Celtics-Bucks Preview

No.4 Boston Celtics vs. No.1 Milwaukee Bucks

It didn’t really feel like it, but the Celtics swept the Pacers last round.  It definitely wasn’t with ease.

The biggest margin the Celtics won by was 10 points in Game 1, and that felt even closer as it was Kyrie Irving who had bail them out like usual at the end.

That was practically how every game ended up.  Indy never went away, and it wasn’t because Boston wasn’t trying, it’s because they simply weren’t playing well.

Boston’s not going to be able to do that this series.

As I wrote yesterday, the Bucks essentially got a free pass in the first round with Detroit.  The difference in their performance is that they never didn’t try, and that was against someone that they didn’t have to try against.

The biggest problem for Boston in this series is the fact that they aren’t going to get away with their slow starts.  Milwaukee keeps the same energy throughout the entire game.  If the Celtics start slow and get in a hole, they probably aren’t getting out of it.

Indiana did nothing defensively that was suffocating either.  It was just bad play and slow starts.

The Bucks have the best defense in league.

Against a tall, long team, Kyrie is a massive mismatch.  He’s too quick and squirmy for most wings.  But Milwaukee is perfectly built.  They have a huge stocking of lengthy wings and have smaller guards who can hang with him.  Bledsoe and George Hill are defensive minded guys who can make Kyrie have to work.  If you do that, you kill a large percentage of Celtics hope in this series, because Kyrie is the guy when things don’t go well, and for too much of the time this season, that has been the case.

The Bucks can suffocate the Celtics offense.  With all their wings, they can switch everything and force Boston to make shots.  If Kyrie is out of the picture, leaning on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to produce is a risky bet; it’s a boom or bust scenario.

Gordon Hayward is rounding into shape, and he brings an extra dimension with his facilitating ability, but whether he is off or on the ball, the Bucks can close those passing and cutting lanes easily.  This is a series where I’d expect to see a lot of Giannis at the five lineups, because the Celtics don’t have a guy who the Bucks need Giannis to take care of.  No one is that potent, and there’s other, better matchups for Kyrie.

This series matches up so well for Milwaukee that they don’t have anyone their best player has to guard on the defensive end while the other team no one to guard him on the offensive end.

The Celtics could sag off Giannis and dare him to shoot, but building a wall in front of the rim just gives him more room to explode.  Plus, Giannis can score on a layup from the free throw line.

Jaylen Brown doing his best and Al Horford sitting back is the best scenario, but the Bucks play lineups where it’s five out for most of the time, which leaves the minutes Horford is out there for not very valuable.  The only reason he isn’t unplayable is because there’s no other option.

While being a tough play defensively, Horford could get some easy buckets down low on the other end against the smaller Milwaukee lineups.  Those baskets are going to be incredibly important.

This series is going to be a problem for Boston.  They have no one for the best player on the floor.  They’ll start slow against one of the most explosive offenses in the league, and won’t be able to creep back against the best defense.  They’re going to need special production from Kyrie and from everyone else.  Production that we haven’t seen from Tatum or Brown on a consistent level.  They’re going to need Hayward to have a “Hey!  Hayward!” game every night.  They’re going to need Eric Bledsoe to turn back into the Eric Bledsoe we saw last postseason.  They’re going to need… everything.  This team has underwhelmed all season, and this is going to be the series we realize any of the hope we built up for them was all false.

Prediction: Bucks in 5

76ers-Raptors and Spurs-Nuggets Game 7 Preview

With a big and excellent day of basketball ahead of us, here are previews for today’s actions.  Previews for tomorrow’s action will be up tomorrow morning.

No.3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No.2 Toronto Raptors

If we learned anything in the first round, it’s that the Bucks are the one team that we have zero concerns about coming into this next round.

Sure, that could be indicative of their opponent.  The Pistons never had a chance in that series, and played like they didn’t as well.  What happened was exactly what we thought would happen.  Detroit got killed, and the Bucks essentially got a pass in the first round.

The Raptors and 76ers both made us hold our breath for a minute; the 76ers much more than Toronto.  The Raptors came out and lost AT HOME to Orlando in Game 1; setting up what we thought could have been a greater Raptors choke than ever before.  They eventually whipped themselves into shape; DJ Augustin’s fall back to Earth helped as well.

The Magic got to the Raptors in Game 1 and pestered them in Game 3.  Vucevic found himself in that third game of the series after struggling immensely in Game 1, and Terrence Ross got hot late to make it close.

If we can take anything from the Orlando series to learn about Toronto, it’s that using a big guy who can do it all and a spark-plug scorer can make it a game.

The 76ers have one of those in Joel Embiid.  Redick isn’t crafty enough to count as the Terrence Ross prototype.

But Embiid was in and out of the lineup against the Nets, and even with him in the Sixers had their problems.

The Nets relentlessly attacked the rim no matter who was playing five for Philly.  Embiid was ridiculous defensively in Game 5, where he looked fully healthy, but that was also a game where the Nets had quite possibly the worst offensive showing of the playoffs.  Philly’s defense was really good, but Brooklyn’s offensive showing made it twice as worse.

Still, Embiid’s health has to be in question.  When he’s healthy, he’s unstoppable.  He’d be too athletic for Marc Gasol and too strong for Pascal Siakam.  But when he’s not out there or not fully healthy, the Sixers lose a massive contributor on both ends  (when he’s out) or have their already prickly chemistry thrown off even more (When he’s playing at less than 100 percent); we saw the bad side of that in Game 1 against the Nets.

That inefficient, brick-chucking Embiid is detrimental to the Sixers, especially against a high-powered Toronto offense that moves the ball, has multiple looks and a cold-blooded killer in Kawhi Leonard.

Aside from the problems Embiid presents, the Raptors defense can put Philly into bind.  Ben Simmons’ newfound aggression has been a good sign, but Toronto is much more equipped to handle it.  Toronto can try and force Simmons to play as he used to by sagging off and making him drive, to which he would face Siakam or a brunt Gasol at the rim.  They could also be aggressive with him at the point of his attack by slapping Kawhi or Siakam on him at the top of the key and try to pester him that way.

Simmons has shown lately that, if you give him the lane, he’s going to attack.  So Toronto is probably better playing man-to-man, tight D on him from the start of the possession.  They’re going to make Simmons work; really work.  And they have a lot more answers than Brooklyn did, who had Jarrett Allen wandering aimlessly under the rim wondering where to help.

That leaves Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick left for Toronto to contain.  That sounds daunting of course, but the Raptors have the personnel.  Danny Green figures to be matched up with Butler, and Kawhi on Harris given the switch.  But Redick is a bit of an x-factor, as he is in any series.  He’s not a fantastic matchup for tall, long teams due to his ability to get any shot off, his constant movement and his smallness.  He’s going to make Lowry run to keep up with him.  I would expect to see a bit more Norman Powell in this series; he’s a good defender and has length but isn’t big enough for Redick to just curl around off screens and motion.

Factor in those defenders against the tendencies of the Sixers offense to combust due to bad decision-making from a multitude of players and you have a problem for Philly.  The chemistry and question marks surrounding Embiid’s health make me feel even better about Toronto now in this series rather than earlier this year, and that’s coming from someone who has had Toronto in the Finals since the first month of the season.

Philly won’t be wiped.  They’ll get a massive Embiid game or two, or a game where Toronto doesn’t play well (Entirely likely) for whatever reason.  But Toronto is the better, more equipped team, and will send Philly into a summer full of questions.

Prediction: Raptors in 6 

On Spurs-Nuggets Game 7…

This series has gone in the complete opposite direction I thought it would.  The concerns some had about Denver being just a regular season team have came true.  Jamal Murray has at times had deer-in-the-headlights, while at other times has been the guy the Nuggets have needed him to be; that crunch-time, cold-blooded scorer.

The Nuggets have had bad luck but have also played bad defense in this series.  Essentially, the Nuggets got torched by Derrick White once and the Spurs having a crazy good shooting night in two other games.  DeRozan’s prowess hasn’t helped, but we weren’t really expecting the Nuggets to be able to contain him fully in the first place.

To avoid the upset, the Nuggets need Nikola Jokic to replicate his Game 6 performance; a game where he not only facilitated the offense well but also scored a ton (43 points).  When Denver has ran everything through Jokic in this series, they’ve had immense success.  Couple that with a Murray Game 2-like showing and Denver should win.  But getting both of those to happen in the same game, and the Spurs to have neither of their game-winning catalysts ignite, has been tough.

The Nuggets have home-court, meaning they should shoot better and overall play better.  Having Gary Harris, who has been excellent this series, guard DeRozan should limit his production, and the same goes for Paul Millsap on LaMarcus Aldridge.  Denver needs one of them to be stopped, or else what happened in Game 6 will happen again.

2019 NFL Mock Draft

This draft is a fascinating one.  The Cardinals may easily take a quarterback for the second straight year.  There is a stunningly low amount of information about what teams are thinking.  There is an array of defensive talent that could see studs drop way farther than we ever imagined or go way higher than we imagined.

As usual, this mock draft features no trades.  And not as per usual, there is no No.1 overall pick.  You can read here for that.  As of now, that pick shouldn’t change.  Josh Rosen is still an Arizona Cardinal.

No.2, San Francisco 49ers: LB Josh Allen, Kentucky

This is a tad high for Allen, I know, and taking him above a potentially generational defensive tackle prospect may be a little confusing.  But this is the NFL, and drafting for need is much more common than in the NBA (In the NBA, you throw need out the door 95 percent of the time.  Here, not so much).

The 49ers just don’t have room for Williams.  With DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas inside, they should be set for the future (Thomas needs to massively improve though.  Still, you just can’t take Williams right after taking Thomas, even if you find a taker for him, which may be more likely than we thought based on reports this morning).  The ends are occupied by now Dee Ford and Arik Armstead, each who give the 49ers pass rush and some versatility (At least with Ford).

Versatility is the key with Allen.  The guy can play anywhere on the field.  The 49ers won’t necessarily need him to help out with the pass rush, but he’s a dominating fifth guy to come off a blitz.  He’s a run-stopping outside linebacker who can also cover tight ends with ease.  Kentucky even had him cover some slot receivers last season.

Allen is an absolute stud.  He can legitimately do anything on the defensive end of the field.  Plugging him in at outside linebacker makes San Francisco’s front seven very scary with the addition of Kwon Alexander.

No.3, New York Jets: DT Quinnenn Williams, Alabama

The Jets could not be more ecstatic that Williams is here.  They have a hole in the middle of their defensive line, and pairing Quinnen with Leonard Williams creates a terrifying combo up front.  He’s the closest thing we’ve seen to Aaron Donald, and could be as good as him someday as well.

No.4, Oakland Raiders: LB Devin Bush, Michigan

This is again a bit high, but I love Bush and this serves a need for the Raiders.

The reason I prefer Bush over the other Devin (White) is because of the scheme he played in at Michigan.  The Wolverines defensive scheme puts huge trust into anyone playing coverage; it’s a straight man-to-man scheme that isn’t really creative at all; it just relies on its talent.  Bush was a massive part of that talent, even as an outside linebacker.  He’s a hard-hitter and makes plays.  The Raiders need that blue-chipper in the middle of their defense.  Bush is it.

I would not be surprised if the Raiders stun everyone and take Murray here.  Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden have shown no inclination that they have any idea what they’re doing.  There’s been rumors about Gruden’s infatuation with Murray, and it’s certainly known that him and Derek Carr don’t get along that well (If Carr’s contract wasn’t an albatross, I think he would be well gone by now).

Still, I don’t think that’s the right move.  Carr needs weapons to be successful, and the Raiders have given him that.  If he doesn’t succeed, move on and get your guy next year.  If Carr sucks, chances are you’ll be in good enough draft position to get him.

No.5, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: QB Kyler Murray, Oklahoma

This is perhaps the most surprising pick of this mock draft.

First, the “But they have Jameis Winston!” case is not valid here.  Are you trying to tell me that someone who has been benched multiple times, is a good bet to throw five interceptions a game, and has proved nothing in now four (!!!) seasons is a better option than Kyler Murray?  Really?

Sorry Bruce Arians, but Winston isn’t fixable.  So go get yourself a stud who you can actually develop and who can take advantage of the underrated weapons core.

That’s the bigger picture here.  Not only is the Buccaneers weapons core underrated, but the whole roster really is.  Kwon Alexander and DeSean Jackson are big losses, but Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and OJ Howard is a fun bin of toys, and the defense still has the likes of Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Vernon Hargreaves on it.  There’s talent on this team; it should be a lot better than it was last season.  A lot of the problem was quarterback.  With Murray, you fix that, and if he’s as good as we hope, Tampa Bay is really good really soon.

No.6, New York Giants: QB Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State

The Giants get their hopes up that Murray may somehow fall to them, but end up taking the guy who they’ve been connected to for awhile now.

If the Giants were smart (Hint: They’re not), this wouldn’t be a debate and the Giants would have already announced that they’re taking Haskins.  Instead, they continue to think that Eli Manning is a serviceable starter.

But I still think, despite their commitment to Manning, they take Haskins.  There’s been a lot of smoke, and the Giants have to know that Manning won’t be able to be whatever below serviceable is much longer.  He could be so bad this season that the Giants actually realize he’s not the guy anymore.

Which is why having Haskins for the moment Manning really falls apart, to the extent that the Giants realize it, is the right move.

I have Murray above him because of the star power.  Haskins has a fantastic arm and a big body; he’s strong and can withstand hits unlike Murray.  The Ben Rothlisberger comps are accurate; he has the ability to evade guys and extend plays but not run.

The decision-making has to be better.  That’s Haskins biggest question.  The extension of plays is a fantastic skill, but it isn’t one when you made bad decisions when you use it.  Because of that, Haskins has some similarities to Jameis Winston. I’d be surprised if he ends up like him though.

No.7, Jacksonville Jaguars: TE T.J. Hockenson, Iowa

Again, it’s high.  But the Jaguars can’t afford to make the Nick Foles contract look and be worse than it already is.

The key to Foles’ success in Philadelphia was good coaching and supreme weapons. I don’t believe he’s going to get the first part of that, so loading up on the second part would be ideal.

The Jags don’t have anyone who’s considered an above-average weapon on the roster right now.  Marquise Lee has to prove he can stay healthy, and I like Dede Westbrook but don’t see him as even a number two option on a team some day.  Keelan Cole isn’t a very reliable target either.

Essentially, the Jaguars have a bunch of third options for their receivers.  Hockenson fixes that.  He’s a big, tall downfield tight end with immense size who can also run routes in the intermediate range.  At 6’5, he’s a pain to tackle and to cover.

No.8, Detroit Lions: DL Rashan Gary, Michigan

For a draft that is loaded with front seven talent, we’ve reached a bit of an odd point at number eight overall.

The Lions need another guy on the edge.  They paid up for Trey Flowers, and have Damon Harrison in the middle.  To cap off their 3-4 line, Gary would be an explosive addition, and create a menace for opposing offensive lines.

But like a lot of the defensive linemen left in the draft at this point, Gary has issues. A torn labrum is scaring teams off, and he is kind of heavy to play the edge.  Some mock drafts have him plummeting close to out of the first round.

So at this point if you’re the Lions, you’re kind of picking your poison.  I like Gary more than Ed Oliver, who didn’t live up to nearly the hype we had for him last season and is making a rejuvenated run at a top ten pick.  He’s also an inside presence unlike Gary.  Montez Sweat would be in play here, but his issues are much more complex and concerning than Gary’s.

No.9, Buffalo Bills: LB Devin White, LSU

The Bills are another linebacker away from having a very scary defense.  White fills the hole.  It’s not too high for offensive line; Jawaan Taylor has been a popular pick, but White is a higher impact player.  He’s a maniac on the field and makes plays.  He’s not super rangy and doesn’t really excel in coverage, but can cover tight ends and running backs on screens.

No.10, Denver Broncos: C Garrett Bradbury, NC State

Another bit of a reach.   But there’s no middle linebackers that make sense at this point in the draft for Denver, and they sound way too committed to Joe Flacco to pick a quarterback.

Bradbury doesn’t have the ceiling of someone of like Quenton Nelson, but they’re similar in the sense that Bradbury is someone who can come into a situation and be very effective right away.  With Matt Paradis in Carolina, Bradbury fills the center hole nicely in Denver.

No.11, Cincinnati Bengals: CB Greedy Williams, LSU

The Bengals could go anywhere on the offensive line, but Greedy Williams is too special to pass on.

There’s nothing to not like about Williams.  He’s long, physical and nasty.  He’s a ball-hawk that doesn’t have ball-hawk numbers.  That’s because no one ever threw at him.

The Bengals secondary is in rough shape aside from Dre Kilpatrick.  Pairing Greedy with him establishes at least some competency.

No.12, Green Bay Packers: WR D.K. Metcalf, Ole Miss

It’s time for Aaron Rodgers to stop having mediocre weapons.

Metcalf is perhaps the most freakish receiver we have seen in awhile.  He’s absolutely shredded and flies down the field.  He’s an unguardable deep threat and uses his size to go up and grab balls.

If there’s a problem, it’s the route running.  Despite the size, Metcalf doesn’t have good lateral quickness.  Short and intermediate routes might be a wash in the playbook for him.  You hope that with the athleticism he can figure it out.

No.13, Miami Dolphins: DL Ed Oliver, Houston

This is quite a drop for Oliver, who was the number one overall prospect on most people’s big boards to start the season.  After seeing his value tank a bit though, Oliver is suddenly rising up boards again.  It’s been reported that the Raiders really like him at number four, and a lot of mocks have him in the top ten.

The Dolphins have some talent on their defense, and Oliver makes their defensive line tenacious.  Robert Quinn is an underrated addition, and Akeem Spence is a good space-taker in the middle.

Oliver plays inside; he’s not an edge rusher at all.  The problem with Oliver, and the reason I have him falling, is because he’s too big to play on the end and a little too small for in the middle.  He’s a weird combo of both; he doesn’t have the burliness of a defensive tackle and doesn’t have the length of an end.

He can’t fall much further because of his ceiling and because of what he can do.  I’m just weary of how much of an impact guy he’ll really be.

No.14, Atlanta Falcons: G/T, Jonah Williams, Alabama

Examining the Falcons’ needs made me realize how talented this team is.  They really don’t need a lot.  Last season was an injury season from hell and it made them appear in much worse shape than they were.

Where they need help is in the trenches.  With Alex Mack and Jake Matthews, the Falcons have some anchors on the line.  But the guard spots are weak.

Williams can play either.  He has great footwork but is a little small to play on the outside, which makes him a great fit for the Falcons.

No.15, Washington Redskins: WR A.J. Brown, Ole Miss

Washington could go a lot of ways with this pick.  Quarterback is the sexy route, and rumors have them definitely interested in the possibility of selecting one here or trading up.

I honestly don’t see anything in Daniel Jones.  If someone is being compared to Alex Smith, then how is that a good thing?  And while I’m higher on Drew Lock, 15th overall is a tad high.  Where is the accuracy?

If the Redskins planned to draft a quarterback tonight, then there was no sense in trading for Case Keenum.  By making that trade, the Redskins signified that they (stupidly) intend to compete this year.  Keenum doesn’t make you good but he does make you decent.

So if Washington intends to compete, they might as well get Keenum some more weapons.  Jordan Reed is essentially the number one option on this roster, and he plays anywhere from eight to 12 games a year.  We don’t know if Josh Doctson can produce anything.  Paul Richardson was a good signing, but he’s a number two option on a good team.   The Redskins aren’t that.

Insert A.J. Brown, the other stud Ole Miss receiver.  He’s a shifty but not lightning quick slot receiver who can get open over the middle of the field.  Brown’s going to be reliable; he’s a safe pick.  Getting Keenum, or the next franchise QB, someone like that is critical.

No.16, Carolina Panthers: DL Brian Burns, Florida State

The Panthers have more pressing needs, but letting an edge-rusher like Burns slip by is a tough proposition to pass up.  They could use another receiver, or a tackle like Jawaan Taylor (More on him soon), or a cornerback (A little high at this spot).

They have a hole they could plug along the defensive line.  Burns is an electric pass-rusher and has length at 6’5.  His long arms toss offensive linemen around.  He’s nasty, and would make the Panthers front unblockable.

No.17, New York Giants: OT Jawaan Taylor, Florida

The Giants have done an underrated job of rebuilding what was their disastrous offensive line.  Taylor is the second to last piece.

In a theoretical addition of Taylor, the Giants grab a physical freak who is terrifying to be lined up across from.  He’s insanely strong and moves well.  Putting him on a line with Will Hernandez, Kevin Zeitler and Nate Solder puts together a group that Giants fans couldn’t believe would have existed three years ago.

No.18, Minnesota Vikings: OT Andre Dillard, Boston College

The first question I always ask myself when mocking a draft is “What does this team need to improve?”

With the Vikings, the first thing that came to my mind was quarterback.

But obviously the Vikings don’t believe that, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

The offensive line has been up and down for years with Minnesota.  They only have two above average linemen at the moment, and one is playing out of position.

Drafting Dillard doesn’t fix the Pat Elflein position problem, but it does improve the line.  He’s a tall and strong left tackle who will have Kirk Cousins’ blindside, allowing him more time to throw an interception (Sorry).

No.19, Tennessee Titans: G/T Cody Ford, Oklahoma

Like Jonah Williams, Ford has the ability to play either guard or tackle.  Tennessee has a hole at guard on the right side, and it’s really the only weakness on their line.  If they plug that, and make sure their weapons stay healthy and perform at a high level, the excuses for Marcus Mariota don’t exist anymore.

No.20, Pittsburgh Steelers: CB Rock Ya-Sin, Temple

Ya-Sin has exploded up draft boards the past couple days; his rise reminds me of Denzel Ward’s last draft.  All the sudden it sounds like he is a guaranteed first rounder.

It makes no sense why it took so long for Ya-Sin to shoot up boards.  He’s a smaller cornerback who uses his speed and coverage skills to shut guys down.  His coverage on the deep ball is a bit in question, but his physical skills should be able to make up for it.

For the Steelers, whose secondary has plagued them over the past few years, this is a perfect pick.  Ya-Sin is a stud, and a future lockdown guy.

No.21, Seattle Seahawks: DL Christian Wilkins, Clemson

It’s impossible to pick a favorite out of all the Clemson guys, but Wilkins gets just the slightest edge for an unexplainable reason.  Plus, he’s the best fit for the Seahawks.

With Frank Clark now in Kansas City (That was a sweet deal by Seattle, by the way), the Seahawks need a dominate edge presence.  Wilkins replaces that production on a rookie contract.  I understand he projects better as an inside presence, but Clemson got really creative with him last season and played him on the outside as well.  He can do both.

Despite his large size, I’m not sure it matters.  Wilkins is a dog, who is going to produce no matter where he is.  What better place to go than Seattle to refine or add to your defensive skills?

No.22, Baltimore Ravens: DL Clelin Ferrell, Clemson

Right after Wilkins is picked, the Clemson guys start coming off the board.

Ferrell’s the true pass rusher out of the group, but his ceiling is a little lower than Wilkins’ due to it.  Ferrell is long and physical, but isn’t someone who has defined moves or true grace getting to the quarterback.  He just kind of finds his way there.  Can that possibly be a bad thing?

The Ravens lost a lot in free agency on the defensive side of the ball.  Taking Ferrell here replenishes that, even though they still have a long way to go.

No.23, Houston Texans: TE Noah Fant, Iowa

The other Iowa tight end finally comes off the board.  Fant’s different than Hockenson in the sense that they aren’t the same mold.  Fant’s a big dude rather than a long dude like Hockenson is.  If Hockenson is Jimmy Graham, then Fant is Rob Gronkowski (Those are strictly size and not skill/potential comps).  Because of that, Fant has lower value.  He’s bulky and a lumbers a bit.

That doesn’t mean Fant isn’t destined for success.  In Houston, he will at least have a quarterback that can get him the ball if protected well enough.  If we haven’t complained about the line in front of DeShaun Watson, we’ve complained the lack of a second option for him aside from Deandre Hopkins.  Will Fuller is a streaky target and battles injuries, and we need to see it from Keke Coutee for one more year.  In Fant, you’re giving Watson somebody who will get open simply because of his size.  He’s that much of a problem for the opposition.

No.24, Oakland Raiders: DL Dexter Lawrence, Clemson

The last of the three Clemson big guns comes off the board, and the Raiders are slowly becoming a force on the defensive end of the field.

Lawrence is a meaty defensive tackle who can play inside of edge rushers Arden Key and Josh Mauro.  He’s an excellent run stopper who is quite good at getting to the quarterback at his size, though those skills of his may take longer to develop.

No.25, Philadelphia Eagles: DL Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame

With Timmy Jernigan’s re-signing this morning, it seems less likely that the Eagles could go with a defensive tackle here, and could instead opt for an edge rusher.  But, Jernigan is only on a one year deal, so if the Eagles decide to move on from him after next season, Tillery is there to take his place.

Tillery is massive at 6’6.  His length and moves make him a force inside.

No.26, Indianapolis Colts: CB Byron Murphy, Washington

Murphy is small slot cornerback whose speed allows him to stay with most receivers.  He’s lockdown within the intermediate range of the field.  His downfield coverage is questionable, but with Malik Hooker behind him, that’s less of a concern.

The Colts could desperately use upgrades at cornerback.  Murphy is someone who could have a Marshon Lattimore-like impact immediately.

No.27, Oakland Raiders: RB Josh Jacobs, Alabama

The Raiders shouldn’t do this, but it seems all too entirely likely to happen.  Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock want to make splashes; that’s why we can’t totally rule out Murray for them at number four overall.

I like Isaish Crowell, but there’s a reason he’s been on three teams in five years.  Aside from him, Oakland has a bunch of speciality backs who are more useful in the passing game rather than in the running game.

Getting Jacobs helps them replace Marshawn Lynch, who has decided to retire again.  Jacobs and Lynch are similar backs; big, powerful runners who plow over dudes, and unlike Lynch, Jacobs could be a reliable option in the passing game.

A cornerback or a reach for a linebacker here is a better option.  At this point, the Raiders should trade down.

No.28, Los Angeles Chargers: OL Kaleb McGary, Washington 

Some scouting reports have McGary going late in the second round, while others evaluate McGary as one of the better offensive line prospects of the decade.

The later description is a bit much, but McGary is a first round talent and worth a reach.  He played tackle at Washington, but the Chargers could use help at guard, and McGary is suited to play both.  The reason he could slide is because of that; that teams maybe don’t see him as a tackle and do just as a guard.

He’s a big dude for that spot; so much so that he may be overqualified.  That’d be good news for the Chargers.

No.29, Seattle Seahawks: S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida 

The Seahawks may find themselves going edge here, or could reach for Washington safety Taylor Rapp instead, but I think Gardner-Johnson is the better prospect on the board.

Gardner-Johnson was a play-maker at Florida as well as a skilled coverage back.  As a safety, he surveyed the field while also covering slot receivers in sets where he’d line up as a corner.

The Seahawks secondary has recovered well from the losses it has sustained over the years, but Gardner-Johnson gives them depth behind Tedric Thompson.

No.30, Green Bay Packers: WR Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Oklahoma

Probably my favorite receiver in the draft, and teams are starting to realize the mistake they are making by giving him a third round grade.

That was where Brown was projected to go until essentially a week and a half ago, when a serious market correction occurred.  Now, some mocks have him going in the top 20, which is probably about right.

I’m not sure how much I trust it though.  Plus, Brown does have a decently serious foot injury, which was the heart of his fall early in the draft process.

No matter what, with this pick the Packers now have Metcalf and Hollywood amongst their receiving core.  That is not a bad duo for Aaron Rodgers, who has been completely depleted of weapons the past two seasons, to work with.  Taking two receivers in the first round is a bit much, but people to make Rodgers happy is the Packers biggest need.

No.31, Los Angeles Rams: OL Chris Lindstrom, Boston College

The Rams desperately need help along the offensive line.  Lindstrom is another plug-and-play guard who will be effective immediately.  His footwork and athleticism makes him play like a tackle at the guard position.

No.32, New England Patriots: WR N’Keal Harry, Arizona State

I wasn’t sure if Harry was going to make it into my first round.  Harry’s stock has fell a bit as we’ve approached tonight; he essentially went from possibly the top receiver in the draft to the fourth or fifth best, which makes the Patriots the front-runner for his services.

If Harry doesn’t go here, it sounds like he won’t be in the second round for much longer.  He himself has reported that the Cardinals are likely to take him at No.33 with the first pick of the second round.  I would be… let’s just say… more than excited about that.

Harry would give the Patriots a deep threat they’ve lacked for awhile.  That’s essentially the one thing he is really good at.  His size makes him impossible to cover on downfield routes, and he’s a pain to tackle thanks to it and his after-the-catch explosiveness.  Harry is like a rich man’s Kelvin Benjamin.

The problem with Harry is that he’s not a very diverse receiver.  He’s not a good route runner; the go and deep routes are essentially the only two he can run effectively.

Harry on the Pats puts him in the best position to succeed, and gives him a quarterback who can actually get the ball downfield to him.

The Kyler Murray Dilemma

As I began writing my 2019 NFL Mock Draft, I realized that my analysis of the Cardinals options and pick was getting way too high in word count.  So, I’m dropping the number one overall pick early, and am examining the Cardinals options well before draft night, because if one of those options comes to fruition, it’s going to have to happen before then.

No.1, Arizona Cardinals: DE Nick Bosa

This whole Kyler Murray fiasco/smokescreen/dream has been very, very emotional for me.  It’s taken me a long time to come around to the fact that Murray could very well be our next quarterback, just a year after we drafted Josh Rosen at No.10 overall.

But it’s important to note that my acceptance of the possible scenario isn’t based on Murray.  It’s based on Kliff Kingsbury, who I am 110 percent in on.

The hire was trashed and praised around the league.  Critics attacked his winning percentage at Texas Tech, one that certainly wasn’t great especially considering he had Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes at points throughout his stint.  Those who praised it are those who see that offense is taking over the league, and the more innovative and explosive you are on that end, the more likely you are to succeed.

I loved the hire.  Kingsbury may not know how to coach, but he knows offense, and that’s really the number one thing the Cardinals need.  That end of the field was so horrifically bad last season, and kept us out of practically every game.  Steve Keim has built a defense; I trust him to do that.  The offensive side of the ball has always been a struggle or a heart-attack (I’m pointing at you, Carson Palmer).  Kingsbury is the type of guy who can completely turn that side of things around.  Just give him the guys he wants.

But if Murray’s the guy, then some other things need to happen.

First of all, the Cardinals simply cannot draft Murray with Rosen on the roster.  As soon as you make that pick, Rosen’s trade value plummets.  Plummets to a point where the best you could get for him is a third round pick, instead of that being the basement value (Which is where it currently stands now).  Rosen has to be traded as the pick is being announced or before.  So far, we have nothing on that second front.

But you don’t deal Rosen for just anything.  I like Rosen.  A lot.  What happened last year wasn’t his fault at all.  Incompetent coaching was everywhere on the sidelines.  The offensive line didn’t exist.  He had zero weapons.  Oh, and he was a rookie, who even in a good offense, was going to make mistakes.

Rosen made a lot of rookie decisions, but also showed some promise.  His arm is ridiculous, and the accuracy, when it’s at its full potential, is disgusting.  The mistakes were mental and were bad decisions.  None really showed a lack of skill.

I was ecstatic when we took Rosen last year.  I thought he was the second best quarterback in the draft.  There was nothing wrong with him football-wise.

There still isn’t anything wrong with him football-wise.

That’s why the Kingsbury hiring was so exciting.  Putting Rosen in Kingsbury’s hands was going to take the offense to that next level.  I’m so in on Kingsbury that I’ve convinced myself that personnel doesn’t even matter.  The offense is going to better.  It literally can’t be worse, first of all, and Kingsbury knows what he is doing. He knows what he’s doing offensively, at least.

The reason this is a debate is because the guy(s) that Kingsbury wants may not be Rosen.  There’s a lot of evidence that points to the fact that it is Murray.

That means getting rid of Rosen, and as I said above, you can’t do it for just anything.  Rosen and Kingsbury is a more than fine pairing.  But if someone comes calling and offers a top 45-ish pick, then you have to pull the trigger, right?

It’s selling low on Rosen, and that is terrifying.  But as long as I’m making someone overpay for him, then I’m comfortable, because if Kingsbury is tells Steve Kiem “Get me Kyler Murray and…”, that “and” is pretty exciting.  And terrifying for the rest of the NFL.

Again, I’m not sold on Murray.  He’s small and could be really fragile.  The running ability, though sick and incredibly valuable, only amplifies those concerns over his size and durability.  There’s also just a tad bit too much hype.  Just a little bit.

But at the same time, Murray feels like someone who could totally turn the NFL on its head if he hits his ceiling.  We’re literally looking at Michael Vick 2.0 who might be even more accurate; Murray’s a better thrower in the short range of the field and fits balls into incredible windows within eight yards of the line of scrimmage.  He’s tantalizing, and with Kingsbury, who has sought after him since he was a high-schooler trying to decide what college to commit to, he’s even more so.  That combo is terrifying for the rest of the NFL.

So if the opportunity is there, the opportunity to trade for Rosen for a full and fair value (a top 45 pick), the Cardinals should do it.  Get Kingsbury exactly what he wants and watch the magic happen.  If the opportunity isn’t there, then Rosen is perfectly viable second option.  Trading Rosen, especially to a place like the Charges or Patriots, is terrifying (To a place like Washington or the Giants?  Not so much), and the talk about him not being a fit in Kingsbury’s system doesn’t make any sense.  You don’t need to run to be successful in it; you need to have an arm.  A cannon, to be exact.  Rosen has that.

So unless someone wants to overpay, the Cardinals should take Nick Bosa at number one overall.  Pairing him with Chandler Jones creates a problem for any opposing offensive line, and a good pass rush makes a defense a quarter-or-so better than a defense without one. Quinnen Williams is extremely intriguing, and Josh Allen is a do-it-all stud, but the key to a defense is a defined and dominating end presence.  Allen will be all over the field, and Williams makes his impact in stopping the run rather than getting to the quarterback.  Take Bosa and be unstoppable on every down, or take Murray, trade Rosen and let the fireworks begin.  As long as Rosen brings back good value, the Cardinals really can’t lose here.  Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be when you’re picking number one overall?

2019 NBA Playoffs: First Round Preview

For as chaotic as the last two nights of the regular season was, we certainly didn’t get rewarded with a fantastic crop of first round series.  There’s one good one in each conference, and that may be stretching it.  But, the second round, thanks to Houston’s fall to the fourth seed and the East being top-heavy, proves to be a dandy.  First, we just have to get there.

No.1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No.8 Detroit Pistons

With their heavily injured roster, any other matchup would have made things a little interesting for the Bucks.  Orlando’s ball movement would have possibly kept them around in a game or two; the Nets are plain awesome and would play anyone hard, and the Pacers have the same gritty trait as Brooklyn.

The Bucks have been absolutely dominate this season.  I wrote before the season that Mike Budenholzer was worth a massive step forward for the team and for Giannis Antentokoumpo, and both came true.  Giannis is in the thick of a fantastic MVP debate and the Bucks won five more games than I projected them to.  The offense is incredibly efficient, and the defense completely revitalized thanks to rim protection from Giannis and Brook Lopez and steps being taken forward by guys like DJ Wilson and Eric Bledsoe.

The Pistons are a tad better than we expected them to be.  Blake Griffin has adapted his game, taking on a Nikola Jokic-like facilitator role (5.4 assists per game!) while also expanding his range to the three point line (a much needed addition.  Griffin shot 36.2 percent on seven per game this season).  Aside from Griffin, nothing really stands out about the Pistons.  They simply stumbled their way into the eighth seed because everyone else was just a tad worse than them.  Sure, Luke Kennard’s breakout (Is that what this is?) and the switch-a-roo of Reggie Bullock for Wayne Ellington has paid off well.  Detroit’s offensive rating plummets 10 points with Kennard off the court (That is, since Valentines Day), and Ellington has shot 36.8 percent from three since joining Detroit on 7.7 attempts per game.  But that’s not really what got Detroit here.  They really just kept doing their thing and let everything else fall into place.

This series presents serious problems for the Pistons, as the Bucks do for most teams.  But the mismatches the Pistons are tasked with conquering may not give them a chance.

First, the spacing and efficiency the Bucks play with offensively cripples Detroit.  In the Bucks five-out offensive system, they run Giannis straight to the rim and let him score (Which has been pretty easy for him this season) or kick it out to three point shooters, which are practically always on the court for Milwaukee.  The Bucks are league average from three, but take the second most in the league behind the Rockets.  With driving lanes figured to be open for Giannis, a much improved, more efficient Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and others (It’s hard to envision Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith and Kennard getting stops), the threes may not have to be heavily relied on.  Plus, as Detroit usually has both Drummond and Griffin out there at the same time, playing five-out means stretching both of those to the perimeter.  That’s a disaster for the Pistons.  It makes possibly their two best players both close to unplayable, as Drummond’s offensive game won’t be enough and the plays ran around Griffin take too long to develop (Detroit plays at the third slowest pace in the league).

Literally no one in the league does, but Detroit has no one equipped to even contain Giannis, the best player in the series and the first or second best player in the league this season.  He could legitimately score 40 in every game.  Blake and Drummond aren’t athletic enough; all the guards are too small.  Wayne Ellington is just too undersized, and he’s the only viable option besides rookie Bruce Brown, who’s played big minutes and has turned into an above average defender.  But Brown’s inexperience and lack of size still makes him a tough matchup.

I legitimately have zero idea how the Pistons win a game in this series, let alone keep any game close.  The Bucks aren’t really a team that loses effort throughout games.  They keep it up and pound you till the end.  Detroit’s big-ball could expose some of the small-ball aspects to the Bucks, but they really play “tall” rather than “big” or “small”.  Griffin and even Drummond can dominate Lopez, Ilyasova, and certainly Pau Gasol.  That’s not real firepower though, and that, firepower, is practically all the Bucks have.

Prediction: Bucks in 4 

No.2 Toronto Raptors vs. No.7 Orlando Magic

The Magic enter the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league.  They’ve incredibly won 42 games this season, and are top five in net rating since Valentines Day, with offensive and defensive ratings marks in the top six of the league.  The engine behind it has been Nikola Vucevic, who has the whole Magic offense run through him.  He’s putting up 20.8 points and 12 boards a game, while dishing 3.8 assists per game.  Vucevic was someone we wanted the Magic to trade away until we realized they were too good to do that.

Orlando gets crafty with Vucevic.  They can run guys around him like how the Pistons do with Griffin or the Nuggets with Jokic, but also are okay with moving the ball around and getting good shots.  Evan Fournier’s driving ability forces defenders inside; he draws a lot more attention than someone like DJ Augustin, a smaller, less threatening attacker.  His passing ability has been utilized at 5.3 assists per game though; he’s been the point guard the Magic have coveted for years, and one suited for today’s game as his off-ball capabilities have shined.  Augustin’s shooting 42 percent from three on 3.8 attempts per game.

Given their spacing and big man overload issues, the Magic are a modern team.  They have multiple looks and systems they can run: A five-out, ball moving, drive-and-kick system, a Vucevic-centered scheme, and a slower, post-up heavy scheme that out-muscles and out-bodies everyone.  They’re kind of like the Raptors.  The only problem is that they’re a lot less talented.

Orlando’s built decently well to counter Toronto’s big, athletic dudes.  Jonathan Issac has the frame to hang with Pascal Siakam, and Fournier is the same type of player as Kawhi Leonard, though a little more skilled as a passer.  But Aaron Gordon and Vucevic aren’t playable together in this series; the Raptors are too athletic to have both of those guys on the court at the same time.  Taking that away leaves the Magic with a huge void offensively.

Fournier would be there to make up for that, but it’s assumed Toronto slaps Kawhi on him to put play-making responsibilities more on Augustin or Michael Carter-Williams (Wait, this Orlando Magic team is in the playoffs?).  That makes Orlando much less threatening offensively.  Fournier’s driving ability and crafty passing makes Orlando tougher to guard.  Not that Toronto will have issues guarding them, but a slight lack of effort could make things interesting in a game or two.  We’ve seen the Raptors tail off a bit in games late in this season; it’s basically the anti-Bucks move.

It’s hard to see Orlando hanging with Toronto.  The Magic might have the same model of a team, but talent wins in the playoffs.  Despite the point guard position not fitting the tall, athletic mold of either team, Lowry faces a fantastic matchup in Augustin or MCW.  Orlando could force the Raptors into a poor shooting, poor effort game if the defense is tight both ways.  At the same time, the Raptors have Kawhi, one of the game’s top crunch-time offensive weapons.  The Magic have… Terrence Ross??

I think Orlando steals a game.  Toronto gets caught shooting poorly or not trying hard enough, and Orlando’s funky offensive schemes run it up.  I’m hesitant to project more than a five game series.  Orlando’s going to struggle to score enough even when they play well.  Like the Pistons, the firepower, experience and talent just isn’t there.

Prediction: Toronto in 5

No.3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No.6 Brooklyn Nets 

The best series of the first round got a lot more interesting Wednesday night, when concern about whether Joel Embiid’s knee is healthy enough for him to play in Game 1 Saturday morning popped up.  Now, on Friday afternoon, we still don’t know what Embiid’s status is.

I think Embiid missing 1-2 games takes this series from one level to the next.

The Nets are fun.  Really fun.  They run a lot of two and three guard lineups, always have shooting on the court, and have one of the best rim protectors in the league in Jarrett Allen.  They’re deep, too.  Spencer Dinwiddie and Ed Davis have been extremely productive bench guys, and Rodney Kurucs has emerged as an athletic wing as well.

The Sixers are loaded from a talent perspective.  Their five man crunch-time lineup is terrifying, and bringing someone like Boban Marjanovic in off the bench in place of Embiid is just unfair.  But all season there’s been a sort of malaise in our confidence in this team.  No one really thinks they can make the big leap.  No one really thinks they’ll win in the second round.

These concerns make sense.  Ben Simmons completely fell apart in last season’s playoffs, and Jimmy Butler represents a chemistry issue that’s been in flux all year.  The ball stops when it touches his hands, and it makes the Sixers a lot less potent.

Now Embiid’s health can be added to the list of concerns.

The Nets, in general, are a small team, which should give the Sixers the advantage.  Their long perimeter defenders should swallow up the likes D’Angelo Russell and Dinwiddie.  Shutting down Russell would be detrimental to the Nets.  Caris Levert’s a dangerous, play-making forward, but is tasting the playoffs for the first time and will have either Butler, Tobias Harris or Ben Simmons switched on him at some point.

Russell’s someone who is terrifying to bet against though.  His craftiness and ability to create his own shot (and shots for others) makes his size disadvantage not really matter.  His heat-check potential, and the fact that the Sixers don’t have a small, defensive-minded guard on their roster makes Russell a mismatch, if he gets going. Sure, D-Lo could easily shoot the Nets out of a game, but he’s probably their best option no matter what.  LeVert should be minimized, and Dinwiddie doesn’t have the same skills D-Lo does to break through Philly’s D.

But without Embiid, the Sixers are a lot less hard to break.  Boban isn’t nearly the defender Embiid is, in terms of being able to guard guys out on the perimeter and cover large areas of the floor helping.  The Nets don’t have to go small to play five out; Allen’s athleticism allows him not necessarily to stretch the floor with shooting, but with simple positioning.  With no one to protect the rim, it should be easier for Brooklyn to get there.  They can have their guards and LeVert drive, or run motion get easy looks.  The best way to break good defenses is to catch them off guard and make them really have to try, especially early in games.  Getting ahead against Philly is key, because we have no evidence that they know how to get a bucket when it really matters.  They’ll spend time fighting over who gets the shot rather than if it goes in, and if all else fails, it’ll just be another JJ Redick dribble-handoff for a three.

The Sixers should be able to figure it out.  The talent on top of Brooklyn’s bad defense from its top lineups the second half of this season is too overwhelming.  And if Embiid is back, Brooklyn’s offense is heavily relied upon bad shots coming from D-Lo and DeMarre Carroll, who Philly should be smart enough to leave open when on the court.

That being said, the Nets are really frisky.  The Sixers don’t have a prototype to stop someone like Russell, and Brooklyn plays smart and fun basketball.  The Sixers really don’t; the Simmons-Butler dynamic leaves their offense with two ball-dominant players out there at the same time.  Stalls give way to Nets three point barrages or D-Lo takeovers.

Brooklyn won’t get this to a Game 7, but two wins, especially if Embiid misses a game or two, is a certain possibility, and will leave the Sixers a tad haunted heading into the next round.

Prediction: 76ers in 6

No.4 Boston Celtics vs. No.5 Indiana Pacers

Like Philly, the Celtics were dealt with an injury blow as well, and while the length of it is much more extended, the impact is a tad less.

I haven’t really understood the momentum behind the Pacers in this series.  Sure, they’ve maintained their ground after losing Victor Oladipo, but they also haven’t really beat anyone impressive.  The Pacers beat teams they should and lose to ones they should as well.  The Pacers are… fine.

Boston hasn’t exactly impressed either this year.  They completely underachieved, thanks to chemistry and leadership issues, lack of defensive efforts in games, huge performances swings from Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward, and just a knack for shooting like absolute crap early in games before having Kyrie Irving bail them out late.  The Celtics have been so up and down that even in this series, it’s hard to put any real confidence in them.  I’m ready for anything to happen.

But this is the Pacers, whose ship is being ran by Darren Collinson and the heat-checking Bojan Bogdonovic.  The offense has been brutal this year, ranking 18th in offensive efficiency overall and 21st since Valentines Day.  They’ve stayed afloat by playing hard and at least competing defensively, though the numbers don’t like them too much (They rank 18th in defensive rating since Valentines Day).

The Celtics should torch them.  Out of Indiana’s top four most played lineups since the All-Star break, none have a defensive rating better than 107.7.  Sure, defensive ratings overall have sky-rocketed this season thanks to the league’s offensive explosion, but still, those numbers are not encouraging.

Indy’s fifth most played lineup of Thaddeus Young-Tyreke Evans-Cory Joseph-Doug McDermott-Domontas Sabonis is their best defensive lineup post All-Star, but it plummets offensively.  As good as he’s been, Sabonis just isn’t enough to carry the load, and I can’t be sure someone like Evans should be on the floor with him.  The whole “Run around Sabonis and get open” strategy isn’t one the ball-hog Evans likes to employ.

If the Pacers hang around at all, it won’t be because of their performance.  It will be because of Boston’s.

Nothing schematically leans in favor of the Pacers.  They don’t have a Kyrie Irving stopper, nor do they have the wing defenders needed to stop Jayson Tatum and a suddenly productive Gordon Hayward, who can fill the Smart void offensively.  Plus, Myles Turner may be a good rim protector and defender, but look for Boston to use Al Horford a tad more in easy post-up situations.  The Celtics should be able to take advantage of Turner’s inexperience and one-on-one post D. The only thing the Pacers have going for them is their grit, which, in the event that Boston doesn’t have that, could lead to a win or too.

Boston’s lackluster urgency in games this year is concerning.  They shoot poorly to start, and just don’t care on the defensive end until they really have to.  Communication seems shot between this team, which goes hand-in-hand with the chemistry issues.

Boston could be able to get away with that this series.  Again, this Pacers team possesses literally no threat besides the fact that they play hard for 48 minutes.  A bad Boston performance probably gets the job done four times in five games.  And that’s assuming there’s no switch.

If there was a switch, you would have thought it would have been activated a month ago, so that its effectiveness would have gotten this underachieving team up to at least a top three seed (Then again, a series with the Nets feels like a disaster for Boston right now).  Nothing with this team indicates there is one.  A great win is followed by just a horrible loss with no explanation besides it looking like this team just doesn’t care.

That trait we can worry about in the second round.  For now, the lack of care will only bite them once.

Prediction: Celtics in 5

No.1 Golden State Warriors vs. No.8 Los Angeles Clippers

Speaking of a switch, the Warriors have had possibly their most on/off season ever of the past five years.  Golden State found itself winning only 57 games this season, its lowest since Steve Kerr took over.  But unlike Boston, we don’t have the concern with Golden State.  No one is really doubting this team; the consensus is that they’re probably going to win the Finals (Hint: They probably are!).  Part of it’s because the West isn’t as good; the Bucks and Raptors both feel like Finals teams; only the Rockets pose a real threat to Golden State.  Part of it is because everyone picked Boston to really break out this season and it didn’t happen.  And part of it is because we have been accustom to the Warriors not trying throughout the regular season and even the playoffs over the past years.

That probably comes to light in this series as well.  Like Indiana, the Clippers play hard.  But they’re a lot more than that.  Los Angeles has crazy lineup combinations that work, and have a top ten offense since Valentines Day.  The creativity, ball movement and spacing makes them sneakily dangerous, even against the best team in the league.

Their issue in the series is on the defensive end.  The Clips are below average since mid-February, and don’t have anyone to handle 3/5s of Golden State starting lineup.  The athleticism of Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins is too much.  The best KD option is probably Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who doubles as offensive option No.1 when Lou Williams isn’t hot.  Danillo Gallinari has posted brutal defensive numbers against Golden State this season; so has practically every other Clippers big man (The lowest defensive rating by a Clips big against the Dubs this year is Ivica Zubac’s 110.6.  He’s good for a -2.6 net rating against them this season).  Essentially, Los Angeles is screwed defending their front-court, and with Boogie looking like an absolute monster lately, any hope is washed away.

The Clippers aren’t getting stops in this series.  The Warriors may not either.  It’s going to depend on when they decide to start getting them.

LA’s offense has been incredibly fun to watch.  Gallo’s stayed healthy; his ability to actually move himself into spots all over the court has made him a decent scoring threat; same with Zubac, who could be an absolute beast if his rim running could turn into defensive lateral quickness.  Landry Shamet is still shooting the lights out of the ball, and Patrick Beverley is still running everything at the top.  The wings are underwhelming; Garrett Temple, JaMychal Green and Wilson Chandler aren’t exactly the definition of firepower.  Throughout their time on the Clippers, Green has somehow been the best three point shooter at 41.3 percent.

When nothing is working, there’s always Lou Williams, who is a bit of a tough guard for the Warriors.  When Lou is hot, there’s nothing you can do.  There isn’t even anything Klay Thompson can do.

The Clippers win the series if Lou Will literally has the best playoff series ever.  When Golden State gives a crap defensively, he has to bail out LA.  Golden State’s too skilled when they care; the switches can leave Klay on SGA and KD and Draymond on the already problematic wings.  Lou Will gets Curry or Boogie depending on the switch, but even that mismatch won’t be sustainable over more than two games.  The Clips just don’t have enough.

It’s the first round, which means Golden State’s effort will be low.  LA could squeeze two games out of this; one in a Lou Will performance, the other where they catch Golden State going cold and eventually giving up on the other end.  No matter what happens, the Warriors will be fine.  Lets not overreact to it.

Prediction: Warriors in 6

No.2 Denver Nuggets vs. No.7 San Antonio Spurs 

As much fun as the Nuggets have been this season, this series just doesn’t get me too excited.

It’s a very slow, old-fashioned series.  Neither team takes a lot of threes.  Both teams run constant motion and off-ball movement to get good shots, but don’t kick the tempo of that movement up.  Both teams are centered around big, slow post players who each have one good, reliable guard to help create as well.

The difference is that for Denver, all their deficiencies haven’t mattered.  They’ve made it work.  Nikola Jokic has a lot more athleticism and versatility than he’s given credit for.  While he’s only shooting 30.7 percent from beyond the arc this year, the threat of him on the perimeter is dangerous.  It feels like they go down more than the numbers say they do.  His newfound stretchiness allows the Nuggets to play Mason Plumlee at the same time, who has also looked like a completely different player, running the floor, being active around the rim on both ends and fitting in perfectly with the system.

Jokic has been completely unstoppable in whatever he has been asked to do this season.  Run the offense?  He’s averaging 7.3 assists this season.  Score in crunch-time?  How many centers can do this?  He’s also taken massive strides defensively, though the pick and roll still gives him immense trouble.  Thankfully for Denver, the Spurs are average in their use of that.  San Antonio instead has the highest post up percentage in the league, per NBA.com.

LaMarcus Aldridge still isn’t a great matchup for Jokic.  Jokic ranks in the 65.1 percentile of post-up defense in the league this season, per NBA.com.  Feeding LMA is San Antonio’s best hope.  With the Spurs own defensive struggles, guarding the menace that is Jokic, plus everything else he brings to the table will be an immense challenge.  The only guard who makes the Spurs defense better by defensive rating is Derrick White, who gives the Spurs a defensive rating of 106.4 when he’s on the court compared to a rating of 110.2 when he’s off it.  There’s your Jamal Murray stopper.

Denver loves their three guard sets with the two big men.  Malik Beasley, Monte Morris and Will Barton have all been extremely productive this season, and Paul Millsap is not an easy assignment for whoever of LMA/Jakob Poeltl the Spurs decide to not put on Jokic.  The athleticism of Denver’s bigs wins every time, and that’s without the guards, specifically Murray, getting hot.

The Spurs getting stops, then trying to keep up, seems like too much to deal with.  Even though Denver is a very similarly structured team, their modern tendencies outweigh what the Spurs will be able to accomplish.  San Antonio could get two games; there are times when LMA is just unstoppable no matter who is guarding him, and DeMar DeRozan is a crafty scorer who can probably get by anyone but Gary Harris on the Nuggets roster.  But in a game where offense is king, the Spurs just fall short.  Offensive rating had Denver ranked sixth and San Antonio seventh this season.  That’s very indicative.

Prediction: Nuggets in 5

No.3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No.6 Oklahoma City Thunder 

Portland’s loss to New Orleans in last season’s playoffs was probably one of the most shocking series we have seen in awhile.  The Pelicans went in with Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo and shut the powerful backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum down, en route to a 4-0 sweep, the complete opposite of what I projected.

What New Orleans did was give us a blueprint for how to stop the Trail Blazers, and that’s neutralize CJ and Dame.  They’re practically the whole team, and with Jursurf Nurkic now out, they need even more from them combined on the offensive end.

Oklahoma City has a similar formula.  The backcourt duo of Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder felt like a disaster heading into the season, but OKC has made it work.  Russ has been a tad more passive this season, thanks not necessarily to Schroder’s presence but to Paul George’s step forward and top five in MVP voting season.  The two have played well together.  They share a +4.4 net rating when on the court, and have complied a ridiculously low defensive rating of 103.8.

I think that’s enough.  CJ and Dame hadn’t ever looked this good playing together until this season.  Those two literally carried Portland to where they are now, even though McCollum’s knee injury left him out 10 games (Portland miraculously got this high in the standings not due to themselves but mostly thanks to the Rockets).  McCollum did get back into action since the injury, but it was only two games, and the shooting numbers were rough.  Throwing him back into the fire, the high intensity, playoff fire is a little worrisome, especially against the tenacious Russ and Schroeder.  If McCollum isn’t 100 percent, which is tough to expect, Portland is in trouble.

The biggest key in the playoffs is firepower though, and no matter how good Russ and Schroeder have been together this season, it still doesn’t quite match what Dame and CJ could do.  Problem is, Dame and CJ could get shut down, and Portland has no third option.  The Thunder have many others besides Russ and Schroeder.

The Trail Blazers defense is anchored on their wings rather than the guards and bigs.  Al-Faruoq Aminu, Mo Harkless and Jake Layman use their length to lockdown the perimeter.  But that’s only gotten Portland to 16th in defensive rating, and Paul George has been on another level this season.  Harkless has been really important defensively, but that’s in comparison to other Trail Blazers rather than it being adjusted for the opponent.  In George, we’re looking at a top three MVP candidate if we weren’t in the middle of a historic race for the top spot.

The Blazers have a lot on their hands with the Thunder, and that’s not even accounting for Steven Adams, who is in very favorable territory now that Nurkic is out.  Since the Nurkic injury, the Blazers have been rolling with Enes Kanter as their big guy.  Zach Collins has also been featured, but his thin frame is no match for the burly Adams.  Kanter is a black hole defensively, and doesn’t have the stretch-capability to help Portland counter the OKC firepower.

For Portland to have a chance, they’re going to need Dame and McCollum to be 110 percent.  From Dame, that should be expected.  He’s a 2nd team All-NBA guy this season and has bailed Portland out whenever they’ve needed it.  If what happened last year happens again, the questions about whether the backcourt needs to split up will reemerge, and a team in Southern California will most definitely be interested.

Prediction: Thunder in 6

No.4 Houston Rockets vs. No.5 Utah Jazz

My first thought with this series was an absolute blowout, but Utah’s stingy defense might take them a little farther than I originally imagined.

The Jazz got off to a slow start this season.  Donavan Mitchell was slumping, and it felt like a team that was suffering the consequences of doing literally nothing over the summer.

But then Mitchell turned back into himself, and Utah ended up here, at the five seed, where we all kind of expected them to.

Houston followed a similar path.  They started terribly, and then James Harden, who yes is my MVP of this season (No disrespect to Giannis whatsoever.  What an incredible race it was), went bonkers and scored what felt like 50 every night.  Now, Houston feels like an unstoppable machine that poses a serious threat to Golden State.  If they can beat Golden State, shouldn’t they kill Utah?

The Rockets play slow and methodical.  They don’t move the ball a lot besides the infamous Harden-Clint Capela pick and roll.  That play is troubling for Utah, but it’s really the only way Utah’s defense can lose this series.

The Jazz are switchy enough to be able to minimize the amount of times Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are mismatched on Harden.  Keeping one of Ricky Rubio, Mitchell or Joe Ingles on him at all times won’t stop Harden, but could slow him down just a bit.  He’s still going to score and make shots, but his rhythm could be disrupted, leading to more passiveness and passing rather than attacking.

The Jazz aren’t well-equipped to guard heavy ball movement offenses.  They have more one-on-one, gritty on-ball defenders rather than athletic wings with length.  They’re nasty, and play up in your face.  That’s the type of defense you need to play to slow down isolation.

Even if Utah gives it their best defensive effort though, it may not matter.  The Rockets are still going to jack shots, and they’re going to go in at a high enough rate.  That high enough rate is going to beat the Jazz.  Utah made 12.1 threes a game this year, an impressively high number for a team that doesn’t feel like it has shooting.  Houston made four more a game at 16.1, leading the league by practically 2.5.

Mitchell could be there to make up for some of the missing firepower.  Harden certainly won’t be guarding him, and Chris Paul is older.  The Rockets have options besides the guards; PJ Tucker is the best defender on the team and can easily be switched on to stop a scoring streak.  Mitchell torched OKC in last year’s playoffs, but that felt more closely related to the incredible season he had rather than his overall talent.  This year we’ve seen the flaws with Mitchell; he’s too possessive of the ball and loves bad shots.  Any possession that has those is more points to Houston.

When you play the way Houston does, you’re bound to have bad games.  The shots just don’t go in and you’re screwed.  Utah has a guy that on a good night can turn into an unstoppable force.  For the Jazz to win a game in this series, he’s going to have to do that.  And get a little luck from the rims.

Prediction: Houston in 5

Answering the MLB’s Biggest Questions Heading Into 2019

After an incredibly slow and extended offseason, Opening Day feels like it came really fast.  I mean, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado signed well into Spring Training, and quality players like Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel are still available.

Opening Day came so fast that it led me to put this column together in less than 24 hours, and unfortunately led me to abandon the annual PECOTA over/under column.  We still rely on PECOTA quite a bit throughout this season preview, and rip into a bit more than usual.  I think it just lost it’s mind with the NL.  But before we get there, we start with certainly the less entertaining league.

Can anyone make the AL Central more competitive?

What has steadily been the worst division in baseball for the past three seasons or so only got worse over the winter.  This is not the same Cleveland Indians roster that we’ve been accustom to since their 2016 World Series run.  The bullpen, a mighty force in years past, has gone through a complete overall.  Michael Brantley is now a Houston Astro, Yan Gomes a Washington National.

Some things are still the same.  Jason Kipnis is projected to be a non-contributor, with his health playing the biggest role in that, but even if the long-time second baseman was healthy, it would be hard to count on him.  Kipnis has completely plummeted the last two seasons, putting up a slash line of .231/.306/.704 with an OPS+ of 86 over 2017-2018.  The Indians still feel an outfielder short; Tyler Naquin’s my boy, but Jake Bauers struggled immensely last season, and it seems unlikely that Leoyns Martin, someone who’s great as a fourth outfielder but not so much a starter, can replicate the hitting he put together in 2018.  Cleveland has the prospectus of Bradley Zimmer to bank on, but he’s coming off a serious shoulder surgery and may not be 100 percent immediately.

Injuries have murdered the infield in addition to Kipnis.  Francisco Lindor won’t be available Opening Day due to now a multitude of injuries, and Jose Ramirez took a bad foul ball of his leg in one of the last Spring Training games of the year.  He’s supposed to be in the lineup today, so Cleveland dodged a bullet there.  But the preseason injury bug has set a bad omen for the Indians, and could lead them out to a poor start.

Whether it’s in the first few months or throughout the whole season, Cleveland will have to rely on their pitching once again.  Last year, half of their staff failed them.  The rotation was fantastic, and should be again this year, but the bullpen didn’t hold up its end.  It should be better this year; Brad Hand looked worth Francisco Mejia last season.  Adam Climber will hopefully rebound back into his Padres-self.  Jonathan Edwards was ridiculous last season despite some control issues.  They need Dan Otero to regain his stuff, but it’s possible that at age 34 his prime is well-past, especially since Oliver Perez is bound for regression after a shockingly good 2018 campaign.

The Indians are fine.  In this division, that’s okay.  But the 97 wins PECOTA projected them for is an impossible feat.  They could easily finish ten below that total and win the division.  Or could easily win 93 games.  That will depend on if anyone decides to make the division competitive.

The Twins want to do that.  They made it abundantly clear this offseason by going out signing Jonathan Schoop, CJ Cron, Marwin Gonzalez, and Nelson Cruz.  They loaded up on guys who they know what they’re getting out of them: Home runs.

The Twins have a lot of talent, and they only added to it.  That talent though has had its ups and downs throughout the middle part of the decade.  They’ve underachieved practically every year due to a plethora of issues.  One year (Actually, almost every year), it’s the pitching.  Another it’s because some of the youth they’ve relied on has underperformed (Bad Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano years).

In the veterans they signed, they’ve established a line of consistency they can fall back, and bring in leadership that can possibly help guys like Buxton see the ball better.  Marwin Gonzalez may not have the power that Sano does, but does sneakily drive in runs despite numbers that wouldn’t suggest he wouldn’t.  Gonzalez is a massive defensive upgrade over Sano as well, and will likely takeover for him even once Sano is healthy and ready to come back.  Giving up on Sano like that is tough, but the Twins should have been preparing for this for awhile now.  He’s just a hassle, on and off the field.

There’s a chance this Minnesota offense could make up for some of the weaknesses among the pitchers.  In Cron, Cruz and Schoop, they’ve potentially added at least 60 home runs to the offense.  Cron and Cruz could both hit 40.  The Twins finished 23rd in the majors in home runs hit last season.  They’ll easily be better than that, and could legitimately be in the top five in total bombs hit.  Add their offseason additions to Eddie Rosario (who has potential to hit 20), Max Kepler (15 is a more reasonable number) and Jorge Polanco (Like Kepler, 15 max), and the Twins are very potent.

Is it the type of offense that’s going to carry an average rotation?  Possibly.  If that’s the case, the Twins probably win 85 games, topping their PECOTA projection and putting immense pressure on Cleveland.  This offense is going to be good, so anything the pitching can add puts the team in the 90 win range.

Jose Berrios has Cy Young caliber stuff (That doesn’t mean I think he’s going to win it).  He’s the ace of this staff and is a prized gem for a Minnesota franchise that hasn’t had pitching in forever.  If he pitches well, everything else is on pace to as well.  A bad season from him is irrecoverable.

Are we Kyle Gibson fans?  He was good last season for the first time since 2015, putting up a 3.62 ERA with 179 strikeouts in 196.2 innings.  I don’t know if I trust that to happen again, but a slightly worse year still helps Minnesota.

Michael Pineda is another question mark.  He didn’t pitch last season after Tommy John and then a torn meniscus, and wasn’t great the three years prior despite high strikeout numbers.

The same goes for Jake Odorizzi.  He, like most of the Minnesota offense the past few years, has underachieved.  See how much ground Minnesota can make up with average to above average seasons from top contributors?  Odorizzi is another one.  The Twins traded for him and expected a rebound from his 2017 campaign, but didn’t get it. Odorizzi struggled to keep the ball out of the air and walked almost four guys per nine.

Unlike most years, the Twins could have a decent bullpen to fall back on if the rotation’s concerns come to light.  I liked the Martin Perez signing; limited innings could make him a more effective pitcher; I’m not a fan of their plan to make him the 5th starter.  Taylor Rogers is someone I like and who could emerge this season.  Adalberto Mejia should be given a second chance after only throwing 22.1 innings last year; he’s a talented arm who’s still young.  Blake Parker has gaudy stats and is an underrated signing who could, like Rogers, really emerge.

The Twins have the potential to really challenge the Indians for the division title.  In fact, the only way that doesn’t happen is if Cleveland fights through their injuries and own pitching issues, while the Twins pitching sinks them to way too low of levels, knocking them out of playoff contender-status.  It would have to be an apocalyptic performance on the mound for that to occur.  Then again, this is the Twins we’re talking about.  They will always find a way to disappoint and underachieve.  If there’s a year for them not to do it, then this is it.

Who are the five AL playoff teams?

The lack of quality teams in the AL Central is kind of a microcosm for the entire AL itself this season.  Fun, exciting teams exist throughout the rest of the league, but they all have serious concerns that give me pause to even put them in a playoff spot, let alone debate how far they could go once they get to October.

The Astros, Red Sox and Yankees are all safely in.  Houston’s loaded roster has PECOTA projecting them at a respectable 98 wins.  They did lose Dallas Keuchel (presumably), Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers (to injury) and Gonzalez, and also re-did their whole backstop, but replaced those guys by sliding in Colin McHugh and Brad Peacock, both of whom had been regulated to bullpen roles last season, and Michael Brantley, whose contract was a tad shocking for a guy who can’t seem to stay healthy, but does have good depth behind him incase he does get hurt.  It’s a worthwhile risk for Houston.

The Red Sox and Yankees will both comfortably make the playoffs.  That division race could be a little tighter this year; it’ll be extremely hard for the Red Sox to completely kick butt and dominate everyone again.  Those type of seasons just don’t happen consecutively.

Then it gets interesting.  As we talked about above, the Twins and Indians could both conceivably win the division.  But that doesn’t mean if one does, the other even makes the playoffs.  The interchangeability there has many avenues.

The league probably needs both to make the playoffs though.  The Rays offense isn’t very sexy, and has practically everyone coming off career years.  I’m all for their pitching innovation; it’s a brilliant and fascinating strategy, and they’re planning it well so they don’t tax the bullpen too much.  With Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell, the Rays have three really good starters who can go deep in games and give quality starts.

But the Rays just don’t feel as good as a team like Oakland.  The A’s are in a similar spot.  Everyone offensively is coming off a career year, and will probably do similar things with their bullpen.  But the difference with the A’s, and what hurts the Rays a bit, is the division they play in.  While both teams have the ability to beat up on bottom feeders, the A’s have a higher quantity of teams to do that on.  The Orioles are garbage, and Toronto is still kicking off a rebuild.  Those are teams Tampa Bay could literally lose to 2-3 times this season.  But the rest of the division features the Red Sox and Yankees, two teams that are so much better than the Rays and will be duking it out for the division crown.

Oakland doesn’t have that stiff of competition in their division.  The Astros will kick butt, but everyone else is kind of in the middle.  The Angels are a playoff team if they had any, and I mean, for the love of God, literally any pitching.  The Mariners seem directionless (Look, I know what they’re doing and I respect it.  I just don’t know how viable it is), and the Rangers are in a rebuild.  Essentially, the A’s have an easier schedule.

Oakland’s offense is more potent and the bullpen is more fun and a tad more terrifying.  So give me the A’s over Tampa Bay, and God please don’t let me keep talking myself into the Twins.  It’s happening.  Oh boy.

Actually, there’s no way I’m projecting Minnesota to finish ahead of the A’s.  You’re pitting two polar opposites against each other in that one; the Twins never get enough production out of anyone, and the A’s always get way too much.

This is why projecting Minnesota to make the playoffs is a terrifying gamble.  We all know they’re going to let us down, so let’s just not do it.

Cleveland’s going to get the slight nod in the division; their pitching is just better and that’s what matters.  You hope Kipnis comes back and is competent, and that everyone heals from their injuries accordingly.  If not, you blow it up, ship one or two of the starters to San Diego and start building again around Francisco Lindor and Bradley Zimmer (and maybe Francisco Mejia again).

The Indians aren’t a Wild Card team this year.  They’re going to be all-in or not all-in on the division.  The margin for error, despite the crappiness of the league overall, is too tight in the Wild Card race, and will be especially too tight when it comes to the Central crown.

With that, here’s the AL Playoff standings for the 2019 season:

  1. Boston Red Sox, 97-65 (Slightly under PECOTA)
  2. Houston Astros, 95-67 (Slightly under PECOTA)
  3. Cleveland Indians, 89-73 (Well under PECOTA)
  4. New York Yankees, 96-66 (Push with PECOTA)
  5. Oakland A’s, 91-71 (Well above PECOTA)

6. Minnesota Twins, 88-74 (Above PECOTA)

7. Tampa Bay Rays, 87-75 (Slightly above PECOTA)

8. Los Angeles Angels, 82-80 (Above PECOTA)

9. Seattle Mariners, 81-81 (Above PECOTA)

10. Chicago White Sox 79-82 (Well above PECOTA)

11. Kansas City Royals, 77-85 (Above PECOTA)

12. Texas Rangers, 75-87 (Above PECOTA)

13. Detroit Tigers, 72-90 (Above PECOTA)

14. Toronto Blue Jays, 67-95 (Well below PECOTA)

15. Baltimore Orioles, 62-100, (Above PECOTA)

Now onto the NL…

Can the NL have all 10 playoff spots just for fun?

While the three best teams in baseball may be in the AL, that doesn’t give the whole league the nod.  The National League is an incredible collection of interesting teams who almost all have a case to be in contention (Except for the Marlins and Giants.  You guys have no chance).

So how does the NL get to a conceivable 10 playoffs teams?  Well, let’s start off easy.  The Dodgers are the best team, which PECOTA agreed with, giving LA a win total of 94 (A total I believe is spot on).  You could give them a couple more; I loved the Joe Kelly addition, and while the Yasiel Puig/Matt Kemp (more on that soon) money dump to Cincinnati was a hilarious predecessor to the Dodgers striking out on top free agents (Which only led them to sign “I play 100-120 games a year” AJ Pollack), it did net them some nice prospects and uncluttered an outfield that had been clogged for many years.  Now things are cleaner, and Pollack is a legitimate offensive powerhouse when healthy in center field.  LA has ridiculous depth incase of injuries, or in what they’re hoping to be is another deep run in the playoffs.

I wrote about the Padres extensively when Manny Machado signed, so it’s probably not worth going over again.  What I have realized since then is that the Padres should probably wait as long as they can to make a decision as to whether they should go all-in or not.  If the NL is madness, you wait, develop your prospects and try for next season (That’s most likely going to happen.  They’re probably a year away).  If San Diego gets out to a blazing start, then possibly they do make a move for some experienced pitching and put together this future championship team now.

The Rockies made the playoffs last year, and as usual no one talked about it or is talking about them now.  The problem is that the Rockies literally did almost nothing this Winter besides add Daniel Murphy when everyone else that they’ll be competing with got substantially better.  Them and San Diego should be hand-in-hand record wise throughout the season, but I don’t expect either to be truly in the playoff hunt come August.  The Padres only get that dose of respect due to their potential.

Things get fun the in NL Central.  There are two powerhouses, one now very intriguing team, a maybe and a probably not.  Despite the Cubs horrific collapse at the end of last season, it’s hard to not make them the favorites for the division coming into this season.  The talent is just too rich there.  PECOTA came in strangely not only for them (79 wins!  5th place!) but the whole division.  The whole division, top to bottom, spanned only an eight win range.  PECOTA had Milwaukee winning it with 87.

It’s hard to see what PECOTA doesn’t like with the Cubs.  The team is loaded from a roster/talent standpoint; just take Ian Happ’s demotion as a perfect test case.  That guy is starting in the outfield for the Diamondbacks right now.  Maybe PECOTA projects Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist to fall apart, or Yu Darvish to struggle again.  Albert Almora Jr. isn’t as high a volume a bat as Ian Happ’s; maybe that could give some insight.  The Cubs made a couple bullpen additions, including Xavier Cedeno, who Milwaukee benefitted from nicely in the playoffs, but a lot of the same guys still exist from the meltdown last year.

But how is that eight wins worse than Milwaukee?  The Brewers have worse starting pitching and have key relievers like Corey Knebel already hurt.  They lost Cedeno, and have home run machine Chase Anderson back in the bullpen mix, along with 36-year-old Mat Albers, who we never know what to expect from.

Everything went right for the Brewers last season.  That’s not to say this year is a disaster, but with luck not on their side, some underrated roster losses, the presence of the Cubs and possibly two more division contenders, things may get a little tougher on the Brew Crew.  There’s a decent chance they’re in the same position the Cubs were last season.   At the same time, the offense is frightening, and they’ve got the bullpen strategy down.  Last year may not be a fluke whatsoever.

The Brewers may not even be the Cubs’ biggest worry.  St. Louis added Paul Goldschmidt… (Hold on, I’m going to take a walk)

Okay, we’re back.  Yeah, so the Cardinals got Goldschmidt for BASICALLY NOTHING and are now terrifying in practically every facet.  This is bold, but their lineup feels very much like the Red Sox’s last season.  They have a good mix of contact and power hitters, and guys who can very well hit for both.  They’ve gone in and re-did their rotation without harm being caused, replacing old with new featuring Mike Mikolas, Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson, with mainstays Michael Wacha and the probably-washed Adam Wainwright (It’s okay, though.  There is no Wainwright slander here.  That’s one of the best pitchers of my era and we’re going to respect him for it).  The bullpen is just as good.  I refuse to believe we’re at the end of the road with Andrew Miller; that contract could look very good soon and leave teams kicking themselves.  St. Louis also has the “I can’t believe that pitch is legal” guy named Jordan Hicks, and will be working Alex Reyes back from the multiple injuries he’s suffered.

The Cardinals feel like a team that could win 90 games.  PECOTA had them at 86, just below Milwaukee.  That’s one of the strangest projections this year (In fact, this whole division probably is); the Cardinals don’t really have a weakness and could be a top eight offense in baseball.  With the way the game is played now, that gets you a lot more than five games above .500.

As if the division wasn’t strong enough, the Reds did some interesting maneuvering to all the sudden make themselves a bit more presentable in this NL arms race.

Cincinnati, like the Mets (more on them soon), is a boom or bust team.  Their biggest need was pitching, and they went out and took care of that, to an extent.  They got Alex Wood in the Kemp/Puig deal, who is a solid No.2 to No.3 starter and has been legitimately fantastic since being in a Dodgers uniform.  They also traded Tanner Roark, another back of the line starter, and Sonny Gray, who they then decided to extend immediately without seeing how he adjusts to an even worse ballpark than Yankee Stadium.  That whole decision, the trade itself, the production they’re expecting from Gray, and the contract extension was mind-boggling.  Sure, Gray was a Cy Young candidate in Oakland, but Yankee Stadium traumatized him, and some ballpark effect stats have Great American Ballpark above Coors Field.  If Gray got slaughtered in New York, Cincy isn’t exactly a better situation, or a place for him to improve.

The Reds are banking on Luis Castillo rebounding from his 2018 performance and having what he did in 2017 come back.  The great first year and down second year is typical of young arms.  His junior campaign could be a breakout season if everything goes right.  Sure, nothing’s changed with the ballpark; Castillo suffers from the same issue Gray does… the ball gets smacked off his pitches, and ends up out of the park way too much.

The Reds are completely dependent on their pitching.  The offense is talented and littered with power.  They’ll have no trouble scoring runs, especially in that ballpark.  The Reds are like a lot of teams; they need pitching to come through if they want to be in the playoffs.  While Gray and Anthony DeSclafani scare me, the Reds have at least three other baseline starters in their rotation.  Don’t count out the bullpen either.  Raisel Iglesias is one of the best closers in baseball, and Michael Lorenzen, Jared Hughes and David Hernandez are all quality relievers.  It’s not a totally loaded group, and probably isn’t one that bails the rotation out of games, but certainly keeps them on pace among the division.

The problem is that while the Reds are probably in playoff contention in the AL, they play in the NL, which is already up to six (We’re throwing that Colorado/San Diego spot in there for fun) of the 10 playoff spots we’re giving it for this exercise.  Realistically speaking, the NL already has one more team than it can take.  And we’re not even to the best division in baseball yet.

The NL East could have three playoff teams, and could deserve four.  Who gets left out?

It’s the best division in baseball for a reason.  The NL East has the team that lost the best free agent on the market and the team that acquired him.  Both still could win 90 games with ease.  Then there’s two teams that are a bit on the outside.  The Braves are looking to replicate last year’s success and take the next step (Unluckily for them, that might be hard), and the Mets went all-in as well.  A lot has to give in this division.

Despite the competition, I feel there is a pretty clear hierarchy, and it starts with the two teams who got immensely better over the offseason.  Philadelphia signed Bryce Harper, traded for Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto, and is a legitimately terrifying offensive team with one of the top pitchers in baseball and only one real concern amongst the rotation (I’m just not very high on Zach Elfin.  Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez should improve).  They got David Robertson in free agency as well, adding him to a bullpen that was 13th in WAR last season.

The Nationals lost Bryce Harper, but are blessed to have two generational talents in the outfield to replace one.  Juan Soto’s explosion onto the MLB scene last year has projection systems going nuts, and Victor Robles accompanies him in centerfield.  They replaced Tanner Roark with Patrick Corbin, which is a massive talent upgrade but probably ends up closer to a net neutral value-wise given the large contract handed to him (Corbin’s literally had one good year and I want to remind people of that).  Their bullpen also improved, as they signed Trevor Rosenthal and will probably move Anibal Sanchez back there to help fight regression after his insane, miracle season with Atlanta last year.

Both Washington and Philly are 90 game winners.  There’s way too much talent between the two of them, and it’ll be a slugfest until late September.  I tend to lean with the Phillies; I know it’s a lot of hype that I’m buying into, but the sheer slugging they possess and the typical Nationals injury bug scares me.

Next are the Braves.  They didn’t do a whole lot in the offseason besides sign Josh Donaldson, which is an upgrade over John Camargo but didn’t totally seem necessary, and doesn’t nearly move the needle enough when it comes to keeping up with the rest of the division.

Perhaps the Braves didn’t do a lot because they knew it wouldn’t matter.  Everything went right for them last year.  All their young guys had career years, and the pithing was good enough to get them into the playoffs.  This year, regression can be expected, and that’s from practically everyone, youngsters especially.  They’re banking on a lot of youth in the rotation.  The bullpen isn’t as good.  In the AL, they’re probably a playoff team.  In this league, and especially this division, they get left in the dust, even in the 85-90 win range.

The wild-card here is the Mets.  They, like everyone else in the division, went all-in. Some of the trades they made were incredibly confusing, but at the end of it everything doesn’t look too bad.  They still have two of the best pitchers in baseball at the front-end of their rotation.  The bullpen is ridiculous with Edwin Diaz added to it, and young talent is everywhere.

That’s also part of the issue though.  With Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, Amed Rosario, Dominic Smith and Pete Alonso all playing massive roles, who knows what we’re going to get.  Conforto is slowly turning into a “I’m going to be good every other year” guy, while Nimmo is turning into the player I’ve always wanted him to be.  Rosario hits decently but struggles to get on base, and isn’t a high production offensive player either.  The options at first base are both nice; I like Smith a lot but Alonso deserves the starting role.  Still, there’s a chance both struggle immensely given Smith’s plate issues in the past and Alonso making his debut.

The best case scenario is that the Mets are this season’s Braves.  All the young guys have fantastic years, and everything starts to come together.  The pitching powers them to a playoff berth and surprises everyone.

But the Braves got lucky last season with the division.  The Phillies were the only real competitor, and even they fell apart once things heated up.  That’s not the case this year; the division is better all-around, and a rise like Atlanta’s last year is much less likely.  New York is much closer to the Braves than the Marlins obviously.  In fact, them and Atlanta could be neck-in-neck.  But in the grand scheme of things, they could just be fighting for the second spot out of the playoffs.  Congratulations on that, and welcome to the National League.

NL Playoff Standings:

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers, 97-65 (Above PECOTA)
  2. Chicago Cubs, 93-69 (Well above PECOTA)
  3. Philadelphia Phillies, 93-69 (Above PECOTA)
  4. St. Louis Cardinals, 91-71 (Above PECOTA)
  5. Washington Nationals, 90-72 (Above PECOTA)

6. Milwaukee Brewers, 89-73 (Slightly above PECOTA)

7. Atlanta Braves, 88-74 (Above PECOTA)

8. New York Mets, 86-76 (Slightly below PECOTA)

9. Colorado Rockies, 85-77 (Slightly above PECOTA)

10.  Cincinnati Reds, 83-79 (Slightly above PECOTA)

11. San Diego Padres, 80-82 (Slightly below PECOTA)

12. Arizona Diamondbacks, 79-83 (Slightly below PECOTA)

13. Pittsburgh Pirates, 78-84 (Slightly below PECOTA)

14. San Francisco Giants, 76-86 (Slightly above PECOTA)

15. Miami Marlins, 73-89 (Slightly above PECOTA)

The MLB’s February Domino Fall

The Padres signing of Manny Machado to a ten year, $300 million contract is the type of move I wish teams made more.  It’s a win-now, grab-it-by-the-balls move that’s risky but holds massive reward.  More importantly, it’s a move that had to be made no matter what.

It reminds me of the Raptors trade for Kawhi Leonard last Summer.  Toronto had to do something, and they did that by landing one of the six best players in the league.  If he leaves, it was still worth it, as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan had to be broken up.

Machado works in a similar way.  The Padres banking on this many prospects to turn out, no matter how high they may be ranked, was a risky proposition.  Getting Machado gives the team, and more importantly the fan base, something to hold on to if the worst-case scenario comes about.  That though, is very unlikely to happen.

Given that, if the Machado contract looks like holy hell in four years, then San Diego still has a very, very solid team.  All of the prospects they have now will be hitting their primes.  Machado becomes a player rather than a star.

Perhaps the most shocking part about the Machado sweepstakes wasn’t how long the process dragged out, but that he got the contract he did at this point in time.  The longer the stars held out, the lower their value goes (Cough, Bryce Harper).  That wasn’t the case for Machado.  Contracts for Machado that we read or heard throughout the Winter went anywhere from seven years, $175 million to eight years, $250 million.  The $200 million to $250 million range seemed like the sweet spot.  Machado leaped over it.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad deal by San Diego.  Overpaying Machado feels much safer than overpaying Harper, who’s shown more inconsistency over his seven seasons and has severe limitations defensively compared to Machado, who’s a wizard.  The attitude issues between the two cancel out, though Machado’s recent antics don’t help.  Still, that feels more like a recency bias issue.

You could also frame it this way: Would you overpay for Manny Machado if you could put him and Fernando Tatis Jr. on the same side of the infield?

I think so too.  The Padres are loaded, and while it may not come immediately, Machado’s signing brings upon baseball’s next contender much sooner than we anticipated.  Tatis Jr. won’t be there Opening Day, but Ty France has shown promise in the minors, batting .267/.355/.464 with 22 home runs and 96 RBIs between AAA and AA last season.  He could be a nice asset for the Padres to float out there along with their other 80 pitching prospects, but for now serves as a fantastic middle-man between Tatis Jr and the big leagues.

Whichever of the two play shortstop is a big but not problematic question for the Padres.  Machado marketed himself in free agency as a shortstop, but a lot of his defensive gems have came from plays at third.  The numbers back that up too.  Since his MLB debut, Machado carries a DRS of 84 at third base and a DRS of -11 at shortstop.  But, DRS is an accumulative stat, and Machado has played 4,780 and two-thirds more innings at third rather than short, making up for the huge difference.  Still, Machado’s best defensive season at shortstop was in 2016, where he posted a lousy total of three DRS.  At third, the numbers are consistently better and higher.

Despite that, if the Padres decide to fulfill Machado’s wishes and play him at shortstop, it’s not that big of a deal.  We could easily attribute the shortstop numbers to a lack of sample size.

Elsewhere, San Diego is in just as good of a place.  Luis Urias slides to 2nd base, and has insurance with Ian Kinsler behind him.  The concerning Eric Hosmer contract sits at 1st base, but that hasn’t reared its ugly head yet, and at only 29-years-old, it shouldn’t for a couple more years.  San Diego’s outfield is more than serviceable, though it’d be nice if Manuel Margot could develop his bat a bit more.

And then there’s the pitching, that, while like everywhere else, the Padres have options and will be fine no matter what, but is probably the biggest barrier this team has to break to become a contender, and that barrier will exist almost no matter what they do.

The Padres have three options.  First, they could keep everyone, hope they all develop and probably still be pretty well off.  Second, they could move almost everyone, but that requires other teams to have to make top guys available (Who?  The whole Indians rotation?  If the Mets don’t pan out and want to rebuild?).  Or third, a combination of both, where San Diego picks and chooses guys to move and keep (Because they can) and assembles a rotation that way.

The third is most likely because while the first is probably the preferred option, it’s just not realistic, especially considering this number of guys.

So who do the Padres move?  Mackenzie Gore is off limits, same with Chris Paddock.  Anderson Espinoza is a tough case.  He’s somehow only 20-years-old still, but just underwent Tommy John Surgery and wasn’t great in High-A before it. Espinoza is someone who’s terrifying to trade away but because of that could net a high return.

Then there’s the lower tier of guys, who in any other farm system are among the top prospects.  These are the Luis Patinos (Who I like!), Adrian Morejons and Logan Allens of the world.  Any combination of those two players land you a solid, win-now starter.

The market of pitchers who San Diego could target has to develop of course.  That market is not clear or even available now, but come late July, when San Diego could be much higher in the standings than we think they’re going to be, it will be.  And even if the Padres are on track, don’t count them out.  Never count AJ Preller out of any potential trade.

The Padres could also find that market to be within themselves too.  While the current rotation overall is a complete disaster, there are a couple bright spots.  Joey Lucchesi wasn’t terrible last season; the high-ish ERA, home run and walk numbers cause speculation, but Lucceshi mows down hitters when he’s firing (10.0 strikeouts per nine last season!).  He’s only 25 too, and 2018 was his debut.  I’m less high on Eric Lauer, but he’s even younger than Lucceshi at 23.  Jacob Nix is another name that has potential as well.

But so many questions comes out of the Padres current major league talent, which is why trading certain prospects, or even those guys above, for solid guarantees makes the most sense.

If the Padres do that, stick to the plan and don’t rush like they did when Preller took the job, then they will be fine.  As in 2020 World Series contender fine.