45, he’ll undoubtably have more MLB hits than Rose over a comparable span.

All of this is bittersweet. On one hand, you have one of the greatest hitters of all time technically failing reach the 4,000-hit milestone because he wasn’t given the opportunity to play until 27. Just imagine what he could have done if he began his career in 1992. On the flip side, Ichiro will break 4,000 hits, and he will break Rose’s record of 4,256 hits. The only remaining debate will be over whether or not he deserves an asterisk next to his remarkable record.

Who Can Stop Alabama?

By Sean McAlevey

With the very real possibility that Johnny Football never graces a college football field with his irreplaceable presence again, Alabama, last year’s BCS Champion, suddenly finds itself in a much more enviable position than it was a week ago.

Alabama and head coach Nick Saban's chances of repeating last season's championship run only get better should Manziel be sidelined in the fall.

Alabama and head coach Nick Saban’s chances of repeating last season’s championship only improve should Manziel be sidelined in the fall.

Don’t get me wrong. Alabama was, and still is, the public’s overwhelming favorite to repeat as champions. (Here at DynamicPicks we had Alabama at #2 behind Oregon in our Preseason Top 10.) But the hardest date on their schedule – a September 14 meeting against Texas A&M in College Station – will turn out to be nothing more than a tune-up game if Johnny Manziel is deemed ineligible to play this year by the NCAA.

After last season’s surprising upset by an underrated Aggies bunch led by an unknown freshman signal-caller, Alabama has made their mid-September date with TAMU their highest priority in the coming season. Now all of a sudden, Alabama’s schedule looks awfully kind; their next toughest matchup is a November 9 date with LSU in Tuscaloosa. If they can get through that matchup, they’ll likely be undefeated heading into the conference title game.

Naturally, it begs the question. If Alabama, who many predicted would be undefeated even with Manziel and A&M in its way, is primed to trample their schedule en route to a national title appearance, what team in a hypothetical Manziel-ineligible world can challenge them?

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is set to lead Oregon in his second season as a starter.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is set to lead Oregon in his second season as a starter.

One notable threat is Oregon, given that it can maneuver its way to the title game through their less-than-arduous Pac-12 schedule (though Stanford is not to be taken lightly). The Ducks own one of the most dynamic offensive combos in the country in quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De’Anthony Thomas. The two return to lead an offense that ranked second nationally in points scored last season (49.6 ppg). Their defense, which usually flies under the radar, is receiving due attention; it returns seven starters from last year’s squad that allowed only 21.6 point per game.

Their one weakness, however, is their change in coaches. After Chip Kelly hightailed his way out of Eugene and on to the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich was tapped to run the show. Sure, the Ducks may start slow – though I doubt they’ll lose a regular-season game outside of Stanford – but they’ll be plenty comfortable by the time January rolls around, when the Ducks could be set to face Alabama in the BCS title game. Really, there’s nothing bad you can say about the Ducks. They may not have the same caliber of defense as the Crimson Tide, but their high-octane offense more than makes up for that relative deficiency.

Georgia head coach Mark Richt has a wealth of offensive talent to utilize in the coming season.

Georgia head coach Mark Richt has a wealth of offensive talent to utilize in the coming season.

The other notable challenger to Alabama’s hegemony is Georgia, a rival SEC member. Like Oregon, Georgia will not matchup with Alabama during the regular season. Instead they’ll settle for a shot at the reigning champs in the SEC title game, if they can reach it. Senior quarterback Aaron Murray returns along with nine other offensive starters to lead a balanced offensive attack that features one of the most lethal backfield combos in Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley. If head coach Mark Richt can manage expectations and keep his team focused through one or two inevitable losses – they’re set to face Clemson, South Carolina, LSU, and Florida –  Georgia will be ready to play David to Alabama’s Goliath in a potential SEC title game matchup.

Understand that in only discussing Oregon and Georgia I’m not ruling out other viable challengers, such as Ohio State, Florida State, Clemson, and Stanford. There’s reason to believe that any of those teams can reach the BCS Championship game. It helps, however, that Oregon and Georgia have two of the strongest offensive attacks in the game, a requisite skill to contend with the best defense in the country.

All of this talk assumes Manziel won’t be suiting up for TAMU this fall. The NCAA has a lot of work to do in order to prove that last year’s Heisman winner allegedly sold his autographs for a five-figure sum to a professional autograph broker. If, however, the NCAA can put together a case against Manziel, and execute it in due time, Alabama will have a significantly easier road back to the title game. In that case, the best chance to stop the ever-rolling Tide lies in the hands of the two teams discussed above.