NBA Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/13/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

It didn’t always seem likely, but in the end we got the Conference Finals matchups that seemed inevitable at the start of the season. Boston and Cleveland are obviously different teams than we expected them to be, while the Warriors and Rockets are exactly what we thought they would be. Last year’s Conference Finals disappointed, with Kawhi Leonard’s injury ending the Warriors-Spurs series in Game One and Cleveland cruising past Boston. I’m hoping for and expecting two better series’ this year.

Cleveland Cavaliers over Boston Celtics in 6: Brad Stevens has done a great job this year. But I think that all the Stevens love has gotten in the way of acknowledging the fact that, even without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, this Boston team is very talented and very well suited to playoff basketball. I don’t actually know how much better they’d be if they had Irving and/or Hayward, because their real strength is their ability to guard basically everyone straight up. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Al Horford, even Terry Rozier… all of their important players can guard bigger or smaller players. Horford, normally Boston’s center (but their power forward against the Sixers, as they put Aron Baynes on Joel Embiid), guarded Ben Simmons, Philadelphia’s point guard, in the last round. And Horford, Tatum, and Brown in particular are just darn good two-way players. Horford’s playing the best basketball of his life and is averaging 17/9/3/1/1 on 58% shooting in the playoffs (and that’s not on high percentage shots, either). Tatum has exploded in the playoffs, becoming Boston’s go-to scorer as a rookie. Brown has suddenly turned into a deadeye three point shooter, albeit one who still can’t shoot free throws. Then there’s Terry Rozier, who’s somehow become as good offensively as Irving. And Smart and Morris are perfect role players. Neither of them will be particularly efficient offensive players, but they’re both pivotal (and rock-solid) defenders and rebounders. Boston still sometimes has trouble scoring, but it’s nowhere near as big of an issue as you’d think given the two guys they’re missing.

Of course, their one-on-one defending ability will face its biggest test yet. Marcus Morris boldly proclaimed yesterday that he’s the best LeBron defender not named Kawhi Leonard. What could go wrong after a comment like that? The Celtics have homecourt advantage and are playing extremely well and confidently, but I think it’s pretty likely that LeBron James will have something to say about that. I know we’re just one series removed from the Cavs getting pushed to seven games (and thoroughly outplayed) by the Indiana Pacers, but I saw everything I needed to see against Toronto. LeBron surrounded by four shooters is still unstoppable, and Cleveland can still reach a higher level than any other team in the Eastern Conference. With that being said, the Celtics are good enough to be competitive in this series. They have a lot of players who can get their own tough buckets, and they — Horford especially — should be able to score against the Cavs’ suspect defense. I just don’t think they can get enough stops against a LeBron-George Hill-J.R. Smith-Kyle Korver-Kevin Love lineup. Horford knows that better than anyone. LeBron is a ridiculous 40-9 in his career against Horford and 15-1 against him in the playoffs. Most of that came while Al was on the Hawks, but he knows better than anyone that LeBron James is a different animal. I think that some of Boston’s less experienced players will know that after this series, too.

Golden State Warriors over Houston Rockets in 7: This is the series we’ve all been waiting for ever since the day that Houston traded for Chris Paul. It’s the Rockets, fresh off a 65-win season and easy series victories over the Timberwolves and Jazz, against the mighty Warriors, who have rounded into form in the playoffs. It’s likely the toughest matchup for Golden State since they got Kevin Durant. For those who think this GSW team is invincible, this is the true test. Because if Houston seems like they were designed specifically to beat this Golden State team, that’s because they were. They’re a high variance team that hoists buckets of threes per game. When they get hot, they’re practically unbeatable. And any team that hopes to beat the Warriors must have high variance, because there’s not a team in the league with nearly as much star-level talent as they have. Houston also has the switchy, strong wings that can come the closest to causing Kevin Durant problems offensively. In Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute, they have three Durant defenders that are way better than anyone San Antonio or New Orleans could throw at KD. I expect at least two of those three players to be on the court basically all the time because of how necessary they are defensively not just on Durant but also on switches onto Steph Curry. Because both of these teams so relentlessly go after mismatches, this is going to be a series with a lot of attacking of switches, so it helps to have players on the court who aren’t that vulnerable. That’s why I don’t expect to see much of guys like Ryan Anderson or Nene, both of whom have been good contributors to the Rockets for years but don’t quite have the versatility to play against the Warriors. Three players we will be seeing a lot of: Chris Paul, James Harden, and Clint Capela. Paul and Harden are obviously Houston’s engines, and they’re going to need both to be at their best. I expect them to try to expose Curry defensively. Ironically, this may be a series decided on who plays better defensively between Curry and Harden. There’s no doubt that throughout his career Curry has been the better team defender, but I think Harden may have the higher defensive upside if he’s consistently locked in. He’s just carried such a heavy offensive load throughout his career that he’s made a habit of strategically resting defensively (aka taking plays off). That can’t happen in this series, because Curry, Klay Thompson, and Durant will take advantage of it ruthlessly. But the same is true on the other side, as Paul and Harden are both good enough to expose Curry in isolation. Early this season, I didn’t think Capela would have much of a role in this series, simply because he’s too big and not mobile enough to switch out onto Curry. But he’s improved so much throughout the season and is so vital to Houston’s gameplan on both ends that it’s hard to imagine him not playing 30 minutes per game. He’s both a great rim protector and a great finisher at the rim. And Houston is 50-5 when he, Paul, and Harden all play. The Rockets’ offense is quite simple. It’s designed to capitalize on weak defenders and finish with a three or a finish at the rim. Most often, Harden’s running the show. Otherwise, it’s Paul. They spread the floor, put two shooters in the corners, and allow their superstar guards to dictate and Capela to hunt for lobs. That simple offense has been very difficult to stop all season. Utah, one of the best defenses in the league, had no chance, simply because their key defensive force — Rudy Gobert — wasn’t mobile enough to remain effective against Houston. But if anyone can slow the Rockets down, it’s Golden State. Because the Warriors have the personnel to be able to switch everything without having a glaring matchup disadvantage. That’s the benefit of having Draymond Green and Kevin Durant as your starting big men. This is why Capela must make an impact. If he’s a force, he may make Golden State go with a lineup bigger than the one you know they want to finish with (Curry-Thompson-Andre Iguodala-Durant-Green). Swap Iggy with Kevon Looney or David West or JaVale McGee and you have a team that’s suddenly slightly more vulnerable to Houston’s offense.

I’ve said a lot of nice things about the Rockets, and those nice things are why I’m predicting that this series will go seven games. But Golden State still has to be the favorite in this series, because even if Harden and Paul outplay Curry and Thompson (and I’m expecting a big series from Curry), Golden State also has two other superstar players who can make enormous impacts on both ends. They don’t quite have the depth they used to have, but they have their four amazing players, and that’s probably enough. I said that Tucker, Ariza, and Mbah a Moute are as close as it gets to being Durant stoppers, but there’s no such thing as a Durant stopper. When he gets going, he can score anytime on anyone. The same is obviously true for Curry. The Warriors will likely try to play fast, capitalizing on Capela’s relative slowness (and Harden’s tendency to walk back on defense) and getting some easy buckets. They don’t want to get into the same iso game that is Houston’s MO, but they can; they do have Kevin Durant, after all. They’ll test Harden and Capela and try to force Clint out of the game. One other factor: Houston has homecourt advantage. That’s clearly a bonus, but Golden State can win anywhere. That’s why I have them being forced to a Game Seven but winning that one in Houston. It should be a good series.

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NHL Conference Finals Preview

Posted: 05/11/2018 by levcohen in Hockey

Tampa Bay, Washington, Winnipeg, Las Vegas. Not exactly the first cities that come to mind when you think hockey, but the last four teams alive nonetheless. I went 4-for-4 on my picks last round and was two games away from perfection (I had Vegas in 7 and Winnipeg in 6, and it ended up being Vegas in 6 and Winnipeg in 7). I can’t promise that I’ll do as well with these picks, but I do think we’re in for two exciting series’, albeit with a clear (yet only moderate) favorite in each.

Tampa Bay Lightning over Washington Capitals in 7: The Capitals finally beat the Penguins and advanced to their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance in the Alexander Ovechkin era. And they deserved to win the series, as they thoroughly outplayed a tired, flawed, and banged-up Pittsburgh team. Their reward? A date with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that I have believed all year to be the strongest in the NHL. The Lightning have it all. They have a high scoring top line led by sniper Steven Stamkos and the highly skilled Nikita Kucherov, who scored 100 points during the season and has 12 in 10 playoff games. They have depth and skill and can roll four lines all game long, with playoff mainstays Chris Kunitz (the ex-Penguin) and Ryan Callahan (ex-Ranger) on the fourth line. They have three stud defensemen — Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Anton Stralman — and a skilled goalie getting hot at the right time after slumping near the end of the season.

The Capitals aren’t too shabby themselves. In fact, I think these teams have some clear similarities. It remains to be seen how they shuffle their lines with Nick Backstrom likely out in Game One, but Washington, too, probably has a top line with a pure sniper (Alex Ovechkin) and a second super skilled scorer (Evgeny Kuznetsov). They don’t have as much depth with Backstrom out, which I think is one big advantage for the Lightning. But they’re lethal on the power play, with John Carlson running the point on a unit with Ovechkin, goal-crasher/screener extraordinaire T.J. Oshie, Backstrom (if and when he returns), and Kuznetsov. They too have three horses defensively, all of whom are very experienced. Carlson is a nine year vet with 10 power play points in the playoffs. Dmitry Orlov is in his sixth season, while Matt Niskanen is in his 11th. This is an experienced team overall, with a lot of returnees from previous playoff teams. But Jakub Vrana, a speedy 22-year-old, is a new face who’s added a big boost to Washington’s offense. And the biggest difference between Washington’s previous playoff appearances and this one is that Braden Holtby is playing tremendously well this time. It appears that Holtby’s regular season struggles have actually helped him stay rested and focused in the playoffs, to the point that I think he can be expected to match Andrei Vasilevskiy save for save. The difference is that Tampa’s netminder has a deeper and better team in front of him. I was really impressed with the way the Lightning played defensively against the talented Boston Bruins in the second round. They gave up seven total goals in the last four games of the series, and only two of those were even strength goals (both in Game Two). So they haven’t given up an even strength goal in the last three games but have been vulnerable on the penalty kill, which sets up an interesting matchup with Washington’s dangerous power play. I think that if the Lightning play clean and stay clear of the penalty box for the most part, they should win this series. But these teams are too evenly matched for it not to go six or seven games.

Winnipeg Jets over Vegas Golden Knights in 6: The Winnipeg-Nashville showdown was the best series of the second round, the only one that went seven games. And that shouldn’t have been a surprise given that it was a matchup between the two best regular season teams in hockey. I hadn’t seen all that much of the Jets before the playoffs started, and I was so impressed by their Round One performance that it spurred me to pick them to beat the mighty Predators in Round Two. And boy were they impressive in that series. They won three games in Nashville and chased Pekka Rinne each time (including within a record 10:31 in Game Seven). They scored 27 goals in the series, led by Mark Scheifele’s seven. I love the way they play, with fierce, aggressive forechecking and the freedom that comes from full belief in their goalie. And boy has their goalie ever been impressive. Connor Hellebuyck has a cool name, and he’s also been a .927 goalie in the playoffs. That makes him the second best goalie in the series, though, as the Jets will have to solve the puzzle that is Conn Smythe favorite Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury’s given up 17 total goals in 10 playoff games and has a .951 save percentage. He’s been Vegas’s best player, and the most dominant player in the playoffs period. If the Golden Knights end this magical inaugural season with a Stanley Cup, you can be sure that Fleury will be the biggest reason why. But Winnipeg destroyed Pekka Rinne, a pretty darn good goalie himself, and I think they’ll score some goals against Vegas. They’ve been so good already and can still expect more from guys like Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, and Nicholaj Ehlers, who combined for 104 regular season goals but have just five total in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The onus, then, will be on Vegas’s forwards (and I say their forwards because they don’t get much scoring from their defensemen. They have no Dustin Byfuglien). Just like in the regular season, Vegas’s top line has shined in the playoffs. Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith have combined for 32 points and are the only three Vegas players with more than seven points in their 10 playoff games. The second line (featuring ex-Penguin James Neal, David Perron, and Eric Haula) has also been fairly productive, but Vegas is unlikely to get much scoring from their bottom two lines. The Eakin and Bellemare lines are both strong in their own ways — the third line is quick and has great forecheckers while the fourth line is very good defensively — but doesn’t have the scoring punch of, say, a Bryan Little or Matthieu Perreault (two-thirds of Winnipeg’s third line). Vegas is strong all-around defensively, and they’re used to grinding out low-scoring victories in front of Fleury. And they did manage 3+ goals in five of the six games against the Sharks, who are pretty strong defensively themselves. Vegas scored five fewer goals than Winnipeg all season, so I’m not going to pretend that there’s a big gap between the two. And it could well be that Fleury’s run will continue this round. As we all know, there’s no bigger differentiator in the playoffs than a hot goalie. That’s why I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Vegas moves on to the Stanley Cup final. But I’m going to pick the team that I think is stronger all-around, and that’s the Winnipeg Jets.

Postmortems for Eliminated NBA Teams

Posted: 05/10/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

The second round of the NBA playoffs is over, which means that four more teams have been sent packing. It wasn’t exactly a thrilling or lengthy Round Two, as all four series’ were wrapped up in four or five games. While I nailed both Houston in 5 and Golden State in 5, I flubbed both Eastern Conference series predictions, picking the Sixers and Raptors to win. I’ll get into that and more Philadelphia, Toronto, Utah, and New Orleans takeaways in this post before focusing on the Conference Finals — which start Sunday — later on.

There’s no doubt that the most soul-crushing defeat belonged to the Toronto Raptors. You have to think that if there were ever going to be a year for the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan core to get over the hump in the playoffs, this would be that year. They went 59-23 and had a +7.8 point differential. They were the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve been good in the regular season before, but not this good. Optimistic Toronto fans thought that maybe the combination of homecourt and an infusion of young talent — Delon Wright, Fred Van Vleet, LeBron-defending rookie OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, etc. are all new or better and more important than in previous years — could give Lowry, DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas enough help to break through to the Finals. And there was another reason to believe that this might be the year: the other top contenders in the East seemed to be wilting. Boston lost its two best scorers; Washington had no chemistry; Milwaukee not enough depth; Philadelphia was a year away; and most importantly, LeBron seemed frustrated with the lack of complimentary scoring options sans-Kyrie Irving. Even after the first round, there were reasons to be hopeful. Before the series, I wrote this:

On the one hand, you have a matchup between a 59-win mostly-healthy team that’s very deep and seemed to exorcize some offensive demons in Round One going up against a shallow, banged-up, defense-light 4-seed that barely — and luckily, given that the Cavs were -6.1 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes in the series — made it out of Round One. If you look at the series that way, picking the Raptors should win should be a no-brainer.

On the other hand, you have a matchup between a good-but-not-great team that still bogs down down the stretch and has never gotten over the hump in the playoffs against the best player in the world, who is impossible to stop down the stretch and who hasn’t lost a playoff series to an Eastern Conference team since 2010. If you look at the series that was, it’s hard not to pick the Cavs.

Four games later, it’s clear which hand was prescient. It’s not just that the Cavs dispatched the Raptors again, it’s how they did it. Games One and Three were heartbreakers, with the Raptors having multiple chances to win at the end of the first and LeBron James tearing their hearts out with a ridiculous runner off the glass to beat the buzzer in Game Three. Game Two was just complete domination, as the Cavs scored 139.5 points per 100 possessions and 141.9 pre-garbage time. That 141.9 mark? It’s significant because it exactly matches Cleveland’s offensive efficiency in their 132-129 win over, that’s right, Toronto. Against only one other team was Cleveland anywhere near as dominant offensively, and that was Detroit in November. And Game Four was such a sad way for Toronto’s stellar season to end. Cleveland scored 144.9 points per 100 pre-garbage time (that’s right, trumping even their Game Two output) en route to a 128-93 win. So the Raptors, in their greatest season ever, got swept in the second round by LeBron James. Lowry and DeRozan were despondent after the game, and it’s pretty clear why. This was their best iteration and the James-led Cavaliers’ worst. And it still wasn’t enough. It’s obviously a failure, and one that may cost Dwane Casey his job. To me, this loss shouldn’t be an indictment of Casey or of Lowry or DeRozan. It turns out that the Raptors weren’t good enough to beat LeBron. Newsflash: that’s been true of every single Eastern Conference team over the last eight years. The guy just doesn’t lose. The fact that the Raptors got swept right after the Pacers showed how vulnerable this Cavs team can be must hurt Toronto fans (and how do you think Indiana’s feeling right about now?). But something clearly changed between those two matchups, and I think that something was LeBron’s belief in his team and thus his team’s belief in itself. That’s not on the Raptors. Will they blow it up (Lowry and DeRozan and Casey out), stay the course (just minor tinkering), or opt for something in between (i.e., firing Casey and/or trading one but not both of their star guards)? I think it’s fair to acknowledge how great this run has been for Toronto while still believing it’s time to move in a new direction. Because even if LeBron leaves, there are other behemoths lurking in the East that have higher ceilings than this maxed-out team likely has.

We all got a little carried away by the Philadelphia 76ers’ end-of-season push. Playing against mostly bad teams, they won their last 16 games before finishing off the overmatched Miami Heat in five games. Heading into a matchup with a Celtics team that was pushed to seven games by the Milwaukee Bucks (whom the Sixers dominated in the final game of the regular season), it seemed like the Sixers were destined to beat the Celtics handily. But some other factors became painfully evident over the course of the series:

  • The Sixers’ two star players, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, were playing in their first playoffs.
  • The Sixers lacked anyone who could drive or pull-up to get his own bucket even for short stretches, leading to offensive stagnation. They could have used Markelle Fultz. The Celtics’ roster was full of players who could create their own tough bucket.
  • The Sixers lacked many athletic two-way wing players, and their best one (Robert Covington) struggled mightily. The Celtics, meanwhile, had those in spades.
  • The Sixers had no real response when the well-coached Celtics shut them down from beyond the arc.

The bad news is that all of that and more caused the Sixers to lose in five mostly-close games against a tough Boston team that won 55 games. The good news is that we should have expected most of it and that much of this should be remedied. This was never supposed to be Philadelphia’s finished unit, and I think that’ll be obvious this offseason. They’re going to be on the lookout for another star player, and that would have been the case regardless of how this year’s playoff run turned out. Embiid is about to embark on his first full, healthy offseason as a professional. The Celtics showed him how much he has to work on is he wants to be an efficient offensive fulcrum, and I’m confident he’ll do just that. Dario Saric showed just how good he is in the last two games of the series. Markelle Fultz is going to have an impact. Simmons and Embiid will be better next time. It’s a tough loss, especially because most of the games were winnable and the Celtics vulnerable, but it’s one that’ll make the Sixers stronger.

I think the takeaways are similar for the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Pelicans. Both teams should be hugely encouraged by the success they had down the stretch (Utah especially was dominant at the end of the regular season) and in the first round. They both should pretty much stay the course and build around their best players. Unfortunately, neither team had enough quality depth to really bother either of the best teams in the NBA. It was really evident how much of a gap there is between the really good teams — like Utah, New Orleans, Boston, Toronto, and Philadelphia — and the elite ones — Houston, Golden State, and Cleveland when LeBron’s at his best. Both teams have most of their talent locked up, although Derrick Favors and the combustible Rajon Rondo-DeMarcus Cousins duo will hit free agency for Utah and New Orleans respectively. And neither will have to make the big decisions that Toronto and Philadelphia will. I think there’s a bit more pressure in New Orleans as the Pelicans work to convince Anthony Davis that he should stay for good, but there’s no reason for either of these teams to make drastic changes unless they’re the type that can’t be passed up (like a Kawhi or Klay Thompson trade or a LeBron or Paul George signing, for example, although I don’t think either of these teams is a likely destination for any of those players). Anyway, the main takeaway for each team is that they did about as well as they could have hoped this season. The Jazz were picked by some to miss the playoffs, but they went 29-6 to end the season and won a series before running into a stronger team. The Pelicans were supposed to fall off the pace after losing Cousins, but they rallied around career seasons from Davis and Jrue Holiday and swept Portland, the three seed, in the first round before running into a stronger team.

NBA Eastern Conference Round Two Preview

Posted: 04/30/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

After one game apiece, it already appears very likely that the Warriors and Rockets will advance to the Western Conference Finals without too much difficulty. Both teams blitzed their opponents in their first game, taking huge leads and cruising down the stretch. The Pelicans and Jazz will surely have better games, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that, if there’s to be any intrigue in the second round, it’ll come from the Eastern Conference. I wouldn’t say either series is quite a tossup, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if either underdog won. Let’s start with the series that I think is hardest to predict.

Toronto Raptors over Cleveland Cavaliers in 7: Man, is this tough. On the one hand, you have a matchup between a 59-win mostly-healthy team that’s very deep and seemed to exorcize some offensive demons in Round One going up against a shallow, banged-up, defense-light 4-seed that barely — and luckily, given that the Cavs were -6.1 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes in the series — made it out of Round One. If you look at the series that way, picking the Raptors should win should be a no-brainer.

On the other hand, you have a matchup between a good-but-not-great team that still bogs down down the stretch and has never gotten over the hump in the playoffs against the best player in the world, who is impossible to stop down the stretch and who hasn’t lost a playoff series to an Eastern Conference team since 2010. If you look at the series that was, it’s hard not to pick the Cavs.

If Cleveland’s supporting cast plays the way it did in the first round, the Cavs are going home. I just think it would be impossible for LeBron James to carry the same load for another entire series without dropping off. We started to see his fatigue in Game Seven of the Indiana series, when he left the game with cramps in the second half. He ended up coming back, but after the end of the game admitted how tired he was. His Cavs return to action on Tuesday, two days after that heroic performance. The bad news for the Cavaliers is that Toronto has better options to guard LeBron than Indiana did. The Pacers’ strategy seemed to be to basically cover James straight up, allowing him to score but slowing down the production of, among others, Kevin Love. That strategy largely worked, as the Cavs have the fourth least-efficient offense in the playoffs, which is especially striking given that they were the best offense in the league post-trade deadline. But down the stretch, when LeBron needed to score, he almost always did. Indiana mainly guarded LeBron with Bojan Bogdanovic, and while Bogdanovic had his moments, it was quite a mismatch. Toronto has two guys — OG Anunoby and Paskal Siakam — who should be much better LeBron defenders than anyone Indiana could throw at him. And in the regular season, the Raptors were actually a better defensive team than the Pacers. But with all of that said, I still expect the Cavaliers to score much better than they did against Indiana. With the possible exception of Kyle Korver, who did Kyle Korver things against the Pacers, everyone on the team has significant room for improvement. These teams played each other twice down the stretch. The Cavs won both games, by scores of 132-129 and 112-106. They scored 140.4 and 113.1 points per 100 possessions in those two games, evidence that they weren’t at all bothered by Toronto’s defense. There are definitely reasons to be concerned. Kevin Love has a finger injury that’s almost certainly contributed to his poor playoff performance, and George Hill has been in and out of the lineup due to back stiffness. Those two guys are perhaps Cleveland’s second and third most important players, and their health is vital in this series. But I believe that the 32% three point shooting in the first round was a fluke and that Cleveland will score at a significantly higher rate than they did against Indiana.

They’ll need to, because their defense is still clearly a problem. The Pacers got to the rim 39.2% of the time, hitting on 67.3% of their shots at the rim. And that’s not something the Cavs are going to be able to fix, because they have no rim protection. That’s good for the Raptors, whose two best players — and especially DeMar DeRozan — are frequent drivers. Given their previous playoff struggles, it was crucial for DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to have strong first round performances. And they did. DeRozan got a little too iso-happy down the stretch of Toronto’s losses, but he averaged 26.7 points per game on perfectly fine (44%) shooting. And Lowry had a terrific series, averaging 17/5/8/2 steals on 47% shooting and 44% from beyond the arc. There’s no evidence that Cleveland will be able to stop either guard. Toronto relies heavily upon its supporting cast, and will ask a lot of Anunoby and Siakam on the defensive end. Jonas Valanciunas had a good first series, but his playing time might be limited because I don’t think he’ll be able to defend anyone unless Tristan Thompson or maybe Larry Nance is on the floor for Cleveland. So if the Cavs go small, the Raptors will likely respond by bringing in some of their bench. And their bench looked good in the first round once Fred Van Vleet returned from injury. Van Vleet and Delon Wright will be important in this series, because I think one of them will be on the court in crunch time when both teams opt for more versatile two-way lineups. The Raptors were excellent (+12.6 points per 100 possessions) in the regular season with Serge Ibaka at center. I think those lineups (Lowry-Van Vleet-DeRozan-Anunoby-Ibaka or Lowry-Wright-DeRozan-Anunoby-Ibaka) will be effective in this series.

It’s really hard for me to pick against LeBron James, especially against a Raptors team he’s dominated in past postseasons. But Cleveland’s lingering injuries, its lack of reliable depth, and its weakness defensively make it likely that LeBron will again be forced to shoulder an extremely heavy burden. If anyone can do it, it’s him, but I think the Raptors will prove to be just a little too deep over the course of a seven game series. The fact that they get Game Seven at home is huge, too.

Philadelphia 76ers over Boston Celtics in 5: In a lot of ways, this series should be very similar to Philadelphia’s first round series against the Heat. Like Miami, the Celtics are star-less and face a significant talent disadvantage. They also have a brilliant head coach and a very stout defense. The Heat actually succeeded in slowing down the Sixers’ offense in the first round, as Philadelphia’s 51.2% eFG (field goal percentage accounting for the extra point on threes) was three full ticks down from its regular season number. They also did an excellent job of limiting Philadelphia in transition. But the Sixers overcame that defense by crashing the offensive boards (33.2% offensive rebound rate) and getting to the line (28% of the time), both of which are the highest rates in the playoffs. That sets up an interesting matchup with a Boston team that held Milwaukee to a 16.9% offensive rebound rate and a 17.9% free throw rate. To me, it should be more encouraging to the Sixers that the Bucks were able to score well when they got into their offense than discouraging that they weren’t able to capitalize on the offensive glass or at the line. Because there’s only so much you can do to keep guys like Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and Ben Simmons off of the glass and especially Embiid off the line. So if the Sixers shoot the way the Bucks did in the first round, they’re going to win the series. The Celtics must do what the Heat did, turning the games into physical battles, keeping the pace slow, and forcing the Sixers to beat them one-on-one.

The Celtics have one big defensive advantage over the Heat: Al Horford. The Heat are a good defensive team with a clear weakness at center, while the Celtics are a great defensive team with a strength at center. In the regular season, Horford was successful defensively against both Simmons and Embiid. He’s a really tough matchup for Embiid, who must be careful not to settle for contested long twos. Embiid has a big size advantage, so he should be able to score in the paint when he gets there. The key will be putting him in positions to score without too much dribbling. Boston has no weaknesses defensively, which is why they’re so tough. Marcus Smart is a great defender. So is Jaylen Brown (more on him soon). Jayson Tatum and Semi Ojeleye are both rookies, but they’re both long, strong, and athletic enough to be immediate plusses on defense. The same is true for Terry Rozier, while Marcus Morris is another tenacious defender. When the Celtics have Horford playing center, they can basically switch on anything. They have multiple defenders — Ojeleye, Smart, and Morris in particular — who match up well with Ben Simmons. They should be able to blanket J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli and make things tough for Simmons and Embiid. I was a bit puzzled by the ease with which Khris Middleton was able to get to his spots and score on the Celtics, but I don’t expect to see a repeat in this series. It’s going to be tough for the Sixers.

The problem for Boston is that without Kyire Irving they just have no scoring. That’s especially true now that Brown is doubtful for Game One with a hamstring injury. Without Brown, their big scoring threats are Horford, Tatum, and Rozier. All three of those guys are good, but I think it’s obvious that it’s not enough. Even with Rozier (18 points per game) and Horford (18 points per game on 59%/44% shooting) playing over their heads, the Celtics barely had enough scoring to beat the Bucks in the first round. And that was with Brown (21 points per game in his six fully healthy games) available and playing well. The Sixers are a much better defensive team than the Bucks. They’re more disciplined, better-coached, and, most importantly, they have Joel Embiid anchoring the paint (rather than, er, John Henson, Tyler Zeller, or Thon Maker). They were the third best defense in the league in the regular season, and they were even better against the Heat, who managed just 102.8 points per 100 possessions. The Heat were basically only able to score when they got hot from three or when they got to the line. I think that’ll largely also be true for Boston. Otherwise, they’ll be forced to hoist a barrage of contested long twos, which is not the recipe for playoff success. Just ask Russell Westbrook.

If Brown’s out, the Celtics have no chance. If he were fully healthy, I’d switch my prediction to Sixers in 6. I’m operating under the assumption that he’ll miss the first game and return after that. Brad Stevens is a really good coach, and he has the personnel to really bother Philadelphia’s offense. I expect there to be a few rock fights in this series that come down to the wire. But Boston just won’t be able to score enough to win the series.

NBA Western Conference Round Two Preview

Posted: 04/28/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

All that’s left between now and the end of what’s been a really fun first round of the playoffs are Game Sevens in Boston and Cleveland. The Celtics (-4.5) and the Cavs (-5.5) are both moderate favorites to win their respective games and advance to the next round, but both the Bucks and the Pacers are clearly very live underdogs with the chance to become the third and fourth worse-seeded teams to win in the first round. The other two: Utah and New Orleans, both of whom clearly outplayed their better-seeded opponents. As we’ll soon see, the Jazz and Pelicans will both need even stronger performances in order to advance to the Western Conference Finals. The Pelicans-Warriors series starts tonight, while Houston-Utah begins tomorrow.

Golden State Warriors over New Orleans Pelicans in 5: The Pelicans’ complete throttling of Portland was the surprise of the first round. I thought it would be a close, competitive series, with the Blazers holding the overall talent advantage (and homecourt) but the Pelicans matching up well with Portland. Jrue Holiday and especially Anthony Davis made it clear that the talent advantage belonged to New Orleans, and the Pelicans completely shut down Portland’s iso-heavy offense. Holiday and Davis combined to average 60.8 points per game on 57% shooting. They also proved they could do what Portland guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum could not — make an impact on both ends of the court in the playoffs. Holiday stopped fastbreaks on his own and shut down Lillard. And Davis is playing at a higher level than anyone — bar maybe LeBron James. Now, though, New Orleans gets a much tougher test than the Blazers team they just swept away. Portland was such a nice matchup for New Orleans because of their lack of diverse options. They rely heavily upon their two guards and plodding big Jusuf Nurkic. When it became clear that the Pelicans could deal with the guards’ scoring threat and that Nurkic was basically unplayable against Davis, the Blazers had no chance. Especially if and when Stephen Curry gets back, the Warriors are a different beast.

The most logical place to start is there — with Curry. Golden State’s most important offensive player has been out since March 8th with an injury to his left MCL. He was questionable to start in Game One before eventually being ruled out, so I think it’s pretty fair to expect him to be back by the time the Warriors hit the road in Game Three. With Curry, the Warriors are about as hard to beat as you would expect given their talent and pedigree. In non-garbage time minutes, the Warriors score 122.3 points per 100 possessions and give up 107.9 when Curry’s on the court. That’s the point differential of a 70-win team. They score 107.2 and give up 105.8 when he’s out, the point differential of a 45-win team. Those are regular season numbers, and Golden State proved in the first round that they’re better than those 45-win numbers when Curry’s out and they’re really trying. And they should be, given the fact that they also have Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. The concerns about Golden State’s depth is valid; it isn’t what it once was. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston aren’t nearly the players they once were. Without Curry, Quinn Cook, a defensive sieve, gets a lot of minutes. The center rotation remains in flux, with Zaza Pachulia moving to the bench in favor of JaVale McGee. The Warriors’ bench is full of old guys, super young guys, and a sprinkle of unreliable talents (McGee and Nick Young). I agree with all of that. My view is that it won’t matter. You may think that, because like the Blazers the Warriors have two great guards, the Pelicans will have a matchup edge here again. And I do think Holiday is going to do about as well as you can against Curry. But there are three big problems: 1) Curry is the most unguardable player in the league; 2) Klay Thompson is much taller than C.J. McCollum, and the Pelicans don’t have a natural defender against him besides maybe Holiday; 3) The Warriors have Kevin Durant. A big reason that New Orleans’s defense was so great in Round One was that Evan Turner, Moe Harkless, and the rest of Portland’s motley crew of wings weren’t able to expose its big weakness: length to bother star small forwards. Their starting small forward, E’Twuan Moore, is 6’4″. Durant is 6’9″ or 6’10”. That’s not going to work. I wouldn’t be surprised if New Orleans goes to Solomon Hill, a 6’7″ forward who’s probably their best bet against Durant, early. And Hill did play 53 minutes over the final three games of the first round after playing just six in Round One. But he’s a nonfactor on offense, and if the Warriors have shown us anything over the last few years, it’s that playing nothings on offense is a death knell. Now, Golden State will have its own issues guarding Anthony Davis, just like every team in the league would. Davis will get his. He also got his in 2014-15, his first trip to the playoffs, when the Pelicans played the Warriors in the first round. Davis averaged 31.5 points (on 54% shooting and 89% from the line), 11 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game. And the Pelicans got swept.

I fear that something similar is in store this year. New Orleans’s first round performance was so tremendous — and Davis is so good — that I think people are underestimating the overall talent difference between these teams. It’s hard to overstate how much Curry coming back will help the Warriors’ offense. If Steph misses a big chunk of the series, I think the Pelicans could take it to a sixth or maybe even a seventh game. If he’s back by Game Two or Three, I think this is destined to be a sweep or a five game series. It’s the uncertainty with Curry that’s keeping me from predicting a sweep.

Houston Rockets over Utah Jazz in 5: I’m not positive that this series as simple as “The Jazz just can’t score enough to beat Houston,” but I’m pretty sure that’s what it’s going to come down to. That was certainly the case in the regular season. These teams played each other, and Houston won by 27, 11, 21, and 11. Utah’s first round performance against Oklahoma City was impressive, but I don’t think it’s changed the equation for this series. The Jazz scored 108.3 points per 100 possessions against the Thunder, right in line with their regular season number (107.9). As usual, they won because of their defense, third in the league this playoffs behind only the Warriors and the Pacers. Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot more scoring to keep up with Houston. Because no matter how well a team plays defensively, the Rockets are going to score. They’re a better offensive team than Oklahoma City, but they’re also a much different type of offense. Whereas the Thunder rely on elite offensive rebounding to compensate for average shooting and free throw rates, the Rockets get to the line more often than any other team and shoot 46.7% of their shots from three (way more than #2 Brooklyn, 38.1%). That’s likely Houston’s natural antidote to the defensive menace that is Rudy Gobert. Gobert is the most dominant defensive player in the league at the rim, but he’s naturally less effective at preventing three point attempts or makes. Evidence (from Cleaning the Glass) comes from looking at the difference between the Jazz’s defensive profile when Gobert is on vs. off the court: Gobert’s in the 98th percentile at preventing shots at the rim and in the 78th percentile at preventing makes (and that’s abnormally low) at the rim, but he’s exactly average at preventing both three point attempts and three point makes. The point: this confirms what we already knew, which is that Gobert is a big time factor on drives to the bucket but has very little impact on three point shooters. That’s bad news against a Houston team that has shooters all over the place. James Harden’s the obvious one, and he fits in the Curry echelon of unstoppable-ness offensively. And I think people are pretty aware that Chris Paul’s good, too. But Houston also has Trevor Ariza AND Eric Gordon AND Ryan Anderson AND Gerald Green AND PJ Tucker, all of whom are threats from beyond the arc. I think it’s fair to say that, while the Jazz are a great defensive team, they don’t have the capability of really slowing Houston down. If Houston struggles offensively, it’ll be because they’re having an off day. And Utah’s going to need a lot of that to have a chance to win the series, because I don’t think their offense has the capability to score much more than it’s scoring already.

Two recent bits of news have made me more confident than ever in that assessment. The first is that Ricky Rubio will be out for Game One and likely more than that. Rubio’s shooting, which had been relatively strong all year, reverted to form in the first round. But he adds so much to the team as a passer and rebounder (not to mention as the primary ball-handler) that losing him will definitely hurt. Utah doesn’t really have a great backup option, which is really the issue. Dante Exum has a lot of talent but still looks unsure of himself. Alec Burks makes a lot of mistakes. Raul Neto is a neutral option, but that’s not going to cut it against Houston. The second piece of good news for Houston is the likely return of Luc Mbah a Moute. Mbah a Moute missed the whole first round, and Houston’s defense clearly suffered. Luc is the best wing defender on the team, with the length and lateral quickness to bother pretty much anyone. I don’t think they’ll start out with him on Donovan Mitchell, but he’s definitely an option if Mitchell goes off again. Mitchell carried a huge load in the first round — 28.5 points on 23.8 shots per game — but he’s going to have to do even more in the second round. Utah just doesn’t have a lot of secondary scoring. Nobody else averaged more than 14 points per game in the regular season or in the first round. That’s good enough to win a lot of games with this defense, as the Jazz have demonstrated. But for Utah to have any chance of beating Houston, they’re going to have to get a Herculean effort from Mitchell and hot shooting from the role players. Otherwise, they’ll just have to rely on stinkers from Houston’s offense. And while that may happen once or twice, it’s very unlikely to happen four times. So it looks like the Houston-Golden State matchup we’ve been getting ready for all year is still on.

NHL Round Two Picks

Posted: 04/26/2018 by levcohen in Hockey

The first round of the NHL playoffs underwhelmed a little bit. There were a historic number of blowouts and just one series that went the full seven games. The NHL is supposed to be the league with the craziest, tensest, most upset-happy playoffs. So far, that hasn’t been the case this year. The only worse-seeded team to win a series was the San Jose Sharks, who finished with exactly one fewer point than the Anaheim Ducks and were favored by advanced stats sites coming in. But while the first round disappointed, the end result going forward may be more excitement. The better teams advanced, and we have some close Round Two matchups (no team is more than a -145 favorite or a +125 underdog) and juicy storylines: can Washington finally knock off Pittsburgh?; Can Vegas keep winning?; Who wins Nashville-Winnipeg, a series between the two best regular season teams in Hockey?; Will Tuukka Rask bounce back after a poor first round showing?

After not watching much of most of these teams all season, I saw enough of them in Round One to feel fine about previewing the second round. With that being said, I’ll start with the series whose participants I saw least of.

Vegas Golden Knights over San Jose Sharks in 7: There are two big reasons that I didn’t see much of either team’s Round One series win. The first is that they play on the West Coast and therefore start very late. The second is that they both played just four games in the first round, sweeping away their opponents. The name of the game in Round One for both teams was goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury gave up three goals on 130 shots in four games for a .977 save percentage. Martin Jones conceded four goals on 132 shots, good for a .970 save percentage. These two defenses were the stingiest of the first round in terms of goals allowed, but that wasn’t the case when it came to shot prevention: San Jose and Vegas allowed the third and seventh most total shots per 60 minutes. Of course, not all shots are created equal, and 46 of the shots on goal against Jones came in a game that was out of reach throughout (and ended 8-1 in San Jose’s favor). Vegas, on the other hand, got outshot in three out of four games and won each game by a single goal. But the main point is that the first round defensive performances by each team were unsustainable and that we should expect some more goals in this one.

Vegas has relied heavily upon its top line for scoring all year, and that remains the case now. William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault are the team’s two most skilled offensive players and are both prolific scorers. They’ll likely be seeing a lot of Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose’s excellent top defensive pair. According to Corsica’s advanced player ratings, a compilation of advanced stats, Burns is the best defenseman in the NHL. He was also the team’s leading scorer in the regular season with 67 points and is one of the best point men on the power play in the league. San Jose disappointed on the power play in the regular season but scored six times on 20 power play opportunities against Anaheim, a sign that they may be coming together. They’re also a very different team with Evander Kane, who they got from Buffalo late in the season. Kane scored nine goals in 17 games with the Sharks and netted three in the first round. He slots in as the left winger on a first line that also has Joe Pavelski and do-it-all right winger Joonas Donskoi. They then have Logan Couture centering the second line, so this team definitely has firepower. Couture had his struggles this year, but still led the team with 34 goals. He seemed to be rounding into form heading into the playoffs — seven goals and five assists in his last 13 games — and added five points in the first round.

There’s no doubt that Vegas was the better team in the regular season. They’re also stronger where it matters most, as Marc-Andre Fleury has dominated all year and would be the Vezina Trophy winner had he played enough games. They roll four lines and are a quick, skilled team. Based on their first round performance, though, I still don’t think they’re quite as good as the point total or the first round sweep would indicate. They now get a tough second round matchup against a team that matches up well with their first line and tightened the screws in the first round. I think these are two evenly matched teams and that this series will come down to the wire. Both of these teams struggled a little bit down the stretch, more evidence that performance at the end of the regular season has very little correlation with performance in the playoffs. I’m going to take Vegas in 7 because I have slightly more confidence in their goalie and their top-end talent has been more productive all year. I do think the Pavelski and Couture lines can punish their defense, though.

Winnipeg Jets over Nashville Predators in 6: I know that Nashville’s been the best team in hockey this year. I know that they and the Lightning are co-favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Anyone who tuned in to the playoffs last year, when Nashville announced its arrival, knows how good this team is. They have two dominant defensive pairings — Josi-Ellis and Subban-Ekholm — and three rock solid lines. It was their third line, actually, that led the way in the first round, with Sissons-Bonino-Watson providing nine goals (all of which were even strength). It took them six games to knock off the undermanned Colorado Avalanche, but they were clearly in control throughout. Nashville was one of the most impressive teams I saw in the first round.

The problem is that Winnipeg, a team I barely saw during the regular season, was hands-down the most impressive. Next to Vegas, this team has been the biggest surprise in hockey. I think that the reputation of Winnipeg over the last few years — physical, undisciplined, unskilled — is outdated. Sure, they still have physical (and sometimes dirty) players. Dustin Byfuglien and 6’8″ menace Tyler Myers count there. But Winnipeg was way down at tied for eighth in most minor penalties taken and took just eight majors for fighting, tied for fewest in the league. Nashville, meanwhile, took the most minor penalties and 20 major penalties. Physical? Yes. Undisciplined? Not so much. But it’s the skill level that’s really changed in Winnipeg. Patrik Laine, the #2 pick in what will forever be known as the Auston Matthews draft, may have the scariest slap-shot of anyone not named Alex Ovechkin. He scored 44 goals this year after scoring 36 last season. And Laine is the right winger on the second line. The first line right winger? That’s Blake Wheeler, who’s been Winnipeg’s best offensive player for years and who broke out to the tune of 91 points (including 40 on the power play) this season. I think the Jets can really take advantage on the power play. They were the fifth best power play team in the league this year, and they roll out Wheeler, Laine, Byfuglien, Paul Stastny, and Mark Scheifele on their first unit. That’s a lot of firepower, and Winnipeg figures to get a lot of time on the power play.

These two teams played five times during the regular season and scored a combined 41 goals. So it’d probably be easy to forget that two of the three Vezina Trophy candidates will be playing in this series. Everyone knows who Pekka Rinne is, and the 35-year-old had one of his best statistical seasons this year. But the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck, who’s all of 24 and had flashed last season, was the league’s breakout star goaltender. His .924 save percentage was just a few points off of Rinne’s, and he won 44 games, tied for most in hockey. Now, he gave up 19 goals against Nashville (.882 saver percentage) in four-and-change games, so he still has a lot to prove. But he’s coming off back-to-back shutouts to close off the Minnesota Wild, so it doesn’t seem like he’s losing steam.

In terms of overall roster talent, I think Nashville’s better. But I promised myself after seeing Winnipeg’s utter domination of Minnesota (they really controlled the shots and pace of play) that I would pick them to win in the second round. Rinne struggled a bit in the first round, and I think people are penciling the Predators into the Stanley Cup Final a little too quickly. Winnipeg will hold serve at home, where they led the league with a 32-7-2 record, and steal one in Nashville.

Washington Capitals over Pittsburgh Penguins in 6: This is such a familiar series that I don’t even know what to say. This is the third straight time that these two teams have played in the second round. It’s Sid vs. Ovi. For the third straight year, the Capitals enter the series with home ice advantage over the Penguins. And yet, the Penguins are small favorites. Why? Because the Caps just haven’t been able to knock off Pittsburgh. Amazingly, in all five of Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup years (1991, 1992, 2009, 2016, 2017), the Penguins have gone through Washington. The Penguins are 9-1 in playoff series’ against the Capitals.

Washington is not as good this year as they were the past two years, when they had really dominant hockey teams. Their 105 points were 13 fewer than last year and 15 fewer than the season before, and they dropped two games to Columbus in the first round before storming back to win the next four. The Capitals have been contenders for most of Alex Ovechkin’s career, but they’ve never even made the Conference Finals. I think that’ll change this year. The Capitals lost Marcus Johansson last year, but besides that the core is basically the same. A big reason they regressed this year was a shockingly bad season from goalie Braden Holtby, who actually got benched down the stretch. The good news: Holtby stormed back against Columbus, posting a .932 save percentage in four starts and a relief appearance. The bad news: he’s been good before leading into a Pittsburgh series and it hasn’t really carried over. But I think it’s safe to assume that Holtby is pretty much back to normal after an anomalous year, which means that Washington looks well-suited to advance deep into the playoffs. Of course, that means they’re in the exact same position as they have been over the last few years (albeit with less public pressure, I think). We know that this is a good hockey team. The problem is that the Penguins have always been able to reach a higher level in the playoffs than Ovi’s Caps have. This year, I’m not convinced that’s true.

On paper, Pittsburgh beat the Flyers pretty convincingly in the first round. And they did in fact score at least five goals in all four wins. But they showed serious defensive issues even against an inferior opponent — heck, they got torn up by Sean Couturier, who was playing on a torn MCL. That continues a trend we saw during the regular season, when the Penguins gave up 250 goals, most of any playoff team. I think that Pittsburgh’s defense is the weakest unit in the playoffs. They rely heavily upon Kris Letang, who’s good but injury prone. They clearly have no confidence in their third defensive pair. And much like Holtby, Matt Murray has taken a big step back this year, except that he hasn’t been as good in the playoffs as Holtby. Another big red flag for Pittsburgh: injuries. While the Capitals come into this series close to full strength, the Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, a star player and a third line winger, at least early on in the series. The loss of Malkin is really big, obviously. It may not matter if Sidney Crosby keeps playing the way he did in the first round, but the law of averages suggest that he probably won’t keep putting up 2+ points per game (even though he’s Sidney Crosby). I think Washington’s deeper, better defensively, and at least as good at goalie. And Pittsburgh’s injuries and defensive issues may keep them from reaching the gear that’s lifted them over the Capitals twice in a row.

Tampa Bay Lightning over Boston Bruins in 5: Boston is not a team that should be taken lightly. It took them seven games to see off the Maple Leafs, but they did. They beat Tampa Bay three out of four times and went 35-10-7 in their last 52 games. They showed all kinds of offensive explosiveness against the Maple Leafs in what was an open, fast-paced series. Had they figured out how to stop Toronto’s stretch passes from their own zone, they would have won the series with more breathing room, because they really did outplay the Maple Leafs. Sure, Tuukka Rask had some tough games, but he’s Tuukka Rask. He’ll bounce back. The problem is that Boston is now running into a Tampa Bay team that I think is the best in hockey. They certainly were over the course of the first half of the season. They ran out of steam a little bit down the stretch, going 25-15-3 in their final 43 games. That was most true of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who admitted that he was tired down the stretch. I saw everything I needed to see in the first round. Vasilevskiy had a .941 save percentage in the first round, and Tampa scored 18 goals in five games. Boston’s obviously a tougher matchup than New Jersey was, but I don’t see how they’re going to stop the Stamkos line. If Boston wins, it’ll probably be because of its special teams. The Lightning were the third best power play team this year while Boston was the third best penalty kill team. Boston was fourth on the power play, but Tampa was just 27th on the penalty kill. And the Bruins’ power play looked mighty en route to seven goals in the first round. Still, Tampa Bay is much deeper, is rested and comfortable, and has home ice, so I’m pretty confident that they’ll win this series.

NFL Draft Analysis is Ruled by Clichés

Posted: 04/25/2018 by levcohen in Football

I like to believe that I watch enough college basketball – and understand the sport well enough – to form real, significant opinions about NBA draft prospects. Well enough, in fact, to compile a ranking of the best draft prospects every year. There are hits and misses: last year, I was relatively high on Donovan Mitchell (9th) and Josh Hart (16th), two of the biggest steals in the draft, but low on Jayson Tatum (7th) and OG Anunoby (21st), both of whom look pretty darn good. But the bottom line is that I know the prospects well enough to come up with a relatively informed top-30 ranking. That’s not at all true of college football. I don’t watch as much college football, and I certainly don’t feel as much exposure to the top draft prospects. Whereas with basketball I’m comfortable with my knowledge of what may or may not translate to the NBA (hence not taking an awesome college player like Caleb Swanigan high in the draft), with football I fear that my rankings would end up just being a list of who I thought looked best in college. So with the draft tomorrow night, instead of struggling through that difficult and useless process, I’m going to focus on the players to whom I’ve been most exposed. And that, of course, is the quarterbacks. A staple of NFL draft coverage is that every year it evolves (devolves?) into a series of clichés and weird scouting terms. That’s never been more apparent than with this year’s quarterback coverage. There’s been a rush to label each of the consensus top-five QB prospects, with draft analysts shepherding them into broad categories that they’ve used to describe draft prospects for years. With the exception of the “Sure Thing” (a la Andrew Luck), all of the major categories are represented. In fact, it almost seems as if the quarterback prospects are being used as a means to check off the use of each cliché. What are said categories, and where does each QB prospect fit in?

Note: This is less an evaluation of the quarterbacks than a compilation of the analyses I’ve seen about them. It’s my attempt to show just how cliché-dominant pre-draft scouting reports are.

The Raw, Projectable QB With a Big Arm: Josh Allen 

Of all of these categories, this is the one that is most assured to be covered. This is the quarterback who has a huge arm and endless potential. It’s easy to fall in love with arm strength, as many teams have showed over the years. It’s a pretty important physical attribute (although it can be argued just how important) and not one that can really be taught. So if a team can convince itself that it is the one who can develop this guy into a star – and most teams probably think they can – they’ll fall in love with this guy. That’s why this guy always goes relatively high in the draft. Sometimes it works out, but more often the guy flames out. This year, that guy is Josh Allen. He checks all the physical boxes. He’s tall, has big hands, and has the awesome arm strength. But he also has all the issues that keeps him from being a “Sure Thing.” He went to Wyoming and thus didn’t play much against top college defenses. And when he did face better defenses, the results weren’t good. Wyoming was just 15-9 against FBS teams when he started, and in his three starts against Power Five teams (all losses) he struggled mightily: 48-of-96, 437 yards, 1 TD, 8 INT. There are also times when it seems like Allen wouldn’t be able to hit the side of a barn. This category has found its perfect match yet again.                                                                                            

The Electric, Dynamic College QB With “Leadership” Issues: Baker Mayfield

This category is similar to the next one in its focus on personalities, but it’s clearly distinct because of its focus on legitimate actions and transgressions rather than characters and opinions. Since these category names are all made up anyway, this one may as well be renamed the “Johnny Manziel” because Manziel is the posterchild. With his on-field antics and off-field partying, there were concerns about Manziel leading into the draft, which caused him to fall to the back half of the first round. In Manziel’s case, those concerns turned out to be legitimate. The partying and smallness (not physically, although Manziel and Mayfield are both relatively short) on the field continued, and Manziel flamed out. This year’s version of Manziel is Baker Mayfield. Mayfield is not a prototypical leader and also has red flags (one oft-mentioned example). I could see him flaming out quickly, especially if he goes to a big market. But the category name didn’t lie: Mayfield was really electric in college. Like Manziel, he led his team to great success. He won the Heisman five years after Manziel did. The advanced stats sites love him. He’s not a traditional drop-back passer, but he can make all the throws and knows how to read a defense. He’s proven himself at the highest level of college football. And just because Manziel couldn’t mature and make it doesn’t mean that Mayfield can’t. Mayfield’s tantalizing in a different way than Allen but tantalizing nonetheless.

The Guy Who’s “Too Smart” and has too many “Off-the-field interests”: Josh Rosen

Of these five categories, this is the only one that also applies to different positions. If NFL people hate anything, they hate players who are outspoken when it comes to anything other than family, (Christian) faith, and football. The NFL isn’t, er, particularly socially progressive. And we’ve seen what happens when players try to use their influence to advance issues that are important to them – Colin Kaepernick is still not on an NFL roster. Josh Rosen is obviously that guy this year. He’s liberal, and has been outspoken in his disapproval of Donald Trump. In the NBA, that would be a nonfactor. In the NFL, it may be a nonstarter for some conservative owners. It’s accentuated by the fact that the quarterback is supposed to be a leader, so of course there has to be a discussion about whether someone with Rosen’s views can be a leader of a locker room. Nothing in Rosen’s history as a football player has indicated that he can’t be, and in fact I think he can be a good leader. But there’s no doubt that Rosen thinks differently than most NFL players in that he’s an outspoken liberal Jew. That makes him a nice fit for the “too smart” category. I really want Rosen to end up in New York, by the way, and the New York teams draft second and third and both could take a quarterback.

The Prototypical Quarterback Prospect: Sam Darnold

After he led USC to a 2017 Rose Bowl victory over Penn State in what was an unbelievable game, Darnold had the look of a “Sure Thing.” Unfortunately, he was a year away from draft eligibility, and in that year he showed enough flaws to fall back a rung. Darnold is the prototypical quarterback prospect because he has the look of a great, traditional quarterback and yet has flaws that make it evident he remains a work in progress. He has good accuracy but made a few too many bad decisions last year, leading to 13 interceptions. His team also regressed, which serves as a red flag for a lot of NFL analysts. And unlike Rosen and Allen, whose college offenses were more similar to the NFL, Darnold played in what was very much a college spread offense. I think others who fell under this category – good tools, potential to be a prototypical good quarterback, clear question marks, unsure fit – included Jared Goff and Ryan Tannehill. Fit is very important for all quarterback prospects, of course, but I think it’s especially true for QBs in this category, because they have all the tools but have for whatever reason failed to put it all together and are thus not clear #1 picks. Whether that’s more or less of a red flag than quarterbacks with more clearly identifiable issues (like Allen’s accuracy) is up for debate.

The Black Guy Who May Have to Switch Positions Because He’s “Athletic”: Lamar Jackson

Draft coverage wouldn’t be draft coverage without at least a little adherence to the institutional prejudice that still is a dominant strain throughout the league. It seems to be a relatively common appearance that a black quarterback enters the draft with rumors that he’ll be moved to running back or wide receiver because he’s so “athletic.” This year, that’s Lamar Jackson. Never mind the fact that Lamar Jackson was the most dominant quarterback in college football over the last two years, winning a Heisman and remaining in competition for a second. And let’s throw away the truth that being “athletic” can actually be a big advantage for a quarterback, too. Lamar Jackson is still black and athletic, so there have to be rumors that he’ll switch positions. Sometimes, players placed in this category do actually end up needing to switch positions simply because they’re not good enough to stay at quarterback. Terrelle Pryor is a good example of that. And Lamar Jackson has serious accuracy issues that could conceivably necessitate a position change. At the very least, his problems will – and, I begrudgingly admit, probably should – keep him largely out of the running for a top-five pick. But Jackson was the best quarterback in college football, and while I’m no scout, I think it would be ludicrous to make him switch positions without even trying him at quarterback, a position that now has plenty of non-traditional passers. That’s why he’s a good fit for this ludicrous category.

 

These clichés are so widely used for good reason. They’re a good way for people like me to gain some familiarity with the prospects without having to do much work. But they can also be dangerous. I am generally not a fan of the projectable big-armed guy, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t like Josh Allen. It’s useful to use precedent to group players like this while also recognizing that these clichés aren’t the be all and end all of what these prospects are.