Pac-12 Championship Preview

Putting this up now as prior obligations (Cronkite Sports Live at 4 PM Arizona time today on Youtube!  I’ll be on it!) have taken time away from me to write on tomorrow’s games.  I will have a full preview of Championship Saturday up tomorrow morning. For now, here’s the preview for tonight’s Pac-12 Championship.

Pac-12 Championship: No.17 Utah vs. No.11 Washington

As I write this, I am thinking about what it’d be like to be driving from Phoenix to Santa Clara right now, having paid God-knows-what insanely low price for student tickets to see Arizona State play for a chance to go Rose Bowl.  Unfortunately, none of that is happening, and we’re getting two just as equally unimpressive teams instead.  Welcome to the Pac-12 everyone!

ASU beat one of these teams (Utah.  Utah with Zack Moss, I should point out) and hung close with the other.  Brutal offense and play-calling killed the Sun Devils against the Huskies earlier this year, and a two possession lead was just too much for us to overcome.  Washington’s 13th ranked defense by FEI came up clutch in that game.

It should against Utah as well.  ASU beat Utah with big, explosive plays and by taking away the passing game, literally, as that was the game Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley finished his season in with a broken collarbone.

Since, it’s been rough going for the Utes.  Backup QB Jason Shelly has been more effective with his feet than his arm since taking over.  He’s posted a brutal 56.3% completion percentage, and the most he’s thrown in a game this season was 262 yards against Oregon; a game where he ran for two TDs and threw for none.

There’s no worse matchup for Utah than Washington when it comes to the passing game.  The Huskies allow 5.8 yards per passing attempt, 11th in the country.  They’re rock solid in coverage, with shutdown-calibers players everywhere.  Shelly’s not making the throws you have to make against Washington.

The Utes might have a chance if Zack Moss was healthy, which would take the pressure off of Shelly to deliver.  Backup Armand Shyne has gotten work throughout the whole year, but only stepped up big once in Moss’ absence against Oregon, a fine but not great run defense.  Besides that, Shyne has struggled.  Colorado stuffed him in a win, and despite rushing for two TDs in that crazy BYU game last week, Shyne couldn’t get yards to help the Utes move the ball down the field.

This game simply comes down to Utah being able to keep up and move the ball.  Getting yards will be easier than scoring; Washington is 79th in the country at not-allowing first downs, according to Football Outsiders’ First Down Rate.  But they clamp down once they allow those first downs, ranking 11th in FO’s DTF stat.

Washington’s offense, though turnover-prone, has a ton of weapons.  When Jake Browning has a good day, he can air it out to receivers like Aaron Fuller and Ty Jones, who both average over 15 yards per catch.  Myles Gaskin is one of the best running backs in the country as well.  Utah’s fantastic up front though; they’re 6th in the country in yards allowed per rush, allowing just three per.

But even if Gaskin can’t get going, the Huskies’ receivers present such a massive matchup problem that Washington should be able to use them to get yards against Utah.  The Utes don’t force turnovers at a very high clip, which is the key to stopping the Huskies and their passing attack.

If Utah was healthy, this would be a much more compelling game.  But with all their injuries, it seems just too tough for the Utes to hang with the Huskies.

Prediction: Washington-35  Utah-14

Are There Six NFC Playoff Teams?

Every season we get anywhere from one-to-three teams that don’t deserve their postseason berth.  You can find examples in every season.  Remember when the Cardinals squeaked into the playoffs with Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley in the 2014-2015 season?  Or in the next season, when the Texans got to 9-7 and won the  always terrible AFC South despite TJ Yates, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallet and Brandon Weeden all starting games?  Or last year, when three of the four AFC Wild Card teams consisted of the Bills, Titans and Texans, making for a cringe-worthy Wild Card Saturday?

This year, it’s the NFC’s turn to supply us with low-quality playoff teams.

This is not what was expected to happen this season.  I said before the season that my six playoff teams in the NFC (Vikings, Falcons, Saints, Packers, Eagles and Rams) would be the six teams, guaranteed.  It seemed like a murderer’s row, and those six made sense before Week 1.  There was nothing radical predicted there!  I never saw the scenario we are in now happening.

Now we’re going to evaluate how and why that’s happening, and if it can be “fixed”, or essentially if there’s any chance my predictions come back around.

Guaranteed, deserving playoff teams: Rams, Saints, Bears

Only one surprise here!  Everyone had the Rams and Saints in, but there are a couple surprises built within them.  The insane, high-powered offenses these teams have instituted this season are on the verge of revolutionizing the league.  We all knew the Rams and Saints had offenses that could put up 40 on any day and would finish in the top five in practically every offensive metric.  But no one saw numbers like averages of 37.2 and 35.4 points per game being put up.  This could be blamed on the Chiefs, who rank 2nd in points per game and have surprised me greatly.  The Chiefs air-raid, “we’ll worry about defense later (or not at all)” strategy could be what has turned the league into an offense-first one for real this time.  We knew this was coming, but the Rams and Saints weren’t putting together offensive displays like this last season.  45-35, 43-40 and 54-51 scores weren’t being put up between the league’s top teams last season.  Defense still mattered.

No one predicted that, and no one predicted that a Mitchell Trubisky-led offense would be surviving in the middle of it, either.  I was conflicted on the Bears heading into the season; even after the Kahlil Mack trade.  Trust in Trubisky was low, and his adaptation to a new offense and new weapons concerned me.  The defense was gonna make them interesting; I didn’t expect it to keep them that way.

Chicago’s survived.  The defense has been better than even imagined, and is ranked 1st by DVOA.  It hasn’t just been the front seven either.  The secondary ranks 2nd by DVOA, thanks to guys like Eddie Jackson making plays.  And the offense has benefitted from it.  Matt Nagy has Trubisky playing well.  He’s experimenting with the deep ball, though the North Carolina product hardly makes those throws accurately.   But most of Trubisky’s success has been due to the investment Chicago made in weapons over the offseason.  Anthony Miller and Trey Burton have each caught five touchdowns, and Allen Robinson has recovered well from his Achilles injury by returning to No.1 receiver form.  Tarik Cohen’s been great for getting yards when they use him; he ranks tied for 10th in the NFL in total yards after the catch, and he’s a running back.

Chicago’s losses have made sense.  Aaron Rodgers did an Aaron Rodgers thing in Week 1.  Every team loses one dumb game, and that was the Week 6 crapfest against the Dolphins.  And the Bears got out-scored by Tom Brady in Week 7.  They haven’t lost since.  I’ll roll with those L’s.

The Bears are in the NFC’s top three, and while it’s incredibly surprising, it at least makes sense.  I’m willing to concede on leaving them out in early September.

On the cusp: Vikings, Panthers

It’s odd writing this right after Minnesota handled Green Bay decently well the other night, but we can’t let that performance overshadow what’s been a pretty underwhelming season for the Vikings so far.

The Vikings just haven’t hit the expectations we set for them.  They sit at a “meh” 6-4-1 on the year.  It took the defense awhile to start playing well, and Kirk Cousins has made fantastic throws while also being mostly responsible for the Vikings ranking 9th in turnovers.  He’s had multiple brutal interceptions, and has already lost the Vikings one game solely on a fumble.

They seem to be turning it around though.  The defense is up to 6th in DVOA, and they actually contained Aaron Rodgers quite well in the 2nd half of Sunday night’s game.  They got a stop they desperately needed, and it paid off.

The Vikings are good on offense until Kirk Cousins isn’t.  The defense looks to be real again.  They got off to a slow start, but when everyone is on, the offense is scary.  Stefon Diggs and Adam Thelien are two of the ten best receivers in the league, and Dalvin Cook looked really good for the first time in awhile the other night.

The doubt I have with the Viking has to do with their slow start and Cousins.  It seems like they’ve turned it around.  It’s a little tough to go all-in, though.

The Panthers are similar.  I haven’t been able to trust them on either side of the ball, but whenever that doubt comes around, the offense does something ridiculous like it did Sunday, when Christian McCaffrey racked up 243 yards from scrimmage and two TDs.

But Sunday also brought the Panthers a brutal loss, their 3rd in a row, and has them sitting at 6-5 and out of the playoffs.

The Panthers are very Steelers-like.  Sometimes the offense just doesn’t like to get going.  It’s why losses against Washington and Detroit, two teams that have the same issues yet way less talent, have stolen games away from Carolina.  The Redskins and Lions didn’t really shut the Panthers down.  Neither defense is good nor played well in those games.  The Panthers just killed themselves over and over again.

And when that happens against teams with real talent, like Pittsburgh and Seattle (Though you could make the case those teams have their own offensive issues, especially when it comes to starting games), the Panthers don’t have a chance.  The Steelers romped Carolina on Thursday night 2.5 weeks ago; that’s a defense the Panthers should have dominated, given how many receivers the Steelers leave open every week.

Sunday’s game in Seattle was a little different.  It was the defense that really let them down, as Tyler Lockett was open down the field multiple times and allowed the Seahawks to go the length of the field on the final drive to win on a game-winning field goal.  The Panthers did a good job getting pressure on Russell Wilson, as most teams do, but they failed to back up their work up front in the secondary.

Since November hit, it feels like it’s something new every week for the Panthers.  When they were 6-2 and were lighting the world on fire with their offense, it still seemed a little fishy.  I was waiting for this.  We’re here, and it’s a total pain in the butt.

The Panthers are on the cusp for a pretty good reason, like Minnesota.  They’ve been way too inconsistent.  But the Panthers have a lot more work to do than the Vikings.  They currently sit out of the playoffs thanks to the Redskins (More on them later).  The Vikings are in as the 5th seed right now, which is probably about right where they belong given their talent level is higher than Carolina’s when both teams are 100% healthy and fully firing.

Ewwwwwww: Redskins, Cowboys, Seahawks

Two of these teams could be fit for the section above.  Dallas and Seattle are teetering on the cusp, and that’s only because I didn’t expect those teams to be in this position.  Minnesota and Carolina were expected to be right here, so the Seahawks and Cowboys get the “Ewwww” trait because I still haven’t came around on the fact that they might be good.

Seattle has a better case than Dallas.  Their defense is much better, and though the offense isn’t one that’ll compete with the league’s top dogs, it’s certainly more consistent than the Cowboys’.  Infrastructure matters, and Seattle has that.  Their ground-and-pound, old-school offensive scheme is getting them by at 6-5.  And with a top ten defense by DVOA, they, kinda like the Bears, have been able to survive.  The Seahawks have three running backs with over 300 yards this season; a major surprise considering the carousel they’ve employed over the past three seasons.  Chris Carson has emerged as a No.1 guy despite the horrific offensive line play, which has allowed Russell Wilson to be sacked on a ridiculous 9.9% of his drop backs.

The Seahawks are screwed whenever they face a good defense.  Losses to Chicago and Denver early in the season were the result of the running game not being able to get going, and two games against the Rams early this season didn’t help either.  They have Minnesota and Kansas City left, which is a good defense and an offense they won’t be able to keep up with.  But they can squeak out nine wins thanks to their two 49ers matchups coming up, and their home meeting with Arizona.

Seattle’s fine.  They’re just getting by, which might be enough for the 6th seed.  Right now it’s not, but as we’ll get to below, there’s no way Washington keeps occupying that spot.

Dallas is less fun.  Their three game winning streak is single-handily and unfortunately saving Jason Garrett his job.  But it’s also made Jerry Jones look like a genius, as Amari Cooper has given the Cowboys a reliable receiver.  A first round pick was, and still is, insane for Cooper, but his big play ability, which was hit-or-miss in Oakland, has came through since being traded to Dallas.  He’s actually getting open, and he shredded Washington on Thanksgiving.

Still, the Dallas offense ranks a paltry 24th in offensive DVOA.  The ranking is mostly due to their previous struggles; ones that came pre-winning streak and pre-Cooper trade.  Since, it’s been a whole new offense.  Ezekiel Elliot is running like he did in his rookie year, and Cooper has massively opened things up for the play-action.

But I just don’t trust this to continue.  As Stephen A. Smith always says, the Cowboys are an accident waiting to happen.  I believe that to be true this year.  There’s no way Jason Garrett doesn’t not start screwing things up, and the bad start to the Cowboys year offensively is probably just being corrected now by a crazy hot streak.  There has to be some regression.  Elliot finally suffering from the pretty-banged up offensive line?  Cooper returning to his inconsistent, drop-prone self?  It’s coming.

And then there’s Washington, who currently occupies the 6th seed solely thanks to their crazy 6-3 start which has came crashing down for multiple reasons, some warranted and some very obviously not.

DVOA is a stat that looks at how far above or below average a defense or offense preforms or allows a team to preform.  “Average” is a word you could use to describe this Washington team so far this season, and the stats back it up.  The Redskins are currently 23rd in offensive DVOA and 14th in defensive DVOA, which is as close to the middle of the road as you can get.  Those numbers are much more indicative of what this Washington team is, and ever was, than their 6-3 start.

I hate to harp on Alex Smith, who might have suffered a career ending injury, but it’s a point that has to be made to pump the brakes on the Redskins.  There was one game in which Smith started this season where his yards per attempt exceeded ten. His 2nd highest total was 8.5

That’s only going to get worse with Colt McCoy under center.  If Smith brought anything, it was stability and consistency.  With McCoy, that goes up in the air, and we got a good example of it on Thanksgiving.  Smith may not have actually thrown the football, but he didn’t make mistakes.  With McCoy, mistakes are bound to happen.

Smith’s injury sucks because it’s going to make Washington look a lot worse than they actually are when the regression hits.

The Redskins won’t make the playoffs.  I thought that was something that’d be a safe guarantee before the season, but here we are in Week 13 and it’s somehow a possibility.  I’m willing to guarantee it again.  If they sneak in, then the point of this column looks pretty good given that Colt McCoy would be getting a team into the playoffs.

At the end of the day, either of these three teams making the playoffs feels underwhelming.  Dallas and Seattle at least makes sense, but the fact that they’re in this race is still something I’m still warming up to.  Washington would be a disaster for the league; they’d be an automatic bid for that crappy Saturday playoff game.  The Redskins in the playoffs would be so horrific that it might justify one of these teams below getting in.

What’s wrong with you?: Eagles, Packers, Falcons

Two of these three teams are more complicated than the other.  The Falcons have been absolutely ravaged by injuries on both sides of the ball, and you can’t totally blame them (or me!) for that.  They have an excuse.

But the Eagles and Packers really don’t.  Philadelphia is having a classic Super Bowl hangover season along with a brutal injury year like Atlanta, creating a special mix of bad luck and the season from hell, while Green Bay overall just doesn’t have enough talent; it’s at such a lack that even Aaron Rodgers can’t survive it.

The Eagles defense has slipped all the way to 24th in DVOA.  Their secondary has been extremely banged up; Sidney Jones, Ronald Darby, Rodney McLeod, Jalen Mills and Avonte Maddox are all players who have missed time this year, are out for the year, or will miss Monday’s game against Washington.  The front seven has suffered less, but guys like Derek Barnett and Jordan Hicks have missed time, or in Barnett’s case, are out for the year.

The Eagles have left people open in every game.  Sunday against the Giants featured one of their most pathetic performances all season; New York was actually able to move the ball down the field on them.  A lot of that was thanks to Saquon Barkley, but when the Giants needed to turn to the Eli, they were able to, and comfortably.

It’s hard to blame Philly’s defense.  Last week they played with guys I’ve never heard of.  Braxton Miller is playing some cornerback for them.  The deficiencies in the secondary just can’t be made up in the front seven.

But you’d think they’d be able to made up by the offense, and that just hasn’t been the case.  Philly starts every game slow offensively, suffering from the Panthers and Steelers’ syndrome.  The offensive line went through serious struggles early; because of that they’re in the 9th in the league in sacks allowed.  Jay Ajayi went down for the season, which was a huge blow to a running game that struggled to get going even with Ajayi active.

The Eagles are just average on 3rd downs this season, and just don’t have the same energy surrounding them.  It’s felt like they’ve missed offensive coordinator Frank Reich desperately, which makes sense considering the show he has the Colts putting on.

But it also feels like the Eagles have turned it around.  Despite Sunday’s underwhelming performance against one of the worst teams in football, the Eagles are starting to look like their selves from last year.  Josh Adams has emerged as a No.1 running back for them, which is little surprise to me as he single-handily carried Notre Dame’s offense last season.  While Barkley dominated the first half Sunday, Adams dominated the 2nd, and sparked multiple Eagles drives to get them to rally late.  Carson Wentz made throws to set them up for the game-winning field goal as well.  For that 2nd half, the Eagles looked like the Eagles again.

It’s hard to say whether it’s going to stick.  The Eagles are probably gonna stink in the first half against Washington Monday night, leading to a thrilling 0-0 or 3-0 halftime score.  At the same time, Josh Adams could run all over the Redskins front, and Colt McCoy is the quarterback a defense should be able to contain.

That’s the problem with the Eagles.  Every week, we just don’t know what we’re going to get.  One week we go “Hey look, they’re back!” and the next it’s “Oh, they still suck!”

But the difference with the Eagles is that even if this is their best mold, they’re still the best option out of any of these teams for a playoff spot.  They have the highest ceiling.  How much would it really surprise you if the Eagles end up in the NFC Championship Game?  Weren’t they supposed to be there in the first place?

That’s the problem with the Packers.  We saw a scenario where this would happen; my season prediction for them was strictly based on Aaron Rodgers doing Aaron Rodgers things.  And he has at times this season; take Week 1’s comeback against the Bears for example.  But it’s also time to admit that Aaron Rodgers has had moments over the past two weeks that don’t totally resemble the Aaron Rodgers we’ve become accustom to.  He’s missed throws in big spots, costing Green Bay a game or two.

But that doesn’t mean we solely blame Rodgers either.  It’s a combination of everything.  The Packers defense still is bad, ranking 20th in DVOA, and they still lack quality receivers.  Rodgers is throwing to rookies out there, and these aren’t top draft picks.  And Mike McCarthy’s offense isn’t any better, though the emergence of Aaron Jones as a No.1 running back has certainly taken some of the heat off of his  seat.

The Packers can get around it, but that’s going to be up to Rodgers and some luck.  The defense has to improve just a bit; to a level where it doesn’t totally compromise everything else, and Rodgers has to go into “R-E-L-A-X” and “run the table” mode.  We’ve seen that before, and it’s terrifying.  And it’s why the Packers, despite mathematically being close to out of it, still can’t totally be counted out.  Are we sure they’re worse than the Redskins, or even the Cowboys?  The Seahawks beat Green Bay two weeks ago, in a game where Rodgers did all he could and the defense  let him down.  In that game, the Seahawks hit their peak, their “Hey, we might actually want them in the playoffs” selves.  The Packers didn’t.  Is that the deciding factor?

The NFC is one of these two things.  It’s either really good like we expected it to be, but just in a different way, or it’s full of a bunch of teams we don’t have a real feel for yet, and don’t totally trust for certain reasons.  The case that it’s good looks like the Rams, Bears and Saints dominating the top, the Vikings and Panthers in as their peak selves, and either the Packers or Eagles in as their peak selves.  Sorry Seattle, Dallas and Washington.  Green Bay and Philly are much scarier in the 2nd round of the playoffs.  By then, they’ll be hot, and that’s something I want no part of.

Or the NFC sucks, and we have the three at the top and inconsistency everywhere else.  The underachievers, Green Bay, Philly, Minnesota and Atlanta all continue to underachieve, the Redskins don’t totally get worse with Colt McCoy under center, Seattle continues to grind out wins yet doesn’t pass the eye test, and Dallas and Carolina revert back to teams that are middle of the road with offensive issues and bad defenses.

Ya’ll want to watch Colt McCoy on a January Saturday?  I’ll pass.  Let’s root for the first scenario.

The Sixers Finally Got Their Guy

My frustration with the 76ers began to mount early in last year’s playoff, where Philadelphia lacked the firepower needed to keep up in crucial games.  It was their defense that got them as far as they went.  The Ben Simmons drives and JJ Redick off screens were the only two plays it seemed like the Sixers had, and it bit them in the butt against Boston, which was a series that simply came down to who could muster the most points out of whichever average offense.  Philly fell to the Celtics because, though both teams were inexperienced, their’s shined just a tad brighter. As the clocked wined down in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semis, the Sixers didn’t have that guy to take a big shot for them.  Boston did, and that was the difference.

Now the 76ers do.  Saturday’s trade for Jimmy Butler gave Philadelphia the guy I was going crazy for them to get all Summer.  They never had a chance with LeBron, struck out on Paul George and let Kawhi Leonard get away.  They came into the regular season with the same team as last year.  The same one that was pretty good, but it didn’t have what it takes to take the next step.

The same issues we saw in last year’s playoffs had already reappeared this season.  The 76ers offense ranks 22nd in the league so far this short season per offensive efficiency.  Their net rating is a horrid -14.1 in the clutch, bad enough for 25th in the league.  They go through brutal offensive slumps, and give up four-to-five minute runs like it’s nothing.  At a point, Simmons driving to the rim, though unstoppable, gets old.  It becomes somewhat guardable.  A nit-pick of Simmons could be that; though you’re not necessarily wanting to take a charge off him, his drives are easier to defend than someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo’s.  Though they’re both freak athletes, Giannis’s level of athleticism is just a tad higher.  They’re both so far above anyone else, but Simmons’ is just a little less potent.  The lack of willingness to even attempt jump-shots hurts Simmons as well.  Teams sag off Simmons because of this, and do what Boston did in the playoffs against him: Form a wall at the rim and dare him to shoot.  This gives defenders time to contest his layups, as opposed to with Giannis, where you have to play tighter on him as he will attempt jumpers, and then stay with him as he barrels to the rim.

The Sixers’ lack of action this Summer suggested their irrational confidence in Markelle Fultz emerging this season.  To be fair, I was high on him too.  Not to the extent that I was expecting him to be their No.1 crunch-time guy, because after last year, we saw that there’s a chance nothing comes out of him, but to an extent where he could help create and get buckets for them throughout the game.  So far, even my hope for him hasn’t came true.  He’s done a good job getting to the rim with the explosiveness we touted so highly out the draft; Fultz is shooting 54.1% on shots within 10 feet of the rim per  That’s not a small sample size inflation either.  49.6% of his shots have came from that area of the court.

But the jumper just isn’t there.  Fultz is shooting just 30.8% on threes and 34.8% on pull-ups overall.  It’s there in the film too.  Countless times this season, we’ve seen Fultz use his dazzling moves and handles to create a perfect look, only for the ball to  just not go in.  It’s been brutal.

With these conflicting performances, it just wasn’t possible to expect Fultz to be the guy.  The Sixers saw this, and their offense’s other issues, and acted on it.

Sixers get: Jimmy Butler, Justin Patton

Timberwolves get: Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless, 2022 2nd rounder

With this trade, you can make the case that Philadelphia gave up too much, or didn’t give up enough.  You can make the case that Minnesota gave up too much as well, or didn’t give enough up as well.

Essentially, the throw-in of Justin Patton and Philly trading two starters brings big questions to each team.  Why give up on Patton?  How does Philly make this trade and still lack the 5th guy to their best lineup?

But first, props to the Sixers.  This is the 2nd big balls trade of the calendar year (Toronto was the 1st) and solved their biggest issue.  Butler is the superstar they’ve needed.  He’s going to be their crunch-time option, and solves all the issues we addressed above.  He’s an excellent defender, which makes up for the loss of Robert Covington, and makes one of the better defenses in the league even better.  It cost them depth, but when you’re core is this good, it’s probably worth it.  With Boston’s struggles, this trade solidifies the Sixers the East’s current 3rd best team, with their ceiling being the best, and possibly higher (Oh yeah, I went there).

They also get Justin Patton, who the Wolves oddly gave up on after a year and a half.  He’s been dealing with injuries, but it seems like an unnecessary throw-in.  Patton should develop into a versatile, rim-protecting center.  The offensive upside is questionable, but at worst Patton should be someone who could provide 70% of the defense Joel Embiid does coming off the bench.

You could wonder why the Wolves wanted to get rid of him; the fact that they sold so low on him is concerning (Is something really wrong with his foot?).  Still, it’s not like Philly has shown any reluctance to taking on injury-prone prospects over the years.

Even though Butler addresses the Sixers’ biggest need, you can question the fit.  Out of all the guys Philly could have added, Butler’s fit is probably the most complicated.  LeBron either takes complete control and changes everything, but in a positive way.  Kawhi Leonard slides right in on the wing; so does Paul George.  But Butler is a different breed.  He’s best when he has the ball, and has the offense running through him.  This is partly why Minnesota didn’t work out; there were too many ball-dominant players on the court at all times (Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford).  With the Sixers, there’s only one in Simmons, but Simmons’ weaknesses make the fit a little troubling.

Simmons’ lack of a jumpshot means defenders can sag off when the ball is in Butler’s hands, focusing their attention on him, Joel Embiid and JJ Redick.  That leaves Fultz and Simmons (In the scenario that Philly’s five is these five) essentially open on the wings, where they aren’t threats.  This is a dangerous game for defenses though, as Simmons’ athleticism makes him a threat as a cutter.  Still, this specific Sixers lineup has three guys capable of hitting threes.  Not ideal.

With the ball in Butler’s hands, Simmons is essentially a lame-duck on the wing.  In this scenario, you’re not exactly getting full value out of him.  For now, he’s just kinda there in crunch-time until Philly finds that elusive 5th guy; hopefully another shooter (Joe Harris??? But the Nets are too good to deal him).

Benching Simmons in crunch-time seems like a crazy thought, but it’s not like his role is totally diminished.  Philly can move the ball around and play as they normally do throughout most of the game, with Simmons making ridiculous passes and Embiid posting up.  Add Butler’s shot-making into that, and a huge matchup problem develops.  Who has three guys who can switch onto those three?  Good luck.

Perhaps the fit between Butler, Simmons and Embiid has more to do with off the court rather than on it.  Butler’s personality is well-known; he’s tenacious, is a competitor and will let you know when you’re not trying hard enough.  Many Wolves found that out the hard way, and deservedly so.  I was in the minority with Butler from the time of his trade request till Saturday; I totally got the frustration, the request, the outbursts, not wanting to play, etc.  It had cause.  Butler may have been a bit of a dick about it, but nothing he said was wrong.  The Wolves couldn’t win anything without him, and Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns don’t try hard enough.  And why play if you know you’re going to get traded?  Why risk getting injured?

The saga that emerged last week over Butler’s playing schedule seemed a little overblown.  Most reported it as a “Butler’s going play when he wants to as he forces himself out,” but it seems like what was actually happening was more like “Minnesota’s working on a deal, and I’m not going to risk injury while it’s being worked on.”  It’s just a little too coincidental that Butler started resting, and then a couple days later he was traded.

Anyways, the 76ers aren’t the Wolves.  They’re a lot better, and that’s why Butler wanted to join them (It’s been reported that he’s committed to sign long-term there).  Therefore, Butler should be a little more lax with the young guys on his team.  He doesn’t exactly have the grounds to go after them harshly like he did with Wiggins and KAT.  Simmons and Embiid aren’t only better than his previous teammates, but have higher ceilings than anyone else in the league.  Those two are going to be way higher on the all-time list than Butler will.  There’s not a lot to criticize when you’re dealing with hall-of-fame talents.

But there are things that could rile up Butler.  Embiid is a fantastic defender, but he does have little pouty spurts on the court, where after a blown coverage on defense he can slack off for a couple possessions on both ends.  It’s a Towns-like issue on a lesser scale.

Butler could take issue with Simmons’s lack of aggression offensively, but in Minnesota his teammates were probably a little too aggressive on that end, so Simmons’s pass-first play suits Butler well.

Like Minnesota, this team, specifically its best players, are young.  They’re inexperienced and are going to make mistakes.  Butler has to be patient, but with committal to beyond this season, it sounds like he understands that.  In Philly, it’s going to be worth it.

The Sixers had to do this trade.  It makes them at least the 3rd best team in the East, and makes them instantly scarier as a Finals contender.  But it may not come together this year.  The Sixers still need more shooting, and that’s why trading Covington and Saric hurts.  Both are good enough from three, and aren’t liabilities when they’re on the floor.  By trading both of them rather than one and Fultz, the Sixers are still down a guy for their best lineup.  But now, it’s not their best guy they’re lacking.

You can praise and rip Minnesota for this trade as well.  They’re better as a result; Saric and Covington help modernize a roster that needs it desperately.  But that’s one of two ways to look at this.

Tom Thibideau is in a job-saving mode right now, and to do that this team needs wins.  It’s why the Wolves reportedly turned down four first rounders for Butler from Houston (I think that was never an actual offer) and Josh Richardson and a first rounder from Miami.  Thibs specifically needs guys who are going to get this team to 45 wins, not pieces for the future, because no matter how this season ends, he probably won’t be around for it.

Looking at this trade through that lens provides a pretty good view.  As I said above, Saric and Covington make this team better now.  Minnesota’s best lineup is Teague-Wiggins-Covington-Saric-Towns.  Despite some chemistry and shooting issues, it’s more modern than any lineup the Wolves have had the past couple years.  Saric gives them an interesting wrinkle with his passing, but I doubt the Wolves utilize it given the selfishness of some of their guys.

It’s also pretty good value for Minnesota.  Butler for two above average starters, a backup point guard and a 2nd round pick is about right.  The Patton throw-in doesn’t help though, and a package for young assets or picks would have made a lot more sense.

Minnesota was never going to seek the young player/picks package because of Thibs’s survival mode situation, but it would have been the right thing to do.  Even with their new players, this team isn’t going anywhere.  Wiggins hasn’t changed, KAT had done nothing but take steps backwards this season, and there’s no way this Derrick Rose streak is sustainable.  Oh, and Jeff Teague is Jeff Teague.  The Wolves have two of the five worst contracts in the league and have no way to shed them without giving up significant assets.  If you do that, then you’re extending your rebuild 2-3 years.  If you keep them, you can squeeze whatever value you can get out of them, and not waste any extra time.

If the Wolves could have gotten Fultz and one of Covington or Saric straight up for Butler, then that should have been the trade.  Look, I trashed Fultz above.  But I’m also not giving up.  He’s in a tough situation in Philly, and now it just got tougher.  Minnesota isn’t exactly the environment I think he’d thrive in, but if you’re Minnesota, any young talent you can get your hands on is worth it.  A Fultz-Josh Okogie-KAT young core is pretty good, and though it’d be tough to get those guys minutes together, you’d at least have something to develop.

It’s tough to call this trade a win for the Wolves, but it’s not a disaster whatsoever.   They got good value for a great player who had to be traded.  They remain competitive but aren’t anything that’s going to scare opponents.  They added Dario Saric, who already feels like a fan favorite in Minnesota.  They became a more modern roster, something they needed desperately.  But the Wolves squandered an opportunity.  They squander the opportunity to win with Butler, and they squandered the opportunity to win off of Butler.  That can’t be considered a success.

Evaluating The First CFP Poll+Weekend Preview

For the first time in years, a College Football Playoff Poll looked really, really good.  To my surprise, I had minimal issues with the first set of rankings.

That being said, I’m not sure how much this difficulty this season has presented yet.  Alabama being ranked No.1 is the easiest decision this committee has ever had to make; they’ve been the most dominant team we’ve seen in college football in a long time.  For years, Alabama had the best roster in the country and got away with having an average to below average quarterback.  This year, they have the best quarterback in the country on top of that roster.  What is supposed to come from that has happened: Complete dominance.

Clemson was another easy choice.  They’ve been less impressive than Alabama, but it’s hard to be as impressive.  Clemson’s had their stints of Clemsoning, including close games against Syracuse (A weird team that just seems to have the Tigers’ number; a Trevor Lawrence injury didn’t help either) and Texas A&M.  The A&M game also has a caveat; Kelly Bryant was the starter of that game.  Since, the Tigers have turned it over to Lawrence, the gunslinging freshman who has a rocket arm and is super efficient with his passing.

So it’s hard to pit the close calls against Clemson.  Their defense and dominance puts them comfortably at No.2.  Knock them for their schedule, but there’s something to be said for talent as well.

This is where the case for UCF comes up.  Undefeated+easy schedule works for Clemson but not for UCF.  Why?  Talent.

The eye-test matters.  The metrics and schedule do too; no one has more of a respect for analytics than me.  But Clemson is just more talented.  Ask yourself: Does UCF beat Clemson this season?

Probably not.  UCF is awesome; they’re balanced and have a great defense.  But Clemson has both of those traits too, and Clemson’s defense is essentially a NFL one.

Clemson’s just a more talented team, and that makes up for the easy schedule.

The committee surprised me with LSU at No.3 instead of No.4.  They got it right.  I was confident the committee would sneak Notre Dame in at No.3 overall simply to please the PR people.  But as much as I like LSU, there is a case that we’re underrating Notre Dame.  Punishing them for starting Brandon Wimbush in the first two games of the season was okay in the AP Poll (and I agreed with it then), but now that we’re at Playoff Poll time, it’s time to take things more seriously.  This Notre Dame team is much different than the one we watched early in the season.  With a quarterback who can air it out and put up points now, the Fighting Irish have emerged as one of the most explosive offenses in the country.  They blow teams out, and are going to be able to win shootouts if their stout defense fails them against other high-powered offenses.

The case to rank them above LSU is that and the fact that they’re also undefeated.  The case against it is that Notre Dame’s schedule is super easy and that LSU’s defense is better than Notre Dame’s, which is the better case.  LSU’s D isn’t only stout but is one of the fastest defenses in the country as well.

So for now, LSU at No.3 and Notre Dame at No.4 works.  LSU deserves credit for overhauling their offense, and Notre Dame might still deserve to be punished for letting Wimbush start two games.

5-6-7 is where some debate can be had.  It’s fair to speculate that LSU’s presence in the SEC might have something to do with their ranking above Notre Dame.  But Notre Dame is one of the media and committee’s darlings; it has to take a really special team to be ranked ahead of them.

But that darling theory can be applied to Michigan and Georgia though.  Both are one loss teams with fantastic defenses.  Georgia was handled pretty comfortably against LSU, where the Bulldogs made a couple boneheaded coaching calls, had their defense picked apart by Joe Burrow, and just looked lost.  The positive spin on that game was: They lost to a top four team.

Michigan’s one loss was also to a top four team.  But that loss hurts Michigan more than the LSU loss hurts Georgia.  This was a Wimbush-led Notre Dame team.  It was in South Bend, but it still looks awful.  Wimbush had a classic Wimbush performance, and Michigan’s defense allowed the Irish to get nothing else.  But the Wolverines couldn’t get anything going as well.  The Wolverines couldn’t outscore Brandon Wimbush.  What makes us think they can outscore Ian Book and company?

They can’t, and Georgia has a better chance to beat Notre Dame because of what their offense can do.  This is a classic move by the committee; not totally making it blatant that they want Michigan in the playoff, but putting them in a position where it’d be easier given other circumstances to put them in if the time comes.

Oklahoma’s in a tough spot.  It just feels like they’re gonna hang around and just miss the cut this season, which is disappointing, because the Sooners kill their opponents, and have one of the deadliest offenses in the country.  The loss to Texas three weeks ago has two angles to it.  Mine and the committee’s.

The committee did a good job with the placement of Texas in their set of rankings.  The AP Poll was out of control for a couple weeks; it was good to see the committee correct it.

No.17  is the right spot, but if the Longhorns beat West Virginia this weekend, expect a huge and undeserving rise.

For Oklahoma, losing to Texas looks bad in my eyes, but not necessarily the committee’s.

If two loss LSU team becomes a thing after this weekend, or Notre Dame sustains just as bad of a loss, Oklahoma could be much closer to the playoffs then we originally thought they were.

Their defense isn’t playoff worthy, and Kyler Murray would probably be the Heisman favorite right now if it wasn’t for that guy at Alabama (He’s been OK this year). The Sooners put up points and that’s it.  They know how to score. Sure, they play in the Big 12; he committee is going to punish them because nobody in the Big 12 plays defense, and they’ve had a pretty easy schedule.  The Army loss doesn’t look great, but Murray’s coming on to be somebody who you really want to have in a big game.  That stuff matters.

Eight and nine in the poll feature two teams that have came out of nowhere this season.  After losing their starting quarterback, Washington State is the highest ranked team in the PAC-12, and Kentucky’s defense might somehow be the best in the SEC.  No one saw this coming, and the committee is giving those teams respect for that.  Probably a little bit too much respect, though.

We’ll start with Kentucky, who is tied for the best defense in the country based off of points allowed.  That’s a tad misleading.  Football Outsiders’ FEI stat has Kentucky ranked eighth in the country in total defense. No matter where they fall, it’s the most important part of the team.  The offense does not move the ball and cannot score points to save its life.  They’re a classic SEC team, essentially like a Florida with a better defense.  

Kentucky hasn’t scored points against anyone good.  The most they put up against decent competition was 27 against Florida in Week Two. That’s actually decently impressive considering the Gators’ defense; Benny Snell Jr. ran all over them.  

So as cute as it is that Kentucky is ranked ninth in the country right now, they are not going very far.  With the way the SEC is right now, there is absolutely no way they make the playoffs.  It’s the first week of the playoffs rankings, and the committee can get away with this.  It’s fine.  I really don’t have a problem with it!

The Wildcats are good story, but Washington State is an even better one.  After the tragedy of losing their starting quarterback, the Cougars are ranked eighth in the country and are sitting pretty a top the PAC-12. That’s not too much of a compliment, considering how inconsistent and how frustrating the conference is; each team has looks like a contender one week and has then look like total crap the next. (Take it from me, I watch ASU every week).  

It’s hard to say whether Washington State has any good wins. Their best wins consist of Oregon and Stanford; two teams that fit the PAC-12 model of frustration and inconsistency very very well.  Stanford’s offense is not what we thought it was going to be, and Oregon is 2-2 their last four games.  They were also blown out by Arizona!  Arizona! (God I hope we beat them). 

Regarding Washington State’s schedule, we know one thing: They lost to USC.  That’s a terrible loss.  The win against Utah looks pretty good, but they are still a PAC-12 team, and so are the cougars.  Therefore, kind of like Kentucky, it is cute that Washington State is in the top 10.  But it really doesn’t mean anything.  

Washington State wasn’t trying to make the playoffs this year though. A Rose Bowl appearance would be monumental to this team and program after what they went through.  I’m rooting for them.

From here on down, the teams don’t really matter. These are gunning for a New Year’s Six appearance, not a playoff spot. Ohio State, UCF, and Texas are three that can hold out hope. The Buckeyes match up with Michigan is going to be huge in a couple weeks, and UCF’s undefeated mark will hold some weight on the committee, and Texas will hang around because they are Texas.  

Now for the weekend preview. 

No.6 Georgia vs. No.9 Kentucky 

As we addressed above, Kentucky has been one of the best stories in the country this year.  They’re coming in with a ton of momentum and nothing to lose right now.

Georgia’s still trying to reprove themselves after the LSU loss.  Florida’s a good win, but they’re still Florida.  They reverted back to their ways; terrible turnovers and total disfunction on the offensive end.  It’s nothing that you can really give Georgia credit for.

With a win tomorrow, they can reprove themselves.  Kentucky’s defense might get stops, but they allow yards.  You can’t do that against Georgia; they are explosive and have playmakers everywhere.

Georgia allowed 5.3 yards per pass attempt this season, which is 4th in the nation. Teams were able to throw more on the Wildcats, who were 17th in the nation allowing 5.9 yards per attempt through the air.  The numbers match-up well, but Georgia has a better quarterback and the overall better passing attack, which means they’ll be able to take advantage of Kentucky’s secondary more than Kentucky will be able to take advantage of Georgia’s.  Some have soured on Jake Fromm this season; he’s been a little up-and-down and there have been some calls for Justin Fields to come in and help open up the Bulldogs offense more.  I don’t think this is one of those games.  Fromm should be able to get it done. 

Georgia struggled against LSU because the Tigers defense was fast and was able to contain the speed of Georgia’s offense. Fromm was limited to 6.1 yards per completion against LSU; they took out any receiver who caught passes quickly.  

DeAndre Swift got through LSU’s D decently. His speed was the only thing that Georgia could muster offensively, and it was the only thing that the fast Tigers defense couldn’t catch.  They stopped Holyfield because he is slow.  

There’s not a faster defense than LSU’s.  The Wildcats have speed, but it doesn’t compare. That, coupled with their worse pass defense, puts them at a disadvantage to contain George’s offense.

And it’s not like they’re going to be able to match Georgia’s point total. That’s the biggest issue. Georgia may not score a lot of points in this game, but the ones that they do are gonna be hard to come back from.  

Snell has been ridiculous this season, running over every defense he’s faced.  Georgia has allowed 4.2 yards per rush this season, a less than great number that ranks 72nd in the country.  They’re below average. 

Georgia also likes to let teams hold onto the ball. Per Football Outsiders’ DBC stat, which measures opponent’s ball control, Georgia ranked 57th in the country. That means 56 teams kept the ball out of their opponents hands better than Georgia did.  Kentucky will grind you down.  They operate like a Big Ten team. It’s all running all the time, because they don’t have an effective passing game.  Time of possession is going to be key in this game.  Georgia is going to be able to score with the ball in their hands.  If you limit that amount of time, you have a better chance.

There is a very good chance that I am making the same mistake with this game that I did with Georgia against LSU. I thought offense would win.  That wasn’t the case. But, that was three weeks ago. LSU wasn’t the LSU they are now. We know that team is better than we ever thought they were going to be. I don’t think that is the case with Kentucky.  They are less talented and less threatening than LSU.  Georgia learned from LSU, and they’ll use that tomorrow.

Prediction: Georgia-31  Kentucky-20

No.13 West Virginia vs. No.17 Texas

Both of these teams are so average.

That is, when evaluating them based on where they’re ranked.  The Mountaineers and Longhorns are probably ranked a little too high coming into this game.

We explained Texas above; they’re 17th because they’re a media darling.  Sam Elhinger is the only reason this offense is competent; he’s been just enough to bring them to an average level.  He hasn’t turned the ball over, except when it mattered most against Maryland (Maryland!), where he threw a game-sealing interception which gave the Terrapins the upset win.

Elhinger is the Washington Kirk Cousins of college football (The Washington Cousins has also found its way to Minnesota in spurts so far this season).  Good numbers, team is okay, but he’ll cost you with dumb plays.

This feels like a classic Big 12 shootout.  Neither of these defenses are great; FEI has Texas ranked 47th in the country, while the Mountaineers come in at 26th.  26th is respectable, but West Virginia has trouble getting off the field; they let drives go forever.

That’s about the only thing the Longhorns do on that end.  They are 21st in DBC.  That’s huge against West Virginia, who isn’t afraid to throw the ball around.

But getting Will Grier out of a rhythm is tough.  He’s lighting up everyone this season, completing 70.3% of his passes and averaging 10.37 yards an attempt.  That’s a ridiculous ratio, and the simple stats don’t support Texas being able to cover it.  The Longhorns are 85th out of 130 in total passing yards allowed.

Grier should be able to operate normally, and Texas just isn’t explosive enough to catch up.  The Longhorns did hang with Oklahoma, but Grier is a different animal than Murray.  He can pick you apart and stay comfortable in the pocket.

West Virginia’s defense is also miles better than Oklahoma’s.  Sure, there’s the difference in ball control, but every other metric is in favor of the Mountaineers.

We’ve seen Texas’ offense sputter lately with a 19 point performance in Kansas State and a 23 point performance against Baylor.  You can’t do that against West Virginia.  You won’t catch up.

I expect the Longhorns to hang around, but in Big 12 shootouts like this, you take the more explosive offense and the better quarterback.  That’s Will Grier and West Virginia.

Prediction: West Virginia-42  Texas-35

No.14 Penn State vs. No.5 Michigan

I don’t think there’s been a more disappointing team in the country this year than Penn State.  They’ve been involved in way too many close game, which most notably consisted of Appalachian State in Week 1.

This has been due to incredibly slow offensive starts, which we probably should have seen coming with the departures of Joe Moorhead, Saquon Barkley and DaeSean Hamilton.  They’re just not as explosive and threatening this year, and they don’t have the coach to help them get through that.

The news gets worse for Penn State this week.  The Wolverines are not only the best defense the Nittany Lions have faced this season, but are one of the best defenses in the entire country.  Having a slow start is one thing, but against this defense, it’s not just a start.  That’s the way it is the entire game.

Michigan forces third downs and gets stops.  They clamp on receivers, giving up 4.8 yards per pass attempt, the best mark in the country.  If Penn State was going to find success offensively in this game, it would be through the air with Trace McSorely.  That is going to be hard to come by.

Where Penn State will have to stay in this game is on the defensive end.  I don’t totally trust Shea Patterson and Co. on the offensive side.  They’re a top 30 offense, but nothing really pops.  They’re an offense that’s good but it’s not totally one you’re scared of.

Penn State can get stops; they’re the 13th best team in nation at it.  Patterson isn’t a gunslinger; he’s a fine, average-to-good Big Ten quarterback.  He’s the best QB the Wolverines have had in years, but hasn’t proved to be the upgrade we expected.  Like Michigan, Penn State defends the pass extremely well.  Patterson isn’t going to pick apart secondaries and make tight throws.  The Wolverines are going need their skill position guys to step up.

But even if Michigan starts slow offensively, Penn State’s going to start slower.  They have the advantage there.  A worst case scenario for the Wolverines would be to have Penn State score first and early; that could give them some momentum, and unleash the type of offense we saw against bad teams early on in the season.

But I trust Michigan’s defense and I don’t trust Penn State’s offense.  Based on what they’ve shown this season, the Nittany Lions should score somewhere between 0-13 points in this game.  That’s it.  With Penn State’s defense on the field for way too much time, the Wolverines should be able to capitalize and get a couple scores.  This game is closer than I made it seem, because it’s the Big Ten and neither offense can be trusted, but if Michigan is for real, then they come out and show it tomorrow.

Prediction: Michigan-24  Penn State-10

No.1 Alabama vs. No.3 LSU

This game was big before the season.  I never thought it’d be this big.

This game feels like an absolute grudge-match.  Whenever Alabama scores, LSU should answer back.  Whenever Alabama gets a stop, LSU should get one too.

Neither of these teams have real, glaring weaknesses.  We’re gonna have to nit-pick here.

The dominance that Alabama has displayed this season has been unlike anything I have ever seen in college sports.  There hasn’t been a team kick this much butt in forever.  Harp on their schedule all you want, but the consistent scores of 35-0 in the first half, let alone the first quarter, aren’t totally products of the opponents.  To do that every week takes skill from Alabama’s side.  They are just so much better than anyone else.

And really, that’s the case for them this week.  As far as we know, Alabama being far much better than everyone else includes LSU.  For us to go against them, they have to prove that they aren’t.  It’s impossible to predict when or how that comes, because they don’t and will never have any weaknesses.

LSU has a couple small ones (Again, nit-picks).  The first is experience.  This is the biggest game LSU has played in years; no one on that roster, especially quarterback Joe Burrow, has been in a big game before.

You could flip that around say that Bama hasn’t faced been in one big game all year, but their quarterback kinda made the biggest play in all of college football last season.  And their coach?   He has some experience as well.

The second LSU weakness is their constrained explosiveness.  A big reason why LSU is in the spot they are is because of their newfound ability to get big plays through the air thanks to Burrow.  But as good as it is, it still doesn’t match Bama.  As I said above, the Crimson Tide always had the best talent in the country at everywhere but the QB spot.  Now they have the best talent there as well, and what we get is what we’re seeing now.  It’s just LSU’s luck that the year they figure out how to have a more varied offensive attack, Alabama does too.

The third LSU weakness has nothing to do with them at all.  It’s simply that Alabama is Alabama, and it is terrifying to pick against them.  It’s just smart to pick Alabama until they lose.  They may not ever.

LSU certainly has a chance.  There’s a case that LSU is actually the 2nd best team in the country.  They’ll at least stay in this game, and they do that by matching everything Bama does.  If the Tide get one little advantage, it’s over.

The Tigers can’t allow what happened against Florida to happen again.  A possible 4th weakness of LSU’s is that they’ve had a bad day; we haven’t seen that from Bama.  We don’t know if a bad day exists for the Tide.  We’ll see if they have one tomorrow.

Prediction: Alabama-24  LSU-21

2018 World Series Preview

We got what should of happened.  This whole MLB season was based around one question: Who was Boston going to play in the World Series?

The AL was a powerhouse all season, with Boston reigning as king.  At one point, it felt like either Boston, Houston, the Yankees or Cleveland could be in the World Series.  Even with all that competition though, the Red Sox still felt better than all of them.  It just felt like their year.

But who am I to talk?  I picked the Astros over the Red Sox in the ALCS, citing Houston’s dominant rotation as the deciding factor.  To be fair, I did have it going seven, which meant I gave Boston a good chance.

But Boston proved me quite wrong.  The Red Sox were so much better than I even thought they were.  Once again, it just felt right.  The Red Sox should be here.

The Dodgers path was a little more confusing.  The NL felt wide open all season; no one really pulled away.  I thought the Cubs were the best team in the regular season, but Milwaukee’s extremely late rise knocked Chicago out all together.

The Dodgers were high on that totem pole.  Every NL team had a serious flaw; the Dodgers’ was their inconsistent bullpen and their ability to lose games they shouldn’t have lost.

But if you were going to rank NL teams in August based off their World Series potential, the Dodgers were probably 2nd on that list.  All the superstars, the experience and lack of competition got them to that honor.  And it got them here, to the World Series itself, too.

World Series: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Boston Red Sox

Because the Red Sox offense obliterated the best pitching staff in baseball, we might have to look at this series in a bit of a different way.

In the postseason, we always talk about pitching, pitching and more pitching.  Offense doesn’t matter.  You need above average starters and an elite bullpen to win the World Series.

But Boston has reinvented that idea.  They flipped the script into one that had a couple caveats to that ideology, like “An offense that’s REALLY good can matter in the postseason” or “An offense that has two MVP candidates can matter in the playoffs.”  Essentially, Boston’s offense is such a different beast that even the best pitchers can’t get by it.

The offense bailed them out of what was a classic David Price start (That narrative might have also changed a little bit) in Game 2, with Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers getting to Gerrit Cole.  Good pitching is… good.  But great hitters can beat it.

The Red Sox offense has been so ridiculous that Jackie Bradley Jr. managed a grand slam off of Roberto Osuna in Game 4.  Jackie Bradley Jr!  Off one of the nastiest relievers in baseball!

They did what great offenses do in Game 4, and that was take down an average pitcher.  They got to Charlie Morton, who didn’t last very long, and then the blazing Josh James, who left a couple fastballs high that Boston capitalized on.  James’ removal led to a meltdown from practically everyone in the Astros bullpen.  The Red Sox just kept piling and piling.

And they piled it on the staff in baseball.  The Dodgers certainly aren’t that.

Dodgers pitchers gave up the 9th highest home run-to-fly ball rate in the majors this season (I know I’m reusing that statistic.  I couldn’t find the postseason numbers anywhere) and the 5th highest groundball rate.  The bottom line: The Dodgers gave up a lot of contact this season.

Boston’s offense feeds off contact.  What made them one of the most prolific offenses in years was their ability to hit the long ball and score with base hits; they have a beautiful mix of contact and power hitters.  Boston’s offense had the 5th highest medium contact rate in the majors this season.  That means they didn’t kill the ball, but didn’t hit it soft either.  The Red Sox had the 2nd lowest soft contact rate in the majors and the 19th highest hard contact rate.  Talk about balance…

If anything was going to help the Dodgers case in this series, it was the stats.  And they don’t help.  Every indicator says that Boston should be able to pound the Dodgers staff.  If we stick to our guts, that’s what we get too.

The Dodgers rotation has not been one we could totally trust this postseason.  Walker Buehler had me nervous due to his age, and that came through against Atlanta and partially against Milwaukee in Game 3, where Buehler made it far but surrendered all four runs which won the Brewers the game with.  There were no meltdown moments from him in the NLCS, which is a good sign.  LA has him scheduled to start Game 3, which will be in Dodger Stadium.  That bodes a lot better than a 23 year old starting a World Series game in Fenway.

Still, Buehler against this Red Sox lineup is scary.  And there’s still more concerning elements to worry about.

For awhile, it felt like the Dodgers were going to get a good Clayton Kershaw in the postseason for the first time ever.  The playoff meltdown wasn’t gonna come.

But of course it did, and it got kicked off with a Brandon Woodruff home run in Game 1 of the series.

Kershaw rebounded with a gem in Game 5, but that doesn’t necessarily soothe the soul.  The Red Sox smacked Verlander and Cole, who were about as trustworthy as they got in October.  Kershaw’s 2-1 this postseason (That’s not using the W-L statistic, it’s using a good start vs. bad start formula) so far.  Doesn’t that mean he’s probably due?

We’re halfway through the Dodgers rotation and can’t trust anyone

Hyun-Jin Ryu has been iffy as well  He was lights out in Game 1 of the NLDS, pitched well in Game 2 against Milwaukee, and was then shelled in Game 6.  Game 6 turned into a disaster quickly.  Ryu kept throwing his breaking ball, which he didn’t have all night.  The Brewers got to it by capitalizing on its hang, and slugged him through a short three innings.

Rich Hill’s been fine this postseason, but it’s hard to say that “fine” is gonna work against the Red Sox.  Boston hasn’t hit the curveballs that Hill throws very well this season though.   According to FanGraphs’ Linear Pitch Hit Weights statistic; the finished 12th in the majors.  The Dodgers finished 11th.

LA’s bullpen looks great so far.  They haven’t been too overworked, as Dave Roberts did a good job managing once again in the NLCS.  They made an interesting decision with the roster by removing Caleb Ferguson and replacing him with Scott Alexander.  Ferguson has been fantastic in this postseason; Alexander was too in his limited innings against Atlanta.  Both have been great, and the Dodgers feel better about Alexander for whatever reason.  It seems a little odd to change things up now though.  Why fix something that’s not broken?

You could make a similar case with the Red Sox.  They removed Brandon Workman and slapped Drew Pomeranz on the roster, who isn’t exactly the most trustworthy pitcher either.   In his only appearance during the ALCS though, Workman was shelled, giving up four runs and only getting one out.  He needed to be removed. But going with Pomeranz over Steven Wright to replace him doesn’t necessarily make up for it; Pomeranz has just as good of a chance to have a meltdown on the mound.

Even though the Pomeranz addition doesn’t really strike my fancy, the Red Sox bullpen is still really good.  Ryan Brasier has been lockdown; so has Matt Barnes.  I like Joe Kelly too; his two-seamer has ridiculous movement at an incredible velocity (He can easily touch 100 on it).  That’s three relievers who are great out of the Boston pen.  Do the Dodgers have guys we can consider “great”?

Not really.  They’re just all really good.  Calling anyone great in the Dodgers pen is a stretch.  Kenley Jansen should get that honor, but the home run issues scare me, especially against this Boston lineup.  He was good against Milwaukee, an even more prolific home run hitting team than Boston, but as we explained above, the Red Sox don’t just score via the long ball.  They can get contact or hit it out, and that’s against anyone.

The bullpens are both pretty even, but I side with Boston’s.  They have more impact guys; you could argue the Dodgers have none.

This preview is written in Boston’s favor, and they are my pick to win.  But the Dodgers have some things going their way.  We’ve seen everything David Price has to offer so far this postseason.  He had a classic David Price postseason start in Game 2 of both series’; as he was shelled by Houston and the Yankees’ lineup.  Wins and losses are not used by me for obvious reasons, but if there was one W-L that was 100% accurate, it was David Price’s 0-9 postseason record before Game 5.

In Game 5, Price got his stuff together and earned his first playoff win ever.  Of course that’s the way Houston had to get knocked out.  Baseball, man.

So with Price, we’re 1-2 this postseason in terms of good starts and bad starts.  Averages say he’s due for a good start again, but this is David Price we’re talking about.  Do we ever see that good of a playoff outing from him again?

One Dodgers win in this series comes off of him.  There’s just no way David Price is slinging two good postseason starts together.

The Dodgers can pull another one.  Maybe it’s the Ryu outing, or it could come from Boston’s side.  Rick Porcello hasn’t been great this postseason (As I warned of coming in); perhaps the Dodgers can get to him.  He’s also a righty, which the Dodgers love to hit (I never like to use righty/lefty stats; I don’t think it matters much.  But in cases like the Dodgers where the difference in the numbers is so huge, it does matter.  They’ve had trouble hitting lefties for years now.  Very odd).  Porcello’s start could be a 2nd win for LA in this series; it’s also possible Kershaw outduels Sale tonight.  With Kershaw, we just never know.

I attempted to go against Boston last series and failed.  I didn’t want to do it; as I said above, they felt like the team that was going to win this thing all year.  I thought the matchup favored Houston, but Boston powered through and now looks unstoppable.  I think this series is a quick one, as this year’s team of destiny finishes the job.

Prediction: Red Sox in 5

NBA Preview Part Two: The 2018-2019 Eastern Conference Preview

Here’s the 2nd part of the 2018-2019 NBA Preview.  I went through every team’s rotation and projected their record off of it.  The Wizards do not play until tomorrow night.  A mini-write up on them will go up tomorrow afternoon.

Atlanta Hawks 

  1. Trae Young-Jeremy Lin
  2. Kent Bazemore-Tyler Dorsey-Vince Carter-Kevin Huerter
  3. Taurean Prince-DeAndre Bembry-Justin Anderson
  4. John Collins-Alex Poythress-Omari Spellman-Dwayne Dedmon
  5. Alex Len-Miles Plumlee

Welcome to the Eastern Conference everybody!  It’s a crapfest over here!

It’s amazing how we’re kicking this crappy conference off with possibly its worst team.  This team is awful.

They’re kinda fun though.  Trae Young is gonna be entertaining whether he sucks or not.  John Collins is a springy big man who can do a bunch of things.  Taurean Prince really came on last season as a legit three-and-D guy.

The young guys go on and on.  Tyler Dorsey, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre Bembry, Justin Anderson and Omari Spellman give the Hawks a boatload of young, stretchy wings.  With the Hawks all-in on youth, we should see even more minutes from Dorsey this year.  The Hawks like Trae Young as their go-to guy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Dorsey gains a bit of that edge.  He was a baller in college.  Huerter is strictly a shooter and needs work on the defensive end.  They see him as a future star; a Klay Thompson like player if Young turns out to be Curry.  But the defense is not close to there yet.

Bembry will help out on the defensive end, along with the prospectus of Omari Spellman.  He was great at Villanova and has a three point shot that should translate.

The center spot is being overcomplicated.  Get rid of Alex Len and Miles Plumlee and just play Collins.  He’s a fine rim protector.  Len’s bad and Plumlee’s been on how many teams now?

The Hawks have a core and a plan.  That’s better than some teams.  But I just hesitate to believe this is the guys that’ll bring it to life.  There’s gonna be a lot of Trae Young this year.  That may be a good thing or a bad thing.

I believe they’re at least one piece away.  I don’t see Young as the best player on this team ever.  That’s why tanking and trying to get a RJ Barrett-like player is the best way to go.

Projected record: 27-55

(Boston’s preview can be found at the bottom of this column.)

Brooklyn Nets

  1. D’Angelo Russell-Shabazz Naiper-Spencer Dinwiddie
  2. Allen Crabbe-Treveon Graham
  3. Caris LeVert-Joe Harris-Rondae Hollis-Jefferson-Dzanan Musa
  4. Jared Dudley-Ed Davis-Kenneth Faried-DeMarre Carroll (injured)
  5. Jarrett Allen-Alan Williams 

I like this team!

They’re not really good but they’re not bad either.  It’s somewhere between average and solid.

The basis for projecting the Nets a little higher than we probably should is due to the fact that they have a lot of dudes I like.

I love the guards.  D’Angelo Russell isn’t going to be the superstar some projected him to be, but he’s a fun player to run things through on a bad-to-decent team.  Shabazz Naiper did really good things in Portland during the second half of last season, and I’m all in on Spencer Dinwiddie.

The Nets are a modern team with decent-to-solid players.  None of their wing guys are stars or are taking big shots in crunch-time, but they can theoretically hit enough threes and be good enough on the defensive end.  Allen Crabbe’s contact isn’t great, but the Nets don’t care about that right now.  Caris LeVert is a do-it-all player who can pass, shoot, play D and essentially do anything you want him to.  They have Joe Harris off the bench, who is one of the top 20 shooters in the league and should probably just start until DeMarre Carroll is back and healthy (Which will probably be sometime around Christmas).  It was a good call by them not to trade him at the deadline last February; this team is a lot closer than people think.

They have depth on the wings too.  Treveon Graham is worth the flyer, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a fine option for limited minutes.  Dzanan Musa could be really fun if he’s careful; I’m going all-in on him like I did Mario Hezonja (Hopefully I’ll be right this time).

I can’t believe I’m praising DeMarre Carroll this much, but I like him in this rotation more than any of their power forwards.  Ed Davis was a great signing, but he’s not a floor spacer despite his versatile defense.

The Nets are gonna hang around in the East.  They’re definitely better than Detroit, who most people have penciled in as the 8th seed.  We’ll get there soon, but I just don’t see it.  The Nets are far better.

Projected record: 35-47

Charlotte Hornets

  1. Kemba Walker-Devonte Graham-Tony Parker
  2. Nicholas Batum-Jeremy Lamb-Malik Monk
  3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist-Miles Bridges-Dwayne Bacon-JP Macura 
  4. Marvin Williams-Frank Kaminsky-Bismarck Biyombo
  5. Cody Zeller-Willy Hernangomez

The Hornets ran it back since they’re capped out and can’t really improve.  They entertained the thought of trading Kemba Walker last year, but couldn’t get the right deal.

It’s hard to rebuild with this team.  The Nicholas Batum contract is an albatross; same with Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams’s.  They’re capped out and average, so it’s probably better to just better to continue on the path they’re on and try to make the playoffs rather than relinquish assests to get rid of the contracts.

Their assets are good!  Malik Monk is in a horrible situation, but I’m still on the bandwagon.  He’s got star potential and just didn’t and won’t get enough minutes to show it.  They added to their core of wings with Miles Bridges, who is an excellent defender.  Same with Dwayne Bacon.  Oh, and Devonte Graham is someone to keep an eye on.  He was one of the best players in college basketball for three years straight and can flat out score.

The front court isn’t great.  Charlotte would be best off playing as many wings as they can, and let Hernangomez play five.  He’s the most agile and most competent defensive player they have for rim protection.  Frank Kaminsky is close to bust status, and Biyombo just isn’t strong enough.

The Hornets are just fine.  They’re competent enough to hang around toward the back of the East.  They should make the playoffs, but they’re nothing special.

Projected record: 40-42

Chicago Bulls

  1. Kris Dunn-Cameron Payne-Tyler Ulis-Ryan Arcidiacono
  2. Zach Lavine-Antonio Blakeney
  3. Jabari Parker-Justin Holiday-Chandler Hutchinson-Rawle Alkins-Denzel Valentine
  4. Lauri Markkanen-Bobby Portis
  5. Wendell Carter Jr.-Robin Lopez-Cristiano Felicia-Omer Asik

We’re back in the bowels of the East.  Like the Hawks, the Bulls are very young.  They’re at least working on a core and have some nice pieces, but it’s flawed and/or isn’t there yet.

Kris Dunn was someone I was really high on out of his draft.  The defense and craftiness with the ball was what I was keened in on with him.  But a couple of issues have arisen.  He battled injuries during his rookie year and was buried on the Minnesota bench.  He was then traded with Zach Lavine, who dominates the ball when they share the court together.  Dunn’s offense hasn’t come around besides the facilitating; he literally can’t shoot.  Playing him with Lavine not only hinders his development, but highlights one of the biggest issues with this Bulls roster in general:  There’s too many guys who need the ball, and no one good enough to be the guy.

That doesn’t totally matter considering they aren’t trying to win, but it does matter for development.  Lavine and Jabari Parker’s tendencies to hold the ball too long, isolate and take bad shots doesn’t bode for what’s actually a decently modern and fun roster.  If Lavine and Parker buy in, the Bulls could run some fun stuff on the offensive end.  Dunn’s a great passer, and rookie Wendell Carter Jr. has amazing passing skills for a big man.  The Bulls could get really crafty with their offense and run complicated motion off Dunn and Carter’s passes, but the tendencies of Lavine and Parker to do too much could derail that.

And even if they do that offensively to help muster some wins, the defense could suffocate its benefits.  Chicago is a train wreck on that end.  Lavine, Parker and Lauri Markkannen are all minuses who either don’t care or aren’t skilled on that end.  The three are collectively so bad that it’ll probably make up for the good that comes out of Carter Jr. and Dunn.

The Bulls have some nice, young players.  Chandler Hutchinson, Bobby Portis and Tyler Ulis are all solid bench guys for a young team.  But I just don’t see anyone on this roster who has star potential.  I hope the Bulls realize this and tank, but I have concerns that they think that guy is Lavine.

Projected record: 29-53

Cleveland Cavaliers

  1. George Hill-Collin Sexton
  2. Rodney Hood-JR Smith-Jordan Clarkson
  3. Cedi Osman-David Nwamba-Kyle Korver-Sam Dekker
  4. Kevin Love-Larry Nance Jr.-Channing Fyre-Billy Preston
  5. Tristan Thompson-Ante Zizic

It’s part two of the “LeBron leaves you in shambles” saga.

Yikes, there is a lot going on here.  There’s a odd mirage of young guys and veterans on bad contracts that the Cavaliers don’t really want.  These aren’t the type of guys you keep around in year one of a rebuild.  Maybe later on down the road, but not in the beginning.

Reports have already been out there that Cleveland wants to trade Kyle Korver.  He makes the most sense to go first, since there will actually be a market for him (George Hill?  Maybe not so much!).  Hill and JR Smith off this roster would be nice, but no one is taking either contract.  They’re just kinda stuck there for now.

It’s possible though that Cleveland flips this the other way and attempts to make the playoffs.  The Kevin Love extension signaled that could be their plan.

And at this point, it might make sense to do that.  You can’t really kick off a rebuild until all the contracts are off the books, so the Cavaliers thinking was to try to be competitive until JR, Hill and Thompson are up.  Love is most important if they are trying to make the playoffs, and his extension will be up about the same time as the bad ones are.

There are two problems with this though:  1) Even the competitive roster may not be enough to get them in.  2)  This is going to be a much longer process than we think.  If the Cavaliers are somewhat competitive for the next couple years, then they won’t have the best draft picks to get real impactful players.  So the tanking process to gain picks won’t start until the contracts are up, which is somewhere between 3-4 years from now depending on whose you’re looking at.  So 3-4 years of being competitive, 3-4 years of tanking after that to gain a core, then development, which would be another 2-3 years.  That’s at least eight years from now!

This is what happens when LeBron leaves.  It’s great while he’s there, but the situation he leaves you in is not great.  Especially when you’re Cleveland.

The Cavaliers’ plan to be competitive is cute.  I don’t think this roster is there, even for the 8th seed in the East, which is the arm-pit of the league right now.  They get worse defensively with LeBron gone; which is somehow possible.  The front-court is a blackhole; Thompson’s rim protection is scary at best, and Love doesn’t possess that skill.

Their best bet offensively is to turn K-Love back into his Minnesota self by posting him up and running everything through him.  Even in today’s league, that has to be worth something, right?  They’re basically a much worse Denver that way; Love can make some passes from the elbow to shooters and cutters.

But how much are they gonna move?  George Hill and JR Smith love to dribble the ball, and Tristan Thompson’s complaining about not getting enough touches is coming (He can get away with saying that not that LeBron is gone!).

Cleveland’s best option for an efficient offense to play Love with Cedi Osman, Sam Dekker and Rodney Hood.  And even that is… yikes.

The Cavaliers are so bad that they’re going to try to be the 8th seed and won’t get it. Even the best version of this offense is awful; I’d expect them by Christmas to be turning things over to Collin Sexton, and let the whole thing burn to the ground.

Projected record: 25-57

Detroit Pistons

  1. Reggie Jackson-Ish Smith-Langston Galloway-Jose Calderon
  2. Reggie Bullock-Luke Kennard-Bruce Brown Jr.
  3. Stanley Johnson-Glenn Robinson-Khyri Thomas
  4. Blake Griffin-Henry Ellenson-Jon Leuer
  5. Andre Drummond-Zaza Pachulia 

Incase you’re bored, the quality of the East improves as we move through alphabetical order.

Thank God.

A lot of people have the Pistons slotted as the 8th seed in the East.  I need some explanation there.

I guess the case is that an offense running through a passing big man with shooters is worth at least 35 wins.  Like the Cavaliers above, Detroit is essentially a worse Denver.  But the pieces on this offense aren’t nearly as good as on the ones Denver.  I mean, one of the “shooters” on this Detroit team is Andre Drummond now; I guess that’s a thing.

Shooting coaches always point to making free throws before you become a good shooter.  Drummond can’t even do that.  This whole thing is hilarious.

Maybe the Pistons think that just his presence on the perimeter will draw defenders out and open up space for Griffin and cutters, but if I’m an opposing defense, I have a 5-on-4 advantage in that situation.  I’m leaving Drummond as open as I possibly can if he’s on the perimeter.  Please, Andre Drummond, shoot threes.  Take as many as you’d like.

And that’s only one issue with this offense.  I’m sure Reggie Jackson is gonna be thrilled watching Blake Griffin take the ball away from him, and he’ll certainly be pleased with watching Andre Drummond brick threes instead of him.  But it’s okay, because once Griffin gets hurt and is out for at least 20 games, it’s the Reggie Jackson show.  And the Pistons are no better or worse that way.

Dwane Casey is the new coach here, and this has all the makings of his Toronto offenses prior to last season, with a bunch of weird isolations from players who didn’t deserve it.

The Pistons are just as bad defensively.  Playing Griffin and Drummond doesn’t only kill your spacing, but allows offenses to space you out.  They’re screwed against five-out teams, and will struggle with rim protection.  Drummond’s effort on that end fluctuates, and there’s an odd belief that Griffin is able to play small-ball center.

No matter which way you craft it, the Pistons are not good.  It feels like there should be no way they make the playoffs, but with how low my projected records are for most of the East, it’s unfortunately possible.

Projected record: 34-48

Indiana Pacers 

  1. Darren Collison-Cory Joseph-Aaron Holiday
  2. Victor Olidipo-Tyreke Evans-Edmond Sumner
  3. Bojan Bogdanovic-Doug McDermott
  4. Thaddeus Young-TJ Leaf-Alize Johnson-Ben Moore
  5. Myles Turner-Domas Sabonis-Kyle O’Quinn-Ike Anigbogu

Our first good East team!  Lets go!

I was slightly disappointed with the Pacers offseason though.  Their biggest need was some firepower around Victor Olidipo, who broke down in the playoffs and couldn’t handle the massive offensive loaded he was tasked with carrying.

They did a little bit.  They signed Doug McDermott and Tyreke Evans.  McDermott was in the right idea of what I wanted them to do, but he’s not gonna be impactful enough.  Evans I have multiple concerns about.  I mean, there’s no way he’s as good as last season, right?  (What was that by the way?  Did that actually happen?)  Secondly, whether he is good or not doesn’t have anything to do with chemistry.  There’s a lot of overlap between his and Olidipo’s game.  Evans won’t start, but if he was added in the thinking that him and Olidipo would play off one another and create a more dynamic offense, then I’m betting against that working out.  Evans needs the ball, and Olidipo is a good shooter, but in that scenario you’re taking the ball out of the hands of your best player.  With expected regression from Evans, he doesn’t really count as firepower.

But that’s the worst case scenario for the Pacers; that they’re just as good as they were last year and that’s it.

Improvement for the Pacers comes in Victor Olidipo taking another step forward and the rise of some young guys.  Indiana is really high on Ben Moore and Alize Johnson, and I think TJ Leaf can be much more effective with more minutes this year.

The Pacers are fine.  They aren’t in the top tier of the East; some more splashy offseason moves would have helped with that, but Olidipo’s rise will be fun to watch once again.

Projected record: 45-37

Miami Heat

  1. Goran Dragic-Tyler Johnson
  2. Josh Richardson-Dwyane Wade-Dion Waiters
  3. Rodney McGruder-Wayne Ellington-Derrick Jones Jr.-Duncan Robinson
  4. Justise Winslow-James Johnson-Kelly Olynyk-Yante Maten
  5. Hassan Whiteside-Bam Adebayo-Udonis Haslem

This Heat team is just waiting for a trade to be made.  They’re one guy away from contending in the East (Hello Jimmy Butler!).  But for now, they’re just a fun team with a bunch of stretchy dudes who play defense, shoot threes and can’t score in crunch-time.

Right now, the Heat are relying on some combination of Dwyane Wade, Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic to get them buckets down the stretch.  Yikes.

Besides that, the Heat are good.  Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder and Justise Winslow form a lockdown perimeter defense; all three can switch between multiple positions and have great athleticism.  They’re unselfish offensively, except for Winslow, who isn’t selfish but still can’t really do anything with the ball in his hands.  The contract the Heat gave to him was stunning for someone who hasn’t shown a whole lot on one side of the ball.  His defense might be worth it, but for a team that needs scorers as bad as this one does, it was a lot to pay up.

The Heat are deep too, which makes a possible 3-for-1 trade hurt less.  Miami will bring James Johnson off the bench as an offensive cornerstone.  He can do a bunch of things on offense and defense: Stretch floor, make passes, score inside, switch on D and can even protect the rim decently if it’s from the help side.  When he’s in, the Heat can get easy buckets if they move the ball around Johnson, like how Denver uses Nikola Jokic or how the Pistons plan to use Blake Griffin.  That type of offense would be a pain to guard, and Johnson could set some nasty elbow screens to have guys cut around him towards the rim.  Playing Johnson a bevy of minutes while also using the current starters in crunch-time might muster enough offense, especially against bad defensive teams.

Hassan Whiteside is frustrating, but his inconsistent defense and constant demanding for the ball shouldn’t have too much of an impact.  The Heat have guys who can make for the defense, like Johnson or Bam Adebayo, who was incredible last season under the rim and has shown the ability to guard the perimeter thanks to his lengthy, bouncy frame.  Johnson can also make up for Whiteside’s misses, but both of them playing together has been an issue in the past; it’s hard to run a Point Johnson-like offense when Whiteside, a lumbering big man, is out there.

The Heat have a move to make, and when they do, watch out.  They could make a run in the East.  But for now, they’re just another fun team that’s not quite there yet.  They’ll make the playoffs comfortably without a big move, but before long time is gonna run out on this group.

Projected record: 46-36

Milwaukee Bucks

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo-Matthew Dellavedova-Treveon Duval
  2. Eric Bledsoe
  3. Malcolm Brogdon-Tony Snell-Donte DiVincenzo-Sterling Brown-Pat Connaughton-DJ Wilson
  4. Khris Middleton-Ersan Ilyasova
  5. Brook Lopez-John Henson-Thon Maker-Christian Wood

I am so excited this team is finally competent.

The hire of Mike Budenholzer cannot be understated.  The Bucks had the worst coach(es) in the league last year between Jason Kidd and Jay Triano.  The offense was a disaster; Eric Bledsoe had the ball way too much, taking it out of Giannis Antentokounmpo’s hands and leading to a lot of isolations and bad possessions.  The defense was even worse.  Neither John Henson or Thon Maker could provide rim protection, leading to Giannis having step in whenever he could.  That wasn’t easy; the Bucks hardly switched under Kidd/Triano when they have one of the most plentiful supplies of length in the league.  And finally, the Bucks were just dumb.  They committed a ton of turnovers, dropped passes, didn’t execute anything particularly well.  It was a mess.

This year, all of that should change.  Budenholzer is completely revitalizing the offense so that shooters can get open shots via the process of ball movement, which was a completely foreign idea to the Bucks last year.  I mean, look at the things he’s doing already.

Ahhhhhhhhhh it’s glorious.  You could watch every quarter of Bucks basketball last season and can’t find one possession like that one.

The problem is that the shots have to go in.  The Bucks ranked 22nd in three point percentage last season, and had the 6th lowest percentage of three pointers taken out of all their shots.  They’ll shoot more, which is a plus no matter if they go in or not, but whether they go in could be the difference between the Bucks being the 4th or 6th in the East.  They just have to go in.  A lot of their core rotation guys shot between 35 and 38 percent from deep last year, which isn’t a number suitable for today’s league.

But Bud is gonna do all he can to make sure those shots go in.  There’s also one other guy who could help out the Bucks offensively.

I, like everyone else, expect Giannis to be on a different level this season.  It’s time.  The offense is in his hands now.  No more Eric Bledsoe dribbling, or bad mid-rangers by Khris Middleton.  None of that.  It’s all Giannis.  He’s the most unstoppable player driving to the rim in the league.  He can pass and kick out, score on tip-ins, and rebound.  This is the year he dominates.  You’re gonna have to stop him every time in every game.  Good luck.

There are some concerns with this team though.  With the new responsibility and spotlight, Giannis could struggle a bit.  I mean, he’s still only 24.  No coach has ever given him the chance to be the guy.  That’s especially true in crunch-time, where Milwaukee was horrifically bad in last season.  Shouldn’t we expect some deer-in-the-headlights?

And what happens when Bledsoe tries to wrestle the ball from him?  That’ll create inefficiency between the two with Bledsoe wasting seconds and Giannis standing there awkwardly, not being preparing to spot up at all.  They could use Giannis as a slasher in some sets, but again: There should be no possession where it’s not in his hands at some point.

Brook Lopez should do a lot for the Bucks, and that adds about half the wins Bud does.  The defense down low was so horrid last season that even those sour on Lopez should see him as an upgrade.  We can’t forget that he was on the Lakers, one of the few worse defensive teams than Milwaukee last season.  When the whole team is bad, it can make the individual look worse than they are.

The Bucks were already awesome and just needed a facelift.  They got one in Bud, and I expect him and Giannis to propel this team to a new height.

Projected record: 55-27

New York Knicks

  1. Frank Ntilikina-Emmanuel Muiday-Trey Burke-Ron Baker
  2. Tim Hardaway Jr.-Allonzo Trier-Mario Hezonja-Courtney Lee
  3. Kevin Knox-Damyean Dotson
  4. Lance Thomas-Isaiah Hicks-Luke Kornet 
  5. Enes Kanter-Kristaps Porzingis (Injured)

The East gave us three good teams in a row.  Now we’re here.

I think I knew this team was gonna be bad, but I didn’t think it’d be this bad.

Kristaps Porzingis went down at the worst possible time last season.  It was early February when Porzingis tore the ACL.  At that time, it seemed like the earliest he’d be back was Christmas.  Now it looks more and more likely that Porzingis might be looking at a full year for recovery; there’s a chance he doesn’t play at all this season.

That means that New York has all the incentive in the world to be as bad as they possibly can be this season.  Tanking and getting another top pick makes the Knicks decently appeasing to a free agent or two.

This season the Knicks should concentrate on two things.  The first is to try to develop Ntilikina’s offensive game.  He’s still super raw on that end despite being an excellent defender.  The only skill he’s got offensively is the passing, but he doesn’t ever seem to have total control of the offense.  Part of that is system-based, and other parts are Tim Hardaway Jr-based.  He’s not a dangerous driver, and is still working on kicking out and slashing.  You’re basically playing 4-on-5 with him on offense.

The second is getting Kevin Knox the ball.  The rookie blew me away in Summer League; he was a dominant scorer who could get any shot he wanted.  Granted this was Summer League, but the confidence I saw him display was not there at Kentucky, where he disappeared during games on the offensive end.  If the Knicks can make him their No.1 option, then he’s going to be really good fast.  Ride that confidence he has coming out of the Summer into the beginning of the season.

Besides those two things, don’t watch the Knicks.  They’re going to be horrendous defensively.  Honestly, they’d probably be more entertaining the worse they get.  Then, we’ll start to see larger roles for guys like Allonzo Trier (Who I really liked in college) and Isaiah Hicks.  Trier, Hicks and Knox is a fun three-man lineup we should see at some point this season.  But that’s a ways on.  For now, avert your eyes!

Projected record: 24-58

Orlando Magic

  1. DJ Augustin-Jerian Grant-Isaiah Briscoe
  2. Evan Fournier-Melton Frazier Jr.
  3. Aaron Gordon-Jonathan Simmons-Terrence Ross-Wesley Iwundu
  4. Jonathan Issac-Jarrell Martin
  5. Nikola Vucevic-Mo Bamba-Khem Birch-Timofey Mozgov

I don’t even know what to say about this team.

For someone who was a fan of John Hammond in Milwaukee, I’m disappointed.  Hammond was onto the next big things with the Bucks; he knew the league was going to embrace long, stretchy players who could play perimeter roles.  But now that he’s in that league, his moves have been odd.

I wasn’t a fan of the Jonathan Issac pick.  He had the potential to do a lot of things, but didn’t actually do any of them.  We’re still at that point.

And now he’s forced to play with Mo Bamba, Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon.  That’s three guys who do the same things: Protect the rim, post-up, rebound and don’t shoot threes.

It’s kinda impossible for the Magic to not play a lineup that features two of those guys.  I doubt the Magic play Khem Birch much, and Timofey Mozgov is… well… Timofey Mozgov.  Jarell Martin isn’t really a rim protector, and since he can’t protect the rim as well, I’m sure the Magic will find a spot for him since he’s a mediocre three point shooter on top of that.

Besides those rare scenarios, it’s gonna be hard for the Magic to find modern lineups without benching all their bigs they’re trying to develop.  It’s too bad Evan Fournier is on this team; he could be a really nice piece somewhere else.

The Magic are gonna be horrible and I have no idea how they’re gonna sort out this lineup.  I’m glad it’s not my job.

Projected record: 23-59

Toronto Raptors

  1. Kyle Lowry-Fred VanVleet-Lorenzo Brown
  2. Danny Green-Norman Powell-Delon Wright-Jordan Lloyd
  3. OG Anunoby-CJ Miles-Malachi Richardson
  4. Kawhi Leonard-Serge Ibaka-Pascal Siakam-Chris Boucher 
  5. Jonas Valanciunas-Greg Monroe 

Throughout this preview we’ve called out multiple teams who refused to do anything significant this offseason.  Now we’ve approached the one team who grew a pair and did something about their stagnant situation.

Kawhi Leonard may leave after this season, and even then the trade for him was still worth it.  The Raptors got someone to take on the DeMar DeRozan contract and split up their backcourt which was the root of all their issues.  They landed one of the seven best players in the league and now have one of the most modern, stretchy and defensive oriented teams in the league.

This Toronto Raptors team is dang good.  Kyle Lowry might be getting old and might be unreliable, but he’s perfect for this team.  He can facilitate and play well off the ball.  The heart of the Raptors issues was figuring out to split the ball between Lowry and DeRozan.  Now, that issue is gone, as Kawhi Leonard doesn’t command it nearly as much as DeRozan did.  The Raptors can run three wings along with Lowry, including Kawhi.  Danny Green was a sneaky good throw in to the deal, and will see a ton of minutes within this wing rotation.  OG Anunoby should take a step forward, given this will be his first healthy year.  He can’t be much better defensively, so some aggressiveness on the offensive side would be much appreciated by Toronto.  And don’t forget CJ Miles, who was on fire toward the end of last season from three.  He rounds out one of the best stashes of wings in the NBA.

The Raptors can change their look too.  With Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell off the bench, the Raptors can play fast and get explosive offensive outbursts if they need it.  VanVleet has a good Sixth Man of the Year case heading into this season, and I’m still on the Powell bandwagon.

Center is the one fallback the Raptors have.  Valanciunas takes away their ability to switch through all five positions, but when your wings are this good, it may not matter as much.

Toronto took a swing this summer and they’re at least getting on base.  If they end up in the Finals, it’s a home run.  If they don’t, oh well, but even if Kawhi leaves, they’re in better shape than they were a year ago.

Toronto is built to match up with a Boston or Golden State.  Whether they beat either depends on health and how the season develops.  But I wouldn’t be shocked to see them face both next May and June.

Projected record: 58-24

A write up on Washington will come tomorrow afternoon

Eastern Conference Standings:

  1. Boston Celtics, 63-19
  2. Toronto Raptors, 58-24
  3. Philadelphia 76ers, 56-26
  4. Milwaukee Bucks, 55-27
  5. Washington Wizards, 48-34
  6. Miami Heat, 46-36
  7. Indiana Pacers, 45-37
  8. Charlotte Hornets, 40-42
  9. Brooklyn Nets, 35-47
  10. Detroit Pistons, 34-48
  11. Chicago Bulls, 29-53
  12. Atlanta Hawks, 27-55
  13. Cleveland Cavaliers, 25-57
  14. New York Knicks, 24-58
  15. Orlando Magic, 23-59

A Case That The Western Conference Has 14 Playoff Teams

One of the most common themes in the NBA the past five seasons has been the competitive imbalance of the two conferences.  Since 2013, the Western Conference has been an absolute bloodbath, while the Eastern Conference has featured approximately three good teams every year.

That doesn’t change this year.  The Western Conference added the best player in the league to a team that wasn’t in the playoff picture last season.  The Eastern Conference lost him, and the dominant team of the past four years will now regress to at most 35 wins.  The Western Conference added talented rookies and has young players looking to take gigantic leaps that will propel their team to new heights.

That means that a lot of teams are going to be better than last season.  Or at least, they should be.  And for others, they could be better than last year, but it’ll take some luck.

There are 14 teams that will, should or could make the playoffs in the West.  We’re gonna go through each one.  Brace yourself, the “Could” section might get a little wonky.

Will make the playoffs: Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder

With the addition of DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors have to try even less during the course of the regular season.  That could lead to an even slower start, especially since Cousins, who is coming off of an achilles tear, probably won’t be back to till January or February.

It’s kinda funny that we’ve reached the point with the Warriors where, instead of guessing how many games they can win, we’re guessing how many games they’ll lose due to their laziness.

You’d think that Golden State would be in even more danger of losing the 1st seed in the West than they were last year, but they’re still the favorites to come out on top.  The expected regression from Houston and the youth of the Lakers limits the pressure.

You’ll hear all year about which of Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant will leave after the season.  The smart thing to do for both would be stay, but it’s possible that’s not an option.  If everyone comes back and are paid respectably (not their full value but at a decent discount), the Warriors are looking at an astronomical luxury tax bill, one that wouldn’t only be the largest in NBA history, but one that is so incomprehensibly large that we would have never thought it would be possible.  Joe Lacob is probably gonna do it, but the number will be outstanding.

The Warriors are going to take it easy during the regular season.  The Boogie addition might get them 70 wins, or it could take them down to 55-57.  It just depends on how much they all want to care.

No matter what that number is, I still expect them to be the No.1 seed.  The Rockets offseason moves should cause them to regress at least a little.

Houston got to the next level last season by amping up their defense.  The addition of Chris Paul, switchability of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute made Houston a legitimate threat to the Warriors.  They made the same amount of threes, switched everything and tried defensively.  It almost worked.

Now, a lot of that is gone.  Paul is a year older (and another injury weaker), Ariza cashed in with the Suns and Mbah a Moute went back to the Clippers.  The mastermind behind it all, Jeff Bzdelik, retired.  I would too if my team replaced those defenders with Carmelo Anthony.

I liked the Jamis Ennis signing though.  It was strange to see the Grizzlies and Pistons pass on him; two teams that desperately need to modernize their teams.  Ennis is a solid, switchy defender who can hit threes at an average rate.

But average may not be enough.  This is the Rockets, and their one point of emphasis is the three-point shot.  They brought in Ennis (average), Melo (below average) and Michael Carter-Williams (definitely below average).  They also lost Ryan Anderson in the trade with the Suns, who served as a functional stretch four.

Houston’s isolation heavy offense only works if the threes go in.  With Ennis, Melo and MCW playing big minutes, you’re making threes at a much lower rate.  Pair that with the defensive regression, and Houston is probably closer to the third seed than the first.

I’d expect the Lakers and Jazz to duke it out for the third seed all season.  It’s a tough call.  LeBron’s on one end, and a very good, well-rounded Utah team is on the other.

I can’t believe there would ever come a time where I am praising/defending the Lakers, but here we are.  The “They’re not gonna make the playoffs!” talk is insane.  Even having them finish below the 5th seed is nonsense.  This is a LeBron James-led team.  You really think he’s not making the playoffs?  The Cavaliers are going to win 25 games this season.  They lost no one but LeBron and were in the Finals last season.  I get there’s a conference imbalance; I addressed that at the top.  But c’mon.  LeBron is not missing the playoffs.

In fact, I think Los Angeles grabs three.  The Lakers are so much more talented than the Cavaliers.  Not only do the pieces fit around LeBron, but they fit today’s league as well.  Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram are long, athletic perimeter guys.  Defensively, they should be able to switch and play average defense.  Their biggest weakness on that end is youth.  Lonzo Ball took massive steps forward on the defensive end last year, after that side of his game was criticized in the draft.  Rim protection is an issue, but LeBron could find himself in that role along with JaVale McGee (Moritz Wagner doesn’t count here.  Sorry!) quite often.  That depends on Rajon Rondo’s effort, which can be not so great or quite effective (as we saw against Portland in the playoffs).

Josh Hart’s role on this team will be fascinating.  He can be played at a wing-like shooting guard position (An unselfish, off the ball shooter) or run point with bench units.  For a smaller guy, his switchability is actually quite good, making him even more viable in both roles.

There’s a couple random guys worth addressing on this Lakers roster.  I’d be surprised if Lance Stephenson or Michael Beasley have much of a role; both project to be too compromising defensively to play real minutes.  In Lance’s case, the Lakers have enough guys who the offense can run through (Hart, Ball, LeBron, Rondo).  Beasley might see more minutes, given his potential for an offensive spark occasionally off the bench.

Ivica Zubac could be an x-factor here.  Depending on how much LeBron likes him, he could provide the most consistent source of rim protection.  McGee is McGee, Wagner is not athletic enough to play center in the NBA, and LeBron’s already gonna be tasked with so much that playing the five isn’t in his best interest.  Zubac would be another young, clueless defender out there, but the ceiling is higher than the other options.

Like Golden State, the Lakers are going to be fine.  They may not find themselves in the Finals with the bloodbath West, but they will not finish any lower than the 3rd seed.  We’ll talk about their playoff chances when the time comes, because even though they may not make it, they are a contender.

The Jazz are awesome.  If Donavan Mitchell takes another step forward (By the way, we shouldn’t expect that.  He was so good last year it’s hard to improve), he’s a MVP candidate.  Joe Ingles is a perfect three-and-D wing for today’s league, and Ricky Rubio has worked on his three point spot enough to be decent when he’s not the primary ball-handler.  There may not be a better defensive team in the league than this one.  The team’s going to be good because they have a superstar, are fantastic defensively and have a good coach.

But the Jazz aren’t at title contender status.  Despite their possession of quality players, it’s the mix that’s wrong.  They’re still stuck playing two bigs with Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, both of who are fantastic defenders individually, but have issues on the perimeter.  Another defensive wing instead of Favors would open things up on the offensive end, which still lacks firepower even after the draft.  Grayson Allen can score, but his size might be a tad compromising defensively.  Jae Crowder and Thabo Selfolosha provided some modernization, but Crowder’s a tad washed and it seems unlikely Selfolosha can put up the same three point numbers as last year.

They just need more firepower.  Allen will help, but it’s unlikely that’s enough.  Free agents aren’t coming to Utah.  If Utah is better than we think, then a trade come February for a No.2 option could be likely.

The Thunder are a little troubling.  There’s no way they fall out of the playoffs, but there’s some concerns I have.

It’s amazing how Russell Westbrook playing and not playing is an issue.  The knee surgery he had over the offseason will keep him out at least tonight.  We’ve seen Westbrook play through some ridiculous injuries, so the immediate concern isn’t too large.  It’s more about the piling up of Westbrook’s injuries.  He’s one of the biggest freaks of nature the league has ever had.  But how much longer is this sustainable?

Westbrook makes the Thunder competent.  When he’s out, they lose that electricity and that dominant offensive presence (Paul George is not a No.1 option on any team.  He’s a fantastic No.2 on any team, though).

Westbrook brings the Thunder to a competitive level, but nothing above.  He’s not taking you to that next level.  He wants to though, and that’s the problem.  The hero-ball, isolating play Westbrook uses doesn’t work with the way the league is.  You’re just not winning that way.

Secondly, the Thunder’s defense, which I was excited about, took a hit when it was announced that Andre Roberson had a setback with his knee and probably won’t be back till around Christmas.   That slots in Terrance Ferguson, who I like, but is super raw; he only played 12 minutes a game last season.  At the same time, his offense is guaranteed to be better than Roberson’s, because well, anyone’s can be better than Roberson’s.

The Patrick Patterson spot is a little cringe-worthy.  He might be a bit washed, and though he’s a versatile defender, teams will stretch him out to the perimeter and blow by him.  That signing hasn’t worked out nearly as well as I and the Thunder thought it would.

Oklahoma City is in the playoffs.  Westbrook’s theatrics will get them there.  It’s not gonna get them that far though.

Should make the playoffs: Denver, Minnesota, New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio

Annnnnd we’re already at 10 teams.  But just because they should make the playoffs doesn’t mean they will.  Each of these teams have reasons for making it and for not. “Should” means it’s either a make or break season, or it says that this team should make a leap.  Others are just fine, and that’s their biggest downfall or their biggest asset.

We’ll start with Denver.  They should make the playoffs because they’re going to have Paul Millsap fully healthy and Jamal Murray in what’s hopefully a breakout year.  They run a fun, hard to guard offense centered around Nikola Jokic making ridiculous passes from the elbow.  Gary Harris is knockdown shooter and lockdown defender, which is a rarity on this team.  Denver is planning to go with a three guard lineup in Murray, Harris and Will Barton.

That’s a pretty decent start, and they could add more depending on what they get out of their offseason additions.  I wasn’t the biggest Michael Porter Jr. fan in the draft, but I have now turned into one.  The highly touted forward is exactly what Denver has lacked for years: A No.1 offensive option who could develop into an absolute star.  The second part of that sentence is what I’m skeptical of, but his situation and where he was taken makes me think it’s possible.  If he can contribute, and emerge as a crunch-time guy for them, then watch out.  This team could be really good really fast.

The same goes for Isaiah Thomas, who Denver smartly handed out a flyer contract to this offseason.  Like Porter Jr., if he can contribute even a little bit to this team, it could take them to another level.  Denver desperately needs crunch-time scoring.  Even if Murray takes that next step, I’m not sure he’s that type of player.  Porter Jr. and/or Thomas is.  If one of them can stay healthy and emerge in that role, Denver is definitely in.

But it may not happen.  It’s possible Thomas plays like his Cleveland self; he’s not expected to play until at least a week into the season.  That’s also the case with Porter Jr; he’s on a similar timetable as Thomas, and has talent that may come or not.  The Nuggets’ defense as a whole is kinda concerning, even with some of the individual studs they have.  Murray, Barton and Jokic in the starting lineup is a black-hole.  While Harris and Millsap are gritty, versatile defenders, the defense may not be able to switch as effectively with the three liabilities on the court.  The Nuggets don’t have a lot of wing depth behind them either; it’s a bunch of young combo guards who are still developing (Monte Morris, who I like, and Malik Beasley, who I don’t like).

(To wrap up each of these teams’ summary, we’re gonna quickly answer the question “How do they make/miss the playoffs?”)

How does Denver make the playoffs?:  Murray takes a leap forward, they get one of Porter Jr. or Thomas to emerge as a crunch-time option, and the defense is good enough thanks to Millsap and Harris.

How does Denver miss the playoffs?:  Thomas nor Porter Jr. are crunch-time players, leading to a lot of close losses and putting Denver in the same spot as they are every year: A good team without a best player.  Barton is a disaster in the starting lineup, and now the Nuggets are paying a bench guy $13.25 million a year.

And now for quite possibly the biggest dumpster fire in the league, the Minnesota Timberwolves!

I guess it’s safe to assume that Jimmy Butler isn’t getting traded…. yet.  The Wolves have been super stubborn about the discussions, leading to Butler showing up at practice fired up in the wrong way (That whole thing is incredible, by the way).  Now the Wolves are stuck with the same team they had last year with their best player unhappy.

But that same team made the playoffs, and added the one thing they desperately needed: Wings and shooters.  The Wolves drafted Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop; Bates-Diop was a first round talent they got in the second round (His fall was stunning.  The dude was Big Ten Player of the Year!).  Those two and Luol Deng help modernize this offense.  People are gonna crap on Deng, but he’s actually underrated now.  It wasn’t that he was bad, it was that he was bad for the contract he was playing under.  He’ll help the Wolves!

It’s possible Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns could take a step forward.  For the both of them, as Jimmy Butler has let us know, it’s defensively where they both have to get better.  Wiggins has more potential on that end, since we knew him out of college as at least that (Again, it’s just effort).  KAT is more physically challenged when it comes to defense, but some improved basketball IQ could help him out (i.e. Know where your help side is!).  Minnesota also has Tyus Jones, who is quietly awesome but hasn’t been quiet behind closed doors.  There’s been rumors about his unhappiness as well, and as we’ll now explore, his and Butler’s is totally warranted.

One of the pluses with this Wolves team was how they brought everyone who was on a championship team back.  It’s also one of their biggest weaknesses.

Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler on the court at the same time is a disaster.  All three command the ball, and all three want it all the time.  Only one of those ball-hogs deserve it (Butler).  Teague had the ball in his hands way too much when Butler should’ve; this led to him trying to get fouls on three pointers, in which no foul was called and the shot air-balled two feet to the left of the rim.  Wiggins is an inefficient isolation scorer who needs the ball to succeed, yet can’t even be the 4th best player on a championship team.  He’s a stat-stuffer who also isn’t the most consistent player, either.

Sprinkle in some of the tension in the air among these guys and hooooooo boy, we’ve got a nice little game of King of the Hill on the court for Wolves games this year.  That is, assuming the Wolves keep themselves in denial about Butler.

How the Wolves make the playoffs: Tension settles with Butler, he stays and leaves next Summer (Please let this happen to the Wolves.  They’d be like, “Wait, he was a free agent?”).  One of Wiggins and/or KAT improve in some way (with defense or limiting isos) and the three new wings give Minnesota an average three point attack.

How the Wolves miss the playoffs: KAT and Wiggins purposely don’t improve to force Butler out, leading to a somewhat accidental slow start and Jeff Teague doing way too much on a basketball court.  Teague and Wiggins’s antics limit the impact of the roster modernization.

New Orleans had the most up and down six months possible earlier this calendar year.  DeMarcus Cousins went down in February, ending what was a decent MVP campaign and crushing all hope New Orleans had at making a playoff run.  The Pelicans traded for Nikola Mirotic before the trade deadline, a move which somehow helped modernize their roster a little bit and gave them some much needed wing depth.  Rajon Rondo started giving a crap defensively, forming a dominant backcourt with Jrue Holiday that shutdown Portland in the first round of the playoffs.  They got enough offense between Holiday and Anthony Davis and their wings to make it.  It wasn’t enough against the Warriors though.

But the Pelicans lost everyone this offseason. Guys like Dante Cunningham are gone, and Rondo’s on the Lakers and is being replaced with Elfrid Payton.  They once again have no wings.  It’s Anthony Davis and practically no one else.

That’s the Pelicans’ playoff case.  This team is very similar to the 2014-2015 Pelicans team that snuck into the 8th seed and got creamed by the Warriors.  Their only source of anything was Davis.

Holiday is a really good player, but doesn’t possess the firepower needed to surround Davis.  There’s none of that on this roster.  Mirotic is too streaky, and relying on Darius Miller and E’Twaun Moore for consistent offensive output is scary.  The geometry works; Holiday, whatever combination of wings and Davis is a modern offense (Sorry Julius Randle!  You got overpaid and you should be happy with that!).  But it’s just average.  Davis will have to be ridiculous for New Orleans to get in.

How the Pelicans make the playoffs: Davis is ridiculous, Holiday plays like he did in last year’s playoffs, and the surrounding cast musters just enough offense and defense to sneak them in.

How the Pelicans miss the playoffs: Davis’s best effort and whatever the role guys produce isn’t enough, and New Orleans starts taking a hard look at moving their superstar come February.

The Trail Blazers offseason was one of the most disappointing in the league.  Toronto grew a pair and blew up their flawed backcourt, while Portland stayed silent in the Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler sweepstakes.  They ran it back and somehow got worse defensively, not only ignoring their biggest issue but making it even more of a problem.

It’s not great that I can’t find a lot of nice words to say about this team.  They didn’t improve, so it’s kinda hard.  Portland makes the playoffs because they have Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, two superstars who are both top 25 players in the league. That’s the case.  They have a more than competent enough amount of firepower fueled by those two.

But again, that’s the case.  They didn’t add anything to this team  They got worse by refusing to address their issues.

The first is the chemistry between Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.  While they’re both great individually, two ball dominant players, especially two guards, doesn’t work anymore.  The chemistry didn’t cost them games, but the way the roster is constructed based on their presence did.  With Lillard and McCollum, the Trail Blazers are screwed defensively and can’t add three-and-D wings.  Portland is maxed out out with the two and now Jursurf Nurkic.  Their current wings?  Jake Layman, Al-Faruaq Aminu, Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr.  Yikes!  That’s two rookies they’re relying on for big minutes.

I don’t know where to fit in Evan Turner.  There’s rumors that Portland might be revamping their offense by starting Turner and using Lillard and McCollum as secondary-like scorers.  Essentially, they’d run things through Turner, mostly to get some value out of that contract, and to add more volume to the offense.  Turner’s offensive game has been brutal in years past; he’s ineffective and inefficient without the ball.  Putting it in his hands gets him more involved and adds another “scorer”.  Scorer goes to quotes because even if Turner has a central offensive role, it’s not guaranteed he makes the most of it.  He’s still inefficient.

The two guards are the heart of Portland’s problems.  It’s not necessarily because of their fit, it’s because of their presence among one another.  If both are there, there’s no cap space for wings.  It seems odd, but trading one of their two superstars is the only way for Portland to from the “Should” section to the “Will”.

How Portland makes the playoffs: Lillard and McCollum power them through

How Portland misses the playoffs: The West catches up with them and their defensive shortcomings come to a head.  They refuse to move Lillard or McCollum and finish as the 9th seed.

San Antonio had one of the best offseasons in the league.  They aren’t better because of the Kawhi Leonard trade, but they did as good as they could.  It was impossible to win that trade.  You don’t trade one of the six best players in the league and get better.  But you can salvage something, and the Spurs did that.  They removed Kawhi and remained competent.

But nothing is coming easy for the Spurs.  Their first round draft pick Lonnie Walker Jr. tore his meniscus and is out for two months.  They were dealt a brutal blow when Dejounte Murray went down for the season with a torn ACL.  Murray got immensely better toward the end of last season, was projected to take a massive leap forward this year.  He’s done, and his backup is out as well.  Derrick White, who was the one positive to Murray’s injury, would have seen a massive minutes increase as a result of the injury, but he’s now out for what sounds like somewhere between 1-2 months (The reporting has been sketchy).  That means a lot of Patty Mills and Bryn Forbes for now.  Mills is a decent shooter, so running things through DeMar DeRozan would make sense for at least the first month.

It’ll probably remain that way.  DeRozan was the No.1 asset in the Leonard trade and is one of the 25 best players in the league.  He’s there to have things run through him.

That has a ceiling, especially when LaMarcus Aldridge is also on this team.  In crunch-time, the Spurs are running out at least two guys who can’t shoot threes (LMA can, he just chooses not to/doesn’t want to.  That is a whole ‘nother problem).  That doesn’t include whoever their rim protector is.  Jakob Poeltl, one of the guys acquired from Toronto, certainly isn’t a shooter.  Pau Gasol can stretch the floor but isn’t taking the long-ball too often.  Davis Bertans is a shooter, but can’t protect the rim.

For a organization so heavy on analytics, the lack of modernization is odd.  They already lacked shooting prior to the Kawhi trade and went out and got the best mid-range shooter in the league.

Their deficiencies may not matter.  Gregg Popovich got last year’s team to 47 wins and the 7th seed.  That was without a true No.1 option.  Throw in DeRozan and you have someone who can create in crunch-time.  It’s not a perfect team, but they have competent players, and Popovich will get everything he can out of them.

How the Spurs make the playoffs: Popovich figures out a way to get DeRozan and Aldridge to work in today’s league and the young guys (White, Walker, Poeltl) make an impact down the road.

How the Spurs miss the playoffs: A weird team not able to score enough falls short and triggers wonders as to why the Spurs didn’t use to the Kawhi trade to kick off a rebuild.

Could make the playoffs: Dallas, LA Clippers, Memphis, Phoenix

I told you we were gonna get a little wonky.

Honestly, I’m not sure any if these are going to make the playoffs.  I have to write it out to figure it out (I’m doing that below).  The reason I don’t want to eliminate these teams is because they are fun.  They are!  Dallas has Luka Doncic and the Clippers might play four guards at once.  Memphis has a team that isn’t horrible if they stay healthy, and Phoenix, well, okay, Phoenix is a stretch.  I’m probably just being a homer here.  But they’re fun!  And I don’t totally want to count them out!

Lets start with Dallas.  The Mavericks had one of the best draft classes in the league in June.  They drafted Luka Doncic which also somehow garnered them an extra pick, took Jalen Brunson (one of the safest picks in the draft) and took a flyer on Kostas Antetokounmpo, or Giannis’s bother as he’s probably gonna be referred to as.

With the youth, the Mavericks also have quality and competent NBA players.  Dirk Nowitzki is still chugging along.  Wesley Matthews, though overpaid, is serviacble as simply a wing.  Harrison Barnes is the same deal.  They added DeAndre Jordan, who has his flaws but will be a better rim protector than anyone they had last year.

Jordan’s addition is also huge for Doncic.  Jordan’s dream to be a big man who has the ball fed to him was never gonna come true, simply because he isn’t that type of player nor does the league support that anymore.  But his touches and statistics will increase.  A Doncic-Jordan pick and roll, which the Mavs will (hopefully) use a lot, is deadly.  Jordan’s too big for most rolling defenders; his mass can win that matchup or he could just simply dunk on them.  Doncic is already a PNR master and possess ridiculous passing skills to feed it to Jordan in any way.

The Mavs are fun, and good, because of that alone.  But that’s not it.

They’re surprisingly competent.  They can run lineups with Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr/Barnes/Matthews/Dirk/Brunson and Jordan.  Smith Jr. creates an interesting dilemma.  I wasn’t high on him out of his draft; he felt a little too Westbrooky; a bowling ball who couldn’t shoot and would be out of control.  But, he’d be super fun and would make a team at least interesting.

Now, we’re combining that with Doncic.  How do those two play together?  Using one as a role guy is limiting the other’s ceiling.  Doncic off the ball works, but he’s best when things run through him.

That’s what Dallas plans to do:  Run Doncic at point and use DSJ off-the-ball, which seems problematic given that he can’t shoot.  But DSJ’s athleticism makes him a good cutter who get can to the rim.  With Rick Carlisle at the helm, the Mavs are going to move the ball at an incredible rate. DSJ’s gonna be open for layups, and can make things happen with his explosiveness.

Smith’s dangerous with the ball, and that can go both ways.  His recklessness could lead to a little bit of an alpha-doggy presence.  That could lead to inefficiency and Doncic’s role being reduced.

Carlisle should be able to figure it out, but I worry about both adjusting to one another.  It kinda feels like one is gonna be the odd man out.  Please don’t let it be Doncic.

How the Mavericks make the playoffs: Doncic is a god, Smith Jr. buys into his new role and the Mavericks move the ball around to the point where no one can guard them.  They’re just okay defensively and that’s exposed against good offensive teams.

How the Mavericks miss the playoffs:  Doncic is a rookie and him and Smith Jr. struggle to blend.  Teams expose Jordan’s athleticism defensively, and the surrounding wings have below average years.

The Clippers are a crazy team.  Half the roster is crafty guards who need the ball and can’t shoot.  They have few wings and limited depth, and a very average coach to help sort it all out.

Los Angeles has the perfect roster for a 3-for-1 trade (Ala, Jimmy Butler!), but why do that when you can sign him next Summer?  I know teams are gonna be scared of the Paul George situation, but there is literally no way that happens with Butler and the Wolves.

At the same time, it’s plausible that shipping out assets now for Butler actually makes this roster better.  You can clear out the abundance of guards, add a wing/superstar, and guarantee yourself a playoff seed now.

This current Clippers team isn’t there though.  Their best lineup is probably Patrick Beverley-Avery Bradley-Tobias Harris-Luc Mbah a Moute-Marcin Gortat.  With that, you have three guys who are unselfish with the ball but can shoot, a good point guard and a rim protector.  Mbah a Moute in for Danillo Gallinari might catch some eyeballs, but I’d be willing to bet that the Clippers have a Net minus in every stat with him on the court this year.  He’s always hurt, isn’t a good enough shooter to stretch the floor and isn’t the best defender for switching schemes.  With Mbah a Moute, you’re getting defense and threes.

When that lineup isn’t in is, things get wonky.  The Clippers have few wings behind that lineup.  Jerome Robinson projects to be good, but was drafted in June and can’t be relied on too heavily.  Bradley can double as a combo guard, but with the surplus of ones and twos on this team, it’s unlikely we see him in that role.

I’d expect a lot of two and three guard lineups from this team.  Beverley is the starter, but minutes have to be divvied up between him, Lou Williams, Milos Teodosic, Tyrone Wallace, Sindarious Thornwell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.  That’s seven point guards and 21 different combinations of two guard sets!  A large bevy of those 21 features two guys who either need the ball to be effective and/or can’t shoot.

If Doc can figure it out, these three guard sets could be deadly.  With skilled passers like Teodosic, SGA, Williams and Beverley out there, the Clippers could run ridiculous offensive sets, with guys moving all the time and crazy, indefensible passes being thrown.  They could be a pain to guard.

But who’s shooting threes?  As I said, a lot of these guys can’t play off the ball.  SGA, Teodosic, Wallace, and Thornwell all can’t shoot.  That’s four of their seven guards.

The problem is that there is a massive lack of firepower on this team.  They could get quick, easy buckets if they move the ball and experiment with multiple passers on the court at once.  But you need threes in today’s league, and it’s gonna be hard for the Clippers to muster enough of them.

How the Clippers make the playoffs: They’re unguardable offensively due to their ball movement and get 40% from three out of Bradley, Harris and Mbah a Moute.

How the Clippers miss the playoffs: The lack of firepower and a superstar nips them, the three guard lineups lead to inefficiency offensively and the Clippers sail happily into the offseason knowing Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard are coming.

I had the Grizzlies in this column all offseason, but after studying the roster, I feel like I might be underrating them.

The Grizzlies main trait this year is that they are deep.  They all the sudden have 10 guys who are at least competent or have a high ceiling.

They finally ditched Grit and Grind as well.  Memphis overpaid Kyle Anderson (He’s worth it considering how much they need him), signed Garrett Temple, and have Dillion Brooks and Wayne Selden developing.  They drafted Jaren Jackson Jr., one of the most perfect modern big man in the draft and have Ivan Rabb lurking.

The Grizzlies biggest key, like always, is health.  Their best lineup is Mike Conley-Temple-Chandler Parsons-Jackson-Gasol.  While they have solid young players who might be better one day than those starting, this is the lineup that is gonna get them to the playoffs.  It has the experience and veterans, but possibly not the health.  Conley is out at least 25 games every year, Parsons could play in only 25 games all year, and Marc Gasol is 33 and has foot issues.  For Memphis to upgrade to the “Should” section, they have to be healthy.

They’re here because of the health concerns.  There is just no way Conley, Parsons and Gasol stay relatively healthy.  But the team is good enough.  Temple fits, Parsons is a solid wing when healthy, and Jaren Jackson can shoot, switch and protect the rim.  His fit with Gasol could be called into question, but Jackson showed at Michigan State he could guard perimeter guys.  The dude is an athletic freak.

There’s a lot interchangeability with this roster.  Brooks and Anderson can fill the same role Parsons does, while Rabb and Omri Casspi can fill Gasol’s, and Wayne Seldes can do a bunch of things. Memphis can run the offense through him if they want, or could play him as a combo guard or wing as well.  The Grizzlies also drafted Jevon Carter, who brings back that Grit and Grind element.  He can play point guard for practically any lineup.

The Grizzlies have a lot going their way, but injuries could derail it.  Their mix of veterans and young guys has most people overlooking them in the West.

How the Grizzlies make the playoffs: Everyone stays healthy, Jaren Jackson Jr. is awesome as expected and the Grizzlies modern turn pays off.

How the Grizzlies miss the playoffs: Conley and Parsons miss a ton of time and backups like Brooks and Anderson struggle.

Alright, homer time.  I’m so excited for this Suns team.  The youth, the added veterans, and the modernization is everything I’ve wanted from them.

It’s amazing how a team that canned their general manager two weeks before the season isn’t gonna be that terrible.

Here’s the thing with the Suns:  This whole “They could make the playoffs!” case is strictly based off the fact that this is the best roster they’ve had in awhile.  They are not going to be terrible; I’m confident of that.  And if a lot of things go their way, then they could be in contention for the 8th seed.  The goal should be 9th or 10th.  Given what we’ve gone through above, I don’t think that’s unrealistic.

That’s because the now-fired Ryan McDonough had the best offseason of his tenure.  The draft was exceptional: DeAndre Ayton, the trade-up for Mikal Bridges and taking Elie Okobo at the top of the 2nd round.  All three figure to have a role right away.  Ayton provides the rim protection the Suns have lacked for years.  Bridges is an immediate impact wing who’ll play defense and hit threes, and Okobo figures to see large minutes as the Suns still want a point guard (Why, I am not sure).

McDonough signed Trevor Ariza to help further the goal of having more wings and made a sneaky trade with the Rockets.  Ryan Anderson isn’t the stretchiest, most athletic player ever, but he can hit threes and is a veteran.  The Suns need as much leadership as possible.  The trade got Marquese Chriss out of town as well, who was gonna hurt what is hopefully an improved defense.

That defense is anchored by the wings.  Thanks to the moves, the Suns have a plethora of them.  Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges form a locked down perimeter with Davon Reed, Trevor Ariza, TJ Warren and D’Anthony Melton getting in that rotation as well.  Ariza probably starts, but it’d be nice to see Bridges and Jackson play in crunch-time to get minutes in those situations.  If their talent hits the ceiling it should, then Ariza to them shouldn’t be a huge downgrade.

Multiple Suns are primed for big steps forward.  Even though he was already paid, this is the season we find out what Booker really is.  We find out whether he is one of the 30 best players in the league or not.  We find out whether he can the absolute superstar he’s shown the potential to be.  I’m prepared for the scenario that he is not.  He’s still incredibly young, but there’s a chance he’s like the 2nd best player on a championship team, or the best player on a bad one.

That may not be a disaster for the Suns though.  Sure the money wouldn’t look great, but Booker improving only a little combined with what Jackson, Bridges and Ayton should be is still a really good team.

As far as this season, we want to see Booker take a step, a decent size one at least.  If he makes progress, Jackson becomes more of a scorer and the defense improves with the wings, the Suns are probably somewhere in the 35 win range.

It’s gonna be hard for that to happen though.  The Suns were terrible on defense last year, and even though they got better, they also got younger, which usually means worse on defense.  It’s not like Ayton is even a plus defender yet.  He could really struggle, and if your center struggles, it could cause the rest of your team to suffer defensively as well.

The youth could be detrimental.   Mikal Bridges may not be great in his rookie year; neither could Ayton.  We just don’t know what we’re going to get with young guys.

How the Suns make the playoffs: Booker takes a massive step forward, vaulting into one of the top 25 players in the league, and all the youth hits their ceiling in year one:  Ayton, Bridges, Jackson.  Everyone.  Unlikely, but if these guys are as good or better than I expect them to be, then there’s a chance.

How the Suns miss the playoffs: Booker only takes a normal step forward, a team as young as this one has the defensive woes it should, and they remain 2-3 years away.

Sooooo, what actually happens?

Well, we guaranteed five teams at the top.  Here’s how the West looks so far.

  1. Golden State
  2. Houston
  3. Los Angeles Lakers
  4. Utah
  5. Oklahoma City

Now comes the beginning of the hard decisions.  We have eight spots and have 10 teams that should make the playoffs, and four more that could barring extreme circumstances.

The first team out of the “Should” category is Denver.  As I explained in their “How they make it” section, they have two guys who could be their go-to this year.  They had none last season.  They’re the most modern team in the “Should” section. We’ve been waiting on them too long.  This is the year.  In fact, I’m guaranteeing it.  I should have moved them to the “Will” section.

6. Denver

The next team is the Spurs.  I went after them pretty hard in their write-up, but betting against Pop is just not something I’m willing to do yet.  Last year was the most impressive thing he’s done in his career.  The team is more talented this season.  They should be fine.

7. San Antonio

The final team in is Portland.  They have the best “missing the playoffs” scenario, which ended up with them keeping both guards and finishing as the 9th seed.  It’s plausible to see Minnesota and New Orleans as absolute dumpster fires.  Portland has enough to scrape the ceiling.

8. Portland

Now that we have my actual playoffs picks, let’s run through some hypotheticals in the order of the rest of my seedings.  This gets wordy, but what you have to understand is that this is based off of my standings.  If anyone from the No.6 seed on down has their negative outlook come true, then anyone who has their positive outlook come true can sneak into the playoffs.  It’s all interchangable.

9. Memphis– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook above, and one of Portland or San Antonio having their negative outlook.

10. New Orleans– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get San Antonio and Portland to both have their negative outlooks.

11. Dallas– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get Portland, San Antonio and Memphis to have their negative outlooks.

12. Los Angeles Clippers– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get Portland, San Antonio, Memphis and Dallas to all have their negative outlooks.

13. Minnesota– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get Portland, San Antonio, Memphis, Dallas and the Clippers to all have their negative outlooks.

14. Phoenix– They make the playoffs with their positive outlook and get Portland, San Antonio, Memphis, Dallas, the Clippers and Minnesota to all have their negative outlooks.

15. Sacramento– They don’t deserve words, even in a 8,000 word column.

With my schedule slammed and the NBA putting only two games featuring only two Eastern Conference teams on tonight, I figured I could get away with putting up my Eastern Conference preview tomorrow night.  Be on alert for that, but for now, here are the team previews for the Celtics and 76ers, who debut tonight.  The East isn’t nearly as competitive as the West, so the East preview will look like last year’s, with a projected rotation as I would start it and a synopsis below it, then I’ll give a win total below and we’ll rank them at the end.

Boston Celtics 

  1. Kyrie Irving-Terry Rozier-Marcus Smart
  2. Gordon Hayward
  3. Jaylen Brown-Semi Ojeyele-Jabari Bird
  4. Jayson Tatum-Marcus Morris-Guerschon Yabusele
  5. Al Horford-Aron Baynes-Daniel Theis-Robert Williams

It is gonna be so nice to see this team play together.  After it ending so quickly and abruptly last season, they’re back and fully healthy.  And it’s gonna be even better than we thought it’d ever be, thanks to Jayson Tatum.

If you were building a team to take down Golden State, this is the one to do it with.  They’re playing a point guard, three wings who can shoot threes and play defense, and a rim protector.  The Celtics are the 2nd most modern team in the league and might be the 2nd best.  Think there’s a coincidence there?

The reason the Celtics are scary isn’t just because of their prototype, but the guys within that prototype.  Every team thats wants to play modern has to have a crunch-time star.  Some teams have two, or in the Celtics case three, and that can be a problem depending on the selfishness of those guys.

If anything is better than having the point guard-three wings-rim protector model, then it’s having that same model with multiple superstars who can play together.  Boston has that.  Kyrie is their No.1, but Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward are superstars as well.  Why it works?  Tatum and Hayward don’t need the ball to be effective and aren’t selfish.  They can go into that superstar mode whenever they’re asked to.

The Celtics are the favorites in the East.  As high as I am on them, I can’t say they’re heavy favorites. As you’ll see below and tomorrow, the East is better this year.  There’s some actual competition at the top.  The top of the East boils down to this: It shouldn’t shock me if Toronto or Phildelphia end up in the Finals, but it wouldn’t shock me if Boston won the Finals.

Projected record: 63-19

Philidelphia 76ers

  1. Ben Simmons-Landry Shamet-TJ McConnell-Jerryd Bayless
  2. Markelle Fultz-JJ Redick
  3. Robert Covington-Wilson Chandler-Furkan Korkmaz-Zhaire Smith (injured)
  4. Dario Saric-Amir Johnson-Mike Muscala-Jonah Bolden
  5. Joel Embiid

I was troubled with the 76ers offseason.  They had a clear weakness/target, and that was a superstar and/or crunch-time scorer.  They didn’t address it.  Wilson Chandler can score, but not in those situations.

It really seems like the Sixers are banking on Markelle Fultz to be that guy.  The 2017 No.1 overall pick hardly played last season, and battled what felt like a lot more than just physical injuries.  The changing of the shot, the hesitantness to coming back; everything.  We just don’t know what we’re gonna get.  It’s possible it’s not a talent thing at all; just a mental block.  Fultz was my No.1 overall guy on the 2017 Big Board.  He had all the talent in the world and had all the qualities the Sixers are looking for now.  He has the potential to be that guy.  Will we ever get it?  It’s a tough bet to make, and the Sixers are making it.

Even with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, it’s the reason why I can’t project this Philly team higher than the 3rd seed this season.  They had a clear weakness and didn’t get any better.

That doesn’t mean they’re not going to be fun though.

We’re looking at the same team that dominated the Spring last year, only with Simmons and Embiid a year more experienced and developed. The Sixers are long and athletic.  They’ll move the ball around, shoot threes and play defense.  They’ll throw crazy passes and fly above the rim.  They’re going to be a joy.

As much as I crapped on their offseason, I did like the Wilson Chandler trade.  Robert Covington laid a big turd in the postseason, and there’s a chance he never really recovers from it.  Chandler replaces Covington’s minutes off the bench while also having the opportunity to play for him, depending on where his percentages are at.

The Sixers have done a fantastic job of mirroring their bench to their starting lineup.  Their big men are all very Dario Saric-like; athletic big guys who can switch and shoot competently.  The drop-off at point guard is sheer, but the Sixers can use their backup point guards to slow the game down and play more traditionally.  TJ McConnell and Landry Shamet know how to facilitate rather than run a blazing, go-go-go offense.

It wouldn’t shock me if the Sixers made the Finals.  Everyone is a year better, and there is the Fultz x-factor.  But they won’t make it if it’s JJ Redick off a screen every single time they need a big shot.  Someone, whether they are currently on the roster or not, is gonna have to step up.

Prediction: 56-26