Lions around the dorm

This week, we’re talking about baseball and basketball. Our contestants will debate which local team has the most to look forward to, which NBA team is the one to beat and who might replace Isiah Thomas. Nation & world editor Kristen Lord, staff writer Bobby Olivier and senior editor Lauren Kohout are the contestants. Staff writer Duncan Slobodzian is the all-powerful and all-knowing referee.

1) MLB season is right around the corner. The lore surrounding the Yankees, Mets and Phillies has been a storyline that has intensified recently. Which fanbase should be the most optimistic about the 2008 season?

KL: The Yankees have had a long, publicity-filled off season this year. I’m optimistic that this season will return focus to the actual game of baseball for the Yanks instead of Roger Clemens, steroids and A-Rod’s contract. They are an offensive force but their bullpen struggles, leaving them second to the Red Sox – again. As for the Phillies and Mets, I think Mets fans can be the most optimistic about this season. Willie Randolph and his team have something to prove this year after their disastrous collapse last season. The Mets have one of the best rotations in the league with Johan Santana and a newly recovered Pedro Martinez. The overall reliability of their pitchers puts less pressure on their offense. Defensively, the Mets boast three golden glove players in Luis Castillo, David Wright and Carlos Beltran. The team’s stats speak for themselves, but with the painful memories of last year still fresh in their minds, I see the Mets rising above expectations and above the Phillies this year.

BO: The three local teams should all be optimistic because they were all playoff contenders last season, but the Yankees should be the most excited for the final season at Yankee Stadium. The boys in the Bronx are returning the most potent line-up in the AL (968 total runs) with A-rod anchoring the offense and coming off an MVP season. Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui are healthy and utility men Shelley Duncan and Wilson Betemit will be able to spell an aging Jason Giambi at first. Chien-Ming Wang is coming off back-to-back 19-win seasons, and with promising young guns Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy getting starting jobs and Joba Chamberlain possibly transitioning to the starting rotation mid-season, Yankee fans can expect a 14th straight playoff appearance by the Bronx Bombers.

LK: All Mets fans have to be optimistic about is acquiring Santana. One man cannot affect an entire baseball season. Yanks’ fans optimism has plateaued. They expect to win a championship every year so their optimism is nothing but ego. Taking the question literally, the Phillies’ fanbase should be the most optimistic. First of all, Phils fans are optimistic every year even if we are projected to finish dead last. We’re optimistic until it’s mathematically impossible to make the playoffs. However, because of last year’s break into the playoffs for the first time since 1993, we have that much more reason to be optimistic. Also, now Phillies fans have proof that we can be clutch and put up big numbers late in the season. Plus, it never hurts to have some form of bragging rights going into the season thanks to the Mets’ implosion at the end of last season. Nothing makes Phils fans more optimistic than being able to trash talk with good reason – it doesn’t happen very often. Not to mention, we just had back-to-back NL MVPs. Who wouldn’t be optimistic?

DS: Lauren gets 3 on this one. I agree with your assessment of the Philly-fan psyche, and the city is having a sports renaissance. 2 points for Kristen: I agree that, on paper, the Mets are looking strong. But if they don’t play with a sense of urgency from the gate, there’s no reason to be optimistic. Bobby gets 1: I’m pretty sure Yankees fans wouldn’t be satisfied with just another playoff appearance. Anything less than a World Series would be a major let down.

2) With about 10 regular season games left before playoffs, which of the NBA teams is the team to beat at this point in the season?

KL: While Western Conference teams are drawing a lot of attention lately, the Boston Celtics as the team to beat. They have the best record in the NBA. The West has a new leader every week while the Celtics have clinched their division title and earned a 23-5 record against the West. They made a sweep of the Texas triangle with three victories over the Spurs, Rockets and Mavericks. When playing San Antonio, they miraculously overcame a 22-point deficit, proving they’re contenders until the very end. Even more impressively, Boston managed to secure a victory against the Suns, a feat they hadn’t been able to accomplish in the last five times facing Phoenix. Despite recent losses from Philadelphia and New Orleans, I think the momentum of the Celtics is heading toward a championship.

BO: As much as it kills me, a sad Knicks fan, to say this, the Boston Celtics are the team to beat as of right now. One of the reasons they are the team to beat is because no one can beat them. They have the best record in the NBA and have beaten every team in the league. They lead the league in opponents PPG (90.55) and scoring differential (+10.15) and have been dominant all season. Kevin Garnett is a top contender to be this year’s MVP, and with Ray Allen knocking down threes and perennial all-star Paul Pierce rounding out the big three, this team is full of heavy-duty talent. The Celtics’ bench has been fantastic as well with role players Rajon Rondo and Eddie House doing their parts. The rest of the league should fear Boston in the playoffs.

LK: The team to beat is Boston. But with less than 10 games to go and a comfortable game cushion in a sub-par conference, no one really has the chance to knock them out. Sticking to the Western Conference, the Hornets lost to the Celtics 112-92 last Friday so they don’t have the best chance of getting to the finals and winning despite their current first-place status. It’s tough to pick one team to beat because the top six teams in the Western Conference are within 1.5 games of each other. I think the last week of the NBA season should see some shakeups in the West standings because the talent is spread so evenly. However, the East doesn’t have the talent comparatively. The safe bet is Boston overall.

DS: While I’m not sold on Boston as title contenders, I’m giving Kristen the 3 for mentioning Boston’s record against Western conference teams and their even more impressive sweep of the three Texas teams. Lauren gets the 2 for mentioning the parity in the West, and Bobby only gets 1 even though he dropped some nice stats.

3) A recent report said that Knicks owner Jim Dolan is leaning toward keeping Isiah Thomas around as the head coach beyond this season. If you were in Dolan’s shoes, who would you hire?

KL: As much as Thomas needs to go, there isn’t a long list of qualified candidates that can (or want to) replace him. New York coaches and players tend to be the subject of constant media scrutiny. I think the Knicks should take a chance on Mark Jackson. Yes, Jackson would be a first-time coach, which isn’t necessarily ideal for the Knicks’ situation, but maybe such a drastic change in coaching will give the team the wake-up call it needs. I don’t see the Knicks making a 180-degree turnaround in one season. Most likely it’ll be years of overhaul before they see a winning season, so it might not be such a horrible thing for Jackson to be learning on the job. Jackson has already been a Knick; he’s lived through the media spotlight before, so he will be respected by the players. He’s been everywhere around the league, from bad teams to NBA-finals teams. He has long been thought of as having the characteristics of a solid NBA coach. The Knicks should take a chance – they can’t get any worse.

BO: If I were Dolan, I would walk away from the edge of the building that I am about to jump off of, and then I would get rid of Thomas. Throw someone new into the snake pit. Bring Michael Jordan to New York. Why not? He’s used to dealing with terrible teams like the Bobcats and it would make me a hell of a lot of money. Imagine how many people would pay to come to the Garden to see MJ on the bench screaming at Jamal Crawford for taking too many threes. I would. Then with all the money I make off of Jordan, I bring in Shaq to play center, and I bring back Latrell Sprewell so he can feed his family. It will be a money-making circus for all to enjoy. Go Knicks.

LK: Jeff Van Gundy would be a decent replacement for Isiah. Actually, a plunger would be a decent replacement for Isiah. Seriously though, Van Gundy is a former coach of the Knicks, taking them to the playoffs six times and to the NBA Finals once from 1996-2001. Since he already knows the franchise and Knicks fans love him, he would be a great fit. He might even get attendance up which would be a great boost for the team and be good motivatation to win some more games. Either way, Thomas has to go. There’s just too many bad memories housed under the Isiah administration in New York.

DS: 3 points for Lauren: Van Gundy would bring the right attitude. Kristen, 2 points. I love the suggestion almost as much as Van Gundy. Bobby, 1 point. The Garden is such a hot ticket, it’s been a commodity even through the years that a below average product has taken the floor.

Kohout wins 8-7-3. Get ready for AtD playoffs next week!