Archive for February, 2018

The Kawhi Leonard Situation is Bizarre

Posted: 02/24/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

Throughout his career, Kawhi Leonard has been known as the consummate San Antonio Spur for a number of reasons. His personality — or lack-thereof, it seems from the outside — reminds everyone of Tim Duncan’s, but it’s not only that. It’s his attention to detail, particularly defensively. It’s his yearly improvement. It’s his unselfishness on the court as well as off it. It’s his development from shaky college shooter to terrific weapon from beyond the arc, thanks largely to renowned shot coach Chip Engelland. For all of these reasons, he became the obvious heir to Duncan, the guy who would keep San Antonio’s dynasty alive. He signed a max contract a few years ago that locked him up for at least four years at what now looks like a bargain (under $19 million a year). And through last year, it looked like he was living up to all of the Spursian expectations and then some. After he became a legitimate star the season before, Leonard exploded into the upper echelon of the league’s star players. He finished third in the MVP voting and was one of three contenders for Defensive Player of the Year (he finished third there, too). He averaged 25.5 points per game, shooting 49/38/88%. In short, he became one of the three or four best players in the league. And then, he just vanished. I think his injury is a rare underreported story in the NBA. That surely has a lot to do with the fact that he’s Kawhi Leonard and plays for the Spurs. Imagine, for example, if LeBron James had come down with a quad injury sometime over the summer and then just didn’t play for months. Anyway, here’s a quick timeline of what’s been the most confounding story of the 2017-18 NBA season.

  • The injury was first revealed to the public in late September, at the Spurs’ first intrasquad scrimmage. Gregg Popovich confirmed that Leonard was rehabbing his thigh and acknowledged that he would miss the preseason or at least a large part of it.
  • Two weeks later, the Spurs gave a non-update, saying that Leonard was still rehabbing and would miss the start of the season. Another non-update followed a week later.
  • On November 7th, at which point the Spurs had already played 10 games, Popovich spoke to the media about Leonard again. This time, he admitted that Leonard’s slow rehab was confusing him, too, saying that “his body hasn’t reacted the same way.” There remained no timeline for his return.
  • On November 15th, Popovich gave good news, saying that Leonard would be back sooner rather than later. He then walked that comment back.
  • On December 12th, without much warning, Leonard returned to the court. He played just 16 minutes and scored 13 points. He then played eight of San Antonio’s next 16 games, ramping up eventually to 31 minutes in a game in which he scored 25 points. In his final five games, he averaged 20.8 points in 28.2 minutes per game. And then, after a solid performance in a blowout win over the Nuggets, the Spurs listed Leonard as out as he continued to rehab what was now deemed “quadriceps tendinopathy.” And we’d heard nothing since then, until a few days ago, when Popovich said that he didn’t expect Leonard to return this season.

Now, this isn’t the first supposedly short-term NBA injury that has become much more serious than initially expected. But a few things make this Kawhi Leonard story different. First of all, there’s obviously the stature of the player. Second of all, there’s the fact that he’s the key player on what would have been a legitimate (or at least semi-legitimate) title threat. Remember last year, when the Spurs made the Western Conference Finals and jumped out to a huge lead against the Warriors at Oracle Arena in Game One before Leonard hurt his ankle? I’m not one of the people who think the Spurs would have won that series with a healthy Leonard, but those people exist, and it’s hard to blame them after seeing the part of that game that Leonard played in. The Spurs have been remarkably solid without Kawhi this year — they’re 35-24 and currently in third in the West — but their ceiling is no higher than a second round exit without Leonard. They’ve also struggled recently (10-13 in their last 23 games) and are actually just four games ahead of the Clippers, who currently sit in ninth in the conference. It’s unlikely but not inconceivable that they’ll drop out of the playoffs. The biggest reason that this story is bizarre, though, is that Popovich is blaming Leonard for his inability to return. Leonard was given the final say on his return (obviously) and decided against returning to the active roster. The handling of this injury has apparently led to serious disconnect between player and team. And it’s gotten to the point that there are very real rumors that the Spurs will be open to trading Leonard after this season, or at the very least that he’ll opt out after next season and move to a different team. Again, this — tension between star player and team, rumors of a trade — is not unfamiliar terrain in the NBA. But it is for the Spurs. This has the potential to become a league-changing saga this summer and into next season. When healthy, Leonard is a two-way stud who will be just 27 at the start of next season. He’s as good of a bet as any to be a fixture on the MVP voting and on first team All-NBA. He’s one of the only players in the league who can do a great job defensively on players as different as Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James. He can make a good team a championship-caliber one (see: these Spurs), and his departure could lead San Antonio to its first rebuild since Tim Duncan was drafted. For a long time, this offseason has seemed destined to be a “Where will LeBron go” circus. Now, it’s plausible that there will be another big variable in the mix.


Common sense says that if you put together a team full of players that their last teams didn’t want, then add a bunch of young draft picks, the results won’t be good. Usually, winning teams have a combination of talent and low roster turnover. The LeBron-led Heat and the Spurs are good examples of the extremes within that continuum, but the Heat couldn’t win before their stars became familiar with each other, while the Spurs couldn’t have won without having Hall-of-Fame talent. Expansion teams have none of that. As I alluded to before, they’re a mishmash of the best unwanted players from each existing team. Each league does its expansion drafts differently, but in the NHL, each team was allowed to protect approximately seven forwards, four defensemen, and a goalie for the 2017 expansion draft. That means that the new team, the Vegas Golden Knights, ended up with mainly third and fourth line players, third pair defensemen, and talented but overpriced players who were left unprotected for cap reasons. They did get an above average goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury, because the Penguins had two good goalies under team contract and decided to protect Matt Murray, the younger one (and also the established #1 goalie. It was a no-brainer). During and after the draft, the Knights made it clear that their immediate goal was to get as much draft capital as possible. They got a couple of first round picks and future third and fourth rounders in exchange for not selecting players that other teams wanted to keep. After the expansion draft, they traded five of their 30 selections for two second rounders, a third rounder, a fifth rounder, and a sixth rounder, most in future drafts. The result was that they made three picks in the top-15 of the 2017 NHL draft and 12 total, making it clear to everyone that they were trying to build a team that could contend three or four years down the road.

That was reflected in the preseason odds. Their over/under win total was set at 26.5, lowest in the league by three games. Their point total was set at 68.5, lowest by four points. They were +900 to make the playoffs and -1600 to miss the playoffs. And they were +3300 to win the Pacific Division. I’ve waited a long time to write this post, waiting and waiting and waiting some more for what I thought was the inevitable collapse. But 58 games into the season, the collapse hasn’t come, and it’s become clear that it isn’t coming. The Knights have 82 points, most in the NHL. They lead their division by 10 points and have been nearly unbeatable (22-4-2) on their home ice. At the beginning of the year, they were underdogs at home. Now, it’s a steal to get them at odds below -200 in Las Vegas. Most shockingly of all, they’re +600 to win the Stanley Cup, making them joint-favorites with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Do I think they’re going to win the Cup? No, I don’t, and there are a handful of other teams I think are more likely to do it. But the fact is that, two-thirds of the way through the season, the Knights have been the best team in hockey. And they’re a near shoo-in to win their division, which they supposedly had a 2.9% chance of doing (that’s the implied probability of the +3300). This is the biggest shock in a regular season in American sports in years. But to get a clearer grasp on just how improbable it is, let’s go through the history of previous expansion teams.

Since 1980, the NHL has added 10 teams, the NBA eight, the NFL three, and MLB four. That’s 24 teams who have had an expansion draft and then a full first year. It’s clear from this sample that it’s been easiest for NHL teams to achieve immediate success. Before Vegas, the 1993-94 Florida Panthers were the expansion team that played best in its first year. They went 33-34 with 17 ties, good for 83 points. In a league with 26 teams, they had the 16th-most points. Two years later, they made the Stanley Cup Finals, but they were swept by the Avalanche and have had very little success since. Those Panthers were the only expansion team that didn’t have a bottom-10 record in their initial season. The same year, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks went 33-46-5, good for 71 points (tied for 20th in the league). In 2000-01, the Columbus Blue Jackets went 28-39-9 (ties)-6 (overtime losses), good for 71 points (tied for 22nd in a 30 team league). And in the 1995 NFL season, the Carolina Panthers, riding a surprisingly good defense and suffering through some horrible performances by rookie QB Kerry Collins (sub-50% completion, 14 TDs, 19 INTs), went 7-9. These are the success stories of professional teams in their first years after expansion. These four somehow managed to lift themselves above the bottom tier of teams in their leagues. The other 20 teams ended their initial year in the bottom-five. In total, the 24 teams won 28.5% of their games. And there were some truly horrendous seasons. The Senators went 10-70-4, the Sharks went 17-58-5, the Thrashers went 14-57-7-4, all eight basketball teams won between 15 and 22 games, the two NFL expansion teams not named the Panthers went 4-12, and all four baseball teams lost between 95 and 99 games. It goes without saying that not a single one of those 24 teams was close to making the playoffs.

It was with this history in mind that I kept expecting the bottom to fall out of Vegas’s inaugural season. I thought their 15-9-1 start was a mirage. It turns out that it was, just not in the way I thought — they’re 24-6-3 since. This team started the year as just a cute feel-good story, with a powerful home opener that came a little more than a week after the Vegas shooting. It’s become far more, a force off the ice that has pulled the Las Vegas community together and on it that has dominated its own division to a tune of a 14-1-1 record. Fleury has become the team’s leader, and he’s putting up stats to match his stature. His .932 save percentage and 2.06 goals against average are easily the best marks of his career, and he’s 19-6-2. But the fact that the team barely lost a beat when Fleury got hurt early in the year (and the fact that they are where they are despite playing five goalies on the season) shows how resilient this team is. And some of the individual stories are incredible. The Blue Jackets gave the Knights a first round pick and a second round pick just to make them take William Karlsson, a forward coming off 20 and 25 point seasons, in the expansion draft. Karlsson has responded by scoring 30 goals in 58 games, catapulting him into a tie for fourth in the NHL. The Panthers traded Reilly Smith to the Knights in exchange for Vegas selecting Jonathan Marchessault in the expansion draft. Marchessault and Smith are Karlsson’s wingers on the first line and are first and third on the team in points with 58 and 51 respectively. Oh, and that unheralded line has been the most dominant in hockey by a longshot. Karlsson leads the NHL in plus-minus at +34, Smith is second at +29, and Marchessault is third at +27. Their line has 40 goals together (most in the NHL by four, with Toronto’s Auston Matthews line in second). And this is all without any help from Vegas’s many draft picks.

I’m still skeptical about how good this early success is for the franchise in the long-term. The Panthers showed that initial success doesn’t guarantee long-term health for an expansion team. The Vegas fans are learning how it feels to win at a time when most fans start learning how it feels to lose. And it would be a mistake for the Knights to sacrifice the assets they’ve built up to try to win the Cup this year. But they’ve shown no evidence that they’re going to do that, and for now I think it’s best to let this remain what it has been all year: the biggest and best story in the NHL and the best Cinderella story in professional sports in a long time.

It’s Time to Get Excited for Tankapalooza

Posted: 02/16/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

Every year at about this time — around the All-Star break — something happens to the worst teams in the NBA: they get much, much worse. That’s because the race for the top picks in the draft (well, the best odds at the top picks in the draft) is just as competitive as, say, the race for the #8 seed. The difference between the #1 pick and the #5 pick is massive, and yet often only a couple of games in the standings separates the team with the top lottery odds from teams in the 4-7 range. Because top picks are so valuable in the NBA, and because teams at the bottom of the standings at this point have no chance at making the playoffs, bad teams have every incentive to lose as many games as they can. I know it usually is hard to get excited about a race to the bottom, but this year should be an exception simply because it’s such a wide open race. Usually, there are five-ish teams that have a chance at the worst record and enter full tank mode at this point of the season. Heading into the All-Star break this year, though, there are six teams tied for last with 18 wins, two more with 19 or 20 wins, and the Knicks, who at 23-36 are within shouting distance and just lost their best player to a torn ACL. So there are nine teams with legitimate hopes of finishing at the bottom of the standings. I’m going to go through each team and examine the factors working for and against their push for top lottery odds.

Atlanta Hawks (currently 18-41):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They currently are tied with Phoenix for the worst record in the league, so they have a bit of a head start.
  • They have a tough remaining schedule. Their opponents down the stretch have won 53% of their games, and they play one more road game than home game. They’re 5-24 on the road this season. Included down the stretch is a brutal six game road trip (@MIL, @UTA, @SAC, @GS, @HOU, @MIN) right before they finish six of seven games against likely Eastern Conference playoff teams.
  • Dennis Schroder, their point guard, minutes leader, and leader in points and assists per game (19.5 and 6.3 respectively), is very talented but also inconsistent and poor defensively. That’s obviously hurt them already this season, but the defensive weakness should be exploited more often by playoff teams down the stretch.
  • They bought out Marco Belinelli, their leader in made three pointers and a key cog getting about 23 minutes per game. They also traded Luke Babbitt, a wing shooting 44% from three, in a clear attempt to get less efficient from beyond the arc. The Hawks are actually above average in three point shooting this year, but this should help remedy that. They’ll want Schroder, an effective driver but a 29% three point shooter, to keep jacking threes.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • The Hawks haven’t been the worst team in basketball so far, even if their record suggests that they have been. They rank 27th in net rating and have won about 1.8 fewer games than they should have at this point, according to Cleaning the Glass. Chicago, Sacramento, and Phoenix have all been worse. They rank 29th in offense and 30th in defense.
  • They have some useful role players who will not help them lose games. Taurean Prince and Kent Bazemore are solid two-way wings who could be bench pieces on good teams. Rookie big John Collins plays with a lot of energy and puts up good numbers. And veteran big man Dewayne Dedmon has been very good all season, putting up career high numbers and helping the Hawks immensely (they’re 6.1 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor than when he’s off it). Maybe Dedmon will get “injured” at some point down the stretch.
  • They’ve been fairly healthy. Their three highest-usage players, Schroder, Prince, and Bazemore, have missed a total of five games all year and are healthy going into the All-Star break.
  • They’re playing their best basketball of the season, going 8-11 in the 19 games leading into the break. That includes a win at Denver, which is a super tough place to win, as well as victories over the Spurs, Jazz, Pelicans (with Cousins), Timberwolves, and Pistons (with Griffin). And coach Mike Budenholzer is good enough to get some wins in games that the Hawks have no business winning.

Phoenix Suns (currently 18-41):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They currently are tied with Atlanta for the worst record in the league, so they have a bit of a head start.
  • They have a tough remaining schedule. Their opponents down the stretch have won 53% of their games, and they play one more road game than home game (sound familiar?). They have three games against Golden State, two against Cleveland, two against OKC, and one against Houston left.
  • They have the worst net rating in the league (-9.2, per Cleaning the Glass), four points per 100 worse than Atlanta and in the same stratosphere as only Sacramento. They’ve also played some of their worst basketball of late, with just three wins in their last 20 games. They recently lost by 40+ points twice in a three game stretch, meaning they’ve now lost by more than 40 points four times this season. Steve Kerr let Golden State’s players coach the team against the Suns, which shows how worried he was about Phoenix’s talent.
  • Devin Booker, easily their best player, has been hampered with a hip injury lately. He recently returned from a short absence, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the injury keeps him out more down the stretch.
  • They traded for point guard Elfrid Payton and are playing him 35 minutes per game. In fairness, he’s been terrific in his three games with the team, averaging 20.3/8.3/8.7 on 57/50/83 shooting. But anyone who’s seen Payton play in Orlando over the past four years knows that he’s not a great player.
  • Their role players are generally young and not ready to help them win games. Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Josh Jackson, and Tyler Ulis all have different games, but they have a few things in common: they’re all between 20 and 22, they’re all playing more than 20 minutes per game, and none of them are particularly good NBA players at this point. Bender’s the only one of the four shooting better than 30% from three, which is part of the reason that the Suns rank dead last in three point percentage (33%).
  • They have a lot of moving parts. 20 players have played games for them already. Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley are clearly over the hill and play consistent minutes for this team. And Troy Daniels is the only guy on the team between the ages of 25 and 31. Not good!
  • Jay Triano is just an interim head coach, so it’s unlikely that the players will feel the need to play particularly hard for him down the stretch.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • When Booker is healthy and he and T.J. Warren get it going, they can be pretty hard to stop sometimes. Other than that, I’ve got nothing. This is the team with the best chance to be the worst team going forward.

Dallas Mavericks (18-40):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They’ve been super unlucky, winning just 25% of their games decided by five points or fewer. Who’s to say that bad luck won’t continue for the rest of the season?
  • They may start putting the ball in Dennis Smith Jr.’s hands more often, both to give him experience and to help them lose games. Smith is shooting just 39% from the floor, and the Mavericks have been 15.6 points per 100 possessions worse when he’s on the floor than when he’s off of it. More minutes for DSJ = more losses.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • They have a fairly easy schedule. Their opponents have won 48% of their games on average, although they do have two more road games than home games down the stretch.
  • They have a consistent rotation, with six players who have played in 50+ games and are playing 23+ minutes per game.
  • They don’t make many mistakes, as they actually have the lowest turnover rate in the league (12.9%, per Cleaning the Glass).
  • Their net rating is -2.2, which is 21st in the league and the best of the nine teams in this tanking race. The only reason that they’re 18-40 is that they’ve underperformed that net rating by 6.9 games after losing a lot of close games. They’ve been the unluckiest (or, they may argue, the luckiest) team in the league, and it isn’t close. Next up are the Hornets, who have underperformed by 3.3 games.
  • They play hard for Rick Carlisle, their head coach. They also have an experienced team. Dirk is obviously a consummate professional, Harrison Barnes is their best player and in his prime, Wes Matthews and J.J. Barea are solid role players who know what to do, and Yogi Ferrell is a competent point guard.
  • They’ve been relatively injury-free and will likely get Nerlens Noel back at some point. Noel’s been stuck in Carlisle’s doghouse for most of the season, but he can only help.

Sacramento Kings (18-39):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • It’s the Kings, the most futile franchise in the league. They can’t even win games when they really want to.
  • They’re the only team that can challenge Phoenix’s futility through nearly 60 games. Thanks to a league-worst offense (and the #28 defense), they’re just .1 points per 100 possessions better than the Suns and 3.8 worse than the #28 overall Bulls.
  • Like the Suns, their record is way better than it should be based on their net rating. Both teams should probably have 13 or 14 wins right now, and it’s safe to expect that their record down the stretch will be more in line with the net rating than with the current record.
  • They have no go-to scorer. Zach Randolph is their leading scorer, and he’s averaging 14.6 points per game. He was also mysteriously missing from the starting lineup in Sacramento’s last game, which may be a sign of things to come.
  • The Kings benched and then traded veteran guard George Hill, showing how hard they’ll be tanking. They also have extra incentive to get a high draft pick because they’ll be without their first rounder the following season.
  • They have no consistent lineup. Randolph is the only player who’s started more than 38 games, and the Kings as a team have no lineup that has played more than 272 possessions. To put that in perspective, Dallas has three such lineups, including two that have played more than 450 possessions. Heading into tonight’s game with the Lakers, Minnesota’s starting lineup had played 2,090 possessions together, showing how much the Kings really are mixing up their lineups on a night to night basis. That’s not conducive to a lot of on-court success.
  • Their starting point guard, De’Aaron Fox, just recently turned 20, and it shows. He has potential, but he’s one of the worst starting point guards in the league at this point.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • 16 of their final 25 games come at home. Of course, they’ve been the second worst home team in the league behind the Suns, but still.
  • They’re the second best three point shooting team in the league, and guys like Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic can score points in bunches.

Orlando Magic (18-39):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They just traded starting point guard Elfrid Payton. Payton’s not that good, but he was still their starting point guard.
  • They’re 10-35 since starting 8-4. So they’ve been the worst team in the league if you arbitrarily exclude the first seventh of the season.
  • This has been the case for years, but their players don’t really make sense together. Their four best players — Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, Jonathon Simmons — are all forwards or centers, and their guards are very weak, especially without Payton. D.J. Augustin, Terrence Ross, Mario Hezonja, Shelvin Mack… it isn’t pretty.
  • Gordon and Vucevic are both currently injured and will likely miss more games coming up. That’s a good thing for a team that clearly wants to lose games.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • Their remaining opponents have won 48% of their games, and 14 of their final 25 are at home, where they’ve been much better.
  • When healthy, the trio of Fournier, Gordon, and Vucevic allow the Magic to form an offense that can be potent. They rank 18th in offensive efficiency, best among these nine teams. Lineups with Fournier-Gordon-Vucevic at SF-PF-C are putting up 113.3 points per 100 possessions, which would rank fourth in the NBA. Gordon and Vucevic are getting healthy, which means their offense may be just too good for them to stay in the race for the #1 pick.
  • The lineup of Augustin-Ross-Fournier-Gordon-Vucevic, which we may see a lot more now that Payton is gone, has been an astounding +24.1 points per 100 possessions, albeit in just 153 total possessions. That’s probably just small sample size, but if it’s anything more than that it’ll likely earn the Magic some wins.
  • I think their overall roster talent level is higher than that of any of the other teams I’ve gone over so far.

Memphis Grizzlies (18-38):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • 15 of their final 26 games come on the road, where they’ve gone 5-21 so far this year. That’s a lot of opportunities for losses.
  • Mike Conley is out for the season, and Chandler Parsons is nowhere to be seen. This is a team with very little quality depth, as guys like Andrew Harrison, Mario Chalmers, and Jarell Martin are getting way more minutes than they should be. Ben McLemore is also getting minutes, which, well, he’s Ben McLemore.
  • They’ve lost seven straight games, which may be a sign of things to come. Although they don’t have a difficult schedule overall down the stretch, their first three games are Cleveland, at Miami, and at Boston. Things could snowball pretty quickly for them.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • They still have Marc Gasol, who’s probably the best all-around player on any of these nine teams. It’s hard to be the worst team in the league when you have Marc Gasol.
  • They bizarrely didn’t trade Tyreke Evans, who’s having an exceptional season. He’s averaging 19.5/5.1/5 on 46/40/79 shooting this year. That’s a good player to have if you want to win (which is why teams were trying to trade for him) but a very bad player to have if you want to lose. This is also a sign that they’re not going all-in on tanking like Sacramento and some of these other teams.
  • They have a more experienced team than most of these teams. Even the young players they’re giving minutes to, like Dillon Brooks, stayed in college for three or four years and are less raw than the Fox or Jackson type.
  • They’re solid defensively and don’t get blown out as often as, say Sacramento or Phoenix. They’ve been unlucky in close games so far, but that’s likely to change, which should move them (like Dallas) up the standings.

Brooklyn Nets (19-40):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They’ve been riddled with injuries this year. Jeremy Lin got hurt in the first game of the year. Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, two key players, are currently out. D’Angelo Russell recently returned after a long injury break and has been ice cold from three since his return. They weren’t very deep to begin with, so this obviously hurts.
  • They’ve played some of their worst basketball recently, going 1-11 in their last 12 games.
  • I don’t think they have a single above-average all-around player, unlike everyone I’ve gone through so far besides Sacramento and Atlanta (and Schroder is also likely better than anyone on the Nets).
  • They have 14 road games and just nine home games left.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • They have no incentive to lose. Cleveland owns their first round pick. So while all these other teams try to lose, they’ll be trying to win. Given that they’ve already been better than most of these teams, that’ll likely be enough to keep them from the bottom three or four.

Chicago Bulls (20-37):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They traded Nikola Mirotic. They’re 14-11 with Mirotic in the lineup and 6-26 without him, so if that pace keeps up down the stretch they have a great chance at moving down the rankings.
  • Their top scorers are kings of empty, inefficient points. Zach LaVine and Justin Holiday are sub-40%, while Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen are shooting 43% from the field. This is why they have the third-worst offense in the league ahead of just Sacramento and Phoenix. And how about this for a stat: with Mirotic on the court, they scored 113.9 points per 100 possessions. That would be good for third in the league over the course of a full season. Without him, they’ve scored 101.3, which would easily be last. More last place offense going forward!
  • They’re a very young, inexperienced team.

Why they won’t finish last:

  • They may just have too many teams to drop beneath. They’re two games up on most of these teams in terms of wins, so they don’t have much of a margin for error. Of course, they went 3-20 to start the year without Mirotic, so they’ve proven that they can lose with the worst of them.
  • They have a fairly easy schedule down the stretch (opponent winning percentage of 48%).

New York Knicks (23-36):
Why they’ll finish last:

  • They just lost Kristaps Porzingis to a torn ACL, which means they may have the worst roster of all of these teams. They were already dropping games before he got hurt, but they’ve looked absolutely hopeless since he got hurt. They blew a 27 point lead against the Wizards, squandering a terrific game from Tim Hardaway Jr.
  • They have a fairly challenging remaining schedule.
  • They traded for Emmanuel Mudiay, who’s a bad point guard. Their point guard rotation is awful (Mudiay, Frank Ntilikina, Jarrett Jack, Trey Burke).

Why they won’t finish last:

  • Too many games to make up. They already have 23 wins, which puts them five games up in the win column over six of these teams. Some of those teams might not even win five games the rest of the season, which puts a floor on how far the Knicks could fall.
  • They didn’t go full tank mode before the deadline. They probably could have traded helpful role players like Courtney Lee, but those guys will now help the Knicks win a few games down the stretch. Not many, mind you, but probably enough to keep the Knicks out of the bottom three.

Here’s my best guess on how this will finish:

30th: Phoenix
29th: Sacramento
28th: Atlanta
27th: Chicago
26th: Orlando
25th: Memphis
24th: Brooklyn
23rd: New York
22nd: Dallas

I was planning to write about the NBA trade deadline last night, which would have made sense given that the deadline was earlier yesterday. But then, on a night that was supposed to be light on sports I was going to watch, I started watching the Flyers game, figuring that I’d write the post after that was done. Then I realized Duke-North Carolina was on, and (shocker) it was a good, must-watch game. Once that was over, I switched to the final minutes and overtime of the Wizards-Celtics game, thinking that it may be a second round playoff preview (granted, without John Wall on the floor). And then I checked in on the beginning of the Olympics before finally settling down to write the post, at which point I took another peek at the college basketball scores and noticed that Arizona was losing at home to UCLA. Of course, I had to see if the Bruins could really notch a resume-building win in Arizona (they did), and that led me to the end of the night. This is not a rare occurrence. As I said before, at this time of year this was a light sports night. I guess as a Philadelphia sports fan I’m starting to realize how much of a commitment it is to watch as many Sixers and Flyers games as possible at this time of year. In past years, this wasn’t an issue, because either the Sixers or the Flyers (or, usually, both) weren’t good enough for me to feel the need to watch every game. Then there are the nightly national TV NBA and NHL games. Then there’s college basketball, which usually has a few games a night that I feel a need to watch. And for the next two weeks, there’ll be Olympic events going on around the clock. Shortly after that, the NCAA tournament starts, and we all know how much of a time commitment that can be. Football’s over, but for those of us who also care about other sports, it’ll barely be missed. What I’m trying to say is that it can be really hard to consume so much of so many sports! Nevertheless, instead of letting myself skip a [insert Big 12 game between ranked teams] game that seems super consequential in the moment but won’t actually end up meaning anything down the stretch, I’ll carry on, I guess because I’m just a courageous person. All of this leads me to the point of this post, which is the trade deadline.

My main takeaway from yesterday is: nobody got hosed. Because finding the deadline’s losers is usually the first exercise that comes after the trades, right? I tried to do it, but I couldn’t, because I think all of the moves that came on a relatively quiet deadline day made sense. The two biggest deals of the day, of course, involved the Cavaliers, who turned over half of their roster. It’s no surprise that Cleveland was active yesterday. The Cavs have been struggling mightily, something’s clearly not right in the locker room, and Cleveland must go for the title in what may be LeBron James’s final season in the Land. Their first trade came with the Lakers, who sent them Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. in return for Isaiah Thomas’s expiring contract, Channing Frye’s expiring contract, and Cleveland’s first round pick. It’s been very sad to see Thomas struggle so mightily with the Cavaliers, but the Cavs had to trade him. In return, they got Clarkson, a good scorer with a contract that’s slightly too big, and Nance, who I’d argue was worth the first round pick. He’s a nice role player averaging 8.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 22 minutes per game while shooting 60% from the floor. In each of his three seasons, the Lakers have been significantly better with Nance on the floor than with him off it. He does all the little things (cliche but true) and could form an interesting small-ball power forward next to Kevin Love in crunch-time.

For the Lakers, the trade makes obvious sense. In trading Clarkson and getting back exclusively expiring contracts, they’ve opened up enough cap space to be able to fit two max contracts onto their roster. The speculation, of course, is that those contracts will go to LeBron James and Paul George. That’s what the Lakers hope for, obviously, but more likely is that they’ll maintain cap flexibility going into 2019 free agency. That’s good! And getting a late first round pick is a nice bonus. The Lakers hit on a late first rounder (Kyle Kuzma) last season, and also seem to have gotten a real rotation piece in the second round (Josh Hart). I’m sure they’re confident that they can add a piece to their roster with that Cleveland pick.

Cleveland’s second major trade was a three-teamer with Utah and Sacramento. The Cavs got George Hill (and his questionable contract) and Rodney Hood (restricted free agent after this year) in return for three guys who weren’t going to get them anywhere this season: Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose, and Jae Crowder. I know Hill’s contract isn’t great (he’s set to make $19 million next season), but this is the type of risk the Cavs had to take. Hill and Hood give them two long wings who can defend, which is exactly what they needed. They are also both above-average three point shooters and solid secondary ball-handlers, making them perfect fits for LeBron. They were also able to get off of the Shumpert contract ($11 million player option next season) and to end the Rose experiment. Crowder was the most valuable piece they gave up, as he’s under contract for two more years at about $15 million, but he looked lost in Cleveland and the Cavs were ready to move on.

The Jazz were able to flip Hood, who they clearly had no interest in re-signing, and Joe Johnson’s expiring for Crowder and Rose (who they immediately released). Utah had interest in Crowder this off-season and tried to get him via sign-and-trade when it became clear that Gordon Hayward was going to sign with Boston. They’re gambling that he can find his form in a situation more similar to the one he was in with the Celtics, and they may well be right. If they are, they just got themselves a starting wing under cheap team control for two more years for an injury-prone wing who is set to become a free agent.

As for the Kings, the reason to do the trade was simple: they got out of the George Hill contract without having to give up draft picks or take much long-term money back. Sure, they had to take Shumpert and his $11 million cap hit next year, but that’s a much better deal than Hill’s and will still end after next season. Sacramento knows it still has a long rebuild ahead, and it was logical to move Hill.

The Cavs also moved Dwyane Wade to the Heat for a heavily protected second round pick, a move that probably won’t have much of an on-court impact but could help Cleveland chemistry-wise. Moving Wade/Crowder/Shumpert/Frye/Rose/Thomas away for Nance/Clarkson/Hood/Hill makes the Cavs younger and better. Will it be enough to beat the Warriors? Probably not. Will it have a major impact on LeBron James’s decision? Probably not. But they did it all without trading their coveted Nets pick, which means that Cleveland fans should have no real complaints.

There were minor moves elsewhere. The Knicks, Nuggets, and Mavericks made a three-team trade that sent Emmanuel Mudiay to New York, Doug McDermott to Dallas, and Devin Harris to Denver. It’s a move that allows Mudiay and McDermott to get fresh starts on rebuilding teams while giving the playoff-hopeful Nuggets a veteran at a position of need. Nice little trade!

Two Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls added rotation pieces to their roster. The Pistons picked up James Ennis and the Heat got Luke Babbitt in minor trades that won’t likely make a huge impact but have no risk attached to them. The Magic cut the cord on Elfrid Payton, who’ll be a free agent after this year, sending him to the Suns for a second round pick. Phoenix will get a look at a player who has some nice skills (shooting, unfortunately, is not one of them).

More striking were the players who didn’t move and the teams who stayed out of the mix. After encouraging rumors that they would continue to trade veteran players after dealing Blake Griffin, the Clippers held onto DeAndre Jordan, Avery Bradley, and Lou Williams (who they extended to a three-year deal that was great for the team and not so good for the player). The rebuilding Grizzlies bizarrely held onto Tyreke Evans even though he’s set to be an unrestricted free agent. A first round pick would have been enough to get Evans (and Bradley), but teams aren’t that eager to give up first round picks anymore. The Nuggets held onto Kenneth Faried, although that’s almost certainly because they couldn’t find any suitors for him. The Hornets didn’t trade Kemba Walker after rumors swirled about a potential trade earlier in the week, but I guess that’s not as surprising as the others. Boston, Toronto, and Washington, Cleveland’s chief competition in the Eastern Conference, stood pat as the Cavs improved. I don’t think a move was ever in store for the Raptors, but the Wizards need bench help and the Celtics were apparently trying to trade Marcus Smart, another player who’s set to be a restricted free agent, so I’m a little surprise that neither of those teams did anything at the deadline.

With the deadline in the rearview mirror, the focus immediately shifts to the buyout market. The Celtics signed Greg Monroe to a deal earlier this week, and more deals will follow. Buyout deals aren’t as exciting as trades, but players like Marco Belinelli and Joe Johnson can make a real impact. The least surprising news of the day was that Tom Thibodeau’s Wolves (Bulls North, as I call them) are planning to sign Derrick Rose if (when) he clears waivers. That should be fun.

In the end, the deadline didn’t change a whole lot, and that was always going to be the case. The Warriors, lethargic regular season and all, are the heavy favorites to repeat. The Rockets are their strongest competition, and the Cavs are the favorites in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland’s team got better and their chemistry probably did too, but I wouldn’t have picked against the Cavaliers in the East even with their old team. I’m excited to see how their new rotation looks, although we’ll really have to wait until Kevin Love gets back to have the full picture. And fingers crossed that Isaiah Thomas can get back on track in LA and set himself up for a big new contract. I’m not holding my breath, though.

Super Bowl Preview

Posted: 02/04/2018 by levcohen in Football

It’s time. After two weeks of largely repetitive talk, the Eagles and Patriots will actually play in the game that will decide this season’s champion. I’ve thought about how I would approach this, because there are so many angles and matchups and stats that may or may not be important, all of which are connected by the common thread of having been discussed at some point over the last two weeks (as is the nature of pre-Super Bowl media festivities). There’s no way I’m going to hit on every individual matchup or stat, and I’m not going to worry about doing a comprehensive preview. Instead, I’ll try to cover what I think are the most important parts of this battle of 13-3 teams. Before I do that, I want to express how annoyed I am that in almost every expert preview I’ve read, the conclusion has been: The Patriots will win, but not by as much as (insert: MANY or SOME) people think. Who are these mythical “many people” who are predicting a Patriots’ blowout?? Sure, there are some people who think New England will win handily, but you can say the same thing about Philadelphia! The spread is 4.5 points, not the touchdown + margin that these experts seem to be hinting to when they talk about wide belief in a Patriots’ blowout. I don’t have a problem with people picking the Patriots to win by a field goal — in fact, it’s probably the most likely outcome. I just think that the people picking that result should recognize that it’s by no means a bold prediction. Those people, not the ones picking New England blowouts, are the ones on the side of conventional wisdom. Anyway, it’s now time to see whether I reach the same conclusion as these experts.

When tasked with trying to find a way to beat Tom Brady, most people quickly reach the conclusion that you have to get pressure on him without blitzing. To that I say: duh. Getting pressure without blitzing is always the best thing a defense can do. And it is a key for the Eagles, because they won’t be blitzing often against Brady. Their secondary is good, but not that good. They definitely have the talent up front to dominate the line of scrimmage against New England, at least early on. I expect them to get some pressure on Brady in the first half. The real key, though, is for the stars of the defensive line — Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox in particular — to be fresh enough to make an impact in the fourth quarter. Because while Brady often feels some heat early on in games, the Patriots usually manage to protect their quarterback later on, largely because they’ve played at a fast enough pace to tire out their opponents. The Eagles have a lot of depth up front, and they’ve been great this year at rotating their defensive line. In Timmy Jernigan, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, and Derek Barnett, they have a supporting cast that can make a difference. The Patriots will try to mitigate this depth advantage by keeping the Eagles from substituting. They’ll go no-huddle and without substitutions, keeping Philly’s defense on the field for long periods of time. The Eagles’ defense isn’t used to being on the field that much, as Philadelphia led the league in time of possession. It’s easy to imagine a situation in which Brady and the Patriots are driving in the fourth quarter and the Eagles are just too exhausted to stop them. Instead of substituting between plays, Doug Pederson may opt to rest his key defenders for an entire drive. He has that luxury, because his backups are good enough to be able to hold down the fort. I’m actually optimistic about Philly’s ability to maintain a pass-rush for four quarters. The Patriots allow some pressure on Brady, and guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney in particular may be overpowered by Cox. The Eagles have shown all year that they have the depth to keep their starters fresh, and I don’t expect that to change in the Super Bowl.

I think it’s unlikely that the Patriots will run the ball consistently against the Eagles’ front, which means that we should expect a lot of short timing routes from Brady to his running backs and wide receivers. James White and Dion Lewis will be busy, and the Eagles have sometimes struggled against receiving backs. But I think the most crucial wide receiver-cornerback matchup is Danny Amendola against Patrick Robinson. When Rob Gronkowski got hurt against the Jaguars and the Patriots needed to move the ball, Brady looked almost exclusively for Amendola, and the receiver delivered to the tune of seven catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. The Eagles’ slot corner is Patrick Robinson, who’s PFF rating of 90.6 ranks him fourth among all NFL cornerbacks. Amendola has caught 76.3% of his targets this year and Brady’s passer rating is 103.1 on those targets, but Robinson allows a catch rate of just 55.6% and a passer rating of 70.1. The Eagles will mix up their coverages, so Robinson won’t be exclusively guarding Amendola, but I’d guess that those two will see a lot of each other, and it’ll be interesting to see if Robinson can help neutralize Amendola, who’s turned into Brady’s safety blanket.

The last big component of New England’s offense to touch on, of course, is Gronkowski. He’s back two weeks after suffering a concussion against the Jaguars, and we should assume that he’ll be playing at 100%. It’s near impossible to guard Gronk, and the Eagles have struggled against tight ends this year. They rank 17th in DVOA against the position, and they allowed Travis Kelce (probably the tight end most similar to Gronk) to gain 103 yards and score a touchdown when the played in Week 2. Playing man coverage against Gronkowski is a no-go, so the Eagles probably shouldn’t go with their normal strategy of placing Malcolm Jenkins against opposing tight ends. Instead, I expect them to show Brady a ton of different coverages. They’ll double Gronk, they’ll bracket him with a defender on each side, they’ll give him room underneath… they’ll do anything they can to try to get Brady out of his rhythm and dissuade him from passing to Gronk. Because when they pass to Gronk, good things usually happen. I don’t think he’s going to have a huge (150+ yard, multiple touchdowns) game, but he’ll make some plays. He always does.

It’s also worth noting that the Eagles have been a much different defense when they’re away from home, making a dominant defensive performance less likely. The overall key for the Eagles’ defense is to limit the number of long drives they allow the Patriots to have. They can’t let Brady dictate the game. They should be aggressive, even if that means allowing a big play or two. They need to trust the defensive schemes that got them here and not try to simplify everything before facing Brady. And guess what? Even though Jim Schwartz has a bad track record against Brady and the Patriots, I think he’ll do a good job of keeping Brady off-balance, if only temporarily. That’s all you can reasonably hope for.

On the other side of the ball, everything else will be moot if Nick Foles becomes the guy who looked helpless against the Raiders. It may also be moot if he remains the guy who destroyed the Vikings. The safe bet is that he’ll be somewhere in between horrendously terrible and Carson Wentz-level awesome. Bold statement, right? I don’t think people have talked enough about the fact that the Patriots are pretty bad defensively. The raw numbers (18.5 points per game) are good, but that’s largely because the offense rarely puts the defense in a bad situation. They rarely turn the ball over, and they’re masters of field position. And when you’re defending long fields (the Patriots faced just three non-kneeldown drives starting from beyond the 50, while the average defense faced 15.5), it’s a lot easier to overcome a 31st ranked DVOA defense that simply doesn’t have much talent in the front seven. Two weeks ago, Blake Bortles averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and tore apart New England’s defense for three quarters. And that was despite playing with a vanilla gameplan because the Jags didn’t trust Bortles to throw the ball down the field. Jacksonville slowed down in the fourth quarter because they simply ran out of plays that they trusted Bortles to run, so the Patriots knew what was coming. I guarantee you that the Eagles aren’t coming to Minnesota with a bland or conservative gameplan. They’re going to try to keep the Patriots’ defense on its heels, and based on personnel they’ll probably succeed. The Eagles don’t have a single dominant offensive weapon, but they have a lot of dynamic skill-position players who can make a defense pay. Jay Ajayi can be a threat on the ground and through the air and is part of the reason that Nick Foles and the Eagles have been so good at run-pass options. Corey Clement is a good pass-catcher out of the backfield, and LeGarrette Blount is a nice short-yardage back to have (I don’t expect him to play much in this game, largely because it will alert the Patriots that a run is coming). Tight end Zach Ertz is probably Foles’s favorite weapon, and I’d bet that he’s the one the Patriots will focus most heavily upon stopping. But that could open up the middle of the field for Alshon Jeffrey and Nelson Agholor and the seams for Torrey Smith. The Patriots have done a good job of getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks recently, but they haven’t faced an offensive line this good in a while. The right side of the line, in particular, is dominant, as Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks, and Jason Kelce have all been elite players this year. Halapoulivaati Vaitai has had his fair share of issues at left tackle, but he’s usually been just good enough to keep Nick Foles upright. And Foles is a big guy who can be hard to bring down. The Patriots will probably line Trey Flowers, their best defensive lineman, up against Vaitai in order to try to force a tight end to stay in and block. And this may be a game in which Brent Celek, Philadelphia’s blocking tight end, plays a decent number of snaps. It’s vital for the Eagles to be able to keep a clean pocket for Foles, because he’s not the type of quarterback who can make a lot of stuff happen after a play breaks down (in other words, he’s not Wentz). The Patriots have a good secondary, and they’re going to play a lot of man against the Eagles in order to try to force Foles to fit the ball into tight windows. But the Eagles will have plenty of chances for big plays both on the ground and through the air, simply because they have a considerable talent edge on that side of the ball.

Neither team turns the ball over much. Foles hasn’t thrown an interception in any of his three playoff starts, and the Patriots have forced just one turnover in the last six games. And Brady is Brady, so you can’t really expect the Eagles to force any takeaways in this game, either. As for special teams, the Patriots have an edge there. They’re better across the board, from kicking off to punting to returning kicks. Their kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, is more reliable than Philly’s, Jake Elliott, although Elliott has a strong leg and can hit from 60+ yards. Overall, the Patriots rank third in special teams DVOA while the Eagles rank 16th. It’ll be a huge bonus for the Eagles if they can play the Pats to a draw when it comes to special teams. A major field position disadvantage and a special teams mistake or two will be tough to overcome.

The Eagles have a stronger all-around roster than the Patriots. I don’t think that’s much of a debate. The question, then, becomes whether Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are enough to make up for that difference and bring New England a sixth championship. You’d be forgiven for thinking the answer to that question is yes. It usually has been enough. But I think people are only just starting to realize how good of a coach and play-caller Doug Pederson is, and he’s going to continue to show why in this game. We’ll see a lot of the same RPOs from Philly, but we’re also going to see some new wrinkles. Belichick adjusts in-game better than anyone, and it’s almost impossible to stop Brady with the game on the line. I have no doubt that the Patriots are going to move the ball and score some points. But I also have enough faith in Pederson, Foles, and the Eagles’ offense to expect them to expose the 31st ranked DVOA defense. This may really be a game in which the team that gets the ball last wins, because I don’t trust anybody to stop Brady in the fourth quarter and I don’t trust this Patriots’ defense to make a stop, either. I’m going to take the Eagles to win 27-24. Here’s hoping we’ll get good Nick Foles!