The Buc Stops Here

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With Buccaneers Nation being forced to endure a string of “punishing” 70-degree, sunshine-filled winters, fans of this team have also been subjected to a heartless cycle of hope and letdown since their 2007 Wild Card loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. This has been spearheaded by a collection of forgettable quarterbacks, mismanaged personnel moves and questionable loyalty to upper management, culminating in 13 seasons of failing to reach the playoffs. Since their acquisition of Tom Brady, however, this team’s hype train has enough coal burning to fuel a locomotive. One season following Tampa’s downward spiral into irrelevance, Brady went on to post the best statistical season of his career with a Patriots team flaunting an 18-1 record, falling one game short of perfection to the same Giants team that eliminated the Bucs just four weeks prior. However, the burning question will be whether his arrival in Tampa will help make this franchise a semi-respectable product again.

As interesting as the Buccaneers roster looks on paper, make no bones about it, this division still goes through New Orleans. Should Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas stay healthy throughout a 16-game season, the Saints are all but guaranteed 12 wins. Even with Brady’s arrival as Tampa’s first reliable quarterback since Jeff Garcia, the Saints’ offense will continue to be the crown jewel of passing statistics and offensive efficiency ratings for the foreseeable future.

Brady’s initial arrival to Tampa has been “unique” to put it lightly. His most notable headline thus far has been an accidental break-in to a Tampa Bay home which he thought was the residence of Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwitch. No charges were filed, but it was certainly one of the most bizarre stories the future Hall of Famer has ever been a part of (this is the same quarterback that turned a blind eye to Belichick’s laundry list of on-field shadiness for 20 years).

Fans, at the very least, should hope Brady’s mind stays sharp enough on the field for his final chapter. This will allow him the opportunity to go out like longtime AFC counterpart Peyton Manning, a competent leader propelled by an embarrassment of offensive riches and aided by a top ten defense capable of protecting leads. Brady departed from New England seeking a new challenge, and in a division where Drew Brees reigns supreme, that challenge is all but certain.

This team cannot afford be a one-man-show if they want to make a run at the NFC South crown, especially if that man is 41 years old. When assessing the Buccaneers roster on paper, the offseason excitement surrounding them draws parallels to last year’s Cleveland Browns – a laughable franchise that has, against all logic, managed to acquire the most marquee talents available in one offseason. While central Florida rejoices at the arrival of their new savior and his flamboyant tight end in Rob Gronkowski. Gronk will be 31 when the regular season begins and there should be a justifiable skepticism on what his impact will be. The five-time Pro Bowler should be slightly more productive than say, Jason Witten with the Raiders, but both are old tight ends whose dominant years are behind them.

As Brady “gets the band” back together,” the Bucs will be under more pressure than ever entering into the new season. As mentioned earlier, the Tampa faithful have been starved of a winning quarterback for quite some time. Forget their 13-year playoff drought, this team has been stuck in the NFL’s basement throughout their 44-year history, the lone exception being their 2003 Super Bowl victory. Outside of that one brilliant season, the Bucs have endured perpetual misery on the levels of the Detroit Lions, New York Jets, and even possibly the Cleveland Browns. This is a franchise whose first two years as a bright-eyed & bushy-tailed expansion team compiled an 0–26 record – although some would say it was an apt punishment from the football Gods after the organization trotted out these creamsicle-draped amateurs and advertising them as a ligament NFL team.

Speaking of punishing fates, there’s even skepticism of the Bucs becoming this year’s Cleveland Browns, a team which on paper looked bound for a playoff spot but failed to even break .500. This argument has validity, but I can’t picture them underachieving to that degree. Bruce Arians is a better coach than Freddie Kitchens; Rob Gronkowski is a better tight end than David Njoku (who broke his wrist in week 2 last season); and perhaps the most polarizing opinion in this blog’s short life, Tom Brady is a better quarterback (yes, even at 41 years old) than Baker Mayfield, whose first year as the team’s full-time starter epitomized the word “underwhelming.”

What a bold statement it would be if Brady ended the 2021 season with the closing remark of, “Well, at least we weren’t as disappointing as the Browns.” Tampa will host Super Bowl 55 next February and there’s no doubt about it that Tom Brady wants to hoist his seventh Lombardi trophy amid the fans who call Raymond James Stadium home. At this point, I won’t rule anything out given the man’s history. Brady’s physical talent as a 41 year-old isn’t as awe-inspiring as when he was a 31 year-old in the midst of 16-0 seasons and rewriting record books, but he is still a serviceable QB who can thrive in Bruce Arians’ offense.

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Era-Defining Talents Selected To Hoops Hall

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This coming August will be quite exciting at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as some of the sport’s all-time greats are immortalized in the Class of 2020. The most globally recognized players to be honored will feature Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant – three athletes that embody the motto “Love of the Game,” as each played in the league for nearly two decades. Other notable inductee include NCAA “Coach of the Year” Eddie Sutton, two-time NBA Champion Rudy Tomjanovich, and WNBA superstar Tamika Catchings. This year’s class will also honor those who have helped grow the game internationally by enshrining FIBA President Patrick Baumann.

Of this year’s class, Kevin Garnett is perhaps the most animated personality of his fellow inductees, as his ferocious and often crass trash talk efficiently distracted any player who opted to square up with him. The power forward’s 21-year streak of dominance saw him rack up the 4th most minutes in NBA history and would go on to join Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson as the only players to hoist an MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year Award throughout the span of their careers. Beyond his physical talents, KG also nurtured a “forthright” vocabulary that was unapologetically crass – often used to toy with opposing players who he knew would be the first to blink if words were exchanged. While many feel that trash talk is a sign of a disgusting inferiority complex, his seemed to be justified given the play in which he backed it up.

On the opposite side of the conversationalist spectrum, the other generational big man being honored in Springfield is the tame, mild-mannered Tim Duncan. Since his NBA debut in 1997, Duncan spearheaded a San Antonio Spurs franchise that never failed to lose less than 50 games in any 82-game season he spent in Alamo City. The former #1 overall pick set the foundation of “team-oriented” basketball for the entirety of his 19-year career as a Spur, which saw him win 1,158 games between regular season and playoff competition. Above everything, it was Duncan’s even-keeled, no-nonsense demeanor that made him one of the most coachable and universally respected players in NBA history.

Duncan’s impact as a teammate cannot be overstated either, as his on-court chemistry with Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili sparkplugged the winningest trio of all-time with 575 regular season and 126 playoff wins. Their selfless, fundamentally-sound identity was dictated through the persona of a quiet and humble power forward in Duncan, whose concentration was always locked on winning. His mission could not have been better exemplified after what would end up being his last NBA Finals appearance in 2014, where he led his seemingly over-the-hill team of veterans to a rematch against a Miami Heat team with prime Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh. While the Heat proved they could jump higher, run faster, and sustain stamina longer, they also showed they weren’t smarter. San Antonio defeated the touted group of All-Stars and two-time defending champions by a record margin and an average of 14.5-points by closing out the series in five merciless games. What may be the most polarizing statistic of this particular championship round is how Miami’s offensive juggernaut known as “The Big Three” failed to score 100 points in any game throughout the series – a true testament of Duncan’s well-oiled defensive machine.

The final player to be enshrined, and to no one’s surprise, is Kobe Bryant, who will be the first posthumous inductee since general manager Jerry Krause in 2017. Kobe’s illustrious career went through quite an evolutionary process – beginning as an unknown 13th overall pick who barely played, to one- half of the eventual dynamic duo with Shaquille O’Neal, to a player that would later craft his skills into the generational player of the 2000’s. Unlike the previous two players mentioned, I am not interested in retelling the staples of Kobe’s on-court legacy, but would rather reflect on what he was so excited about achieving in the present day. Whether it was on the court, at the investor’s table, or in the writing room, there was always work to be done, and it seemed like there was so much more he was ready to amaze us with.

So many athletes experience some form of stopgap during the initial phases of their retirement, where they struggle to find fulfillment outside of the game they have left behind. Some questions that arise include, “Do I pursue broadcasting, coaching, show business, or perhaps the arts? And if so, what if I’m not good at these endeavors?” This window of uncertainty players face was not a challenge to Kobe. Whether it was directing an Academy Award-winning short film, fostering an audience for his web series ‘Detail’, or crafting and publishing the young adults books The Wizenard Series: Training Camp, his curiosity truly knew no limits. The series is now #1 on The New York Times Bestseller List, and the next edition will be released posthumously later this year.

Kobe had a true hunger to reach even greater heights in the second act of his life, more than he ever did as a player, and that is what will forever resonate with me. A truly gifted artist is hardly satisfied only using one muse, and it seems like Kobe was eager to give his fans new examples of brilliance that many of them never knew was in his skill set to begin with.

The induction ceremony for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2020 will be held on Saturday, August 29 in Springfield, Massachusetts. For more information on viewing options, visit http://www.hoophall.com/events/enshrinement/

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Suspended NBA Season Only Makes Playoff Withdrawal More Difficult To Endure

With the 2019-2020 NBA season suspended for an indefinite period, the status as to what neutral arena the NBA playoffs and finals will be held once play resumes continues to burn a hole in the minds of fans. One rumor surfacing is that once player safety is guaranteed, the league would forgo the the remainder of the regular season and begin the playoffs as teams are currently seeded. There has also been chatter swirling around pertaining to host cities for the playoffs, with growing speculation leaning towards neural stadiums such as Atlantic City, Hawaii, Louisville, Orlando, Las Vegas or even the Bahamas, with almost each of these proposed areas mirroring the climate and/or lifestyle of Los Angeles. Could this be a prelude of a perspective team accustomed to this weather *cough-cough, Lakers?* Possibly.

Speaking of Vegas, the oddsmakers predict that the current top-seeded teams of each conference will face off with each other in a “King James” vs. “Greek Freak” duel, but don’t bet on purple and gold being the threads dawned by the L.A. crowd come Finals season just yet. Make no bones about it, the Lakers are going to do everything in their power to hoist the Larry O’Brian trophy in an ending as theatrical to the most emotionally-jarring season they have ever been exposed to. Be that as it may, it’s their in-stadium rivals who pose the biggest threat to that ultimate goal, as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will continue to spearhead a roster that goes twelve men deep. The Clippers’ interior defense will need to maintain its brick wall reputation if they want to break through to the franchise’s first conference finals appearance (and beyond).

Assuming all members of the Clippers roster will be in peak condition when the season resumes, one can argue their depth and star power will be enough to win them their first two series against presumably the Denver Nuggets or Utah Jazz. Either of these two opponents will by no means be a fly on L.A.’s windshield, as both present formidable defensive philosophies that rank 8th and 9th in points allowed. From an offensive perspective, Denver’s style of play may very well pose a legitimate test to L.A.’s no-nonsense gaggle of defenders, as they have shown throughout the season how they can beat you with the pass for 48 minutes, ranking 4th in the league in assists with 26.5 per game. However, should these teams meet in a second round series, the question will be whether Mike Malone’s unselfish, ball movement-oriented style can frustrate the league’s two best perimeter defenders enough to pull off an upset. This potential outcome is an intriguing thought, but based on the eye test, Lakers vs. Clippers seems like the most likely scenario for the Western Conference Finals.

In the eastern conference, it is a safe bet that if reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is healthy (and his supporting cast are at the very top of their game), the Bucks will in all likelihood go to their first NBA Finals since 1974. However, this team’s ultimate Achilles’ heal may end up being whether Mike Budenholzer can make the proper coaching adjustments to secure victories late in games. Budenholzer has now spearheaded two 60-win campaigns as the head coach of two different teams that both went on to lose in the Eastern Conference Finals (2015 Hawks & 2019 Bucks) and was on track to punctuate his third at the conclusion of this season. “Bud” as he’s referred to in the Cream City, previously served as a protégé to coaching legend Greg Popovich for 18 years while collecting four championship rings in that span. As a head coach, however, the 50-year old has been unable to reciprocate his playoff magic, failing to out-coach counterparts such as David Blatt, Tyrone Lue, and Nick Nurse on the biggest stages. Now granted, these particular instances did call for the herculean task of stopping “Playoff Lebron” and “Playoff Kahwi,” which is no small cookie for even the most elite coach. With those barriers taken into consideration, it is also foolhardy to make too many excuses for a coach who now has the luxury of trotting out a 25-year old phenom on pace to shatter player efficiency records for years to come in Antetokounmpo. Budenholzer will need to exercise his playoff demons as soon as possible to avoid being forever labeled as a fabulous “regular season coach.” The only team Milwaukee should consider a genuine stopgap in their quest towards an NBA Finals birth is the Toronto Raptors, who bested them in six games in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals and rattled off four consecutive wins after the Bucks claimed victories in the first two games on their home court. To avoid a repeat scenario, the two-time Coach of the Year recipient must make the necessary adjustments to avoid surrendering 15-point leads in elimination games this time around, a fate which doomed their championship hopes in the deciding game 6 amidst a euphoric Jurassic Park in Toronto, Canada.

Finals Matchup Prediction: Bucks vs. Lakers

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Pace’s Vision Is 20/20, but On-Field Product Might Be Nearsighted

Remember when misbehaving as a child led to your parents giving you the textbook line, “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed,” and somehow that was worse? This might be the best metaphor to describe the 2019-2020 Chicago Bears season.

Fox Sports had the Bears’ over/under for wins at 8.5 going into the 2019 season, and as it turned out, their experts were right on the money. The Bears regressed to a mediocre 8-8 record- – possibly being the best team on paper to miss the playoffs in recent memory. The often sung verse of their fight song, “Make every play lead the way to victory,” morphed into, “Make every play lead the way to an incompletion, sack, and ultimately a 5-yard checkdown pass on 3rd down leading to a punt.”

To keep this from becoming commonplace, Bears General Manager Ryan Pace traded for QB Nick Foles on March 18 in an effort to make him a “relief pitcher” for Trubisky. Foles, the most accurate portrayal of the word “serviceable,” started a grand total of one game as a Kansas City Chief in 2017 before departing to Philadelphia in free agency. After a forgettable stint in Jacksonville, his $45 million in guaranteed money are latched onto the Bears’ organization for the foreseeable future. While his presence can potentially ignite the spark needed to recreate Trubisky’s Pro Bowl warranting  season in 2018, it’s difficult to determine whether Foles will be on the sidelines as a mentor to Trubisky (and possible understudy) or chomping at the bit looking to recreate his 2017 substitute teacher role should Trubisky flounder right from the jump.

It seems as though Pace has whiffed on providing “his guy” with the veteran leadership necessary to develop a young quarterback. Let’s just hope Trubisky can foster a solid student/teacher bond with Foles, as the former Super Bowl MVP looks to resurrect his skill set of being a more-than-serviceable starter, capable of building a lead that the NFL’s top-ranked defense could protect throughout the course of a 12-win season.

Remember, the 2017 Chiefs season was a 12-4 campaign which saw the now reigning Super Bowl MVP, Pat Mahomes, learn under a 2nd tier quarterback in Alex Smith with a mentorship plan that seemed to work flawlessly. By no means should there be reason to believe Trubisky will ever be molded into the talent of Mahomes, but I do think mimicking the strategy is a fair idea on Pace’s part.

Mitch’s now elusive 20+ TD season in 2018 came within a first year system. It may seem like a cliche reference, but Mitch’s talent can be equated to a jigsaw puzzle – there’s a picture in there for sure, one you may even want to brag about to your friends once completing it. But the process of molding the finished product may become more mentally taxing than expected and you’ll ultimately want to admire an already completed puzzle instead. Even if that completed puzzle (Foles) is a bit older and more expensive, it may really tie the room together, as opposed to the unfinished puzzle you’re angrily trying to force pieces into with Trubisky.

The other factor in this edition of “Extreme Makeover: QB Edition” will be Matt Nagy’s willingness to accept the glaring limitations Trubisky is shackled with. You must run the football regardless of whether you think it will somehow stunt the development of your young quarterback. The notion of allowing Trubisky to make mistakes so he can learn while under center is somewhat valid. There is no excuse for actively choosing not to use a gem in David Montgomery that was gifted in the third round of the 2019 draft. While it is critical for a head coach to have faith in his quarterback and give him the freedom to orchestrate a drive, Nagy has to use his 2nd year running back in more integral role with the offense and let the miniature dynamo blossom in his own right. Should all go according to plan, this team could resemble a formidable playoff team.

And finally, the most critical component of having any success in 2020 will be based on how the Bears defense performs – one in which former defensive gurus Buddy Ryan, Lovie Smith, and John Fox would have salivated over had they been presented with the opportunity to coach this group. This defense can’t be wasted, especially having suffered through the laughable core Marc Trestman and Phil Emery put together from 2013-2015. Nick Foles arrives with a career record of 17-3 when his defense gives up less than 17 points – a stat which shows he’s more than capable of steering the ship on offense while the defense protects the lead. Khalil Mack, and new addition Robert Quinn, will likely form the best edge rushing combo in the NFL. Baring anything catastrophic, Mack is going to have minimum of 4-6 above-average years of production left and will justify his contract. I think there’s a chance this team leads the league in sacks next season with him on one side of the field and Quinn on the other.

2020 Prediction: 10-6 record with a defense ranked top 5 in points allowed and combined sacks.

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