Archive for January, 2016

It’s never a good sign when your team is widely known to have a curse. It’s worse when that curse is named. Until 2004, the Boston Red Sox had gone 86 years without a World Series Championship. It had also been 84 years since they disastrously traded Babe Ruth? Coincidence? Maybe not (but really, yes), hence the Curse of the Bambino. Of course, the Sox broke the “curse” in 2004, first roaring back from 3-0 down in their series against the Yankees before cruising to the championship. They’ve won twice more since then, quite a turnaround from the near-century they went without a championship. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs have an even longer drought than the Red Sox, and theirs is still going, as they haven’t won a World Series since 1908. Their curse is called the Curse of the Billy Goat, which was allegedly placed on the Cubs in 1945, when Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis was asked to leave game 4 of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers at the Cubs’ home ballpark of Wrigley Field because the odor of his pet goat was bothering other fans. Sianis was understandably angry and declared, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” So far, Sianis has been correct, as the Cubs haven’t even appeared in the World Series since 1945. They got close last year, making the NLCS before losing to the Mets, but they haven’t gotten back in 70 years, which is kind of ridiculous. Ok, enough of the curse talk. Why am I talking about these two teams? Well, because I think they’re the two best teams in baseball as I type right now, a little more than two months before the start of the season. Let’s start with the Cubs, the team with the longer curse and, I think, clearly the best team in the majors.

Last year was supposed to be the year before the Cubs got good. We could all see the heaps of talent in their system, but it wasn’t supposed to come together until this year. Instead, the Cubs won 97 games last year, the third-most in baseball (unfortunately, also the third most in their own division). Kris Bryant had a great rookie season and Anthony Rizzo had another very good year, but the biggest reason that the Cubs beat expectations was because they got an incredible season out of Jake Arrieta, who posted a 1.77 ERA and won the Cy Young. That won’t happen again, but it won’t matter, because the rest of the team is so good. First of all, Bryant is now 24 and seems poised to take a step forward into the small group of elite third basemen. For a guy with monster power, his 26 homer season last year was actually somewhat disappointing, and I expect at least 30 this year along with the defense, baserunning, and on-base ability that allowed him to post 6.5 Fangraphs WAR last year. Rizzo’s about as sure a bet as you can ask for at first base, so the corner infield positions are set. Meanwhile, catcher Miguel Montero had a nice bounce-back season last year in his first year with the Cubs, and, although he’ll turn 33 this year, he seems like a good bet to provide another above-average offensive season. Shortstop will be manned by Addison Russell, a 22-year old who was already a defensive stud last season and who already has above-average power for a shortstop (his contact and plate discipline will come, and they’ll probably come soon). And the corner outfield positions will be manned by Jorge Soler (will play the season at 24, has 40+ homer power) and Kyle Schwarber (if you don’t remember Schwarber mania from last year, he was 18 for his first 47 with a 213 wRC+ before settling down and ending at 131). That leaves just second base and centerfield, two very important positions which were question marks heading into the offseason. How have the Cubs addressed those positions? Well, they went out and signed Ben Zobrist (four years, $56 million) and Jason Heyward (eight years, $184 million) to man those two positions. Zobrist is a great guy to have, a utility man who has averaged 5.3 WAR over the past seven seasons and can get on base at a great rate while playing good defense. Heyward, meanwhile, is a stud, a rare 26-year old free agent who is getting $184 million but left money on the table and seems like a great bet to outperform his contract. He’s a good offensive player and a great defender, a guy who can win the Cubs four or five more games than they would have without him. Guess what? Zobrist and Heyward seem likely to slot into the first and second slots in the lineup, and with Rizzo, Bryant, Schwarber, and Soler hitting between those guys, the team’s going to score a lot of runs.

Meanwhile, Arrieta will return to lead a rotation that is deeper than it was last season. Jon Lester will return as a very good #2, and the Cubs gave John Lackey $16 million a year to be the #3. He might not be the guy who posted a 2.77 ERA last year, but anything in the 3.5-range should be fine. And Kyle Hendricks, Jason Hammel, and Travis Wood are all good options at the back of the rotation. The bullpen doesn’t look like anything special, but it’s also not going to be a major weakness. Just like the rotation, it will be more than good enough to support the great lineup.

The Cubs this year remind me of the Nationals heading into last season. Before last year, the Nats were regarded as the clear team to beat. They were supposed to have a great, four-headed rotation, with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and new addition Max Scherzer. They had Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and Anthony Rendon in the middle of their stacked lineup. And they went 83-79 and missed the playoffs. Let’s hope the same thing doesn’t happen to these Cubs. I don’t think it will, because this team is so young and because their main strength lies in their hitting, a much more bankable plus than pitching. I really want them to make and win the World Series, because I feel bad for their fan base. And I think that, even if it doesn’t happen this season, it likely will in the next few, because this team has the look of a potential dynasty, with a lot of young talent and, even after the departures of guys like Bryant, a top-10 farm system. Last year’s Nationals have reminded us that nothing is a sure thing, but the Cubs will surely enter the season as the team to beat, even though they haven’t won the World Series since 1908.

Next up: the once cursed Red Sox are the best team in the wide-open AL.

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Last night’s game between the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs was certainly hyped-up beforehand, but I don’t think it got its due in the days leading up to the game. According to Fivethirtyeight, this was the best game of all time (the game with the best combined Elo, Fivethirtyeight’s rating system). I’m skeptical of Elo and probably wouldn’t take it that far, since it was just a regular season game, but it was the first meeting between the two best teams in the league and two teams that are on track to rank among basketball’s all-time best by the end of the season. By now, you probably know what happened in the game. It wasn’t an instant classic. Heck, it was never even in doubt. The champs made a statement at home, beating the Spurs by 30. The weirdest thing about this game was how normal it was for the Warriors. Stephen Curry scored 37 points in 28 minutes before sitting out yet another fourth quarter. I would say that he made some ridiculous shots, but at this point that’s a given. Draymond Green posted another good all-around game, with 11 points, nine rebounds, six assists, three steals, a block, and great defense on LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored just five points. And the bench scored 53. Against what is by far the best defense in the NBA, the Warriors shot 52% from the field, 42% from three, and 84% from the line. They outrebounded the bigger Spurs (although San Antonio was playing without Tim Duncan) and more importantly sped the game up to a pace that the Spurs clearly weren’t comfortable with. Sure, they turned the ball over 21 times, but that’s something that always comes with their style, as they rank fifth in the league in turnovers per game. But the Spurs turned it over 25 times, nearly double their 13.1 average. The game was a scrimmage by the fourth quarter, but that was only because the Warriors absolutely obliterated the Spurs in the first three quarters, taking a 95-66 lead into the fourth quarter. Given that the teams entered the game with a combined 78-10 record, you would figure that a streak would have been broken one way or another. That is in fact true, but we’ll get to the Spurs in a second. First, I think it’s important to highlight the way the Warriors, who are now 41-4 and on pace to break the Bulls’ record, bounced back from their loss in Detroit. To some extent, Golden State could write off each of their first three losses. The first came on the second night of a back-to-back after they had to go to double overtime on the first night to go to 24-0. The second came without Steph Curry, while the third was without Draymond Green. But the loss to the Pistons? They had no such excuse in that one. They were two days removed from an easy win against the Lakers and had their team healthy, and they lost by 18. Sure, Curry got his 38 and Klay Thompson his 24, but Green shot just 1-7 from the field while the bench combined for 17 points. They shot 36% from the field, while the Pistons shot 47%, turned the ball over just nine times, and, thanks to Andre Drummond, destroyed them on the glass. Basically, they got their butts kicked. Since that loss, their second in three games, the Warriors have played the Cavs, Bulls, Pacers, and Spurs, four teams that have won a combined two-thirds of their games. They beat Cleveland by 34 (in Cleveland), Chicago by 31 (in Chicago), Indiana by 12, and San Antonio by 30. Who says the record is unattainable? Sure, the losses to Denver and Detroit hurt, but the Warriors still have some losses to spare, and, starting March 1st, they’ll play 17 of their final 24 games at home, where they still haven’t lost. Yes, they have two games in San Antonio, a place where the Spurs haven’t lost, but, again, they can lose those two and still break the record. With the wizardry of Curry and the depth around him, I wouldn’t underestimate this team under any circumstances.

Despite Golden State’s 40-4 record heading into the game, San Antonio was the team ranked atop most power rankings, and for good reason. The Warriors just ended one of the best stretches a team has ever had. I mean, I was trying to find an interval over which the Spurs played their very best, but I just kept going back and back and back, because they blew out teams time after time after time.

Visual representation of Spurs' average margin of victory/defeat this season

Visual representation of Spurs’ average margin of victory/defeat this season

There it is visually, but I’ll give some numbers. First of all, they were carrying a 13 game winning streak heading into the game last night. But for a team that was 38-6 before the shellacking, that’s not all that surprising. At the end of November, the Spurs were 14-4 with a +9 point differential. They were clearly a very good team, but they were being totally ignored, both because the Warriors were undefeated and because they weren’t that good (or any better than any previous Spurs team). Between December first and last night, the Spurs were 24-2. Here’s a little graph summarizing the differences between the two stretches of time I’ve split this Spurs half-season into.

  Pts per gm Pts allowed Differential FG% FG% against 3P% 3P% against
Before Dec. 1 98.8 89.8 9 46.8% 42.3% 36.1% 32.3%
After Dec. 1 108 89.7 18.3 50.6% 42.9% 40.2% 31.2%

The defensive stats are almost identical across the board. But, almost out of nowhere, the Spurs went from being an average offense to the second-best in the league. As a result, their point differential in those 26 games was a mind-blowing +18.3. I don’t know where to look up whether that’s a record for a 20-30 game stretch, but it has to be, right? I mean, the 1971-72 Lakers had a 33 game winning streak, and in those games they outscored the average opponent by 16 points. That’s incredible, but the Spurs have them beat despite the fact that they lost two games in their stretch. They’ve gotten so much better both because LaMarcus Aldridge has adjusted to his new teammates and is now probably the team’s most efficient offensive option and because the bench has become a complete juggernaut, outscoring opponents by huge margins while their stars rest. For example, in November David West averaged five points per game, Jonathon Simmons averaged 4.2, and Boban Marjanovic put up 1.5; this year, the three are at 9.7, 7.5, and 7.3. The problem is that all of the depth in the world won’t win the Spurs (maybe the best in the Duncan era) a championship if they can’t stop Curry. They have the rest of the season to figure that out; for now, let’s just enjoy the final 30-odd games for both of these historically-great teams.

Championship Game Predictions

Posted: 01/24/2016 by levcohen in Football

Last week’s four games all ended in touchdown victories (the Cardinals won by six, but it would have been seven had they won it with a regulation touchdown rather than an OT touchdown), but the four games all felt very different. The Patriots only beat the Chiefs by seven, but it felt like it could easily have been 27. They were easily the better team last week. Meanwhile, the Cardinals-Packers gave was obviously unique, given that Aaron Rodgers threw a 60-yard Hail Mary on fourth-and-20 and then another Hail Mary to tie the game before the coin to start overtime did not flip (you read that right) the first time and Arizona eventually won it with two great plays by Larry Fitzgerald. Then, Carolina jumped out to a quick 31-0 lead on the Seahawks before nearly blowing the game and winning by seven. And in the later game on Sunday, Peyton Manning led the Broncos to great heights… er, Manning actually looked terrible, but the Broncos won thanks to a key forced fumble and, more importantly, because the Steelers were without Antonio Brown. So four similar scores and four very different games.

Last week:
4-0 straight up (7-1 total)
2-2 against the spread (5-3)
2-2 over/under (6-2)

My prediction: Result:
Patriots 20-17 Patriots 27-20
Cardinals 27-17 Cardinals 26-20
Panthers 20-17 Panthers 31-24
Broncos 20-14 Broncos 23-16

New England Patriots (13-4, 8-7-2) at Denver Broncos (13-4, 8-8-1):
Spread: Patriots favored by 3
Over/under: 45
My prediction: Everyone likes the Patriots here, and for good reason. Their offense was tremendous against the Chiefs last week, moving the ball at will and looking like they did at the start of the season, when they were clearly the best offense in football. The uptick, of course, came with the return of star receiver Julian Edelman, with whom the Patriots have not lost. Edelman is so important to Tom Brady, because his quick routes and decisions allow Brady to get rid of the ball quickly and avoid the pass rush. That’ll be important this week, against a Denver team that is very good defensively, especially when they unleash DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller and get good pressure on the quarterback. When Brady has both Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, as he will this week, he’s pretty difficult to stop, but if any team can do it, it’s this Broncos team. Denver has the clear best defense in football, and they’re oozing with talent all over their defense. The key for them has to be getting to Brady and keeping him from getting into that zone that he so often gets in. They have to double-team Gronkowski, stick Chris Harris (assuming he’s healthy) on Edelman, and take their chances against anyone else. I don’t think they’ll stop the Pats completely, but they should have more success than the Chiefs did last week.

On the other side of the ball, Manning must be better than he was last week. I think the Broncos are better off playing Brock Oswiler, since at least Oswiler can throw the ball more than 10 yards down the field, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Instead, Manning will play what might be his final game, and the Patriots are going to bet that he’s not going to be able to throw to the sidelines or deep down the field. That will put more pressure on the run game, and while the Broncos will probably bust out a few 10+ yard gains, they could find it difficult to consistently move down the field while only relying on the running game and short passing game.

Everything points to an easy Pats win, but the Broncos are home and usually find a way to win games they shouldn’t. Can they do that here? Well, they can, but it’ll be more difficult to do that against a guy like Brady. Patriots win 24-17.
Patriots cover
Under

Arizona Cardinals (14-3, 9-8) at Carolina Panthers (16-1, 12-5):*
Spread: Panthers favored by 3
Over/under: 47
My prediction: The other game is getting more attention because it’s another game between Brady and Manning, but I think this is going to be the better, more interesting game. These teams have both been electric this season, scoring the most and second-most points in the league and posting the best and second-best point differentials. I expect to see a few big plays here, and the team that hits on more of the big plays will likely win. The Panthers are a dynamic offense almost exclusively because of quarterback Cam Newton. Newton is such a threat both with his legs and his arm that he opens up a lot of plays for both himself and his teammates. The Cardinals have a good defense, but they can be beaten, and they haven’t been all that great against tight ends this year, which will prove to be a problem against Greg Olsen. And given that the Eddie Lacy ran for 7.4 yards per carry last week, Jonathan Stewart and Newton should both have productive games rushing-wise. On the other side of the ball, the Panthers can unfortunately only throw out one great cornerback to combat Arizona’s three great receivers. Even if you expect Josh Norman to totally shut down either Michael Floyd or John Brown, there’s still slot receiver Larry Fitzgerald and the other outside receiver to pay attention to, and the Panthers simply don’t have the secondary depth to consistently stop those guys. Plus, Carson Palmer loves throwing the ball deep, and he’s going to hit on a few deep passes. Meanwhile, rookie running back David Johnson was very quiet last week, but I expect him to play much better this week. To me, this game is a coin-flip, but given the fact that the Panthers played much better than the Cardinals did last week, it makes sense that the public is on the Panthers, especially since they’re playing at home, where they haven’t lost all season. The weather probably also suits the Panthers, as it’ll be cold and windy and the field might not be in great shape, something a dome team like Arizona probably won’t love. But I’ve been impressed with the Cardinals all season, and I’m not going to let one shaky week dissuade me from taking the Cards here. Cardinals win 27-24.
Cardinals cover
Over

Before I get to the final three teams in the Eastern Conference playoff race, I have to discuss a surprising move that just happened. About half an hour ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers fired head coach David Blatt. Yes, a head coach who made the NBA Finals in his first season and started his second one 30-11 despite missing star point guard Kyrie Irving for the first few months just got fired. Of course, Blatt wasn’t exactly coaching in a normal situation. By that, I mean that the Cavs have a guy named LeBron James. Now, early reports have indicated that LeBron wasn’t consulted before Blatt was fired, but I find that hard to believe; James IS the franchise, and the new coach is ex-assistant Tyronn Lue, who is very chummy with both LeBron and his agent Rich Paul. Now, was this a justifiable move considering the huge expectations any LeBron team is naturally going to have? Well, it certainly isn’t fair to Blatt, who signed up for the Cleveland job without knowing that he would be gifted (or tasked) with James and will probably get another chance to be a head coach in the NBA. But if the team really respects Lue more than Blatt, what else can the team do? I’m kind of skeptical about that and think it might just be a cop-out, and I think that Blatt really deserves to feel jilted here, but in the end the coaching change probably won’t have much of an impact, positive or negative, on the Cavs’ championship chances this season. Anyway, enough of the Cavaliers, who we know will be playing in the postseason. On to Atlanta, Miami, and Boston.

The Atlanta Hawks were without a doubt the surprise of last season, finishing 60-22 after being projected to flirt with .500. The Hawks had a very hyped-up starting lineup, as evidenced by the fact that four of their starters made the all-star team and all five of their starters shared a Player of the Month award, and they made it to the Eastern Conference finals before bowing out to LeBron and the Blatt-led Cavaliers. The team last season overachieved, but they were legitimately a very good team, thanks largely to the chemistry their lineup had. The team was expected to take a step back this season, although the size of that step was disputed. They lost a piece of their lineup (DeMarre Carroll) to Toronto, replacing him with Kent Bazemore, who scored all of 5.2 points per game last season. The team’s biggest additions, meanwhile, were depth pieces Tiago Splitter and Tim Hardaway Jr. Some people predicted that the Hawks would only drop off a little bit, winning 55-ish games, while others thought they’d fall out of the playoffs altogether without a vital piece of a starting five that was +9 points per 48 minutes last year. So far, as is usually the case, the Hawks have been between the two extremes. They are 26-18, 5.5 games out of the top seed and 4.5 above the ninth-placed Knicks. They currently sit in third place in the conference, but with even a short losing streak could easily drop out, so their spot is far from secure. The starting lineup has been much less successful this season, playing 11.2 minutes per game together and going -.7 per game. But if you were to replace point guard Jeff Teague, whose numbers have been down this season (15.9/7 assists/46% from the field last season, 14.5/5.5/42% this year), with exciting German Dennis Schroder (10.6 points and 4.7 assists in just 21.5 minutes per game), and the numbers are much better, at +41 over 54 total minutes (small sample size alert). Teague’s definitely been disappointing this season, as has Kyle Korver, but other members of the team have been at least as good as expected. First and foremost, Paul Millsap has exploded this season, playing better than he ever has despite logging just 32.8 minutes per game. Millsap’s averaging 18.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 49% from the field and 78% from the line. He’s 12th in the league in RPM at +5.85, 10th in PER at 23.7, and he’s legitimately taken the step from above-average to star level. That helps. Al Horford has been as steady as ever at the center position, and Bazemore has been a pleasant surprise at shooting guard. Previously a below-average shooter, he’s shooting 47% from the field and 42% from three with 1.7 made three pointers per game while hitting on more than 85% of his free throws. He’s also a defensive pest and one of the many reasons that the Hawks are currently ranked seventh in the NBA in defensive efficiency. How have the new additions been? Well, Hardaway has been in and out of the rotation and is shooting just 36%, but Splitter has been a solid depth piece when healthy. Just as importantly, defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha has rebounded from his (controversial) broken leg, playing upwards of 24 minutes per game and shooting 53% from the field (he was at 42% last year) and an incredible 67% from inside the arc while playing his normal suffocating defense. What’s the prognosis going forward? Well, things certainly look pretty good. None of the starters play more than 33 minutes per game, and the bench is solid, which means that the risk and harm of injury is diminished. The team has been very solid this year, with a fairly efficient offense paired with a very good defense. There are a few reasons to be slightly wary of their chances, though. They’ve played the fourth-easiest schedule to this point and still have seven games left against the trio of Toronto, Cleveland, and Golden State. And the point guard situation is somewhat worrisome, since Teague hasn’t looked great and Schroder is prone to frequent lapses in judgement.

Verdict: They should be fine, but it’s not a certainty

Before the season, there was all kinds of talk about how the Heat would be Cleveland’s biggest competition this year in the Eastern Conference. Early in the season, that looked like a good call, as the Heat were 21-13 less than three weeks ago with their whole team relatively healthy. Since then, though, they are 2-8, with a -11 point differential in that time. What’s the problem? Well, seven of the eight games have been on the road, where the Heat are just 8-12 this season, and they’ve played teams like the Clippers, Warriors, Thunder, and Raptors in their swoon. Unfortunately, 21 of their final 38 games are on the road, so there isn’t much help coming there. First, the good. Chris Bosh has rebounded from his terrifying blood-clots last season to post similar statistics and a better PER. He isn’t necessarily the team’s go-to scorer, but he should be. Meanwhile, Hassan Whiteside’s breakout last season was for real; he’s averaging 12.3 points and 11.2 blocks along with an NBA-high 3.9 blocks per game, and he’s 12th in the league in PER. The Heat are the sixth-best defense in the league, and Whiteside is the main reason why. What hasn’t worked though, is the backcourt duo of Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade. Wade has actually surprisingly stayed healthy this season, but he’s averaging “only” 18.2 points per game, his worst total since his rookie year, and he’s shooting a career-worst 46% from the field. Crucially, Wade is an atrocious three-point shooter at 22.6%, which is a big reason that the offense has struggled so much; when you have two total non-factors from beyond the arc in the lineup and only one above-average three point shooter (Bosh), the offense is going to get bogged down. Another reason the offense has struggled? Both Wade and Dragic excel when they have the ball and aren’t very good when they don’t have it. It’s Dragic who has suffered more, as he’s down to just 12 points per game. One of the best point guards in the league two seasons ago, when he put up 20+ a game, he’s now almost become a liability. Overall, the pieces just don’t really seem to fit together. Luol Deng is over the hill, Justice Winslow needs more seasoning, and Gerald Green only seems to show up half the time. This is a team with a chance to land a star free agent in the near future, but I don’t really like their chances this season. Bosh and Whiteside are a great duo, but the other three positions in the lineup just aren’t very inspiring.

Verdict: They’ll be in the race for the entire season but finish just short, falling to younger teams with more in the tank come April.

The Boston Celtics have to be considered one of the weirdest teams in the league. They’re weird mainly because they don’t have a star player, often play 12 players in each game, and are still above .500 while posting a +3.1 point differential. Now, when I say the Celtics have no star, I may be selling Isaiah Thomas a little short, because Thomas is averaging 21.8 points and 6.7 assists per game. But he’s not good enough defensively or consistent enough offensively to rate among the best players in the league in my mind, and he probably isn’t even the most valuable guy on the Celtics. That may be Jae Crowder, the team’s small forward, who plays at the lone position that the Celts are thin at and provides good offense along with great defense. Crowder and Thomas are clearly the team’s best players, and the Celtics are +3.6 in 24.7 minutes per game when the two play together. After that, things get a little bit hectic. Avery Bradley, a defense-first guard, normally stars alongside Thomas, but Evan Turner and Marcus Smart are both guards who play more than 26 minutes per game off the bench. With Bradley, Smart, and Crowder in particular, the Celtics can throw out a very good defensive backcourt, which is the reason they rate as the third best defense in basketball on a per-possession basis. Bradley, Crowder, and Thomas play more together than any other three-man unit on the Celtics and are a +2.9 in 18.2 minutes per game, so there is some continuity in the backcourt. The frontcourt is a totally different story. Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Jared Sullinger, and David Lee all play at least 15 minutes per game, while Tyler Zeller often plays double-digit minutes. Sullinger and Johnson normally start, but neither of them plays more than half of the average game. Here’s the thing: the Celtics would have too many big men if they were playing two big guys 48 minutes per game, but in today’s NBA, you can’t play two big guys 48 minutes per game, because then you’re going to get clobbered by all of the teams that play small ball so well. So take those 96 available frontcourt minutes and slice maybe 12 of those minutes off, and all of a sudden you understand how much of a minutes crunch Brad Stevens is really dealing with. By RPM, the starters, Sullinger and Johnson, are clearly the best options, as they rank 30th and 31st while posting top-30 DRPM numbers. But you can’t just distribute the 84 minutes among those two, because Olynyk is also a very good player by RPM and by the eye test. He’s also a much better shooter than any of the other options and is in fact one of the best three point shooters in the NBA at 44%. Lately, Brad Stevens has placed Lee on the bench, and the former Warrior has played just twice in January. That’s been a good decision, although it hasn’t paid off in the form of wins, as the Celtics are just 5-7 in the month. In that 5-7 stretch, and actually dating back three games before that, every single Celtics game has ended in a single-digit victory either way. In fact, the Celtics have only lost three times by more than 11 points this season and are just 10-15 in single-digit games. If they were even 12-13, they’d be fighting for the fourth seed instead of languishing in eighth, which shows how razor-thin the margins are. This team clearly has staying power, as evidenced by their point differential and depth, but it remains to be seen if they can win the close ones and make the clutch buckets they’ll need to make the playoffs.

Verdict: They have the talent to make it easily, but the lack of a true star will make it tough given that both New York and Washington, the teams directly below them right now, have bonafide superstars.

My prediction:
Here’s how I think the Eastern Conference will look at the end of the season:
1. Cavs (57-25)
2. Raptors (53-29)
3. Bulls (50-32)
4. Hawks (48-34)
5. Pacers (45-37)
6. Pistons (45-37)
7. Wizards (44-38)
8. Celtics (43-39)
—–
9. Hornets (41-41)
10. Heat (41-41)11. Knicks (39-43)
12. Magic (36-46)
13. Bucks (35-47)
14. Nets (19-63)
15. Sixers (14-68)

The Indiana Pacers finished 38-44 last season. Meanwhile, the Detroit Pistons were 32-50, while the Orlando Magic went 25-57. What do these three teams have in common besides the fact that they all missed the playoffs in a really poor Eastern Conference last year? Well, all of them are squarely in the playoff race in an improved conference this season. Why are they so much better this year than they were last season, and will it last for the rest of the season and yield a playoff berth?

For the Pacers, this is relatively cut-and-dry. Last season they were a mess, and it’s shocking and a testament to head coach Frank Vogel that they did as well as they did. Star forward Paul George, one of the 7-10 best players in the NBA, horrifically broke his leg while training with the US National Team, while big men Roy Hibbert and David West were clearly ready to move on from Indiana, which certainly affected their play. This year, Hibbert and West are gone and the Pacers have become more guard-oriented, with the addition of Monta Ellis signifying a wish to get faster and more dynamic. Truth be told, many of the offseason moves haven’t worked. Ellis is averaging under 14 points per game, well below his career average of 19, while neither three point shooter C.J. Miles (who has never been very efficient) nor traditional power forward Lavoy Allen (a scrappy player who lacks talent) has been effective in the starting lineup. Those things will need to improve if the Pacers want to make a deep playoff run, but they’ve played better this year and should make the playoffs simply because they have gotten their star back. And when I say Paul George is back, I mean he’s back. His numbers in his last pre-injury year, the one that generated top-five player buzz, were: 21.7/6.8/3.5/1.9 steals and a 20.2 PER. His numbers this year are: 23.9/7.4/4/2 steals and a 20.8 PER. The PER lags behind common perception (I don’t know why the stat underrates him), but the point is that, if anything, he’s better than he was before his gruesome injury. For now, that’s good enough for Pacers fans, who just want a return to the playoffs. Soon, the fans will be hungry for more, and I think there are ways for this team to improve its chances of advancing in the playoffs. Playing Myles Turner, the raw first round pick out of Texas who has great ability, a little more would help, as Turner might already be better than Allen and certainly has more potential to swing a playoff game. But this team probably won’t get out of the first round of the playoffs, and that’s fine. The Pacers have cap flexibility going forward and a bright future with George at the helm.

Verdict: Likely Playoff Team

After the Pistons released Josh Smith in the middle of last season, they went 27-27 to close the season, so I guess you could see their improvement coming, too. The moves Jeff Van Gundy in his first full year in charge have already transformed this team into a prototypical Jeff Van Gundy team. Gone are big men Smith and Greg Monroe, who left for Milwaukee after the season. With those moves and the acquisition of Reggie Jackson from the Thunder last winter, Detroit has become a team predicated on the Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll surrounded by shooters. Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova, both 6’9″ forwards, were signed because they were bigger players who could stretch the floor; both are starting and averaging at least a made three a game. Meanwhile, shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has taken another step forward in his third year, playing 37.4 minutes per game and averaging 14.4 points per contest while providing good defense. But the stars of this team are clearly Jackson and Drummond, which, of course, was the intention. Both of them reside in the top-40 in RPM and the top-25 in PER, with Jackson posting a 19.4/3.8/6.6 line with a palatable 44% field goal percentage and Drummond going 17.6/15.5 (leading rebounder in the NBA)/1.5 blocks with great defense (eighth in DRPM) and his lone blemish being his 35% free throw percentage. Jackson and Drummond have in fact been a good combination, playing 29.1 minutes per game together and posting a +3.6 plus/minus in that time. In fact, the entire starting lineup is great together, going +2.3 in 19.7 minutes per game this season, a number that prorates out to +5.5 over a full game. At +1.9, the Pistons have been a solid team this year, but their poor bench has let them down. Perhaps the return of Brandon Jennings from injury will help with that, as Jennings should quickly become a dynamite scorer off the bench. Maybe rookie Stanley Johnson, who has shown flashes but has largely been ineffective, will help out more over the second half of the season. Or maybe the starting lineup will lead the Pistons to a playoff berth without much help. For that to happen, the Pistons will need to get lucky, avoiding any major injuries and winning close games.

Verdict: Better than 50/50 and a near lock if they stay healthy and get a big boost from Jennings’ return

I might be writing this at the wrong time vis-a-vis the Orlando Magic. When 2016 began, they were 19-13 with a +2.6 point differential. In the new year, they’re 1-7 with a -11.5 point differential. It’s been a quick fall from grace for the lovable Magic, who have fallen all the way down to the #9 spot in the conference. The schedule hasn’t been easy in the past handful of games, but that doesn’t excuse getting blown out to this extent day in and day out. The slump was kind of predictable, because the Magic just aren’t ready to win yet. This is a very exciting team, but only one starter is over 23-years old, and that’s Nikola Vucevic at 25. Vucevic, averaging 17 and 8 and playing improved defense, is very good, but he’s not a star player, and he’s the team’s only player who can be considered well above-average. I’m not going to spend much time on this team, because I don’t think they have much of a chance to make the playoffs. What they do have, though, is a chance to build a perennial contender out of the young nucleus. The Vucevic-Victor Oladipo-Elfrid Payton-Tobias Harris-Evan Fournier-Aaron Gordon-Mario Hezonja core of seven sub-26 guys looks set to be a great core going forward. The pieces might not all fit together (I think Vucevic, Oladipo, Payton, and Gordon are clear keepers), and the Magic clearly need some knockdown shooters to place around the key guys, but this is clearly a team whose ceiling is sky-high. Maybe it would be better to spend one more year in the lottery, though.

Verdict: Probably a year too soon

Still to come: the Celtics, Hawks, and Heat

Divisional Round Preview — Sunday

Posted: 01/17/2016 by levcohen in Football

Well, I don’t know how today’s games are going to follow that up. Last night’s game between the Cardinals and Packers should go down as an all-time great. From Aaron Rodgers’s second Hail Mary of the season to Jeff Janis’s ridiculous 101 yards on one drive (that has to be a record, right?) to the coin not flipping (how is that even possible?) to Larry Fitzgerald’s amazing 75-yard catch and run in overtime, the game was incredible. Remember, the announcers were calling this a great and weird game before the Packers made that conversion on fourth and 10 and then completed the Hail Mary. So yeah, today’s games probably won’t be as good. But they’re just as important, as we’ll learn who will join the Patriots (who, by the way, have to be Super Bowl favorites at this point) and Cardinals in the next round. Will all four home teams win? Or will the Seahawks or Steelers pull off an upset? No matter what happens, I think we’re looking at a great NFC Championship Game matchup and a fairly heavily favored Patriots team in the AFC.

Seattle Seahawks (11-6, 8-8-1) at Carolina Panthers (15-1, 11-5):
Spread: Panthers favored by 2.5
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: We know the Panthers are good. Sure, they had an easy schedule, but you don’t go 15-1 because of luck. It’s easy to fall into the trap of calling the Panthers a defense-first team, because based on how the roster looks, it would make sense if they were a grind-it-out, first-team-to-20-points-wins type team. But despite the lack of talent at the receiver and offensive line positions, the Panthers were the highest-scoring team in the NFL, scoring 31.25 points per game and 35 per game over their last seven games, with 38+ in five of those games. How have they been so good offensively even with the glaring issues on the line and at the receiver position? Well, because in Cam Newton, they have the MVP. Newton’s as deserving of an MVP as I can remember; he’s the rare quarterback who really can transcend a lack of talent around him. Working with only Greg Olsen as a legitimate threat, he threw for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions while running for 636 yards and 10 more scores. More importantly, though, he excelled in the fourth quarter, averaging 8.54 yards per attempt and 5.3 yards per carry while accounting for five touchdowns and zero turnovers in the fourth quarter of one-score games. So, because of Newton and Jonathan Stewart, who ran for nearly 1,000 yards despite missing a few games, the Panthers posted the second most rushing yards in the league while passing for the third most touchdowns in the NFL. But they’re playing the Seahawks this week, and the Seahawks’ defense is far from normal. Including their lucky 10-9 win over the Vikings last week, Seattle has given up just 10.67 points per game in their last six. That can be attributed in part to the return of Jeremy Lane at cornerback. With Lane back on the opposite side of Richard Sherman, the Seahawks can play more of their standard, attacking-style defense without having to worry as much about receivers uncovering from their cornerbacks. It’s no coincidence that this defensive run coincided exactly with Lane’s return to the lineup. I don’t expect Carolina’s receivers to be able to do much against this defense, and I don’t think Jonathan Stewart will approach 100 yards, which means it’s all going to be up to Newton and Olsen. Remember, there is a template for the Panthers to use here, because they beat Seattle in Seattle 27-23 in week six. I know a lot of time has passed since then, but the Panthers won that game despite no receiver reaching even the 25 yard mark. How? Well, Olsen. The tight end caught seven passes for 137 yards including the game-winning 26 yard touchdown with 32 seconds left in the game. That game was actually odd in that the Panthers lost the turnover battle, with Newton’s two interceptions serving as the only two turnovers in the game. For the season, the Panthers posted what was easily the best turnover margin in the NFL at +20, as they forced 39 turnovers and gave the ball up just 19 times. They can’t turn the ball over today, because they’re going to need as many drives as possible to attempt to break down this stout Seattle defense and because I don’t think they’re going to have much success turning the Seahawks over, given that Seattle turned the ball over just 16 times this season. So when the Panthers have the ball, they’re just going to have to grind it out with Newton and Olsen while taking a few shots deep to Ginn if only to keep the defense honest.

On the other side of the ball, how can we have much confidence in Seattle’s offense? Well, that was meant to be a rhetorical question (“We can’t”), but, now that I think about it, that depends on how much you believe in Marshawn Lynch. Lynch will return to action this week, and if he’s Beast Mode, he’ll obviously make a huge difference for a Seattle team that loves running the football. But he hasn’t really been Beast Mode all season, and that was before he got injured. I expect this to come down to Russell Wilson and whether he can make plays against a great defense, just like it will come down to Newton on the other side of the ball. And he’s going to have to do it with his arm, because Carolina’s linebackers are too good to let Wilson beat them consistently on the ground. Last time these teams played, Jimmy Graham caught eight passes for 140 yards. Graham, of course, isn’t an option today after he tore his patellar tendon against the Steelers. Unfortunately, Doug Baldwin, who has been so great recently, might not be much of an option either given that he will be blanketed by Josh Norman, the best cornerback in the league this season. Baldwin will still get his chances, but he’s not going to be the guy who breaks down the defense. That means Wilson is going to have to rely on guys like Tyler Lockett and Jermaine Kearse to pick up key yardage against a great defense. I don’t like their chances.

This is going to be a low-scoring game. I just don’t think either team will consistently be able to beat the opposing defense. The Seahawks probably have the special teams edge, but the Panthers are home and have the MVP, so I’m going to take them in a 20-17 squeaker.
Panthers cover
Under

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6, 9-6-2) at Denver Broncos (12-4, 8-8):
Spread: Broncos favored by 8
Over/under: 41
My prediction: It’s going to have to take a Herculean effort from Ben Roethlisberger to defeat the team with the best defense in the NFL without his top two running backs and more importantly without the best receiver in the NFL, Antonio Brown. And remember, Roethlisberger himself is nursing an injured shoulder, and he’ll be far from full strength and could well be knocked out of the game at any time. I just don’t think he’s going to have the time or arm strength to move the ball against the Broncos, which means the defense is going to have to have its best game of the season. Look, the Broncos don’t have a very good offense, but they’ll have at least a little bit of success against a mediocre Pittsburgh defense, and that’s all it should take against a super banged-up Steelers offense. The game could stay close, but the Broncos would have to do a lot wrong to lose this game. Broncos win 20-14.
Steelers cover
Under

NFL Divisional Round Previews — Saturday

Posted: 01/16/2016 by levcohen in Football

Last week felt more like a playoff warm-up than a bonafide playoff weekend. There were a lot of ugly, bad performances, from Houston’s total goose-egg against the Chiefs (Brian Hoyer played one of the worst playoff games in NFL history), to Pittsburgh’s injury and penalty-marred win over Cincinnati, to Seattle’s lucky win in frigid Minnesota, to Green Bay’s win over Washington in a game in which neither team looked like a playoff team. The fact that all four road teams won may seem weird, but three of the four entered their respective games as favorites, so it was actually a rather predictable week (besides, of course, the manner in which the middle two games ended). I hope and expect this week, when we get to see some of the hottest teams in the league (I’m thinking of KC and Seattle) go up against the best teams in football rather than mediocre squads, to feature more “playoff football.” I think there’s an extremely intriguing game both Saturday and Sunday, and it’s no coincidence that those games include the aforementioned Chiefs and Seahawks against the two consensus best teams in the NFL for most of the season in New England and Carolina. Let’s get into tomorrow’s games.

Last week:
3-1 straight up
3-1 against the spread
4-0 over/under

My prediction: Result
Chiefs 17-12 Chiefs 30-0
Bengals 24-17 Steelers 18-16
Seahawks 21-13 Seahawks 10-9
Packers 27-20 Packers 35-18

Kansas City Chiefs (12-5, 9-8) at New England Patriots (12-4, 7-7-2):
Spread: Patriots favored by 5
Over/under: 43
My prediction: Right off the bat, we get the game that I think could turn into the best of the weekend. Normally, I would just look at the Patriots coming off a BYE going up against an Andy Reid-coached and Alex Smith-quarterbacked team with a hobbled top receiver (Jeremy Maclin) and give them an easy win. But this is not a normal Patriots team, nor is a normal Alex Smith-quarterbacked team. The Chiefs have won 11 consecutive games, and while they have largely come against vastly inferior competition, 11 straight is 11 straight, especially since the last one was one of the most dominating playoff performances in recent memory. Meanwhile, the Patriots have been decimated by injuries all year. The week off figures to have helped, but these are the Patriots, notoriously the least-likely team to share truthful injury information, so we are heading into this game fairly confused. Gronk will play, right? Will he be full strength? How about Julian Edelman, coming off a broken foot? Or Tom Brady, who suffered a high ankle sprain two weeks ago? There are a couple of things we know for sure about this Patriots offense: they have a poor offensive line, and a worse offense than any they’ve had heading into the playoffs in recent memory. And the Chiefs’ defense is probably the worst possible matchup they could have hoped for. This is a defense that has a great pass-rush, is great against short passes, and, crucially, the defense has shut down opposing tight ends all season. That’s not to say that the Pats won’t have success in the short passing game or with Rob Gronkowski, because, when everything’s clicking, they have the best short passing game and the best tight end in the league by some margin, and the best offense often beats out even very good defenses. But it’ll be a lot harder to beat this defense than it would have been against, say, the Steelers.

On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs are going to run a lot and target tight end Travis Kelce a lot. That much I’m certain of. With a hobbled Jeremy Maclin, I don’t think they’re going to have a lot of success throwing the ball down the field, although they could take a couple of shots down the field as they did last week (the shots last week were very close to working but were always a bit off). But yeah, since safety Devin McCourty won’t be 100%, Kelce will probably have success in the middle of the field, and, now that the Chiefs have made the correct decision to start Spencer Ware at running back, they should be decent on the ground too. But unless they get a few big plays either on the ground or in the air, I don’t think they’re going to score many points. Even against Houston, in a game they totally dominated, the Chiefs’ offense didn’t look all that great, as if you take away Knile Davis’s return touchdown to start the game, it would have been just 23-0.

This has all the makings of another low-scoring game, and I think it will hinge on to what extent New England’s stars are actually healthy. We have no idea whether Gronk will be 50% or 100%, and the same applies to Edelman, Brady, and most of New England’s defensive difference-makers. I’m going to take the Patriots, because I still can’t envision Alex Smith making enough plays to get this win on the road, but it could be close. Patriots win 20-17.
Chiefs cover
Under

Green Bay Packers (11-6, 10-7) at Arizona Cardinals (13-3, 9-7):
Spread: Cardinals favored by 7.5
Over/under: 49
My prediction: It’s hard to get the absolute dismantling the Cardinals dished out to the Packers just three weeks ago in Arizona. The Cardinals won that game 38-8, mercilessly getting after Aaron Rodgers and forcing sack after sack and turnover after turnover. They could have won that game by 50 points. Of course, the week after that, they lost at home by the same 30-point margin, so it’s understandable if people are hesitant to pick them here. I’m not one of those people. I still think the Cardinals have the best balance of stars and depth in the league, and I think they have the league’s best offense along with its scariest defense. I also think that the problems that have plagued the Packers all season (bad protection, no receivers who can get open, inconsistent run game) will come back to haunt them here. Yes, they beat up on Washington last week, and Rodgers looked like he got some of his mojo back, but the Cardinals are going to be a much harder team to beat. They have a much sounder secondary, and, unlike the Redskins, they’ll be able to employ both an efficient passing game and a good running game. With the weapons they have on offense (David Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Michael Floyd), I don’t think the Packers will be able to stop them defensively, and Rodgers won’t be able to keep up on the other side of the ball. Cardinals win 27-17.
Cardinals cover
Under