NBA Draft Preview Part 2– My Top-20

Posted: 06/21/2018 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

Here is my top-20 list of draft prospects heading into the draft tonight, sorted into tiers:

— Tier 1 —
1. Luka Doncic: A few months ago, I thought of Doncic and DeAndre Ayton as 1a and 1b. But as I’ve thought about it more — and as I’ve begun to watch more of Doncic’s Europe footage — I’ve become convinced that Luka is a cut above. He’s by no means a sure thing, as his subpar three point percentage and lack of elite athleticism are certainly concerns. But keep in mind that he just won EuroLeague MVP at 19-years-old and that he’s produced at an unheard of level in a league that normally shuns young players. I also know that a lot of his skills are going to translate, including his court vision, basketball IQ, pick-and-roll savvy, and his off-the-dribble creation. All of that is enough to convince me that Doncic is easily the best prospect in the draft.

— Tier 2 —
2. DeAndre Ayton: Everything I said about Ayton here remains true. I’m awed by his physical ability and potential. He’s big and strong, but he’s also nimble and fleet. And he’s also a solid (if not knockdown) shooter, one who can hurt you from midrange and sometimes from three. Given all of that and his unstoppable finishing at the rim, it seems likely that Ayton will be an offensive superstar. But his lack of defensive awareness, low (2.3 per 40 minutes) block rate, and questionable decision-making are all worrying. He has true superstar potential, but also maybe a little higher bust potential than we’d like to admit.

3. Jaren Jackson Jr.: The bad news is that Jackson played just 21.8 minutes per game for Michigan State last year and often disappeared even when he was on the court. The good news is that he was playing in circumstances — next to both a plodding center and another lottery prospect (Miles Bridges) who’s also probably best suited as a power forward — that won’t be replicated in the NBA. Jackson’s never going to be an offensive superstar, but his college production and measurables (6’11 with a 7’5 wingspan) suggest that he’s sure to be an excellent supporting player. He averaged 5.5 blocks per 40 minutes and shot 60% from two point range and 40% from three at Michigan State. He profiles as an excellent rim protector who can also switch onto smaller players, which is a very handy skillset indeed. He has deep three point range and DPOY potential, which is about all you can ask for. And he’d fit basically anywhere.

4. Trae Young: Look, I know Young is small, and I know he’s always going to be a defensive liability. But guess what? Most of the best point guards in the NBA are defensive liabilities for two reasons: they’re small, and they carry a huge amount of the offensive load and thus can’t be asked to expend as much energy on defense. The question, then, becomes: can Young become an offensive superstar? And I think the answer is yes. We all saw how good he could be early on in his lone season at Oklahoma. Then, defenses realized that he was the only true threat on a team without much other scoring talent, and his production suffered. Given more space at the next level, I think Young could again begin looking like the guy who took the NCAA by storm. Given the degree of difficulty on most of his threes, the fact that he shot 36% from beyond the arc is actually quite impressive. He was far better than that on catch-and-shoot threes and 86% from the line, and I think it’s pretty clear that he’s a great shooter. He’s also a fantastic passer with a great basketball IQ, at least offensively. He knows how to run an offense, and his shooting also makes him a dangerous off-ball threat. I wouldn’t sleep on Trae Young.

— Tier 3 —
5. Wendell Carter Jr.: Carter is just rock solid on both ends. He’s a smart player who’s sure to be a great complementary player. He’s a better shooter and a better shot-blocker than his Duke teammate Marvin Bagley, who got almost all the attention last season but arguably has a game that’s outdated in the NBA. No, he’s not as talented as Bagley, but I think he’s more likely to help a team win than his flasher Duke teammate is. He’s also a great rebounder and provides the passing and floor-spacing to more than make up for his relative lack of athleticism.

6. Mikal Bridges: Bridges has very little superstar potential, but he’s very likely to become a good 3-and-D role player. And in today’s NBA, that’s very valuable. At 6’7″ with a 7’2″ wingspan, he has ideal length for a small forward, and he made it count in his final season in college, when he was the best player (or at least the best pro prospect) on Villanova’s dominant team. He made steady progress throughout his college career, going from a guy who looked clueless on both ends to a player who was Villanova’s defensive stopper and also shot 44% from three. Bridges knows who he is: 31% of his shots came from spot-up opportunities, and he averaged 1.34 points per shot on those shots. That’s elite. He’s already nearly 22-years-old and is unlikely to ever be a primary creator, but he has a high floor as both a strong shooter and a good wing defender.

7. Marvin Bagley III: Bagley is going to produce big-time immediately. He’s probably the most likely Rookie of the Year winner simply because he can probably put up 20 points and 10 rebounds per game right off the bat. He’s a great athlete, a tremendous finisher, and a hard worker. But he has serious issues, and I’m not sure how easy they’ll be to correct. How does he fit in defensively? He’s neither good enough to be a rim protector (just one block per 40 minutes, thanks in part to a lackluster 7’0″ wingspan) nor quick enough laterally to guard wings. His defensive struggles were likely one of the factors that led Coach K. to switch to a zone. I’m also not convinced that he’ll be a good shooter at the next level, as he shot just 63% from the line. All of that means you have a player who looks the part but may not help a team win.

8. Kevin Knox: I know Knox didn’t always produce at Kentucky, but every time I watched the Wildcats play, I came away being impressed by Knox. First, the negatives: Knox made no defensive impact at Kentucky, he’s not a true playmaker, and he’s kind of a tweener (not quick enough to guard wings, not strong enough to guard bigs). With all of that said, he’s very young, has a beautiful stroke, and has a huge amount of offensive upside. He’s not as good right now as most of the other guys I have ranked around here, so he’s certainly a risk, but Knox has all the tools to become an impact player.

9. Mohamed Bamba: Bamba has tantalizing upside, thanks most obviously to the record-breaking 7’10” wingspan that makes him nearly impossible to score over when his positioning is good. Indeed, he averaged 4.8 blocks per 40 minutes at Texas and has the potential to be a Rudy Gobert-level rim protector on defense. But for Bamba to live up to his billing as a near-consensus top-five prospect, he’s also going to have to improve a ton on offense. You wouldn’t know it from his pre-draft workouts or the way people have been talking about him, but Bamba shot just 28% from three and 68% from the line in college. He also disappeared far too often for a guy with his physical tools and has an injury history (albeit not a particularly expansive one). Of course some team will fall in love with his physical tools, and I think his defensive ability along with his finishing at the rim and overall offensive potential makes him a worthy top-10 pick. But Bamba is far from a sure thing.

10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: SGA was not the most highly-rated recruit on Kentucky’s team last year. He also wasn’t second, third, fourth, or fifth. He was a (gasp) four-star recruit, which would seem pretty good on both college teams but downright pitiful on John Calipari’s Wildcats. That didn’t stop him from becoming Kentucky’s bonafide leader down the stretch. Down the stretch (last 10 games), he averaged 19 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists for the Wildcats, which is pretty good for a guy who spent almost the entire first half of the season coming off the bench. There are a few things I really love about him. He’s a really smooth ball-handler who always seems to make the right play when he has the ball in his hands. He has a super high basketball IQ. He got to the line seemingly at will in college, and hit free throws at a strong rate (82%) when he got there. And at 6’6″ with a 6’11” wingspan, he has great size for a point guard, which makes him a pest on defense and a threat to constantly clog passing lanes. If you’re looking for a volume scorer at point guard, SGA isn’t your guy, at least not yet. While he shot 40% from three, that came on just 1.5 attempts per contest from beyond the arc. But I love his competitiveness and drive and think he’s a great creator out of the pick-and-roll.

11. Michael Porter Jr.: Were it not for his back injury, MPJ would probably be higher on my board. But guess what? Back injuries are scary, and I’m not at all convinced that he’s going to be able to instantly move past his and have a long, healthy NBA career. At the very least, Porter’s health is concerning. At most, it’s disqualifying, which I bet is the case for some NBA teams. If anything, I was tempted to move Porter further down the list. But the next tier of prospects clearly don’t have the potential Porter has to be a go-to scorer down the road. When he’s healthy, Porter’s a great scorer, with the explosiveness to dunk over people and the ability to drain threes off the dribble. But along with his health, Porter’s defense is also concerning. In the few games he played for Missouri, he looked disinterested on the defensive end and often lost his man. He’s a very confident guy, but hopefully he recognizes how far he needs to come on the defensive end.

— Tier 4 —
12. Miles Bridges: I’m relatively low on Michigan State’s Bridges, simply because I think he’s a tweener who profiles as a role-player who just doesn’t fit as seamlessly as Villanova’s Bridges. There’s something to be said for drafting a wing who can finish at the rim and shoot from beyond the arc, as Bridges can. But at 6’6″ with a 6’9″ wingspan and without much lateral quickness, how does Miles Bridges fit in defensively? As I’ve seen it described before, he has the length of a wing but the skill set and athleticism of a big. That can be a good thing, too, as it may mean that Bridges has the versatility to guard both types of players. But I fear it could mean he can guard neither. He’s also not a great creator off the dribble. The single stat that concerns me most? His free throw rate. He took just 23.8 free throws per 100 field goals, an incredibly low number for a top college prospect. That may not seem too concerning by itself, but it reinforces my belief that Bridges isn’t quite explosive enough to create for himself off the dribble, and he doesn’t create well enough for others to make up for it. That likely means he’ll be a useful role-player, and perhaps even a starter, but not more than that.

13. Robert Williams: We’ve seen Robert Williams before. To me, he’s the easiest player in the draft to compare to current NBA players. He’s a physically imposing, rim-running center who gobbles down rebounds and is an elite finisher of lobs and putbacks. Sound familiar? I’m thinking of DeAndre Jordan and of Clint Capela. Give him the ball in transition and on cuts, and let him find it after missed shots. Other than that, he doesn’t have much offensively utility. He averaged just 2.2 assists per 40 minutes this season and shot an abysmal 47% from the line. He has no potential as a three point shooter (well, I guess everyone has some potential to learn how to shoot, but he’s at the bottom end of that range). Defensively, I think he has the potential to be not just a great rim protector (7’4″ wingspan, 3.9 blocks per 40 minutes in college) but also a good (for a big) switcher onto guards thanks to his athleticism and length. Williams is a projectable big man without any real offensive upside, so this feels like the perfect place to put him.

14. Zhaire Smith: Is the shot real? Smith shot 45% from three in his single year in college, but on just 1.1 attempts. He also shot just 72% from the line, indicating that he’s more likely to be a low-mid-30s three point shooter than a high-30s one. And if that’s the case, it’s unclear exactly how he’ll fit in. In college, the 6’5″ Smith primarily played power forward for Texas. That’s surely not going to be the case in the NBA (he’ll be a wing), and I’ve reflected that in ranking Smith 14th. Smith is obviously extraordinarily athletic, as evidenced by gravity-defying dunks like this one. He’s a great finisher at the rim, and a great all-around defender. If I were more confident in his shot, I’d move him into the top-10. But I do still worry about where he’ll fit offensively.

— Tier 5 —
15. Keita Bates-Diop: KBD is another long wing (7’2″ wingspan) who’s as likely as anyone in this draft to be a lockdown defender. That’s why I have him ranked higher than most. He’s lower than Mikal Bridges, though, because his shot is significantly shakier and it remains to be seen how he’ll fit in an offense in which he’s not the focal point (as he was at Ohio State). Still, KBD was extremely impressive for a surprisingly good OSU team last year and did nothing but help his draft stock.

16. Lonnie Walker IV: Walker is a long, supremely athletic guard with the potential to be a go-to scorer. His ceiling is very high for a guy who’s likely to go in the middle of the first round. But he’s likely to be available at the end of the lottery for a reason: he didn’t impress at all at Miami and is a very raw player who’ll probably never figure things out. I hate to put it that way, but it’s a fact. I think Walker could definitely have used another year in college. If I were a team picking in the middle of the first round, though, I’d still be happy to draft Walker simply because he does have the tools to be an elite two-way player.

17. Kevin Huerter: The appeal to Huerter is blatantly obvious: he’s a knockdown shooter. He shot 42% last season at Maryland, and many of those shots came from way beyond the arc and/or were off-balance efforts. He’s also a 6’7″ guard who has good instincts, so I think he has hidden defensive potential too. For now, though, he’s pretty much a one-trick pony. It just so happens that said trick is a rather important skill to have in basketball.

18. Donte DiVincenzo: DiVincenzo’s draft stock has risen meteorically over the last three months, starting with his exceptional all-around NCAA Tournament performance (and especially in the Championship Game against Michigan, when he scored 31 points on 15 shots) and continuing with his combine performance and apparently great workouts in front of teams. I don’t think he’ll be a deadeye shooter (he shot 40% from three but just 71% from the line this season), and his lack of size will keep him from being super versatile defensively, but he’s one of the most athletic players in the draft and has proven that he can create for himself and his teammates. He always rose to the occasion at the biggest moments in college, and I see no reason to believe he won’t become a solid NBA role player with the intense personality and competitiveness to be a great glue guy too.

19. Jacob Evans III: Another 3-and-D player. Evans was one of the keys to Mick Cronin’s best Cincinnati teams. He has the defensive versatility and toughness to be a true Cronin player, and he projects as a reliable mid-30s shooter from beyond in the NBA. Like Miles Bridges, he struggled to get to the line in college, and he shouldn’t be expected to create much in the NBA. But when you’re picking in the back half of the first round, you should be thrilled to get a guy like Evans.

20. Collin Sexton: As you can see, I’m lower on Sexton than most, simply because to me he just looks like another point guard who lacks size (6’1″) and is a shaky long-range shooter. Now, like a lot of those point guards, he has the competitiveness, length, and athleticism to largely make up for those major deficiencies. Sexton is a fearless player and was the linchpin (scoring 40 points) of the most exceptional performance of the year in college basketball, which was Alabama’s near-comeback against Minnesota despite playing 3-on-5 for 10 minutes. He’s definitely going to be a great teammate and has a future in the NBA, but I don’t think it’s very likely that he’ll be a starting point guard, which is why I have him down at 20th. I still like him a lot, but in a deep draft some guys have to drop, right?


NBA Draft Preview Part 1

Posted: 06/20/2018 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

Since before last season’s draft, this draft has been hyped up. That’s true to a certain extent about a lot of drafts, sure (although not next year’s, which is being called weak even a year+ in advance), but was especially so about this one. It was supposed to be stronger than last season’s draft. With the benefit of hindsight, that may no longer be the case, with the emergence of Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell (among others) taking people by surprise. But the fact remains that this draft is thought to be both strong at the top and very deep. I’m going to say right off the bat that I just don’t see it, at least when it comes to the star power at the top. To me, there’s a one-man top tier. And while I wrote a glowing review of DeAndre Ayton a little more than three months ago, he’s not that man. I still think Ayton’s going to be very good, but the more I think about it, the more worried I get that Ayton’s big weaknesses — decision-making, defensive awareness — are uncorrectable and will keep him from being a true superstar. No, the guy at the top of my board is not Ayton but Luka Doncic, the 19-year-old who took over Real Madrid and Europe. I’ll get more into the strength and weaknesses of the individual prospects (and how I rank them) tomorrow, but today I wanted to describe in more general terms the makeup of this year’s draft. More than anything, this draft is defined by…

Big men at the top: Given the direction basketball seems to be going in, you would expect the top draft prospects to be long, versatile wings who project as plus players on both ends of the court and who can fit on any team. In short, 3-and-D wings, the most valuable role players in the game. This year, that means guys like Mikal Bridges, Jacob Evans, Khyri Thomas, Shake Milton, Keita Bates-Diop, Zhaire Smith, and Josh Okogie. But while all of those guys are (to varying degrees) good prospects with NBA futures, none of them rank near the top of most draft boards (Bridges is closest, around 10th on most boards). Instead, the guys going at the top of the draft are big men, also known as the players who regularly get played off the court by the best teams in the NBA. Now, it’s not like teams are ignoring more talented guards and wings and instead taking talentless bigs; it just so happens that there are a lot of talented big men in this draft. But none of them are Anthony Davis-level sure-thing prospects, and I think only Ayton is close to the type of prospect that Karl-Anthony Towns was. I’m talking, of course, about Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, Mo Bamba, and Wendell Carter, who are likely to be five of the first eight or nine picks (and maybe four of the first five). Of those five, Jackson is the only purely modern center in that he’s supposedly a good shooter who can defend bigs and switch onto guards. That would make him, to an even greater extent than the 3-and-D wings of the world, the ultimate role player and the hardest type of guy to find. Bamba is probably next on the list in that sense, although I have a lot of questions about his future (more on that tomorrow). Carter, meanwhile, has obvious limitations but also maybe the highest floor. We know he’s going to be a good center.

As for Ayton and Bagley? Well, they’re the headliners, the reason this big men at the top thing is even a talking point. They’re likely to go one-two, despite their obvious limitations. Why? Because right or wrong, teams at the top of the draft don’t want players who profile as even elite role players (a la Jackson). They want superstars, and the Suns and Kings at least seem to think that Ayton and Bagley have the highest potential in the draft. That’s why it’s useful to judge the prospects in the draft — any draft, really — not just by where you think they’re most likely to end up but also by how likely you think they are to, say, become a superstar, become an all-star, become a good role player, or become a bust. Mikal Bridges may have the highest role player+ potential in the draft, but he certainly doesn’t have the highest superstar potential. And it’s that superstar potential that’s enabling teams to look past clear NBA trends — teams are going smaller and faster — and pick the players with the most obvious potential.

Uncertainty: Last year by this time, we had a pretty good idea about how things were going to go. We knew that Markelle Fultz would go #1, Lonzo Ball #2, Jayson Tatum #3, and Josh Jackson #4. Beyond that, things still went pretty much as planned. Jonathan Givony’s (then of DraftExpress, now of ESPN) mock draft got the first 10 picks correct, then had Charlotte taking Donovan Mitchell (they took Malik Monk) before nailing #12 (Luke Kennard to Detroit). So last year was shockingly predictable. This year, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We know who’s going #1, but the first monkey wrench comes at #2 with the Kings. We think they’ll take Marvin Bagley, but maybe that was a smokescreen and they wanted Luka Doncic all along. We think Ayton, Bagley, Doncic, and Jaren Jackson will go 1-4 in some order. After that? We don’t really have any idea. Who do the Mavs like? Do the Magic want Trae Young… or do they want Mo Bamba? Are the Bulls set on Michael Porter Jr., or is it Wendell Carter they’re after? Also: it seems likely that trades will happen. The Grizzlies (4th), Bulls (7th), and Clippers (12th and 13th) have been the teams most heavily linked to trades but far from the only ones. Could Kawhi Leonard move on draft night? Will the Raptors move into the first half of the first round for Canadian prodigal son Shai Gilgeous-Alexander? Do the Cavs move their pick in a last gasp effort to keep LeBron James? All these questions (and many more) loom over the draft.

Depth: While I don’t think there’s an abundance of high-end players at the top of the draft, I do share the belief that there is a lot of depth at the back end of the first round and early in the second, specifically at shooting guard (or, more to the point, shorter player who isn’t a good enough ball-handler and/or passer to be a point guard). I’m talking about Donte DiVincenzo, Grayson Allen, Kevin Huerter, Elie Okobo, DeAnthony Melton, Justin Jackson, Landry Shamet, and the non-Bridges and Smith 3-and-D guys mentioned above (because those two will probably go in the top-15). That’s a lot of talent to be had in the 20-40 range, and I think a lot of those guys will become good role players. That’s bad news for teams hoping to catch up to the Warriors (namely: everyone), who own the 28th pick.

My Full World Cup Group Stage Picks

Posted: 06/13/2018 by levcohen in Soccer

I’ve picked Brazil to win the World Cup, but I also want to make full group stage predictions before the games kick off tomorrow. Luckily, there’s a pretty obvious place for me to start these…

Group A:

Uruguay     9
Russia     4
Egypt     2
Saudi Arabia     1

Uruguay is by far the strongest team in this group and really should collect the maximum nine points. The nucleus of the team — strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani along with centerback Diego Godin — is familiar, but new talents like midfielder Lucas Torrerira give Uruguay new strength. With a +12 goal differential in qualifying, Uruguay was the second best team in South America. I’m picking Russia to finish second because they’re a well organized team with enough talent to get past Saudi Arabia and tie Egypt. I’d consider picking Egypt second if I were convinced that Mo Salah was healthy, but even with a healthy Salah I’m concerned that the Egyptians don’t have enough oomph to get out of the group. And Saudi Arabia is probably the worst team in the group. They’ll be lucky to get the point I’m awarding them.

Group B:

Spain     7
Morocco     5
Portugal     4
Iran     0

It’ll be interesting to see whether the dramatic replacement of Julen Lopetegui, who was ousted after the news came out that he was set to end his Spain contract to join Real Madrid, has any impact. I don’t think it’ll keep Spain from finishing first in a pretty straightforward group. Portugal is probably the second strongest team in the group, and I know they won Euro 2016 and have Cristiano Ronaldo, but they’re an older team with old and mistake-prone centerbacks (cough cough Pepe cough cough). Morocco, meanwhile, is full of exciting young talent, with world class creator Hakim Ziyech of Ajax (although not for long, I figure), 20-year-old Amine Harit of Schalke, and Sofyan Amrabat. They also have excellent centerback Mehdi Benatia of Juventus, who’s their captain. Portugal’s better, but I have a hunch that Morocco will be one of two African teams to get through. Iran actually cruised through Asian qualifying (6-4-0 with only two goals allowed), but I expect them to struggle with the opposing talent in this group.

Group C:

France     7
Denmark     4
Peru     4
Australia     1

France should probably win all three games, but they aren’t the best at breaking down organized defenses and the rest of their group will certainly defend in numbers. I think Peru-Denmark is a toss-up, but I just can’t trust a team that’s as reliant on a single player as Denmark is on Christian Eriksen. I still think Denmark will get out of the group, but only on goal difference. Australia has outperformed expectations at some previous World Cups, but this isn’t one of their better teams and I’d be surprised if they win a game.

Group D:

Croatia     6
Argentina     4
Nigeria     4
Iceland     2

Along with Group H, this is the toughest to call from top to bottom. Iceland is a great story and a good team, one I might pick to get out of a different group. But they happen to be in the same group as two teams I’m high on — Croatia and Nigeria — along with Messi’s Argentina. As I’ve said before, I think there’s a real chance that Croatia and Nigeria or Iceland will qualify at the expense of Argentina, but I’ll stick with this prediction in what’s sure to be a tightly contested group. Croatia’s underperformed in the past, but they’re too technically strong to disappoint again, right?

Group E:

Brazil     9
Serbia     4
Costa Rica     3
Switzerland     1

I’m probably wrong to overlook Switzerland, but they’re just such a boring team that I can’t bring myself to pick them to move on. Costa Rica stunningly topped a group that included Italy, Uruguay, and England in 2014 before winning a knockout stage game and losing in the quarterfinals, and I think there’s a chance they can sneak through in second this time around before losing to Germany. Instead, I’m going to pick Serbia to finish second, because they’re very strong in the middle of the field. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is a star and is set to move to a top team after the World Cup. Nemanja Matic is a big, bruising force in the middle, and he’s not alone: Croatia is the biggest team in the World Cup.

Group F:

Germany     9
Mexico     4
Sweden     4
South Korea     0

I expect Germany to cruise, but who knows? Mexico and Sweden are both good teams who can cause anyone problems on their days. Sweden has excelled in the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era, playing with more discipline and cohesiveness and remaining strong and compact defensively. And Mexico always gets out of their groups and has an attack spruced up by Hirving Lozano, one of the top young players in the tournament, and crowd favorite Chicharito, who has 49 goals in 102 career games for Mexico. It’s an experienced team, and I trust them to advance. South Korea is one of the less inspiring teams in the field, although they do have Tottenham star Son Heung-min. They struggled in Asian qualifying, finishing second behind Iran in their group and going just 4-3-3 with a +1 goal differential against Iran, Syria, Uzbekistan, China, and Qatar.

Group G:

Belgium     7
England     7
Tunisia     3
Panama     0

This is the easiest group to predict. I’d be very surprised if either Belgium or England failed to advance, and I think Belgium’s stronger attack will be enough to push the Red Devils over England on goal difference. Panama and Tunisia are probably both among the five worst teams at the World Cup (Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Australia are the others).

Group H:

Poland     6
Senegal     6
Colombia     3
Japan     3

This is the group I’m most excited for. I think all four teams have a chance to not just advance but top the group. There are going to be a lot of goals in this group. Poland has Robert Lewandowski, probably the best pure striker in the world, and a pair of young Napoli attackers (Piotr Zielinski and Arkadiusz Milik) who add plenty of support. They scored the fifth most goals in European qualifying, behind four teams — Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and Germany — who dominated their groups. They also gave up the most goals of any European qualifier. And all three of their competitors have plenty of attacking talent. Japan’s probably the worst team in the group, but I think they’re getting overlooked a little bit. In Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki, Japan has three high-profile attacking players who have proven themselves at high levels of club competition. They’re also all in their primes, along with centerback mainstay Maya Yoshida and star Marseille fullback Hiroki Sakai. They do have some defensive issues, and those will probably be exploited at the World Cup. I wrote that Colombia, the group’s favorite, may miss the knockout stage, and I’m putting my money where my mouth is. They have a good team but little scoring punch outside of James and Falcao. As for Senegal, they’re a risky bet because they have just four players older than 28 and because I’m unsure how exactly they will line up. But they have star winger Sadio Mane of Liverpool on one side and Monaco’s Keita Balde on the other. Napoli centerback Kalidou Koulibaly and Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye provide strength and structure in the middle of the field. They’re going to score goals. I’m sure they’ll also be exposed some defensively, but I want them to qualify and think they have the talent to do so, so second place it is for Senegal.

Why Brazil Will Win the World Cup

Posted: 06/13/2018 by levcohen in Soccer

According to the betting markets, there is a clear group of six World Cup favorites: Brazil, Germany, Spain, France, Argentina, and Belgium. All six are 11:1 shots to win or better. There are then five more teams with better than 60:1 (~2 percent) chances to win, including England, Portugal, Uruguay, Croatia, and Colombia. I think it’s likely that one or two of those teams will make deep runs into the tournament, but I’d be very surprised if any of them — or anyone with longer odds — win the whole tournament. That leaves the top six. To me, the favorites are favorites for one of two reasons: 1) they have a ridiculous amount of talent; 2) they have a proven gameplan that works, and they know how to maximize their (still great, but not quite as terrifying) talent. I’d put France, Belgium, and Argentina in the first group. I think France has more talent than anyone. Their starting lineup — and even their bench — is full of players who star for the best club teams in the world. But they don’t really have a defined identity, starting 11, or way they want to play. Do they opt for speed and start Antoine Griezmann up top with Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele on either side? Or do they go with the same front three they started in their last pre-tournament game, with the (in relative terms, anyway) plodding Olivier Giroud next to Mbappe up top and world class striker Griezmann playing as an attacking midfielder? Will they start two in central midfield or three? Can they get the best out of Paul Pogba, an extraordinary talent who hasn’t impressed at Manchester United? It’s a young team, but it’s one that has had recent success — France nearly won (and probably should have won) Euro 2016. I think we have a pretty good idea who will start for Belgium, but I have some of the same concerns with the Red Devils. Will they opt for the possession and precision passing style that made Manchester City so dominant this season with Belgian star Kevin De Bruyne as their heartbeat? Or will they sit back and try to score on the counter? What of the reported argument between De Bruyne and coach Roberto Martinez? Is Martinez good enough to lead a team to the World Cup? Like France, Belgium is chock-full of talent. De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and Dries Mertens are all exceptional attack-minded players who are squarely in their primes, while the centerback trio of Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld, and Jan Vertonghen are all proven stars for their English club teams. This is truly Belgium’s golden generation, which is why they’re one of the favorites to win and why they’re ranked third in the world by FIFA’s admittedly faulty ranking system. But like France, they’ll have to settle some tactical issues. As for Argentina, I wrote that they could be knocked out of their group, and I don’t consider them to be on the same level as these other teams. But they’re one of the favorites for a reason: they have Lionel Messi, the best player in the world, and a whole lot of other attacking talent.

Germany and Spain, meanwhile, are very talented teams, but neither one has the glitzy attacking talent of France, Belgium, or Argentina. But Spain and Germany especially both have systems that have led them to glory before. Spain’s team is very different from the one that won the World Cup in 2010, but their style is very much the same. They pass and pass and pass until inevitably they find a hole, and then they attack. They’ve gone 20 straight games without a loss, and I don’t expect the style to change much even after their bizarre sudden coaching change. Germany, meanwhile, is very mentally sound both without the ball and with it. They aren’t prone of off-ball errors — say, losing focus for a moment and failing to prevent a quick through-ball — and they don’t turn the ball over much. That all starts with Toni Kroos, the central midfielder who I’d consider to be their heartbeat. Like Spain, they don’t have a big-name striker (Timo Werner, likely their starting striker, is 22-years-old and plays for RB Leipzig). Like Spain, it doesn’t really matter. They won the World Cup in 2014 with most of their scoring — including the dramatic winning goal in the Final — coming from their midfield. By the way, the guy who scored that goal, Mario Gotze, is one of a few high-profile players who was left out of Germany’s World Cup squad. That’s because Germany doesn’t care about names. They just want to be absolutely certain that each of their 23 players plays a role they’re comfortable playing and that they have the right players for every type of game. It’s no coincidence that Spain and Germany are the last two World Cup winners.

The one team I haven’t mentioned, of course, is Brazil. That’s because I think Brazil is the lone team that is both uber-talented and well organized, which is why I consider them to be the favorites. First of all, almost every player on the team is in his prime. The only Brazil player younger than 24 or older than 33 is Gabriel Jesus, who at 21 is an established striker at Manchester City and scored seven goals with five assists in 10 World Cup qualifying games. Jesus, of course, isn’t Brazil’s only top-level talent. Neymar is the team’s star and probably the future best player in the world. Neymar is one of the trickiest dribblers and best playmakers in the world, and he’s likely to score some goals. Unlike in 2014, though, when Brazil was infamously drubbed 7-1 by Germany with Neymar injured, they have other attacking threats this time around. Philippe Coutinho is a dangerous passer and shooter from distance, Willian has great dribbling ability, and Brazil also has depth. Douglas Costa and Roberto Firmino, both star players at club level, will likely come off the bench to provide scoring punch when needed. In central midfield, Brazil will likely start Barcelona’s Paulinho, Real Madrid’s Casemiro, and maybe Manchester City’s Fernandinho in place of Willian or Coutinho against stronger attacks. Marcelo is for my money the best left back in the world, especially offensively. At centerback, Brazil can pick from two excellent PSG players — the experienced Thiago Silva and the younger Marquinhos — and Inter Milan’s Miranda, who provides stability. And while the injury to normal right back Dani Alves is a blow, Danilo is a capable replacement and a guy who played regularly for Manchester City. There’s not as much defensive depth as there is up top, but the defense is hardly a weakness. Alisson completes the team and is a good goalie who excelled at Roma this season. In addition to its depth, Brazil plays cohesively under its manager, Tite. They scored 41 goals and conceded just 11 in 18 qualifying games, dominating the rest of South America en route to a 12-5-1 record (their one loss came at Chile, who didn’t even make the World Cup). They’re known for playing in devastating triangles, taking advantage of the attacking ability of their fullbacks and the mobility of their front three or four. They’re also both more experienced and more confident than they were in 2014, when they were a young team playing under immense pressure at home. The pressure will still be there; it is Brazil, after all. But this team is cohesive, talented, and confident. They’re my pick to take home the World Cup.

The World Cup starts on Thursday with Russia-Saudi Arabia. Nothing signals the start of the biggest sporting event in the world like a game between FIFA’s 67th (Saudi Arabia) and 70th (Russia) ranked teams, right? Of course, Russia may not have qualified for the tournament period had they not received automatic qualification as the host nation. Instead, not only did they qualify without going through the rigorous European qualification campaign that felled the likes of Italy, the Netherlands, and Austria, but they also were designated as a Pot 1 team alongside FIFA’s top seven teams (Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, and France). Remember, this is largely the same Russia team as the one that earned just one point in EURO 2016, drawing England before losing to Slovakia and getting thrashed by Wales (neither of whom qualified for the World Cup, by the way). The result is that Group A is one of the easiest groups in World Cup history. Saudi Arabia and Russia, by ranking the two worst teams in the tournament, are joined by Uruguay and Egypt. It’s a dream group for Uruguay, a talented team featuring star strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani (the leading scorer in CONMEBOL qualifying with 10 goals, three more than anyone else) and a solid structure that led them to a strong second place showing in South American qualifying (behind just Brazil). I think Uruguay could finish second behind either Egypt or Russia, but it’s hard for me to imagine them finishing third or fourth and missing out on the knockout stage entirely. But the result of Group A being so weak is that some of the other World Cup groups feature three or even four strong teams. Uruguay is not in much danger, but a fewer of the other group’s favorites may be. And it seems like every four years, at least one tournament favorite gets knocked out early. In 2014, that team was Spain, which was coming off of a historic streak of wins in the 2008 Euro Championship, the 2010 World Cup, and the 2012 Euro Championship. In 2010, both France and Italy failed to make it out of their groups. Here are the two favorites who could realistically fail to reach the knockout stage of the World Cup in 2018:

Argentina: This Argentina team really confuses me. On the one hand, they have a lot of top-end talent. Lionel Messi is the top-endest of top-end talents, for my money the best player of all-time. But he’s shockingly never won a tournament (World Cup or otherwise) for Argentina, and this may well be his last chance given that he’s already gone into and out of international retirement. Messi will likely have free rein to create for Argentina, and he’s joined by plenty of attacking talent. Sergio Aguero is one of the top strikers in the world, and while he’s always an injury risk, it seems like he’s getting healthy at the right time. Gonzalo Higuain is also a striker with great pedigree, although he’s had a troubled international career. Throw in Juventus’s Paulo Dybala, PSG’s Angel Di Maria, and Boca Juniors’s up-and-coming Cristian Pavon and it’s obvious that Argentina has buckets of attacking talent. And yet.. they scored just 19 goals in South American qualifying in 18 games. That was tied for the second-lowest mark in the 10-team group, ahead of only Bolivia. Brazil, meanwhile, scored 41. The offensive struggles were what necessitated a coaching change midway through the qualifying campaign. Meanwhile, Argentina’s defense was tremendous in World Cup qualifying and yet clearly has holes going into the tournament. The biggest hole is at goalkeeper. With starting keeper Sergio Romero ruled out due to a knee injury, the starting goalie will probably be Willy Caballero, a backup goalie for Chelsea on club level who struggled last season. Given that coach Jorge Sampaoli seems likely to throw a lot of men forward, especially in games against defensive teams like Iceland, Argentina could well be suspect to counter-attacks. That makes defensive duties very important, and Argentina has some question marks there. Javier Mascherano has long been Argentina’s defensive midfielder, a key to stopping nascent counter-attacks. But he’s 34-years-old now, and his move to China at club level can’t have helped his fitness. That’ll put more pressure on the defense. Nicolas Otamendi and Federico Fazio are a solid central defensive duo, but I wouldn’t call them dominant. Depending on how Argentina decides to play — and how many of their attack-minded players they decide to shove onto the field — I could see Otamendi and/or Fazio being exposed by Nigerian, Icelandic, and Croatian counter-attacks.

Argentina isn’t a very well-rounded team, they struggled through qualifying, they’re missing their starting goalie, and they don’t have an identity. If you’re forecasting them to make a run in the tournament, you’re probably betting that Messi will carry them game after game. And if you’re betting on an individual player, there’s no better bet than Messi. That’s why, despite all the holes, I could see Argentina making the same type of run they did in 2014, when they lost to Germany in the finals. But they also have big bust potential. They were handed a tough group with no pushovers. Iceland’s the smallest nation to make a World Cup, but they’re legit. They reached the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 by beating England, and they qualified atop their qualification group. Second in that group was Croatia, who also happen to be in Group D. The Croats have a lot of talent and the explosiveness to hit Argentina on the break. I’m excited for the Argentina-Croatia game because it has the potential for a lot of goals. And the fourth team in the group, Nigeria, can’t be discounted either. Talent-wise, Argentina is the best team in the group, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were to fail to qualify due to their weaknesses and the overall strength of their group.

Colombia: It was easy to fall in love with Colombia in the 2014 World Cup. They had the breakout star of the tournament, James Rodriguez (then of Monaco), who secured a move to Real Madrid thanks to his tremendous performance, which included six goals (including a couple of marvelous ones). They had synchronized dances after goals. And they were good, too, winning all three group games (9-2 total score) and blanking Uruguay 2-0 before bowing out by a respectable 2-1 score to host Brazil in the quarterfinals. They did all of that without star striker Radamel Falcao, who tore his ACL before the 2014 World Cup and missed the tournament. Falcao is back this year and coming off of a tremendous year (24 goals in 36 games for Monaco). James is still the fulcrum and, at 26, is in the prime of his career. He scored eight goals and assisted on 13 more while on loan for Bayern Munich, one of the best clubs in the world. With key players like Juan Cuadrado (the speedy Juventus winger who also opened eyes in 2014) and Davinson Sanchez (a 21-year-old central defender who became a starter for Tottenham in his first season in London) also playing well coming into the tournament, the stage is set for an even deeper run in 2018… Or is it?

For all their strengths, Colombia has glaring holes. Who’ll play next to Sanchez at centerback? Is it Cristian Zapata, who’s an established option but barely played for AC Milan this year? In recent friendlies, the answer has been Yerry Mina, a 23-year-old Barcelona centerback who played just six games for Barca this season. Mina surely has talent, but will his lack of experience (combined with Sanchez’s youth) cost Colombia? I came into this thinking fullback may be another concern, but I’m backing off of that stance after doing research. Fullbacks Frank Fabra and Santiago Arias are both established options in their primes, and both were regular starters for Boca Juniors and PSV Einhdhoven respectively. But I continue to think that central midfield is an issue. Abel Aguilar and Carlos Sanchez are 33 and 32-years-old respectively and have a lot of experience playing next to one another. But while both are rock solid (Sanchez, in fact, has earned the nickname “The Rock”), neither offer much creativity, which could be a problem given that Colombia will surely have to break down organized defenses in the World Cup. That’s why it’s no surprise that, despite the attacking punch brought from James, Cuadrado, and Falcao, Colombia scored just 21 goals in qualifying and finished a point ahead of Chile, who missed out on the tournament entirely.

One factor that could help Colombia: they’ve consistently showed the ability to edge past teams with less talent. That’s how they were able to qualify for the World Cup despite failing to win a single game (they lost four and tied two) against Brazil, Argentina, or Uruguay, the three top qualifiers from South America. But while their group hasn’t gotten much attention, I think both Poland and Senegal could be real threats to Colombia. Poland is led by Robert Lewandowski, the star Bayern striker who scored 16 goals in World Cup qualifying, tops among all European players. The Poles went 8-1-1 in qualifying and remain devastating in attack, although their defense is suspect. And Senegal is brimming with talent, with Sadio Mane up front, Idrissa Gana Gueye and Badou Ndiaye in midfield, and Kalidou Koulibaly in defense. All three teams should beat up on Japan, which has four losses and one tie in their last five games and really lacks the oomph that the rest of the group has. The odds are that Colombia will advance, but they’re not that much better than either Poland or Senegal and could realistically be knocked out.

That means I rate Brazil, Germany, Spain, Uruguay, France, and Belgium as safe. Could one of those six fail to qualify? Sure. But it would probably take a complete meltdown, and I’m not going to try to guess which team may have a complete meltdown. It wouldn’t take a complete meltdown for either Argentina or Colombia to miss out. They have weaker squads (barring Uruguay) and tougher groups than the favorites in the other groups.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the fact that the most dominant pitchers in baseball are surprisingly old. I think there’s a clear top echelon of starting pitchers based on recent performance, and that list includes Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, and Chris Sale. All five have been dominant basically throughout their careers and especially recently. And all have been around for a while at this point. Scherzer is 33 and is on pace for his sixth straight 200+ inning season. Verlander is 35 and is up to 2626.1 career innings. Only Bartolo Colon, C.C. Sabathia, and John Lackey (who may or may not pitch again) have thrown more innings among active pitchers. Kluber is 32, although he has way fewer MLB innings under his belt because he didn’t become a full-time starter until he was 27. Sale is 29 but has a small frame and has already thrown a ton of innings (1405.1, well over a full season’s worth more than Kluber). And Kershaw, the best of them all, is 30 and has a back problem that seems to be chronic. He’s avoided the DL in just one of the past five seasons now and has made just eight starts this year and is back on the disabled list. So unlike the other four, all of whom rank in the top-10 of Fangraphs WAR this year (with Scherzer and Verlander 1-2), he hasn’t been performing at a high level this year, but I thought his track record was enough to elevate him into the top echelon anyway.

The success of these aging pitchers has come at the same time as the ascendance of young, absurdly good hitters. There’s just one 30+-year-old hitter in the top-12 of WAR, and that’s Brandon Belt, who’s all of 30 and one month. This line of thinking led me to another: who would be the players I’d most like to build around for the next 10 years, and how far down would I have to go to get to the first pitcher? The answer is pretty far, and it’s not just because the best pitchers are on the older side. It’s also because pitchers are more susceptible to injuries and thus far more risky and less likely to be available and good 10 years down the road regardless of how good they are now.

I’m valuing each of the next 10 years at 10% each and am obviously disregarding contracts in order to most simply answer the question: which players are the best building blocks thanks to some combination of ability, versatility, and consistency? Here’s my list:

1. Mike Trout (26-years-old): At 26, Trout is older than a lot of players on this list, but he’s still impossible to beat. He’s the best player in baseball by a wide margin, and he may not even have peaked yet. He’s on pace to have the best season of his career. Combine that with his durability (barring last year, of course) and the fact that he should still be in his prime for most of this 10 year window and you have a clear #1 pick.

2. Francisco Lindor (24): Lindor is the second or third best defensive shortstop in baseball (behind the incomparable Andrelton Simmons). He’s also a great hitter who will probably be worth 8+ WAR in his best seasons, which are sure to come in the next 10 years. It’s hard to do much better than a 24-year-old shortstop who has been durable and was worth 4+ WAR in each of his first three seasons (before likely blowing that number out of the water this year).

3. Mookie Betts (25): This is pretty bad timing for Mookie, as he was just put on the DL with an abdominal strain, but 10 days off is but a blip for Betts. He fell in the draft and was overlooked because of his height (5’9″) but like Dustin Pedroia before him has become a star in Boston anyway. His 2016 season was MVP-worthy, and after an offensive setback last year he’s on his way to blowing past those 2016 numbers. He’s also a great defender and barely strikes out, which makes him the complete package. The fact that he plays corner outfield is all that keeps him from jumping Lindor.

4. Carlos Correa (23): Had Correa not gotten injured last year and missed roughly 50 games, he might be ahead of Lindor. Because like his counterpart on the Indians, he’s a tremendous young two-way shortstop who’s already proven himself. He’s at least as gifted as a hitter as Lindor but lags slightly behind defensively. His size (6’4″, 215 pounds) makes it at least plausible that he’ll move away from shortstop at some point, while Lindor was born to play short. But I’m nitpicking, because you can’t go wrong with a shortstop who’s amassed more than 15 WAR before his 24th birthday.

5. Manny Machado (25): Machado’s stock has taken a slight hit since the start of 2017. He had a really bad (.259/.310/.471) offensive season last year, and has rebounded this year. But his long-awaited move to shortstop has also come this year, and he hasn’t been the plus defender at short that he was at third base. It’ll be interesting to see where he plays with his next team, because Machado at third base is a true two-way difference maker. But even if he’s an average defensive shortstop, his age and offensive profile make him a tremendous building block.

6. Aaron Judge (26): Judge can’t fall past here simply because he rakes and is as close to a sure thing as can be. I know he’s an average defender who plays corner outfield, and that’s obviously what put the other five ahead of him. But he hits for average, walks, and hits a ton of homers. Pretty lethal combination! He’s the best bet to lead MLB in OPS over the next 10 years. And I’m pretty confident that he’ll be productive through his mid-30s.

7. Corey Seager (24): Seager will likely miss the rest of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow. Otherwise, he’d be right up there with fellow young shortstops Lindor and Correa. He actually topped both of them in WAR in 2016-17, with better offensive output than Lindor and better defense than Correa. He takes a hit because of the injury and because we can’t be 100% certain that he’ll be as good as he was before, but besides that he’s the complete package.

8. Kris Bryant (26): It seems like the Kris Bryant hype has died down of late. Maybe that’s because we all got Kris Bryant overload the year the Cubs rampaged through the league and won the World Series. It certainly isn’t because Kris Bryant’s stock has depreciated, because it hasn’t. He may not quite have the homer potential that he was advertised to have coming up, but he’s more than made up for it by hitting .288 with a career .390 OBP and .527 SLG. If anything, those numbers undersell how good Bryant is as a hitter and will be going forward. He’s also a solid defensive third baseman, although I’m skeptical about whether someone of his size (6’5″) can stay that way when he’s on the wrong side of 30.

9. Jose Ramirez (25): There’s a case to be made that Ramirez, the Indians’ third baseman, only fell this far because he doesn’t have the pedigree of any of the flashier names above his. Here are his stats since the beginning of 2016: .313/.372/.541, 120 doubles, 58 homers, 46 steals, 127 walks, 156 strikeouts. Pretty good. He’s also a good defensive third baseman who should be in his prime or thereabouts for most of this 10-year window. Maybe I should have had him higher.

10. Bryce Harper (25): Harper falls this far because he’s not as well-rounded nor as consistent as most of the players above him. After his unbelievable 2015 MVP season, he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, and his poor defense means that he has a smaller margin for error. But there’s still no doubt that he’s an exceptional hitter who has many great years ahead of him. There’s something to be said for plugging in a no-doubt offensive stud in your lineup until he’s 35.

11. Ozzie Albies (21): The first 10 players on this list are established stars between the ages of 23 and 26. I value them highly because I’m very confident in their output for the first five-seven years of the 10-year window. But I recognize that most of them will not return the same value at the end. That’s not true of Albies. I was tempted to move him higher up the list because he’s vastly outperformed expectations, especially power-wise. He’s also a very strong defender at second base and will likely remain one for the duration of this window. But the error bars are a lot bigger offensively than they are for everyone above (and most below) him on the list, so I chose to be somewhat cautious.

12. Andrew Benintendi (23): Benintendi isn’t much more experienced than Albies, but he’s far more of a sure thing. He was a great hitter in college, was drafted seventh overall in the 2015 draft because he was thought to be close to a lock to be a good Major League hitter, and quickly climbed to the big leagues for just that reason. He’s not terrible defensively, and it’s been interesting to see him play center field for the Red Sox, who have chosen to rest the struggling Jackie Bradley Jr. liberally. But most of his value comes with his bat, and I feel confident in saying that he’s going to be a very good hitter for the next 10 years. Can he reach the heights of a Judge or Harper? That’s still to be determined. P.S., look out for his sneaky speed. He stole 20 bags last year and is on pace for 20+ more steals this year.

13. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (19): I know, he’s never played a game above AA. But I think this is about right anyway, and it has nothing to do with the identity of his father. Guerrero is such a skilled hitter that it’s impossible for me to imagine him not making multiple All-Star games. He’s hitting .414/.464/.691 in AA this year, boosting his career MiLB numbers to .329/.416/.522. He has more career walks than strikeouts, and there’s no reason to believe that his power numbers won’t go way up as he matures. It remains to be seen what position he plays in MLB, but he’s a good enough hitter that it won’t really matter. I acknowledge that this could look spectacularly wrong in five years (let alone 10).

14. Trea Turner (24): Turner, the Nationals’ shortstop, hasn’t quite put together a great all-around year yet, but he clearly has all the tools. He’s a great base stealer, with 97 career steals in 255 games. He’s a solid defensive shortstop. He probably doesn’t have 30-homer power (even in this ball-inflated era), and he’s been susceptible to injuries, but if he stays healthy there’s no reason that he can’t average 5+ WAR over a five-seven year period.

15. Shohei Ohtani (23): You won’t have to wait long for the first pitcher-only, but here’s the first pitcher. Two months into his career, Ohtani has proven that he is skilled enough to do the impossible: hit and pitch and provide strong value with both. He’s hitting .292/.380/.557 through 121 plate appearances and has a 3.18 ERA and 3.24 FIP through eight starts. Couple that with his NPB stats and his age and there’s no reason to think he can’t keep this up. The one thing that keeps him from being higher on this list is my concern that he’ll be more susceptible to injuries than most for, well, the obvious reason. But even if he becomes exclusively a pitcher, I think he’s good enough that he’ll be able to return good value.

16. Luis Severino (24): Severino’s an established ace with great stuff, and he’s young enough that it’s conceivable that he’ll remain great throughout the 10-year period. What more can I ask for? Besides for him to be on a team other than the Yankees, absolutely nothing. The only reason he ranks this low is the fact that he’s a pitcher, and as I mentioned above I’m inherently nervous about pitchers.

17. Aaron Nola (24): Like Severino, Nola is already an ace and likely has at least one Cy Young award in his future. Unlike Severino, he’s never lasted a full season. Fingers crossed that that ends this year.

18. Gleyber Torres (21): Am I jumping the gun a little bit? Probably. But Torres produced at ever stop in the minors and has produced so far in the big leagues through 130 plate appearances. The Yankees’ infielder is a talented hitter, and I’ll get him for his entire prime. Plus, I want to be sure that I’m not paying for past performance, so guys like Nolan Arenado and Jose Altuve, who are excellent players and likely have had/will have higher peaks than Torres continue to fall because of their age. I’m a bit concerned by his K:BB rate thus far and think he will continue to strike out a lot, but he should make up for it with plus power and solid defense at second or short.

19. Jose Altuve (28): It may seem a bit weird to have one of the best players in baseball this low, but that’s just a function of his age. He’s probably already at the tail end of his prime, although I’d expect him to continue playing at a pretty high level for most of this window. He seems set to hit well over .300 for a fifth straight season while providing speed on the basepaths and decent defense at second base.

20. Nolan Arenado (27): The main reason that I’ve dropped Arenado to #20 is that a whole lot of his offensive success is due to the fact that he plays home games at Coors Field. His career home OPS is .972, nearly 200 points higher than his .795 road mark. With that being said, he’s an excellent defensive third baseman who’s been a consistent 4+ WAR player for four years (and remember, that takes his home park into account). I’m comfortable ranking him here.

21. Ronald Acuna (20): Acuna is basically the definition of a can’t-miss prospect. He showed no flaws in the minor leagues, where he showcased his bat, legs, and glove. And his MLB career started brightly before he was shelved with a knee injury. I’m not as confident in his bat than I am in Vlad’s, but he fully deserves to be on this list.

22. Cody Bellinger (22): Bellinger has had a poor start to his sophomore season, which combined with the fact that he came out of nowhere last year makes me worry that his excellent performance last year was a fluke. But I’m putting him here because he’s so young and was so good last year. I think he’ll turn it around.

23. Freddie Freeman (28): Freddie Freeman is 28 and injury prone. He also plays first base. But he’s so darn good that he’s making this list anyway. He has the type of swing that lets players flourish well into their 30s, and he’s young enough that he could theoretically maintain a high level of play throughout the 10-year window.

24. Christian Yelich (26): Yelich is a very under-appreciated hitter, largely because he’s a corner outfielder who doesn’t hit for much power. But his OBP has been .360+ every season of his career, and his career OPS is north of .800. He’s also still young and I think is a pretty good bet to be a great two-hole hitter for the next 10 years.

25. Gerrit Cole (27): Cole has exploded in his first season with the Astros, posting a 2.20 ERA and striking out 12.78 batters per nine innings thus far. A former top prospects, Cole had never really delivered on his promise, although he’s been a lot better than people have given him credit for. He has a career 3.38 ERA and a 3.20 FIP, with the stuff to suggest that he’ll be a force for a long time. The lack of year-to-year consistency is the only reason he doesn’t rank higher.

Just missed:
Noah Syndergaard — a great pitcher who’s still just 25, Syndergaard missed most of last season due to injury and is hurt again this season.
Jacob DeGrom and Stephen Strasburg — both have extensive injury histories and are 29.
Austin Meadows and Juan Soto — they’re both top prospects who have flashed at the beginning of their MLB careers, but I need to see more before elevating them into the top-25.
Andrelton Simmons, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Anthony Rendon were all close to making the list, but none of them are quite good enough offensively.
The pitchers mentioned at the beginning, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto, and Paul Goldschmidt have all been among the best players in baseball for years, but all are too close to the twilight of their careers for me to put them on this list.
I really wanted to include Brewers sensation Josh Hader, who has been remarkable in a relief role this season, posting a 1.05 ERA, 1.00 FIP, and 69 strikeouts in 34.1 innings. That’s one of the most dominant starts to the season I can remember, and if he can keep that up for a full season (~90 innings of relief) I’ll be very impressed. But for now I’ll refrain from putting a reliever on the list of most impactful players for the next decade.

For the first time since the 1970s, we got two Game Sevens in the conference finals. The results? The road team won both games. That may seem surprising, but given the identities of the road teams really isn’t. The Cavs entered Game Seven as slight — 3 point — underdogs, while the Warriors were actually 6.5 point favorites against the shorthanded Rockets. It seems silly to say, but I never really had any doubt that the Warriors would advance to the Finals, even when Houston took a 3-2 series lead. Sure, Chris Paul missing the last two games helped, but I think they would have won anyway. Here’s why: they have a tendency to coast through most of games before really turning it on when they need to. They were down by double-digits at halftime in Game Seven before completely dominating a 16-ish minute span in the third and fourth quarters. Had Paul played, they may have needed to extend that span, but guess what? I think they’d have been able to. And there’s not a team in the world that can come close to matching Golden State’s peaks. We know that now for sure after seeing the Houston series. That’s not to diminish the season that this Rockets team had. It’s absolutely an incredible accomplishment to have the regular season and first two rounds that they had and then to take this Warriors team, who were 24-3 in the playoffs since signing Kevin Durant, to seven games. They were a great team and showed great toughness and ability. And Golden State still should have put them away faster, because they have Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. That’s what bothers me about the Warriors: I don’t mind seeing dynasties, and I don’t mind seeing the same Finals four times in a row, but I wish they would actually dominate the way they should. That’s what made last year’s run so different than this year’s. I do understand that they’re jaded and probably being smart by just doing enough to advance, but I’d like to see them pour it on in the Finals just because I enjoy watching great basketball. And that Houston series was a lot of things, but it wasn’t great basketball. Steve Kerr says that the series would have been done in five games had Andre Iguodala not gotten injured, and I know that Iggy is an important player, but come on. They still had their four potential Hall of Famers and were taken to seven games. I know they can’t play like they do in the third quarter all the time, but I’d like to see that type of intensity a bit more often from the Warriors.

As for the Cavs, I can’t say much that hasn’t been said already. I think the discussion over whether this is LeBron’s biggest accomplishment is silly and ridiculous, so let’s just say it’s another HUGE accomplishment in a career that’s been full of them. To take this ragtag group of dudes to a Game Seven in Boston and to win that game (without Kevin Love) is remarkable. The Celtics hadn’t lost a home playoff game, and their first three home games in this series weren’t close. To fully understand the mountain the Cavs had to climb, just look at the fact that LeBron James was an underdog in a closeout game against an inexperienced team. Luckily for the Cavs, the Celtics forgot how to shoot. Unlike the Rockets, who were throwing up contested threes in the third quarter of their Game Seven loss, most of Boston’s looks from beyond were wide open, and they still shot just 7-for-39. That includes an 0-for-10 performance from playoff hero Terry Rozier. This seems kind of obvious given that the Celtics scored just 79 points against a mediocre defense, but the fact is that shots that had been going in for Boston just stopped going in. This allowed the Cavs to win despite being without their second best player and despite shooting just 9-for-35 from beyond the arc themselves. Few teams are more reliant on threes than Cleveland, so the fact that they won largely without the three is telling. LeBron’s performance — 35 points, 15 rebounds, 9 assists, 2 blocks (including that monster one on Terry Rozier that was the defining moment of the series) — was jaw-dropping and also entirely unsurprising. He couldn’t have done it without a good performance from Jeff Green (19 points), but it’s telling that it’s a surprise when anyone other than LeBron James has a good game.

So here we are: part four. Some things have changed (the biggest of which, obviously, is Kyrie Irving), but this is still LeBron vs. the Warriors. Iguodala will miss Game One and maybe more, while Love’s status is up in the air. It goes without saying that the Warriors are massive favorites. They have the second, third, fourth, and fifth best players in the series, and it helps that #2 and #3 might also be the second and third best players in the NBA. This much is for sure: it will take another Herculean LeBron effort for the Cavs to have a chance. This has been a playoffs full of Herculean LeBron performances: he is averaging 34/9/9 in the playoffs and is probably having the best offensive playoffs of all-time. When he dials in on defense, as he did leading to that Rozier block, we’re seeing the most dominant basketball player ever play his best ever basketball. And even if he continues doing all of that, it’ll still take a miracle for the Cavs to win. This reminds me of the 2015 Finals, the first matchup between these teams. The Cavs entered that series without both Irving and Love. Their lineup in Game Two, Cleveland’s first win, was Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, LeBron, Timofey Mozgov, and Tristan Thompson. Cleveland’s gameplan was to slow the game down and to have LeBron do absolutely everything for them. Sound familiar? Early in the series, it worked. They won Game Two 95-93 in overtime and Game Three 96-91 in games that were very reminiscent to Golden State’s losses to Houston in Games Four (95-92) and Five (98-94). The Warriors eventually figured out that series, winning the last three games by a combined 42 points. In that series, LeBron averaged 46 minutes, 36/13/9, 33 shot attempts and 11 free throw attempts per game. He wasn’t as efficient then as he has been this year, but his usage rate was wayyy higher (against Boston, he averaged “just” 23 shots and 9 free throws). With Love likely out for Game One, I expect the Cavs to again come with the plan to slow the game down and have LeBron dictate everything. They’ll start George Hill, J.R. Smith, James, Jeff Green, and Tristan Thompson. They’ll hope to frustrate the Warriors, get some secondary scoring from at least two of Hill/Smith/Green/Kyle Korver, and stay close late, at which point LeBron will take over. Given that Golden State has been known to take quarters and even games off in the playoffs, I could see it working once or twice. But the problem is: how the heck can it work four times?? The answer, unfortunately, is that it probably can’t. It’s unfortunate to have to look at a series before it starts like this, but I don’t think the Warriors can lose this series barring a major injury. That will remain true even if Love comes back early in the series.

The matchups are tough for Cleveland. In past years, they’ve trapped Steph Curry and dared others to beat them. I expect them to do the same this year, because everyone knows that the Warriors become unbeatable when Steph goes on one of his binges. Kevin Durant is obviously a matchup nightmare, but that’s true against everyone. The Cavs will probably be fine with Durant hoisting up a ton of isolation shots. They won’t be super tough shots, and often they’ll go in, but that’s preferable to giving more attention to Durant and allowing the Warriors’ whole offense to get going. In the Houston series, Durant averaged 29.75 points in wins and 31.33 points in losses. That’s continued a trend we’ve seen all season: 25.7 points per game in wins, 28.1 in losses. Cleveland will recognize its deficiencies and try to lock down on everyone else with the hope that KD can’t facilitate for anyone else. Jeff Green will get the Durant assignment, at least while Love is out. Tristan Thompson has done a reasonable job on Draymond in the past, and J.R. Smith can try to chase Klay Thompson around. George Hill is the best and longest defensive point guard the Cavs have had in the last four years, and hopefully for Cleveland’s sake he’ll bother Curry. And LeBron will be the free safety, helping off of Golden State’s fifth guy and providing rim protection. He’ll try to get in Draymond Green’s head — like he did in 2016, the year Cleveland won — and force Curry turnovers. I could actually see all of this working for periods of time. The problem is that there’s no way it’s going to work for 48 minutes, which means that Cleveland’s going to have to be very efficient on the other end. I think the Cavs have to go big when Love gets back and start Hill, Smith/Korver, James, Love, and Thompson. That’s what they did in 2015, when they got offensive rebound after offensive rebound. Love and Thompson are both great offensive rebounders, and the Warriors can be vulnerable to offensive rebounds because they play small lineups and leak out in transition. Even if it means costing them a handful of transition buckets, I think Cleveland has to sell out for offensive rebounds because they simply aren’t efficient enough offensively otherwise. Besides that, the offensive gameplan is as simple as I said before: hope LeBron doesn’t get tired and cross your fingers that the role players hit their shots.

I think this series will go one of two ways. If the Warriors really want to make a statement, they’ll sweep or win in five uncompetitive games. The talent difference is just too massive. But if they continue to take quarters off and the Cavs’ role players gain some confidence (because it really seems like Smith, Hill, and Green in particular have huge game to game swings in confidence), I think there could be some close games in this series and that it could head back to Cleveland for a Game Six. I want to be clear that no matter which way it ends up going, I think the Warriors’ chances of winning the series are close to 100%. But I respect LeBron James so much and have been sufficiently worried by the Warriors’ off nights to make me believe that the latter scenario is more likely to happen. According to Bovada, the most likely outcomes are Warriors in 5 (+165) and Warriors in 4 (+235). But I’m going to go against the grain and predict that the Cavs will win two games before Golden State decisively closes out in Cleveland in Game Six. Warriors in 6.