The Preview of the Championship Games That Matter

This weekend is not exactly primed for chaos.

Despite three top ten matchups within the conference championships, the Playoff picture is basically set.  If everything goes right, an Ohio State-Utah and LSU-Clemson Semi-final looks like what we’re going to get.

But there are reasons that may not happen.  Utah, with their nice cushion at No. 5 over Oklahoma, still plays in the Pac-12, a land of complete uncertainty.  Georgia may test LSU more than we think with its suffocating defense, and Wisconsin, fresh off a huge win at Minnesota, could keep things tight with the Buckeyes thanks to their revolutionary (At least, for them) offense.

It’s certainly fitting that the biggest domino that needs to fall comes first in the weekend’s slate.

Pac-12 Championship Game: No. 13 Oregon vs. No. 5 Utah

The most likely scenario gets the Utes in.  They beat an Oregon team that’s had a rough few weeks – losing at Arizona State and struggling early against Oregon State before winning by just 14 in a dreadful 24-10 game – and likely face Ohio State in the Playoff.

But there’s one outcome where the Utes take care of business in San Francisco and don’t get in: a Georgia win.

LSU losing, theoretically, doesn’t drop them from the rankings.  They’d have one loss and be just too good to leave out – they’ve been the No. 1 team in the country for most of the season.

A Georgia win obviously punches them in, and barring anything else, keeps the top four exactly the same for the Playoff.

Utah just has to focus on themselves and get the job done.  They don’t control their own destiny, so there’s no reason to worry about it or overthink it.

It should be an easy task just to take of business.  Oregon has zero momentum coming into the biggest game of their season, and has zero track record showing up for these type of games in the post Marcus Mariota era.

When Utah is healthy, they’re dominant.  The offense is completely different with Zack Moss on the field and in full health.  The senior has ran for 1,246 yards on 200 carries (!!!) with 15 touchdowns this season, and is high on running back boards for the upcoming NFL Draft.  Combine his presence with the rejuvenated Tyler Huntley – who’s actually throwing the ball downfield – and Utah’s offense is a complete reverse of what it was last season.  Huntley is averaging 11.1 yards per attempt and is completing 75.5 percent (!!!) of his passes this season, which has added a totally new dimension to an offense that was predicated on Moss and dink and dunk passing last season.

Arizona State got the best of Oregon by attacking the Ducks secondary deep.  Brandon Aiyuk and Frank Darby ran straight down the field and torched them.  Jayden Daniels made the throws.  Utah has a quarterback now that can now make them too.

Oregon should have that QB talent as well.  But it’s been a rough stretch for Justin Herbert.  His two interceptions at ASU were game-changers, and the underwhelming Oregon State win didn’t make up for the week before with a stat line of 18/30 for 174 yards and a touchdown.

Oregon’s speed is their biggest advantage.  Against ASU, Oregon used a ton of screen passing concepts to unlock their skill position guys.  The Sun Devils have not been a great tackling team this season, so forcing them to execute against speedy guys was a good strategy.

Utah’s defense isn’t ASU’s, obviously.  It’s much better, ranking fifth in Football Outsiders’ defensive FEI.  That might be bad news for the Ducks, especially if Herbert is going to continue playing like he has.

A Utah win kicks a very deserving Oklahoma out of the picture, and that’s assuming the Sooners win.  But Utah’s loss, which is in ways worse than the Sooners’, can be understandable.  Moss got six carries in that late September loss to USC’s third-string quarterback.  Not much else can prove his worth when he’s running hard.  If he does that Friday, Utah should be fine.

Prediction: Utah-31 Oregon-20

Big 12 Championship Game: No. 7 Baylor vs. No. 6 Oklahoma

Oklahoma is getting screwed by the College Football Playoff committee.  The Sooners rank 19th in strength of schedule, which is not remarkable, but is considering higher than Utah, who checks in 10 spots lower at 29.  Throw in the third-best offense in the country by offensive FEI (A group that was No. 1 for quite a bit) and the Big 12 not being an overall embarrassment like that other conference and the Sooners should be ranked fifth.  It’s clear we’re at the point with the Pac-12 that the committee is starting to feel bad for them.

Oklahoma doesn’t have zero chance, but it’s slim.  They first, obviously, need Utah to lose.  If that can happen, and LSU takes care of Georgia, the Sooners are in.  Not impossible, but also not likely.

An Oklahoma win and a stunning Ohio State or Clemson loss could generate a chance; Virginia would have to come up extremely clutch as a Buckeye loss may not drop them from the Playoff.  If anything, a Buckeye loss just puts Wisconsin into the playoff, given the recency bias and the fact that a Big Ten title is just more meaningful than a Big 12 one.

Clemson might get the boot with a loss even though it’d be their only one of the season.  The committee ranked them outside the top four in the first installment for a reason.  They’ve been shaky at times this year.

Oklahoma, like Utah, needs some help.  Also like the Utes, they have to worry about themselves first.  That’s the first step to this.

It’s likely beneficial for both that these two teams saw each other just three weeks ago in a WILD game in Waco.  Baylor dominated Oklahoma in the first half, leading 28-3 before halftime.

But the script flipped in the third quarter, just as everyone’s TVs flicked off.  Oklahoma found that deadly offense again and rallied to win 34-31.

Baylor has to do a couple things in this game.  Obviously, not completely choking in the second half would be one of them if not the most important.

Otherwise, the Bears should know that they have an advantage in this game.  Their offense was completely unstoppable early in that Week 10 game.  Oklahoma’s 70th ranked defense by FEI was torched by Charlie Brewer and company, giving them literally zero chance early.  It was 21-3 at the end of the first quarter.

If that’s the case, we should get a shootout, just not as lopsided a one.  Oklahoma, as demonstrated in that game and all season, has terrifying explosiveness.  Jalen Hurts has been ripping balls that we’ve never seen him throw before.  CeeDee Lamb is one of the most electric players in the country. The Sooners will be able to keep up.

Baylor should be able to answer.  Lack of execution as stark as what we saw from the Bears three weeks ago won’t happen again; or at least, it shouldn’t.

Regardless, it likely won’t be enough.  Oklahoma’s firepower is just too scary, and their confidence after the first matchup will be sky high.  What a shame it likely won’t be enough for another Playoff appearance.

Prediction: Oklahoma-48 Baylor-35

SEC Championship Game: No.4 Georgia vs. No. 2 LSU

As covered above, a Georgia upset eliminates any chance for Utah or Oklahoma to squeak in.

Can the Bulldogs do it?

They have to make this a defensive game.  Georgia’s offense ranked 28th in FEI this season, thanks to the second-coming of Dolphins-era Ryan Tannehill at quarterback.  DeAndre Swift has been excellent, but Jake Fromm has accelerated concerns about his ceiling with extremely lackluster offensive outputs this season.  It’s the reason for Georgia’s offensive slide.

Despite the Bulldogs’ third-ranked defense by FEI, LSU feels a bit invincible on the offensive end.  Joe Burrow is likely going to win the Heisman, and betting against him to score points is a death trap. The Tigers’ offense ranked second in FEI this year – a stunning turnaround from where they’ve been the past half decade.

Time after time again, when we’ve thought LSU could face some struggles, they’ve laid waste to good defenses.  They put up 42 points on Florida and 46 on Alabama.  Auburn’s group made them work the hardest they have all year.

That game was tight and low-scoring.  LSU pulled away 23-20 thanks to Burrow sticking it out and Bo Nix looking like a freshman.  Georgia’s a similar team to Auburn.  The defense is going to be there; Fromm may or may not play at a high level.  While it may not have came through in that game, Nix flashed higher ceilings. this season  In a way, he’s much scarier than someone like Fromm because of that potential.  He just didn’t show it against LSU.  With Fromm, you know what you’re getting. There’s much more predictability.  This defense will be ready for that.

Prediction: LSU-30 Georgia-24

Big Ten Championship Game: No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 1 Ohio State

Ohio State might be the only team more dominate than LSU this season.  Every game has been or felt like no contest.  They destroyed Michigan at the Big House.  They went up 21-0 on Penn State before letting them back in the game.  And oh, they completely annihilated this Wisconsin team 38-7 in late October.

The Buckeyes made that “revolutionary” Wisconsin offense mentioned above a non-factor in that game.  Wisconsin looked like a classic Big Ten who ran up the middle three straight times with no luck.  Jack Coan was brutal, going 10-17 with a 108 yards.  Jonathan Taylor only mustered 52 yards on 20 carries.  The Buckeyes completely shut them down, casting doubts as to how legit the offense actually was.

Wisconsin has proved that their passing attack isn’t a fluke though.  They used it extremely effectively against Minnesota to get into this title game – Coan was phenomenal in the horrible Minneapolis weather last weekend.

Him doing that again isn’t only unlikely but is only one piece to a near impossible puzzle for the Badgers.  The ninth-ranked Badger defense by FEI was torched by Justin Fields and company in Week 8.  JK Dobbins had 163 yards and two touchdowns.  Justin Fields threw for two and rushed for one more.

Fields, like Burrow, has an inevitability to him.  No matter what a defense tries to do, it feels as if he’ll figure it out and still dominate.  It’s what makes a potential matchup between the two so intriguing.

Coan and the Wisconsin offense, despite a season full of promise and newfound success, just don’t have that level to them.  That was clear in October.  It’ll be so again Saturday.

Prediction: Ohio State-38  Wisconsin-14

The Trail Blazers Signed Caremlo Anthony Because…???

All stats are current through Friday’s games and are via NBA.com, ESPN and Basketball Reference.

Things were bad for the Portland Trail Blazers before this weekend.

On Thursday, they were 4-8 and sat in 13th place in the ever-so competitive Western Conference, a land where, despite such a new season, a slow start could be deadly.   Throw in the surprising Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves, along with basketball’s most consistent and competitive franchise in the San Antonio Spurs who might very well sneak into the playoffs and Portland could already be facing long odds to be playing in late April.

To try and help with that, they signed Carmelo Anthony and then proceeded to blow a 23 point lead Saturday night against San Antonio before rallying to a 121-116 win, improving them to a still meek 5-8 record.

A lot of the numbers posted by Portland don’t support their immense struggle.  The Blazers are league-average offensively thus far, ranking 15th in offensive rating by putting up a 107.9 mark.  They’re 19th on the other end thanks to a 109.2 defensive  rating, good enough for a total net rating of -1.2.

Damian Lillard has been a top seven candidate in the way-too-early MVP race.  He’s putting up 30.5 points a game on 48.2 percent shooting from the field and 38.6 percent from three – a really good number considering he’s shooting from deep 9.5 times a game.

Lillard is fifth in PER (That’s a stat that, while telling, is also predicated on large sample size and doesn’t take defense into account), first in offensive and overall win shares all while leading the league in minutes played thus far, making the numbers he’s putting up even more impressive.

All of this – the below-average-to-average ratings and Lillard’s torrid start – shouldn’t equal 5-8.  It should be closer to .500, or even better because of Lillard’s performance.  But sitting at 12th in the conference among the likes of New Orleans and Memphis almost feels unfair, creating a haunting sense that the Blazers could be getting unlucky or just don’t have what it takes given the insane competition.

It’s likely a little bit of both.

In their losses this season, Portland is shooting 34.2 percent from three.  For the most part, they’ve been cold.  They shot 25 and 30 percent from deep against Denver and San Antonio, respectively.  They hit 55 percent of their threes against the Sixers, but still lost by just a point thanks to an insane Furkan Korkmaz buzzer-beater.  Two days later, they regressed back down to 32.5 percent against the Warriors and dropped that game thanks to Eric Paschall’s breakout; Portland’s injuries in the frontcourt really emerged there.  Things didn’t get better against the Clippers (Expectedly so) in the next game; the Blazers shot only 28 percent that night.

Portland is 1-3 since that Clippers game, and in their losses they’ve shot 36.7, 26.7 and 39.6 percent from three.  The poor outing came against Sacramento of all teams, a squad they likely had the best chance to get a win over after the other two losses came against Brooklyn and Toronto.

The opponents Portland has lost to are allowing their opponents to make 36.18% of their three pointers, so it’s not as if the Blazers are playing teams that are exceptional at defending the three point line.  When Portland doesn’t hit from beyond the arc, it hurts them, and subsequently results in losses.

Perhaps they aren’t taking the right shots.  Portland isn’t moving the ball at all offensively.  The Blazers rank last in the NBA in assists per game and second-to-last in total passes made this season.  They’re taking the most pull-up jumpshots out of any team in the league with 32.4 per game, and have the second highest isolation percentage in the league at 9.9 percent (Houston obviously sits in first place there, but they’re isolating a little less than TWICE as much as Portland is, sitting at 18 percent).

So it’s no surprise the shots aren’t falling.  The Blazers need to add efficiency to their offense to fix this.

Caremelo Anthony does not bring that.

Hold that thought for a second.  We should’t be acting like Melo’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness will have a profoundly negative or positive impact on the Blazers.  This is a trial run to see whether he can actually contribute anything at all.  That opportunity won’t come in terms of a starting role or crunch-time minutes.

Because of that, the Blazers have to figure out how they’re going to improve the roster they have without outside forces.  Trades aren’t going to fix a style of play problem.  If they’re considering that, then Portland’s issues are much deeper than we think and are a sign of serious institutional trouble there.  This team should be good enough and better than that.

Portland’s most-played lineup has a net rating of -4.7 this season, a brutally low number considering the small minutes sample size.  It consists of Lillard (Obviously not the issue; Portland is a -12.4 net with him off the court), CJ McCollum, Rodney Hood, Anthony Tolliver and Hassan Whiteside.  Tolliver is the biggest issue.  He’s been horrific to start the year, shooting 24.4 percent from the field 24.2 percent from three.  It’s likely a sample size issue, but the 34-year-old saw his percentages drop substantially last year.  Another drop in those is something Portland can’t afford.

CJ McCollum has been cold too.  He’s only shooting 40.7 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from deep.  This should absolutely change, unlike Tolliver.  McCollum is one of the 25 best guys in the league and is coming off a smoking hot playoff run.  It could be just some negative regression stretched over the course of the summer playing a major role.  McCollum isn’t just going to be bad – this isn’t baseball, and star players don’t fluctuate like that in their prime.

Rodney Hood has been really good, shooting 50 percent from the floor and 48.8 percent from three.  It’d be interesting to see Portland throw him out there alongside the two guards and Anferenee Simons, who has lived up to all the preseason hype so far.

Simons needs to play more.  His on/off court numbers are dreadful, but he’s shooting 47.3 percent on field goals and 38.2 percent from three.  Plus, he’s hitting shots like this.

This was the game that Simons showed what he was capable of.  He dropped 15 points in the fourth quarter, and was practically sealing the game until Kawhi Leonard happened.

Simons is unique because he can play on or off the ball and still be able to takeover in big moments.  He was the reason why Portland couldn’t be counted out of contention this year.  But as the slow start has shown, he alongside the two stars in the backcourt won’t be enough.

Injuries have obviously played their role.  Zach Collins’ dislocated shoulder is forcing Portland to play Tolliver so much.  Jursurf Nurkic is still working his way back from that horrific ankle injury suffered late last season and is probably still a ways away from returning.

Because of that, Portland should probably try and go small.  Simons and Hood among CJ and Dame might be the best bet for the Blazers to right the ship.  Whiteside hasn’t been detrimental but certainly hasn’t been great.  It doesn’t matter either way; they don’t have another option, and any smaller lineup is too small.  Whiteside has to play no matter how bad he is.  It’s simply a bodies issue.

The Blazers could also use their third-most played lineup of the season, which features Dame, CJ and Whiteside surrounded by Mario Hezonja and Kent Bazemore.  That lineup is a +26.8 in just 40 minutes.  Bazemore brings much needed defense, helping that rating improve to an impressive 95.2.  But the offensive numbers just don’t add up to the supreme 122 rating that the group is producing.  Hezonja’s been brutal, shooting just 31.9 percent on field goals and 32 percent from three.  Bazemore hasn’t been much better, though that’s somewhat expected as he flourishes more with the ball in hands rather than playing alongside two high-usage guards.

It’s likely that the offensive rating is being saved by Lillard, and that the four-time All-Star is accumulating most of his impeccable numbers with Hezonja and Bazemore on the court for some fluke reason.

Still, no option the Blazers have seems to be a good one.  That’s the best case for signing Melo.  What’s the risk?  What do the Blazers, in simple need of literally anyone who can play basketball, lose here?  Isn’t there only a route upwards by signing Melo?  He can’t make them worse since the negatives he brings to the table are already happening.  What if he turns into a potent scorer and doesn’t play as inefficiently?  Expecting that kind of turnaround is ridiculous, especially from someone whose been so stubborn about role in his past two NBA stops.  That stubbornness led us to believe Melo had received his last chance in the league.  Even the Lakers wouldn’t sign him.  The Blazers did, and Melo’s going to have to buy in and perform rather than just perform.

But at this point, even him just performing is questionable.  Melo was horrible in Houston to begin last year, shooting 40.5% from the floor 32.8% from three in those 10 games last year.  And those horrific numbers came in a situation where Anthony was used as a complimentary role player.  He was a classic off-ball wing.

But at times, Melo couldn’t resist reverting back to his old self.

What does one of the least efficient teams in basketball need?  Probably not someone who is going to be taking shots like those.

The Blazers do need bodies, sure.  Melo brings that to table.  But the root of Portland’s poor start doesn’t totally lie in their injuries.  They can make up for that by playing smart and letting their talent do their thing.  Portland’s lack of ball movement, McCollum’s early-season daze and Simons’ limited role doesn’t fit either of those parameters.  Neither does Carmelo Anthony.

CFP Rankings Review + Alabama-LSU Preview

It happens almost every year.

The College Football Playoff Committee gets together, assembles their ranking and leaves at least one team out.  Sometimes that’s their fault.  Sometimes it isn’t.

In 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff, it was.  They shunned the Big 12’s two best representatives in TCU and Baylor for Florida State and Ohio State respectively.

In 2017 and ‘18, it wasn’t their fault.  Sure, there were legitimate cases for Ohio State and Georgia – in any other year they were Playoff teams.  But two losses wasn’t going to cut it.  Not with that crop of teams ahead of them.

This year slips in between the committee’s past.  The country’s top tier of teams consists of five.  Only four can make the playoff.  And there’s not a lot of separation between all of them.  The top three teams have a real case for No.1, and the gap between No.4 and No.5 is extremely close.

This season is reminiscent of last.  It’s just that Clemson’s (or Penn State’s) case is much, much better than Ohio State or Georgia’s.  And that makes things so much harder.

Support for Ohio State at No.1 overall makes sense.  The Buckeyes have looked and been absolutely unstoppable.  They’re No.1 in Football Outsiders’ overall FEI thanks to their No. 4 rank offensively and second defensively.  Justin Fields is among a crowded bunch for the Heisman Trophy, which also features his stud teammate Chase Young.  JK Dobbins is having another insanely productive season at running back; rounding out a deadly offense.

That pure dominance could be tied to their schedule.  They’ve played one good team (Michigan State was counted as the second, but they also lost to Arizona State at home, soooooo) in Wisconsin.

Sure, Ohio State should have blown out everyone they’ve played thus far.  But going out and actually making that happen when everyone is expecting that is much harder than it seems.  Ohio State is meeting and exceeding expectations.  Wisconsin’s revolutionary (For them, it’s revolutionary) passing attack should have given the Buckeyes a bit of trouble when dealing with Jonathan Taylor simultaneously.  It didn’t, and the Buckeyes romped them.

If Ohio State hasn’t played anyone, then Alabama really hasn’t played anyone, which is why they find themselves at No. 3 overall.  Their best win was over a ranked Texas A&M team that doesn’t even find themselves in the rankings anymore.  Any debate about the Tide being placed behind LSU is closed for now.

The LSU-Ohio State debate is a very real and fun one.  The committee selected Ohio State because of the case above.  It’s an interesting pivot from the AP Poll, and displays that strength of schedule may not matter as much as we think.

The committee seems to be relying on the eye test and even their gut.  The Tigers demolish the Buckeyes in SOS and likely tie them in the eye test – LSU’s offense the past two seasons has been the missing piece to making this program a Playoff contender.  Now it’s there, and it’s terrifying.

But doesn’t Ohio State seem scarier?  LSU being an explosive team with a downfield passing attack still seems too good to be true.  Is that what the committee rooted its decision in?  Or were they just trying to avoid the classic SEC bias?

Somehow, this isn’t the most controversial decision they made.

Penn State is undefeated.  That alone is impressive.  And their schedule has been better than Ohio State’s – they’ve actually played two decently tough conference opponents as opposed to just one.  Both have been tight wins, but that’s expected with true competition.  They’re ninth in overall FEI, with their defense ranking tenth and offense 20th.

And yet, them beating Clemson in any game seems completely inconceivable.

The difference is simple.  Clemson has Trevor Lawrence.  Penn State doesn’t.  Clemson has Travis Etienne.  Penn State doesn’t.  Clemson has Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross.  Penn State doesn’t (KJ Hamler is really, really good).

They haven’t shown it, but Clemson is just a better team.  They’re more talented.  That’s why Clemson wins that football game.

That’s also why Penn State, despite the projection above, deserves to be ranked ahead of the Tigers for now.  Clemson has looked really bad despite being 8-0.  They’ve started slow in a couple games, almost lost to North Carolina and didn’t stomp on Texas A&M whatsoever, winning only 24-10.  Lawrence has thrown the 10th-most interceptions in the country with eight, and some of them have been really bad decisions (That despite the glorifying of him above).

Penn State over Clemson – for now – is the right decision.  But the committee gets a little hypocritical here.  If they’re choosing strength of schedule for Penn State, then why didn’t they do it for LSU when it comes to No.1?

Here are a couple other thoughts regarding the committee’s first rankings…

The Big 12 disrespect is real

The Big 12 and Pac-12 are becoming eerily similar of one another, and because of it, the committee could be punishing them.

As proven by Oklahoma’s loss to Kansas State, the Big 12 is starting to become a conference in which anyone can lose to anyone, most of that rooted in the putrid defense and the explosive offenses that reside in the league.  In shootouts, it comes down to the last possession, and there’s a 50% chance that “x” team gets that chance.

The Pac-12 is similar.  Not necessarily in the strategy that it takes to get there, but in the results that the teams in the league produce.  The Pac-12 is trash because no one is that good, and that leads to anyone having a chance against anyone.  The Big-12 has at least one good team, but has their own reasons as to why.

Utah ranked above Oklahoma is a bit wild.  Each have a pretty bad loss (Utah’s being to USC).  They rank behind Oklahoma in overall FEI, don’t have nearly the offensive firepower or a Heisman contender and skirted past an unranked Washington just last weekend.  It’s hard to think that the Utes would have a chance at keeping up against the Sooners offense, but we did see what a good defense does to Lincoln Riley’s scheme last Playoff.

Baylor might deserve a little less credit.  Auburn and Florida, who’re ranked ahead of the Bears, were legitimate Playoff contenders at one point this season; a season which had eight Playoff teams after four games, which felt like quite a bit after that much of a sample size.  The Bears aren’t of that quality yet despite their 8-0 record.  It took them 2OTs to beat Texas Tech (A classic Big 12 game) and they barely got by West Virginia in their last contest.

The Minnesota disrespect is deserved

When you want to talk about not playing anyone, Minnesota might be the crown jewel of that statement this year.

The Gophers beat South Dakota State, a FCS school, by seven.  Then they went to double overtime with Fresno State.  Then they beat Georgia Southern by three.

That came in back-to-back-to-back weeks.  And they followed that up with wins against Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers – the Big Ten’s bottom of the shoe, and that might be an understatement.

So that’s how Minnesota got to 8-0.  No. 17 overall sounds about right.


Now for a look at No.3 Alabama vs. No.2 LSU…

Contrary to how it’s being marketed and talked about, this game is not nearly as big as we tend to think.

Perhaps the most important takeaway we’ll have from this game is the tape it produces, which would serve as a nice basis for a potential rematch in the future.

Whoever loses is in fine shape. Penn State, despite their case above and they’re No.4 ranking, likely won’t make the Playoff thanks to an upcoming date with Ohio State in another week. That opens up a spot for Clemson. Neither LSU or Alabama – with one loss and the ceiling they’ve showed – will drop from the top four with a loss Saturday.

It certainly affects the race for the No. 1 position. But how important is that really??

Plus, if Tua Tagovliola is not the quarterback Saturday, a loss for Alabama is perfectly excusable. They shouldn’t be expected to win at all if he doesn’t play.

Tua is the obvious and massive x-factor here. Tua not playing gives the Tide almost no chance. Tua playing makes them almost hard to bet against.

Tua is expected to play.

But the last clause of that second sentence is worth considering. What if he’s not Tua. What if he’s 80 percent? Is 90 even good enough?? This isn’t your normal LSU team. You might actually have to outscore them as opposed to grinding out a defensive-oriented game.

Tua not playing didn’t make a difference against Ole Miss. Mac Wilson was impeccable. But that was Ole Miss, a defense that was 47th in defensive FEI.

LSU ranks 23rd, which feels a bit low and offensive given the talent on that side of the ball.  Their pass defense is likely the cause for that drop; it’s what happens when you lose a guy like Greedy Williams.  But the Tigers are tough to run on; they rank 13th in rushing yards per attempt and rushing yards allowed per game at 3.0 and 97.9, respectively.

A defense that can be thrown on is scary against the Tide.  Their mercenary receiver group of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith is one of the best of all-time, and could negate a non-100% Tua.  This is the No. 1 ranked team in offensive FEI, and that’s not adjusted for Mac Wilson’s start.

Alabama is still very good in the defensive department despite their own drop statistically.  They rank ninth in defensive FEI – much higher than LSU.  The Tide have been lockdown through the air while their usually stout defensive front hasn’t been as good against the run.  Alabama ranks fourth in passing yards per attempt allowed and 13th in passing yards per game allowed at just a mere 180.1

If Bama can shut down the LSU passing game, then that reduces LSU to the type of team they were before Joe Burrow got to campus:  an old fashioned SEC team that doesn’t score a lot of points and has a grinding defense.  That’d be fine if the Tigers were dealing with a Tua-less Bama squad; it’d essentially be the same type of team squaring off against one another.  Unfortunately for the Tigers, Tua is going to play, and probably be just fine.

Prediction: Alabama-27  LSU-20

2019 World Series Preview

The NLCS ended so long ago that it was almost hard to remember who the Washington Nationals swept.  It was such a dominating and short series that it’s almost dangerous.  The break – a week between Washington’s pennant win and the start of their quest to win the World Series – underrates them.

That’s especially so when you compare it to the Houston Astros pennant win, which luckily for them concluded Saturday night instead of Sunday – a possibility thanks to Wednesday’s rainout of Game 4.  Houston walked Game 6 off thanks to Jose Altuve’s two-run shot and walked off the field in the World Series, where first pitch was scheduled to be thrown less than 72 hours after their celebration.

The Astros are on the top of the world right now.  The Nationals have almost been forgot about.  That’s very a good thing to have on your side.

World Series: Washington Nationals vs. Houston Astros

As is with most postseason series, pitching is the forefront.  But this matchup is a whole other breed when it comes to the talent at play in that department.

Here’s the projected pitching matchups for the first two games:

  1. Gerrit Cole vs. Max Scherzer
  2. Justin Verlander vs. Stephen Strasburg

Patrick Corbin hasn’t been named Washington’s Game 3 starter, but Zack Greinke is definitely going for the Astros.

Houston should be able to work it so that they can pitch only those three guys throughout the course of the series.  If you’re going to extend guys and throw them on short rest, this time of year is the only time to do so.

Game 4 is Saturday, so Cole going in Game 1 allows him to get three full days of rest in between.  The same case goes for a potential Game 7, in which Cole could again start on three days rest next Wednesday.

It’s a tall task for the Nationals, but they’re likely to give Houston the same business.  Scherzer has rebounded incredibly well from his rough Wild Card outing, but that was widely expected.  Strasburg has been unhittable, and so has Anibal Sanchez of all people, who came way too close to throwing a no-hitter in Game 1 against St. Louis (It was Scherzer who almost threw one in the next game as well).

Corbin has been Washington’s worst starter this postseason; he sneakily has a 7.43 ERA in five games.  Perhaps the lack of a Game 3 announcement is because they’re not sure he’s the best option, or because there’s been talk of moving Corbin to the bullpen for Games 1 and 2 if need be.

“If need be” is probably a guarantee.  That’s not necessarily because Washington will be down in those games, but because going to the 22nd ranked bullpen via fWAR in baseball this regular season (It felt like they were a lot worse than that) is a terrifying proposition against the best offense in baseball.

The Nationals have curbed some of the issues.  Relievers Daniel Hudson, Sean Doolittle and Fernando Rodney (somehow) have all pitched well so far in October.  There’s also Tanner Rainey, whose small sample size of innings make his numbers worse than how he’s truly pitched.  He’s one of the few Nats relievers to actually have decent regular season numbers as well.

Which makes the bullpen still the issue for Washington even with some of their improvements.  It’s way worse than Houston’s and still have many trust issues.  It was the biggest qualm of this team all season.  Now they’re going to hold it together?

Houston, despite having a much more talented and trustworthy group, has their own bad apples.  Roberto Osuna blew the save before Altuve’s walk-off.  Hector Rondon has throw a third of an inning all postseason between two stints and gave up a run.  Ryan Presley has been a disaster in high leverage spots.  Josh James had a 3.60 ERA but has given up some critical hits.  Chris Devenksi, who hasn’t pitched this postseason, was bad in the regular season and is going to be on the roster.

But all the bad about Houston’s bullpen kind of turns into a good.  They’re deep.  Really deep.  And because of that, they have plenty of trustworthy options like Will Harris, Joe Smith, Jose Urquidy and Brad Peacock.  Wade Miley could make an appearance as well.

With starting pitching this good, this series will likely come down to the final innings of every game.  Sure, Corbin and Greinke haven’t been excellent.  But they’re probably be matched up against each other, so it kind of cancels out.

When the aces are on the mound, everything is off the table until the later innings.  Houston has to run up the pitch count to force whichever Nats starter off the field.  They can’t be hitting against relievers for just one or two innings every night.  Even with Houston’s advantages, the Nationals offense is hot right now thanks to Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon and somehow Howie Kendrick.  Houston may not be as well set up as some think they are.

But, the Astros are the team better built to win late in games.  They have the bullpen.  They have the terrifying offense.  And they have the experience.

Prediction: Astros in 7

The West’s Non Title Contenders, An Eastern Conference PODCAST And Predictions

Even the back of the Western Conference has some intrigue to it.  Despite these four teams having no chance of sneaking into the playoff race, each bottom feeder has at least something going for them.  Well, that might be a generous statement for the Suns.

As for the Eastern Conference, a late start on the preview due to school and other things has corrupted coverage of those teams.  There’s much less happening over there anyways, so it’s partially okay (There are certainly not 12 playoff worthy teams  on that side!).  If you’re looking for thoughts on the Eastern Conference, below is a podcast hosted by my friend Nick Sanchez.  The podcast is via Arizona State University’s Blaze Radio and Nick was kind enough to invite me on, among two other friends, to preview the season.  This podcast essentially serves as the Eastern Conference Preview.  Be sure to check out our Western Conference preview as well.

Order of teams is not indicative of projected playoff seeding or chances of making Finals

No chance of playoff contention:

  • Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder might take the crown as the weirdest team in the league.  There’s not usually anything good about that.  But after an offseason in which they traded the whole core they assembled just two years earlier, Oklahoma City might actually be semi-competent.  And one things for sure: because of that weirdness, they will certainly be watchable.

But it’s not going to get them anywhere near the playoffs.  This is a roster built to top out at 45 wins, and that’s a very generous ceiling considering the conference.  The potential 12th seed finishing with even 40+ wins is mind-boggling.

The Thunder could get to that number.  Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander create a dynamic backcourt duo featuring two players who have the passing skills of point guards despite their overlap (Playing one of those two off-the-ball kind of wastes their ability, but OKC isn’t going to be able to move CP3 unless a team does something very dumb).  A healthy Danilo Gallinari was extremely impressive last season, hitting threes and using sneaky athleticism to stay on the court against smaller lineups.  The fit with him and Steven Adams isn’t ideal, as Adams has clear defensive issues in playoff games.  But offensively it allows OKC to play four theoretical shooters and a big down low.

Their middle wing spot is up for grabs.  Andre Roberson didn’t play at all last season thanks to a knee injury, which also allowed him to play in only 39 games in 2017-18.  Terrance Ferguson has stepped in nicely during Roberson’s prolonged absence – the 21-year-old used his extreme length to switch defensively and hit threes, an unexpected development this early in his career.  With Roberson still working his way back and being almost completely unplayable on the offensive end of the court, Ferguson and even Hamiduo Diallo will likely get minutes there.  Nothing should be expected of Roberson.  Anything he contributes is a plus.

This Thunder team is not bad at all.  But it’s tough to say that they’re actually good as well.  That lands them unfortunately right in the middle, which in the West is anywhere from the fifth to the 12th seed.  Even more unfortunately for the Thunder, as long as that untradeable CP3 contract remains on their books, they’re likely to be in that range for awhile.

  • Phoenix Suns

It is hard to come up with reasons to even watch this team this season, and that’s coming from a Suns fan.

The Suns finally got Devin Booker a point guard in Ricky Rubio.  The contract (Three years, $51 million) and fit (Rubio is a career 32.2% three point shooter) is extremely questionable.  But Rubio is a more than competent point guard who can make passes Booker can’t and brings defense, something sorely lacking on this Phoenix roster.

With Booker not tasked to run the offense anymore, he can focus on being its most prominent piece and best player.  Because of that, it’s time for him to show what he’s truly capable of.  How much that is determines the next steps for this Phoenix team in the future.

Phoenix needs an assessment on Booker’s ability.  Booker’s a star already, but is he anything more than that?  Can he be an All-NBA guy?  A top 10 player in the league?

They were never going to find out by not adding Rubio.  Now they can.  Besides that hopeful development, the Suns really don’t have much going for them.  Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton are both young and talented players, but Ayton has to get better defensively before he emerges as a true star alongside Booker.

  • Memphis Grizzlies

Entrenched with multiple fun young guys like Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillion Brooks and Grayson Allen, the Grizzlies have a really, really nice future set up for themselves.

That doesn’t mean that they’ll be good this year.  The youth is everywhere on this team, and its going to play.

Rebuilding teams like to put faces on their endeavor by starting veterans and playing them heavy minutes while easing their young guys into that workload.  Not Memphis.

That’s possibly because they’ve drafted extremely well.  Jackson Jr. was one of the most NBA ready guys in his draft – he had the defense and the shooting coming in.  Morant was the same way.  His incredible passing and athleticism made the Grizzlies trade franchise icon Mike Conley away.  Morant is now the focus of the whole offense because of what he brings to table.

And they’re not going to throw him out there with vets.  They’re throwing him out there with Brooks, Triple-J (How about that nickname?), Kyle Anderson (Who’s on a veteran-like contract but is more a bridge guy) and likely some Brandon Clarke, who’s a bit of a tweener but fits the Memphis Grit-n-Grind identity well.

Behind Morant is Tyus Jones (One of the better backup point guards in basketball), D’Anthony Melton and Grayson Allen, one of the pieces received back from Utah for Conley.  Allen’s hopeful passing ability slots him behind Morant (his defense isn’t good enough to survive on the wing) because of the minutes Memphis has to find for Jae Crowder.

Crowder, and the exiled Andre Igoudala, won’t have to fit in for too long though.  The two wings will almost certainly be on another team by the time the trade deadline comes around in February.  Memphis will get fantastic value for Iggy, and possibly soon as the longer he’s not playing the more his value goes down.  Crowder is less of a certainty as the shooting he showed during the 2016-17 season might have just been an anomaly; that aspect of his game certainly didn’t help Utah last year.  Still, he’s a lengthy defender, and that’s one of the more valuable commodities in the league right now.

By playing all their youth (Minus Jonas Valancuinas.  That contract was very strange), Memphis is seeing who their future core pieces are.  Aside from JJJ and Morant, those are pretty undetermined.

  • Minnesota Timberwolves

It feels like the Timberwolves are desperate to rebuild but can’t because of all the money they have tied up.

It’s a weird roster, which makes them extremely similar to Oklahoma City in more than one way.  Both are wrapped in a bad contract (Contracts* in Minnesota’s case) and have something very odd to show for it.

Also like the Thunder, Minnesota might actually be quite competent.  But that state is arguably the worst to be in.

Karl-Anthony Towns and the decently modern new look of the Wolves is the case for them to be competent.  This Ringer piece was a terrifying read in the best way possible.  If KAT elevates not just one level (Which would be improving his defensive game), but two-to-three more, Minnesota could push themselves into the race for the 8th seed or better.  KAT turning into Anthony Davis by developing skills like passing and shot-creation is a future MVP.

Surrounding that is what’s likely to be a three-wing set with Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington and rookie Jarret Culver, along with nice depth off the bench in Jake Layman, Josh Okogie and Treveon Graham.  But despite them going with a more modern look, they’re still lacking the efficiency teams want from those lineups.

We all know the book on Wiggins; he’s a high usage, selfish player who takes a ton of shots and doesn’t play defense.  Some nights he’s fine because the shots go in.  Most nights they don’t.  Covington is a lockdown defender who has improved his shot dramatically; he’s perhaps the best player out of the three right now.  And Culver is raw offensively but, like Covington, can lock down.

Culver has unfortunate potential to turn into Wiggins but with defense.  He needs the ball because of his lack of a jump-shot, and his handle will allow him to cede it even more.

But having Culver as a primary facilitator at times is a nice break from Jeff Teague, who has reached Wiggins levels of inefficiency the past two years.  Culver may not have point guard stuff as a passer, but he’s already a more than viable No.2 option in that department.

Practically everything good about the Wolves is replaced by something bad.  That is what .500, or pure competence, gets you.

Conference Standings:

Eastern Conference:

  1. Milwaukee Bucks, 59-23
  2. Philadelphia 76ers, 56-26
  3. Brooklyn Nets, 51-31
  4. Boston Celtics, 49-33
  5. Miami Heat, 47-35
  6. Toronto Raptors, 45-37
  7. Indiana Pacers, 44-38
  8. Orlando Magic, 41-41

  9. Chicago Bulls, 39-43

  10. Atlanta Hawks, 37-45
  11. Detroit Pistons, 36-46
  12. Washington Wizards, 33-49
  13. New York Knicks, 28-54
  14. Cleveland Cavaliers, 24-58
  15. Charlotte Hornets, 21-61

Western Conference:

  1. Los Angeles Clippers, 62-20
  2. Houston Rockets, 57-25
  3. Los Angeles Lakers, 54-28
  4. Utah Jazz, 52-30
  5. Portland Trail Blazers, 52-30
  6. Denver Nuggets, 50-32
  7. Golden State Warriors, 47-35
  8. Dallas Mavericks, 46-36

  9. Sacramento Kings, 45-37

  10. San Antonio Spurs, 44-38
  11. New Orleans Pelicans, 41-41
  12. Oklahoma City Thunder, 41-41
  13. Minnesota Timberwolves, 39-43
  14. Phoenix Suns, 28-54
  15. Memphis Grizzlies, 24-58

Sorting Out The Western Conference’s 8th Seed

With seven teams guaranteed to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, it creates a slugfest for the eighth seed, where four teams all equipped with young studs are all looking to sneak in.  Who gets in though will be dependent on that young stud living up to the expectations handed to him.  It couldn’t represent the league’s surplus of young talent enough.

Order of teams is not indicative of projected playoff seeding or chances of making playoffs

The battle for the 8th seed:

  • New Orleans Pelicans

Almost no team in basketball has more hype or potential than the New Orleans Pelicans this season.  Equipped with the now-injured Zion Williamson, a couple of former young Laker stars, a loaded draft class and two savy veteran signings, New Orleans, if everything comes together, could find themselves in the top seven of the West rather than fighting in the back of it.

But everything has to come together.  This is a young team with new management, almost all new faces and a couple of players who, despite their young stardom, will have to take massive leaps forward.

Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are fine.  At 21 and 22 respectively, the duo can still grow into what some projected them to be.

This will be Ingram’s fourth season.  He’s yet to develop a jumpshot or emerge as a dominant scorer (The KD comparisons were always absurd), and despite having the length and athleticism to be a ridiculous defender, he hasn’t garnered the defensive credit Ball has.

Ball’s defense being his No.1 NBA skill would be a stunner to anyone who evaluated the 2017 NBA Draft.  Injuries and that nasty looking jump-shot have plagued him throughout his first two seasons, but his defense and facilitating – the latter being his biggest attraction coming out of UCLA – have made him at least an average player.

That’s not what most expected out of these two.  Those issues is what caused the Lakers to give up so many picks in the Anthony Davis trade.  Neither Ball or Ingram were sure to develop into the stars they were expected to be.  New Orleans will likely have them playing big roles despite that, with Ball playing alongside Jrue Holiday (creating at least a filthy defensive duo) and Ingram likely playing on the wing next to JJ Redick.

There is a chance that none of this matters at all.  The concerns about two of their key players not necessarily being able to do anything well on the basketball court, the new faces and the chemistry building that comes with that.  None of it could matter.

We could very possibly be completely overrating Zion’s impact in year one.  They are the biggest expectations anyone since LeBron has had coming into their rookie year.  Expecting a 19-year-old to lead a team to the playoffs might just be unreasonable, especially since he’s now projected to miss “weeks” to start the season, per ESPN.

But what if he actually does it?  What if Zion comes in and is better than we expect him to be?  What if he is immediately one of the 25 best guys in the league?  What if he makes the All-NBA team?

Reasonable should look like Rookie of the Year (Not a hard award to win) and an impact similar to Luka Doncic’s on Dallas last season.  Doncic didn’t make third-team All-NBA, but established himself as one of the league’s 30-or-so best players.  If Zion can do that, New Orleans will need Ball and Ingram to really step it up, as Holiday isn’t a dominate scorer and the league knows the primary way Redick is used (Essentially ran off screens and that’s about it).

Zion hitting expectations for his rookie year won’t be enough to get the Pelicans in the playoffs.  Even with the ridiculous depth they have behind him in Jaxson Hayes, Nickiel Alexander-Walker (Likely their sixth man), Derrick Favors, E’Twuan Moore and Kenrich Williams, the West is just too stacked, and experience does matter.

Zion exceeding those expectations though, which is certainly a possibility, changes things.  It’ll be to zero surprise if Zion has one of better rookie seasons we’ve seen.  If he makes an All-NBA team and is immediately a guy who legitimately matters, then the ceiling on New Orleans sky-rockets.  They already have what everyone else is looking for: A best player on a championship team. Zion is there for them.  They just have to figure out the rest of the cast.  That’s the easy part.

  • San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs need to figure out who they are.

There’s a side of this team that has very good veteran players who are a playoff team in any other season.

But then there’s a side of this team that is incredibly young and talented, and doesn’t have a defined ceiling.

They have a choice as to which one they want to play.

A combination would work, but there’s too many guys that need minutes.

Let’s take a look…

  1. DeJounte Murray-Derrick White-Patty Mills
  2. DeMar DeRozan-Marco Belinelli-Bryn Forbes
  3. Rudy Gay-DeMarre Carroll-Lonnie Walker Jr.
  4. LaMarcus Aldridge-Trey Lyles-Luka Samanic
  5. Jakob Poeltl-Drew Eubanks-Chimezie Metu

Murray’s injury was one of the league’s tragedies last season.  The hype for him was real; it was like if Anfernee Simons tore his ACL right now.

But the Murray injury let the Spurs crop of young, talented guards shine.  Derrick White stepped in and performed extremely well, showcasing his defensive talent while also fitting in well off the ball despite his lack of a three-point shot.  Bryn Forbes was excellent as a role guy.  They gave enough support around DeRozan and Aldridge to get the Spurs back into the playoffs.

Those three – DeRozan, Forbes and White – only had a net rating of 2.0 last season.  Inserting Murray into that gives them a ton of life and new energy – and also someone who has the ability to evolve into a bowling ball-type player that can create off the dribble for himself.

But adding Murray to that trio creates a tiny lineup of four guards, and kicks one of Rudy Gay (or DeMarre Carroll), Aldridge or Poeltl to the bench.

Gay was really good last season, but the Spurs adding Carroll to the rotation could see his minutes reduced a bit.  Aldridge was productive, but represents the Spurs core problem of not adapting to the new NBA with his frequent (Yet effective!) mid-range game.  Poeltl was the No. 2 asset in the Kawhi Leonard trade, but has some lankiness that makes him a bit ineffective on the defensive end.

The Spurs going super small and running four guards isn’t necessarily modern either.  But given what they’re going to be working with, it might be their best option.

Or…

The Spurs could explore the trade market for some of their veterans like DeRozan, Aldridge, Gay and even Carroll.  Despite the star power DeRozan and Aldridge bring, Carroll could be the most attractive asset with the defense and experience he possesses.

Plus, who would really want DeRozan and Aldridge?  Putting those guys on your teams locks down a ceiling of 45 wins; it’s the purgatory San Antonio is stuck in now.  Moving any of the guys above helps clear room for the youngsters to get the minutes they deserve; the four guard lineup exercise above didn’t even account for Lonnie Walker Jr., who didn’t play hardly at all last season with a knee injury.

But moving the Spurs core would take a massive change of thinking from Gregg Popovich and the front office, which seems unlikely considering how they handled the Kawhi trade and Popovich’s urge to be competitive in his last years coaching.  And once again, the odds of other teams wanting either DeRozan or Aldridge seems slim.

San Antonio has a ton of talent, but with that comes guys needing sustained minutes to let that talent shine.  Perhaps an organizational shift would make the Spurs more likely to make the playoffs.

  • Dallas Mavericks

Hopes were high for Dallas until, upon inspection of their roster and its comparison to others in the West, questions arose about who not only their fourth best player was, but their fifth as well, essentially leaving the Mavericks with two critical holes in their lineup.

The good news is that Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis represent one of the league’s top young duos; they’re two unicorns who finally have open grass to graze upon.  And we get to watch them eat.

Luka and KP have the chance to save a Dallas team that currently has Tim Hardaway Jr. (By the way, a not-so-horrific THJ!) as its third best player.  Dallas being a playoff team involves Luka ascending from where he was last season, and based on the work he’s put in this summer, that seems very likely to happen.  But that ascension might have to be one where we see Luka make an All-NBA team and even be in the MVP discussion (Not a crazy thought.  His ceiling is that and he’s good enough to hit it already this year).  Betting against Luka is not a comfortable thing to do, especially now that he has one of the league’s best young big men to develop a two-man game with.  But this roster is… oof.

Even with Luka, Porzingis and Hardaway Jr., the Mavs have a wing problem.  Their best players after those three are Seth Curry, Delon Wright and Jalen Brunson – all three of whom are point guards at point guard size.

Luka is Dallas’ point guard.  His facilitating is next level, and at that size it makes him near unstoppable.  A super-sized Dallas lineup with even more wings that can shoot around Luka is a team that, when the second-year stud turns into one of the league’s ten best players, can win the title.  But they likely (Luka being one of the ten best players in the league this season cannot be ruled out) don’t have either of those coming this season.  Instead, they’re left with playing Brunson and Curry (???) alongside their superstar duo and Hardaway Jr.

Defensively there’s issues.  With the two guards they’re extremely small and don’t have a defensive presence aside from Porzingis, who’ll be rebounding from a knee surgery that caused him to miss a whole season of basketball.

With two starting spots being filled with question marks, it leaves a thin bench, which’ll rely heavily on whatever facilitator is out there to create offense.  Wright, Curry and Brunson have all shown that ability, with Wright and Brunson being true point guards with legit handles.  Still, the second unit consists of Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, Justin Jackson and Courtney Lee.  That’s not exactly a lineup full of scorers.

Luka is going to have to be absolutely incredible this season for Dallas to make the playoffs.  He’s special enough to make it happen, and despite a limited roster, has more help than he did last year.  If this playoff spot comes down to Zion and him, then we could be looking at a preview of NBA’s two best players at some point down the line.

  • Sacramento Kings

The Kings are like the Spurs in which they have a lot of bodies, and a lot of bodies that are going to need minutes.

But the difference is that the Kings aren’t stuck – yet- in a mediocre state.  They’re still building and are figuring out what they truly have.

What the Kings have for sure?  That’s De’Aaron Fox, one of the most electric players in the league at the age of just 21 years old.  Fox broke out last year, improving his shooting, taking full control of the Kings offense and competing as hard as possible on both ends.  That last trait might have been the least surprising of Fox’s, but its perhaps the most important.  The dude cares.  A lot.  And that drive could see him elevate an improved yet crowded Kings roster even higher.

The Kings handed out a lot of money this offseason and still have more to shelve out.  They signed Dwayne Dedmon to a large deal (One he deserved, but maybe not from Sacramento), yet have Marvin Bagley III coming up on the books.  Bagley is still kind of a tweener positionally in the NBA, but his size, length and lack of shooting thus far makes him fit to play the five.  Putting shooters and athleticism around him (Which the Kings have) is the best way to maximize his strengths.

But is Dedmon going to ride the bench late in games making $13.3 million this season?  Are the Kings really going to play Bagley and Dedmon together?  It could work; Dedmon can shoot the three well whereas Bagley can’t.  They can switch roles  and get away with it, with Dedmon protecting the rim defensively while being the out big man offensively compared to Bagley being more of switchy defender yet playing inside more on the offensive end.

Pairing that with Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield on the wing – two very good shooters – is a modern look.  Throw in Fox and the hair-on-fire style of play and the Kings could actually squeak in this year.

They’re deep too.  They gave Trevor Ariza a two-year, $25 million contract to provide a veteran presence along with defense and shooting that Barnes brings starting.  Cory Joseph is a fine backup point guard along with Yogi Ferrell, and Kyle Guy could factor in given his shooting ability.  Bogdan Bogdanovic is a lengthy wing who can shoot and is underrated as a passer; his contract situation is worth monitoring (Is he going to play enough/have minutes on SAC to earn the money he wants?).  Nenajama Belicia (Belly!!!!) is back and provides shooting despite his size.  And Dedmon has the switchy Richaun Holmes and the full-of-potential Harry Giles, who just needs to stay healthy, backing him up.

The Kings, like everyone else except for Dallas, are deep and talented.  Because of that, it’s going to be up to each team’s star – Luka, Zion, Fox and Murray – to step up and elevate them.  Whoever has the biggest impact will find themselves in the playoffs.

Utah and Denver Are Still A Step Away From Contention

We continue the 2018-19 preview with a look at two teams that most consider to be title contenders.  However, certain drawbacks may keep them from reaching that status.

Order of teams is not indicative of projected playoff seeding or chances of making Finals

Playoff locks:

Fringe contenders tier:

  • Utah Jazz

For some a stunning omission from the preview’s first column, it’s not that the Utah Jazz didn’t get better over the offseason.  They got a lot better, so much so that there’s a chance they can rise all the way to the third or fourth seed if things break right.

But assigning the Jazz the title contender status feels like we’re jumping the gun a bit.

They’re an incredible defensive team.  When you talk about having guards that can hang with and defend the backcourts of Houston, Golden State and Portland, the Jazz absolutely have that.  They paid a lot for Mike Conley, who will be worth it for his defense and the burden that’ll be lifted off Donavan Mitchell’s chest.  Mitchell himself is a nasty defender; they arguably have two of the five best defensive guards in basketball now.  Rudy Gobert, despite weaknesses that have been exposed in the past two postseasons, is an anchor down low and has decent fluidity on both ends of the court.  Joe Ingles projects as the starter on the wing next to offseason signing Bojan Bogdanović, giving them another hard-nosed defender.  Royce O’Neal is a big, strong wing who guard players anywhere from 2-5.  Offseason signing Ed Davis is a sneaky pickup, as his rim protection continues to be underrated.

Still, Utah has some concerns.  There’s a lot of new faces to the offense, including a new point guard – perhaps the most important position on this new-look team.  While Bogdanović and Ingles are both good shooters, they don’t necessarily pack the punch Utah needs on the offensive end.  Sure Bogdanović can heat up, but how consistent will he be for a team that is still going to need all the help they can get to score points?  Gobert isn’t someone who’s fed offensively, and Conley isn’t a pure scorer either.

A lot of the load still falls on Mitchell, who though only 23 by the end of the season, will have to show us what he’s really capable of this year.  The Jazz went out and got him help.  They believe he’s a guy that just needs that; nothing more.  If he turns into a player that really matters in this league – a guy that can carry a team no matter what’s around him and ranks among the top 12-15 players – then Utah has a strong case to really challenge the Clippers.  That jump seems unlikely not only to happen this season, but to come at all.

  • Denver Nuggets

Putting the Nuggets here is a tough one.

They were last season’s darlings.  Mike Malone transformed the offense to run through and around Nikola Jokic, taking full advantage of his generational passing skills by running cutters and shooters around him.  They let Jokic take shots in crunch-time, and even had guys like Mason Plumlee imitating Jokic when he wasn’t on the floor.

But Denver lacked one thing throughout the year, and it bit them hard in the playoffs: A lack of a reliable, one-on-one, late-in-games scorer.

Jamal Murray could, and likely should, be that guy given what they paid him.  In the playoffs, Murray was about as up and down as one could possibly be.  The insane, 4OT game against Portland in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals was a perfect picture of Murray’s inconsistency.  He was cold-blooded at times and also had the ball way too much, forcing shots, eventually causing Denver to lose the game.

Murray didn’t have the it factor about him last year.  And that’s the biggest problem with Denver coming into this season.  If they have a legitimate chance of making the Finals, Murray has to improve and be the guy, because as good as Jokic and the offense is, you can’t just have his passing be the go-to late in games.  They need someone who can create off the dribble.  Murray has shown the promising and not-so-promising sides of that so far.

Murray, like Mitchell, has to take big steps this season.  Confidence should be higher in Mitchell; he’s shown the ability to be a dominant scorer at times and could be evolve into one of the league’s top 10-15 players soon.  Murray has much farther to go.  Thankfully for him, he may not need to be that guy, though one of the options available to the Nuggets was crossed off this morning.

Bradley Beal would have been perfect for Denver.  He’s one of the 25 best players in basketball, can be a late-game scorer and is plenty used to playing off-the-ball given his years with John Wall in Washington.

Thankfully for the Wizards, Beal wanted to oddly stay, and made that known by signing a two-year, $72 million extension with Washington Thursday morning.

It’s a bummer for Denver and other teams who were hoping to sniff out Beal’s services.  It also furthers the case that the Nuggets may not be a legitimate contender this season.

With Beal out of the picture for Denver, they need either Murray to ascend to being the best guy on a championship team or Michael Porter Jr. to step up and be it.

Murray taking that leap would be huge for Denver but is unlikely to happen.

The second might be even more unlikely.  But though Porter Jr. had serious concerns coming into that draft, the main thing he could do was score.  For the value that Denver got him at, he was absolutely worth the pick.  Now, if he’s healthy, he could be ready to show why that draft night slide was such a mistake.  He’ll have to show efficiency that he lacked in high school and college, but for such a ball movement-heavy team, Porter’s one-on-one game might actually be a bit necessary.  It’s the one team in the league that could actually use some inefficient play.

Denver has more talent coming in; it’s not the same exact team.  Jerami Grant was a weird trade-away by Oklahoma City, and Denver got another athletic player who does very well on the defense end and can be a menace offensively; the bounce he has allows him to cut very effectively for someone of his size.

Bol Bol is on a two-way contract, meaning that he only has 45 days he can spend with the Nuggets.  The rest will be at the G-League level. It’s likely he’ll have just as much of an impact as MPJ did last year.

Denver needs star power to become a contender.  With the Beal news this morning, it makes the odds that they get it this year even slimmer.  But they didn’t pay Murray $170 million for nothing, and Porter Jr. has the skills to turn into that.  With those two in hand, it may not be a question of if they get it.  It’s when.