The Kyler Murray Dilemma

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

No.1, Arizona Cardinals: DE Nick Bosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019 NBA Playoffs: First Round Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Bucks in 4 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Toronto in 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 76ers in 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Celtics in 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Warriors in 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Nuggets in 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Thunder in 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Houston in 5

Answering the MLB’s Biggest Questions Heading Into 2019

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

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

Can anyone make the AL Central more competitive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are the five AL playoff teams?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now onto the NL…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NL Playoff Standings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The MLB’s February Domino Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KP, AD And The Insane NBA Trade Deadline

This column has been in the works for about a week.  It’s long, but covers every major trade made over the past seven days and touches on some of the minor ones as well.

Late thoughts on the Kristaps Porzingis trade…

It’s going to be really funny when the Knicks sign Kemba Walker and only Kemba Walker this Summer, completely negating the whole point of this terrible, terrible trade.

Lets start from the beginning.  Last Thursday morning, in the middle of all the other NBA chaos that was happening, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnanowski dropped another bomb that Kristaps Porzingis met with the team, displaying that he was unhappy and concerned about its direction, leaving the Knicks to believe that he wanted a trade.  About 35 minutes later, Porzingis was a Dallas Maverick.

Thank God, Woj was late to the trade discussions New York was having about Porzingis with other teams (Or at least we hope so).  Reports later came out that the Knicks had been discussing moving Porzingis in the days prior to the trade.

This was a surprise and not so much one at the same time.  It was a surprise because you would have thought that Porzingis would be part of whatever big plans the Knicks had going for them this Summer, and you would have thought that Porzingis would’ve wanted to be a part of that.

But it wasn’t a surprise because Porzingis and the Knicks have clear, documented beef.  Whether it be Phil Jackson’s riff or the skipped exit interview or the fact that New York almost traded him once before, Porzingis and the Knicks never really got along.  The fact that New York was holding him out of basketball activities for this season even though he was probably ready to go after sustaining that torn ACL last season didn’t help their relationship either (Though that was a smart move by the Knicks, and Dallas is following suit).  Porzingis was probably going to walk next Summer, assuming he took the qualifying offer from the Knicks this Summer (Hopping into restricted free agency wouldn’t have given him the full power to leave).

The Porzingis situation serves as a warning to the rest of the league: Do Not Go To The Knicks.  All you had to do was look at how they treated Porzingis, their 2nd biggest star since Patrick Ewing.

It felt like NBA players had figured out that going to the Knicks was a suicide mission.  They got ignored by LeBron twice and never got KD’s consideration in 2016.  Their biggest signing in the past five years was Joakim Noah, which worked out wonderfully.  The Knicks had become a complete stay-away when it came to free agent destinations.

Which is why this renewed, supposed interest in joining them from two of the league’s ten best players is so strange.  Why would Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving want to go there?  KD left Oklahoma City not only because of Russell Westbrook, but because the Thunder were incompetently managed from the top down.  Kyrie wanted out of Cleveland not only because LeBron was limiting him from what he’s doing now, but because there was no way that team was winning another title again, and because Kyrie had never played for a good coach.

Maybe they want to play in New York City, the place that runs the world.  Maybe they want to bring the Knicks their first championship in 46 years in the most famous arena in the world in the city that runs the world.  Maybe KD and Kyrie just want to play together, and while Boston would make a ton of sense fit-wise, maybe they want to do it on that grandest stage.  Maybe KD wants to take on more of a LeBron-like role, where we see him as a more do-it-all, ball-handler type player.  Maybe Kyrie thinks the ceiling on this current Celtics team is a lot lower than we think it is, and that playing in Boston isn’t as fun as he thought it was.

I’m so pro player empowerment that I even supported Jimmy Butler’s antics earlier this season.  But I also care about championships, and I like players that want to win.  While Kyrie and KD would make a new threat in the East, it seems unlikely that team is a better one than each of their current ones.  Is Kyrie-DSJ-Knox-KD-Robinson better than Kyrie-Hayward-Tatum-Morris-Horford?  What about a team that features Kyrie-Tatum-Anthony Davis?  Kyrie, Davis and whatever the Celtics have left after a potential trade with New Orleans probably isn’t better than that potential Knicks team, especially considering that New York could have a juicy draft pick coming their way.  Given that Tatum is probably going to New Orleans in a Davis trade, it’s fair to see Kyrie’s point.

But for KD, does anything trump what he has right now?  DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t make a difference; he’s going to leave and the Warriors will be just as good without him.  For KD, this is simply about not getting bored, and trying to expand his game.  Again, it’s a fair point to see.

But why there…  just why the Knicks

Maybe Kyrie and KD feel like their starpower can overshadow any disfunction going on within the organization.  But there’s on the court problems too.  If KD wants to expand his game to a LeBron-like role, that affects Kyrie negatively, putting him in a similar role to the one he was in Cleveland.  And if you know Kyrie is coming, why was Dennis Smith Jr., a spark-plug, traits of bad Russell Westbrook (high usage rate, ballhog, non-off-the-ball player) guard the main piece of a blockbuster trade which sent your best player in years out the door?  I understand the salary relief, but if you have the capability to sign both Kyrie and KD, not only are you going to go over the cap to do that, but you’re going to go as far as it takes to get that team to be as good as it can.  You’ll pack MSG every night and be fine.  That includes keeping and paying Porzingis.  That means paying whatever that luxury tax bill is.  Because that team will be worth it.

Porzingis makes any team better.  Make him happy and put pieces around him, or, if you have the capability, have him be a piece around someone else.  The Knicks failed to do both of those things, and ended up trading him for two average-to-below-average first round picks and the hope that someone is coming.  That hope is based on two of the league’s ten best players leaving their already really, really good situations to come to a complete mess of an organization with serious on-court problems despite their young talent (I can’t imagine DSJ playing with anyone who is “supposedly” coming to the Knicks).

If Kyrie and KD were smart, they don’t go to the Knicks.  And if the Knicks were smart, they don’t make this trade.  How this move truly works out is based on one of those two sentences becoming true.

For Dallas, I mean, what an absolute steal.  The Mavericks essentially traded two first round picks for Kristaps freaking Porzingis, Courtney Lee, who is viable as a 5th guy for now but is a spot that could definitely be upgraded, and Tim Hardaway Jr., who 18 months ago probably gets “One of the worst contracts in the league” as a noun rather than his name.  While Hardaway Jr. isn’t the most efficient scorer, he has improved on that end over the past year, and this Mavericks team is one that just needs firepower around Luka Doncic to become a true threat in the playoffs.  Hardaway Jr. helps with that, and while the contract is still overinflated for his new self, you still have Luka and Porzingis.  I’ll take on close to anything if I have that (Except for Andrew Wiggins.  Definitely except Andrew Wiggins).

On the way out went a guard that the Mavericks were claiming they weren’t shopping and wanted around still, but definitely were shopping and didn’t want around due to his on-court fit with Doncic in DSJ and two expiring contracts that never worked out for Dallas but were too large to bench (Wes Matthews and DeAndre Jordan).  I mean, they cleared out everything that was wrong with their roster and got one of the best young big men in the league for the cost of two future first round picks.  The management that allowed the Mavericks to do this is who Kyrie and KD want to play for?  Good luck.

The Mavericks owe a lot of future picks now with this trade, and it’s risky if they fail to fill out the rest of this roster through other methods.  But having Doncic and Porzingis gets you to a certain ceiling, which means the picks you are giving away aren’t going to be very good in the first place.  And the duo of Doncic and Porzingis should attract talent.  These two guys have the ability to both be top 15 players; Doncic’s ceiling is legitimately one of the best players in the league.  Doncic is a de-facto point guard/crunch-time guy and Porzingis is the perfect big man for today’s league; he stretches the floor, protects the rim and is secretly athletic rather than lanky.  Porzingis’ health is a concern, but if Dallas fills out the roster, then his role can strictly be what he’s good at, rather than taking on a heavy load.

The pick going to the Hawks is probably going to be a good one; Dallas has all the incentive to go for a playoff spot for that reason and to get Luka some experience, despite their relinquishment of Harrison Barnes (More on that later).

If they didn’t owe Atlanta the pick, I would advocate for Dallas to tank the rest of this season, because again, it’s not like you’re going anywhere this season anyways without Porzingis.

Dallas heads into next season with Luka-Hardaway Jr.-Porzingis. That’s pretty good.  They need two other guys (The plan to address that sounds like a couple Summer signings) as the Barnes trade got rid of another starter.  Courtney Lee is under contract for next season, and could serve as a wing opposite Hardaway Jr.

With this trade, the Mavs are at least fun as hell next year, with the potential to be a lot better.  That might be understating it.

On the Anthony Davis situation, and the Pelicans kicking off a fire-sale…

The Anthony Davis trade request came as no surprise, but the way Davis and Rich Paul handled this was pretty crappy, and it might end up backfiring on them.

Davis claimed that there were four teams on his list: The Los Angeles Lakers, the Milwaukee Bucks, the LA Clippers, and the New York Knicks.

But Davis and Paul knew that the only way Davis would be a Laker next season (Which is clearly his (And Paul’s and LeBron’s) preferred destination) would be to get him moved before the trade deadline, because then the Boston Celtics would be eligible to bid for Davis if LA had waited until July 1st.

The Celtics are out-bidding everyone no matter what.  New Orleans knew this.  Davis and Paul knew this.  The Lakers, for whatever reason, didn’t.

The Lakers first offer of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley and a first-round pick was incredibly hysterical.  It was actually bad business by New Orleans that they continued to talk with them.

LA ended up getting more serious, offering all five of their young players (Ball, Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Ivica Zubac) and two first round picks in exchange for Davis and Solomon Hill.  That was actually quite realistic and fair.

The Lakers (and their fans) thought otherwise, and failed to realize there was no offer they could have put out there that is better than what Boston can offer July 1st.  Reports have the Celtics willing to put Jayson Tatum in a potential trade along with other pieces.  In Tatum, you’re getting a future All-NBA player with the potential to be one of the league’s ten best, plus a nice stash of draft picks and your choice of other role players.  That’s incomparable to what the Lakers have.  LA’s package contained late first round draft picks and potentially zero All-NBA guys/future stars.  While I like Hart a lot, his ceiling is a solid wing on a good team who can fill multiple roles.  Zubac felt like a Jursurf Nurkic without the passing ability; someone who will learn defense while consistently putting up 20-10s (There’s a legitimate chance he’s the best out of all the young guys LA had.  Of course they ship him out of all of them across the hallway for nothing.  Congrats to the Clippers on another AD asset!).  I’m afraid Lonzo Ball has already reached his ceiling; a good passer who is going to be an iffy shooter, limiting his effectiveness to take over late in games.  Kyle Kuzma could be anywhere from the best to third best player in their offer; the guy knows how to get buckets, and has a ceiling of a crunch-time scorer, but the efficiency has to improve.  Some nights he’s on and some nights he’s off.  There’s a chance he’s Andrew Wiggins 2.0 offensively.  And we’ve been praising Brandon Ingram for three years now.  Can anyone tell me what he does well on the court?

The trade would have made sense for New Orleans because they’d be getting a young core, but from what we’ve seen so far this season, and there’s been a much bigger sample size than what we thought we were going to get, it’s not exactly confirmed that this core works.  Individually, the projections are pretty good.  But you can’t look at it that way.  The Pelicans would have been getting all these guys, and they would have been the future.  They’d have to fit and work together.  It’s certainly taken them awhile to do so in Los Angeles.

In Tatum you’re getting a guarantee, and that’s why New Orleans was smart to wait. The Lakers offer I floated that should have gotten New Orleans to consider not making the Boston deal was all five young dudes and three firsts.

The Lakers offered just short of that before “pulling out” of talks with the Pelicans, claiming their demands were “outrageous.”  While the Pelicans and Lakers were *this* close to coming to a fair agreement, New Orleans did a good job not being nice here.  They should be “outrageous.”  In Davis, we’re talking about one of the five best players in the league and possibly one of the best 45 players of all-time.  Davis is 25 and is already at that point.  He’s has 5-6 years left of his prime, and that’s worst-case scenario.

So blame the Pelicans for not taking the Lakers “final” offer all you want, but the first round picks are making up for what those young guys probably aren’t going to amount to.  Three makes it worth it, two does not.  For almost any other player, it’d be a silly argument to end discussions over.  For Davis, it wasn’t at all.

The Lakers’ and Celtics’ offers were the only ones New Orleans should have been discussing.  Other teams were putting their hands in the hat or should have been (Toronto, Portland, Miami, the Clippers), but only one of those teams gave the Pelicans a package that made sense.  While a hypothetical Damian Lillard and Zach Collins package is equal value for Davis, that would have turned the Pelicans into a little bit better than what they are now.  The ceiling on a Lillard-led Pelicans team would have been the 4th seed, not a Finals team.

The Pelicans have to get a rebuilding package out of this trade, not a win-now package headlined by another top 25 player.  You’re putting a second round ceiling on your team if you make that trade as opposed to getting a core of guys that could develop into something very, very good.

You need a star back for Davis, but that needs to be a future star rather than a current one.  That’s the difference between Tatum and Lillard.  Or between Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kyle Lowry.

The four teams I mentioned above didn’t have the package New Orleans should have wanted for Davis, and it was smart of New Orleans not to consider them.  For once, the Pelicans handled something right.  Yesterday’s moves proved that as well.

The Bucks only made one move, but it was enough to counter the big plays made by others atop the East.  Milwaukee’s trade for Nikola Mirotic gives the Bucks another guy they can plant in the corner and get open shots for.  Some speculate he could be out there in crunch-time for them (He’s a player worthy of that), but that means benching Brook Lopez, who provides valuable defense to the Bucks and allows Giannis Antetokounmpo to not have to do too much on both ends.  If Lopez is out, Giannis is the de-facto rim protector, and the initiator offensively.  Giannis is a tank, but that’s a lot to ask of him.

New Orleans began their fire-sale with this move.  Just a year after acquiring Mirotic to help make a playoff run, they’re selling him to another hoping to make it deep.  This fire-sale is a elongated one, as AD (And possibly Jrue Holiday) won’t be moved till July, but Mirotic was the first domino to fall in what looks like a total rebuild for New Orleans.

They got back quite a bit; something necessary for a rebuilding team.  After the Bucks stole Stanley Johnson from the Pistons for Thon Maker, the Bucks flipped Johnson into Mirotic (An excellent move.  Johnson is a development piece.  Mirotic comes in right now and plays big minutes in the playoffs), and sent Johnson to New Orleans.  Johnson’s been up and down throughout his career, and just hasn’t figured out the offensive side of the ball.  It’s possible Alvin Gentry’s system could help.  He’s an excellent defender already, and still projects as a switchy wing.  He’s a good get and bet for the Pelicans.

Somehow, they netted four second round picks (And Jason Smith’s contract) in addition to Johnson.  Milwaukee had a ton of extra ones hanging around, and decided to ship them all to the Pelicans.  This says one of two things: 1) New Orleans wanted to revamp after the forthcoming Davis trade, keep Mirotic and try and stay competitive or (Explaining the high price) or 2) Demanded some crazily unprotected first rounder for him.  The 2nd option is more likely based on what we know about the Pelicans trade demands for AD, which is a good thing, because the first would have me concerned.

All-in-all, that’s a win-win trade.  For Milwaukee, it could go a long ways.

The Pelicans made one other move that wasn’t AD, and that was swapping Wesley Johnson for a 2nd rounder and Markieff Morris.  Morris is going to get bought out, so it’s essentially a way to get rid of Johnson, while for Washington, they get under the tax by dealing Morris.  Morris is an interesting buyout guy, but his breed is dying.  If he can’t make the adjustments his brother has, his options might start to become limited.

On the Tobias Harris trade and the Clippers’ and Sixers’ deadlines…

This trade was an unbelievable late night surprise Tuesday that I was lucky (or not.. it was 1:30 AM) to be up for.  The Clippers shipped Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott to the Philadelphia 76ers for Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, their own first rounder next season, Miami’s 2021 unprotected first rounder and two second rounders.

There’s many dynamics to this one.  First, the Sixers essentially made a trade that rid them of all the depth they had previously been complaining about not having enough of and didn’t fix their biggest issue.  Second, the Clippers, like the Knicks, have to know someone is coming by letting Harris leave early.  The fact that they made no push in trying to re-sign him is telling.

Let’s start with the Sixers.  If you base it off win-loss, the Jimmy Butler trade was worked out fine, and in just the way we planned it too.  But underlying issues have complicated its effectiveness, and has even led me to question whether it was the right move.

Butler’s little spat with Brett Brown not long after arriving in Philly and the Sixers’ loss to the Celtics on Christmas Day spotlighted these issues.  Butler wants the offense to run through him, with pick-and-rolls and isolations a heavy part of it.  That would be fine if Ben Simmons was a shooting threat from the outside.  He is not, and probably never will be given the reluctancy we’ve seen from him in that area of his game.

With Simmons a non-threat, defenses can leave him alone in the corner if the Sixers are isolating Butler or posting up Embiid.  This has led to essentially 4-on-5 play from the Sixers in crunch-time, and it’s cost them.

While it hasn’t been that huge of an issue in the regular season, come the playoffs it will be.  You have to execute down the stretch in the playoff games.  It’s the No.1 deciding factor in who gets to the Finals.

Philly’s best option to solve that would have been trading Simmons for Anthony Davis, an offer that would have made sense for New Orleans and could probably be done straight up.  Instead of considering this, the Sixers went all in on complicating matters even further, and risk losing one or both of their two big acquisitions this season come Summer if it doesn’t work out.

Trading for Harris adds another high-usage, high volume scorer to the mix.  While Harris is a more efficient player than I have previously given him credit for, you still have to wonder about the fit.  He’ll have to sacrifice on this team.  That’s a big adjustment compared to his role on the Clippers, where he was averaging 20.9 points a game and had a usage percentage of 23.6 percent.

And Harris wasn’t what they needed.  Philly needed two things this deadline: 1) A solution to the Simmons/Butler fit (A ball-handling guard or a trade of one of those two).  2) Depth.

They got neither.  While the Sixers did remake their bench, it’s not really a unit; and they have one facilitator who’s comfortable playing off the ball (TJ McConnell) and just a bunch of other dudes.

When you have a starting five that is as talented as their’s though, you can stagger guys pretty easily.  Every player can have the offense run through them in some capacity.  Together though is the question.

The Harris trade seemed unnecessary because Wilson Chandler was doing fine as the 5th guy in the Sixers starting lineup (He’d shot 39% from three this year, and was extremely effective playing off the ball) and because it sacrificed them of already limited depth.  Landry Shamet had been fantastic this season, and provided some of that guard-play Philly coveted and was shooting the lights out of the ball (40.4 percent from three!).  Muscala was a productive big off the bench as well.

But the Sixers did get Boban Marjanovic back, who’s been one of the best big bench guys in the league this season.  He’ll bring a bigger defensive presence than someone like Muscala, but can’t stretch the floor like him and Embiid can.  Mike Scott fits more of Muscala’s role, but who knows what you’ll get from him.

They also traded for James Ennis from Houston, who never fit in there but gives Philly more size off the bench.  He’s essentially Harris’ backup at the four.

Jonathan Simmons also came in from Orlando, in what was probably the most underrated/not-talked-about trade of the deadline.  Philly traded Markelle Fultz, the No.1 overall pick not even two years ago, and no one talked about it.  Perhaps it’s because Fultz played in just 33 games for the 76ers, or because the projected star has completely disappeared off the radar this season.  No one really knows anything, and no one really knows how to evaluate it.

For Philly, they’re in a different place now.  While they could use Fultz to be a facilitator/crunch-time scorer, the Butler trade earlier this season signified that the 76ers were probably planning on a future without him.  He was never going to be the guy they hoped for.

For Orlando, it gives some hope to a franchise that hasn’t had a point guard in 10 years.  If Fultz can become anything we projected him as, that’s a win.  It’s worth the gamble of the 1st and 2nd round pick given up (The first was an extra one Orlando had from OKC, not their own).  Orlando should be able to give Fultz the car keys.  In Philly, that wasn’t the case.  Orlando allowing him to run the show will show us what, if anything, he’s really capable of.

Like Ennis, Simmons is a body off the bench.  He hasn’t done a lot for Orlando this year, but provides defense and a veteran presence on the court.  He really was a throw-in when it came to this trade.

Still, none of this makes up for the fact that the Sixers gave up valuable bench pieces and an insane amount of draft capital for a guy they didn’t need.  The picks might have been the most shocking part of the whole trade; Philly gave up the 2021 Miami unprotected first rounder (One of the most valued assets in the league) in addition to their own first next year and TWO second rounders.  You only give up that much if you’re going to be winning titles.  The Sixers can’t guarantee that.

Plus, you help the Clippers get in position for a possible Anthony Davis trade, which is far more possible and seems much more likely after this deadline.

This trade clearly symbolizes that the Clippers know things about this Summer.  In any other scenario, LA is dying to re-sign Harris and elevate the core that made them fun this season to one that can contend.  They did the exact opposite of that, clearing as much cap room as possible and fire-saling almost everyone, leading to a bevy of picks and a ton of cap room that makes them real players for the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis.

The Clippers have to know Kawhi is coming.  Even though they got more than you could ask for, you don’t just let Harris go like that.  And you don’t get back the assets you did if you’re not making a play for someone.  It would make no sense for the Clippers to rebuild; the team they employed for the first third of the season was too close to being good.  It’s one of those “We’ll see when we get there” things, but a Clippers package featuring SGA, Jerome Robinson, Landry Shamet, Ivica Zubac, their own first round pick this Draft and the two firsts acquired from Philly makes a case to rival Boston’s offer.

The Avery Bradley trade was another sign.  Bradley’s not the same guy anymore, but you don’t just send him to Memphis for expiring contracts; a contender would have loved to give up value for Bradley to at least play defense for them.  That trade was a gift for the Grizzlies, who get another defensive-minded player who can switch in Bradley.

On the Raptors’ and Grizzlies’ deadlines…

Overall I was fine with what the Raptors did.  I was initially against them doing anything at all, as I believed firmly in the “Don’t fix it if it isn’t broke” philosophy (Their name coming up in Davis talks was odd to me), and because I thought that they could win the title with the roster they had pre-deadline.

Adding just Gasol was fine.  Jonas Valancuinas’ role had been limited due to injuries and the rise of Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka, and Gasol isn’t able to play big minutes anyways.  Gasol essentially becomes Valancuinas’ minutes.  Now they’re just more efficient minutes.  I would expect Gasol to come off the bench, as he’s shown a bit of rust this season and isn’t the Marc Gasol we’ve been used to the past eight years.  The crunch-time pair of Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka has been too good this year.

In terms of value, Toronto sacrificed some depth, but overall got a steal.  That doesn’t mean it was unfair for Memphis though.  While they probably would have liked to get a bit more for their all-time franchise guy, the haul from Toronto was good.  Delon Wright will get big minutes, and figures to be their starter heading into next season, as it would only make sense for Mike Conley to be traded after the moves made Thursday.  CJ Miles is incredibly underrated; he was fantastic for Toronto until Danny Green showed up. The Grizz had to eat Valancuinas, but he at least fits their grind style, and there’s only one more year left on his deal.  The 2nd round adds value as well.  The Grizzlies also got Tyler Dorsey from Atlanta for essentially free (Shelvin Mack was waived by the Hawks), a young player who still projects as a scorer off the bench.

Toronto also shipped out Greg Monroe and had to pay a 2nd round pick to Brooklyn to do it.  Monroe was the minutes replacement for the injured Valancuinas, and played pretty well in that spot, but Gasol is just better and more efficient.

Charlotte’s interest in Gasol never made a lot of sense.  There’s been recent reports that Walker is probably staying in Charlotte, which made their interest a little more reasonable, and Gasol would have been upgrade over Bismarck Biyombo and Cody Zeller at the 5, but Charlotte isn’t exactly a team that should be buying when they already have a bevy of bad contracts.  They could have sent a pick along with one of those contacts to make the deal better, but how would Gasol of been part of your future core that you’re trying to build?

Interest in Mike Conley around the league was plentiful, and it should have been.  Memphis didn’t end up moving him, which has to be disappointing for both, but his time will probably come in July or at the Draft.  Utah and Detroit seemed to be the front-runners; Detroit’s interest never made any sense.

Utah and Memphis discussed two different deals – one that included Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors and a 1st round pick and another that included a 1st and 2nd rounder and a contract to match Conley’s.  The first one made more sense.  Rubio almost certainly had to go out if Conley went in.  His three-point shooting has improved, but it still sits at a measly 32.5 percent.  Rubio, unlike Conley, needs the ball to be effective, and on that Utah team which desperately needed firepower (Which Conley would have supplied), you couldn’t afford to have non-shooters on the floor.  Rubio-Conley-Donavan Mitchell would have been ridiculous defensively, but they would have lacked switchability playing three guards together like that.

Conley would have been perfect for Utah.  He would’ve fit alongside Mitchell thanks to his three-point shooting and could have taken some of the ball-handling pressure of him.  Nothing on the defensive end would have been lost as well.

On the Otto Porter trade…

This trade was strange.  If you’re Washington, you can’t solve your biggest problem (John Wall’s albatross of a contract), and while that means moving Porter is okay, it doesn’t mean that this was the move to make.

Washington sent Porter to Chicago for Jabari Parker, Bobby Portis and a second round pick.  Thank God for that second round pick; it really does a lot of the makeup for this terrible, terrible trade.

First of all, Chicago couldn’t have given you anything better?  Did you not ask about Antonio Blakeney, or even Kris Dunn?  Dunn straight up would have been a better deal, and you could have forced a pick out of Chicago had they given you Blakeney.

Secondly, did you not call a team like Dallas, Utah or Denver and gauge their interest?  Those are all wing-needy teams who could be looking for third options offensively, and might have been willing to give up more than the equivalent to Parker and Portis.

Third, how do you feel good about Parker and Portis coming back for Porter?  Porter’s proto-type is one of the most coveted in the league right now.  His value is way higher than what he went for.  Plus, Parker is a terrible fit for a Wizards team that needs more unselfish players and better defenders.  Parker is the complete opposite of both of those traits.

Oh!  And he has a club option for this Summer, so you’re not even getting him back because there’s no way you’re paying $20 million to him next year.  So the value is completely gone!

The Wizards did get Bobby Portis, who’s a young big that Washington could develop into something more.  He’s actually a perfect fit given some of the personalties in that locker room.

But Portis straight up isn’t close to what could have been received for Porter, making this one hard to justify.  I guess we can just say “Eh, it’s the Wizards” and move on.

I was initially sour on Chicago’s end of this trade, but have came a bit around.  Despite being on that massive max contract, Porter is only 25 and has two years left on his deal.  For the Bulls, he can be kind of a leader for them, and an effective one on the court too.  He could help them defensively, an area they could use it as they rank 24th in defensive rating.  By the time Porter’s contract comes up again, the Bulls would hope to have something developing into a playoff squad.  Porter, by then still only 27-28, could have some years left, and be willing to re-sign and try and push the Bulls into their new era.

Quick hits on the deadline:

  • Portland stayed quiet for the most part, but did end up swapping Caleb Swanigan for Skal Labissiere, a move I liked a lot.  Both guys needed a change of scenery, and Labissiere is a nice mobile player Portland can try and find minutes for.  The Kings are also pretty set rotation-wise, but need someone in the middle of their new lineup of De’Aaron Fox-Buddy Hield-Bogdan Bogdanovic-Harrison Barnes.  Swanigan won’t be the answer there, but with some development could turn into a bench big at some point.
  • Circling back to the Lakers, their trade for Reggie Bullock was a good one.  LA essentially swapped a lights out shooter in Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk for another one in Bullock.  Bullock gives LA better defense and more experience; you can trust him in a playoff game.  The 21-year-old Mykhailiuk might have been a stretch in that spot.
  • The Kings made some good, interesting moves Thursday.  Essentially, Sacramento traded Iman Shumpert and Skal Labassiere for Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, escalating their timeline and giving them even more depth on the wing.
  • I addressed Barnes’ fit above.  Burks gives them another wing they can insert in off the bench.  His length fits well with the Kings.
  • Value wise, Sacramento did great.  Labassiere for impact guys like Burks and Barnes is a steal (Even though giving up Labassiere comes with a bit of a risk).
  • The Shumpert trade was a win-win.  Sacramento got impact guys and Houston gets a guy who can hopefully help them out on the defensive end as James Ennis did not.  He’s also been great from three this season, so he fits Houston’s scheme well.
  • The Cavaliers also benefitted from that three-teamer, netting a first round pick from Houston to take on Brandon Knight’s contract (Once again an example of Houston’s new owner being very, very cheap.  Houston had to give up a 2nd rounder for Indiana to buy out Wade Baldwin and Nik Stauskas) and got Marquese Chriss on a flyer (I still believe in you Marquese!)
  • Speaking of the Suns, the Tyler Johnson trade felt a lot like last year’s trade for Elfrid Payton, except a more expensive one.  The Suns got rid of one horrific deal for another, but the second could actually provide some value.  Johnson should get time next to Devin Booker at point guard, and theoretically, the two should be able to play off the other as he’s a 35.3 percent shooter from three.  It’s worth the gamble, since the Suns didn’t really have to give anything up.  If Johnson fits, the Suns could have an answer at their weakest spot.
  • I wish the Suns would have kept Wayne Ellington, who also came over in that trade, but he deserved the chance to be on a competitive team.
  • I did not expect him to sign with the Pistons though, as they are on the fringe of what I would deem a “competitive” team.  He’s essentially the Bullock replacement (Detroit looks smart here, swinging Bullock for an asset and getting Ellington, a similar player) there.  But teams like Philly and maybe even Golden State were calling.  Why not go there?
  • The Barnes trade for Dallas made it clear they’re all-in on this Summer.  They, like a couple other teams, must know one guy is coming.  Barnes was plenty effective for them, and they didn’t really get anyone back (Justin Jackson is a tough evaluation.  I liked him a lot but there’s a real chance he’s just terrible).
  • So what did we learn this deadline?  1) There’s way too many teams who have their whole future hinging on this Summer.  That’s a scary proposition, and someone’s going to lose out.  2)  Philly is one of those teams, but it might be in their best interest to actually let themselves lose out a bit.  If you let Butler leave and insert Harris as your 5th starter, isn’t that a better team than what you entered this season with?  Can Harris be the crunch-time option?  3) The Eastern Conference Playoffs are going to be fascinating.  All four of the top teams have Finals-worthy talent.  4)  The Kings are in position to get into the playoffs, and if they do, watch out.  They could make some noise.

Super Bowl Roundup

This was what I worried about it being.

Nothing felt right all week.  This Super Bowl felt like it was going to disappoint.  The fact that we didn’t talk about the game all week due to do still standing controversy over the NFC Championship Game and the NBA having a meltdown over the course of three days should have been a warning sign.

In a sense, I was totally wrong.  But in another sense, I was totally right.

I wrong in the fact that I thought the Rams would show up and give New England problems.  I was right in the fact that whatever the Rams did, it wouldn’t bother the Patriots enough for them to lose the game.

The Patriots were certainly bothered, but it was by themselves, not the Rams.

Since this game was a dud, we’re going to recap every aspect to it.  The game, the commercials, and unfortunately the halftime show, which wasn’t anything we should have had high hopes for in the first place, but maybe making fun of it can help us feel better about it.

The game: 

The first quarter set up the whole game pretty well.  Early on, it was evident that it would come down to whichever defense was going to have a dumb blown coverage or something, because it wasn’t good defense that led to the pitiful start, it was bad offense.  Both quarterbacks looked horrific early.  Tom Brady threw an interception to Cory Littleton on the first possession of the game; a horrible decision followed up by an even worse pass.  The Rams did absolutely nothing with it, thanks to fantastic coverage by the Patriots secondary (A trend that continued throughout the whole game).

That two drive sequence just kept repeating itself.  Brady and Goff were missing throws, the Rams refused to give Todd Gurley the ball and couldn’t throw due to New England’s secondary having one of its best games of the season.  The Patriots then finally got a good drive thanks to Sony Michel running like he has since the halfway point of the regular season and Julian Edelman kicking off his MVP campaign, but didn’t get anything out of it after Stephen Gostkowski shockingly missed a field goal (At this point, we were wondering “Man, are the Patriots really going to get out-executed like this?”).

That missed field goal didn’t cost the Patriots anything really.  The Rams offense was going nowhere no matter what you gave them.  The lack of commitment to the running game with Gurley (Anderson was not going to work.  That was clear early on.  He looked like Denver C.J. Anderson last night) and inability get off or make any throw killed them.

New England took advantage of that, leading to a resounding 13 points on the night.  But on a night like last night was, that’s all it took.  When the lead was 3-0, it felt like 20-0.  Nothing the Rams showed us made Sunday night made us think they were even coming back from that.

But all it took was some common sense from the Rams for them to make it game.  In the mid-3rd quarter, they started doing things like giving the ball to Todd Gurley, or throwing to Brandin Cooks, who had a backup on him in coverage after Patrick Chung went out with an arm injury.  A big reason the Rams were incompetent offensively was because of the excellent execution by New England, but they also didn’t exactly do what they were good at, and that was let their weapons go to work.  Gurley got just 10 touches, and while Cooks did end up having a big game, they went to him at the wrong times.  It felt like Los Angeles was waiting to go down before using their goods.

One of the few times they used their goods got them their only points of the night: A field goal in the late 3rd quarter to tie the game.

After another Rams punt, it was starting to feel like they were running out of chances.  New England wasn’t playing crappy enough to lose the game, and there was no way Brady was going to lose this type of game.  The Rams were going to have to stop him.  Brady was not going to stop himself.

He didn’t do that.  Finally, early enough to give the Rams a chance but late enough for them to punt it and give the Patriots time to put the game away, the Patriots had a Patriots-like drive.  Rob Gronkowski, who contributed to the Patriots yard total (I guess that’s what he contributed to?  There wasn’t a whole lot to contribute to in a game like this), made two huge catches on seam routes along the hashes, plays that no team, and definitely not the Rams, could cover.  Gronk got ever so slight of a jump on the defender each time, and for someone with his size, that goes a long ways.  It’s just not coverable.

That led to a New England touchdown, punched in by none other than Sony Michel, and essentially ending the game.  For the Rams, one possession deficits felt like two.  Add in the crunchiest crunch-time pressure that able to be applied, and the 10-3 deficit felt like three possessions for them.

The Rams played urgently and the best they had all night when trying to tie New England at 10.  Like New England had just done, it looked like the Rams were about to have a classic Rams drive.  LA was throwing deep down the field, and letting their weapons do what they’re good at.  Brandin Cooks, Josh Reynolds, and Robert Woods all had huge plays, and Goff looked like the Goff we had seen all season.  That was until he left a ball short for Cooks, which Stephon Gilmore went up and snagged, sealing the game.  It was a mix of a bad throw and good play by Gilmore; Goff could have led Cooks a bit better toward the end zone, but Gilmore took a huge risk by under cutting it.  Had that ball been thrown better, Gilmore would have been shredded for abandoning Cooks and trying to play ball-hawker instead of sticking with him and defending the pass that way.

That sealed it, ending what was the worst Super Bowl of the decade and probably a top three worst Super Bowl since I’ve been alive.  Steelers-Seahawks, Panthers-Broncos, Seahawks-Broncos and this one are all in that conversation.  The game was a completely backwards reflection of this season.  After teams racked up points and offenses were taken to a new level this season, we got the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever.  This had to be karma for two weeks ago.

The commercials:

Since the game wasn’t that good, let’s give a shoutout to some of the best commercials that aired last night.

We’ll start with the NFL, who nailed it for the 2nd year in a row with this gem.  Keep in mind, last year they ran the Eli Manning-Odell Beckham Jr. Dirty Dancing one.

There were so many amazing moments in this commercial.  First, as soon as I saw this, I knew we were in for something good.

I mean, look at the way Marshawn is staring at the cake!

Some other awesome moments from this commercial:

  • Peyton Manning throwing the ball and saying “That hurt”
  • Tom Brady taking all five of his rings off and putting them in the dude’s hand.  They should have updated this and ran it after the game was over to show all six.
  • Lynn Swann’s appearance
  • Joe Montana’s rocket to Jerry Rice

In terms of killing it for the 2nd year in a row, Amazon did it again.  Last year’s Alexa commercial was great, but this year was even better.  The key: Dogs.

They knew the dog part was going to stick, so seeing just that re-aired multiple times throughout the game was nice.

Stella Artois brought the Dos Equis guy back.  This dude was a childhood hero of mine, so props to them.

On a more serious yet good note, Microsoft tugged the heartstrings.

I thought this was going to be really inspirational until this commercial showed the full shot of the tennis court with Serena on it with the Bumble ads and I went “OH THEY DID NOT GO THERE”.

Another one on the more serious note.

I thought this one was hilarious and probably represents someone we all know.

The M&Ms have never had a bad one.

Shoutout to Beetloaf and puberty.

Google showing the good side to technology.

I don’t know why Clint Eastwood was needed for this but Audi did a good job capturing us procrastinating.

Charlie Sheen has been a cool sport about himself in Super Bowl commercials over the years.

Imagine all the 13-14 year olds who tried not to laugh with their parents right next to them watching this.

The (underwhelming) halftime show:

I’m not really sure what I expected.  Maybe for Travis Scott to sound like Travis Scott (Was he supposed to have his auto-tune off?)?.  All I know is that whoever was in charge of making this hip didn’t do a very good job.  They had Big Boi in the wrong role doing the wrong song (They should have just brought out Andre 3000 and let him and Big Boi do ‘Roses’ or something), though his coat and intro was fantastic.  Scott sung his one song that gets radio buzz during a time in the concert where it felt like they just threw it in (Shoutout to SpongeBob though and thanks to Travis for coming up with that idea.  That was the 2nd best thing to happen during the show).  Maroon 5 did what everyone thought they would, and even their good, old stuff didn’t sound good because Adam Levine was out of key for most of it.

The NFL needs to learn that this isn’t hard.  The best halftime shows come out of putting one act who is a performer on a not-so-fancy stage and let them do their thing.  Prince is an entertainer, and he did that during Bears-Colts.  Bruno Mars killed it.  U2 had 12 minutes and killed it.  You don’t have to get fancy.  Just get entertainers and let them go to work.

Also, stop booking people who make niche music.  Usually that is better music, but Maroon 5 makes music meant to be sung in a cafe, not in a big concert setting.

Super Bowl Preview

I don’t know why this Super Bowl feels underwhelming.  It’s a good matchup; we could see a lot of points, or not a lot at all considering that we might have a quarterback matchup that could produce some mistakes (more on that later).  But something feels off.

Maybe it’s because one team probably shouldn’t be here, and the team that should have been might be the best in football.  Or maybe it’s because Championship Weekend was just too perfect in terms of the competitiveness and quality of the games, and even though Sunday’s the Super Bowl, no game could get better than what we saw two weeks ago.

Or maybe it’s just a personal thing.  Maybe it’s because this is the first Super Bowl I can remember not being with my family for.  Maybe it’s because college is kicking my absolute butt right now, and I haven’t had time to sift through Twitter and just take in the fact that it is Super Bowl week.  Or maybe it’s because the NBA lost it’s freaking mind this week, especially so yesterday and today.

But just because all of this is true doesn’t mean Sunday can’t be great.  Sure, it’s a little cringe-worthy we’re two days from game-day and we’re still debating about who should actually be playing in the game, but hey, that’s just more press for the wonderfully-ran National Football League during its biggest week of the year!  It’s not like they’ve mishandled anything during this week before!

Alright, alright.  Enough crapping on the league.  Let’s get to the game.

In terms of the matchups and schemes, some serious parallels can be drawn to last year’s Super Bowl, where New England succumbed to Nick Foles and the Eagles (An outcome that somehow made more sense after this season, with Philadelphia looking like crap with Carson Wentz starting and playing like the Super Bowl Champs with Foles starting) due to Foles picking apart the Patriots defense and the Eagles’ stepping up, forcing the greatest quarterback ever into one of the greatest mistakes ever made.

The Patriots aren’t nearly as bad defensively this season as they were last.  New England was 32nd in Defensive DVOA last year.  They were last in the league and made the Super Bowl.  This season, they’re back up to 11th, an impressive turnaround.  The defense wasn’t really why New England was losing games and had their crap stretch of the season; it had more to do with the ploy Tom Brady and the rest of the team put on the league by pulling a Warriors-like “We’re just going to take this one off” type of season.  They’re so good they don’t have to try.  Football’s not nearly as forgiving as basketball is due to the limited amount of games, but the Patriots pulled it off flawlessly, finishing at the classic 11-5 mark.

This defensive step-up is bad news for Jared Goff, who is similar to Foles in this situation.  Goff is somewhere between above average and good when it comes to his overall skill, and is appearing in the Big Game for the first time against one of the NFL’s all-time teams.  Him and Foles are in incredibly similar spots.  The biggest difference is that while Foles hadn’t exactly had the big game spotlight before last year’s playoffs either, Goff has less experience overall than Foles.  Goff is 24 and is about to complete his 3rd year as a NFL starter.  Foles was 29 and had almost six seasons under his belt before stepping into the spotlight.

But Goff doesn’t have the bag of nerves attached to him.  While he may not ever be the most perfectly rounded QB, it never feels like Goff is going to screw up in a big way.  Prior to last season’s run, we felt that way about Foles.  You just didn’t trust him.

A lot of that trust in Goff is due to his head coach, Sean McVay.  McVay has gotten ridiculous production out of anyone he’s asked for from it.  CJ Anderson, a former Broncos outcast who was everyone’s projected breakout player every year for three seasons is running at the same level or even better than Todd Gurley is.  Josh Reynolds has replaced Cooper Kupp, whose season ended on a torn ACL in Week 10, with what feels like no consequences lately (At first, very much so).

McVay’s high-powered offensive scheme allows Goff to rely on his weapons.  Todd Gurley, Anderson, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Reynolds and Gerald Everett are all there for Goff to work with.

New England’s defense has substantially improved.  They don’t win 11 games this season without it.  But throughout these playoffs, it feels like we could have begun to overrate it a bit, which is dangerous when facing an offense that’s this devastating.

The Patriots got a little lucky against the Chargers in the Divisional Round.  Los Angeles stupidly came out aggressive, trying to throw the ball downfield in the frigid New England air and essentially gave possessions away that way.  Brady went back into Brady mode, proving us all wrong and forcing everyone to pick them to make the Super Bowl.  That game was much more about what LA did wrong offensively rather than what the Patriots did right defensively.

The Chiefs model (I think it’s actually better) the Rams’ scheme the closest to anyone to in the league.  It features attacks downfield while also relying on a running game.  Skill position players are used to their strengths, and the roster is equipped with guys who have every strength and skill you can possibly have offensively.  Need someone to create in space out of the backfield?  Need a deep threat?  Want to get absolutely toasted downfield?  The Chiefs, and the Rams, have you covered.

Once again, it wasn’t really New England’s defense that gave them the early lead against Kansas City.  Patrick Mahomes was rattled early on, leading to a failed capitalization on a Brady interception and a 14-0 lead.  Then KC found themselves and went to work.  Those ever-s0-skilled position players did their thing.  KC scored almost every single time the rest of the game.  All that mattered was that Brady could answer.  He did.

Sure, if the Patriots were able to survive the Chiefs, the most explosive offense in the league, then they should be able to get ahold of the Rams, right?

The Rams bring a bit more diversity than KC did.  After the Kareem Hunt departure, KC lacked that lead back who they could feed.  They relied on a cache of guys, none of whom were ever going to grind you down.  They all had speciality uses.

The Rams are different because they have two running backs who can serve as that lead guy and as speciality guys (Having Todd Gurley be a speciality guy is a sickening thinking experiment about how good this offense is).  Though he hasn’t looked his best lately, Todd Gurley is still Todd Gurley, and CJ Anderson is like that one pitcher who just gets hot for three series and leads his team to the Fall Classic (Things like that just isn’t supposed to happen in football).  The Rams can use either of these guys as open field weapons or as up-the-gut runners.  That means whenever they’re used, you’re dealing with fresh legs.

Then LA throws at you Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods.  Cooks is a speedster who can run any short-to-intermediate route and he’ll be open, simply due to his gust of beating guys off the line.  Woods was used incredibly incorrectly against the Saints, as McVay strangely kept trying to throw him screens instead of Cooks, but serves a downfield threat the Patriots have to put one of their safeties on.

The Patriots didn’t exactly have to worry about the Chiefs offensively though because they knew the offense had their back.  For New England, they need Sunday to work the same way.

In what was clearly an effort to protect and conserve Brady, the Patriots have adapted a power running scheme since the last month of the regular season.  Sony Michel worked through his early season struggles and is running hard, a style of play that’s not necessarily accustom to him.  At Georgia, Michel was the speedster compliment to Nick Chubb.  Now, he’s a like a mix of his classic self and Chubb.  New England has no problems rushing Michel up the A and B gaps, and he’s made that a non-issue.  Against the Chargers, he torched a top ten run defense by DVOA by running and hitting holes hard.  He was patient behind the line of scrimmage as well.

The Rams defense is complicated.  The stats identify them to be the complete opposite of the eye test.  DVOA ranks them 28th against the run and 9th against the pass.  But, the Rams have continually blown coverages throughout the season; everyone from Marcus Peters to LaMarcus Joyner.  Brady, who’s back to looking like Brady, should be able to pick them apart.

That’s good news, because there’s a serious chance the Rams wreck havoc up front.  LA stopped Ezekiel Elliot in his tracks in the Divisional Round, ending the running back’s insane hot streak to close out the season.

The Rams then did the same to the Saints in the Championship Round.  Granted, New Orleans was locked in on attacking the Rams secondary, as they only had 21 attempted rushes as a team, but LA stuffed both Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.  Ingram had eight carries for 31 yards, while Kamara only gained 15 on one fewer carry.

The Rams defensive front is hot right now, and they’ve shut down every hot opposing run game.  The Patriots are another one standing in their tracks.

If the Pats run game is shut down and the Rams are able to score in whatever fashion on the defense, then it’s going to be up to Brady and Belichick.

Good luck to the Rams if that’s the case.

That’s essentially what this game comes down to.  Brady’s going to have to… step up?  Is that the right terminology here?  Is it really possible for Brady to elevate any higher?

Brady is going to have to deliver.  After watching what he’s done the past two weeks, and after seeing him fake-look like a shell of his former self, there shouldn’t be any doubt that won’t happen.

But that also means that how last year’s Super Bowl ended can’t happen again.  Or that the Rams skill up front can’t create the impact that those old Giants teams did.

Like last season, this Super Bowl feels like one that’s going to come down to a crucial turnover.  One that punishes the team who doesn’t score that one time to the point where the game is put out of reach.

In a season where offense has become everything, the Super Bowl perfectly reflects that.  Stops are going to go a large distance.  Turnovers even farther.  One quarterback is too good and other is too explosive thanks to his surrounding cast.

That monumental mistake could come from either side.  It could come from Goff’s because he’s young and inexperienced, and isn’t exactly the best QB in the world to start with.  It could come from Brady’s due to the talent and skill that’s relentlessly coming for him all game, or because last season proved that in a big moment, Brady is actually human.

This game figures to feature a lot of points.  In those type of games, you always take the better quarterback.  That’s the guy who’s less likely to screw up.

That’s Brady.  And there’s no debate about that.

Prediction: Patriots-33  Rams-27