In this week’s Around the Dorm, the “Ref,” Greg Oriolo, asks our panel three questions: Who can challenge the Miami Heat in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, what NFL team has been the most surprising through the first half of the season, and what NHL player should be the frontrunner for MVP after the early part of the season.
1. With the NBA season officially underway, what team in the East do you feel is the biggest threat to the two-time defending champion, Miami Heat?
Chris: The NBA playoffs are so much different than the regular season, so when trying to decide who the biggest threat is to Miami, I think it’s best looking at past playoffs. The last time the Bulls played the Heat in the playoffs with a healthy Derek Rose, they could only beat them once in a seven game series. The Indiana Pacers, however, took the Heat to Game 7. The Pacers have a star in Paul George who can defend LeBron, a rim enforcer/brick wall in Roy Hibbert who gave Miami fits last year, and the strategy to beat the Heat, making them my pick. Their strategy was to clog the lane and force Dwyane Wade and LeBron to shoot outside jumpers, which is not what they want to do. Nothing against Rose and Joakim Noah, but they’re simply not the same defensively as Hibbert and George. Add in a revamped bench and a young, blossoming coach in Frank Vogel, and Indiana’s got a shot to reject the Heat from a threepeat.
Amy: Despite a head coach with a lack of experience, Brook Lopez’s foot ailments, and the old ages of Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Kevin Garnett, I think the Brooklyn Nets are a big threat to the two-time defending champion, Miami Heat. In fact, there are many reasons why they are a serious threat to the East. Even though Garnett and Pierce are 37 and 36, respectively, they’re still some pretty tough players. There have also been 35 All-Star appearances by the starting five. But the coaching is what’s going to really pull it all together. Although Jason Kidd’s head coaching has been somewhat questionable, he displayed great leadership characteristics throughout his playing years, and he’s surrounded by a strong staff.
Mike: The Indiana Pacers. Almost by default — the Knicks and Nets are too long in the tooth to keep up with the pace Miami brings to the table in the playoffs, and the Bulls can’t be considered serious threats until Derrick Rose proves that he can stay healthy and return to his old form. Even if the other contenders were big threats, however, the Pacers would still likely be the biggest. They have everything needed to take on Miami: a stingy defense that ranked second in the league last season in points allowed at just 90.7 per game and first in defensive rating at a pretty stellar 99.8, solid big men capable of exploiting Miami’s less-than-spectacular front line in Roy Hibbert and David West, and the ever-improving Paul George, who matched LeBron James as well as anyone can during last year’s Eastern Finals. The Pacers’ biggest flaw of last season, a lack of real depth, was addressed fairly well during the off season, as the additions of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson helped shore up their bench. Add to the bench either the return of Danny Granger or whoever they get for his expiring contract, and you have the team with the best shot at taking down the champs.
Mike wins for bringing up the Pacers defense as well as improved bench, Chris gets 2 points for the Pacers prior success, and Amy gets 1 point for talking about the All-Star lineup.
2. Which NFL team is your biggest surprise of the season and which team do you feel is the biggest disappointment?
Chris: The trendy surprise pick is the Chiefs, but in reality, they haven’t really beaten anyone. The combined record of the teams they’ve beaten is 27-48, and they’ve yet to beat a team with a record above .500. Instead, The biggest surprise for me is the Detroit Lions. They’re second in the league in passing yards with the Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson combination, but in reality, Stafford doesn’t have a legit second option to throw to. The defense has also be stout, led by Ndamukong Suh, and a team that looked undisciplined last year and repeatedly shot themselves in the foot is keeping pace with the Packers in the NFC North. The biggest disappointment has to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This team has been nothing but toxic. Josh Freeman was awful, Greg Schiano clearly can’t coach in the NFL, and Doug Martin wasn’t doing anything before he got hurt. The most puzzling thing is how bad the defense has been. Despite acquiring Darelle Revis and Dashon Goldson to bolster a secondary that was supposed to help Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn up front has been pretty terrible and gashed constantly by opposing offenses.
Amy: The Kansas City Chiefs have been the biggest surprise of the NFL season so far. Yes, they had some talent last year, but they also only won two games. One big reason for their turnaround this year is they now actually have a competent head coach in Andy Reid. In addition, their defense, after eight games, only let up 98 points, which is an average of less than 13 points per game. The most disappointing team this season has been the Atlanta Falcons. Yes, they have had injuries to key offensive players, such as Julio Jones, Roddy White and Steven Jackson, but this is a team that almost made the Super Bowl last year, so a lot more was expected of them. The outlook for the remainder of the season is not promising, as they still have games against tough opponents, including Seattle, New Orleans, Green Bay and San Francisco, all of whom are potential playoff teams.
Mike: Most people might put the Chiefs as the biggest surprise of the season so far, but with the upgrades at quarterback and to the coaching staff, combined with their already impressive defense, running game and easy schedule so far, they haven’t been all that surprising. So instead I’ll say the Carolina Panthers. Without significant changes to the roster or a change in head coach, Carolina has crawled from being one of the weaker defensive teams in the NFL to the second best in points allowed at just 13.7 a game. They also have the fourth best point differential at 10.6, which showcases their offensive improvement as well. Cam Newton has come on much stronger this season, and while his QBR hasn’t climbed much, his other statistics are all up, with the most notable rises being in completion percentage and interception rates. As for a disappointment, how can you not pick the Atlanta Falcons? From the NFC title game last season and many predicting that they’d make the Super Bowl, the Falcons have fallen to a 2-5 record and little indication that they can turn things around. If that isn’t a disappointing season, I don’t know what is.
Mike wins for talking about how Carolina has won with the same team, Chris gets 2 points for his analysis of Detriot and Tampa, and Amy gets 1 point for highlighting the Chiefs.
3. Several star NHL players have been off to hot starts early in the season. Which player do you feel has been most impressive and is the early frontrunner for MVP this season?
Chris: With one month already under the belt for the NHL season, my early-season MVP is former number 1 overall pick Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Well known for his goal scoring ability, there were other facets of his game that needed to grow, such as his passing, defense and leadership. He has finally emerged at age 23 as a legitimate two-way center, ranking second in the NHL in points (20) with 11 goals and 9 assists. Putting up points comes naturally to Stamkos, as he will most likely go on to rack up over 50 goals and 40 assists. Fans might be surprised to see his +/- rating at +9 which ranks him tied for third among forwards. Being responsible in the defensive end has translated to a hot start for the Lightning, as they are first in the Atlantic Division with a record of 10-4. After finishing with the third worst record last season, the new-found success all stems from MC Stammer. With one shorthanded goal, three power play goals and two clutch game-winning goals already, this first liner and special teams threat will make the Lightning a serious Stanley Cup contender in a rather weak Eastern Conference.
Amy: Even though I can’t stand the Penguins, Sidney Crosby is the obvious choice. He is currently leading the league in points with 23 points, including 15 assists. The latter number shows that he is helping his teammates to become better, as he is setting them up to score goals. However, Crosby will have to keep up his current pace as Pittsburgh is clearly defensively challenged and very reliant on a high-powered offense for its success. In order to be a contender for MVP this season, though, Crosby has to stay healthy because he’s been plagued by injuries, including serious concussions, during the past few seasons.
Mike: Alexander Steen. His 1.6 points per game stand as best in the league right now, and with only 10 games played so far he’s already netted 11 goals, which also leads the league. He comes in at fifth overall in points scored, despite having played in fewer games than just about everyone else, and his shooting percentage of 35.5 percent is absolutely absurd given how often he shoots. In fact, none of the players who have a better shooting percentage than Steen so far (Steen is eighth) have shot more than seven times, and you have to go pretty far down the list to find anyone else who has taken more than 10 shots, while Steen sits at 31. Add onto all the stats that the St. Louis Blues are actually winning, with a 7-1-2 record through ten games, putting them in the top ten in hockey in total points and tied for first in losses, and you get an even better argument to be made for Steen. While there are several worthy candidates so far, Steen has been the most impressive, and should be the early frontrunner for MVP.
Chris wins for highlighting Stamkos’s improvement, Mike gets 2 points for discussing dark horse Steen, and Amy gets 1 point for saying Crosby could be MVP if healthy.
Mike wins Around the Dorm, 8-7-3