The Starting Point talks with NY Giants TE Larry Donnell

By Stefan Anderson

I had the great opportunity to speak with NY Giants TE Larry Donnell about his experiences coming into the NFL and what it takes, breakout games and huge catches. Check out the interview here at The Starting Point. 

Advertisements

My Bold Predictions for the 2015-16 NBA Season

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors

By Stefan Anderson

5, 4, 3, 2, 1, the countdown is finally over and the 2015-16 NBA season is here. Who’s going win it all? Who wins the MVP? Who stands out? I am here to give my Bold predictions for the 2015-16 season.

Golden State will not repeat: For the Warriors to repeat their success from last season would as easy as catching lightning in the bottle twice. Not to say that the Dubs won’t have a good season in 2015-16 campaign but I do not foresee the same luck they received last season. Golden State started the season winning their first 16 games, finishing 67-15 and only losing back to back once in the postseason. Crazy, when you really think how hard that will be to ditto. Doing so they would have to defeat one if not all the supreme teams in the West that includes the Spurs, Clippers and Thunder.

The next Draymond Green? Not skill wise but the in the context of a role player that makes a statement for his self. In the 2015 season, I have to put Washington’s Otto Porter and Indiana’s C.J. Miles in that category. With both of their rosters transitioning into faster pace offense, look for these two wings to transform off of the changes in offense and the increase of minutes.

MVP: For the MVP, I would like to see a player like Anthony Davis win the award, but the New Orleans star has yet to play an entire 82 games in a season. Therefore, with the additional talent surrounding him, Chris Paul will finally earn his first MVP award to solidify his legacy. My dark horse candidates will be Kevin Durant and Paul George, with both forwards coming back off grueling injuries and have a lot vengeance in their games.

Can LeBron continue to his reign? We ask this question each year and get the same results, so yes LeBron James will continue to be the best player in the NBA. Playing in nearly 100 games for the past four seasons, James has consistently played at the same level, averaging around 28/8/7 each season. With the bitter taste of losing his second consecutive finals, a hungry LeBron will be back this season, I expect him to be amongst that MVP conversation this year.

First Timers: Magic guard Victor Oladipo, Detroit Center Andre Drummond and LA Clipper Center DeAndre Jordan will all make their first all-star appearances this year. Jordan after signing his major contract this season will have to prove his worth. Oladipo rejoining the young core that Magic have kept together will burst into the teams true leader. Drummond will now be a priority with the departure of F/C Greg Monroe and Coach Stan Van Gundy’s 4 out and 1 in system he favors.

Defensive Player of Year: DeAndre Jordan believed he was snubbed out of last year’s DPOY award. In the 2015-16, DJ will claim the award at the season finale. Despite his free-throw woes, Jordan is still one of the best defenders in the league and will have another chance to prove his ability as an anchor as he did last season, when he lead the league in defensive win shares.

Most likely to beat Cleveland in the East: Many will say Chicago; I’ve got Miami being the team to dethrone King James and Co. The Heat will be able to counter Cleveland in all positions, with a lineup of Gorgan Dragic, Dwayne Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside. They also have a deeper bench and that player who can take over and win games for you in Dwayne Wade, unlike the Bulls. This pick is safe as long the Heat roster can stay healthy.

Most likely to beat Golden State in the West: OKC? LA? Houston? I’m going with the Spurs. San Antonio, always seems to find way to stay in the mix, now they are even deeper with the additions of David West and Lamarcus Aldridge. You’ve seen Memphis size give some issues to Golden State in the 2nd round of the 2015 playoffs , but the Grizzlies struggle with perimeter shootingand the Spurs do not lack in that department. I think they can force Golden State to play their tempo and have solid post players that can give Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut problems in the paint.

Missing the party: Brooklyn, Boston, Dallas and Portland were all playoff teams last season, however, this season will not be attending the postseason this year. These teams did not improve their rosters and have some questions going into the 2015-16 year. Portland losing nearly their entire starting 5 except for Damian Lillard, will have to depend on the young guard to lead them to promise land. Brooklyn, if Brook Lopez cannot stay healthy will have too much of a load for Joe Johnson to carry. Boston, has a good team similar to Dallas will have fight the teams on the cusp and doesn’t possess the talent to do so.

Joining the party:  Entering the playoffs this season will be Miami, Indiana and possibly Charlotte from the Eastern conference. In the West, Oklahoma City, Minnesota and I have a strange feeling about Sacramento being good this season (*Warning: this might be a reach*).

Finals Prediction: San Antonio vs Cleveland, Spurs in 6.

Who’s On Third ?

dmurphy

By Greg Hudson

I don’t know: third base!

It’s a classic line from a classic comedy routine by Abbott and Costello. It’s also a question that the Los Angeles Dodgers will be asking themselves between now and Opening Day next season.

Losing a winner-take-all game is tough. Losing it in front of your home fans is tougher still. Losing it thanks in large part to a runner going first-to-third on a walk? Inconceivable.

And yet, as New York Mets first baseman Lucas Duda, a power-hitting lefty slugger, took ball four and trotted to first base, teammate Daniel Murphy seized the moment: and won the series.

It was the top of the fourth inning in the decisive game five of the National League Division series. After allowing a run in the top of the first on a triple off the bat of Murphy, the Dodgers responded with a pair of runs in the home half of the inning and led 2-1 as Duda came to the plate with one out and a runner on first.

The Dodgers, like most other teams the Mets have faced this season, had pulled a shift against Duda, leaving shortstop Corey Seager in his position and shifting third baseman Justin Turner to fill the hole between first and second, cutting down on the chance that pull-hitting Duda could turn on a pitch and pull it through the right side for a hit. The entire purpose of the shift in that situation was to limit the likelihood that Murphy, who stood on first base after singling to lead off the frame, would reach third on a hit by Duda.

But Duda turned in a good at-bat against Dodgers’ Cy Young candidate Zach Grienke, and held his swing on a 3-1 offering that missed low. After checking with the home plate umpire, Duda, trotted down to first and Murphy slowly jogged to second.

Perhaps the Dodgers had never practiced what to do if a pitcher walks a hitter with a shift on. Perhaps Turner, who first made a name for himself playing second base for the Mets in 2011, wasn’t familiar with the schematics. Perhaps Grienke was supposed to move off the mound to cover third while waiting for Turner to return to the hot corner, and keep Murphy at second base. Perhaps the Dodgers forgot there was a runner on.

Regardless of the specific conditions of the Dodgers’ mentality at the time, when Murphy approached second base, he took a glance over toward third base coach Tim Tueffel, and saw only Tueffel standing there. Just before reaching second, he broke into a sprint and within four seconds was sliding safely into third: long before Grienke could cover the bag and with Turner still on the right side of the infield.

It was a decisive moment in the game – as Murphy would score the tying run on a sacrifice fly a batter later and then capped off a monster night with a go-ahead home run in the sixth that would send the Mets to the National League Championship Series – and may prove to be a decisive moment in baseball strategy.

The infield shift has been a practice in baseball for nearly 90 years, beginning in the 1920s against lefty slugger Cy WIlliams. The practice was again employed in the 1940s against Hall of Famer Ted Williams, but these uses were designed more for psychological impact on the hitter than for actual defensive purpose.

But as metrics and statistics tracking advanced over the decades, spray charts helped teams track the hit location of their opponents, and lefty power hitters who pull the ball to the right side of the infield suddenly found themselves facing an unusual dilemma: an extra infielder on the right side of the infield.

And to a certain extent, the strategy has been effective. Shifting against a power hitter can lower his batting average by between 30 and 50 points, and by extension can save a team several runs over the course of a season.

But the shift is inherently risky. A hitter who squibs a ball softly toward third base can end up with a double if he has decent speed, as neither the shortstop nor left fielder are in position to field the ball quickly. More importantly, with runners on base, it leaves third base totally exposed.

And that fact has been exploited twice in very important postseason games in the past decade. In 2009, with the score tied in the top of the ninth inning of game four of the World Series between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, Johnny Damon stole second base and simply carried on all the way to third and went on to score what would be the winning run to give the Yankees a 3-1 series lead.

Then on Thursday in Los Angeles, Murphy’s first-to-third advance on a walk again highlights the weakness in the shift. It can be proven effective against hitters who pull the ball, but the risk of employing the stratagem with runners on base may result in a new shift: away from pulling an infielder away from third base unless the bases are empty.

Some will question the Mets’ merit in winning the series after benefitting from such a tactical blunder. Some will question whether the Dodgers can continue to consider themselves an elite organization after failing to advance past the divisional round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Others will question whether either the Mets or their NLCS opponents, the Chicago Cubs, can beat either American League candidate in the World Series. But there’s a more urgent question that still needs to be answered.

Who exactly IS on third?

Jurgen Klopp: Liverpool Savior

klopp

By Greg Hudson

It would be unfair to say that when Steven Gerrard slipped in front of the Kop in April of 2014, Brendan Rodgers’ days as manager of Liverpool Football Club were numbered.

But the then-34-year-old captain’s untimely error which allowed Chelsea to open the scoring in a 2-0 victory over the Reds at Anfield was the beginning of a downward trend which saw the Reds miss out on their first title in over two decades in 2014, crash out of the Champions’ League in the group stage, fail to reach the final of either domestic cup after reaching the semifinal in both competitions, and finish a lowly sixth in the Premier League last season.

So the slip wasn’t the critical moment. But it was certainly a trigger for an avalanche which eventually cost Rodgers his job. After failing to impress in their first few matches of the season – a 1-1 draw against Everton on October 4 – was the final nail in the coffin, Rodgers’ contract was terminated, and the search for a new manager began.

It didn’t last long.

One name, linked with the Merseyside giants since the end of last season’s depressing campaign, immediately came to the forefront: the name of a 48-year-old German who used a combination of stalwart defense and lethal counter attacking football to lead an industrious Borussia Dortmund side to back-to-back Bundesliga titles to topple German giants Bayern Munich: Jurgen Klopp.

There are few names in European football more synonymous with excitement. Watching a Jurgen Klopp side at their best is like watching an artist paint a masterpiece. Klopp brings several core values to his side: hard work, communication, intensity and common sense.

And those are qualities this Liverpool side need desperately.

The side that took the field against Everton last week was a shadow of the team that thrashed the Toffees 4-0 at Anfield just 18 months prior. The departure of star players Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling didn’t help, but there was more at play than just a lack of starpower. The team lacked intensity, it lacked bite. The side that had cut opposing squads to ribbons looked anything but incisive, and it had a lot to do with their manager’s playing style: or lack thereof.

Brendan Rodgers blew us away during that 2013-14 league campaign by adapting his style to suit the needs of the team, whether to account for player injury or suspension, to incorporate young players into the starting lineup, or to adjust the tactics to best exploit the weakness of the opponent. No matter the game, Liverpool always seemed to look the better side: they always seized and maintained the initiative.

But a regrouping period after the departure of Suarez left Liverpool needing to break in several new players, not all of whom adapted to the existing playing style. Rodgers fell into a habit of almost constant tactical changes in a desperate attempt to improve results, and this lack of consistency resulted in a general lack of identity, not only for supporters who were left scratching their heads at the decision to leave Steven Gerrard out of the side that faced Real Madrid in the Champions’ League in Spain and the depleted side the team fielded at Wembley in the FA Cup semifinal defeat to Aston Villa.

That general lack of identity carried over into the 2015/16 campaign, as the club lost its face when Gerrard left the club to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy in MLS, and Rodgers tried in vain to throw together a squad that could consistently earn positive results. Injuries to captain Jordan Henderson and striker Daniel Sturridge didn’t help the cause, but in the end, the manager takes the fall, and after another disappointing result at Goodison Park sealed his fate.

Just days later, Klopp was announced manager, and the similarities between the two managers cannot be stressed enough: both prefer to employ a high-speed, counter attacking brand of football; both are relatively young; and both transformed underperforming teams into contenders.

The main difference between Rodgers and Klopp is mentality, the German being the more aggressive tactical leader. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, although it will almost certainly take some time to bring to full fruition.

Klopp is the champion of gegenpressing – counter pressing, in English – and it may be the key to Liverpool’s resurgence.

Gegenpressing is more than a simple counter attack, it is a full-on assault of the opponent after losing possession. It can take multiple forms: pressing high to mark all forward passing options and force the man on the ball to play the ball backwards; attacking the passing lanes to force the man on the ball to either make a run himself or play the ball backwards; or most rewarding – and most dangerous – an all-out assault on the man with the ball.

Liverpool achieved great success with a high press in the 2013/14 campaign, and Southampton used it to great effect last season. But gegenpressing goes beyond a simple high press. It is a high-intensity, physically demanding way to play football – and it doesn’t stop. Unlike the high press which is effective in short bursts especially at the beginning of a game or in its final stages, gegenpressing is a full-match tactic, require players to give 100 per cent from opening kickoff to final whistle.

And that might be a problem. Liverpool have some true grinders, players who never seem to tire out no matter how hard they run. Jordan Henderson earned the captaincy for his tireless play, and Emre Can also seems to always have something in the tank.

But for many of Liverpool’s top players, fitness is an issue. Sturridge and Benteke have had struggles with injury and high-intensity play always increases the risk of injury: ask Klopp’s former Dortmund stars Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan. Meanwhile Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho have consistently proven they lack the stamina to play at full capacity for 90 minutes at a time.

But that’s where the time comes in. Liverpool aren’t where they want to be, but they aren’t exactly in trouble either. They sit 10th in the Premier League, with 12 points from eight matches. But they’re just six points removed from Arsenal at the top of the league with over 75 percent of the season remaining.

That means that Klopp, who led his first training session at Melwood on Monday with a depleted side while most of the starting contingent were away on international duty, has a period of time in which to instill in his players that hard-working, counter-attacking brand of football: an identity.

It’s not likely we’ll see gegenpressing on Saturday against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. It’s not likely we’ll see it against Southampton at home a week later. It isn’t even necessarily likely that we’ll see it against Chelsea at Anfield on Halloween.

But there’s a chance we will.

That match against Chelsea will be a massive occasion for the Reds. A chance to avenge a defeat that cost them a championship 18 months ago comes at a time when Chelsea are reeling: the defending champions have endured a terrible start under Jose Mourinho, who’s now facing the same criticism levelled at Rodgers during his final season at Liverpool. A victory for Klopp’s boys – especially if it results from tactically outplaying Chelsea with gegenpressing – could well be the turning point in Liverpool’s season. And after a less that stellar start, that’s exactly what Liverpool need.

Quarterback Carousel

carousel

By Stefan Anderson

Just over a ¼ way through the 2015-16 NFL Season and the quarterback play has been tremendous thus far. With Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady at the forefront for the MVP award, the league has been on notice for the QB.

Show and Prove

But there are two quarterbacks who are making their distinction known this season after speculations have placed them in the “good but not good enough” category. Andy Dalton of Cincinnati Bengals and Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons, not only lead two of the six remaining undefeated teams but have done so in fashionable manner.

Dalton, coming into his fifth season, where quarterbacks normally sink or float, is showing that he is poised to take the Bengals to the next level. Throughout his five games this season, Dalton leads the NFL in passing yards with 1,518 and 3rd in QB rating only behind Rodgers and Brady.  Trailing by 10 going into the final period, Dalton put together his toughest performance Sunday afternoon against the Seattle Seahawks, putting Cincy on his shoulders as they forced OT and eventually won their 5th game of the season.

Ryan, who is second in the passing yards with 1,456 has had his struggles with turning the ball over but has been able to help keep the Falcons alive when needed. Atlanta has forced comeback wins against NFC East foes Washington, Philadelphia and New York.  Despite the help of rookie running back Davonta Freeman and superstar wide out Julio Jones, Ryan is still in the driver seat leading his team to victories.

Both sitting at 5-0, Ryan and Dalton are showing that they could make the change this season. But to withstand the pressure of being elite is tough, but they are certainly taking the proper steps.

Insurance Policy

Having a valuable backup quarterback is a commodity in NFL and many teams take that guy with the clipboard for granted until their star QB is down. Matthew Hasselback and Ryan Fitzpatrick have shown that patience is a virtue and despite the obstacles it may come with to always be prepared for the opportunity.

Hasselback, once lead Seattle to the Super Bowl in 2005 and has yet to see a start since 2012. With Andrew Luck sitting for the Colts, Hasselback came in and helped Indy reach two wins when it seemed as if their season was hanging on a thread. Hasselback’s 495 passing yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions show the importance of being ready.

Ryan Fitzpatrick is known as a solid quarterback but once who is also turnover prone, but in his tenure with the Jets has shown to a good fit. With the injury to Geno Smith and the reconnection of offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, Fitzpatrick has found his resurgence and has New York sitting at 3-1.  Fitzpatrick has the opportunity to compete this season with the Jets top ranked defense and weapons on the offensive end , the Harvard alum could taste the postseason for the first time in his 11 year career.