Giants notebook: Bochy's roster dillemmas


Giants notebook: Bochy's roster dillemmas

Feb. 20, 2011

SCOTTSDALE -- The warm reunions are over, everyone knows what everyone else did over the winter, and the skipper has delivered his big speech.Now that all of the Giants have settled into camp at Scottsdale Stadium, it's finally time to set aside the glorious memories of Game 5 in Arlington and focus on the drama about to unfold over the next five weeks in the desert.Simply put, there are more players deserving to be Giants than the Giants can carry, many of them are in some way tied to the fate of multiple other players, and nobody's quite sure who will play where and when.Mark DeRosa, the starting left fielder on Opening Day last year, has been told by manager Bruce Bochy that he'll see much of his time this spring on the infield, presumably in preparation for a super-utility role. Yet Bochy wouldn't rule out the idea of DeRosa being his left-field starter on Opening Day this year, too.Pat Burrell, who lined a single off Tim Lincecum on Saturday and repeated the feat against Jonathan Sanchez on Sunday, is a candidate to start in left, too. That's where he spent most of last season after the Giants picked him up in May, but he lost the job with a miserable World Series and was quite clear that he'd have to earn it back when he signed a one-year, 1 million contract to return for 2011.And no matter how well Burrell plays this spring, there's a chance he still won't get the gig, and if that scenario plays out he'll be bumped to the bench by his best friend on the team.It's the Brandon Belt Effect. If Belt, the white-hot prospect already being unfairly burdened with the "Next Buster Posey" label, proves this spring that he's ready to handle big-league pitching, he'll be installed as the starting first baseman, and incumbent first baseman Aubrey Huff will move to left.Belt's roster status could have a far more profound impact on outfielder Nate Schierholtz and first baseman Travis Ishikawa. If Belt doesn't make the club, Bochy and GM Brian Sabean will have at least one difficult decision to make, and most signs point to Schierholtz being the odd man out. He's out of options, and his late-game defensive skills in right field aren't as valuable now that Cody Ross is the starter in right.Bochy said he wants Schierholtz to play all three outfield positions this spring to help improve his chances of sticking, but that can be seen as a kiss of death, too. And quite frankly, Schierholtz would probably be better served by a fresh start elsewhere.If Belt does make the team, Ishikawa might have to go, too. Like Schierholtz, Ishikawa is out of options, and Belt's defensive prowess negates the need for Ishikawa's slick glove.Of course, a trade of Aaron Rowand could change everything. It's unlikely, though, and not only because of the money Rowand is owed. The Giants won't come out and say it, but they're far too smart to not be hedging their bets at least a little on Andres Torres, whose breakout season at age 32 could just as easily prove to be a flash in the pan as it is to have marked the start of a classic late-bloomer's tale.When Bochy said he's decided not to play Rowand on the corners this spring, saying he wants Rowand to stay in center, where he's comfortable, he might very well have been saying something else between the lines. Like, "Rowand is our only center fielder with a track record."Some of these guys might even be affected by left-hander Madison Bumgarner, for crying out loud. Bumgarner, the projected No. 5 starter, might open the season at Triple-A Fresno because the Giants' schedule includes days off that would make a four-man rotation feasible early on, allowing Bochy to retain an extra position player coming out of camp.Eventually, of course, that extra player will lose his spot upon Bumgarner's return. Unless he goes nuts while Bumgarner is gone.Then the numbers game starts all over again, but it won't be nearly as difficult to decipher -- or handicap -- as the one that just started in Scottsdale.

Why firing Ken Norton Jr. won't solve the Raiders' bigger, deeper problems

Why firing Ken Norton Jr. won't solve the Raiders' bigger, deeper problems

ALAMEDA – Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio was twice asked about making in-season changes at his Monday press conference.

He wouldn’t rule it out. Del Rio said he would do anything necessary to help the team “win now,” and later said "we're not getting into staff questions this week."

Then he fired Ken Norton Jr. the next day, hoping the dismissal will provide a spark.

It might. More likely, it might not do enough.

It is a shot across the bow at its base, a signal that subpar play won't be tolerated. 

“We played under our talent level,” defensive tackle Justin Ellis said, “Those things come with consequences.”

New play caller John Pagano has a unique style and knows how to bring creative pressure, disguise a simple play as complex and exploit weak links, but he won’t be using his system this season. He’ll still be working within Norton/Del Rio’s scheme and, more importantly, he’s still playing chess with existing, often inferior pieces. The Raiders understand that, and likely won't judge him on this final stretch alone. 

Why? The defense doesn’t have enough talent in the secondary, the interior defensive line or the inside linebacker corps. That’s not on Norton or Pagano.

Pagano can’t do a thing about an offense struggling mightily to catch passes, block consistently and let plays develop downfield.

The Raiders have some major talent problems, with rush and coverage rarely working together as desired. That, and some uninspired schematics, have produced awful statistics.

The Raiders don’t have an interception, and are the first team to go 10 games without a pick. They’re on track to have the second-worst opposing completion percentage (72.3) and passer rating (113.3) in NFL history, per the Associated Press.

They’re also last in sacks for the second straight year, with just 14 this season despite having reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack.

They're thin because last year's second and third round picks, Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun aren't contributing. This year's draft class had to make an immediate impact, but Gareon Conley played two games, Obi Melifonwu spent eight games on IR and Eddie Vanderdoes as underwhelmed after a promising start.

Highly paid free agents haven't performed well enough, and many could be shown the door.

It’s possible roughly half of the starting lineup doesn’t return next season, with Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson, Bruce Irvin and NaVorro Bowman likely out the door as free agents or roster cuts.

In sum, this isn’t all Norton’s fault.

He was, however, the easiest cut. You can’t fire players en masse during the year, and Pagano was an easy replacement without disrupting the position coaches. Pagano has extensive experience calling plays. He was the then-San Diego Chargers’ defensive coordinator from 2012-16.

Norton wasn’t an innovative play caller. He was passed over for coordinator jobs while serving as Seattle’s linebackers coach, after Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn were hired as head coaches. Del Rio, who played with Norton in Dallas back from 1989-91, hired Norton shortly after being hired by the Raiders.

The Raiders' defense has never been good under Norton/Del Rio, and Norton was on a hot seat most of last season. It was surprising when Pagano was hired that Norton was retained and allowed to continue despite underwhelming performance.

Norton was immensely popular in the locker room, especially with members of the front seven. Mack and Irvin in particular were Norton guys. Norton and Irvin go way back to Irvin’s Seattle days, where the coach helped the player get and stay on the right path.

That’s why this firing was deeply felt on Tuesday. The players were told in an afternoon meeting, following a walk-through focused on corrections from Sunday’s New England loss.

"The axe came down on everybody," free safety Reggie Nelson said. "Everybody felt it in this building. Players, we love Norton, regardless. Unfortunately, the production wasn't a high standard this year and it's a production league. He's not playing. We are.”

The Raiders are 4-6, and can’t afford to lose many more games. They might need to be perfect down the stretch to avoid a messy tiebreaker situation. That’s a tough ask for a team that’s been woefully inconsistent on both sides. This team was always expected to shoot for the middle defensively and have a potentially great offense score points by the bushel.

The offense has been most disappointing, performing far below its pay grade and talent level. There was no movement on that side of the ball. The Raiders hope, with fingers firmly crossed, this defensive change provide the spark necessary to create turnovers and quarterback pressure than has been lacking in a disastrous season to this point.

Playing in OKC is no longer a big deal for Durant: 'Just a regular game'


Playing in OKC is no longer a big deal for Durant: 'Just a regular game'

Kevin Durant in his first season with the Warriors faced three benchmark games, two of which were against the Cavaliers and, specifically, LeBron James. The third was his return to Oklahoma City, where Durant created his NBA legend.

With all eyes on him, Durant aced all three exams. He was individually better than LeBron, twice, and when he arrived in Oklahoma City last February, with thousands of emotionally wounded fans targeting him for ridicule, he ravaged his former team.

Durant totaled a team-high 34 points (12-of-21 shooting, including 3-of-6 from deep, 7-of-7 from the line), nine rebounds and three assists in a 130-114 rout.

So there will be no such dramatic backdrop Wednesday when Durant takes the floor at Chesapeake Energy Arena, and it is anticipated his sprained left ankle will have healed sufficiently enough to allow him to play. Regardless of whether he plays, hHs return this time simply will not generate the tremendous local turbulence it did last season.

“It was a pretty fun moment to be a part of,” Durant told reporters at practice Tuesday. “You always respect the players on the court. And the people that have stuff to say about what’s going on on the court, they really don’t matter.

“So I just tried to go out there and think about that. Just realize that the players on the court are the most important and I know if I don’t focus and lock in, I won’t play to the best of my ability. I tried to block out all the nonsense and the BS and just go out there and play.”

There should be considerably less BS and nonsense this time around, for this is a more evolved Durant and this is not the OKC team he left behind, shattered in a dozen little pieces scattered around a new solo act that was Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook now has two fellow All-Stars at his side. OKC general manager Sam Presti navigated offseason deals to acquire both Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. There is a sense that the reloaded Thunder can make some playoff noise, and that matters in the wake of a steep drop last postseason.

Having spent most of a day interviewing locals in advance of the Warriors-Thunder game last season, it was apparent those folks were heartbroken by KD’s departure but perhaps more crestfallen about what little was left of their beloved team.

Durant, who remains connected to some of his personal causes in OKC, seems to recognize that. It’s enough to assuage any unease he may have felt for the fans that once adored him.

Asked Tuesday if there was any lingering sentiment about returning to the place where he spent eight seasons, Durant barely hesitated.

“No, it’s just a regular game for me now,” he said. “I learned how to tune out the crowd. I learned how to tune out the b------t and just play. Just keep it at basketball and I’ll be all right.”

It has been 16 months since Durant woke up on the morning of July 4 and announced his decision to sign with the Warriors. Durant has adapted to the Bay Area. He drives the local streets, rides BART every so often and has his favorite spots. He has his hands all over the high-tech industry that drives so much of the energy here.

Durant has moved deeply into the next phase of his career and has his eyes on his post-career options. OKC was home for most of his NBA life, but he now lives elsewhere.

Kevin Durant is in a good place, in most every way, and he likes it.

“I’ve been in the league for this long and been in every situation as a basketball player: losing games, winning games, overtime games, winning a championship, losing a championship, MVP, coming in second in the MVP,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been through everything in the league as an individual player. All those experiences have given me knowledge and given me insight on the game and what it’s about.

“It’s pretty simple when you think about it. You work, you work, you work. You gain experience, you gain knowledge and when it’s time to give it to somebody else you do it. When it’s time to apply it to your game, you just apply it when you play. “

When KD steps on the floor Wednesday and sees George and Anthony behind Westbrook, he can’t help but feel the difference. He has moved on and so have the Thunder.

There is reason, good reason, to believe the man when he says going back this time is just another game.