2020-21 NFC Predictions And Thoughts

A scheduling mishap cancelled the promise made yesterday about the NFC preview coming on a different medium.  In response, we’re going to quickly run through predictions for the conference’s divisional standings, accompanied with some thoughts and polished off with the playoff standings.

NFC East:

  1. Dallas Cowboys, 12-4
  2. Philadelphia Eagles, 8-8
  3. New York Giants, 5-11
  4. Washington, 3-13

Projecting the Cowboys to win this division, let alone win more than 10 games, is a bit daunting.  But this year, it feels undeniable.  Whether Mike McCarthy can actually get the best out of Dallas’ vaunted wide receiver group is to be determined, but he can’t be worse than Jason Garrett was.  Dak Prescott will certainly have a chip on his shoulder after him and Dallas failed to agree on a contract extension, and with this arsenal surrounding him, he should be able to prove his worth.  It shouldn’t surprise us if Dallas makes a deep playoff run – their highly-touted offense is backed up by a defense that’s continued to improve over the years.  This is not a group comparable to what the Chiefs have had to deal the past two seasons.  It’s much better, and with this offense, it makes this team terrifying.

The Eagles and Falcons are starting to go hand-in-hand with each other – tons of talent that is consistently banged up, so much so that is results in a lost season over and over again.  Philadelphia is already dealing with injuries prior to Week 1 – most notably Andre Dillard and Jalen Reagor.  Projecting injuries should only occur when it’s a team is notorious for being bitten by them, and with Philadelphia, they certainly have that in their record books.

In addition, there are holes here.  The Eagles aren’t as stacked as they were when they won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles at quarterback.  Even with a healthy Reagor, wide receiver is still a bit concerning.  Alshon Jeffrey was on the trade block in camp, and he’s this team’s second option.  Carson Wentz made due last year, but we’ve still never seen him elevate to the level he played at in his rookie season since offensive coordinator Frank Reich left for Indianapolis.  The secondary still feels like it’s a turnstile even with Darius Slay in the picture.  The defense – specifically the front seven – has the chance to carry a banged up, potentially average offense.  But that was also the case last year and the secondary blew it.  Slay will help, but that for him trade felt a little rich considering the former Lions cornerback is past his prime.

Five wins might seem a little harsh for the Giants, but there’s no doubting that they’re the third best team in this division, and mathematically that’s just going to bring your record down.  Saquon Barkley gives them a baseline, but it’s about how far they can elevate above that.  Daniel Jones still needs a true No. 1 receiver, and a combination of Garrett and Freddie Kitchens as his offensive coaches doesn’t spark hope for any real improvement.  That said, Jones blew away expectations last year, and has the looks of someone who could hold down the fort similar to how Andy Dalton did in Cincinnati for years on end.  There’s potential for success there.  New York just has to build it, and they’re still in the preliminary stages of that this year.

As written Thursday, Washington rivals the Jets for the worst roster in football.  The future, in spots, is bright.  But there’s a lot of youth in a new system, which doesn’t bode well given the limited offseason the team just had.  It could be another tough year for Dwayne Haskins Jr. under center, but he’s been in about as bad a situation a young QB could ask for so far.  It’s just going to take some time.

NFC North: 

  1. Green Bay Packers, 11-5
  2. Minnesota Vikings, 9-7
  3. Detroit Lions, 7-9
  4. Chicago Bears, 5-11

This division is wide open, which could make some of the records listed above seem a bit stereotypical and surprising.

But convincing ourselves that this division turns out any other way takes work.  Let’s start from the bottom.  The Bears defense is great, and the case can be made Chicago could be in for another 2018-19 season, where Mitchell Trubisky wasn’t good but didn’t suck either.  The problem is that Trubisky was bad last year, and there’s no reason to believe he can get any better.  The effects of a bad Trubisky terminated the defense, and while Chicago managed to get to 8-8, they missed the playoffs and felt extremely underwhelming.

Trubisky contributing in a non-negative way this year feels impossible, which turns our attention to Nick Foles.  The offseason deal for the former Jacksonville QB made sense, but he’s not likely to be the Bears’ savior.  Foles’ success in Philadelphia featured three important ingredients: Great defense, great weapons and great coaching.  Chicago has only one of those three things.  A case can be made for Foles’ potential receivers – Allen Robinson is extremely underrated and Anthony Miller’s ceiling out of college was a good No. 2 option.  But the Bears need the likes of rookie Cole Kmet to step up big if Foles is going to succeed.

In addition, Matt Nagy is no Reich.

The Bears have a great defense.  But to go 8-8 and have that group carry you, you need the other side of the ball to at least hold up their share.  It’s hard to trust Chicago’s offense to do that.

Detroit has emerged as a sleeper pick this season with the division’s wide-openness.  It’s a plausible case.  If everything that’s able to go wrong with Minnesota or Green Bay does, the Lions are next in line.  But as it has for years now, Detroit’s roster just has a level of competence to it and that’s it.  Hence, a mediocre 7-9 record.  If a coaching change was made over the offseason, perhaps there’d be more hope here.  But until there’s a bit more excitement and firepower, Detroit’s going to be stuck in the middle.

Minnesota sneakily made more changes than any other team in football over the offseason, and with a lack of preparation, it will make those losses and the continuity they brought sting.

The exodus of defensive talent brings a lot of youth and inexperience to the forefront.  With Danielle Hunter out for the beginning of the season, the Yannick Ngakoue trade is a saving grace for the team’s pass rush.  Run defense feels like a major problem, though the linebacking core was the least hard-hit by the offseason moves.

But Minnesota’s biggest losses could be offensively.  Kevin Stenfanski, as mentioned yesterday, should do wonders for Cleveland and Baker Mayfield.  That leaves Kirk Cousins without his offensive coordinator though, and while Cousins put a firm cap on the team’s ceiling, Stefanski likely did all he could during his time with the Vikings to overcome that.  In addition, he put Case Keenum a win away from the Super Bowl.

Cousins without Stefanski’s perfect scheme to hide his flaws is a bit terrifying.  In addition, one of his top targets is gone in Stefon Diggs.  His replacement is a rookie receiver who was catching balls from one of the best quarterback prospects in some time.  That’s not a slight on Justin Jefferson – it’s more about tempering expectations.  The offensive line still has holes too, and those proved to be a big problem even with Stefanski in the mix over the years.

All of this uncertainty leaves Green Bay, who has no shortage of their own.  But they do have the best quarterback in the division and arguably the most consistency (Detroit makes a fine case there as well).  While the Packers 13-3 record last season felt generous, they did overcome all of the offensive struggles, which could have been the product of year one in Aaron Rodgers’ first new system in years.

Rodgers is also going to have a chip on shoulder with the Packers selection of Jordan Love in April’s draft.  That’s kind of terrifying if you’re an opposing defense, regardless of the weapons around him.  In years past, it’s yet to be enough.  But in this division this year, it very well could be.

NFC South:

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 13-3
  2. New Orleans Saints, 12-4
  3. Atlanta Falcons, 6-10
  4. Carolina Panthers, 4-12

It’s quite impressive that this isn’t the NFC’s best conference record-wise.  From a contenders standpoint, it is.

Tom Brady didn’t look like Tom Brady last year, but that’s okay for multiple reasons.  One, it should probably be expected that at 43 years old he won’t be slinging it like he used to.  Two, the Buccaneers have the perfect pieces in place to give Brady what he needs.

As noted with a couple teams above, countering non-elite quarterback play takes surrounding talent and coaching.  Brady had only one of those last year, and the other element was so poor it negated what the former brought.  Tampa Bay has flipped that on its head, giving Brady one of the best wide receiver duos in football in addition to his former favorite target Rob Gronkowski.  The Buccaneers have the best weapons core in football.  It’s so good that they have three starting-caliber tight ends.  

It’s the perfect set-up for what Brady needs at this stage of his career.  With it and a good defense in place, he should dominate.

The Saints aren’t far behind the Bucs though.  The talent across their roster is among the tops in the league.  A potential decline in Drew Brees is protected by the likes of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, though the weapons group isn’t as deep as Tampa Bay’s.

New Orleans just has to get past their postseason nightmares.  While there’s nothing wrong with their roster, projecting the Bucs ahead of them is just protection for what could come.  The Saints record can come out on top, but they may not be the ones left standing last.

As mentioned above, it’s really easy to just be over the Falcons.  It’s a group that is bitten every year with injuries and ultimately results in their downfall.  An even tougher division this season doesn’t help, and could be their swan song even if they keep the ship afloat.  It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see them turn it around, but it’s not a winning proposition.

Carolina would be more intriguing if not for the large amount of changes in an offseason that wasn’t.  While it has no impact on their roster, what Cam Newton could be about to do in New England creates a somber scene for the Panthers.  A swap of him for Teddy Bridgewater seems baffling, even for the biggest fans of Bridgewater.

Joe Brady could have something to say about that, though.  The former LSU offensive coordinator was a home run hire for the Panthers, as was former Baylor head coach Matt Rhule.  Brady can get the absolute best out of Bridgewater once they get comfortable.  

The problem is that Bridgewater’s success doesn’t always translate into winning.  It can take a lot around a guy like him for that to happen, which the Panthers don’t have right now.  Their once fearsome defense is now limited to just a good defensive line, and Christian McCaffrey is still the No. 1 running back and wide receiver.  D.J. Moore needs to step up, as do the other pass catchers.  Brady can make that happen, but it may not see its full development until at least next year.

NFC West:

  1. San Francisco 49ers, 12-4
  2. Seattle Seahawks, 11-5
  3. Arizona Cardinals, 10-6
  4. Los Angeles Rams, 6-10

While the South has the NFC’s two most likely Super Bowl representatives, the best division by record lies here.

It’s probably time to stop doubting Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers.  It’s clear they know what the limitations are of their quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, so they’ve decided to go all-in on figuring out how to change or work around them.  After not having enough receiving talent, the 49ers added Brandon Aiyuk to the mix, which gives them an additional set of hands who can catch the short passes Garoppolo tends to throw and take off with them.  Deebo Samuel doubles that skill on the other side, and George Kittle gives the former Patriots QB an easy target over the middle of the field.

Shanahan knows how to solve problems, and the passing game was a slight one last year.  While San Francisco’s run heavy scheme had great success in 2019-20, it was their downfall against the mighty Chiefs in the Super Bowl, and could be the same this year against the likes of Dallas, New Orleans and Tampa Bay, all of whom have quarterbacks that can make throws and have an array of weapons to catch them.  If the Niners can put the two together, they’re right in that upper tier.  

If the 49ers suffer a Super Bowl hangover though, they could get eaten up quickly.  Seattle’s defense looks primed for a rebound despite a troublesome pass rush – the talent on the back-end gives off Legion of Boom vibes, which is a big upgrade as the secondary was secretly one of the league’s worst last year (They could not cover anybody).  Offensively, their reliance on running the ball remains frustrating, but with the ascension of D.K. Metcalf last season, there could be some scale-tipping towards the aerial attack and letting Russell Wilson do his thing. 

Seattle might drive us crazy, but they always seem to get it done.

Arizona is the preseason hype team this year, and that buzz is deserved.  The trade for DeAndre Hopkins still feels fake.  There’s no way the defense is the worst in the NFL again after practically the whole offseason was spent upgrading it.  There’s no new system being installed – the Cardinals went through the aches and pains of that last season, in addition to the typical rookie quarterback year from Kyler Murray.  It’s go time for the Cardinals, and the roster should be ready for it.

The Rams fall from grace remains stunning.  Their projected record here could be too.

Most of it has to do with a brutal schedule and the tough division.  There’s a world where a lack of improvement from Jared Goff has the Rams falling off the rails.  Los Angeles’ roster feels similar to Detroit, where there’s two-three real above-average players and the rest is just competent.  That may be negated by coaching in Sean McVay, but Goff’s decline under him last season didn’t spark too much hope.  The weapons around Goff aren’t too special – Cooper Kupp’s return will help.  But a rookie running back and a questionable interior offensive line don’t provide a lot of support.  The defense should be there and play a role in lifting the team as a whole up, but like Atlanta, improvement could still mean a phasing out from real contention.

NFC Playoff Standings:

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  2. Dallas Cowboys
  3. San Francisco 49ers
  4. Green Bay Packers
  5. New Orleans Saints
  6. Seattle Seahawks
  7. Arizona Cardinals

How Every AFC Team Can Have A Successful 2020-2021 NFL Season

This year’s NFL preview will be split into two parts across two different mediums.  With Chiefs-Texans – two AFC teams – kicking off the season tonight, below is a breakdown of how every team in the conference can have a successful season, followed by predictions for the division standings and playoff standings.  Tomorrow, the NFC preview will go up, but in a different way than usual.  Stay tuned.

Baltimore Ravens: Win Super Bowl 55

Kansas City is Baltimore’s only excuse left.  A loss to them in the AFC Championship Game or a loss in Super Bowl 55 are the only acceptable outcomes for the Ravens this year, or else it’ll be three straight years of playoff letdown.

Despite Earl Thomas’ stunning release, the Ravens roster is better than it was last season.  They’ve added a necessary punch to both sides of the ball.  J.K. Dobbins will serve as a pass catcher out of the backfield next to Mark Ingram, and Devin Duvernay could emerge as the second wide receiver they need aside Marquise Brown.  Defensively, the line is now stacked after stealing Calais Campbell from Jacksonville, and Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison give them some youth in their linebacking core.

Even with a lack of receiving talent, this is one of the best rosters in football thanks to its best player and leader, Lamar Jackson.  He’s perfectly capable of back-to-back MVPs, and if he’s so special that he becomes the first player in over ten years (Peyton Manning 2008 and 2009) to do it, then the Ravens should be good enough to take home the Lombardi.

Buffalo Bills: Hope the Patriots aren’t good, win the division and see legitimate growth from Josh Allen

Just when it seemed to be the Bills year, the Patriots struck again.

The Cam Newton signing may not have the impact we all think it does, but it certainly raises New England’s potential.  New England’s ceiling is legitimately being Super Bowl Champions yet again.  If that (unlikely) scenario rises, the Bills are the Bills we’ve seen for the past 20 years.

Regardless, the extra playoff spot – new this year – helps significantly.  It’s a bit of a buffer incase Josh Allen doesn’t improve, which is more of a detriment to the front office and his long term viability than it is the team’s record (We’ve seen Buffalo be average-to-good with Allen in his current form).  If Allen is who he is, the Bills are stuck being at-best .500 with a quarterback being their only problem.  That’s not someone you want to commit to long-term.

Allen should be able to improve slightly.  The Bills got him Stefon Diggs, a true No. 1 receiver he’s lacked throughout his career thus far.  He’s the perfect anchor next to John Brown, Cole Beasley and Dawson Knox, who’s an intriguing middle of the field target that could alleviate Allen’s noted downfield struggles.

If Allen doesn’t take the step up or is perhaps worse, the Bills can run the ball.  Zack Moss seems primed to be Buffalo’s lead back at some point this season with his tight ball security and workload ability.  Moss was a beast in college at Utah, and was the focal point of a good offense that typically had average quarterback play.

Buffalo’s defense is the valley and the offense is the mountain.  The Bills have one of the best defensive groups in the league.  It’s deep and has almost zero holes.  It’s the type of group that can drag an average offense and quarterback to a .500 record and into the playoffs.  It could take this team even further than that, dependent on Allen’s performance.

Expecting Buffalo to win the division could be a little overzealous.  The Patriots are always scary, and Allen’s a wildcard.  But this defense is so good that anything above average from the other side could have them in the playoffs, and even making noise.

Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Burrow proves he’s the real deal right away

The Bengals go as far as Joe Burrow takes them this season. 

There’s talent on defense, but it’s not a group that will carry an average offense to a decent record.  The offensive line is a little frightening in spots, though the debut of 2019 first round pick Jonah Williams should add some stability.

Potential lies in what Burrow has to work with.  The Bengals just committed to running back Joe Mixon for four years  – he gives a potentially struggling Burrow a nice backbone to rely on.  Every receiver in the mix has questions, but conversely the group could be one of the best in the league if everything works out right.  John Ross just needs to put it together.  AJ Green just needs to stay healthy.  If one of those two things happen, Burrow will be out of excuses.  Tyler Boyd and Auden Tate are fantastic options as No.2 and No.3 receivers, but elevating them to a primary role like Boyd was in last year leads to a dip in production.  Green and Ross staying healthy would also alleviate pressure on Tee Higgins, who was a steal in the second round of April’s draft.  Rookie receivers are a 50-50 bet, though.  Higgins being a luxury is the best option for him now.

If the weapons go off the deep end, Burrow is going to have to make up for it.  That may not be too much to ask from him given what we saw last year at LSU.

Cleveland Browns: Confirm Freddie Kitchens was Baker Mayfield’s – and the team’s – problem

Even though the Browns haven’t done anything substantial in  ~ check notes ~ 25 years, this team is running out of excuses.

While this is head coach Kevin Stefanski’s first year at the helm – a year in which he’s had very little time to teach a new offensive system and work with Baker Mayfield – the clock is ticking.  With a roster this good, owner Jimmy Haslam, who’s the sole reason for the franchise’s dismaying history, is likely to be impatient.  He was with former general manager John Dorsey, who helped orchestrate and build important parts of this group, and he’s been the same way with literally everyone he’s hired since owning the team.

The hope is that last year’s letdown was solely rooted in the inexperience of Freddie Kitchens calling plays, leading to Mayfield’s lack of progression and the team’s overall poor performance.  Stefanski has gotten the absolute best out of Kirk Cousins, and was in the room when Case Keenum almost went to the Super Bowl.

Mayfield may not be the superstar some thought he could be – which includes Dorsey, who drafted him No. 1 overall in 2018 – but there are ways to salvage him.  Mayfield seemed overwhelmed last year despite weapons like Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry around him.  Nick Chubb was fantastic in 2019-20, but didn’t seem to get the ball enough.

Stefanski had gotten away with Cousins at quarterback in Minnesota by relying on Dalvin Cook heavily in the run game.  That opened up the play action for Cousins, which simplified things and allowed for easier throws.  Chubb could be Cook-lite, and using Mayfield only when necessary could result in the success similar to what Cousins had when he was throwing to a two-headed monster at receiver in Diggs and Adam Thielen.

The Browns division is tough, though.  Baltimore is expecting a championship, and Pittsburgh could be in for a rebound year.  But with the expanded playoffs, Cleveland should be at least in the fold, and if they miss it, contender status in 2021-22 shouldn’t be too much to ask for.

Denver Broncos: Contend for a playoff spot, and hope Drew Lock makes use of his weapons

Like Cincanatti, the Broncos probably go as far as Drew Lock takes them.  The difference is that the basement is much higher with Denver.

Even with Von Miller potentially being out for the season and Bradley Chubb possibly not ready for Week 1, the Broncos have one of the best defenses in football.  A suspect linebacking core has a first line of defense in front of it, thanks to newly acquired Jurrell Casey and staples like Shelby Harris around on the defensive line.  Behind them is also a new Bronco in AJ Bouye – who was received for nothing from Jacksonville – and Justin Simmons at safety.  You would never guess Denver lost its best cornerback to the Chargers in free agency with the secondary they’ve put together.

Lock can show us he’s not the guy this season and the Broncos could still be quite good.  There’s legitimate 2018-19 Bears potential here, but projecting Lock to be as bad as Mitchell Trubisky feels like an insult.

First, Lock isn’t only supremely more talented, but has way more to work with than Trubisky ever did.  Jerry Jeudy falling to the Broncos at No. 15 overall in the draft was a god-send, and pairs him an already established No. 1 wideout in Courtland Sutton.  The slot features KJ Hamler, who could probably play outside despite his size thanks to his vertical jump and speed, and Noah Fant just needs to not drop footballs thrown his way to be unstoppable.

To get into the playoffs or further, it’s going to be up to Lock.  He has everything he could ask for as a young QB.  Denver will be watching closely.  If he’s not it, they have to pivot fast, because this roster is too good to waste.

Houston Texans: Win the division, and hope DeShaun Watson can carry the load once again

Houston is one of the most frustrating teams in the NFL.  They have the best quarterback in their division by far.  They have one of the most fearsome defensive players in football.  They have a defense that’s close to elite status, but a few key holes prevent that from being so.

They only added to the frustration in the offseason by trading DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for David Johnson and a second round pick.  While they have a bit more depth in their receiving core now, every player in the rotation has questions.  The only question they had to answer with Hopkins was whether he was the best or second best receiver in football.

Once again, it’s up to DeShaun Watson.  The case can be made that it was up to him with Hopkins as well, and that adding more options reduces the odds that it does come down to him, but reducing your already low amount of elite talent seems unwise.  If everyone is healthy (the biggest question) and plays well (another big questions), then Houston’s receiving core could actually be better than it has been in the past.  Will Fuller’s only question is his health.  The same can be said about Brandin Cooks, who gives Houston speed they’ve desperately lacked in the Watson era, and Randall Cobb then fits perfectly as the third option, which is probably his ceiling at this point in his career.

These are a lot of “ifs”, and deservedly so.  There’s no real reason to believe anything can go right with Houston, but if it does, then they should be the best team in the division.

Indianapolis Colts: Hope Phillip Rivers isn’t washed

The Colts decision to presumably move on from Jacoby Brissett as their starting quarterback is still confusing, especially considering Phillip Rivers is 38 years old and Brissett is 27.

Performance also matters.  Brissett beat expectations last season until T.Y. Hilton went down, leading to a dip in production that was understandable.  Rivers looked old by making bad decisions, blatantly missing throws and failing once again to get a Chargers team to meet its preseason hype.

Sure, Rivers dealt with a lack of weapons and injuries up and down Los Angeles’ roster, but Brissett did as well in Indianapolis.  On top of that, Brissett never made costly choices.  He may not have elevated the Colts, but he certainly didn’t hurt them.  

The Colts need to hope that last year’s Rivers is a product of a Chargers team that was clearly ready to move on. Indianapolis has some barriers in place that could prevent that, most notably head coach Frank Reich, who got Nick Foles to win a Super Bowl, had Carson Wentz playing the best football of his career thus far, made Eric Ebron not drop passes and catch touchdowns instead while also making Brissett look like a viable Andrew Luck replacement early last year.  If anyone can suck any remaining value out of Rivers, it’s Reich.  The Colts also have a bounty of running backs in line to help take the burden off Rivers, even though having Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor in the same backfield seems a bit unnecessary.  

There could be some scary parallels to the Chargers, though.  The Colts receiving talent behind T.Y. Hilton is still a bit weak.  Michael Pittman Jr. could be a stud, but giving Rivers inexperienced receivers isn’t what he needs at this point in his career. In San Diego/Los Angeles, injured weapons held Rivers back a lot.  It limited the talent he had to work with.  Indianapolis might not experience injuries, but they could face similar talent deficits.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Make sure Gardner Minshew isn’t (?) your guy

Speculation about Jacksonville tanking this year in order to obtain Trevor Lawrence feels odd and a bit contradictory. 

Gardner Minshew wasn’t amazing last year, but he wasn’t bad enough that the Jaguars felt he couldn’t be something.  He was the exact reason they traded Nick Foles away to Chicago.

Minshew deserves another year to prove himself.  If there’s no improvement or outlook toward success, then Jacksonville can start over in the 2021 Draft.  But this roster isn’t bad enough to tank, and it’d be disappointing to see them finish with the worst record in football.  A tough schedule won’t help, but Jacksonville could come away looking better than a poor record suggests.

Minshew has more around him than given credit for, which could be the Jaguars line of thinking if their plan is to truly move on.  If Minshew fails, Jacksonville could easily say that they gave him enough to work with.  DJ Chark is a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and Jacksonville got insane value with Collin Johnson in the fifth round and Laviska Shenault Jr. in the second of April’s draft.  Shenault Jr. is a big question mark health wise, hence his fall in the draft.  While rookie receivers are tough to bet on, if the Jaguars are truly insistent on Minshew not being the guy, they’ve done enough propaganda work to justify it by adding talent for him to sling it to.

In the backfield, they’ve done the opposite.  But Leonard Fournette’s release had a lot more to do with him not being good at football than it did Jacksonville tanking or purposely not helping Minshew.  Them getting a true sense of what Minshew brings means running the ball less, and they’ve enabled themselves to do that with the dumping of Fournette.

There might be nothing Minshew can do to save himself as the Jaguars long-term answer this season.  But don’t be surprised if he makes it a bit more controversial than we anticipate.

Kansas City Chiefs: Repeat as Super Bowl champions

There isn’t much to go over here.  Kansas City is probably better this year with a workhorse running back now in the fold.  Clyde Edwards-Helaire, while going way too high in fantasy drafts, gives the Chiefs a dimension offensively they haven’t had since they began shredding the league in 2018.  Damien Williams – who opted out of the season – was never getting 20 carries a game and putting up 120 yards on them.  He would have been the perfect secondary back to Edwards-Helaire this season, but now it’s all on the LSU rookie.

Kansas City doesn’t have to rely on him though.  Why would they?  Patrick Mahomes is probably the most talented quarterback ever, and that shouldn’t be controversial to say.  The man got a $500 million contract for a reason.

Repeating is hard, and the Ravens are on their tail.  But for a team led by as much talent as Kansas City is, in addition to the continuity they possess in a year where it will matter greatly, a Super Bowl loss would be a disappointment.

Los Angeles Chargers: Hope whichever quarterback that’s playing is just good enough

The Chargers were in a tough spot this offseason.  Practically their entire roster was set and stacked with talent, except for the most important position: quarterback.

It’s a sticky situation.  Most of the time, starting over at quarterback means rebuilding.  The Chargers have a roster that looks like it just finished a rebuild.  It shouldn’t be starting one.

In a way, having a roster as stacked as Los Angeles’ is could be a good thing, especially once/if Justin Herbert ever takes over.  The Chargers might be good enough to overcome his likely mistakes.  Their loaded defense, which is so good that the loss of Derwin James hurts but isn’t a death blow, could be good enough to carry a poor-to-average offense.

The offense is a question mark.  Regardless of the quarterback play, it might be tough for it to be competent.  To be successful, Tyrod Taylor needs significant help around him, on the field and on the sideline.  Austin Ekeler getting the full-time role at running back should lead to increased production, but the receivers, while intriguing, are tough to project.  Keenan Allen is a stud, but health is always a question with him, making the new contract he was just handed feel risky.  Mike Williams is already dealing with an injury, and Hunter Henry’s almost a shoe-in every season to miss some amount of time.

The good news is that head coach Anthony Lynn has a prior relationship with Taylor from their Buffalo days, and the offensive line is as good as it’s ever been the past six years or so.  Still, it’s going to be up to one of these quarterbacks to elevate this team past mediocre.  Health is the key with Taylor under center, and a quick learning curve would be needed with Herbert running the show.  The lack of a true offseason is a disaster for a QB like him, who needed substantial time to develop anyways.  It’s possible we see Taylor for an extended period of time this year, and if everything goes right and they get some luck, he could keep the job for all 16 games.

Miami Dolphins: Be careful but don’t hold back Tua Tagovailoa

While inhibiting a talented defense, the Dolphins are still likely a couple years from being real players, making this season a bit of a wash.  If Tua Tagovailoa was 100 percent and ready to go, things could be different for the Dolphins.  But Ryan Fitzpatrick is primed to be the starter to open the year, and could have that job for awhile depending on how Miami’s medical staff feels about Tagovailoa suiting up.  He needs to be 110 percent in order to do so.  There is no reason to take a risk here.

If Tagovailoa plays, the goal for the Dolphins should be to evaluate him and see what else they can do to support him.  Miami not adding a receiver to his mix of weapons in the draft was a bit surprising, and it leaves a below-average core surrounding him.  The Dolphins have a variety of different running backs to use, which could be a strategy they utilize heavily given Tagovailoa’s lack of weapons.  At the same time, the offensive line still has some holes despite the draft capital used to plug them.

Miami likely won’t be relevant this year, and they shouldn’t strive to be.  Getting a top pick in the 2021 draft and coming into next year ready to contend with Tagovailoa ready from Day 1 should be the goal.

New England Patriots: Prove everyone wrong, and find out if Cam Newton is the long-term answer

The Patriots hopes of legitimately making noise this year dwindled after opt-outs hit them hard.

While their secondary still remains among the best in football, it seems far-fetched that the defense could carry the offense like it did last season.  That means it will be up to Cam Newton to return as close to MVP form as he possibly can.

Newton doesn’t have too much help around him offensively – New England’s weapons core hasn’t changed much from what Tom Brady had to work with last year.  Newton could play well and the offense could still struggle.

But if Newton is good enough with the group he has, it could lead the Patriots to invest more into it in the offseason, and try and contend again in 2021-22 with Newton under center.

Bill Belichick is out to prove a lot of this year.  New England won’t be irrelevant.  But they have bigger things to worry about than making the playoffs.  A reckoning of the future should be on the forefront, and this season can be used to develop a strategy for it.

New York Jets: Hope Sam Darnold gives you any confidence in him

Washington and the Jets have the worst rosters in the league and it’s not close.

That makes New York’s task of truly evaluating Sam Darnold extremely tough.

It’s probably fair to assume Darnold will never be a star.  If that was true, he’d already be getting it done.  That doesn’t mean he can’t be fixed, it just means that there’s probably a firm ceiling on what he can be.  

Whether it’s high or not, the Jets are a long ways away from reaching that, unless Darnold makes the progression himself.  It would be quite stunning, giving his receiving talent and his head coach.  Perhaps the Jets need to move on from Adam Gase, and hope Darnold can have a rejuvention similar to Tannehill after he got out from under his former coach’s teachings.  But by then, it could be time to pay Darnold, and instead moving on could be a more viable option

Las Vegas Raiders: Figure out whether Derek Carr is the guy or not

The Raiders seem to have gone as far as they want to when it comes to giving Derek Carr chances.  It’s possible they could have done more, but investing two high picks in April’s draft and giving Tyrell Williams a healthy contract certainly shows some form of respect.

Williams won’t play this season after suffering a shoulder injury.  It’s unfortunate, but it can’t let either side dictate what happens this season at the quarterback position.  If Carr’s the guy, he should be able to overcome it.  On the flip side, Carr relying on two rookie receivers to help him this season maybe isn’t the most fair play.

Las Vegas’ defense is better than years past but probably won’t do the offense any favors.  With that precedent, it’s really going to be up to Carr to carry the offense.  The front office seems impatient with him, evident in their Marcus Mariota signing that was surprisingly rich (Two years, $17.6 million).  Even with the picks they spent on Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards, it feels like a ploy to get Carr out.  Ruggs III is not the receiver Carr needs.  He’s best as a downfield threat, which are not routes Carr exceeds at making throws to.  

Las Vegas’ front office could be putting Carr in a catch-22 here.  They give him weapons like Ruggs III, and he says they don’t fit him.  Why, they ask?  Well, Carr can’t get the ball to them. An exchange like that might give the Raiders the answer they need to hear.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Hope Ben Roethlisberger stays healthy and is actually good

The Steelers going 8-8 in 2019-20 with a combination of Mason Rudolph and Delvin Hodges as their quarterbacks was no fluke.  It was a testament to the talent on the roster and the coaching of Mike Tomlin.

This year, both of those things remain the same, and their biggest barrier is now likely out of the way.

Ben Roethlisberger is a large unknown in multiple ways.  First, he has to stay healthy, or else the Steelers are going to be a reincarnation of last year’s team after not attempting to upgrade backup quarterback over the offseason.  Second, even if Roethlisberger does stay healthy, what to expect of him is tough to quantify.  It’s been two years since we’ve seen a legitimate game from the long-time QB, and it wasn’t all pretty.  In 2018-19, Roethlisberger put up his typical numbers but also led the league in interceptions.  Pittsburgh missed the playoffs, and at-times bone-headed decisions from Roethlisberger were costly.  It’s been two years and a new UCL since we saw that QB.

Week 1 last year wasn’t all that promising either, but it’s hard to judge just a single game.  

The unknown with Roethlisberger is frustrating from a projection standpoint and disappointing from a fan point of view.  Pittsburgh has the talent to compete with the likes of Baltimore for the division, and the Chiefs and those same Ravens for a trip to the Super Bowl.  While continuity is being praised heading into this season, the Steelers have less of it than we may think, and that could be costly.

Tennessee Titans: Hope regression doesn’t strike

The problem with the Titans is that last season feels like the ceiling of what this roster can achieve.  Derrick Henry was arguably the best running back in football, which slightly came out of nowhere.  Ryan Tannehill played as well as he had in his career so far and breached the waters of average, emerging just above the surface.  Tennessee found themselves in the AFC Championship Game after beating two of the best teams in the league throughout the playoffs.  All of it was stunning.

Which is why none of it feels repeatable.  Henry was on a historic run toward the end of the season and postseason – that type of production just doesn’t reproduce.  Tannehill had never played that well in his life, and it still wasn’t necessarily good enough.  The Titans feel like a team destined for a hangover, even though they didn’t make the Super Bowl.

Unlike most teams that experience a drag the next year, the Titans got better.  Adding Jadeveon Clowney a week before the season’s kick-off was a steal, and makes their front seven terrifying.  They sured up potentially holes in the secondary with LSU cornerback Kristian Fulton in the second round of April’s draft – how he fell that far remains mystifying.  

Any team that made changes – smart or not smart, positive or negative – could be coming into this season behind those who didn’t due to the lack of a preseason and real training camp.  Tennessee didn’t really overhaul anything, and their changes weren’t super significant.  They essentially ran it back.  Even if the Titans are projected to be worse after last year’s historic run, at least we know it’s coming.

AFC Standings Predictions:

AFC East

  1. Buffalo Bills, 11-5
  2. New England Patriots, 9-7
  3. New York Jets, 2-14
  4. Miami Dolphins, 2-14

AFC North

  1. Baltimore Ravens, 15-1
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers, 10-6
  3. Cleveland Browns, 10-6
  4. Cincinnati Bengals, 2-14

AFC South

  1. Tennesse Titans, 12-4
  2. Houston Texans, 10-6
  3. Indianapolis Colts, 6-10
  4. Jacksonville Jagurs, 2-14

AFC West

  1. Kansas City Chiefs, 16-0
  2. Denver Broncos, 8-8
  3. Las Vegas Raiders, 5-11
  4. Los Angeles Chargers, 3-13

AFC Playoff Standings

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. Baltimore Ravens
  3. Tennessee Titans
  4. Buffalo Bills
  5. Houston Texans
  6. Pittsburgh Steelers
  7. Cleveland Browns

To Beat The Lakers, The Rockets Have To Adjust

The NBA Playoffs are always about adjustments.  

We’re seeing what happens when a team doesn’t make them with the Milwaukee Bucks right now.  Down 2-0 to Miami, Mike Budenholzer’s team has stuck to their traditional ways: going under screens, protecting the paint, not switching and giving up tons of threes.

It’s hurting them.  Miami’s three point shooting has been the difference thus far, in addition to the continued problem of Giannis Antentokounmpo not having a half-court or isolation game.  That would be negotiable if the Bucks were defending at an acceptable rate.

The Bucks have a lot at stake in this series, which makes it even more surprising that they’re not making the necessary adjustments. Antetokounmpo is a free agent after next season, whenever that begins.  The Bucks essentially have these playoffs and next year’s to convince the soon-to-be back-to-back MVP winner to stay with them long-term.  Not even getting to the Finals this season may not only jeopardize him staying with the team, but it could lead to him wanting out before his contract even expires.

The Houston Rockets have a lot at stake too.  Rumors have been floated about head coach Mike D’Antoni’s future with the team if a disappointing playoff exit occurs.  GM Daryl Morey could see the boot as well.  Perhaps most importantly, another early playoff exit from James Harden would be devastating for his resume – perhaps being fatal even if he were to get over the hump someday.

Houston got through the first round without making real adjustments to their style of play.  They were able to beat Oklahoma City in the ways we thought they could.  They made a number of threes that the Thunder couldn’t come close to matching, and swallowed their offense with length, size and switching on the defensive end.  It was too much for a Thunder team that possessed craft but not enough creativity and impact offensively.

But OKC came close.  The Thunder stretched Houston to seven games, and only lost by two in the series finale.  That was a bit more of a nail-biter than a team like Houston – who has aspirations of winning the Finals – would like to experience in just the first round.

How did they get there?  Well, Houston never pivoted when they should have.  The Rockets might make a lot of threes, sure – you don’t make them without taking them.  But Houston takes them when they shouldn’t.  Harden had another bad performance in Game 7 against OKC, continuing his career-long trend of not showing up for big games.  He started 1-6 from the field and 0-3 from deep in the first quarter, and by halftime, he was 2-8 and 1-5, respectively.  In the third, he was 0-4 from the field and 0-3 from deep.  Here was his last three point attempt of the quarter.

Some nights you just don’t have it, and it’s okay to recognize that.  Here, Harden doesn’t.  He’s already 1-8 from three when he takes this shot, which is only a good one unless you’ve hit three in a row and are on complete fire.

These are the type of possessions and shots Houston can’t afford against the Lakers starting Friday night.  They’re what cost them against Oklahoma City.  It’s why that series went seven games.  It’s not just Harden that takes them.  It’s everyone – and the worst offenders (Russell Westbrook) are those who have no business shooting them even if they’re open looks.

Oklahoma City was a bad matchup, but not necessarily because of their personnel or schemes.  The Thunder were a bad matchup for practically everybody because of the effort they exert and how hard they play.  That grit doesn’t just apply to Houston.

The Lakers are truly a bad matchup for the Rockets, and it’s because of their roster. Sure, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are two of the five best players in basketball, making them an issue for every team, but the Rockets are in a different category.  Davis is a serious problem.  

Houston’s smart decision to go super-small with PJ Tucker at center could bite them here.  Los Angeles is going to do all they can to get Davis the most touches possible against the 6’7 Tucker, who despite posing issues to Davis in the past should be overwhelmed if the Lakers feed AD enough.  Davis shouldn’t be taking jumpers this series – not because he’s bad at them, but just because they’ll be less efficient baskets given his matchup with Tucker.

Despite some of Tucker’s prior success against Davis, it could be wise to make Robert Covington the de-facto center.  His defense against the Thunder was outstanding, especially late in Game 7.  He made multiple help rotations to stifle OKC’s guards at the rim – if they even got there.  He’s a bit more wirey than Tucker, which could help prevent Davis’ drives from the perimeter.  At the same time, the sturdiness Tucker brings would help in the post.

You can’t put it past Davis to score every time this series.  Like Houston, he needs to adjust and not settle.  Get low and get the ball.  Your life should be easy if you do that.

If Davis is scoring every time, Houston has their work cut out for them.  They need their shots to go in.

When Houston isn’t dead cold from three, they’re usually able to win.  Even if the percentage isn’t as pretty as you’d like, it’s the volume of shots that are made.  That’s what OKC experienced.  Even if Davis scores every time, the age-old “three is bigger than two” argument still prevails.

But when what happened in Game 4 against Oklahoma City happens, that’s when things get dicey for Houston, especially against the Lakers.  The Rockets have to know when they’re cold, and have to adjust when that’s the case.  What does that look like?  Not taking shots like the one Harden took above.  Or shots like these.

All of these were taken while the Rockets were in the midst of 5-21 shooting stretch from behind the arc.  Houston lost by two points, which could have easily been made up in at least one of these three possessions.

In the first one, it’s a simple isolation with zero ball movement, which probably would have been nice to utilize given that the ball was having a hard enough time going in the basket.  In the second clip, Harden settles for a deep three after not using a screen by Covington.  It was late in the shot clock, but Harden had time to get a floater up instead of taking the shot he did, which bricked the front of the rim.

The third clip is perhaps the most egregious.  Harden has Nerlens Noel on him, who has zero shot of containing a potential drive – it would likely result in a foul.  The shot clock is winding down again, but there’s time to get a floater off like the second clip.  Chris Paul is helping way off his man, which could have resulted in a last minute kick opportunity to the league’s best corner shooter in Tucker.

These are just bad shots that didn’t have to be taken, especially considering the circumstances of being cold as ice from deep.  Unlike Oklahoma City, the Lakers are probably going to able to score every time if they so choose with Davis, and we haven’t even mentioned James yet.  Empty possessions like those above from Houston could put them in a hole fast.

Davis could be more important than James this series.  Whichever Houston defender between Tucker and Covington isn’t on Davis will be on James, and while neither will stop him, those aren’t the worst options in the world.  He won’t be faced with the defense Portland offered.

Houston’s defense against the drives of Thunder guards offered some hope in their fight against James this series.  Their performance late in Game 7 represented their ceiling, and it’s a pretty high one.  The Rockets have the ability to make James really work.

The Lakers have the ability to make him not, though, and that lies strictly in Davis’ effort and shot selection.  Unless Houston adjusts, which seems unlikely, this is his series.  If the Rockets do limit their low quality shot attempts, move the ball a bit more, shoot well and insert the no-jumpers rule for Westbrook, then they can win this series.  It’s 100 percent in their hands.  If all of those occur, LeBron’s impact will be reduced just enough, and Davis’ monster games won’t matter.  Three is that much bigger than two, but you just can’t cherry pick it.  

Prediction: Lakers in 7

Clippers-Nuggets Preview

Neither the Los Angeles Clippers nor Denver Nuggets had it easy in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.  Both teams were tasked with stopping the ascension of a superstar to levels previously unseen.  Luka Doncic was magical against the Clippers, highlighted by his buzzer-beater in Game 4, but Dallas just couldn’t muster enough firepower once Kristaps Porzingis went down and Los Angeles’ defense locked in.  Donovan Mitchell was equally spectacular against Denver, putting up two 50 point performances over the course of seven games, a feat that had only been done by two others in NBA history (Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan).

But the hindrance of the series for Utah wasn’t something they could totally control.  It was who they couldn’t stop.

Ironically, Denver’s win against Utah was due to the fact that their own superstar ascended to a level even higher than Mitchell did for the Jazz.  Jamal Murray matched Mitchell’s feat of scoring 50 twice in the same series, and subsequently became the fourth player ever to do so.  Murray somehow hit tougher shots than Mitchell did, and overcame his team’s pitiful defense at the same time.

Murray has a new challenge this round.  While the point guard breached his playoff consistency block against Utah, it remains to be seen how much he can truly make up for it with his shot making and overall impact.  This series will be the tell-all.

The Clippers aren’t Utah.  Sure, the Jazz were better offensively than projected against Denver, but ultimately it was Mitchell, a surprising outburst from Rudy Gobert, and the heat check of Jordan Clarkson that powered them.  That’s it.

Kawhi Leonard isn’t any of those guys, and the Nuggets defense against the Jazz doesn’t offer us any hope that they can even begin to slow him down.  Jerami Grant offers the length and athleticism, but that’s just one body.  Immediately slapping Gary Harris – who is just getting back into form – on him could backfire.  Michael Porter Jr. is a stiff.  Paul Millsap has looked the 35 years old that he is.

There’s also Paul George, who offered a lot of reasons to not worry about him in the first round, but rediscovered himself in Game 5 by putting up 35 points on 12-18 shooting. 

Whether George is a factor or not, the Leonard puzzle still isn’t solved, and threats still exist aside from him.  If Grant is put on Leonard, Harris probably gets the Lou Williams assignment late in games.  That would seem to give George open shots and and allow Montrezl Harrell to work against the slower, bigger Nikola Jokic.  Harrell’s role has decreased though, and LA has opted to play Marcus Morris late at times instead.  Additionally, Ivica Zubac is probably a better matchup against the Joker than Harrell thanks to his size.  Jokic’s defense isn’t fantastic, but the downside is that Zubac’s offense could hurt late in games.  That’s a chess match the Clippers will have to play.  Harrell could get bodied, but Zubac could get hunted.

If Denver’s defense can’t hold, it’s up to Murray.  The Clippers overall swath of wings should be able to put the Nuggets star back in his place a bit, but he’s hot to a degree that’s hard to quantify right now.  It’s close to where Damian Lillard was during the seeding games – no defense is going to truly shut him down.

Putting your best wing on a fiery guard has a complicated success rate.  The Rockets just swallowed Oklahoma City’s three guard lineup in multiple games during their seven game series, most notably late in Game 7.  But Murray cooked the long, athletic Royce O’Neal throughout Denver’s series with Utah, as the Jazz found him to be their best option after Murray ripped through Mitchell.

Leonard is different, obviously.  He’s the best perimeter defender of all-time.  Paul George is still a good defender despite his poor play.  The Clippers have a plethora of lineups they can play that can switch every matchup, giving Murray different looks.  

This series will be a test of how high Murray can truly elevate.  Is he now one of the 15 best players in the league?  Top 20?  Top 30?  We’ll know where he falls after this series.  How long he drags it on will give us our answer, because it seems as if Michael Porter Jr won’t be able to contribute in the way he could.  That would be a nice boost, and at least put to work the Clippers best weapons to work.

Murray is going to have at least one game where he makes nothing else matter.  The Clippers had plenty of laspes in defensive effort against Dallas, and that will surely occur again.  How much Murray benefits from that determines the length of this series.

Prediction: Clippers in 6

2020 MLB Trade Deadline Recap

No matter what their record turned out to be, the San Diego Padres couldn’t lose this season.  

If they missed the playoffs or had a record that was worse than expected, an easy pivot into next season – where their young pitchers and positions players had another year under their belts and the debut of highly touted arms – awaited.  San Diego was just going to be a year away, and that was just fine.

Or, the Padres could have emerged as one of the most fun, and perhaps even best teams in baseball.  Their youth was going to shine, and the pitching would have been performing just well enough or started to blossom as well.  If that was the case, the Padres would emerge as potentially contenders in this wonky, 60 game season where virtually anything seems possible.

The Padres entered Friday, Aug. 28 with a record of 20-14, four games behind the Dodgers in the NL West and sat as the NL’s fourth seed in the new playoff format.  It was basically their best case scenario.  San Diego had their stars shining – Fernando Tatis Jr. is in the mix for the NL MVP as a 21-year-old.  Manny Machado has been playing up to the $300 million contract they handed to him before the 2019 season.  Wil Myers and Eric Hosmer have had good years, which seems to be a 50-50 proposition most seasons.  Jake Cronenworth has came out of nowhere and produced 1.6 WAR in 30 games.

San Diego’s success has came without the pitching producing like we expected.  Chris Paddack – figured to be the Padres’ ace – has struggled with a 4.43 ERA in eight starts (An ERA+ of 99 is encouraging, though).  Garrett Richards hasn’t been good on the flyer contract San Diego gave him.  Zach Davies and Dinelson Lamet – somehow – have been excellent, but they’ve been the only reliable starters in the rotation.

All of this resulted in an opportunity seen by GM AJ Preller, who’s been no stranger to massive, win-now overhauls.  Preller likely figured that if the team is this good with this many holes, then filling those holes could result in something the rest of MLB doesn’t want to see.

That’s what San Diego did at the trade deadline, making five trades in the span of Friday to Monday’s 1 PM AZ time deadline.  The Padres landed Mike Clevinger from the Indians, Jason Castro from the Angels, Mitch Moreland from the Red Sox, Austin Nola from the Mariners and Trevor Rosenthal from the Royals in a redux reminiscent of the 2014 Winter Meetings.

It’s worth considering whether makeovers and win-now moves are really worth it this season.  As the deadline passes, the Miami Marlins and Colorado Rockies are currently in the playoffs.  The Detroit Tigers, who aren’t actually trying to win games, are .500.  The Arizona Diamondbacks look like the worst team in baseball.  The Padres could actually win the World Series.

After battling with it in the season preview, sixty games just doesn’t seem like it’s going to be legitimate, which begs the question of whether the World Series winners are going to be – or should be – treated as true winners.  If the Padres do win this World Series, are we always going to associate it with an asterisk because the Padres won?  What if the Dodgers win it?  Does that change things?

We’ll probably not know the answer until the time comes – how it feels in the moment will determine the true answer.  That’s what scary about some of the deals San Diego made.  Why are you mortgaging your future to win a potentially faux title that won’t carry the legacy of other World Series?  In addition, you can’t even make the postseason ticket revenue since the series will likely be played in the Rangers new stadium in Texas.

That’s what makes some of San Diego’s moves this deadline puzzling.  Moves like giving up young outfielder Edward Olivares – who was expected to play a large role for the Friars – for Trevor Rosenthal are risky.  Sure, Olivares had struggled so far this year, but moving on from someone you had high hopes for who’s had only 13 bad games in his career feels abrupt.  The same case can be made for Hudson Potts and Jeisson Rosario, who were the 16th and 19th best prospects in the Padres system, respectively, according to MLB.com.  Flipping both of them for another bat in Mitch Moreland seems unnecessary when Josh Naylor and Ty France were both on the roster and producing (Naylor was obviously moved to Cleveland for Clevinger).

France shouldn’t have gone anywhere.  San Diego’s trade with Seattle for Austin Nola, Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla was completely unnecessary and an overreaction to the team’s catching woes.  The addition of simply Adams and Altavilla would have been welcomed, considering San Diego’s need for bullpen help and the duo’s likely much lower cost.  But the acquisition of Nola isn’t justified by Francisco Mejia’s health and struggles this year – Mejia hit well last season, and at catcher you’re not necessarily expecting big time production anyways.

The trade for Jason Castro was fine.  It didn’t cost anything, and he’s likely an upgrade over Austin Hedges, who’s dove off a cliff.  But a duo of Castro and Mejia at catcher would have worked and still featured an upgrade.

In addition to just not needing him, Nola cost a lot.  His inclusion in the deal added Taylor Trammell – a super intriguing center-field prospect who could be Jackie Bradley Jr. with a bat – and Luis Torrens, who at catcher had a tough path in front of him regardless but could have been flipped to Cleveland instead of Naylor, perhaps.

Trammell is the hard sell.  This is a guy who just last summer was the centerpiece of a deal that included Trevor Bauer, and with Wil Myers’ inconsistency, Trammell could’ve had a path to starting soon.  He also gives Seattle a loaded crop of outfield prospects, which features Kyle Lewis (who’s not really a prospect anymore), Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez.  The Mariners are operating with an embarrassment of riches thanks to San Diego.

On top of that, the Padres added Andres Munoz to the deal, who throws a million miles per hour.  San Diego has unreal pitching depth among its prospects, but when you combine the amount of talent they gave up, the return of Nola and the arms just feels underwhelming.

The Padres partially made up for it, though.  The Clevinger deal was an absolute steal, thanks to Cleveland’s supposed ask of mostly major-league talent.  While Naylor probably would have been nice to have instead of surrendering more prospects for Moreland, he’s arguably the biggest asset in the deal.  Cal Quantrill has had a great year, and is still young at 25, but likely wasn’t going to fit into the Padres long-term plan with pitchers like Mackenzie Gore, Adrian Morejon and Luis Patino on the way.  Those three, along with Paddack, make up 4/5s of the rotation, and Clevinger is the final piece (Though obviously not the fifth starter).  The Quantrill case can also be made for Joey Cantillo, who’s basically the Cooper Manning of the Padres farm system with the talent ahead of him.  Gabriel Arias – who’s a nice get for Cleveland – was forever blocked by Tatis Jr. at shortstop, and Hedges was basically a throw-in considering San Diego didn’t need him anymore.

It’s just a home run deal.  Clevinger has sneakily been one of the best pitchers in baseball the past few years, and provides insurance incase one of the prospects doesn’t pan out (which, by the way, is almost a guarantee to happen).  He’s seasoned at almost 30 years old, which is something the Padres likely don’t have enough of in their clubhouse.  

For Cleveland, it’s not a disaster, but it feels like more could have been done.  They’re operating at a starting pitching surplus, but that also didn’t mean they had to trade their best one in exchange nothing all that special.  For them, they get an offensive boost they desperately needed in Naylor and their likely Francisco Lindor replacement in Arias.  Cantillo and Quantrill, though probably less talented than those currently in the rotation, only add to the starter snag.

It’s interesting that Clevinger was the pitcher who was moved.  While he, theoretically, should have brought back the most value, Zach Plesac seemed more likely to be moved given his less-than ideal handling of him and Clevinger breaking team rules by going out to dinner.  Perhaps other teams saw that video and were just out.  

Moving Clevinger was fine, but for this haul it, some deeper digging into the Padres prospect pool would have been nice.


Now for some quick hits on the other moves throughout the MLB up to the deadline:

  • The Diamondbacks feel like the worst team in baseball due to the fact that they 1) suck and 2) acted like it Monday, which was the right thing to do.
  • At the same time, the fire-sale they enacted came back incredibly empty-handed.  The Starling Marte deal with Pittsburgh looks like an absolute disaster now, with Caleb Smith being the centerpiece of the deal that flipped Marte to Miami.  Smith is 28 and has never been good in his major league career as a starter, and a bout with COVID-19 has limited him to just one game this season.  Smith is likely a fourth starter at best, though a bullpen role might actually be most intriguing.  Either way, him being the top asset in exchange for a player that saw last year’s first round pick Brennan Malone and highly touted shortstop prospect Liover Peguero get shipped for makes it a give away.  Humberto Mejia is a fine inclusion, but the D-backs shipped out top-end talent for a premium outfielder in Marte, and basically flipped him for nothing when he was their best asset as sellers.
  • Their second best asset moved was Archie Bradley, who’s actually redeemed himself quite nicely in 2020 after struggling mightily at times last year.  Trading anybody from the bullpen feels like a death sentence, but Bradley figured to net some actual return.  That didn’t happen.
  • Arizona received Josh VanMeter, a Reds utility man who didn’t have anywhere to play in Cincinnati and doesn’t have anywhere to do so as well with the Diamondbacks.  Arizona already has Andy Young, Seth Beer and Josh Rojas all as viable utility men, and Beer and Rojas aren’t even getting at-bats yet in a year where anyone and everyone should be getting them considering where the offense is at.  They also got an outfield prospect in Stuart Fairchild, who’s already 24, has never made it past Double A and was even playing with the Reds Arizona Fall League team in 2019.  That’s a breeding ground for high school draft picks, typically.
  • The D-backs best moves of the day probably consisted of dumping off long-time pitchers who have ran their course.  Andrew Chafin was sent to the Cubs, who are either giving back cash or a prospect depending on a trip to the postseason.  Robbie Ray was traded to the Blue Jays, who completed a rotation overhaul we’ll address later.
  • The Ray trade was legitimately Arizona’s best move of the day.  To get any value out of him is a win.  Ray’s been a complete mess this year, thanks in part to a combination of weight loss and the windup changes he’s made to account for that.  The control was as bad as ever, and it got to the point where every start he made was almost a guaranteed loss for the team.  
  • Arizona squeezed Travis Bergen out of the Blue Jays, who, while nothing special, is at least a new arm the D-backs can throw into the bullpen and take for a test run.  If he’s bad, then they got off of Ray.  If he’s anything else, the trade is a massive win.
  • Enough angry D-backs thoughts.
  • The Rockies had an interesting slew of moves, getting Mychal Givens at a steep price from Baltimore and Kevin Pillar for practically nothing from Boston.
  • The Givens trade was unbelievable for Baltimore – getting two highly ranked prospects from an aggressive team is always a good idea.  It was a steep price for the Rockies, but it gives them a solid boost for what is looking to be a playoff run.
  • Pillar doesn’t offer much in terms of a bat, but his power can be plentiful in spurts, and for the price of basically nothing, putting him in Coors is worth a shot.
  • The Red Sox did well there too – getting international bonus money in a selling move is great business.  They’ll actually use it, unlike Colorado.
  • The Cubs adding two more bullpen arms – who have both sucked – in Josh Osich and Chafin feels unnecessary when they’ve used 22 pitchers this year, but when you get them for nothing and are that desperate, well, who’s counting?
  • With Albert Almora struggling, Cameron Maybin could slide in decently as a fourth outfielder.
  • The Marlins side of the Marte deal is maddening to write about.  He gives Miami only one outfield spot to worry about with Corey Dickerson in one of the corners.  He’s arguably the best batter on their team from a talent standpoint, and they were a game under .5o0 without him.
  • As covered with Arizona, Miami doesn’t really lose anything either with this move.
  • The Jonathan Villar trade was surprising, but reports have him being a bit of a nuisance for them, which doesn’t bode well for the middle infielder considering Toronto is his fifth team.
  • Miami’s somehow going to get away with this, because Eddy Alvarez and Isan Diaz can hold down the fort.
  • As for Toronto, the concern about Bo Bichette’s injury is clearly real, though Villar’s bat has produced an OPS+ of 90 this year.
  • Toronto’s pitching makeover is not what you’d expect to see from a team four games over .500 and currently in the playoffs.  Granted, what they did has a high ceiling, and the risk was quite low.  
  • They got Taijuan Walker – who pitched well in his debut with the Blue Jays Saturday – for a PTBNL or cash from Seattle.  He’s had a nice rebound year, and that is seemingly not going to be interrupted in Toronto.
  • They also added Ross Stripling from the Dodgers, in a move that was a bit surprising considering it came in almost an hour after the deadline.  Stripling’s valuable because he can start or be a bullpen option, and he’ll likely pitch well in both roles.  2020 has been a down year for the versatile righty, which might’ve contributed to the two PTBNL’s the Dodgers shipped him away for, but regardless, it’ll be hard for Toronto not to lose that deal.
  • Ray is anyone’s guess.  A change of scenery will be nice for him, but there’s clearly been a change in mechanics and confidence with the long-time Diamondback.  Toronto likely needs to hit the reset button with him, and counting on someone like that in rotation right away is scary.
  • The Dodgers side of the Stripling deal is worth addressing.  It moves Tony Gonsolin into the rotation, who Los Angeles probably feels they have a higher ceiling with in that spot than Stripling, which is fair.  He was a candidate to be in that mix at the beginning of the season.
  • Texas didn’t move off of Lance Lynn, who reportedly had a sky-high price, but they did move Mike Minor to Oakland.  Minor and Lynn have essentially switched production this season compared to last, so Texas having to sell low on Minor was disappointing.  Him helping the A’s rotation seems unlikely, but this is a low risk, change of scenery move by Oakland.
  • The Mets just can’t help themselves.  They found themselves buying again either though they’re 15-20 and have a bullpen that seems irredeemable.  General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen needs the car keys taken away.
  • There was literally no need for Robinson Chirinos or Todd Frazier.  While it didn’t cost them much, how are either going to get at-bats?  The Mets are fine at catcher and third base, and don’t have DH at-bats left.
  • The Miguel Castro trade arguably made sense given their bullpen struggles, but they had to actually part with something substantial in order to make it happen, which seems like something New York shouldn’t be doing.
  • Van Wagenen probably knows he’s getting fired, so he likely just didn’t care this deadline.
  • Going back to last week, the Rays essentially have essentially flipped Matthew Liberatore for two PTBNL, which ties back to their winter deal with the Cardinals.  That doesn’t seem great.  The Jose Martinez trade to the Cubs was pitched as a way to get more at-bats for Randy Arozarena, who came with Martinez in exchange for Liberatore, but finding those at-bat still seems a bit tough in the Rays lineup.  What a trade for Chicago, and the aggregate for the Rays looks bleak.
  • The A’s giving up on Franklin Barreto so early was surprising in their move for Tommy LaStella.  That was aggressiveness among the likes of San Diego there.  Sure, Barretto had struggled to hit in his career so far, but the A’s marketed this year as his to emerge, and those struggles at the plate have came in only 95 career games.  Talk about not ever getting a chance.
  • Barreto is a fantastic buy low move for the Angels.  They nailed that one.

Bucks-Heat Preview

It’s never smart to overreact to a single loss, especially when it comes in Game 1 of a series.  Last year taught us this well – the Toronto Raptors lost their first playoff game and went on to win the title.

But a loss – and more so a couple underwhelming wins – can teach us certain things.

It’s odd to be writing this about the Milwaukee Bucks, who, unlike their opponent in the Miami Heat, lost once against their first round opponent and didn’t look the absolutely dominant team they were during the regular season.

The Heat emerged from the first round against Indiana looking beastly.  They swept the Pacers in a series that was expected to go longer and at least be more competitive.  Miami dominated the Pacers while the Bucks fell a bit short of expectations.

Orlando beat Milwaukee in Game 1 – and gave them issues throughout the rest of the series – by taking advantage of their lax defense of the three point line.  The Magic essentially turned into the Rockets at their worst.  They shot threes without any regard for the shot quality or for rhythm.  They just chucked them.

At times, it actually worked!  They won Game 1 thanks to their shooting, most notably from Nikola Vucevic, who ate up Milwaukee’s typical drop coverage with its center Brook Lopez.  Even if Vucevic wasn’t shooting threes, he made the Bucks pay with his mid-ranger.  The Bucks were playing so far off him that it actually made the mid-ranger a good shot.

The concerning part is that continually leaving Vucevic open weren’t just mistakes from Milwaukee.  They intended to do so, and not because they didn’t respect him as a shooter, but because their scheme relies on protecting the paint.  Because it’s their scheme, and is one that worked so well during the regular season, there’s no indication that they’ll adjust.

That is cause for concern against the Heat, who were arguably the best three point shooting team in the league this year depending on how you quantify the Rockets.  The Bucks were lucky in a sense that Orlando took a lot of bad threes.  The Heat don’t do that, and since Milwaukee isn’t going to pressure them out of their ways, it could spell big trouble.

The Bucks, of course, have counters.  First, the Heat are going to play Bam Adebayo at the five when it matters.  He’s not a shooting threat (yet – he’ll be unstoppable if he can figure that side of his game out), so they aren’t going to burn Lopez and the Bucks’ bigs like Vuecevic did.

There are times when it could, though.  Kelly Olynyk is a sniper, and Erik Spolestra tends to have just one of Adebayo and him out there at a time (Although, the numbers of Olynyk and Adebayo together in the playoffs have been insane, granted it’s only a sample of 13 minutes).  The Olynyk-at-the-five lineup could be deadly for the Bucks if they don’t adjust their drop coverage – a couple threes could lead to an extended lead, or even be a dagger if Miami is already ahead.

Still, Adebayo is going to get most of the center minutes, which minimizes the threat against Lopez in drop coverage.

The second Bucks counter is obvious: Giannis Antetokounmpo.  Miami is not well-equipped to stop the soon-to-be MVP at all.  While Adebayo is a good defensive player, his rim protection isn’t at its ceiling yet (his game is built on switching).  Olynyk plays so few minutes because his defense makes him close to unplayable.  Miami just doesn’t have a lot of bigs in general, let alone the bigs that Toronto has which slowed Antetokounmpo last year.

Miami probably builds a wall with the likes of Jae Crowder, Andre Igoudala and their bevy of wings, but the size matchup still feels like a problem.

That’s the end-all with Antentokoumnpo.  You have to get lucky in order to stop him.  Minimizing the impact is all you can really hope for.  Miami’s in rough shape when it comes to even doing that.  He makes everything else not matter.

Which includes the three point shooting, unless Miami absolutely shoots the lights out four times.  Even then, they’re still not stopping Antentkoumpo, and the Bucks have enough firepower to keep up with everyone.

Milwaukee’s defensive tendencies are habits and schemes.  They aren’t going to change their ways.  Against shooters like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, that’s frightening.  Robinson is one of the scariest shooters the NBA has seen in awhile – he has the capability to hit 10 threes in any game.  Herro can get there as well, though his playmaking has really emerged over the course of bubble play, and lineups that feature him, Jimmy Butler and one of Miami’s point guards is a hassle to defend with all the shot creation present.

Antentokoumpo isn’t at the point yet where we should bet against him, but not making the Finals could guarantee it, and a Finals loss in certain fashions could as well.  But the Heat just don’t have any infrastructure that’s going to bring his weaknesses to light.  This series is going to be a battle, but Antentokoumpo should be able to win it.

Prediction: Bucks in 7

Celtics-Raptors Preview

For all the things that could have ended the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, racial injustice in America is probably the most despicable, embarrassing and unfortunate one.

After the death of George Floyd in May, plans for the resumption of the NBA season felt small and unimportant.  The season’s balance hung in the hands of players – who are predominantly Black – that felt like basketball didn’t matter at a time like this.  Equality doesn’t exist outside the NBA, and this is a problem more important than basketball.

Recall all the things that threatened the NBA’s bubble, which went to great lengths to address racial injustice concerns from players by adding Black Lives Matter to the court and allowing messages on the back of jerseys.  COVID-19 could have penetrated its walls. Player fatigue from being cooped up in a perimeter for months on end could have set in. Opt outs due to an abundance of players’ families being affected by the virus. A god damn hurricane could have hit for that matter.

But more racial injustice – highlighted this time by another incident of police brutality – should have never been the cause for a halt in play.  It’s saddening to see that it’s taken 400 years, not just three months – for things to change. Because it has, what the Milwaukee Bucks did before Wednesday’s Game 5 against the Orlando Magic was not only historic, but a mechanism for much needed change everywhere.

Already, it has been.  Players, and subsequently the NBA and its owners, are attempting to do so. The NBA and NBA Players Association released a statement on Friday morning, signifying action players wanted to see taken before returning to the court.

With racial justice initiatives in place, a couple days of reckoning for some and recovering for others, basketball is back, and it will debut once again with a new series starting on Sunday between the Celtics and Raptors.  Here’s a look at what’s ahead.

 

No.2 Toronto Raptors vs. No.3 Boston Celtics 

Boston enters this series as arguably the best looking team remaining after their stunning sweep of the 76ers in the first round.  Miami certainly has a case as well – their 4-0 series win over Indiana was just as impressive, and the Heat emerged as a potentially serious challengers to the overwhelming favorites to make the Finals out East in Milwaukee.

But Boston overcame a challenge in Philadelphia.  While touting the Sixers that highly seems silly now, the threat of Joel Embiid certainly never was.  The Celtics survived big games from the dominating big man, and got lucky in ones where he didn’t produce (which was not entirely his fault).  That series – despite all of Philly’s problems – had serious landmines for Boston, and they dodged every single one of them.

Toronto comes in much cooler than Boston.  Despite being just one of three teams in the league to sweep their first round opponent, the Raptors’ play in the seeding games was underwhelming, and losing just once to a shelled Brooklyn Nets team would have been embarrassing.  

It’s hard to evaluate the Raptors start to bubble play, especially considering that pre-shutdown this was a team that looked primed to potentially make the Finals for a second straight year.  It’s a tough contradiction.  The Raptors look like a team that could of beaten Milwaukee.  Now, it’s tough to say whether they’ll even be able to get there.

The playoffs are – and have always been – about matchups, and Toronto essentially got screwed by them here.  They could very well lose to Boston and still beat Milwaukee if the system allowed for it – they just matchup better with the Bucks.

Boston presents a challenge to Toronto in a couple ways.  If matchups matter the most, then having legitimate star players matter second in the playoffs, and Boston has that in Jayson Tatum.  Sure, Toronto has wings to throw at him, but Tatum’s ascended to the level where even if a defense makes him work, it won’t really affect his overall impact.

Secondly, any firepower advantage the Raptors might’ve had against Boston is in doubt.  While Gordon Hayward will not play at all in the series, Kyle Lowry is a question mark for Game 1 and beyond with a sprained ankle.  Nothing certain has been reported with media availability understandably cancelled in wake of the week’s events, but Lowry’s absence is one Toronto can’t afford against a team as loaded as Boston when it comes to scoring and shooting.

The good news for Toronto?  Their size is their advantage.  No matter how long and switchy Boston is, guarding Pascal Siakam is an absolute hassle – he’s got the size advantage over practically anyone in the league, and his gracious movement doesn’t make him any easier to deal with.  Size troubles Boston, no matter how well it moves.  That’s where the Raptors’ second advantage appears.  More traditional bigs like Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are devastating for the Celtics.  They follow the Embiid prototype, yet aren’t able to be played off the floor like most bigs are.  The effect those guys had was the biggest non-injury factor in last year’s Finals against Golden State.  If it helped take down the Warriors, then Boston is cake.

The Celtics got help against Embiid mostly from his Sixer teammates rather than Embiid himself.  With the Raptors, that’s not exactly the case.  This team meshes together perfectly – Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Siakam, Ibaka, Gasol is a menace of both scoring and defense.  Almost everyone can create their own shot, play without the ball, effectively shoot, and not get picked on defensively.

VanVleet is likely going to Boston’s target on offense, and that’s not because he’s a bad defender.  He’s just the least good out of all the Raptors.  His size against the wings of Boston will hurt – the Celtics will likely just try to engulf him on switches.

But Toronto’s size in the backcourt helps them on the other end.  Kemba Walker is an average defender, and the rest of the lineup features tall guys that the likes of VanVleet and Lowry can sneak around.  Marcus Smart will be getting heavier minutes with Hayward out, but he can only put a stop to one of the guards, and we’ve seen VanVleet win games before.

Toronto’s going to need fantastic play from its guards.  Since bubble play began, the Raptors have struggled mightily in the half-court.  Siakam has not been the No.1 offensive option he looked like in the regular season.  It’s unclear if it was just a hot stretch, a fluke, or the league figuring out how to minimize his additional impact.  He’s not the guy who should have won Most Improved Player for the second straight year anymore, and with the defense Toronto is going to need from him in this series, expecting that offensive output might be unrealistic.

Both of these teams are incredibly even despite the injuries they have to account for.  The Raptors might not have the guy, but they have others who can chip in and make up for it.  On the contrary, Boston does have that guy.  But their firepower is limited by Toronto’s size and craftiness with the ball.  Ultimately, this series is  advantage vs. advantage, and even though the Raptors have the opportunity to play for another championship, getting there just happens to be the problem this year.

Prediction: Boston in 7


Now for some quick hits on each of the first round series’ still in progress, where we look at what each team needs to do in order to win their respective round.

Bucks-Magic

  • Unfortunately, Orlando’s Game 1 win which was captured in incredibly similar fashion to last year’s against Toronto won’t pay off, and will likely result in the series being ended the same way.
  • Orlando just ran out of options for Giannis Antetokounmpo.  Aaron Gordon’s absence ran longer than expected, and it left them incredibly weak in their fight against the soon-to-be MVP.
  • They need the three-point shooting they got in Game 1 to occur in every game the rest of this series, and hope Antetokounmpo falls off a cliff.
  • This series has said a lot more about Milwaukee than it has Orlando.  The Magic have exposed the Bucks’ other hole aside from Antentokoumpo’s lack of a jumper and the team’s half court offense: its loose defense of the three point line.
  • It didn’t bite them at all during the regular season, but when a team like Orlando can make it matter in a playoff series, and Miami is next in line, it’s a little frightening.

Rockets-Thunder

  • This was never going to be an easy series for Houston and it has certainly not turned out that way.
  • For a team that is obsessed with the concept of it, you would have thought the Rockets would have understood its own variance.  But that’s clearly not the case, as Game 4 indicated.  Houston finished the game shooting 5-21 from three after going 8-8 to start the half, which led to a lead of 15 points.  From there, it was yet another brutal playoff collapse, and possessions that featured some hint of ball movement weren’t enough late.
  • Houston has looked unstoppable at times this series, but that’s really just because they’ve been shooting well.  The age-old question with them has been: what happens when they’re shooting well?  Monday’s second half answered that in glaring fashion.
  • OKC has found sticking points in this series.  Lugentz Dort has done a phenomenal job against James Harden – he’s the league’s best defender on him and it’s not close.  But Dort’s brutal offensive performance (which was the sole reason he went undrafted, by the way) has made it tough on OKC to play him late in games.  While their classic three-guard set combined with Dort and Danilo Gallonari neutralizes Harden, it’s still tough to sacrifice the offense Steven Adams brings to the table with Houston’s wings swallowing the guards.  The Thunder are stuck with two non-enticing options: Let Harden cook, or struggle to score on the other end.
  • The cards are in Houston’s hands, and it’ll be up to their adjustments to see how well the hand is dealt.

Lakers-Trail Blazers

  • This series is giving off massive Bucks-Magic vibes, with the underdog taking Game 1 and slowly falling apart ever since.  With Damian Lillard out of the bubble due to a knee injury and his team down 3-1, the Trail Blazers are hanging on a limb.
  • Without Lillard, it’s probably not even worth considering how Portland can get back in it.  Instead, we can recall what this series taught us.
  • LeBron James finally decided to be LeBron and Anthony Davis finally decided to be AD.  The power duo turned out to be just more powerful than CJ McCollum and Lillard.  Portland doesn’t have anyone to stop those two, and it showed, making us look silly for ever doubting them in the first place.
  • Houston and the Clippers are struggling in their own series, having multiple embarrassing outings and look certainly beatable. With the West looking the way it is, it’s possible that the Lakers are in fact best suited to make the Finals.

Mavericks-Clippers

  • This series was going to be all about what Luka Doncic could do.  It turns out he can do a lot.
  • Of course, the Clippers reminded him who they were in Game 5, with Paul George breaking out of a playoff slump and Kawhi Leonard looking like the player we saw last postseason.
  • Regardless, the degree to which Doncic has carried the Mavericks has been incredible.  No one is that surprised, but to see it actually occur is a different experience.
  • How much more does he have in him?  If the Clippers played like they did in Game 5, likely not much.  But LA’s losses in this series haven’t totally just been dependent on effort.  The Clippers at times really haven’t been able to stop Doncic, and it’s paid its dividends.

Jazz-Nuggets

  • Perhaps the two most unfit teams for postseason play have brought it this series, and the guys we arguably blamed the most for prior struggles have shown up (Well, maybe just one of them).
  • Jamal Murray’s ascension this series has been massive.  He’s established himself as a legitimate go-to scorer, and someone who could probably turn out as the second-best player on a championship team.  He’s been that good – willing Denver back into games, hitting massively clutch shots, putting the team on his back.  He’s done it all.
  • Donovan Mitchell though – at times – has just been better.  The guy has dropped 50 twice in this series, including an unprecedented 57 points in Game 1.  Denver’s defense, which has been nonexistent throughout the entire series, hasn’t had an answer, which put them in a 3-1 hole before Monday’s win.
  • We knew Mitchell could be this type of guy.  He has been before.  But it feels like he’s gone up a level this time – the offensive boost from Rudy Gobert has been nice, but there’s been no threes generated from that ascension.  Mitchell is carrying a heavier load than Murray, even with the injuries faced by both sides.  He’s the only creator on the team.  Murray’s coach just needs to turn their third creator loose.

Previewing Tuesday’s Series Tip-Offs

Monday was an awesome day of basketball and Tuesday should be just as fun.  Here  are previews for the series that tip off today.

No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Orlando Magic 

Writing about this series might seem a little bit pointless.  The Bucks are the runaway favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals, have the should-be MVP for the second straight year and established themselves as a historic team in certain statistical aspects this past season.  It would be slightly embarrassing if they even lost a game.

But Orlando is pesky.  That was especially proven last year, when they won Game 1 of their first round series against the eventual NBA champions Toronto Raptors thanks to a DJ Augustin three-pointer.  For a couple days, it felt like the Magic were going to send Toronto back to their normal choking ways.

A big problem exists this time.  Orlando doesn’t have the exact same squad as they did a year ago after Jonathan Isaac torn his ACL suffered against the Kings on August 3rd.  

Isaac could have played a massive part in giving Orlando any chance against Milwaukee.  They have personnel extremely similar to what Toronto possessed last season, which turned out to be the key to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Toronto built a wall in front of the Greek Freak.  They placed their man-to-man best defensive option in the middle of it – which was Pascal Siakam – and flanked him with a combination of a wing (In its best form, that wing was Kawhi Leonard) and a sturdy big man (Either Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol, typically) and made sure the big(s) wouldn’t get played off the floor.

Orlando could have done something similar.  Isaac is a menace on the defensive end – it’s the reason he’s hard to give up on after underwhelming throughout his career thus far.  His thin frame could have been troubling against Antetokounmpo, but his height and history of solid rim protection could’ve made him one of the more promising prospects against the MVP.  Couple that with the underrated switchability and overall defense of Aaron Gordon and the big body of Nikola Vuecevic and the Magic would have had a decent chance at minimizing Antetokounmpo’s overall impact.

But Isaac won’t play regardless of whether Orlando pulls perhaps the greatest upset in NBA Playoffs history.  That hurts.  His replacement is a massive downgrade on the defensive end, and that’s all Antetokounmpo needs even if the other defenders put up a good fight.

If Orlando were to slow him down a bit, they’d still be in a tough spot.  Khris Middleton was one of the best 15 players in basketball this year, and using Isaac on Antetokounmpo turns Middleton loose.  Orlando has wings they could throw at him, including Wes Iwundu, Terrence Ross and James Ennis.  

It seems unlikely that it matters.  Middleton’s an underrated pure scorer – he’s not the common off-ball wing.  Neither of Orlando’s options are defensive stalwarts, unless they decide to switch Gordon, who will be out for Game 1, onto him.  That would be a good fit, but then you’re letting Antetokounmpo work.

Orlando’s massive lack of firepower bites in this series.  Even if they were able to limit Milwaukee’s best, the shooters and firepower the Bucks have just makes them a tough beat for a team as limited offensively as Orlando is.  This isn’t the series for Vuecevic to get easy buckets down low with Brook Lopez capping off a Defensive Player of the Year worthy season.  Markelle Fultz would have to emerge as the James Harden version of his self we thought he could be in the draft.  It’s such a bad matchup that Orlando winning even a game in this would be shocking, though we know they’re capable of making things interesting for a bit.

Prediction: Bucks in 4


No. 4 Miami Heat vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers 

The Heat enter these playoffs as one of the more underrated teams in basketball.  They figured out their slipping defense during bubble play, rising to eighth in defensive rating.  Duncan Robinson looks like he isn’t going to miss a shot ever again.  Tyler Herro has taken on an expanded role that doesn’t just feature him as a shooter.  Jae Crowder has made a huge impact defensively throughout the eight seeding games, with the Heat posting a 105.8 defensive rating with him on the court and a 111.8 rating with him off it.    The Heat have such depth that typical shortening of playoff rotations will be a tough task for Erik Spoelstra and staff.

Indiana is the opposite.  They’re missing their second-best player in Domantas Sabonis, who still has no timetable for return.  Victor Oladipo still looks like a shell of his pre-injury self – it’s likely that next year is the year he returns to form, if he ever does.  TJ Warren has been their saving grace – the former Suns wing emerged as a go-to scoring option in the bubble, only to be stymied by this exact Miami team (and on a lesser degree, Mikal Bridges).

The Pacers chances in this series lie in the midst of a bunch of what-ifs and questions.  What if Oladipo can be the guy he was before his injury during the 2018-19 season?  What if Warren can play like he did against every other team except Miami in this series?  Does Indiana still have enough firepower to keep up with Miami, who’s in the top ten of the league in three-point attempts and makes them at the second-highest clip?

Miami’s downfall isn’t something that should affect them this series.  Jimmy Butler is a fantastic player, and was one of the 20 best in the league this season.  But to make the Finals, the Heat are going to have to stop guys better than Butler: Antentokounmpo and Jayson Tatum.

Butler should be the best player in this Indiana series.  Counting on Oladipo to play at a level where he could go toe-to-toe with Butler just isn’t realistic.

He might have the opportunity to do so though.  One would think Miami puts Butler on Warren to keep any embers from the wildfire he ignited during seeding play out.  Oladipo isn’t the greatest matchup for Miami if Butler isn’t the player on him – Oladipo doesn’t bow down to swallowing wings like Crowder or Andre Igoudala.  But, even with a favorable matchup, it’s fair to wonder whether Oladipo can make something of it given his health.

At full strength, Indiana can put a daunting group out there.  Malcolm Brogdon, Oladipo, Warren, Sabonis and Myles Turners is formidable.  Even without Sabonis, Warren’s ascent and a fully healthy Oladipo challenges any defense, especially paired with a guard who can shoot (Aaron Holiday, for example).  But with Oladipo still middling in his return and Warren set to go against his greatest foe, the Pacers are going to struggle to score, and that’s not something you can afford to have happen against Miami.

Prediction: Miami in 5


No. 4 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City Thunder 

For all the hoo-rah stoked about the potential the Rockets had in the bubble, this is certainly the worst possible matchup Houston could have asked for to begin these playoffs.

Oklahoma City is just a pain in the butt to play.  They play incredibly hard, have players that makes opponents tick, and float out lineups that shouldn’t work but do.  They’re incredible late in games, and never tend to leave anyone disappointed.  They’re basically the opposite of the 76ers.

Houston is built on a simple predicate: threes going in.  If they do, they probably win.  If they don’t, then they probably don’t win.

This formula should work against Oklahoma City.  The Thunder took the fourth-fewest threes per game this year and made the fourth-fewest.  Steven Adams will likely get played off the floor by Houston’s small-ball lineups – the Thunder don’t have a stretch big who could viably protect the rim (Danillo Gallonari at the 5 is great offensively, but not exactly defensively).  Mike Muscala is the best option they have, but then you’re also playing Mike Muscala late in a playoff game – you’re not going far if he’s one of your best five players.

It’s possible the rim protection issue isn’t one OKC has to worry about immediately.  With Russell Westbrook out for at least Game 1, Houston’s drives will be limited.  Harden will still penetrate and attempt to get fouled, but the Thunder committed the fourth-fewest fouls in the league this year, and the least among playoff teams.

Westbrook has to stop shooting from the outside.  The Rockets take enough to afford one non-shooter on the court.  In addition, it just makes them better. His speed and athleticism is unmatched – he’s too quick for any wing defender, let alone a big.  Houston has to let him drive, or they can play him in the paint at center and get him quick entry passes like in this play below.

This is an extremely intriguing set from Houston.  It doesn’t allow Westbrook to shoot from the outside and matches him up with perhaps a slow center in the lane.  It’s like a post-up without taking the time a post-up does.  In addition, it doesn’t leave Westbrook as the lame duck in the offense.

Of course, they won’t be able to run this in Game 1 with Westbrook out.  But there hasn’t been any indication he’ll miss the series, which is good news for Houston.

OKC is dealing with injuries as well.  Lugentz Dort will miss Game 1 for the Thunder with a knee sprain – a massive blow considering he’s their best option for Harden.  That said, Dort’s probably being a bit overrated as a defender just because of his burst onto the scene this year, but he has done well in their previous matchups.  

Even if Dort can give Harden some trouble, the rest of the Rockets are a troubling proposition for the Thunder.  OKC’s incredibly thin on the wing, which is why we’ve seen heavy three-guard sets throughout most of the year.  The weak spots outside, an attacking Westbrook and the prototypical Harden should overwhelm.

Houston just has to defend, which should be doable.  PJ Tucker won’t be too taxed at the center position, so be it that Adams is expectedly played off the floor.  Robert Covington was brought to Houston for his defense, and Eric Gordon should be able to hang with whoever Houston puts him on.  Covington could matchup with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander late in games, since SGA’s height makes him a bit more versatile of a scorer.  

The Rockets are gonna have to put Harden somewhere.  He’s the matchup OKC is going to have to exploit on a nightly basis, and hope whoever he guards can take advantage and have a big game.  Harden’s defense is a rare scenario in where having no wings is a good thing – it will force Harden to actually move and try to not get cooked by one of the Thunder’s guards.

OKC’s ability to walk out 3-4 players in crunch-time who can all get their own shot is similar to the Toronto mold.  They lack a true superstar – someone who’s been there before and can go up against anyone.  SGA is still young, CP3’s playoff record is well known and this will automatically be the most important basketball Dennis Schroder has ever played.  That said, Houston’s playoff record isn’t impeccable either, and if the craftiness and scrappiness of the Thunder prevails, then the math may not be able to bail out the Rockets after all.

Houston cannot afford to lose their series from an organizational perspective.  Harden’s legacy would be toast.  Mike D’Antoni would be more gone than he already is.  Daryl Morey could find himself out the door as well.  This team is too good too fall this early, but it doesn’t mean they won’t have some bumps in their journey.

Prediction: Rockets in 6 


No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Portland Trail Blazers

Like Houston, the Lakers drew the worst possible matchup in the first round.  This one could be even scarier.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are a serious problem for Los Angeles.  Without Avery Bradley – the Lakers best defender against smaller guards – guarding one or both of these guys might be impossible.  That’s terrifying to consider against Lillard, who’s been on an ungodly run in the bubble and earned the seeding games MVP award because of it.  Lillard’s at the point right now where Portland’s performance as a team could be completely negated by a monster game from their point guard.

That’s where the potential hole left by McCollum – who’s been playing with a fracture in his lower back – is actually a good thing for the Lakers.  Lillard’s play recently have indicated nothing else matters.  If they can stop Lillard, it’s going to be up to the dude with the broken back.

McCollum’s been up and down since we learned about the fracture.  He is certainly not himself, but he has still made threes and shown some of what makes him special. McCollum and Lillard are not going to be the forceful duo we’ve seen in postseasons past because of McCollum’s limitations, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t give them a chance.  Lillard alone does that.

The Lakers desperately need Rajon Rondo back at some point in this series, which just seems like a ridiculous statement to make about a team that is the Vegas favorite to win the title (Maybe they shouldn’t be?  Isn’t this a pretty good case for them not to be?).  That said, Rondo could provide legitimate value to the Lakers.  It reduces meaningful minutes for Dion Waiters, who with a growing role probably becomes less effective.  It gives them a much better option for Lillard – Rondo is a good defender when he tries, he just doesn’t like to try often.  A re-emerged Playoff Rondo trying on defense is a good, important player in this series though.  He’s not going to stop Lillard, but he could reduce his impact.

Without Rondo, things are bleak for the Lakers.  It forces them to pivot to their normal two-big lineup, with Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and LeBron James on the wings or to play Anthony Davis at the five and slide in JR Smith or Kyle Kuzma.  These lineups aren’t necessarily about offensive fit (more on that later), it’s about the group best equipped to defend Portland’s guards.  The Lakers best unit with Rondo is probably features James, Davis, Green and Smith, just because of the size matchup between Rondo and Smith on Lillard and McCollum.  Smith isn’t a great defender, but the last thing the Lakers want is Portland’s guards sneaking around a bad defensive wing.  McCollum is especially good at that, and ruling him out 100 percent as a threat despite the injury is how you get yourself in trouble.  The Lakers can’t afford that; they’re already in enough of it.

It’s possible that none of this matters for the Lakers.  While Lillard and McCollum are a terrible matchup for them, the James-Davis duo, which should finish in the top five of MVP voting (Two and three on this ballot), is an even worse one for Portland.  And if you’re talking about overall impact, Davis and James likely swallow what Lillard can do.

The Lakers not having guards who can defend is the equivalent of Portland not having wings.  James is just a nightmare for them, let alone Davis.  Gary Trent Jr. has been unconscious in the bubble, and had a good reputation as a defender coming into the league, but expecting him to contain James and continue to produce the offensive output he has is unrealistic.  Thinking that Carmelo Anthony is going to play any defense at all – let alone on James – would make one wonder where your head is at.  The hole only gets deeper after Anthony – we’re now in the Mario Hezonja area of the land, and it’s probably a good idea to stop here.

Then there’s Davis to worry about.  Jursurf Nurkic has improved greatly as a defender, and has been a monster since his return to play in the bubble, but he’s not the most switchable defender – it’s been his rim protection that’s developed so much.  Zach Collins is going to be out for at least Game 1 with an ankle injury, which hurts against Davis’ post-ups, but Collins isn’t the best defender either and will be toast if Davis stretches him out to the perimeter and attacks.

Wenyen Gabriel, who will be getting the start over Collins in Game 1, might actually be the best bet.  He’s more athletic than Portland’s common frontcourt tandem, and has serious size.  His defense has been horrible during his playing time in the bubble – as has Portland’s as a whole – but in terms of the gift of chance, Gabriel might actually stick.  His offensive game is raw, even though he’s made threes at times in August.  That would make him a tough play late in games – this series likely comes down to offense vs. offense since no one can guard anybody on either side, and Gabriel is a minus on that end.

The defensive matchups for each team are both so poor that they just may not matter.  It’s going to be about whether Lillard and McCollum can score every time or whether Davis and James can.  Neither defense really stands a chance.

James and Davis have been unstoppable all year.  We know the ceiling that each of them can reach – James is arguably the most unstoppable force of all-time while Davis isn’t as far behind as you think in that category.  But Lillard has elevated to James-esque levels lately, and he’s perhaps the second scariest guy to bet against in the league aside from James.  Combine that with the Lakers’ complete lack of resources to make his life harder, and Lillard is going to take Portland down to the wire here.  It’s just going to be about who’s more unstoppable when the time comes.

Prediction: Lakers in 7

Previewing Nuggets-Jazz, Raptors-Nets and Clippers-Mavericks

With four series getting underway Monday and the other four Tuesday, previews will be released on those corresponding days.  Below are previews for the Nuggets-Jazz, Raptors-Nets and Mavericks-Clippers series, all of which tip off Monday.

10:30 AM PT playoff basketball is very nice.

Celtics-Sixers preview can be found here


No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Utah Jazz

For two teams that have questions about the viability of postseason success, Aug. 8th’s double overtime thriller between these two certainly quelled some fears.  Donovan Mitchell played like the best player on a championship team, hitting tough shot after tough shot to keep Utah in it after controlling most of the game.  Jamal Murray – in his bubble debut – matched Mitchell at times after Michael Porter Jr. brought Denver back in the third quarter.  Denver just pulled it out, and they’re in good shape to do it again in this series.

If Utah’s lack of firepower wasn’t pressing enough, Mike Conley’s absence for what looks to be at least two games of this series only adds to it.  The chemistry between him and Mitchell had obviously been shaky throughout the year – Utah moving Conley to the bench prior to the league’s suspension generated more success for the Jazz.  But Conley was shooting 37.5 percent from three on 5.4 attempts per game, and given that Emmanuel Muiday is the replacement for Conley, it’s a much bigger loss than January would have indicated.

Jordan Clarkson has produced the instant offense Utah hoped for when they traded for him prior to the deadline, but the point of that trade was to support the offense when Mitchell wasn’t on the court.  The Clarkson-Mitchell duo had a net rating of -0.7 this season, and a brutal -6.6 net rating in 83 minutes during bubble play.  

Utah’s best offensive lineup isn’t very good at offense.  It’s a group that will need Joe Ingles to be its second-best player, Royce O’Neal to emerge as a sharp-shooter and Rudy Gobert to, well, stay on the floor.

That should be doable against Nikola Jokic.  Denver won’t go small on Utah, play five out and force Gobert out to the perimeter much.  He’s not someone you’re going to feed, but pick-and-rolls with Mitchell or Clarkson could be an easy way to get buckets.  It forces Jokic to have to play defense, whether that be him hedging or dropping and going up straight up to contest.

The loss of Bojan Bogdanovic is crippling without Conley.  Things were going to be tough enough for Utah in this series without the Croatian sniper.  Conley at least provided a makeup for some of the shooting lost.

Denver is without key guys too, though.  Gary Harris and Will Barton aren’t expected to play for the Nuggets in Game 1 – Denver has been without them throughout the entire bubble thus far as the pair have been dealing with hip and knee injuries, respectively.  Counting Harris as a loss might be generous, his spot in the rotation might have been in question with the rise of Michael Porter Jr and PJ Dozier coupled with solid play from Monte Morris.  Harris’ shooting fell off a cliff during the regular season, making him a tough play for a team that has dealt with similar problems as Utah.

Porter Jr. might have solved those, though.  Now that Michael Malone is finally playing him, the 6’10 forward from Missouri is shining, and looks like the top five pick some projected him to be in the 2018 draft.  The skillset is the type that develops into a top ten player in this league someday.  He can get any shot he wants with his size, and make any shot with his scoring ability.

He’s the type of player that Murray probably never will be.  Denver’s playoff exits have been tied to their reliance on the offense Jokic creates, which can be figured out easily if a team seals the passing lanes and defends cuts.  That’s led Murray to have to create for himself and the team, and it hasn’t gone too well.

The problem is that Porter Jr. would thrive as the first option rather than the second or third.  Malone’s been resistant to fully turning him loose, which is odd considering Murray’s late arrival to bubble play.  In Murray’s first game back, Porter Jr.’s was 0-5 in the first half, and found themselves down 14 as a result. Porter Jr. then went on a tear in the third that got Denver back in the game, and he finished with 23 points.

Porter Jr. can’t get phased out like that, even if Denver gets back Harris and Barton and can use those guards off Jokic. He represents the highest ceiling the Nuggets can reach.  If Denver works through Murray or relies on Jokic too much, it allows Mitchell to become the best player on the floor, and as we saw last weekend, that can be trouble for Denver.  Even without substantial help, Mitchell can do what he wants.  He’s that good.

Malone’s unwillingness to give Porter Jr. a role elongates this series.  Denver doesn’t have to defend that well for Utah to struggle offensively.  They might actually not have to defend well at all.  The longer Porter Jr. doesn’t play, the more time Mitchell has to go off.

It will have to take a superhuman effort from Mitchell to win this series though.  He’ll have Torrey Craig on him, who’s done a good job in the past.  Combine that with the workload that he will have – which is a large one even with Conley on the court – and it’s tough to see Utah posing a real fight.  But they did last Saturday, and it was all because of Mitchell’s stardom.  If that’s what he can do alone, then his potential with an actual surrounding cast (which a player like Bogdanovic would be featured in) is scary to imagine.  For now, our viewing of that will be delayed.

Prediction: Nuggets in 6


No.2 Toronto Raptors vs. No.7 Brooklyn Nets

Despite being the 2-seed vs. the 7-seed, this series feels like even more of a mismatch than Magic-Bucks, with Orlando having at least some hope in attempting to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo (more on that series tomorrow).

The Nets are just trying to get to next season with a large part of their rotation not even in the Orlando bubble due to various injuries and COVID-19.  With that, it’s probably best to just look at this series in terms of how Brooklyn could put up a fight.

They’re going to need massive games from Caris LeVert, who has shined in the absence of heavier ball-handlers like Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving.  In their loss to Portland Thursday night, LeVert showed what he was capable of: taking on a No.1 scorer role and doing it in a way that was efficient and translated to winning.  LeVert went toe-to-toe with Damian Lillard, who was at the peak of his powers, and almost won.

Part of that could be pinned on LeVert literally not being guarded – Portland’s defense was pathetic in the do-or-die match.  Imagine what LeVert might’ve been able to do if they weren’t trying.

He will certainly face increased defensive pressure against Toronto.  No team is longer and has the plethora of wings the Raptors do.  Options range from OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Terence Davis or even someone like Norman Powell.  Those guys are all lockdown defenders.

If LeVert is neutralized, Brooklyn is toast.  Massive shooting performances from the likes of Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs and company would have to be in store.  Perhaps there would have to be a Jamal Crawford game, which would be incredibly entertaining, hilarious and also be the most Toronto thing ever.

Toronto should dominate this series and it shouldn’t be close.  But, if LeVert continues to stay hot, it could be a really good sign of things to come for the Nets, whether he’s on their roster or not next year.

Prediction: Toronto in 4


No.2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No.7 Dallas Mavericks

It’s a testament to how good the Western Conference is, but for Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks to draw this matchup in the first round is just unfair.

Dallas felt like a way better team than one that will likely go home in the first round.  (Arguably) The best offense of all-time according to various metrics should not be facing the team that should win the title right off the bat.  A team that had a top five finisher in MVP voting should be making serious noise.  Dallas felt better than a one-and-done postseason showing.

The Clippers are a disastrous matchup for the Mavericks.  No one is going to stop Doncic – which is just an asinine thing to say about a 21-year-old – but Los Angeles has arguably the two best wing defenders in the league to put on him.  While Dallas didn’t post the highest offensive rating ever this year without others aside from Doncic producing, he’s the engine behind the car.  It’s a pretty fast one, too.

It seems unlikely that the others are going to make the Clippers really pay.  Despite having snipers like Kristaps Porzingis, Seth Curry, Maxi Kleber and others, it’s tough to get them the looks they’re used to if Doncic is getting clamped.  The Clippers don’t have to send so much help on the Slovenian star – Leonard and George can probably handle it.  That allows the other defensive menaces to stay closer to their guys – the shooters that Doncic so frequently kicks out to.  The shots that typically go down for Dallas may not in this series.

That’s the just offensive half.  Dallas finished the regular season 18th in defensive rating and had the second worst number – an ugly, ugly 120.6 – throughout the eight seeding games.  Their best defender is Dorian Finney-Smith, who had a good year but wasn’t allowed to reap the credit for it given his team’s performance – his effort just didn’t matter.  Doncic and Porzingis typically have their feet glued to the court.  Seth Curry will get picked on because of his size.  Kleber is surprisingly switchable and athletic on the defensive end – him against a Marcus Morris or JaMychal Green isn’t the disaster the other matchups are.

Doncic is going to have to pull some seriously special stuff in this series to keep Dallas around.  Him against Leonard or George pits a top four offensive player against a top one to three defensive player.  It’s a fascinating matchup, and the winner of it determines the series.  If Doncic can take on either of them, then no one ever would have been as good as he is at this age.  It would be historical.  It would probably break the league.  Doncic might get anointed the league’s best player right then and there.

The craziest part is that it’s not totally, 100 percent inconceivable either.  If Doncic single-handily won this series for Dallas, we’d just go “Oh, he’s just doing this a lot earlier than we expected to.”  It’d be stunning, but it also wouldn’t be that surprising either.  If anyone can do it, it’s him.

The problems on the defensive end for Dallas just seem insurmountable.  Not only do they not have anyone for Leonard, but they don’t have anyone for basically anyone else on the Clippers roster either.  That team is juggernaut offensively at their best, and they’re going to finally be that in these playoffs.  Remember how daunting their closing lineup was last year with the Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell two-man game?  Take that and add Leonard and George as your wings, who can also emerge as 1A and 1B scorers if they want to do so.  This team has top-end talent and depth – it’s a rare combination in a league dominated by stars.  Because of that, this series should be a breeze for them.  

Prediction: Clippers in 5

Attempting To Project The NBA Play-In Game(s)

Predicting the outcome of a single, winner-take-all game without any prior precedent hasn’t been done by this website or any other website in basketball history.

It seems silly to pick who’s going to win a single game without watching one or two games between the two teams first.  But for Trail Blazers and Grizzlies, there isn’t that option.  They haven’t played six games in a series prior to this one, even though it has the same implications as a Game 7 for one team.  Any of the two matchups they had in the regular season are subject to some flaws – February’s meeting featured a Portland team that looks nothing like is does now, and even though the two played just 15 days ago in Orlando, it was the first game back for either after nearly five months off.  How much stock can we really put into it?

This serves as a buffer and warning for what’s below.  Take all the analysis and predictions with a grain of salt, because this is uncharted territory.  To think deeply about a single game in this sport is not how things are typically done, but it is what sells, and there’s no doubting that eyes will be on it.

Play-In Game: No.8 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No.9 Memphis Grizzlies

Ultimately, the deep analysis mentioned above may not totally be needed for this game(s).  The outcome might be based on a single simple factor.

Damian Lillard is about as hot as a basketball player can be right now.  He’s averaging 51.3 points per game over his last three, has sinked 21 threes, is forcing teams to blitz him over the half court line and is still sticking it in their face by pulling up from the logo and making those shots as well.

It feels like Lillard has reached an unprecedented level of individual play each of the last three years.  He had a six game stretch back in late January where he averaged 48.8 points a game and hit a sickening 57 percent of his threes while taking 14.3 a game.  In the bubble thus far, Lillard is averaging 37.6 points a game with 9.6 assists and is shooting 43.6 percent from deep.  During the 2018-19 season, he had back-to-back 40 point games early in the year and led Portland over Oklahoma City in the playoffs while just cooking the rest of the league.  Lillard’s now the guy where it’s just mind-boggling that he hasn’t made the Finals yet, because he’s performed like someone who’d be the best player on the court in them the past three years.

“Dame Time” has inflicted itself on multiple teams thus far in Orlando.  Memphis seems to be next up.  As long as Lillard doesn’t fall apart, the Grizzlies are likely screwed in this matchup.  The Trail Blazers point guard has taken it upon himself to make sure Portland doesn’t lose lately – he’s performed in such a way that makes losing virtually impossible, no matter how close they come to it.  When players ascend to this level, there’s just nothing an opponent can do.  It’s the Stephen Curry/LeBron James/Kevin Durant level, where nothing a team tries works.  Those guys’ impact just outweighs everything else.

Memphis doesn’t exactly have the feisty defensive guards that have given Lillard trouble in the past, a la the Elfrid Payton’s and Rajon Rondo’s of the 2017-2018 playoffs.  Ja Morant is incredible on one end, however he isn’t going to get up in Lillard’s grill and bother him.  De’Anthony Melton is a good player who’s had an underrated season, but we’re kidding ourselves if he’s going to stop Lillard.  Memphis has the ability to try and swallow Lillard with the likes of the longer Brandon Clarke, but the Bubble MVP has proved that the only strategy that semi-works against him is the heavy blitzing and trapping schemes, and doing that leaves the likes of Gary Trent Jr. (A revelation) and CJ McCollum open for threes.  

Regardless of what Lillard does, Memphis just doesn’t have the firepower to get a single win against Portland.  That was likely the case even if this game was played pre-bubble.  Now, after watching the Grizzlies offense completely sputter thanks to what seems to be the effect of high stakes games on young players, it feels like they don’t have a chance.  It would take a special effort from Morant, and some lights out shooting from Anthony Tolliver for them to keep up.  For now, “Dame Time” is still what the clock is showing, and who knows when its hands will come back around.

Prediction: Portland in 1