#1 – 2011 Yankees: Underdogs and Overlords
A lot of things can come to pass over the course of a 162-game baseball season, but I’m having a hard time adapting to this perception of the Yankees cast as underdogs in the AL East. Perhaps the off-season realization that pinstripes don’t always sell themselves and that some people (even modern ballplayers) still value some things more than money isn’t sitting well with a team who has handed out more than their fair share of blank checks in recent seasons. Although the Yanks clearly aren’t as improved as the Red Sox since the end of last season, they’re still a 1/5 billion dollar juggernaut and a force to be reckoned with, regardless of their own futile attempts to make us believe otherwise.
If the Yanks do have one thing potentially working against them going forward, it may be the seemingly cumbersome oversight of the team by Hank Steinbrenner, whose mid-eighties King George act has only seemed to pick up steam in the months since his father’s passing. Never shy about taking shots across the bow at the opposition, after a round of contentious off-season negotiations with Derek Jeter, and another with CC Sabathia probably looming on the horizon, Prince Hank has turned his ire toward his own team and their front office of late too…a la 80’s George.
One thing’s for sure, Hank’s not George. For now though it appears that he’s working like mad at trying to be, which could mean opportunities ahead for their AL East contemporaries. It arguably wasn’t until George himself was forcibly removed from Yankees operations at the behest of Major League Baseball that the organization finally found the breathing room needed to be champions again. We’ll see if it takes as drastic a circumstance to make Hank realize the same.
#2 – Niets No More
Once the highly anticipated Carmelo Anthony trade took place on Monday, it seemed a safe bet that any other movement set to take place would pale by comparison and largely be an afterthought. That of course changed with the surprising announcement on Wednesday that the Nets had acquired the services of All-Star point guard Deron Williams from the Utah Jazz.
Call them the Niets no more…the New Jersey Nets, seemingly having learned their lesson after the speculation and disappointment surrounding their bid for Carmelo Anthony did a great job at keeping this one under wraps until it was done, and in Williams they have gotten a difference maker, and facilitator that will immediately help get Brook Lopez game back on track, and should provide compelling reasons for future free agents to consider New Jersey or Brooklyn.
After Jerry Sloan’s departure in the midst of his 23rd season just a couple of weeks ago, apparently at least partially due to a rift with his star point guard, it seemed that the team had chosen the young guard over the old coach, and put the aftermath to bed. If nothing else the trade indicates that the team likely wasn’t feeling the same amount of love in return from their playmaker.
It also appears that Utah wasn’t willing to go through the day-in day-out drama next season that they saw the Nuggets having to deal with this year. Conspiracy theorists may also conclude that the uncertain nature of impending collective bargaining and the likelihood that the 2011-12 season may not go off as planned may have compelled the Jazz also to act now, while the getting was good.
No sooner did the news of the trade break than speculation began to abound about the potential return of Sloan to the Jazz now that Williams is no longer an issue. I’d have to guess no. Regardless of Sloan’s reasoning in leaving as he did, he denied reports that Williams was the issue and remained protective of both the player and team on his way out the door. I doubt he’d do a 180 on that stance. What’s more, Sloan’s replacement Tyrone Corbin was an internal promotion from Sloan’s staff, and a player that worked under Sloan for a few seasons as well. The Jazz made no bones from the day of his promotion that interim was not a part of his title. I doubt the former coach or the team would sweep the rug out from under Corbin this quickly. And lastly, without Williams it remains to be seen how the Jazz move forward. Derrick Favors has lots of legitimate upside but joins and already crowded Jazz frontcourt. Devin Harris has big shoes to fill, we’ll see if he’ up to the task. And who knows what the team will make of their draft picks? At least for now, it’s a step back for Utah that Sloan wouldn’t likely be excited about jumping back in with.
#3 – Talking Terps & Tourney
The Terps took the next logical step in attempting to solidify a respectable tournament resume with a win over Florida State on Wednesday. With 3 games remaining on their conference schedule, the most important and most dangerous looks to be the next, coming on Sunday at Chapel Hill. A win against the Tarheels would provide the Terps with their only signature caliber win before they put their case before the NCAA Tournament selection committee. It would also keep them on track to finish conference play with a 10-6 record, and a legitimate shot at a top 4 seed in the conference tourney, giving them a shot at one of the conference’s lower echelon teams and a pseudo-bye in the first round, seemingly providing more fodder to impress the committee.
The Terps sure had their fair share of respectable showings against legitimate competition in the early part of the season, but those likely won’t gain them much favor with the committee. What will though is a spirited run through the remainder of conference play and into the conference tourney. As susceptible as the rest of the conference has been all season, a run through the ACC tourney wouldn’t be out of the question, and would put any bubble issues to bed as well.
What’s certain about this team of late though, is that they aren’t the same team that played good teams close early on, nor are they the same club that dropped a few disappointing games in conference to teams that they arguably should have beaten. No, as young and frenetic as these Terps are, they remain a work in progress. In the last month or so, Pe’Shon Howard has shown a willingness to take and make the big shot, with a propensity to drive into traffic and find open shooters or finishers in the lane. Terrell Stoglin has unleashed the quickest first step seemingly since Steve Francis and is evolving quickly into an adept scorer with other components of his game playing catch up. And how can you ignore the recent growth of Dino Gregory? I’ve said a number of times that Gregory’s athleticism is both encouraging and frustrating. While it has been impressive at times, those times were too few and far between to be overly encouraged about. Recently though, Gregory has unveiled a mid-range game that will have to make opposing frontcourts think twice about stacking the lane to deny Jordan Williams.
In open space Gregory looks much more comfortable than he has at the rim this season. And in February these Terps look much more comfortable in their own skin than they did just a month ago. It’s encouraging to think what both might look like once March comes around…and beyond perhaps.