Archive for May, 2013

Why the MLB draft is fascinating

Posted: 05/31/2013 by levcohen in Baseball

I figured this would be as good a time as any to tackle the MLB draft. The draft is next week, and we have already seen two pitchers drafted in the 2012 draft (Kevin Gausman and Michael Wacha) called up. Gausman has had a rocky first few starts, but Wacha dazzled last night. He went seven innings, allowed two hits and one run, and struck out six. Six of his seven innings were perfect.

The MLB draft is a lot less covered than the NFL or NBA draft. And I understand that. To be honest, the MLB draft is absolutely daunting. In the NBA draft, there are two rounds. In the NFL draft, there are seven rounds. In the MLB draft, there can be more than 40 rounds. Think about how many players are chosen. Thousands! With all that said, there is a ton of strategy in the MLB draft, probably more so than in other sports. That’s true for a number of reasons.
One reason is that it takes a lot longer for an MLB-draftee to make a contribution on the Big League club than it does in the other sports. This leads to a few differences. In the NBA and NFL, especially in the first few rounds, a team is almost certainly going to draft for need over value. That’s not true in the MLB. So many things can change in the 2-5 years it takes for a player to get to the MLB (more like two for college players and five for high school players), that a team doesn’t really care about their current needs. The MLB drafts almost exclusively for value. Why not just get the best player you can and, at worst, trade him for a need later on? Baseball teams also draft more project type players. For example, the Royals drafted high school outfielder Bubba Starling with the 5th pick in 2011. This year, Starling is still playing low A ball. Seven of the top nine picks of the 2012 NBA draft are already starting. Baseball has a very deep minor leagues, and it takes a long time to iron out some guys who were drafted out of high school. The MLB drafts more for potential than for polish.

This year, like last year, the Houston Astros draft #1 overall. Based on talent, their pick should be a no-brainer: Mark Appel or Jonathan Gray? Both are starting pitchers, Appel from Stanford and Gray from Oklahoma. Appel is a polished pitcher in the mold of Stephen Strasburg (although his potential is lower than Strasburg’s). Gray has the higher potential. Nobody would fault the Astros for drafting either. The thing is, the Astros may well take someone not named Appel or Gray. Keith Law of ESPN now projects them to take third basemen Colin Moran. Moran isn’t the prospect that Gray or Appel is, but his realistic next best alternative is to go #5. Why would the Astros draft him? Well, because of the money. The #5 spot has a suggested slot bonus of of 3.787 million dollars. The #1 slot has a suggested bonus of 7.79 million dollars. The Astros can offer Moran about four million dollars, and he’ll likely accept. They’re saving four million dollars there. But that’s not because they don’t want to send money. They would be trying to save money for later in the draft, because there is only so much money a team can spend in the draft. With that extra money, the Astros will be able to go above slot in later rounds, and they can draft players that might cost more to spend (for example, players who have the talent to go in the mid first round but money questions let him drop would be targeted by teams who went below slot in the first round). Last year, the Astros drafted Carlos Correa over Byron Buxton with the #1 overall pick. They paid Correa 4.8 million dollars, saving themselves 2.4 million dollars. Buxton ended up going #2 and signing for 6 million. In the second round, the Astros drafted Lance McCullers Jr. out of high school. They paid him more than a million dollars over the slot. They wouldn’t have been able to do that if they had paid Buxton six million in the first round. McCullers, at 19 years old, has a 1.90 ERA in low A ball this year. Pretty good strategy there.

You know how everybody always complains about the Yankees and Red Sox getting all the steals in the draft? Well, that’s because they are willing to take value picks while over paying. That’s one strategy. The Astros have another one, and one is not necessarily better than the other.

The draft is also different from other sports because players don’t have to commit to the draft. They can be drafted out of high school, negotiate with a team, decide not to sign, and then go to college. That is one of the most difficult baseball decisions I can think of. Would a player really pass up a lot of money and a chance to do what they’ve dreamed of to go to college? Adding to the intrigue is the fact that, after committing to college, a player is not eligible for the draft until their junior year. So much can happen in three years, and it might be hard to pass up that money out of high school. On the other hand, if players do continue to play well in college, they’ll likely get drafted a lot higher the second time around. A player doesn’t have to sign after their junior year, either. They can get drafted again in their senior season. Mark Appel was drafted number eight last season as a junior. He would have gone higher, but there were doubts about whether he would sign. Well, he didn’t sign, and he pitched well as a senior. Now he looks like he will go top three. There are still money questions with Appel though. He was offered a hefty sum by the Pirates last year and didn’t sign, so will he expect a lot this year too? That uncertainty might allow Appel to fall yet again.

So don’t be surprised when the Red Sox draft Mark Appel number seven overall. Just saying.

What is a “superstar”?

Posted: 05/29/2013 by levcohen in Basketball
Tags:

Players are mainly considered superstars in basketball, so this post will be limited to basketball.
And the term gets thrown around very loosely. Here is the definition of a superstar, from Merriam-Webster:
A star (as in sports or the movies) who is considered extremely talented, has great public appeal, and can usually command a high salary

Now, we can interpret this a lot of different ways. Let’s look at the upcoming free agent class. There are multiple players who I, and most other people, consider extremely talented, with great public appeal. It remains to be seen if they can command a high salary, but I would bet on yes. These players are:
Brandon Jennings
J.R. Smith
Nate Robinson (that public appeal and high salary will likely come from his playoff play, which is too small of a sample size)
Monta Ellis
Andre Iguodala
Paul Pierce
Josh Smith
Paul Millsap
Dwight Howard
Andrew Bynum
Al Jefferson

There are some more guys who I can mention (Manu Ginobili, Nikola Pekovic, etc.), but let’s keep it to these 11 guys. Now, the point is that, while these guys fit under the dictionary definition, a lot of them aren’t what we would consider superstars. Because if we did, I could make a case for scores of players, and that doesn’t give the name “superstar” justice. Which of these guys are actually superstars? Well, we can eliminate Jennings, Smith, Robinson, Ellis, and Bynum right off the bat. Why? Let’s go through the list.
Jennings’ case can be put to rest easily. His stats are good, but he is a headcase, and the Bucks would prefer to re-sign Ellis over Jennings. That’s reason enough, because to me, a superstar at least needs to be valued highly by his own team.

Smith has already been traded twice. He was traded before ever playing a game with the Bulls. More importantly, he is inconsistent. That was proven in the playoffs. That leads to another superstar requirement. Consistency. Plus, his defense is atrocious.
Here is what John Hollinger said about his defense: “Defensively, Smith is awful. Synergy rated him as the worst player in the league in 2010-11; in 2011-12, he merely rated as the worst on his team. With his talent, he should be much better than this. The Knicks gave up more points with him on the court, just like all his teams have, and as usual his gambles were a big reason: Smith was third among shooting guards in steals per minute, but at the expense of ranking seventh in foul rate and likely first in 5-on-4s created by missed gambles.”

Robinson’s case is very bad. He has been traded four times, waived once, and should not be considered a building block, which is yet another superstar quality. The only reason I put him on this list is because people are bound to talk about him as a superstar after the playoff run he had.

Ellis was traded in the heart of his prime for an injury prone center. It took him 18 shots per game to score 19 points. Another superstar quality- superstars have to be at least somewhat efficient, although I’ll allow a gray area there. Ellis’s PER this year was 16.30. The average is 15. He doesn’t make an effort on defense. He takes bad shots. Those aren’t superstar qualities. P.S. He shot less than 29% from three, the lowest in the NBA. That is all.

Bynum had a zero PER last year. He didn’t play a single minute. He didn’t fix a franchise, something a superstar should be able to do, he ruined one. He’s more like the anti superstar. You can say that it’s not his fault that he got hurt, but he was able to go bowling and dancing with torn ACL’s. Grrrrr. And yes, I’m a mad Sixers fan. Sue me.

Iguodala could have been considered before last season, but his stats decreased again, as did his PER, to a barely above average number of 15.27 (he had been 17+ since 2006). He scored just 13 points per game last year. His free throw % sunk to 57.4%. The next worst shooting guard, Tony Allen, shot 72% from the free throw line. Iguodala was 45th of 47th among SG’s in terms of three point percentage, despite being in the top half of attempts per game. Ouch.

After last year, I would have said Josh Smith is a superstar. Now, I have to say that he is slightly below. His stats are good. Although his PER fell more than three points, it’s still at a respectable 17.82. He shot 52% from the line last year. The next worst among power forwards was Tristan Thompson at 61%. He was second worst of 121 TOTAL QUALIFIERS. He finished 129th of 134 qualifiers in three point percentage. Add that to his attitude problems, and he isn’t a superstar, although he is still a great player and probably a “star.”

For those keeping count, that leaves four left among this list: Jefferson, Howard, Millsap, and Pierce. But we are not done.

Paul Millsap is a great player. An underrated star. But let me ask you a question. Can you build around him? Well, he is an undersized power forward who doesn’t have the quickness to play small forward. He averages 15 points per game and while he hustles like almost nobody else, there is little room for improvement. So no, one cannot realistically build around him. And yes, it’s partly that it’s much easier to build around a point guard or center than it is an undersized power forward.

Al Jefferson barely even qualifies for Merriam-Webster’s definition of a superstar because he doesn’t really get much public recognition. But I’m going to call him a superstar. He is 21st in the NBA in PER (over 20). He is top 15 in estimated wins added. He averages 18 and 9 while making 50% of field goals and 77% of free throws. You know how many players went 18 and 9 with 50% and 77% (17.8, 9, 49.4 and 77, if we are being technical)? Two. David Lee and Al Jefferson. Brook Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge barely missed. Jefferson is also a true center. His team hasn’t won much (yet) but I can’t pin that on him.

I had a tough time deciding on Paul Pierce, but I’ve decided to give him the green light. He is still a superstar. At this point next year, he will likely have fallen out of the rankings. He has won in the past, is a building block, is valued highly by the team (they might trade him, but only if they need to rebuild and he gives them the go-ahead), is efficient, actually tries on defense (and is good at it), and still puts up numbers: 19/6/5. His PER and wins added are good, and that’s enough for me to relent on this one.

Before last season, Dwight Howard was one of the five best players in the NBA. Plus, he is a center. He coasted last season, and still put up monster numbers. And now he is clearly on the decline. You might expect me to name a million reasons that he isn’t a superstar, in which case what I’m going to say will surprise you: Dwight Howard is still a superstar. I’m willing to give him a partial free pass on this season, and even if I didn’t, he’d still be a superstar. People forget that he had back surgery in the offseason. He wasn’t even supposed to be playing early in the year. Pre-all star break he averaged 16 and 12. Post-all star break he averaged 18 and 14. He wasn’t full strength until March. In March, he averaged 18 and 15. In April, he averaged 21 and 11. He is a cornerstone both offensively and defensively. That’s enough. Plus, he’s a nice guy. LA, stop complaining.

I chose 11 upcoming free agents that totally fit the criteria that the dictionary gave us. At most, three of them are superstars. That tells you a lot. But how about in the NBA? How many superstars are there?

First, the criteria, most of which was written about above.

  • First and foremost, for a player to be a superstar he has to be a building block. In the Al Jefferson mold, not in the Paul Millsap mold.
  • He has to be efficient, or at least somewhat efficient (a guard that shoots 40% is not acceptable)
  • He has to be consistent. Very few off nights.
  • His team has to value him fairly highly
  • He has to be extremely talented
  • He has to put up good stats
  • He has to have relatively few injury concerns (I’ll allow Curry)
  • Playing passable defense is a must if your name isn’t Kobe or Harden
  • A top 50 PER is not a must, but it is a near must.

Now, most superstar conversations are centered around this question: “Is he a winner?” I’m not a big fan of that, because to me, there is just two much gray area involved in winning. For example, Tony Parker is in a much better situation than Chris Paul. Therefore, he has won more championships than Chris Paul. Does that make him a better player? I will consent to this. If a cornerstone player who has a good team built around him continuously flops in big moments, he cannot be a superstar. Luckily, no current player fits that mold.

One more thing: I won’t include guys who didn’t play for the majority of this season. Sorry, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo.
Who are the true superstars? First, the no-brainers:
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Tim Duncan, and, after his playoff performance, Stephen Curry.
Add in the guys I already put in: Al Jefferson, Dwight Howard, Paul Pierce.
That’s fourteen players. I think there should be between 15 and 20 superstars. Here are some other names that come to mind:
LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyrie Irving, Brook Lopez, Kevin Garnett, David Lee, John Wall, Deron Williams, DeMarcus Cousins, Dirk Nowitzki, Marc Gasol, Paul George, Greg Monroe, Chris Bosh, Serge Ibaka.

I’m probably missing someone obvious, but if not, I’d say that between three and at most six can be considered superstars. I’m eliminating Paul George. I don’t fall into the playoff trance as easily as some. George finished 87th in the NBA in PER. I’m eliminating Cousins. He isn’t held in high regard by his own team. I’m eliminating Irving. While he is a top 10 player in this league, the injury concerns are mounting. I’m eliminating Lee. His offensive numbers are great, but he doesn’t play good defense. Goodbye Brook Lopez. You are a good offensive player but you need to rebound better. Ibaka, Bosh, and Monroe are not true building blocks. That leaves these guys: Marc Gasol, Dirk, Deron Williams, John Wall, Kevin Garnett, LaMarcus Aldridge. That’s six, but I want to knock off one or two more of these guys. First, I asked myself: How would I rank these guys in terms of how easy they are to build around? This is what I came up with:
1. Marc Gasol
2. Deron Williams
3. LaMarcus Aldridge
4. Dirk
5. John Wall
6. Garnett

This is nitpicking, but Dirk, Wall, and Garnett all missed between fourteen and thirty-three games this season. That is enough to eliminate all three. Here is the resume of the three remaining choices:

Marc Gasol: Defensive player of the year. 17th in estimated wins added. Top 35 in PER, a stat that sometimes underrates defense. Best passing big in the NBA. 85% free throw shooter. Easy to build around (see: Grizzlies, Western Conference Finals with Gasol and a bunch of people everybody doubted.)

Deron Williams: Top 25 in PER. Top 15 in EWA. Leader of a playoff team. Averaged 19 points, eight assists. (21/8.5 in playoffs). Solid 44% shooter. 38% from three, 86% free throw.

LaMarcus Aldridge: I can safely say he is the most underrated superstar in the NBA. Averaged 21 and nine, and 81% from the free throw line. Ninth in the NBA in minutes per game. Five of the players ahead of him are on this list. Oh, and he would be the only power forward on this list.

And now we have our list of superstars. By my count, there are 17 legitimate guys who fit all of the criteria I listed above. By position:
Point Guard:
Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry

Shooting Guard:
Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, James Harden

Small forward:
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce

Power forward:
LaMarcus Aldridge (yes, that’s it).

Center:
Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Al Jefferson, Tim Duncan

And that’s your list.

By the way, I do think there is a big difference between a star and a superstar (see: Josh Smith, Paul Millsap). We have already gone over the criteria for a superstar. A star doesn’t need to be a franchise cornerstone. It can just be someone who piles up big numbers. Like a Brandon Jennings or a David West.

The Spurs are very impressive

Posted: 05/28/2013 by levcohen in Basketball

The Spurs and I have a love/hate relationship. They’ve been good ever since they lucked into drafting Tim Duncan in 1997. Duncan has won 70% of his career games and four titles. And he is still cranking out the wins. So while on the one hand it’s hard to feel bad for the Spurs, I sort of do. They are admittedly sometimes boring to watch, but in these playoffs, they have been anything but boring. In their fourteen playoff games (they are 12-2, an equal record to the Heat if Miami can close out the Pacers in five, which I doubt) they have scored at least 100 points eight times. They have played four overtime games. So the first myth I need to debunk is that they are boring. The second myth I need to debunk is that Tony Parker is on the decline. Sure, it does seem like he has been playing for a long time, and in fact, he has. Since being drafted 28th overall by the Spurs in 2001, he has played 872 games, averaging 33 minutes per game. That’s a lot of minutes. And Parker is 31, which is well past the prime of most NBA players. Still, from what we have seen in these playoffs, Parker is still improving, which is a scary thought. He was unstoppable in game four. This leads me to another key Spurs fact. They rely on the pick and roll. Not only is it their main play, but the basic pick and roll and variations off it is their only play. And against a Grizzlies team that is terrific defensively, it looked impossible to stop. Now, I can’t say I expected this of the Spurs. After all, their key cogs are the same as they have been for the past five years, right? And they haven’t had much success in the past five years in the playoffs, right? Well, yes. Parker, Duncan, and Manu Ginobili are still arguably (and I would argue it, at least in Manu’s case) the three most important players on this team. I can point to two main differences between this year’s team and the ones prior. The obvious one is injuries. In the past few years, one or more of the big 3 have been playing hurt or not playing at all. This year, that is not the case. The other difference comes in the form of two young wing men: Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Green, 25, is a key defender for the Spurs. Last year in the playoffs, he played 20 minutes per game. This year, that number is 30. Leonard, 21, has played more playoff minutes than any other Spur. Think about that. He is playing 37 minutes per game, up from 27 minutes in last season’s playoffs.

The increased role of Green and Leonard, the health of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, the flawless pick and roll offense of Parker, Tim Duncan, and center Tiago Splitter- another very underrated performer, the game planning by Greg Popovich, and the improvement of Parker have each played a big role in the resurgence of San Antonio. And you know what, let’s hope they can win it all too, because they deserve more recognition than they are getting, and because, yes, I like Tim Duncan.

Remember that draft I did?

Posted: 05/27/2013 by levcohen in Basketball

Remember that epic NBA draft I did last offseason? I started from scratch, and alphabetically by first name drafted 150 players in a snake draft format (for example, the Hawks drafted 1st and 60th). By the end of the draft, each team had a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. Now I’m going to check back on those teams, nearly one year later. Who would have been our version of the Heat? How would the standings have turned out? What is the playoff picture looking like? You’ll find out here.

Reminder of each team’s roster:

Eastern Conference:
Atlantic Division:

Boston Celtics:
PG: Jose Calderon
SG: Jason Richardson
SF: Paul Pierce
PF: DeJuan Blair
C: Dwight Howard

Brooklyn Nets:
PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: Jason Terry
SF: LeBron James
PF: Paul Millsap
C: Tim Duncan

New York Knicks:
PG: Ty Lawson
SG: Klay Thompson
SF: Hedo Turkoglu
PF: Pau Gasol
C: Andre Drummond

Philadelphia 76ers:
PG: Brandon Jennings
SG: OJ Mayo
SF: Tayshaun Prince
PF: Josh Smith
C: DeAndre Jordan

Toronto Raptors:
PG: Lou Williams
SG: Bradley Beal
SF: Andre Iguodala
PF: DeMarcus Cousins
C: Jason Thompson

Central:

Chicago Bulls:
PG: Derrick Rose
SG: Kevin Martin
SF: Corey Maggette
PF: Kenneth Faried
C: Meyers Leonard

Cleveland Cavaliers:
PG: Marquis Teague
SG: Demar DeRozan
SF: Shawn Marion
PF: Kevin Love
C: Marcin Gortat

Detroit Pistons:
PG: Raymond Felton
SG: Dwyane Wade
SF: Luol Deng
PF: Luis Scola
C: Tyson Chandler

Indiana Pacers:
PG: John Wall
SG: Manu Ginobili
SF: Danny Granger
PF: Thomas Robinson
C: Kevin Garnett

Milwaukee Bucks:
PG: Mo Williams
SG: MarShon Brooks
SF: Danilo Gallinari
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge
C: Roy Hibbert

Southeast:

Atlanta Hawks:
PG: Jeff Teague
SG: Terrence Ross
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Derrick Favors
C: Spencer Hawes

Charlotte Bobcats:
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Landry Fields
SF: Trevor Ariza
PF: Ryan Anderson
C: JaVale McGee

Miami Heat:
PG: Deron Williams
SG: Gordon Hayward
SF: Jared Dudley
PF: Carlos Boozer
C: Brook Lopez

Orlando Magic:
PG: Jrue Holiday
SG: Arron Afflalo
SF: Caron Butler
PF: Amare Stoudemire
C: Nikola Pekovic

Washington Wizards:
PG: Tony Parker
SG: Rodney Stuckey
SF: Harrison Barnes
PF: Markieff Morris
C: Greg Monroe

Western Conference:
Northwest:

Denver Nuggets:
PG: Darren Collison
SG: Monta Ellis
SF: Royce White
PF: David Lee
C: Andrew Bynum

Minnesota Timberwolves:
PG: Ricky Rubio
SG: Jordan Crawford
SF: Gerald Wallace
PF: Anthony Randolph
C: Andrew Bogut

Oklahoma City Thunder:
PG: DJ Augustin
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
PF: Dirk Nowitzki
C: Anderson Varejao

Portland Trailblazers:
PG: Ramon Sessions
SG: Eric Gordon
SF: Ersan Ilyasova
PF: Tyler Hansbrough
C: Al Horford

Utah Jazz:
PG: Brandon Knight
SG: James Harden
SF: Thaddeus Young
PF: Kevin Seraphin
C: Al Jefferson

Pacific:

 

Golden State Warriors:
PG: Steve Nash
SG: Anthony Morrow
SF: Carmelo Anthony
PF: Lamar Odom
C: Nene

Los Angeles Clippers:
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Evan Turner
SF: Al-Farouq Aminu
PF: Zach Randolph
C: Jonas Valanciunas

Los Angeles Lakers:
PG: Mike Conley
SG: Marcus Thornton
SF: Terrence Jones
PF: Blake Griffin
C: Bismack Biyombo

Phoenix Suns:
PG: Stephen Curry
SG: Kemba Walker
SF: Joe Johnson
PF: Antawn Jamison
C: Chris Kaman

Sacramento Kings:
PG: Kendall Marshall
SG: J.R. Smith
SF: Michael Beasley
PF: Chris Bosh
C: Joakim Noah

Southwest:

Dallas Mavericks:
PG: Kyrie Irving
SG: Wes Matthews
SF: Gerald Henderson
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Emeka Okafor

Houston Rockets:
PG: Rajon Rondo
SG: Paul George
SF: Perry Jones III
PF: John Henson
C: Andrea Bargnani

Memphis Grizzlies:
PG: Goran Dragic
SG: Austin Rivers
SF: Rudy Gay
PF: David West
C: Nikola Vucevic

New Orleans Hornets:
PG: Damian Lillard
SG: Jeremy Lamb
SF: Maurice Harkless
PF: Anthony Davis
C: Marc Gasol

San Antonio Spurs:
PG: Tyreke Evans
SG: Dion Waiters
SF: Nicolas Batum
PF: Kris Humphries
C: Marreese Speights

Now.. How would this have turned out if it were real life? I’ll take a stab at that. First, each division winner.
Atlantic: Nets.. This team looks dominant. How could they have gotten a frontcourt of LeBron, Millsap, Duncan? This division looks strong.
Central: Pistons.. Talk about injury ridden. Rose, Love, Chandler, Ginobili, Wall, Granger, Mo Williams, Gallinari all missed a ton of time. Pistons win as they are least injury ridden.
Southeast: Heat.. With the Williams-Lopez combo, this looks a lot like the real life Nets team. Except that they have a better supporting cast. (Hayward, Dudley, Boozer are better than aging Joe Johnson, ineffective Gerald Wallace, Reggie Evans)

Northwest: Jazz.. The Harden, Al Jefferson combo looks very very dynamic. And having players like Brandon Knight and Thaddeus Young doesn’t hurt, either
Pacific: Clippers.. This Clippers team is absolutely stacked. Westbrook, Turner, ZBO, Aminu, Valanciunas. Not only were they good this year, they’ll be even better next year. This could be a dynasty.
Southwest: Hornets.. With the rookie of the year, Lillard, and the runner up, Davis, the Hornets are stacked. Oh, and they also have the best center in the NBA, Marc Gasol.

Now, for the standings, both Eastern Conference and Western Conference. Note: The three division winners must be among the top four seeds

Eastern Conference:
PLAYOFF BOUND:
1. Brooklyn Nets.. As mentioned before, this Nets team is great. At the guard positions they have Kyle Lowry, a solid point guard, to go along with Jason Terry. Terry is aging and didn’t have his best season, but imagine how many open threes he would have gotten if he had played with LeBron, Millsap, and Duncan!

2. Miami Heat.. Deron and Brook carry this team to the #2 seed. They also got double digit scoring from each of their other three scorers.

3. Atlanta Hawks.. They have Durant, the second best player in the NBA. Their supporting cast isn’t great, but they have a few good players. Jeff Teague continues to mature and Derrick Favors and Terrence Ross look on the verge of breakout seasons.

4. Detroit Pistons.. This team is full of quiet producers. Tyson Chandler, Luol Deng, Raymond Felton, Luis Scola. And they have a superstar in Dwyane Wade. Four of those guys stayed relatively healthy this season, and that elevates this team into home court advantage.

5. Philadelphia 76ers.. Contract year? The 76ers have Brandon Jennings, OJ Mayo, and Josh Smith each had good seasons in contract years. I can imagine how amazing Jennings to DeAndre alley oops would be. This team is flashy.

6. Washington Wizards.. This team has a very productive duo of Tony Parker and Greg Monroe. They also have guys like Rodney Stuckey and Harrison Barnes who are key contributors

7. Milwaukee Bucks.. This team had to deal with injuries to Gallinari and Mo Will, but they had the means to deal with it because of their dominant duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Roy Hibbert.

8. New York Knicks.. If Pau Gasol and Andre Drummond had been healthy all year, imagine how dominant this team would have been. With breakout seasons from Ty Lawson and Klay Thompson, an eight seed will have to do.

LOTTERY BOUND:

9. Toronto Raptors.. If Lou Williams hadn’t missed the whole season, the Raptors could easily have made the playoffs, because the rest of their team was quite good. Beal, Iguodala, Cousins, Jason Thompson.

10. Charlotte Bobcats.. It was tough to keep Chris Paul out of the playoffs, but Ryan Anderson and a bunch of role players just is not enough to push them in.

11. Orlando Magic.. They have three breakout players: Jrue Holiday, Arron Afflalo, Nikola Pekovic. If Afflalo hadn’t gotten hurt with about 20 games remaining, I think they would have made the playoffs.

12. Boston Celtics.. I bet they are regretting drafting Dwight over LeBron now. To be fair, Dwight didn’t get much help from this team, although Jose Calderon and Paul Pierce were good. Maybe if J-Rich hadn’t gotten hurt early.

13. Indiana Pacers.. Unfortunately, Danny Granger only played five games. With John Wall and Kevin Garnett producing, those two didn’t get much help.

14. Cleveland Cavaliers.. This was not a good team. Their best player, Love, was out most of the year. Gortat and DeRozan should not be the two best players on any team.

15. Chicago Bulls.. The Bulls have Derrick Rose here, too, but here they don’t have the luxury of a great coach or great supporting cast.

Western Conference:
PLAYOFF BOUND:
1. Los Angeles Clippers.. See above.

2. Utah Jazz.. Harden has turned into one of the top five players in the NBA. Al Jefferson is one of the two or three best centers in the NBA. That alone guarantees a top five seed, and Thad and Knight probably push them to a #2 seed.

3. New Orleans Hornets.. This young Hornets team has an extremely bright future, but the present is bright, too. Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis, and Damian Lillard is quite the core. This team drafted very well.

4. Phoenix Suns.. This backcourt of Stephen Curry and Kemba Walker is the best in the league. Add in a solid wing man in Joe Johnson and a big center in Chris Kaman, and this is a good team.

5. Sacramento Kings.. The Kings have two great big men in Chris Bosh and Joakim Noah. Plus, they have the real life sixth man of the year, J.R. Smith.

6. Memphis Grizzlies.. Goran Dragic has developed into a good point guard. Despite his fall from grace, Rudy Gay is a good scorer. David West had another good season and Nikola Vucevic had a huge breakout season.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder.. This is basically a two man team of Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki. Just imagine those two together though. That is a seven seed if I’ve ever seen one before. Plus, they do have Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to shut down the opposing star.

8. San Antonio Spurs.. Nicolas Batum broke out this year. Dion Waiters had a good rookie year, and Tyreke Evans sort of bounced back. The front court of Speights and Humphries is troublesome, though.

LOTTERY BOUND:

9. Los Angeles Lakers.. This is a slightly worse version than the real life Clippers. They have Blake Griffin, Mike Conley (the Clippers have Chris Paul), Bismack Biyombo (Clips have DeAndre Jordan), Marcus Thornton (Clips have Jamal Crawford), Terrence Jones (Clips have Caron Butler).

10. Dallas Mavericks.. The Mavericks have Kyrie Irving, a star who missed a lot of time, and Serge Ibaka, who really improved. Wes Matthews and Gerald Henderson were also good, and Emeka Okafor was the solid center.

11. Denver Nuggets.. Now this is impressive. Even with their top pick, Andrew Bynum, out for the year, the Nuggets still patched together the 11th seed. That’s a tribute to David Lee and Monta Ellis.

12. Golden State Warriors.. Steve Nash, the second best player on this team, missed a lot of time. Carmelo Anthony carried this team to any wins they did run into.

13. Portland Trailblazers.. Too bad Eric Gordon is so injury prone, because the Blazers have a solid core with Al Horford and Ersan Ilyasova.

14. Minnesota Timberwolves.. This team really struggled at the beginning of the year, but they bounced back to avoid the worst record after Rubio returned.

15. Houston Rockets.. After Rajon Rondo tore his ACL, this turned into a one man team. While Paul George is a star, that wasn’t enough. The Rockets slumped to the worst in the West, and the second worst overall.

Playoffs:
I’m going to base the playoffs on matchups more than real life playoff stats, because that would not be fair to the teams with players that primarily did not make the playoffs.

East:
#1 Nets defeat #8 Knicks in 6.. Klay Thompson gets hot and the Knicks win two games, but LeBron is too much.
#2 Heat defeat #7 Bucks in 5.. With Gallinari out, the Bucks don’t really have scorers on the wing. The Heat take advantage.
#6 Wizards defeat #3 Hawks in 7.. Harrison Barnes does a terrific job of defending Durant, and Parker and Monroe destroy Teague and Hawes with the pick and roll.
#4 Pistons defeat #5 76ers in 6.. The Pistons are a lot more mature as a team, if not more talented. That leads to a fairly comfortable series win.

#1 Nets defeat #4 Pistons in 7.. In a gritty series, LeBron gets frustrated with Deng. Duncan is the difference.
#6 Wizards defeat #2 Heat in 7.. These two teams are eerily similar. The biggest difference is at power forward, where Carlos Boozer destroyed Markieff Morris in this series. Still, I’ll pick the Wizards, because I think they have the better defensive team.

Conference Final: Nets vs. Wizards.. A six seed that under performed during the regular season has broken through into the Conference final.
West:
#1 Clippers defeat #8 Spurs in 4.. No contest here. The Spurs don’t have enough to compete with the Clippers.
#2 Jazz defeat #7 Thunder in 6.. The Thunder win the first two, but then James Harden figures out MKG and the Thunder stars wear down. Al Jefferson goes for 30 in each of the last two games.
#3 Hornets defeat #6 Grizzlies in 5.. The average Grizzlies team just doesn’t look like a good playoff squad.
#5 Kings defeat #4 Suns in 7.. Curry has a few huge games, but Noah and Bosh pummel the smaller Phoenix team down low.

#5 Kings defeat #1 Clippers in 7.. Huge upset here, as Westbrook is slowed down by the Kings.
#2 Jazz defeat #3 Hornets in 6.. The depth of the Jazz to go along with their two stars look unstoppable in defeating the rookie-laden team.

Conference Final: Jazz vs. Kings

Brooklyn Nets vs. Washington Wizards:
The Nets are going to have an easier time in this series than they did against the Pistons, because the Wizards really have nobody who can guard LeBron. Harrison Barnes did well against Durant, but he is not physical enough to do the same against James. This series looks to have a lot of scores in the 100’s.

The Nets win this series in six games.

Utah Jazz vs. Sacramento Kings:
The Kings are riding an emotional high after defeating the regular season champion Clippers. They are led by the twin towers, Bosh and Noah, but J.R. Smith was also hot in the last round. They need some big plays from enigmatic forward Michael Beasley if they expect to beat this Jazz team. I see Harden going for a lot of points here. I think Brandon Knight will be able to draw some double teams and Al Jefferson will be the benefactor. This Jazz team looks pretty hard to beat.

Jazz wins this series in five games.

NBA Final: Brooklyn Nets vs. Utah Jazz
First, let’s look at the preseason grades I gave these two teams:
Nets:
Grade: A-. This team could win the championship this coming year, and maybe the two years after that. What kept them from getting top marks, however, is that two of their starters may be retired in 4 years. This team is still very well put together. For the next few years, they could win. After that, they will still have a great chance at contending with Lowry, James and Millsap still in their prime.

Jazz:
Grade: C. Another team that might often miss the playoffs, these Jazz have a lot of potential. Jefferson is already a star center, and Harden can score in bunches. After that, they have a lot of question marks who could turn into very good players. So this team could be very good or very bad.

So I guessed right on the Nets, and mostly wrong on the Jazz, except when I said that these Jazz have a lot of potential. Knight, Young, Harden, and Jefferson have all realized their potential in a big way. Kevin Seraphin looked headed that way after a strong start but he faltered down the stretch.

Finals Prediction: Utah Jazz defeat Brooklyn Nets in 7 games: This is an evenly matched series, but the edge goes to James Harden as he has the delightful match-up of Jason Terry. Terry doesn’t play defense, and Harden averages 35 points per game in this finals round. Seraphin and Young use their length to partially subdue James, but he still gets his points. The Jazz and Al Jefferson are able to tire out Tim Duncan late in the series, leading them to wins in their last two games.

Trout+Cabrera= Unprecedented

Posted: 05/25/2013 by levcohen in Baseball

I just looked back into the MLB history books and tried to name the best player in each decade (you’ll see the relevance in a second). Here’s what I came up with.
I didn’t want to go back before the 1960’s, so I’ll stop there.

2000’s:
Albert Pujols
2nd place: Alex Rodriguez (plenty of steroid problems)

To me, this is pretty clear cut. Pujols was the best. Period. He was a model player and teammate in the 2000’s, and missed the top five of the MVP vote just once. If A-rod had been a better person, laid off the steroids, still put up his legendary numbers, and stayed at shortstop, there might be more of a debate.

1990’s:
Barry Bonds
2nd place: Ken Griffey Jr.

This is more debatable. Remember, this is fast, skinny, pre-steroid Barry Bonds. The guy who was a first ballot Hall of Famer even before he started taking steroids.

Player 1: 1002 runs, 1622 H, 297 2B, 30 3B, 382 HR, 1091 RBI, 151 SB, 703 BB, .302 AVG, .384 OBP, .581 SLG, .965 OPS
’97 MVP, ’92 All-Star Game MVP, 10x Gold Glove, 7x Silver Slugger, 10x All Star

Player 2: 1091 runs, 1478 H, 299 2B, 42 3B, 361 HR, 1076 RBI, 343 SB, 1146 BB, .302 AVG, .434 OBP, .602 SLG, 1.036 OPS
3x MVP, 8x Gold Glove, 7x Silver Slugger

See how close it is? I’ve bolded the main reasons that I picked player 2 (Bonds).

1980’s:
Mike Schmidt
2nd place: Rickey Henderson

This is power vs. speed, much like Trout and Cabrera, but Schmidt’s defense at third base clearly puts him over the top, at least to me. Keep in mind that Henderson amassed many of his top seasons in the 1990’s.

1970’s:
Jim Palmer
2nd place: Nolan Ryan

Trust me, Jim Palmer was amazing. Check the stats. This isn’t even that close. (1970’s seemed to be dominated by pitchers. The top hitters were Bench, Morgan, Rose… Not players of a decade.)

1960’s:
Sandy Koufax
2nd place: Hank Aaron

Koufax blew away the field, and he retired in 1966. That says a lot. Please check his stats from 1962-1966. The best five year stretch for anyone, ever.

The point is, that in each decade there either wasn’t much debate (60s, 70s, 80s, 00s) or just a “Who is your favorite?” (90s). What we have brewing now is epic. As we go deeper into the MLB’s SABR-Metric dominated era, there are really only two choices for best player in baseball now. Sure, Justin Verlander is good. Clayton Kershaw and Robby Cano are too. Bryce Harper might be up there in a year or two. But right now, it’s Trout and Cabrera and Cabrera and Trout. But it gets better. Not only are these two the clear cut elite, but they are almost polar opposites. On one end is Cabrera, the poor defensive third basemen who is by far the best hitter in the game. Saying anything else would be foolish. Cabrera won the triple crown last year for the first triple crown since Carl Yastremski. He also controversially won the MVP (I wrote about that extensively last September- or maybe October, I don’t remember). But there’s more! Cabrera looks primed to win the triple crown this year. Again! The only problem might be the home runs, because he already has a huge lead in batting average and RBI. But I’m not betting against Miggy. Cabrera, who came up at age 20, just turned 30 in April. He won’t be able to play in the field for the next decade- I would argue that he can’t right now- but he sure will hit. Not including this year, he has 112 HR and 370 RBI since 2010, to go along with a .334 average and a 1.024 OPS. He has walked almost as much as he has struck out.

And then there is Trout. Trout is the one who, I believe, was robbed of the MVP last year. Yes, the triple crown winner robbed somebody else of the MVP. The SABR community backed Trout. His WAR was three runs higher than Cabrera’s. That isn’t a small margin, it’s a very substantial one. Trout is the inferior hitter, but he is also way superior on the base paths and in the field. Last year, in his 20 year old season, he hit 30 homers and stole 49 bases. He hit .326. This year, after a slow start, he is on pace for 33 homers and 40 steals. And 129 runs to go along with 119 RBI. From the two hole.

I’d say round one (2012) went to Trout. The MVP voters felt differently, but Trout had a season that will not be replicated in a long time. Except maybe by himself.

After all the Trout love, I find it difficult to admit, but Cabrera is handily winning round two. He actually has a slightly higher WAR than Trout this year, but he looks like he is going to break some records. He is hitting .385 and is on pace for 48 homers and 196 RBI. Yes, 196 RBI would break the record. Thanks for asking.

The voters might not agree, but it looks like we have a match-up for the ages between the two best players in baseball. It certainly was interesting in 2012, and it looks even more interesting this year. Trout is just 21, so he should have many more seasons like these. Cabrera is 30, so he might have more trouble keeping up, but he doesn’t rely on speed or defense, and offense is usually the last thing to leave a player. He should have at least five more years of raking. I hope so.

Checking up on NBA, NHL Playoffs

Posted: 05/24/2013 by levcohen in Basketball, Hockey

I’ve been out for the past week, and haven’t been able to get to a computer, so I have not been able to make a post. I also haven’t been connected, so I missed a lot of the NBA and NHL playoffs. Here’s what has happened while I was gone:
The Spurs took a 2-0 series lead on the Grizzlies
The Heat won game one against the Pacers in thrilling fashion

The Red Wings shockingly won three straight games to take a 3-1 lead over the Blackhawks
The Bruins took a commanding 3-1 lead on the Rangers
The Penguins took an even more commanding 3-1 lead on the Senators (the Senators captain, 40 year old Daniel Alfredsson, has basically conceded that the Senators have lost the series)
The Kings and Sharks have won every home game in their series as the Kings lead 3-2

So, I missed a lot. Let’s start with the NHL prognosis. We are more than half way through each conference semifinal, and there have been some surprises, none bigger than the fact that the old Red Wings are killing the best team in the NHL (during the regular season) in the Blackhawks. They’ve been able to do that for a variety of reasons. The main reason is that they have been able to keep the Blackhawks top scorers off the boards. Patrick Sharp had five goals in five games in the first round. He has one in the first four of this one. Jonathan Toews, one of the best players in the NHL during the regular season, has just one assist to go along with zero goals in this series, and even got visibly frustrated in game four, as he was called for three unrelated penalties during the game. Marian Hossa had six points in the first round, and just one in the second. Patrick Kane might be the only Hawks star who is performing at the level they need, and even he only has three points in four games after picking up 60 points in his first 52 games (first round included). The defense by Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg on Toews and the Blackhawks has been terrific, but the goalie, Jimmy Howard, looks like Martin Brodeur in goal. He has allowed five goals in the series, and he has saved an amazing 96% of the shots on him during this series. Howard, one of the best goalies in the NHL, saved 92% during the regular season. That difference doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is. The Red Wings have also gotten tremendous production and ice time out of some young players. Damien Brunner is 27 years old but is a rookie. In the regular season, he had 26 points in 44 games, or .59 points per game. In the first round, he scored even less (four points in seven games, about .57 per game). He then had points in the first three games of the second round. Brendan Smith, a 24 year old defender, had just eight points in 34 games, including zero goals. He already has two goals and two assists in 11 games in the playoffs, and two points in the first four games in this series. The production from the defense, goalie, and young players has been huge. Still, the Red Wings can’t lose focus now, as the Blackhawks are easily good enough to win three straight games. Heck, I’ll predict that. Why not?

Series Prediction: Blackhawks in 7

The Kings-Sharks series looks to be the best one in this Conference Semifinal, as three of the first five games have been decided by one goal. Jonathan Quick has been barraged with more than thirty shots per game in this series and has twirled two sparkling shutouts. His save % is 95.4. In the regular season, it was 90%. This series is very much a contrast of teams, not in terms of personnel, but in terms of recent history. The Sharks are consistently great in the regular season but under-performing in the playoffs. Just last year, the Kings barely made the playoffs as the eight seed, and then went on a tear and won the Stanley Cup. It looks like the Kings have an advantage, just because they’ll be able to play game seven at home, if necessary.

Series Prediction: Kings in 6

The Penguins are more talented than the Senators. They have more depth, more star power, and will play two of the possible three games remaining at home. They look like the Cup Favorites, because the Blackhawks are down, and because they have outscored the Senators 16-9 in this series after beating the Islanders 28-14 in the first round. They’ve done all of this despite their goaltending problems. Marc-Andre Fleury, the starter and winner of 23 regular season games, was horrible in the first round and hasn’t played a game in the second round. 36 year old Thomas Vokoun has been terrific. He has gotten shot on 139 times in four games (34.75 times per game), and has allowed just nine goals. That’s a save % of nearly 94%, for those who are scoring at home.

Series Prediction: Penguins in 5

The Bruins jumped out to a 3-0 lead, but couldn’t close the Rangers out. The Rangers have the best goalie in the NHL, but I believe that it’s just a matter of time for the Bruins to advance.

Series Prediction: Bruins in 5

On to the NBA.

The Grizzlies looked absolutely horrible in game one, and ended up losing by 20. They looked better in game two, but still didn’t play to their potential. They lost by four, in overtime. The Spurs have played tremendous defense and offense. Now the question is… Can the Grizzlies bounce back? Well, they fell behind in each of their first two series’ and went on to easily win both of them. This is not uncharted territory for Memphis, and they won’t panic. Still, it will be tough, because the big men haven’t had the same success in this series that they did against Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter are big, and they are both good defenders. The Spurs also have athletic small forwards like Kawhi Leonard to double team Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and it’s working. ZBO has 17 points on 7-26 shooting in the first two games to go along with five turnovers. He shot 57% in the first round and 45% in the second round, and averaged 20.8 and 18.4 points, respectively. Gasol has just one turnover, but has struggled, going 11-28 from the field and scoring 27 points. He averaged 18 points per game in the first two rounds. The Grizzlies absolutely need those guys to score.

Series Prediction: Spurs in 7

The Pacers looked primed to take game one against the powerful Heat. In the best game of the playoffs to this point, the Pacers had done everything right. They got great production from Paul George and David West. Roy Hibbert was protecting the rim and bullying the Heat down low. Lance Stephenson was playing great defense on LeBron, and crashing the boards. The Pacers even got 18 points combined from their 6th and 7th man, which was not a guarantee. They were up by a point with two seconds left in overtime. And they lost. Coach Frank Vogel held Hibbert out of the final play, thinking that Chris Bosh could drain an outside shot on Hibbert. Therefore, Hibbert wasn’t there to protect the rim, and LeBron James got the ball and, you guessed it, drove to the basket. He easily got by George- a terrific perimeter defender- and got to the rim, where there was nobody to stop him. He laid the ball in at the buzzer, and the Heat won. The Pacers are going to find it very difficult to win this series now. They did everything right, and still lost. But at least we know that they can play with the Heat, and maybe there will be more entertaining games like this one. I believe that the Pacers are the second best team in the NBA, so I’m by no means counting them out. Paul George, not Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, is the second best player in this series. But there is only one LeBron James.

Series Prediction: Heat in 6 (that would put them at 12-3 heading into the finals. They could be 12-1.)

Small Market Teams Find Success in the NBA

Posted: 05/16/2013 by levcohen in Basketball

Four of the eight teams in the Conference Semifinals were from Indianapolis, San Antonio, Memphis, or Oklahoma City. Those are four of the seven smallest market teams in the NBA. There was one team from New York, one from Chicago, one from Miami, and one from the Bay Area. But the smaller market teams seem to be exceedingly successful, and more so than in other sports, like baseball, where teams from big markets dominate. In fact, both teams from Los Angeles, the second biggest market in the NBA, lost to small market teams in the first round (the Lakers to the Spurs, and the Clippers to the Grizzlies), and the New York Knicks look primed to do the same, as they are down three games to one to the Pacers. With the Grizzlies into the Conference Finals and the Spurs and Pacers primed to follow, it looks like three of the four teams in the Conference Finals will be from the seven smallest markets. That’s incredible. And I don’t want to tribute it to the NBA, because, while they don’t admit it, the NBA tries as hard as possible to give New York, LA, Chicago, and other big market teams advantages. While there is a salary cap, teams can freely go into the luxury tax, and teams from bigger markets have the means to pay off the luxury tax (either with massive TV deals or insanely high ticket prices). Teams from smaller markets don’t have that same luxury (pun intended).

How Can Small Market Teams Stay Afloat?

1. Trade stars with inflated contracts. The key example of this comes from Memphis, a team that has turned into quite the model of a small city team. The Grizzlies were nearing the luxury tax and had to get under it, so they traded away leading scorer Rudy Gay. It turned out that it was a very smart decision, both financially and in terms of the actual basketball team.

2. Draft Well. Every small team has to draft well in order to succeed. It’s a fact. The Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies, and Pacers all have key players that they drafted and stuck with. For the Grizzlies, that player is Mike Conley, the point guard who has exploded in the playoffs. For the Thunder, it’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the best one-two punch in the NBA. For the Spurs it’s basically all of their key contributors. The Pacers best player, Paul George, was drafted by Indiana. As was their injured star, Danny Granger. The Blazers and Hornets, who have exciting futures, are based around players they drafted. Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, etc.

3. Get as much as they can from devoted communities: The Spurs, Grizzlies, and Thunder in particular have communities that run as the team runs. That’s why the Spurs and Thunder have the 12th and 16th ranked payrolls, respectively. They can’t shell out large amounts of cash, but they aren’t exactly cheap. That’s because the fans give as much as they can, something that can’t be said in places like New York and LA.

4. Large home court advantage: The core four of small market teams went 131-33 at home. They went 92-71 (the Pacers only played 40 road games due to a Boston cancellation) on the road. That’s a difference of 38.5 games, or between nine and ten for each team. It’s a huge advantage, and one that is a necessity. Another small market team, Utah, finished four games above .500, and that was only because they went 30-11 at home. If the Dallas Mavericks, a big market team, had earned that home record, they would have had the 6th seed in the West. With their less impressive home record of 24-17, they were stuck in 10th place. That’s a substantial difference.

This post is more about congratulating the core four for their success than it is about congratulating the NBA for increased parity. While the NBA might point to these four teams as proof of parity, it just isn’t true. Only two of the top 12 teams in terms of city urban area size missed the playoffs. They were both largely because of injury. Of the bottom eighteen teams, only six made the playoffs. Those six? The four mentioned above, the Nuggets (a team that went 38-3 at home), and, randomly, the Bucks, who don’t really follow any of the four key things mentioned above and went 38-44 but still made the playoffs in a dreadful Eastern Conference.  A small market team is hugely disadvantaged, but these four (and to a lesser extent, the Nuggets, who play in a slightly larger Denver market) have thumbed their noses at that disadvantage and are now four of the greatest teams in the NBA. If only some larger market teams could run that way (I’m looking at you, Sixers).