NBA Preview Part Two: The 2018-2019 Eastern Conference Preview

Here’s the 2nd part of the 2018-2019 NBA Preview.  I went through every team’s rotation and projected their record off of it.  The Wizards do not play until tomorrow night.  A mini-write up on them will go up tomorrow afternoon.

Atlanta Hawks 

  1. Trae Young-Jeremy Lin
  2. Kent Bazemore-Tyler Dorsey-Vince Carter-Kevin Huerter
  3. Taurean Prince-DeAndre Bembry-Justin Anderson
  4. John Collins-Alex Poythress-Omari Spellman-Dwayne Dedmon
  5. Alex Len-Miles Plumlee

Welcome to the Eastern Conference everybody!  It’s a crapfest over here!

It’s amazing how we’re kicking this crappy conference off with possibly its worst team.  This team is awful.

They’re kinda fun though.  Trae Young is gonna be entertaining whether he sucks or not.  John Collins is a springy big man who can do a bunch of things.  Taurean Prince really came on last season as a legit three-and-D guy.

The young guys go on and on.  Tyler Dorsey, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre Bembry, Justin Anderson and Omari Spellman give the Hawks a boatload of young, stretchy wings.  With the Hawks all-in on youth, we should see even more minutes from Dorsey this year.  The Hawks like Trae Young as their go-to guy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Dorsey gains a bit of that edge.  He was a baller in college.  Huerter is strictly a shooter and needs work on the defensive end.  They see him as a future star; a Klay Thompson like player if Young turns out to be Curry.  But the defense is not close to there yet.

Bembry will help out on the defensive end, along with the prospectus of Omari Spellman.  He was great at Villanova and has a three point shot that should translate.

The center spot is being overcomplicated.  Get rid of Alex Len and Miles Plumlee and just play Collins.  He’s a fine rim protector.  Len’s bad and Plumlee’s been on how many teams now?

The Hawks have a core and a plan.  That’s better than some teams.  But I just hesitate to believe this is the guys that’ll bring it to life.  There’s gonna be a lot of Trae Young this year.  That may be a good thing or a bad thing.

I believe they’re at least one piece away.  I don’t see Young as the best player on this team ever.  That’s why tanking and trying to get a RJ Barrett-like player is the best way to go.

Projected record: 27-55

(Boston’s preview can be found at the bottom of this column.)

Brooklyn Nets

  1. D’Angelo Russell-Shabazz Naiper-Spencer Dinwiddie
  2. Allen Crabbe-Treveon Graham
  3. Caris LeVert-Joe Harris-Rondae Hollis-Jefferson-Dzanan Musa
  4. Jared Dudley-Ed Davis-Kenneth Faried-DeMarre Carroll (injured)
  5. Jarrett Allen-Alan Williams 

I like this team!

They’re not really good but they’re not bad either.  It’s somewhere between average and solid.

The basis for projecting the Nets a little higher than we probably should is due to the fact that they have a lot of dudes I like.

I love the guards.  D’Angelo Russell isn’t going to be the superstar some projected him to be, but he’s a fun player to run things through on a bad-to-decent team.  Shabazz Naiper did really good things in Portland during the second half of last season, and I’m all in on Spencer Dinwiddie.

The Nets are a modern team with decent-to-solid players.  None of their wing guys are stars or are taking big shots in crunch-time, but they can theoretically hit enough threes and be good enough on the defensive end.  Allen Crabbe’s contact isn’t great, but the Nets don’t care about that right now.  Caris LeVert is a do-it-all player who can pass, shoot, play D and essentially do anything you want him to.  They have Joe Harris off the bench, who is one of the top 20 shooters in the league and should probably just start until DeMarre Carroll is back and healthy (Which will probably be sometime around Christmas).  It was a good call by them not to trade him at the deadline last February; this team is a lot closer than people think.

They have depth on the wings too.  Treveon Graham is worth the flyer, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a fine option for limited minutes.  Dzanan Musa could be really fun if he’s careful; I’m going all-in on him like I did Mario Hezonja (Hopefully I’ll be right this time).

I can’t believe I’m praising DeMarre Carroll this much, but I like him in this rotation more than any of their power forwards.  Ed Davis was a great signing, but he’s not a floor spacer despite his versatile defense.

The Nets are gonna hang around in the East.  They’re definitely better than Detroit, who most people have penciled in as the 8th seed.  We’ll get there soon, but I just don’t see it.  The Nets are far better.

Projected record: 35-47

Charlotte Hornets

  1. Kemba Walker-Devonte Graham-Tony Parker
  2. Nicholas Batum-Jeremy Lamb-Malik Monk
  3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist-Miles Bridges-Dwayne Bacon-JP Macura 
  4. Marvin Williams-Frank Kaminsky-Bismarck Biyombo
  5. Cody Zeller-Willy Hernangomez

The Hornets ran it back since they’re capped out and can’t really improve.  They entertained the thought of trading Kemba Walker last year, but couldn’t get the right deal.

It’s hard to rebuild with this team.  The Nicholas Batum contract is an albatross; same with Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams’s.  They’re capped out and average, so it’s probably better to just better to continue on the path they’re on and try to make the playoffs rather than relinquish assests to get rid of the contracts.

Their assets are good!  Malik Monk is in a horrible situation, but I’m still on the bandwagon.  He’s got star potential and just didn’t and won’t get enough minutes to show it.  They added to their core of wings with Miles Bridges, who is an excellent defender.  Same with Dwayne Bacon.  Oh, and Devonte Graham is someone to keep an eye on.  He was one of the best players in college basketball for three years straight and can flat out score.

The front court isn’t great.  Charlotte would be best off playing as many wings as they can, and let Hernangomez play five.  He’s the most agile and most competent defensive player they have for rim protection.  Frank Kaminsky is close to bust status, and Biyombo just isn’t strong enough.

The Hornets are just fine.  They’re competent enough to hang around toward the back of the East.  They should make the playoffs, but they’re nothing special.

Projected record: 40-42

Chicago Bulls

  1. Kris Dunn-Cameron Payne-Tyler Ulis-Ryan Arcidiacono
  2. Zach Lavine-Antonio Blakeney
  3. Jabari Parker-Justin Holiday-Chandler Hutchinson-Rawle Alkins-Denzel Valentine
  4. Lauri Markkanen-Bobby Portis
  5. Wendell Carter Jr.-Robin Lopez-Cristiano Felicia-Omer Asik

We’re back in the bowels of the East.  Like the Hawks, the Bulls are very young.  They’re at least working on a core and have some nice pieces, but it’s flawed and/or isn’t there yet.

Kris Dunn was someone I was really high on out of his draft.  The defense and craftiness with the ball was what I was keened in on with him.  But a couple of issues have arisen.  He battled injuries during his rookie year and was buried on the Minnesota bench.  He was then traded with Zach Lavine, who dominates the ball when they share the court together.  Dunn’s offense hasn’t come around besides the facilitating; he literally can’t shoot.  Playing him with Lavine not only hinders his development, but highlights one of the biggest issues with this Bulls roster in general:  There’s too many guys who need the ball, and no one good enough to be the guy.

That doesn’t totally matter considering they aren’t trying to win, but it does matter for development.  Lavine and Jabari Parker’s tendencies to hold the ball too long, isolate and take bad shots doesn’t bode for what’s actually a decently modern and fun roster.  If Lavine and Parker buy in, the Bulls could run some fun stuff on the offensive end.  Dunn’s a great passer, and rookie Wendell Carter Jr. has amazing passing skills for a big man.  The Bulls could get really crafty with their offense and run complicated motion off Dunn and Carter’s passes, but the tendencies of Lavine and Parker to do too much could derail that.

And even if they do that offensively to help muster some wins, the defense could suffocate its benefits.  Chicago is a train wreck on that end.  Lavine, Parker and Lauri Markkannen are all minuses who either don’t care or aren’t skilled on that end.  The three are collectively so bad that it’ll probably make up for the good that comes out of Carter Jr. and Dunn.

The Bulls have some nice, young players.  Chandler Hutchinson, Bobby Portis and Tyler Ulis are all solid bench guys for a young team.  But I just don’t see anyone on this roster who has star potential.  I hope the Bulls realize this and tank, but I have concerns that they think that guy is Lavine.

Projected record: 29-53

Cleveland Cavaliers

  1. George Hill-Collin Sexton
  2. Rodney Hood-JR Smith-Jordan Clarkson
  3. Cedi Osman-David Nwamba-Kyle Korver-Sam Dekker
  4. Kevin Love-Larry Nance Jr.-Channing Fyre-Billy Preston
  5. Tristan Thompson-Ante Zizic

It’s part two of the “LeBron leaves you in shambles” saga.

Yikes, there is a lot going on here.  There’s a odd mirage of young guys and veterans on bad contracts that the Cavaliers don’t really want.  These aren’t the type of guys you keep around in year one of a rebuild.  Maybe later on down the road, but not in the beginning.

Reports have already been out there that Cleveland wants to trade Kyle Korver.  He makes the most sense to go first, since there will actually be a market for him (George Hill?  Maybe not so much!).  Hill and JR Smith off this roster would be nice, but no one is taking either contract.  They’re just kinda stuck there for now.

It’s possible though that Cleveland flips this the other way and attempts to make the playoffs.  The Kevin Love extension signaled that could be their plan.

And at this point, it might make sense to do that.  You can’t really kick off a rebuild until all the contracts are off the books, so the Cavaliers thinking was to try to be competitive until JR, Hill and Thompson are up.  Love is most important if they are trying to make the playoffs, and his extension will be up about the same time as the bad ones are.

There are two problems with this though:  1) Even the competitive roster may not be enough to get them in.  2)  This is going to be a much longer process than we think.  If the Cavaliers are somewhat competitive for the next couple years, then they won’t have the best draft picks to get real impactful players.  So the tanking process to gain picks won’t start until the contracts are up, which is somewhere between 3-4 years from now depending on whose you’re looking at.  So 3-4 years of being competitive, 3-4 years of tanking after that to gain a core, then development, which would be another 2-3 years.  That’s at least eight years from now!

This is what happens when LeBron leaves.  It’s great while he’s there, but the situation he leaves you in is not great.  Especially when you’re Cleveland.

The Cavaliers’ plan to be competitive is cute.  I don’t think this roster is there, even for the 8th seed in the East, which is the arm-pit of the league right now.  They get worse defensively with LeBron gone; which is somehow possible.  The front-court is a blackhole; Thompson’s rim protection is scary at best, and Love doesn’t possess that skill.

Their best bet offensively is to turn K-Love back into his Minnesota self by posting him up and running everything through him.  Even in today’s league, that has to be worth something, right?  They’re basically a much worse Denver that way; Love can make some passes from the elbow to shooters and cutters.

But how much are they gonna move?  George Hill and JR Smith love to dribble the ball, and Tristan Thompson’s complaining about not getting enough touches is coming (He can get away with saying that not that LeBron is gone!).

Cleveland’s best option for an efficient offense to play Love with Cedi Osman, Sam Dekker and Rodney Hood.  And even that is… yikes.

The Cavaliers are so bad that they’re going to try to be the 8th seed and won’t get it. Even the best version of this offense is awful; I’d expect them by Christmas to be turning things over to Collin Sexton, and let the whole thing burn to the ground.

Projected record: 25-57

Detroit Pistons

  1. Reggie Jackson-Ish Smith-Langston Galloway-Jose Calderon
  2. Reggie Bullock-Luke Kennard-Bruce Brown Jr.
  3. Stanley Johnson-Glenn Robinson-Khyri Thomas
  4. Blake Griffin-Henry Ellenson-Jon Leuer
  5. Andre Drummond-Zaza Pachulia 

Incase you’re bored, the quality of the East improves as we move through alphabetical order.

Thank God.

A lot of people have the Pistons slotted as the 8th seed in the East.  I need some explanation there.

I guess the case is that an offense running through a passing big man with shooters is worth at least 35 wins.  Like the Cavaliers above, Detroit is essentially a worse Denver.  But the pieces on this offense aren’t nearly as good as on the ones Denver.  I mean, one of the “shooters” on this Detroit team is Andre Drummond now; I guess that’s a thing.

Shooting coaches always point to making free throws before you become a good shooter.  Drummond can’t even do that.  This whole thing is hilarious.

Maybe the Pistons think that just his presence on the perimeter will draw defenders out and open up space for Griffin and cutters, but if I’m an opposing defense, I have a 5-on-4 advantage in that situation.  I’m leaving Drummond as open as I possibly can if he’s on the perimeter.  Please, Andre Drummond, shoot threes.  Take as many as you’d like.

And that’s only one issue with this offense.  I’m sure Reggie Jackson is gonna be thrilled watching Blake Griffin take the ball away from him, and he’ll certainly be pleased with watching Andre Drummond brick threes instead of him.  But it’s okay, because once Griffin gets hurt and is out for at least 20 games, it’s the Reggie Jackson show.  And the Pistons are no better or worse that way.

Dwane Casey is the new coach here, and this has all the makings of his Toronto offenses prior to last season, with a bunch of weird isolations from players who didn’t deserve it.

The Pistons are just as bad defensively.  Playing Griffin and Drummond doesn’t only kill your spacing, but allows offenses to space you out.  They’re screwed against five-out teams, and will struggle with rim protection.  Drummond’s effort on that end fluctuates, and there’s an odd belief that Griffin is able to play small-ball center.

No matter which way you craft it, the Pistons are not good.  It feels like there should be no way they make the playoffs, but with how low my projected records are for most of the East, it’s unfortunately possible.

Projected record: 34-48

Indiana Pacers 

  1. Darren Collison-Cory Joseph-Aaron Holiday
  2. Victor Olidipo-Tyreke Evans-Edmond Sumner
  3. Bojan Bogdanovic-Doug McDermott
  4. Thaddeus Young-TJ Leaf-Alize Johnson-Ben Moore
  5. Myles Turner-Domas Sabonis-Kyle O’Quinn-Ike Anigbogu

Our first good East team!  Lets go!

I was slightly disappointed with the Pacers offseason though.  Their biggest need was some firepower around Victor Olidipo, who broke down in the playoffs and couldn’t handle the massive offensive loaded he was tasked with carrying.

They did a little bit.  They signed Doug McDermott and Tyreke Evans.  McDermott was in the right idea of what I wanted them to do, but he’s not gonna be impactful enough.  Evans I have multiple concerns about.  I mean, there’s no way he’s as good as last season, right?  (What was that by the way?  Did that actually happen?)  Secondly, whether he is good or not doesn’t have anything to do with chemistry.  There’s a lot of overlap between his and Olidipo’s game.  Evans won’t start, but if he was added in the thinking that him and Olidipo would play off one another and create a more dynamic offense, then I’m betting against that working out.  Evans needs the ball, and Olidipo is a good shooter, but in that scenario you’re taking the ball out of the hands of your best player.  With expected regression from Evans, he doesn’t really count as firepower.

But that’s the worst case scenario for the Pacers; that they’re just as good as they were last year and that’s it.

Improvement for the Pacers comes in Victor Olidipo taking another step forward and the rise of some young guys.  Indiana is really high on Ben Moore and Alize Johnson, and I think TJ Leaf can be much more effective with more minutes this year.

The Pacers are fine.  They aren’t in the top tier of the East; some more splashy offseason moves would have helped with that, but Olidipo’s rise will be fun to watch once again.

Projected record: 45-37

Miami Heat

  1. Goran Dragic-Tyler Johnson
  2. Josh Richardson-Dwyane Wade-Dion Waiters
  3. Rodney McGruder-Wayne Ellington-Derrick Jones Jr.-Duncan Robinson
  4. Justise Winslow-James Johnson-Kelly Olynyk-Yante Maten
  5. Hassan Whiteside-Bam Adebayo-Udonis Haslem

This Heat team is just waiting for a trade to be made.  They’re one guy away from contending in the East (Hello Jimmy Butler!).  But for now, they’re just a fun team with a bunch of stretchy dudes who play defense, shoot threes and can’t score in crunch-time.

Right now, the Heat are relying on some combination of Dwyane Wade, Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic to get them buckets down the stretch.  Yikes.

Besides that, the Heat are good.  Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder and Justise Winslow form a lockdown perimeter defense; all three can switch between multiple positions and have great athleticism.  They’re unselfish offensively, except for Winslow, who isn’t selfish but still can’t really do anything with the ball in his hands.  The contract the Heat gave to him was stunning for someone who hasn’t shown a whole lot on one side of the ball.  His defense might be worth it, but for a team that needs scorers as bad as this one does, it was a lot to pay up.

The Heat are deep too, which makes a possible 3-for-1 trade hurt less.  Miami will bring James Johnson off the bench as an offensive cornerstone.  He can do a bunch of things on offense and defense: Stretch floor, make passes, score inside, switch on D and can even protect the rim decently if it’s from the help side.  When he’s in, the Heat can get easy buckets if they move the ball around Johnson, like how Denver uses Nikola Jokic or how the Pistons plan to use Blake Griffin.  That type of offense would be a pain to guard, and Johnson could set some nasty elbow screens to have guys cut around him towards the rim.  Playing Johnson a bevy of minutes while also using the current starters in crunch-time might muster enough offense, especially against bad defensive teams.

Hassan Whiteside is frustrating, but his inconsistent defense and constant demanding for the ball shouldn’t have too much of an impact.  The Heat have guys who can make for the defense, like Johnson or Bam Adebayo, who was incredible last season under the rim and has shown the ability to guard the perimeter thanks to his lengthy, bouncy frame.  Johnson can also make up for Whiteside’s misses, but both of them playing together has been an issue in the past; it’s hard to run a Point Johnson-like offense when Whiteside, a lumbering big man, is out there.

The Heat have a move to make, and when they do, watch out.  They could make a run in the East.  But for now, they’re just another fun team that’s not quite there yet.  They’ll make the playoffs comfortably without a big move, but before long time is gonna run out on this group.

Projected record: 46-36

Milwaukee Bucks

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo-Matthew Dellavedova-Treveon Duval
  2. Eric Bledsoe
  3. Malcolm Brogdon-Tony Snell-Donte DiVincenzo-Sterling Brown-Pat Connaughton-DJ Wilson
  4. Khris Middleton-Ersan Ilyasova
  5. Brook Lopez-John Henson-Thon Maker-Christian Wood

I am so excited this team is finally competent.

The hire of Mike Budenholzer cannot be understated.  The Bucks had the worst coach(es) in the league last year between Jason Kidd and Jay Triano.  The offense was a disaster; Eric Bledsoe had the ball way too much, taking it out of Giannis Antentokounmpo’s hands and leading to a lot of isolations and bad possessions.  The defense was even worse.  Neither John Henson or Thon Maker could provide rim protection, leading to Giannis having step in whenever he could.  That wasn’t easy; the Bucks hardly switched under Kidd/Triano when they have one of the most plentiful supplies of length in the league.  And finally, the Bucks were just dumb.  They committed a ton of turnovers, dropped passes, didn’t execute anything particularly well.  It was a mess.

This year, all of that should change.  Budenholzer is completely revitalizing the offense so that shooters can get open shots via the process of ball movement, which was a completely foreign idea to the Bucks last year.  I mean, look at the things he’s doing already.

Ahhhhhhhhhh it’s glorious.  You could watch every quarter of Bucks basketball last season and can’t find one possession like that one.

The problem is that the shots have to go in.  The Bucks ranked 22nd in three point percentage last season, and had the 6th lowest percentage of three pointers taken out of all their shots.  They’ll shoot more, which is a plus no matter if they go in or not, but whether they go in could be the difference between the Bucks being the 4th or 6th in the East.  They just have to go in.  A lot of their core rotation guys shot between 35 and 38 percent from deep last year, which isn’t a number suitable for today’s league.

But Bud is gonna do all he can to make sure those shots go in.  There’s also one other guy who could help out the Bucks offensively.

I, like everyone else, expect Giannis to be on a different level this season.  It’s time.  The offense is in his hands now.  No more Eric Bledsoe dribbling, or bad mid-rangers by Khris Middleton.  None of that.  It’s all Giannis.  He’s the most unstoppable player driving to the rim in the league.  He can pass and kick out, score on tip-ins, and rebound.  This is the year he dominates.  You’re gonna have to stop him every time in every game.  Good luck.

There are some concerns with this team though.  With the new responsibility and spotlight, Giannis could struggle a bit.  I mean, he’s still only 24.  No coach has ever given him the chance to be the guy.  That’s especially true in crunch-time, where Milwaukee was horrifically bad in last season.  Shouldn’t we expect some deer-in-the-headlights?

And what happens when Bledsoe tries to wrestle the ball from him?  That’ll create inefficiency between the two with Bledsoe wasting seconds and Giannis standing there awkwardly, not being preparing to spot up at all.  They could use Giannis as a slasher in some sets, but again: There should be no possession where it’s not in his hands at some point.

Brook Lopez should do a lot for the Bucks, and that adds about half the wins Bud does.  The defense down low was so horrid last season that even those sour on Lopez should see him as an upgrade.  We can’t forget that he was on the Lakers, one of the few worse defensive teams than Milwaukee last season.  When the whole team is bad, it can make the individual look worse than they are.

The Bucks were already awesome and just needed a facelift.  They got one in Bud, and I expect him and Giannis to propel this team to a new height.

Projected record: 55-27

New York Knicks

  1. Frank Ntilikina-Emmanuel Muiday-Trey Burke-Ron Baker
  2. Tim Hardaway Jr.-Allonzo Trier-Mario Hezonja-Courtney Lee
  3. Kevin Knox-Damyean Dotson
  4. Lance Thomas-Isaiah Hicks-Luke Kornet 
  5. Enes Kanter-Kristaps Porzingis (Injured)

The East gave us three good teams in a row.  Now we’re here.

I think I knew this team was gonna be bad, but I didn’t think it’d be this bad.

Kristaps Porzingis went down at the worst possible time last season.  It was early February when Porzingis tore the ACL.  At that time, it seemed like the earliest he’d be back was Christmas.  Now it looks more and more likely that Porzingis might be looking at a full year for recovery; there’s a chance he doesn’t play at all this season.

That means that New York has all the incentive in the world to be as bad as they possibly can be this season.  Tanking and getting another top pick makes the Knicks decently appeasing to a free agent or two.

This season the Knicks should concentrate on two things.  The first is to try to develop Ntilikina’s offensive game.  He’s still super raw on that end despite being an excellent defender.  The only skill he’s got offensively is the passing, but he doesn’t ever seem to have total control of the offense.  Part of that is system-based, and other parts are Tim Hardaway Jr-based.  He’s not a dangerous driver, and is still working on kicking out and slashing.  You’re basically playing 4-on-5 with him on offense.

The second is getting Kevin Knox the ball.  The rookie blew me away in Summer League; he was a dominant scorer who could get any shot he wanted.  Granted this was Summer League, but the confidence I saw him display was not there at Kentucky, where he disappeared during games on the offensive end.  If the Knicks can make him their No.1 option, then he’s going to be really good fast.  Ride that confidence he has coming out of the Summer into the beginning of the season.

Besides those two things, don’t watch the Knicks.  They’re going to be horrendous defensively.  Honestly, they’d probably be more entertaining the worse they get.  Then, we’ll start to see larger roles for guys like Allonzo Trier (Who I really liked in college) and Isaiah Hicks.  Trier, Hicks and Knox is a fun three-man lineup we should see at some point this season.  But that’s a ways on.  For now, avert your eyes!

Projected record: 24-58

Orlando Magic

  1. DJ Augustin-Jerian Grant-Isaiah Briscoe
  2. Evan Fournier-Melton Frazier Jr.
  3. Aaron Gordon-Jonathan Simmons-Terrence Ross-Wesley Iwundu
  4. Jonathan Issac-Jarrell Martin
  5. Nikola Vucevic-Mo Bamba-Khem Birch-Timofey Mozgov

I don’t even know what to say about this team.

For someone who was a fan of John Hammond in Milwaukee, I’m disappointed.  Hammond was onto the next big things with the Bucks; he knew the league was going to embrace long, stretchy players who could play perimeter roles.  But now that he’s in that league, his moves have been odd.

I wasn’t a fan of the Jonathan Issac pick.  He had the potential to do a lot of things, but didn’t actually do any of them.  We’re still at that point.

And now he’s forced to play with Mo Bamba, Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon.  That’s three guys who do the same things: Protect the rim, post-up, rebound and don’t shoot threes.

It’s kinda impossible for the Magic to not play a lineup that features two of those guys.  I doubt the Magic play Khem Birch much, and Timofey Mozgov is… well… Timofey Mozgov.  Jarell Martin isn’t really a rim protector, and since he can’t protect the rim as well, I’m sure the Magic will find a spot for him since he’s a mediocre three point shooter on top of that.

Besides those rare scenarios, it’s gonna be hard for the Magic to find modern lineups without benching all their bigs they’re trying to develop.  It’s too bad Evan Fournier is on this team; he could be a really nice piece somewhere else.

The Magic are gonna be horrible and I have no idea how they’re gonna sort out this lineup.  I’m glad it’s not my job.

Projected record: 23-59

Toronto Raptors

  1. Kyle Lowry-Fred VanVleet-Lorenzo Brown
  2. Danny Green-Norman Powell-Delon Wright-Jordan Lloyd
  3. OG Anunoby-CJ Miles-Malachi Richardson
  4. Kawhi Leonard-Serge Ibaka-Pascal Siakam-Chris Boucher 
  5. Jonas Valanciunas-Greg Monroe 

Throughout this preview we’ve called out multiple teams who refused to do anything significant this offseason.  Now we’ve approached the one team who grew a pair and did something about their stagnant situation.

Kawhi Leonard may leave after this season, and even then the trade for him was still worth it.  The Raptors got someone to take on the DeMar DeRozan contract and split up their backcourt which was the root of all their issues.  They landed one of the seven best players in the league and now have one of the most modern, stretchy and defensive oriented teams in the league.

This Toronto Raptors team is dang good.  Kyle Lowry might be getting old and might be unreliable, but he’s perfect for this team.  He can facilitate and play well off the ball.  The heart of the Raptors issues was figuring out to split the ball between Lowry and DeRozan.  Now, that issue is gone, as Kawhi Leonard doesn’t command it nearly as much as DeRozan did.  The Raptors can run three wings along with Lowry, including Kawhi.  Danny Green was a sneaky good throw in to the deal, and will see a ton of minutes within this wing rotation.  OG Anunoby should take a step forward, given this will be his first healthy year.  He can’t be much better defensively, so some aggressiveness on the offensive side would be much appreciated by Toronto.  And don’t forget CJ Miles, who was on fire toward the end of last season from three.  He rounds out one of the best stashes of wings in the NBA.

The Raptors can change their look too.  With Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell off the bench, the Raptors can play fast and get explosive offensive outbursts if they need it.  VanVleet has a good Sixth Man of the Year case heading into this season, and I’m still on the Powell bandwagon.

Center is the one fallback the Raptors have.  Valanciunas takes away their ability to switch through all five positions, but when your wings are this good, it may not matter as much.

Toronto took a swing this summer and they’re at least getting on base.  If they end up in the Finals, it’s a home run.  If they don’t, oh well, but even if Kawhi leaves, they’re in better shape than they were a year ago.

Toronto is built to match up with a Boston or Golden State.  Whether they beat either depends on health and how the season develops.  But I wouldn’t be shocked to see them face both next May and June.

Projected record: 58-24

A write up on Washington will come tomorrow afternoon

Eastern Conference Standings:

  1. Boston Celtics, 63-19
  2. Toronto Raptors, 58-24
  3. Philadelphia 76ers, 56-26
  4. Milwaukee Bucks, 55-27
  5. Washington Wizards, 48-34
  6. Miami Heat, 46-36
  7. Indiana Pacers, 45-37
  8. Charlotte Hornets, 40-42
  9. Brooklyn Nets, 35-47
  10. Detroit Pistons, 34-48
  11. Chicago Bulls, 29-53
  12. Atlanta Hawks, 27-55
  13. Cleveland Cavaliers, 25-57
  14. New York Knicks, 24-58
  15. Orlando Magic, 23-59

A Case That The Western Conference Has 14 Playoff Teams

One of the most common themes in the NBA the past five seasons has been the competitive imbalance of the two conferences.  Since 2013, the Western Conference has been an absolute bloodbath, while the Eastern Conference has featured approximately three good teams every year.

That doesn’t change this year.  The Western Conference added the best player in the league to a team that wasn’t in the playoff picture last season.  The Eastern Conference lost him, and the dominant team of the past four years will now regress to at most 35 wins.  The Western Conference added talented rookies and has young players looking to take gigantic leaps that will propel their team to new heights.

That means that a lot of teams are going to be better than last season.  Or at least, they should be.  And for others, they could be better than last year, but it’ll take some luck.

There are 14 teams that will, should or could make the playoffs in the West.  We’re gonna go through each one.  Brace yourself, the “Could” section might get a little wonky.

Will make the playoffs: Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder

With the addition of DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors have to try even less during the course of the regular season.  That could lead to an even slower start, especially since Cousins, who is coming off of an achilles tear, probably won’t be back to till January or February.

It’s kinda funny that we’ve reached the point with the Warriors where, instead of guessing how many games they can win, we’re guessing how many games they’ll lose due to their laziness.

You’d think that Golden State would be in even more danger of losing the 1st seed in the West than they were last year, but they’re still the favorites to come out on top.  The expected regression from Houston and the youth of the Lakers limits the pressure.

You’ll hear all year about which of Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant will leave after the season.  The smart thing to do for both would be stay, but it’s possible that’s not an option.  If everyone comes back and are paid respectably (not their full value but at a decent discount), the Warriors are looking at an astronomical luxury tax bill, one that wouldn’t only be the largest in NBA history, but one that is so incomprehensibly large that we would have never thought it would be possible.  Joe Lacob is probably gonna do it, but the number will be outstanding.

The Warriors are going to take it easy during the regular season.  The Boogie addition might get them 70 wins, or it could take them down to 55-57.  It just depends on how much they all want to care.

No matter what that number is, I still expect them to be the No.1 seed.  The Rockets offseason moves should cause them to regress at least a little.

Houston got to the next level last season by amping up their defense.  The addition of Chris Paul, switchability of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute made Houston a legitimate threat to the Warriors.  They made the same amount of threes, switched everything and tried defensively.  It almost worked.

Now, a lot of that is gone.  Paul is a year older (and another injury weaker), Ariza cashed in with the Suns and Mbah a Moute went back to the Clippers.  The mastermind behind it all, Jeff Bzdelik, retired.  I would too if my team replaced those defenders with Carmelo Anthony.

I liked the Jamis Ennis signing though.  It was strange to see the Grizzlies and Pistons pass on him; two teams that desperately need to modernize their teams.  Ennis is a solid, switchy defender who can hit threes at an average rate.

But average may not be enough.  This is the Rockets, and their one point of emphasis is the three-point shot.  They brought in Ennis (average), Melo (below average) and Michael Carter-Williams (definitely below average).  They also lost Ryan Anderson in the trade with the Suns, who served as a functional stretch four.

Houston’s isolation heavy offense only works if the threes go in.  With Ennis, Melo and MCW playing big minutes, you’re making threes at a much lower rate.  Pair that with the defensive regression, and Houston is probably closer to the third seed than the first.

I’d expect the Lakers and Jazz to duke it out for the third seed all season.  It’s a tough call.  LeBron’s on one end, and a very good, well-rounded Utah team is on the other.

I can’t believe there would ever come a time where I am praising/defending the Lakers, but here we are.  The “They’re not gonna make the playoffs!” talk is insane.  Even having them finish below the 5th seed is nonsense.  This is a LeBron James-led team.  You really think he’s not making the playoffs?  The Cavaliers are going to win 25 games this season.  They lost no one but LeBron and were in the Finals last season.  I get there’s a conference imbalance; I addressed that at the top.  But c’mon.  LeBron is not missing the playoffs.

In fact, I think Los Angeles grabs three.  The Lakers are so much more talented than the Cavaliers.  Not only do the pieces fit around LeBron, but they fit today’s league as well.  Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram are long, athletic perimeter guys.  Defensively, they should be able to switch and play average defense.  Their biggest weakness on that end is youth.  Lonzo Ball took massive steps forward on the defensive end last year, after that side of his game was criticized in the draft.  Rim protection is an issue, but LeBron could find himself in that role along with JaVale McGee (Moritz Wagner doesn’t count here.  Sorry!) quite often.  That depends on Rajon Rondo’s effort, which can be not so great or quite effective (as we saw against Portland in the playoffs).

Josh Hart’s role on this team will be fascinating.  He can be played at a wing-like shooting guard position (An unselfish, off the ball shooter) or run point with bench units.  For a smaller guy, his switchability is actually quite good, making him even more viable in both roles.

There’s a couple random guys worth addressing on this Lakers roster.  I’d be surprised if Lance Stephenson or Michael Beasley have much of a role; both project to be too compromising defensively to play real minutes.  In Lance’s case, the Lakers have enough guys who the offense can run through (Hart, Ball, LeBron, Rondo).  Beasley might see more minutes, given his potential for an offensive spark occasionally off the bench.

Ivica Zubac could be an x-factor here.  Depending on how much LeBron likes him, he could provide the most consistent source of rim protection.  McGee is McGee, Wagner is not athletic enough to play center in the NBA, and LeBron’s already gonna be tasked with so much that playing the five isn’t in his best interest.  Zubac would be another young, clueless defender out there, but the ceiling is higher than the other options.

Like Golden State, the Lakers are going to be fine.  They may not find themselves in the Finals with the bloodbath West, but they will not finish any lower than the 3rd seed.  We’ll talk about their playoff chances when the time comes, because even though they may not make it, they are a contender.

The Jazz are awesome.  If Donavan Mitchell takes another step forward (By the way, we shouldn’t expect that.  He was so good last year it’s hard to improve), he’s a MVP candidate.  Joe Ingles is a perfect three-and-D wing for today’s league, and Ricky Rubio has worked on his three point spot enough to be decent when he’s not the primary ball-handler.  There may not be a better defensive team in the league than this one.  The team’s going to be good because they have a superstar, are fantastic defensively and have a good coach.

But the Jazz aren’t at title contender status.  Despite their possession of quality players, it’s the mix that’s wrong.  They’re still stuck playing two bigs with Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, both of who are fantastic defenders individually, but have issues on the perimeter.  Another defensive wing instead of Favors would open things up on the offensive end, which still lacks firepower even after the draft.  Grayson Allen can score, but his size might be a tad compromising defensively.  Jae Crowder and Thabo Selfolosha provided some modernization, but Crowder’s a tad washed and it seems unlikely Selfolosha can put up the same three point numbers as last year.

They just need more firepower.  Allen will help, but it’s unlikely that’s enough.  Free agents aren’t coming to Utah.  If Utah is better than we think, then a trade come February for a No.2 option could be likely.

The Thunder are a little troubling.  There’s no way they fall out of the playoffs, but there’s some concerns I have.

It’s amazing how Russell Westbrook playing and not playing is an issue.  The knee surgery he had over the offseason will keep him out at least tonight.  We’ve seen Westbrook play through some ridiculous injuries, so the immediate concern isn’t too large.  It’s more about the piling up of Westbrook’s injuries.  He’s one of the biggest freaks of nature the league has ever had.  But how much longer is this sustainable?

Westbrook makes the Thunder competent.  When he’s out, they lose that electricity and that dominant offensive presence (Paul George is not a No.1 option on any team.  He’s a fantastic No.2 on any team, though).

Westbrook brings the Thunder to a competitive level, but nothing above.  He’s not taking you to that next level.  He wants to though, and that’s the problem.  The hero-ball, isolating play Westbrook uses doesn’t work with the way the league is.  You’re just not winning that way.

Secondly, the Thunder’s defense, which I was excited about, took a hit when it was announced that Andre Roberson had a setback with his knee and probably won’t be back till around Christmas.   That slots in Terrance Ferguson, who I like, but is super raw; he only played 12 minutes a game last season.  At the same time, his offense is guaranteed to be better than Roberson’s, because well, anyone’s can be better than Roberson’s.

The Patrick Patterson spot is a little cringe-worthy.  He might be a bit washed, and though he’s a versatile defender, teams will stretch him out to the perimeter and blow by him.  That signing hasn’t worked out nearly as well as I and the Thunder thought it would.

Oklahoma City is in the playoffs.  Westbrook’s theatrics will get them there.  It’s not gonna get them that far though.

Should make the playoffs: Denver, Minnesota, New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio

Annnnnd we’re already at 10 teams.  But just because they should make the playoffs doesn’t mean they will.  Each of these teams have reasons for making it and for not. “Should” means it’s either a make or break season, or it says that this team should make a leap.  Others are just fine, and that’s their biggest downfall or their biggest asset.

We’ll start with Denver.  They should make the playoffs because they’re going to have Paul Millsap fully healthy and Jamal Murray in what’s hopefully a breakout year.  They run a fun, hard to guard offense centered around Nikola Jokic making ridiculous passes from the elbow.  Gary Harris is knockdown shooter and lockdown defender, which is a rarity on this team.  Denver is planning to go with a three guard lineup in Murray, Harris and Will Barton.

That’s a pretty decent start, and they could add more depending on what they get out of their offseason additions.  I wasn’t the biggest Michael Porter Jr. fan in the draft, but I have now turned into one.  The highly touted forward is exactly what Denver has lacked for years: A No.1 offensive option who could develop into an absolute star.  The second part of that sentence is what I’m skeptical of, but his situation and where he was taken makes me think it’s possible.  If he can contribute, and emerge as a crunch-time guy for them, then watch out.  This team could be really good really fast.

The same goes for Isaiah Thomas, who Denver smartly handed out a flyer contract to this offseason.  Like Porter Jr., if he can contribute even a little bit to this team, it could take them to another level.  Denver desperately needs crunch-time scoring.  Even if Murray takes that next step, I’m not sure he’s that type of player.  Porter Jr. and/or Thomas is.  If one of them can stay healthy and emerge in that role, Denver is definitely in.

But it may not happen.  It’s possible Thomas plays like his Cleveland self; he’s not expected to play until at least a week into the season.  That’s also the case with Porter Jr; he’s on a similar timetable as Thomas, and has talent that may come or not.  The Nuggets’ defense as a whole is kinda concerning, even with some of the individual studs they have.  Murray, Barton and Jokic in the starting lineup is a black-hole.  While Harris and Millsap are gritty, versatile defenders, the defense may not be able to switch as effectively with the three liabilities on the court.  The Nuggets don’t have a lot of wing depth behind them either; it’s a bunch of young combo guards who are still developing (Monte Morris, who I like, and Malik Beasley, who I don’t like).

(To wrap up each of these teams’ summary, we’re gonna quickly answer the question “How do they make/miss the playoffs?”)

How does Denver make the playoffs?:  Murray takes a leap forward, they get one of Porter Jr. or Thomas to emerge as a crunch-time option, and the defense is good enough thanks to Millsap and Harris.

How does Denver miss the playoffs?:  Thomas nor Porter Jr. are crunch-time players, leading to a lot of close losses and putting Denver in the same spot as they are every year: A good team without a best player.  Barton is a disaster in the starting lineup, and now the Nuggets are paying a bench guy $13.25 million a year.

And now for quite possibly the biggest dumpster fire in the league, the Minnesota Timberwolves!

I guess it’s safe to assume that Jimmy Butler isn’t getting traded…. yet.  The Wolves have been super stubborn about the discussions, leading to Butler showing up at practice fired up in the wrong way (That whole thing is incredible, by the way).  Now the Wolves are stuck with the same team they had last year with their best player unhappy.

But that same team made the playoffs, and added the one thing they desperately needed: Wings and shooters.  The Wolves drafted Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop; Bates-Diop was a first round talent they got in the second round (His fall was stunning.  The dude was Big Ten Player of the Year!).  Those two and Luol Deng help modernize this offense.  People are gonna crap on Deng, but he’s actually underrated now.  It wasn’t that he was bad, it was that he was bad for the contract he was playing under.  He’ll help the Wolves!

It’s possible Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns could take a step forward.  For the both of them, as Jimmy Butler has let us know, it’s defensively where they both have to get better.  Wiggins has more potential on that end, since we knew him out of college as at least that (Again, it’s just effort).  KAT is more physically challenged when it comes to defense, but some improved basketball IQ could help him out (i.e. Know where your help side is!).  Minnesota also has Tyus Jones, who is quietly awesome but hasn’t been quiet behind closed doors.  There’s been rumors about his unhappiness as well, and as we’ll now explore, his and Butler’s is totally warranted.

One of the pluses with this Wolves team was how they brought everyone who was on a championship team back.  It’s also one of their biggest weaknesses.

Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler on the court at the same time is a disaster.  All three command the ball, and all three want it all the time.  Only one of those ball-hogs deserve it (Butler).  Teague had the ball in his hands way too much when Butler should’ve; this led to him trying to get fouls on three pointers, in which no foul was called and the shot air-balled two feet to the left of the rim.  Wiggins is an inefficient isolation scorer who needs the ball to succeed, yet can’t even be the 4th best player on a championship team.  He’s a stat-stuffer who also isn’t the most consistent player, either.

Sprinkle in some of the tension in the air among these guys and hooooooo boy, we’ve got a nice little game of King of the Hill on the court for Wolves games this year.  That is, assuming the Wolves keep themselves in denial about Butler.

How the Wolves make the playoffs: Tension settles with Butler, he stays and leaves next Summer (Please let this happen to the Wolves.  They’d be like, “Wait, he was a free agent?”).  One of Wiggins and/or KAT improve in some way (with defense or limiting isos) and the three new wings give Minnesota an average three point attack.

How the Wolves miss the playoffs: KAT and Wiggins purposely don’t improve to force Butler out, leading to a somewhat accidental slow start and Jeff Teague doing way too much on a basketball court.  Teague and Wiggins’s antics limit the impact of the roster modernization.

New Orleans had the most up and down six months possible earlier this calendar year.  DeMarcus Cousins went down in February, ending what was a decent MVP campaign and crushing all hope New Orleans had at making a playoff run.  The Pelicans traded for Nikola Mirotic before the trade deadline, a move which somehow helped modernize their roster a little bit and gave them some much needed wing depth.  Rajon Rondo started giving a crap defensively, forming a dominant backcourt with Jrue Holiday that shutdown Portland in the first round of the playoffs.  They got enough offense between Holiday and Anthony Davis and their wings to make it.  It wasn’t enough against the Warriors though.

But the Pelicans lost everyone this offseason. Guys like Dante Cunningham are gone, and Rondo’s on the Lakers and is being replaced with Elfrid Payton.  They once again have no wings.  It’s Anthony Davis and practically no one else.

That’s the Pelicans’ playoff case.  This team is very similar to the 2014-2015 Pelicans team that snuck into the 8th seed and got creamed by the Warriors.  Their only source of anything was Davis.

Holiday is a really good player, but doesn’t possess the firepower needed to surround Davis.  There’s none of that on this roster.  Mirotic is too streaky, and relying on Darius Miller and E’Twaun Moore for consistent offensive output is scary.  The geometry works; Holiday, whatever combination of wings and Davis is a modern offense (Sorry Julius Randle!  You got overpaid and you should be happy with that!).  But it’s just average.  Davis will have to be ridiculous for New Orleans to get in.

How the Pelicans make the playoffs: Davis is ridiculous, Holiday plays like he did in last year’s playoffs, and the surrounding cast musters just enough offense and defense to sneak them in.

How the Pelicans miss the playoffs: Davis’s best effort and whatever the role guys produce isn’t enough, and New Orleans starts taking a hard look at moving their superstar come February.

The Trail Blazers offseason was one of the most disappointing in the league.  Toronto grew a pair and blew up their flawed backcourt, while Portland stayed silent in the Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler sweepstakes.  They ran it back and somehow got worse defensively, not only ignoring their biggest issue but making it even more of a problem.

It’s not great that I can’t find a lot of nice words to say about this team.  They didn’t improve, so it’s kinda hard.  Portland makes the playoffs because they have Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, two superstars who are both top 25 players in the league. That’s the case.  They have a more than competent enough amount of firepower fueled by those two.

But again, that’s the case.  They didn’t add anything to this team  They got worse by refusing to address their issues.

The first is the chemistry between Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.  While they’re both great individually, two ball dominant players, especially two guards, doesn’t work anymore.  The chemistry didn’t cost them games, but the way the roster is constructed based on their presence did.  With Lillard and McCollum, the Trail Blazers are screwed defensively and can’t add three-and-D wings.  Portland is maxed out out with the two and now Jursurf Nurkic.  Their current wings?  Jake Layman, Al-Faruaq Aminu, Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr.  Yikes!  That’s two rookies they’re relying on for big minutes.

I don’t know where to fit in Evan Turner.  There’s rumors that Portland might be revamping their offense by starting Turner and using Lillard and McCollum as secondary-like scorers.  Essentially, they’d run things through Turner, mostly to get some value out of that contract, and to add more volume to the offense.  Turner’s offensive game has been brutal in years past; he’s ineffective and inefficient without the ball.  Putting it in his hands gets him more involved and adds another “scorer”.  Scorer goes to quotes because even if Turner has a central offensive role, it’s not guaranteed he makes the most of it.  He’s still inefficient.

The two guards are the heart of Portland’s problems.  It’s not necessarily because of their fit, it’s because of their presence among one another.  If both are there, there’s no cap space for wings.  It seems odd, but trading one of their two superstars is the only way for Portland to from the “Should” section to the “Will”.

How Portland makes the playoffs: Lillard and McCollum power them through

How Portland misses the playoffs: The West catches up with them and their defensive shortcomings come to a head.  They refuse to move Lillard or McCollum and finish as the 9th seed.

San Antonio had one of the best offseasons in the league.  They aren’t better because of the Kawhi Leonard trade, but they did as good as they could.  It was impossible to win that trade.  You don’t trade one of the six best players in the league and get better.  But you can salvage something, and the Spurs did that.  They removed Kawhi and remained competent.

But nothing is coming easy for the Spurs.  Their first round draft pick Lonnie Walker Jr. tore his meniscus and is out for two months.  They were dealt a brutal blow when Dejounte Murray went down for the season with a torn ACL.  Murray got immensely better toward the end of last season, was projected to take a massive leap forward this year.  He’s done, and his backup is out as well.  Derrick White, who was the one positive to Murray’s injury, would have seen a massive minutes increase as a result of the injury, but he’s now out for what sounds like somewhere between 1-2 months (The reporting has been sketchy).  That means a lot of Patty Mills and Bryn Forbes for now.  Mills is a decent shooter, so running things through DeMar DeRozan would make sense for at least the first month.

It’ll probably remain that way.  DeRozan was the No.1 asset in the Leonard trade and is one of the 25 best players in the league.  He’s there to have things run through him.

That has a ceiling, especially when LaMarcus Aldridge is also on this team.  In crunch-time, the Spurs are running out at least two guys who can’t shoot threes (LMA can, he just chooses not to/doesn’t want to.  That is a whole ‘nother problem).  That doesn’t include whoever their rim protector is.  Jakob Poeltl, one of the guys acquired from Toronto, certainly isn’t a shooter.  Pau Gasol can stretch the floor but isn’t taking the long-ball too often.  Davis Bertans is a shooter, but can’t protect the rim.

For a organization so heavy on analytics, the lack of modernization is odd.  They already lacked shooting prior to the Kawhi trade and went out and got the best mid-range shooter in the league.

Their deficiencies may not matter.  Gregg Popovich got last year’s team to 47 wins and the 7th seed.  That was without a true No.1 option.  Throw in DeRozan and you have someone who can create in crunch-time.  It’s not a perfect team, but they have competent players, and Popovich will get everything he can out of them.

How the Spurs make the playoffs: Popovich figures out a way to get DeRozan and Aldridge to work in today’s league and the young guys (White, Walker, Poeltl) make an impact down the road.

How the Spurs miss the playoffs: A weird team not able to score enough falls short and triggers wonders as to why the Spurs didn’t use to the Kawhi trade to kick off a rebuild.

Could make the playoffs: Dallas, LA Clippers, Memphis, Phoenix

I told you we were gonna get a little wonky.

Honestly, I’m not sure any if these are going to make the playoffs.  I have to write it out to figure it out (I’m doing that below).  The reason I don’t want to eliminate these teams is because they are fun.  They are!  Dallas has Luka Doncic and the Clippers might play four guards at once.  Memphis has a team that isn’t horrible if they stay healthy, and Phoenix, well, okay, Phoenix is a stretch.  I’m probably just being a homer here.  But they’re fun!  And I don’t totally want to count them out!

Lets start with Dallas.  The Mavericks had one of the best draft classes in the league in June.  They drafted Luka Doncic which also somehow garnered them an extra pick, took Jalen Brunson (one of the safest picks in the draft) and took a flyer on Kostas Antetokounmpo, or Giannis’s bother as he’s probably gonna be referred to as.

With the youth, the Mavericks also have quality and competent NBA players.  Dirk Nowitzki is still chugging along.  Wesley Matthews, though overpaid, is serviacble as simply a wing.  Harrison Barnes is the same deal.  They added DeAndre Jordan, who has his flaws but will be a better rim protector than anyone they had last year.

Jordan’s addition is also huge for Doncic.  Jordan’s dream to be a big man who has the ball fed to him was never gonna come true, simply because he isn’t that type of player nor does the league support that anymore.  But his touches and statistics will increase.  A Doncic-Jordan pick and roll, which the Mavs will (hopefully) use a lot, is deadly.  Jordan’s too big for most rolling defenders; his mass can win that matchup or he could just simply dunk on them.  Doncic is already a PNR master and possess ridiculous passing skills to feed it to Jordan in any way.

The Mavs are fun, and good, because of that alone.  But that’s not it.

They’re surprisingly competent.  They can run lineups with Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr/Barnes/Matthews/Dirk/Brunson and Jordan.  Smith Jr. creates an interesting dilemma.  I wasn’t high on him out of his draft; he felt a little too Westbrooky; a bowling ball who couldn’t shoot and would be out of control.  But, he’d be super fun and would make a team at least interesting.

Now, we’re combining that with Doncic.  How do those two play together?  Using one as a role guy is limiting the other’s ceiling.  Doncic off the ball works, but he’s best when things run through him.

That’s what Dallas plans to do:  Run Doncic at point and use DSJ off-the-ball, which seems problematic given that he can’t shoot.  But DSJ’s athleticism makes him a good cutter who get can to the rim.  With Rick Carlisle at the helm, the Mavs are going to move the ball at an incredible rate. DSJ’s gonna be open for layups, and can make things happen with his explosiveness.

Smith’s dangerous with the ball, and that can go both ways.  His recklessness could lead to a little bit of an alpha-doggy presence.  That could lead to inefficiency and Doncic’s role being reduced.

Carlisle should be able to figure it out, but I worry about both adjusting to one another.  It kinda feels like one is gonna be the odd man out.  Please don’t let it be Doncic.

How the Mavericks make the playoffs: Doncic is a god, Smith Jr. buys into his new role and the Mavericks move the ball around to the point where no one can guard them.  They’re just okay defensively and that’s exposed against good offensive teams.

How the Mavericks miss the playoffs:  Doncic is a rookie and him and Smith Jr. struggle to blend.  Teams expose Jordan’s athleticism defensively, and the surrounding wings have below average years.

The Clippers are a crazy team.  Half the roster is crafty guards who need the ball and can’t shoot.  They have few wings and limited depth, and a very average coach to help sort it all out.

Los Angeles has the perfect roster for a 3-for-1 trade (Ala, Jimmy Butler!), but why do that when you can sign him next Summer?  I know teams are gonna be scared of the Paul George situation, but there is literally no way that happens with Butler and the Wolves.

At the same time, it’s plausible that shipping out assets now for Butler actually makes this roster better.  You can clear out the abundance of guards, add a wing/superstar, and guarantee yourself a playoff seed now.

This current Clippers team isn’t there though.  Their best lineup is probably Patrick Beverley-Avery Bradley-Tobias Harris-Luc Mbah a Moute-Marcin Gortat.  With that, you have three guys who are unselfish with the ball but can shoot, a good point guard and a rim protector.  Mbah a Moute in for Danillo Gallinari might catch some eyeballs, but I’d be willing to bet that the Clippers have a Net minus in every stat with him on the court this year.  He’s always hurt, isn’t a good enough shooter to stretch the floor and isn’t the best defender for switching schemes.  With Mbah a Moute, you’re getting defense and threes.

When that lineup isn’t in is, things get wonky.  The Clippers have few wings behind that lineup.  Jerome Robinson projects to be good, but was drafted in June and can’t be relied on too heavily.  Bradley can double as a combo guard, but with the surplus of ones and twos on this team, it’s unlikely we see him in that role.

I’d expect a lot of two and three guard lineups from this team.  Beverley is the starter, but minutes have to be divvied up between him, Lou Williams, Milos Teodosic, Tyrone Wallace, Sindarious Thornwell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.  That’s seven point guards and 21 different combinations of two guard sets!  A large bevy of those 21 features two guys who either need the ball to be effective and/or can’t shoot.

If Doc can figure it out, these three guard sets could be deadly.  With skilled passers like Teodosic, SGA, Williams and Beverley out there, the Clippers could run ridiculous offensive sets, with guys moving all the time and crazy, indefensible passes being thrown.  They could be a pain to guard.

But who’s shooting threes?  As I said, a lot of these guys can’t play off the ball.  SGA, Teodosic, Wallace, and Thornwell all can’t shoot.  That’s four of their seven guards.

The problem is that there is a massive lack of firepower on this team.  They could get quick, easy buckets if they move the ball and experiment with multiple passers on the court at once.  But you need threes in today’s league, and it’s gonna be hard for the Clippers to muster enough of them.

How the Clippers make the playoffs: They’re unguardable offensively due to their ball movement and get 40% from three out of Bradley, Harris and Mbah a Moute.

How the Clippers miss the playoffs: The lack of firepower and a superstar nips them, the three guard lineups lead to inefficiency offensively and the Clippers sail happily into the offseason knowing Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard are coming.

I had the Grizzlies in this column all offseason, but after studying the roster, I feel like I might be underrating them.

The Grizzlies main trait this year is that they are deep.  They all the sudden have 10 guys who are at least competent or have a high ceiling.

They finally ditched Grit and Grind as well.  Memphis overpaid Kyle Anderson (He’s worth it considering how much they need him), signed Garrett Temple, and have Dillion Brooks and Wayne Selden developing.  They drafted Jaren Jackson Jr., one of the most perfect modern big man in the draft and have Ivan Rabb lurking.

The Grizzlies biggest key, like always, is health.  Their best lineup is Mike Conley-Temple-Chandler Parsons-Jackson-Gasol.  While they have solid young players who might be better one day than those starting, this is the lineup that is gonna get them to the playoffs.  It has the experience and veterans, but possibly not the health.  Conley is out at least 25 games every year, Parsons could play in only 25 games all year, and Marc Gasol is 33 and has foot issues.  For Memphis to upgrade to the “Should” section, they have to be healthy.

They’re here because of the health concerns.  There is just no way Conley, Parsons and Gasol stay relatively healthy.  But the team is good enough.  Temple fits, Parsons is a solid wing when healthy, and Jaren Jackson can shoot, switch and protect the rim.  His fit with Gasol could be called into question, but Jackson showed at Michigan State he could guard perimeter guys.  The dude is an athletic freak.

There’s a lot interchangeability with this roster.  Brooks and Anderson can fill the same role Parsons does, while Rabb and Omri Casspi can fill Gasol’s, and Wayne Seldes can do a bunch of things. Memphis can run the offense through him if they want, or could play him as a combo guard or wing as well.  The Grizzlies also drafted Jevon Carter, who brings back that Grit and Grind element.  He can play point guard for practically any lineup.

The Grizzlies have a lot going their way, but injuries could derail it.  Their mix of veterans and young guys has most people overlooking them in the West.

How the Grizzlies make the playoffs: Everyone stays healthy, Jaren Jackson Jr. is awesome as expected and the Grizzlies modern turn pays off.

How the Grizzlies miss the playoffs: Conley and Parsons miss a ton of time and backups like Brooks and Anderson struggle.

Alright, homer time.  I’m so excited for this Suns team.  The youth, the added veterans, and the modernization is everything I’ve wanted from them.

It’s amazing how a team that canned their general manager two weeks before the season isn’t gonna be that terrible.

Here’s the thing with the Suns:  This whole “They could make the playoffs!” case is strictly based off the fact that this is the best roster they’ve had in awhile.  They are not going to be terrible; I’m confident of that.  And if a lot of things go their way, then they could be in contention for the 8th seed.  The goal should be 9th or 10th.  Given what we’ve gone through above, I don’t think that’s unrealistic.

That’s because the now-fired Ryan McDonough had the best offseason of his tenure.  The draft was exceptional: DeAndre Ayton, the trade-up for Mikal Bridges and taking Elie Okobo at the top of the 2nd round.  All three figure to have a role right away.  Ayton provides the rim protection the Suns have lacked for years.  Bridges is an immediate impact wing who’ll play defense and hit threes, and Okobo figures to see large minutes as the Suns still want a point guard (Why, I am not sure).

McDonough signed Trevor Ariza to help further the goal of having more wings and made a sneaky trade with the Rockets.  Ryan Anderson isn’t the stretchiest, most athletic player ever, but he can hit threes and is a veteran.  The Suns need as much leadership as possible.  The trade got Marquese Chriss out of town as well, who was gonna hurt what is hopefully an improved defense.

That defense is anchored by the wings.  Thanks to the moves, the Suns have a plethora of them.  Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges form a locked down perimeter with Davon Reed, Trevor Ariza, TJ Warren and D’Anthony Melton getting in that rotation as well.  Ariza probably starts, but it’d be nice to see Bridges and Jackson play in crunch-time to get minutes in those situations.  If their talent hits the ceiling it should, then Ariza to them shouldn’t be a huge downgrade.

Multiple Suns are primed for big steps forward.  Even though he was already paid, this is the season we find out what Booker really is.  We find out whether he is one of the 30 best players in the league or not.  We find out whether he can the absolute superstar he’s shown the potential to be.  I’m prepared for the scenario that he is not.  He’s still incredibly young, but there’s a chance he’s like the 2nd best player on a championship team, or the best player on a bad one.

That may not be a disaster for the Suns though.  Sure the money wouldn’t look great, but Booker improving only a little combined with what Jackson, Bridges and Ayton should be is still a really good team.

As far as this season, we want to see Booker take a step, a decent size one at least.  If he makes progress, Jackson becomes more of a scorer and the defense improves with the wings, the Suns are probably somewhere in the 35 win range.

It’s gonna be hard for that to happen though.  The Suns were terrible on defense last year, and even though they got better, they also got younger, which usually means worse on defense.  It’s not like Ayton is even a plus defender yet.  He could really struggle, and if your center struggles, it could cause the rest of your team to suffer defensively as well.

The youth could be detrimental.   Mikal Bridges may not be great in his rookie year; neither could Ayton.  We just don’t know what we’re going to get with young guys.

How the Suns make the playoffs: Booker takes a massive step forward, vaulting into one of the top 25 players in the league, and all the youth hits their ceiling in year one:  Ayton, Bridges, Jackson.  Everyone.  Unlikely, but if these guys are as good or better than I expect them to be, then there’s a chance.

How the Suns miss the playoffs: Booker only takes a normal step forward, a team as young as this one has the defensive woes it should, and they remain 2-3 years away.

Sooooo, what actually happens?

Well, we guaranteed five teams at the top.  Here’s how the West looks so far.

  1. Golden State
  2. Houston
  3. Los Angeles Lakers
  4. Utah
  5. Oklahoma City

Now comes the beginning of the hard decisions.  We have eight spots and have 10 teams that should make the playoffs, and four more that could barring extreme circumstances.

The first team out of the “Should” category is Denver.  As I explained in their “How they make it” section, they have two guys who could be their go-to this year.  They had none last season.  They’re the most modern team in the “Should” section. We’ve been waiting on them too long.  This is the year.  In fact, I’m guaranteeing it.  I should have moved them to the “Will” section.

6. Denver

The next team is the Spurs.  I went after them pretty hard in their write-up, but betting against Pop is just not something I’m willing to do yet.  Last year was the most impressive thing he’s done in his career.  The team is more talented this season.  They should be fine.

7. San Antonio

The final team in is Portland.  They have the best “missing the playoffs” scenario, which ended up with them keeping both guards and finishing as the 9th seed.  It’s plausible to see Minnesota and New Orleans as absolute dumpster fires.  Portland has enough to scrape the ceiling.

8. Portland

Now that we have my actual playoffs picks, let’s run through some hypotheticals in the order of the rest of my seedings.  This gets wordy, but what you have to understand is that this is based off of my standings.  If anyone from the No.6 seed on down has their negative outlook come true, then anyone who has their positive outlook come true can sneak into the playoffs.  It’s all interchangable.

9. Memphis– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook above, and one of Portland or San Antonio having their negative outlook.

10. New Orleans– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get San Antonio and Portland to both have their negative outlooks.

11. Dallas– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get Portland, San Antonio and Memphis to have their negative outlooks.

12. Los Angeles Clippers– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get Portland, San Antonio, Memphis and Dallas to all have their negative outlooks.

13. Minnesota– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get Portland, San Antonio, Memphis, Dallas and the Clippers to all have their negative outlooks.

14. Phoenix– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get Portland, San Antonio, Memphis, Dallas, the Clippers and Minnesota to all have their negative outlooks.

15. Sacramento– They don’t deserve words, even in a 8,000 word column.


With my schedule slammed and the NBA putting only two games featuring only two Eastern Conference teams on tonight, I figured I could get away with putting up my Eastern Conference preview tomorrow night.  Be on alert for that, but for now, here are the team previews for the Celtics and 76ers, who debut tonight.  The East isn’t nearly as competitive as the West, so the East preview will look like last year’s, with a projected rotation as I would start it and a synopsis below it, then I’ll give a win total below and we’ll rank them at the end.

Boston Celtics 

  1. Kyrie Irving-Terry Rozier-Marcus Smart
  2. Gordon Hayward
  3. Jaylen Brown-Semi Ojeyele-Jabari Bird
  4. Jayson Tatum-Marcus Morris-Guerschon Yabusele
  5. Al Horford-Aron Baynes-Daniel Theis-Robert Williams

It is gonna be so nice to see this team play together.  After it ending so quickly and abruptly last season, they’re back and fully healthy.  And it’s gonna be even better than we thought it’d ever be, thanks to Jayson Tatum.

If you were building a team to take down Golden State, this is the one to do it with.  They’re playing a point guard, three wings who can shoot threes and play defense, and a rim protector.  The Celtics are the 2nd most modern team in the league and might be the 2nd best.  Think there’s a coincidence there?

The reason the Celtics are scary isn’t just because of their prototype, but the guys within that prototype.  Every team thats wants to play modern has to have a crunch-time star.  Some teams have two, or in the Celtics case three, and that can be a problem depending on the selfishness of those guys.

If anything is better than having the point guard-three wings-rim protector model, then it’s having that same model with multiple superstars who can play together.  Boston has that.  Kyrie is their No.1, but Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward are superstars as well.  Why it works?  Tatum and Hayward don’t need the ball to be effective and aren’t selfish.  They can go into that superstar mode whenever they’re asked to.

The Celtics are the favorites in the East.  As high as I am on them, I can’t say they’re heavy favorites. As you’ll see below and tomorrow, the East is better this year.  There’s some actual competition at the top.  The top of the East boils down to this: It shouldn’t shock me if Toronto or Phildelphia end up in the Finals, but it wouldn’t shock me if Boston won the Finals.

Projected record: 63-19

Philidelphia 76ers

  1. Ben Simmons-Landry Shamet-TJ McConnell-Jerryd Bayless
  2. Markelle Fultz-JJ Redick
  3. Robert Covington-Wilson Chandler-Furkan Korkmaz-Zhaire Smith (injured)
  4. Dario Saric-Amir Johnson-Mike Muscala-Jonah Bolden
  5. Joel Embiid

I was troubled with the 76ers offseason.  They had a clear weakness/target, and that was a superstar and/or crunch-time scorer.  They didn’t address it.  Wilson Chandler can score, but not in those situations.

It really seems like the Sixers are banking on Markelle Fultz to be that guy.  The 2017 No.1 overall pick hardly played last season, and battled what felt like a lot more than just physical injuries.  The changing of the shot, the hesitantness to coming back; everything.  We just don’t know what we’re gonna get.  It’s possible it’s not a talent thing at all; just a mental block.  Fultz was my No.1 overall guy on the 2017 Big Board.  He had all the talent in the world and had all the qualities the Sixers are looking for now.  He has the potential to be that guy.  Will we ever get it?  It’s a tough bet to make, and the Sixers are making it.

Even with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, it’s the reason why I can’t project this Philly team higher than the 3rd seed this season.  They had a clear weakness and didn’t get any better.

That doesn’t mean they’re not going to be fun though.

We’re looking at the same team that dominated the Spring last year, only with Simmons and Embiid a year more experienced and developed. The Sixers are long and athletic.  They’ll move the ball around, shoot threes and play defense.  They’ll throw crazy passes and fly above the rim.  They’re going to be a joy.

As much as I crapped on their offseason, I did like the Wilson Chandler trade.  Robert Covington laid a big turd in the postseason, and there’s a chance he never really recovers from it.  Chandler replaces Covington’s minutes off the bench while also having the opportunity to play for him, depending on where his percentages are at.

The Sixers have done a fantastic job of mirroring their bench to their starting lineup.  Their big men are all very Dario Saric-like; athletic big guys who can switch and shoot competently.  The drop-off at point guard is sheer, but the Sixers can use their backup point guards to slow the game down and play more traditionally.  TJ McConnell and Landry Shamet know how to facilitate rather than run a blazing, go-go-go offense.

It wouldn’t shock me if the Sixers made the Finals.  Everyone is a year better, and there is the Fultz x-factor.  But they won’t make it if it’s JJ Redick off a screen every single time they need a big shot.  Someone, whether they are currently on the roster or not, is gonna have to step up.

Prediction: 56-26

2018 NLCS and ALCS Preview

We got really lucky with these Championship Series’.  Both figure to be absolute grudge-matches; not necessarily due to the quality of the teams (That goes for the NL), but because of how even the matchups are.  For example, Houston and Boston were the two best teams in the whole MLB this year.  The Brewers and Dodgers both lack dominant and trustworthy pitching staffs.   Los Angeles and Milwaukee had my doubts all year (Like every team in the NL).  Now those doubts will come to a head.

NLCS: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Milwaukee Brewers 

The Dodgers and Brewers had relative ease in the NLDS.  Milwaukee proved me very wrong, sweeping the Rockies in three games thanks to their questionable, limited bullpen holding strong and a clutch Wade Miley outing.

The Dodgers made things easier than I thought they would against the Braves.  Atlanta got burned by their starters, putting immense pressure on their young lineup to comeback in practically every game (That didn’t bother Ronald Acuna Jr. too much, though).  LA’s rotation experienced the ups and downs it should have.  Clayton Kershaw gave them a gem, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill did enough, and the young Walker Buehler struggled.

The question is whether that’s enough in this series.  The Brewers are a different monster than the Braves.  They’re more talented, more experienced and have more power.  The Brewers hit 43 more home runs than the Braves this year, and the Dodgers’ pitching staff allowed the 9th highest home run-to-fly ball rate in the majors.  That’s a serious uptick for the Dodgers, and it’s not guaranteed that Ryu, Hill and Buehler are gonna be able to get away with “getting the job done”.

At the same time, the Dodgers are an uptick for the Brewers as well.  Milwaukee never saw the Rockies ace in Kyle Freeland and faced a ton of inexperience on the mound.  The Dodgers are the opposite of that with Ryu, Hill and Kershaw.  Plus, the Dodgers bullpen (though not great itself) can’t be worse than Colorado’s was.  Harrison Musgrave, Scott Oberg and Seunghwan Oh were terrible, and Wade Davis provided a mini heart attack every outing.  Even Adam Ottavino had his issues, as the slider just wasn’t the same as it was in the regular season.

Milwaukee got a bit of a break.  Even if the Dodgers are just a tinge better, it could be a big adjustment for the Brewers.  At the same time, LA is experiencing a similar thing.  With Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, and Corbin Burnes (Are we sure we can count Jeremy Jeffress??), the Brewers bullpen is more talented and more trustworthy than Atlanta’s.

The advantages each team has against one another cancel out.  They both had easy opponents in the Division Series and face a much tougher test now.  Neither pitching staff is flaw free.

This series is good because of bad reasons.  The ALCS is good because of good reasons.  It’s been the story of the NL all year.

This means that we’re gonna have to nit-pick and fall back on some basic, cliche and old-school evaluating methods.

I don’t like previews that take each team position by position, compare who is better and then make the pick based off that.  It’s baseball.  There’s a lot of other factors.  Some pitchers you just can’t feel good about despite their numbers, and some batters are scarier than their home run rate or batting average suggests.

But that’s unfortunately what we have to do here, but only among the pitchers, because offenses are way too unpredictable in October.

Rotation:

  • Clayton Kershaw vs. Gio Gonzalez
  • Hyun-Jin Ryu vs. Wade Miley
  • Walker Buehler vs. Jhoulys Chacin
  • Rich Hill vs. ???

Kershaw is one of the best pitchers of all-time, and Wade Miley is asking for it against the Dodgers, who will rake him giving his hard groundball tendencies (The Dodgers finished 4th this season in hard contact percentage at 38.9%).  The third matchups is a tough one.  Walker Buehler was rocked against the Braves and let the nerves get to him.  When Chacin’s firing, his stuff is nasty with the two-seam and slider movement.  Buehler’s more talented, but the meltdown potential is exponentially higher.

Game 4 projects as a bullpenning game for Milwaukee, which is concerning.  The Brewers are already down 2-1 in the head to head talent matchup, which means a heavy use of their bullpen is likely in Games 1-3.  Relying solely on them for Game 4 puts a heavy toll on the staff, which as I mentioned above has 3-4 trustworthy arms in the first place.  After that projected loss, the rotation starts over, and the Dodgers have the advantage once again.

Advantage: Dodgers

Bullpen:

Dodgers: Kenley Jansen, Alex Wood, Caleb Ferguson, Dylan Floro, Ryan Madson, Julio Urias 

Brewers: Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel, Joakim Soria, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Xavier Cedeno

Consider these lists this way…  how many guys are there that we can’t pick apart on each staff?  Kenley Jansen in any other year would be locked away from this list, but the home run issues he’s had since returning from his heart problem are too scary.  Julio Urias, a surprise addition to the roster, is 22, has hardly pitched in the majors this year and has been up and down performance wise in the minors coming off of injury.   Alex Wood’s ERA+ is much lower than his other numbers would say it should be.  Ferguson is a home run machine, and Dylan Floro can put guys on in a hurry with walks.  Ryan Madson has been horrible overall this season, though his experience helps with the pen getting younger due to Urias’ addition.

Practically every single Dodgers reliever has a nit-pick.  Hader and Knebel are off limits for the Brewers, but the rest isn’t great either.  Jeffress didn’t give us too much confidence from his NLDS performance, and Joakim Soria’s 2014 ALDS outing against Baltimore is one I’ll never forget (that’s meant in the worst way possible).  As much as I like Corbin Burnes, he’s 23 and will have high pressure on him.  Brandon Woodruff is fine, and Xavier Cedeno gives this bullpen an extra boost.  His absence from the DS roster was fascinating.

Advantage: Brewers 

So, the Dodgers have the better starters, but the Brewers the better bullpen.  I’d rely on the Dodgers to get longer outings from their starters, which burns the bullpen less.  Dave Roberts has been good about not overusing them so far (i.e. Leaving Walker Buehler in after giving up the grand slam).  The Brewers are doing the exact opposite with their bullpen; they have three starters, none of who have long leashes.  They’ll pull them in an instant, and let the bullpen take over as soon as the 2nd or 3rd inning.  As I wrote in the NLDS preview, the Dodgers learned last year that it comes down to last bullpen standing.  They aren’t making the same mistake again.  They’re gonna let the Brewers make it, and their superstar lineup will capitalize.

Prediction: Dodgers in 6

ALCS: Houston Astros vs. Boston Red Sox 

This is as tight as a matchup can get.

Unlike the NLDS, each component of both teams is equal.  The rotations are excellent, the bullpens just as good and the offenses are capable of backing up their pitching staffs if need be.

Grudge-match.

Houston predictably handled Cleveland, thanks to the Astros offense shellacking any pitcher the Indians threw at them, bullpen arm or not.  Boston survived an entertaining Yankees series, which featured blow-outs, horrible calls, tipping pitches and a classic David Price postseason outing!

The Red Sox series against New York might have taught us a lot about them.  Though winning in four games, Boston had some things go seriously against them.  David Price didn’t turn it around (At the same time, who expected him to?), and Craig Kimbrel almost let the series go five games.  The Red Sox might have scored six runs in the series off of tipped pitches.  Oh, and the Yankees 3rd best pitcher is as good as Houston’s 4th, who is a No.2 or No.3 on most teams.

When it comes to kicking it up a notch, the Astros are certainly going to make Boston do that.

Cleveland had their issues, but that doesn’t discount the fact that Houston beat up on the probable AL Cy Young winner.  Kluber got clobbered in Game 1.  Sale’s more equipped to handle these moments, but man, that was an impressive performance.

We waited all year for the Astros switch to come on (I say that as they won 103 games) and it did against Cleveland.  The Astros have that swagger about them; they’re the World Series champions and they aren’t going to let Boston forget that.  They have the offense, rotation and bullpen to make it there again.

Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton is the league’s best rotation.  At the same time, Boston’s offense was their kryptonite this year.  The Red Sox offense never cost them a game this season.  No pitcher was too overwhelming for this lineup, mostly due to the fact that Boston can score without hitting home runs.  They led the MLB in doubles and finished within the 13-16 range in both fly-ball percentage and groundball percentage, creating a very nice balance of contact and power hitting.

But the Astros staff ranked the same way.  No one hit too many home runs off of them, and no one got hard groundball contact off of them either.

Boston’s pitching staff isn’t nearly as strong as Houston’s though.  No one is trotting out Verlander-Cole-Keuchel like the Astros are, but there were rotations that existed that came close.  Not Boston’s.  Chris Sale dominated the Yankees and Rick Porcello was fine, but in a series like this ALCS, a poor David Price start is catastrophe.  The Astros aren’t giving you bad starts like New York was (CC, Severino in Game 3); there’s no way to make up for your pitchers being crappy, because the opponent doesn’t have any that will pitch crappy.

Plus, the Astros have the superior bullpen.  Boston’s relievers were lights out or the opposite of that against the Yankees, a problem I feared in my ALDS preview.  Like how Boston’s offense won’t let Houston pitchers get away with their (few) mistakes, the Astros offense won’t either the Red Sox’s staff get away with those mistakes either.  George Springer is a terrifying postseason batter, and Alex Bregman is the type of guy whose play backs up his talk.

Brandon Workman and Eduardo Rodriguez can’t be getting shelled like they did against the Yankees, and Craig Kimbrel’s antics at the end of games can’t happen.  Houston’s experience will prevail in those tight situations.  Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes and Ryan Braiser have to step up and hold down the ship.  There’s a lot of holes (We can’t forget about Heath Hembree’s Hole) in this bullpen, and it’s gonna take a lot to keep it afloat.

As we saw above, in a series this tight, the little things matter.  My trust in Boston’s pitching staff is much lower than Houston’s, and even though the Red Sox offense was the most dominant position group in baseball this season, I am going to rely on what we know wins the World Series: Pitching.  It feels odd to go against this Red Sox team; it really felt like all season that they would coast through the playoffs and just keep getting it done.  But the Houston’s demolition of Cleveland sucked me in.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see this go seven.  Houston wins when they start Verlander and Cole, and get an extra one from David Price’s start.  Boston settles Charlie Morton down, gets the best of Keuchel and has a game where the offense is overwhelming.  The Red Sox bullpen falls apart in another game, and that’s the deciding factor.

Prediction: Astros in 7 

ALDS Preview + Braves-Dodgers Synopsis

I was able to get through mid-terms and write on every Division Series matchup.  My brain is fried.  Anyways, enjoy.

Cleveland Indians vs. Houston Astros 

It’s not fair that this is a ALDS matchup.

But with all these AL series, that’s the way it is.  Every series feels like it should be the ALCS.  Every team here is a World Series caliber team.

At the same time, there are some underwhelming aspects to this series.  Cleveland has dealt with a lack of quality outfielders, a serious Jason Kipnis problem and a crappy bullpen all season.  Andrew Miller has not been Andrew Miller thanks to injuries, and the rest of the bullpen looks like the one that ran out of gas in the 2016 World Series.  Only Oliver Perez and Brad Hand have ERAs under four in this bullpen.

The Astros have kicked butt, winning 103 games thanks to their ridiculous rotation and superior lineup.  The only nit-pick we can make about Houston is that they should have probably won 110-115 games, and this “slide” to 103 can be explained by the classic World Series hangover most teams experience.

This series was between two of the AL’s juggernauts, but I think we can give that label to only one of these teams.  Dive deep into some of the Indians’ splits and you’ll find some ugly numbers that don’t favor them at all in this series.  Cleveland had a great year; they won 90 games and easily took the crown in the AL Central.  But that was one of the worst divisions in baseball this season.  Put Cleveland in the West and they don’t make the playoffs.  As much as I believe in their rotation, it’s hard to see Cleveland pulling this series out.

The bullpen in the No.1 concern.  The group finished 27th in WAR this season and has gotten zero contribution from mainstays like Cody Allen, Dan Otero and Miller. Allen’s fall has been stunning; his walks per nine innings is the highest it’s been since his first season (4.4 per nine) and his strikeouts per nine has declined two whole K’s.  Otero’s been a disaster after two years of dominance, and Miller’s injuries have risen his ERA to 4.24.  Miller, however, has kept the ERA+ slightly above 100 at 104.  Even with the struggles, he’s still Andrew Miller.  Maybe that beast can come out of hiding for the postseason.

It isn’t a total wash though.  Guys like Perez and Shane Beiber add some above average pitching to this group.  Perez has been great; Beiber not so much, but a reduced amount of innings might be help his cause.  Beiber gives up a lot of contact, but he doesn’t allow those runs to score and does a good job of not making too many mistakes (3.23 FIP).  His fly-ball percentage is one of the lowest in this pen, which is a very, very good thing considering how those numbers matchup with Houston.

With home runs so vitally important now, you need pitchers who can keep the ball on the ground.  Cleveland’s bullpen doesn’t do that.  Houston hit the 9th most home runs in the MLB this season (To be fair, Cleveland hit the 6th most).  The Indians bullpen finished with the highest home run to fly ball rate in the majors.  The combination of those two stats, mixed with the Indians overall lack of talent among their relievers, is a living hell for Cleveland.

They’re gonna need long outings out of their starters, who, unlike the bullpen, are actually trustworthy and are having good years.  Corey Kluber’s making yet another AL Cy Young case, and Carlos Carrasco is one of the most underrated “I’m completely dominating a game” guys in the league.  Mike Clevinger’s had an amazing breakout year with a 3.02 ERA and a 145 ERA+.  And there’s Trevor Bauer.

Yeah, and then there’s Trevor Bauer, who’s had his first good regular season ever this year, putting up a 2.26 ERA and a 193 ERA+.  I don’t know why I’ve always had a grudge against him; it’s probably some combo of the mediocre regular seasons, the trade from the Diamondbacks (Which Arizona definitely won), the bloody finger in the 2016 ALCS, his prior postseason meltdowns and his Twitter feed.  But even after this year, I just don’t feel great about him going on the mound.  In the postseason, you need stars and well above average pitchers.  Bauer is neither of those; he’s just good and that’s all.  Cleveland needs all they can get from their rotation in this series, and Bauer’s the weak-link, even if this season has been his best.

Despite Bauer, Cleveland’s rotation is the strongest part of this team.  They give up an above average percentage of fly-balls, but not nearly to the extent that the bullpen does.  The biggest key is they don’t give up home runs on those fly-balls; the Cleveland starters finished with the 23rd highest home run-to-fly ball rate this season.

Still, I’m not sure it’s enough.  That’s because this Houston rotation has essentially three No.1 starters in their rotation and a N0.3 as their No.4.  It’s an embarrassment of riches, and even though Cleveland scored the third most runs in baseball this year, it’s probably gonna show itself.

Facing Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in probable back-to-back ALDS games is just unfair.  Both have been excellent this year, with ERA+’s in between 140-160.  Neither have any shadow of my doubt when it comes to a playoff start.

Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are little bit more shaky though.  Keuchel certainly hasn’t been horrible, with a 3.74 ERA and his FIP actually falling a bit compared to past years, but ERA+ indicates that Keuchel’s been just slightly above average (108), and the sinker has suffered.  Brooks Baseball data shows a massive decline in the vertical movement of the Keuchel’s sinker.  Last year, the average vertical movement of the sinker was 6.26 inches.  This year, that average has declined to 4.31 inches.

It seems like this is a common trend with Keuchel though.  We’re always a little concerned about him coming into October, and he usually comes through and doesn’t screw things up.  Plus, you could make the case last year’s postseason wasn’t exactly great for him.  Regression, or in this case improvement, would say he comes back up to earth this postseason.

Charlie Morton, however, is the opposite case as Keuchel.  He was surprisingly amazing last postseason after I doubted him.  He’s been good yet again.  With some experience now, we can have more confidence in him than before.  I’m still not sure it’s enough though.

The Astros bullpen is loaded, so loaded that they had to leave three quality relievers off the ALDS roster.  Hector Rondon, Brad Peacock, Joe Smith and Chris Devinski are all at home for this series.  Peacock was massive part of last year’s World Series squad, but got overran by additions like Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna.

The Astros staff is unhittable all around.  Pressly’s turned into everything he wasn’t with the Twins, and Osuna, despite the off-the-field issues, is one of the league’s best.  The Astros bullpen also adds Lance McCullers Jr., who hasn’t been ridiculous this season, but worked nicely as a No.5 on this team.  He excelled last postseason, and that was as a starter.  McCullers Jr. has as much experience as a 24-year-old can get, and now the Astros are asking even less of him.

This series, unlike some of the others in this first round, is simple.  Houston’s pitching is untouchable, and Cleveland’s bullpen is a dumpster fire.  The Indians will probably get a good outing from Kluber or Carrasco and take that game, but it’s hard to see the bullpen having any of the starters’ backs, even with a conceivable long outing.

Prediction: Astros in 4


New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox 

Lets goooooooooooo.

There is nothing better than this.  Red Sox and Yankees in the first round?  Both teams over 100 wins?  Yeah, nothing better.

I wrote in my AL Wild Card preview that the Yankees didn’t strike me as a team that would go deep in these playoffs; I picked Oakland single-handily for that reason.  But now New York is here, which means an incredible challenge awaits them.

The concerns I had about New York were pretty simple:  Bad starting pitchers and a couple holes in their lineup.  The first base dilemma came to a head in the Wild Card Game, where Luke Voit made a couple of brutal defensive plays.  At the same time, Voit hit the bases clearing double that blew the game open, from 3-0 to 5-0, in the bottom of the 6th inning.

These are issues that might be escaped in the Wild Card Game, but not against the Red Sox.  Another hole is Gary Sanchez, who was never a good defensive catcher but also forgot how to hit this year.  The one thing that made up for the defense is now gone, but New York’s stuck with it for now.  The Red Sox got on base more than any team this year in baseball.  If those passed balls from Sanchez keep happening, every hit essentially puts a guy in scoring position.  No one’s capitalizing on that more than Boston will.

As addressed in the Wild Card Game preview as well, the Yankees starters are just not that great.  J.A. Happ would have worked against the A’s, but the Red Sox hitters are just a different animal.  Like the Rockies, they don’t have to hit the long-ball to score; Boston only hit the 9th most home runs in the league this year.  That would bode well for the Yankees if their starters didn’t have the 10th highest HR/FB  percentage in the league this season, which was also the highest percentage (13.3%) out of any playoff team.

Happ certainly has more of my trust than a Masahiro Tanaka or CC Sabathia for this series.  New York’s stuck with throwing both of them, but will have Luis Severino for Game 3.

Boston’s in a strangely similar situation to the Yankees when it comes to their starters.  The depth behind Chris Sale isn’t all that great, and has been a target of mine every postseason.  Rick Porcello has regressed to a 4.28 ERA this year, but he wasn’t someone I had faith in on the playoff mound anyways.  David Price has hung in there, which essentially means no numbers or outings jump off the page (Once again, the “no innings eaters” rule applies to starters too… you need above average dudes on your staff), and Nathan Eovaldi has made the heavy price the Red Sox paid to get him look worth it.  He’s been very good in 12 starts this year, and finished with a 132 ERA+.  Eovaldi keeps the ball on the ground too, which is ever important against the most prolific home run hitting team ever.

When it comes to the quality of the starters, each team kind of cancels out.  Like usual, it comes down to the bullpen.

It’s hard to beat this Yankees ‘pen.  The talent is overwhelming.  (Good) Dellin Betances, Chad Green, David Robertson, Aroldis Chapman and Zach Britton is just unfair.

Boston just doesn’t have the talent to match it, and it’s not like the Red Sox bullpen is bad either.  Craig Kimbrel and Matt Barnes are good relievers, and Boston is pulling Steven Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez from their rotation to give them some length after their starter exits.  Still, there is no way for the Red Sox to pull even in this department.

That may not matter though.  When things aren’t going Boston’s way, they’ve always had their offense bail them out.  That formula doesn’t usually work in the playoffs, but this Red Sox offense is a different beast.  It’s been their kryptonite all season.  Stacked with hitters, the runs Boston scores may not be due to bad Yankee pitching, but good Red Sox hitting.  The ability to not only hit homers but score through base hits and keep the momentum going is huge come October.  Every time the Red Sox score a run and have two men left on base, there’s a good chance one of those guys comes in as well.  They’ve been that impactful this season, and I think it’s the difference in this series.  The pitching is much closer than ever imagined, and it’s offense, clutch hits and bench players that get it done after pitching does its job.  The Boston offense has gotten this team to where it is now.  It will continue to push them forward.

Prediction: Red Sox in 5


On last night’s Game 1 between the Braves and Dodgers, and where this series goes…

Mike Foltynewicz’s lack of experience showed against Los Angeles last night.  He made it two innings and gave up four runs, including two home runs to Joc Pederson and Max Muncy, respectively.

The Pederson home run wouldn’t have been too big of a deal if not for the Muncy smash.  Pederson capitalized on a fastball that was left up in the zone and to the right, an area where Pederson has hit well from this season.  According to Brooks Baseball, Pederson’s hit .350 on balls throw in that area of the strike zone.  Foltynewicz threw his pitch (four-seam fastball), just not in the right spot.  He paid for it.

The Muncy home run had a similar set-up; another four-seamer from Foltynewicz that missed its spot, and ended up in an area perfect for the batter.  Muncy’s batted .326 on balls thrown in the spot of his home run, and he crushed it last night.  That ball was a moonshot, and it blew open the game to a point where the Braves had no shot to get back in it.

On the other side, Hyun-Jin Ryu pitched a gem.  Ryu, who has been excellent this year, went seven innings, gave up no runs and struck out eight.  Despite the zeros, the most important part of his start might be the innings count.  The Dodgers bullpen has good numbers, but I have some trust issues with it.  Kenley Jansen’s had serious struggles keeping the ball in the park since coming back, and Ryan Madson’s had a horrific year; the change of scenery didn’t benefit him whatsoever.  Guys like Scott Alexander, Dylan Floro and Caleb Ferguson just don’t have my confidence yet.  The Dodgers are so loaded though that they can defer to some of their left-over starters for bullpen help, like Kenta Maeda and Alex Wood.  Wood’s appearance last night seemed a little strange; it’s worth not bringing him in now when you could save him for a longer outing later in the series and/or playoffs.  No matter what, Ryu’s performance only made the Dodgers use four pitchers, an impressive number considering the amount of pitching changes we’ve seen this season, and especially so far this postseason.  As the Dodgers learned last year, the first one to encounter a burned bullpen loses the series.  Tonight’s Game 1 performance from Ryu was the first step in making sure that doesn’t happen.

It shouldn’t be hard for the Dodgers to get that the rest of this series.  We’re not to the point of the postseason where Clayton Kershaw breaks down for whatever reason and Walker Buehler is an absolute stud.  The game where the Dodgers might have to reach deep into their bullpen is the upcoming Rich Hill start.  At 38, he’s still chugging along, and actually put up decently good numbers this year!  The ERA was below 4.00, and the FIP was also below that mark.  Hill gave up 1.4 home runs per nine innings though, and his WHIP was pushing 1.6.  But again, this is one starter out of four for the Dodgers.

Where do the Braves go from here?  Anibal Sanchez is scheduled to go today; he’s been incredibly good for a 34-year-old, with a 2.83 ERA and 143 ERA+.  At the same time, this is the playoffs, and this is a frightening Dodgers lineup.  Sanchez certainly has the experience, and the Dodgers don’t hit his best pitches (Changeup, slider) that well, per FanGraphs data.

It’s Kevin Gausman’s job in Game 3, another surprise performer this year.  Look at what happens you get out of Baltimore!  Gausman’s got outs.  He hasn’t been anything special; he just does his job.  Like Sanchez, there’s a scary aspect to Gausman, and that’s it.  Hitters, especially the Dodgers’, are gonna figure that out.

The difference is that the Braves have one of the best bullpens in the playoffs to fall back on.  Almost no one has been bad this year for them; they took only a few risks (on young guys who have been good) with their roster.  In terms of rest, last night wasn’t exactly a great way to get the bullpen started; Atlanta cranked through five arms.  But if the Braves are going to make a run this postseason (Something I’ve been advocating for all year), that’s the way it is gonna have to be.  The gas tank better have a lot in it.

This series is tough.  The Braves youth and inexperience hurts against the super-star riddled Dodgers.  But Atlanta doesn’t have any history of melting down, and has the superior bullpen.

It’s the Dodgers starters and bats vs. the Atlanta bullpen.  The formula we’ve used to pick series is pitching first, then clutch bats next.  Los Angeles just has more; I mean, what team has Matt Kemp, Chris Taylor or Enrique Hernandez, and Brian Dozier on their bench and available whenever?  What team is able to re-add Ross Stripling for a series?  The Dodgers are deeper, and that’s the difference in this series.

Prediction: Dodgers in 5

Rockies-Brewers Preview

Due to my rigid time constraints during mid-terms week, I won’t be able to get a full Braves-Dodgers preview up.  Instead, we’re going slap a Game 1 synopsis and a preview for the rest of the series on tomorrow’s ALDS preview column.

Anyways, here’s the Rockies-Brewers preview, which is a fascinating matchup given that neither team is that great at anything.

Colorado Rockies vs. Milwaukee Brewers

As soon as the Rockies despicably won Tuesday night, the first thing that popped into my mind was “Oh, this will be fun!”

Due to the pitching situations these teams are in, we might see some offense.  Milwaukee hit the 4th most home runs in the league this season, while Colorado hit the 8th most.  The Rockies were able to score runs without the long ball though; Colorado finished 7th in runs while Milwaukee finished 12th.

Lets first examine the pitching staffs of each team, since that matters more than anything else does in the postseason.  Colorado’s planned rotation looks like Antonio Senzatela in Game 1 and Tyler Anderson in Game 2.  The 23-year-old Senzatela has struggled in his 2nd year, not really improving on his underwhelming 2017 campaign.  He gave up even more contact in 2018 than his rookie year (His hits per nine innings increased from 8.6 to 9.4).  The bottom line here?  Senzatela is not someone we can trust to make a postseason start.

Tyler Anderson’s been just as rough.  The issues with home runs that came up last season didn’t leave; he’s giving up 1.5 HRs per nine, and that doesn’t matchup well with the Brewers who know how to hit them long.  Once again, we have another Rockies starter who doesn’t bode well for the postseason.

Things get better later in the series for Colorado though.  Before being inexplicably pulled against the Cubs, Kyle Freeland was dominating.  He was throwing fastballs all night and got away with it by overpowering with velocity.  It was awesome to watch.

I’d trust Freeland.  He’s young, sure, but the talent is there.  Plus, the stakes were higher in the Wild Card Game than they will be come Game 3 (assuming the Rockies aren’t down 2-0.  They shouldn’t be).

Same with German Marquez.  Marquez has easily been the Rockies 2nd best starter this season, with a 124 ERA+ and 230 strikeouts in 196 innings.  He has an electric arm and throws strikes.  At 23, his experience can also be called into question.  But Marquez’s talent overrules his flaws,  It alone is huge, given that the Rockies need all they can get to fall back on considering this bullpen.

I’m split 50-50 when it comes to guys I trust in it.  Adam Ottavino, the possessor of the best slider in the game (Sorry Chris Sale!) is the only certainty.  Falling slightly behind him is Chris Rusin, Wade Davis and Seunghwan Oh.  Then the fall really occurs: Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, Scott Oberg and Harrison Musgrave round this pen of mediocrity out.

The Rusin-Davis-Oh tier is the tough evaluation.  Rusin’s been horrible but has good stuff.  Davis was once one of the league’s best closers but has dealt with control issues lately, and Oh likes giving up home runs in big situations.  As you’ll see with the Brewers below, there’s something to like with everyone here.  There’s also something to hate.

The Brewers pitchers are a bit more complicated.  Milwaukee’s starters aren’t the most trustworthy group, which means they could result to bullpenning.  But even that has its downfalls; Josh Hader, Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress are the only impactful relievers Milwaukee has.  Everyone else is kind of an innings eater.  That type of bullpen talent isn’t gonna get you too far.  You need stars, not guys who are just fine.

There’s three starters I’d feel okay about for the Brewers this postseason: Wade Miley, Gio Gonzalez and Jhoulys Chacin.  Miley’s an incredible surprise on this list.  At 31-years-old (which feels like 35), he’s still cranking.  With an impressive 2.57 ERA and almost no home runs given up, Miley gets the job done.  He’s probably a little susceptible to the Rockies’ groundball tendencies; that’s the way Miley likes to get outs, and it’s the way the Rockies like to score runs, but some of those grounders aren’t gonna get through.  Other pitchers in the Brewers rotation will allow those hits to come off of much harder contact.

Jhoulys Chacin has been the Brewers’ ace this season.  His two-seam fastball is nasty, with ridiculous tail that made the Cubs look silly on Monday.  His numbers aren’t insane, but these are the Brewers starters we’re talking about; the numbers aren’t gonna be pretty even from their best.

Chacin giving the Brewers outings like he did Monday would be a huge boost this postseason.  To go 5.2 good innings takes a huge stress off the bullpen, which is going to be maximized with the shape of the other starters.  Chacin is currently lined up to start Game 2, which would be on very minimal rest.  The plan seems to be to leave him in for a limited amount of time, then go to the bullpen.  It’s an odd strategy.  The Brewers have three pitchers they can rely on for lengthy starts.  Why waste one for 2-3 innings early in a series?  If the Brewers want to bullpen, they can save it for Games 3, 4 and 5.  That way, the pen isn’t exhausted for the most critical games of the series.

Maybe it doesn’t matter at all.  We may realize early in this series that the Brewers are screwed no matter what pitchers they throw out there, starters or relievers.  The Rockies offense is unrelenting; they have multiple guys who you should be scared of in a postseason at-bat (Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, Trevor Story, I guess now Tony Wolters and definitely not Ian Desmond).  The Brewers pitching staff faces a tough test.  They should rely on six guys, and with their current game-plan are only gonna rely on 3-4 (Hader, Jeffress, Knebel, Chacin).  Either the lack of talent will show or the reliables are gonna get tired.

This series could be a crapshoot.  You can’t have confidence in either of these pitching staffs.  A massive lack of talent and trust exists on both sides.  When it comes to the good side of these staffs, the Brewers probably have more talent (Chacin, Hader, Jeffress, Knebel vs. Marquez, Freeland, Ottavino).  But wear can tear down either of those staffs and ruin them.

So what’s it come down to then?  Clutch hits and bench guys.  The Brewers are gonna have one of Jonathan Schoop or Orlando Arcia, Curtis Granderson, Hernan Perez and Domingo Santana on their bench at all times.  There’s not a lot of high OPS guys there, but given the clutch hitting we’ve already seen this postseason, anything is possible.

The Rockies bench consists of one of David Dahl or Gerrado Para, now-hitter Tony Wolters, Ryan McMahon, and Matt Holiday.  Now there’s some OPS for you.  Milwaukee has more utility men, but I’d put my trust in the Rockies to come up with a clutch hit in a big situation.  The Brewers might have the NL MVP Christian Yelich, which matters significantly in a series so evenly matched, but the Rockies can keep their pitchers more well-rested and have guys who can rise to the occasion when it matters most.

Prediction: Rockies in 5

2018 AL Wild Card Game Preview

I know I know, you haven’t seen one baseball column from me all season since my preview in the Spring.  Thanks to two week-plus vacations and a Summer spent preparing for college, I just never got around to publishing one (There’s a column that was supposed to go up around the All-Star Break in my drafts that’s pretty hysterical to read now).

As my WordPress drafts prove, the lack of columns doesn’t mean I haven’t paid attention to baseball.  I’ve learned more than ever about the game this season, thanks to a state championship run put on by the team I scouted for , and thanks to some new friends in college.

If you compare the two leagues, these playoffs could not be more opposite.  While the NL is even more wide open thanks to the Cubs’ loss, the AL is loaded with four powerhouse teams: Boston, Houston, Cleveland and these Yankees.  Those four have been relevant and decently consistent all season; all have gotten serious World Series consideration at some point.  And then there’s the A’s, who had the most classic A’s season possible and have made the AL even more ridiculous than it was in July.  The AL playoffs are going to be filled with titanic matchups no matter who the teams are.  That starts tonight, even in the Wild Card Game.

Whoever wins this game might be screwed though, and have their amazing season wasted, as they have to face the buzz-saw that is the 2018 Boston Red Sox, who won an obscene amount of games.

When the playoffs come around, we always talk about how important pitching is.  It makes or breaks you in the postseason.  It can’t be average, and there’s no such thing as innings eaters, in the rotation or the bullpen.

With that heavy reliance on pitching comes trust, health and longevity.  Which pitchers can we trust in a high leverage situation?  Which pitchers can we trust to start Game 1 of a Championship Series?  Who’s not gonna meltdown?  Which bullpen is out of gas?

For these teams, that’s everything.  The Yankees and Athletics have been two of the heaviest reliers on their bullpen this season.  Oakland ranks 3rd last in the league in innings pitched by starters; the Yankees are actually above the league average, thanks to a rotation that’s held together decently for not being the most talented in the playoff field (I see you CC!).  New York will crank up that usage though, as their starters are not the most trustworthy group around (Are we sure CC starting a playoff game is a good idea?).

Tonight’s game will see the bullpens used to an extreme we haven’t seen before.   The Yankees are tabbing their ace Luis Severino as their starter for tonight.  Severino’s been excellent by Yankees standards, with a 3.39 ERA and a 129 ERA+.  Those numbers don’t pop, but they’re by far the best in the Yankee rotation.  I liked the prospectus of J.A. Happ starting this game due to his hot streak, but in the postseason, if luck rules first, then talent rules second.  Severino’s got more of the latter.  Severino has quite a bit of postseason experience for a 24 year old, but it hasn’t all gone his way.  He has a 5.63 postseason ERA, most of which comes from the brutal start to last year’s AL Wild Card Game against the Twins.  Severino got better throughout the playoffs last year, but no outing was fantastic.  It’s still troubling though; we have strong evidence of Severino being meltdown prone (As evident by last year).  In a September 5th outing against these A’s, Severino gave up four runs in the bottom of the 1st inning.  He lost control, as two wild pitches scored two of the runs.  There was also an outing earlier this year against the Royals, where Severino gave up another four runs in an inning.

The bottom line is that the Yankees are starting a young pitcher in a must win game who hasn’t exactly been great in the postseason and is prone to meltdown innings.

Yikes!

Besides experience and the prevention of trouble innings, the biggest trait a pitcher has to have in these playoffs is a lack of fly balls and home runs given up.  Severino’s been good at limiting homers; he possesses the lowest percentage of home runs-to-fly balls on his team.  That’s good news, considering the A’s hit the 3rd most home runs in the league this season.

Against any other team, the A’s home run achievement would be a much bigger deal.  But these Yankees not only hit the most home runs in the MLB this season, they hit the most ever, with 267.  Nice try Oakland.

Whatever level of aggressiveness the Yankees have with their bullpen, the A’s will probably double it.  Not because they have to, but because they’re the A’s and they like to get funky.  No one has any oppositions to that.

The A’s are going with Liam Hendricks right out of their bullpen to start tonight.  Oakland’s bullpen collectively finished the season ranked 6th in WAR, and has the 4th highest WAR total out of playoff teams.

The numbers for each team cancel out when it comes to the bullpens.  All the top relievers have ridiculous numbers, though none top A’s closer Blake Treinen’s.  With a 0.89 ERA (Yes you read that right) and a 524 ERA+ (Yes you also read that right), Treinen has been absolutely dominant.  He’s given up seven runs in 67 outings, and his FIP sits at an incredibly low 1.85.  A lot of these massive numbers are attributed to the small amount of innings he’s pitched, but it doesn’t discount his dominance.

If the numbers cancel out, then we have to go with our guts and act as if we are fans of both of these teams.

Yankees fans will tell you they don’t trust this team at all in any area.  Sure they pulled out 101 wins, but things like the Sonny Gray fiasco, Gary Sanchez’s overall performance and Greg Bird forgetting how to hit (And Greg Bird not starting tonight) will trigger a Yankees fan like nothing else.  If you look at the Game Results feature on the Yankees’ Baseball Reference page, the red streaks pop up about half the time lately.

But the bullpen has been the one stability lately.  Yankees fans should trust Chad Green, David Robertson, Zach Britton and probably Dellin Betances, although my confidence in him fluctuates; he has some meltdown potential.

Aroldis Chapman is the (no pun intended) wild-card here.  He’s been excellent when healthy (2.49 ERA, 178 ERA+, 16.8 strikeouts per nine (!!!)), but has been injured and is just returning.  A not totally healthy, playoff Chapman is kinda a scary thought, especially if this game is close at the end.  High leverage Chapman is a roller coaster.  Bottom line for the Yankees is:  Don’t allow that situation to arise, whether that falls on Aaron Boone or the offense’s shoulders.

If we’re evaluating based off of trust, then the Yankees bullpen has the edge.  It’s the talent and the quality that the Yankees have that overmatches the A’s.  Chad Green’s just better than say, Lou Trivino.  At the same time, Jeurys Familia has been there before, and though Treinen only has one career postseason outing, I’m not betting against that guy this season.

When the matchups are this close, you kinda have to go with what feels right.  I trust the Yankees bullpen a little more than I do the A’s tonight, but big picture wise I trust Oakland.  The A’s have that feel-good run going for them right now; they have all the momentum in the world and a lot of bandwagon fans on their side.  They have this 2014-2015 Royals mantra to them; a team that comes out of nowhere in the 2nd half and makes a huge run in the postseason.  You can see the A’s going deeper than the Yankees this postseason, just because of the momentum.  Every year, a 90-95 win team (or in the case of this year, a 95-110 win team) falls in the ALDS/NLDS; a team that we think will go to the Championship Series or even the World Series.  Why can’t the A’s knock off the Red Sox next round?  This is playoff baseball.  Sure, Yankees-Red Sox would be great, but I can tell you right now that has all the makings of a Boston sweep.  The A’s are pesky; they’re gonna give every team a battle.  That trait will come through tonight, and I expect it to come through this postseason.

Prediction: A’s-4  Yankees-2

NFL Week 2 Recap

Here are some general observations, questions and notes from Week 2.

The Chiefs might be unstoppable

The Patrick Mahomes thing is real and I could not have been more wrong.

Mahomes was ridiculous on Sunday.  He only completed 23 passes, but six of them were for touchdowns.  The Chiefs scored 42 points on Sunday and Mahomes’ passing touchdowns were responsible for all six of them.

Pittsburgh’s defense had no chance.  Kansas City spread the ball around to seven different receivers; Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins each had 100 yards, and Tyreek Hill finished not far behind with 90.

Most of the throws were the result of open men, rather than ridiculous throws by Mahomes.  Except this one.

That ball is a MISSLE.  Look the velocity of that thing in the air.  It zips.

And it was in a perfect location too.  Watch the replay and see where Conley’s hand are.  Right at the crown of the helmet.  Just perfect.

Oh, and maybe except this one as well…

This ball was another laser.  Travis Kelce’s route was a go-route, which means he’s not supposed to turn around until he’s in or close to the end zone.

Watch the video again and imagine you’re Kelce on this route.  Notice how the ball is right there as soon as Kelce turns his head around?  That’s incredible work by Mahomes; getting the ball to his receiver right as his head turns around.  That ball is coming at a million miles per hour.  You’re not looking at it and then boom, it’s right in front of your face.  Catching Mahomes takes just as much as talent making the throw.

The Chiefs might have the best offense in the league.  Their cache of weapons who are explosive is second to none.  And now they have a quarterback who, as a rookie, might already be pushing the top ten.  Yikes.  You’re gonna have to outscore this team to win.  With the way we’ve seen some QBs start to decline this season, there seems to be a lack of teams who are capable of doing that.

Should we feel bad for the Browns?

A line I wrote in the AFC Preview stands tall after these past two weeks…

I mean, this is the Browns we’re talking about.  One of the biggest things this team has going against it is that right there: That they’re the Browns.

Two weeks into the season and the Browns have been through an excruciating tie and a devastating loss.  And it’s not like they’ve played horrific football!

Sunday was the latest example of “You gotta me kidding me(s)” from the Browns.  They played the Saints close all game.  It wasn’t exactly a defensive showdown; it was more of a display of bad offense rather than good D.  But Cleveland’s front made things difficult for the Saints.  Alvin Kamara only ran for 46 yards, and no one else ran for more than 18.  It didn’t affect him too much, but Drew Brees was sacked three times Sunday, thanks to immense pressure by Myles Garrett (His quickness off the snap is unbelievable).

The Browns front didn’t get any help though.  Tyrod Taylor, though the stats don’t show it, struggled again.  He was 22/30 for 246 yards with a touchdown and interception, but there was a large amount of dinking and dunking by the Cleveland offense.  Especially evident on his brutal interception, there’s just certain throws that Taylor can’t make, and the Browns need him to.  Baker Mayfield is right there if they want him.

Cleveland hung in despite their struggles.  New Orleans’ slow start cancelled it out, and with just six minutes left Cleveland was up 12-10.  The Saints got the ball and drove down the field to score, thanks to a sick catch by Michael Thomas (There was no play on that ball.  The Browns could do nothing.).

That put New Orleans up 18-12 with 2:40 left.  The Browns had a chance, and it was gonna be up to Tyrod Taylor to come through.

He did.

Cleveland ran the two minute drill nicely.  They got short yet chunk plays to get them yards and save time.  A brutal sack on a terrible decision by Taylor almost cost them the game; in a situation where time was critical, he held onto the ball too long and took a massive 10 yard loss.

He made up for it later.

On 4th and 5 after failing to make up all the yards lost on the sack, Tyrod stepped up.  He threw a heave downfield in a play that is criticized to death if it doesn’t work out.  Antonio Callaway caught it and the Browns were an extra point away from going up one.

Somehow, after all the craziness this game had been through, the real madness was just getting started.

Zane Gonzales missed the extra point.  And that wasn’t even the most Browns thing that happened in this game.

The Saints got the ball and for the first time all game, looked like the Saints.  Drew Brees turned into the scary Drew Brees he is in late-game situations.  Ted Ginn helped out with that, as he was left wide open and took a short pass 42 yards to get the Saints in field goal position.

That left things up to Will Lutz, who incredibly made the kick (I say incredibly considering 1) How trash the kicking was in this game and 2) How trash the kicking had been and was about to be throughout the weekend; it somehow only got worse throughout the day).

Once again the Browns had a chance, and they actually made a little something of it!  They got two big plays downfield before running out of time, which led to them sending out Gonzalez again for a 52 yard field goal.

What do you know, he missed.  As bad as it was, there were a couple things the Browns could have done for him.  First of all, 52 yards is no gimme.  That’s a long field goal for any kicker, let alone a struggling one.  Secondly, the Browns oddly decided to send Gonzales out to kick on 1st and 10 with eight seconds left.  Eight seconds!  That would be plenty of time to run a quick, 8-10 yard out route to make it a shorter kick.  Considering Gonzales shanked it so bad, it may not have mattered, but it’s not like they didn’t have time, and it’s not like it was 4th down.  They had the opportunity.

So should this trigger some sympathy for Cleveland?  Possibly.  The main case for feeling sorry revolves around the fact that they’re the Browns, and only something like this could happen to the Browns.  Only the Browns could employ that bad of a kicker and have that bad of luck.  As we’ve established, the Browns are going to do Browns things.  Sunday was yet another time they did that.

But at the same time, only the Browns would have the stupidity to run out Gonzalez so quickly, and only the Browns would not have the balls to spice things up with Baker Mayfield, who even though was my QB3 in the draft, probably has a higher ceiling than Tyrod Taylor at the helm of this offense; I’ll admit defeat on that one as well.

The answer to the Browns sympathy question isn’t solved yet.  It’s gonna take a little bit more time, but given the way they’ve battled and stayed in games, hopefully it shouldn’t take too much longer.

What in the world is going on in Tampa Bay?

We have and are about to talk about the top three quarterbacks in the league so far this year.  Here they are…

  • Patrick Mahomes
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick
  • Aaron Rodgers

My reaction(s) to this list…

  • Alright, fine, he’s good
  • WHAT?!
  • What else did you expect?

Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buccaneers did it again Sunday.  They torched one of the league’s best defenses again, beating Philadelphia 27-21 behind Fitzpatrick’s 402 yards and four touchdowns.  OJ Howard and DeSean Jackson each had a 75 yard touchdown; Jackson’s on the first play of the game and Howard’s in the late 2nd quarter, on a short pass that Howard took the distance, shredding tackles along the way (He has a little bit of Gronk in him.  It was evident at Alabama too.  His size and strength makes him impossible to tackle, even though he’s not really that fast).

I just don’t have any answers anymore.  The Bucs turned Fitzpatrick and their big, tall and strong wide receivers loose and this is what we got.  Who would have thought?

Assuming we get it, the regression that comes from this will be drastic.  I don’t know if it will involve a classic four interception game, or just some plain bad play.  Or maybe the regression involves the Bucs egregiously starting Jameis once he’s eligible, then quickly realizing their mistake, forcing Fitzpatrick back in after two weeks and killing the hot streak.

What if we don’t get regression though?  What if the Bucs, who a lot of people had as the worst team in the league this season, turn into the miraculous “How TF did that team win 10 games?” team and are in the playoffs?  What if this season teaches us that the only thing better than the RPO is just slinging it 25-40 yards down the field every time and hoping for the best?  The Air Raid/”sling it” mentality is currently employed by the two best offenses in the league through Week 2.  If the RPO is last year’s thing, then is slinging it this year’s?

I cannot believe the words I just typed.  I have no answers.  Perhaps Week 2 is just as prime for overreactions as Week 1 is.

Can the Vikings and Packers play every week?

In my NFC preview, I had the Packers and Vikings pretty much neck-and-neck, but for different reasons.

The Vikings were gonna be ridiculous because they had the “loaded” trait, something that only about three teams in the NFL can hold the distinction of.  They had the best defense in the league, amazing skill position players and an above average quarterback.

The Packers were gonna be ridiculous because they had Aaron Freaking Rodgers, who lived up to that name in Week 1, and Jimmy Graham, who was one of the most underrated signings of the offseason.  They had good enough weapons to make Rodgers earn that name, and some talent on the defense.  Basically, mostly Rodgers.

This game was meant to be a showdown and it was.  You can’t get more neck-and-neck than this.

The things that made each team ridiculous came through in this game.  The Vikings defense swallowed any attempt the Packers made to develop whatever running game they had, while Aaron Rodgers made more ridiculous throws on what looked like 1.5 legs.  Only Rodgers (and Nick Foles.  Wait what?) can penetrate this Vikings defense.

The Vikings skill position players came through.  Adam Thelien and Stefon Diggs had 131 and 128 yards while respectively Kyle Rudolph had 72 more.  Kirk Cousins threw a couple beautiful balls, including these to tie the game.

The touchdown was not only clutch, but was one of the best throws I’ve ever seen Cousins make.  That ball is in such an incredibly tight window; so tight that we’d probably say “Why would he dare throw that?” if it was incomplete or intercepted.  Kentall Price came flying in at the last second on that play; he was in perfect position to pick that ball off.  But Cousins had the timing just right.  And that was only one of the two most impressive throws of the game.

https://giphy.com/embed/6wo1XQGXJrWRxlRh5f

Everything about this two point conversion is beautiful.  Stefon Diggs might be the only receiver who makes a fade route a good idea.  The ball from Cousins is perfect; part of what makes fade routes a horrible idea is the fact that most QBs can’t throw the ball.  Cousins put it in the perfect spot, and Diggs did an excellent job extending his arms and using his hands to make the catch.

But this Cousins parade probably shouldn’t have happened.  The worst call of the weekend (By the way, there hasn’t been an insane amount of bad calls this season so far.  I’ll take missed kicks over that!) was the roughing the passer on Clay Matthews on the first play of this drive.

Cousins got away with a lot here.  Lets first disregard the penalty.  Hit or not, this was a terrible decision and a horrible throw.  His receiver Stacey Coley (who’s been cut now) is behind rookie Jaire Alexander the whole route; the only way Cousins can save him is by throwing the ball towards the middle of the field, so that Coley could possibly undercut Alexander and be open.  But Cousins throws this ball towards the sidelines, which gives Alexander even more of a chance to catch it.

When Kirk Cousins signed, I got it.  He was gonna be better than Case Keenum no matter what, and even though the money was absurd, it made sense.

But this was the type of stuff I was concerned about.  I wrote before the season and in the Spring that we had never seen Cousins step up to the moment before; that Cousins always seemed to commit brutal turnovers when it mattered the most.  For a second, it looked he had done it again.  And for me, that was to no surprise.

But he got away with it, thanks to the egregious call by the referees on Clay Matthews.

Yikes.  Cousins has barely let go of the ball when Matthews hits him.  It’s not like there was a two second gap between Cousins letting go of the ball and Matthews making contact.  It was whatever the word is for “one step below simultaneous.”

The call gave Minnesota the ability to go down the field and score the touchdown and two point conversion we saw above.  Those two passes were pretty nice makeups for the interception.

But this game was far from over.  The Packers got the ball with 31 seconds left and made as much as they could of it.  Aaron Rodgers went into Aaron Freaking Rodgers mode, and got the Packers in range for a 52 yard field goal.  It was long, sure.  But this is Mason Crosby we’re talking about.  He should be able to make this.

He didn’t, but that was just the start of the kicking fiasco.

Minnesota got the ball to start overtime, and as they did all game, carved up Green Bay’s still underwhelming defense.  A drop by Laquon Treadwell, who is brutal when he’s bad and is enjoyful when he’s good, on 3rd down led Minnesota to have to kick.  Daniel Carlson had already missed one kick on the day, and was about to miss his 2nd.  On any other day, Carlson’s miss would have been the epitome of the kicking catastrophe that occurred that day.  But oh boy, was there more to come.

The Vikings defense stood tall when the Packers got the ball, sacking Aaron Rodgers on 3rd down and forcing Green Bay to punt.  Once OT hit, offense past the 50 yard line died.

Minnesota had one more chance.  I was surprised they took their time on their last drive, given that the confidence in Carlson was low.  They got some big plays, but I would have been ultra-agressive, doing all I could to avoid having the game come down to him.  That’s exactly what happened, and the worst possible result came out of it.

For both teams, there’s some luck and some resentment in this game.  Things that happened could and couldn’t be controlled.  Controlled things include Minnesota cutting Carlson, which was the easiest decision Mike Zimmer has ever made (as evident here), and the Packers improving their defense, which might be a season-long effort at this point.

Quick hits:

  • The Ravens are bad.  It was shocking to see Andy Dalton and company tear their defense apart.
  • The Bengals offense is sneaky-dynamic!  Even more so than I gave them credit for in the season preview.
  • The Cardinals are also bad.  START ROSEN!
  • The Panthers lack of weapons and it cost them big time against Atlanta Sunday.  There just has to be more creativity from their offense if they’re going to have a chance.
  • The defensive showing was even worse, mostly because it was a surprise that they would play that poorly.  They’re a little banged up, but this team has no chance of doing anything if the defense keeps preforming like it did this past week.
  • The Bills scored 20 points and only lost by 11.  Congratulations!
  • Josh Allen missed guys he threw to the most and hit on guys he threw to the least.
  • About a third of the guys he threw to in that game I have never heard of.
  • Pretty embarrassing loss for the Texans.  If Blaine Gabbert is winning a game he is the starting quarterback in, it’s not great.
  • I have no idea what DeShaun Watson was doing at the end of that game.  That was something Russell Westbrook would do at the end of the shot clock.  I just don’t think he knew the situation.
  • If we’ve learned anything, it’s that we need to treat him like a rookie still.  Maybe the Texans are a year away.
  • Houston’s defense was fine; the punt return unit got tricked on a fake punt, and that play was the difference in the score of this one.
  • The offense has to improve; that’s the bottom line.
  • Was I supposed to watch Dolphins-Jets?
  • I did actually watch a little.  Sam Darnold’s a rookie on a bad team, and we can’t forget that.
  • How are the Dolphins 2-0?  Are they really gonna be 3-0 after next week? (home vs. Raiders)
  • Once again, it’s really nice to have Andrew Luck back.  What a delight.
  • The Redskins looked like the team we thought they’d be Sunday.  Alex Smith and the offense went nowhere, and Luck dominated a very average defense.
  • The Lions might be taking on the role of the Chargers this season; the constantly underachieving team that has talent but can’t go anywhere.
  • There’s also a chance that they’re just plain bad.
  • They just make a ton of mistakes and don’t have anything or anyone to make up for them.
  • What a horrible loss for Oakland.  They were the better team against Denver, as Derek Carr made some impressive throws and Case Keenum did the exact opposite.
  • Similar to Watson in the Texans-Titans game, I have no idea what Amari Cooper was doing at the end of the Oakland-Denver game.  Just didn’t know the situation.
  • Phillip Lindsay is awesome, you guys.
  • The Jaguars have found the key to beating the Patriots:  Attack their defense where it hurts and steal the Pats’ formula of taking away their No.1 option.  That option was Rob Gronkowski, who had two catches for 15 yards Sunday.
  • Jacksonville was flawless against the run, something that hurt them in the AFC Championship Game last year.
  • I didn’t buy the case that the Pats defense was better than last year’s, and this game is a perfect example of that.  Blake Bortles now becomes the 2nd below-average quarterback to completely torch this defense.
  • Against good defenses, the Pats might be screwed this season.  They don’t have their own D to fall back on if the offense can’t get going.
  • Speaking of offenses not getting going, the Giants on Sunday night were a gigantic fart.
  • That’s really all there was to it.  The Giants defense couldn’t stop Ezekiel Elliot and gave up too many big plays, and the offense is just completely nonfunctional.
  • The Giants defense was probably a little overrated before the season…
  • Last night was another example of offenses laying a gigantic fart.  Granted, Chicago’s D is much better than Dallas’s, but the Seahawks could not get anything going until it was too late.
  • Do you think the Kahlil Mack trade is going to work out for Chicago?
  • I was really impressed with their offense again.  Trubisky’s raw in a couple areas (Decision-making, deep balls), but he gets the job done for now.
  • The Bears just have so many weapons.  Trey Burton and Tarik Cohen on the field together is a hassle to deal with.