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April 28, 2008

Lakers Move On

The Lakers just completed an impressive sweep of the Denver Nuggets tonight, winning Game 4 107-101. While the Nuggets came apart at the seams, the Lakers played terrific team basketball, and used contributions from everyone to win. There's not a single player whose performance was disappointing. Kobe Bryant got his teammates involved. Pau Gasol had his playoff coming out party. Lamar Odom had some great plays. And even Luke Walton stepped up. The Lakers looked like a No. 1 seed from start to finish, and there was never a doubt that they'd lose a single game. Denver just didn't have enough up front, they didn't play enough defense, and they let playoff pressure get to them.

Now the Lakers will take on the winner of the Houston-Utah series, which Utah leads 3-1. I like either matchup for LA. Houston doesn't have the size up front with Yao Ming gone. And Utah will suffer without home-court advantage. I'm moderately concerned about Deron Williams at the point, but the Lakers might consider having Kobe Bryant guard him to neutralize that threat. Either way, I like the flow of the Lakers offense, and it seems to cause Utah problems in games earlier this season.

Sports Beat, 4-28-08

--The Dodgers got back on course over the weekend with a sweep of the defending NL Champion Colorado Rockies. A lot of people have asked me what's wrong with the Dodgers this year, and I tell them it's still really early. They ran into some tough early-season pitching matchups, and I think that led some of their young players to press a bit on offense. If they're still .500 a month from now, then I'd be concerned, but not on April 30.

I do see two specific areas of concern though. The first, and most obvious, being the play of Andruw Jones. While some predicted Jones would be a bust, no one could have predicted he'd be this bad. Jones is hitting .159 with just one home run, and has looked fat and out of shape. I defended the Jones signing in the offseason, in part because it was just a two-year contract, and also because Jones was a 31-year old Major League veteran who had only one bad year. But now that one year looks more like the beginning of the end a once promising career, rather than just an aberration. If Jones continues to play this far below replacement level, then the Dodgers should give serious thought to putting him on the DL for six weeks due to "inability to play baseball at a professional level" and force him to eat right and get into shape.

The second area of concern is at third base, but this isn't as big of a problem. It has now become abundantly clear that Nomar Garciaparra can't stay healthy for more than five minutes. Blake DeWitt isn't ready to be an everyday major leaguer, but he's filled in quite valiantly. Andy LaRoche is on a minor league rehab assignment and could be up soon. If LaRoche comes back soon, then this could be his golden opportunity to prove he's the third baseman of the future.

--The Dodgers unveiled renovation plans to Dodger Stadium which will be done in 2012. This announcement has been expected for months, as it became clear that the McCourts were committed to Dodger Stadium, but were going to take advantage of the land they own to generate more revenue. While it's impossible to pass judgment on this until 2012, in general, Dodger fans should be excited. The McCourts seem genuinely committed to improving the experience for Dodger fans, despite some widely-reported missteps early in their ownership. Chavez Ravine is a beautiful piece of land, and while I absolutely love Dodger Stadium, it would be nice if it was surrounded by something besides a parking lot. A new setup with restaurants and shops will give fans more things to do, and might keep people in the area longer, making entrance and exit times more staggered. It's also possible that the new amenities will attract people in the offseason, but I'm still not 100% sure exactly what will be there.

--UCLA basketball got some good news this week when Darren Collison announced that he'd stay in school for one more year. Collison had such a dismal game against Memphis in the Final Four, that he was beginning to drop on some boards from the lottery to the second round. While Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook haven't hired agents, it's almost a sure bet that they will be in the draft. With that in mind, Collison is in a great position to shine next year as the senior leader on a team that will include Jrue Holliday. Josh Shipp has also declared, but it sounds like he's just going through the process for fun, and it would be surprising if he wasn't a Bruin next year.

--Across town, USC's Davon Jefferson appears to be making a giant mistake by declaring for the NBA Draft and signing with an agent. Jefferson is projected as a second rounder, and it's hard to find any scouts who think he'll go in the first round where contracts are guaranteed. If he signs with an agent, then he can't return to school. If Jefferson is really intent on testing the NBA waters, he'd be best served by not signing with an agent, and learning where he might be taken. Some feel that Jefferson could be a high first-rounder in the 2009 NBA Draft if he get another year of experience in college.

--On to the NFL Draft where USC had a remarkable weekend. A school-record seven players were taken in the first and second rounds, and ten Trojans were taken total. This result speaks volumes about the level of talent that Pete Carroll has brought into the Trojan program, and also about the level of coaching that helped develop these players.

Looking at the new NFL Trojans, Sedrick Ellis has the talent to be a premier NFL defensive tackle. However, the track for DTs in the first round is awful, so it will be interesting to see if he lives up to his potential. Keith Rivers might be a good fit in Cincinnati where he figures to be a solid, consistent, and effective linebacker. Sam Baker will help solidify the Atlanta Falcons offensive line, but it remains to be seen if he's a tackle or a guard in the NFL. I think the Seahawks might have reached on Lawrence Jackson, but they were right on Lofa Tatupu, so maybe Jackson will fit their scheme. It was nice to see the unheralded Chilo Rachal move into the second round, and I think the 49ers will be pleased with that selection. Fred Davis might have been USC's best offensive player this past year, but it's interesting to see him drafted by the Redskins where he figures to backup Chris Cooley in the immediate future. I'm not quite sure why John David Booty desperately wanted to go to Minnesota and nowhere else, but the West Coast offense may suit his game and Tavaris Jackson has come under criticism there. I really like the Jaguars' selection of Chauncey Washington, who could be a nice change-of-pace power back in Jacksonville.

The senior-laden UCLA team saw only three players drafted, led by Bruce Davis who went to Pittsburgh. The Steelers have one of the shrewdest front offices in the NFL, so that should bode well for Davis. Matt Slater could be a good fit as a return specialist in New England.

--For the second straight year, UCLA is facing a disaster situation at quarterback. Just a week after winning the starting job, Patrick Cowan tore his ACL in spring practice, and it appears his college career is over. Talented, but injury-prone QB Ben Olson is hoping and praying to be back in time for preseason practice after breaking a bone his foot within minutes of Cowan's injury. Without their top two QBs, Kevin Craft led the first team offense in UCLA's spring scrimmage, and completed 11 of 24 passes. Craft is a transfer from Mt. San Antonio College, where he primarily worked out of the shotgun, so he's just learning how to play under a center.

--Anaheim Ducks fans are undoubtedly disappointed over their first round playoff loss to Dallas, but they got good news in that they were able to keep GM Brian Burke for one more season. It was rumored that Burke was being pursued by the Toronto Maple Leafs, so it was great news that the Ducks kept one of the game's top front office executives in SoCal for at least another year. Now the real question will be whether Burke signs an extension beyond 2009, or if he pursues a job closer to his children who live on the East Coast.
NOTE: An earlier version of this post contained errors about Burke's contract status and nationality. Burke is not Canadian, and was born in Rhode Island and raised in Minnesota. I apologize for the mistake.

--Before a sold out crowd at Home Depot Center, the LA Galaxy beat Chivas USA 5-2 in what has been the game of the year thus far in MLS. Landon Donovan scored three goals in the win, and David Beckham assisted on one of them. Beckham and Donovan have developed a nice chemistry as Donovan has 8 goals and 2 assists, while Beckham has 1 goal and 4 assists. Five games into the season, the Galaxy are 2-2-1, while Chivas USA is 1-3-1.

April 22, 2008

Exodus of sports scribes continues

Gordon Edes, the former L.A. Times Dodgers and Kings writer, is reported to be next on the list to be hired by Yahoo Sports in Santa Monica. Edes, currently at the Boston Globe, would become a national baseball writer. A website called The Big Lead lists the newspaper sports reporters who have left in the past year or so for magazines, Yahoo or ESPN. It's a deep roster, and includes LAT departures Tim Brown and J.A. Adande.

April 17, 2008

Sports Beat, 4-17-08

--The Lakers got the ideal draw heading into the Western Conference playoffs. While every team in the West won at least 50 games, and only 7 games separated the top-seeded Lakers from the 8th-seeded Nuggets, the Lakers match up well with Denver. The Lakers swept the season series without Pau Gasol, and the Nuggets are dealing with the distractions from Carmelo Anthony's recent DUI. The Nuggets play an exciting brand of basketball under George Karl, reminiscant of Paul Westhead's up-and-down shoot-first system, but that style is prone to mistakes and doesn't seem to be effective defensively.

If the Lakers get by Denver, then the winner of Houston and Utah awaits. Both teams had terrific seasons, but the Rockets have come back down to earth since their 22-game winning streak came to an end. Without Yao Ming, they just don't have a reliable inside force, and will struggle to guard Pau Gasol. Utah is as tough as any team in the NBA at home, but the Lakers would have the home-court advantage in that series, and they already have a win in Salt Lake City without Gasol.

I like how the Lakers matchup against the other potential Western Conference Finals foes, with the exception of San Antonio. The Spurs are the most disciplined and experienced team in the West, and if I were a betting man, then I would place money on them. Still, they have to get by Phoenix and possibly New Orleans or Dallas. At the end of the day though, the Lakers got the best draw of any team in the West, and that should take them to at least the conference finals.

--There has been much speculation about whether or not Kobe Bryant should be the MVP this season, and I strongly feel that he should. There's no question that Chris Paul of the Hornets has had a remarkable season, but Kobe's season has been absolutely incredible. The Lakers got better this year because Bryant finally learned how to make his teammates better, and he had to integrate Andrew Bynum and then Pau Gasol into the offense while still keeping his team at the top of the deepest and toughest conference in years. The MVP Award should go to the player who is most valuable to the league, not necessarily to an individual team, and it's hard to argue there is a better player out there right now than Bryant. If he doesn't win the award, then it may have more to do with the voters' personal bias then anything.

The Lakers should also be considered for two other post-season awards. I'm a bit surprised that no one is talking about Phil Jackson for Coach of the Year or Mitch Kupchak for Executive of the Year. No one in the mainstream media expected the Lakers to be better than they were last season, especially considering all of the drama surrounding Kobe Bryant. Jackson managed to keep his team together, effectively used his bench, weathered a storm of injuries, and managed to get Gasol to fit into his system quickly. Jackson may not be the loudest coach out there, but his accomplishments this season are no less remarkable than other top coaches like Byron Scott, Doc Rivers, Rick Adelman, or Stan Van Gundy.

Some feel that Danny Ainge of the Celtics made the move of the year in acquiring Kevin Garnett before the season. It's hard to argue that, but Kupchak's midseason trade for Gasol was no less important. He single-handedly shook up the Western Conference, leading the Suns and Mavericks to match him by trading for Shaq and Jason Kidd respectively. But the Lakers got better after their trade, whereas the Suns and Mavericks actually fell in the standings. Kupchak's other moves finally paid off this season as Andrew Bynum realized much of his potential before being injured, Jordan Farmar turned into an important role player, and the Laker bench saved the day in numerous games. But GMs also have to relate with the media and their own players, and with the exception of Isiah Thomas, no NBA GM faces tougher media scrutiny than Kupchak. He refused to trade Bryant for two cents on the dollar, he refused to let Bynum get away easily, and he didn't hand over Lamar Odom in a deal he didn't like. He kept the organization on track throughout all of the preseason Kobe drama, and finally got the key piece the Lakers needed. Kupchak should absolutely be in the conversation for NBA Executive of the Year.

--Life isn't so great in Clipperland, where STAPLES Center's other team completed a dismal season last night. In a tough Western Conference, the deck was already stacked against the Clippers, but the team was further derailed by injuries to Elton Brand and Shaun Livington and a public feud between Donald Sterling and Mike Dunleavy. At this point, the Clippers need to hope beyond hope that they can hang onto Brand and Corey Maggette who can both opt out of their contracts this year. I'd bet on Maggette to leave for another team and a lot more money. For whatever reason, he's never quite seen eye-to-eye with Dunleavy. As for Brand, it's well known that he likes it here in LA, and already made a foray into the movie business. Still, he may want to go to a winning team and will have no shortage of suitors. I'd put his odds of staying at 50-50, and how the Clippers fare in the NBA Draft Lottery may have an impact. Many blue and red fans will be hoping the ping pong balls bounce such that they get Derrick Rose or Michael Beasley, but even OJ Mayo could be a possibility.

--UCLA lost Kevin Love to the NBA today, which is no surprise. I've seen Love listed anywhere from the No. 5 pick to the No. 20 pick, so the pre-draft workouts will be critical for him. Some have questioned Love's abilities in light of his disappointing performance against Memphis in the Final Four. But Love played remarkably well in the NCAA Tournament before then, and Memphis simply did a phenomenal job of denying him the ball. Love could be better served by developing his game in college for another year or two, but he has a big and wide body, he has good fundamental skills, and in my mind he projects as an above-average NBA power forward.

Russell Westbrook also declared the NBA Draft, and some project him to be taken in the top-10. No one can question Westrbook's athleticism, and he seems like the kind of player who can help a team as a uber-role player. He can play defense, go after the loose ball, and make a big play when he needs to.

The remaining question is whether or not Darren Collison will stay. Collison hurt his draft stock with his putrid performance against Memphis. The Bruins needed him to step up in order to have any chance of beating what we now realized was a better Tigers team. I expect Collison to declare anyways, but don't be surprised if he doesn't hire an agent and chooses to go back to school if he thinks he won't crack the first round. Right now he's fallen from a lottery pick to roughly No. 20 on most draft boards.

So what does all of this mean for UCLA? Well, the Bruins have what some people believe to be the nation's best recruiting class next year, led by Jrue Holliday. If they lose Collison, and possibly Luc Richard Mbah A Moute in addition to Love and Westbrook, then the Bruins will have an awfully young and inexperienced team in 2008-09. Yet, there will still be plenty of talent on the floor, so it shouldn't take too long for Ben Howland's team to be back among the elite in college basketball.

--UCLA women's basketball got a boost today when it named Nikki Caldwell as its new head coach. Caldwell is a disciple of Pat Summit and has known nothing but success in the women's college game. She is highly regarded by many in the sport, and seems almost like a coup for the Bruins to hire.

--UCLA football surprised a few people this week when it was indicated that Patrick Cowan is No. 1 on the QB depth chart. Most fans would have expected Ben Olson to be their Opening Day QB, but evidently Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow have other ideas. It's a crowded QB field for UCLA, and even Chow has admitted that by giving five QBs an oppotunity to win the job they have actually prevented any one of them from getting enough reps in a new system. Still, Cowan has shown over the past two seasons that he can win games and make things happen offensively. While Olson is clearly talented, the offense just never seems to gel properly when he's under center. Regardless of who's QB at UCLA, Neuheisel isn't pleased that he may have to lose a spring practice because his players ditched the other day. It apparently left a bad impression on recruits.

--Finally, it became clear that USC football's No. 1 QB is officially Mark Sanchez. According to reports, none of the three QBs competing for the job -- Sanchez, Mitch Mustain, and Aaron Corp -- played particularly well in spring practice. That might partially be due to the tough Trojan defense they've had to scrimmage against each day. However, it was disappointing to some that Mustain wasn't able to play better this spring. Mustain went 8-0 as a freshman starting QB in the SEC for Arkansas, and he's known as a playmaker. However, Mustain's mobility and improvisational skills may not mean as much in a USC spread system that favors a drop-back passer like Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, and yes, Mark Sanchez. Additionally, Sanchez has been in the Pete Carroll/Steve Sarkisian system for one year longer than Mustain, and it clearly has benefitted him this spring. The coaching staff also seen Sanchez run the show for three games, and he played rather well in wins over Arizona and Notre Dame, and almost willed the Trojans past an Oregon team that looked like the best in the country before Dennis Dixon got injured.

Still, I don't think we've seen the last of Mustain. While his decision to transfer was perplexing, because of both the system and the presence of Sanchez, he's too talented to stay off the field for too long.

Are you ready for some football?

For the first time in years, LA football fans should be excited. Today, Ed Roski unveiled plans for a new NFL stadium in the City of Industry, which he says could be completed by 2011. The stadium designs, which can be seen at http://losangelesfootballstadium.com/, look terrific and it's exactly what this region needs to build in order to bring the NFL back. Building it into a hillside will cut down on costs and is reminiscent of Dodger Stadium. Placing all of the luxury suites on one side will improve sightlines. And it appears that the land will include a training facility.

Some skeptics have already spoken up, and questioned whether this could actually become a reality. But Roski's plan is different. As Sam Farmer notes in the LA Times, Roski "controls the land necessary to build the stadium, training facilities and related development; and he already has a certified environmental impact report for the site. Roski has a proven track record of success. He doesn't have to deal with any of the LA city political garbage that helped derail past stadium plans. And his plan is 100-percent privately funded (although I haven't seen specific finances, he has said taxpayers won't be involved at all). The story about an alleged political setback in Sacramento is unfounded, because the two items basically are unrelated.

It's understandable that people in LA have so-called "deal fatigue." But Angelenos have to understand that local politicians like Mark Ridley-Thomas and other members of the Coliseum Commission effectively hijacked most LA football proposals for years in an effort to rally support around an unfeasible and untenable Coliseum plan. People like Peter O'Malley, who wanted to build a stadium at Chavez Ravine, were unable to develop any meaningful plans. It was only after the Coliseum proposal finally died (it only took 13 years) that local developers like Roski could begin to explore other ideas. It's also been speculated that Frank McCourt is working on another Chavez Ravine plan, but we've yet to see that come to fruition.

Some have said that bringing football to LA isn't a high priority for the NFL right now, and that it won't happen any time soon. But it doesn't have to be a high priority to actually happen. I'm guessing that it wasn't a high priority for the NFL in 1995 to see Rams move to St. Louis or the Raiders move to Oakland, but it happened anyways. The NFL office in New York has a good-sized staff and they can simultaneously work on LA, a new labor deal, NFL Network, etc. NFL owners know that a team in LA will bring them more revenue through revenue sharing, and it will increase the profile of the league.

What needs to happen is for a team to express interest in moving to LA. There are several viable candidates. The San Diego Chargers can get out of Qualcomm Stadium as early as next year, and can pay less to the city of San Diego if they wait 2 years. The Chargers have discussed a new stadium in Chula Vista, but that hasn't materialized yet, and there have been reports that the city may request the team have "Chula Vista" in the name. Why be the Chula Vista Chargers, when you can play in LA?

On this web site in the past, we've discussed possible scenarios in which the Jaguars and Bills can play here. The Minnesota Vikings also have a tough stadium situation, and conspiracy theorists have already noted that the new stadium design has purple seats. There have been rumors about the Raiders possibly moving back to LA once Al Davis eventually loses control of the organization. And, while few people want to see the Saints leave New Orleans, they did seem on the verge of moving before Hurricane Katrina and are obviously in a difficult situation right now.

At the end of the day though, the Los Angeles area took a major step forward today in its effort to bring the NFL back. The Roski plan is far and away the best and most realistic plan that's been proposed since the city's loss to Houston in 1999. It's not on a toxic waste dump in Carson. It's not opposed by local residents like in Pasadena. And it costs hundreds of millions of dollars less than a Coliseum renovation that the NFL has effectively opposed for 13 years. With a legitimate stadium plan out there, it's up to an NFL owner to realize that he can be far more successful in Los Angeles than in his current market.