Archive for January, 2015

So The Hawks Have Won 17 Straight

Posted: 01/30/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

They’ve been talked about a lot, but I still don’t think the Atlanta Hawks are getting their due. And even if they are now rightfully recognized at a contender in the Eastern Conference, they still aren’t really being taken seriously as a championship contender. Not only have the Hawks won 17 in a row, but they’ve also incredibly won 31 of 33 since starting 7-6. Now, there might be fluky five, six, or even 10 game winning streaks. There have been plenty of bad teams who have strung together a few successful weeks. This, though, is no fluke. The Lakers hold the record for most consecutive wins with 33 in a row in their dominant 1971-72 season, which ended in a 69-13 season and an NBA Championship. One of the Hawks’ two losses since November 26th came on a Tobias Harris buzzer beater, which makes their 30 point home loss to the Bucks look even weirder. Simply put, the run has been the most shocking one in ages, if not forever. It seems silly now, but my 44-38 prediction for the Hawks was actually among the more optimistic forecasts heading into the season. People crossed off the Hawks before the season like they crossed off 10 other Eastern Conference teams. And now they are 38-8.

With the release of the full All-Star rosters today, it’s official that the Hawks will have three All-Stars, more than even the Golden State Warriors. Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Jeff Teague will all be going to New York for the All-Star game, and Kyle Korver might make it too as the replacement for an injured Dwyane Wade. Before the season, it would have been hard to believe that the Hawks would have a good shot at getting two All-Stars, let alone four. Was that a bad oversight, or did the four just each improve drastically?

Given that these same Hawks went 38-44 last season and barely made the playoffs in the inferior conference, it’s hard to blame anyone for underestimating them heading into the season. The Hawks have the exact same starting lineup they had last season: Teague, Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Millsap, and Horford. They also lost their top bench scorer, Lou Williams, and didn’t really replace him. Granted, Horford played just 29 games last year before getting injured, and the Hawks were 16-13 in that time. So there’s no doubt that the Hawks are better with Horford than they are without him, and it would make sense if the Hawks were again slightly over .500. But they aren’t only slightly over .500, which is why I’m writing this post; they’re 30 games over .500 and will enter February with single-digit losses. How?

Last year, the Hawks were the 15th ranked offensive team and 14th ranked defense by points per possession. This year, they are fifth offensively and tied for fourth defensively. Coach Mike Budenholzer has to get an enormous amount of credit. He’ll win the Coach of the Year award easily, and rightfully so. The former Gregg Popovich assistant has instituted a Popovich-esque offense, and the results have been fantastic. The Hawks have tremendous ball movement, and everyone on the court always knows exactly what he has to do. That has to be at least in part because of some fantastic coaching by Coach Bud. At this point, I think he should be considered one of the five best coaches in the NBA.

Honestly, I don’t think any single player is that much better this year than last. Yes, Kyle Korver is on pace for the first 50-50-90 season of all time (he’s shooting 52% from the floor, 53% from three, 92% from the line) but he shot 48-47-93 last year, so his shooting didn’t come out of nowhere. Millsap’s stats are scarily similar to last seasons’, although he too is shooting better this season. Carroll is the same glue guy he was last year, while Teague is better but not that much better. Ironically, the biggest change might be a negative one. Horford’s been noticeably rusty at times this season and has seen his scoring and rebounding numbers go down considerably.

It’s not individual efforts that have gotten the Hawks to 38-8 and seven games up in the Eastern Conference, though. For some reason, this team just plays incredibly well together. We all know how good the starting lineup is, and bench guys like Dennis Schroder (the German Rondo), Mike Scott, Pero Antic, and Thabo Sefolosha have also been very good for much of the season. Some people want the Hawks to upgrade their team with a trade, but that wouldn’t make any sense. A trade would take away the biggest thing the Hawks have going for them: continuity. In all likelihood, the team we see now is the exact same team that’s going to appear in the playoffs.

People ask if the Hawks’ current run is sustainable. While they obviously aren’t going to keep up the .940 pace they’ve played at over the last 33 games, I don’t think the Hawks are going to have many problems in the regular season. I think they’ll win the #1 seed by a considerable margin (perhaps even double-digit games) and win well over 60 games (63-65 would be my best guess). The question then becomes whether the Hawks’ style is going to work come playoff time. I think all the talk about how the Hawks are going to get upset in the playoffs due to their lack of a big time scorer is overblown. When a team plays fluid and fundamentally sound basketball like these Hawks do, no team is going to be able to neutralize them, no matter how much time they have to prepare. But while I have the Hawks as the most likely team to win the Eastern Conference and advance to face the Western Conference champs, I wouldn’t give them better than a 50% chance of doing just that. The Bulls, Cavs, Raptors, and Wizards still need to be taken seriously, and it’s very possible that one of those teams will knock the Hawks out. If you think the Hawks are going to slump down the stretch, though, you’re going to end up being very surprised. But that’s just what the Hawks have been doing all year: surprising people.

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Where will James Shields end up?

Posted: 01/26/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

Every year, there’s one marquee free agent who’s still available at the end of January and into February. This year, I thought it might be Max Scherzer, but Scherzer recently signed with the Nationals for seven years and $210 million. That’s definitely going to work out, right? I don’t really agree with Washington’s decision to sign Scherzer. I understand why they did it; already the World Series favorite, the Nationals want to give their team as good of a shot as possible at winning it all. But Washington already had a great rotation, and they’ll now probably move Jordan Zimmermann to make room for Scherzer. So this trade was more about long-term security – the fact that Scherzer is locked up for seven years – than an improvement to the team next season since Zimmermann is a free agent after next year. I understand the desire to lock people up long-term, but is it really worth $30 million per year? I don’t know.

Anyway, Scherzer’s not the guy whose signing process got way too dragged out. That guy is now clearly James Shields. All of the other big free agents have been signed, some of them months ago, but Shields is still out there. The 33-year-old former Ray and Royal has posted four good years in a row after having weirdly bad seasons in both 2009 and 2010. He’s coming off a 3.21 ERA year and has posted 16.5 Fangraphs WAR since 2011, 10th most in baseball and half a win behind Jon Lester, who signed a six year deal worth $155 million with the Cubs.

In fact, although Lester had the better season last year, the two pitchers are pretty similar. Lester’s a couple of years younger, which probably means his deal will end up being longer than Shields’, but both have a long history of being good #2 starters but not quite aces in the AL. I expect Shields to get 4-5 years and $20-22 million per year, which is just a little bit less than Lester but still more than enough to keep a bunch of teams from being able to sign him.

Who will sign him, then? The issue is that a lot of teams that would make sense have already ruled themselves out. I would have thought that the Brewers (after their trade of Yovani Gallardo), Diamondbacks, Giants (before they signed Ryan Vogelsong), Tigers, Marlins, and Red Sox would have been good fits for the pitcher. But unfortunately for Shields’ pocket book, they’ve all pretty much ruled him out. That doesn’t mean one or more of them won’t revisit if the price gets low enough, but for now they seem to be out of the running.

Where does that leave us? With very few options. I mean, the Athletics have done some weird things this offseason, but they already have a bajillion starters. The Phillies, who normally love spending money, are in the midst of a rebuild. I could go on and on. Anyway, I think the best options that haven’t been totally ruled out are the Royals, Blue Jays, and Padres.

Shields lives in San Diego, which is already a huge sign that the Pads could have a shot at signing him. They’ve also shown the willingness to spend lots of money this offseason, mainly through the trade for Matt Kemp. They have a better team now than they had last season, but they might not be good enough to contend yet. They’ve been linked to a trade for Cole Hamels (another California native), and I’ll delve into Hamels and Jordan Zimmermann trade options in a later post (assuming they don’t get traded before I get around to it). But they might not have the prospects to get either pitcher, which would make Shields a perhaps more attainable alternative.

If the Royals had more money, they probably would have re-signed Shields already. The pitcher was Kansas City’s staff ace on last year’s Cinderella runner-up, and I’m sure the Royals would love to have him atop the rotation (along with Yordano Ventura) again. And GM Dayton Moore has at least admitted on the idea of re-signing Shields: “I can’t say it hasn’t crossed my mind,” although he added: “At this point in time, though, it’s doubtful we bring back James.” Personnel-wise, Shields would make a lot of sense for the Royals, and I think their chances of getting him back increase by the day.

And the Blue Jays might have a greater need for Shields than any other aspiring contender. They are known to be interested in Shields and would surely sign him if they had the money. But the Blue Jays have other needs also and don’t have the deepest pockets in the world, so they probably wouldn’t be able to sign Shields in the $20-25 million range he’s looking for.

All three of those teams make sense, but if you gave me odds on who would sign Shields, I would definitely take “The Field.” I really think the race to sign the best free agent left is wide open, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of the teams that has ruled out signing Shields to end up signing him. I still think both the Marlins and Red Sox are as likely as any single team, which is to say not very likely at all.

In the end, I think it will come down to who’s the most desperate to become a real playoff contender. Will it be Toronto, Miami, or San Diego? Or maybe someone I’m not even considering? I know the Cardinals were interested in Scherzer and Lester, so maybe Shields could be their guy, but they don’t usually sign 30+ year-old pitchers to long deals. In the end, I think it’ll come down to Miami and Toronto, and Miami has more money than Toronto, so I’ll say the Marlins sign Shields despite already ruling it out. But again, it could be someone I haven’t even mentioned. Considering that Shields is a really good pitcher who’s coming off a really good year, his free-agency has surprisingly few suitors, at least as far as we know. That’s probably because of his age and mileage, but it’s surprising nonetheless. Again, I’ll go with the Marlins, but the Blue Jays or numerous other teams could be desperate enough or have enough money to nab James Shields.

Mid-January NBA Power Rankings: 13-30

Posted: 01/24/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

I don’t want these power rankings to get dragged out for too long, so I’m going to whiz through some of the tanktastic teams at the end of this post. The first few teams here, though, are pretty good, so they’ll get their due.

— #9 and 10 in the West —

13. Phoenix Suns, 26-19 (12): The Phoenix Suns are goood. I wasn’t sure their good season last year would carry over to this year, but it definitely has. The three guard rotation of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, and Isaiah Thomas has worked out pretty well, as two of them are on the court at almost all times and the three average a combined 48.7 points, 11.4 rebounds, 13.8 assists, and 3.6 steals. Bledsoe in particular has been really good. We’ve seen signs that he can be a star for a long time, but this is the first time Eric Bledsoe has consistently been the best player on the team. He’s among the best and most tenacious defensive point guards in the league, and it’s his tenacity and high motor that get him injured so often. This year, though, the 25-year-old has played in all 45 games the Suns have played this season. He’s averaging 17 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 6 assists per game, and takes over games in the fourth quarter as he did against the Blazers a few nights ago. Dragic has taken a step back, but that was to be expected coming off a career year. Just as important as the guards is the big improvement by Alex Len, the new starting center. The Suns can get pummeled down low at times, which is why Len’s 6.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in just 20.4 minutes per game is so important. Len is the perfect center to play with underrated power forward Markieff Morris, who’s averaging greater than 15 points per game for the first time in his career and can shoot from deep and from the line. The Suns have a ton of offensive options, and I haven’t even mentioned the other Morris twin, Marcus, or high flyer Gerald Green. They are third in points per game and fifth in points per possession while playing at the second fastest pace in basketball. But while they aren’t terrible defensively, it’s clearly a weakness. Outside of Bledsoe, Len, and rebounding machine P.J. Tucker, the Suns don’t have any defensive-oriented players who play key roles. That’s why a trade for a defensive stopper might make sense. Unfortunately, the Suns probably won’t make it to the playoffs because they just don’t have the starpower the rest of the Western Conference has. But they have a bright future, given that they’ll have some cap space in the coming seasons to help build around the core. They could also have the #6 or #7 pick in the upcoming draft, depending on where the Lakers finish (the Suns will get LA’s pick if it falls outside the top five). I get that the Suns don’t want to mortgage their future for a run at the eighth seed this season, but it’s really a pity that they could miss the playoffs again, because they are really a fun team to watch.

14. New Orleans Pelicans, 22-21 (14): Despite the fact that their record has hovered around .500 all season, I’m still bullish on this team. I don’t think they’ll come close to making the playoffs when all is said and done, but they are a good team, especially at home. They are 13-5 in Louisiana, and have shown the ability to beat teams like Cleveland, San Antonio, Phoenix, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Memphis at home. Five of the six will make the playoffs. Unfortunately, I think Anthony Davis and the Pellies are going to be stuck in spoiler mode for the rest of this season. With four of their final five games coming against Memphis, Phoenix, Houston, and San Antonio, they’ll have a chance to really influence playoff seeding. And nobody looks forward to playing the Davis-led Pelicans, especially in New Orleans. If they were in the East, they’d probably be top-six seed. Unfortunately, they’re in the West, which means we won’t see them in the playoffs. Davis will make it before long, though.

— East Playoff Teams —

15. Toronto Raptors, 28-15 (10): This was the slump I was worried about. After moving to 24-7, the Raptors have won just four of their last 12 games, including two against the Sixers and one against the Celtics. They haven’t been playing well. And they’re 1-3 in their non-Philly games since DeMar DeRozan got back, so I don’t think their slump was exclusively the result of DeRozan’s injury. The Raptors will still likely end with a top-four seed and homecourt advantage in the first round, which is exactly what they got last season. Kyle Lowry’s continued development has been great to watch, and he’ll play in the All-Star game this year. But I don’t think DeRozan and Lowry will be enough to get the Raptors past the second round, where they’ll likely match up with the Hawks or Bulls.

16. Milwaukee Bucks, 22-21 (20): Even without Jabari Parker, who tore his ACL and is out for the year, the Bucks have hung around .500 all year long. That’s a big surprise, as the Bucks already have seven more wins this year than they had all of last year. Given that they’ve endured the Parker injury and the bizarre Larry Sanders fiasco, that’s pretty impressive. Remember when everyone thought Sanders was the next big thing? After the All-Star break two seasons ago, he averaged 12 points and 11 boards along with 2.3 blocks. But before last year he broke his hand in a bar fight, and it’s been downhill since then. There were weird reports that the 26-year-old was thinking about retiring this season, and now he’s suspended for PED use. So Sanders is a bad surprise, but there have also been some good surprises for this Milwaukee team. Brandon Knight has to be at the top of that list. Given that this is his fourth year playing 30+ minutes per game in the NBA, it’s hard to believe that Knight just turned 23. In his first two years, while he was with Detroit, it seemed as if Knight was always going to be a low-efficiency guard who flirted with a sub-40% field goal percentage and was better suited to be a sixth man. Now, though, he’s shooting 45% from the field, 40% from three, and 89% from the line after averaging 74% in his first two seasons. He’s also assisting and rebounding at a career high rate. Knight’s come a long way from his Detroit days. Greek Freak has also taken an expected year two leap, but given the talent on this team, I don’t really expect them to keep playing .500 ball. They should make the playoffs, but a round one defeat seems likely. Still, it’s been a much better season than expected for the team that picked second in last year’s draft.

17. Charlotte Bobcats, 19-26 (28): Given the fact that this team has a good coach and a roster that made the playoffs last year, things were always bound to turn around for this Charlotte team. Granted, most teams could make the playoffs in this conference, but the Bobcats look well on their way to doing just that. They’ve won 13 of their last 20, although they’ve had a very soft schedule in that time. Perhaps uncoincidentally, they went 9-5 without mercurial guard Lance Stephenson. There’s really not much to like about this Charlotte team besides the fact that they have big Al Jefferson (he’s a retro big who’s fun to watch) and play solid defense (10th in points allowed per possession). That makes sense given that this team is seven games below .500. What doesn’t make sense is that Charlotte has a very good chance of making the playoffs, but that’s just the Eastern Conference.

18. Detroit Pistons, 17-27 (27): I was going to put the Pistons at 16, but then came the depressing news that Brandon Jennings suffered a serious leg injury today, quite possibly a torn Achilles. That’s quite the blow for a team that has hilariously gone 12-4 since releasing Josh Smith after going 5-23 with Smith. Jennings was playing really well, averaging 21 a game in the month of January and shooting 44% after averaging nine a game and shooting 32% from the field in his horrid December. The Pistons still have a shot at the playoffs with D.J. Augustin as the starting point guard, given their competition. Augustin is a good backup, and should be at least a decent starter. And the Pistons still have Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe beasting down low. The two have combined for 28.6 points and 26.1 (including 8.7 offensive) rebounds per game in the month of January, which is kind of incredible. The Pistons should still play decently without Jennings, or at least closer to .500 than .200. But they won’t sniff the +6.4 point differential they have put up with Jennings since Smith’s departure, which is really a bummer. The Eastern Conference needed another good team. It doesn’t look like the Pistons will be that team without their point guard.

— Still Trying, But Should They Be? —

19. Miami Heat, 19-24 (18): They’re still in the playoffs but are really a two man team (Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are both averaging 20+). Both Bosh and Wade have already missed time this season, and I expect one or both of them to miss more time, at which point the Heat should nosedive. Could they still make the playoffs? Absolutely, and I think they are one of the eight best teams in the Eastern Conference when Wade and Bosh are both healthy. Unfortunately, I don’t think both will remain healthy. Those two have been fantastic, though. Luol Deng, Mario Chalmers, and the rest? Not so much.

20. Brooklyn Nets, 18-25 (19): The Nets really aren’t a team I want to talk much about. They are probably going to get to around 40 wins, more because they are in the weaker conference than because of their talent. They are the anti-Hawks in that they are really not fun to watch. I hope I don’t have to see them in the playoffs in a yawn-inducing series with the Raptors or Bulls. That’s what I wrote last time about the Nets. Adjust that win total downwards to maybe 33-35 wins, but the rest remains the same. I’m more hopeful now that they won’t make the playoffs.

— Rebuilding —

21. Denver Nuggets, 18-25 (17): They’ve lost five straight and started their firesale by dealing Timofey Mozgov. Any combination of Arron Afflalo, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye, and JaVale McGee will probably be traded in the weeks to come. A few positives: they got two first round picks for Mozgov, which is pretty incredible. Jusuf Nurkic looks like a future above-average starter at center, which is a great return for a mid first round pick. And Kenneth Faried has turned it around recently, meaning he and Ty Lawson (who was recently arrested for a DUI) could still be a nice 1-2 combo.

22. Boston Celtics, 15-26 (24): They are on a two game winning streak! Marcus Smart has looked a little better recently, and the Celtics probably have some players who could be contributors on winning teams. This is not a winning team, though, and after unloading Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green their best players are Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, and Kelly Olynyk. In other words, they are still rebuilding.

23. Utah Jazz, 16-28 (22): This team has some talent. Gordon Hayward is a good player, as is Derrick Favors. Rudy Gobert has also come on strong lately and looks like a good future starter at center. But the Jazz are a young team and are also in the Western Conference, so it makes sense that they are still struggling. They’ll improve at least slightly from their 25-win season last year, but still need to find a point guard. Trey Burke just doesn’t look great.

— On Long Losing Streaks and/or Dysfunctional —

24. Sacramento Kings, 16-27 (15): So this is what happens when a team fires a coach the players like in the midst of a surprisingly good season? Of course it is! The decision to fire Mike Malone was stupid. There’s no other way to say it. Predictably, the players have not responded well, and the Kings are 5-14 since firing their coach. They also gave up 37 points to Klay Thompson last night IN ONE QUARTER. So what looked like a step in the right direction for the Kings has quickly reverted back to same old Kings.

25. Indiana Pacers, 15-30 (21): They started out playing better than I thought they would, but eventually Indiana’s lack of talent without Paul George has just been too much to overcome. The Pacers have lost seven in a row and are 8-21 since a 7-9 start. They’ll get a top-7 pick out of this disappointing season and will get Paul George back next year, so brighter days are ahead.

26. Orlando Magic, 15-31 (23): This is a team that seems to be stuck in the rebuilding/tanking stage. They haven’t found anything resembling a Dwight Howard replacement since trading their star center in a deal that in retrospect didn’t work out for any of the four teams involved. Sure, Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris are good players, but both have flaws and neither are good enough to be the best player on anything resembling a contender. The Magic have pieces, but they still need a star. Join the club, Orlando, and hope to find one in one of these drafts.

27. Los Angeles Lakers, 12-32 (26): They’ve lost seven straight and Kobe is out for the season. They also have very little talent and their top draft pick in ages broke his leg in his first game. Ouch.

— The Race for The Most Ping Pong Balls —

28. New York Knicks, 8-37 (25)
29. Minnesota Timberwolves, 7-35 (29)
30. Philadelphia 76ers, 8-36 (30)

Buckle your seatbelts, because this looks like it’s going to be a thrilling race… for the #1 pick. Scratch that, for the most ping pong balls in the lottery (see what I did there? Scratch… lottery… bad, I know). I still would guess that the Sixers end with the league’s worst record, but they’re no longer a shoo-in.

Highest risers:
Atlanta Hawks +13
Charlotte Bobcats +11

Biggest fallers:
San Antonio Spurs -9
Sacramento Kings -9

Mid-January NBA Power Rankings: 6-12

Posted: 01/22/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

I went through the top five teams in the league a few days ago (Golden State, Portland, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas), so now I’ll go through the 6-12 clump that starts with a few title contenders and ends with teams that have the talent to make a run but are pretty significantly behind the top tier.

— Legit Title Contenders —

6. Memphis Grizzlies, 30-12 (3): The Memphis Grizzlies might be the most interesting team in the NBA just based on the way they play. In an age in which many of the successful teams in the NBA, from Golden State to Houston to Portland to OKC to you-get-the-idea, have quickened their styles of play and philosophies about where to shoot from (less midrange, more three pointers), Memphis has become the anomaly. While the NBA leaders, the Warriors, average 100.9 possessions per game, Memphis is #27 at 94.1. And they aren’t in great company; the eight teams that use the fewest possessions, from worst to 23rd, are: Miami, New York, Utah, Memphis, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Cleveland (!!!), Charlotte. It’s interesting to see fastbreak terror LeBron James’s team on the list, but the bigger point is that most of these teams aren’t that successful. Coming into Thursday night, the teams other than Memphis on the list are winning at an even 40% clip. Not great. Memphis is winning 71.4% of their games. That’s what makes them so scary and such a matchup problem in the Western Conference. Largely as a result of their slow pace, their point differential is just +3.8, seventh in the conference. But they are 10-4 against other Western Conference playoff teams and 3-0 against Golden State and Portland, the two teams higher than them in the conference. I’m not sure anybody’s going to want to play the bruising combination of Marc Gasol (contract year!) and Zach Randolph in a best-of-seven series. Nor will they want to play the under-the-radar star point guard Mike Conley, the shutdown defender Tony Allen, or the new scoring option Jeff Green. This team doesn’t always make it look pretty, but they’re always a menace come April and May and should be again this season.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder, 22-20 (11): As I write this, the Thunder are still three games out of eighth in the crazy Western Conference. Those games might be harder to make up than we originally thought, because the Suns have won four in a row (like OKC) and have upped their record to 26-18. Phoenix looks as if they will be in the race until the end. Meanwhile, after a worrisome blip, the Spurs have also won four in a row (although they are losing tonight against Chicago) and are 27-16. But if the Thunder make the playoffs, and I believe they will, then I feel obligated to put them in this section of the rankings. Yes, they’ll probably have to play three consecutive road series’ to reach the NBA Finals, but on many nights they’ll have the best two players on the court. When you have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and more depth than you’ve had in ages (Dion Waiters had made a nice impact since joining and joins Reggie Jackson as bench scoring threats), you are a force to be reckoned with. 22-20 and all.

— Could Go On A Run —

8. Houston Rockets, 29-14 (8): Is it a bad sign that the Rockets have already lost four times to the Warriors, meaning they’ve been swept in the season series? Yeah, it probably is. But Houston still has plenty going for them. First of all, they are playing pretty well even though they haven’t been full strength all season. Starters Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley have each missed sizable chunks of the season, and starting power forward Terrence Jones has played just four games this year and is due back in the next few weeks. As a result, James Harden has had to pick up even more of a burden than usual. Of course, Harden has responded amazingly to the extra responsibility both offensively and defensively. He’s the quintessential Daryl Morey star, as he’s able to hit and assist threes (more combined threes and assisted threes than anyone else in basketball by far) while getting to the line often. This is a good article that talks more about Harden, and I think he should be in the MVP conversation with Stephen Curry. The Rockets have also improved their bench throughout the season and have found some diamonds in the rough, a silver lining of all the injuries. Corey Brewer was acquired from the Timberwolves to provide Trevor Ariza with rest at small forward and lockdown defender, and the Rockets nabbed Josh Smith after he was cut by the Pistons. The Brewer trade is working out, while the J-Smoove signing is still questionable. And the Rockets have found some other bench contributors. Jason Terry is filling the important veteran-presence-on-bench-who-has-a-ring-and-still-can-play-a-little role, Donatas Motiejunas has played well in Jones’s stead, and Isaiah Canaan looks like a good backup point guard. These pieces are small, but they are all important, and they are reasons that the Rockets can make a run if everything goes right. I think a second round exit is more likely, but they have a chance at more.

9. Los Angeles Clippers, 28-14 (7): Besides (gulp) head coach and GM Doc Rivers’s son Austin, this team is basically the same as it’s been recently. I think we’ve reached a point that GM Doc is hurting Coach Doc. Last year’s team was good but had a few big flaws. They didn’t have a good small forward to compete against KD and Co. either offensively or defensively, and they didn’t have any big man depth behind Blake and DeAndre. This year, they have… the same flaws. Spencer Hawes isn’t helping much, which is a shocker. It’s pretty amazing to say, but I don’t really see how this team, one that has Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, can make it past round two as they are currently built. That’s partly because only two teams can make it past round two in this brutal conference that has eight or even nine contenders, but GM Doc should also take some blame. Of course, the Clippers might make some trades, and they do have two superstars, so I’m going to keep them in this “could make a run” section. But it’s disappointing that they haven’t taken the step forward I thought they could when I predicted they’d finish with the top seed.

10. Washington Wizards, 29-14 (13): Brooklyn, Miami, Boston. Those are the only three .500-or-worse teams Washington has lost to, as they’ve run their record to 23-3 against teams that are at best .500. Unfortunately, that means they are just 6-11 against teams that are better than .500, which means what I said last time is still the case: We know what the Wizards are going to be in the regular season. They are going to capitalize on an easy schedule and beat the teams they should be beating. I moved the Wizards up three spots not because they are now the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference but because I’ve been convinced over the past month or two that John Wall has taken that big step into stardom. The pure point guard, who averages an even 10 assists per game, is one of the smartest players in the NBA as well as one of the best, and he’s also shown increased responsibility late in games. While he averages just 17 points per game, he has scored some key buckets in close games time and time again. That’s important, because Washington is going to be involved in those close games come playoff time. I think they can make a run because they have Wall, some experience (Paul Pierce), and a couple of skilled big men (Marcin Gortat and Nene). Can they beat Atlanta or Chicago come playoff time? I don’t know.

11. San Antonio Spurs, 27-17 (2): A lot of bad things have happened to the Spurs since I last posted. Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker have gotten hurt and since returned, and the Spurs are just 14-12 since I last posted. I still would advise against panicking about the Spurs, since they’ve been here before and all that. But I’m a lot more worried now than I was at any other part of the last few seasons, mainly because I think Parker and Manu Ginobili have taken decent steps back. I still think the Spurs will make the playoffs pretty easily and they could make another run deep into the playoffs, but they could also lose in round one. Now that Kawhi and Parker are back, the Spurs could make a huge run, and that would be reassuring and help their chances at homefield advantage in the first round greatly.

12. Cleveland Cavaliers, 23-20 (6): Are the Cavs playing better than the Suns or Raptors, teams that will be at the top of the 13-30 section of the rankings? Absolutely not. But do they have a better chance at stringing together a month or so of dominant basketball? Since they have LeBron James, the answer is yes. Now, they also have a good chance of being swept in round two or even one, but they do have potential. They’ve won four straight, but they still haven’t really played well all season. It’s shocking, as mentioned before, that a team with a speedy point guard in Kyrie Irving, a fastbreak maestro in LeBron, and an outlet-passing wizard in Kevin Love can still rank near the bottom of the league in pace, and that needs to change. This team will probably play pretty good offense in the halfcourt offense eventually, but they can be more effective in transition. They also need to figure out how to use Kevin Love right. It’s hard to imagine right now, but Love has been one of the five best players in basketball over the past few years and he hasn’t gotten there by playing Mike Miller  spot up three style. Last year, Love averaged 18.5 shots, 8.2 free throws, and 26.1 points per game. This year, he’s averaging 13.4 shots, 5.5 free throws, and 17.7 points per game. He wasn’t expected to post the same numbers he did in Minnesota, but that’s a pretty big dropoff. Given that they are nowhere near a complete team, the Cavs need James, Love, and Irving to find a way to play well together. Luckily, they play in the easy conference, so they have about half the season to figure that out. It’s starting to feel like they don’t have much of a chance this season, though.

Next time I’ll go through teams 13-30.

Championship Game Predictions

Posted: 01/18/2015 by levcohen in Football

Today is what many people consider the best day of the football year, as it’s the final weekend before the Super Bowl, which is more an event than a football game. I actually think the weekend of the divisional series’, which was last weekend, is better since there were four games, but today is definitely up there. Unfortunately, recent championship games haven’t been close, with games often ending in blowouts. Given that both games have spreads close to or above a touchdown today, there’s blowout potential here. I’m hopeful, though, that we’ll get at least one good game out of today’s action. Let’s start with the early game, which is the NFC Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks.

Green Bay Packers (13-4, 9-7-1) at Seattle Seahawks (13-4, 10-6-1):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 8
Over/under: 44

I like the Seahawks in this game for a variety of reasons. The biggest one is that Aaron Rodgers is clearly less than 100%. Rodgers played pretty well against the Cowboys last week, but remember that he had two weeks to prepare for that game; he had one to get ready for the beating he could take today. There’s also the fact that Dallas, with its mediocre defense, is not a team that can really get after a quarterback. Seattle, on the other hand, can, and I think they are the team that can best expose Rodgers’s injury. Vegas underrated the injury early in the week, and the changes in the spread from 6.5 to 8 and the over/under from 47 to 44 are telling.

The Packers will need not only a mistake-free effort from Rodgers, which is plausible, but also a big game from Eddie Lacy. A clock-controlling, run-heavy gameplan is the best way to attack Seattle, but the runs have to be effective. In week one, when the Seahawks beat the Packers by 20, Lacy ran the ball just 12 times for 34 yards. He’ll need to be a lot better if the Packers want to stay in the game.

I think Seattle’s defensive dominance needs to be reiterated again. They gave up 17 points against the Panthers, including a garbage time touchdown, but that constituted a bad game for the defense. It was the first time since November 16th against the Chiefs that the Seahawks have given up more than 14. Naysayers point to the fact that the QBs who have played Seattle in that time are, well, lackluster, but the Seahawks are also 9-0 in the last three years against Superbowl winning quarterbacks. In a strength vs. strength matchup, I like Seattle’s full strength defense quite a bit more than I like Green Bay’s offense.

I also like Seattle’s efficient and underrated offense a whole lot more than I like Green Bay’s defense. The Seahawks finished fifth in DVOA on offense, thanks in large part to their top ranked run offense. When Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson get going on the ground with the read-option, the Seahawks are terrifying. Unfortunately for the Packers, Green Bay is pretty bad at stopping the run. You might remember week one, when the Seahawks gouged the defense to the tune of 37 carries for 207 yards, which included three kneeldowns. Yes, the now-gone Percy Harvin had four of those carries for 41 yards, but Lynch ran 20 times for 110 yards.

The other problem for Green Bay is that over the last few years they have been terrible against read-option offenses. There was that Seattle game in week one, but the biggest example of the Packers’ struggles is their 2012 playoff lose to the Niners, who ran for 323 yards. The hope for the Packers has to be to get the Seahawks into third-and-long situations. Seattle is a whole lot better in short-yardage situations than they are in long distance situations, and they just lost a huge deep threat in Paul Richardson (torn ACL) after trading Percy Harvin and losing Golden Tate to free agency before the year.

There is a scenario in which the Packers win this game. They need to capitalize on some turnovers, which might be difficult given that the Seahawks turned the ball over just 14 times this season, third-fewest in football. In fact, there might not be many turnovers in this game, as the Packers gave the ball away 13 times, tied for the fewest in football. Something to look out for, though, is Seattle’s propensity to put the ball on the ground. Wilson has fumbled a fair amount this year, but the Seahawks have shockingly returned every single fumble Wilson’s lost. So the Packers need to take the ball away from Wilson, they need a big game from Lacy, and they need to at least limit Seattle’s run game. It’s possible, but it would be a whole lot more likely if Rodgers were full strength.

I haven’t even mentioned the home-road thing, which is also troublesome for the Packers. Rodgers and the whole offense were extremely good at home this season but are only 4-4 on the road. And they struggled mightily against Seattle, Detroit, and Buffalo on the road, the three times they played truly elite defenses. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have long had one of the best homefield advantages in all of football. I could see this game getting out of hand early, with Rodgers unable to pull the Packers back into the game. I could also see the Packers taking a lead into halftime before the Seahawks’ defense, which is even better after halftime than it is before it, takes over. Either way, I think Seattle’s going to win this game fairly handily. Seahawks win 30-17, covering the spread and going over.

Indianapolis Colts (13-5, 12-5-1) at New England Patriots (13-4, 9-8):*
Spread: Patriots favored by 6.5
Over/under: 52

Ok, I might just be picking the Colts because it’s what I want to happen. It took me a while to think of enough reasons to pick the Colts to make it seem viable. But I did it eventually, so I’m sticking with Indy.

The first five reasons on my list are Andrew Luck. Seriously, the guy is incredible. Yeah, he turns the ball over, but his two picks last week were basically just punts on third down. And the turnovers are basically all the detractors point to. Why? Because he’s amazing. The fact that he took this team to the AFC Championship game is pretty great. I mean sure, the Colts have good cornerbacks, a couple of decent weapons, and a decent offensive line, but they are nowhere near as good overall as the teams they’ve beaten in the past two weeks or the Patriots. It all revolves around Luck.

I also like that the Patriots probably aren’t going to get a lot of pressure on Luck. They barely touched Joe Flacco last week, and Flacco played a terrific game. In fact, had he not thrown an ill-advised pass into double coverage in the final two minutes, Flacco could very well have carried the Ravens to this game against the Colts. Imagine what Andrew Luck might do with the same amount of time in the pocket.

You know how the Pistons have played really well since releasing Josh Smith? Well, the same thing might be happening in Indy, as the Colts have played really well since Trent Richardson got benched. I know, it’s a weird thing to count on, but the Colts are really overmatched elsewhere, so these are the things I need to mention.

The Patriots could obviously win this game in a blowout, because that’s exactly what they did the first time they played the Colts, which ended in a 42-20 win. A repeat will start with a great running effort, which is exactly what the Patriots got against the Colts during the regular season. Remember, it was this game that put Jonas Gray and his four touchdowns on SI’s cover. Could we see Gray again? It’s very possible. I just don’t think the Patriots will have as much success running it today, because their offensive line is more banged up now (center Brian Stork is unlikely to play) and because the Colts are clearly going to try to shut down the run.

More likely than a blowout, I think, is a close game. And in a close game, is there any quarterback you’d rather have than Andrew Luck. Time and time again, he’s rallied his team back from deficits, and he could easily do it again today. Luck, of course, is the main reason I’m picking the Colts, because they just don’t have many advantages elsewhere. I fully acknowledge that this is a risky pick, but I’m taking the Colts 31-28. They’ll cover and it’ll go over, setting up a Seahawks-Colts (possible blowout) Superbowl.

Mid January NBA Power Rankings: The Elites

Posted: 01/15/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

It’s been a while, and the All-Star break is coming up in a few weeks, so I thought it would be a good time to do another power rankings. In fact, it’s been over a month since my last ranking of the 30 teams, so there will be some pretty big shakeups in these rankings. Since it’s been so long, I’ve decided to delve deeper into each team, which of course means more words. Since the top five teams are the most fun to write about, I usually write the most about them, so they’ll get a post to themselves.

— Tier 1: Consistently dominant—

1. Golden State Warriors, 31-5 (1): It was surprising at the beginning of the year, but it’s certainly not a surprise anymore: the Warriors are the best team in the NBA. In fact, they might be the #1 team from start to finish. Remember, this is a team that last season were legitimately at risk of missing the playoffs pretty late in the season. They ended 51-31, just three games ahead of the lottery-bound Phoenix Suns. And then they fired Mark Jackson, the quintessential players’ coach, and replaced him with Steve Kerr, who had never been a head coach. Even considering all the talent, it was reasonable to predict that the Warriors would take a small step back this year. Instead, they’ve upped their win percentage from .622 to .861 and their point differential from +4.8 to +11.1. They have three fewer losses than any other team and a point differential four points better, so it’s fair to say they are easily the best team in basketball. What’s changed? There weren’t any big trades or signings or draft picks, but the team is definitely different. Stephen Curry is obviously the linchpin of the team and is an MVP favorite, but he was great last year, too, so I’m going to skip him. Curry’s backcourt sidekick, Klay Thompson, has been much more efficient this season, raising his field goal percentage from .444 to .464 and his three point percentage from 42% to 44% while scoring three more points per game despite playing three fewer minutes. He’s even hitting more three-pointers this year than the 2.8 he hit per game last season. But it’s the depth guys that are more interesting. While established veterans David Lee and Andre Iguodala have each taken a noticeable step back, Draymond Green and Marreesse Speights each have much bigger roles. Speights is amazingly averaging 12.6 points per game in 18.6 minutes, becoming Golden State’s scorer off the bench after a season in which he was frequently in the doghouse and averaged 6.4 points in 12.4 minutes. I don’t know if the career 47% shooter can keep shooting 52%, but he’s been a huge part of the Warriors’ success. Green, though, has been the even bigger story. You could see the potential last year, when Green played well and looked like a long-term “glue guy” (code for important bench player). But he entered the starting lineup when Lee got hurt and hasn’t relinquished it. He’s averaging more minutes than anyone other than Curry and Thompson, and he’s playing a lot better. Green is still not a great shooter, but he’s scoring 11.8 points per game this year. Why? He’s shooting 4.3 threes per game this year, more than twice as high as last year’s 2.0. His field goal percentage has gone up from 41% to 44%, while he’s getting to the line more and has pushed his free throw percentage over 70%. He’s also a tremendous rebounder and passer for a small forward, and has a 2:1 assist:turnover ratio. Green’s biggest attribute, though, is his defense. He’s amazingly second in the entire NBA in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus Minus at 4.69. That means he’s saving the Warriors 4.69 points per 100 possessions, so it’s no coincidence that the Warriors are easily the best defense in basketball. Green is 10th overall in RPM, behind: Stephen Curry (easily #1 overall), Damian Lillard (more on him soon), James Harden, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Paul Millsap, and Jimmy Butler. Wow.

The scary thing about the Warriors is that they have gotten very little from Lee and Iguodala, former stars who are bound to have some big moments come playoff time. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Warriors make a trade (could Lee go?), but I personally would just stick with this team right now. The Warriors have a better chance at winning it all than anyone, with a huge asterisk: Andrew Bogut must stay healthy. Bogut doesn’t often stay healthy, and he’s the only defensive presence down low (third in the NBA in DRPM). That’s why it might make some sense for the Warriors to get someone who can defend down low in Bogut’s stead. But right now, this team looks pretty unstoppable.

2. Portland Trailblazers, 30-9 (9): It’s pretty embarrassing that I had Portland at nine last time even though they were 14-4. I’m done doubting. When you have Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, you are going to have a good team. The Blazers got off to a fast start last season, too, but that’s when they were the biggest surprise in the NBA and many wrote them off as pretenders in the fierce Western Conference. Then they entered the playoffs as a 54-28 five seed and knocked off the Rockets in the first round. This season, everyone’s taking them seriously. Like last year, Lillard and Aldridge are both averaging 20+ points per game. Aldridge’s numbers are weirdly similar to last season’s:
2013-14: 36.2 mpg, 23.2 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 2.6 apg, 46% field goal, 82% free throw
2014-15: 36.4 mpg, 23.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 1.9 apg, 46% field goal, 86% free throw

The big difference has been that Aldridge is now a threat from beyond the arc; after shooting 3-15 from three point range last season, he’s a stellar 18-38 already this year. Aldridge was already among the top-10 players in the NBA; now he might be top-5. The bigger step forward, though, has come from Lillard, the now-24-year-old Weber State alum who can legitimately claim to be the best point guard in basketball not named Stephen Curry. He’s boosted his PER from 18.7, which was above-average, to 22.8, which is 14th in the NBA and is probably underrating him. Lillard, who has made big shot after big shot after big shot early in his career, has upped his field goal percentage from 42.4% to 45.5%. Given the fact that he hits a lot of threes and is a great free throw shooter, Lillard has evolved into an efficient point guard. He’s averaging a career-high 22 points per game and adds 4.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists.

The Blazers’ supporting cast isn’t as good as Golden State’s, which is what separates the two teams. Last season’s biggest weakness was the bench (relative, of course, to other benches and not the rest of their team), and it probably still is, but it’s improved. Chris Kaman is a huge backup center upgrade over Joel Freeland and has averaged 9.8 points and 6.7 rebounds in fewer than 20 minutes per game. The biggest thing Portland needs? Probably another wing player. Wes Matthews is solid, while Nic Batum has seen his scoring drop but still provides lots of value. But Portland’s best bench wings are C.J. McCollum, Dorell Wright, and Allen Crabbe. Not great, and it’ll be something to watch if Matthews or Batum get into foul trouble in the playoffs. Portland could make a trade, but even if they don’t, they’re a contender. They just play great (and beautiful) basketball, with great ball movement and an underrated defense that is allowing the fewest points per game in all of basketball after being middle-of-the-pack (maybe worse) last year. They’ve improved from 16th to third in points allowed per possession. This is no fluke: everything has come together for this team over the past two seasons.

3. Atlanta Hawks, 31-8 (16): Here’s what I wrote about the Hawks last time: When your favorite team is the Sixers, you need to find some other teams to root for come playoff time. For me, one of those teams is the Atlanta Hawks, who, although unlikely to advance far in the playoffs, have become really fun to watch. They are a really good offensive team and a bad defensive one, which leads to some high-scoring games. They move the ball as well as any team east of San Antonio, and they have an asset in Kyle Korver who is shooting an insane 57% from three on an ample 5.3 attempts per game. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like that. If Al Horford gets right, and he’s clearly not right, this team could make the second round of the playoffs and cause some difficulties when they get there.

They were 11-6 then and 31-8 now, so things have changed. First, a few things that haven’t changed: this is still the team I’m going to be rooting for come playoff time, but don’t call me a bandwagon fan because I liked them before it was cool. It’s still a team that’s really run to watch, and Kyle Korver is still incredible. He’s now shooting 53% from three on 5.8 attempts per game. How is that even possible? And while he’s been better lately, Al Horford still isn’t the same guy he was before the injury. But that just makes everything that I’m about to say that much more amazing.

The Hawks are (gulp) 24-2 since November 26th. And one of those losses came on a buzzer-beater by Orlando’s Tobias Harris. The biggest difference has been the defense. The last time I wrote, the Hawks were 11-6 and were coming off two straight games in which they had won despite giving up more than 100 points. They had allowed opponents to cross the triple-digit threshold in nine of their first 17 games (53% of the time). In their last 22 games, they’ve allowed opponents to hit 100 points just seven times (32%). They’ve been a top-10 defensive team after opening the season as a bottom-10 one. This defensive transformation has been much more of a team effort than an individual one, as Paul Millsap is the only starter in the top-100 by DRPM. That, along with everything else, has to be attributed to coach Mike Budenholzer. Who knows if he will, but Budenholzer should win Coach of the Year in a landslide. He has turned a dysfunctional team that was bounced from the playoffs in the first round every single year to a free-flowing one that should now be considered the favorite in the Eastern Conference. Josh Smith and Joe Johnson are gone, which helps, and this team is just perfect together. The starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Millsap, and Horford has it all. Teague is the best offensive point guard in the Eastern Conference, and he runs extremely effective pick-and-rolls with Millsap and Horford. Korver not only requires a defender with a few inches of him at all times but also moves around well without the ball. Carroll is the king of the scrappy points, Millsap can get an easy layup an instant after seemingly being bottled up, and Horford is a great midrange shooter. They have it all. And the bench is pretty good too. Dennis Schroder, the German backup point guard, is probably going to be a future starter, and he’s been great for the Hawks this year. Thabo Sefolosha is a good defender who has experience with the Thunder playing in big games. Pero Antic is a big man who can shoot the three, and Elton Brand is another veteran presence. The run might come to an end, but there’s certainly no end in sight. This team is really good.

4. Chicago Bulls, 26-14 (5): The Hawks will probably win the top seed in the East, but the Bulls might still be the favorite to reach the NBA Finals. Their biggest strength is their frontcourt, which matches up well with Atlanta’s and everyone else’s. Pau Gasol was the best free-agent signing of the offseason, and it isn’t close. He’s absolutely exploded with the Bulls, averaging 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game while shooting 48% from the field and 82% from the line. Then the Bulls have Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Nikola Mirotic. Noah has been disappointing this season, and he must turn things around before the playoffs. He’s clearly been dealing with injuries, and his stats have suffered. His PER is down to 14.6 from 20.1 last season. After turning into a triple-double threat with 13 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists per game last season (including consecutive months at 7+ assists per game to end the season), he’s down to 7.6, 9.4, and 3.6 assists per game. He’s no longer the offensive threat he was last season, and he’s also been less effective defensively. He’s going to be one of the big men the Bulls play down the stretch in big games, so he must improve.

At this point, we know who Taj Gibson is, which is a very valuable sixth man. Every time you watch the Bulls, you’ll know when Gibson is in the game. He’s one of those guys who makes his presence known, both offensively and defensively. He’s a very high energy big man and has become a lot more efficient this season, upping his field goal percentage above 50% for the first time in his career. A likely starter elsewhere, Gibson might not be playing as much as he’d like to, but his 27.5 minutes per game are perfect for the Bulls.

And then there’s Mirotic, who might end second in Rookie of the Year voting behind Andrew Wiggins. Yes, even though he only plays 18 minutes per game. He’s second in PER among rookies behind Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic, and they are the only two rookies to have an above-average (15+) PER. Mirotic is so good that he is actually causing the Bulls a problem most teams would dream to have: how do you leave him on the bench down the stretch? He creates matchup issues, with his ability to shoot the three (37%) and get to the line (six attempts per 36 minutes). Unfortunately for him, he won’t sniff the court in the final few minutes of playoff games with Noah, Gasol, and Gibson ahead of him on the depth chart. But when all the bench players are playing, he can dominate.

I’ve already talked about Jimmy Butler, so I’ll leave it at this: Butler is the Bulls’ best player now, and the Bulls have a real shot at winning it all if he plays like a superstar in the playoffs. They’ll also need help from Derrick Rose and Noah, but Butler is the key to it all.

5. Dallas Mavericks, 27-13 (4): It remains to be seen whether the Rajon Rondo trade will turn out well. The Mavericks are 8-5 since the trade, which isn’t great, and they’ve lost three of their last four, including losses to the Pistons and Nuggets. And look at Rondo’s shooting performances in his time as a Maverick: 3-11, 6-15, 6-14, 10-17, 7-17, 4-10, 12-19, 2-6, 1-13, 3-7, 1-11, 10-16. That’s right; Rondo has had three games in which he’s shot 58%+ and two in which he’s shot sub-10%. In his last six games, he’s scored more than 20 points twice and six or fewer the other four times. But the Mavericks didn’t trade for Rondo to gain scoring; they traded for him because they wanted a distributor who also played good defense at the point. I’m still hopeful that this trade will work out well for the Mavericks, even though Rondo hasn’t played great so far. The biggest warning sign is that the Mavs are shooting just 44.6% from the field in January after shooting 47.5% in both November and December. But that could just be the small sample size talking, as the Mavericks have played just seven games this month. I have them ranked this high because I think they have a starting lineup that can match up with any in the NBA. Like the Hawks’ lineup, you’d think a starting lineup including Rondo, Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tyson Chandler would work well. I think it still will, but I’m worried that too many of those guys need the ball, and guys like Ellis and Parsons aren’t going to get to bring the ball up now that the Mavericks have Rondo. I hope that this is just a transition period for the Mavericks, but I worry that I’ll have to drop them a few spots by the All-Star break.

College Football Championship Prediction

Posted: 01/12/2015 by levcohen in NCAA

It’s college football, so this makes sense, but this game, between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Oregon Ducks, can go in any direction without surprising me. Could the Ducks blow out Ohio State? Um, did you watch the Florida State game? Of course they can. Could the Buckeyes destroy Oregon? With their deep passing game and stellar defense, that could happen too, especially after a huge morale-boosting win over Alabama. Could it be a low-scoring game? I don’t expect it to end in a 20-17 game or anything, but I could easily see the final score being well below the over/under of 72.5. Most likely, though, is a high-scoring, back-and-forth game that will hinge on a few turnovers or key third down stops.

These teams have key differences in their philosophies, but they are actually pretty similar. Each team likes taking shots deep (Marcus Mariota averages an NCAA-high 10.1 yards per pass, while J.T. Barrett was fourth at 9.0 before getting injured), they both like a good run-pass balance, and both play at a pretty quick pace, although Oregon is much faster. A few matchups in particular should be interesting. The best one could be between Mariota, the Heisman winner, and Ohio State’s excellent secondary, which absolutely shut Amari Cooper down. More so than the game against Florida State, this game could expose some flaws in Mariota’s game. The Ohio State defense is fast, skilled, and well-coached, a lethal combination that has led to win after win after win. But they also haven’t played an offense as scary or efficient as Mariota’s Ducks, who pick up huge chunks of yardage both on the ground and through the air.

Cardale Jones has been extremely impressive and surprisingly mobile in his first two starts as Barrett’s replacement. He’s a big quarterback, which explains why he isn’t quite the rushing threat Barrett was, but he also has a huge arm, which is perfect for an offense that goes deep more than any I can remember. The number of deep threats this Ohio State team has is pretty ridiculous, and I’m not sure Oregon’s secondary, which is also pretty good, can stop at least a few deep passes from being completed.

Both teams also have very good run games. Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliot is finally getting the respect he deserves after amassing 1,632 in his first year as a starter. He plays in a very running back-heavy conference, which explains the lack of respect (he might be the fourth or fifth best runner in the conference). It’ll be important for Ohio State to keep Oregon’s offense off the field for as much of the game as possible, and Elliot, who had more big runs than consistent six yard gains against Alabama, is the key to that.

As for Oregon, Mariota’s running ability just adds to a top tier running game that includes Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner. Freeman, the leading runner, is a true freshman who wasn’t great against Florida State, while Tyner returned from injury to produce some great runs against the Seminoles. He ended up carrying the ball 13 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns, while Freeman added 12 for 44 and two scores and Mariota posted eight carries for 62 yards and a touchdown (wow, the Ducks scored a lot). The Ducks have the type of offense that just piles up yards; they pick up a lot of yards after the catch and can play power football or read-option.

I think the two best teams made the championship game. Both Ohio State and Oregon are tremendous offensively and very good defensively. The Buckeyes are probably the better all-around team, but the Ducks have Marcus Mariota. It should be a fun game. I’ll pick the Ducks to win 34-31, with the Buckeyes covering the six point spread and the game going under that 72.5 over/under.