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.

The Western Conference Has Five Title Contenders In It Alone

Conference imbalance has been a debate practically all century for the NBA.  Since the 2013-2014 season, the Western Conference has undoubtedly been more talented, deeper and more competitive than the East.  Blame the Warriors, blame LeBron and AD, blame whoever, but the western half of the NBA has dominated the past years despite Toronto and Cleveland both winning titles in that span.  But this year, there’s a chance that the West could be unlike anything we’ve seen before.

The layout of the conference this season, despite its competitiveness, is simple.  Seven (The ridiculousness is already clear) teams are playoff locks, which leaves just one spot open for the other eight teams in the conference.  Despite eight teams fighting for it, some have no shot.  Others do have a shot.

There’s four of those on each side, which means that three very good and deserving teams will miss the playoffs.  It also means that there’s a couple teams that, despite them being in the West, you probably shouldn’t watch much of.

We’ll get to those later this week or early next week before the season’s tip-off Tuesday.  For now we’re looking at the top of the West, where of the seven playoff locks five title contenders lie.  Yup, five teams that could theoretically make the Finals.  Those bolded words are very important.

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

Playoff locks:

The title contenders tier:

  • Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers overhaul of their roster by acquiring/signing two of the league’s best 13 players makes them the prohibitive NBA Finals favorites and the best team in the league.

The No. 1 seed though may be a bit tall of a task.  Paul George is recovering from surgery on both of his shoulders.  Kawhi Leonard figures to see his “load management” continued to prevent whatever leg injuries he’s dealt with over the past 2-3 seasons from popping back up.  But the Clippers’ depth, most notably Patrick Beverley (Perfectly capable of running an offense), Lou Williams (Pefectably capable of taking over in crunch-time) and plethora of switchy wings (Mo Harkless, Rodney McGruder, Jerome Robinson) should be able to make up the losses when Leonard and George are on the bench.

It’s certainly a good problem to have, but the Clippers have some sorting out to do regarding what their end of game lineup will look like.  You can pencil in George and Leonard when they’re both healthy.  The other three spots remain up to some debate.  Having a true facilitator would be nice, so Beverley figures to get the 1-spot.

They have options for the other two spots.  They have Ivica Zubac, Montrezl Harrell, rookie Mifounde Kabengele, Patrick Patterson and JaMychal Green all as options to play the five in crunch-time.  Zubac likely starts given the contract they just gave him, but his lack of athleticism hurts.  Kabengele might struggle to find minutes, and Patterson and Green might be too small to provide rim protection.

Which means that the Clippers will be deploying their vaunted bench duo of Williams and Harrell to close games this season like they did last year.  The two didn’t start, but they played substantial minutes and closed games.  Williams was their true No.1 option late in games last season.  His pairing with Harrell created a deadly pick and roll duo, and gave the Clippers good-enough rim protection as Harrell used his athleticism to switch.

A closing lineup of Beverley-Williams-Leonard-George-Harrell is insane.  Can anyone compete?

  • Houston Rockets

When the Rockets flipped Chris Paul and a lot of other assets for Russell Westbrook in July, there was too much to get to.  It was too shocking of a trade.  Analyzing the fit of the two together was a small piece in the whole thing.  Now we’re at the point where we can do that.

Houston wasn’t left with a lot of choices this offseason.  They had to do something, and it had to create an impact whether it worked or not.

Westbrook in Houston certainly makes an impact.  And it just might work.

The pairing of James Harden and Westbrook goes against every modern basketball philosophy, mostly due to the soaring usage rates of both players (Which were No. 1 and 2 overall in the NBA last season) and Westbrook’s stunning inefficiency.  But it creates a larger impact than anything Houston has had since they traded for Harden.  Having Westbrook AND Harden to deal with on the court at the same time is a legitimate pain in the butt.  Dealing with the craftiness and pure sorcery of Harden while accounting for the athleticism and recklessness (In this case, a good thing) of Westbrook asks a lot of a defense.  You have to have two pretty good defenders in the backcourt to keep these two under control.

Really, the only thing stopping them is themselves.  Houston could be excellent defensively with Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Clint Capela and Westbrook (A good defender when he tries).  The depth is really questionable; with Gerald Green’s injury the Rockets only have Thabo Sefolosha, Austin Rivers and Nene as reliable bench guys.  But that’s all you really need in the playoffs when rotations shrink.

What happens if the fit doesn’t work between Westbrook and Harden?  Do off shooting nights for Houston lead Westbrook to takeover in his own selfish ways and give them even less of a chance?  What happens if Harden struggles in the postseason again?  Does Westbrook takeover in the worst way possible?

Houston could make the Finals.  The pure volume of threes they can potentially make (Westbrook might decrease those odds) on a given night makes them a threat to beat anyone.  Perhaps only Utah has the defensive chops to handle Harden and Westbrook collectively.  A ridiculous hot streak from Harden and Russ under control could make them unstoppable even against the Clippers, as Houston has the defense.  But they have to get past themselves.  It all comes down to Westbrook and whether he changes his style of play.

  • Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers, no matter how much people wanted to pick apart their roster, are Finals contenders simply for the sake of the fact that they have two of the five best players in the NBA, and one of them happens to be LeBron James, who has become weirdly underrated coming into this season.

Yes, LeBron is 34 and will be 35 by the time the Finals come around.  But there have been overreactions to the groin injury he sustained last season.  It was the first lengthy injury LeBron has practically ever suffered.  It was relatively minor; this wasn’t anything that required surgery, nagged or is like a sprained foot.  We’ve all pulled a groin, haven’t we?  And while LeBron never turned into LeBron last season, he still made an All-NBA team (Which was generous.  He was a top 20 player last season though) and still deserves respect as one of the best players in the league.  It’s very possible he mailed it in last season to get AD on his team.  Now he has him.

LeBron may not be the best player in the league anymore, but he’s still dang close to being so.  Combining that with Davis is terrifying.  But issues persist on this Lakers team.  Usually these wouldn’t matter with LeBron.  But even with the defense  of him above, we can’t count on the LeBron we saw during the 2017-18 season.

Even after all the drama he went through to end up on the Lakers, Davis hasn’t quit it.  It hasn’t created drama yet, but we could see it become a source of unhappiness and lack of success if it doesn’t change.

That “it” is Davis’ reluctancy to play center.  At 6’10 with a 7’6 wingspan and the athleticism he possess, it would only make sense for AD to play the five given what he’s shown in the past (The shot-blocking and switchiness).  But the Lakers are experimenting with lineups that have him out there with Javale McGee or Dwight Howard.

Either is a disaster.  Neither McGee or Howard can shoot.  The Lakers were the only team that likely would have signed Howard this offseason strictly for their desperation after DeMarcus Cousins’ torn ACL.  His lumbering will likely be a liability defensively as he’s lost completely lost the skill that made him so elite around the rim in the late 2000s.  The same goes for McGee; he might actually be able to move a little better than Howard thanks to his time with the Warriors.  He was never terrible there!

You’d hope the Lakers play McGee in crunch-time alongside Davis, which is just a mind-bobbling clause to write considering where we’re at the with the league’s geometry.

With those two as the frontcourt (puke), the rest is still muddled.  Danny Green got a nice deal to come in, play defense and hit threes, so his spot is cemented in crunch-time.  He accompanies LeBron, which, with Green, AD and McGee, already makes four guys.

This is where the Lakers second biggest issue comes to the forefront.  In addition to not playing Davis at center, LeBron will be playing point guard.

Despite the defense of LeBron above, this is not what him or the Lakers need.  We aren’t sure that LeBron is going to be the LeBron we’re used to anymore.  Him playing point guard doesn’t exactly phase him out of that or lessen his load.  Secondly, LeBron complained multiple times in Cleveland post-Kyrie trade that the team didn’t have a point guard.  While everything runs through LeBron on his teams, they do in fact need point guards to help shelf the load.  With LeBron not being the clear-cut best player in the league anymore, it makes zero sense not to run a pure facilitator out there.

If LeBron is at the one for the majority of minutes and in crunch-time, then Kyle Kuzma slides into the last spot alongside AD, McGee and Green and LeBron.  That’s, for the most part, big, athletic and modern!

Kuzma has a foot injury which was thought to keep him out for quite awhile, but there’s hope he can suit up in the season opener.  If that’s the case, then he probably slides right into those big crunch-time minutes for the Lakers right away.

The LeBron-Green-Kuzma-Davis-McGee lineup is complicated.  It has the potential to be really good defensively – Kuzma has the tools to be a good defender and McGee simply has to hold on – and is a super-sized lineup that plays four legit shooters, has athleticism and has two of the best five players in the league on it.  At the same time, the Davis-McGee pairing is troublesome for spacing purposes (Howard inserted instead of McGee makes things even worse), and Bron playing point guard seems unnecessary when the Lakers could easily play Rajon Rondo (Who is not terrible!  He’s shown improvements as a shooter, is good defensively when he tries and is a more-than-competent facilitator).  Moving Rondo in next to LeBron forces AD to play center and, despite Rondo’s shooting issues, makes the Lakers best lineup much more appealing and modern.

The Lakers do look good.  While LeBron at point and the large frontcourt is concerning, they have defenders in Green and Avery Bradley off the bench.  Quinn Cook gives them a backup facilitator.  Troy Daniels fits the three-and-D mold that is so necessary around LeBron.  Jared Dudley adds toughness and underrated defense, though he isn’t exactly a modern center either.

The Lakers can make the Finals.  They can even do so with LeBron not being LeBron anymore.  That’s why Davis is here.  But they won’t have a chance with LeBron really dropping off.  They’re going to need him to be the guy a lot.  How often will that occur?

  • Portland Trail Blazers

Portland being inserted into the title contender category while Denver and Utah being held out of it might be one of the most controversial opinions shared during this NBA preview.

We’ll get into it later, but a lot of this is about respect for one of the most dominant playoff runs seen in a long time led by Damian Lillard last spring.

Portland’s downfall was anchored in a smart ploy by the Warriors (Originally conceived by Denver) to blitz Lillard, which helped curb him even more from the expected regression he was bound to suffer, and the supporting roster not hitting shots.

Now, both Mo Harkless and Al-Farquoq Aminu, two versatile defenders who were anchors for the Blazers over the years yet could never hit shots in the playoffs, are both gone.  Enter Anfernee Simons, the second-year, 20-year-old who scored 37 points in his first start in last year’s regular season finale.

The hype about him is real.  Simons projects as a crafty two-guard who can score, defend and pass.  He’s basically a lengthy, more athletic CJ McCollum with even better passing, and at 6’4, he’s tall enough to play the three alongside Portland’s already star-studded pair.

Portland has simply needed more firepower around Dame and CJ for years now.  With Simons, they get more than a shooter.  They essentially get another McCollum out there.

The front court spots are cluttered and confusing yet have promise. Jursurf Nurkic, who suffered a horrific broken leg right before last year’s playoffs, probably won’t be ready to go until this season’s playoffs, and even then his impact might be extremely limited.  Portland’s trade for Hassan Whiteside gives them an extra body down low; he could likely start but be benched in crunch-time as defensive effort and a lack of athleticism would really hurt late in games.

This all leaves Zach Collins, who really shined later on last season, as Portland’s rim protector, opening up another wing spot alongside Simons.  The Trail Blazers did a nice job replacing the loss of Harkless and Aminu by trading for Kent Bazemore (Swapping the Evan Turner contract for his) and signing Anthony Tolliver, a strong wing who shoots well.  One of them would figure to slide into that fifth spot.  Tolliver is bigger and more efficient, while Bazemore is someone who could anchor Portland’s second unit thanks to ball-handling ability; he kinda needs the ball in his hands.

Portland’s Finals case rests in Simons having a massive breakout season, creating even more of a nightmare for defenses already having to deal with Dame and CJ.  They also need Tolliver to be effective and hit shots when they ask him to.

Nurkic is a big loss, and while his defense improved last season, even he is someone who might be too inefficient to be out there late in games.  Collins has the shooting, athleticism and has a higher ceiling defensively than either of Portland’s other options.

This isn’t a “Portland will make the Finals” proposition, but could they if things develop the right way?  That’s what this whole column is about.

  • Golden State Warriors

Another contender that feels underrated and is a surprise to be placed over Utah or Denver in this breakdown.  But despite a revamped roster, an injured Klay Thompson and role guys being plugged into a bit more than role-player roles, the Warriors could find themselves back in the Finals for the sixth consecutive year.

Similar to Harden and Westbrook, whether it works or not, the Stephen Curry-D’Angelo Russell backcourt will at least be a pain for opposing defenses to deal with.  Curry’s incredible shot-making and drift on the court gives D-Lo space to isolate and take guys one-on-one.

But D-Lo is going to have buy into the Warriors system of ball movement and selfless play.  Russell’s a good shooter; that’s not the problem.  His usage rate was at a career high 31.9% last season.  It certainly won’t reach that this year.

In Brooklyn, D-Lo was the guy.  Now he’s the second fiddle, who’ll be used as a secondary ball-handler and a shooter in Golden State’s scheme.  If he tries to hijack games and hog the ball, he could seem himself enter some trade rumors come the new year.

The Warriors have Kevon Looney and Draymond Green in the front-court, providing them with much needed defense as their backcourt sorely lacks it.  There’s oddly a lack of shooting on this team, but that could be solved if and when Klay Thompson comes back.

Just because the Warriors are one of the five title contenders in the West does not make them the five-seed or better.  Without Thompson, they have a hole in their crunch-time lineup (Who’s filling it?  Glenn Robinson?  Alfonzo McKinnie?  Alec Burks?), have massive issues defensively and little scoring off the bench.  But with Thompson theoretically back for the playoffs, Golden State becomes a ridiculous offensive team with as high a ceiling as anyone in contention.  Curry, Thompson and D-Lo is borderline unstoppable.  While small, Thompson can make up for some of the defensive deficiencies while running around with Curry if Steve Kerr decides to let D-Lo takeover certain possessions.

No matter who has the ball in their hands, the duo of D-Lo and Klay or Curry and Klay running around the court, off pindowns, cuts or basic screens creates chaos.  Curry as a player is literally chaos.  Chaos is what generated the Warriors offense from 2014-2016 pre-KD.  That went pretty well.  All the Warriors are doing this year is going back to their roots.

NL and ALCS Preview

One of these series is exactly what most expected.

One of these series is absolutely not.

Both favorites lost in the NLDS.  The Dodgers, the best team in baseball this season with 106 wins, completely collapsed in Game 5 thanks to egregious managing from Dave Roberts and faltering from Clayton Kershaw once again in October.  The Braves had their biggest concern coming into the playoffs – an overhauled bullpen that still wasn’t fixed – bite them before getting completely throttled and embarrassed in Game 5, ending what was an incredibly fun and exciting season.

While the World Series won’t be the potentially titanic matchup we thought it could be, we’re getting at least one of those this round in Astros-Yankees.  But first, let’s preview one of the more unpredictable NLCS matchups in recent history.

NLCS: Washington Nationals vs. St. Louis Cardinals

The Nationals’ ability to rally – or their incredible luck to face teams that choke in improbable ways – this postseason has gotten them here.

It’s both.  They have a heavily underrated lineup that includes Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, who have both made their impact very well known so far this postseason.  But they also had one of baseball’s best relievers somehow combust against them in the Wild Card Game, and then had one of baseball’s best pitchers ever do the same in Game 5 Wednesday night.

Despite those breaks, it’s probably going to get them to the World Series.

Washington has done a fantastic job staying away from their volatile bullpen, which was brutal this season and finished 22nd in WAR accumulation.  That’s because, aside from Patrick Corbin, who the Dodgers got to heavily in Game 3, the Nationals have gotten insane and long performances from their starters.  Out of the 54 innings of baseball Washington has played this postseason, 38 of those have been played with a starting pitcher on the mound, not a reliever.  And those starters have been excellent, posting a 2.57 ERA so far in October per ESPN.

But the best rotation ERA in these playoffs doesn’t belong to the Nationals.  It belongs to St. Louis, who, despite their inexperience in that group, is still pushing right along and is four wins from the World Series because of it.

The Cardinals don’t have as faulty a bullpen to worry about; they were 7th in WAR accumulation in that department during the regular season but have posted a 4.30 ERA so far in these playoffs.

With the way most bullpens have been shelled so far though, that’s not that bad of a number, and the eye test proves a bit better than that number suggests.

It’s still a bit of a problem though.  While the youngster has been awesome, who are you picking in a Max Scherzer-Jack Flaherty duel?  Or Dakota Hudson vs. Stephen Strasburg?  Adam Wainwright had a vintage performance in Game 3 (before it being ruined by Mike Shildt leaving him out there too long, only for Carlos Martinez to get rocked and allow Atlanta to come back); his postseason magic has not ran out and is maybe the most trustworthy pitcher in the St. Louis rotation because of his experience.

The Cardinals bullpen has Martinez, who had one of the more miserable innings from a pitcher this season (Don’t worry, Clayton Kershaw, Joe Kelly, Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried are right up there too!), Tyler Webb (who hasn’t been great) and Giovanny Gallegos, who despite posting an ERA of 0.00 in three appearances had a rough outing in Game 4 in which he walked two batters to load the bases in a 4-3 game.  They got out of it, but in the moment, you were holding your breath.

This is a large part of what’s backing up a young, inexperienced rotation tasked with going up against Scherzer, Strasburg, the ageless Anibal Sanchez and what should be an improved Corbin.  Also, the Nationals lineup is terrifying, has one of the two hottest hitters in these playoffs on it (The two are Soto and Jose Altuve) and is a lineup that is significantly better than St. Louis’.

That doesn’t mean this series won’t be close.  Scherzer certainly showed he wasn’t invincible in the Wild Card game, where he was shelled before the Nats rallied, and Corbin as mentioned was not good at all in Game 3 against the Dodgers.  Both should improve; the Cardinals offense isn’t as good as Milwaukee or LA’s.  But if the Cardinals can rough one or two guys up early and force an early shift to the bullpen, then that only increases their odds.

Prediction: Nationals in 6

ALCS: New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros

Like the Yankees last series against the Twins, this matchup could not be more evenly matched.

Arguably the two best offenses in baseball are armed each with top ten bullpens.  Both teams won more than 103 games.  One of them will not play in the World Series.

Houston’s vaunted rotation looked the part early before somewhat losing its shine later on against Tampa Bay.  Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole completed dominated in Games 1 and 2 before Zack Greinke fell off, getting roughed up early in Game 3 and setting a bit of a trend until Cole came back in Game 5 put up a similar performance to Game 2.

If the Astros struggled with a Rays lineup that wasn’t off-the-chart menacing, then what happens against a Yankees batting order that is full of sluggers?

The Astros had the best offense in baseball this season.  They hit a ton of home runs, had the highest team batting average out of anyone and, like the Yankees, bring up slugger after slugger.

This series could turn into a bit of a shootout instead of a pitching duel.  New York blanked the Twins in three games, but had James Paxton struggle in Game 1.  They were also ultra-aggressive, letting no starter of their’s stay in the game more than five innings.  Manager Aaron Boone has been smart this postseason unlike other decisions we’ve seen made, but with Houston putting longer leashes on their guys, the Yankees could seek to do the same if the starter is firing.

If the Astros can work it so that only Cole, Greinke and Verlander start the entire series, it likely heavily rests the bullpen.  But Wade Miley, who was surprisingly good during the regular season, didn’t have a great ALDS in the 2.2 innings he pitched.  Neither did Ryan Presley, who turned back into the Twins version of himself, or Hector Rondon, who came into a high leverage situation and blew it in the Rays Game 3 slaughter.

The Yankees bullpen was expectedly great against Minnesota, and shut down a top three offense in baseball.  The rest of the Houston staff was excellent versus Tampa Bay.

So what gives?

The Nationals, similar to Houston, have had two of their top three starters have so-so performances at times during this postseason.  I picked Washington to win because of the expected rebound those players should have, in addition to the competition they will be facing.

Perhaps, in this ALCS, it could be the Yankees that see some production dip from their starters.  Sure, Paxton already wasn’t great, but Masahiro Tanaka is home run prone-pitcher who wasn’t very good this season.  We’ve seen Luis Severino have bad games in October before.  There’s no way Greinke can be as bad as he was in Game 3.  There’s no way Verlander lasts only 3.2 innings and gives up four runs in the process again.

Right?  Right?!?

Prediction: Astros in 7