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Cowboy's and Texan's Season Previews

COWBOYS TRYING TO GET BACK TO GLORY

After two straight 8-8 seasons patience is running thin among fans with Coach Jason Garrett. Given the team’s mediocrity over the last two campaigns that is an understandable sentiment. But I think there are reasons for optimism that Garrett and his team will have the kind of breakthrough in 2013 that fans have been waiting for.

Let’s start by remembering what the Cowboys have been the last couple of years under Garrett and what they have not been. They have been average. In fact 8-8 is, in NFL terms, the very definition of the word. They have not been terrible. They have gone to the last week of the regular season in each of the last two years with a chance to win their division. Terrible teams aren’t usually in that position.

So to be a playoff team they only need to win one or perhaps two more games than they have over the last two seasons. Can the Cowboys accomplish that goal? Absolutely.

The main reason I am optimistic is that two big factors that involve at least some level of luck went hard against the Cowboys last year. It’s unlikely the team will have such bad breaks when it comes to turnovers and injuries.

The Cowboys had six major contributors on defense miss at least five games last year, and that doesn’t include DeMarcus Ware, who played the last half of the year with a badly injured arm. Injuries are part of the NFL, but what happened to Dallas last year from a health perspective is unlikely to happen again.

The key injuries on defense probably played into the other big issue last year…turnovers. The Cowboys were -13 in turnover differential. That was tied for 27th in the league. Turnovers are no question about skill on both offense and defense, but they are also in part about luck. Typically when teams perform as poorly in turnover margin as the Cowboys did last year, they are much better in that department the following year. The team came up with only 7 interceptions in 2012. If most of their key players on defense stay relatively healthy I expect the Cowboys to produce many more turnovers in 2013 than they did a season ago.

If the team has a little better luck with injuries, and gets a few more turnovers in their new defensive scheme under Monte Kiffin, that should easily add another win or two to their total.

The Cowboys are not a deep team, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines, but look at their starters on both sides of the ball. The team is loaded with players who range from well above average to potential Pro Bowler: Dez Bryant, Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Tyron Smith, Ware, Anthony Spencer, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Morris Claiborne, and if he can find a way to stay healthy, DeMarco Murray.

Even the team’s biggest area of weakness, the offensive line, should be better in 2013. First round draft pick Travis Frederick appears to be a solid upgrade at center over the various options the team tried at that position last year. Veteran guard Brian Waters, whom the team signed this week, may be 36, but was a Pro Bowl player when he last played in 2011 for the Patriots. He should be a solid upgrade at one of the guard spots. Add those two to Smith and you have three of the five positions that fans should feel pretty comfortable with, and if Ronald Leary is as good as many in the organization think he is that would make four solid guys on the line. You still have Doug Free at right tackle, which I admit is a big concern. But he can’t be any worse than he was last year, and I think there’s at least a decent chance that he is better.

One other thing to consider is the division Dallas plays in. I won’t do a thorough breakdown of the other three NFC East teams here, but I don’t see a juggernaut amongst the Redskins, Eagles, and Giants. The division is there for the taking.

Like every other team in the league the Cowboys have their issues. This doesn’t appear to be an elite 12 or 13 win team, but can they be slightly better than they have been the last two years and win 10 games in 2013? I think it’s more likely than not that they are and they do. With a little bit better play from the O-line, and a little bit better luck on the injury front, I think Dallas goes 10-6 and wins the NFC East.

 
TEXANS IN THE MIX FOR TITLE

Texas’ other pro football team enters the season with bigger expectations than just getting back to the playoffs. The Texans have been there two straight years. They want to break through and win a championship.

This Houston team appears to have a very real chance to do just that. The Texans are loaded with both top tier talent and plenty of depth on their roster. They have three returning Pro Bowlers on their offensive line, elite skill position talent in Arian Foster and Andre Johnson, an underrated quarterback in Matt Schaub, and a defense that has the talent to be among the NFL’s best. And this year the Texans may also have something that has eluded them in recent years: a legitimate receiving threat to compliment Johnson.

Rookie first rounder DeAndre Hopkins has impressed everyone this preseason, and appears to have the skills to give Houston another option in the passing game that defenses have to respect. Add in promising second year receivers DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin, and the Texans could have their most explosive offense ever.

The defense looked elite through the first nine games of last season, giving up only 20 or more points twice during that span. The bulls on parade faded badly though in the latter half of the regular season and playoffs, allowing more than 20 points in six of nine games, and more than 30 four times.

Some of that falloff can no doubt be traced to the loss of stud middle linebacker Brian Cushing. He’s now fully recovered from an ACL injury that cost him most of the year. The Cushing injury was big, but it doesn’t explain the secondary repeatedly getting torched and the lack of a pass rush from anyone besides J. J. Watt. Those issues will need to be addressed if the Texans want to be among the league’s elite.

It’s hard to find many weaknesses on this team. The right side of the offensive line is a question, but that is a bit of nitpicking on a unit with three men who made the Pro Bowl last season. With Hopkins and the young receivers, Schaub has more weapons than he ever has. There should be no more excuses for him or the offense. A healthy Cushing should lead a talented defense back near the top of the league. Houston may be the best team in the AFC this year. The schedule appears challenging, but I think Houston will go 11-5, win the division, and lose to Denver in the AFC Title game.





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Spurs Have Some Options in Free Agency

After a season that ended just seconds short of an NBA title, the Spurs find themselves in a unique position for a team coming off such a successful year. They have money to spend.

San Antonio enters free agency with ten players under contract for next year with total salaries valued at about 41 million. The salary cap is a little more than 58 million (and the Spurs can actually go over that number to sign a player or two if they choose). That leaves at least 17 million for the Spurs to play with. So how should they spend that money?

It seems like every fan of the silver and black has a different answer to that question, but that answer should start with resolving Manu Ginobili’s contract situation. That’s because of a somewhat complicated concept called a “cap hold.” Basically most of the Spurs free agency cash is currently tied up on a hold for Ginobili. That number will go down to match whatever deal Manu ultimately signs, but it won’t happen until he actually signs the deal. For that reason this thing needs to be done fairly quickly, and my bet is it will be. I doubt either side plays hard ball, and Ginobili agrees to a reasonable deal that he signs as soon as contracts can become official on July 10.

So what is a reasonable deal for Manu? At 36 he has clearly lost some of the explosiveness that used to help define him as a player. But that doesn’t mean he lacks value. His overall poor play for most of the finals should not totally erase his very solid play during the regular season. I think he can continue to give you solid minutes for another season or two as a backup guard. As long as he’s not making more than 4-5 million per year that seems like a pretty good value.

Once they settle things with Ginobili the rest of the Spurs offseason will probably be defined by what happens with Tiago Splitter. After becoming a reliable starting big man in the regular season, Splitter, like Ginobili, had a very forgettable finals. As with Manu that small sample size against the best team in the league should not override all the good he did during the regular season. Splitter is an unrestricted free agent so the Spurs have less control of the process than they do with Ginobili. With Splitter the Spurs will be in the position of responding to an offer another team makes to Splitter. They will either have to match it or let him walk.

I think the most likely scenario is they match the offer and keep Splitter, provided the contract isn’t crazy. What constitutes crazy? Well it depends on who you ask, but anything less than around nine million a year and I think the Spurs should match. If it starts to get above that I lean toward letting Splitter walk. I think at that point you can find a guy who gives you 80% of what Splitter can for a lot less money.

Gary Neal is in a similar position to Splitter as a restricted free agent. The difference is while Splitter is certain to get an offer from someone; it’s not as much of a lock for Neal. If he isn’t signed to an offer sheet the Spurs get him back for his tender of a little more than a million dollars. If he is offered a deal somewhere else I’d be willing to match it as long as the value doesn’t get above the 2-2.5 million a year range. Neal is a very effective scorer off the bench. A guy who can shoot three’s as consistently well as he has over the last three years has some value.

As for the Spurs other two free agents, Dejuan Blair and Tracy McGrady, I think there’s very little chance that either returns.

If San Antonio re-signs Manu and matches offers for Splitter and Neal it will likely eat up all or most of their available 17 million in cap space, but they still have the mid-level exception to use to sign players. That is valued at around five million and can be used for more than one player. Under the “bring everyone back” scenario I would love to see them use the mid-level to sign a backup point or shooting guard. Someone who would give the team another perimeter option late in games, maybe a Jarrett Jack or J.J. Redick.

That to me is the most likely way free agency plays out for the Spurs. The one thing that I think could change all that is if the price for Splitter gets too high. In that case I think the smart move is to let him walk, sign a backup big man with some of that money, and use the rest to bring in a backup guard.  Or take all of the money you can scrape together and go after a bigger name guy like Andrei Kirilenko.

Remember this team was a bounce or two away from an NBA Championship. Bringing your top ten players back, and adding a veteran guard for depth, seems like a pretty good offseason for a team that came up just short of a title.
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Why the Spurs Will Beat Memphis, and Why They May Not

The Spurs head to Memphis for games three and four of the Western Conference Finals in a pretty commanding position.

Up 2-0, San Antonio would have to lose four out of the next five to let this series slip away. That doesn’t guarantee victory (everyone remembers OKC being down 2-0 to the Silver and Black in last year’s WCFs), but you couldn’t have asked for a better start to the series.

So, unlike 2012 will the Spurs be able to close this one out?... Who knows? My track record of playoff predictions has been pretty spotty, but let’s look at some reasons why they will take care of business and a few why they may not.

Spurs will win this series because:

-Tony Parker has been the best player on the floor through two games. He followed up a 20 point, nine assist effort in game one with 15 and 18 in game two, and has in general controlled the game on the offensive end. The Grizzlies did a much better job containing his scoring in game two (he shot just 6-20), but he managed to still carve them up for a career high in assists. If he continues to dominate this series, the Spurs will be heading to the NBA Finals.

-Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have stepped up. Unlike last year when most of the Spurs supporting cast became non factors by the end of the OKC series, the complimentary pieces are clicking this postseason. Leonard scored 18 in game one on 7-10 shooting, and had a very solid 12 and 9 in game two. In the playoffs Kawhi is shooting a ridiculous 57% from the field. Green has been almost as good, scoring in double figures in both games so far against Memphis, and hitting 6 of 10 from three. This postseason Green is nailing 45% of his shots from downtown, which is actually a hair better than his 43% regular season mark. Also both Green and Leonard have been exceptional on the defensive end throughout the postseason. I don’t think the Spurs could have gotten by Golden State without excellent play from Green and Leonard.

-The Grizzlies can’t shoot. We know Memphis struggles to score, and the Spurs excellent defense so far has compounded this problem. San Antonio held the Grizz to just 34% shooting in game two. Zach Randolph has made just 7 of 26 field goal attempts through two games, while Memphis starters Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen don’t look like they have a clue offensively right now. Those two have been so bad that the Spurs barely even bother to guard them, instead using their defender to help muck things up in the lane and double the post.

But….this series isn’t over yet because:

-The Grizzlies offense may have finally found something in the second half of game two. Memphis had just 83 points in game one, and put up only 31 in the first half of the second game. They finally broke out in the third quarter on Tuesday, scoring 33 points and shooting 65% in that period. They did it in large part with a backcourt that featured Mike Conley, Jerryd Bayless, and Quincy Pondexter. In the second half those three played heavy minutes together for the first time this series. All three are at least a threat offensively (unlike Prince and Allen), and force the Spurs defense to guard them. I expect we will see more of those three together on the floor for the rest of the series. That may be Memphis’s best chance to put up some points.

-Memphis pounded the offensive glass in game two. This is one of the big advantages the Grizzlies seemed to have heading into the series. They didn’t really exploit it in game one, with a somewhat modest ten offensive boards. In game two however they pulled down 19, and outrebounded the Spurs 60-46 overall. The problem the Grizz had was converting these second (and sometimes third and fourth) opportunity’s into points. Memphis had just 8 second chance points on the 19 offensive boards. If they can control the glass like they did in game two, and get a few more to fall, this series could start to look a lot different.

So there you go, some reasons the Spurs are in great shape, and a few reasons why they still could lose this thing. Bottom line…I’d much rather be in San Antonio’s position than Memphis’, but it ain’t over yet.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Spur's Road to the Finals Looking Clearer

Last week I wrote that these playoffs could not have gotten off to a better start for the Spurs, and that was before they finished off a sweep of the Lakers and prior to learning that Oklahoma City’s All-Star guard Russell Westbrook would miss the rest of the postseason with a knee injury.

It’s hard to fairly evaluate the Spurs in that first round series against L.A., because of the Lakers unbelievably bad injury luck. Already playing without Kobe Bryant, and with a clearly limited Steve Nash at the start of the series, the Lakers ended the sweep without their top FIVE perimeter players.

Even considering they were up against a limited Laker team, I thought the Spurs were able to answer most of the questions that had mounted as the team went just 10-10 over its last 20 games of the regular season.

The Spurs title chances rest on the health and effectiveness of Tony Parker. He struggled through the first game and a half of the Laker series, but came on strong after that. His 24 point second half effort in game two was especially impressive. With TP it wasn’t so much about the numbers he put up against the Lakers, but about how he looked and the way he moved. He showed some of that explosiveness we saw most of the regular season. It was the closest he’s looked to the old Parker since before he originally hurt his ankle on March 1st.

The second big take away from round one was Manu Ginobili’s performance. He is still the best playmaker on the team outside of Parker, and absolutely vital to the second unit being effective in the playoffs. Not only did Manu look healthy against the Lakers, but he dominated at points, especially in the first two games. With Ginobili’s shaky health you can never be certain how long he’ll be healthy, but so far, so good in these playoffs.

San Antonio’s defense, which had been shaky down the stretch of the regular season, also came up big against L.A. Even if you only count the first two games of the series, before the Lakers injury situation went from bad to Darius Morris time, the Spurs defense was stout. Was that a return of the defensive effort we saw for much of the regular season, or just a reflection of how limited the Lakers offense was? We will probably find the answer to that question in the next round.

And speaking of the next round that now looks easier to me now than it did a week ago. For the final two months of the regular season you could have made an argument that no team in the west was playing better than the Nuggets. It looked to me like Denver would pose a real threat to the Spurs if they met in the postseason. Now, the Nuggets trail sixth seeded Golden State three games to two, and will be lucky to even make it to San Antonio. Whichever team survives that track meet of a series will be a heavy underdog to the well-rested Spurs.

If San Antonio can take care of business in the next series it could face an Oklahoma City team with no Russell Westbrook, or a Clippers team with a hobbled Blake Griffin, but more likely is a date with a hardnosed Grizzlies team with a limited offense, but a smothering D.

That will be no easy series, and there’s no guarantee the Spurs even get that far, but the road to an NBA Finals showdown with LeBron James and Miami looks a lot smoother than it did when the playoffs began.
 
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Spurs Playoff Run Off to Great Start

The first week of the NBA Playoffs could not have gone any better for the San Antonio Spurs.

The Silver and Black struggled down the stretch of the regular season, going just 10-10 in their last 20 games, but were able to flip the switch under the bright lights of the postseason. In taking a 2-0 series lead over the Lakers, the team has put together two very solid performances back to back (particularly on defense) for the first time in weeks. With the Lakers suffering more injuries to their guards seemingly by the hour, this series has sweep written all over it.

The Spurs defense has held L.A to 79 and 91 points in the first two games and looks to have regained some of the form that propelled them to third in defensive efficiency during the regular season. That strong D dissipated over the final weeks of the regular season, but appears to be back so far in the playoffs. The three point defense was especially bad down the stretch, but San Antonio has held the Lakers (who admittedly aren’t the best distance shooting team in the league) to 30% from beyond the line.

The return of the defense is a welcome sign, but the most important development so far in this series for the Spurs championship hopes has been the resurgence of Tony Parker. The Frenchman had a so-so night in game one, with 18 points and eight assists on 8-21 shooting. Parker started game two just 1-6 for four points in the first half, but exploded in the second with 24, to help put L.A. away. Parker was aggressive, and explosive at points in that second half. It was the most he looked like his old self since that March 1 ankle injury.

The excellent play of Manu Ginobili is yet another reason for optimism. After returning from his hamstring injury to make a cameo in the regular season finale last week, Manu has been terrific in both games against the Lakers. He was the difference maker in game one, with his eight points at the end of the third quarter putting the Spurs in control. He has scored 31 total points in the two games in just 38 minutes. Manu has done that shooting 50% from the floor and 67% from three. He’s also dished out ten assists and grabbed seven rebounds. You really can’t expect him to play any better. At this point, Spurs fans can just cross their fingers and hope his hamstring holds up through the postseason.

Experience has taught us that things can change very quickly in the postseason, but through two games the Spurs could not have scripted a better start to the 2013 playoffs. Now they just need to finish off the hobbled Lakers in L.A. this weekend and give Parker, Ginobili, and company extra rest to prepare for the stiffer challenges that await.
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