It’s title time boys and girls, but there can be only one. In our final showdown, arts & entertainment editor James Queally, staff writer Duncan Slobodzian and sports assistant Michael O’Donnell will go to war over the Dolphin’s taking Jake Long No. 1 in the draft, the NBA Finals and the Phils’ benching of Ryan Howard. Fall 2007 champion Justin Jez will decide who earns the ultimate bragging rights.
1) Did the Dolphins make the right decision in drafting Jake Long? If not what should they have done with the No. 1 pick?
JQ: Miami, you were 1-15 last year. You need a game changer, somebody who can act as a catalyst and get your team, and more importantly your fans, excited about football again. Tony Sparano was a wonderful coach on the offensive side of the ball, and helped mold young stars like Tony Romo and Marion Barber in Dallas. Why Bill Parcells would not take his chances with a Darren McFadden or a Matt Ryan blows my mind. Hell, even Glenn Dorsey would have been an asset for this team, at least reminding them how to pass rush. Mario Williams at least made the Texans look like they belonged in the NFL when they picked him No. 1 in 2006. Point is, when you’re in a tailspin, your first move should not be to grab an offensive lineman. Miami needed a playmaker. They didn’t get one.
DS: You certainly can’t fault the 1-15 ‘Phins for taking the consensus best offensive lineman in the draft class. Their offense was anemic, but going after a “skill position” player like McFadden or Ryan with the top overall selection would have been a waste with a decidedly shaky line in place. There’s a question of longevity as it relates to long-term value, too – the shelf life of an elite O-lineman is much longer than that of a running back. Parcells is wise to the ways of the NFL draft, and he’s well aware of the leverage that the first pick affords teams. He has a history of stringing together strong drafts, and there’s little reason to believe ’08 will be any different. Getting Long under contract before the draft even happened was smart too; it bypassed the nightmare holdout situation that befell the Raiders a year ago with JaMarcus Russell.
MO: The Dolphins have so many holes, it’s absurd. However, this is the best thing they could have done. Long is hands-down the best offensive lineman in this draft. They could have gone with Dorsey to shore up the defense, but games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage offensively. With Long improving the O-line’s play, this will give more time to quarterback John Beck, create holes for Ronnie Brown to become a 2,000-total-yard back and bring confidence to the Dolphins offense. Miami could have traded down, but after the first few rounds in the draft, the talent level drops dramatically. They’re going to need more than a year to become competitive, but with Long’s massive strength and pure game-changing ability, the Dolphins are certainly on the way up.
JJ: 3 points to Duncan for I cannot find fault in his or Parcells’ logic. Taking a running back “playmaker” this year would be pointless since he would get lit-up by the lack of protection. Also, for this reason I’m giving O’Donnell 2 points, although Beck is going to need a brick wall to give him confidence. Queally is all about selling tickets and not about building a franchise. Bad G.M. – 1 point.
2) With the NBA Playoffs in full swing, which teams will reach the Finals? Who will win and why?
JQ: Well, the first few days of the first round have made the East pretty easy to pick. The Pistons have looked weak against Philly, and they were the only team with a legitimate shot to upset the Celtics. Boston will sweep Atlanta, run through whomever wins the Wiz/Cavs series and then beat the Magic in six to reach the Finals. I’m going to make it a little more interesting out West. With Andrew Bynum still hurt, I really like how the Jazz match up with the Lakers in round two. I think Mehmet Okur presents a legitimate problem for Pau Gasol, being the more athletic center. Deron Williams and Kobe Bryant will be a dogfight, which is still advantage Kobe, but Utah’s ludicrous home record and deep bench should help them outlast L.A. That same insane home play should carry them past the winner of the Spurs/Hornets duel and into the finale.
DS: I’m going to go with the Spurs winning it all, over the Celtics. I’d like to go with my preseason prediction of the Magic, but it’s pretty clear they (and many of the other Eastern playoff teams) are at least a year away. The Celtics have the singular drive to win it all, perhaps stemming from the near-triumphs of their superstars in playoffs past. The intensity they bring on both ends of the floor night in and night out goes unmatched in the league, but their lack of depth will invariably wind up being their tragic flaw. To play 48 minutes against a battle-tested team like the Spurs, you need a roster that’s experienced and talented, top to bottom. Nobody grinds out a game quite like Tim Duncan and San Antonio – look no further than their dismantling of the Suns in round one to see their grit and mettle on court.
MO: This Finals will be a fan-favorite throwback: Lakers vs. Celtics. L.A. is a slight favorite in the tight West, as this team is really starting to gel in the postseason. When Kobe’s off, Gasol picks up the slack. When Gasol’s off, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and their deep bench pick up the slack. Bottom line: The Lakers are now a team. They are exploding offensively, and besides possibly the Spurs, the Lakers have the lightest path to the Finals in the West. The Celts’ talent is well-known: Garnett, Pierce and Allen have gotten their no-name teammates to play championship basketball. Their bench is playing beyond expectations, and they are arguably the best defensive team in the league. With the Pistons having trouble with the Sixers (HOW?), look for Boston to take a well-rested trip to the Finals, and beat L.A. in a seven-game masterpiece.
JJ: O’Donnell’s argument is the most solid, earning him 3 points. The Lakes do have arguably the easiest path to the Finals, and taking either them or the Spurs is a coin flip. Duncan, I like the point that the Celts lack depth against the Spurs – 2 points. Queally, if Utah plays the Lakes, Spurs or Hornets they don’t have home court, so how can their home court play be the reason for knocking off these teams? Uno.
3) Recently, the Phillies decided to bench Ryan Howard. Good move or bad move?
JQ: Tough call. Howard hasn’t exactly been earning that raise this year. His bat’s been dull and his fielding has been sub-par. Not that he was ever a Golden Glove winner to begin with, but two errors a game on several different outings does not an All-Star make. However, with Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino banged up, there is nobody out there stealing bases for this team. While “Bat” Burrell (worst nickname in sports history) can be a catalyst for the offense, he can’t do it by himself every night. Howard is not going to break out of this slump sitting in the dugout. Sometimes prolific hitters do slow down for a bit, but if he’s going to get his timing back, he needs to be in the batter’s box to do it.
DS: The benching was a classic case of overreaction. Howard – a four-year veteran – is notorious for his slow starts at the plate. The Phillies would have been better served to show faith in their star first baseman by letting him work his way out of his pseudo-slump. Howard is a career .234 hitter in April, but his average and power numbers increase in every subsequent month to crescendo late in the season, when it matters most. It’s tough to explain the phenomena, but recent tinkering with Howard’s stance at the suggestion of manager Charlie Manuel may be partly to blame. Exercising patience in the slugger will prove lucrative even in the immediate future: Howard went deep in his first start after the brief layoff.
MO: Benching Howard was a brilliant move. Howard is slumping, batting a measly .176 on the season with four homers and nine RBIs. These are not MVP numbers. He is supposed to be the Phils’ powerhouse, but it appears Utley has taken over that role. This is similar to a situation in Boston with David Ortiz. Ortiz is doing horribly this season, and he was benched during a game versus the Yankees because of it. Now, he is slightly improving his last few games, hitting safely in his last seven games. He appears to be on the right track to being back in Big Papi-form, and it should do Howard good both physically and mentally to have a day off. Remember, he’s Ryan Howard, former MVP and 50-home run club member. He’ll be back.
JJ: Each receiving 3 points are Queally and Duncan. Both arguments were in-depth and provided me with good reason to keep Howard in the lineup. O’Donnell’s answer gets 2 points. Your answer was OK, but it did not convince me as much as the other two. We already know that Howard should return to form sometime.
With an 8-7-5 win, Duncan Slobodzian is the Spring 2008 champ!