by Trevor Whenham - 04/29/2006
This week we look at three teams that are turning heads for their impressive performance on the field, court and field, and three more that are sinking into a pit of despair.
Detroit Tigers - The Tigers haven't been legitimate since Sparky Anderson was in charge and Reagan was president. It's way too early to get excited yet, but new manager Jim Leyland has this team playing well. Chris Shelton is channeling Babe Ruth with his freakish early display of power. The pitching staff has been very solid. Mike Maroth, who gained attention for losing 21 in 2003, is almost unhittable so far. Youngster Justin Verlander out-dueled fellow phenom Felix Hernandez of Seattle in his last start, dishing several 100+ mph fastballs. Even bad boy Kenny Rogers is behaving and playing well. The team is in second in the AL Central, ahead of the much-hyped Indians. They're still hit and miss against the elite teams, but the difference is that the Tigers are beating the bad teams in the schedule. That means, for the first time in a long time, we can actually trust the Tigers with a bet or two.
Los Angeles Lakers - Their first round series is far from over and presumptive two-time MVP Steve Nash (as a Canadian I just had to mention that and gloat a bit) will get his Suns under control, but the Lakers showed something in the second and third games of the series that we haven't seen much - they played as a team. They twice beat a pretty good team and Kobe didn't have to do it all himself. Lamar Odom was a madman, the team played solid defense which turned Phoenix shooters ice cold, and even Luke Walton and Kwame Brown looked surprisingly, and uncharacteristically, good. The series is still a toss-up, but the Lakers have given us a reason to believe in them. I, for one, didn't think they had it in them.
New Jersey Devils - It's impossible to give the Devils too much credit right now. No team in sports is hotter. They ended the regular season with 11 straight wins. In the playoffs, they haven't just beat the Rangers three times, they have torn them up and eaten the pieces. The combined score is 13-2. Patrik Elias scored 6 points in the first game. Martin Brodeur, for my money the best goalie in NHL history, is playing like only he can. There is, literally, no downside to this team right now. Some team may figure them out at some point, but until then it makes sense to ride this team and ride them hard.
Dallas Stars - The Western Conference is wide open, but many people tabbed Dallas to win it all before the playoffs started. Instead, the team's playing like they don't know the games are on yet. Colorado stole two games in Dallas and then won the first game back in Denver to take a commanding, 3-0, series lead. The Stars had leads in all three games, but have been completely incapable of holding on. In game one they got out to a quick 2-0 lead, then seemingly stayed in the dressing room after the first intermission. The Avs won 5-2. They gave up the tying goal in game two with just two minutes left, then lost in overtime. In game three the tying goal came in the last minute. They finally won a game in game four with their back against the wall, but the 3-1 series lead should be for them, not for the Avs. Marty Turco, thought to be one of the best goalies in the league, has been so bad in three of the four games that loyal Dallas fans have been screaming for the backup. The Avs lost six of their last 10, but the Stars are making them look like world beaters. I looked at the Stars as the best bet going into the playoffs, but I wouldn't bet them to win against a girl's team right now.
USC - What in the world is going on with the Trojans? Pete Carroll and his boys deserve the benefit of the doubt, but they look like a team that is unraveling. John David Booty, at the top of the QB depth chart, missed spring practice and had back surgery instead. His promising backup, Mark Sanchez, was arrested Wednesday for sexual assault. The Reggie Bush real estate situation could cost them their wins last year. At the very least it will create negative media attention that they don't want or need. The Trojans have injuries everywhere, they have to rely on incoming freshmen for a running game because no one is left standing in the backfield, and the secondary is a complete mystery. They can still pull it together, but I sure wouldn't be buying any futures tickets on the team right now.
Denver Nuggets - For the first time in a long time and maybe forever, there is no shame in losing two games in a row to the Clippers. The Nuggets should be ashamed, though, for how they have lost them. They haven't even put up a fight. Carmelo Anthony has been sleepwalking, especially in the second game where he looked like he wanted to be anywhere but on the court. Andre Miller has been less consistent than usual, and that's really saying something. Kenyon Martin whined so much he got himself suspended by coach George Karl. The Nuggets had it set up nicely for them - two winnable series on the way to the Conference Final. Instead they look like they are itching to hit the golf course. They won their first game at home, but it was competent rather than dominant and the team didn't show the passion or desire that's makes them worth any attention at all unless something major changes quickly.