Sorting Through The Scenarios In The NFL Draft’s Top 5

The number of contingencies in this NFL Draft seems higher than ever.

With the first two picks seemingly set in stone, chaos is likely to begin at No. 3 overall.  Below we go through all the different logical scenarios, starting off with what should happen, and then attempting to project what actually will.

What should happen:

No. 1, Jacksonville Jaguars: QB, Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

No. 2, New York Jets: QB, Justin Fields, Ohio State

No. 3, San Francisco 49ers: QB, Trey Lance, North Dakota State

No. 4 possibility #1: Washington trade up

No. 4 possibility #2: Atlanta keeps the pick

The first scenario is a sneak peek of Thursday’s mock draft.

For now, let’s ignore how we get to this spot and look at what could and should happen, but almost certainly won’t.

The quarterback market is poor at this point, making Atlanta’s leverage seemingly low.  But teams across the board are hot for Wilson.

Still, let’s look at this logically.  With Wilson’s stature as a boom-or-bust prospect that just doesn’t have the volume of and impressive enough tape against top competition, teams shouldn’t totally go all-in on him like the Jets are almost guaranteed to do.  There has to be some buffer.

Denver was one of the teams listed as a possible trade-up candidate for Wilson, but their trade for Teddy Bridgewater on Wednesday signifies that they want to give Drew Lock one more chance, and if he falls through, they then have a QB decent enough behind him to still be competitive.  

Bridgewater needs a perfect situation and surrounding cast to be successful, which was not what Carolina was last season.  Denver offers that, and perhaps is one of the NFL’s best rosters outside of the quarterback position.  

It’s clear that Denver wasn’t too enthralled with their options at No. 9 overall, which is fair if Fields isn’t there.  But if he is available, and it’s seeming increasingly likely he will be, then the Bridgewater trade immediately becomes totally unnecessary.  It’s understandable that the Broncos don’t want to take the risk, though.  They cannot afford to squander the roster they have.

Washington is perhaps the only other team that makes sense for Wilson in this wild sequence of events.  Like Denver, its roster is talented (Perhaps not quite as much, but close).  That difference makes Washington’s case even stronger.  Wilson is no guarantee, but if he booms, he’s the type of talent that can elevate the cast around him – on both sides of the ball.

Three teams that could be considered in need of a quarterback – New England, Chicago and New Orleans – bow out at this point.  Wilson isn’t worth the risk for them.  The Patriots can give Cam Newton a final chance, now that he hopefully won’t be battling COVID-19 and will have adequate weapons around him.  They also paid him as if that was their intention.  Chicago can’t be making any big-time moves at the quarterback position unless it’s a guaranteed hit like Lawrence or Fields, because it’ll cost its entire front office their jobs and put the Bears in another QB purgatory if it doesn’t work out.

The Saints don’t need much at QB.  Last season was proof of that.  They possess one of the best rosters in football, and simply need someone to come in, guide the ship and not screw up.

Wilson could more than do that, but he also could do substantially less as well, which leads to New Orleans wasting a perfect roster.  In this draft class, Mac Jones might actually be the perfect guy for the Saints.  But trading up from the spot he deserves to go (No. 28 overall) into the top ten of the draft to get him is not a smart play given his ceiling as a passer. Prior to Bridgewater’s trade to Denver, the former Saints QB making a homecoming made perfect sense.

Of course, Atlanta isn’t the only chance for teams to trade down.  Cincinnati isn’t taking a quarterback at No. 5 overall, and its case for trading down is better than some may think (More on that below).  The Dolphins probably aren’t moving at No. 6 overall, just because their subsequent trade-up to that spot after trading down with San Francisco makes it clear they have a target in mind.  The Lions aren’t bound to taking anyone in particular at No. 7 overall and could use extra picks to build out a depleted roster.  The same goes for Carolina, who could find themselves reaching depending on who is available at No. 8.

At the same time, in this scenario, Wilson is the only QB worth trading up for, so there could be a bidding war for Atlanta’s pick.  Conversely, Kyle Pitts is not a bad pick for the Falcons whatsoever.  But Atlanta should probably be trading down, as Pitts doesn’t fill an exact need.  An impact defender should be its target.

What likely will happen:

No. 1, Jacksonville Jaguars: QB, Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

No. 2, New York Jets: QB, Zach Wilson, BYU

No. 3, San Francisco 49ers: QB, Mac Jones, Alabama

No. 4 possibility #1: New England trade up

No. 4 possibility #2: Washington trade up

No. 4 possibility #3: Chicago trade up

No. 4 possibility #4: New Orleans trade up

No. 4 possibility #5: Atlanta keeps the pick

Fields’ availability changes things for everyone.  His certainty as an above-average quarterback makes too much sense for New Orleans, who could trade up, bring him in, start him immediately and perhaps improve from what was essentially Drew Brees’ corpse last year, while certainly upgrading from what either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill will be this season.  Washington could get a quarterback who can elevate their good-but-not-great roster immediately.  

The two most interesting teams in this scenario are the Patriots and Bears.  Chicago’s front office and coaching staff might be out the door no matter what after this season, so going all-in on one last quest to save their jobs by trading up for Fields may not seem that insane.  At the same time, trading up for two quarterbacks that busted in the top ten of the draft within four drafts worth of time probably has general manager Ryan Pace never working in football again.

Chicago already publicly committed to Andy Dalton as their starter this season, which makes things tricky.  Fields isn’t someone who’s worth benching – Chicago would be better off trading up for an instant contributor like him instead or remaining where they are with Dalton and rebooting next offseason.  

New England is also faced with an interesting dilemma in this scenario.  It’s not hard to buy into a Newton bounce-back year in 2021-22, but the former Panthers star will be 33 by the time the season begins.  Regardless of how he plays, it’s unlikely he’s the long-term answer for the Patriots.  At the same time, benching Fields doesn’t make sense to do, and he could play early in the year if Newton is truly washed.

As mentioned above, Atlanta’s preference should be to trade out, but taking Pitts is not a bad situation whatsoever if the offers don’t suit their fancy.  If they don’t move out, teams shouldn’t have to wait long to find another partner.  The right one could be sitting at the next pick.

What could happen: Pitts at 4, Cincinnati trade out

No. 1, Jacksonville Jaguars: QB, Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

No. 2, New York Jets: QB, Zach Wilson, BYU

No. 3, San Francisco 49ers: QB, Mac Jones, Alabama

No. 4: Atlanta Falcons: TE, Kyle Pitts, Florida

No. 5 possibility #1: New England trade up

No. 5 possibility #2: Washington trade up

No. 5 possibility #3: Chicago trade up

No. 5 possibility #4: New Orleans trade up

No. 5 possibility #5: Cincinnati keeps the pick

This might seem surprising, but the case for the Bengals to move out of No. 5 overall is better than you may think.

First of all: if Pitts is here, it’s a no-brainer pick for Cincinnati.  While it’s unfair to peg Pitts as strictly a tight end, the Bengals could really use an upgrade at that position and are slightly less lacking at wide receiver.  

That leads into the case for Cincy trading down.  As we begin to spoil Thursday’s mock draft, while the Bengals could use a for-sure No. 1 receiver, no one at No. 6 overall is incredibly appealing (DeVonta Smith will clock in at WR1 on the board, but his weight is a serious, serious concern) and Cincinnati has good weapons already.  In addition, if quarterback Joe Burrow is 100 percent healthy and recovered from his knee injury, he should be able to elevate the talent around him.

Now, Burrow can’t elevate the offensive line in front of him, given that 1) That’s a hard thing to do in general and 2) Given that he’s not a mobile quarterback.  But the Bengals should be in better shape up front this year than they were last.  Jonah Williams will be back and fully healthy, and Riley Reiff was given a sizable one-year contract to man the other tackle spot.  Penei Sewell isn’t someone you’re sitting on the bench for a year.

Cincinnati needs help more so on the inside of its offensive line.  Sewell could play guard, but that seems like a waste of his talent.  Why not trade out, pick up an impact defender or interior lineman and get extra future picks when QB-hungry teams are salivating?

If Cincinnati trades down, which is obviously unlikely, it triggers the same action that would occur if Atlanta trades out of No. 4 overall: New England, Washington, New Orleans and Chicago get on the phone and start bidding for Fields or whichever quarterback they prefer.

Further down the line, more trade-down candidates exist.  Depending on which players are available, Detroit could make some sense as a partner if New England or Washington wants to move up.  At the same time, figuring out whether Jared Goff is the guy or not is probably priority No. 1 for the Lions, and selecting a receiver with that pick helps them do that.  Carolina is in a spot where they will probably be reaching at No. 8 overall – they could move down and still land an impact cornerback, linebacker, guard or defensive tackle.  

With quarterback seemingly out of the cards, Denver becomes an intriguing trade-down candidate at No. 9 overall.  Its loaded roster doesn’t have many holes, and Micah Parsons – who’d be a perfect fit in their defense and fills their only real gap in talent – seems likely to slide a bit given (concerning) off-the-field issues.

After that, teams seem likely to have QBs slide to them, or they will run out of trade partners.  The Giants should make their pick.  Philadelphia is almost certainly making theirs, though Thursday’s mock has them reaching for a wide receiver that it could likely trade down to select.  The Chargers and Vikings should make their picks, and by then we reach New England – who’s one of the primary trade-up candidates, not down.

Scouting the 2021 NFL Draft Quarterback Class

To prepare for what is shaping up to be a historic Thursday night, here is a look at the Hub’s top six quarterback prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft – including the five expected to go in the first round – and an extra one who should. 

QB1: Trevor Lawrence, Clemson (Top 5 pick)

Lawrence’s only weakness is something he has no control over – yet.

Expectations are historically high for the presumptive No. 1 overall pick.  He has no way of proving he can hit them until September rolls along.

History is on his side.  No quarterback with the generational label attached to his name has failed.  The list is John Elway, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Lawrence.  That’s it.

He hasn’t gotten here by accident.  Pegged with the sacred term in high school, Lawrence only met expectations in college.  With a cannon for an arm and accuracy that seems impossibly good, the Clemson junior consistently won with a good roster around him – but not one up to the par of other QBs in this draft (Most notably, Justin Fields and Mac Jones).  His height and length gives him incredible advantages in ball placement and throwing on the run, while his slender frame may be slightly concerning.  

That said, Lawrence did an okay job keeping himself healthy when escaping the pocket in college, and should be able to use his running ability to an extent at the next level.

The expectations are reachable for Lawrence.  He met them in college with ease.  While Jacksonville was the worst team in football last season, they’re in better shape than at least two other teams in the league.  The Jaguars are functional, and whether Urban Meyer is the right man for Jacksonville’s head gig or not, he’s certainly a good enough coach.

QB2: Justin Fields, Ohio State (Top 5 pick)

This should not be up for debate.

The public torching of Fields the past couple of months has no basis.  Sure, the former Ohio State star may not be as good as Lawrence, or may not have the ceiling that other quarterbacks in this class do, but in a draft that has a sure bet atop it, Fields isn’t much far behind.

Let’s start with the negatives, perceived and real.  Much has been written about Fields’ ability to scan beyond his first read, rather than not advance past it.  The whole idea was lunacy in the first place, but even if there was truth to it, the reason for it would be rooted in a positive attribute: Fields can make almost any throw, and his accuracy is perhaps his biggest strength.

Fields has tended to make poor decisions throwing the ball, which could be the origin of the first-read bias.  He can get flustered in the pocket and sling it, ignoring his other options.  But when his situation is clean, Fields takes his time to read the field.

That’s about it when it comes to Fields’ downsides.  His size when running should keep him healthy, but there’s always concern about quarterbacks built like him breaking down (Similar to Cam Newton, who’s built very much like Fields).  

His dual-threat ability is scary.  Fields can’t sling it like others in this class, but his zip on short-to-intermediate throws makes up for it.  A consistent downside of NFL quarterbacks is their inability to make tough throws across the middle of the field or in tight coverage.  While he can’t get it deep downfield, Fields can make those tough passes, and if not, defenses then get to deal with a 6’3 tank barreling toward them.

If Fields fails, it’ll likely be due to an inability to reduce turnovers and/or because of poor offensive line play.  But given his accuracy and big-game readiness, he should be the No. 2 overall pick on Thursday night, and if he’s not, whoever gets him will be getting a steal.

QB3: Trey Lance, North Dakota State (Early first-round pick)

Lance is the most complicated evaluation in this draft.

On one end, he’s a lights-out prospect who, despite a thin frame, throws the ball with strength and accuracy, doesn’t make mistakes and can make any throw on the run.  He is lightning quick and brings a true dual-threat presence to the table, where a team can totally restructure their offense around him to incorporate college-like schemes and play designs Lamar Jackson-style.

On the other end, Lance is a varsity star playing against the sophomores.  After the freak talent somehow only ended up at FCS school North Dakota State, he beat up on lesser talent and took advantage of a loaded roster and beautiful play-calling.  He only had one full season of being a starting quarterback and has 17 career starts.  In those starts, the most passes he ever threw was 31.  The second-most was 30, and the third-most was 23.

In many ways negative and positive, it’s almost like Lance was playing a different game than football.  His conquering of opponents was that dominant.  But his numbers and team’s style of play makes him look like he was incredibly replaceable – almost like he wasn’t even serving the role of a QB.

Because of all this, Lance probably needs a year or two before starting.  Typically, players that aren’t ready in their first year aren’t worthy of first-round selections.  That still holds true for the most part, but Lance is an exception given his position and ceiling.  It’s not his fault he had no season in 2020 to better himself and improve his stock.  If Lance hits his ceiling, we might be looking at a type of quarterback the league has simply never seen before.

QB4: Zach Wilson, BYU (Early first-round pick)

The hype makes sense.

Wilson’s rise is reminiscent of Jordan Love last year.  Teams are terrified of missing out on someone like Patrick Mahomes, who can make something out of nothing seemingly every play while maintaining their presence as a pocket passer.    

Wilson fits that bill.  He has a cannon for an arm, which can get the best of him at times.  His accuracy tends to be better when he throws long, as that bazooka misaims more times than you’d like it to in the short and intermediate areas of the field.  He’s not a runner but is mobile, and is perhaps at his best when he can keep the defense guessing with what he is going to do with the ball.  

Like Lance, the biggest question mark with Wilson is his sample size and competition.  Both are one-year wonders who flourished against lower-level teams.   Wilson, gratefully, was at least tasked with more in his offense, and wasn’t being used in almost a complementary fashion at BYU.  They let him sling it, and he did that pretty well.

The biggest question with Wilson is whether his theatrics are going to work or not.  From a pure football standpoint, Wilson is almost flawless.  His ability to throw the ball deep reliably should be coveted, as so many QBs in the league struggle with it.  Aside from that arm occassionally getting the best of him, football ability isn’t what plagues Wilson.  It’s things that are out of his control – the competiton he faced.  

It’s a nervous-wracking bet for whoever takes Wilson.  Weapons around him won’t appease.  There’s not much a coaching staff is going to do help him. A team will know close to Day-1 whether he’s going to be it or not.  

QB5: Kyle Trask, Florida (Late first-round pick)

This will likely be the biggest surprise on the board.

The evalution of Trask is perhaps colored by what Florida was before his intregration as a starter.  The Gators’ struggles at quarterback over the years – most notably highlighed by the ineffectiveness of Feleipe Franks – led to offense that had incredible trouble moving the ball.

Trask came in and lit it up.  Florida was a completely different team with him under center.  The ball moved forward, and went deep downfield.  Trask picked apart defenses left and right.  

The ability to move the ball downfield is what seperates Trask from Mac Jones.  Trask was never and isn’t afraid to make the tough throws.  Jones let his surrouding cast do the work, and had infinite help.  Trask had good weapons as well, and that will likely be a key to potential success in the NFL, but Jones’ projection as a game-manager sees him slide past Trask on this big board.

Trask may not be much more than that, but with him at the helm you can at least feel better about the ball moving downfield.  Jones will need a perfect arsenal of weapons and then some.

QB6: Mac Jones, Alabama (2nd round pick)

You don’t draft players for their ability to reach average performance.

You draft players who you think could be great, or at least good, especially in the first round.

Jones doesn’t project as either.  He has an average arm that is limited to shorter throws.  He was in a perfect scheme with perfect weapons, which made the tough throws easy.  Sure, his accuracy is great, but every QB’s should be when asked to make throws Jones did with play-makers like that on-hand.

The most common problem in the NFL is teams having quarterbacks who are good and not great – those who need perfect situations and scenarios to be successful.  Jones is one of those players, and doesn’t have the upside to grow out of it either.

Additionally, like other QBs in this draft, his sample size is small, and was helped out significantly by a roster that will have at least three or four other players selected in the first round.

The talent around Jones was better than Jones himself.  Somehow, that notion has been reversed lately.  If a team is looking for competnecy, then Jones is their guy.  But that team better know what it’s doing elsewhere on the field, and then will likely have to say some prayers.

Other ranked QBs in this class:

QB7: Davis Mills, Stanford

QB8: Ian Book, Notre Dame

QB9: Kellen Mond, Texas A&M

Super Bowl 55 Preview

Tyreek Hill is an end-all.

He was in Week 12.  Kansas City’s 27-24 win over Tampa Bay was a game where the score didn’t tell the story at all.  The Chiefs’ blazing-fast wide receiver cooked Carlton Davis and the Buccaneers’ secondary.  Kansas City led 17-0 after the first quarter, and Hill had 200 yards by that point.  Despite Tampa Bay’s late rally, the Chiefs and Hill gave the Bucs no chance from the very beginning. Hill started and ended the game in an instant.

Tampa Bay gets a second crack at containing Hill on Sunday in Super Bowl 55.  Stopping him is not a possibility.  It just doesn’t happen.  You can only hope to contain him, make him work and make things harder on him.  Once you do that, you just say your prayers from that point on.

The biggest reason for Hill’s show-stopping performance in Week 12 was his ability to score, not necessarily his ability to get open and run.  As mentioned, you’re just not stopping that aspect of his game.

What Tampa Bay can stop though is Hill’s ability to break free and score.  Keeping a safety high and their fastest cornerback on Hill is the best allocation of resources that Bucs’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles can deploy against him.  As silly as it sounds, letting Patrick Mahomes or literally anyone else on Kansas City’s offense beat them is the best way to go about business for Tampa Bay on Sunday.  A re-creation of Week 12 puts the game away almost immediately.

The thought of letting someone like Travis Kelce not be a priority is scary, but Devin White and the Bucs’ linebacker bunch is extremely skilled in coverage.  White should be matched up man-to-man with Kelce, and that battle is going to be more contested than we may think.  White is elite and can have help from a second safety or linebacker if needed.

Negating the presence of Kelce puts a lot of pressure on Hill to perform like he did in Week 12.  Of course, that is entirely possible – Hill’s inevitability and pure dominance are capable of taking over any defense in any game.  But it’d be quite embarrassing for Tampa Bay to go out like that, and essentially get shredded by the same player twice on the premise of them just not being able to stop him.

Letting Mahomes and others beat you sounds like a recipe for disaster.  But the Bucs have ways of controlling what he and the Chiefs do.  Kansas City is down both starting tackles for this Super Bowl after Eric Fisher tore his Achilles in the AFC Championship Game.  Being weak on the ends is not ideal against Tampa Bay’s pass rush, which is ferocious inside and out.  Pressuring and getting to Mahomes – who has no shortage of in-game ding-ups and trips to the medical tent in his career – is key for the Bucs, not only in hopes of potentially knicking Mahomes up (who was bothered by a toe injury in addition to the head/neck injury suffered against the Browns) but in order to force the quickest throws possible.

Those balls might be going to the likes of Mecole Hardman if the Bucs execute defensively, who is still ridiculously fast like Hill.  But the former Georgia wide receiver has been best used in gimmick, one-trick pony type plays rather than in a featured role throughout his short career thus far.  If the Bucs clamp Hill and Kelce and get pressure on Mahomes, it’s on Hardman to step up and have a Hill-like game off of dump-offs and quick throws.  That seems like a big ask.

Pressure is key for Tampa Bay on Sunday.  The same argument can be made for the Chiefs.

Kansas City has some balancing to do on the defensive end in this game.  On one hand, the age-old philosophy that beats Tom Brady is getting pressure on him, specifically with four or fewer defensive linemen.  The Chiefs can bring more, but they then risk Brady picking them apart effortlessly.  It’s an older Brady though, who may not pick apart a defense like he used to.  Bringing five might not be the death sentence it has been in the past.

The more concerning aspect of bringing pressure is that it opens up the run for the Bucs.  Tampa Bay’s rushing attack isn’t something to necessarily be afraid of, but it can be potent when firing on all cylinders.

The best way – conventionally – to beat the Chiefs is to play defense with your offense.  That doesn’t mean scoring as much as they do, but running the ball and eating as much clock as possible to limit their scoring chances.  Even with their matchup advantages, the Chiefs are still a handful for Tampa Bay’s defense.  The Bucs’ offense has to do its part in helping out the other side.  Running the ball does that most effectively.

But all of this strategy is complacent with the Bucs’ offense actually showing up.  That’s been a bit of a struggle for them throughout the season.  Blame it on the installation of a new quarterback and new system all you want, but these things should have been figured out by the time Tampa Bay’s first playoff game against Washington took place.  In that contest, the Bucs’ offense stalled, and Washington legitimately had a chance to win at the end.  The next week, Tampa Bay redeemed itself – and did so again against Green Bay.  But the inconsistency is concerning, and an offense can’t just not show up against Kansas City.  

Hill’s Week 12 performance still looms extremely large.  What is so different this time around for the Bucs?  Why would Hill not go off again?  Is Davis just permanently moved off of him?

A lockdown of Kelce does not win this game for Tampa Bay.  Hill needs to kept in check, and the pressure has to be on Mahomes.  Both things on top of the objective of Kelce has to happen for the Bucs Sunday.

In addition, their offense has to show up.  That could be the toughest bet of them all.  

Hill is inevitable.  Tampa Bay’s scheming on Hill Week 12 wasn’t the outcome of bad coaching or stupidity.  They were simply out-executed and outran.  

It’s hard to expect things to be much different Sunday, even with a safety looming over the top.  Hill and the Chiefs might just have Tampa Bay’s number.  If that holds true, Brady has a lot of work to do.  It might be the Super Bowl – where the GOAT typically shows up – but there’s a chance we leave Sunday realizing it just wasn’t the Bucs’ year – yet.

Prediction: Chiefs-34 Bucanneers-23

The Rams And The Lost Art Of “Going For It”

It’s rare when NFL teams admit defeat.

Front offices usually hold onto players they were wrong about too long.  They’re unwilling to concede to the owner or the fans they that messed up – perhaps big time.  They know it can cost them their job.  They know it will at least put them on thin ice.

The Los Angeles Rams didn’t necessarily hold onto quarterback Jared Goff too long.  Sure, the warning signs of his limited ceiling were there during the 2019-20 season, but the team’s overall regression was in full force.  Running back Todd Gurley – arguably the focal point of the Rams system – fell off a cliff.  Sean McVay seemed rattled as a play-caller after Bill Belichick pulled down his pants in Super Bowl 53.  Last year was the classic Super Bowl hangover season for the Rams.  At that point in time, Goff’s performance was okay.

This season changed things.  After a good start, Goff regressed once again.  The Rams were good enough to make up for his deficiencies, but ultimately the former No. 1 overall pick was the cog holding LA back from being great, not just good.

In response – in a move that’s so rarely made by front offices across sports – the Rams not only eliminated their problem but went all in to solve it.  

The acquisition of Matthew Stafford from the Lions in exchange for Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round pick elevates the Rams from that dreaded “good” description to the desired “great.”  No longer does Los Angeles have a quarterback who’s scared to throw the ball deep, will miss wide receivers and turn the ball over.  They have a gunslinger who – with good coaching and good weapons – which the Rams have – can perform at a level that breaches the NFL’s best.  Stafford is the quarterback we’ve lusted to see McVay have, and now he has him.

The price was steep – perhaps ridiculously so.  But it’s likely that it was LA’s fault it was so high – Detroit’s swallowing of Goff’s contract and shakiness on the field drove Stafford’s price up.  If the Lions moved Stafford elsewhere, perhaps their return would have been much lower.

The picks are stunning, especially considering that the two firsts were practically the only ones Los Angeles had left.  But the Rams go from a team that was middling and a QB away to a Super Bowl contender now.  That tradeoff – and likely upgrade – is almost invaluable.  If things don’t work out now, there’s almost nothing left to try.

The Rams’ side of the Stafford deal sets precedent for Houston and Deshaun Watson.  Have a QB that is as good or worse than Goff?  Great, that will be four first-round picks and other stuff for Watson, please and thank you.

Sure, not every QB has the contract Goff does, but not every QB can – even with significant coaching and weapons on top of an elite defense – get to the Super Bowl.

The point is that there’s worse than Goff on the market.  The teams in that situation should and will unequivocally be in on Watson, but to land him they will have to give up literally everything.  Those teams are as follows:

  • Carolina
  • San Francisco
  • Washington
  • New York Giants
  • New England
  • Pittsburgh (if Ben Roethlisberger returns)
  • Minnesota
  • Detroit (hold this thought)
  • New Orleans (if Drew Brees returns)
  • Atlanta
  • Denver
  • Indianapolis
  • Las Vegas 

The seven teams that shouldn’t be pursuing Watson in addition to Chicago, Dallas and Philidelphia are left out of this exercise as well.  

The Eagles are left out due to the fact that it’d cost them at least double on the cap to go get Watson, thanks to Carson Wentz’s trade kicker or his cap hit if he were to serve as Watson’s backup.

If the teams above want Watson, their current quarterback and double what the Lions got in picks for Stafford will likely be the starting point for conversations with Houston.  For the teams not listed, the return is probably similar to Stafford or less, depending on who the other quarterback is in the deal (For example, Arizona including Kyler Murray in a Watson deal is worth more than Miami throwing in Tua Tagovailoa).  Watson nets fewer picks than Stafford if a team like Cincinnati decides to move Joe Burrow for him (which is obviously unlikely, but probably needs to be a conversation for both).

The bottom line is this: if you’re one of the teams listed above, the Stafford trade was a kick in the balls in your attempt to make Watson your starting QB.  If Stafford nets what he did, then Watson brings back what could amount to the largest trade package in NFL history.  There’s a good chance he’s worth it, but that is some risky business.

A couple last notes on the potential Watson suitors above.  1) How funny would it be if Detroit leveraged Goff and the picks they received for Stafford on top of likely two more firsts and some other stuff to land Watson?  Detroit might be a sneaky suitor here if they want to be.  With their extra capital, they’re giving up much less than every team would in a Watson.  They’re working with a surplus.  2) New Orleans and Pittsburgh fall right into the Dallas/Chicago conversation if their respective QBs retire.  The Steelers absent Big Ben don’t have a QB nor pick that lands a QB that they can offer back to the Texans for Watson.  Houston should not be interested in either Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston to lead a reboot at the position post Watson in a theoretical deal with New Orleans.  And if either Brees or Roethlisberger are flipped for Watson, both Pittsburgh and New Orleans would be giving up hauls with unimaginable amounts of draft capital thanks to both players’ age and lack of production.

Detroit’s side of this trade is conflicting.  On one end, the haul they reigned in for Stafford was stunning – two firsts and a third for a quarterback that’s not elite and needs significant help is great work.  The picks allow them to be more aggressive in trying to move up for a quarterback in this year’s draft or next’s if they want to.  It can also enable them to pursue Watson if they choose.  Or – and this is the most likely outcome – allows Detroit to draft more good players, unlike they’ve done in the past.

But the Goff side of things is puzzling.  The picks are hard to turn down, but Goff’s contract is one of those that is not easily navigable.  Detroit can’t get out of it for free for two seasons.  After next year, it’s a $15 million dead cap hit to release him.  

The Lions are a teardown.  Evaluating Goff for next season makes sense, just to make sure he’s not salvageable.  But beyond that it’s a tough sell, assuming he’s not the guy for Detroit.  At that point, the Lions need to find their future signal-caller instead of treading water with Goff.  That’s tough though with Goff’s contract situation – moving on is not easy or cheap.

Detroit attaches themselves to Goff with this deal for a little longer than we’d like them to.  At the same time, evaluating Goff next season then cutting him for $15 million wouldn’t exactly hurt the Lions.  If they’re in the market for a quarterback next offseason, they’re not likely to be competitive or wanting to maintain cap room – meaning that Goff’s dead cap isn’t something they should qualm about accepting if it’s just a one-year payment.

It’s more about what else could have been out there for the Lions.  Again, the Rams’ picks were tough to turn down.  But why was Goff the QB Detroit had to receive back in the deal?  Was Denver not willing to move Drew Lock?  Was Jacob Eason in Indianapolis not appealing?  Even Taylor Heinicke from Washington?  Neither of those QBs might be great, but they’re at least young and cheap, and make more sense than Goff does for the Lions.

Regardless, this is about the picks for Detroit.  And why wouldn’t it be?  Two firsts and a third is an almost undeniable offer and certainly makes up for the presence of Goff, whether we like it or not.

Game Notes From The AFC + NFC Championship

Here are some thoughts on the NFC and AFC Championship Games along with a look at the market for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Buccaneers-31 Packers-26

  • The effect of turnovers on a single game are talked about ad nauseam.  But no contest greater magnified their importance than Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
  • From the start, Green Bay was overmatched.  Tampa Bay was a team of sputtering yet scary offense all season that at its worst featured a fearsome defense.  On one side of the ball, teams knew what they were getting with the Buccaneers throughout the year.
  • The Packers struggled against Tampa Bay’s defense.  Its offense had no chance against Tampa Bay’s front, resulting in discombobulation. The Bucs and Tom Brady were having a good day, cooking Green Bay’s defense, thanks to beautiful balls from Brady to a host of receivers (in addition to a terrible blown coverage right before halftime which resulted Scotty Miller’s touchdown catch).  The Packers offense was left with no room for error, which it certainly encountered and resulted in them being down 21-10 at the half.
  • The break didn’t bring good fortune right away.  Desperately needing a score, Green Bay fumbled three plays into its first drive of the second half.  The Bucs scored immediately after, seemingly putting the game away by virtue of a three possession lead.
  • But Tampa Bay kicked off its own turnover party after Green Bay’s miscues allowed them to build the lead.  Brady threw three picks – all of which had some of his fault embedded in them.  The first was a deep shot to Mike Evans that was lofted a bit too high, allowing Packers safety Adrian Amos to fly over and intercept the pass on what was truly a great play by the former Bear.   The second was a high ball intended for Evans, who probably could have caught it given that his fingers made contact, but Brady’s placement was a little too high even for the 6-foot-5-inch receiver to snag it.  
  • The third pick was a pure duck as Brady attempted to escape pressure. Green Bay didn’t recoup points from that pick, and only went 1/3 with points off of each possession change.  Blame whatever occurred later in the game for the Packers’ loss if you want, but the inability to cash in on two golden opportunities looms large as well.
  • Green Bay had a chance to redeem itself for the missed chances.  Down eight with 2:05 left, the Packers opted to kick a field goal on the eight yard line on fourth down as opposed to going for it.  An egregious decision, Matt LaFleur essentially called the game away there.  
  • Skeptics will tell you that points is better than no points.  That’s fine, and sometimes true, but only to a certain extent.  If the Packers were able to stop Tampa Bay on the ensuing drive, they’d still need to a score a touchdown in order to take the lead – which is the same thing they would have attempted to do on 4th and goal while leaving more time on the clock for a last-second heave if they didn’t convert on the 4th down and forced Tampa Bay to a three-and-out.
  • A touchdown on 4th and goal likely would have led to a two-point conversion attempt, which if converted, obviously ties the game, but if not, allows a field goal to take the lead if the Packers defense made a stop after the change of possession.
  • Going for it just makes things easier.  It’s a move that has a higher ceiling when it comes to the objective of winning the game, while causing zero harm if not successful.  In addition, you’re backing up the Buccaneers offense deep in their own territory.  Their backs are against the wall, and while unlikely, the odds of a safety increase.
  • The Packers didn’t even play it safe by kicking.  They played it stupidly.  
  • You would have thought, after watching two teams go home from these playoffs as a result of the same dumb play-calling, that the Packers would have learned.  But they didn’t, and now Aaron Rodgers is mad.
  • Green Bay fans can be upset all they want about the pass interference call on Kevin King with 1:46 left that sealed the game for Tampa Bay, which, yes, was an outlier call given how the referees officiated the contest and, yes, was probably awarded partially due to a magnificent flopping job by rookie wide receiver Tyler Johnson who, yes, was not affected at all by King’s jersey grab.  But it’s in the rules – you can’t tug on someone’s jersey to defend them, and had the Packers just decided to go for it on 4th and goal, we likely wouldn’t be arguing about this at all.
  • Green Bay might have gotten screwed over (Hint: not really), but they could have avoided it.  Instead, they enter an offseason that might have more drama and turmoil than they could have ever imagined.

Chiefs-38 Bills-24 

  • The Chiefs being down two possessions is like any other team being down eight points.
  • Coming back from down eight is a harder task than doing the same against seven or fewer points thanks to the variability of the two-point conversion, but neither of those compare to thee challenge two possessions is for most teams.
  • Buffalo’s 9-0 lead felt insecure in the moment.  The immediate shock value of Kansas City’s sudden deficit was surmised by almost a comforting feeling: that this was the Chiefs, and that almost no lead on them ever matters.
  • The Bills’ lead was also not a byproduct of their own doing.  A long field goal gave them the first three points, while a horrible fumble by Mecole Hardman on a punt return set Buffalo up at the three yard line soon after, where the Bills scored immediately and missed the extra point.  It all happened fast – which typically isn’t the formula best suited to beat the Chiefs.
  • In an instant, Kansas City led.  Nine-to-zero Bills was soon 21-9 Chiefs, thanks to Tyreek Hill and Kansas City’s blazing offensive speed once again torching another defense.  As defensive backs chased around Hill and Hardman, Kelce sat wide open in the middle of the field and cleaned up as usual.  
  • You just don’t defend the Chiefs.  It’s a pick-your-poison offense that is likely going to beat you one way or the other.  Buffalo needed its offense to show up Sunday to have a chance, and instead Josh Allen turned in a performance that looked like it was off of his rookie tape.
  • Averaging just six yards per attempt, Allen completed just 28/48 passes.  He missed receivers, threw dangerous balls and made dumb decisions while scrambling.  His 88 yards rushing led the team by a wide margin, and Cole Beasley’s own 88 receiving was the most on the Bills as well in that respective category.  Kansas City’s defense surprisingly got immense pressure, which seemed to throw Allen off the scent just enough.  It was the worst game Allen has played since he made the leap forward, which dates back to before last season.
  • The Bills attempted to make a rally late, but became the latest team (Four of them in two weeks time!) to waive the white flag and get sent home by not going for it on 4th down or not attempting a two-point conversion.  Down 12 midway through the third quarter, Buffalo decided to kick on 4th and 3 on the Chiefs’ eight yard-line instead of attempting to gain three yards.  The good field goal was a purely lateral move – the Bills then watched Kansas City take a 31-15 lead on the ensuing drive, which had the possibility of being a 31-20 lead had the Bills been aggressive.  An 11 or even 12 (if they didn’t go for two – which would have been decently acceptable) point deficit only requires one two-point attempt, not two to tie or take the lead.  If the Bills were in the business of making things easier on themselves and not relying so heavily on one play must-haves, going for it early would have been the right move.
  • No matter what the Bills did on the end of that possession, them winning was still unlikely.  Kansas City – unsurprisingly – was the better team, and looked purely unstoppable almost the entire game.  If Allen had showed up, perhaps a duel would have ensued, but offense – most notably the type Buffalo doesn’t play (run-heavy, clock eating-schemes) – is what it takes to put the Chiefs away.  The Bills couldn’t do that, and there’s a good chance the last team standing in football aside from Kansas City won’t either.

On Matthew Stafford’s impending trade…

The Matthew Stafford market is much different than the one that exists for Deshaun Watson.

As written about last week, Watson is the type of player that almost every team in the league has to consider acquiring.  He’s an elite, top ten QB in the league, which is invaluable at the age of 25.

We’ve also seen the bare minimum of what he is capable of.  The Texans have wasted most of his young years so far, and the Clemson product has still shone and at times been an MVP candidate.  Imagine what he’s capable of literally anywhere else.

Stafford is not Watson.  His numbers and his ability (or lack thereof) to affect winning are indicative of that.  Detroit hasn’t treated Stafford much better than Houston has Watson over the course of his career, but the former No. 1 overall pick hasn’t came through like Watson has.  In four seasons as Houston’s quarterback, Watson has taken the Texans to the playoffs twice.  Stafford has done the same with the Lions just once more, and that’s with a six-year head start.

The bottom line: most of the teams in on Watson should be much different from those in on Stafford.

The Cardinals, for example, are not trading Kyler Murray for Stafford unless Detroit sends multiple attractive draft picks back in a deal (There’s almost no deal that makes that worth it for Arizona).  Arizona dealing Murray and some other stuff (hint: it wouldn’t be much else) for Watson, however, might make sense.

The teams that can use Stafford likely miss out on Watson.  But that doesn’t mean everyone can use Stafford.

The gunslinger needs foundation, coaching and weapons.  That’s been made clear after what we’ve seen in Detroit.  These need to be teams that have contending-level rosters and solid skill position players in place in order for Stafford to succeed.

Who are those teams?  Well, New Orleans has one of the best rosters in football whether Drew Brees retires or not.  If he has played his last down, the Saints would make perfect sense.  The same goes for Pittsburgh, whose quarterback (Like New Orleans) might have been the biggest thing holding them back this year.  The 49ers would make a ton of sense, as San Francisco is a year off from making the Super Bowl and has underrated offensive weapons.  Indianapolis was clearly attempting to go as far as they could this season with Phillip Rivers, though that team may not be good enough to elevate Stafford and might be better off going in a younger direction at QB.  Chicago could use anything they could get right now at QB, and there’s some sneaky talent on both sides of the ball there (On the sidelines and in the front office however, not so much!).  The Rams swapping out Jared Goff for Stafford would be mighty intriguing, and Denver throwing him into that loaded offense could light up the league.

But that’s about it for Stafford.  Every other team is better off going all in for Watson or staying put where they are.  It’s a limited market for the Lions, and in a low leverage situation, a potentially concerning, sell-low move awaits.

Game Notes From Sunday’s Divisional Round Contests

Here are some notes from Sunday’s Divisional Round games followed by a primer on what could be an offseason trade of Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson.

Chiefs-22 Browns-17

  • Who gets the blame here?  Patrick Mahomes’ greatness or the Browns?
  • Mahomes and the Chiefs came out of the gate ablaze.  Kansas City was up 19-3 at halftime, which should have been 23-3 thanks to a missed extra point and field goal by the usually ultra-reliable Harrison Butker.  Butker’s missed kicks – most notably the extra point – were perhaps the only thing keeping Cleveland in the game.  A single point before half would have put Kansas City up three possessions in a contest where Cleveland struggled to comeback from down two.
  • The Browns defense – which was arguably the team’s downfall at the end of the day – had no chance against the speed of Kansas City’s offense.  Dump-offs to Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman gained big yardage.  Travis Kelce was a sieve as usual over the middle.  Mahomes got nifty, rushing for a touchdown and getting first downs with his (at times hurting) legs.  
  • It didn’t last forever.  Mahomes – as if he wasn’t hurting enough with a supposed toe injury – was concussed midway through the third quarter after Cleveland put together its best drive of the game to make it 19-10.  Prior to that, Kansas City squandered an opportunity to once again to extend its lead to three possessions after Baker Mayfield threw a horrible pick, only for Butker’s missed field goal to follow up the forced turnover.  Chad Henne salvaged the drive Mahomes left, but the Chiefs didn’t score again.
  • Once Henne entered, the game not only felt within reach for the Browns, but inevitable.  The momentum had flipped, and Mahomes to Henne represented perhaps the biggest talent drop-off in the league.  It felt like the Browns should win.
  • They came damn close.  A score on the backs of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt cut the Chiefs’ lead to five.  Henne’s attempt to put the game away on the ensuing drive resulted in a horrendous interception – allowing Cleveland right back in it.  
  • The drive came up short.  To the dismay of many, Cleveland punted on 4th and 9 down five with 4:19 left on its own 32.  The Browns’ single timeout remaining caused most of this commotion – they had no way to stop Kansas City’s rushing attack more than once minus the two-minute warning.
  • Both sides had a good case.  Going for it and not securing the first down puts pressure on Henne to ice the game, or Butker to make a big kick on a bad day.  A Butker make keeps it a one-score game – whereas a miss would be the best case scenario.
  • Henne’s ability to go 32 yards for a score seemed feeble – though that was certainly proved wrong after the punt.  
  • At the same time, nine yards is a long way.  Mayfield was horrible Sunday, and you’re not running the ball in that situation.  Despite the timeout disadvantage, four minutes is much longer than two.  
  • With the way Cleveland’s offense played Sunday, it’s hard to say that had it hadn’t punted, it would have won the game.
  • The Browns probably weren’t expecting Henne to turn into a mix of Mahomes and Kyler Murray once they punted, nor were they thinking that a 3rd and 14 for the Chiefs wouldn’t result in them receiving one final chance.
  • Whether it was bad defense or a fluke, the Chiefs back-to-back plays on 3rd and 14 and 4th and 1 were something out of a Madden game.  Henne’s run was one of the most improbable postseason plays ever, while the 4th and 1 call had the widest range of outcomes out of any play in the game (An incredible statement to make considering the Browns’ fumbling of a touchdown out of the back of the end zone for a touchdown earlier).
  • The play-call was perfect.  Despite Mahomes’ absence, the Chiefs went back to what burned Cleveland in the first half: speed.  A simple, shallow crosser to Hill sealed it, and the Browns never touched the ball again.
  • Cleveland leaves this game perhaps clueless.  They never had a chance against Mahomes, and let Henne do things a backup quarterback should never dream of doing.  That would signify that the defense is at fault, but Mayfield’s performance is hard to ignore, and when Mahomes is playing at that level, it begs the question as to whether Mayfield can ever even put up a fight.

Buccaneers-30 Saints-20

  • This was the most hotly contested bad game in awhile.
  • Neither offense or quarterback played well, even though both sides combined for 50 points.  No one dominated, as the score was tied at halftime and a brutal Drew Brees interception secured the two possession lead and victory for Tampa Bay.
  • Alvin Kamara was New Orleans’ saving grace.  Aside from Brees’ beautiful touchdown pass to Tre’Quan Smith, the QB’s likely swan-song game was a struggle, and the Bucs’ defense magnified it by keeping all their defenders up near the line of scrimmage.  That made gaining yards solely Kamara’s job.
  • It was an okay performance.  Kamara finished with 85 yards on 18 carries, but Saints turnovers doomed what should have been a lieu of successful drives.  New Orleans punted just twice Sunday, but an early interception thrown by Brees doomed one of its empty drives in the first half, which enabled Tampa Bay to take a 10-6 lead.
  • Brees and Saints couldn’t get out of their own way later in the game.  A fumble by Jared Cook allowed Tampa Bay to tie the game at 20 with 4:41 left in the third quarter.  New Orleans got nothing in response, picking the worst possible time to punt the ball back to the Bucs.  A score there would have provided a buffer for what was about to come.
  • After the Bucs took a 23-20 lead, New Orleans met their destiny for the day.  On a play that seemed to be more of a miscommunication than Brees’ fault, Kamara ran a go route from the backfield that was intended to be a hitch.  Brees threw it right to Devin White – who was in perfect position thanks to Tampa Bay’s second half adjustment of playing its linebackers up – as Kamara ran straight downfield, not turning his head, and sealed the game for the Bucs as they scored four plays later.
  • The Saints were able overcome Brees’ deficiencies all year.  A fantastic defense and Kamara’s brilliance allowed for that.  But a meltdown was coming, and that came Sunday. A gimmick with Jameis Winston throwing the ball 40 yards downfield was the Saints’ best play of the day, and Brees’ turnovers were the single difference between him and Brady.  The challenges faced by New Orleans were small, but in the end were still too much.

On the escalating Deshaun Watson situation….

It seems increasing likely that a Deshaun Watson trade will occur at some point this offseason.  To prepare for what could be the largest, most important trade in NFL history, here’s a primer which will serve as part one to a future column that breaks down potential destinations for the star quarterback.

The Texans certainly should not trade Watson.  He’s one of the game’s elite signal-callers, and still has the “young” adjective attached to his name.  Those players don’t just become available.

It doesn’t seem like Houston will accommodate him, though.  Reports have suggested that Watson wants a combination of his choosing of the team’s next head coach, executive Jack Easterby fired (Not a bad idea) and owner Cal NcNair to relinquish control (Also not a bad idea).  The stories about Easterby are damning and are a perfect illustration of how sour things can get when those unqualified are in charge.  Firing him shouldn’t be hard, but McNair’s supposed religious bond with the former Patriots staffer seems to be what’s keeping him around.  McNair, obviously, won’t sell – and why would he?  He’s making money whether his team is a dumpster fire or not.

That reasoning is why the Texans likely lose Watson this offseason.  McNair – as no owner would – isn’t selling the team for a single player to be happy.  He personally gains nothing from that.

Easterby’s departure and the hiring of, perhaps, Eric Bieniemy would be positives for the Texans – and should result in Watson actually giving them a chance.  But neither of those things seem likely to occur, and we’re here as a result.

Watson is the type of player and talent that requires every front office to sit down and have a meeting about whether it makes sense for their respective team.  He’s too good, and quarterback is too important.

However, there are seven teams that shouldn’t be in this discussion:

  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

Finding the succession plan for Tom Brady would make sense.  But the Bucs aren’t flipping Brady based on how invested they are in him, and you’re not keeping Watson and Brady on your roster at the same time.

  • Seattle Seahawks

We saw what Russell Wilson is capable of early in the season.  Seattle needs to hone in on what enabled that run of success, sure up its offensive line and add a play-maker on offense.  If they did want to get involved, their offer might trump everyone else’s.

  • Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers’ MVP season makes his age become a non-factor.  Plus, the Packers already have his successor in Jordan Love.  It’s likely both players would have to be moved to Houston for a deal to work.

  • Buffalo Bills

If the Watson situation blew up before this season, then perhaps there’d be a conversation had here.  Josh Allen’s MVP-caliber season makes the AFC Championship-bound Bills non-participants in trade talks, though. 

  • Kansas City Chiefs


  • Los Angeles Chargers

It’s truly incredible that Los Angeles is on this list, but Justin Herbert established himself as the runaway Offensive Rookie of the Year this season and is three years younger than Watson.  If the Chargers were to jump in, their immediate offer is better than almost everyone else’s.

  • Jacksonville Jaguars

Potentially the most controversial team on this list, the thinking here for the Jaguars is complicated.  This is no easy decision.

Jacksonville has the simplest trade package in the league.  It’d be April’s No. 1 overall pick for Watson straight up.  That would be the whole deal.  Trevor Lawrence is that good, and breaks the barrier of sure-thing/knowing what you get (Watson) versus potential and the unknown (To some people, Lawrence).  

But prospects who are this highly-touted and this good just don’t fail.  Lawrence is on the Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Joe Burrow level of players – neither of those guys failed, or have so far.  

Those are generational players.  Lawrence deserves that description, and he’s going to live up to it too.  As good as Watson is – a (at least) top 10 QB and MVP candidate this past season – he’s never had the “generational” label, and never will.

You can’t pass up generational, and therefore, Jacksonville needs to stay out of it.

With these teams out of the mix, what’s left for the remaining teams in the sweepstakes to offer is one the following: a serviceable quarterback or a draft pick than ensures Houston either Trevor Lawrence (not happening) or Justin Fields in April’s draft (There’s a hint at how the Hub’s QB big board is shaking out), plus other players and/or picks. 

Houston can’t come out of this trade and head into next season with (checks notes) AJ McCarron or Josh McCown as its quarterback.  There has to be some direction at the position, whether it’s building toward the future with a rookie or attempting to win now with whatever (likely underwhelming) pieces.  In essence, any trade Houston makes that involves Watson must have a quarterback in the return.

A serviceable QB doesn’t have to mean a necessarily good one.  By using that term, we’re basically ruling out these QBs coming back to Houston in a deal: Gardner Minshew, Mitchell Trubisky, Nick Foles, Taylor Heinicke, Nick Mullens and Andy Dalton.  It’s viable to see the Texans talking themselves into everyone else, and some deals might actually make sense (That is, given Watson refuses to play).

With that in mind, the Bears and Cowboys are likely out (Fields falling to Dallas would be insane), as they lack a pick that truly secures Houston Lawrence or Fields and don’t have a QB they could offer in a trade back (Dak Prescott is a free agent).

That leaves 21 teams who should be in on Watson.  Let the bidding commence.

James Harden And The Rare, Unnecessary But Good Trade

When all cylinders were firing for every team involved in this new, ugly NBA season, arguably no team looked and played better than the Brooklyn Nets.

Kevin Durant was back – and not just playing basketball – but playing basketball the way he used to play it, showing no signs that his Achilles tear in the 2019 NBA Finals was going to slow him down.  Kyrie Irving was a sorcerer, scoring in his usual variety of ways while making defenses pay for focusing too much attention toward Durant.  

Caris LeVert was playing perhaps the best basketball of his career.  He’d tied his career-high field goal percentage while handling an uptick in usage and raising his assist total from last season by 1.6 a game.  He had limited his turnovers while handling the ball at a greater clip thanks a new, exciting role as a sixth man.

All of that action on the Nets court left Joe Harris completely wide open, where he’s cashed in threes at a 51.7% mark this season on 5.7 attempts per game.  His number of shots could double and the same percent of them would likely go in.

The Nets – even at just 6-6 and seventh in the Eastern Conference – were killing it. They ranked fourth in offensive rating and 12th defensively – the latter more impressive as Brooklyn has been without its two stars for a majority of the season and has the character of a team that’d mail in on that side of the ball.  They also lost Spencer Dinwiddie for the year – a key rotation player whose minutes and production fell into the laps of a struggling Landry Shamet and an inexperienced Bruce Brown.  Plus, a first-time head coach in Steve Nash was charged with navigating all of this.

Now, the sailing through potentially tough times with little expectations turns into the opposite of that.  The Nets now have James Harden instead of Caris LeVert, and thing are great.  But the pressure is on.

The package it took for Brooklyn to land Harden is massive and unprecedented.  For the third time in two years, we’ve seen the biggest draft pick package in NBA history moved along for a superstar (Anthony Davis, Paul George/Kawhi Leonard, and now Harden).  Houston’s control of Brooklyn’s next eight picks represents the exact type of deal the Rockets wanted in exchange for its former MVP’s services, and like the Lakers’ deal for Davis did in 2019, makes up for the lack of a true star or young player coming back from Brooklyn (Houston was able to get that star though, as we’ll address soon).

For the Nets, Harden, those picks, LeVert and Jarrett Allen is all a risk worth taking.  There’s few excuses for them to win the title now.  Harden’s replacement of LeVert gives Brooklyn more reliable shooting, upgrades the its No. 1 ball-handling role and affects winning to a much higher degree (Harden’s not the best player on a championship team despite his definite status as a top 7-8 player in this league, but he doesn’t need to be that on this team).  

Most fascinating about Harden’s move to Brooklyn is whether he or Irving is the point guard.  That doesn’t mean one has to necessarily take a backseat, but these are both players that we’ve haggled with in the past about what their true position is.  Harden’s been paired with multiple point guards in the past, only for those duos to result in failure.  It would be interesting to see what Harden can do solely as a shooting guard, where he’s focused on purely scoring and not running an offense.  Brooklyn offers him the opportunity to return to his Oklahoma City-like role, but then it’s Irving – a less gifted passer and perhaps more selfish player – deciding who gets the ball.

Flip things the other way around and the same problem emerges.  Irving might be better suited just getting his own buckets rather than facilitating them out.  Harden’s fantastic passing skills make him at the 1 work, but his historic usage rates and built-in habits of initiating possessions could lead to a clogging of the Nets offense, and fizzle Durant and Irving completely out of the scheme.

These scenarios are scary.  Perhaps its the result of overthinking though.  Brooklyn now has two of the seven best guys in the league, and three of the top 15 or so, with Irving able to elevate to Harden’s level with a sense of unselfishness.  Those three guys can get any shot they want at any time.  

There’s also a chance Brooklyn doesn’t have all of those three guys, and that the trade for Harden serves as insurance for that.  Irving remains away from the team for personal reasons, with not only us but the Nets uncertain of when his return will be.  That’s concerning – for Irving and for Brooklyn – and might have been the catalyst for the Harden deal.  Durant’s playing at a level high enough to carry Brooklyn without Irving – though Dinwiddie’s absence would have meant a large ball-handling load for the forward coming off Achilles surgery.

Harden serves as a fall-back for that deathly scenario, and pairs Durant with his former OKC teammate to form perhaps the most potent guard-forward combo in the league.  

If Irving’s absence is prolonged, the loss of LeVert may prove larger than expected.  Brooklyn was getting by with its two stars and its sixth man.  In a world without Irving, its down to just two stars and… Jeff Green.

The sending off of Jarrett Allen wasn’t shocking but also shows the true colors of Brooklyn’s intentions.  They’re a star-based team now, and such means appeasing those stars as well.  That means DeAndre Jordan plays, starts and closes, a laughable load considering Allen’s presence on the team prior to Wednesday. At least Brooklyn has eliminated controversy, but Allen’s youth and athleticism is a stark contrast from the low effort and washed look of Jordan.  In addition, only receiving a second round pick from Cleveland in exchange for Allen is majorly selling low.

Brooklyn rid itself of literally all depth it possessed in Wednesday’s deal.  The Rockets also got Rodions Kurucs – who’d get more shine if Harris wasn’t on the Nets and needs more minutes to show off his shooting stroke.  At 22, he’s a rare young player on Houston’s roster that Brooklyn probably could have gotten away with keeping.

The Nets need the trade for Harden to work.  Like, really need for it to work.  Riding on its success is only eight first round picks and two young pieces sent away.  For a team to make a deal like that, it has to be sure, have no second guesses and no questions about whether it was worth it.  

Brooklyn is paying for its team to have a higher ceiling here.  While the roster the Nets have is guaranteed on paper to a win a title, nothing in this league ever is exactly that.  However, with Harden in hand, Brooklyn has more of a guarantee than it did previously.  Issues and questions exist – violating the rules set above – but finding a team more talented and scary throughout basketball is tough.  Nothing was guaranteed with Brooklyn’s prior roster construction, but the same adjectives could have been used on Tuesday – or any day before.

For as contentious as the situation got and as subordinated as the Rockets were,  their dumping of Harden to the Nets resulted in one of the biggest returns ever for a star player, and gave Houston a rare mix of present and future value that keeps both timelines afloat.

First, Houston landed the star player they coveted in a Harden trade in Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, who while likely not an All-NBA talent, is just outside that range and could elevate to it with health on his side.  They chose Oladipo over LeVert, which is a purely win-now, upside-focused move with Oladipo’s impending free agency.  While it won’t make Houston a contender this year, it at least gives Oladipo a familiarity with the city and team, which could make him more likely to stay next summer.

At that point, Houston could be an intriguing bunch.  John Wall, Oladipo, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker and Christian Wood certainly isn’t a bad team and would figure to be a solid playoff bunch with proper acquaintance.  Wall’s renaissance this season has been a great story, and Oladipo’s shown his potential in the past.  Wood is a monster, and Houston’s impressive and surprising youth (Jae’Sean Tate, Sterling Brown and Mason Jones) gives them more to work with than previously thought (That’s not accounting for Kurucs and Dante Exum, who’s suitable as a fourth guard).  

If Oladipo doesn’t work out and leaves, Houston takes a swing at raising its stock for this season and potentially next while losing out on LeVert.  As much as we’d like for LeVert to be that guy, he doesn’t have the ceiling Oladipo does.

The picks received from Brooklyn aren’t only incredible in a vacuum, but are massive for a Houston team that owes Oklahoma City at least two first round picks and potentially four depending on whether the Thunder want to swap spots this draft and in 2025.  With this surplus, it gives Houston the flexibility to dump some of them into a trade for another star player someday – whether that be to maximize a roster hampered by Wall’s contract or well into the future.  Either way, Houston now joins only two other teams in the league with a war chest this deep – New Orleans and OKC being the other two.  That’s a rare class, and neither of those teams are currently better than Houston is right now.

After a slow start to the season on the Harden front, things blew up Tuesday night and quickly manifested.  Despite what was a rapid escalation of talks, the Rockets miraculously talked themselves out of a negative leverage situation and set up its present and future in a matter of hours.  Any doubts cast about the new front office in Houston headed by Rafael Stone were eliminated Wednesday, as a toxic situation stunningly turned into one of the league’s best.

The Indiana Pacers saw an opportunity as the Harden trade developed.

Oladipo has wavered on his commitment to the franchise ever since returning from his quad injury suffered in 2019.  The summer and subsequent Bubble was marred by trade rumors, questions about opting in or out of Orlando and struggles with his play on the court.

Wednesday suggested that Indiana couldn’t trust Oladipo, and understandably so.  With free agency upcoming, the Pacers couldn’t afford to lose him for nothing.  Him bolting had to be their inkling, because a team as good as Indiana is – with as much promise and potential, too – doesn’t trade their potential best player like this without real cause.

But the Pacers did what they had to do, and made out quite well.  While Oladipo might reduce their ceiling thanks to his perimeter shot creation and gamer attitude on both ends, LeVert brings a similar offensive prowess even if it’s a tad less impactful.  The defense isn’t there with him, but a lack of LeVert on the roster leaves Indiana with just Malcolm Brogdon outside the paint to create shots for himself and others.

Contract situation aside, Oladipo could have been a bit expendable thanks to Domantas Sabonis’ emergence as a shot creator for himself.  The nifty passer has thinned out, added explosiveness and gotten to the rim with ease so far this season, giving Indiana another weapon to deploy late in games.  Sabonis’ games just continues to evolve, and the Pacers are reaping the benefits of it.

The questions for LeVert entering Indiana revolve around what’s likely to be another change in role.  He was thriving off the bench as Brooklyn’s sixth man – where he was given freedom to play his way, create and run the show.  The Pacers are an organized team, with a sets revolving around Sabonis and Brogdon handling the ball.  LeVert could emerge as the team’s go-to scorer if they need it, but how far does that ultimately get the Pacers?

LeVert’s likely going to be adjusting once again, which could lead to a decrease in performance.  His high volume scoring will help mitigate the loss of TJ Warren, who figures to be out a “significant portion of the season,” according to ESPN.  When Warren is back, Indiana has significant firepower between him, LeVert, Brogdon and Sabonis.  In the meantime, Aaron Holiday likely slides into the starting lineup, balancing out efficiency issues LeVert may bring to the table.

Indiana sold high on Oladipo, and got out of losing him for nothing. The Pacers operated similarly to Houston, and acquired value out of a low-leveraged position.  A lot of front offices justified themselves Wednesday, but the biggest surprise might be the group below.

The idea of the Cleveland Cavaliers acquiring yet another big man was silly.

Swamped with Andre Drummond, JaVale McGee, Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr., Thon Maker and the unanticipated Dean Wade, the last thing Cleveland needed was another front court presence.

But Jarrett Allen is different.

The Cavaliers had been operating two different timelines with their roster: the youthful backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland and the aging front-court with seemingly washed up veterans.

It had worked.  Cleveland has been playing way better ball than expected this season, mostly thanks to the tenacious defense of rookie wing Isaac Okoro and the dynamism of Sexton and Garland.  Drummond is also partially responsible, turning himself into player that could find himself on a contender by the trade deadline.  

Still, the ceiling on that squad was low.  Cleveland has routinely played lineups with three or four of the players listed above together, with Nance Jr. playing at the 3 or even the 2.

Now, the Cavaliers have a lineup of the future in place, with Allen’s 22-year-old frame at the center of it.  By the time Love’s contract is up, Drummond is moved and McGee is gone, Cleveland will have a young, solid eight man rotation – with one more wing being the missing piece.

The trade was a no-brainer for the Cavaliers, as Allen was acquired for the price of a second round pick.  Allen’s capable of being the starting center on a Finals contender as a 22-year-old, and Cleveland got him essentially for free.

Game Notes From Super Wild Card Weekend

Here are some thoughts on from Super Wild Card Weekend followed by a look at the head coaching landscape throughout the NFL.

Bills-27 Colts-24

  • Blame analytics and Frank Reich’s coaching all you want, but this game ultimately came down to Buffalo’s explosive offense.
  • Sure, kicking on fourth-and-goal on the four yard line instead of going for it with 1:52 left in the first half might have provided the Colts with the three points needed to get Saturday’s game to overtime, but Indianapolis also missed a field goal on their first drive of the second half – which represents those same three points – and squandered a gift from the officials on the last drive of the game.
  • The Colts two plays immediately after the (unnecessary) review were the dagger.  No rhyme or reason existed for either.  Indianapolis only needed 16 yards for a reasonable kick and neither play was predicated on completing that objective.
  • Zach Pascal’s fumble being upheld as “down by contact” had the potential to be one of the worst blown calls in playoff history if Indy capitalized on it.  The refs throughout the game reviewed plays that didn’t needed to be looked at.  If the plays did, then the review went on way too long.  The end of the game only epitomized the issues that plagued it throughout.
  • Indy had chances to win even outside of its own mistakes.  The Colts got down two possessions and simply couldn’t close that gap up.  They let Allen run all over them.  Jonathan Taylor had just two good runs.  Phillip Rivers only averaged 6.7 yards per attempt, thanks to a second half which saw downfield passing opportunities close up for the 39-year-old.
  • Blame the call on fourth down all you want, but Buffalo was just better.  Overtime gives no promises.  Reich’s decision represented a higher ceiling for Indy in the game.  If they convert, the Colts are up two possessions instead of down two.  That arguably puts the game away, and is a much better guarantee than overtime.

Rams-30 Seahawks-20

  • This was what we feared with Seattle.
  • The Seahawks looked nearly unstoppable early in the year and suffered a perhaps greater than expected regression after its start, leaving their viability in the playoffs to be one big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
  • There was no way to the trust the offense coming in.  Its turnovers – mostly thanks to the sudden carelessness from Russell Wilson – and the Rams formidable defense made betting on Seattle a risky proposition.
  • Our fears were right.  The Rams stifled everything the Seahawks did.  Wilson was downright horrible, going 11/27 for 174 yards.  He was sacked five times without Aaron Donald on the field for over a quarter.  He fell victim to a pick-six, which was more of a great play by Darious Williams than a bad throw, but it ultimately put Seattle down two possessions early after their slow start.  For an offense that’s been as jammed as the Seahawks’ has, a turnover like that was a death sentence.
  • It was so important that Seattle couldn’t even fight its way back against an offense partially led by a QB making his second-ever career start and Jared Goff with a broken thumb.  Goff did enough – when he threw he wasn’t holding back.  Cam Akers made up for the Rams’ troubles at QB, gashing Seattle consistently on the ground and eating clock while doing so. But it was the Rams defense that put Seattle in a cage, locked them up and ran away with the game.
  • Seattle needs another playmaker on offense.  That – in addition to getting younger up front offensively and keeping its defense healthy – will allow the Seahawks to make their early season form a consistency. 

Buccaneers-31  Washington-23

  • Concerns similar to those held about the Seahawks followed Tampa Bay into this game.  Both teams teetered on them, with Seattle falling and the Bucs escaping.
  • The inconsistency was on full display.  Tampa Bay couldn’t pull away from Washington the way we expected them to.  The Buccaneers defense let Taylor Heinicke hang around, who wasn’t amazing but beat expectations in his second career start, thanks to incredible poise he displayed while in the pocket.  Tom Brady finished just above the 50 percent mark completing passes.  Tampa couldn’t contain Cam Sims.  It wasn’t exactly a performance that should make us ooze with confidence in them.
  • Heinicke is too old for Washington to consider him to be a part of their future, but he should serve as a nicely-paid backup QB for somebody next year.
  • A ton of credit should be given to Washington for this game and everything they accomplished this season with Alex Smith coming back and playing quite well.
  • Tampa, meanwhile, has a date coming up with New Orleans where they will likely be the underdog, and deservedly so.

Ravens-20 Titans-13

  • In what was really two different games, Baltimore proved (for now) that their run to close the regular season was much more about them getting right than a fluke.
  • After Tennessee took a 10-0 lead, the Ravens and Lamar Jackson turned into the team and player we saw last season.  Jackson’s legs were an unstoppable force.  The Ravens defense turned Ryan Tannehill into his Miami self.  It also stuffed Derrick Henry in his tracks.
  • When you take away Henry from the Titans, it forces their offense into flux.  Tannehill’s improvement over the past two seasons has been incredible,  but there’s still aspects of his game that haven’t and won’t change.  Take away play-action from him – as Baltimore did Sunday – and Tannehill’s still among the average tier of QBs in the league.
  • It’s a massive credit to Baltimore overall.  Stopping Henry is no easy task, but the offense’s ability to turn on the jets and execute exactly when needed made the defensive effort mean that much more.
  • Tennessee had a chance to take the lead late.  They got into Baltimore territory with about 10 minutes left and hit a 4th and 2 “wall” at the 40 yard line, and punted instead of going for it.
  • Ultimately, it was a time wasting move.  The Ravens only scored a field goal on the ensuing drive to make it 20-13, but Tennessee was then left with just one possession to make up the deficit, which ended in an interception that was partially Tannehill’s fault and partially the field’s fault as his intended receiver slipped.  There’s a good chance that without Kalif Raymond falling down, the pass would’ve been picked since it was a bit high.
  • Mike Vrabel’s call to punt wasn’t a vote of confidence in his defense – it was one in his offense.  And based on how that group had played in the second half, it couldn’t have been more wrong and misguided.

Saints-21 Bears-9

  • This is what Mitch Trubisky in a playoff game looks like.
  • It started off okay.  Trubisky showed a bit of a willingness to push the ball downfield, but only truly connected on one of them thanks to a penalty and Javon Wims’ horrible drop in the end zone – which if caught would have tied the game at seven late in the first quarter
  • After that drop, everything seemed to fall apart for the Bears.  Trubisky took the crown as the checkdown, short throw king.  David Montgomery was way too involved for how ineffective he was.  The offense simply couldn’t move the ball, and killer penalties on both sides of the field (including a million false starts) didn’t help.
  • New Orleans’ offense wasn’t that much better in terms of aggressiveness. The Saints just possessed the play-makers Chicago didn’t.  Their running game showed up, with Alvin Kamara running for 99 yards and a touchdown.  Short passes got action after the catch from Deonte Harris and Michael Thomas, who picked apart the Bears zone defense like it was nothing.  
  • New Orleans could move the ball despite their QBs limitations.  Chicago couldn’t.

Browns-48 Steelers-37

  • You know those games where it’s so evidently clear from the very beginning that it’s going to go a certain way?  That was how this one went.
  • The high snap by Maurkice Pouncey on the very first play from scrimmage that rolled into the end zone and gave the Browns a 7-0 lead right off the bat was the catalyst for the feeling described above.  Pittsburgh – which has an offense not designed to come from behind thanks to its washed up, dink-and-dunking QB – was in a hole from the very start.  And before they could climb out of it, it only got deeper.
  • The Steelers’ next drives were additional disasters.  Roethlisberger threw a bad interception once they got the ball back, which Cleveland capitalized on immediately thanks to Nick Chubb.  A three-and-out followed, which the Browns converted into a 21-0 lead.  Then another pick followed – this time not Roethlisberger’s fault – which put the nail in the coffin before the casket was even picked as the Browns turned it into a 28-0 before the first quarter ended.
  • Pittsburgh didn’t go out uninspired.  It had the Browns on edge for a little bit in the second half, but four possessions ultimately became too insurmountable.  An unwise decision to punt on 4th and 1 with a quarter left while down just 12 thwarted the comeback.
  • While it wasn’t all their own doing, the Browns looked scary Sunday night.  Pittsburgh’s defense is good, and Cleveland gashed it with the duo of Chubb and Kareem Hunt.  They may not be able to put up as many points as Kansas City, but they could come quite close next weekend.
  • As for Pittsburgh, Sunday isn’t who it truly was, but 11-0 wasn’t either.  The Steelers were destined to run out of steam at some point – an offense that has that much trouble moving the ball can only be supported so heavily by the other side, no matter how much talent may exist.  Decisions from players and the front office await in Pittsburgh this offseason, and 2021-22 could bring about a much different team than we’ve been used to.

On the head coaching mill…

Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is the hottest name on the market, and deservedly so.  There are four teams that should be leaning toward hiring him, and if they can’t, they should be in the business of hiring an offensive-minded, potentially play-calling head coach instead.

Those four organizations are the Jets, Texans, Eagles and Chargers.  Why them and not Jacksonville, Atlanta or Detroit?  Well, New York either needs someone to A) Turn Sam Darnold into the quarterback the Jets traded up for in 2018 despite limited weapons or B) Develop a rookie QB taken at No. 2 overall in the upcoming draft despite limited weapons.  The Chargers defense is among the best in the league from a talent standpoint and just needs to stay healthy, negating the need for a head coach who focuses on that side of the ball.  Plus, if Justin Herbert had the season he did with bad coaching, then imagine what’s possible with good coaching.  

The Eagles recent firing of Doug Pederson seems to be a culmination of a couple things.  It’s not his 100 percent his fault that Carson Wentz likely isn’t who we thought he was.  It’s also not his fault that Philadelphia has been ravaged by injuries since its Super Bowl winning season, and that no overhaul of the medical and training staff has taken place since then.  It is on Pederson – however – that he wasn’t Frank Reich, who seemed to unlock Wentz before he tore his ACL.  Philly needs someone who’s going to be able to do what Reich, for reasons we’ll address below.

Finally, there’s Houston, which seems to be a complete and utter fiasco organizationally right now.  Nobody could use Bieniemy more, and the Texans have refused to even interview him – irking franchise QB Deshaun Watson to the degree that he might be on the trade block.  With limited talent and draft capital, Houston has to make something out of nothing offensively outside of Watson.  No better coach exists to do that than Bieniemy.  If Houston uses its brain, Bieniemy should be the hire, no matter what the bill to ownership might be.

If that is what Houston does, here’s how the rest of the market should play out:

Brian Daboll: Jets

The Jets and Chargers don’t need to pony up the money for Biememy as much as Houston does, especially considering the consolidations that are available.

Daboll’s ability to elevate Josh Allen from a talented and incredibly frustrating QB to an MVP candidate makes him a prime candidate to turn Darnold around, if that’s what the Jets intend to do.  If not, Daboll’s developmental skills would serve whichever QB the Jets take in the draft well.

Darrell Bevell: Chargers

Justin Herbert put up an Offensive Rookie of the Year performance under a staff that likely didn’t maximize him.  While Titans’ offensive coordinator Arthur Smith would be the perfect fit here, the new opening in Philadelphia should be where he ends up.

The Chargers get one of the best options left.  Bevell has been a hot name since his Seattle days, and has never gotten a shot.  Him working with Herbert would be a blast, and ignite the Chargers offense to a whole new level.

Robert Saleh: Falcons

Atlanta needs a culture change and a reset on the defensive end.  The Falcons roster, like the Chargers’, is consistently banged up and just needs health to be successful.  Experience is aplenty on the offense, and Atlanta could use Saleh’s leadership and defensive prowess to get back to the playoffs.

Jaguars: Brandon Staley

Assuming Trevor Lawrence is who Jacksonville selects No. 1 overall in April’s draft, Staley makes the most sense.  Lawrence doesn’t need an offensive mastermind to be his head coach – he’s good enough already.  Jacksonville’s defense is still incredibly talented, and even if Lawrence struggles, Staley has spent this year at the helm of a defense that dragged an offense almost single-handily to round two of the playoffs.

Lions: Doug Pederson

Detroit seemed locked into promoting Bevell until Pederson became available.  Now  the best option, Pederson would be an excellent fit while attempting to lift the Lions offense.  It seems as though Pederson needs at least some talent around him as a coach, and Detroit offers more of it than we may think – if they decide not to blow things up.

Eagles: Arthur Smith

The Eagles don’t need a quarterback developer.  They need a fixer and elevator.

The bottom line is that it’s not possible or worth it for Wentz to not be on the roster next season.  Cutting him would put the team in salary cap hell, while trading him would still incur a cap hit the size of his salary.  Wentz likely told the Eagles it’s him or Pederson, and Pederson was much easier to cut bait with, causing his firing.

This means Wentz is an Eagle next season, and also means he’s the starting quarterback over Jalen Hurts.  Philly has to get as much as they can out of Wentz and the offense.  Smith would be the perfect fit – the turnaround Tannehill experienced in Tennessee under him is exactly what needs to happen with Wentz in order for the Eagles to be successful.

NBA Contenders Power Rankings: The Middle + Season Predictions

Today, Part 3 of the 2020-21 NBA Preview covers any teams that have not yet been previewed yet this week.

Lets go!

No. 30 through No. 20 can be found here.

19. Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies go as far as Ja Morant takes them.

That doesn’t mean Memphis’ surrounding cast around Morant is bad.  They have an ideal roster around their second year star, with length, shooting and switchability.  But the Grizzlies are banking on Morant being their whole offense, which might be a bit too tall of a task for the former Murray State guard if they want to actually crack the playoffs this year.

Morant was the Grizzlies’ sole offensive creator last year.  His ability to do on as good of a team as Memphis was made him a revelation.  Rookie point guards tend to struggle.  Morant instead won Rookie of the Year, and deservedly so.  But while his unprecedented performance had Memphis overachieving, it still left them short of the playoffs and a shot at the championship.

He’s going to have to go up yet another level this season.  That happening shouldn’t be shocking.  But if it doesn’t, Memphis might find itself sitting further back than anticipated.

18. Atlanta Hawks

For a team that felt truly committed to a rebuild around young, raw players, the Hawks offseason was a little strange.

But there’s no doubt that they’re now a better team.

Anything that will give Trae Young help – AKA take the ball out of his hands – makes Atlanta better.  Continuing on they usually do, the Hawks brought in offensive-minded players who can’t guard anyone in Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who give them a baseline of offensive production if Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter don’t work out on that end of the court (Reddish came on pre-shutdown, but he’s going to need the ball more for that to continue.  Bogdanovic doesn’t help with that).  

Despite the upgrades, Atlanta feels like a team that’s just playing for the eighth seed.  The play-in tournament offers them some hope, but the East’s 1-10 is much better this year than in the past.  The Hawks might have veteran help, but need a step forward from either Young or Reddish to make up for the team’s struggles on the defensive end.  Their intriguing rotataion of bigs – John Collins, Clint Capela, rookie Onyeka Okongwu and Bruno Fernando – can’t solidfy the other four positions, unless Capela emerges as a Rudy Gobert-like force and Okongwu is the second-coming of Bam Adebayo immediately.

17. Toronto Raptors

Toronto’s constant grittiness and fight toward the postseason deserves immense respect, but there’s a way for things to go south up North this year quite fast.

There seems to be a bit of a lack of direction with the Raptors.  This is rare for Masai Ujiri, who wasn’t afraid to go all in by trading for Kawhi Leonard in 2018 and seemed to keep options open for the Raptors throughout last season, only to be surprised by his team’s overachievement.

Toronto moved through this offseason as if it isn’t planning to tear things down. It brought in Aron Baynes to replace Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. The Raptors also re-signed Fred VanVleet, who’s still young enough to be part of a future core.

Pascal Siakam is the key here.  Last season, he was once again a candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year, but all of his advancement as a No. 1 scorer seemed to go to waste in the playoffs.  Kyle Lowry isn’t that guy, and at his age, might be a piece the Raptors could look to move to a real contender in exchange for a younger, higher upside scorer.  

Toronto figures to be competitive this year, but improvements atop the East could have them battling for a playoff spot.  The Raptors come down to Lowry and Baynes’ roster spots, or Siakam’s improvement.  One has to change if the Raptors want to return to the place Leonard took them.

16. Minnesota Timberwolves

Most of the projections for Minnesota on the Internet are a bit surprising.

This should be a pretty good team!

Defensive struggles are aplenty.  The Timberwolves two best players are well below average on that end of the court.  But it’s why Minnesota re-signed Malik Beasley, has Jarrett Culver (who’s certainly raw but has the prototype) and Josh Okogie, drafted Anthony Edwards (same description as Culver) and traded for Ricky Rubio and Ed Davis.  It’s not an ideal situation, but the hope is that the offense from D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns – in addition to everyone else – makes up for it.

This is the best team Towns has had around him.  While Jimmy Butler gave Minnesota the same boost as a great perimeter creator, his (rightfully) toxic at times presence hurt the Wolves ability to win games.  Now, KAT has a friend on the court with him who’s able to give the Wolves what Butler brought – to an extent.

The Timberwolves ability to win in the playoffs needs to be looked at by them having the duo of KAT and Russell, not one or the other.  Towns has guard skills that have never been put to the test thanks to the inefficiency that has typically surrounded him.  Now, with Minnesota’s wings and the passing of Russell and Rubio, unlocking him offensively should come with ease.  If we get that version of Towns, Minnesota is guaranteed to be a playoff team.

15. Washington Wizards

Russell Westbrook is the wild card here, and that’s not a compliment.

Let’s first evaluate the Wizards as if he doesn’t exist.  Washington was able to shed John Wall, clearing the way for this to become Bradley Beal’s team.  That’s an important step – Beal was deserving of All-NBA honors last season, and now has a pretty competent squad around him with shooting and spacing.

Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimera (who will be out for the first three weeks of the season), Isaac Bonga and Troy Brown Jr. are all long wings who can at least cut and slash.  Shooting needs to come a ways for all of them, but that can be offset by each’s ability to drive and get to the rim and the presence of Davis Bertans.  Beal can cook at the top, while Thomas Bryant either drops or spaces the court (His shooting is also a question mark).

But then there’s Westbrook.

He throws off a lot.  The shooting issues of almost everyone mentioned above are exacerbated by the high-usage, inefficient and ball-hogging guard.  Beal is turned into strictly a shooter with Westbrook creating instead of him.  

The Wizards could use the former Rocket in similar ways that Houston did at times – planting him at the elbow or free throw line and have him attack from there once receiving a pass.  But that means Beal or others takes on lead ball-handling duties, which might be an overtask.

The Wizards need a point guard that isn’t Westbrook, because if he’s the lead ball-handler, it’s never coming out of his hands.  It’s a shame, because Washington is extremely close to being potentially really good.

Washington’s success is predicated on how much Westbrook changes his style of play.  Him being used like the wings mentioned above could be deadly.  But then the Wizards are putting a burden on Beal or relying on Raul Neto or Ish Smith a little too much at point guard.

The Wizards should make the playoffs, and that could be selling them a little short.  But Westbrook requires a buffer, and that’s being accounted for here.

14. Golden State Warriors

13. Philadelphia 76ers

This season must be the calling card for the duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

Under new management that we can trust, Philadelphia deserves the benefit of the doubt this season as to whether its two stars can mesh.  

They’ve put what might be the perfect team around the two, finally.  Simmons and Embiid simply have shooting surrounding them now.  Danny Green and Seth Curry were brought in to replace Al Horford and Josh Richardson, which means half a shooter (Richardson) becomes at least one-and-a-half (Curry is lights out and Green can fluctuate).  That opens up the paint for Embiid to dominate, if he can stay healthy and in shape, while also clearing the lane for Simmons to be aggressive and attack – barring that he shows any willingness to do that.

Perimeter shot creation is still an issue.  Perhaps a massive Embiid season or any sort of jump-shot from Simmons (unlikely) solves that.  The answer could lie on the bench with rookie Tyrese Maxsey, who has star potential with his scoring ability and defensive prowess.  At worst, he could be Philly’s sixth man this year, but him entering into the starting lineup and playing in crunch-time seems unlikely early in the season.

Perhaps Philly’s big solution to their ultimate problem comes in the form of James Harden.  Depending on the cost, it’s a move the 76ers should probably act on.  But that still could be unlikely, given Philly’s public assurance that they want to give this roster a try.  It’s likely they’ll be regretting that statement at some point this year.

12. Phoenix Suns

This is what getting Devin Booker real help looks like.

The Suns found the keys to success in the Bubble and double-downed on it this offseason: play the wings at forward, let Booker score, and have someone good running it all.

At the one spot they needed the upgrade, they went out and got it.

Point Booker was too much for the 24-year-old the past few years.  Now, they have one of the best to ever do it at the position instead.

Chris Paul is backup if Booker’s apparent leap taken in the Bubble isn’t legit.  Not only should Paul help Booker focus solely on scoring more, but the Point God was one of the league’s best players last year in crunch-time.  He’ll also serve as the perfect passer for Deandre Ayton, whose strides defensively will make the offense he brings much more valuable and plentiful with Paul in the fold.

Phoenix also isn’t bound to the performance of young, inexperienced guys either.  Cam Johnson blew away expectations last year, but his defense leaves you wanting more.  Jae Crowder now steps in to bring the defense Johnson can’t at a bargain (Off that playoff performance, it’s surprising Crowder didn’t get more than $10 million a year).

It’d be disappointing if the Suns didn’t make the playoffs.  Their biggest question is how far in to the postseason they can get.  That, ultimately, comes down to Booker, and just how much Paul means to him.

11. Utah Jazz

Utah is running it back, and understandably so.  As close as they came to beating Denver in the first round thanks to a ridiculous performance from Donovan Mitchell, they didn’t give everything they had to offer.

The consistent problem with the Jazz is firepower and a little more of it could have been used against Jamal Murray.  Bojan Bogdanovic was out for the playoffs, and could have brought an immense shooting presence to the series.

The Jazz struggled early to open last season.  Mike Conley wasn’t the guy they traded for, and it reeked of previous Utah teams that couldn’t muster enough around Mitchell.  The hope would be that Conley rounds back into shape this season, and Bogdanovic comes off his injury aflame while Mitchell carries his playoff self into this season and competes for All-NBA honors.

The West is tough this year though, as almost everyone got better.  Utah didn’t.  But Mitchell himself might have, and it’s going to be up to him once again for to translate into wins.

10. Indiana Pacers

The Pacers might be the most underrated team in basketball.

The amount of offensive options they have is stunning.  First, the Pacers can run the classic big man passing offense centered around Domantas Sabonis, where he’s plopped at the elbow, dotting up the court as cutters and slashers move around him.  

Second, they have the occasional TJ Warren night – where the forward can put up 30.  Third, they have last year’s most common weapon – a Malcolm Brogdon “I’ve got this” outing that the Bucks gouge their eyes at.  And fourth, they have Victor Oladipo’s shot creation to get them a bucket when none of the others are going down for them.

Oladipo’s health and overall ceiling, in addition to the team’s defense, might limit them.  But this team should be able to score with ease unless its facing a team with a better player than Oladipo.  In the Eastern Conference, that list of players who are that is small.  

9. Portland Trail Blazers

From a pure roster standpoint, the Trail Blazers have a case for having the best offseason.  Though it cost a lot, the import of Robert Covington and emergence of Gary Trent Jr. might have finally solved Portland’s long-standing problem on the wing.

They also added Derrick Jones Jr. for additional athleticism at forward, and Harry Giles is a nice flyer in the front-court.

While the sudden wing depth is nice, it remains to be seen whether Portland can make up for their back-court’s deficiencies on the defensive end.  There’s a case that the Blazers need elite defenders at every other position that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum don’t occupy to cover the duo on that end.  Trent Jr. and Jursruf Nurkic don’t exactly fit that bill, though both have improved significantly.

McCollum and Lillard both have incredibly high ceilings offensively.  Lillard might be a sneaky MVP bet this year.  If he can play at that level, Portland climbs significantly higher on this list.  Covington is the piece that – with a ridiculous Lillard stretch that we’ve become accustom to in the regular season and playoffs – gives Lillard and Co. a lot more support and doesn’t drag the team down. That would be a nice change from previous years.

8. Boston Celtics

The Celtics moving off of Gordon Hayward for nothing might have ruffled some feathers, but the constant shuffling of their lineup thanks to Hayward’s constant injuries might actually benefit Boston.

A larger role for Marcus Smart might be a little frightening, but he’ll make Boston’s starting lineup even more imposing on the defensive end.  ‘

The bottom line with Boston is the ceiling of Jayson Tatum.  Kemba Walker’s lingering knee issue is a big cause for concern, as it will keep him out for what seems to be a couple weeks to begin the season.  Whether that’s still bothering him throughout the year or not, Walker’s absence offers Tatum the chance to show us what he’s truly made of, and prove whether that pre-shutdown run he went on last year was legit or not.

Boston is going to need that out of Tatum this year.  Walker is a good player, but doesn’t bring to the table what Kyrie Irving did from a talent standpoint.  That’s the gap Tatum has to make up for.

Getting past the likes of Brooklyn and an improved Bucks team will be hard, but if Tatum’s the player some believe him to be, then the Celtics should find themselves challenging both teams for a spot in the Finals.

7. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets miraculous playoff run might have had a bit more to do with the Clippers than Denver themselves, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Jamal Murray’s ascension combined with what should be a much larger role for Michael Porter Jr. gives Denver a much higher ceiling than what we thought was possible with this team.  

The losses of Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant free up the Nuggets’ wing rotation signifcaltly.  The return of Will Barton will likely result in him starting, but MPJ closing games alongside Nikola Jokic and Murray gives Denver a ton of offensive firepower.

Murray played like someone who could go toe-to-toe with anyone against Utah and the Clippers in the playoffs.  MPJ’s ceiling as a shot creator also gives him that potential as well.  If those two can pull everything together, Denver is going to be a force.

If not, the Nuggets are still in good shape.  Murray turning back into his pre-playoff self is still an offensive threat.  Denver has Jokic and everything he brings to the table.  Defense is likely their downfall if Murray and MPJ aren’t the next level shot creators we want them to be, but if they rise and Jokic remains himself, the Nuggets could see themselves in a favorable position against the Clippers again, and this time it’d wouldn’t be due to their opponent laziness.

6. Dallas Mavericks

For a team that goes as high as one player goes, the No. 6 spot on this ranking is quite high.

That’s the potential Luka Doncic has.  For all we know, it could be higher than this.  

Dallas should hang around the top of the West.  Expecting Doncic to top Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James’ teams is unreasonable, but Doncic is probably the third best player in the West if you started counting after the two above (Stephen Curry is still ahead of him, and Damian Lillard could rise or fall behind him this year).

Dallas was incredibly good last year with a limited roster and is now even better.  They added Josh Richardson – who’s the exact type of player you want around Doncic – and rookie Josh Green, who’s stronger than Richardson and provides similar shooting.  They swapped Seth Curry for his cheaper, younger clone in Tyrell Terry.  More athleticism came with the arrivals of rookie Tyler Bey and Wes Iwundu.

Doncic has to prove he’s better than the West’s top stars.  It might be unreasonable, but it shouldn’t be surprising if he is.

5. Miami Heat

The Finals runner-up might be getting some disrespect here, but consider Brooklyn adding someone who could be the best player in the league (Durant looked like it Tuesday night) and Milwaukee’s addressing of perhaps the biggest issue it encountered facing Miami in the playoffs (The Heat’s impressive defensive against Giannis Antetokounmpo), and a fall to five makes more sense.

Miami added some size in rookie Precious Achuiwa, who could help against bigger centers like Anthony Davis.  Avery Bradley replaces Crowder.  Aside from that, it’s really the same team. 

The Heat were built on players eclipsing levels they’ve never breached before.  Tyler Herro was a revelation as a rookie.  Jimmy Butler emerged from the Finals as a potential top ten player.  Duncan Robinson came out of nowhere.

What improvement is left for the Heat?  Better injury luck deep in the playoffs?

This, additionally, is why the Heat rank so low.  Nothing is that much different with them, and their run last year can be debunked as a tad flukey.  Where’s the improvement?  It will have to come from Butler, who needs to put up a Finals-like performance over the course of this regular season, and Herro – who has the path to becoming a special player with more experience.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

Similar to the Clippers, the Bucks didn’t solve everything they need to this offseason.  The difference is that they could have, though.

While Mike Budenholzer’s schemes and principles still seem a tad sketchy in postseason play, Milwaukee did address two big issues: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s presence on the team and making that presence finally translate into titles instead of early playoff exits.

In terms of value, the Jrue Holiday trade is a farce.  But from a basketball standpoint, he’s the type of player the Bucks needed to take the load off Antetokounmpo late in playoffs games

The back-to-back MVP’s drives to the hole are still unstoppable, but they clearly can’t be Milwaukee’s whole offense anymore.  Toronto and Miami in back-to-back playoffs have stopped Antetokounmpo in his tracks.

Holiday forces teams to treat Antetokounmpo like a center.  The Bucks can throw the ball into the post and let him eat.  His stunning frame and athleticism make him unguardable.

Holiday also brings another scoring presence to the court, and will get easier shots for everyone – not just Antetokounmpo.  

The questions Milwaukee still has to answer could be its downfall.  Will their defensive schemes still be as frustrating and as costly?  Does Antetokounmpo’s mix of center play and his typical drives prove to still not be enough?  What if Antetokounmpo has any jump-shot, three or general pull-up?  Is that truly his missing piece?

Milwaukee’s new, impressive bench won’t matter.  It could make them even more dominant in the regular season, but being good that time of the year isn’t what the Bucks are attempting to do.  Milwaukee needs strides from its coach, and strides from its best player.  If neither occur, changes must be made, and serious reconsideration of what Antetokounmpo really is will likely need to take place.

3. Brooklyn Nets

2. Los Angeles Clippers

1. Los Angeles Lakers

Final standings predictions

Eastern Conference:

  1. Brooklyn Nets
  2. Milwaukee Bucks
  3. Miami Heat
  4. Boston Celtics
  5. Indiana Pacers
  6. Philadelphia 76ers
  7. Toronto Raptors
  8. Washington Wizards
  9. Atlanta Hawks
  10. Charlotte Hornets
  11. Detroit Pistons
  12. Orlando Magic
  13. Chicago Bulls
  14. Cleveland Cavaliers
  15. New York Knicks

Western Conference:

  1. Los Angeles Lakers
  2. Los Angeles Clippers
  3. Dallas Mavericks
  4. Denver Nuggets
  5. Portland Trail Blazers
  6. Utah Jazz
  7. Phoenix Suns
  8. Minnesota Timberwolves
  9. Golden State Warriors
  10. Memphis Grizzlies
  11. Sacramento Kings
  12. Houston Rockets
  13. New Orleans Pelicans
  14. San Antonio Spurs
  15. Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA Contender Power Rankings: The Season Openers

Today, Part 2 of the 2020-21 NBA Preview covers four teams: those tipping off the season Tuesday night.

Any teams not yet covered will be in Part 3 on Wednesday.

14. Golden State Warriors

This might be a pretty good year for the Stephen Curry detractors.

Of course, those people have been wrong, are still wrong and will continue to be wrong.  But this season could shine light on just how much the Warriors and Curry himself need Klay Thompson.

The two usually work for each other.  Curry’s gravity on the court is a common talking point, but Thompson has his own as well.  The gap between the two shooters is probably tighter than we think.  They’re both equally as dangerous – Curry’s range is just a little bigger.

Taking Curry away from Thompson would affect the Warriors just as deeply if not more than vice-versa.  Without Curry, the Warriors lose his ball-handling and pull-up ability from 30-35 feet.  Thompson’s the off-ball, spot-up, catch-and-shoot guy who’s not necessarily creating on his own.  He needs Curry to set him up, and draw attention.

Thompson doesn’t make Curry, but he’s a crucial part of what he does.  Just as Curry takes attention away from Thompson, Thompson does the same for Curry.  Rather than Thompson being a moon to Curry’s planet, the two are both planets around the sun.  They’re truly their own spheres.

Take one of those away, and the Warriors are worse – significantly.  Golden State didn’t have many options, but it didn’t construct the ideal team around Curry this offseason.  While you’re going to want scoring as opposed to shooting, neither Kelly Oubre Jr. nor Andrew Wiggins do it very efficiently – with the latter not necessarily doing it well at all at times.  Defenses are going to know that every other night, one of those two are going to shoot themselves out of games whether they’re being swarmed or not.  That offensive load then falls back on Curry.

The Warriors would love for Draymond Green to turn back into his prime-self on the offensive end, but his shooting seems like it will be permanently low from now on.  James Wiseman is intriguing, and could give Curry an interesting pick-and-roll partner, but the rookie’s offensive game is still extremely raw outside of lobs.

The Warriors this year are reminiscent of the Cavaliers teams LeBron James tugged to Finals through the mid 2010s, only to be beaten down by Golden State.  If there’s any proof that time is a flat circle, then Curry now being in James’ shoes is it.  The question will be if Curry can truly carry the Warriors in the same way.  It shouldn’t be surprising if he does, but the task feels a bit insurmountable. 

      3. Brooklyn Nets

Brooklyn has a pretty good case to top the upcoming Lakers and Clippers on this ranking.

The last time Kevin Durant played in a NBA game, he was the best player in the league.  He had came off outplaying LeBron James in back-to-back Finals, was dominating the playoffs and about to potentially cement himself as a top ten player ever.

Then his Achilles popped and Kawhi Leonard briefly took the throne.

If Durant is that player we saw from 2017-2019, the Nets would be at least second on this list.

But we can’t bet on that.  Nobody has been as good as Durant was, had that injury and returned to the same level.  The only person who ever became themself again was Dominique Wilkins.

A lesser Durant is still a great player.  But can that guy still be the best player on a championship team, which Brooklyn expects to be?   While Kyrie Irving has the talent to be that, it’s clear he doesn’t have everything else that comes with it.  The rest of the Nets roster is built to surround Durant and Irving, not be a part of them. Brooklyn needs KD to be the old KD this year.  If they get that player, the Nets all the sudden have the best player in any playoff series.

If they don’t get that player, massive leaps will be needed from Irving – who’s shown he’s capable of it in the past – and from Caris LeVert, who has all the makings of turning into a top 35-40ish player in the league but has had health and shooting struggles plague him.

The Nets are beautifully built.  They have a deep bench and players that make sense around their superstar duo.  Their new coaching staff is exciting and innovative.  This should be the best team in the league.  It’s not really anyone’s fault though if they aren’t.  It’s nature’s.

          2. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers would likely find themselves atop this ranking if the Lakers kept their team from 2019-20.

They fixed what they could control.  Doc Rivers was almost solely responsible for the team’s collapse against Denver in the second round of the playoffs with his lack of defensive adjustments and overall lack of care in the team’s defensive effort.  Ty Lue is a new voice who will get a supremely talented defensive team to, well, actually play defense.  

The Clippers can only do so much about Paul George’s postseason struggles.  It’s not the reason they lost the series against Denver, but certainly raises questions about what type of player he really is.  Bottom line, it’s not an issue if the Clippers actually defended.

Their offseason was fine.  They added some depth to an already loaded roster.  Serge Ibaka isn’t Montrezl Harrell in the pick-and-roll with Lou Williams, but he’s probably better on the defensive end (which will certainly helps against the likes of Nikola Jokic).  Nicholas Batum provides sneakily-needed wing depth.  The Luke Kennard trade was a steal – his new contract was not, especially given that minutes for him seem a bit limited on the surface of this season.

The Clippers simply needed a culture change.  Lue did that in 2016 with the Cavaliers.  He should be able to get what we expected last year out of this team.  We’ll see if it’s enough.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

While it’s not uncommon to see the defending champions be the favorites coming into the following season, it is uncommon to see them improve so much.

The Lakers owned the offseason.  They replaced Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard with Dennis Schroder, Wes Matthews, Talen Horton Tucker (Rotationally – Horton Tucker was on the roster last year) and Harrell and spent very little capital and money to do so.  They also brought in Marc Gasol, who at a different stage of his career, will be excellent as the third big behind Anthony Davis and Harrell.

Schroder, despite the signing of Harrell to a bargain deal, is probably the most important addition.  The days of LeBron James at point guard are over with his arrival, an unfortunate but probably necessary shift.  James finished second in MVP voting playing point guard last season, but at his age and with the wear he’s accumulated, it’s smarter to take that burden off of him now that better talent than Rondo exists on the roster.

Schroder not only gives the Lakers more scoring, but allows LeBron to play a devastating off-ball role.  It also puts at least two passers on the floor to get Davis the ball down low.  Schroder’s going to have to prove that last year’s shooting uptick wasn’t a fluke, but it’s not like he’s going to get away with wrestling the ball away from James on this team.

With Davis’ infamous unwillingness to play center, Harrell’s exact role should be interesting.  Him, Davis and James is huge, but works thanks to Davis’ shooting and athleticism.  At the same time, spacing is still tight, and Harrell’s not making enough money (A cheap $8 million the next two years) that the Lakers have to play him late in games.

Regardless, the Lakers have options, which wasn’t totally the case last season.  Los Angeles’s success was solely reliant on how Davis and James played and that’s it. In this ready-set-go year, those guys can take more of a backseat, and they deserve to.