The 2020 Offseason Quarterback Roulette Wheel

In a time of desperate need for sports, entertainment and pure happiness, the NFL offseason delivered this past week.  It turned out to be a smart move by the league office not to delay the start of the league’s new year.  Free agency’s beginning owned an otherwise completely dead and depressing time for sports, an industry that has practically been shut down completely thanks to the outbreak of the Coronavirus.  It brought massive joy to NFL fans, who saw stunning trades like DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona (Seriously, thanks Bill O’Brien!), Stefon Diggs to Buffalo and DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis.

For now, though, we’re going to focus on the quarterback market, which was projected to be a wild one and turned out to be.  It saw interesting decisions being made all over the NFL, and still has some to be made.

We’re going to look at every team that either changed quarterbacks, was rumored to be changing quarterbacks or should change quarterbacks and evaluate the decision they made, the other options they should have considered, or decide what decision they should still make depending on who’s at the helm.

Carolina

The guy: Teddy Bridgewater, three years, $63 million

Other best fits:

  • Cam Newton
  • Will Grier 

There were extremely mixed signals around the Panthers when it came to Cam Newton’s spot on next year’s Panthers roster. The fact that there hadn’t been a lot of noise or rumors about where the signal caller may end up made it seem like he was staying, but then there were comments from new owner David Tepper that make that seem unlikely.

Tuesday, we got our answer as to what the Panthers plans were.

The only question with Newton was health. He’s a well-above-average quarterback when he’s fully healthy. Early in the 2019-20 season, his injuries made him below average. It’s hard to believe that those brutal throws were independent of his injury.

Carolina’s problem had always been surrounding him with enough offensive talent. That task would have been harder with Greg Olson gone, though Christian McCaffrey would have helped.

Regardless of who the quarterback was, the Panthers needed more weapons offensively.  For Newton, for a rookie, or for Teddy Bridgewater.

Bridgewater was the second most attractive option on the free agent market for any team with a non-rebuilding roster.  The Panthers don’t have a roster that’s rebuilding. They have talent on the defensive end, though releasing Eric Reid and signing Tre Boston back doesn’t make a ton of sense.  Aside from what was a leaky run stopping group last year, this defense is still immensely talented – talented enough to carry an average offense.

The Panthers with a healthy Newton would have been better than average offensively.  With Bridgewater, they’re probably right around there, and now have to solve the same deliemna they’ve been trying to solve with Newton for years now: how do they make it into a top five-to-ten group?

It’s not that Bridgewater isn’t good – he should have been the No. 1 option for the Chargers or Patriots.  It’s just that Newton feels like a better option for the Panthers than Bridgewater.  If he’s healthy, the ceiling is higher, and there’s less work to do with the rest of the team.  It’s understandable that Carolina is over the health concerns, but who’s to say they can be decently competitive within the three window that Bridgewater is currently there for?

Carolina also had other options besides signing a high-priced free agent.

Kyle Allen was really good until he wasn’t last year.  He looked like someone who the Panthers could turn to as a young franchise quarterback until the tail end of the season, where the lows were so low that it was clear that would never be the case.

Will Grier was horrific, but he got spurned in pretty quick to a situation that he probably never expected. He went from third-string to first-string over the course of a single season as a rookie, and played for a team that at that point had no hope.

Harping on Grier isn’t necessary, but if the Panthers find him as valuable as this report indicates, then some of it may actually be needed. Perhaps that’s a Cardinals fan who loves Kyler Murray reacting to it, but in no world was that a reasonable sentiment coming into the 2019 NFL Draft.  Plus, if the Panthers were that high on Grier, why did they all of the sudden sign Bridgewater?

The best option was Newton, and they didn’t even give him a chance.  In Bridgewater, Carolina slightly downgrades, and puts themselves backwards possibly a bit more than they imagined.

Cincinnati

Best fits:

  • Joe Burrow

Not going to go too long here, especially since noise about Burrow possibly pulling an Eli Manning and forcing his way to another team was effectively shot down by Burrow himself at the combine.  A full scouting report will come the week of the draft, but there’s no other option Cincinnati should consider here.  They’re fully in a rebuild, and Burrow is one of the better QB prospects of the century thus far – he is fresh off perhaps the best season ever by a college football quarterback.  It’ll be more interesting to see, however, where the guy Burrow is replacing ends up.

Chicago

The guy(s): Mitchell Trubisky, Nick Foles (For a fourth round pick)

Other best fits:

  • Andy Dalton
  • Derek Carr
  • Teddy Bridgewater
  • Cam Newton

The Bears were in the exact same situation as the Titans were coming into last season: they had a young quarterback who hadn’t lived up to the expectation they had set for him, and had a roster that was moderately being wasted.  It was time to make a decision on whether the current QB1 was going to be the guy.

The Bears still believe that Mitchell Trubisky is their guy. Poor them. Anyways, that meant that they couldn’t really commit to someone else. They couldn’t have drafted a quarterback to “put pressure” on Trubisky. It’s a waste of capital and looks bad. They also couldn’t have signed Ryan Tannehill, who was going to be looking for a starting gig and an obscene amount of money, which Tennessee handed to him.  After the season he had just put up, Tannehill wasn’t being brought into fulfill the same role he did last year with the Titans.

Derek Carr could have been another option.  Oakland likely won’t now, but if they decided to move on,  other teams and Carr himself wouldn’t view him as a backup QB.  He may not be fantastic, but he’s a competent starter. He would have been overqualified for the Bears.  The same goes for Cam Newton.

That left Andy Dalton and Nick Foles for the Bears, two quarterbacks who are both respectably fine, but more importantly lost their jobs and were looking for any role to help repair their value.  

Dalton made the most sense.  How?  He almost certainly would have been cheaper on the trade market than Foles, and costs just $17.7 million next season before hitting free agency a year from now, per spotrac.com.  

Instead, the Bears traded a fourth-round pick (It seems ridiculous to think Cincinnati would charge more for that than Dalton, who they want to dump) for Nick Foles, who has a mammoth, three year, $66 million contract left on his docket, and the Bears didn’t get the Jaguars to pay for more than $12.5 million of it.

Why spend that much in draft capital and cap space for someone who needs a lot more help than Dalton?  We’ve seen Foles succeed with weapons around him – supreme weapons.  The Bears have a good defense – that part is there.  But there’s also questions about Matt Nagy as a coach even without his quarterback being Trubisky.  Foles needs as much help as he can get to succeed.  Dalton doesn’t need as much.  The “pressure” being put on Trubisky isn’t really that threatening with Foles, and the Bears spent a ton on it in order to be worse off.

Foles does have the chance to be successful if or when he takes over for the Bears.  There’s talent on both sides.  But it’s going to take improvement for both coach and player this time.

Dallas

The guy: Dak Prescott, franchise tag 

Other best fits:

  • Teddy Bridgewater
  • Matthew Stafford
  • Derek Carr

Even though they just fired their head coach, the Cowboys are looking to win now.  That is always the Jerry Jones mentality.

And to be honest, they aren’t too far away.  There’s a really good case that Jason Garrett was the main cog holding this team back.

Mike McCarthy may not be a huge upgrade, but it’s worth giving them the benefit of the doubt for at least a season.

Bringing back Dak Prescott made the most sense because of that. They are running the whole thing back with McCarthy and then seeing what the problem is, if there is one at all.

There’s a chance the problem is Prescott, but we don’t know that for sure yet.  Franchise tagging him made the most sense. A long-term, high-money deal locks the Cowboys in, and make Prescott potentially untradeable if things don’t work out. That is not where you want to be.

The tag allows the Cowboys this season to evaluate the true issue. If Prescott plays well, ink him next offseason.  If he doesn’t, then move on.

It seems still extremely unlikely that Prescott would be on another team come Week 1 of the 2020-21 season. QB spots around the league are filling up, and Dallas seems keen on at least having the former Heisman Trophy contender play under a tag this season, if not a long-term deal.  At this point, trading Prescott due to a failed agreement before the extension deadline wouldn’t make sense.  Who takes over for Dallas that helps them compete next year?  Where does Prescott go?  Newton or Stafford (Extremely unlikely) would probably be the answer for the Cowboys.

For now, it seems that we’re heading for the same situation next offseason between Dallas and Prescott.  Buckle up.

Detroit

Best fits:

  • Matthew Stafford
  • Tua Tagovailoa

This is a 100 percent “should do” rather than “will do” or “will happen.”

The Lions should be considering this possibility. They’ve gone practically nowhere with Matthew Stafford at the helm over the course of 11 seasons, and whether that’s his fault or not, he’s probably not the Hall of Fame quarterback some stack him up to be even with his massive numbers.

It’s time for a reboot, and Detroit has the opportunity here to do it in a big way.  While moving on from the longtime franchise QB to reach in the draft for an injury-prone prospect would be a risky proposition, the reward and ceiling would be so much higher.

But Detroit doesn’t operate in the risk business.  They’re in the safe and steady business – perfectly indicated by their 0-3 playoff record the past 11 years and their two seasons above ten wins. Despite some noise that they might be considering Tagovailoa at No.3 overall, it’s too bold of a proposition. Ownership would never sign off, and with GM Bob Quinn’s job teetering, this isn’t the type of move he’d make to save it.

The Lions won’t move on from Stafford for a quarterback they’d sign or trade for. That would make little sense, unless it’d be another young guy like Josh Rosen or Dwayne Haskins Jr. You’re not moving on from Stafford for anyone slightly better or worse.  It has to be a franchise reset for them to move on.  They’re in a position to do that, but with their openness to move the No. 3 overall pick, the talented pool of prospects available at that spot and the Lions historical unwillingness to make big-time, Tagovailoa to Detroit seems unlikely.

Indianpolis 

The guy: Philip Rivers, one year, $25 million

Other best fits:

  • Jacoby Brissett
  • Tom Brady
  • Nick Foles

Jacoby Brissett played well last season.  It was unreasonable to expect him to play any better.  The team dealt with injuries – including Brissett’s own – along with some regression after the hot start, which affected him drastically.

It was that slide that likely had the Colts exploring other options

But was the right pivot, if a pivot was needed at all, Phillip Rivers at $25 million for just a single season?  Brissett more than beat expectations for most of last year.  The Colts looked like a team that could legitimately win a playoff game, and perhaps advance further.  Brissett isn’t supremely talented, but the Colts had demonstrated that they can build a proper foundation around that type of guy – GM Chris Ballard hasn’t made a bad move since taking over.

Until now.

Brissett was a different quarterback once T.Y. Hilton got hurt in Week 7.  Aside from Hilton, the Colts do lack receiving talent, but Parris Campbell is on the up, and they have deadly duo in the backfield with Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines.  If they can add a receiver in the first two rounds of this draft – which is loaded at that position – then something is cooking.  

Because of these factors, the Colts should have taken next season to give Brissett another chance.  He would have had a healthy Hilton, perhaps another weapon and a full offseason to prepare for the starting quarterback role, as opposed to a couple weeks.

Instead, Indy is rolling with Rivers, who legitimately cost the Chargers games last year and truly feels washed.  Sure, there’s the previous connection to Colts head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, both of whom were Chargers assistants during Rivers’ time there.  But even with that familiarity and Reich’s QB stoutness, it just doesn’t make much sense.  Rivers is only going to play for a couple more years maximum, where as others options would have lasted longer and had higher ceilings.  Brissett never really got a fair shot last year, and he’s young enough to still have untapped potential.  Also: Rivers just isn’t very good anymore.

Even someone like Tom Brady would have been a better option. It’s not unreasonable to think that the six-time Super Bowl champion is better right now that Rivers.  Brady isn’t going to throw balls that cost his team the game.  He may not be able to make the throws he once did, and he may need more help than he ever has, but he still is Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback if all-time.  It may not have been that bad of a bet, especially if Reich worked his magic.

Like anyone, the Colts would have needed to add help around Brady, but they were ahead of that game – well ahead of the Patriots, at least.  

The Colts feel behind in the weapons game compared to the Chargers, but that ship between Rivers and his former team had sailed.

If Indy truly wanted to move on from Brissett, then Nick Foles should have been the target.  It seems ridiculous considering the contract he is on, and considering that his Super Bowl run just feels like the most flukey one in history, but it does seems more and more likely that Reich was the engine behind it, and is the engine behind multiple quarterbacks’ success.  Consider this: Reich was running the offense when Carson Wentz was awesome with the Eagles, and then translated that success to Foles, which resulted in a championship.  Reich left for Indianapolis, where he turns Eric Ebron into a monster and has Andrew Luck playing some of the best football of his career.  Meanwhile, Wentz struggles coming back from his ACL tear and Philadelphia massively underachieves.  Then, in 2019, Luck retires and Reich immediately turns Brissett into a more than viable starter while Wentz once again doesn’t return to his rookie form. Simultaneously, Foles goes to Jacksonville, gets hurt and then struggles in his return, leading him to get benched and get traded.

Didn’t Foles and Reich seem perfect for each other?  Perhaps Jacksonville expecting Indianapolis to take on the full salary of Foles like Chicago did was a massive turn-off and killed the deal.  The Colts were probably smart to not do it at that point, considering they’d have to give up draft capital on top of it to get the deal done.

If the Colts are out on Brissett and are keyed in on Rivers for just one year, what’s the plan for the future?  Rivers won’t be around long.  They traded their first round pick in this upcoming draft for Buckner (A good move, by the way).  With Rivers next year, they’re looking at competing, so they won’t be drafting high enough to land one of the studs at the top.  

Chris Ballard has been really smart since taking over for Ryan Grigson, but this move is his first befuddling one, and it could have a drastic effect on his legacy.

Jacksonville

The guy: Gardner Minshew

  • Tua Tagovailoa
  • Justin Herbert
  • Jordan Love

Jacksonville’s situation is a perfect example of how quickly things can change in the NFL.  Just last offseason, the Jaguars signed Foles to a four year, $88 million contract and committed to him as their franchise quarterback.  They also took a flyer on Gardner Minshew in the sixth round of the 2019 Draft.  He was just a guy they liked.

It’s not necessary to address what happened. Jacksonville is planning to move forward with Minshew as their guy.  While Minshew became a media darling and blew everyone away with his play, there’s a chance he became a tad overrated.  While he outplayed Foles in the now-Chicago Bear’s limited sample size, Minshew wasn’t great the second half of the year.  Perhaps that the rookie effect and the limited talent around him was responsible.  Minshew over Foles is probably the right way to go, but Minshew over a quarterback in this draft may not be.  Then again, spending a high pick on a QB a year after you landed a potential gem late doesn’t serve as the best optics.  Jacksonville is a few years away after beginning what’s been a teardown this offseason, so they have time to evaluate whether Minshew is truly the right guy.

Las Vegas

Best fits:

  • Tua Tagovailoa
  • Derek Carr

Last year, it felt as if the Raiders were a year away.  They started out about average, then had a run where everyone looked at each other and went “Hey, they’re pretty good!” and then things crumbled again.

This could be the year where the ups and downs get turned around.  Josh Jacobs will be in year two and perhaps be even better, leading to a more dynamic offense.  Receiver help could come in the loaded draft.  They’re already plugging holes defensively in free agency, and have safety Jonathan Abram coming back for what’s essentially his rookie year.

All of this sounds great.  If it comes together, the Raiders are a playoff team.  But there’s also a case that the biggest problem with the Raiders is their current quarterback, and they might be thinking that way as well.

Ever since Jon Gruden was hired as head coach, there’s been rumblings about Derek Carr’s future with the Raiders.  There was Kyler Murray smoke at last year’s NFL Draft, and the relationship between Gruden and Carr hasn’t seemed to be very flowery.  This year, there’s smoke again, with rumors that Las Vegas could select a QB with the No. 12 pick, or that they had interest in Tom Brady and other available QBs. 

Marcus Mariota isn’t the QB that comes to mind when considering Carr replacements.  The former Oregon QB is a darling of GM Mike Mayock.  Mariota’s been less successful than Carr at the NFL level, and is younger, which doesn’t really put “pressure” on Carr.  He really shouldn’t be scared of losing his spot, unless….

Tagovailoa seems like a Gruden and Mayock player.  First, he’s Alabama-bred, and if the 2019 draft taught us anything, it’s that Las Vegas’ new regime loves prospects from blue-blood, successful programs.  Second, despite his injury concerns, Tagovailoa was a revolution in college, and for the SEC as a whole until Burrow had the season he just did.  If there weren’t those injury concerns, the Bengals would probably be having a debate about who to take at No. 1 overall.  Tagovailoa has got that much talent and that much potential.  The combination of accuracy at all levels of the field, and awareness is as good as any prospect in the last decade, and the arm strength concern is overrated.  Gruden loves studs, and Tagovailoa is one.  Armed with extra draft capital, they could make a move up.  It’s the only QB worth doing it for.

If not, then run it back with Carr and see what happens.  Give him that last opportunity and if next season stalls, evaluate the field and reconsider in 2021.

Los Angeles Chargers

The guy: Tyrod Taylor

Other best fits:

  • Dak Prescott
  • Cam Newton
  • Teddy Bridgewater
  • Tom Brady

The Chargers always let us down.  For the past half-decade, injuries, underachievement and #chargering have plagued the high expectations laid for them every year.  Now that Phillip Rivers – who could be blamed for a fair share of last year’s struggles – is gone, the Chargers are able to evaluate the rest of their talented roster not resting at a constant disadvantage.

If it remains healthy, there’s a lot to like about what the Chargers have.  It’s top five defense by talent (With Chris Harris Jr. added in free agency, they’re downright scary), and there’s arguably a surplus of offensive weapons.  Trai Turner serves as a massive boost on the offensive line after being inexplicably traded by Carolina for Russell Okung, and the team added help at tackle with Bryan Bulaga.  Austin Ekeler also got re-upped for a nice price – he’s a pass-catching running back who’s a nice weapon for whoever plays under center.

Bottom line: the Chargers shouldn’t be giving up on this group just yet.

Which is why their decision to just roll with Tyrod Taylor after losing out on Tom Brady and not pursuing Teddy Bridgewater is odd.

Bridgewater would have been the perfect fit for this Chargers roster.  There was enough talent on both sides of the ball to support him, and he’s young at 27 years old.  If things panned out with the former Saints, Jets and Vikings QB, you would’ve had a quarterback for the foreseeable future.  With someone like Tom Brady, you’re looking at three years and then another reboot.

Brady wasn’t a bad Plan B though.  Despite his age and decline, the Chargers have a talented group that just needs to stay healthy.  They’ve got the weapons and a fantastic defense.  It could have been enough to bring Brady back up to a competent or above average level of play.

In addition, Brady’s limited years remaining allow the Chargers to evaluate the rest of the roster.  If they didn’t go anywhere with Brady in the next three years, once the QB retired, the Chargers could then breakup their core and completely reboot.

Brady simply didn’t choose them, and there’s nothing they can do about that.   But the lack of interest – at least reported interest – in Bridgewater is confusing.

Someone like Prescott would have obviously been the best option, because of youth and talent, but that was too unrealistic, and trading for him now would cost an arm and a leg.

There’s one easy option left for the Chargers, one that won’t cost an arm and a leg and is expendable.  While injuries have been their kryptonite for years, Newton would be an immediate upgrade at the position and raise their ceiling higher than it’s ever been.  There’s serious risk there, but the cost won’t be scary.  If Newton does get hurt, Taylor is waiting, and he provides a high enough floor, a floor that the Chargers seem to believe in this year.

If the Chargers don’t get Newton, then what’s the plan?  This roster still feels too good to restart at the quarterback position.  Drafting a rookie and having him potentially sit for a year (Herbert?) while signing a big time free agent like Chris Harris Jr. are two transactions that pull in opposite directions.  Sure, the case could be made that the rest of the roster can pull a rookie QB up to a higher level, but you first have to make sure that QB is good and actually you’re future in order for that to be the case.

Maybe the Chargers have something really surprising coming.  If they don’t, Taylor isn’t bad, but it will once again feel like more wasted talent, which is just what we’re used to with this team.

Miami

Best fits:

  • Tua Tagovailoa
  • Justin Herbert
  • Dwayne Haskins Jr.
  • Josh Rosen

Miami has been weirdly aggressive in free agency thus far, which include the signing of former Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy and star cornerback Byron Jones.  They’re certainly putting something competent together, which is indicative that they’re interested in at least being competitive next year rather than tanking.

Miami attempted to tank last season in order to secure their quarterback of the future in this year’s draft, which many figured to be Tagovailoa.  The Dolphins failed miserably at tanking for him, but will likely end up with him anyways thanks to his own draft stock falling.

If Tagovailoa’s stock rises, or someone jumps Miami to get him, then they could select someone like Herbert, or inquire about Haskins’ availability.  They’ve seemed to jump ship on Rosen – he’s likely done, but giving him next year may not be so bad.  If he shines, he’s your guy.  If he’s bad, then great, you’re in prime position to draft Trevor Lawrence next year.

Miami didn’t undertake this massive tank job to get themselves Justin Herbert or Jordan Love.  Moves like the ones they made were to land someone generational – like a Burrow, Tagovailoa or Lawrence.  If they lose out on the former Alabama star in April, it seems likely Miami will attempt to be as bad next year as they planned to be this season.

New England 

Best fits:

  • Dak Prescott 
  • Cam Newton
  • Jacoby Brissett 
  • Andy Dalton
  • Derek Carr

With Tom Brady gone, the Patriots probably need to start over.

But that’s probably not the way Bill Belichick is going to want to roll.

The split with Brady feels ego-driven on both sides.  Brady still thinks he’s the quarterback he once was.  Belichick knows Brady is not, and doesn’t feel like he owes him because of that.  In Belichick’s mind, Brady is a liability.  He may not be wrong.

To stick it to Brady, Belichick is going to want to prove he can win with anyone.  At 67 years old, the Patriots head coach probably doesn’t have a lot of time left at the helm of the organization.  He’s got one last bit of business to prove.  He doesn’t want to rebuild.

Cam Newton is the best fit for Belichick and New England given what they want to accomplish.  While it’s likely smarter for them to blow it up and start over, that’s not going to happen.  Newton would give Belichick a strong-armed quarterback with some mobility – a combination he hasn’t ever had before.  It’d also provide a high enough floor to make New England at least good next year.  Aside from Van Noy, the core of a defense that some numbers would suggest was historically good last year is returning.  The offense as a whole needs work, especially around Newton, whose variable health can really limit his arm strength and overall performance.

Prescott is listed above Newton because he’s younger and would be less risky for the Cowboys.  But it’s extremely unlikely to happen for reasons stated above.

Brissett would be really intriguing.  Indianapolis has pivoted from him and is turning toward Rivers now. Belichick would love to get the QB back he lost so egregiously. It would be terrifying to let Brissett walk back into Foxborough after showing what he could do last season.  New England would have to be taken seriously.

But there does seem to be a celling on Brissett, and just like the problem with Brady, the offensive infrastructure as currently set up probably wouldn’t be there to support him.  With Newton or Prescott, those guys can elevate a lesser roster when healthy.

Bridgewater would have been another really nice option, before he was brought in to replace Newton in Carolina.  After Newton, who’s probably the most talented QB available, New England could pivot to the Andy Daltons and Derek Carrs of the world.  Dalton’s name has been floated a bunch.  It’d be the ultimate redemption tour for Belichick – showing he can win with the world’s most average quarterback.  It seems unwise to rule out such a move given his shrewdness.

Carr is probably the last resort here, especially given that Las Vegas seems to be keeping him for next season. 

It seems like the Patriots have a move coming.  Whatever it may be, it will be fascinating.

Tampa Bay

The guy: Tom Brady, two years, $50 million

Other best fits:

  • Dak Prescott
  • Cam Newton
  • Derek Carr
  • Nick Foles
  • Teddy Bridgewater

It still feels surreal that Tom Brady won’t be in a New England Patriots uniform this coming NFL season.  It always just felt like he’d be there forever, and that all the rumors about the unhappiness and the possibility of him leaving were just tactical on his part.

For Brady, this move doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The greatest quarterback of all-time has undoubtedly declined the past two seasons, with last year being perhaps the biggest wakeup call of all.  This move to Tampa Bay feels very Michael Jordan-Wizards-ish.  You could have stepped away essentially on top of a mountain.  Instead, you’re risking coming down from it, and hurting your legacy in the process.

Perhaps his legacy is just hurt from a loyalty standpoint. Twenty seasons with one team is unprecedented.  Brady had a chance to do more than that.  Instead, he’s going to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But Tampa Bay could actually represent a progression of thought from Brady.  With Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, OJ Howard and Cameron Brate, Brady now has one of the top wide receiver and tight end duos in football.  He’s got the weapons around him – weapons that could help him elevate back to the level he used to be.  New England couldn’t offer that.  Brady knew he couldn’t carry them anymore.  He might have understood what his own new ceiling was.

Still, it will take proof from Brady to show that he’s an above-average quarterback.  That’s the bet that the Patriots and Belichick are making here.  It’s probably a smart one, especially considering that New England’s offense is far away from being one that’s in contention.  Tampa Bay’s weapons are going to have to carry Brady, rather than the other way around.  That’s a chance he is probably welcoming that reality.

Tampa Bay’s defense was confusing last year.  Some numbers had them near the bottom of the league (points allowed) while others had them near the top (DVOA).  The secondary was likely responsible for its downs, while the front seven was responsible for its ups.  The offense has the potential to be so good that the defense won’t need to be relied on as heavily.  As long as the Buccaneers are above-average on the defensive end, they should be able to be okay.

The Bucs thinking in bringing in Brady is interesting.  He’s almost certainly an upgrade over Jameis Winston, but Brady will be 43 by the time the season starts, and signed just a two year contract.  It seems hard to believe that Brady will be living up to the $25 million per year in the final year of the deal given what’s occurred the past two seasons.  Tampa Bay brought Brady in for two years and will then have to start over at the most important position in football when he’s done.

Prescott would have been perfect, but Dallas tagged him almost immediately.  The draft compensation given up to go get him would have been astronomical.  Newton would be the next best option, even with the health risks.  The ceiling is super high there, and he’s obviously much younger than Brady.  Carolina would have dumped him for cheap with Bridgewater’s signing, and Tampa Bay would’ve gotten a strong-armed QB that fit well in Bruce Arians system.  The medicals on him must be more frightening than anyone knows.  

Carr and Foles represented the next potential options, but it seems that Las Vegas would’ve had to be overwhelmed to move Carr – draft pick compensation would have to be high.  Foles would have been really interesting.  In Tampa, he’d have an excellent offensive coach in Arians, a killer group of weapons and what would likely be a decent defense.  That’s the prime recipe to have Foles be a legit quarterback in this league.  He just needs help.

Bridgewater, who’s been atop mosts of the lists in this column, is near the bottom because of one flaw: scheme fit.  The same case can be made for Brady, who’s arm seems to be weakening based on the past two seasons.  Bridgewater just doesn’t throw far enough downfield to make do in Arians’ offense.  With those receivers, you’re wasting talent if you don’t have a quarterback who can get it there.  Bridgewater really can’t.

Which is what makes the choice of Brady so confusing in a way.  If you were going to pick a quarterback who may not have the best arm and may not be the best scheme fit, then why not go with the younger one who could potentially be your future in Bridgewater?  Instead, you’re essentially getting two years of Brady.  Yes, it matters that Brady is the best quarterback of all-time, and that he won a Super Bowl just two years ago, and that he’s a winner, and that he affects the locker room and draws fans and what not.  But in terms of pure talent, the gap between someone like Bridgewater and Brady might be dwindling.  The NFC South standings will be the answer as to which team made the right call.

Washington

  • Dwayne Haskins Jr.
  • Tua Tagovailoa

There was literally *one* report that said Washington was considering drafting Tagovailoa to compete with Dwayne Haskins Jr.  It’s likely not happening, but even with a new management change, nothing can be ruled out with this franchise.

That one report was also worded oddly.  Say Washington is going to use the No. 2 overall pick to draft Tagovailoa.  It wouldn’t be a “competition” between the two.  If you use the No. 2 overall pick on a quarterback, he’s your guy.  You wouldn’t dare have him lose a battle in training camp and bench him.

Drafting Tagovailoa would have to make Haskins Jr. expendable, which is why his name has appeared on other lists in this column.

Washington shouldn’t give up on Haskins Jr. so soon.  Jay Gruden wasn’t the right coach, and the infrastructure for the rookie quarterback just wasn’t there last year.  With Ron Rivera representing a stable, veteran option at head coach, Washington should move forward with the guy they spent last year’s first round pick on.  Haskins Jr.’s arm is too good to cut bait so soon.


Some notes on guys who didn’t appear in this list:

  • It’s likely obvious from the analysis of what the Colts did, but Rivers literally showed zero evidence last season that he should be a starting quarterback.  Indianapolis literally chose a guy who would have made zero sense for every other team in the league.
  • The same goes for Jameis Winston.  Who watched him throw 30 interceptions last year and went “We can fix that?”  He’s not young, untapped potential anymore, and it seems as if the rest of the NFL agrees with that thinking based on his market.
  • In addition, the same can be said for Ryan Tannehill.  Who besides Tennessee was going to bring him in and make him a starter?  Sure, the Titans felt obligated to.  Starting over after coming within a game of making the Super Bowl seems redundant.  But did they remember everything Tannehill was in Miami?  There’s no doubting the change of scenery helped him this past season, but that can wear off over time.  Tannehill needs significant help around him to be a potential Super Bowl starter.  The Titans could offer that.  Not many other teams could.
  • Taysom Hill is not a starting quarterback in the NFL.  Carry on.
  • Other names who got consideration for being options: David Blough, Nick Mullens, Kyle Allen.

The Athlete I Hated The Most

There was not an athlete I hated more than Kobe Bryant.

You could have asked me that five years ago or ten. You could have asked me the night LeBron James passed him on the all-time scoring list, just hours before news of his death broke.

You could have asked me ten minutes after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski brutally confirmed the TMZ report that the Lakers legend had died in a helicopter crash, a tweet which felt too hard to believe.

You could ask me right now, about a month after his death and on the day a public memorial will be held for him and his daughter Gianna at Staples Center, and the answer is still the same.  The answer will probably never change.

I spent ages five to 10 falling in love with sports and watching Kobe Bryant rip my heart out practically every time the Phoenix Suns made the playoffs.  The Lakers were our kryptonite.  We couldn’t do anything against them.

We couldn’t do anything against Kobe Bryant.

Bryant made me cry multiple times growing up. Despite us defeating them in the first round of the playoffs in 2005-06 and in the second round the next year, Kobe got his revenge in the biggest way in 2010, denying us our final chance at winning the championship or even making the Finals with that core group in 2010.  Game 6 of those Western Conference Finals was the third worst moment of my life.  We’d finally gotten passed the Spurs, sweeping them in the second round. Bryant was the final test.  I just wanted to make the Finals.  Just so Steve Nash could say he had been there before.

Nope.  As expected, Kobe took those early exits earlier in the decade personally, just as he did everything.  He made us pay.

Kobe put up 37 on 12-15 shooting that night in Phoenix.  His stats and overall performance don’t represent how good he was.  It wasn’t like he dropped a 50 burger, or hit a ton of threes (He was 3-8 that night).  He was just really good, and hit four of the toughest shots I’ve seen anyone ever make to continually put Phoenix away.  He made Phoenix suffer that night.  There was nothing we could do.

I hated Kobe Bryant for that game and for his game overall.  He was selfish, didn’t pass, treated his teammates poorly and took incredibley bad shots – shots he knew were bad.  But he didn’t care.

I hated him for his cockiness, for his ridiculous feud with Shaq that split up what could have been the most successful run of all-time, and yes, for the Colorado incident that he seemed to get off of way too easily. It’s something that routinely gets forgotten and is kept quiet by the NBA on purpose. It shouldn’t overshadow Kobe and the family man he eventually came to be, but it needs to be mentioned.

Kobe didn’t let it overshadow his career though, which saw him win five rings, two Finals MVPs, a regular season MVP, become the second best pure bucket-getter of all time, go down as the defining player of the league’s most storied and popular team and finish as the ninth best player of all-time.  He was the player of the generation between Michael Jordan and LeBron. Guys that were too young to be MJ guys followed Kobe because LeBron wasn’t there and ready for that yet.

I hated Kobe Bryant the most though because of what he continually did to my Suns, in the playoffs or not. It was the Lakers that got the glory. It was the Lakers who were successful and actually won. It was them who Phoenix aspired to be and beat. We couldn’t because we couldn’t beat Kobe. We couldn’t because we didn’t have Kobe, or anyone nearly as good him. Not even close.

Sports are about competition though. Sports aren’t fun when blowouts occur – when one team is so much better than the other. Good games are never not close. It’s the heat of competition that gets us going so much over what’s happening in front of our eyes or on our TV screens.

When your side of that competition loses, it can be heartbreaking. It was for me multiple times.

But perhaps then, and even still now, I lost sight of what was truly happening in those Nash-Kobe duels. It was competition. At the highest level possible. That was as good as it got.

Those games wouldn’t have been fun with the Lakers kicked Phoenix’s butt. They honestly wouldn’t have been as much fun if Phoenix kicked the Lakers butt. Those games were fun because those type of games almost never happened. Both teams were too good.

It would have been nice for the Suns to win those games sometimes. They hardly did, it felt like. But I almost would rather have it the way it played out than have the Suns destroy the Lakers every time. Those games taught me how to love sports, and how to hate them too. They built good discipline for me. They taught me how to truly appreciate the game of basketball.

I’ve always said that the day I meet Steve Nash for the first time, the first thing I would tell Nash is “Thank you for making me fall in love with basketball.”

Kobe’s death made me realize that I should probably be thanking him too.

NBA Trade Deadline PODCAST And Notes

After the wild NBA Trade Deadline had past, my good friend Nick Sanchez invited me on his podcast Loose Balls to discuss the biggest deals of the week.  We covered the D’Angelo Russell, Marcus Morris and Andre Drummond trades the most, but there are a couple we didn’t get too that I’d like to give some thoughts on.  Below the podcast are some notes on those.

As always, this podcast is distributed by Arizona State University’s Blaze Radio.

Now for notes on some of the other deals from the past week:

  • We did a couple minutes on the massive four team, 12 player trade (The biggest since Patrick Ewing’s trade in 2000) that went down early last week at the end of the show, but I wanted to expand a bit on it here.
  • The Hawks trade for Clint Capela kind of goes hand-in-hand with their deal for DeWayne Dedmon.
  • Two things are at play here: 1) Atlanta’s need for a center since John Collins – who’s very talented and versatile offensively – is a black hole defensively and can’t protect the rim whatsoever and 2) their need to surround their darling Trae Young with “help”, as he proclaimed earlier this season.
  • These deals for Capela and Dedmon do both.  Both Capela and Dedmon are great rim protectors, with Dedmon bringing shooting and a bit more switchability to the table.  They also are both legitimate NBA players as opposed to 20 year olds, which will keep Young happy.  It’s Atlanta worst nightmare to have him not be so.
  • The Hawks didn’t have to give much up.  They got two second round picks to bring Dedmon in, and shipped out reclamation project Jabari Parker and Alex Len in the deal.  Len was great last year for Atlanta but has seen his shooting numbers drop dramatically this season.
  • For Capela, all it took was a shipping out of Evan Turner, the Nets first round pick in 2020 which they owned from a prior deal and a second rounder.  Not a bad price to acquire a rim-running/protecting center and revitalize the position on your roster!
  • I really liked the four-teamer for Houston despite some of the criticism it drew.  While Capela is an excellent rim protector, his lack of switchability onto perimeter players made him at times unplayable in the playoffs last year, especially against Golden State.
  • Houston has had success with playing PJ Tucker at center in the past, so turning Capela into Robert Covington – a fantastic defensive player who can shoot enough (He hit what looked like a game-winning three last night) works even though it’s super small.  It maximizes a Rockets roster that probably wouldn’t be playing Capela anyways come April and May.  Instead of Daniel House out there for him, it’s now Covington.
  • The issue that remains is that they now have zero size whatsoever.  You can go small late, but you still need at least a big to start games and play intermittently.  They got Jordan Bell from the Wolves in the four teamer, but later flipped him to Memphis for Bruno Caboclo, who should be whatever Fran Frischilla thought he’d be by now.
  • It appears that Houston will probably wait for the buyout market to form to find a big, because Isaiah Hartenstein won’t cut it, and Tyson Chandler is the epitome of what Houston doesn’t want in a center.
  • Houston essentially gave up Capela, Nene (who was waived by Atlanta), a first round pick and Gerald Green for Covington and a second round pick, which is a lot but feels much better than giving up two first round picks.
  • Even though Minnesota made out very nicely with D’Angelo Russell, their end of this deal confused me a bit.
  • The top asset they received in the trade was Malik Beasley, who’s a restricted free agent.  Sure, trading for him now gives the Timberwolves his  matching rights come July 1, but it seemed unlikely that Denver would match whatever it was as Beasley’s been in and out of the Nuggets’ rotation this year.
  • Essentially, they sold Covington for a guy they could have easily attained over the summer.  Sure, they got more pieces back – a first round pick, Juancho Hernangomez (Also a RFA, but Minnesota might’ve faced more competition from Denver when matching him than Beasley), Jarred Vanderbilt and Evan Turner’s contract – but Vanderbilt is a flyer, Turner is an albatross and Hernangomez is in a similar situation to Beasley contract wise.
  • Why not try and turn Beasley into a more controllable player or another pick, especially when Covington was one of the most valued commodities on the market?
  • I liked the four team trade for everyone but the Timberwolves.  But they certainly made up for it with the Russell trade later in the week.  As a whole, Russell-KAT-Beasley make up three pretty good pieces in a rotation.
  • Denver made out very well in this deal.  They netted a first round pick for a guy who they weren’t bringing back (Beasley), an eighth man (Hernangomez), and a guy who didn’t work out (Vanderbilt).  In addition, they brought in a couple flyers/deep bench pieces: Shabazz Naiper (who was flipped for Jordan McRae), Keita Bates Diop (He might be really really good in Denver’s scheme), Gerald Green and Noah Vonleh.
  • I thought Philadelphia massively overpaid for Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III.  Practically no trade for bench help has worked out for the Sixers.  Paying three second round picks for Robinson (who’s probably out of NBA chances now) and Burks (Who’s…. fine?) seems heavy.

Super Bowl 54 Preview

Below is a podcast for Arizona State University’s Blaze Radio that features me and some friends previewing Sunday’s game.  Give it a listen below.

There has never really been a Super Bowl shootout.

Since 2000, the games that most fit that description was Super Bowl 52 between New England and Philadelphia and Super Bowl 47 between Baltimore and San Francisco.  Those were the two closest, high-scoring Super Bowls of the past 20 years.

But neither felt like a true shootout.  Each game featured big leads held by one side – the Eagles were up by about ten points throughout most of the game, with the Patriots playing catchup before taking a 33-32 lead with 9:22 left, and the Ravens slaughtered the 49ers early, as they took a 28-6 lead just after halftime before the power outrage triggered a San Francisco rally that fell short.

And only one of the scores of those games were shootout-like: Philly’s 41 to New England’s 33.  The 34-31 Ravens win over San Francisco doesn’t quite get there.

Before 2000, you have to go way back.  Games that were close and high-scoring were rare.  Steelers-Cowboys in Super Bowl 13 (the 1978-79 season) blips the radar – Pittsburgh beat Dallas 35-31.

But that’s it.  Super Bowls 13, 47 and 52 are the closest thing we got to a Super Bowl shootout, and all have a distinct case against them.

Sunday’s Super Bowl 54 could change that.

Super Bowl 54: San Francisco 49ers vs. Kansas City Chiefs (-1.5), 4:30 PM AZ Time

Patrick Mahomes is the scariest player in football.  That doesn’t mean he’s the best – that’s a conversation that’s incredibly hard to have because of positional value.  But there’s no one who feels more unstoppable when he’s cooking than Mahomes in the league.

San Francisco has a great defense.  They finished No.2 overall in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA.  They have a fearsome defensive line, equipped with the runaway Defensive Rookie of the Year and arguably the Defensive Player of the Year in addition to DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, both of whom had massive breakout seasons.   Richard Sherman has been excellent, and they have a bevy of other important role players on the squad (Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner to name a couple).

There are some flaws.  Aside from Sherman, the secondary is weak (the opposite corner and nickel corner have had players rotated in and out frequently).  Secondly, San Francisco runs a cover 3 zone as their base defense.

Zone makes sense for San Francisco and has obviously worked this year.  It doesn’t put as immense of pressure on their right-side corner (Sherman is almost exclusively on the left side, no matter the matchup), and allows their safeties to keep things in front of them at all times.

But zone is a lax coverage.  It leaves holes open everywhere on the field.  It requires excellent tackling skills and execution.

Playing a zone base against Mahomes and this Chiefs offense is absolutely terrifying.

Mahomes should pick it apart.  There really isn’t much to pick with the space a zone allows, especially when considering his arm strength.  In addition, the Chiefs speed across their weapons core could make it even more devastating.  Zone not only allows space but, as mentioned above, requires speed to get to the point of the catch and make tackles.  Kansas City’s receivers – Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, DeMarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman – can all fly and bust through those holes.  They’re too fast for almost any secondary.

San Francisco is going to have to adjust and play more man – a scary shift for the biggest game of the year.  But it’s probably a better bet.  While man coverage comes with its own risks and relies on speed in a different way than zone, it at least makes the Chiefs’ weapons have to work a bit harder to get open.  The 49ers should be more comfortable going down swinging rather than just giving it to Mahomes and Co.  Man coverage at least makes it seem like they’re trying.

San Francisco’s heavy reliance on zone may not matter though if they execute well enough in another facet of their defense: the defensive line.

Despite his underrated running ability and agility, pressure has bothered Mahomes before.  It reduced him a bit against New England in last year’s AFC Championship Game (except later in the game) and has forced into some unlike-Mahomes performances.

San Francisco wrecked havoc against the Packers.  Aaron Rodgers was under constant duress, and Green Bay could get nothing going whatsoever.  They also hardly had the ball, which didn’t help.

The 49ers were also really good against Minnesota up front, but the Vikings offensive line has been a weaknesses for years, and wasn’t much better this season.

At the tackle spots is where San Francisco could see their line’s impact reduced.  Bosa made David Bahktiari look like one of the worst blind-siders in football instead one of the best last week, and a not-totally-1oo-percent Bryan Bulaga didn’t help on the other end as well.

The Chiefs have the best two tackles San Francisco had dealt with this postseason.  Mitchell Schwartz is an All-Pro on one end, and Eric Fisher has steadily rose himself to make that No.1 pick look justifiable – he’s had a nice season and should be considered better than Bulaga given that injury bug two weeks ago.

Kansas City is weaker on the interior, where Buckner and Armstead create their own pass rushing duo in addition to stuffing the run.  No matter what, the line is a lot for the Chiefs to handle.  But on the outside, it’s actually a more favorable matchup than you might think.  Stopping Bosa goes miles.

If the Niners can create some pressure on Mahomes, then they are definitely in this thing.

San Francisco’s execution on the defensive end in the NFC Championship was great.  Their offensive execution was better – as expected from possibly the NFL’s best executed group this season.

Like Mahomes throwing, the 49ers ability to run the ball and continue to do so over and over again can be unstoppable.  It was against Green Bay.

Jimmy Garoppollo threw just eight times agains the Packers.  That was all he needed to.

Every block was sealed.  Every hole was open, and every hole was hit by a 49ers running back two weeks ago.  Raheem Mostert stole the show, but San Francisco has shown the ability to have any back be able to breakout for a massive performance like that.  It’s really a matter of who they want to roll with.

Mostert will likely be the guy.  He’s coming off a ridiculous performance, and is the fastest back they have to test Chiefs linebackers, who aren’t exactly the best group in football.

Kansas City’s run defense was the fourth-worst in the league by DVOA this season, and they gave up an astonishing 4.9 yards per carry this season.  They were truly one of the worst groups in the league.

While it seems improbable that the 49ers could put up a performance like the NFC Championship again, consider how their regular season went.  That’s how they won so many games: running the football down people’s throats and only throwing when they absolutely had to.

It’s execution and coaching that makes this work for San Francisco.  Everything on that end is pristine.  Everything on the defensive side of the ball for the Chiefs is not.

There’s no reason to think that Kansas City should be able to stop them.  The 49ers are going to have to stop themselves, or become aware that Garoppollo maybe isn’t the most equipped quarterback for a shootout and panic.  Despite all of the crafty running schemes and the explosiveness that Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel bring, San Francisco’s offense doesn’t pop like Kansas City’s.

The 49ers could make it even less sexy by not only running constantly by really milking the clock and limiting drives for Mahomes as much as possible.  That was the formula the Colts used when they upset Kansas City in Week 5 – Jacoby Brissett and Indianapolis had the ball for 37:15 in that game, compared to the Chiefs at 22:45.  It felt like Kansas City didn’t have the ball at all, really.

Still, the biggest difference between these two teams – or their offenses – is that “Engage shootout mode” button that Kansas City has and San Francisco lacks.  In game where points seem destine to be scored in bunches and the over seems like an almost sure thing, that matters.  Mahomes matter.  He’s arguably the most talented quarterback of all-time.  Do not bet against that.

Prediction: Chiefs-35 49ers-31

The 2020 NBA All-Star Reserves

It feels weird writing about basketball right now.

It feels weird writing about it without addressing the elephant in the room: the passing of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant Sunday in a helicopter crash.

It feels a bit weird that games have and are still going on.  It feels weird that this column is going to be published without a real tribute or payment of respect to Kobe.

The truth is that it’s not time yet.  The Lakers organization is feeling the same way, evident by Tuesday’s postponment of Clippers-Lakers, one of the biggest games left in the regular season.

The time will come, don’t worry.  For now, here’s part two of the 2020 NBA All-Star Ballot:

Western Conference Reserves:

G Damian Lillard

The Trail Blazers stink, and it’s not Damian Lillard’s fault whatsoever.  He’s averaging 27.9 points, 7.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds a game on a team that’s playing Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony heavy minutes every night.  CJ McCollum’s slow start to the year didn’t help the Blazers in the beginning of the season, nor did brutal performance from Anthony Tolliver and Kent Bazmore (They’re both now gone, if that doesn’t say enough).  The Blazers have been so bad that they have just a 0.8 net rating when someone with the seventh-highest PER in the league is their starting point guard.  When Lillard is on the bench, Portland’s net rating is a ghastly -9.3.

Yet, Portland is somehow just three games back of the playoffs and is currently tenth in the West, despite their roster being totally ravaged by injuries and this year turning quickly into a throwaway one.  As the past three games in which he’s scored 61, 47 and 50 show, Lillard is just trying his best.

G Ja Morant

Ja Morant is the runaway Rookie of the Year so far, unless Zion Williamson somehow ups the already impressive showings he’s had and wills the Pelicans into the playoffs.  It would take a 2016-17 Isaiah Thomas-like run for Zion to enter the conversation.  He’s capable of it, but it seems more likely that next season will be the one in which Zion takes over in.

Because of Morant’s preemptive award and since the Grizzlies are literally the eighth seed in the West right now, he gets a spot.  He’s totally deserving.

Others have taken huge steps forward on this Grizzlies roster (Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke), but Morant right now is the best player on a playoff team as a rookie.  The list of guys who have done that is small.

It’s not just that.  The developmental steps Morant has taken not even one full season into his career have been staggering.  We’re seeing him takeover games for the Grizzlies when needed, and has been not only a facilitator but a creator of offense for them.  He’s a force driving to the rim; no one can control the athleticism and explosiveness.  Defenders won’t want to get in front of that.  He’s also shooting really well from three, and that’s not a small sample size overrating Morant at all.  The rookie is taking 2.3 a game and is sinking 40.5 percent of them.  No one saw that coming from him this year.

Because of the Grizzlies’ success and his stunning development, Morant is absolutely worthy of a spot.

G Chris Paul

There are multiple players who are reasons why Oklahoma City is somehow 28-20 and the seventh seed in the West, so narrowing it to one to represent all was difficult.

Chris Paul is the choice because he’s the most impactful veteran on this team.  Danillo Gallonari has been excellent and has earned himself some trade interest from other teams, but Paul is the commander and leader of this offense.

The Thunder aren’t in the position they are now without CP3.  Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has point guard capabilities, but that’s a heavy load to shelve on a second year player.  CP3’s presence allows SGA to focus on scoring only.

OKC has adults on the court.  Turns out, a solid veteran team can actually mean a good team as well.

F Brandon Ingram

If we stick to Most Improved Player’s typical definition, then Ingram is the runaway winner of the award.  It’s earned him an All-Star spot, too.

The Pelicans were horrible early but then got better as their health improved.  They’re *just* good enough to send someone to Chicago this year.

If anything, Ingram is the reason they’re just good enough.  He’s turned into an efficient scorer who’s hitting almost 40 percent of his threes and has been their No.1 scoring option.  That’s a massive step forward from where he was just a year ago.  It seems as if all the development we’ve wanted to see from him since he got in the league has came all during this season.  Turns out, all that was needed was a chance of scenery.

F Paul George

Twenty six games played makes justifying Paul George over Donovan Mitchell or Devin Booker tough, but a couple things really stick out about the short season George has had.

LA is 19-7 when he plays and it makes sense.  PG is averaging 23.5 points a game, the third-highest mark of his career after last season’s average of 28 (His second highest season average was 23.7, by the way), and it looks like it too.

Despite last year’s numbers, this season has felt different from George.  On nights when he plays and Kawhi Leonard doesn’t (which have been few and far between), George has looked and played like a true No.1 option offensively, a ceiling that seemed questionable for him in previous years.  Occasionally, George has made himself look like the best player on a championship team.

Despite a low field goal percentage, George is taking 9.2 threes a game and sinking 39.5 percent of them.  He’s also averaging six rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.5 steals a game when he’s out there.

His impact is massive… when he plays.

C Rudy Gobert

One key member of the Jazz had to make it despite their early season struggles, and to be nice yet also pay respect toward a good season, it’s Gobert.

His defense has somehow gone up a level this year.  The Jazz are -5 in net rating when he’s off the court, and their defensive rating falls to 107.5 from 103.5.  Opponents are shooting 48.7 percent against him within six feet of the rim – imagine making not even half your layups.

Gobert’s not a high-volume offensive center, evident in his 15.7 points per game.  But the center is grabbing almost as many rebounds as he is scoring points, pulling down 14.5 a game.

Utah’s defense is seventh in defensive rating, and Gobert is the anchor of it all.

C Karl-Anthony Towns

The Timberwolves are very bad and their roster situation and outlook might be even worse.

But Karl-Anthony Towns is balling.  He’s averaging 28.9 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists while taking 8.8 threes, making 41.2 percent of them (Those stats are all per 36 minutes, by the way).

Also, he’s 7’1.

There were rumors about KAT expanding his game over the offseason – that he was going to shoot more and work on becoming more of a point forward rather than just a big guy.  He’s done both.  The assist numbers would be unparalleled if not for Nikola Jokic.  He’s upped his three point attempts by 3.6 a game, which is something that should’ve happened a long time ago given how deadly he is from that range.

It seems hypocritical to put KAT on an All-Star team when Trae Young won’t be.  They’re having roughly the same impact, and are carrying bad teams.  The Hawks are way worse without Young than the Wolves are without KAT, as KAT’s net off the floor is -4.9, while Young’s is -13.9.

The difference here is expectations and hype.  The Hawks were thought to maybe contend for a playoff spot thanks to what looked like a good draft and Young’s projected step forward.  They’re not even close to that and have no shot now.

Expectations were not nearly that high for Minnesota.  There was no shot of them making the playoffs due to the West’s insane competition.  They’ve defied those to an extent – they hung around early in the season and have recently fell off.  That run had Wolves fan excited for a little while.  The Hawks fans are just disappointed.

Snubs: Donavan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic

Eastern Conference Reserves:

G/F Jaylen Brown

Answer this:

How was Jaylen Brown listed as a guard on the NBA’s official ballot but Jimmy Butler a forward?

Brown would not have been a starter at guard or forward regardless, but Butler would have been at guard easily.

Anyways, the nonsense shouldn’t distract from Brown’s honors.  He’s having a massive season thanks to an uptick in offensive production and continued defensive excellence.

Brown was a question mark offensively coming out of Cal.  The jump-shot wasn’t there, and he lacked aggressiveness.

He’s gotten better every season he’s been in the league, and this year is likely the top of the mountain.  He’s shooting 49.1 percent, the highest of his career.  He’s recovered well from a dip in three point shooting last season, hitting 38.6 percent on his 5.3 attempts a game in 2019-20, up from 34.4 percent.

It’s simple, but Brown is averaging 20 a game.  That’s a seven point surge from last year, and is certainly not bad for a guy whose game on that end was always questioned.

G Ben Simmons

This spot was the hardest decision out of any of the 24 All-Star spots chosen.

Those who were in consideration for the starting spot, which went to Malcolm Brogdon, then got shifted to competition for this spot.

Spencer Dinwiddie was the runner-up and was even the selection for quite a bit of time.  His numbers don’t really pop – 21.2 points a game is a big jump for him, but it makes sense considering the expanded role he’s taken on thanks to Kyrie Irving’s injuries.

What Dinwiddie has done with that expanded role was what garnered him serious consideration, not the numbers.  With the eye test, the Nets just play better when things run through Dinwiddie rather than Irving.  The ball moves.  He’s not a pain to play with.  The Nets just seem more like a basketball team.

But the Nets still aren’t very good, which gives Simmons the edge.  Despite his incredibly frustrating resistance to shoot jump-shots and threes, there’s no denying the impact Simmons has for the Sixers defensively.  He’s the perimeter compliment to Joel Embiid’s rim protection.  He can switch onto anyone.  He can even play some center when Embiid’s not on the floor.

As written last week, the Sixers win with defense, not offense.  It’s a perfect metaphor for Simmons’ skill set and style of play, and the fact that they’re successful with it earns him this spot.

G Bradley Beal

Written about here, Beal has carried the Wizards to being watchable, something that didn’t seem possible before the season.  Beal deserves a spot because he’s beating expectations, not falling short of them.

G/F Jimmy Butler

The Heat were a sneaky Finals contender before the season.  They’ve erased “sneaky” from that title.

Butler is one of the big reasons why.  Ever since the departure of Dwayne Wade from his prime, Miami has lacked a true crunch-time scorer.  Despite not being among the league’s truly elite players, the firepower surrounding him has made Butler serviceable as the best player on a potential Finals team.

Miami’s good with him, but they’re probably just a frisky sixth seed without him.  With his scoring, they should be taken seriously.

F/C Bam Adebayo

It’s the supporting cast that really has Miami where they’re at right now, and Adebayo might be the most important aspect of it.

The potential with him was there in flashes last season.  He played in every game, but mostly came off the bench.  The per-36 numbers mirror this breakout season: 13.7 points, 3.5 assist and 11.2 rebounds in 2018-19 (per 36) vs. 16 points, 4.8 assists and 10.4 rebounds per game in 2019-20.

Adebayo has the chance to be a revolution, even more so than someone like Nikola Jokic or Domantas Sabonis.  Unlike those two, he’s extremely switchable defensively – the guy does not move like a center.  A hope would be for him to convert that into a three point shot; his low free throw percentages make that a stretch, however.

He’s also way more switchable than either of them defensively.

Adebayo has been incredible.  His rim protection and offensive versatility ranks him among the most valuable and fun skill sets in the league.

F Jayson Tatum

Coming into the year, Jayson Tatum was going to have to step up.  He was the makeup for the loss of starpower from Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker.

As mentioned above, Jaylen Brown can actually take a bit more credit for making up for the loss.  It’s his offense that’s filled in the gap a bit more than Tatum’s.

Still, Tatum’s numbers have shot up.  He’s averaging 21.5 points a game this year, by far a career high.  Him and Brown are finally hitting the ceiling we once saw for them.

Tatum’s improved dramatically on the defensive end as well – it was not a strength of his out of college or in his rookie year.

The duo of Brown and Tatum draws cautious parallels to George and Leonard in LA.  One is far superior offensively in terms of shot creation and volume, but both are capable off-ball scorers and are lockdown defenders.  That would make for one hell of a Finals matchup.

F/C Domantas Sabonis

If Malcolm Brogdon is the No. 1 reason why Indiana is a legitimate playoff team before the return of Victor Oladipo (happening tonight!), then Domantas Sabonis is the close second.

Sabonis’ numbers would be stupid if Nikola Jokic didn’t exist.  The fourth-year power forward is excelling as a playmaker this season, upping his assist total from 2.9 a game in 2018-19 to 4.6 this year.  A starting position for Sabonis has allowed Indiana to run a Denver-like offense at times, where everything goes through Sabonis and relies on him to create shots for everyone else.

Combine that ability with his 12.8 boards a game and 18.1 points, and Sabonis is an easy All-Star.  This team could be scary if Oladipo comes back close to 100 percent.  Watch out.

Snubs: Spencer Dinwiddie, Devonte Graham, Trae Young, Kyle Lowry

The 2020 NBA All-Star Starters

Time restricted the unveiling of a full All-Star roster, but with the starters being released tonight, we will follow suit.

Western Conference Starters:

G James Harden

James Harden has been underrated this season, in general and in the MVP race.  The debate should be way more open than it is between him and Giannis Antetokounmpo.  The same should have been the case last year.

The advanced analytics and stats people (Who are adorned and should be commenced at the highest level for revolutionizing basketball and having it played smarter) say that pure points is a bad stat.  True, but that’s if you know how to use it right.

Points don’t matter if your team isn’t winning.  They do if a team is.

The Rockets are 26-16, and while might not be as high up in the standings as we expected, should still be considered as contenders.  Harden is averaging 37.1 points per game on that team and is hitting five threes a game for them as well.  You can knock the low shooting percentages and say that a top five player should be better in those categories, but when you factor in Harden’s 37.8 usage rate and the 8.8 minutes a night that he has the ball in his hands (second in the league to Trae Young), then you’ll live with them.

If the season ended today, Harden’s PPG number would rank fifth all-time.  Wilt Chamberlian, who some like to filter out due to the sheer insane yet overrated marks of 50.36, 44.83, 38.39 and 37.6, has the four spots ahead of Harden.  Some might say Harden, if he finishes above 37.09, might have the highest scoring season in NBA history.  Does Giannis really top that?

Harden has hit a bit of a cold streak since the new year (Along with the Rockets themselves, too), but his All-Star spot is still unassailable.  No one even makes another close case.

G Luka Doncic

There was zero doubt that Luka Doncic would take a step forward this season.  No  one knew how grand of one it would be.

It’s been a historic one.  Not only is Doncic putting up one of the best seasons from a 20 or 21-year-old ever, but he’s single-handily dragging a Mavericks roster that isn’t all that good into the playoffs.  Sure, Dwight Powell went from underrated to properly rated before his devastating achilles injury the other night, and bench guys like Seth Curry and Jalen Brunson have allowed the Mavericks to get away with certain funky lineups.  But none of that happens without Doncic having the type of year he is.  Dallas is hanging around 30 wins (Using 82 games as a gauge, not games played this season thus far) without him, especially with the way they’re using the still newly acquired Kristaps Porzingis.

Doncic’s rise has questioned the meaning of two different awards at the same time: MVP and Most Improved Player.  Like others on this list, there’s a case for Doncic to place third in one and win the other – he’s so much better than last year.  Where is that line at?  It’ll be an interesting ballot after the Finals.  But Doncic’s spot, like Harden’s above, is totally unassailable.

F/C Kawhi Leonard

Though he’s only played in 32 games, Kawhi Leonard’s averages of 26.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and five assists on 46.5 percentage shooting is one of the most complete lines in basketball this season.  That’s not even including his 1.9 steals a contest either.  The Clippers are 24-8 when he plays this year, and 5-8 when he doesn’t.  Though there’s been some sputtering from Los Angeles recently in terms of effort, Kawhi’s season is a testament to how necessary and beneficial the load management is. If Leonard wasn’t putting up these numbers, perhaps it’d be a different conversation.  But he is, and because of that, the Clippers should still be considered the title favorites, and load management shouldn’t be such a hot discussion.

F/C LeBron James

It’s an all-LA frontcourt, and everyone is deserving.

Here we can give LeBron James and Anthony Davis equal praise for their accomplishments this year, but it’ll be more fascinating come MVP time.  Who gets put higher on the ballot than who?

Davis might deserve more praise.  Without him, the Lakers have to stretch LeBron to his maximum capabilities as a 35-year-old on a nightly basis.  It’s a 2018 Finals level effort every night from LeBron to get the Lakers to the record they have now without Davis.  The rest of the roster is so bad that even superhero performances from LeBron might not even be enough.

Despite that, LeBron absolutely deserves an All-Star spot.  He’s proved us wrong about being effective at the point guard spot – the dude will likely win the assist title as he’s averaging 11 per night, 1st in the league by a whopping 1.6 dimes.  While the other Laker might be more responsible for the team’s success on this end, LeBron’s defensive engagement has soared this year compared to last – a complete flip from where it had been the past two years.

Giannis Antetokounmpo or Leonard is the best player in the league right now.  But remove ‘right now’ and replace it with overall, and The King still reigns.

F/C Anthony Davis

Like Harden, Davis is probably being underrated in the MVP race.  The third spot should clearly be his.

Davis hasn’t only helped shoulder a load from LeBron, but is the anchor of what is somehow the league’s fifth-best defense by defensive rating, and that rank has fallen a bit, too.

His versatility on both ends has allowed the Lakers to get away with playing Davis next to a traditional center, like JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard.  Defensively, his athleticism allows him to swallow smaller players with those lengthy arms, which ranks third in the league in blocks with 2.6 per game.  He’s also picking 1.5 steals a game, a wild number for a center (You know who is second in the league though?  Andre Drummond!).  That insane length not being wasted down low protecting the rim is invaluable.  Combine that with the buy-in from practically everyone else on the roster, and Davis is the engine behind the NBA’s unlikeliest defensive machine.

Eastern Conference Starters:

G Kemba Walker

Swapping out Kyrie Irving for a lesser-talented player in Kemba Walker shouldn’t have worked.  But accounting for the style of play and happiness that Walker has brought, it makes sense, and the Celtics are title contenders because of it.

Walker might be the second-biggest reason why Boston could make the Finals, but the Eastern Conference starting guards situation aside from and even including him is bleak.  There’s plenty of options, yet everyone option as a starter comes with a big issue or hole.  Walker is the closest to unassailable, but its one of his teammates that is having the slightly bigger impact.  More on that next week.

G Malcolm Brogdon

This was the toughest spot out of any of the ten starters and it wasn’t even close.

It was agonizing.  There were eight candidates and all had a case.

The biggest omission is probably Ben Simmons.  While Simmons has excelled recently in Embiid’s absence thanks to increased floor spacing offensively, he hasn’t subtracted from his season-long dominance defensively.  But he’s still been a liability for the Sixers late in games when Embiid’s been on the floor.  It’s at times tough to get over.

The next closest candidates were Jaylen Brown, Kyle Lowry and Bradley Beal.  Brown got heavy, heavy consideration – the guy is still a stud defensively and has improved immensely scoring the ball and being consistent on the offensive end.  He’s making the contract Boston handed him look more than justifiable.

Lowry was probably overrated in consideration, but while his shooting numbers are majorly down, he’s scoring 5.8 more points a game this year, which helps supplement the loss of Kawhi big time.  When Siakam has been hurt, it’s been Lowry picking up what’s left behind.  For a guy who’s long been criticized for his lack of an offensive game, this season has proved otherwise.  That was essentially the case for him in a starting spot.

Beal is on the worst team out of anyone who made the ballot – starters, reserves, East, West, whatever.  The Wizards aren’t even in consideration for the playoffs and won’t make it.  They stink.

But they’re way better than anyone imagined.  They’re way more fun than anyone imagined, too.  That matters, and Beal is the reason why.  He’s shelving an unbelievable load for the Wizards.

Washington is somehow 11th in offensive rating, and were hanging around much higher than that early in the year.  Beal’s made them watchable.  He’ll be a reserve because of it.

Overall though, Brogdon takes the cake.  He’s moved into the largest role he’s had since Virginia by taking over point guard duties and playing with the highest usage percentage he’s had in his NBA career by a whopping 5.7 percent.

He’s the point guard of a playoff team that hasn’t seen its best player play a minute for them yet.  Without Victor Oladipo, the Pacers were expected to be on the playoff bubble.  Now they’re in Toronto’s camp: one piece away from being title contenders.

The piece may not be Oladipo.  They might need more on top of it.  But with the way Brogdon is playing, it certainly makes that case a lot more viable.

F/C Giannis Antentkoumpo

Likely the front-runner for the MVP award for the second straight season, Giannis has somehow taken another step forward.  He’s also tested the borderline for MIP/MVP thanks to that step forward, alongside Doncic and some others.

Milwaukee’s downfall in last year’s playoffs was their halfcourt offense.  Toronto built a wall in front of Giannis driving to the rim and swallowed the Bucks whole drive and kick offense.  His lack of a jumpshot was totally exposed.

Not surprisingly, he added it.  Giannis is only shooting 32.2 percent from three, but he’s taking 5.1 per game.  At least he’s trying, unlike another very long, athletic Eastern Conference point guard who was mentioned above.

Similar to Zion Williamson at Duke, though his percentages are low, it feels like the three-ball goes in more than it does.  He’s using it extremely effectively, and its having an impact.

Aside from the three pointer, Giannis’ numbers are pure stupid.  He’s averaging 30 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists a game right now on 55 percent shooting from the field.  That’s accounting for a low three point percentage too.  Giannis is shooting 63.4 percent from two and 77.8 percent around the rim.  That’s Shaq-like stuff.

His is the first of three unassailable starting spots on the Eastern Conference team.  For as tough as the guards are, the front-court is quite easy.

F/C Pascal Siakam

Putting Pascal Siakam as a starter is a tough considering he’s only played 33 games, but Leonard in the West only played 34.

Yet, it’s also problematic since Jimmy Butler probably deserves the spot thanks to total number of games played.  But the NBA is mostly to blame here; they decided to label Butler as a forward instead of a guard.

Even though he’s battled injuries, Siakam gets the spot.  The Raptors forward has made two massive leaps in two seasons, and this time it’s keeping Toronto in the playoffs.  Toronto is right on the outside of the title contender tier – they’re just not that good yet.  One trade could swing that (It seems as if Masai Urji is more likely to go that way than to sell, but they’ll likely just stay pat).  Still, the fact that Toronto is one piece away from being a legitimate title contender after losing arguably the best player in the league right now in addition to a key role piece (Danny Green) speaks to how high Siakam has elevated his game.  He’s one more leap away from being the best player on a championship team.  Does he have it in him?

C Joel Embiid

Another player who has missed a ton of time, Joel Embiid, who, even if he gets the starter nod, won’t be able to play thanks to the broken hand he’s currently dealing with, has been the anchor of fourth-best defense in the NBA.  But the defensive rating metric is underrating Philadelphia.

The Sixers rarely win games with offense.  They’re holding teams to just 105.1 points a game, second in the league.  Yet, they’re point differential isn’t impressive at all: +3.3, 10th in the league.  It’s the defense and their talent on that end – the switchability, the stops, the execution – that’s winning them games.

The defensive strategy is working.  Embiid is a huge reason why.  He’s an absolute force on both ends down low, and occasionally looks like the best player in the league on nights when he shows up.  The Sixers are unbeatable when he’s at that level.  But most nights – against lesser competition – the defensive side is what they need, from him, and it’s absolutely been there.

Reserves coming next week…

How The Chiefs and 49ers Got To The Super Bowl

The NFL postseason’s market-corrected Sunday.  In a playoffs full of massive upsets, which included the undisputed best regular season team in the league falling in its first game, the two best teams left advanced to the Super Bowl.

Neither are huge surprises and neither are undeserving.  Had the two other teams won, maybe that statement wouldn’t be true.  But for the Super Bowl, we got the best of what the NFL had left.

The games weren’t very good at all, a complete 180 from last year, where Championship Sunday provided not only two of the best games of the year but two of the best games of the decade.  But hey, whatever it takes to keep Ryan Tannehill or a Packers team that was never very good out of the Super Bowl.

It seemed as if Green Bay never had a chance Sunday.  They looked just like the offensively sputtering, overrated 13-3 team they were against San Francisco, who gashed them for 285 rushing yards compared to just 69 through the air.

The biggest concerns about the 49ers throughout the season was their ability to throw the ball and have a trustworthy quarterback.  Jimmy Garoppolo has alleviated some of those worries, evident in that shootout against the Saints in Week 14.

But San Francisco hasn’t made us have to worry about Garoppolo, though.  The heavy running scheme has completed dominated both Minnesota and Green Bay in the playoffs.  Raheem Mostert had 160 yards and three touchdowns at halftime in the NFC Championship, and finished with 220.  Just 65 of the 49ers rushing yards came from backs other than Mostert.

He was unstoppable, and made Garoppolo irrelevant.  San Francisco had practically every Packer defender blocked at the line of scrimmage, allowing Mostert to average 7.6 yards per rush.

The 49ers had done it all year.  Their execution in the run game – whether it be the backs, the line or the coaching – was better than anyone’s throughout the season.  Sunday, they torched one of the NFL’s most improved defenses, and gave them no hope thanks to a 27-0 halftime lead.

The Niners were just as good on the other side of the ball.  Aaron Rodgers, despite being sacked only three times, was under constant pressure from San Francisco’s defensive line.  Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead dominated a pretty good Packers group and stifled Aaron Jones, who Green Bay relied on heavily this year.

Since Jones rushed for just 56 yards, it forced Green Bay attack through the air.  Davante Adams had a good day overall (A bit of a garbage time rally helped pad Green Bay’s stats and the score), but the lack of weapons aside from Adams loomed large.  No one was open underneath for Rodgers to get the ball to quickly.  Perhaps a shifty slot receiver (Brandon Aiyuk?) would help the Packers massively in the offseason.

San Francisco was the second best team in the league and the best in the NFC all year.  It makes sense that they’re here.  But the masking of Garoppolo and their run-oriented scheme might encounter some once-unlikely problems two weeks from now.

The last team that we expected to halt what has been one of the greatest stretches in NFL history from a running back was the Kansas City Chiefs.  Though an improved defensive unit from last year, Kansas City ranked 28th against the run according to Football Outsiders and allowed 4.9 yards per rush, fourth worst in the NFL.

That group stuffed Derrick Henry, who not only has been the Titans engine through their miracle playoff run but was the best running back in the league over the second half of the season.  Kansas City gave up just 69 yards on 19 carries to the impending free agent, despite falling in a 17-7 hole early in the first half.

Tennessee’s start was half stunning and half expected.  Stunning because for a quarter and a half, it looked as if Ryan Tannehill was really about to pull a Tom Brady or Nick Foles and get his team to the Super Bowl after taking over halfway through the season.  Tannehill was carving the Chiefs secondary – a group which heavily supplemented the unit’s overall improvement – and Henry was chipping away.

Yet, those 10-0 and 17-7 leads felt legit.  Andy Reid was on the other sideline; it was about time for him to lose early again in the playoffs, and even after upset wins of the Patriots and Ravens, doubt was still there.  At Arrowhead, for the first time, they actually started to feel real.

But Kansas City, a week after going down 24-0 at home, had the Titans right where they wanted them.  Patrick Mahomes started using his legs to extend plays, and the Chiefs used their speed on jet sweeps and by simply giving the ball to Tyreek Hill, who finished with two touchdowns on the day.  Kansas City scored 14 points unanswered points going into halftime, seven of which came on this ridiculous rush from Mahomes.

At that point, the game felt over.  It practically was.

Tennessee never led again after Mahomes pulled off what will be an iconic run, especially if Kansas City beats San Francisco on February 2.  Though it came right before halftime, it was the momentum boost the Chiefs needed.  They poured it on after the break.  A seven minutes, eight minute drive on Kansas City’s second possession of the third quarter broke Tennessee’s back, resulting in another touchdown to Hill and putting the Chiefs up two scores.  With Henry stuffed and Kansas City adjusting nicely defensively to combat Tannehill, the Titans had no answers.  The offensive onslaught was just too overwhelming.

Kansas City’s defensive performance sticks out the most, though.  After a couple rough drives early, it contained one of the most dominant forces in the playoffs and ran the Titans out of options.  It’s an outing that makes you wonder whether it could carry over to two weeks from now, where the Chiefs will need it thanks to San Francisco’s similar dominance on the ground.  If it doesn’t, sure, the Chiefs have Mahomes, certainly the more trustworthy quarterback among the two in the big game.  But if the Super Bowl does turn out to be more of a shootout, one key stop could be the biggest difference.