Archive for May, 2016

Stanley Cup Final Preview

Posted: 05/30/2016 by levcohen in Hockey

Tonight is game seven of the Thunder-Warriors series. I think everyone’s excited for that one. The Warriors entered as 7.5 point favorites, a number that seemed a bit high. The spread is now 6.5, which seems slightly more accurate but still (maybe) a little high. I really have no idea what’s going to happen in this game. I could see the Warriors building off the last five minutes in Oklahoma City and building a substantial — and lasting — lead over the Thunder. I could also see a huge bounce back performance from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook after a hideous end to game six and a Thunder win in Oakland. The Thunder are good enough to take another game in the Bay Area, while the Warriors are good enough to stymie the Thunder one more time. I hope it’s a close game and think it will be, which is why I’d take the 6.5 points and OKC if I had to choose. But that game isn’t the only thing going on tonight in the world of sports. It’s also game one of the Stanley Cup Final series between the San Jose Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins. I don’t really like the Penguins, but I must admit that I think these really are the two best teams in hockey and that the right teams made it to this point. I also think we’re headed for a competitive series.

One thing I know we’ll see in this series is speed. Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh was a pretty fast, end-to-end series, but this one is going to top it, because the Sharks have the talent to match the Penguins on both ends of the ice. In Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, and Joe Thornton, the Sharks have the top four scorers in the playoffs, each of whom are averaging at least a point per game in the 18 playoff games they have played. San Jose’s chances hinge partially on the effectiveness of their power play. In the seven playoff games in which the Sharks have failed to score a power play goal, they’re 3-4. In the other 11 games, they’re 9-2. With a first power play unit of Pavelski, Thornton, Couture, Burns, and Patrick Marleau, it’s no wonder that the Sharks led hockey with 62 power play goals in the regular season and lead the NHL with 17 in the playoffs. Is it possible that the Sharks will meet their match with Pittsburgh’s tough, skilled penalty kill? I think they can certainly slow San Jose down, much like another great penalty kill in St. Louis was able to do. The Blues held the Sharks to a 19% success rate on the power play and actually scored as many power play goals as the Sharks in their six game series loss. But here’s the thing: San Jose is far from a one-dimensional team. I actually think that their biggest strength is top defensive pairing of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun. Brent Burns is the defenseman who gets all the credit, but he’s far more of an offensive weapon than a defensive one. While Burns has been running the point of the potent power play, Vlasic and Braun have been shutting down talented opposition. Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kings (31 regular season goals), Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators (33), and Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues (40), were the leading goal scorers on their respective teams in the regular season. But when they faced the Sharks in the playoffs? The trio combined for four points in 18 games, with two of the four being goals for Tarasenko after the Blues were down 4-0 in game six. So Braun and Vlasic have been magnificent, and they’ll have to be great again against a Penguins team with great individual players and one of the best individual lines (Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel) in the playoffs. The first pairing has help, of course, as Burns and Paul Martin also form a productive duo. The third pairing? That’s another story. Roman Polak (-2) and Brenden Dillon (-4) have both played more than 15 minutes per game in the postseason and are the only two players on the team who have been on the ice for more even strength goals allowed than scored. Along with the power play, a second key for the Sharks is limiting the Polak-Dillon duo to facing the fourth line as much as possible. I’d like to see their minutes slashed to 10 or so with the other four playing closer to 30 minutes per contest, because the Penguins have the depth to punish the third pairing in a way that previous opposition only began to do. Another key? The play of goaltender Martin Jones, who seemed pretty shaky in the final three games of the St. Louis series after playing tremendously through two-and-a-half rounds. Which Jones will we see throughout this series? If he’s at least adequate, the Sharks could have the advantage in the series.

The Penguins have been the hottest team in hockey for months, so I can’t say I’m all that surprised to see them in the Cup Final. Their power play, while not as good as San Jose’s, is pretty dangerous in its own right. Whenever you can put Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel together in the attacking zone, you’re going to score some goals. And the Penguins have scored 15 power play goals in the playoffs, just two fewer than the Sharks. Probably more important, though, is the penalty kill. The Penguins’ PK was tremendous against both the Rangers and the Lightning, but in between they allowed the Capitals to score five times on the man advantage at a 22% clip. That’s got to be concerning for the Pens, because the Capitals are the only team they’ve played in the playoffs who have the skill to be anywhere near as proficient on the power play as the Sharks. I think it’s fair to expect a few slips on the penalty kill, which makes it vital for the Penguins, a team that gets penalized a fair amount, to stay out of the box. When the teams are even, Crosby and Malkin need to take over. The Kessel line has been terrific, but while Crosby and Malkin have been fine in the playoffs, they aren’t quite playing at the point-per-game level they were at in the regular season. So when that dangerous third line gets stifled, as I think it will at some point in the series, it’ll be up to the superstars to match San Jose’s juggernaut first line. Much of the responsibility of keeping that line in check will fall upon defenseman Kris Letang, who doesn’t seem like a great person but is certainly a great defender. Letang, who has 22 penalty minutes in the playoffs and unpenalized plays like this one. The rest of it will fall upon a variety of defensemen and upon goalie Matt Murray. After being benched in game five of the Lightning series, a game that Tampa Bay won to go up 3-2 in the series, Murray was rightfully reinstated to the lineup in game six and ended the series with tremendous showings in games six and seven. For the Penguins to win the series, I think Murray’s going to have to outplay Jones. Luckily for Pittsburgh, there’s a very good chance of that happening, because Murray’s played better of late and because he’s probably the better goaltender in a vacuum.

This feels to me like it’s going to be a very close series, and I like the Sharks to win in seven for a number of reasons. I trust their power play, I trust their offensive depth, and I think they have better two-way defensemen. I also find it tough to believe that San Jose’s grizzled vets — Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, etc. — would get so close to hoisting the Cup before falling to a team that, while talented, has some evident holes. If I were a Penguins fan, the fact that the team was pushed to the brink of elimination by a Lightning team without its two most important players (goalie and Vezina trophy finalist Ben Bishop and top scorer Steven Stamkos) would certainly worry me. Of course, if I were a Sharks fan (which I basically am for this series), I’d be very worried about Pittsburgh’s speed (while both teams are fast, I think the Penguins are quicker and better suited to play in open games) and its talent on the top three lines. But, in the end, I just trust San Jose a little bit more, even in Pittsburgh in a potential game seven.

Every year in college basketball, there are fringe NBA prospects who happen to have good postseason tournaments, whether in their conference tournament, the NCAA tournament, or both*. I’m not talking about guys like Buddy Hield, who was a star pegged to go in the top-10 of the draft all season long. I’m also not talking about guys like Brice Johnson, who put up great stats all year and great stats in the postseason but still doesn’t look likely to go in the lottery. Instead, I’m talking about players who, for whatever reason, went under the radar throughout the season but started getting a lot more buzz in the postseason. They didn’t necessarily improve their play in late-season action, but rather saw their stock rise due to the bigger stage. These are guys who, without a great end to the season, might not have declared for the draft. Domantas Sabonis is one of those players, but I already talked about him. There are two other prospects who clearly fit the profile: Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson and Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead. Those guys are both fringe first rounders at this point and may not make my final top-30, but I think they’re important to talk about. I’m also going to throw in two other players, both of whom I think are more solidly on the first round radar.

*As you might expect, these players have had mixed success in the NBA. Kemba Walker stands out as a guy whose stock was helped in the tournament and who hasn’t looked back since. Future UConn starting point guard Shabazz Napier? He had a great tournament, but it wasn’t quite a harbinger of things to come.

Malachi Richardson was a decent but inconsistent player throughout most of the season with Syracuse. Playing on one of the worst regular season Syracuse teams in recent memory, he put up 13 points per game with four rebounds and two assists per contests. He shot just 37% from the field, 35% from three, and 72% from the line and had two more turnovers than assists. These are solid stats for a freshman wing in a tough conference, but they certainly don’t seem good enough to justify a quick jump to the next level, especially for someone who was a good-but-not-great high school recruit. But, luckily for Malachi, the Orange were gifted a spot in the NCAA tournament as the #10 seed in the midwest region. Four games later, they had shockingly reached the Final Four, where they stayed with North Carolina early before eventually losing by 17. Richardson averaged 15 points on 35% shooting, but it wasn’t the stats that pushed his stock up. It was mainly one half of basketball:

In the Elite Eight, against the #1 seed in the region, Richardson led the ‘Cuse to one of the most shocking comebacks I can remember. It’s not that they came back from 30 down or from double-digits in the last minute. Rather, it’s that they came back by speeding up a team that always played slow and making one of the least mistake-prone teams in the country look like a high school team. And most of that was because of Richardson, who made difficult shot after difficult shot against a great defensive squad and racked up 21 points in the second half. It’s that kind of heart and “clutchness” that makes a lot of NBA scouts, probably the same ones that strongly dislike Ben Simmons, so excited.

Richardson definitely has some NBA-quality features. He’s 6’6″ with a 7’0″ wingspan, so size shouldn’t be a problem. He has also shown the ability to finish very difficult shots and should develop into an adequate three point shooter in the NBA. But the reason he had to take so many tough shots is less of a positive, because it indicates that he had difficulty creating easier shots for himself. Richardson was especially poor in transition, something that’s pretty tough to improve upon against better and smarter athletes. The most worrying thing I can point to about Richardson is that he’s a score-only (i.e. no passing and inconsistent defense) guy who can’t score efficiently. In fact, he shot just 39% from two point range. The only three players in modern times who were drafted after a season in which they shot under 40% from two are Randy Livingston, Andrew Harrison, and Josh Selby. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about Malachi’s NBA future, I don’t know what will. He may have heart and his game might look good in pickup games, but he’s not going to find his way onto my top-30.

While Richardson improved his draft stock in the NCAA tournament, Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead improved his in the Big East tournament before putting up a stinker against Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA tourney. And by stinker, I mean STINKER. Whitehead shot 4-24 from the field and 0-10 from three. But even that performance didn’t totally wash away the games that made him the Big East Tournament MVP. In the three tournament games, he scored 70 points, including 26 in a win over Villanova, who never lost again.

He also turned the ball over eight times in that game, but nobody remembers that. Whitehead actually averaged upwards of 20 points per game from the start of Big East play through the Big East Tournament. Whereas Richardson is a wing player, Whitehead is more of a ball handler. He’s a shooting guard rather than a point guard, but he averaged five assists per game this season. Of course, those assists came along with 3.5 turnovers per game, which is only the beginning of my concern for Whitehead. You know how Richardson will likely become one of the few sub-40%-from-two shooters drafted into the NBA? Well, if Whitehead gets drafted, he’ll join that exclusive group, too. In fact, Whitehead shares a lot of Richardson’s issues. He lacks the explosiveness to get to the bucket at ease and the jump shot to make contested midrange shots regularly. Like Richardson, he’s a fine three point shooter, and he’s also proven more adept at getting to the line that Malachi. But, flashy points per game total aside, I don’t really see how Whitehead is going to be a contributor in the NBA. He shares Richardson’s problems but lacks his size and length. While Richardson and Whitehead were inarguably two of the more exciting players in college basketball this season, they are also two of the least efficient players in the draft. I think the latter is a far better predictor of NBA success than the former, and I think taking either one of these guys before the mid second round would be a big overpay. It’s very dangerous to fall in love with prospects who hit ridiculous shots but end most games shooting sub-40%, and that’s what these two guys are.

St. Joseph’s DeAndre Bembry is certainly a more interesting prospect. I actually think he’s one of the more intriguing prospects outside of the lottery conversation. Bembry had a solid postseason, but I can’t point to any single game being his “coming out party” a la Villanova for Whitehead and Virginia for Richardson. I’m including him here because I think he was one of the more underrated players in college basketball over the last two seasons and because he opened some eyes in both the A-10 tournament and the NCAA tourney. The reason Bembry interests me so much is because he does a different thing well every night. In the A-10 semifinal against Dayton, he scored just nine points on 12 shots but added seven rebounds and eight assists. The next game, he poured in 30 points on 16 shots against VCU. It’s that versatility that will be Bembry’s calling card at the next level. Bembry was the A-10 Player of the Year, as he played more than 37 minutes per game and averaged 17/8/5 on 48% shooting. He was the offensive focal point, touching the ball on nearly every possession and finding open teammates at will. For a guy who was almost always the best player on the floor, Bembry is incredibly unselfish. That should serve him well at the next level, where I think he’ll fit in a lot better than a lot of draftees who go late in the first round. Bembry can work in the post, but he’s best in the open court, where he uses his passing ability, basketball IQ, and almost preternatural ability to shift speeds (a skill that is vital and very under appreciated). He’s also a good defender, with great instincts, quick feet, and a 6’9″ wingspan to go along with his good size (6’6″) for a shooting guard. Bembry has one real big weakness and one smaller one, and they both just so happen to be the same as Ben Simmons’s. His big weakness is a lack of shooting ability. While his shot doesn’t look broken, a 27% mark from beyond the arc and 66% rate from the line argue otherwise. Unfortunately, Bembry is a poor man’s Simmons across the board, so he can’t really afford to be a terrible shooter if he wants to be more than a role player. His smaller weakness goes along with his selflessness; he doesn’t really take over games or have the star mentality. But for a guy who won’t be expected to do as much as Simmons, that’s much less of a concern. I really like Bembry, because I think he’s a shot away from being a really good player. If his shot never develops, he’s a fine role player who is a good pick outside the top-20. If it does develop, he can be a quality sixth man who has the ability to start. That’s pretty valuable. I didn’t know where to put this, but here’s a good compilation of some of the things Bembry can do:

I knew about Taurean Prince before the Baylor forward made a mockery of a terrible question after Baylor’s loss to Yale in the NCAA tournament, but I wanted to know much more about him afterwards. That’s entirely the reason I’m putting him into this post. Just watch this interview exchange:

 

Don’t you love Taurean Prince now too??? Everything about that exchange makes me want Prince on my team. Oh, and he’s also a pretty good basketball player. Prince, the lone senior on this list (Richardson’s a freshman, Whitehead a sophomore, and Bembry a junior) was not anywhere near a top recruit coming out of high school. In fact, he was committed to LIU-Brooklyn before a coaching change enabled him to go to Baylor. He only started for one year in Waco and never averaged more than 16 points per game, but the small forward could still easily be drafted in the lottery. Why? Because he seems like he could be the perfect small-ball four, especially defensively. If you’re looking for a 6’8″ athletic 3-and-D guy to bring off the bench and play 25 minutes per game, this is your man. Prince is strong enough to defend most power forwards without problems and certainly quick enough to switch onto more guards without making himself look silly. He averaged 1.3 steals and .7 blocks per game and was often tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player in a tough Big 12. The result? A successful regular season for a team without the talent that a lot of their competition had. On the offensive side of the ball, Prince is a 37% career three point shooter who is fairly dynamic in transition if not a great creator in the half court. I love that he improved his free throw shooting from 64% last season to 74% and that he also nearly doubled his assist rate. He still turns it over more than he gets assists and is only a solid rebounder, but his improvements off the dribble and his catch-and-shoot game along with his ability to get to the rim and use both hands should make him a solid offensive player. When you pair that with versatile defense, you get a player who can play valuable minutes for a championship team.

Ranking of the four:
1. Bembry
1a. Prince – I love both Bembry and Prince, and they’ll be pretty high up in my top-30 compared to most lists.

(big gap)

3. Richardson- he trumps Whitehead because of his superior length and defensive potential
4. Whitehead- he scored a lot in college but was so inefficient that I can’t imagine him being productive at the next level.

There’s a pretty strong consensus among NBA draftniks that Providence’s Kris Dunn and Kentucky’s Jamal Murray are the two best point guards in the draft. Murray’s more of a combo guard who plays off the ball than a pure point guard, but for the most part I understand where people are coming from. But the attention paid to Dunn and Murray has, in my mind, led to a severe lack of attention towards four other point guards who could rival the top two’s production right off the bat and/or down the line. Unlike Dunn and Murray, these four aren’t necessarily all grouped together even though they all play the same position. The four are Murray’s teammate Tyler Ulis, Dejounte Murray of Washington (Marquese Chriss’s teammate), Demetrius Jackson of Notre Dame, and Wade Baldwin of Vanderbilt. They aren’t all the same age (Jackson’s a junior, Murray’s a freshman, and the other two are sophomores), nor do they all play the same way. But for a team drafting a point guard that is either not in love with Jamal Murray or Dunn or is picking after the top two are gone, these four should definitely be considered. Let’s see how they all shake out.

If you watched Kentucky at all last year, you probably got the impression that Tyler Ulis, and not Jamal Murray, was the best player on the team. That’s because Ulis, the team’s pure point guard, was the best player on the team. He had the sixth best assist-to-turnover ratio in the country at 3.57; he averaged seven assists and just two turnovers per game. He also scored an efficient 17.3 points per game, with 4.8 made free throws per game on 86% shooting. And he was the team’s best defender, using his quick feet and hands and his smarts to take home the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award along with the SEC Player of the Year award. Ironically, Ulis’s most impressive showing of the season might have come in Kentucky’s season-ending loss to Indiana in the NCAA tournament. As Murray was limited to one three point make on nine attempts and Skal Labissiere scored just four points, Ulis outplayed star Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell, pouring in 27 points on 50% shooting. Unfortunately, the rest of the uber-talented Wildcats team scored just 40 points on 38% shooting and Kentucky failed to make the second weekend. But Ulis’s performance put an exclamation mark on what was inarguably a terrific season.

Stats aside, there’s a lot to like about Tyler Ulis. He has to be considered the best pure point guard in the draft, with the basketball IQ and leadership skills to, as Kentucky coach John Calipari said, basically coach their team. His timing, effort, and passing ability should make him one of the safest prospects in the draft. And that’s not even considering that Ulis, unlike most floor generals, knows when to create for himself, too, avoiding “Rajon Rondo Syndrome” (I just made that up). In particular, his solid three point shot, consistent elbow jumper, and terrific floater come to mind. So far, he seems like a pretty perfect prospect. So what’s the problem? There’s only one: his height. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to be a 5’9″, 150 pound NBA player. The height almost certainly means that Ulis will have a lot of trouble doing some pretty vital things. He couldn’t really finish at the basket in college, which means NBA teams will have no trouble stopping his slashes to the rim. And while he was a good college defender, it’s a lot harder to defend Russell Westbrook or Stephen Curry at 5’9″ than it would be at 6’2″. It’s a true testament to Ulis that his only real weakness is something that he can’t control, but it’s a pretty big weakness nonetheless. There’s a reason that there have only been 23 players in the NBA’s history that have been under 5’10”. Those players include Muggsy Bogues and Spud Webb, both of whom are basketball heroes but neither of whom averaged 10 points per game in their NBA careers. Being short in the NBA is hard, but it’s not impossible. Ask Isaiah Thomas, Boston’s best player right now, or Nate Robinson, who won three Slam Dunk Contests and, at least for a while, was a solid player. Ulis will not be of interest to the many teams searching for more lengthy and versatile guards, but that gives other teams a great opportunity to get a valuable contributor at a discount. Ulis might have the lowest ceiling of these four, but he certainly also has the highest floor.

On the opposite end of the height spectrum is Washington’s freshman guard Dejounte Murray. Murray is 6’5″, although at 170 pounds he barely weighs more than Ulis. There are very few ways in which Murray and Ulis are similar aside from the fact that both profile as point guards in the NBA. One of those similarities is the fact that both are very good in fast-paced games. Murray’s Huskies played really fast, and Murray played hard enough to stay on the court for 33.5 minutes per game. Of course, he wasn’t very efficient or good in those minutes, as he shot just 42% from the field, 29% from three, and 66% from the line. He grabbed six rebounds and dished out 4.5 assists per game, but he also turned the ball over 3.2 times per contest. I don’t think he’ll ever be a great offensive player, simply because he just doesn’t seem that explosive to me. Like Ulis (and probably more than the 5’9″ guard), he often resorts to a floater, a sign that he can’t really take it to the hoop. And while he has the length to improve, I don’t really think he’s ever going to be explosive enough to finish at a great rate at the rim. I also don’t think he’ll ever be a great three point shooter, which again limits his offensive potential. What he can be is a good volume scorer, someone who lacks efficiency but can pour in a lot of points. Scoring 15 points per game on 42% shooting isn’t as valuable as scoring 15 on 48% shooting, but it’s valuable nonetheless. But I think he can be even more valuable on the defensive end, where he was solid his freshman year. He has long arms and great instincts, and can probably couple 1.5 steals per game with six boards per game at the next level, a rare combination. Even if he maxes out his defensive potential, he won’t be a true shutdown defender, but he could certainly be an asset on the defensive end. That upside along with his ability to make things happen offensively (albeit inefficiently) should probably make him worthy of a mid-late first round pick. I think it’s also important to note, however, that his shot isn’t Michael Carter-Williams level broken. He was actually pretty decent (not good, but decent) in catch-and-shoot situations, and the reason his percentages look so bad is largely because he had to do so much for a young Washington team. Of course, he’s going to need to improve his defense and his shot. But he’s also only 19, which means a team will be much more likely to ignore his college struggles and attempt to hit a home run by drafting him. Here’s an offensive comparison for Murray: Jamal Crawford, another tall, lanky combo guard. But while Crawford might be Murray’s best-case scenario offensively, he has the potential to do more on the defensive end. On the other hand, he might very well be a completely ineffective player, something Crawford would be if he were just a fraction worse at creating for himself. Here’s a video that pretty much encapsulates Murray’s freshman season in 13 seconds:

Defensive potential, lack of explosiveness, long arms. Sounds about right.

In a lot of ways, I think Vanderbilt’s Wade Baldwin may be a better version of Murray right now. The fact that he’s better may come from his extra year in college, but I think it also may be a harbinger of things to come at the next level. I prefer Baldwin to Murray for a number of reasons. Body-wise, he’s an inch shorter (6’4″) but, more importantly, has a 6’11″+ wingspan, two inches longer than Murray’s. He’s also considerably stronger than Murray at this moment, although that could change as Murray gets older. I would say that, among the four point guards I’m writing about today, Baldwin has by far the most defensive upside. He’s already a terrific defender, with quick feet and the ability to close out on jump shooters, fight through screens, and cover a lot of ground. When you don’t need to be taught those things, it becomes a lot easier to become a shutdown defender, something I think Baldwin can definitely be.

Baldwin also has more offensive polish than Murray, simply because he can actually shoot. Baldwin shot 41% from beyond the arc last year and 80% from the line on nearly six attempts per contest. He also grabbed more assists and committed fewer turnovers than his Washington counterpart. Unfortunately, his lack of explosiveness is very similar to Murray’s in that it hinders his ability to finish at the rim when he’s tightly guarded. He also lacks Murray’s offensive creativity and is much worse at creating for himself off the dribble. So I guess I’d say that Murray and Baldwin are basically equal prospects on the offensive end. Murray has higher offensive upside thanks to his Jamal Crawford-esque ability to hit tough shots, but Baldwin is better right now with his better decision-making and superior shooting. But it’s really on the defensive end that Baldwin separates himself from Murray, who could be a good defender but right now basically relies only on his length to wreak havoc on that end of the ball. Point guards who can shoot, create for others, and defend don’t grow on trees. Even if Baldwin never develops his offensive game, he’ll be able to do those three things. That’s why I’m puzzled as to why Baldwin hasn’t been getting that much love, at least publicly. The most-viewed youtube video about him is of coach Kevin Stallings cursing at him. That video has about 35,000 views. Tyler Ulis’s top video has about a million views. That doesn’t mean anything, but it’s interesting. Of course, when you consider that Ulis went to Kentucky and Baldwin to Vanderbilt, it’s not that surprising, but then Dejounte Murray also has a video that’s generated 500,000 views, so maybe this is just a Wade Baldwin thing.

Demetrius Jackson wasn’t as good in college as Ulis and isn’t as tall or long as either Murray or Baldwin, but he may well be the best prospect of the four. He’s certainly the most athletic, with a 43.5 inch max vertical, tremendous explosiveness, and great quickness. Although he’s only 6’1″ or 6’2″, I don’t think he’ll have the trouble finishing at the hoop that any of the other three will due to his athleticism and quick first step. And while his three point shooting fell from 43% to 33% last year, that was largely because he was the focal point of Notre Dame’s defense. The fact that he was not as effective without Jerian Grant in the backcourt with him is not at all surprising, nor do I really think it’s something to be worried about going forward. All too often, people overrate shifts like Jackson’s from beyond the arc, forgetting about circumstances that will vanish at the next level, when Jackson will have more space to get shots off. At 45% from the field, Jackson is actually the most efficient shooter from the field of the four. Ulis scored more on roughly the same number of shots, but that’s because he got to the line more frequently. The lack of free throw attempts for Jackson (just four per game) is slightly concerning, but I’m not too worried, as Jackson did show the ability to draw fouls down the stretch of big games. That’s another feather in Jackson’s cap: his performance in close games this season. Against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, Jackson was ineffective throughout but came up clutch when the team needed him. He hit a layup to bring the Fighting Irish within one with 19 seconds left, then quickly got a steal and gave Notre Dame the lead five seconds later. Then, with the Fighting Irish up three with a few seconds left and needing another stop, Jackson got another steal and drained two free throws. I’ve linked to an article with video of the two steals. The Fighting Irish lost in the Elite Eight to a stronger North Carolina team, but Jackson scored 26 points on 16 shots in that game.

He certainly isn’t the passer that Ulis is, but Jackson’s 2.14 assist-to-turnover ratio is better than Murray’s and Baldwin’s. He’s not a natural floor general, with only decent court vision and just a year as the lone point guard under his belt, a legitimate concern. And while he possesses solid defensive potential, he wasn’t consistent in college. But defensive inconsistency is very common in college, and Jackson seems very much to be the best prospect if you want a near-definite contributor who also has the potential to be a solid starter. Ulis has a higher floor, but he also doesn’t really have that potential to be a good starter.

Ranking of the four:
Jackson
Baldwin
Ulis
Murray

A couple of days ago, I went over the three top seven-footers. This is a big man heavy draft, and I didn’t want to forget about some of the other talented bigs, so I’m coming right back with more. While none of these four guys crack seven feet, they’re all immensely talented and young, with the oldest being the 20-year-old Domantas Sabonis, who left college after his sophomore year. The four are all pegged to go around the middle of the first round. Let’s start with the guy I watched least this season (call it East Coast bias).

Before a month or so ago, I had never heard of Washington freshman forward Marquese Chriss. Chriss was the #60 recruit in the Class of 2015, well behind the two other players in his class I’m talking about today (although still certainly on the radar), so it’s safe to say he’s come from relative obscurity from the average fan’s perspective. Chriss, a 6’10”, 235 pound power forward, is a raw prospect with tremendous upside who seems like the perfect power forward in today’s NBA. He’s lengthy and springy, with a 38.5 inch max vertical and some thunderous dunks like this one. This is a guy with the athleticism to be featured on many a highlight reel. But athleticism alone shouldn’t put you in the conversation for a lottery selection. And it doesn’t for Chriss, who also averaged 14 points per game in his only season at Washington, shooting 53% from the line and 35% from three. For an 18-year-old who started playing basketball late, that’s pretty impressive. With his ability to finish at the rim and pop out for threes, Chriss has the potential to become a great pick-and-pop player. Unfortunately, that’s all it is right now: potential. Chriss is a long way away from being helpful in the NBA. His troubles start with a frequent inability to stay focused. Chriss committed a preposterous 4.1 fouls per game, and he fouled out of 15 games and committed four in 10 more contests. He also turned the ball over about 2.5 times more often than he was credited with an assist (69 turnovers, 26 assists), which is certainly a troubling sign for a player who will be expected to play a lot on the perimeter. And Chriss doesn’t seem to have the motor or awareness, at least at the moment, to hold his own on the defensive glass. He rebounded the ball 5.4 times per game, but even that number hides how much trouble Chriss has on the defensive glass, as nearly half of his boards are offensive. For a 6’10” power forward, 2.9 defensive rebounds per game is putrid and something that seems like it could be a longterm issue. Another big issue? Chriss often totally loses his man on defense, as he does in the video I’ve linked to. In a lot of ways, he seems very similar to a lot of flashy college players who have been hyped up and then failed at the next level due to a lack of polish and effort. Last time, I talked about polish vs. potential in the Poeltl-Labissiere debate. Chriss is certainly more like Skal and Jakub and is probably even less polished than the Kentucky big man, just to give you an idea of where he currently is. But if you want upside in the middle of the first round, Chriss is your man. He has the potential to be an 18 points per game type player with good defense. Just like Skal, I would advise a team with multiple first round picks to look at Chriss, because I think he’s worth taking a chance on.

Of the four guys on this list, nobody has the all-around offense profile of Marquette freshman Henry Ellenson. The 6’11” power forward averaged 17 points per game while playing for a team that lacked much talent aside from him. While Sabonis, who I’ll talk about later, has a good back-to-the-basket game, Ellenson is a face-up player who has the skill and quickness to drive to the basket or pull up for a three. While his three point shot (29%) lacked consistency, I’m fairly confident that Ellenson will turn out to be a good shooter from beyond the arc. He has good form, and he also shot 75% from the line, which often turns out to be a better indicator of NBA three point success than college three point success is. Speaking of free throws, Ellenson attempted nearly six free throws per game last year, an impressive number for a guy playing 33.5 minutes per game in his freshman year of college. And he had to work for his points, often serving as a primary ball handler for Marquette and going coast-to-coast on plays like this one:

That highlight pretty much sums up Ellenson’s appeal to a tee. You can see his tremendous fluidity and how comfortable he is with the ball. You can also see the soft finish with his left hand. When he refines his three point shot, which I’m sure he will do, he’s going to be a tremendous offensive weapon.

But then there’s the defensive side of the ball, where he struggled a lot in college. There’s really nothing good to say about Ellenson’s defense right now. He’s bad in the pick-and-roll, he’s bad on the perimeter, and he’s especially bad on the inside, where he can neither hold his position nor protect the rim. There’s also the unfortunate fact that he doesn’t try very hard on defense, which maybe partially explains his ability offensively. One thing you can’t say about Ellenson is that he doesn’t rebound, as he was just a tick away from averaging a double-double. But I feel like I could score on Ellenson. Not a good sign. I think there are two possible NBA futures for Ellenson. In future #1, he devotes himself to improving on the defensive end and becomes a playable (albeit still below-average) defender. Future #1 Ellenson is a good starter, a guy who can play 35 minutes per game on a playoff team. Future #1 Ellenson is worth a pick in the 4-7 range. In future #2, Ellenson improves his three point shot but stays dreadful on defense. Future #2 Ellenson is a role player but an important one, playing close to 20 minutes per game on a playoff team. He can carry the offense when the star player is on the bench but will rarely find his way onto the court in crunch time. Future #2 Ellenson might be worth a pick at the end of the lottery (although I probably wouldn’t take him until later, since I value defense pretty highly). That pretty much covers Ellenson. His real draft range may well be that 4-14 range I just laid out, and whether or not the pick will be a good one will depend on how much his defense improves.

Three of the big men were key players for their college teams. Deyonta Davis, a member of the Michigan State Spartans and the #22 recruit in the Class of 2015, was not. He played 18.6 minutes per game for Sparty, scoring 7.5 points on 60% shooting and grabbing 5.5 rebounds per contest. But while Davis, who played behind senior Matt Costello, didn’t play a lot, he certainly flashed some potential when he did play. Davis should provide good defense right off the bat. He’s big and strong at 6’10” and 240 pounds, and his 7’2″ wingspan should allow him to be a great rim defender. Unlike a lot of big men, Davis looks like he belongs on a basketball court, as he’s both extremely athletic and very fluid and agile. His 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in just 18.6 minutes show that he’ll likely be a good shot blocker and rebounder immediately. He also has offensive potential, although that will probably manifest itself further down the line. For a raw player, Davis actually has some offensive moves. This hook shot missed, but you can see how fluid it is:

He averaged .98 points per post possession, which isn’t an elite number but is good enough to convince me that he won’t be the traditional offensive stiff who only impacts the game on defense. He also has nice touch on his midrange jumper and doesn’t exhibit any of the frantic, disjointed offensive play that has characterized poor offensive big men. I don’t think he’ll ever be a good three point shooter, but if he can extend his range to 16-18 feet, he can be a solid offensive player. At the very least, he’s showed the offensive potential to be considered an interesting prospect and a potential pick anywhere after the top half of the lottery.

Neither Chriss nor Ellenson made the NCAA tournament. Davis made it but was knocked out in the first round (in maybe the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history). Domantas Sabonis, though, starred in the tournament, making it out of the first weekend and dominating Jakub Poeltl in a second round matchup. Sabonis’s Zags lost (very) big man Przemek Karnowski early in the season, which allowed Sabonis to star alongside versatile power forward Kyle Wiltjer all season. Sabonis averaged 17.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, shooting 61% from the field and 77% from the line. In three tournament games, he scored 59 points, grabbed 43 rebounds, and swatted eight shots. The Zags lost to Syracuse, but Sabonis nearly single-handedly lugged them to the Elite Eight. If you pick him in the first round, it won’t be because of his physical traits. Sabonis is 6’10”, but he also only has a 6’10” wingspan, short for a power forward and very short for a center. He also doesn’t have great leaping ability. No, if you pick Domantas in the first round, it’ll be because he’s deadly in the post. According to Synergy Sports, he ranked seventh in the country in post-up scoring and third in efficiency. He combines great footwork, body control, and mobility to make defenders (including Poeltl) look silly in the post. He shot 67% on post-ups. Here’s Sabonis scoring easily on Chriss in the post:

Of course, tremendous interior efficiency in college does not always carry over to the next level, so Sabonis probably lacks the offensive certainty that Ellenson will likely give the team that picks him. If you inferred from the 12 rebounds per game that Sabonis is likely to be a good rebounder at the next level, you’d be right. He has good instincts and always seems to be in the right place for rebounds. His defense is shaky, albeit not as bad as Ellenson’s. The effort is there and Sabonis is a fine post defender, but he can’t stay with quicker power forwards. Regardless of whether he becomes a good defender or not, Sabonis is likely to have a long NBA career due to his post ability and willingness to do the dirty work.

Ranking of the four:
Davis (I love his athleticism and the offensive potential he showed in college)
Ellenson (I trust his offense)
Chriss (the upside is tantalizing)
Sabonis (won’t be a star, but I’d love to have him on my team)

With the NBA playoffs still in full swing and thus very few nights without any basketball, it’s easy to forget that the NBA draft is fast approaching. But it is indeed approaching, and it’ll be upon us before we know it. The draft’s on June 23rd, and since the lottery happened last week (in case you didn’t hear, everything went exactly as it was supposed to. The top 14 picks will be made by the teams with the 14 worst records in the league (and the teams some traded those picks to) in that exact order), this feels like the exact right time to start talking about the draft. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are going to start dueling it out on my television screen in about an hour, but I want to talk about some 19-year-olds who will largely be out of the league in five years!

Over the next month, I hope to research and write about enough prospects for me to be able to have an informed personal top-30 list. I’m going to save the big debate (Simmons or Ingram) for closer to draft day, but I will say that those two will be at the top of my board, just as they are in everyone else’s estimation. I haven’t done much writing about the prospects yet, but I did write about the top elder statesmen in the draft class in seniors Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine and junior Kris Dunn. At the end of that post, I wrote what was then my top-10:
Ben Simmons
Brandon Ingram
Dragan Bender
Kris Dunn
Buddy Hield
Denzel Valentine
Jaylen Brown
Jamal Murray
Diamond Stone
Jakob Poeltl

I’m positive that my list in a month will be different than that one, but let’s use that top-10 as a baseline. I’d also like to note that, thanks to a new rule, draft entrants who have not hired an agent may still return to college. They have until only Wednesday to decide, so this will no longer be a stipulation soon, but it is something to keep in mind. I’m linking to a nice handy list of players who have — and haven’t — hired agents.

Today, I’m going to look at the three most highly-regarded seven-footers in the draft: Jakob Poeltl, Skal Labissiere, and Dragan Bender.

Pronounced “Ya-kob Per-tel” and called “Purtle the Turtle” (by me), Jakob Poeltl is a 7’1″ sophomore center from Utah. I plead guilty to not watching a lot of Pac-12 basketball, so most of my firsthand knowledge of Poeltl and his game come from the NCAA tournament. In last year’s tournament, he really impressed me. Although he played just 23.3 minutes per game in his freshman year, Poeltl averaged 26 minutes in three tournament games and nearly led Utah past Duke in the Sweet 16. At the time, I remember thinking: how have I not heard of this big, athletic, funny-named Austrian guy? Well, by the next year, everyone had heard of Poeltl. He made huge strides, averaging 17 points and nine rebounds per game and becoming a second-team All-American. With that being said, his season ended on a very sour note, as he was thoroughly dominated by Domantas Sabonis and Gonzaga’s frontline to the tune of just five points and four rebounds. If that takes people off his scent, though, it shouldn’t.

A quick look at the stat sheet tells me that Poeltl shot 68% from the field as a freshman and 65% as a sophomore, and, after watching some gameplay, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been even higher than that. That’s partly due to some poor opposition, but the fact that he scored 17 points on fewer than 10 shots per game says more about Poeltl than it does about a lack of quality big defenders. I’m willing to write the Gonzaga game off as an anomaly, because Poeltl was consistently great at putting the ball in the basket. He’s certainly not a threat from long or even mid range, but he was tremendous in college with his back to the basket. I believe his biggest strength is his touch around the basket. Purtle the Turtle is very good with both hands, and while his post moves never make you gasp, his hook shots and footwork are strong enough to work the majority of the time (he shoots 69% around the basket in the half court). Unlike some great post players (not that Poeltl is a great post player, because I don’t think he will be), the center also moves pretty well. This

illustrates that pretty well. I don’t think Poeltl will have a lot of highlights like this at the next level, but it’s this speed and coordination that will allow him to be a productive pick-and-roll player at the next level, a skill that’s vital for a big man in today’s NBA. Another thing I consider vital? At least some ability to knock down free throws. And after Poeltl shot just 44% from the line his freshman year, he connected at a 69% rate as a sophomore, while attempting 6.6 free throws per game. All reports say that Poeltl has a great attitude and is very coachable, and the free throw numbers back that up.

A decade ago, a 7’1″ talent like Poeltl would probably have been a top-five lock. But in today’s NBA, there are some things teams are looking for from their centers that Poeltl just doesn’t have. First of all, he’s never going to be an elite rim protector. His wingspan is “just” 7’2″, and he averaged 1.5 blocks per game, a fine number but probably a sign that he won’t be a great shot blocker at the next level. His one-on-one defense in the post is fine, but given that so many teams are shying away from going straight to the post, it’ll be interesting to see whether or not he can stay on the court against small-ball lineups. I would guess not, at least against the best of the small-ball lineups. There’s also the obvious fact that Poeltl is not a threat from outside the paint. I’m confident, though, that he can develop at least a decent mid range shot. The final concern is that Poeltl isn’t strong enough to rebound over or defend big centers. He’ll need to strengthen his legs at the next level, but again, that’s something I think he can do. For teams who want a traditional center, Poeltl should be the top guy on their list.

Skal Labissiere was the #2 recruit in the country coming out of high school, behind Ben Simmons and a spot ahead of Brandon Ingram. To say he disappointed in his only year at Kentucky would be an understatement. Labissiere played just 16 minutes per game, averaging 6.6 points per game. After the end of non-conference play, he cracked double figures just four times. And in the second round of the tournament, against an athletic Indiana team, Labissiere scored four points. Of course, there’s a reason that Labissiere, who at 216 pounds is 25 notches lighter than Poeltl, was such a prized recruit. Poeltl is the much more polished player. In fact, Skal, a Haitian, had barely played basketball before he arrived in the US in 2010. It’s fair to say that he lost a lot of confidence at Kentucky, largely because the coaching staff didn’t give him a long leash. With that in mind, I hope he ends up with a team that will allow him to play consistent minutes and develop. He’s a real athlete, with great jumping ability and speed in fast break situations. In two key ways, he’s the opposite of Poeltl. While Poeltl is not a great shot blocker and does not have a good jump shot, Labissiere can do each very well. He equaled Poeltl’s 1.6 blocks per game in just 52% as many minutes. And in this video, he looks like he can shoot it like a guard.

Of course, that wasn’t in a real game, which is kind of the point. The Poeltl vs. Labissiere debate is one a lot of teams are going to be having over the next month, and each team’s answer will probably come down to their own philosophy about whether to go for the polish or the potential. Because, while Labissiere could be a great weapon on both sides of the court, he could also be Nerlens Noel with worse defense, which is code for out of the league. This is a guy with no post game and a player who committed three fouls per game (one every 5.3 minutes) while picking up a TOTAL of 11 assists. This is also a guy who’s so quick and athletic and shows so much potential.. but not really in games. Labissiere would be a good pick for a team willing to take a risk or one with multiple first round picks. As of now, this is the way I look at the two guys I’ve talked about:

   Likelihood  superstar  Likelihood  star  Likelihood  starter  Likelihood  role player  Likelihood  bench warmer
Jakob Poeltl 1% 9% 55% 26% 9%
Skal Labissiere 5% 15% 21% 39% 20%

So do you want the guy who’s more than 150% as likely to be a starter, or the guy who’s twice as likely to be at least a multi-time All-Star? Again, that comes down to draft philosophy.

Of course, if you draft high enough, you don’t need to make that decision. In Dragan Bender, you can have the high floor and the high ceiling. There’s a reason the Croatian, who’s more than two years younger than Poeltl and a year and a half younger than Labissiere, is very likely to be #3 on my board. I have no stats to share with you. I mean, there are stats, but they are worth nothing, given that Bender has barely played as a teenager in a league with grown men. I also want to shy away from comparisons to Kristaps Porzingis or any other European big man, because that’s just lazy and probably incorrect. I think Dragan can be the total package. His standing reach is 9’3″, at least three inches longer than the other two seven-footers. Watch this video and tell me what he can’t do:

He can hit threes. He can go coast-to-coast. He can alter and block shots. He can play in the post, although that part of his game needs some work. Now, it’s very fair to say that I’m overrating him because I’ve only watched highlight videos like this one. I haven’t seen Bender’s version of the Gonzaga game for Poeltl. And that’s a fair point. But I look out for things other than highlight reel dunks against overmatched opponents. I see Bender’s great outlet passes and court vision. I see decent footwork. I also see the potential for great defense and the ability to eventually be able to switch onto guards. Now, Bender also needs a lot of work. He won’t be a good three point shooter right away, and he’s going to be manhandled down low. And there’s also a reason that I have him clearly behind both Simmons and Ingram. Those guys have the potential to be go-to scorers. I don’t think Bender is as likely to fill it up offensively barring huge improvements. He’s an inconsistent shooter (much worse than Ingram), and lacks Simmons’ ability to get into the paint at will. At the same time, though, he could potentially be one of the best two-way players in the league as a stretch-four. That’s why I like him so much at #3.

Ranking of the three:
Bender
Poeltl
Labissiere

 

Thank goodness for the Thunder and Spurs, because aside from the two of them, who locked horns in a fascinating round two battle, the rest of the second round was mediocre bordering on terrible. I was very surprised to see that the Thunder were able to maintain the level of effort they did for five consecutive games after their embarrassing game one performance. I always knew they had the talent to knock off the Spurs, but I wasn’t convinced that they’d be able to stay focused enough to take punches from San Antonio and fight back. And while they benefited from some bad calls down the stretch of close games, the fact that they even stayed close with the Spurs, a 67-win team, for five straight games says a lot. They won two games in a place where only one team had defeated the Spurs in 43 (including round one) tries. And they closed out game six in style, with their only comfortable win. Now, after vanquishing the 67-win Spurs, they get to battle a whole different behemoth: the Golden State Warriors, who are 8-2 in the playoffs despite being without the best player in the league for the majority of the first two rounds. That’s clearly the more intriguing matchup, but I’ll start with the Eastern Conference Final, which comes between a team that is undefeated in the playoffs and has been setting all kinds of three-point shooting records (the Cavs) and a team that is banged up and coming off two ugly seven game slugfests.

Cavs over Raptors in 5: I wanted to make for the Raptors. I really did. But after watching each team’s first two rounds, I just don’t see a way that the Raps can even push this series to seven games. After their blowout game seven win over the Heat, the Raptors have outscored their opposition by a cumulative eight points in 14 games. The Cavaliers have outscored their opponents by 84 points in just eight games. I don’t see how the Raptors will be able to score, especially with center Jonas Valanciunas still injured. Without Valanciunas, the team’s only offense is the backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. And, while the pair picked it up near the end of the Miami series, they’re still shooting just 36% (DeRozan) and 37% (Lowry) from the floor. That’s just not going to cut it against the Cavaliers, and that might even be on the high end of what they’re able to do in this series. So scoring will be an issue, as, big dunks aside, Bismack Biyombo is far inferior offensively to the polished Valanciunas. How about the other side of the ball? Well, the Raptors defense has looked good, but that was against the 23rd (Indiana) and 12th (Miami) best offenses in the NBA on a per-possession basis. And the Heat seemed to be able to generate open threes at ease. Their problem? They missed all of them. Hoping the opponent misses open threes is, er, not going to work against the Cavaliers, who are hitting 16.8 threes per game in the playoffs on 46% shooting. Even if DeMarre Carroll totally shuts down LeBron James, which won’t happen, the Raptors have no chance if they can’t stop Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, and Co. from hitting threes. They’ll have a game in which the backcourt plays ridiculously well and they could win that game, but I don’t think this series is getting past five games.

Warriors over Thunder in 6: I wrote about Oklahoma City’s chances against the mighty Warriors here. A week later, a few things have changed. First of all, I no longer have as much concern regarding OKC’s mental lapses. After five consecutive high-pressure games against the Spurs, I’m more confident that they’ll show up game in and game out against the Warriors. Not fully confident, but more confident. The Warriors are and should be the clear favorites here, because they won 73 games this season and because they’re easily the more complete team. But I said that the Warriors should hope to see the Spurs and not the Thunder, and I think the Thunder have a very decent chance of at least sending this to a seventh game. Another development that’s occurred over the last week has been the emergence of the big man duo of Enes Kanter and Steven Adams playing together. In the regular season, Kanter and Adams played just 127 minutes together (all season!). They grabbed a lot of rebounds but couldn’t defend well enough to stay on the court together. In the playoffs, Kanter and Adams have played 79 minutes together. They’re grabbing 50% of offensive rebounds and 82.4% of defensive rebounds. They’ve allowed just 92.7 points per 100 possessions (the team has allowed 102) while scoring 110.1. The Warriors are amazing, but they aren’t a great rebounding team. The Thunder, who grabbed 54.7% of available rebounds in the regular season and 55.8% in the playoffs, are a great rebounding team, especially when the twin towers are on the court. The pivotal question, thus, is: when the Warriors go to their “Death Lineup”, the one with which they have absolutely demolished everyone in crunch-time, do the Thunder have to downside with them, or can they stay big and punish Golden State on the boards? If they go small, I don’t think they have much of a chance. You can’t beat the Warriors at their own game, especially if your extra wing players (Dion Waiters, Randy Foye, Anthony Morrow) aren’t particularly good. If they go big, they can hide Kanter on Harrison Barnes, who’s been bad offensively in the playoffs. They’ll undoubtedly give up some easy buckets, but they can stay in the game as long as they can continue to dominate the offensive glass, which is something they can definitely do with a frontline of Kanter and Adams against one of Barnes and Draymond Green. Steph Curry will get his points and Klay Thompson will get his, but the Thunder are uniquely positioned to counter that with two of their own dominant scorers. Of course, they don’t have anyone who can combat Green, which is why I think Serge Ibaka needs to be much better in this series than he has been recently. But in Adams and Kanter, I think they might have found a few big men who will make Golden State sweat. In a lot of ways, I think this could be similar to last year’s Finals between the Cavs and Warriors. In that series, the Cavs countered Golden State with a pair of big men (Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson) who dominated the offensive boards. For a while, it worked. But then the Warriors went to the Death Lineup and won the last three games of the series. They will do that again early and often against the Thunder, but the Thunder also have something the Cavs didn’t have last year: two legitimate superstars. It’s hard for me to envision a more exciting series than this one… except, maybe, the Warriors against the full-strength Cavs. Will we get that series? I expect that we will, because Golden State has given me no reason to doubt their ability to take a punch and then rebound and vanquish their opponent. But at least now they’re facing a team that’s fully capable of throwing a Haymaker. I think the Warriors will get back up and keep fighting, but they will get punched in the face by Durant, Westbrook, and Oklahoma City’s size. I really want this series to go seven games, and I think it has a great chance of doing so. But I’m picking the Warriors in six, just because I’m not totally sure that the Kanter-Adams duo is going to be able to match up even moderately well with Green, Barnes, and Andre Iguodala. This should be a great series.

NHL Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/13/2016 by levcohen in Hockey

It was a round with a lot of twists and turns, but for the most part, the second round ended about as I thought it would. The Lightning, after dropping game one at home against the Islanders, won the next four, showing again that they have the fortitude and ability to win without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. The Islanders saw some regression to the mean in terms of overtime success, dropping both of their overtime games against Tampa after winning all three in their first round series against the Panthers. In the end, career backup goalie Thomas Greiss couldn’t carry a struggling offense like he did in round one, and the Lightning won game five in style, 4-0. They’ll face the Penguins, who were responsible for my only incorrect series pick of the four. Guess what? The Washington Capitals choked AGAIN. All annoying hot takes aside, I don’t think you can really blame Washington for losing here. They might have been the best team in the league in the regular season, but they ran into a team that was simply on another level, were pegged back 3-0 in game six, and still fought back, nearly sending the series to a game seven in Washington (Pittsburgh’s 4-3 win in game six was the only competitive closeout game: Tampa won 4-0, St. Louis 6-1, and San Jose 5-0) . The fact that Alexander Ovechkin has (still) never made it past the second round is puzzling, but I think the people who are advocating a total rebuild are crazy. Make no mistake: the Capitals will be great again next year, and they’ll again have a chance to advance further into the postseason. Whether they can actually do it or not is the real question.

Meanwhile, out West I felt that the two teams that were clearly superior won their respective series’, although they were both pushed further than I thought they would be. The Blues outscored the Stars 25-14 in the series, and they were only pushed seven games because they lost an overtime game and a fluky game six in which they outshot the Stars 37-14 and still lost. For Dallas, the absence of star forward Tyler Seguin was too much to overcome, as the team’s goaltending woes, seemingly among the worst in recent playoff history, came back to haunt them. The starting goalie (Kari Lehtonen twice, Antti Niemi once) was pulled three times, and this was clearly a team with too many holes to advance deeper into the playoffs. A great season for the Stars came to a discouraging end, but this is a young team with really high potential. Finally, the Sharks finally vanquished the Predators with a dominant game seven showing, defeating Nashville 5-0 and outshooting them 23-8 in the first two periods. The veteran team outscored the Predators 25-17, overcoming two overtime losses (including a triple overtime loss) and winning all four games on their home ice. The Sharks were 8/21 on the power play and 6/11 in their wins while holding Nashville to three power play goals.

With all that said, we have a couple of fascinating matchups to look forward to, starting with game one of Penguins-Lightning tonight. Let’s start with that one, which I think has a clear favorite.

Penguins over Lightning in seven: On the surface, the fact that the Lightning have made it this far is insane, considering that they’re without their second best defender (Anton Stralman) and best player (Steven Stamkos). But is it really that surprising? This is a team that made the Stanley Cup Final last year, so the experience is there. They also have a capital-G Great playoff goalie in Ben Bishop, who has five shutouts in 35 career playoff games along with a .938 save percentage this postseason, tops among goalies still in the playoffs. The “Triplets” line that was so incredible in last year’s playoffs? Well, after a poor regular season, the Palat-Johnson-Kucherov line is back, as the latter two lead the team in playoff points with 13 (four goals and nine assists for Johnson) and 12 (nine goals and three assists for Kucherov) in 10 games. How about Jonathan Drouin, the clearly-talented young forward seemingly always in coach Jon Cooper’s doghouse? In Stamkos’s absence, Drouin has nine points in the playoffs. And defensive stud Victor Hedman has added nine points in a ridiculous 27:30 minutes per playoff game. Finally, the Lightning have been able to go 8-2 because they’ve gotten two pretty easy matchups with wild card teams that slumped down the stretch. Even with Stralman and Stamkos out, the Lightning were more talented than the full-strength Detroit Red Wings and had the much better goalie than the Islanders. The Penguins are a different story.

After finishing the regular season 14-2-0, Pittsburgh hammered the Rangers in five games, outscoring them 21-10. Then they knocked off the NHL’s best regular season team, outscoring the Capitals if not necessarily outplaying them. With the Caps out, the Penguins are the favorites, with a 30-35% chance of winning it all per most betting markets. They have a hot goalie in Matt Murray and a Stanley Cup winner in Marc-Andre Fleury waiting on the bench if Murray gets cold. They’re the fastest team in the NHL, and they might be the most talented. When Evgeni Malkin is centering the third line, and when neither the Malkin nor the Sidney Crosby line is the team’s best offensive unit, you know you have a contender for the Cup. The best line right now is the Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel line, which has combined for 30 points in 11 games. The ironic thing? That second line, the one with the most chemistry on the team, is composed of three players who are all concluding their first seasons with the Penguins. Call them the “anti-Triplets.” And Pittsburgh also has terrific special teams, with a power play that is 11/40 and a PK that’s 35/42. They’re healthy, and at this point they feel like a juggernaut steamrolling to the Cup.

So why do I have the Lightning pushing it to seven games? For what it’s worth, the Lightning are 3-0 against the Pens this season. But more importantly, there’s the Stamkos/Stralman wildcard. Stralman could be back for game two or three, while Stamkos has a chance of returning later in the series. If those two guys come back full-strength, the Lightning suddenly transform into the better team. Finally, I just can’t see a scenario in which Ben Bishop doesn’t steal a couple of games. The Penguins are the rightful favorites in this series, but it could be a tougher one than the two that have preceded it because the Lightning play a speed-first game that’s very similar to Pittsburgh’s, while the Capitals and Rangers before them were more physical, a style that has proven to be a poor one against this Penguins team.

Sharks over Blues in six: These teams are both very good. But there’s a clear difference between the two: firepower. As in, the Sharks have much more of it than do the Blues. Now, you might be thinking that the Stars also had more scoring punch than St. Louis and that didn’t win them the series. But the difference between San Jose and Dallas is that the Sharks have a functional goalie. Let’s start with San Jose’s offensive prowess. The Sharks scored the second most goals in the Western Conference this season, behind only the aforementioned Stars. Their offense is powered by a ferocious power play that went 13/42 in the first two rounds, a number that probably doesn’t do the power play justice. Brent Burns might be the best power play point in the league, with a tremendous shot that netted him 75 regular season points and 15 so far in the playoffs. Logan Couture has been insane in the playoffs, with an NHL-leading 17 points, while steady, reliable Joe Thornton (36 years-old), Joe Pavelski (31), and Patrick Marleau (36) still have more than enough tricks in the bag to get the job done, especially on the man advantage. The Blues held the undermanned Stars to just two power play goals in seven games; I can’t see the Sharks scoring fewer than four or five in this series. Meanwhile, first-year starter Martin Jones has been very steady all year, with a .918 save percentage in the regular season and an identical one in the playoffs. The Stars wilted when under pressure against the Blues, something I can’t see the Sharks doing.

That’s not to say that the Blues have no chance. Any team this good and well rounded has an excellent chance at winning a series. In fact, the Blues are moderate (-130) favorites to win the series. Their calling card is a top-four defense that has to be the best one in the NHL. Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Colton Parayko, and Jay Bouwmeester have tough names to spell, but they’re forgiven because they are all amazing defenders. The Sharks are going to have to break them down every so often, which is no easy task. St. Louis probably also has the slight advantage between the pipes, with the much-maligned Brian Elliot playing excellently all season and especially in the playoffs. And they have a good group of forwards, led by sniper Vladimir Tarasenko and captain David Backes. This is a team that has been gritty and resilient for 14 games now, and winning back-to-back seven games series is no small feat. Can they do it a third time, though? It’s certainly possible, but the well-rounded Sharks are certainly a different animal than the comparatively-tame Stars.