Archive for December, 2015

Heading into this year, the Memphis Grizzlies had ranked comfortably inside the top-10 in points allowed per possession in each of the past five seasons. It isn’t a coincidence that the five year run has coincided with five consecutive playoff teams and five teams that have exemplified Memphis and the nickname of the stadium that the Grizz play in — the Grindhouse. This year, though, things have changed. Their rebound rate, above 50% in each of their last five years, is down to 48.7%, eighth-worst in the league. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; the Clippers and Hawks, two of the league’s better teams, are worse rebounders than the Grizzlies are. More importantly, Memphis’s defense, the thing they, the grinders, have hung their hat on over the past half decade, is bad this year. They’re giving up just 99.4 points per game, third best in the Western Conference (five teams are giving up fewer in the Eastern Conference), but that’s because they still play very slowly (although their pace has picked up). By points allowed per possession, the Grizzlies are tied with the Knicks for 17th at 1.03. And there’s no Atlanta or Los Angeles (well, the bad LA aside) lurking down there to give Memphis hope. Every team below them in defensive efficiency has a losing record, which makes the Grizzlies, at an inauspicious 18-16, look good. In fact, that record should certainly be worse. Despite playing at a slow pace, the Grizzlies are being outscored by 2.9 points per game, which suggests that they should be 13-21 instead of 18-16. As things stand, Memphis is the sixth seed in the West, four games up over #9 Portland, but they’d almost certainly be on the outside looking in had the conference been as strong as predicted. Now that the season is more than 40% over, this steep defensive decline (the offense, by the way, has also been worse this year and is currently sitting at 26th in overall efficiency. The difference is that Memphis’s offense was never particularly good, ranking in the top half of the league just once over the past five years, which is why I’m leading with the defensive struggles) can no longer be dismissed as a fluke.

If you look at most NBA teams from five seasons ago, you’ll find that the rosters have very little in common with the current team’s. For example, the 2010-11 Warriors were led in minutes by Monta Ellis, Dorell Wright, and David Lee, all of whom played a terrifying number of minutes. The 2010-11 Grizzlies are an exception. Yes, Rudy Gay was probably the leader of that team and has since been on multiple other teams, but Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen were all part of the core of that team and still are five years later. In fact, Gasol, Conley, and Randolph still lead the team in minutes per game, and the four core players have started 34, 34, 20, and 23 games. It must be said that the Grizzlies have done a terrible job of putting talent around those four players. I mean, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, and Matt Barnes??? Is that really the best you can do? In that way, the team’s decline is not at all surprising. The key players have gotten older, and the team has held onto them, which is fine. What’s not fine is the fact that the Grizzlies have whiffed on a bunch of first round picks in a row and the fact that they’ve supported their stars with replacement-level role players. And yes, the four holdovers from the past five years have struggled, at least more than they have in the past. Gasol and Conley are each still very good players, with near-20 PERs and 41st and 68th ranked RPMs (Gasol’s a +2.85, with his value mostly coming defensively, while Conley’s a +1.37, with good offense more than offsetting poor defense). But with the exception of Matt Barnes, Gasol and Conley are the only players with positive RPMs on the entire team. Meanwhile, Randolph, in his 14th year in the NBA, has suddenly started to look his age. He’s averaging just 13.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, well below his Memphis career averages of 17.3 and 10.8, and he was demoted to the bench before picking up a start due to a Matt Barnes suspension. And if Randolph has been bad, then Allen, the heart of the team, has been much worse. Even recently one of the league’s best defenders, he’s still competent on that side of the floor, but his defensive ability can no longer offset his total offensive inefficiency. Allen ranks among the 25 worst offensive players in the league by RPM, and he increasingly leaves Memphis playing 4-on-5 offensively when he’s on the court.

When the core four has played together this year, they’ve compiled a -1.7 point differential in 13.2 minutes per game. Last year, they were a +3.3 in 14.9 minutes per game. The year before, they were a +1.2 in 9.6 minutes per game. You get the idea. The problem is that, because of Memphis’s poor roster construction (there’s no other way I can say it, I think), there’s no real way to fix it. Sure, you can start playing more Lee or Barnes or Green, and the Grizzlies have been doing that. But with the possible exception of Barnes, who’s kind of impressed me this season, those guys aren’t good enough to fix things. All of this leads me to believe that there’s no real chance for the Grizzlies to turn things around this season. I expect them to finish under .500 and make the playoffs only because there’s no reason to believe in any of the teams in the playoff hunt right now. But they’ll get drubbed by Golden State or San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round, and it’ll be considered a lost season.

Luckily for Memphis, things are looking better going forward. Unfortunately, Conley is a free agent (I think it’s too early to speculate whether he’ll come back), but so too are Green, Barnes, and Lee, which will free up cap space. And after next year, when Vince Carter, Randolph, and Allen come off the books, the Grizzlies will be fully able to build their next contender around Gasol and hopefully Conley. This is going to be a rough year, but hopefully it’s just a one or two year lull as the Grizzlies gear up to build their next contender.

Week 16 Picks

Posted: 12/27/2015 by levcohen in Football

I watched both the game on Thursday night and the one tonight. None of the four teams that played were particularly good, so I wasn’t expecting high-quality football. But the utter sloppiness exhibited in both games rendered them almost unwatchable. First, in the tilt between the Raiders and Chargers, Oakland won despite committing 16 penalties, many of them boneheaded, for a total of 121 yards. The Chargers? They were penalized nine times, with those yellow flags accounting for 75 yards. Meanwhile, little used David Johnson coughed up the football with 4:47 to go and his Chargers up by five, likely costing his team the game; Benson Mayowa picked up the fumble and rumbled down to the three yard line. And in the game tonight, the teams again racked up the penalties, combining for 16. But more indicative of the Eagles’ sloppiness (the Redskins largely played a clean game) was a single series in the third quarter. First, Darren Sproles muffed a punt in the rain, before quickly falling on the ball. Then, on Philly’s first play from scrimmage that drive, Sam Bradford lost the ball and was lucky to pick it back up and throw incomplete. On second down, there was another bobble, but running back DeMarco Murray held onto the ball and gained eight yards. But on third down, Chip Kelly drew up the perfect play for a team struggling to hold onto the ball in bad weather… a toss. Predictably, Murray dropped the pitch, and DeAngelo Hall picked it up and returned it for a touchdown, stretching Washington’s lead to double digits. It was a dumb call by Kelly and sloppy execution for a team that’s played poorly all season long. Mercifully, the Redskins have clinched the division. Now, at least we know ahead of time that we don’t need to watch the terrible game the Eagles and Giants will play next week. By the way, another thing that the first two games of the week had in common was an inability to rush the ball and complete run-pass imbalance. Kirk Cousins kneeldowns excluded, the four teams ran for a total of 290 yards on 91 carries. Even including sacks as negative passing yardage, they threw for 1150 yards on 189 pass attempts. There’s a reason the teams are a combined 25-35. Let’s just hope that we see some better football tomorrow and Monday night.

*= upset pick

New England Patriots (12-2, 7-5-2) at New York Jets (9-5, 7-5-2):*
Spread: Patriots favored by 3
Over/under: 45
My prediction: The Patriots are ailing, with Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman both out of this game. They don’t really need to win this one, as they’ll have another chance to sew up the #1 seed next week. The Jets, on the other hand, do need this game to maintain any real chance at making the playoffs. They should get a good pass rush on Tom Brady, and their run defense will make New England one dimensional, something they won’t be able to overcome without so many weapons. Jets win 23-16.
Jets cover
Under

Houston Texans (7-7, 7-7) at Tennessee Titans (3-11, 4-9-1):
Spread: Texans favored by 3.5
Over/under: 40
My prediction: I think we’ve seen enough of the Titans by now to know that they stink. We also know that quarterback Marcus Mariota will not play this week after injuring his knee against the Patriots. So we’re left with Zach Mettenberger against a hungry, J.J. Watt led defense looking to close in on an AFC South title? I’ll take the defense. Texans win 21-13.
Texans cover
Under

Cleveland Browns (3-11, 5-9) at Kansas City Chiefs (9-5, 8-6):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 10.5
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: I’m happy the Chiefs aren’t getting as many points as an elite team would (Seattle was 14.5 point favorites against the Browns last week), because I still think Kansas City is far from elite. One thing they have proven, though, is an ability to beat inferior teams. Blessed with an easy schedule, they’ve rattled off eight consecutive wins, and have covered seven out of eight while being favored in seven out of eight. But their one non-cover was also the only time they’ve been a double-digit favorite, and I can’t bring myself to take them against the spread here or to lock them up. Chiefs win 26-20.
Browns cover
Over

Indianapolis Colts (6-8, 6-8) at Miami Dolphins (5-9, 4-10):
Spread: Dolphins favored by 2.5
Over/under: 43
My prediction: I don’t think it’s worth writing much about the games that, in all likelihood, won’t mean anything. I say “in all likelihood” because the Colts could still win their division with a Houston collapse, but I don’t think that’s likely. I also don’t think a win here is very likely, even with a super winnable game against the Dolphins. The Colts looked putrid in their loss to the Texans, and the Dolphins have to show some fight at home, right? Dolphins win 27-21.
Dolphins cover
Over

Dallas Cowboys (4-10, 4-9-1) at Buffalo Bills (6-8, 6-7-1):
Spread: Bills favored by 6.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: Here’s another game that means nothing. Look, Kellen Moore might be a better quarterback than Matt Cassel, but that doesn’t make him good. Moore threw three picks against the Jets last week and will be without Dez Bryant this week. No thanks. Bills win 27-17.
Bills cover
Over

Carolina Panthers (14-0, 10-4) at Atlanta Falcons (7-7, 5-9):
Spread: Panthers favored by 6.5
Over/under: 47.5
My prediction: The Panthers keep winning, but they aren’t doing it in convincing fashion, which is why I believe they’ll win another close one here. I think they’re a very good team, but they might not even be one of the two best in their own conference, because the Cardinals and Seahawks are both super good. Anyway, the Falcons are obviously not in that class, but they’re coming off a nice win off the Jaguars so might be a little more confident than last time… when the Panthers beat them 38-0. I can’t pick the Falcons to win, and after that last meeting between the two teams, I can’t pick them to cover, either. Have to trust Cam Newton here. Panthers win 24-17.
Panthers cover
Under

Chicago Bears (5-9, 7-7) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8, 7-7):*
Spread: Buccaneers favored by 3.5
Over/under: 45.5
My prediction: Another meaningless game, another total tossup. These teams both confound me, but this just feels like one Jay Cutler’s Bears could pull out. As soon as you count them out, they come back with a big win. Bears win 28-24.
Bears cover
Over

Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5, 8-5-1) at Baltimore Ravens (4-10, 3-9-2):- Lock
Spread: Steelers favored by 10
Over/under: 47
My prediction: The Steelers are 10 point favorites in Baltimore??? Yup, and I can’t pick against them. Their offense is clicking on all cylinders, and Baltimore stinks, so why not take the Steelers and lock them up. In Big Ben and Antonio Brown I fully trust. Also, the Steelers might be the best team in the AFC despite the fact that they got absolutely shredded by Brock Oswiler in the first half last week. Steelers win 31-14.
Steelers cover
Under

San Francisco 49ers (4-10, 6-8) at Detroit Lions (5-9, 5-9):
Spread: Lions favored by 10.5
Over/under: 42
My prediction: This spread surprised me a bit at first, because I didn’t really expect the Lions to be giving so many points to anyone. But the Niners are probably the worst team in football, as back-to-back losses in Cleveland and against A.J. McCarron show, and the Lions have largely been very good over the past six weeks. I still don’t want to make a habit of taking mediocre teams favored by double digits, though, so I’ll reluctantly pick the Niners to cover. Lions win 23-16.
Niners cover
Under

St. Louis Rams (6-8, 6-7-1) at Seattle Seahawks (9-5, 7-6-1):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 13
Over/under: 40
My prediction: The Seahawks, on the other hand, are not a mediocre team. They just covered back-to-back double-digit spreads, and should make it three in a row this week against a St. Louis team that actually beat them (very) early in the season. Seattle should take Todd Gurley out of the game, which will leave the Rams with limited options assuming that Case Keenum regresses to his mean, which I’m sure he will. Seahawks win 34-13.
Seahawks cover
Over

Jacksonville Jaguars (5-9, 7-6-1) at New Orleans Saints (5-9, 6-7-1):*
Spread: Saints favored by 3
Over/under: 51.5
My prediction: I’m not sure what will happen in this game, but I do know that there will be a lot of points, more because both defenses suck than because of any special offensive ability. I think the Jags are the better team, though, which means I’ll take them on the road, because the “Saints at home” magic has totally disappeared. Jaguars win 35-28.
Jaguars cover
Over

Green Bay Packers (10-4, 9-5) at Arizona Cardinals (12-2, 8-6):
Spread: Cardinals favored by 4.5
Over/under: 51
My prediction: Anyone else think that the Cardinals are miles better than the Packers? I mean, Green Bay is coming off three straight less-than-impressive wins against lackluster opposition, while Arizona just drubbed the Eagles after beating the Vikings and have now won eight consecutive games. They’ve played a lot of close games at home recently, and I don’t think this will be a blowout, but I expect the Cardinals to prevail at home against a still-struggling Packers offense. Cardinals win 27-20.
Cardinals cover
Under

New York Giants (6-8, 8-5-1) at Minnesota Vikings (9-5, 11-3):
Spread: Vikings favored by 6.5
Over/under: 44.5
My prediction: The Vikings will in all likelihood have clinched a playoff berth at this point, so this is another game with zero playoff implications. Without Odell Beckham, I have a hard time thinking the Giants are going to beat a Vikings team that is very solid at home. They could well cover, though. Vikings win 24-17.
Vikings cover
Under

Cincinnati Bengals (11-3, 11-2-1) at Denver Broncos (10-4, 8-6):
Spread: Broncos favored by 3.5
Over/under: 39
My prediction: Finally, Monday Night Football is getting a meaningful game. After a year full of lousy matchups, MNF gets a game that is likely to determine which of these teams will get a first round BYE in the AFC. That week off would be very valuable to both teams, and I think the Broncos are a good bet to win this game, since they’ll have a revved up defense wanting to avenge back-to-back losses against an A.J. McCarron-led offense that struggled last week against the Niners. I don’t see the Bengals scoring many points here. Broncos win 23-13.
Broncos cover
Under

Upset picks:
Jaguars over Saints
Bears over Buccaneers
Jets over Patriots

Lock of the week:
Steelers over Ravens

Saturday Night Football Prediction

Posted: 12/26/2015 by levcohen in Football

Because the NFL loves money, there’s another Saturday Night Football game tonight. This time, the game is one of the few remaining in this regular season that actually means something. If the Redskins win this game, they win the NFC East and have a shot at finishing the year above .500 to boot. If the Eagles win… chaos. Any of the Skins, Birds, or Giants would have a chance at winning the division.

Washington Redskins (7-7, 7-7) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-8, 6-8):*
Spread: Eagles favored by 3.5
Over/under: 48
My prediction: Is there any reason to have confidence in the Eagles on either side of the ball?? I guess they’ll be able to move the ball against Washington a little bit, but the running game has to show up, and I can’t really trust them at this point. Jordan Matthews was the only receiver to play well last week against the Cardinals, a vast departure from most of the season, when Matthews was one of the worst wideouts in football. Which J-Matt will we see tonight? This is a very winnable game for the Eagles, since Washington has just one road win all season and is very beatable defensively. But Washington will also have a great chance to win, as Kirk Cousins has suddenly turned this offense into a high-octane one, with the help of star tight end Jordan Reed and deep threat DeSean Jackson, who always loves playing against his former team. These are two of the least consistent teams in football ranking 23rd (Washington) and 31st (Philadelphia) in variance (1st being most consistent), so your bet is as good as mine here. One thing I feel strongly about: this is going to be a fairly high scoring game. And with that being the case, I just feel more confident in Washington’s passing game (Cousins-Reed-Jackson, 9th in DVOA) than I do in Philly’s (Sam Bradford-Matthews-Zach Ertz, 28th). Redskins win 27-24.
Redskins cover
Over

Week 15 Review, TNF Preview

Posted: 12/24/2015 by levcohen in Football

It seems like we’re headed for a slate of games in the final two weeks that are rather meaningless. With the exception of the NFC East, which remains wide open heading into the final two weeks, the other playoff spots seem fairly resolved. The Texans’ win over the Colts gave them a commanding AFC South lead, while it would take a pretty big upset to shake up the AFC playoff picture (if either Pittsburgh or KC loses to an inferior team, the Jets would make the playoffs with consecutive wins. The only problem? The Steelers and Chiefs have two of the easiest remaining schedules, while the Jets have the fifth toughest). And the NFC playoff picture is also pretty much resolved, with the exception of the aforementioned NFC East. Unless the Vikings and Seahawks collapse down the stretch and lose their last two games, we know exactly which five teams the NFC East champion will be in the playoffs with. As for seeding, the Panthers and Patriots each need a single win to secure their respective #1 seeds. Two matchups this week, Cardinals-Packers and Broncos-Bengals, are likely to determine who is #2 and who is #3. The AFC South and NFC East winners will be the #4 seeds and probably first round home underdogs, while the Steelers, Chiefs, Vikings, and Seahawks seem likely to secure the wild cards. So these next two weeks will largely be about playoff teams maintaining their form as they get ready for the main event and non-playoff teams looking for something positive to head into the offseason with.

I’m not going to eliminate the Colts yet, but they, the Giants, the Jets, and the Eagles might be out of it after this week, which would make for a very quiet week 17.

Eliminated teams: Chicago, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Dallas, Baltimore, San Diego, St. Louis, New Orleans, Miami, Oakland, Atlanta, Buffalo

  • Meet Case Keenum, St. Louis’s (LA’s?) new franchise quarterback. Keenum had his breakout game on Sunday, needing just 17 attempts to throw for 234 yards and two touchdowns in a near-perfect game, leading the Rams to a 31-23 win. Keenum has to be the Rams’ quarterback for years to come, now, right? All jokes aside, Keenum did have a great game last week. I just happen to think it’ll end as the best game of his career by a longshot. Keenum’s stats in his previous two starts: 26/48, 260 yards, one touchdown, one pick, not enough Todd Gurley handoffs. Those are the stats I expect going forward for the former University of Houston standout.
  • I loved the Odell Beckham-Josh Norman battle. You rarely see such intense and violent competition in today’s NFL, and it’s clear that OBJ and Norman, each one of the best at his position, are both very confident players. With that being said, the NFL had to suspend Beckham, and they didn’t drop the ball. Odell went too far, blindsiding Norman and being flagged for personal fouls four times. His reputation will take a hit, and hopefully he can rein in his temper, but that was a fun matchup, one that, despite Beckham’s 6-for-76 and a score, Norman won, as he’s done so often this season.
  • The Packers keep winning, and still have a slim chance of earning a first round BYE, but they still look extremely unimpressive. The offense often couldn’t capitalize on great field position against a poor Raiders defense, and it’s really struggled all season, at least compared to last season, when they had the best offense in football. They really, really, really miss Jordy Nelson, as Aaron Rodgers has had to work extremely hard to find open receivers this season. And the deep ball, which has so often been wide open for Rodgers, has been elusive this season. This is a team I’ll be picking against come playoffs.
  • I think the three best teams in football all reside in the NFC. The Panthers, Cardinals, and Seahawks all look really good, and I would love to see an NFC Championship matchup between any two of those three teams. Meanwhile, the AFC playoffs will probably feature star quarterbacks Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger… along with A.J. McCarron, Brock Oswiler, Alex Smith, and Brian Hoyer. Ouch.
  • Speaking of Roethlisberger… I’ve never seen a connection like the one Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown have. Big Ben’s injury probably has cost Brown the NFL yardage record; Project Brown’s average in games Roethlisberger played to a 16-game season, and you get 2,162 yards. Calvin Johnson’s NFL record is 1,964 yards. Last week, against Denver’s vaunted defense, Brown snatched 16 passes for 189 yards and two scores. Not bad.

11-5 straight up… 129-81
7-7-2 against the spread… 100-99-11
10-6 over/under… 110-96-6

Upset picks:
2-3… 24-31

Lock of the Week:
1-0… 12-3

San Diego Chargers (4-10, 6-8) at Oakland Raiders (6-8, 7-7):
Spread: Raiders favored by 5.5
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: What a meaningless game this is. Neither team is in the playoff hunt, and neither is in the #1 pick hunt either, thanks to San Diego’s blowout win over Miami last week. I do think this will be a close and high-scoring game, though, so it might be worth tuning in. Raiders win 28-24.
Chargers cover
Over

NOLA: The Biggest Disappointment in the NBA

Posted: 12/24/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

The New Orleans Pelicans aren’t the worst team in the NBA. They aren’t the second worst, either. Heck, they probably aren’t even the third or fourth worst. But the fact that, about a third of the way through the season, we’re debating where among the worst teams New Orleans ranks is enough to tell everyone how poorly their season has gone so far. This was a team that was supposed to be a surefire playoff team this year. Last season, they took a very similar roster to this one to the playoffs at 45-37, and they were supposed to be even better this season. Why? Well, mainly because Anthony Davis, already a top player, was supposed to take another step forward in this, his age 22 season (he turns 23 in March). So, what’s happened? They opened the season 1-11, and have rebounded only slightly by going 8-8 in their last 16. Due to the weakness of the middle of the Western Conference this year, the Pelicans are still only 3.5 games out of the playoffs, but they’d be a full seven games out of the playoffs in the East, which says it all. Some of the struggles, of course, can be linked to injuries. Tyreke Evans, possibly the second best player on the team, missed the season’s first 17 games; the Pelicans are 5-6 since his return. And Jrue Holiday, the team’s only true decent point guard (and now the sixth man) has missed six games this season, with the Pellies going 0-6 in those games. And, of course, Davis nursed an injured hip earlier in the season, playing just one full game in a five game stretch and six total minutes in the other four games (New Orleans’s record in those five? 0-5, of course, with a -11.8 point differential). But injuries are a poor excuse for the terrible start, and I fear that the Pelicans won’t be able to turn it around, leading to a postseason without Davis.

As we normally begin by talking about the star, we can start with Davis. It’s fair to say that Davis’s progress has stagnated this year; heck, he’s probably gone a bit backwards. His numbers (23 PTS/11 REB/1.3 STL/2.7 BLK/49% FG/76% FT) still look incredible, and are fairly similar to last year’s (24/10/1.5/2.9/54%/81%). But his PER, still a lofty 24.9, is down a full six points from last year, thanks largely to a much worse shooting performance and a turnover rate (percentage of plays that end in turnovers) that’s gone up from 5.8% to 8.9% as his assist rate has gone down from 9.1% to 6%. So people who thought that Davis would take the next step forward and be able to carry the Pelicans as LeBron once carried the otherwise-mediocre Cavs to the Finals are disappointed in the star. But we know better than to blame Davis for the 9-19 record when the roster around him is really about as bad as you can imagine.

Right now, 40% of the Pelicans’ starting lineup can literally be ignored defensively. The two players I’m talking about, of course, are Alonzo Gee and Omer Asik. Gee and Asik play 10.2 minutes per game together; the team scores just 1.9 points per minute when the two are in together. That number equates to 91.2 points per game, a full 11.5 fewer than the team is actually averaging. Asik is averaging 2.4 points per game, and Gee is putting up 3.9. As the Memphis Grizzlies could tell you (see: Allen, Tony), having one offensive non-factor is challenging, because the offense essentially plays 4-on-5, leading to fewer open shots and more double teams for top offensive players. Playing 3-on-5?? That’s just unfair. Asik starts because the Pelicans, for whatever reason, think Davis is better off playing power forward than center. Gee starts because, well, because coach Alvin Gentry doesn’t trust Holiday, a high usage, high turnover point guard with a lot of talent, enough to place him in the starting lineup. Looking at this objectively, the Pelicans really only have five players who are at least decent: Holiday, Evans, Eric Gordon, Anderson, and Davis. Why doesn’t Gentry play those five together more often? There’s a point guard, two wings, a stretch-four, and Davis, who can do pretty much anything. Gentry probably doesn’t think that five has any chance to make stops defensively, and he’s probably right because Davis just isn’t a prime-Dwight Howard anchor type defender yet, but they seem like they would be dynamite offensively. And, in fact, in the 17 minutes that group of five has played together this season coming into today (that number is so low because of all of the injuries), they’ve scored 62 points and allowed 32. You read that right. If anything about the Pelicans gives me confidence, it’s that stat and the fact that they’ve played the toughest opposing schedule so far. But then I realize that the team has no depth, and that they’re already the worst defensive team in basketball despite giving Asik and Gee so much playing time.

There’s also the trade buzz surrounding Anderson, who’s quietly reverted to his really good self after a weird season both on and off the court for him last year. Anderson can post up, shoot threes, and crash the offensive boards, and he’s averaging 18/6/44%/38%/88% as a bench player. Unfortunately, he’s one of the worst defensive players in the league (a common theme with this Pelicans team. Gordon, Holiday, Ish Smith, Norris Cole… the list goes on and on, especially at the guard positions), which lessens his value both as a Pelican and, crucially in terms of what he could net in a trade. He’s in the final year of his contract, so he’s a guy a lot of teams would want to trade for, but trading Anderson would pretty much mean waving the white flag on the season, because the return would be unlikely to make as much of an impact as RA has on this team.

What would I do if I were Alvin Gentry, the first-year coach on a roster that’s deeply flawed largely because the Pelicans haven’t made a first round pick in three years and because their draft history, outside of the slam dunk pick of Davis, has been poor since they drafted Chris Paul in 2005 (their first rounders since then: Hilton Armstrong, Cedric Simmons, Julian Wright, Darrell Arthur, Darren Collison, Davis, Austin Rivers)? I would hold off on trading Anderson, because this team still has a shot at the playoffs thanks to their conference’s weakness. I would cross my fingers and play Davis 38 minutes per game with the hope that he wouldn’t hurt himself. And I’d embrace the fact that this team can’t play defense and just try to outscore opponents with the lineup of five scorers that has played so well together in limited time this year. We’d see a lot of 140-134 games, and I think the Pellies would be on the right side of a lot of them, because that group of five can score with just about anyone. I wouldn’t, however, do anything to sacrifice the future, which is still bright because Davis will presumably be a Pelican for a while. That means no trading more future first rounders, no trading for guys with albatross contracts spanning years into the future, and no extending Anderson, Cole, Gordon, or Kendrick Perkins. The Asik deal hurts, because he’s on the books for four more years after this one, but even with that contract, the Pelicans will have enough room for a max contract this offseason or two or three in the 2017 offseason, when the cap will go all the way up to $108 million.

The future is still bright for the Pelicans, but the present was supposed to be bright, too. Thanks to Davis’s stagnation and the ineptitude of the team around him, that hasn’t happened, and I don’t expect the Pelicans to be a serious threat, even if they can somehow make the playoffs, simply because they don’t have the depth or defense to challenge someone like Golden State or even the Clippers.

Week 15 Picks

Posted: 12/19/2015 by levcohen in Football

It’s week 15, aka the first of two weeks with a bizarre Saturday night game. The Saturday games are foreign to fans, but given that they barely conflict with college football (there are a couple of bowl games tonight and one more next Saturday night), they’re certainly economically advantageous for the NFL, which gets another night of primetime spotlight after adding Thursday Night Football in 2006. I think we’re going to see this more and more; a sport that once only took place on Sundays is going to be spread more evenly throughout the week, because that just makes sense fiscally for the NFL, and money seems to be the only thing the league cares about. Anyway, this is another week with very few matchups that popped out at me, with Pittsburgh-Denver being the only game between winning teams. But there are a few other intriguing games, including Eagles-Cardinals (will the real Eagles please stand up?), Packers-Raiders (can Oakland make it back-to-back upsets?), and Panthers-Giants (probably the best chance for us to see a Carolina loss before the playoffs). Meanwhile, the Colts and Texans will play in a game that probably won’t be fun to watch but is definitely important, as it may well determine the AFC South champion. So let’s get to it, starting with the aforementioned Saturday Night Football game.

*= upset pick

New York Jets (8-5, 7-5-1) at Dallas Cowboys (4-9, 4-9):
Spread: Jets favored by 3
Over/under: 41
My prediction: I think the Jets should be favored by more. Rather, I think the Cowboys should be more than three point underdogs after showing unequivocally over the last two weeks that they are lost without Tony Romo. All that the Jets have to do is stop Darren McFadden, and their #1 DVOA against the run (by a landslide, too) says that they will do that. I don’t think the Cowboys top 14 points, which makes it very hard for me to believe that they’ll win this game, especially since New York has put up 91 points over its past three games, all wins. Jets win 26-13.
Jets cover
Under

Chicago Bears (5-8, 7-6) at Minnesota Vikings (8-5, 10-3):
Spread: Vikings favored by 5.5
Over/under: 43
My prediction: Watch out, Minnesota, because you could have a problem if you lose this game. The Vikings will probably make the playoffs, as they’re two games up on their wild card competition, but they could lose out if they drop this game, at which point they might well miss the postseason. The Bears are a Jekyll and Hyde team, beating the Chiefs at Arrowhead and the Packers at Lambeau and losing to the Niners and Redskins at home. I think they could play a good game here, as they are 4-2 on the road (5-1 against the spread), but I think they’ll fall short in the end thanks to a huge Adrian Peterson performance (he’s due). I’ll take the Vikings in an uninspiring 21-17 win.
Bears cover
Under

Atlanta Falcons (6-7, 4-9) at Jacksonville Jaguars (5-8, 5-7-1):
Spread: Jaguars favored by 3
Over/under: 49
My prediction: The Falcons stink. We know that now. The Jaguars might actually be a decent team, and they certainly still have something to play for, as they’re just one game out of the playoff race. They’re 4-3 in their last seven games, and they’ve averaged 38 points per game over their last three. I like them here — a lot. Jaguars win 34-20.
Jaguars cover
Over

Houston Texans (6-7, 6-7) at Indianapolis Colts (6-7, 6-7):*
Spread: Colts favored by 2
Over/under: 42
My prediction: Matt Hasselbeck is 40 years old, and his body knows it. He’s really banged up, and with Andrew Luck still out, he’s going to start another game. Given that he’s going to be rushed by J.J. Watt, will he finish the game? I kind of doubt it, and I really like the Texans against Charlie Whitehurst. They too will be without their starting quarterback (Brian Hoyer has a concussion), but I like T.J. Yates a lot more than a Hasselbeck/Whitehurst combination. Expect a really ugly game, though. Texans win 19-16.
Texans cover
Under

Carolina Panthers (13-0, 10-3) at New York Giants (6-7, 7-5-1):
Spread: Panthers favored by 4.5
Over/under: 48
My prediction: It’s really hard to pick against the Panthers at this point, but I think they have a good chance at slipping up here. The Giants have played well as moderate underdogs, losing by one against the Patriots as seven point dogs and beating the Bills as 6.5 point dogs, and they have the offensive firepower to take down Carolina. Odell Beckham is going to have to have another huge game, though, and he’s going to match up at least some of the time against standout cornerback Josh Norman. I think the Giants will keep it close, but the Panthers will hold on thanks to some more timely runs from Cam Newton, the most clutch player in football this year. Panthers win 27-24.
Giants cover
Over

Tennessee Titans (3-10, 4-8-1) at New England Patriots (11-2, 6-5-2):- Lock
Spread: Patriots favored by 14
Over/under: 46.5
My prediction: It’s time for me to face the fact that the Titans really stink. I picked them to beat the Jets in New Jersey last week, and I watched them lose 30-8. It wasn’t even that close. Can they rebound by coming into New England and beating the Patriots? Well, no. Patriots win 30-10.
Patriots cover
Under

Buffalo Bills (6-7, 6-6-1) at Washington Redskins (6-7, 6-7):*
Spread: Bills favored by 2.5
Over/under: 44
My prediction: Last week, the Bills went into Philadelphia as one point underdogs. They lost by three. Meanwhile, the Redskins went into Chicago as four point underdogs and won outright. Why in the world are the Bills giving 3.5 more points this week than they did last week, when they were coming off of a win over the Texans? Are the Redskins that much worse than the Eagles? I don’t think so. The Bills aren’t that good defensively, which is surprising for a Rex Ryan-coached team. And their offense relies heavily upon Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy. When their two studs aren’t playing well, the offense is completely taken out. So no, I don’t think the Bills are very good. At the same time… is there any reason to like the Redskins? The offense and defense are both thoroughly mediocre (if not worse), and they are really bad at rushing the ball. They are good at home and especially as home underdogs (4-1 against the spread)…. I have no idea who’s going to win this game, but I feel strongly about the fact that the Redskins aren’t five or six points worse than the Bills, so I’ll take Washington. Redskins win 26-23.
Redskins cover
Over

Kansas City Chiefs (8-5, 7-6) at Baltimore Ravens (4-9, 3-8-2):
Spread: Chiefs favored by 7
Over/under: 41
My prediction: Oh, boy. Please tell me you didn’t watch a second of either of these team’s games last week, because they were both super ugly, ending in a 10-3 Chiefs win over the Chargers and a 35-6 Ravens loss at the hands of the dominant Seahawks. I don’t have much to say about this game, except to advise people not to watch it, because this, too, will be ugly. Chiefs win 17-13.
Ravens cover
Under

Cleveland Browns (3-10, 5-8) at Seattle Seahawks (8-5, 6-6-1):
Spread: Seahawks favored by 15
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: The Seahawks, currently ranked second in DVOA, have a great shot at finishing first for the FOURTH CONSECUTIVE YEAR after Andy Dalton, the quarterback for the #1 Bengals, injured his thumb. Meanwhile, the Browns rank 31st in DVOA and have to undo the damage done by their win over the Niners last week to their chances for the #1 pick. Good luck tomorrow, Johnny. Just get out of C-Link alive. Seahawks win 34-10.
Seahawks cover
Over

Green Bay Packers (9-4, 8-5) at Oakland Raiders (6-7, 7-6):*
Spread: Packers favored by 3.5
Over/under: 48
My prediction: I’m back on team Oakland! After a win against the Broncos, I’m fully confident that the Raiders can make it two in a row with a win over the overrated Packers. Nothing could go wrong here, right? Raiders win 28-22.
Raiders cover
Over

Denver Broncos (10-3, 7-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5, 8-4-1):*
Spread: Steelers favored by 7
Over/under: 45.5
My prediction: This is how you know the Steelers are really good. Vegas has installed them as a seven point favorite against the 10-3 Broncos. Yup, the same Broncos who have an incredible defense. I’m really excited for this game, because it’s strength against strength. Not only are the Broncos great defensively and the Steelers an offensive powerhouse, but Denver ranks #1 against the pass with a -34.9% DVOA (which means they are 34.9% better than the average pass defense), well ahead of #2 Carolina (-24.3%). Meanwhile, the Steelers rank fifth in passing DVOA despite the fact that Ben Roethlisberger has missed about a quarter of the season. The Steelers are averaging 31 points per game in the games in which Roethlisberger has started and finished, and in the last three weeks they’ve put up 30+ every week, including 30 and 33 against stellar Seattle and Cincinnati defenses. But I’ve trusted the Broncos’ defense to this point, and they haven’t really failed me so far, so I’m going to go all in on the defense and pick the Broncos to win in a shocking upset. Broncos win 24-20.
Broncos cover
Under

Miami Dolphins (5-8, 4-9) at San Diego Chargers (3-10, 5-8):
Spread: Chargers favored by 1
Over/under: 46
My prediction: In a game between two sub-par teams… take the home team. Also: don’t watch. Chargers win 23-20.
Chargers cover
Under

Cincinnati Bengals (10-3, 10-2-1) at San Francisco 49ers (4-9, 6-7):
Spread: Bengals favored by 6
Over/under: 40.5
My prediction: I know the Niners stink, but should we really be giving A.J. McCarron this much credit leading up to his first career start? I mean, he looked alright last week in relief of Andy Dalton, but this spread would probably only be a couple of points higher with Dalton at the helm. I don’t think that’s fair to the injured quarterback, and I also don’t think this is the correct line. Bengals win 21-16.
Niners cover
Under

Arizona Cardinals (11-2, 7-6) at Philadelphia Eagles (6-7, 6-7):
Spread: Cardinals favored by 3.5
Over/under: 51
My prediction: In the intro, I asked the real Eagles team to stand up. Well, I still think the real Eagles team is a mediocre one, and I think that mediocre team will stand up. Despite their mediocre record against the spread, I remain convinced that the Cardinals are really good, and, well, they’re 11-2. Larry Fitzgerald always kills the Eagles, and I expect him to have another big game, along with the rest of the Arizona offense. Could the Eagles win? Sure. All they need is a big game from a running back or three and a pass rushing day akin to the one they had against Tom Brady, a quarterback similar to Carson Palmer in his immobility and amazingness. But unless the Eagles get three return touchdowns again (that’s what they had against the Patriots), I don’t think it’s very likely that they’ll win this game. Cardinals win 34-24.
Cardinals cover
Over

Detroit Lions (4-9, 4-9) at New Orleans Saints (5-8, 6-6-1):
Spread: Saints favored by 2.5
Over/under: 51
My prediction: For some reason, I just have a feeling that the Saints are going to destroy the Lions on Monday. It might be the fact that this is a primetime game, or the fact that the Saints will be hungry for a home win after losing two straight in the Superdome. Alternatively, it might just be the fact that the Lions stink and that their three game (and, if not for an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary, four game) winning streak was a mirage, which we know after their disheartening loss in St. Louis. It might even just be an irrational trust in Drew Brees. But I’m taking the Saints 38-20.
Saints cover
Ovver

Upset picks:
Raiders over Packers
Broncos over Steelers
Redskins over Bills
Texans over Colts

Lock of the week:
Patriots over Titans

When the Houston Rockets dropped their first three games, it felt as if it was a little too early to push the panic button. While all three of the losses were by exactly 20 points, they had come against the Warriors, Heat, and, er, Nuggets, and the Rockets had a nice 24 game stretch coming up with just two games against good teams (the Thunder and Clippers) in that span. Well, 24 games later, it’s way past time to panic. The Rockets beat both the Thunder and Clippers, but they’ve had limited success in their easy stretch of games, and now sit at 13-14, with games against the Clippers, Spurs, and Warriors in the next six. They also fired coach Kevin McHale after starting the season 4-7 and promptly lost three out of their first four games under interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff. With the exception of two blowout wins over the sad-sack Lakers, every single one of Houston’s 13 wins has come by a margin of seven points or fewer, which is crazy considering that we’re a week away from Christmas and about a third of the way into the season. Meanwhile, they have 11 losses by more than that arbitrary seven point margin, which means that their record in non-tossup games is 2-11. Don’t be fooled by the fact that they are currently sitting in seventh in a disappointing Western Conference this year; their -2.1 point differential is just 21st-best in basketball, a shocking departure from the numbers that the 56-26 Rockets put up last year. Even worse? The Rockets have played THE EASIEST schedule in basketball this season, with their opponents playing at a .458 clip.

This disastrous start to the season has happened after an offseason in which Houston became the trendy pick to win the #1 seed in the Western Conference and challenge for a championship. The prevailing thought was that the Rockets had the requisite mix of depth and stars to be one of the best teams in basketball. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.

We have to start, of course, with the two alleged stars of the team. James Harden had his breakout year last season, finishing second in the MVP voting, but he reportedly showed up to camp this season out of shape. The results may be showing a bit, as Harden’s shooting is down from 44% and 38% from three to 41% and 33%, but he still has healthy stats. Harden has a 25.3 PER that ranks sixth in the NBA (behind Steph, Westbrook, KD, Kawhi, and LeBron), and a +5.08 Real Plus Minus that places him 12th. He’s averaging 29-6-7 and nearly a couple of steals per game. Sure, the eye test and stats both indicate that he hasn’t been quite as good on either side of the court this year, but I think the bigger problem is that he hasn’t really transformed into the leader the Rockets probably thought he would be. Harden wanted to be an alpha dog, which is why he left OKC, but he hasn’t taken the responsibility that a superstar would normally be expected to take. He sulks a lot and just clearly isn’t the best teammate. With that being said, Harden is the least of Houston’s worries right now.

The other star I alluded to? That’s Dwight Howard, who seems both unhealthy and unhappy in Houston. Lack of health and happiness is never a good thing, but it’s especially bad when it comes to Howard, who seems to only thrive when everything is going right. He’s still a solid defender, but Howard’s turned into an offensive liability. Five years after averaging 23 points per game for the Magic, Howard’s putting up just 12 a game this season. The guy just isn’t a factor on the offensive end, which is why the Rockets can have an offensive stud like Harden and talent around him and still have just the 11th best offense in the league. Howard’s also nowhere near mobile enough anymore to be the true anchor of an otherwise-weak defense; the Rockets rank 25th in the league in defensive efficiency, and while that can’t all be pinned on Howard, that never would have happened to a Howard-led team when he was playing his best. All of this has led to…. trade rumors! Apparently, Howard is jealous of James Harden (sound familiar? Cough cough Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard cough cough) and wants to leave Houston. Howard himself shot down that rumor yesterday, saying he wants to stay with the Rockets, but there’s clearly some tension here. And there’s tension throughout the entire reason, which has been an unintended consequence of adding new pieces and getting guys back from injury.

The Ty Lawson thing is another unmitigated disaster. The Rockets traded for Lawson this offseason, and the trade was widely acclaimed despite being for a guy who had been charged with two DUIs in the last six months. Lawson was supposed to be a sparkplug off the bench; instant offense for whenever Harden was resting. Instead, Lawson opened the season as the starting point guard, and has been absolutely atrocious. His PER is 8.0, he’s posting a -5.21 RPM (416th in the league out of 420 qualifiers!), and he was removed from the starting lineup after 11 games. After averaging 36 minutes per game in the first 11 games of the season, he’s playing just 16 minutes a game in the last 16. His season stats? 6-2-4 on 33% shooting. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that the Rockets are only now suspending Lawson for two games for the DUIs and with Lawson’s trade request.

From top to bottom, the Rockets have declined in terms of on-court production from last year. Trevor Ariza is worse, Terrence Jones is worse, Corey Brewer is worse, Patrick Beverley is worse… these are the guys who were supposed to be the heart of a championship team. The exception has been Clint Capela, the 6’10” second-year player who has replaced Jones in the starting lineup. Capela can’t shoot free throws, but he’s shooting 61% from the field and is averaging 14-12-2.2 blocks-1.8 steals per 36 minutes. But Capela’s improvements are nowhere near enough to make up for a team full of dysfunction and decline.

What the Rockets need is some stability. They need to find a lineup that works, and whether that means they have to make a couple of trades or not (Darryl Morey is always ready to trade, and I would be surprised if the Rockets don’t make any deals), they need to do it fairly soon. Right now, I like a lineup that rolls out Beverley and Harden in the backcourt (I’ve longed like that pairing, because Beverley is a good off-ball player and a great defender, while Harden is the opposite), Ariza on the wing, and Donatas Motiejunas (who has just returned from injury) next to Howard down low, with Capela, Jones, and Brewer serving as the first three guys off the bench. They need to trade Lawson, and they need to replace him with a new backup point guard who fits the team better, because Jason Terry just isn’t going to cut it as a point guard in 2016 (or 2015, for that matter). But most of all, they just need to start a winning streak and hope that everything can come together. Will that happen? I don’t think so. The Rockets will likely make the playoffs, because the Western Conference has really declined this season, but I don’t see them getting out of the first round of the playoffs, which would be very disappointing for a team that made the Western Conference Finals last year and had championship aspirations this season.