Lonzo Ball or De’Aaron Fox?

Posted: 05/26/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

We’ve established that Markelle Fultz is the no-doubt #1 guard (and overall) prospect in the draft. That’s good for the Celtics, who don’t have to worry about any of this. But for everyone else… who’s the second best PG prospect in the draft? How do Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith, and Frank Ntilikina compare? Let’s find out.

I think that the Fultz vs. Ball debate of the college season has become more of a Ball vs. Fox debate in the aftermath of Fox’s annihilation of Ball in the Sweet 16. That was the game that propelled Fox into the top-five discussion. He scored 39 points on 20 shots, going 13-15 from the line and holding a seemingly timid Ball to just 10 points. To make matters worse for Lonzo, the Bruin declared for the NBA draft in the postgame interview and seemed rather unbothered about the loss. This doesn’t seem like a big deal to me, but juxtapose it with Fox’s reaction to UK’s loss in the Elite Eight, and, well, it’s obvious who you’d rather have fight for you on the basketball court.

So that was the beginning of the debate between Fox and Ball. Then came the reports that the Lakers were working out Fox and the news that they’d pick second in the draft, setting up a clear choice between Ball — the guy everyone has expected them to take all along — and Fox — the up-and-comer.

I’ll say right away that I understand that some fans don’t want to have to deal with LaVar Ball — Lonzo’s, er, eccentric father. But I really only think that the LaVar thing will be an issue in the NBA if Lonzo underperforms expectations and struggles. If Lonzo’s a star player, he’s going to be at the center of attention, and nothing I’ve seen him say or do has led me to believe that he’s anything but an even-keeled player. In fact, as a player he’s the polar opposite of what you’d expect from LaVar Ball’s son. His greatest strength is his brain. I cannot overstate how smart Ball is and how high his basketball IQ is. His passing is obviously Exhibit A. He averaged 7.6 assists and just 2.5 turnovers per game, darn good numbers for a freshman point guard. But beyond the numbers, he also transformed the UCLA Bruins, serving as the straw that stirred the drink for a team that won 31 games, more than twice as many as it did the year before, when coach Steve Alford was seemingly on his way out.

One reason that Ball has become so tantalizing as a prospect is that he’s a flashy passer. Another is that he’s a brilliant transition player, showing the rare ability to grab a rebound (he’s 6’6″ and has a 6’9″ wingspan, which along with his instincts allowed him to average six boards a game, obviously an elite number for a point guard) and immediately push the pace. UCLA didn’t just beat teams last year — they obliterated them, giving them a knockout punch in the form of a quick 10-0 or 18-4 run. They broke 100 points nine times and finished second in the country in points per game and first in assists. Not all of that was because of Ball. I mentioned this in my effort to laud Fultz, but I think it bears repeating: Ball had an embarrassment of riches around him, especially offensively. Fellow freshman one-and-done T.J. Leaf is set to be a first round pick because he’s a terrific scorer. Ball was joined in the backcourt by senior sharpshooter Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday, and Isaac Hamilton, all of whom averaged more than 12 points per game. And for long stretches it seemed as if Thomas Welsh could not miss a midrange shot. But there’s no denying the fact that Ball was the driving force behind all of this.

A third, and probably most important, reason that Ball is a tantalizing prospect is that he seems to fit so perfectly into the modern NBA. He made only 12 shots all season that were neither layups/dunks nor three pointers. A lot of people are painting that as a good thing, and there’s probably good reason for that. I don’t see the NBA moving away from the trend towards threes and layups anytime soon. But the 12 shot stat actually worries me more than it pleases me. The biggest reason I’m not sold on Ball as the #2 pick is that I’m not sold on his scoring potential. It used to be that the best point guards weren’t putting the ball in the bucket as much as the elite players at other positions. Look at Jason Kidd, perhaps Ball’s best case scenario. In his greatest statistical season, Kidd put up 19-6-9, making his fourth straight All-Star game. Kidd ended up making 10 All-Star games, and he’s now thought of as one of the best point guards ever. But guess what? Last year, every All-Star guard averaged better than 20 points per game. 12 point guards averaged 20+ per contest. There’s no Kidd in today’s NBA, and of course a Jason Kidd would be hugely valuable in any era. But teams are looking for their lead guards — and especially their #2 picks — to blossom into guys who can score 22 or 23 points per night… at least. Here are a number of reasons that I don’t expect Ball to ever reach those heights:

  • I find it hard to believe that Ball, with his wonky shot mechanics, is going to be a 41% three point shooter in the NBA. That’s what he was in college, and I have to admit that at some point you just have to ignore the way the shot looks and just accept that the guy’s a good three point shooter. But I’m not at that point yet, especially since Lonzo shot just 67% from the free throw line. I do believe Ball has a high floor as a shooter — maybe 33 or 34%, which is just fine — but I think 38 or 39% might be his upper range. And yes, his low release point does continue to worry me, results be damned.
  • He doesn’t draw fouls. Free throw attempts are fairly translatable from college to the NBA, and Ball attempted just 2.7 free throws per contest. That’s because he almost always chose to pass the ball rather than taking a tough shot off the dribble.
  • In the pick-and-roll, where a lot of guards score a lot of their points, Ball almost always passes. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but we’re nitpicking. I think now we’re starting to see why Fultz should be the consensus #1.
  • He’s not athletic or quick enough to blow by people. He’s not slow or stiff, but his first step is much slower than, say, De’Aaron Fox’s. That’s not a fair comparison, because Fox relies heavily upon his speed and athleticism, but even if you compare Ball’s first step to Stephen Curry’s, you can see that Ball’s going to be rather limited in terms of his ability to create easy looks for himself.

And yet, Ball remains an immensely desirable offensive talent. Unlike many pass-first guards (I’m looking at you, Rajon Rondo), Ball is a very useful player to have off the ball. Because he played on such a talented UCLA team, we got to see him off the ball quite a bit, and he is always moving, cutting, and trying to get open:

He was also a knockdown shooter in catch-and-shoot situations from everywhere on the court. I’m very confident that Ball will find a way to be valuable offensively even when he doesn’t have the ball. That’s why he could prove appealing for a team that already has a primary ballhandler — say, the Sixers with Ben Simmons. Let’s just say that adding a high IQ guard who can shoot and always makes the right pass is never a bad thing for a struggling offense.

That was long, but I felt like all of it needed to be said, because Ball is the most divisive top prospect in the draft (largely because of his father, but still). There’s much more of a consensus about Ball’s defense. It’s what you’d expect: he has the instincts to cause havoc and the size to play decent defense, but he’s not quick or bursty enough to profile as a great defender. In other words, he’s perfectly suitable as the guy covering the less potent guard threat.

If you watched the video I posted above and/or DeAaron Fox’s performance against UCLA, there’s no way you don’t love him. If you watched his quiet, foul-plagued, frustrating performance against North Carolina, you’re probably a bit puzzled about why Fox has catapulted into the top five of most mock drafts. That’s Fox: enigmatic, brilliant, and overflowing with potential. The John Wall comparisons are lazy — yes, we all know they’re both fast, they both went to Kentucky, and neither had a lick of a three point shot coming out of college. Heck, they’re even the same height (6’4″). But Wall was much stouter coming out of college (at least 25 pounds heavier than Fox’s 171) and his wingspan is three inches longer. Fox is a great athlete, but he’s not the physical specimen that Wall has been since he was the consensus #1 pick in 2010. Fox is also left-handed, and it’s hard to compare a lefty to a righty. But the fact is that speed is such a central part of both Fox’s game and Wall’s game that the comparisons are unavoidable. I think the comparisons are lazy, but I also think that Fox could turn out to be as good as Wall is. But he has a long way to go.

I think he has the potential to be a more complete scorer than Ball is. He already excels at many of the things Ball struggles to do. I mentioned that he went 13-15 from the line against UCLA. Fox averaged 5.9 free throw attempts per game in 29.6 minutes per contest. He used his quick, spindly frame to free himself for open midrange look after open midrange look (part of that, of course, is that other teams were daring him to shoot those shots. More on that in a second). He used his sneaky strength and his athleticism to finish tough shots at the rim, although more consistency would be ideal. He only shot 36% from midrange jumpers, but he at least showed that he can vary his offensive game, which could allow him to explode if he fixes his shot. And he’s obviously a great transition player, thanks largely to his speed. More than 35% of his points came on the fastbreak.

As a playmaker, Fox is hit-or-miss, certainly not on Ball’s level. As he became more aggressive late in the season, his assist numbers trended down, and he ended up averaging just 4.6 assists per game (Wall averaged 6.5 in his lone season at Kentucky, by the way). He made some outstanding reads and passes, setting up a lot of easy Bam Adebayo dunks. But he’s nowhere near where he needs to be as a floor general. He’s also only 19, and that’s something that will surely improve with experience. If your major worry about Fox is his distribution, you should take him in a heartbeat. I think he’ll end up being a good facilitator, albeit probably not on Wall’s (or Ball’s) level. But nobody’s biggest concern is Fox’s distribution…

It’s his shot. Fox’s shot doesn’t look bad, but it is horrendous. He shot 24.6% from three point range, and not much better from midrange. He hit two threes in the Elite Eight against North Carolina, but that was atypical. He only had two other games with 2+ three pointers made all season. And if we’ve learned nothing else from the last few years, we’ve learned that ball-dominant point guards who can’t shoot are huge liabilities offensively. Just look at Elfrid Payton, a lottery pick who was set to be a steal “as long as he could figure out how to shoot.” He never has, and some guys never do. In order to consider Fox a top three pick, you must think that Fox will develop some semblance of a jump shot. He at least has to hit on his midrange shots and keep opponents honest from three. Best case scenario is a Wall-like progression from three — Wall went from shooting sub-30% in his first three years to about 35%, also known as good enough. Fox can return top-10 value without figuring out how to shoot much, because he’s a more dynamic player than Payton. He’s also a great defensive player. Fox is tenacious, laterally quick, and can disrupt passing lanes with his long arms or opposing guards with his quick hands. He still needs to get stronger, but he could easily be an elite defensive point guard. I hate to be so simplistic, but it really all hinges on the shot. If it becomes average, Fox is an All-Star. If it’s 24.6%, he’s a role player. If it’s in between, he’s probably a solid starter.

I went into this thinking I would prefer Fox to Ball, largely because that’s what I was thinking after that Sweet 16 game. And I do believe that Fox has the higher overall upside. But I’m just so scared of his shot, and I know that I’m going to get a valuable offensive contributor in Lonzo. I think it’s fairly close, but I think Ball’s a better prospect than Fox is.

Markelle Fultz is a Slam Dunk

Posted: 05/21/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

We’ve been hearing for years (years!) that the 2017 NBA Draft featured a bumper crop of point guards. 247 Sports’s composite rankings for the HS Class of 2016 had five point guards in its top seven: Lonzo Ball (second), Markelle Fultz (fourth), Frank Jackson (fifth), De’Aaron Fox (sixth), and Dennis Smith Jr. (seventh). Throw in Belgian point guard Frank Ntilikina, who’s been ranked in or around the top ten of mock drafts all year, and things were looking very good for point guard needy teams. One year later? As is often the case, things look about the same. Jackson has fallen out of the conversation, and will now probably be a late first round or second round pick, but the other five remain locked in the lottery of every prospect ranking in the country, and Fultz and Ball are pretty much the consensus #1 and #2 players (you’ll soon find out that I don’t fully agree with that consensus). I’ll be writing about Ball, Fultz, Fox, Smith, and (to an extent) Ntilikina in the upcoming days. Let’s start with the guy who is easily the best player in this draft class.

Every so often, there are top draft prospects who are most noteworthy not for any one or two specific skills but rather for their lack of weaknesses. Karl-Anthony Towns was one. There haven’t been many. Just look at the rest of the top of this year’s draft class: Ball (can’t create for himself, limited defensive upside), Jackson (can’t shoot), Fox (can’t shoot), Jonathan Isaac (can’t create for himself), Jayson Tatum (one-dimensional scorer), Malik Monk (one-dimensional shooter)… the fact is that most players, and even most good players, have a glaring weakness. Markelle Fultz doesn’t. The guy just has it all. He hasn’t yet turned 19-years-old, making him one of the youngest players in the class. He’s 6’4″ with a near-6’10” wingspan. He’s super athletic, can jump out of a gym, and is the smoothest player in the class. The measurables and athleticism are all there… but most of all, Fultz can flat out ball. I didn’t watch many Washington games, both because of my East Coast bias and because Washington was a terrible basketball team, but whenever I did (the one game I remember most distinctly is a Washington-Arizona game. Fultz put up 26 points on 16 shots, and the Huskies lost handily. In other words, a typical performance), I was stunned by just how well-rounded he was offensively. He shot 41% from three point range and has a sweet looking jump shot (although I don’t know what was going on with his feet on the last few in this video).

He averaged nearly six rebounds and six assists per game. His 36% assist percentage (percentage of baskets assisted by a player when he’s on the court, excluding his own baskets) was second-best in the draft class behind Jawun Evans. Lonzo Ball’s the guy who gets all the plaudits for his passing ability, and Ball does indeed make some incredible passes, but I’d argue that Fultz is nearly as good of a passer, something that will be evident when the talent around him resembles what Lonzo played with at UCLA. His court vision and unselfishness make him an ideal point guard. Ignore the French — this is a really good video.

He can also get a bucket for himself whenever he wants, either at the rim or from midrange. That’s important, because I think teams that totally abandon midrange shots (a la Houston) are failing to realize that your offense needs alternatives when it struggles, especially in the playoffs when everyone knows what to expect. Look at the Warriors, who can get a barrage of threes but can also give the ball to Kevin Durant and let him drain 18-footers and who have role players like Shaun Livingston and David West who excel at hitting midrange shots. Fultz can elevate and drain those shots — his pull-up jumper has the potential to be lethal in the NBA. Another thing he can do? Play off the ball, serving as a secondary ball-handler. This is another key skill for a player on a championship-caliber team, because most great teams have multiple guys who need the ball in their hands. Fultz shot 38% on catch-and-shoot jumpers, a percentage I expect to go up when his shot mechanics are even better and when there’s more spacing.

It’s pretty hard to imagine a better pick-and-roll prospect. Fultz has the ability to dribble in tight spaces, find passes, shoot off the dribble, drive to the rim, or step back for a three. Watch this and remember that Fultz is still 18!

And this:

That’s just so rare.

Fultz can obviously improve offensively. He shot just 65% from the line, which could hint to some real shooting struggles early in his NBA career. I’m not as worried about his shot as I am about Jackson’s, because Fultz shot better in college and because his jump shot is clearly smoother and more consistent. He’s not turnover-prone (3.2 turnovers per game in 35.7 minutes isn’t bad for a player who always had the ball in his hands), but he can sometimes get lazy and force bad passes or get stripped. Other than that? I’ve got nothing. In all the areas where most young players struggle — shooting off the dribble, finishing with the off hand, distributing, attacking a pick-and-roll, balancing an individual offensive game with the need to get teammates going — Fultz is terrific.

Defensively, Fultz isn’t nearly as polished as he is offensively. He obviously has the size and athleticism to be a very good defensive player, and his work ethic off the court is clearly very good. But his defensive focus and intensity isn’t where it needs to be at this point. The reason I’m not at all worried about this, and the reason I don’t expect Fultz to ever consistently be a lockdown defender, is that point guards are being relied on more and more offensively and less and less defensively. I think a very fair comparison for Fultz would be a righty James Harden who’s not quite as much of a liability on the defensive end. If Harden really wanted to expend energy and effort on the defensive end of the ball, he could be a good defensive player. He just chooses not too — and his coach fully concurs with that choice. I think Fultz could easily be that type of player.

I’m not one of the people who worries a whole lot about a player’s college success. As we’ve seen time after time, it’s impossible for one player (let alone one freshman) to transcend a crappy team with a crappy coach. The Huskies went 9-22, but Fultz was so obviously not the problem that I think people are feeling uncomfortable with how not the problem he was and are thus calling him part of the problem (if that makes any sense). Fultz reminds me of a guard version of Towns, who I mentioned earlier. His floor is very high, and his ceiling is very high. The worst-case scenario, I think, is Harden-lite, a player who fills it up offensively and takes a lot of plays off defensively but who doesn’t quite have Harden’s ability to carry an offense. That’s pretty darn good! The best-case scenario is that Fultz proves to have a super high motor, allowing him to use his size and speed compete on the defensive end while providing Harden-level production offensively. That’s one of the best players in the NBA! It might be tough to judge how good Fultz is right away, because unlike Towns and almost every #1 overall pick he’s going to be playing for a contending team (barring a trade or a surprise). I think it’ll be tough for Boston to keep Fultz off the court, but the Celtics do already have a lot of pretty good guards, including one of the NBA’s top scorers. It’ll be interesting to see how the minutes are allotted in Boston next year if Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Terry Rozier, and Fultz are all on the team. One thing’s for sure: Markelle Fultz is one of the best guard prospects in the 21st century and is the no-doubt best player in this draft.

Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum

Posted: 05/16/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

It’s a big night in the NBA, with Game 2 of the Warriors-Spurs series and, more importantly, the NBA draft lottery. I’m not going to preview the NBA Conference Finals, because both matchups lack intrigue, especially now that Kawhi Leonard is injured. Here’s my quick prediction: neither the Cavs nor the Warriors will enter the Finals undefeated, but neither will have more than two losses. In other words, both Golden State and Cleveland will win in five or six games and roll into the Finals, which, I would argue, is where the playoffs really start (because this Finals matchup has been a foregone conclusion for so long). And while I know a lot of people/websites are doing it, I’m not going to predict what’s going to happen in the lottery tonight, because come on. Instead of writing about the playoffs or the lottery, I’m going to focus on the players that conventional wisdom says are the premier wings in the draft: Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum.

Let me say this right away: I’m not going to speculate about Josh Jackson’s off-court issues, because I know nothing about them. The misdemeanor property charge is definitely something teams will have to look into, but I’m going to ignore it for the sake of this post, not because I don’t think it’s an important consideration. I love Josh Jackson as a player, because he’s the one guy in the draft who left an obvious imprint on every game he played in. It’s rare that a college player, and especially a college freshman, can find a way to positively impact a game when he’s not scoring. Jackson’s top selling point is that he can do that. There are a few types of intriguing defensive prospects. There are raw, long, athletic, high-potential players who often disappeared in college games. There are scrappy, high-effort players who generally find their niches in the NBA. And then, very rarely, there are athletic, active, high-potential, high-effort guys. Josh Jackson is one of those guys. Jackson’s a 6’8″ wing with a 6’10” wingspan. He is always active on the defensive end, and he averaged 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game in 31 minutes per contest. He’s very laterally quick, and he makes up for his relative lack of length with outstanding anticipation skills and a great basketball IQ. He’s strong enough to guard power forwards and quick enough to guard point guards. In my last post, I wrote about the importance of wings switching on screens in the NBA. Based solely on his physical skills, Jackson is the prototypical NBA wing defender. Just as important, though, is the fact that Jackson clearly enjoys playing defense and takes pride in his ability to shut down a star player. A lot of players should be defense-first; few actually embrace that role.

Offensively, Jackson usually found a way to impact Kansas’s games. He scored in single figures just three times all year despite averaging just 12.3 shots per game as Kansas’s second or third option. He’s quietly a very unselfish, smart, and good passer, as he averaged three assists per game and excelled at making the extra pass to turn a decent look into a great one, a skill that’s very important to have in the NBA, where spacing is king. He’s a menace in fastbreak situations, with the athleticism and body control to finish at the rim. He’s not as good in the halfcourt offense, but few guys are coming out of college. The real question, of course is his shot. On the surface, there’s nothing to worry about: Jackson shot 38% from three in his lone season at Kansas. He finished the season on a 25-for-52 tear from beyond the arc. But he shot just 57% from the line, and he has a really funky release. Watch this clip and tell me you think Jackson will be a good tree point shooter at the next level:

If he’s going to be a legit 37% three point shooter in the NBA, Jackson should be at least the #2 pick in the draft, because everything else is the real deal. On a team with Frank Mason, the Naismith Player of the Year, Jackson was clearly the team’s most important player — they lost to TCU in the lone game he missed. I find it hard to believe that Jackson will never become at least a suitable shooter, which is why I like him so much as a prospect. But even if he’s a 30% three point shooter, he’ll find ways to score the ball and to be a key contributor at the next level. The sky is the limit for Jackson, but I don’t think his floor is as low as some have made it out to be, thanks to his selflessness, his competitiveness, his defensive ability, and his basketball IQ.

Offensively, Jayson Tatum is the most polished player in the draft. I hate to use that word, because it’s the one everyone uses to describe Tatum’s offensive game, but it really is apt. Give Tatum the ball in the post, and he’ll outmuscle smaller players or deke past big men (1.303 points per possession in the post, 99th percentile). Give it to him on the wing and clear out, because he can take a slow defender to the hoop or pull up from midrange against a smaller player. Tatum’s a great isolation player, because he’s both big (6’8 with a 6’11” wingspan and a wide frame that should make him a force to be reckoned with as he fills out) and fluid. He has a whole bag of tricks, from crossovers to hesitation dribbles to fadeaways. If you want a guy who can find his own midrange shot, Tatum’s your guy. The problem is that the NBA is quickly moving away from isolation ball and midrange shots. The Raptors flamed out against the Cavs in the second round, partly because they didn’t have LeBron James but also because their offensive gameplan — which was predicated on a lot of isolation ball and midrange shots — was no match for Cleveland’s barrage of three pointers. Tatum shot just 34% from three at Duke, largely because he has a slow release that makes it difficult to get an open look unless he’s wide open. To be a great offensive weapon on the wing in this day and age, you pretty much have to shoot threes. DeMar DeRozan put up a lot of points this season, but when push came to shove he was pretty easy to slow down in the playoffs, because opponents could sag off of him, forcing him to give the ball up or take a three. Tatum did show some passing upside, and I’m confident that he could fit in a more free-flowing offense, just as I’m just DeRozan could do the same. But if Tatum’s really an offense-only player, his offensive game is not good enough to justify a top-five selection.

Defensively, Tatum’s probably better than he’s given credit for. He’s not a flashy athlete, but he’s versatile enough to guard both forward positions pretty well. He’s a good defensive rebounder, and he averaged 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per contest. There’s no reason to expect him to be a premier defender, and I certainly wouldn’t want him guarding Kevin Durant, but there’s also no reason to believe he won’t fit in well in a good defensive scheme that provides plenty of support for a wing defender. It’s hard to get excited about his defensive upside when he’s compared to Josh Jackson, but I could easily see him defending as well as Justin Jackson, a guy who got a lot of plaudits for his defensive performances in the NCAA tournament. I think Tatum will be solid defensively, and if he’s solid defensively, he has a really high floor as a skilled role player who provides a lot of offense in 25-30 minutes per game. I’m not sure how high his ceiling is, and I’d disagree with the people who say he’s a future 27-30 points per game scorer, because I don’t think he’s athletic enough or a good enough shooter to consistently score that much. But Tatum’s definitely a guy I’d like to have on my team.

If it wasn’t clear before this, I prefer Jackson to Tatum, because I’m more confident in his ability to always positively impact a game and because I think he fits in better in the modern NBA. Jackson’s my #2 prospect in this draft class. But Tatum’s a darn good prospect in his own right and someone I’ll probably have in the 5-7 range of my final big board.

NHL Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/12/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

Two rounds into the NHL playoffs, we’re left with a question we have had to ask a lot recently: can anyone stop the Pittsburgh Penguins? I really believed that this would be the year that the Capitals would finally exorcize their black and yellow demons and advance to the third round (and eventually all the way to the Stanley Cup). But it wasn’t to be. The Capitals dropped three of the first four games, saw the pressure on them drop substantially, and then win two straight to set up Game 7. With the pressure back on, they came out all guns blazing in the first period but failed to score, and they eventually fell quietly, losing 2-0 and showing very little fight in the third period. I don’t usually subscribe to this type of theory, but it really felt like the moment was again too big for the Caps. Facing a team with a ton of playoff experience (they won the Cup last year, after all), the pressure got to them. This quote from Nick Backstrom speaks volumes: “We didn’t lose the series tonight, we lost it in the first three games, four games.” Sure, the Caps were down 3-1 in the series. But they fought back and had a Game 7 ON THEIR HOME ICE! The Backstrom quote fits in with the general theme of the Capitals lacking postseason confidence. I’d bet that Capitals fans are very torn about their team right now. They’ve won consecutive President’s Trophies, but they always flame out in the first or second round of the playoffs. Could we see the Caps blow it up this summer with a trade of Alex Ovechkin and others? After 13 years of consistent playoff disappointments, I wouldn’t doubt it.

The Penguins have now beaten the Columbus Blue Jackets (+54 GD, 108 points) and Capitals (+81, 118) in the first two rounds. Of the other three teams left in the playoffs, the Ducks were easily the best regular season team (+23, 105 points). The Penguins also have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, good secondary scoring, and a scorching hot Marc-Andre Fleury. The narrative should be about the Penguins. But this Penguins team isn’t that great! Fleury is going to cool off because he’s not that good, and the Penguins are missing Kris Letang, their top defenseman. The return of Matt Murray gives the Penguins insurance for Fleury, but the point is that this is a very beatable team that’s really thin at the blue line. Let’s get into the two matchups.

Penguins over Senators in 6:

The Senators have done very well to get this far. This feels like a long time ago, but the Senators lost 10 of their final 15 regular season games and entered the playoffs with a -2 goal differential, making them the only playoff team who allowed more goals than they scored. Thanks to the heroics of Erik Karlsson, an explosion from defensive-minded forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau (seven goals in the playoffs, including four in one game), and some timely goals (5-1 in overtime), the Sens have squeaked through to the third round. They’re just a +1 in the playoffs, but they have a 7-2 record in one goal games. That’s a fluke, but some things don’t have time to correct themselves in the playoffs. Hopefully for Ottawa, the Sens’ performance in one goal games is one of those things.

It’d better be, because the Penguins have a pretty clear talent advantage in this series. With Crosby fully recovered from the concussion he suffered against the Capitals, they have their full allotment of offensive firepower. Malkin has 18 points in 12 playoff games, making him a favorite for the Conn Smythe trophy (given to the best playoff performer). Crosby has 14 points in 11 games, and Jake Guentzel has nine goals. The fact that I haven’t even talked about the immensely talented Phil Kessel yet says it all. The Penguins have 41 goals in the playoffs, good for 3.42 per game. Now, the Senators are fairly stingy defensively, thanks in large part to Craig Anderson, who’s a solid goalie. I think they’ll get under Crosby’s skin a little bit and make things difficult for the Penguins. But Anderson is going to have to steal a couple of games for the Senators to win this series. Ottawa’s a gritty team, and Karlsson’s an outstanding player, but this is probably the right time for the Senators to be sent home.

Predators over Ducks in 6:

Aside from the Penguins, the Ducks have been the best offensive team in the playoffs. They also rank first of remaining teams in playoff Fenwick (shots+missed shots for over total shots, 54.68%). I can’t say I watched a lot of the Ducks in the regular season, so I don’t know if they’re playing a lot better than they did in the regular season, but their puck possession numbers suggest that they are. Going from below-average in the regular season to tops in the playoffs is a heck of a swing. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that neither Calgary nor Edmonton is a great defensive team. The Nashville Predators have been great defensively in the playoffs. They’ve given up 14 goals in 10 games. Pekka Rinne has a .951 save percentage and has looked unbeatable at times. As I wrote about before the second round, the Preds have four tremendous defensemen (great now, maybe problematic come the expansion draft). Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis are all averaging upwards of 23 minutes per game. Subban and Ekholm have been much more effective than Josi and Ellis so far in the playoffs, but all four are capable of slowing down the hot Anaheim attack. That’s the matchup to look out for in this game: can Ryan Getzlaf, Jakob Silfverberg, Corey Perry, Rickard Rakell, and Ryan Kesler keep up their barrage of shots at the net against Nashville’s defense? Can they get those shots past the red-hot Rinne?

Nashville’s offensive attack is much more balanced than Anaheim’s. While the Ducks rely on skilled forwards Getzlaf and Silfverberg (15 combined goals in 11 games), the Predators have been getting a lot of scoring from defensemen. Ellis leads the team with nine points, and Josi and Subban have eight and seven apiece. I wrote about Nashville’s great first line before the last round, and Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson have continued to drive play when on the ice (all three have FF% of 54%+). But the goals dried up for them against St. Louis, as the first line tallied just two goals in the second round. Forsberg and Arvidsson were both 30 goal scorers, and they’re going to have to light the lamp more often. Luckily, they’re now facing a goalie who gave up three goals on six shots in Anaheim’s 7-1 loss to Edmonton in Game 6. That game obviously inflates his save percentage, but even excluding it he had just a .909 save percentage against the Oilers. Gibson’s just 23-years-old, and this is his first playoffs as the full-time starter. It’s worth wondering whether fatigue is getting to him. If it is, and Gibson continues to give up three goals per game, the Ducks are going to have a tough time winning this series. He gave up 3+ goals in five of the seven games this series, and the Ducks went 3-2 in those games. But give the Predators three goals and they’re probably going to win. That’s why I’m taking Nashville in six games, setting up a pretty intriguing Stanley Cup Final (for neutral fans, probably the Final we should be rooting for if we want a good, long series).

The NBA Draft Lottery is next week, which means that the draft itself is not too far away. It’s time to start taking a deep dive into the prospects. For years, this draft class has been deemed the best in recent memory, lauded as perhaps being level talent-wise with the amazing 2003 draft (LeBron, Melo, Wade, Bosh, a ton of good role players). I don’t think it’s that great at the top, but I do agree that it’s deeper than recent drafts have been. Guys who will probably be late lottery picks this year might have gone in the top-10 last year. In particular, I’m thinking about three wings: OG Anunoby, Jonathan Isaac, and Justin Jackson. I was going to start off my draft preview by breaking down the loaded crop of point guards (five point guards will almost certainly go in the lottery, and maybe in the top-10). Instead, I’m going to take a look at the three guys I just mentioned. Not only are they evidence of the depth of this draft class, but Anunoby, Isaac, and Jackson also play at a position that’s quickly become the most coveted and toughest to find — small forward or, more accurately, wing. If you’ve been watching the NBA playoffs, you know how much wings are tasked with. If they’re good enough defensively, they have to guard the opponent’s best player from the outset, because they are the position which generally best combines size and speed, both of which are needed in spades to have any hope of slowing down LeBron, Harden, Kawhi, or Durant, to name a few. And even if they aren’t defensive stoppers, wings regularly find themselves in difficult positions because they’re the guys who do most of the switching. I can imagine how tough it would be to be a wing defender against the Warriors or Cavs. Not only do you have to play impeccable on-ball defense, but you’re also put through endless screens and switches, endless cuts, and endless off-ball screens. And even if you do everything right, there’s still a 50-50 chance you’ll get called for a ticky-tack foul. That’s just the defensive side of the ball.

The hottest commodity in the NBA right now — besides superstar players, because duh — is 3-and-D wings. The “D” part is obvious — I just outlined how much wings have to do on the defensive end of the ball because they’re usually the most malleable players on the court. Offensively, most of the onus has been placed on point guards, who generally slack off on the defensive end of the ball. All wings have to do is hit threes to be considered valuable offensive contributors. The name of the modern game is floor spacing, and the more potent three point threats a team has, the easier it is to drive-and-kick or just drive-and-finish. Just watch the Rockets play. Of course, it’s a huge bonus for wings to be able to do more than just shoot the three and play defense. That’s how you go from being a valuable starter to being Jimmy Butler, Paul George, or Gordon Hayward, all of whom are just a notch below the league’s elite wings. But guys like Robert Covington are enormously valuable, because it’s surprisingly hard to find 3-and-D players. So which of Isaac, Anunoby, and Jackson has the best chance of being a 3-and-D guy? Which of the three has the best chance to grow into an offensive fulcrum? Let’s find out.

I watched a lot of Florida State basketball last year, and sometimes I forgot that Jonathan Isaac was even on the court. I’ll say this right away: if you want a wing who can consistently get his own bucket, you’ll fall in love with Jayson Tatum (who I’ll write about in a different post). You won’t like Isaac. I do like Isaac, and I’m liking him more after watching playoff basketball and seeing the direction that the league is going in. Isaac is 6’11” and has a 7’1″ wingspan. He’s really thin right now, but in a few years I can absolutely see him being a small-ball center. He’s also a really fluid athlete who eats up opposing wings. A lot of big, athletic wings are said to have huge defensive potential, but few of them ever pan out. The biggest reason for that is a lack of foot speed that keeps wings from keeping up laterally with quick perimeter players. Isaac does not have this problem. His foot speed is probably his biggest selling point. It is unbelievably valuable to have a guy who can easily guard four positions, switch ball screens, and disrupt pick-and-rolls. I think Isaac can be one of the league’s premier wing defenders, a rare 6’11” forward who is quick enough to guard wings. A lot of this is based on his tools, but Isaac also produced really good defensive numbers last year. Playing 26.2 minutes per game, Isaac averaged 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. He was the best defensive player on an overachieving Florida State defense. He also showed a willingness and ability to sky for rebounds despite his lack of brawn — he gobbled up 25% of available defensive rebounds when on the court, a good rate for a power forward, let alone a small forward. He’s going to be a solid NBA defender right away. His defensive potential is through the roof.

Offensively, Isaac’s potential is a lot lower. He’s not exactly a ball-stopper, but he’s pretty uncreative with the ball in his hands. He averaged more turnovers than assists, and he doesn’t have the bucket-making ability to fully make up for that, as he pulls up from midrange way more often than he takes it to the hoop. This can all be corrected, but he dribbles too much sometimes and often doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing on the offensive side. The one thing Isaac really has going for him is his shooting stroke. He was inconsistent from three in his lone year at Florida State, and ended up shooting just 35% from three. But he’s got good shot mechanics and hit 78% of his free throws, which probably means he’ll grow into a better NBA three point shooter. College three point percentages don’t mean everything. Josh Jackson (easily my favorite wing in the draft, but that’s another post) shot 38% from three, but Isaac’s a much better bet to hit on his long range shots in the NBA.

Is Isaac ever going to be a first or second offensive option? Probably not, no. He can definitely get more polished offensively, but it’s rare that this type of player blossoms into a go-to scorer. Of course, this is why he’s not in consideration for the #1 pick. At his best, Isaac could be the ultimate 3-and-D guy, a 38% three point shooter who regularly destroys opponents’ sets. Some team’s going to see that and take him in the lottery. I think he’s worth a top-7 pick, simply because his floor is so much higher than, say, Dennis Smith’s.

OG Anunoby has a different body type than Jonathan Isaac, but he has the same type of game and upside. He’s a young sophomore, as he’s not yet 20-years-old and is just a few months older than Isaac. He also tore his ACL in January and played just 13.7 minutes per game as a freshman. Development-wise, it’s safe to treat him as a freshman. Whereas Isaac is a spindly 6’11”, 205 pounds, Anunoby is a stout 6’8″, 215. His wingspan is a reported 7’6″. He looks like the prototypical lockdown wing defender, and he plays like it too. Indiana was solid defensively when Anunoby was on the court, which is how they were able to win games against North Carolina and Kansas. They were horrific after he got injured, which is why they finished 18-16 (5-9 in his absence) and got nowhere near the NCAA tournament. Even last year, Anunoby showed an ability to quiet NBA-caliber wings. He shut down Jamal Murray in the NCAA tournament, holding him to 16 points on 18 shots and spurring Indiana’s win over Kentucky. We’ve seen this type of defensive prospect before. When he’s dialed in, he’s the prototypical defensive stopper. Unfortunately, he takes more plays off than you would like from someone who should be bringing toughness and scrappiness to the table. That may seem correctable, but I’ve been burned in the past for assuming that a player’s focus will automatically be improved in the NBA. For a player with so little offensive upside, the lack of consistent defensive effort is a red flag.

Isaac is a better offensive prospect than OG, whose shot is a mess. He shot 31% from three and 56% from the line this year, and he’s really bad when his shot is contested. His shot doesn’t look Andre Roberson-bad, but it’s bad enough at this point that defenses will readily sag off of him. The shot, of course, is the X-factor, as it so often is. We know how important it is to have wings who can at least shoot enough to draw a defender out of the paint. Anunoby’s threes don’t look pretty (they’re line drives), but I don’t think it’s completely broken, so there’s room for growth there. He’d better become an average three point shooter, because he doesn’t have much else to offer offensively. On a fastbreak, when Anunoby is running at a defender with a head of steam, OG is tough to stop. When the defense falls asleep and OG glides in for a dunk, he’s tough to stop. In all other situations, he’s not a very good offensive player. His handle is much worse than Isaac’s, as is his midrange game. He’s even rawer offensively than Isaac, and his shot is years behind.

We’ve seen this type of prospect so many times. Oodles of defensive potential. No off-the-dribble game. A shaky shot. This type of prospect so rarely pans out, so I’d be hesitant to draft Anunoby. I think the most likely scenario is that he’s a bench player who contributes a valuable 15-20 minutes as a defensive stopper (think Jerami Grant). OG fans will bring up Kawhi Leonard, and I can see why: they are similar physically and have the same type of defensive ability. But Leonard’s transformation from a bad college offensive player to an MVP-caliber finisher and creator is very, very rare.

Justin Jackson is the guy everyone’s most familiar with of the three, for obvious reasons. He was a three year starter for a team that made two straight title games, winning this year. He was a first team All-American and the ACC Player of the Year. You probably know him for his feathery floater, which always seems to go in. He turned into a plus (37%) three point shooter this year, and he was a high volume three point shooter (7.1 attempts per game). Jackson has a super quick release and transformed his shot mechanics during his time at Chapel Hill. Just as importantly, he also has great offensive instincts, which is what truly differentiates him from Anunoby and Isaac. He became a facilitator in the NCAA tournament, averaging 3.7 assists per game as he had the ball in his hands more and more often with point guard Joel Berry hobbled. With all of that said, Jackson still certainly has offensive warts. I hate it when people criticize a player for not being able to score as well against size and length, because I feel like that’s true of every single player. But it’s definitely a more pronounced difference for some, and I think Jackson is one of those guys. His worst games of the year came when the opponent was able to get physical, which makes sense given that Jackson is not off-the-charts athletically and is a very skinny 6’8″ (193 pounds). He’s not an explosive player, which will probably keep him from ever being a go-to threat at the next level. It’s also worth noting that Jackson is probably getting a little overhyped because of the team he was on. His stats this year (18 points per game on 44/37/75% shooting) were good, but it’s not like he was putting up 25 points per game or consistently finishing in traffic. The fact that he’s already 22-years-old also doesn’t help. But make no mistake about it: Jackson has the chance to be a very good secondary creator, with the ability to shoot from three or put home that beautiful floater and the court vision to find the open man.

I was really impressed with Jackson’s defense in North Carolina’s final three tournament games. I didn’t focus much on Jackson’s defense before the tournament, so I can’t say if he was doing this all year, but he shut down Malik Monk (12 points) and Tyler Dorsey (3-11 from the field) and was instrumental in holding Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss to a 5-17 shooting performance. In those three games, Jackson looked like a shutdown defender. This should all be taken with a grain of salt. Jackson has a 6’11” wingspan and is way bigger than Monk (6’4″, 6’3.5″ wingspan), Dorsey (6’4″, 6’3″), and Williams-Goss (6’4″, 6’6″). He should be shutting down those guys. But I was impressed by Jackson’s lateral quickness and his defensive fluidity. In the NBA, I don’t think he’ll be strong enough to bang with power forwards or quick enough to slow down the league’s great wings. But I had assumed he’d be a total defensive liability, and now I think there’s a chance he’s a solid defender in the NBA.

Jackson certainly has the intangibles going for him. He’s a smart, unselfish player who rarely makes rushed or bad decisions. That alone makes Jackson an easy fit in the NBA. But intangibles alone don’t get you drafted in the lottery. The reason the draft’s second best J. Jackson deserves to go in the lottery is that he’s a really solid all-around player. I think he’s a really projectable player, a guy who’ll probably be best suited to be a sparkplug off the bench. He’s not a good pick for a team looking to hit a grand slam, but he fits in relatively well to the evolving NBA and will slot in as a valuable piece for the team that drafts him in the middle of the first round.

Here’s how I’d rank the three:

Jonathan Isaac
Justin Jackson
OG Anunoby

NBA Round Two Preview

Posted: 05/01/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

Boston went down 2-0, Toronto was down 2-1, Memphis and Atlanta pushed San Antonio and Washington to 2-2 and looked to have the momentum… but as is usually the case, the first round of the NBA playoffs ended very predictably. The Celtics came back to win four straight and knock out the mediocre Bulls, the Raptors throttled the Bucks, and both the Spurs and Wizards closed out their pesky opponents in six games. The result: two first round sweeps (both one seeds), a five game series, four six game series’, and a seven gamer between the Clippers and Jazz that also served as the only upset of the first round — at least seed-wise. But even that “upset” wasn’t really an upset, as it came after Blake Griffin went down for the Clips in the middle of the series. This is the way the early part of the NBA playoffs usually goes. Luckily, things will start to get more interesting in Round Two. The way I see it, there’s only one clear second round winner — the Warriors, who should close out the Jazz as quickly as they want to. But the other three matchups could legitimately go either way depending on a few key individual battles and coaching decisions. Let’s start with the series that already started yesterday with Boston’s comeback win over Washington.

Wizards over Celtics in seven:

I know the Celtics won the first game of the series, but I still think the Wizards have what it takes to win this series, provided Markieff Morris’s ankle isn’t too badly injured. John Wall and Bradley Beal are so good that they dictate the lineups the Celtics have to throw out there. Avery Bradley has a very important role to play defensively, as do Marcus Smart and even Terry Rozier. Those three will be the primary defenders of Wall and Beal, while Isaiah Thomas will be hidden on the quietly effective Otto Porter Jr. (16 points on 10 shots). They’re all good defenders, but I think always having two of those three guys on the court will really hinder Boston’s offense. Bradley’s an adequate offensive player, but Smart and Rozier shot 28% and 32% from beyond the arc while providing little in the way of playmaking ability. Of course, none of this mattered yesterday, because the Celtics shot 19-39 from beyond the arc and Al Horford put up a 21-9-10 line. But that’ll be Horford’s best game of the series, and Jae Crowder probably isn’t making six threes again. And you know what that means? Isaiah Thomas has to create ALL of the offense. That’s fine with Thomas, who has been one of the best offensive players in the league all season long. I’m sure he’ll continue to put up big numbers, but at some point he’ll get cold and Boston won’t be able to score. And even when he can score, I think the Wizards have the offensive versatility to keep up, no matter how many lockdown defenders the Celtics put on the court.

Assuming Morris is back, the Celtics are going to continue to have some of the same rebounding problems they had against Chicago. They made Robin Lopez look like an All-Star, and the physical Marcin Gortat is going to continue to have a field day on the boards against Horford. Washington has a bigger and more versatile offense across the board. Let me put it this way: they’re more likely to win a game without much from John Wall than the Celtics are to win a game without much from Isaiah Thomas. I love Porter, and I think he’ll have a few big scoring games in a series in which he’ll be guarded by Thomas (who’s a foot shorter). Beal has a height advantage over all of Bradley, Smart, and Rozier, and is liable to go off on a personal 9-0 run at any time. He’s easily the best pure shooter in the series. And while Washington’s bench has been getting a lot of criticism all year (and rightfully so), I don’t think they’re that bad when they shorten their bench. They got stretched thin by the Morris injury in Game One, but assuming Morris comes back, the bench should be fine. Bojan Bogdanovic showed his ability to get hot in a hurry and Kelly Oubre is a solid two-way player. The one thing the Wizards CAN NOT do is go any period of time without either Beal or Wall on the court. Beal’s quietly very good as the backup point guard, something I think we’ll continue to see a lot of in this series.

In the end, this series really comes down to Wall, Beal, Porter, Morris, and Gortat against Smart, Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, and Horford. All season long, Washington’s starting lineup has been one of the most productive lineups in basketball. Everything works, and it should continue to work against a Boston defense that hasn’t been great this season. The Wizards got roasted defensively in Game One, but the Celtics’ shooters will cool down. This will be a tough series, but the Wizards should finish on top.

Cavaliers over Raptors in six:

I wanted to pick the Raptors in this series, because I think they have a lot of matchup advantages. Chief among those, of course, is the pick-and-roll offense. The Cavaliers got absolutely destroyed by the Pacers in pick-and-roll situations in the first round, and the Pacers have no right to be a good pick-and-roll team. The Raptors, meanwhile, scored easily an NBA-high 24.5 points per game directly out of the pick-and-roll this season, with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both proving dangerous with a head of steam or some room to pull up. And for as bad as the Raptors looked offensively in the first round, the Cavaliers are almost definitely worse defensively. It’s not just the numbers. Look at the players on the court for Cleveland! LeBron James and Tristan Thompson are the Cavs’ only real contributors who play good defense. And even LeBron can’t make up for the defensive lapses committed often by Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, Channing Frye, Deron Williams, and Kyle Korver (ew). The Pacers weren’t good enough to take full advantage, and I’m worried that Toronto won’t either, but if the Cavs do end up making the Finals, can you imagine how many points the Warriors will be able to score against this team? This is just your weekly reminder, I guess, that we already know who’s going to win the title.

I said I wanted to pick the Raptors. I’m not going to, though, because I don’t buy that P.J. Tucker is going to be the magical addition who will figure out how to stop LeBron James, and I fear a rolling LeBron James more than I fear just about anything. Also: Cleveland’s offense is really, really, really good. Surrounding LeBron with a ton of shooting seems to really work. Funny how that works, isn’t it? The Raptors just aren’t good enough defensively to slow Cleveland down enough. Tucker’s a solid, hard-nosed player, and he’s probably a better option to guard LeBron than DeMarre Carroll is, but just barely, and Carroll routinely gets destroyed by James. Serge Ibaka isn’t the defender he used to be. Nobody can slow down Kyrie Irving. The Cavaliers are going to score a lot of points.

If the Raptors were playing like they did early in the season, I’d pick them to win. But their offense is struggling, and it’s not just a playoffs thing; when I wrote this article in December, the Raptors were averaging 115.2 points per 100 possessions. By the end of the season, they were down to 109.8 points per 100 possessions, and they were 13th in the NBA in offense after the All-Star break. They’ll be a lot better than they were against the long, athletic Bucks in the first round. Kyle Lowry will turn it around and DeMar DeRozan will score a lot. But I don’t think the Raptors have enough juice to win a series against LeBron.

Spurs over Rockets in seven:

This is the best series of Round Two. Houston and San Antonio are two of the NBA’s top three teams, or maybe top four if we give LeBron and the Cavs the benefit of the doubt (which we probably should). This series could come down to an individual’s heroics versus a team’s efficiency. Surprisingly, the individual is Kawhi Leonard and the team is the Rockets. This is the least Spursy team I can remember in that they have one player who shoulders so much of the load both offensively and defensively. Luckily for the Spurs, nobody is more ready and able to handle such a large role for an extended period of time than Kawhi. Kawhi just destroyed the Grizzlies, and if the Grizzlies couldn’t stop him I have a hard time believing that the Rockets, who are much worse defensively, will. I assume that Houston will trap Leonard early and often, forcing him to make quick decisions and attempting to frustrate him. There are two problems with this plan:
1) Leonard doesn’t get frustrated
2) Leonard will generally make the right decision

And when you send two guys to trap Leonard, defending the rest of San Antonio becomes a problem. It would be less of a problem for a long, disciplined defense, but this is a Mike D’Antoni defense, which is to say a defense whose main goal is to get out of the way and get back on offense. I’m exaggerating, of course: the Rockets were good defensively against the Thunder in the first round, and guys like Patrick Beverley and Clint Capela play good defense. But the Spurs are a heck of a lot better than the Thunder, and if the Rockets roll out lineups with Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Ryan Anderson, and James Harden out there together they’re going to get killed defensively by the probing, methodical Spurs. While Tony Parker isn’t who he used to be and the Spurs seriously miss having a real second go-to offensive player, Parker’s still often dynamic, LaMarcus Aldridge can score the ball, Patty Mills is smoking hot from three and Danny Green will heat up. And whenever David Lee and Pau Gasol can get on the court (they’re huge defensive liabilities), they’re also very skilled scorers.

But the real reason I’m picking the Spurs to win this series in a squeaker is that they are a tremendous defensive team, one that has as good of a chance as anyone to slow down Houston’s juggernaut offense. The Spurs’ defensive philosophy is to force long twos, and they’re very good at doing it. They don’t allow opponents to attempt or hit a lot of threes, and they don’t send their opponents to the line with cheap fouls. Of course, the Rockets’ offensive philosophy is to get to the rim, get to the line, and shoot a ton of threes. Who will win out? Well, in the earlier meetings between these teams, the Spurs successfully forced the Rockets into a lot more midrange shots than they are generally comfortable taking. But I can see why most people are predicting that the Rockets will get over the hump in this series. In the pick-and-roll offense, the Rockets have been really hard to stop unless the opponent has a rim protector who can contest without fouling. The Spurs have.. David Lee and Pau Gasol, both of whom will be on the bench quite often, just as Enes Kanter was for the Thunder. Suddenly, Dewayne Dedmon is enormously important as a big who can serve as that mobile rim protector, and Dewayne Dedmon averaged 8.7 minutes per game in the first round. There’s also the James Harden problem. Namely, a healthy James Harden (we’ll see how his ankle is after five days off, but I’m assuming it’s fine, because if it isn’t than the Rockets have no chance) has been able to do just about anything he wants this season. And the Spurs aren’t going to put Kawhi on Harden all game long. Harden’s going to see a lot of Danny Green and Jonathon Simmons. Both of those guys are good defenders, but putting Green on Harden opens up a lot of options for Lou Williams (is Parker going to guard him? Please) and Eric Gordon. That’s why this Houston offense is so dynamic and why they scored at will against the Thunder even when their shots weren’t going down.

One another matchup to look out for: LaMarcus Aldridge against Ryan Anderson. Aldridge is going to get the ball a lot when Anderson is on him. He should be able to score at will.

I think the Rockets have more options than the Spurs. I think they probably have a higher upside. But I’m picking the Spurs in seven, because Kawhi Leonard is so darn good and because San Antonio is good enough defensively to at least make Houston think a little before dropping 120 points every game.

Warriors over Jazz in four:

Do I really have to explain myself? The Jazz are a perfectly good basketball team. Good for them for making the second round. They could certainly win a game in this series, and maybe even two. But can they beat the Warriors in a best of seven series? Never in a million years. I like Gordon Hayward, but he’s the fifth best player in the series. The four best all play for Golden State. That’s a wrap.

NHL Round 2 Preview

Posted: 04/27/2017 by levcohen in Hockey

The first round of the NHL playoffs was.. bizarre. On the one hand, it was the closest first round in NHL history. A record-setting 18 games went into overtime, meaning that an incredible 43% of first round games went to at least one overtime (another record). And yet… not a single series went the distance, and only four of the eight first round matchups went to six games. That means that four first round matchups were over in a blink, including the two I thought may be the best first round series’ (Blackhawks-Predators and Blues-Wild). I’m hoping we get a Game Seven or two in Round Two. It feels like all four matchups are near-coin flips, and that’s not just because there’s a lot of parity in the NHL. In the Western Conference, we get perhaps the two most impressive first round teams (Nashville and St. Louis) against each other and Anaheim and Edmonton, who finished just two points apart in the Pacific Conference, on the other side of the bracket. In the Eastern Conference, the two best teams in the NHL are pitted against each other for the second consecutive year, meaning that neither the Capitals nor the Penguins will be large second round matchups and that both Ottawa and the Rangers have a legitimate shot at making the Eastern Conference Finals. Last year, the Penguins beat the Capitals in six tough games and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Anything can happen in the latter rounds of the NHL playoffs, so I won’t guarantee that the winner of this series wins it all again this year, but I will say that the odds of that happening are pretty darn good. The Penguins were electric in the first round, while the Capitals have been the deepest, most talented team in hockey all season. Regardless of what happens, I can assure you that it’ll be entertaining. The NHL playoffs always are.

I know I’m posting this a day late (as far as the Western Conference in concerned), but I don’t think home ice advantage means much in hockey (both road teams won last night, for example) and a lot can change quickly in a best of seven series. Anyway, both losers arguably outplayed their opponents last night, so I think it’s fair to continue to call both matchups near tossups. Let’s start in middle America with Music City vs. the Gateway City.

Predators over Blues in six:

The Nashville Predators are coming off a dominant sweep of the Blackhawks (composite score: 13-3), and it’s safe to say that they’re the hottest team in hockey. If you haven’t watched the Predators yet this year, you may be surprised to find out that this isn’t the Nashville of old, the team that relied on Pekka Rinne to pull wins out of thin air. Actually, while you wouldn’t have guessed it from the first round (Rinne saved 123 of the 126 shots that came his way), the goaltender position is arguably one of the Predators’ few weak spots. Rinne had a .918 save percentage this year, still solid but middle-of-the-pack-solid and certainly not the world beater type numbers Rinne used to regularly post. The Predators have transitioned away from their reliance on Rinne and are now a much younger and more balanced team. Before last season, the Predators hadn’t had a 30-goal scorer since 2009-2010, despite generally having good-to-great teams in that span. Now, they’ve had two 30-goal scorers in two straight seasons. This year, those two were 22-year-old sniper Filip Forsberg and 24-year-old Viktor Arvidsson, who had a breakout season alongside Forsberg and 24-year-old Ryan Johansen on Nashville’s excellent top line. The top line accounts for a lot of the scoring, and it’s also a tremendous puck-possessing unit. Nashville’s philosophy is clear: play fast, move the puck, and make controlled entries into the offensive zone. That’s why trading Shea Weber for P.K. Subban last offseason was such a good move for the Predators to make. Weber’s a great player, but Subban has made a clear difference for the Predators in 5-on-5 situations (whereas Weber is a superior power play point man). Among the 197 defenseman who played at least 500 minutes this season, Subban ranked eighth in Corsi For % (that’s total shots for over total shots for and against, not just shots on goal) at 55.02%. CF% is generally regarded as the best way of measuring puck possession, so it’s telling that Subban ranked eighth (ninth if we’re talking about Corsi relative to team) while Weber ranked 55th (142nd relative to his team). The Predators have a big four of defensemen between 26 and 28 years old in whom they have supreme confidence. This may prove to be an issue come expansion draft time, when the Preds may be forced to deal one or leave one unprotected, but right now it’s a huge luxury to feel totally comfortable about giving four defensemen 24 minutes+ per game. Subban is Subban, Roman Josi has been really good for awhile, Ryan Ellis led the team in plus-minus, and Mattias Ekholm is developing into a shutdown defenseman. As I said, that’s a pretty good foursome to be relying on. Outside of the first line, the Predators have a proven goal scorer in James Neal and a bunch of other solid pieces (although the loss of Kevin Fiala, who broke his leg in the Game One win over the Blues, is big. Fiala had the best CF% outside of the first line). This is a good team, one whose title hopes hinge on Pekka Rinne. If Rinne is who he was in Round One, the Predators have a good shot to win it all. If he’s not, the Blues are more than capable of disposing of them, Game One loss aside.

The Blues were also very impressive in the first round, as they quickly beat a Minnesota Wild team that I actually really liked and thought had a chance to win it all. In fairness, the Wild dominated the series from a pace and shooting standpoint, but the Blues got outstanding performance after outstanding performance from young goalie Jake Allen. Unfortunately, Allen probably isn’t going to keep winning games by himself, so the rest of the Blues are going to have to improve a lot for St. Louis to have a chance against a rolling Nashville team. This is a familiar St. Louis team, with defensive stalwarts Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Colton Parayko putting up huge minutes (the one difference: Kevin Shattenkirk is gone) and a huge portion of the scoring punch coming from the dynamic Vladimir Tarasenko (116 goals in the last three seasons). I’m not going to spend much time writing about the Blues, because this feels very familiar: it’s a solid team that always posts good-but-not-great puck possession numbers and, for one reason or another, can’t get over the hump in the postseason. They came close last year, when they pushed the Sharks to six games in the Western Conference Finals. I don’t think they’ll get as close this year because, Tarasenko aside, they’re not nearly as talented as Nashville is.

Oilers over Ducks in seven:

Everyone who isn’t a Ducks fan should want the Oilers to win. They’re young and exciting. They have the best young player in the world in Connor McDavid. I can’t tell you just how good McDavid already is. He scored 100 points this year, and he hasn’t even scratched the surface. He turned 20 a few months ago. Also, the Ducks are kind of brutish and nasty. They ranked second in the league in hits, and they commit a lot of penalties (but are rarely punished for them because they have a great penalty kill). Corey Perry is the jerkiest good player in the NHL. But the biggest thing is that the Ducks have won their division for five straight seasons and aren’t going away. Yeah, I dislike the Ducks because they’re good. Sue me.

Anaheim finished with 105 points this year despite finishing 19th in Corsi For% (49.68%, a spot behind Edmonton). Something’s got to give, right? Well, against Calgary (10th in Corsi) in the first round, the Corsi gave and the Ducks romped to a sweep even though talented goalie John Gibson was inconsistent. Ryan Getzlaf is hitting on all cylinders (11 goals and 30 assists in his last 30 games), Corey Perry is annoyingly good, and Patrick Eaves, who scored 11 goals in 20 games after being acquired from Dallas, continued to play super well on the first line. But I wonder how this aging forward group would do in a longer, more competitive series. Getzlaf is 32, Eaves is 33, Kesler is 32, and Perry is 31. But Anaheim’s forward group makes up for what they may lack for in youthfulness and stamina with tremendous smarts and confidence. If I were an Anaheim fan, I’d be more worried about my goalie than Perry, Getzlaf, or Kesler, who’ve all been producing for the Ducks for so long.

You know a really good way to measure someone’s impact? Look at how much better the veterans around him are than they were before. The veteran on Connor McDavid’s line is Patrick Maroon, who’s in his sixth season and who never had more than 12 goals in a season before this year. Guess how many goals he scored this season? 27. That’s the Connor effect. The problem with the Oilers is that they only go two lines deep offensively. Nobody outside of the top six scored more than 35 points this season or provided much in the way of puck-possession help. But guess what? That’s also Anaheim’s problem! This is why I don’t think either of these teams is actually very good! This is why I think the winner of this series will be underdogs next round! Anyway, I digress.

It’s not quite as simple as experience vs. youth, because Anaheim’s defense is young and good. But in a fairly even series between two teams heading in different directions (I hope. It’s time, Anaheim), give me Connor McDavid.

Capitals over Penguins in six:

I’m pretty sure that the Capitals are better than the Penguins. But can they finally vanquish their playoff bugaboos? Nobody has a deeper group of 12 forwards and six defensemen. Nobody has a better goalie than Braden Holtby (and especially the playoff version of Braden Holtby). 13 guys put up 25+ points. The team had easily the best goal differential in hockey. This is the best team in the NHL, and there isn’t much else to say… except that they’ve never made the third round with Alex Ovechkin, who’s been on the Capitals since 2005-06. That’s pretty incredible, and if the streak is ever going to end, it’ll end this year. But Washington’s opponents are pretty good, too…

The Columbus Blue Jackets are a good hockey team. They were one of the best teams in the NHL this year, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina Trophy. It just didn’t seem like it in the first round, when the Penguins scored 21 goals in five games against the Jackets. They just have so much offensive firepower. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both had great seasons, Phil Kessel scored 70 points and has continued to provide elite playoff production, and five others added 15+ goal seasons. The Penguins easily led the NHL in goals this season and are a tough matchup for any defense.

The Penguins will be able to score, but can they stop the Capitals? Matt Murray is injured, which didn’t matter much against Columbus but could against the Capitals. Marc-Andre Fleury is obviously a great backup to have, but the Penguins would obviously much rather have Murray and Fleury at their disposal than just Fleury. They also don’t have top defenseman Kris Letang. Again, they were able to survive their flaws against Columbus, but I don’t think they’ll be able to survive against the Capitals. Washington is so much deeper, and their defense is so much better. This is the year.

Rangers over Senators in seven:

Neither of these teams is very good. The winner will probably get blasted by the Capitals or Penguins. I’m not going to waste a lot of words on this series. It’s obviously a cop out to say it’ll come down to the goaltending, but both the Senators and the Rangers rely heavily upon their goalies. We all know what King Henrik can do, but Craig Anderson might be even better at this point. He had the second best save percentage in the NHL this season (behind only Bobrovsky), and he’ll be heavily leaned on again this round. The Senators have the least firepower of any remaining team, and it isn’t particularly close. They scored just 212 goals this year, 22nd in the NHL. Their best offensive threat is Erik Karlsson, who is awesome and all but just so happens to be a defenseman. I just finished talking about Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel, and names like Bobby Ryan and Kyle Turris just don’t quite match those names. Of course, neither do names like Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller, and Derek Stepan. Can the Senators slow the speedy Rangers down? Can they make the series as physical as they made their series with Boston? Can Karlsson pull them to the Eastern Conference Finals? It’s entirely possible, but that’s probably more because the Rangers aren’t very good than because the Senators deserve to be one of the final four teams standing. I’ll take the Rangers, because they’re better at scoring the puck.