Archive for April, 2014

Ranking the World Cup Teams: 32-29

Posted: 04/29/2014 by levcohen in Soccer

The World Cup is probably the best and most exciting sports competition on the planet (outside of the Olympics, which top the World Cup only because of the number of sports that take place at the same time) for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a rare occurrence, happening just once every four years. That means that players, coaches, and fans are all even more hungry than they are, say, when it comes to competitions like the Champions League or NBA playoffs (which have been amazing. More on that when the first round ends) which happen every single year. And hungry players, fans, and coaches mean more intense games, which is great. Secondly, soccer is the sport in most of the world. A world soccer competition is obviously going to be immensely important and entertaining, and that is even more true when it is the only major world soccer competition. So all the world’s best countries can compete against each other in their favorite sport in just one competition, and just every four years. No wonder everyone loves the World Cup, and no matter it’s so exciting and intense. Finally, the fact that countrymen are united gives this an Olympics-like feel. In fact, the period in the year or so before the World Cup, during the qualifying period and when the teams start getting whittled down, is when I and many soccer fans really start getting excited. It feels real now, and it’s coming up in about a month and a half. I’m going to make at least eight posts at some time or another previewing each of the countries, from worst to best. Let’s start at #32.

#32 Australia: I kind of feel bad for Australia. They always seem to turn into whipping boys in the World Cup, having made it in a largely bad qualifying group. Actually, though, that’s not really true. Last World Cup, the Aussies got crushed by Germany 4-0, but tied against a Ghana team that should have gone to the semifinal and beat Serbia. So they are definitely going in the right direction. Unfortunately, they are also in a group with Spain, the Netherlands, and Chile. That could easily be the toughest group there is, as I could easily see one of last year’s two finalists going out in the group stage. I’m bullish on Chile. Anyway, Australia is lead by New York Red Bulls midfielder Tim Cahill, who scored the Aussies first ever World Cup goal in 2006. Unfortunately, Australia is pretty shallow behind Cahill and Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak, and it showed. It took them until the 83rd minute of their final game of qualification to qualify for the World Cup, as a header gave them the win over Iraq. Recently, they’ve been thrashed by France and Brazil 6-0 each, which could be something we’ll see against Spain, Netherlands, or Chile. One point would be pretty good for this team in a very tough group. They work hard and have spirit, but they don’t have the talent.

#31 Iran: The star of this team is probably the coach, Carlos Queiroz, the coach of Portugal in the last World Cup and formal assistant to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Unfortunately, his Iran team isn’t as talented as that Portugal team or those Man United teams. Not even close. This team is going to have a lot of trouble scoring goals. While they did beat South Korea twice in qualification, they lost to Lebanon, Jordan and Uzbekistan in qualification, all by a score of 1-0. And if they can’t score against those countries, what hope do they have against teams like Argentina, Bosnia, and even Nigeria? Not much. A few goals and/or a win would be a great result for an Iran team who should just be happy to be there.

#30 Cameroon: I was actually surprised to have to rank Cameroon this low. They actually have some household names, like Samuel Eto’o of Chelsea, Aurelein Chedjou of Galtasaray and Alex Song of Barcelona. They definitely have more star power than some of the teams I’m ranking higher. I do have to factor these teams’ groups into this, though, because I’m trying to predict what’s going to happen in the actual competition. And Cameroon is stuck in a group with host Brazil, Croatia, and Mexico. This team is older than most, and I think they’re declining. This might be the last time this current core goes to a World Cup. The qualification and pre-World Cup process has been a tale of two competitions. In WC qualification, they were tremendous, going 5-2-1, although none of the wins came against great opposition (the best was probably over Libya). In friendlies against non-African teams, Cameroon has really struggled. Their 5-1 loss to Portugal came after a tie against Ukraine and loss against Tanzania, all in the past year. I’m just not sold.

#29 Ecuador: Ecuador is the type of team that can pull off a huge upset (say, over France. You heard it here first) and still fail to advance from their group stage. Since the last World Cup, they have beaten Uruguay, Chile, and Columbia at home, and tied Argentina. That’s super impressive. Unfortunately, the World Cup isn’t at home, and Ecuador have been atrocious on the road, not even winning a road game in qualifying. In fact, this team has had two non-home wins since 2011: over Portugal, which is extremely impressive, and over Australia 4-3, which is less impressive, especially since they were down 3-0 at halftime. Their home advantage likely is because of their high altitude and fast pace, and they won’t have that at the World Cup. The defense is also pretty bad, and Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia is really the only player who stands out. I think Ecuador and Honduras are both poor, which is why Group E is just so bad. I think Honduras has the edge over Ecuador, though.

Next: 28-25

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More Early Statline To Buy/Sell

Posted: 04/25/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

Buy: Brandon Belt (.299/.337/.563/7 HR)
Let’s do a quick player A vs player B resume. One of them is Brandon Belt last season. The other player’s line comes from 2012.

Player A: 145 games, 587 PA, .286/.359/.490, 10.2 BB%, 22.1 K %, .343 BABIP, 20 HR, 18 SB
Player B: 150 games, 571 PA, .289/.360/.481, 9.1 BB%, 21.9 K%, .351 BABIP, 17 HR, 5 SB

Pretty similar, no? Player B is Brandon Belt of last season. Belt, who is now 26 years old, had been ranked a top-25 prospect heading into 2011. After being drafted out of the University of Texas, he made a meteoric rise rise to AAA. He started 2010 in rookie ball, and ended it in AAA. By the time he was promoted to the MLB in 2011, he was a top prospect and had a 1.053 career OPS. And then he proceeded to hit .225 in 2011 and was just slightly above average in 2012. Still, I think it was always pretty clear that Belt was going to turn into a star. He always had a high walk rate, and after 2011 had a pretty consistent average. Now it’s time to reveal Player A… It’s 2012 Paul Goldshmidt. It’s fair to say that Goldshmidt, who is also 26, got to where Belt is now a bit earlier, but that’s not the point. So how did Goldshmidt do last year after posting those promising numbers in 2012? Well, he won a gold glove (unfairly, probably, because he is rated as a below-average defender by advanced metrics), a silver slugger, made the all-star game, and finished second in the NL MVP voting. His final line was 160 games, 710 PA, .302/.401/.551, 13.9 BB %, 20.4 K%, .343 BABIP, 36 HR, and 15 steals. He led the NL in homers, OPS, and RBI, and is well on his way to repeating those numbers this year. Okay, but that doesn’t mean Belt will repeat it. How’s he doing this year? Well, as you saw at the top, he already has seven homers, is hitting .299, and is slugging .563. Now he’s hitting third in a good Giants lineup after usurping a struggling Pablo Sandoval from that role. Belt is turning into a star right as we speak. I think he’ll end up hitting .293/.366/.510 with 27 homers and eight steals.

Sell: Mark Buehrle (.64 ERA, 28 IP, 9 K, 5 BB)

I probably don’t need to say it, but I will just in case. Mark Buehrle is now 35 years old, and we are in the 15th year of Buehrle, which is incredible. First, I want to state how amazing this guy is. He looks to be on his way to throw 200+ innings for the 14th straight year! That’s right: Buehrle has had at least 30 starts and thrown at least 200 innings in each of his full seasons as a starter. Nowadays, that’s about as rare as it gets. It’s also worth a mention that Buehrle has a perfect game on his resume. With that being said, Buehrle has never had an ERA below 3.12, and that was in 2005. And sure enough, he’s gotten lucky this year. In every season of his career except for one, Buehrle has left between 70 and 76% of the base runners he has allowed on base. This year, just 7.1% of the base runners he has given up have scored. That’s unsustainable. As is the fact that Buehrle, who is normally a pitcher who gives up a bunch of homers, has yet to allow a home run. Some of those fly balls will leave the park, and his ERA will go up. His BABIP is also lower than his average. Buehrle seems likely to settle into an ERA in the 3.50 range, which is good but still three runs worse than it is now. The one thing that is really interesting about Mark Buehrle is that he, a five pitch pitcher just two years ago, has cut (no pun intended) the cutter and the slider from his repertoire. I was surprised to see the cutter go, because it was Buehrle’s best pitch during his prime. But it’s been going downhill, and it was probably a good idea to get rid of it. Instead, he’s using his curveball way more than he ever has, and he’s throwing his fastball more than half the time for just the second year since 2004. Either way, Buehrle is going to regress a lot, and I don’t think it will turn into just another Mark Buehrle season. He will probably end with an ERA around 3.65, 145 strikeouts, 217 innings, and 32 starts.

Sell: Carlos Santana (.137/.308/.219/1 HR)

Carlos Santana has been terrible this year. He’s also been unlucky. Then again, anybody who its .137 is probably getting a little big unlucky. There are two differences: Santana is still walking a lot this year, and he’s a 28 year old who has been a good offensive player for four straight year. I don’t know how often an established 28-year old falls off the map for no apparent reason, but it’s not often. And then there’s the aforementioned bad luck. Santana has a .167 BABIP, seventh worst of qualified hitters, and he’s hit just 5.5% of his fly balls out of the park, down from 13% last year. He’s lost a few homers there. He definitely hasn’t been as good as he was last year (duh) but these numbers are going to go way up. Santana isn’t going to be a bad hitter. Let’s put him at .250/.373/.420 with 19 homers. A lot better than he’s doing right now.

Buy: Adam Dunn (.260/.400/.547/5 HR)

Again, I’ll say that this is all relative. Adam Dunn is a buy, but he won’t keep this up. I just think this much ridiculed hitter is going to have his best season offensively since 2010. He’s obviously going to strike out a lot, but he also walks a lot, and has great power. He’s also just 34 years old, which is hard to believe because he has been an everyday player for 13 years and is closing in on 8000 plate appearances. I don’t know that much has changed since last year, but Dunn is due for some good luck (which he is getting). The biggest change is probably the White Sox’ addition of Jose Abreu. Before this year, Dunn had almost no other help in the lineup, at least when it comes to power. Now, Abreu is hitting right before Dunn in the lineup, and since he gets on base a lot, pitchers have to pitch to Dunn. His strikeout rate is actually down to 30%, still insanely high but lowest since 2010. Dunn is also followed in the lineup by Dayan Viciedo, who has turned into a good hitter and is well over .300. Basically, Dunn has gotten better pitches to hit this year. I think his numbers will drop, but I still think he’ll surprise some people. I see him ending at .230/.355/.490 with 36 homers.

Early MLB Statlines to Buy and Sell

Posted: 04/24/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

Say it with me: Small sample size. Small sample size. Small sample size. Those are the words you hear in baseball in April, and for good reason. The baseball season is long and arduous; right now, most teams have played about an eighth of their schedule. In the NFL, that would be two games. In the NBA and NHL, that would be 10 games. I’d say that the right time to really start making conclusions about who will be in the playoffs, the award winners, etc. is in early June. Right now we are in late April, so that’s still more than a month off. But I’m going to show you some surprising stat lines from the season’s first month and tell you which to buy and which to sell.

Buy: Robinson Cano (.280/.333/.354/1 HR)
I forgot to note above that all of these are relative. When I say that I’m buying a Robinson Cano decline in stats, I don’t mean to say that he will slug .354 all season. But I do buy a regression, and it’s not exclusively because of his park change. While Cano is in a more pitcher friendly park, research showed that he would have had basically the same numbers had he played at Safeco and not Yankee stadium last year. The more worrying thing is that Cano’s swing has changed a little bit, and he isn’t hitting the ball as well. It actually reminds me a little bit of Albert Pujols, who deserves mention regardless because he just hit his 500th homer, in his first year after signing a monster contract with the Angels. That first season ended pretty poorly, but Pujols did turn it around a little bit throughout the year. I expect the same for Cano, and he might bounce back even more next season, but I do see regression. He’s hitting the ball softer and not as far, with 6% fewer line drives than last season and 7% fewer fly balls. Instead, he’s hitting weak ground balls now. His ground ball rate has risen from 44% to 58%, which explains his lack of extra base hits. Cano has very little lineup protection, and is on a Mariners team that is really struggling right now. I expect a final line somewhere along the lines of .290/.345/.420 with 18 home runs. That, paired with good fielding, is fine, but it’s not Robinson Cano, 4+ WAR in the last five years, worthy.

Sell: Emilio Bonifacio (.351/.412/.416/9 SB) and Dee Gordon (.369/.408/.492/12 SB)
I’m placing these two speedsters together, because both are infielders who have plenty of speed but very little hitting ability, at least before this season. Let’s start with Bonifacio, who has more of a track record. He’s been primarily a big league player for the past five years, and if he hit even .270 with no power for the rest of the season, this could easily be the best season he has ever had, thanks to this scorching first month. And for a .266 career hitter, .270 seems just about fair. At the end of the year, this may well be Bonifacio’s best year. There’s just no way he’s going to keep even close to this start up. He’s gotten lucky, with a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) nearly 70 points higher than his career average. That will start to regress. Bonifacio also has no power, as 22 of his 27 hits have been singles (with five doubles), and he’s hitting the ball on the ground 60% of the time. To be fair, that’s a good strategy for a speedster and a slap hitter like Bonifacio, but it relies largely on luck, which is what he has gotten so far this season and which he will start to lose. He’s also struck out a lot less this season than he did last year (22% last year, 13% this year). Let’s place his final line at .287/.335/.355 with 40 steals.

Gordon is, if anything, a more interesting case. He turned 26 two days ago, is one year and 364 days younger than Bonifacio, who turned 28 yesterday (happy birthday to both), and also has a lot less experience. Gordon has less than a third as many plate appearances as Bonifacio, and probably for good reason; he was worse than replacement level through his first three seasons, which is why all three of those turned into half seasons (he was sent to the minors). The interesting thing is that, after being one of the worst hitters in baseball the past two seasons (bad average, bad on base, no power makes for a bad combination), he’s hitting .369 and playing like a star leadoff hitter. I think Dee’s improvements are more believable than Bonifacio’s, but his BABIP is a full 100 points above his career average. With that being said, I was surprised at how low (.318) his career BABIP is. For a player with his speed, that seems unlucky, so .330-.340 seems more reasonable. Still, regression is coming, which is why I have him on this list as a sell. The biggest thing Gordon has done is he has realized he isn’t going to hit for power, and he’s hit it on the ground more, which is another reason the BABIP is up. After hitting 30% fly balls last year, an insane amount for a player of his stature, he’s down to 18% this year, and is hitting even more ground balls than Bonifacio. He won’t be one of the best hitters in baseball, but I think he can be serviceable. I foresee a final line of .280/.320/.350 with 55 steals. So there’s a reason I put him with Bonifacio. Those numbers look very similar. Gordon just has more speed. But can he stay in the lineup with poor hitting? That depends on how poorly he hits. Both of these guys have a chance to lose their jobs.

Buy: Jose Fernandez (1.99 ERA, 31.2 IP, 6 BB, 47 K)
I think we all realize that Fernandez is good. Sure, there were some people who thought a sophomore slump was coming, but most of us realized that he was here to stay as an ace. But he’s better than a run-of-the-mill ace (I know, it’s an oxymoron, but it works). With Clayton Kershaw injured, I think Fernandez is the. best. pitcher. in baseball. Felix Hernandez and others are also in the discussion, but Fernandez might have the best stuff in baseball. He consistently hits 100 on his fastball, has upped the use of his excellent slider, and also has an above average curveball and a league average changeup that does its job. And this guy is 21 years old. The most amazing thing about the start to Fernandez’s season is that his BABIP, which was unsustainable last year at just .240, has jumped above .300. He has a sub-2 ERA and has arguably gotten bad luck on balls hit in play! Fernandez is striking out nearly EIGHT guys for every ONE he walks, and his control is exponentially better this year than it was last. He has the most strikeouts in baseball. I don’t expect much worse from Fernandez for the rest of the season, and I expect him to make 30 starts and throw close to 200 innings. Let’s give him a 2.08 ERA, 230 strikeouts, 50 walks, and 190 innings. Let’s also give him the Cy Young. This guy is for real.

Sell: Stephen Strasburg (5.33 ERA, 27 IP, 10 BB, 42 K)
People are starting to panic. They should stop right now, because Stephen Strasburg is going to be fine. Better than fine, actually. I expect to see him finish the season with the best ERA of his career, which would mean sub-3.00. I would say I’m all in on this guy, because I’ve been watching him, and he is the same pitcher. His fastball/changeup combination is textbook, much like Cole Hamels’. Perhaps one reason that Strasburg has struggled to start the season is that he’s introduced a slider, which he’s thrown about a tenth of the time. It’s been a bit below average, and is his worst pitch right now, but it will get better. Otherwise, Strasburg will just get rid of it, and do well with his other three pitches. I just don’t see a way that Strasburg doesn’t rebound. His FIP (fielding independent pitching), which is a better indicator of future performance than ERA is because it is less luck-based, is 2.58. His strikeout rate is also way up. My biggest concern is the home run rate. Strasburg is giving up a home run per nine innings, which is less than ideal (you hope for a number in the .5 range per nine). But that’s a fairly minor concern. Even if Strasburg does give up 25 homers this year, which is more than I think he will, he’s still fine, because he’s getting more swings and hitters are making less contact. That, along with an elevated strikeout rate, a low FIP and a killer change, is the recipe for success. I think he’ll end the year with a 2.90 ERA, 185 innings, 220 strikeouts, and 60 walks. It’s a meaningless stat, but he’ll probably also win 16 games because he’s on a good team. He could be on some Cy Young ballots. Ignore the 5.33 ERA.

So there’s a few guys for you. I’ll throw in some more for each of the next few days. I’m trying to pace myself here.

Late NBA First Round Preview

Posted: 04/21/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

I know, it’s late. In fact, given that there has been so much attention on basketball and the first round of the playoffs, I wasn’t even going to make this post. I figured that there had been enough speculation already, and that I’d start making my picks when the mediocre teams had been completely weeded out (in the second round, that is). After seeing six of the eight game one’s end with a single digit difference, and especially after seeing Indiana continue their complete self-combustion in game one, when they lost at home to the Hawks, a not-so-formidable opponent who lost their best player, Al Horford, at the beginning of the year and slumped to just 38 wins, six games under .500, I wanted to make predictions. I still wasn’t sure, though. Not until the last game of last night, which was both terrific and unbelievable. Portland, who I love and had backed even before the series, rallied from 10 down with under four minutes to go in the game and six down in overtime to beat the Houston Rockets, who many have backed as a darkhorse to win the West. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that the playoffs, and even the first round, are fun to watch, and since they’ve brought out a lot of opinions, I want to make predictions, albeit late and fairly brief ones.

Eastern Conference:

1 Indiana Pacers over 8 Atlanta Hawks in six: The Pacers in their current state are not a threat to usurp the Heat at the top of the East, even though they are the top seed and will have home court advantage throughout the first three rounds. Had I not been aware of how poor the rest of the East is, I would have been shocked to see how many people picked them to even be in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat. My expectations for the Pacers, sky high for most of the season as I placed them #1 in my power rankings time after time, were much lower. With all that being said, I was shocked to see how poorly the Pacers played on their home floor against the worst team in the playoffs. The Hawks played inspired basketball this season, but they started KYLE KORVER, DEMARRE CARROLL, AND PERO ANTIC in game one. Do any of those guys crack the Pacers’ starting lineup? Of course not. Do any of them even crack the Spurs’ 9-man rotation? Maybe Korver, because he is a good three point shooter, but that’s about it. The Hawks right now are basically a two man offense, and the Pacers, the best defensive team in basketball throughout most of the regular season, could not stop those two guys. Jeff Teague scored 28 points and got to the line 10 times, hitting nine free throws. He also embarrassed Evan Turner. By the way, that Turner trade looks absolutely dreadful for the Pacers now. And Paul Millsap added 25 points, hit nine more free throws, and hit two three pointers. Remember, this is a Pacer team with two of the best defensive players in the NBA in Roy Hibbert and Paul George, both DPOY candidates. They couldn’t stop Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, and a bunch of role players? Come on. In the end, I still think the Pacers will pull this series out. They are so much more talented, and so much more experienced. The bottom line is that, if they lose this series, they have themselves to blame for it. Period. Again, they self-combusted, and they didn’t even face adversity in the form of an injury or anything else. Maybe people heaped on expectations, but they embraced them. Now they have to back it up.

2 Miami Heat over 7 Charlotte Bobcats in five: The Bobcats played well in game one, and were in it throughout. They actually led for much of the first half, which I was surprised by. Al Jefferson is a beast, and I was sad to see him hobbling to the locker room midway through the first half. This guy just cannot catch a break. He’s played on bad teams throughout his career, and was excited to get back to the playoffs. After starting out so well (4-4 from the field), it was a blow to both Jefferson and the Bobcats, because the Heat can not stop a healthy Jefferson. After Al was injured, he did return to the game, but was clearly hobbled. He had to labor up and down the court, and shot just 5 of 13 after the injury. This Bobcats team actually matches up really well with the Heat. They are a well coached team (Steve Clifford has done a great job) who play good defense. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can defend LeBron James, 60 point game aside. And they have some players who have stepped up in big games before. Kemba Walker for UConn three years ago and Gary Neal for the Spurs last season come mind. So I think the Bobcats will keep these games close. But they are nowhere near as good as the Heat are, especially with a healthy Dwyane Wade, who was tremendous yesterday. I hope Jefferson’s foot gets better, because it will make the series much more intriguing, but I like the Heat in five games regardless. Given the demise of the Pacers, I’m having a hard time imagining a team other than the Miami Heat representing the East in the 2014 NBA Finals.

6 Brooklyn Nets over 3 Toronto Raptors in six: The Raptors might be the least talked about three-seed of all time. They have no playoff experience, play in Canada, and are playing against a Nets team that might be the most expensive roster of all time and features household names like Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce and play in the biggest media market in the country. Game one showed me that this series will not be a cakewalk for the Nets. The Raptors were 41-22 after they traded Rudy Gay. The Pacers were 39-24 in that time. The Heat were 40-23. The Nets were 39-24. Had the Raptors traded Gay before the season started, they might be the #1 seed in the East. That’s amazing. But they don’t have playoff experience, and they lost their home court advantage in game one. I don’t think this will be an easy series, but the Nets should win and earn a date with the Miami Heat, who they are 4-0 against.

4 Chicago Bulls over 5 Washington Wizards in seven: Yes, the Wizards won game one. And they won it in Chicago by nine points, a pretty convincing margin. The Wizards scored 102 points, which is significant because the Bulls gave up triple figure points only four times in 34 games after the all-star break. Washington is also 3-1 against the Bulls this season following game one, so they might just have the Bulls’ number. The problem is that the Bulls are still the Tom Thibedeau Bulls, and I hesitate to pick against them and for a team with no playoff experience. At one point in the second half, the Bulls actually led the game by 12 points, after Mike Dunleavy Jr. hit three three pointers to start the third quarter. Chicago led 75-72 after a Wizards run to end the third quarter, and at that point I thought; ok, the Wizards just went on their run, and the Bulls still lead. They should win this. But they didn’t; the Wizards, led by Nene, who was defended by Joakim Noah, scored 30 points in the fourth quarter. And that was with the Wizards’ two top players, John Wall and Bradley Beal, failing to hit a basket and scoring four combined points in the fourth. Beal and Wall ended up shooting a combined 7-for-25, but the rest of the team shot 59%. The Bulls made someone other than the two guards beat them, and Nene and Marcin Gortat did just that. I’m concerned. In the end, I like the Bulls in a close, tough series. I don’t believe that Nene will continue to outplay Noah, and I don’t think the Wizards will shoot 35 free throws again anytime soon. The Wizards were always going to make this a close series, and the first game worries me, but I still like the Bulls, with their shutdown defense and years of experience, over the upstart Wizards.

Western Conference:

1 San Antonio Spurs over 8 Dallas Mavericks in five: The Mavericks had the Spurs yesterday beat. They were up by 10 with just over seven minutes left, and seemed in control of the game after leading throughout. But you always got the feeling that the Spurs would come back, and did they ever. San Antonio closed the game on a 19-4 run, thanks mostly to the fact that Dallas went cold; after starting the game at a 47% clip, the Mavericks hit just one of the 13 shots they took after going ahead by 10, and that was a meaningless bucket by Devin Harris at the buzzer. They also turned the ball over three times in the final seven minutes, after losing the ball just five times in the first 41 minutes of the game. In short, the Mavericks fell apart down the stretch against the Spurs, and probably blew their best shot at stealing a game in San Antonio. Had they won that game, I think this really could have been a long and arduous series for the Spurs. It might even have gone seven games. I think the Spurs would have won it in the end, but I would be predicting a longer series than the five gamer I think it’ll end up as now. This series is still going to be a fun and fascinating one to watch, because it has a bunch of interesting story lines, including Tim Duncan vs. Dirk Nowitzki and the rivalry between these two Texas teams. I expect some close and tense games, but I don’t think this will be a long series.

2 Oklahoma City Thunder over 7 Memphis Grizzlies in six: I was expecting a close, hard fought series, so it would be fair to say I was shocked to see that the Thunder were up on the Grizzlies 56-34 at halftime. The Grizzlies are one of the best defensive teams in the game, and after a slow start rallied to win 50 games and the #7 seed. They also beat the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder in last year’s playoffs, and they won that series easily. So I couldn’t believe that they were being blown out. And then the third quarter happened. The Grizzlies outscored OKC by a score of 31-13 in the third quarter, and the deficit was shockingly just four entering the fourth quarter. In the end, the early hole ended up being too much for the Grizzlies, as the Thunder pulled away in the fourth quarter and won by 14. But this is going to be a tough series for the favored Thunder. Kevin Durant has something to prove after he played poorly down the stretch in the series last year, and he’s off to a good start, as he put up 33, 8, and 7 on 13-25 shooting, which is a normal game for KD. In a game in which the Thunder were so hot in the first half, their weaknesses were also exposed. The big three of Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka put up 73 points, and the rest of the team shot 32% and scored 27. That didn’t matter in game one, and it might not matter much in round one, but it definitely will matter later in the playoffs, and I think it will keep this series fairly close.

3 Los Angeles Clippers over 6 Golden State Warriors in seven: Game one was exciting, and the Warriors ended up winning it, but I don’t think that’s sustainable. The Warriors are without center Andrew Bogut, and much of the talk going into the series was understandably about the Clippers’ height advantage and their skilled players down low. Well, in game one, much of the talk became moot, as Blake Griffin, one of the skilled Clipper bigs, played just 19 minutes before fouling out. I don’t expect to see that again, and we also saw what Griffin can do in those 19 minutes. Even in limited time, he managed to shoot the ball 13 times and score 16 points. The other Clipper big man, DeAndre Jordan, ended up with a double-double, but wasn’t anywhere near as good as he is with Griffin. Jordan got off just five shots, but more importantly turned the ball over seven times. Even Chris Paul, the superstar point guard who put together a great all around game, tired at the end, as he turned the ball over and missed two free throws in a span of seven vital seconds. Paul will be blamed, but Griffin put him in a bad situation by fouling out when he did. Even Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison, the bench guards who so often rally the second unit and help build big leads, were poor in game one; they shot 4-20 for 17 points. In a way, it was a worst-case scenario game for the Clippers, and they still lost by just four and had plenty of chances to win the game. The worrying thing for Los Angeles is that the Warriors put up points even though their star guards were poor from the field. Stephen Curry, who is bound to have an amazing game or two in this series, didn’t have it in game one. He scored just 14 points. Klay Thompson scored 22, but missed 13 of his 20 shot attempts and added four turnovers to Curry’s seven. In the end, the Warriors turned the ball over 21 times and still won the game. Their bench helped, which I don’t think many people saw coming, because the Clips have a better bench than the Warriors do. The Clippers are the more skilled team, and I think they’ll win the series in the end, but it could and probably will go the distance.

5 Portland Trailblazers over 4 Houston Rockets in six: I liked Portland in this one before the series started, and I like them even more now, after what was an admittedly less than dominating performance. I understand why people love Houston. They have James Harden, one of the best offensive players in the NBA, and they have Dwight Howard, a big post presence. They also have some secondary players (Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley) with valuable playoff experience that the Blazers do not have. They can score on any team, as they showed against a poor Blazers’ defense yesterday. But they are full of holes. First and foremost, they can’t stop anybody on defense. James Harden is the worst defender in the NBA, which he showed yesterday. He’s also the slowest guard in basketball according to advanced metrics that chart average MPH. According to NBA’s new stat, Real Plus-Minus, which is supposed to be basketball’s less polished but still telling version of WAR, Harden is not a top-10 superstar that many think he is. Instead, he’s 42nd, because while he’s the fourth best offensive player behind LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant (good company), he’s a total black hole on the defensive end. That hurts in the regular season, but it hurts even more in the playoffs. Also, Houston’s second best player, Howard, missed the end of the season with an injury, and it was hard to know whether he would be full strength in the playoffs. He played decently offensively, but definitely didn’t help stop Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge, who rates as the 12th best player in basketball according to RPM (over both Howard and Harden), was a beast, putting up 46 points and 18 rebounds, making him the third player since 1986 to do so. The last two? Howard and The Dream, both currently employed by the Rockets, one as a player and one as a coach. Ouch. Damian Lillard also shone in his first playoff game. He scored 31 points, and most notably led the Blazers to a win down the stretch after Aldridge fouled out in overtime and told him to take over. Per ESPN, Lillard and Aldridge are the first teammates since some guys named Jordan and Pippen in 1992 to put up 45 and 30 in the same playoff game. It was an enjoyable game, with multiple runs and a desperation finish by Aldridge to tie the game at the end of regulation after a huge comeback, and I think it is going to be like this for the whole series. Neither of these teams can play defense, as no playoff team allowed more points than these two. But both have a lot of ways to put the ball in the basket. Houston and Portland scored the second and third most points of any playoff team and both have a bunch of players who can go off (Lillard, Aldridge, Howard, Harden, Parsons, Wesley Matthews). In the end, I think Portland will win this series. It’ll surprise a lot of people, but those people just haven’t been paying attention. After a midseason swoon, the Blazers won nine of their last 10, including five wins against playoff teams. The Rockets, on the other hand, lost three of their last five regular season games, and that trend has continued into the playoffs. It should be an exciting series, and I think it will be Blazers in six. If it goes to seven games, though, expect the Rockets to win on their home court.

NHL First Round Preview Western Conference

Posted: 04/16/2014 by levcohen in Hockey

Time for the Western Conference preview, which could be even better than in the East. There are all kinds of storylines, and I wouldn’t be surprised if any of six teams made the Stanley Cup Finals. Let’s get to it.

St. Louis Blues (111 points) vs Chicago Blackhawks (107):
Chicago is definitely going to be ready for this series. They are the defending champs, and are probably the deepest team in hockey, or at least in the Western Conference. They have plenty of star players offensively, which explains their 267 goals, tops in the NHL. They have Duncan Keith, who is likely to win the award for best defensive player, and he is joined by plenty of offensive power: Patrick Sharp, captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, etc. They have been here before, performed well throughout the season, and have depth to go along with their star power. They’ll be ready to go. But will the Blues? After holding the best record in the NHL for most of the season, the Blues slumped at the end of the season, losing their last six games. They ended the season by coughing up not just the best record in the West, but also the #1 seed in the Central division. That’s huge, as they now have to play the defending champs, whereas had they finished with more points than the Avalanche they would be playing Wild, which would still be a tough matchup, but nowhere near as difficult. The Blues love low scoring games. They are one of only four teams who have given up fewer than 200 goals this season. What people don’t realize about St. Louis, though, is how good they are offensively. They finished the season sixth in goals per game at 2.9, and were also eighth on the power play. So although the Blues don’t exactly play an exciting or fast paced game, they do manage to score a lot of goals. Again, though, their main strength is their defense, which is probably the best in the NHL. Alex Pietrangelo, a Norris trophy candidate, and Jay Boumeester give the Blues a shutdown pair; they should be able to slow down Chicago’s top line. The key for the Blues is the goalie, Ryan Miller. Miller, who was acquired in the middle of the season, has struggled mightily recently, and has given up a few soft goals. The Blues have a lot of advantages, including on the power play and on the penalty kill, but they are getting cold at the wrong time and the Blackhawks are going to play well. They should also be able to win on the road. I like the Blackhawks in 6.

Colorado Avalanche (112) vs Minnesota Wild (98):
The analytic crowd believes that the Avalanche are playing at an unsustainable level right now, and I tend to agree. Remember, this is the team that picked #1 overall last year, so they have had quite a turnaround. Often, these amazing turnarounds don’t continue into the playoffs. Colorado is a terrible possession team who give the puck over a ton and play a high flying style of hockey. Their goal differential, +30, is good, but not as good as their point total would indicate. They have the second most points in the West, but just the sixth best goal differential in the conference. Patrick Roy, one of the best goalies of all time, is doing a heck of a job as a first year coach. The Avalanche do have some good players. They have the #1 overall pick and likely Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon. Although MacKinnon obviously has no playoff experience (which is a common thing on this upstart team), he has a boatload of talent, and could be a difference maker. They also have a possible Vezina (best goalie) trophy winner in Semyon Varlamov, and Varlamov is no upstart; he has been a solid goalie throughout his career. This year, as the team has blossomed, so has Varlamov. He has two more wins than any other goalie, and is also third in save percentage. When the defense has allowed shots, Varlamov has been there to stop them. The Avs struggle on the penalty kill, which could be something to watch for, but they are a good power play team. The Wild are solid, but I’m not sure they have enough to expose the Avs’ weaknesses. Their goalie, Josh Harding, was a Vezina candidate until he got hurt in December. Now, Ilya Bryzgalov, who is erratic to say the least, will be behind the pipes. That is worrying. Also worrying is the fact that Ryan Suter, who led the NHL in minutes played by a wide margin, will likely have to be on the ice for more than half the game against the fast Avalanche. Suter is used to a heavy workload, but a 30 minute plus game is never a good thing. I like the upstart Avalanche in 5 over the mediocre Wild.

San Jose Sharks (111) vs Los Angeles Kings (100):
This is probably the premier matchup of the first round, and I think it is likely to go seven games. These two teams are two of the best in all of hockey, and the winner will probably be favored to make it out of the West. The Sharks win games by their even strength scoring and good defense. Along with the Blues and Bruins, this was one of the most well rounded teams in the NHL in the regular season. The problem is that they’ve been here before- year after year after year, in fact-, and they almost always go out in the first or second round. This is the best Sharks team in recent memory, so it could be different, but they don’t have the playoff success that the Kings, who won the Stanley Cup two years ago, do. The Kings are much worse on the offensive side of things than the Sharks, but they are the best defensive team in the NHL. Led by Drew Doughty, this was the best defensive team in hockey this year, giving up the second fewest shots and the fewest goals among any NHL team. The goalie, Jonathan Quick, has done it before, most recently in the Olympics, and could have the advantage over San Jose’s goalie, Anti Niemi, who has been prone to playoff lapses in the past. In a series that will probably be lower scoring than any other, the Sharks’ offensive weapons could be the difference. San Jose had three players with 70+ points, while Los Angeles had just one in Anze Kopitar. And their next best scorer was Jeff Carter at 50 points. The Kings struggle to score goals, and the Sharks do not. That, along with the Sharks’ home ice advantage and 29-7-5 home record are the main reasons I’m picking the Sharks to push aside some of their playoff demons and win the series in 7.

Anaheim Ducks (114) vs Dallas Stars (91):
This is the trendy upset pick, and I understand why. The Ducks, the second best offensive team throughout the season, got lucky, as they were about average at keeping the puck. Their goalie, Jonas Hiller, struggled at the end of the season, starting just two of the final nine games (and losing 5-2 and 4-2) after being in net for 48 of the first 73 games. Meanwhile, the Stars are led by two star players in Jaime Benn and Tyler Seguin who probably won’t be stopped by the Ducks. They won eight of their last 13 games. They are rolling right now, and the Ducks overperformed throughout the season. I get it. But I also think that Anaheim has the talent to withstand a good series by the Stars. I think their “big two” of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are just as good as Dallas’s. In a high scoring series, I think it’ll come down to which team draws more penalties and which team does more on the power play. The Ducks scored a lot of goals, but still struggled on the power play. Meanwhile, the Stars have been bad on both the power play and penalty kill throughout the year. The Ducks are the slightly better power play team, which is why I think the Ducks will win the series in 5. Their home record, 29-8-4, could be the difference against a Stars team that has struggled on the road throughout the season. In fact, the Stars are the only playoff team with more regulation losses on the road than wins. They are 17-20-4 on the road.  That, along with the power play, is the difference for the Ducks, who will avoid the big upset.

I haven’t written much about hockey, because the regular season is so hectic and hard to follow. Now, though, the season is over, and the playoffs start tomorrow. There are a lot of great times to be a sports fan, but this time of year might rank number one. The baseball season still feels new and exciting, the NFL draft is coming up, and hockey and basketball are both in the playoffs. Even the MLS is in the middle of its season. It is a great time to be a sports fan. We’ll start with the East today, and move to the West tomorrow.

Eastern Conference:

New York Rangers (96 points) vs Philadelphia Flyers (94):
I have a feeling that this is going to be a great series for a couple of reasons. The first one is obvious: it’s New York against Philadelphia. These two teams are, as you would expect, rivals, and most of their games have been close. They ended up 2-2 against each other in the regular season, and there were three fights in those four games. The games have generally been very chippy. But another reason that these games should be fun is that it is a strength against strength series. The Rangers rely on their defense (193 goals allowed, fourth fewest in hockey) and on their goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, who is perhaps the best goalie in the NHL. The Flyers, on the other hand, are one of two teams in the playoffs who have a negative goal differential in 5 on 5 hockey. The rely on their power-play scoring, as they scored 58 power play goals, third most in all of hockey. Their goalie, unlike Lundqvist, isn’t exactly entering the playoffs on a hot streak. Steve Mason was benched for some of the Flyers’ biggest games at the end of the season, and now has an upper body injury. So the goalie advantage, which is usually so important in the playoffs, goes to the Rangers. In order to win the series, New York needs to neutralize Philadelphia’s tremendous offensive depth. No playoff team has more twenty goal scorers than the Flyers, who have seven, including Claude Giroux, one of the best players in hockey. So the Flyers should have the advantage offensively. But the Rangers have Lundqvist and the Flyers have Mason, so the Flyers, who gave up 13 goals in their last three games (really 12 and a shootout loss against the Hurricanes, but still), need to tame Martin St. Louis and the Rangers’ attack. The key to this series is penalties. If the refs swallow their whistles, as often happens in the playoffs, the Rangers will have the advantage, as the Flyers will be deprived of their greatest weapons. But if the Flyers get rolling offensively and on the power play, I don’t think New York has the offense to keep up. I’m going to pick the Rangers in 7, mainly because of Lundqvist and because the Rangers, at 85.3%, are the third best penalty killing team in hockey. It should be a great series.

Pittsburgh Penguins (109) vs Columbus Blue Jackets (93):
The Columbus Blue Jackets, led by goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, are a solid all-around team. They aren’t excellent on the power play (19.3%, 11th in the NHL), on the penalty kill (82.1%, 14th), or in terms of goal scoring (2.76 per game, 12th), but they are average to slightly above average everywhere. I don’t think that will be enough against the Penguins, though. Pittsburgh is ripe to be upset, as they slumped near the end of the season and have a huge question mark (Marc Andre-Fleury) between the pipes. With that said, they are still have some tremendous talent offensively. Sidney Crosby is the obvious one. The best player in hockey scored 104 points this year, best in hockey by a wide margin (Ryan Getzlaf is second with 87 points), and picked up 1.30 points per game. Second on the points per game list is another Penguin: Evgeni Malkin. Malkin, who had a foot injury and was limited to 60 games, picked up 72 points in those 60 games. Now, he says he will play in game one tomorrow night, and will obviously be welcomed back onto the ice. The Penguins firepower should just be too much for the Blue Jackets. They edged out the Capitals as the best power play team in hockey at 23.38%, and scored 65 power play goals. Can the Blue Jackets, who are middle of the pack on the PK, keep the Penguins at bay? I doubt it. I like the Penguins in 6, but I think that because of their goal tending and defensive issues, they have a chance to be upset in the second round against a better all around team like the Rangers. Crosby, James Neal, and Malkin are three of the best offensive and power play players in the NHL, and that should be the difference in a series against a solid team who might just be happy to be there.

Boston Bruins (117) vs Detroit Red Wings (93):
This is an absolute nightmare of a first round matchup for the Bruins, who have the most points and are the best all around team in hockey. After losing their two best players and slumping in the middle of the season, most people thought the Red Wings’ consecutive seasons in the playoffs streak would end at an impressive 22. But the young guys on the Wings stepped up, and they have now made the playoffs for 23 consecutive seasons. And now, Pavel Datsyuk is back and Henrik Zetterberg might return during this first round series. Now that the Red Wings are in the playoffs, it can be noted that the injuries to Datsyuk and Zetterberg could well have been a blessing in disguise, because the young guys have really stepped up: Gustav Nyquist, a 24 year old Swede in his second season, is averaging a point per game since the all star break, after averaging .73 points per game before the break. He’s also +12 since the break, after being +4 before it. Tomas Tatar, 23 and also in his second year, has also stepped up big time, as has Danny DeKeyser, a defender who is chipping in offensively (11 points in 23 games since the break, 12 in 42 before the break). So the Red Wings are now a deep team with experience and youth. They’ll be a tough out. The Bruins, who have a great goalie in Tuukka Rask, a deep defending core led by possible award-winning defenseman Zdeno Chara, and the deepest and perhaps most talented offense in the NHL. They are averaging 3.15 goals per game, third in the NHL, and allowing just 2.09, second in the NHL. Their goal differential, at +84, is by far the best in hockey. They also have experience, having made the Cup Final last year. Although it should be a great series, part of me is sad that this is a first round matchup, because I think these two teams could be the best in the East. I think the winner of this series is likely to win the East, and I think it will be the Bruins in 7. I wanted to pick the huge upset, but just couldn’t pull the trigger in the end.

Tampa Bay Lightning (101) vs Montreal Canadians (100):
Again, these are two teams that thrive in two very different areas. The Lightning, who have made huge improvements and ended the season on a four game win streak, are great at 5-on-5 hockey. Montreal, on the other hand, is the only non-Flyers team in the playoffs to allow more 5-on-5 goals than they have scored this season. They are great on the penalty kill (85.1%, fourth in the NHL), which could be absolutely vital against Steven Stamkos and the Lightning offense. The real calling card for the Canadians is their goalie, Carey Price, who won Olympic Gold behind the pipes for Canada, who has 34 wins in 59 starts and has bailed Montreal out when the rest of their team has been somewhat shaky. It can be argued that Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay’s shockingly good goalie, was even better this season, but Bishop is now out with an elbow injury, and I don’t think he will play in this series. Not all is lost, because backup goalie Anders Lindback has a .930 save percentage since returning from injury early in March. To put that in perspective, that would be tied with Tuukka Rask for tops in hockey over a full season. I think the Lightning, who have Stamkos back, are probably the better all around team, so the goalie matchup will be pivotal. Price is good enough to steal the series, but Lindback is probably also good enough to win his team the series, too. The other key battle is Stamkos against P.K. Subban of the Canadians. They might not match up head-to-head, but these are the two best players, with the possible exception of Price, in the series. The Lightning are the better full strength team, and also keep possession of the puck better, which is why I think the Lightning will win this series in 6 games.

Final Regular Season NBA Power Rankings

Posted: 04/10/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

Yeah, it’s been a long time. With the NCAA tournament finished and baseball now fully underway (I’ll have more baseball posts soon), it’s now time to focus back on the NBA. Most teams have just three or four games left, and all but a few playoff spots are decided, so this is for all intents and purposes an end of season power rankings. And since it’s been a month since my last ranking, there are going to be some major shakeups.

Note: I’m just going to do the teams that are still realistically in the playoff hunt, which is a total of 18 (well, 17 and a half) relevant teams.

— The Elites —

1. San Antonio Spurs, 60-18 (1): When I last wrote about the Spurs, they were 46-16 and coming off a blowout win over the Miami Heat. They were riding a six game win streak. Well, not much has changed since then, and the Spurs have cemented themselves as the best team in the NBA. Their winning streak ended at 19 games with a close loss at Oklahoma City, which they probably don’t mind. On the one hand, it would have been nice to beat OKC, because the Spurs had already lost three times to the Thunder. On the other hand, they did keep it fairly close in Oklahoma City, and the end of their winning streak means they can rest more players and relax heading into the playoffs with their spot as the #1 seed all but clinched. This team is unbelievable. Nobody on their team averages as much as 30 minutes per game, which is unheard of, and they have also been banged up throughout the season. It doesn’t matter, at least in the regular season. The Spurs keep churning out 60 win teams, and where they will really be judged is in the playoffs. Tim Duncan has again been one of the best per-minute players in the NBA, and he is the only one of the Spurs’ top four scorers who has played more than 65 games. The best way to describe this team is as unique, because they don’t rely on their stars to play heavy minutes and lead them to victory. Their biggest star is probably Gregg Popovich, who should win Coach of the Year every single season.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder, 57-21 (6): The Thunder were always going to be fine. They just had a bumpy period when Russell Westbrook returned, and I think that period is over now. This is clearly one of the more dangerous teams in the NBA, and I think it’s the only team the Spurs legitimately do not want to face, Heat included. The bench is still a problem. Without Thabo Sefolosha, who could come back soon, the Thunder have very little defense on the bench. They also are thin when it comes to big men, which is a problem now and will likely become a bigger problem in the playoffs. But when you have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, you can get away with a lack of depth. It’s the best 1-2 punch in the league, and if you put those two on a team with a bunch of nobodies, you will have a playoff team. Although they don’t have James Harden, the Thunder have actually managed to put some decent players around those two; Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson are in the midst of career years, Caron Butler is averaging 10 points per game since joining the team, and even Derek Fisher is contributing. Their biggest advantage is the fact that they match up so well with the Spurs, as that could well be the Western Conference Finals. In fact, the Thunder will probably be more worried about a possible second round matchup with the Clippers, because the Clippers are the type of team who could cause Oklahoma City some problems. With their athleticism, I think OKC would be favored to win a series against top seeded SAS.

3. Los Angeles Clippers, 55-24 (3): In their close loss against the aforementioned Thunder last night, the Clippers lost any shot at the #2 seed, but also showed grit, determination, and resilience. They went on a 14-0 run in the fourth quarter, cutting a 16 point lead to two in a span of five minutes. Unfortunately, they never ended up taking a lead, as they turned the ball over multiple times and missed some free throws down the stretch. That’s really the issue with this team: free throw shooting. Blake Griffin has improved this year, but he was the one who missed two free throws that would have tied the game with under three minutes to play. DeAndre Jordan is still a terrible free throw shooter, so in a close game, he might have to sit out near the end. That’s a big problem. We also saw the difference between Oklahoma City’s 1-2 punch and LA’s (Chris Paul and Griffin). It goes without saying that both pairs are fantastic, but it was the OKC pair that scored their last 13 points, and it was the OKC pair that always kept the Clippers behind. Whenever a big shot was needed, Westbrook or Durant made it. They outscored Paul and Griffin 13-3 in the last five minutes, and that was the difference in the game.

4. Miami Heat, 53-25 (2): The reason I’m giving the Heat the benefit of the doubt and not the Pacers is that the Heat have been here before. In each of the past three years, there has been some sort of panic when it comes to this team. They go on a losing streak, and suddenly the sky is falling. Believe it or not, the Heat have made the finals all three years, winning two NBA Championships. That’s why I advise you to take their recent play, which hasn’t been great, with a grain of salt. Whether they are the top seed or the second seed, LeBron and Co. will turn it up in the playoffs. I don’t feel sure about Indiana making the conference finals, but I’m very confident that Miami will do so, which is why they will continue to be considered an “elite” team.

— Rest of the West —

5. Houston Rockets, 52-26 (4): The Rockets are just 8-7 since my last post, so they are another team that is struggling a little bit heading into the playoffs. I would be a little bit worried. I think this is the time to give Dwight Howard some major defensive props. The stories of Howard’s demise, especially defensively, have been widespread. He has now been thrown into a group of average defenders, and hasn’t been getting any recognition in the DPOY race. Once the most feared defender in the league, Howard is now underrated. Just look at the games he has missed. Howard has missed 10 of the past 12 games with an ankle injury. The Rockets have allowed at least 100 points in nine of them, against a smattering of good teams and a few bad ones. They are allowing 111 points per game in those 10 games. To put that in perspective, the NBA-worst Sixers are allowing 110 points per game for the season. The Rockets have allowed 103 points per game throughout the season, so they are clearly a much worse defensive team without Howard than they are with him. Houston needs Dwight back in order to be considered any sort of contender. Even with Howard, I’d consider them the fourth best team in the West, but they have the potential to make a run with Dwight and James Harden. Without Howard, they’ll lose in the first round. It’s as simple as that.

6. Golden State Warriors, 48-29 (7): In Stephen Curry we trust. The Warriors have won seven of their last eight games against the non-San Antonio Spurs (they have two losses against San Antonio in their last 10), which includes their last two games, both of which have been blowouts: 102-69 over Sacramento, and 130-102 over Utah. Against those two poor teams, we saw the Warriors at their absolute peak. The Kings shot just 32%, the Warriors made 10 threes, forced 16 turnovers, and outrebounded Sacramento by 13. Seven players, including Marreese Speights, Jermaine O’Neal, Draymond Green, Jordan Crawford, and Harrison Barnes, all scored in double figures. Curry barely had to do anything. Then, against Utah, we saw an incredible offensive performance. The Warriors allowed the Jazz to shoot 45% from the floor and put up 102 points, but that didn’t matter, because Curry was incredible. The point guard scored 31 points, shot 12-18 from the floor, and added 16 assists. Many of those assists went to his backcourt mate, Klay Thompson, who poured in 33 points on 11-20 shooting and hit seven three pointers. As a team, Golden State shot an incredible 17-33 from three point land. When they play like they did against Sacramento and Utah, the Warriors are one of the best teams in the league. I hope they do that more often in the playoffs.

7. Dallas Mavericks, 48-31 (10)
8. Phoenix Suns, 47-31 (11)
9. Memphis Grizzlies, 46-32 (9)
All three of these teams are playing well, but because the West is insane, one of them will miss the playoffs. That means we could, for the first time, see a 49 win team miss the playoffs. Let’s start with Dallas, who are 10-5 since I last wrote. Dirk Nowitzki is making sure this team will make the playoffs. He is averaging 24.4 points per game in April with insane 59% shooting, 58% from three point range (he’s averaging three made threes per game), 7.6 rebounds, and three assists per game. That, my friends, is why the Mavericks will likely be in the playoffs. I really want to see a matchup between San Antonio and Dallas, because that would mean at least four games between Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. That would be special.
Then there is Phoenix, who are my second favorite team in the NBA. It’s not close, really. This team is so fun to watch and their turnaround has been so amazing that it is hard not to love this team. They were predicted to be the second worst team in the NBA, better than only the Sixers. Instead, they started strong, kept playing well without one of their two best players (Eric Bledsoe) and are 11-4 since the return of Bledsoe, with wins in Portland, Toronto, and Washington, to go along with a home win over Oklahoma City, in that span. Speaking of Oklahoma City, I think Phoenix would have a great shot to beat them should they match up in the first round, which is a possibility. The Suns always get into shootouts with the Thunder, and are 2-1 against OKC. That’s not a fluke. The Thunder have a tough time slowing down their fast pace, and I think a first round matchup between the two would be super fun and could go seven games. If Gregg Popovich doesn’t win Coach of the Year, Jeff Hornaceck will, because of the great job he has done in his first year in Phoenix. It’s also likely that the Most Improved Player will come from Phoenix. There are just so many players who have improved exponentially this season; Goran Dragic, Miles Plumlee, GERALD GREEN, the Morris Twins, Channing Frye… The list goes on and on, which is why Phoenix is currently a playoff team.
They are barely a playoff team, though, because Memphis is also playing well (see, that segue is why I’m the best in the business). After a huge win over the Heat last night, the Grizzlies moved to 31-13 in their last 44 games. That win percentage extended over a full season would see them at the top of the East and third in the West. Wow
The great thing about this race is that it will probably be decided head-to-head. The three teams play round robin in the closing stage of the season (thank you, schedule makers) which means that each one has their fate in their own hands. I honestly have no idea what will happen. Memphis has the easiest remaining schedule, with games against the Lakers and Sixers to go along with those two huge ones. They are also a game behind the Suns, and a game and a half behind the Mavericks. The Suns are playing the best basketball right now, and have a game against Sacramento to close out the season, but they also have to play at San Antonio. The Mavericks also have a game against the Spurs left, and also have one fewer game on the schedule. So the Spurs can basically choose who they want to play in the first round. That’s amazing. Here’s the schedule, to make things clearer:
DAL: vs SAS, vs PHX, @ MEM
PHX: @ SAS, @ DAL, vs MEM, @ SAC
MEM: vs PHI, @ LAL, @ PHX, vs DAL
Wow. The most likely scenario looks like this:
Dallas goes 1-2 to end the season and goes 49-33
Phoenix goes 2-2 to end the season and goes 49-33
Memphis goes 3-1 to end the season and goes 49-33. I don’t know what would happen in the case of a three way tie. All I would know is that one team would go home very unhappy because of some tiebreaker.

10. Portland Trailblazers, 51-28 (8): It looks like the Blazers will go into the playoffs as the fifth seed, but they are the team that everyone wants to play right now. Then again, the same thing was said about the Mavericks three years ago, and those Mavs won the NBA Championship. I doubt Portland does the same, but I won’t be sleeping on them.

— Miami’s Competition in the East —

11. Indiana Pacers, 54-25 (5): Just look at last night’s game. Against the Milwaukee Bucks, all five Indiana Pacer starters were benched in order to give them a rest or clear their heads or something. Then the subs won the game against the worst team in the NBA by two points. Something is weird about that. The Pacers are now 8-12 since moving to 46-17, and 4-8 since edging the Sixers on March 17th. Something is wrong, and I hope the Pacers turn it around.

12. Chicago Bulls, 46-32 (12)
13. Toronto Raptors, 46-32 (13)
Both of these teams are hot right now, and these two teams are in fact the two best in the Eastern Conference right now, believe it or not. I think either one would be favored against Indiana in a playoff series right now, although the Pacers will have one round to figure things out before a possible matchup with one of these two teams. Toronto has won four straight and Chicago six, and although I think everyone now understands that Chicago is a nasty team to play against in the playoffs, I think people are still underestimating the Raptors, who have a chance to go even further than the Bulls because they are a much more dynamic offensive team. The Pacers, who can’t score, would have trouble keeping up with Toronto.

14. Brooklyn Nets, 43-35 (15): This is perhaps the only team in the East that genuinely wants to play the Heat, with the possible exception of the Pacers. The Nets, who feature Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (both Heat-haters) are 4-0 against Miami this year. It looks as if those two guys have had a huge impact in the locker room, which could play huge dividends come playoff time. This team still has Deron Williams and some good supporting pieces, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see them take a series with the Heat six or seven games. Would they win? I doubt it, but you never know. I really want this year’s playoffs to be full of upsets in the Eastern Conference, because everyone has been saying “Miami-Indiana” all year long. Let’s hope for Chicago-Toronto or Brooklyn-Toronto.

— I don’t think they’ll make an impact in the playoffs—

15. Washington Wizards, 40-38 (13)
16. Charlotte Bobcats, 40-38 (17)
Although the Bobcats just beat the Wizards last night, I’m ranking these two teams in order of who the Heat or Pacers would least like to play. I think that’s the Wizards, because they are a higher variance team than the Bobcats. You know the Bobcats are going to play good to great defense, but you also know that they are going to struggle to score points. Maybe Al Jefferson has a monster game or two, but that’s probably all Charlotte will get offensively. At most, I see them taking Miami or Indiana to six games, even though the top teams are struggling. Washington, on the other hand, has the talent and offensive ability to get hot. They could probably beat Indiana in a playoff series right now. I’d be surprised, but not shocked, because the Wizards have John Wall, who is better than any player on the Pacers right now. Congratulations to the Bobcats for making the playoffs, though, and they have been playing extremely well recently. They are 11-4 since my last post, although their best wins in that time have been home wins against Brooklyn and Portland to go along with that road win in Washington last night.

17. Atlanta Hawks, 35-43 (20): Even though the Hawks have basically admitted that they want to fall out of the playoffs, they are closing in on the eighth seed, simply because they have Paul Millsap and because the Knicks, Cavaliers, and Pistons are utter disgraces. Imagine how boring a first round matchup between the Pacers and Hawks would be. How many people would watch those games? Four? Five? It wouldn’t be pretty, that’s for sure.

— Only because I have to put them here—
18. New York Knicks, 33-45 (21): For a while, I really thought the Knicks were going to make the playoffs. They were streaking, and at one point were tied with the Hawks. But I hadn’t looked at their schedule. Their last six games are against the Wizards, Heat, Raptors, Bulls, Nets, and Raptors again. All six are legitimate playoff teams, and the Knicks have already lost the first two. They are 13-31 against teams in these rankings, which tells you how likely it is that they’ll win even two of the last four games. Not likely at all, that is.