Author Archive

France won the World Cup yesterday. And if you were to just look at the final score (4-2), you would think that the French finally put together the attacking display that was reasonable to expect coming into the tournament given their attacking talent. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that it was far from an offensive showcase from Les Bleus. They took just seven total shots and just one — a tight angle shot by Kylian Mbappe after some individual brilliance — from inside the box. Their first goal came from an own goal off a free kick that was won by Antoine Griezmann for a, to be diplomatic, soft foul (the more likely explanation is that Griezmann dived, and not for the first time in the World Cup either). The second came from a penalty kick after a handball that was initially not called but then — I think rightfully — called a foul after video review. I’ll defend the referee for his decision on this one, but I think we can all agree that it was a controversial call and that the French didn’t do anything particularly special to win the penalty. And the third and fourth goals came from shots from distance from two of France’s greatest stars, Paul Pogba and Mbappe. According to Michael Caley’s calculation of xG (short for expected goals), which measures expected goals based solely on shots (and thus ignores the penalty and the own goal), France should have scored just 0.3 goals based on the quality of their chances. The French scored four goals without having a single great chance.

Yesterday isn’t the first time that France has had this problem. It’s actually plagued them since before the World Cup. They scored just 18 goals in 10 qualifying matches, which was third most in their six team group (behind both Sweden and the Netherlands). In their friendly directly leading up to the World Cup, they slogged through a 1-1 tie with the United States. They then struggled to win an easy Group C. First came a 2-1 win over Australia in which their two goals were a controversial penalty and an own goal which came thanks to a great individual effort by Paul Pogba. Then came a 1-0 win over Peru, another relatively dreary game with a Mbappe goal ending up being the winner. They knew they needed just a point against Denmark in their final group stage game and thus went out and played the only scoreless game of the tournament (xG for that game: 0.3). They seemingly broke through offensively with a 4-3 win over Argentina, but again, it’s worth examining the goals. The first came after an incredible run by Mbappe was stopped with a foul in the box, leading to a Griezmann penalty. The second came on an unbelievable shot from outside the box by fullback Benjamin Pavard. And the third and fourth were both more a testament to Mbappe’s individual excellence than an overall successful offensive build-up. Then came the 2-0 win over Uruguay in the quarterfinals, another of the worst games of the tournament. One goal came from a gaffe from Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera on a Griezmann shot from far beyond the box. The other came from a Rafael Varane header off a free kick that came from near the edge of the box and probably should have been stopped by someone. And the semifinal against Belgium, which was supposed to be a free-flowing game between two exciting teams, ended 1-0 to France, although to be fair they had enough chances to score another goal or two. For those of you keeping track at home, France scored 14 total goals in seven World Cup games. Three of those were penalties, two more were own goals, and another was a complete flub by an opposing goalie. Three goals came on shots from outside the box, due solely to individual brilliance. That leaves just five goals that I would classify as neither lucky nor purely the result of a single player making a great play: Mbappe’s goal against Peru, both of his goals against Argentina, and the headers by Varane and Samuel Umtiti against Uruguay and Belgium respectively.

This may still seem surprising, especially after a four goal performance against Croatia, but the fact is that France won because of their defense. They’re very strong defensively, especially through the middle, with Barcelona’s Umtiti and Real Madrid’s Varane at centerback and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante patrolling midfield. They shut down Belgium’s explosive attack. They gave up three goals to Argentina, but one of those was an unstoppable shot by Angel Di Maria and another came in the dying moments of a 4-2 game. And they gave up just one goal in the group stage, and that was on an Australia penalty. Shutouts against Belgium, Uruguay, Peru, and Denmark. One goal allowed to Australia — on a penalty. Three allowed to Argentina and two to Croatia, including one off a Hugo Lloris goalkeeping error that was as egregious as Muslera’s. That’s a pretty good defensive performance.

I understand that France’s style, their refusal to send an extra player forward on an attack, was by design. Coach Didier Deschamps wanted his France team to play conservatively and to pick its spots, and it did so. It obviously worked out in this tournament. But there’s a part of me that agrees with Belgium’s critique that France “played like Panama.” That’s partially because I want to see more exciting games but also because I really do believe that a team with France’s personnel should be able to do better than play for 1-0 win after 1-0 win. Heck, this is a team with enough offensive talent to leave players like Anthony Martial, Karim Benzema, Alexandre Lacazette, Kingsley Coman, and Adrien Rabiot out of the World Cup squad. It’s a team with the best young attacker in the world (Mbappe) and one of the most productive strikers (Griezmann). France oozes with talent on the wings — Ousmane Dembele, Thomas Lemar, Florian Thauvin — or would if any of those players had gotten off the bench for more than short cameos. They have arguably the best central midfielder in the world from an attacking standpoint (Pogba). Even their right back, Pavard, has the quality to score goals like the one against Argentina. I just would have liked to see a little more ambition from the team with the most talent in the world.

The main takeaway from this World Cup has seemed to be that France is set to be a dynasty. And look, I get it. Not only do they have the most talented team in the world, but they had the second youngest team in the World Cup (only Nigeria was younger). Mbappe is 19, Dembele and Lemar are 21 and 22, Pavard is 22, Umtiti and Varane are 24 and 25, Pogba is 25. Bayern’s Corentin Tolisso, whom I haven’t even mentioned yet in this post, is 23. And just three regular players are older than 27: goalie Hugo Lloris, midfielder Blaise Matuidi, and striker Olivier Giroud. So yes, I get the dynasty talk. But based on the way they played in this World Cup, I don’t see a period of dominance coming. They have all the talent in the world, but this doesn’t yet remind me of the Spanish team that ruled the world from 2008-2012. Dear France: show me more ambition and more goals in Euro 2020.

Advertisements

Throughout baseball’s history, the American League and National League have been treated as different entities. Unlike in basketball, football, or hockey, where teams from the two conferences play by the same rules and play interconference games regularly, both leagues have developed their own identities over time. They play by different rules — the AL plays with a designated hitter while the NL still forces its pitchers to hit. Until 1997, the two leagues met only in the World Series. And even then, they played each other only over a designated span of a few weeks in the middle of the summer. That’s no longer true now, as teams play a smattering of interleague games throughout the year. But with the different rules and the fact that teams still play a vast majority of their games against other teams in their own leagues, there remains a clear divide between the leagues. Whether that adds to the charm of baseball or is impractical and a relic of the past is up for debate. But that tired argument is not the subject of this post. I’m writing about the fact that this year, for whatever reason (probably luck), the differences between the leagues is as striking as ever.

The National League is the league of parity. The Cubs have the best record in the league at 54-38, marginally ahead of their divisional rival Brewers. Their +111 run differential indicates that they’re actually probably stronger than their record indicates, but they’ve had an up-and-down year and until this weekend were behind (and at times well behind) the Brewers. After Chicago, no team in the NL has a run differential than the Dodgers’ +80. And Los Angeles started the season poorly and sit at 52-43, a half-game behind the Diamondbacks in the NL West. Some of the best teams in the league so far — the Phillies (53-41), Braves (51-42), and Rockies (50-45) — weren’t supposed to get anywhere near the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Nationals and Cardinals, both favorites to make the playoffs, have slumped to records a game below and a game above .500 respectively, with St. Louis firing manager Mike Matheny last night. 10 NL teams are within nine games of the Cubs, leaving just four teams with records more than two games under .500. And even those four aren’t terrible. The Padres have the worst record in the league at 40-58, which puts them 17 games behind the Cubs. As you’ll see soon, there are AL teams in far worse shape. The Marlins have actually outpaced expectations, while the Reds seemed on their way to a horrific season (they started 8-27) before quickly turning things around (35-25 since). The result is an uber-competitive playoff race. Per Fangraphs’ projections, 10 teams in the league have at least an 18% chance to make the playoffs. Two, the Cubs and Dodgers, are meaningfully better than coin flips to do so.

The weird thing is that the NL wasn’t supposed to be this way. Heading into the season, the Nationals, Cubs, and Dodgers were all heavy favorites to win their respective divisions. They were all predicted to win at least 92 games, far more than any other team in the league. At the other end of the spectrum, the Marlins were predicted to be an utter train wreck, with the Padres not given much better odds at a successful season.

The AL, meanwhile, is the league of the haves and the have-nots. That’s true at a team-wide level but also on a player level. Among hitters, the eight WAR leaders — and 12 of the top 15 — all play in the American League. No NL hitter has been worth more than 3.8 WAR. Mike Trout, Jose Ramirez, and Mookie Betts have been worth 6+ apiece, and Francisco Lindor isn’t far behind. To a lesser extent, this is true of pitchers, too. The top three in WAR are Chris Sale, Trevor Bauer, and Justin Verlander, all of whom play in the American League. The flip-side, of course, is that the AL is also home to the worst of the worst. Just two qualified pitchers have been worth negative WAR: Lucas Giolito (-0.8, 6.59 ERA and 6.35 FIP in 18 starts) and Jakob Junis (-0.3, 5.13 ERA and 5.49 FIP in 17 starts). They both call the AL home. And three hitters have been far worse than anyone else: Alcides Escobar (-1.1 WAR), Victor Martinez (-1.8), and historically-bad Chris Davis (-2.3). Guess which league all three of those players call home?

I can’t remember a season in which there’s been less to play for after the All-Star break for so many teams than there is this year in the AL. The three best teams in baseball are the Yankees, Red Sox, and Astros. That’s inarguable at this point. They’re all at least five games ahead of everyone else in baseball, with the Red Sox on top at 67-30 and the Astros third at 64-34. They also all gulf the league in roster talent and run differential. The Astros’ run differential is an enormous +191, which gives them an expected record of 71-27. The Red Sox are +160 (expected record: 65-32) and the Yankees are +134 (61-33). So not only have the three won by far the most games, but they also haven’t really benefitted from luck (and in the Astros case have actually been unlucky). Following the big three are the Seattle Mariners, who at 58-38 have a better record than any NL team. Unlike Boston/New York/Houston, the Mariners have gotten lucky. They’re 26-11 in one run games and 8-0 in extra innings thanks to the combination of a terrific closer (Edwin Diaz has 36 saves, seven more than anyone else, and leads relievers with 2.4 WAR) and easily the best clutch hitting in baseball. According to Fangraphs’ “Clutch”, which measures how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he does in other situations, the Mariners have a 4.63 “Clutch” rating. The Red Sox are second at 2.79. If you’re interested in seeing that whole list, I’ve attached it here. So the combination of Diaz and situational hitting has allowed the Mariners to excel despite a -1 run differential. Until recently, they, too, seemed like a playoff lock. But the Athletics have made things interesting recently, adding at least a little intrigue to the playoff picture. They’ve won 20 of their last 26 games, drawing within four games of the Mariners. Per Fangraphs, they now have a 24.4% chance to make the playoffs, while the Mariners are still at 70.5%. But that second wild card spot is likely the only remaining playoff question mark, as the Indians, despite underperforming and getting unlucky (their +79 run differential indicates they should be four games better than their 51-43 record), should still cruise to the AL Central title simply because they’re in the worst division in baseball. Besides the six teams I’ve mentioned, only the Rays and Angels have slight chances to make the playoffs, and they’re both probably in the 1-3% (aka, only if they get super hot and something happens to a playoff team) range.

At the other end of the AL standings, there’s utter carnage. Remember how I said that the Padres, the worst team in the NL, are 40-58 and 17 games behind the Cubs? Well, in the AL there are three teams who are far worse than the Padres. They haven’t been getting much grief because of the two teams below them, but the 32-62 White Sox are dreadful. They have a -135 run differential and are likely to try to trade away the few helpful players they still have at the deadline. The Royals and Orioles, meanwhile, look set to post two of the three worst records since 1962, joining the 2003 Tigers (43-119) in rarified air. They’re 27-67 and 27-69 with -184 and -160 run differentials respectively. And they’re a whopping 38.5 and 39.5 games behind the Red Sox, which at this point in the season can’t be that common. The Orioles’ hitters as a team have actually been worth negative WAR, and that’s even before trading Manny Machado, their only productive all-around player. To put that in perspective, the Padres had the worst stable of position players in baseball last year, and they were worth a combined 7.6 WAR. The last team to put together a position player-wide negative WAR season was the Diamondbacks in 2004. Pitching-wise, it’s the Royals who’ve been worth negative WAR, albeit just barely (-0.1). They have a 5.34 team ERA, which in this day in age is really quite incredible. I bet you’re now starting to see another reason that the teams at the top of the league have managed to rack up so many wins and such a strong run differential.

Given the lack of competition for playoff spots, you would think that the rest of the season is going to be a snooze in the AL. But that’s not quite true. It’s still going to be very interesting to see which teams secures homefield advantage and, particularly, who wins the AL East. I kind of hate that we’re back to the Red Sox and Yankees being dominant, but on the other hand baseball is more intense and interesting when that rivalry is strong. And with 10 games still to come between the two rivals (including three in Boston the last weekend of the season), there are sure to be more fireworks coming there. The AL MVP race is also a fun one simply because of the amount of firepower there is. Can Mike Trout, who tops the leaderboards in WAR yet again, win an MVP despite again being on a non-playoff team? Or will Betts, Ramirez, Lindor, or even Aaron Judge take home the award? Unlike in some years, it’s not likely to be an easy answer this time around.

So what should be the takeaways from the differences between the leagues? Here are a few:

  • There are going to be a lot of sellers in the AL (teams that know they have no chance to make the playoffs) and buyers in the NL (teams that think they do) at the trade deadline.
  • One of the two best teams in baseball — Yankees or Red Sox — is going to be forced into a one game wildcard playoff. What will the backlash be to the wildcard system if that team loses?
  • The AL representative in the World Series is almost certainly going to be the favorite.

Finally, it’s interesting to think about which league’s situation is more fun/alluring for neutral fans. I think conventional wisdom would be that of course the league with more teams in the running — the NL — is the answer, but I’m not sure I agree. In fact, while league offices generally profess their desire for parity, I think interest actually goes up when there’s dominance (see: Warriors, Golden State). That’s true for a few reasons. First of all, it’s fun to root against great teams. That’s especially true this year, given that two of the great teams are the Yankees and Red Sox, but I think it’s always the case that it’s a lot easier to form a rooting interest against a dominant team than it is against a meh team like, say, this year’s Brewers or Braves or Phillies. Second of all, it’s fun to watch sports being played at the highest level. That level of awe or appreciation that you may feel towards the Astros or Warriors would be impossible in a league with more equality. And finally, it’s nice to know that it’s not random. It’s nice to benefit from good luck when it happens to your team, but otherwise I think it’s icky to know that a team’s success is largely due to good luck. I like looking at a team before the season and thinking it’s likely to be really good and then seeing that play out over the course of the season. Of course, there are also downsides to the 2018 AL, especially if you’re a fan of the Rays or Angels or Tigers (etc.). But while I’d like there to be a little bit more drama in the American League down the stretch, I can’t complain too much, because I know that the playoffs themselves will be great for the same reason that the regular season is a bit of a snooze fest.

I wrote about the Lakers’ free agency moves yesterday, but believe it or not there were interesting moves made by and deals signed with teams not named the Lakers. I’m going to give my scattered thoughts here:

The first big signing of free agency was Paul George‘s four-year, $137 million deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder with a player option following year three. I can’t say that this move shocked me, because last year’s expectation that George was sure to sign for the Lakers had slowly evolved into a picture of a star truly torn between going home to LA and staying in Oklahoma City. I’m glad that George feels at home in Oklahoma City and that he has formed a strong bond with the organization and with Russell Westbrook, but I think there’s a good chance he’ll end up regretting this move. Because while staying and fighting with Westbrook while eschewing the glitz, comfort of home, and LeBron-ness of LA is admirable, the Thunder are in salary cap hell. They owe $157 million to the 12 players under contract (about $17 million more than the Warriors, whose owners are faced with the second heftiest bill), putting them roughly $55 million over the salary cap and deep into the luxury tax. And while the Warriors’ ownership is paying up for a dynasty, the Thunder were just a solid playoff team last year who bowed out in the first round of last year’s playoffs. They’re bringing back a virtually unchanged team from last year, with two notable exceptions: Andre Roberson will return at some point from injury, and Nerlens Noel has signed a minimum deal. And even after this year, when Carmelo Anthony’s albatross contract mercifully comes off the books, the Thunder will owe $132 million to nine players, including about $97 million to Westbrook, George, and Steven Adams, all of whom are signed through at least 2020-21. For better or for worse, the Thunder are locked into this core barring a huge trade. Re-signing George was obviously a no-brainer for Oklahoma City, but Sam Presti is going to have to pull a rabbit out of his hat if he wants this team to compete with the Warriors (and potentially other looming superpowers?) in the near future. Otherwise, George could regret re-upping with a capped-out team.

I found it funny that the Warriors managed to find a way to sign DeMarcus Cousins, arguably the most talented free agent not named LeBron James to switch teams. I say funny, and not depressing or devastating, because I don’t actually think Cousins will help them all that much. Here’s why:

  • He’s a 6’11”, 270 pound center who tore his Achilles late last January. Studies have shown that Achilles tears are extremely hard to come back strong from, and that’s especially true for a big like Cousins. He’s unlikely to see the court before 2019, and even then I think it’s unlikely that he’ll ever sniff, say, 25 minutes per game. Even if he does come back and play well, there’s almost no chance that he’ll be the same DeMarcus Cousins he was before the injury. So we shouldn’t be reacting as if the Warriors just signed DEMARCUS COUSINS.
  • It’s a one-year deal. So even if Cousins is absolutely incredible, the Warriors will lose him next July because they won’t have the cap space to re-sign him.
  • The Warriors were going to be heavily favored to win next season’s championship anyway. Their odds went from -110 to win before they signed Cousins to… -110 after they signed Boogie. That’s not to say that Cousins can’t help, but rather that there’s at least as much of a chance that he’ll be a net neutral or even a negative. This is not the same as the Warriors signing Kevin Durant.

Still, it’s amazing that the Warriors managed to add another All-NBA player to the fold.

This is more of a general comment, but it was jarring to see how many free agents opted to sign one-year deals. I say “opted to” because I’m talking not about the fringe players who had no choice but to sign short deals but rather about the mid-tier players who could likely have gotten three or four years if they wanted. Some examples: J.J. Redick, Tyreke Evans, DeAndre Jordan, Julius Randle (two years, but the second is a player option), Trevor Ariza, Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay, etc. The mid-tier free agents who got more years (Doug McDermott-3 for 22; Ersan Ilyasova-3 for 21; Jerami Grant-3 for 27) are noteworthy because they went the traditional route and locked in more guaranteed money. It appears that the majority of free agents, though, recognized that this was a relatively team-friendly market (i.e. not a lot of teams with cap space) and will take their chances next year, when there should be much more cash flowing. The consequence: there’ll be a lot of teams with cap space, but also a lot of depth in free agency, which means we’re in for an interesting summer of 2019.

The big deal that’s not getting talked about enough is Houston’s gargantuan deal with Chris Paul. The Rockets gave their second star a fully guaranteed four years and $160 million. I suppose the Rockets had to do the deal just because their window is small and would close without Paul, but boy is that deal going to look bad in a couple of years (if not sooner). Paul is a 6’0″ point guard who’s 33-years-old and has developed a reputation for being injury prone. Of course, nobody will care about those last few years if the Rockets win a championship, but they’d better do that quickly.

The Wizards look like big free agency losers. Haven’t we seen enough of Jeff Green and Dwight Howard to determine that they aren’t helpful players on good teams? Sure, Green had a couple of nice games against Boston in last year’s Cleveland-Boston series, but he’s an incredibly inconsistent player who can’t be counted on. Ditto for Howard, who is switching teams for the fourth consecutive year. Washington still should have playoff aspirations, but they could be in really bad shape really quickly. John Wall signed a massive extension last year that doesn’t kick in until after next season. He’ll be signed through 2022-23 for over $42 million a year. Not great for a point guard who’s an inconsistent shooter and has had injury problems. This upcoming year is the last one with Wall signed at a reasonable number ($19 million), and the Wizards are trying to capitalize on that by signing Green and Howard and trading Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers. But if you’re counting on Rivers, Green, and Howard to bring new belief to a team that finished eighth in the Eastern Conference last year, well, good luck. If I were a team in need of a good shooting guard, I would start calling about Bradley Beal right about now.

The Nuggets remain one of the most interesting teams in the NBA. They were a game away from making the playoffs last year and have a young team that should only improve. They locked in both Nikola Jokic and Will Barton to long-term contracts and after dealing Wilson Chandler are a Kenneth Faried or Darrell Arther trade away from shedding enough money to avoid the luxury tax. You would think that a starting lineup of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Barton, Paul Millsap, and Jokic would be a surefire playoff team, and I do think that they’ll be favorites to make the postseason with a healthy Millsap. But it’s hard to get super excited about any team with Nikola Jokic as its lone star given all the firepower in the Western Conference. I’ll be rooting for the Nuggets, because I think it’d be cool if they made some noise in the postseason.

Aaron Gordon, who was a restricted free agent, signed a four-year, $84 million deal to stay with the Orlando Magic. I think the Magic did well to get Gordon to commit long-term for “just” $21 million per year, or less than max money. And I’m intrigued by a Gordon-Mo Bamba frontcourt in the longterm. The fact that Bismack Biyombo is under contract for two more years at $17 million, though, is rather problematic.

Speaking of restricted free agents (RFAs), there are still a bunch of them out there who have neither re-signed nor signed offer sheets with other teams. Among them: Clint Capela, Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker, Jusuf Nurkic, Zach LaVine, and Rodney Hood. It seems likely that most or all of them will be unhappy with the offers they get from elsewhere simply because there isn’t much money left. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the RFAs took their qualifying offer (one year for 125% of their previous year’s salary) and took their chances in next year’s free agency as unrestricted free agents along with everyone else. Otherwise, their current teams could be able to retain them on really cheap long-term contracts. As a Celtics-hater, I’m hoping that Smart at least opts to take his QO and become an unrestricted free agent next year.

The Lakers were the winners of the LeBron James sweepstakes. Nobody can say it was too much of a surprise, as the LeBron-to-the-Lakers rumors had started in full force more than a year ago and never really dimmed as James came upon (relatively) hard times in Cleveland and few other legitimate suitors appeared. In the days before he signed with the Lakers, if you wanted to bet on LeBron heading to Los Angeles, you would have been faced with odds like 3-11 and 1-4 (-400, or roughly 80%). And not only did he sign with the Lakers, but he committed to them long-term by signing a four-year, $153.3 million contract, signaling that the Lakers will likely be the team he retires with (granted, the fourth year has a player option, but still). There’s obviously no doubt that this made the Lakers the winners of free agency. It’s a testament to LeBron’s ability that, despite the fact that he’s already played 54,347 career minutes (regular season and playoff combined), good for ninth all-time, and despite the fact that he’ll turn 37 in the last year of the deal, everyone agrees that this was a slam-dunk deal for the Lakers. Because of course it was. LeBron’s one of the two best players of all-time, and the scary thing is that he seems to still be getting better. His durability is unprecedented, and he’s coming off of a season in which he played all 82 games (not to mention 22 playoff games) for the first time in his career. So yes, the LeBron signing alone means that the Lakers have won the offseason, and it wasn’t all that surprising.

Guess what was a little bit more surprising? The Lakers’ moves following the LeBron signing, and what they mean. You would think that, having just signed the best player in the league, the Lakers would immediately go into win-now mode. In the immediate aftermath of the signing, I was convinced that LA would now go and get San Antonio’s disgruntled superstar Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is one of the five or so best players in the NBA, and he’s also: 1) a great fit next to LeBron because he’s a great shooter and secondary creator with the defensive ability to let LeBron conserve his energy on that end; 2) cheaper than most superstars would be because he’s asked for a trade and has just one year left on his contract; 3) almost certain to sign long-term with the Lakers if traded to them, given that the rumor has been that he wants to play in LA. Sure, you might argue that if he’s likely to sign there anyway next year there’s no point in trading young assets for him, but look at what happened to Paul George, who last year was in a very similar situation to Leonard (with one year left on his contract and a desire to move to LA, his home town). Instead of trading for him, the Lakers decided to hold off because they were confident that they’d be able to sign with him a year later. So the Thunder traded for him and a year later they were able to get him to sign a new long-term contract. The Lakers didn’t even get a meeting with PG. So I figured that they’d have learned their lesson and would pony up for Kawhi, especially with LeBron signed and the team seemingly primed to win right away. A team led by James and Leonard would be a threat in the West, if still clearly second fiddle to the Warriors.

Los Angeles may yet trade for Leonard, but it seems a whole lot less likely now. Since signing James, the Lakers have made some moves that on the surface have been head-scratchers. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was re-signed to a one-year deal worth $12 million. I’ll set that signing off to the side, because while I think it was a little rich, KCP is at least a clearly useful player who’s coming off of his best season. He shot a career high 38% from beyond the arc and took more threes than ever (50% of his shots came from deep). He also became a good finisher at the rim, helping to excuse his still-poor midrange shooting (he shot 32% from midrange, putting him in the 25th percentile of wings, per Cleaning the Glass). He’s an average defender, and his team has generally been better offensively with him than without him throughout his career, so I’m fine with the signing, especially since he can clearly fit in next to LeBron James. But KCP wasn’t the only guy the Lakers signed. They also brought in Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, and JaVale McGee, all on one-year contracts. Rondo got $9 million, which is tellingly the same amount that Julius Randle, the promising young big man whom the Lakers renounced the rights to, got from New Orleans. You can say all you want about Rondo’s competitiveness and intelligence, but as a player, he’s exactly the type of player the Lakers should be avoiding now that they have LeBron. He’s a brilliant passer — always near the top of the league in assists — but a limited (at best) shooter. He’s become passable from a percentage standpoint, but the fact remains that defenses don’t respect his shooting and thus sag way off of him, forcing his teammates to play 4-on-5. Tellingly, he’s been a net negative for his team for seven straight years from a +/- standpoint. There’s no doubt that he was a big contributor on an exciting New Orleans team last year, but the fact remains that he has holes, as any 6’1″ point guard who can’t really shoot would. I think the Lakers probably got a little too carried away by Rondo’s character and New Orleans’s success, which was mostly thanks to Anthony Davis anyway. And I can’t understand why they’d rather take a flier on Rondo than on Randle, who’s showed real promise. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned that it’s impossible to imagine Rondo playing effectively next to Lonzo Ball, who has a very similar skill-set.

Stephenson got the taxpayer’s “room” exception ($4.45 million) and is weirdly not that dissimilar from Rondo. They’re both uber-competitive, they’re both good passers for their positions (Stephenson has ranked in the 84th percentile or above in assist percentage at his position in each year of his career, per Cleaning the Glass), and neither of them can shoot. Stephenson’s a career 30% three point shooter and shot 29% last year in his return to the Pacers. That doesn’t mean he’s not a useful player. He’s always been a good finisher in transition and provides more passing and rebounding than he’s given credit for. He can also be a tenacious defender for short stretches. But like Rondo, he’s an odd fit next to James, who throughout his career has been deadliest when surrounded by shooters.

McGee got the veteran’s minimum, $2.4 million, so it’s a lot harder for me to quibble with that signing. But still… JaVale McGee?? Sure, he had his moments with the Warriors, including in this year’s laughter of a series against the Cavaliers. But that was with the Warriors, and even on Golden State he was usually downright unplayable. McGee is a 7-footer who can’t shoot, can’t pass, and is poor defensively. Only once in his 10-year career has his team been better defensively with him on the court than off it, and that was back in 2010-11. His one skill is rim-running, and while it’s always nice to see a few huge JaVale dunks, that hardly makes it worth having him on your team. I would have preferred the Lakers going after any number of other veterans who would have taken the minimum to play with LeBron James.

So the Lakers have surrounded LeBron with three non-shooters and one semi-shooter. They also, of course, still have their young prospects under contract. I think Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Kyle Kuzma all have bright futures and haven’t seen enough of Ivica Zubac or rookie Moe Wagner to have an opinion either way on the two big men. And Hart especially seems ready to be a good role player immediately on a LeBron-led playoff team. He’s already a 40% three-point shooter with some creativity off the dribble and the potential to be a good, versatile defender. But while the other three all have significant potential, they also all have big warts right now. Ingram’s an inefficient scorer who hasn’t made a positive impact on the court in either of his two NBA seasons. He shot nearly 40% from three last year, but his 68% free throw shooting indicates that that may have been a fluke. Kuzma came out of the gates hot last year but slowed down significantly as the year went on and has real trouble playing defense. And Ball had an up-and-mostly-down rookie year in which he flashed his ability as a passer and defender but was abysmal from an efficiency standpoint — 36% from the floor, 31% from three, 45% from the line. Again, I remain confident that Ball and Ingram in particular have bright futures, but the fact is that they’re not ready to help LeBron win now. That’s why a trade of a couple of the young guys for a superstar like Leonard would make sense for a team that just signed LeBron James.

Given the fact that the Lakers have made all those weird one-year signings, I can reach only one conclusion: the Lakers are happy to effectively give up on contending next year, instead continuing to develop their young players and preserving cap space (hence all the one-year deals) heading into what looks like a loaded 2019 free agency. As an aside, let me just say that boy is next summer going to be crazy. There are going to be at least 10 teams with enough cap space to sign a player to a max contract. As I write this, there are 10 teams with over $40 million in cap space next summer. Some of those teams may lose some space after signing players to extensions, but there will surely be a lot of teams with room. And here’s a list of the best players who can become unrestricted free agents next summer (that is, they are definitely UFAs or have player options): Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker. That’s a lot of star-power.

On the one hand, I can understand why the Lakers are looking ahead to next summer. There are all those free agents, and there’s the fact that it seems unlikely that they’d be able to beat the Warriors this year even if they had made a bunch of win-now moves. But on the other hand — and this is what I keep coming back to — it seems insane that the Lakers are wasting a year of LeBron James’s prime. I mean, come on! LeBron is so so so good that it doesn’t take much surrounding talent to make his team a threat to the Warriors. Sure, it takes more than what he had on this year’s Cavs team, but not that much more. We don’t know how many more prime years LeBron has. It seems like he’s going to keep doing this forever, but he can’t, right? He could start losing steam at any time, and it actually should be shocking that he hasn’t already. So while the Lakers seem to be making the rational, unemotional decision by waiting a year to go all-in, I worry that they could end up regretting one of LeBron’s final dominant seasons by pairing him with a mixture of misfits and youth.

NBA Draft Preview Part 2– My Top-20

Posted: 06/21/2018 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

Here is my top-20 list of draft prospects heading into the draft tonight, sorted into tiers:

— Tier 1 —
1. Luka Doncic: A few months ago, I thought of Doncic and DeAndre Ayton as 1a and 1b. But as I’ve thought about it more — and as I’ve begun to watch more of Doncic’s Europe footage — I’ve become convinced that Luka is a cut above. He’s by no means a sure thing, as his subpar three point percentage and lack of elite athleticism are certainly concerns. But keep in mind that he just won EuroLeague MVP at 19-years-old and that he’s produced at an unheard of level in a league that normally shuns young players. I also know that a lot of his skills are going to translate, including his court vision, basketball IQ, pick-and-roll savvy, and his off-the-dribble creation. All of that is enough to convince me that Doncic is easily the best prospect in the draft.

— Tier 2 —
2. DeAndre Ayton: Everything I said about Ayton here remains true. I’m awed by his physical ability and potential. He’s big and strong, but he’s also nimble and fleet. And he’s also a solid (if not knockdown) shooter, one who can hurt you from midrange and sometimes from three. Given all of that and his unstoppable finishing at the rim, it seems likely that Ayton will be an offensive superstar. But his lack of defensive awareness, low (2.3 per 40 minutes) block rate, and questionable decision-making are all worrying. He has true superstar potential, but also maybe a little higher bust potential than we’d like to admit.

3. Jaren Jackson Jr.: The bad news is that Jackson played just 21.8 minutes per game for Michigan State last year and often disappeared even when he was on the court. The good news is that he was playing in circumstances — next to both a plodding center and another lottery prospect (Miles Bridges) who’s also probably best suited as a power forward — that won’t be replicated in the NBA. Jackson’s never going to be an offensive superstar, but his college production and measurables (6’11 with a 7’5 wingspan) suggest that he’s sure to be an excellent supporting player. He averaged 5.5 blocks per 40 minutes and shot 60% from two point range and 40% from three at Michigan State. He profiles as an excellent rim protector who can also switch onto smaller players, which is a very handy skillset indeed. He has deep three point range and DPOY potential, which is about all you can ask for. And he’d fit basically anywhere.

4. Trae Young: Look, I know Young is small, and I know he’s always going to be a defensive liability. But guess what? Most of the best point guards in the NBA are defensive liabilities for two reasons: they’re small, and they carry a huge amount of the offensive load and thus can’t be asked to expend as much energy on defense. The question, then, becomes: can Young become an offensive superstar? And I think the answer is yes. We all saw how good he could be early on in his lone season at Oklahoma. Then, defenses realized that he was the only true threat on a team without much other scoring talent, and his production suffered. Given more space at the next level, I think Young could again begin looking like the guy who took the NCAA by storm. Given the degree of difficulty on most of his threes, the fact that he shot 36% from beyond the arc is actually quite impressive. He was far better than that on catch-and-shoot threes and 86% from the line, and I think it’s pretty clear that he’s a great shooter. He’s also a fantastic passer with a great basketball IQ, at least offensively. He knows how to run an offense, and his shooting also makes him a dangerous off-ball threat. I wouldn’t sleep on Trae Young.

— Tier 3 —
5. Wendell Carter Jr.: Carter is just rock solid on both ends. He’s a smart player who’s sure to be a great complementary player. He’s a better shooter and a better shot-blocker than his Duke teammate Marvin Bagley, who got almost all the attention last season but arguably has a game that’s outdated in the NBA. No, he’s not as talented as Bagley, but I think he’s more likely to help a team win than his flasher Duke teammate is. He’s also a great rebounder and provides the passing and floor-spacing to more than make up for his relative lack of athleticism.

6. Mikal Bridges: Bridges has very little superstar potential, but he’s very likely to become a good 3-and-D role player. And in today’s NBA, that’s very valuable. At 6’7″ with a 7’2″ wingspan, he has ideal length for a small forward, and he made it count in his final season in college, when he was the best player (or at least the best pro prospect) on Villanova’s dominant team. He made steady progress throughout his college career, going from a guy who looked clueless on both ends to a player who was Villanova’s defensive stopper and also shot 44% from three. Bridges knows who he is: 31% of his shots came from spot-up opportunities, and he averaged 1.34 points per shot on those shots. That’s elite. He’s already nearly 22-years-old and is unlikely to ever be a primary creator, but he has a high floor as both a strong shooter and a good wing defender.

7. Marvin Bagley III: Bagley is going to produce big-time immediately. He’s probably the most likely Rookie of the Year winner simply because he can probably put up 20 points and 10 rebounds per game right off the bat. He’s a great athlete, a tremendous finisher, and a hard worker. But he has serious issues, and I’m not sure how easy they’ll be to correct. How does he fit in defensively? He’s neither good enough to be a rim protector (just one block per 40 minutes, thanks in part to a lackluster 7’0″ wingspan) nor quick enough laterally to guard wings. His defensive struggles were likely one of the factors that led Coach K. to switch to a zone. I’m also not convinced that he’ll be a good shooter at the next level, as he shot just 63% from the line. All of that means you have a player who looks the part but may not help a team win.

8. Kevin Knox: I know Knox didn’t always produce at Kentucky, but every time I watched the Wildcats play, I came away being impressed by Knox. First, the negatives: Knox made no defensive impact at Kentucky, he’s not a true playmaker, and he’s kind of a tweener (not quick enough to guard wings, not strong enough to guard bigs). With all of that said, he’s very young, has a beautiful stroke, and has a huge amount of offensive upside. He’s not as good right now as most of the other guys I have ranked around here, so he’s certainly a risk, but Knox has all the tools to become an impact player.

9. Mohamed Bamba: Bamba has tantalizing upside, thanks most obviously to the record-breaking 7’10” wingspan that makes him nearly impossible to score over when his positioning is good. Indeed, he averaged 4.8 blocks per 40 minutes at Texas and has the potential to be a Rudy Gobert-level rim protector on defense. But for Bamba to live up to his billing as a near-consensus top-five prospect, he’s also going to have to improve a ton on offense. You wouldn’t know it from his pre-draft workouts or the way people have been talking about him, but Bamba shot just 28% from three and 68% from the line in college. He also disappeared far too often for a guy with his physical tools and has an injury history (albeit not a particularly expansive one). Of course some team will fall in love with his physical tools, and I think his defensive ability along with his finishing at the rim and overall offensive potential makes him a worthy top-10 pick. But Bamba is far from a sure thing.

10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: SGA was not the most highly-rated recruit on Kentucky’s team last year. He also wasn’t second, third, fourth, or fifth. He was a (gasp) four-star recruit, which would seem pretty good on both college teams but downright pitiful on John Calipari’s Wildcats. That didn’t stop him from becoming Kentucky’s bonafide leader down the stretch. Down the stretch (last 10 games), he averaged 19 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists for the Wildcats, which is pretty good for a guy who spent almost the entire first half of the season coming off the bench. There are a few things I really love about him. He’s a really smooth ball-handler who always seems to make the right play when he has the ball in his hands. He has a super high basketball IQ. He got to the line seemingly at will in college, and hit free throws at a strong rate (82%) when he got there. And at 6’6″ with a 6’11” wingspan, he has great size for a point guard, which makes him a pest on defense and a threat to constantly clog passing lanes. If you’re looking for a volume scorer at point guard, SGA isn’t your guy, at least not yet. While he shot 40% from three, that came on just 1.5 attempts per contest from beyond the arc. But I love his competitiveness and drive and think he’s a great creator out of the pick-and-roll.

11. Michael Porter Jr.: Were it not for his back injury, MPJ would probably be higher on my board. But guess what? Back injuries are scary, and I’m not at all convinced that he’s going to be able to instantly move past his and have a long, healthy NBA career. At the very least, Porter’s health is concerning. At most, it’s disqualifying, which I bet is the case for some NBA teams. If anything, I was tempted to move Porter further down the list. But the next tier of prospects clearly don’t have the potential Porter has to be a go-to scorer down the road. When he’s healthy, Porter’s a great scorer, with the explosiveness to dunk over people and the ability to drain threes off the dribble. But along with his health, Porter’s defense is also concerning. In the few games he played for Missouri, he looked disinterested on the defensive end and often lost his man. He’s a very confident guy, but hopefully he recognizes how far he needs to come on the defensive end.

— Tier 4 —
12. Miles Bridges: I’m relatively low on Michigan State’s Bridges, simply because I think he’s a tweener who profiles as a role-player who just doesn’t fit as seamlessly as Villanova’s Bridges. There’s something to be said for drafting a wing who can finish at the rim and shoot from beyond the arc, as Bridges can. But at 6’6″ with a 6’9″ wingspan and without much lateral quickness, how does Miles Bridges fit in defensively? As I’ve seen it described before, he has the length of a wing but the skill set and athleticism of a big. That can be a good thing, too, as it may mean that Bridges has the versatility to guard both types of players. But I fear it could mean he can guard neither. He’s also not a great creator off the dribble. The single stat that concerns me most? His free throw rate. He took just 23.8 free throws per 100 field goals, an incredibly low number for a top college prospect. That may not seem too concerning by itself, but it reinforces my belief that Bridges isn’t quite explosive enough to create for himself off the dribble, and he doesn’t create well enough for others to make up for it. That likely means he’ll be a useful role-player, and perhaps even a starter, but not more than that.

13. Robert Williams: We’ve seen Robert Williams before. To me, he’s the easiest player in the draft to compare to current NBA players. He’s a physically imposing, rim-running center who gobbles down rebounds and is an elite finisher of lobs and putbacks. Sound familiar? I’m thinking of DeAndre Jordan and of Clint Capela. Give him the ball in transition and on cuts, and let him find it after missed shots. Other than that, he doesn’t have much offensively utility. He averaged just 2.2 assists per 40 minutes this season and shot an abysmal 47% from the line. He has no potential as a three point shooter (well, I guess everyone has some potential to learn how to shoot, but he’s at the bottom end of that range). Defensively, I think he has the potential to be not just a great rim protector (7’4″ wingspan, 3.9 blocks per 40 minutes in college) but also a good (for a big) switcher onto guards thanks to his athleticism and length. Williams is a projectable big man without any real offensive upside, so this feels like the perfect place to put him.

14. Zhaire Smith: Is the shot real? Smith shot 45% from three in his single year in college, but on just 1.1 attempts. He also shot just 72% from the line, indicating that he’s more likely to be a low-mid-30s three point shooter than a high-30s one. And if that’s the case, it’s unclear exactly how he’ll fit in. In college, the 6’5″ Smith primarily played power forward for Texas. That’s surely not going to be the case in the NBA (he’ll be a wing), and I’ve reflected that in ranking Smith 14th. Smith is obviously extraordinarily athletic, as evidenced by gravity-defying dunks like this one. He’s a great finisher at the rim, and a great all-around defender. If I were more confident in his shot, I’d move him into the top-10. But I do still worry about where he’ll fit offensively.

— Tier 5 —
15. Keita Bates-Diop: KBD is another long wing (7’2″ wingspan) who’s as likely as anyone in this draft to be a lockdown defender. That’s why I have him ranked higher than most. He’s lower than Mikal Bridges, though, because his shot is significantly shakier and it remains to be seen how he’ll fit in an offense in which he’s not the focal point (as he was at Ohio State). Still, KBD was extremely impressive for a surprisingly good OSU team last year and did nothing but help his draft stock.

16. Lonnie Walker IV: Walker is a long, supremely athletic guard with the potential to be a go-to scorer. His ceiling is very high for a guy who’s likely to go in the middle of the first round. But he’s likely to be available at the end of the lottery for a reason: he didn’t impress at all at Miami and is a very raw player who’ll probably never figure things out. I hate to put it that way, but it’s a fact. I think Walker could definitely have used another year in college. If I were a team picking in the middle of the first round, though, I’d still be happy to draft Walker simply because he does have the tools to be an elite two-way player.

17. Kevin Huerter: The appeal to Huerter is blatantly obvious: he’s a knockdown shooter. He shot 42% last season at Maryland, and many of those shots came from way beyond the arc and/or were off-balance efforts. He’s also a 6’7″ guard who has good instincts, so I think he has hidden defensive potential too. For now, though, he’s pretty much a one-trick pony. It just so happens that said trick is a rather important skill to have in basketball.

18. Donte DiVincenzo: DiVincenzo’s draft stock has risen meteorically over the last three months, starting with his exceptional all-around NCAA Tournament performance (and especially in the Championship Game against Michigan, when he scored 31 points on 15 shots) and continuing with his combine performance and apparently great workouts in front of teams. I don’t think he’ll be a deadeye shooter (he shot 40% from three but just 71% from the line this season), and his lack of size will keep him from being super versatile defensively, but he’s one of the most athletic players in the draft and has proven that he can create for himself and his teammates. He always rose to the occasion at the biggest moments in college, and I see no reason to believe he won’t become a solid NBA role player with the intense personality and competitiveness to be a great glue guy too.

19. Jacob Evans III: Another 3-and-D player. Evans was one of the keys to Mick Cronin’s best Cincinnati teams. He has the defensive versatility and toughness to be a true Cronin player, and he projects as a reliable mid-30s shooter from beyond in the NBA. Like Miles Bridges, he struggled to get to the line in college, and he shouldn’t be expected to create much in the NBA. But when you’re picking in the back half of the first round, you should be thrilled to get a guy like Evans.

20. Collin Sexton: As you can see, I’m lower on Sexton than most, simply because to me he just looks like another point guard who lacks size (6’1″) and is a shaky long-range shooter. Now, like a lot of those point guards, he has the competitiveness, length, and athleticism to largely make up for those major deficiencies. Sexton is a fearless player and was the linchpin (scoring 40 points) of the most exceptional performance of the year in college basketball, which was Alabama’s near-comeback against Minnesota despite playing 3-on-5 for 10 minutes. He’s definitely going to be a great teammate and has a future in the NBA, but I don’t think it’s very likely that he’ll be a starting point guard, which is why I have him down at 20th. I still like him a lot, but in a deep draft some guys have to drop, right?

NBA Draft Preview Part 1

Posted: 06/20/2018 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

Since before last season’s draft, this draft has been hyped up. That’s true to a certain extent about a lot of drafts, sure (although not next year’s, which is being called weak even a year+ in advance), but was especially so about this one. It was supposed to be stronger than last season’s draft. With the benefit of hindsight, that may no longer be the case, with the emergence of Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell (among others) taking people by surprise. But the fact remains that this draft is thought to be both strong at the top and very deep. I’m going to say right off the bat that I just don’t see it, at least when it comes to the star power at the top. To me, there’s a one-man top tier. And while I wrote a glowing review of DeAndre Ayton a little more than three months ago, he’s not that man. I still think Ayton’s going to be very good, but the more I think about it, the more worried I get that Ayton’s big weaknesses — decision-making, defensive awareness — are uncorrectable and will keep him from being a true superstar. No, the guy at the top of my board is not Ayton but Luka Doncic, the 19-year-old who took over Real Madrid and Europe. I’ll get more into the strength and weaknesses of the individual prospects (and how I rank them) tomorrow, but today I wanted to describe in more general terms the makeup of this year’s draft. More than anything, this draft is defined by…

Big men at the top: Given the direction basketball seems to be going in, you would expect the top draft prospects to be long, versatile wings who project as plus players on both ends of the court and who can fit on any team. In short, 3-and-D wings, the most valuable role players in the game. This year, that means guys like Mikal Bridges, Jacob Evans, Khyri Thomas, Shake Milton, Keita Bates-Diop, Zhaire Smith, and Josh Okogie. But while all of those guys are (to varying degrees) good prospects with NBA futures, none of them rank near the top of most draft boards (Bridges is closest, around 10th on most boards). Instead, the guys going at the top of the draft are big men, also known as the players who regularly get played off the court by the best teams in the NBA. Now, it’s not like teams are ignoring more talented guards and wings and instead taking talentless bigs; it just so happens that there are a lot of talented big men in this draft. But none of them are Anthony Davis-level sure-thing prospects, and I think only Ayton is close to the type of prospect that Karl-Anthony Towns was. I’m talking, of course, about Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, Mo Bamba, and Wendell Carter, who are likely to be five of the first eight or nine picks (and maybe four of the first five). Of those five, Jackson is the only purely modern center in that he’s supposedly a good shooter who can defend bigs and switch onto guards. That would make him, to an even greater extent than the 3-and-D wings of the world, the ultimate role player and the hardest type of guy to find. Bamba is probably next on the list in that sense, although I have a lot of questions about his future (more on that tomorrow). Carter, meanwhile, has obvious limitations but also maybe the highest floor. We know he’s going to be a good center.

As for Ayton and Bagley? Well, they’re the headliners, the reason this big men at the top thing is even a talking point. They’re likely to go one-two, despite their obvious limitations. Why? Because right or wrong, teams at the top of the draft don’t want players who profile as even elite role players (a la Jackson). They want superstars, and the Suns and Kings at least seem to think that Ayton and Bagley have the highest potential in the draft. That’s why it’s useful to judge the prospects in the draft — any draft, really — not just by where you think they’re most likely to end up but also by how likely you think they are to, say, become a superstar, become an all-star, become a good role player, or become a bust. Mikal Bridges may have the highest role player+ potential in the draft, but he certainly doesn’t have the highest superstar potential. And it’s that superstar potential that’s enabling teams to look past clear NBA trends — teams are going smaller and faster — and pick the players with the most obvious potential.

Uncertainty: Last year by this time, we had a pretty good idea about how things were going to go. We knew that Markelle Fultz would go #1, Lonzo Ball #2, Jayson Tatum #3, and Josh Jackson #4. Beyond that, things still went pretty much as planned. Jonathan Givony’s (then of DraftExpress, now of ESPN) mock draft got the first 10 picks correct, then had Charlotte taking Donovan Mitchell (they took Malik Monk) before nailing #12 (Luke Kennard to Detroit). So last year was shockingly predictable. This year, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We know who’s going #1, but the first monkey wrench comes at #2 with the Kings. We think they’ll take Marvin Bagley, but maybe that was a smokescreen and they wanted Luka Doncic all along. We think Ayton, Bagley, Doncic, and Jaren Jackson will go 1-4 in some order. After that? We don’t really have any idea. Who do the Mavs like? Do the Magic want Trae Young… or do they want Mo Bamba? Are the Bulls set on Michael Porter Jr., or is it Wendell Carter they’re after? Also: it seems likely that trades will happen. The Grizzlies (4th), Bulls (7th), and Clippers (12th and 13th) have been the teams most heavily linked to trades but far from the only ones. Could Kawhi Leonard move on draft night? Will the Raptors move into the first half of the first round for Canadian prodigal son Shai Gilgeous-Alexander? Do the Cavs move their pick in a last gasp effort to keep LeBron James? All these questions (and many more) loom over the draft.

Depth: While I don’t think there’s an abundance of high-end players at the top of the draft, I do share the belief that there is a lot of depth at the back end of the first round and early in the second, specifically at shooting guard (or, more to the point, shorter player who isn’t a good enough ball-handler and/or passer to be a point guard). I’m talking about Donte DiVincenzo, Grayson Allen, Kevin Huerter, Elie Okobo, DeAnthony Melton, Justin Jackson, Landry Shamet, and the non-Bridges and Smith 3-and-D guys mentioned above (because those two will probably go in the top-15). That’s a lot of talent to be had in the 20-40 range, and I think a lot of those guys will become good role players. That’s bad news for teams hoping to catch up to the Warriors (namely: everyone), who own the 28th pick.

My Full World Cup Group Stage Picks

Posted: 06/13/2018 by levcohen in Soccer

I’ve picked Brazil to win the World Cup, but I also want to make full group stage predictions before the games kick off tomorrow. Luckily, there’s a pretty obvious place for me to start these…

Group A:

  Points
Uruguay     9
Russia     4
Egypt     2
Saudi Arabia     1

Uruguay is by far the strongest team in this group and really should collect the maximum nine points. The nucleus of the team — strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani along with centerback Diego Godin — is familiar, but new talents like midfielder Lucas Torrerira give Uruguay new strength. With a +12 goal differential in qualifying, Uruguay was the second best team in South America. I’m picking Russia to finish second because they’re a well organized team with enough talent to get past Saudi Arabia and tie Egypt. I’d consider picking Egypt second if I were convinced that Mo Salah was healthy, but even with a healthy Salah I’m concerned that the Egyptians don’t have enough oomph to get out of the group. And Saudi Arabia is probably the worst team in the group. They’ll be lucky to get the point I’m awarding them.

Group B:

  Points
Spain     7
Morocco     5
Portugal     4
Iran     0

It’ll be interesting to see whether the dramatic replacement of Julen Lopetegui, who was ousted after the news came out that he was set to end his Spain contract to join Real Madrid, has any impact. I don’t think it’ll keep Spain from finishing first in a pretty straightforward group. Portugal is probably the second strongest team in the group, and I know they won Euro 2016 and have Cristiano Ronaldo, but they’re an older team with old and mistake-prone centerbacks (cough cough Pepe cough cough). Morocco, meanwhile, is full of exciting young talent, with world class creator Hakim Ziyech of Ajax (although not for long, I figure), 20-year-old Amine Harit of Schalke, and Sofyan Amrabat. They also have excellent centerback Mehdi Benatia of Juventus, who’s their captain. Portugal’s better, but I have a hunch that Morocco will be one of two African teams to get through. Iran actually cruised through Asian qualifying (6-4-0 with only two goals allowed), but I expect them to struggle with the opposing talent in this group.

Group C:

  Points
France     7
Denmark     4
Peru     4
Australia     1

France should probably win all three games, but they aren’t the best at breaking down organized defenses and the rest of their group will certainly defend in numbers. I think Peru-Denmark is a toss-up, but I just can’t trust a team that’s as reliant on a single player as Denmark is on Christian Eriksen. I still think Denmark will get out of the group, but only on goal difference. Australia has outperformed expectations at some previous World Cups, but this isn’t one of their better teams and I’d be surprised if they win a game.

Group D:

  Points
Croatia     6
Argentina     4
Nigeria     4
Iceland     2

Along with Group H, this is the toughest to call from top to bottom. Iceland is a great story and a good team, one I might pick to get out of a different group. But they happen to be in the same group as two teams I’m high on — Croatia and Nigeria — along with Messi’s Argentina. As I’ve said before, I think there’s a real chance that Croatia and Nigeria or Iceland will qualify at the expense of Argentina, but I’ll stick with this prediction in what’s sure to be a tightly contested group. Croatia’s underperformed in the past, but they’re too technically strong to disappoint again, right?

Group E:

  Points
Brazil     9
Serbia     4
Costa Rica     3
Switzerland     1

I’m probably wrong to overlook Switzerland, but they’re just such a boring team that I can’t bring myself to pick them to move on. Costa Rica stunningly topped a group that included Italy, Uruguay, and England in 2014 before winning a knockout stage game and losing in the quarterfinals, and I think there’s a chance they can sneak through in second this time around before losing to Germany. Instead, I’m going to pick Serbia to finish second, because they’re very strong in the middle of the field. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is a star and is set to move to a top team after the World Cup. Nemanja Matic is a big, bruising force in the middle, and he’s not alone: Croatia is the biggest team in the World Cup.

Group F:

  Points
Germany     9
Mexico     4
Sweden     4
South Korea     0

I expect Germany to cruise, but who knows? Mexico and Sweden are both good teams who can cause anyone problems on their days. Sweden has excelled in the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era, playing with more discipline and cohesiveness and remaining strong and compact defensively. And Mexico always gets out of their groups and has an attack spruced up by Hirving Lozano, one of the top young players in the tournament, and crowd favorite Chicharito, who has 49 goals in 102 career games for Mexico. It’s an experienced team, and I trust them to advance. South Korea is one of the less inspiring teams in the field, although they do have Tottenham star Son Heung-min. They struggled in Asian qualifying, finishing second behind Iran in their group and going just 4-3-3 with a +1 goal differential against Iran, Syria, Uzbekistan, China, and Qatar.

Group G:

  Points
Belgium     7
England     7
Tunisia     3
Panama     0

This is the easiest group to predict. I’d be very surprised if either Belgium or England failed to advance, and I think Belgium’s stronger attack will be enough to push the Red Devils over England on goal difference. Panama and Tunisia are probably both among the five worst teams at the World Cup (Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Australia are the others).

Group H:

  Points
Poland     6
Senegal     6
Colombia     3
Japan     3

This is the group I’m most excited for. I think all four teams have a chance to not just advance but top the group. There are going to be a lot of goals in this group. Poland has Robert Lewandowski, probably the best pure striker in the world, and a pair of young Napoli attackers (Piotr Zielinski and Arkadiusz Milik) who add plenty of support. They scored the fifth most goals in European qualifying, behind four teams — Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and Germany — who dominated their groups. They also gave up the most goals of any European qualifier. And all three of their competitors have plenty of attacking talent. Japan’s probably the worst team in the group, but I think they’re getting overlooked a little bit. In Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki, Japan has three high-profile attacking players who have proven themselves at high levels of club competition. They’re also all in their primes, along with centerback mainstay Maya Yoshida and star Marseille fullback Hiroki Sakai. They do have some defensive issues, and those will probably be exploited at the World Cup. I wrote that Colombia, the group’s favorite, may miss the knockout stage, and I’m putting my money where my mouth is. They have a good team but little scoring punch outside of James and Falcao. As for Senegal, they’re a risky bet because they have just four players older than 28 and because I’m unsure how exactly they will line up. But they have star winger Sadio Mane of Liverpool on one side and Monaco’s Keita Balde on the other. Napoli centerback Kalidou Koulibaly and Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye provide strength and structure in the middle of the field. They’re going to score goals. I’m sure they’ll also be exposed some defensively, but I want them to qualify and think they have the talent to do so, so second place it is for Senegal.