Archive for February, 2015

A late deadline review: the other trades

Posted: 02/26/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

I reviewed the Goran (and Zoran) Dragic trade a few days ago but still haven’t completed my recap on the rest of the deadline moves, so I’m going to do that now. Again, since quite a few players moved, I’m not going to recap every single trade or include every player in each trade. I’ll just be going through the important parts to save myself some writing.

KG Back to Minnesota:
I wouldn’t call Minnesota’s reacquisition of Kevin Garnett, the best T-Wolf of all time who is still beloved by fans, a bad one, but it certainly highlights a bad move the Timberwolves made in the offseason. As a whole, the Kevin Love trade looks like it’s turning out pretty darn well. In fact, there probably has yet to be a return in a trade for a superstar better than the Andrew Wiggins-led haul Minnesota got. But the bad part of the trade for Minny, one that now sticks out like a sore thumb? The Timberwolves traded the 2015 top-10 protected first round pick they had from Miami for Thaddeus Young, who will be a free agent after this season. This is where the fact that Flip Saunders is both Minnesota’s GM and their head coach comes into play; it’s likely that Saunders liked Young as a player and figured his team could make a run with a starting lineup of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer (who has since been traded), Young, and Nikola Pekovic. That was never going to happen in the stacked Western Conference, and injuries to Rubio, Martin, and Pekovic ensured that the Timberwolves would be near the bottom of the standings. So the T-Wolves traded a pick that now looks like it will fall in the 11-16 range for Thaddeus Young and then traded Young for what amounts to KG’s farewell tour. Given that Thad isn’t a great player and that he’ll be a free agent after this season, this specific move has no risk, but it’s hard to look at it without considering what the Timberwolves had to give up for Young.

This is also an inconsequential trade for the Nets, besides the fact that it signifies the end of the horrific Paul Pierce-KG era. In terms of their race for the playoffs, this move probably helps the Nets. They had a logjam at center, with Brook Lopez (who they nearly traded to Oklahoma City for Reggie Jackson), Mason Plumlee, and Garnett, and in return for the worst of the trio they get a guy who can cause mismatches as a quick power forward. There’s no doubt that Thaddeus Young will be able to have a bigger impact for the Nets than Kevin Garnett did, but I’m not sure it moves the needle, and I don’t think Young will re-sign with Brooklyn after the season.

Minnesota grade: C+
Brooklyn grade: B

Blazers nab Afflalo:
The Trailblazers made a no-brainer trade for sharpshooter Arron Afflalo, who is in the midst of a down season but has long been an above-average NBA wing. Afflalo fits really well for the Blazers, who were really thin on the wings with Wesley Matthews shouldering more of an offensive load alongside the ailing Nicolas Batum, who has had a rough season shooting-wise. Afflalo will fit in perfectly as the sixth man, providing an offensive spark off the bench for 20-25 minutes per game. The Blazers needed to get deeper, and this was a move that certainly increased their chances of winning the rough Western Conference. In return, Portland gave up a few placeholders and a lottery-protected 2016 pick. The pick will probably fall in the 20-30 range, and while it’s nice to have a first round pick, the Blazers are in win-now mode, and there isn’t much risk in giving up a lottery-protected pick.

From the Nuggets’ side of things, Afflalo had to be moved. He didn’t fit on a Denver team that has a lot of wing players, which makes me wonder why the Nuggets ever traded for him (they moved a pretty intriguing young guard in Evan Fournier for him). And while I’m sure the Nuggets tried to get a better pick in return, any first round pick is decent value for Afflalo. They could have done better later in the day (I would have traded Wilson Chandler and Ty Lawson along with Afflalo, and the JaVale trade was stupid from their standpoint), but there was nothing wrong with this move.

Portland grade: A
Denver grade: B+

Isaiah Thomas to Boston:
The Celtics must really love Isaiah Thomas. I mean yeah, Thomas has shown that he is a spark-plug who can be lethal as a point guard off the bench, but the acquisition really doesn’t jibe with the rebuild the Celtics are in the midst of. They traded a 2016 first round pick in return for the fiery point guard, which probably isn’t ideal for a team that might not contend for at least another couple of years. And Thomas is playing for his third team in the last year, which probably tells us something about him. He’s a good player, but I’m not sure he’s good enough to offset the likelihood that he makes his teammates unhappy.

Phoenix ended up turning Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, a valuable Lakers pick and some depth pieces into Brandon Knight and a few first round picks. That doesn’t look great on paper. I thought the Suns probably should have held onto Thomas because they just signed him this past off-season and because his contract looks like a steal, but I guess they weren’t comfortable with Thomas starting alongside Eric Bledsoe. This is a trade I don’t really like for either team; it’s a “meh” trade.

Boston grade: B-
Phoenix grade: C+

Reggie Jackson to Detroit:
Did the Thunder just repeat the mistake they made with the James Harden trade? I don’t think so, because I don’t think Jackson compares (or will ever compare) to Harden. But it had to be in the back of Sam Presti’s mind, didn’t it? For the second time, the Thunder traded a young guard who had shown flashes of greatness simply because they didn’t want to go over the salary cap to sign the guard. This time, I like the trade a lot more. This could be the move that, assuming Kevin Durant finally comes back healthy (an assumption that is looking more risky by the day), pushes the Thunder over the top. Enes Kanter has been a beast in his first few games with Oklahoma City, and Kyle Singler has been starting in the absence of Durant. Add in the fact that D.J. Augustin might be as good as Jackson right now as a backup point guard and this trade looks like a winner for the Thunder, who are now scarily deep.

This is a trade the Pistons had to make, because they got the player in the trade with the most potential. When you are in Detroit’s position (they aren’t a very good team but have some pieces), you need to do all you can to turn role players into good starters. Jackson has his off nights, but he has already shown his potential in just a few games with Detroit. In the first two games of his Detroit career, Jackson has averaged 19.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and seven assists per game. It’s that potential that made this trade a must for them.

Enes Kanter didn’t fit with Utah, which means this trade worked out well for them, too. They got a first rounder for the skilled big man and can now start Rudy Gobert, who is already probably the most impactful defender in the NBA on a per-minute basis.

Oklahoma City grade: A-
Detroit grade: A
Utah grade: B+

Knight-MCW-Lakers pick all change hands:
Is it possible that the Suns gave up the two biggest assets that moved on trade deadline day? Goran Dragic was the best player traded, and the Lakers pick, which is top-5 protected this year and top-3 protected next year, is also extremely valuable. If you look at each trade as an individual move, the Suns moved the Lakers pick, Miles Plumlee, and Tyler Ennis (a first round pick in 2014) for Kendall Marshall and Knight, who will be a restricted free agent after this season. To me, this was the Suns’ worst trade of their three. Knight is a good player having a good season, but trading a high lottery pick for the rights to overpay a middle-of-the-pack starting point guard? It seems like an iffy move, but I can’t ding them too much, because I really think Knight is a good player.

The Bucks traded shooting for more length, a better defender, and more longterm flexibility, both on and off the court. Their trade, of course, hinges on Michael Carter-Williams and his development. Can “point guard whisperer” Jason Kidd turn Carter-Williams, who like a young Kidd (see what I did there?) can’t shoot, into an All-Star? Even if he can’t, solid point guard play from MCW along with some contributions from Ennis and Plumlee will be enough to validate this trade. It’s clear that the Bucks, with Jabari Parker and the Greek Freak and MCW and Khris Middleton, are trying to build a core of similarly sized players who can play different positions. This could morph into a pretty exciting team in the future.

For Philadelphia, the trade hinges on MCW, too. If you think Carter-Williams was ever supposed to be a building block for the Sixers, you’re probably wrong. Yes, Sam Hinkie drafted him, but that was only with the 11th pick. There were rumblings that MCW could have been traded as early as draft day 2014, right after the Sixers drafted Elfrid Payton (they eventually traded Payton). And would Carter-Williams be rated so highly by fans (and apparently teams also) if he hadn’t racked up stats for an awful team and won Rookie of the Year in the worst rookie class since, well, ever? I think we all know the answer to that one. So yeah, while it might seem as if Hinkie is just kicking the can down the road, I think it’s pretty clear that the Lakers pick they are getting has a very good chance of being a better player than Michael Carter-Williams. Now, every trade that includes future draft picks has added risk, and if the Lakers get a top-five pick this year and suddenly become good, the pick could become a non-lottery pick. But I don’t think that’s very likely. Instead, the Sixers will probably get a pick in the 6-10 range, which I would consider a win for Michael Carter-Williams.

Phoenix grade: C
Milwaukee grade: B+
Philadelphia grade: A-

I was originally going to post a reaction to the trade deadline on Thursday. But that was before the deadline was as hectic as it’s ever been, which is even more surprising given that most people thought it would be a quiet deadline. In total, about 8% of the league (39 NBA players) changed teams on Thursday, including a huge number of starting-caliber point guards. Now that we are a few days removed from the bedlam, it’s a good time to give a more rational opinion on the biggest trades of the day. For the sake of time (and my fingers), I’m going to skip over some of the smaller trades, but I’ll recap all of the big ones, starting today with the trade that saw the best player dealt move from Phoenix to Miami:

Phoenix trades: Goran and Zoran Dragic (no joke)
Miami trades: top-seven protected 2017 first round pick, 2021 first round pick

A few things right off the bat here: first of all, how crazy is it that we’re talking about 2021 picks getting moved? Goran Dragic (and presumably Zoran) might not even be in the NBA at that point, Pat Riley may well be retired, and who knows how many coaching changes the Lakers will have made. Oh, and the players who will be at the top of that 2021 draft are likely now in seventh grade. But at the same time, that’s what makes these picks under valued, especially by fans. Teams target these far-in-advance picks for two main reasons: firstly, win-now teams won’t care about them as much as they care about their upcoming picks. Secondly, there’s much more of a chance that Miami will be really bad in 2021 than in 2016, which makes the pick more likely to be in the lottery.

This trade also has been kind of overshadowed by Chris Bosh’s season-ending injury, a blood clot in his chest. Clots can be life-threatening, and while it looks as if Bosh will make a full recovery, it’s certainly a serious situation. Looking at it from a basketball standpoint, the injury probably eliminates any chance the Heat might have had at making a run in the playoffs.

With all that being said, it’s time to look at the actual trade. This was not one of the more surprising deals of the day, since Dragic had forced the Suns’ hands in the days leading up to the deadline by saying he didn’t trust Phoenix’s front office anymore and wouldn’t re-sign with them after the season under any circumstances. He also said that the three places he wanted to go were LA, New York, or Miami. That really limited Phoenix’s trade market, since no other team would have given up much to get a guy they thought was likely to leave after the season. That’s why I think the Suns did very well in this trade. Two first round picks might not seem like enough for a guy who was a third team All-NBA player last year, but the Suns were operating under very tough circumstances, and I was actually surprised that they got two picks that have a chance at being in the lottery.

Meanwhile, I think the Heat did fine, but I wouldn’t call them huge winners. It’s not that I don’t like Goran Dragic or that the Heat will now be wasting a roster spot on Zoran Dragic simply because he’s Goran’s brother. The issue is that now the Heat are going to give Dragic a max contract, which basically locks in the core of Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Bosh, and scrub-turned-Hakeem-Olajuwon Hassan Whiteside. Assuming Whiteside is at least somewhat legit, that lineup looks pretty good, but Deng, Wade, and Bosh are all on the decline, and Dragic is approaching 30, which means that the window won’t be open for very long. Next year might be the best chance for this Heat team to be a real threat. I still think it was a risk worth taking for Miami; whenever you can get a guy like Goran Dragic at a depressed price, you’d better get him. But it will really sting if the Heat stink in the 2020-21 season.

Final trade grades:
Phoenix: A-
Miami: B+

I won’t spend a whole post on each trade, but I figured I would with this one since it was probably the biggest of the day.

Since there are more contenders out west than there are in the Eastern Conference, the first three of my 13 posts about the teams who have a shot at winning it all were about Western Conference teams (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, LA). That means there are now five teams in each conference I haven’t written about, and since I’m getting bored about talking about Western Conference teams, I’m going to continue with the current EC #5. Remember, I’m doing these from bottom to top by where each team currently resides in the standings, not in inverse order of most likely championship teams. So when I preview Cleveland now, before Washington and Toronto, don’t think that I feel that those teams have better chances of winning it all than the Cavs.

I was surprised to see that Cleveland is now considered basically a co-favorite (either slightly ahead of or behind Golden State) with the Warriors to win it all at around 3/1 odds, far better than the group beneath them of OKC, Chicago, San Antonio, and Atlanta. Although I see the argument, I’m not as bullish on the Cavs. First, let’s start with the reasons that Cleveland is still so well thought of.

The biggest reason: LeBron James. You probably don’t need me to say more about LeBron, but I will anyway. He’s made four straight NBA Finals, winning two of them, although all four championship appearances occurred while LeBron was a member of the Miami Heat (LBJ made one championship appearance in his first stint with Cleveland but got swept by the San Antonio Spurs). Early in the season, there was speculation that James wasn’t the same, that he was declining, and that he wasn’t good enough to carry teams to championships anymore. Well, guess what? Rumors of his demise… you fill in the rest.

A two week break that LeBron took around the New Year sure looks good now. Yes, the Cavaliers lost all eight games they played without James (they are 32-13 with the King and 1-9 without him, which again shows LeBron’s value), but given the state of the Eastern Conference, who really cares? The Cavs are already a game and a half out of the #3 seed after a 14-3 run since LeBron’s return, which has taken them from 19-19 to 33-22. And they don’t even need homecourt advantage; at their best, they will be able to beat anyone, anytime in the playoffs.

There are other reasons to like the Cavs, even when putting aside the big three (more on the Kevin Love situation later). Cleveland made a couple of trades that might prove pivotal come playoff time. They might have made a slight overpay for Timofey Mozgov, but Mozgov has fit in seamlessly with the Cavs and specifically LeBron, who he runs a nice pick-and-roll with. He’s also something the Cavaliers desperately needed; a rim protector. Mozgov is averaging 11 points and nine rebounds along with 1.6 blocks and an above-average 18.9 PER, but more importantly he fills a vital role for a team with title aspirations.

The upgrade from Dion Waiters to J.R. Smith also looks important, for one specific reason. In Miami, LeBron James was surrounded by top shooters, from Ray Allen to Mike Miller to Rashard Lewis (etc.). In fact, the Heat probably wouldn’t have won the 2013 Finals without some of those shooters. In Cleveland, LeBron lacked those role-players who could knock down a few threes in a two or three minute span. Waiters, a 25.6% three-point shooter on 2.6 threes per game, clearly wasn’t helping. Smith is. An absurd 65.5% of his shots as a Cavalier have come from beyond the arc (7.6 of 11.6), and he’s making 36% of his threes. Behind the big three and Mozgov, he’s probably the Cavs’ most important player. The addition of Iman Shumpret shouldn’t hurt, either, as Shump will be able to take some of the defensive responsibilities away from LeBron when James needs to put extra effort in offensively.

Mozgov, Smith, and Shumpret are nice, but to win a championship, the Cavaliers will need LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love hitting on all cylinders. James is still the best player in the league, but he probably won’t be able to bring it every night in the playoffs like he did two years ago against the Spurs. That means neither Kyrie nor Love can slump in the playoffs. We know who Kyrie is; although he’s probably never going to be a Chris Paul-esque pass-first point guard, he can score as well as any other point guard in the league. His finishing at the rim is impeccable. He can explode for 50+ points on any given night and is averaging 22 points per game. And he’s also shooting 41% from three. He’s a top shelf scorer and a great #2 option.

You all know that Kevin Love has struggled at times this year. Put aside the “Fit-in, fit-out” thing, which I think is totally overblown, and just look at his stats. His scoring is down nine points per game. He’s shooting 5.5 fewer times per game and 3.1 fewer times from the line. The power forward, who in the past has been a force as an offensive rebounder, is often stuck in the corner. It feels as if entire quarters go by without Love touching the ball. Heck, even his assist rate has been cut almost in half (4.4 to 2.3). And yet, there are plays like this. Love is an insanely good basketball player, at least on the offensive side of the court. He can rebound, shoot, and pass with the best of them. That’s why I was so excited to see the pick-and-roll game of KLove and Kyrie or LeBron. It just hasn’t materialized. Instead of playing like the guy he was in Minnesota, Love has been more of a spot-up shooter. That might just be what this team needs, but I think Love and the Cavaliers need to find a middle ground. He’s not going to get the ball in the post every play like he did while he was a member of the MInnesota Timberwolves, but he also needs to be more involved in the offense than he is now. He just doesn’t touch the ball enough, and a frustrated Kevin Love will cost the Cavaliers dearly come playoff time.

I just worry that, against Chicago or even any of the Atlanta/Toronto/Washington trio, something will be off. If the Cavaliers are at their best, they can roll any of the latter three and would probably beat the Bulls, too. But they won’t win four straight series with Kyrie and LeBron playing hero ball for an entire series. Both of them are incredible players, but the Cavaliers also need peak Kevin Love and Timofey Mozgov, because otherwise they are going to get destroyed on the boards and in the paint by the bigger Bulls should they meet in the playoffs as many are predicting. The bottom line is that the Cavaliers have as much talent as anyone else in the Eastern Conference, which automatically makes them a force to be reckoned with come playoff time. But if you ask me to pick between Cleveland at 3/1 odds, Chicago at 8/1, or Washington at 40/1, I’d take Chicago or Washington, and it isn’t close.

Will the Kings Make the Playoffs?

Posted: 02/16/2015 by levcohen in Hockey

When people talk about “conference imbalance,” they are usually referring to the NBA, where the Western Conference is far superior to the Eastern Conference. Coincidentally, though (I think it’s a coincidence, anyway), the imbalance is almost as strong in hockey. All of the past three Stanley Cup winners (and six of eight) have come from the Western Conference, signifying that the era of Montreal and (now that they are in the Eastern Conference) Detroit dominating is long over. The new powers of hockey are Chicago and LA, and most of the other exciting teams play out west, too. So the west is the more skilled and faster conference and has the top three teams by goal differential in the NHL (all residing in the brutal Central division). You know what else the conference has going for it? A playoff race that could come down to the wire.

In the Eastern Conference, the eight playoff spots have pretty much already been decided. Montreal, Tampa Bay, Detroit, the Islanders, Pittsburgh, the Rangers, and Washington all have at least 10 point playoff cushions and clearly have been the seven best teams in the conference this year. Meanwhile, the #8 Bruins have looked surprisingly shaky and are just three points up on #9 Florida (and five up on #10 Philadelphia), but does anyone really expect the experienced Bruins, who have more playoff experience than any other team in the conference, to slip up? If anything, I actually think they could go on a nice win streak and propel themselves back into the first round home-ice advantage conversation. Anyway, unless the Bruins are a lot worse than we think they are, the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams have been decided. All that’s left to talk about is where each team will be seeded and what the ideal matchups would be. And with just four points separating the top three teams in the Atlantic and five separating the top four in the Metropolitan, that race should stay pretty close throughout. In the end, though, it’s not as fun when the only thing that has yet to be determined is seeding.

Meanwhile, the defending champs are currently not occupying a playoff spot. You read that right: the Kings, the next dynasty in the NHL after winning two of three championships at a relatively young age, would not make the playoffs if they started today. Will they make a run and make up the three points (while also leapfrogging red-hot Minnesota) that separates them from the playoffs or will the Kings be watching from home come playoff time?

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the Kings. In fact, the advanced stats point to a team that’s been really unlucky and with better luck would have one of the best records in the NHL. Their 5 on 5 Corsi, which counts all shot attempts when both teams are at full strength, including shots that miss the net or are blocked, is 55%. That means they’ve averaged 55% of all shots in games they’ve played, which is tops in the NHL. The rest of the top five? Chicago, Tampa Bay, Detroit, and the Islanders. Put aside the fact that three are from the Eastern Conference (#6 and #7 are Western Conference teams) and the biggest takeaway from that is that all four have at least 72 points. The Kings have 62. They also measure up pretty well in terms of goals in 5 on 5 hockey. They’re scoring 53.9% of all 5 on 5 goals in games they’ve played in, which places them seventh behind only six 70+ point teams (and ahead of five others). Amazingly, Nashville, which leads the NHL with 82 points, is scoring 60.2% of goals in 5 on 5 hockey. That’s irrelevant in the Kings conversation but also incredible.

So the Kings are really good in 5 on 5 hockey. Why, then, are they 25-30 when combining regulation and overtime losses? Well, their 12 overtime/shootout losses don’t help, and neither does the 1-7 record in shootouts, which comes after a year in which the Kings were 8-6 in shootouts and had just eight OT/SO losses. If the Kings had gotten four or five more points out of their overtime and shootout games, which seems entirely plausible, they would vault over Vancouver and Calgary into third in the Pacific division. But they’d still be lagging behind the elite teams, which doesn’t make sense given their Corsi. What else is to blame?

Well, their power play has been slightly above average, but their penalty kill has been pretty bad. The Kings are killing just 78.2% of power plays, sixth worst in the NHL. They are allowing 7.89 goals per 60 minutes on the penalty kill, which is fourth worst in the NHL and miles worse than rival Chicago, who are killing an NHL-high 87.9% of penalties and allowing just 4.69 goals per 60 minutes on the penalty kill. Still, the PK discrepancy can’t explain the whole difference between the Kings and the NHL’s elite, especially since the Islanders, one of the league’s best teams, are last in penalty kill. Besides, the Kings are in the top 10 in fewest times short-handed, which means the PK isn’t as big of an issue as it might be if they were, say, the Winnipeg Jets, who have been short-handed 41 more times than any other team.

The Darryl Sutter-led Kings have always been much better in the playoffs than they were in the regular season. They famously won it all in 2011-12 as the #8 seed and finished sixth in the conference last year. That, along with their great metrics, means they’ll still be a force to be reckoned with if they make the playoffs. You can be sure that the Ducks, Blackhawks, and Predators are hoping that Calgary makes the playoffs instead of the Kings.

So we know that the Kings are a good team who have gotten really unlucky this season. And their four consecutive wins also lead me to believe that they’ll make the playoffs. It’s no sure thing, though. 16 of their final 27 games are on the road, which is especially painful considering their are 18-6-6 at home and just 7-12-6 on the road. And even if one of Calgary, Winnipeg, or Vancouver has a cold streak, Minnesota, who currently have 63 points, one more than the Kings, is also a threat. The Wild, who lost 12 of 14 at one point this season, are 10-1-2 in their last 13 games and are finally getting consistent play out of a goalie (Devan Dubnyk is 10-1-1 since being acquired in a deal with Arizona).

I think the Kings will make the playoffs, but the final 20-odd games of the season are going to be really interesting. My best bet: LA and Minnesota both stay hot while both Calgary and Vancouver struggle and miss the playoffs.

NBA All-Star Saturday Predictions

Posted: 02/14/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

We can probably all agree that the NBA All-Star game itself is not among the more exciting or enjoyable viewing experiences for sports fans. The players don’t try at all defensively, and only a few players usually try to impress (my guess this year: DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant, Kyle Lowry), although that might be different this year since the NBA extended the break an extra few days after the game for the first time. But NBA All-Star weekend is not just the game on Sunday; in fact, the best part about it probably comes on Friday and Saturday. Tonight is the second of the three night festivities in New York after the celebrity game and freshman-sophomore game (now called the US vs. the World because the American rooks and second-year players go against everyone else’s rookies and second-years). I’m going to predict what’s going to happen in the three point contest, the dunk contest, and the skills challenge. I’m not going to talk about the shooting stars competition, because the team of Chris Bosh, Dominique Wilkins, and Swin Cash has won two in a row and will probably three-peat. What’s the shooting stars competition? Honestly, I don’t really know. I’ve never watched it and don’t plan on watching it tonight. Look it up.

Skills Challenge (aka PG obstacle course):
There are eight competitors in the revamped skills competition: Patrick Beverley, Trey Burke, Elfrid Payton, Jeff Teague, Kyle Lowry, Dennis Schroder, Brandon Knight, and Isaiah Thomas. Michael Carter-Williams, John Wall, and Jimmy Butler (a non point guard!) were supposed to compete but bowed out due to injury and were replaced by Schroder, Payton, and Beverley. A sure sign of lack of interest, the NBA has changed the format of the skills contest repeatedly over the last few years. Last year there were four teams of two (Burke and Damian Lillard won), but that worked out so well that the NBA immediately got rid of it.

This year, the eight-person bracket will feature head-to-head matchups and three rounds of competition until a champion is crowned. It’s a variety of passing, speed, dribbling, and agility challenges, and this year the contestants crucially must hit a three pointer at the end in order to win. I know most people aren’t that interested in the skills challenge, but I actually kind of like it, which is why I’m going to break it down.

I don’t think there’s a clear favorite, and I’m going to go about this entirely unscientifically. Burke has to be a co-favorite because he won last year, although that was with the help of Damian Lillard. Teague is among the fastest guys in the NBA, so he’s also a favorite. So too is Isaiah Thomas, thanks to his combination of speed and shooting ability.

Since contestants have to hit a three pointer now, I don’t think Burke’s going to win. He’s shooting just 31.6% from beyond the arc, and I don’t think he’s going to be able to hit the trio of threes necessary to win this competition. That leaves Thomas and Teague, with Schroder acting as a potential darkhorse. And because Thomas has been the much better shooter from deep this year (39% for Thomas and 34% for Teague), I’m going to give the edge to Thomas.

Three point contest:
This is the one that has usurped the dunk contest over the last few years and is now the best All-Star weekend event. This year should be no different. There’s no need for a long introduction, since the three point contest is pretty simple: each contestant has to shoot 25 basketballs (total) around the three point arc (five from each of five locations) in 60 seconds. The more shots you make, the better chance you have of advancing and eventually winning.

There are a few pretty clear favorites. One is Kyle Korver, who is possibly the best spot-up shooter in NBA history (and is having the best spot-up season in NBA history). The other two are the Splash Bros, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. But in a contest like this, any half-decent shooter can get hot and blow everyone else away. I’m going to pick Thompson to win, because why not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if James Harden or Kyrie Irving or Wes Matthews or defending champ Marco Belinelli wins it either. Given his recent injuries, J.J. Redick is the only guy I’m counting out, which probably means he’ll win it.

Dunk contest:
This is even easier to explain than the three point contest. Four dunkers. Two dunks each. The top two advance. Two more dunks each. A champion is crowned. Pretty simple.

The four contestants are Victor Oladipo, Zach LaVine, Giannis “Greek Freak” I don’t feel like spelling his last name, and Mason Plumlee. LaVine is the favorite because he is the most graceful and best in-game dunker of the four. He entered the NBA this year with a reputation and hasn’t disappointed any dunk lovers. Plumlee’s a big white guy but actually is a pretty good dunker and actually slammed three balls at once in a previous contest. Oladipo can throw down the most powerful, thunderous dunks of the four. And Giannis is the long-armed wild card who could throw up a clunker but could also steal the show.

I was going to pick LaVine, but I don’t want to be boring so that eliminates him. I think this will come down to Oladipo and Plumlee, and I just trust Plumlee a little more because he’s been here before. Oladipo throws down a lot of big 360 dunks, but can he vary his dunks in this contest? I’ll go with Plumlee.

I’m continuing with the posts on all of the contenders here with the San Antonio Spurs. This should be one of the easier posts of the 13 I plan on doing, as the Spurs have been contenders for long enough that we know exactly what they’ll need to win or how teams can beat them. The defending champions haven’t been dominant this year, but then again they often aren’t in the regular season, and yet they always win 50+ games (they’ve won 50+ in every year in the Tim Duncan era, which is now in its 17th year, except the strike shortened year of 98-99, when they played at a 50+ win pace). And guess what? The Spurs are on pace for 53 wins. Yawn.

Unfortunately, those 53 wins might only get the Spurs a sixth or seventh seed in this loaded Western Conference. Ultimately, though, I think the Spurs will be able to win on the road if they start firing on all cylinders like we’ve seen in the playoffs over the past few years. The case for them is simple: we’ve seen it before, they have Gregg Popovich, they have the player with the best resume among active players in Duncan, and they have a burgeoning star in Kawhi Leonard who can guard any wing player. Leonard, who has had an injury-plagued season but is now healthy, has great agility and his long arms have allowed him to average 2.1 steals in just 32 minutes per game. He’s made LeBron James (among others) feel uncomfortable in the playoffs in the past few seasons, and could surely do the same against Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, or James Harden. That’s why Leonard is such an important player for the Spurs’ playoff hopes. Oh, and he’s also their leading scorer.

And then there’s Duncan, who’s having another efficient season. Take a look at these two stat lines:
20.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, .8 steals, 2.3 blocks, 50.5% FG, 69.5% FT. This is Duncan’s career line per 36 minutes.
17.4 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 2.3 blocks, 48.7% FG, 72.5% FT. This is Duncan’s per 36 minute line this season. Pretty impressive.

So the Spurs have Duncan and Leonard and one of the two or three best coaches in NBA history. They’ll be unstoppable come playoff time, right? Well, maybe not. The biggest worry I have is the play of Tony Parker. Parker, who’s 32 years old now and is in his 13th season, is playing a lot worse this year than he has since maybe his rookie year. He’s the rare point guard who is neither a steals maestro or a good three-point shooter and has always relied on his terrific drive-and-dish-or-layup. That’s why it’s very worrying that he’s below five assists per game for the first year since his rookie season after averaging 7.6 assists just two seasons ago. His scoring is also way down, and his 14.5 points per game are his worst since his rookie season. He’s also getting to the free throw line a lot less, as his 2.5 free throw attempts per game are his lowest since, wait for it… his rookie season. This could all just be Tony Parker saving himself for the playoffs, but I think it’s a little more than that. Parker’s had some injury issues this season, and he just looks a lot less explosive. That’s really bad, because the Spurs rely on Parker’s playoff heroics so often.

Everything else, though, is just so… Spurs. Manu Ginobili has his peaks and valleys, but that’s nothing new for the Argentinian. Danny Green has been a very good defensive presence this season, and we all remember his heroics against the Heat two seasons ago. He, like Kawhi, is becoming a bigger part of San Antonio’s success, especially from beyond the three point line, where the Spurs take 28% of their shots. Bench guards Cory Joseph and Patty Mills can both score 20+ in any given game, while big man Tiago Splitter is slowly becoming the player he was the last few seasons after missing the first few months.

When you compare the Spurs with other Western Conference playoff teams, it’s easy to become pessimistic about their chances. They don’t have the flashy superstar or the great record or the fast-paced offense that many of their compatriots have, and they are likely to enter the playoffs as the road team. But they have such an amazing track record that you can’t even come close to counting them out. Do I think they’ll win it all again? No, I don’t. I felt after last year that the championship would probably be the last one in the Duncan era, and I still feel that way. But would I be shocked if they did win it all? Not at all. In fact, if I had to place a “shock rating” on each Western Conference contender, the Spurs would probably finish middle of the pack, behind Golden State, Memphis, and Oklahoma City but ahead of teams like the Mavericks and Clippers. The first round playoff matchup will always be important, as it is for any team. But whether the Spurs make a run and enter the playoffs as the #4 seed or drop to the #8 seed, the Spurs are a team everyone should take seriously come playoff time.

James Shields to the Padres

Posted: 02/10/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the seemingly shrinking market for former Rays and Royals starting pitcher James Shields. Shields is 33-years old and has thrown at least 200 innings eight consecutive seasons and at least 227 for four straight years. In the post I wrote a few weeks ago, I narrowed down his potential suitors to three frontrunners: Toronto, Miami, and San Diego. None of the three are traditional big market teams who are factors in the free agent market, but all three are making a push to end playoff droughts. In the end, the Padres nabbed Shields, signing him to a four-year deal worth $75 million.

I think this was a really good deal for the Padres, who’ve shown throughout the offseason that they are serious about contending. Normally a small-market team, they traded for Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton, and Derek Norris, four guys who should slot in the middle of their lineup. Even before this trade, the Padres figured to at least make a run at a wildcard. They still hadn’t made any improvements to their rotation, though, and had question marks like Brandon Morrow and Odrisamer Despaigne set to start regularly. Now you can slot James Shields atop a rotation that also features Andrew Cashner (2.55 ERA last year in 123.1 innings) and Tyson Ross (2.81 in 195.2). The Padres probably had no better than a 35% chance of making the playoffs before this signing and probably a sub-10% chance of winning the tough NL West. Now, they are closer to a coin-flip to make the playoffs and have a better shot at winning the division, which is more important than ever with the addition of the second wild-card and the play-in game.

I understand why Shields’s value was depressed; it’s hard to be that excited about a 33-year old pitcher. But Shields is as durable as they come, and this change will be beneficial for him, too. He’s pitched in the American League his whole career, albeit in fairly pitcher-friendly parks in Tampa and Kansas City. But now he goes to the easier league for pitchers and the most pitcher-friendly park in baseball in the division with three very pitcher-friendly parks (SD, LA, SF). In the AL, Shields has averaged an ERA in the low 3s over the past four years. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he lowered it under 3 this season atop the Padres’ rotation. For $19 million per year in today’s market, that’s a pretty good deal.

San Diego still needs some help if they want to become true contenders. In Petco Park, their deep rotation (remember, Josh Johnson and Cory Luebke, both of whom got Tommy John surgery early last season, could both return at some point this season) and strong bullpen is probably good enough. The remade outfield also looks good. But the infield needs a lot of work. As of now, it looks as if Yangervis Solarte, the former Yankee, will lead off and play third base. Solarte showed a lot of promise last year, but he’s a weak leadoff hitter, as he posted just a .336 OBP and .355 slugging % last season while with the Padres. The Padres are also hoping for huge bounceback seasons from first baseman Yonder Alonso and second baseman Jedd Gyorko, both of whom were once thought to be future stars but had sub-par seasons. And shortstop is the biggest question mark of them all, with Alexi Amarista currently set to start. So this team still needs some work. The Shields signing helps a lot, though, because it gives the rotation an established ace.

The Shields deal also impacts the Cole Hamels market because it all but crosses off the team that was the favorite to trade for the San Diego native. It’s becoming more and more likely that the best player on the market will start opening day for the Philadelphia Phillies, which means contenders will have to wait until July to trade for the ace. The Phillies better hope Hamels doesn’t suffer an immediate decline or get injured in the first four months of the season, because they’ve surely already gotten some pretty good offers for the ace. They are taking a big risk in holding off on trading Hamels.