1. Do you think the Minnesota Wild will be able to get out of the 1st round of the playoffs given how they have played over the last month of the season?
JJ Benz: I happen to think that this team isn’t as far away from where they need to be to win a 1st round playoff series as people think. Even though they have been on an extensive losing streak, they haven’t played that bad. Most of their problems have come defensively when the team doesn’t seem to be on the same page. That’s only for 5 to 10 minutes a game. As of 3/27, the Wild would draw a 1st round match up with the St Louis Blues. However, the Anaheim Ducks are only 2 points behind the Wild. I believe that if the Ducks jump ahead of the Wild, their 1st round match up will be much easier with the Nashville Thrashers. In the NHL playoffs, who knows what could happen. I think it is the closest thing to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in terms of upsets.
Kras: The way the Wild have been playing lately would lead me to believe they won’t survive a 1st round series. Over the past month they have struggled against mediocre competition. The goaltending has been exceptionally shaky and that has hurt them the most. Over the past 2 weeks, Devan Dubnyk has given up 21 goals with a 3.05 goals against average. To compound the problem, the Wild have also struggled at times to score. Guys such as Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle are not having the same success they had earlier in the year and that has caught up with them. This team has not been the same since their “bye week”. They will have to try and find a solution before the playoffs start otherwise I think we will all be disappointed in how this season ends.
2. What do the Timberwolves need before next season to further build as a team and give them a better chance to win games?
Nate Leer: It is clear they need to improve their D. That can come from within or without. Adding a couple D first guys via the draft, trade and/or free agency would help balance a team with lots of offensive talent That said, some of those scoring players could also become better at playing D. Big Kat and Wiggy are the players that seem to have the best tools to be good defenders. I want to see some of each to happen – adding defensive players and developing current players as defenders.
Kras: I think Nate Leer is spot on. The D needs to improve. Wiggy and KAT certainly need to step up and play better on the D side of the ball but I think the evolution of Kris Dunn will be every bit as important. He is supposed to be strong on D and he will need to show that going into next season. I also think that a veteran leader on the floor to help maintain focus at times would also be helpful for the young fellas. Who that guys is, I am not sure. A full year under coach Tom Thibodeau has helped and hopefully that progression will continue. If Thibs can continue to develop the players he has, they should improve with whom they have on the roster already.
3. Where do you think Joe Mauer will bat in the Twins lineup this season and where should he bat?
Nate Leer: I am guessing he will bat third but he should bat 2nd or 1st, particularly if 2B Brian Dozier is traded. The reality is that players hit better in their comfort zone but the Twins should quit coddling Mauer. He may like to bat 3rd but the Twins need to see if one of their younger hitters can handle that slot for the future. Mauer’s only real offensive asset at this point is his ability to draw walks and that is most useful in a table setting role, not run producer.
JJ Benz: I have to agree with Nate Leer on this one. I feel the team needs to put more speed in front of team’s 2 potential 40 HR players. So, if Mauer could slot into the 6 or 7 hole, it could create more RBI chances for Dozier (3 spot) and Sano (4 spot) and Mauer would have more opportunity to drive guys in At this point in Mauer’s career he should be happy with batting in the 2 spot to have the opportunity to advance Byron Buxton and maybe drive him in. The truth is Mauer hasn’t been a power threat, especially in Target Field, but he can handle the bat and could play great situational ball.
1. What if anything, should the NBA do about players being benched and late scratches during games?
Nate Leer: I think there is a solution that can be reached using multiple approaches. First of all, I do believe avoiding back to back games is good for reducing stress on joints. Fans do benefit long term if players have longer careers. I sure would have liked to have seen Larry Bird play another 5-7 years. However, it is a very real concern to have superstars miss games that fans are spending big money on. I think the league could build in games that vets could opt not to play. If they miss road games against teams they play at more than once a year and fans knew it was coming, the impact of kids missing LeBron would be minimized. Another tactic that could be used on its own or in conjunction with the idea above is having formalized meet and greet sessions between star players who are sitting out and fans. If Steph Curry is sitting a game, he doesn’t need to shower afterward so he could take an hour to sign stuff or just say hi to some of his young fans. Everyone wins – Steph gets to rest and fans get a chance to meet him, maybe a preferred experience to watching him play.
Kras: I am unsure what the answer is as I see both sides of the argument. I feel for the fans that spend the money to go to a game and watch certain players but I also understand the coaches wanting to get the most out of their players. I think The League needs to get together with players and try to find a solution that works best for all parties. Whether they only allow players to sit during home games or one of the various ideas suggested by Nate Leer, something needs to be done to keep both players and fans happy and healthy.
2. Can the Boston Celtics compete against the Cleveland Cavaliers in a 7-game series and can they ultimately win?
Kras: The Celtics are the hottest team in the NBA right now and I think they can and will compete against the Cavs. The youth and depth matched with the veteran leadership at PG with Isaiah Thomas and C Al Horford make them formidable. I think Boston has a real chance to outrun and wear down the Cavs over a 7 game series. Now, to be fair, LeBron is still LeBron and they have been there before and know what it takes to win. As hard as it is to bet against the King, he has to fall sometime, right?
Nate Leer: Simply, no and no. Kras is right on that they have to fall eventually but don’t bet on it this year. The Celts might win a game or even 2 but I don’t think they will seriously threaten the Cavs if LeBron, Kyrie and KLove are relatively healthy. If one of those big 3 is out, Boston could push it to 7 but I would still bet on King James and crew.
3. What remaining team do you feel has the best chance to win the NCAA Tournament?
JJ Benz: I believe that the North Carolina Tar Heels have the best chance to win the tournament. Roy Williams is the best coach remaining and will figure out a way to stop the Oregon Ducks, mainly with the size advantage they should have. I have never really considered Gonzaga to be an elite team because of the conference they play in and their weak schedule. On the other hand, I believe the Zagas have the second best coached team left and I expect a competitive championship game with the Tar Heels being victorious.
Kras: I will also be picking the Tar Heels to be the last team standing. They had a great Elite 8 showdown with the Kentucky Wildcats in which they won on a last second pull-up jumper by Luke Maye. The Tar Heels are a veteran group led by big man Kennedy Meeks and shooting specialist Justin Jackson. I think they have the experience that will get it done as this is the group that was beat on a last second shot in last seasons NCAA Tournament. It should be a good bunch of games to watch regardless of who ends up winning it all.