The Playoffs so far:

In case you [somehow] didn’t notice I changed up the Top 8 images for each game. It probably seems obvious in hindsight but it makes sense to differentiate which team each performing player dribbles and shoots for.

You’re welcome.

Anyway…

Pacers 87 Raptors 98

ESPN Headline: Jonas Valanciunas has 23 points, 15 boards as Raptors tie series 1-1

It’s pretty hard to argue with that ESPN Headline… Valanciunas did in fact tally 23 points and 15 rebounds.

He was also the best player of the game in Game Two of the Pacers v. Raptors series (not to mention the best player of the night):

PacersRaptors04182016

Lowry bounced back from an atrocious first game to finishing well in the second, though DeRozan was nearly as ineffective (only 10 points on 18 attempts). DeRozan was by far the worst player in the game, producing -5.5 (well into the negative range)… But he did not come close to the performance of a fellow All-Star in the next game…

Mavericks 85 Thunder 84

ESPN Headline: Mavericks rebound, hold off Thunder to even up series at 1-1

You’d think they could have come up with a more creative or descriptive headline than this. Here are eight (because, you know, Top 8):

  1. Dallas Point Guards (including Raymond Felton!) somehow outperform Westbrook
  2. Ibaka shines in wasted effort
  3. Westbrook takes more shots than scores points, still scores 19
  4. Durant and Westbrook both break personal records; Dallas breaks serve
  5. Dirk puts up 17, produces in the negative range
  6. Servant whiffs 26 times
  7. Durant’s off shooting night opens door for opportunistic Mavs team
  8. Dammit Durantula!

The thing that I in particular dislike about this headline, though, is the use of the word “rebound” when Dallas was in fact out-rebounded 45-54.

MavericksThunder04182016

How about that?

The best player of the game was Serge Ibaka, following up his best player of Saturday overall, with a very solid line (12 points, 8 boards, 0 TOs). However the next two best players were PGs Raymond Felton and Devin Harris, remarkable for a number of reasons. If any PG were to be a top performer in a game you’d have to pick Russ, right? Not this time. Not even the coach killer (who started alongside Felton in the back court).

For his part Westbrook had a reasonable game, with 14 big rebounds (his personal best in a playoff game). Westbrook’s 19 points might be notable in another context, alongside the Servant’s 21… Except both of the OKC superstars had awful shooting nights. On the subject of personal highs, Durant had never missed twenty-six shots in a game before. As I quite like Durant I hope he doesn’t again (unless OKC meets the Cavs in the Finals).

This was a truly off night for a team with an actual shot at winning the title. I would love it if Ibaka proved to be OKC’s best player in the playoffs (as he has been the first couple of games). This game — and the Dallas / OKC series so far — really illustrate the validity of an “advanced stats” look at basketball. OKC did what you are supposed to do; by out-rebounding Dallas they got more possessions. However the cosmetically solid scoring totals (19 for Russ, 21 for Durant) really tell a tale of wasted possessions and opportunity. Westbrook was still a top performer on the strength of his career-best boards, but inefficient shooting and four TOs really hurt his line; on that note, Durant had seven turnovers.

Inefficient scoring + tons of leaked possessions out of your superstars and the underdog sub-50-win team can get one, by one.

Rockets 106 Warriors 115

ESPN Headline: Warriors win Game 2 vs. Rockets with Stephen Curry (ankle) on bench

RocketsWarriors04182016

Maybe the Warriors should look to rest Steph the rest of the first round? Houston seems completely over-matched, and the remaining GSW stars all seem like they can have their way with the Rockets. The push to 73 wins combined with Curry’s famously cotton candy lower body might be the opening [any other team] needs to win the title this year. There is no way GSW can win either of the next two series with Curry on the bench, but this might be a great opportunity to preserve his life total for the march to a back-to-back.

And by that, I mean let the man play! #AllIn #CavsCavsCavs

Monday’s Best: Jonas Valanciunas of the Raptors… Nice double-double in the bounce back win (hat tip to Ibaka of OKC in a losing effort)
Monday’s Worst: Kevin Durant of OKC, by a lot at -12

Back tomorrow.

LOVE
MIKE

The Top 8 is produced via Simple Models of Player Performance + Box Score data from ESPN.com

The Top 8 – 4/17/2016

Posted by michaelj | Sports

By my vantage point on history there are five* teams that can realistically win the NBA title this year.

Of course there is the Warriors with their record-setting 73-win regular season and paradigm-transforming guard, Steph Curry.

The ones that “no one” talks about are the Thunder and the Clippers. Both of those teams won over fifty games and have elite bigs (you can even potentially slot Kevin Durant himself as a big; he is listed as two inches taller than, say, Golden State’s All-Star PF). Plus, the quiet, consistently excellent and dangerous Spurs.

Four of five.

These elite teams all won their opening 2016 playoff games, by:

  • Warriors 26
  • Spurs 32
  • Thunder 38
  • Clippers 20

All blowouts. Steph Curry played only twenty minutes in his pacesetting Saturday outing.

The fifth team that has a conceivable chance of winning the NBA title (and the only Eastern Conference team with that distinction) is the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs barely won their one-eight opener. The weird thing is the Cavs didn’t play badly at all.

Pistons 101 Cavaliers 106

ESPN Headline: Cavs rely on team effort to survive Game 1 test

On the season the Cavs shot the ball 6,888 times and scored 8,555 points, for 1.24 points per shot.

Yesterday they scored 106 on 88 shots 1.20 points per shot… Lower, but not catastrophically lower than their usual offense (per shot).

For reference our currently-worst blown out team, the Dallas Mavericks, scored 70 on 84 (.83 points per shot) versus a regular season 8,388 on 6,900 (1.21 points per shot).

Further, the Cavs out-rebounded the Pistons 40-37, and turned the ball over an astonishing four times only (versus Detroit’s 10). All this resulted in the Cavs taking fifteen more shots than the Pistons.

Together these are signals that the Cavs should have won handily… So why so close?

Somehow, some way, the Pistons scored 101 on 73 shots (1.38 points per shot); 1.38 exceeds Golden State’s regular season mark of 1.31 points per shot. So all the Pistons have to do is score better than the best team of all time… and they can make it look close?

There is some comfort for Cavs fans here. It’s unlikely Detroit, a team that scored under 1.18 points per shot in the regular season, can make LeBron and company sweat like this with their shooting again. Andre Drummond is a legit All-Star and maybe the third-best player in the series… But he hurts you more by getting possessions not finishing them.

This may be small consolation. The Pistons made Game One so close by shooting a blistering 51.7% from three. If the Cavs don’t shore up wing defense between now and the Finals Golden State, the actual monster under the bed, will be merciless.

PistonsCavs04172016

As a Cavs fan the one thing I was super happy about this game was how well Kyrie Irving played. You get a feeling that we never saw how good the 2016 Cavs really could be via the regular season. They were never going to catch even San Antonio (plus home court in the East was a sure thing for so long), so they never had their collective foot on the accelerator the way the Warriors did. Ideally that will prove wise for them.

Given Detroit’s shooting, it’s weird how the box score ultimately shook out. The top three performers were all Cavaliers, with respective rebounding machines Thompson and Drummond at the wrong end of the Top 8; Stanley Johnson, though, smooshed the Cavs in only sixteen minutes; 3-4, 3-3 on threes; eight Eight EIGHT rebounds (i.e. two more than Tristan Thompson in thirty minutes) with zero TOs. Post-game Stan Van Gundy rightly questioned himself for not using Johnson down the stretch.

Hornets 91 Heat 123

ESPN Headline: Deng leads Heat to Game 1 rout of Hornets

Before the first elimination tipoff I would have picked Hornets-Heat as the most likely upset scenario in the playoffs. After all, the teams are evenly matched in terms of record and the Hornets actually hold the superior regular season point differential.

The counterargument is that the Hornets lack notable superstar talent.

The Heat are dripping with ex-superstars (and one actual present-day superstar): Joe Johnson, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Amar’e Stoudemire are all past or present max contract All-Stars. Goran Dragic was All-NBA Third Team only two years ago, and Luol Deng** is a multi-time All-Star.

Also the Heat cultivated Hassan Whiteside, who is by far the best player on either team in this series (not to mention the best real Center in the East). Per minute, Whiteside is in fact twice as good as any player in a Hornets uniform.

HornetsHeat04172016

Game One of this series was a showcase of all that Miami talent. Both Whiteside and Deng equaled Serge Ibaka’s production from Saturday. When one team has two different players producing at 2x the rate of your best performer you need a massive level of negative production to keep up; Gerald Green was the only Heat player to oblige (though he was worse than any Hornet). Instead, a rout.

This game featured perhaps the most lopsided Top 8 of any box score I’ve ever studied. There was one Hornet in the Top 8; the other seven (including super standouts Deng and Whiteside) were all Miami.

Grizzlies 74 Spurs 106

ESPN Headline: Spurs dominate Grizzlies to take a 1-0 lead

This was about the Spurs-iest win you can pencil out. The entire team produces in the positive range, with non-gaudy-but-still-great production from Leonard, Duncan, and Patty Mills. The Spurs “win” every quarter (if some by only two or three points). San Antonio are kings of the “death by a thousand cuts” strategy, with basically everyone on their roster capable of All-Star production on a limited minute basis. Thirteen different San Antonio players rebounded; twelve scored. Not one Spur cracked 30 minutes; I mean, why would they?

GrizzliesSpurs04172016

Almost nothing to say here (which is about how Popp would like it, I imagine).

Trail Blazers 95 Clippers 115

ESPN Headline: Clippers post 3 double-doubles in rout of Blazers

I was pretty sure that we hadn’t seen Blake’s real stuff in the regular season. I would not be surprised whatsoever if he just went beast mode all playoffs. Look at this game… Chris Paul has 28-on-19 (insane for a guard), 6 rebounds (awfully great for a point guard)… Oh and double-doubles with 11 assists; only two turnovers. Chris only had the second-best game on his team!

Anyone sleeping on the Clippers as title contenders in the wake of the Warriors (and Spurs) hype in the West isn’t paying attention. Chris Paul isn’t Steph Curry, but he is unbelievably elite, still. DeAndre Jordan is flat-out the best Center in the NBA. The only comparable player is Hassan Whiteside (who rebounds for a non-contender in another conference). The Clippers have plenty of serviceable guys in their rotation… And badly behaved Blake has been saving his real stuff for the Playoffs, clearly. Don’t forget this team was kicking dirt on the Spurs’ collective coffins at the end of the first round last year.

BlazersClippers04172016

I’m not sure how you even defend this team. This is the best*** “big three” I think we’ve ever seen. Blake was 19 on 10 shots; do you know how many points you get if you just make ten shots? 20. DJ was 18 on 7 shots… And he’s a historically poor FT shooter!

The second-round matchups in the West are all going to be must-see IMO.

Sunday’s Best: (tie) Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside of the Heat
Sunday’s Worst: (tie) Zach Randolph and Matt Barnes of the Grizzlies (though Jeff Green of the Clippers came awfully close in a winning effort with three points on four shots but four PFs in only 16 minutes)

Back tomorrow.

LOVE
MIKE

The Top 8 is produced via Simple Models of Player Performance + Box Score data from ESPN.com

* Okay, six if you count the Raptors, but I don’t
** If you ever have a question of how valuable LeBron James is relative to any other player remember he took a 33-win Cavs team straight to the Finals while his old team went from the Finals to missing the playoffs while adding a standing NBA Third Team player and Hassan Whiteside, as well as an All-Star (in fact Cleveland’s SF) at his vacated position.
*** All three of Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker are in my Top 10 favorite players of all time, BTW.

The Top 8 – 4/16/2016

Posted by michaelj | Sports

So the playoffs started yesterday…

And things are going to start to get interesting!

Pacers 100 Raptors 90

ESPN Headline: George, Pacers nab Game 1 road win vs. Raptors

PacersRaptors04172016

Before the playoffs started I would have picked Charlotte-Miami as the most likely upset… But after the very first elimination game I remembered that the Raptors are playing.

A few weeks ago the Cavs were stumbling a bit and the Raptors were within spitting range of #1 in the East… But… The Raptors. It wouldn’t have mattered if the Cavs fell to second because if past performance is any indicator Toronto would have managed to drop the one-eight. The Raptors have had home court advantage each of the last two years and failed to clear the quarterfinals in either.

ESPN had it right this time; Paul George was the best player in the game.

The Raptors guards were absolutely atrocious. Lowry was eleven-on-thirteen with six (6!!!) turnovers. DeRozan had fourteen-on-nineteen; they combined for one trey in ten tries.

Rockets 78 Warriors 104

ESPN Headline: Curry shines in 1st half as Warriors rout Rockets

RocketsWarriors04172016

So this guy Steph Curry…

The league’s best player scored “only” 24 points but went five-for-seven from three and had the second-best game of the playoffs so far in only twenty minutes.

No surprise that Draymond Green had the second-best game [of the game], a solid double-double.

The 2016 Warriors might be the best team of all time, but I still think the Rockets have the power to make a game or three interesting. Dwight Howard and James Harden have both been the best at their relative positions… And Shooting Guard and Center are two positions where Golden State doesn’t have a stranglehold on matchup advantage.

But… blowout in Game One.

Celtics 101 Hawks 102

ESPN Headline: Hawks hold off Celtics’ rally to take Game 1

CelticsHawks04162016

This was a weird game. The Celtics were sooooo bad in the first half… Then the Hawks were so bad in the second half?

All of one Hawk bench player put the ball into the hoop, which might help explain how close the game went.

The superior team is really not entirely clear here. The Celtics probably have the best coach in the East, and were the second-best team in the conference for most of the regular season. However the Hawks have the best three players in the head-to-head.

Same record and (basically) the same point differential, though. Smells like seven.

Mavericks 70 Thunder 108

ESPN Headline: OKC routs cold-shooting Mavs by 38 in Game 1

MavericksThunder042016

Wow what a roflstomp!

The major media chatter has been all about the Warriors and to a lesser degree the Spurs this year, but there are actually four teams in the West who have a legitimate shot at winning the title. All of the Clippers, Spurs, Warriors, and of course the Thunder have won over fifty games and own an elite big.

Serge Ibaka played the best game in eight teams on 4/16, going seven-for-eight with nine rebounds and no turnovers in only twenty-eight minutes. Also three blocks; because, you know, I-block-a.

On balance, Deron Williams managed to out-underperform both of Toronto’s starting guards. Minus-thirty-two in only twenty-two minutes? One-for-nine? Twice as many PFs as points? Not the coach killer’s best game.

Saturday’s Best: Steph Curry was great, Serge Ibaka better
Saturday’s Worst: Deron Williams ignominiously saves the Toronto backcourt

Back tomorrow.

LOVE
MIKE

The Top 8 is produced via Simple Models of Player Performance + Box Score data from ESPN.com

Tristan Thompson

Top 8 Tristan Thompson

Posted by michaelj | Sports

Tristan Thompson is not a 2016 Eastern Conference All-Star. Despite being the most effective Cavalier per minute and the most productive Power Forward in the East at the All-Star break the fans preferred both Paul George (below average this season) and Carmelo Anthony (LOL) as starting front court wingmen to The King. The “experts” did no better. While all three are productive, none of Paul Millsap, Pau Gasol, or especially Chris Bosh are TT’s equal this season. Kevin Love — Tristan’s teammate on the Cleveland Cavaliers — also is not the Canadian rebounder’s equal (and he, too, probably should have been an All-Star).

I mean it’s kind of silly that the runaway best team in the Eastern Conference has only one All-Star.

But grousing about the inequity of All-Star game selections is hackneyed, trite, and overdone every year. What is more interesting is if Tristan will also be robbed of his potential end-of-year honors as Sixth Man of the Year (or even candidacy). Sixth Man of the Year typically goes to a leading scorer off the bench, as with Jamal Crawford’s multiple honors or [now-Cavalier] J.R. Smith; but there is precedent for a top rebounder or defensive player on a team with a great record also; Lamar Odom was very deserving in 2011.

Thompson started off the season as a benchwarmer, but both David Blatt and Tyronn Lue have experimented with TT in the starting lineup. Too much of that will violate Tristan’s potential Sixth Man of the Year candidacy… But that can’t be any coach’s primary consideration. Rather, how does this talented and underrated rebounding machine perform, and more importantly how does the team do with him coming off the bench, versus in the starting lineup?

I. Starts

The Cavs have fifty-two games logged as of the All-Star break. Tristan has come off the bench in thirty of those and started “only” twenty-two… but all of the last ten.

Of particular note: Thompson is the only Cavalier to have played in all fifty-two games prior to the All-Star break, starts or no.

II. Coach

The season’s original coach David Blatt started Tristan twelve times in forty-one games.

New coach Tyronn Lue on the other hand has started Tristan ten out of eleven total games (including each of the last ten).

III. Points

Tristan averages only 7.7 points per game this season; 6.8 points per game off the bench and 8.9 as a starter.

… But playing next to LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and J.R. Smith (who never met a contested jumper he didn’t love) we don’t really expect TT to be a prolific volume scorer.

IV. Rebounds

Tristan is a top-ten rebounder this season, even by civilian statistics.

He is averaging 9.51 rebounds per game (9 off the bench and 10.1 when starting).

This might be counterintuitive, but Tristan’s per-minute rebounding is remarkably stronger as a bench player (17.54 rebounds per 48 minutes) than as a starter (14.8 rebounds per 48 minutes).

Consider the per-48 minute rebounding of the East and West All-Star front court players:

James 9.55
George 9.68
Bosh 10.53
Anthony 10.86
Millsap 12.68
Gasol 16.37
Drummond 21.26

Leonard 9.89
Durant 10.67
Green 13.40
Aldridge 13.54
Davis 13.65
Cousins 15.58

As a starter Tristan is a better per-minute rebounder than almost every 2016 NBA All-Star and only Andre Drummond is better than the bench version, per minute.

Why do Tristan’s total numbers go up as a starter if his per-minute efficiency is greater off the bench?

Easy answer: More minutes! Tristan plays 32.8 minutes on average as a starter, versus 24.8 minutes off the bench.

For that matter, why do his per-minute numbers go down when he starts?

Presumably… Weaker opposition. As a starter, Tristan’s excellent rebounding will be contested by the opponent’s best bigs, but as a bench player a greater percentage of minutes will be against opposing benchwarmers.

V. Record

Individual statistics are all well and good… But how does the team do with Tristan starting versus coming off the bench?

When Tristan starts the Cavs have an awesome 81% win rate (18-4).

On balance, Tristan’s coming off the bench gives the Cavs a mere 67% win rate… 20-10.

These aren’t perfectly clean A/B statistics… Almost half Tristan’s starts have come under a new coach and with Kyrie Irving back from injury, for example.

VI. Point Differential

Point differential tends to have a stronger signal to a team’s final record than its current W/L record.

The Cavaliers have the strongest average margin of victory in the East, between five and six points per game. That number exceeds both the 2011 Dallas Mavericks and the 2010 Los Angeles Lakers (both of whom won the NBA title). With Tristan coming off the bench, that average falls to a differential of 3.3… Which is wildly below any of the title contending teams I looked at from the last several years.

However…

With Tristan starting, the Cavs win by a monstrous nine points per game.

Consider the last several NBA Championship teams:

2015 Golden State 10.1
2014 San Antonio 7.7
2013 Miami 7.9
2012 Miami 6
2011 Dallas 4.2
2010 Los Angeles 4.7
2009 Los Angeles 7.7

The Tristan-in-the-starting-lineup Cavaliers, despite having a weaker per-minute Thompson, outstrip the majority of recent Championship-winning teams by point differential comparison… Unfortunately they are still a little behind last year’s Warriors.

Oh, and both the Warriors and Spurs have stronger point differentials than “9” in 2015-2016. On the other hand, the Cavs will only have to play one of them, best case scenario.

VII. Narrative

One of the reasons I stopped doing The Top 8 after the first few weeks was that I realized that no individual regular season games really meant anything so the narratives weren’t even interesting. Even the blowout at the hands of the Warriors doesn’t mean anything with regard to the team’s real ability or prospects.

“The Warriors blew the Cavs out by thirty!” is what the National media is going to scream before Game One of the projected Finals. Who cares? It seems pretty likely at this point that the Cavs were deliberately trying to get their coach fired. Or are we to assume they also can’t beat the Trail Blazers (the team who beat the Cavs also by 30+)… right after they lost to the Warriors on Christmas?

I think you’d have to acknowledge more than a little bias to say the Warriors aren’t a better team, top to bottom, than the Cavs right now… But common sense is going to tell you that whichever team wins the West — Spurs or Warriors, or even OKC or the Clippers — will have had 20+ brutal fistfights to get to the Finals whereas the Cavs will probably have roflstomped their opposition 12-0. Remember, last year’s Cavs were hovering about .500 at this point in the season and despite all their injuries lost only two games in the East come playoff time, and even then only because J.R. Smith got himself suspended.

Sure there are a lot of weird things you can say about Tristan starting versus coming off the bench.

Is it weird that the team point differential goes up by a mile while increasing a diluted level of per-minute production? Yes, until you acknowledge that Mozgov isn’t performing as well as he did last year and that Tristan starting at Center is an addition-by-subtraction.

Is it weird to have a Center who is shorter than your PF? You mean like the Wallace brothers all during those dominant (and title-winning) Detroit Pistons years a decade ago?

You know what’s really weird? The concept of a Center at all in 2016! The Western Conference All-Stars are starting two Shooting Guards* and a Small Forward at “front court”. No Center, no PF at all! Draymond Green (the second most productive Warrior by a wide margin in either direction) would be a wing on most traditional lineups.

VIII. Conclusion

Tristan’s likelihood of making Sixth Man of the Year was probably low to begin with. He’s an outstanding player who has a fat contract and the acknowledgement of the best coach in the league… But isn’t a gaudy enough scorer for a lot of mainstream attention. I do think it’s silly he didn’t make the All-Star team (or that Cleveland has all of one All-Star) but it really does seem like the Cavs have better prospects with him starting, rather than coming off the bench.

LOVE
MIKE

* Kawhi at least used to be a Shooting Guard 🙂

The Top 8 – Week Four

Posted by michaelj | Sports

“The Top 8” is an ongoing weekly column focused on the NBA… And more importantly my favorite NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers! For any and all installments, click here.

The Cavs ended Week Three with a heartbreaking loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. People whose jaws dropped and heads shook actually watching the game probably blame an errant ref whistle; but those of us looking at the box score just saw the Cavs drop it by three points in double overtime.

Our heroes then opened up Week Four with a swing at another midwest team: The Detroit Pistons.

Game Eleven: Cavs at Pistons 11/17/2015

There was once a stretch where the mighty Pistons were locks for the Eastern Conference Finals, and back in 2007, the Cavs had to get by them for LBJ to make that first NBA Finals appearance, himself.

Times have changed, though, and the Pistons are barely above .500.

HOWEVER — and this is a big “however” — The Pistons have got Andre Drummond.

ESPN Headline: Pistons rally for 104-99 win over Cavs despite James’ 30

This headline doesn’t begin to describe the game. Thirty points… Whatever! LBJ wasn’t even the best Cav. The real headline here should have been either been celebrating Andre Drummond’s monster line (25 points, 18 rebounds) or pointing out how the Cavs were routed 18-29 in the fourth quarter.

Every time I see an Andre Drummond box score I get a little angry. Drummond is not just hands-down the best Center in the NBA (DeAndre Jordan plays Center in the NBA), but he was hands down the best rookie his rookie year (Anthony Davis was Rookie of the Year that year)… And OF COURSE the Cavs could have had him.

Instead… We took Dion Waiters 🙁

Who drafts a rando Shooting Guard fourth? 🙁

Drummond played better than any two Cavs combined this game, and very nearly as well as the top three Cavs put together, as you can see:

Cavaliers 99 Pistons 104

Outcome: Pistons by 5

Game Twelve: Bucks at Cavaliers 11/19/2015

ESPN Headline: James, Love lead Cavaliers past Bucks, 115-100

If there is such a thing as a must-win game for a single regular-season game a dozen games in (there isn’t)… This would be it. Losing this game would put the Cavs on a three-game slide, with two losses to the Bucks.

Luckily, they stomped ’em.

It is in fact the case that James and Love led the Cavs (more or less equally), but the Greek Freak was the best player in a losing effort.

Bucks 100, Cavaliers 115

Outcome: Cavs by 15

Separately: Really nice to see Andy crack a Top 8 🙂

Game Thirteen: Hawks at Cavs 11/21/2015

ESPN Headline: Love, James lead Cavaliers past Hawks, 109-97

Better would be “James, Love, and Thompson lead Cavaliers past Hawks, 109-97″

TT missed a double-double by one point, but LBJ and KLove both notched ’em in this one.

Hawks97, Cavaliers 109

Outcome: Cavs by 12

More gratifying even than the victory was that it was a big win against an excellent opponent; Atlanta was Cleveland’s dance partner in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

Side note: Great to see Thabo playing well after his unfortunate off-court injury. I said during the playoffs last year that Thabo was Atlanta’s best player, and without him, they did not have a reliable man defender for LeBron James.

2-1 is a full-on okay week. The Cavs remain at the head of the Eastern Conference at 10-3; not one of these regular seasons games means that much, individually as the Cavs are almost certainly a lock for the playoffs.

Sure fun to watch, though.

Can’t wait for Kyrie and Shump to come back (and now Mo and Mozgov) :/

LOVE
MIKE

Jazz 114, Cavs 118

The Top 8 – Week Three

Posted by michaelj | Sports

“The Top 8” is an ongoing weekly column focused on the NBA… And more importantly my favorite NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers! For any and all installments, click here.

When we left the Cavs last week they were 5-1 and the best team in the East.

Week Three featured four games, and an ultimately imperfect record… But they’re still the best team in the East both by record (8-2) and differential (+7.2). At the time of this writing there are two teams with better differentials in the game, the still-unbeaten 11-0 Golden State Warriors and their monstrous +16.3 and the seemingly ageless San Antonio Spurs at +10.6; the Spurs, though, hold a slightly inferior 7-2 record.

Spoilers! The Cavs went 3-1 during Week Three, which isn’t too shabby… But I’m again a little concerned about the quality of competition. They faced the Pacers (6-4), Jazz (5-5), Knicks (5-6), and Bucks (5-5)… So no really distinguished teams yet.

Game Seven: Pacers at Cavs 11/08/15

ESPN Headline: James scores 29 despite bruised quad as Cavs beat Pacers

I guess James did in fact score 29 points… But it was on 23 shots; he was not even the leading scorer of the game. That honor went to Paul George with 32 (here’s to hoping George ends up awesome once again). Kevin Love was actually the monster of this game, scoring 21 points while pulling down 19 rebounds. Jeez! Besides those boards, KLove also had a game-high three blocks.

Outcome: Cavs by 4

The Top 8

Pacers 97, Cavs 101

Game Eight: Jazz at Cavs 11/10/15

ESPN Headline: James scores 31, sparks comeback as Cavaliers beat Jazz

LBJ did in fact score a game-high 31 points.

BUT!

My God Mo Williams had an offensive game. 8-9 from the field and 9-10 from the charity stripe? That is some peak Dwayne Wade performance right there. The scary thing is that when Kyrie comes back he will — as would be logical for a max contract number one draft pick — re-ascend to his position in the starting lineup… Mo will probably be able to absolutely feast on opposing second teams!

I’m a little overall wary of the Cavs lineup though. Right now two of the five best Cavs are point guards (Mo and Delly). You have to figure one or both are going to sacrifice minutes to Kyrie (which is fine if Kyrie can return at All-Star level)… But! It’s not like minutes and positions are fungible. The best players on the team are (unsurprisingly) Tristan at PF and LBJ at SF… Rounded out by the resplendent KLove also at PF.

My all-time favorite Cav Anderson Varejao is not playing like anything to write home about this season, and Mozgov has been slightly below replacement level so far. If you want to play Best Six basketball (you know, like in the playoffs [unless you are GSW or SAS]) I don’t know if you want three of those six to be your three shortest players.

It’s possible this is one of those situations where my good friend Patrick Chapin says people grouse about the $100 bill you hand them because they don’t like how it’s folded.

Outcome: Cavs by 4

The Top 8

Jazz 114, Cavs 118

Jeez Mo Williams. All-Star Game #2?

Game Nine: Cavs at Knicks 11/13/15

ESPN Headline: Cavaliers limit Knicks in fourth quarter to pull out 8th straight win

An utterly accurate headline; the Knickerbockers thumped the Cavs 30-17 in the second frame, and were consequently up by six going into the fourth. The Cavs held New York’s Finest to twelve — 12 — points in the fourth quarter; and that was all she wrote.

Outcome: Cavs by 6

The Top 8

Cavs at Knicks

Ew. What a gross game.

Timofey — the best player in Cavs-at-Knicks — would not have been the fifth best player in the preceding Jazz game. Everyone played awful. Love scored seven points on ten shot attempts; not even his eleven rebounds could salvage such poor shooting. LeBron only needed 21 shots to produce 31 points, but he was uncharacteristically low on rebounds (while heavy on fouls). Tristan only made four points on — again ew — four shot attempts.

If there is a shining light — for Knickerbockers fans at least — it’s that Zinger looks like he is going to be a real NBA player.

Game Ten: Cavs at Bucks 11/14/15

ESPN Headline: Bucks outlast Cavs in 2OT as LeBron James held in check late

This is the kind of game that makes you hate sports narratives. Hate HATE HATE. The Cavs got the rebound with about eight seconds left and the game tied at the end of the first of two overtimes. The ref called an inadvertent whistle from the Cavaliers bench. David Blatt did not call timeout!

LeBron had the ball with almost eight seconds on the clock. Is there anyone in all these planes of Dominia who thinks he wouldn’t have at least picked up a foul with Hero Ball on the stack? Yeah, me neither. Bucks get a stop on the not-fast-breaking Cavs, win by three in the second OT 🙁

Outcome: Bucks by 3

The Top 8

Cavs 105, Bucks 108

Like I said… I can’t stand sports narrative sometimes. Love and James played great (along with Greg Monroe of the Bucks). What the “Top 8” doesn’t tell you is that those PGs I was bragging about earlier? Mo put up all of four points on eight shots; Delly zero on three; they did have three and four turnovers, respectively. So basically most of the boys had relatively weak games. Even Mr. Consistent Tristan Thompson only had four rebounds (but three personal fouls). To look at the box score you could reasonably stomach a loss here… But knowing about the bad whistle kind of ruins it all.

LOVE
MIKE

The Top 8 is produced via Simple Models of Player Performance + Box Score data from ESPN.com

The Top 8 – Week Two

Posted by michaelj | Sports

“The Top 8” is an ongoing weekly column focused on the NBA… And more importantly my favorite NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers! There has only been one other installment (last week’s) so far, but if you want to check out the archives I made a tag for them and this is it.

When we left the Cavs last week they were 2-1 with a very tight loss to the Bulls on opening night (-2), followed by a couple of commanding victories over the Grizz (+30) and Heat (+10), respectively. Week Two was another three-game affair, but this week was more of a mixed bag. Though the Cavs won all three games, the margin for victory in each was weaker than we had seen previously. But perhaps more importantly they were against the Sixers, Knickerbockers, and Sixers again; or, arguably the worst team in the league, the worst run team in the league, and [again arguably] the worst team in the league again.

… And not one of those wins was all that convincing :/

Game Four: Cavaliers at Sixers 11/02/15

ESPN Headline: James scores 25,000th career point in Cavs’ win over 76ers

You don’t hit your 25,000th point very often in your career (once, if that); so giving LBJ a headline opportunity to take the bow was nice / fine / appropriate here. Luckily… He was also the best player of the game!

Outcome: Cavs by 7

The Top 8

01

You may notice that there are actually nine players in this “Top 8” … That is because Cavs big man Kevin Love and Philly big man Nerlens Noel did about as well as each other (identically, based on the Simple Models), so we couldn’t cut to just eight.

The biggest takeaways to this game (for me at least) were 1) a regression to sub-god (if still notable) performance from Kevin Love relative to Week One, and that the Cavs only won by seven.

But man… Can you imagine the world where we took Nerlens Noel first instead of Anthony Bennett? Noel started off slow last year but looks like he will develop into a star-level talent. I’d say the Cavs are allergic to taking great big men (we also drafted Dion Waiters over Andre Drummond) but you can only complain so much with Tristan Thompson performing at superstar level night-in and night-out. TT was tied for third-best this game, and it was by far his weakest outing of the week.

Game Five: Knicks at Cavaliers 11/04/15

ESPN Headline: LeBron scores 23, lifts Cavaliers to 96-86 win over Knicks

Despite its inherent LBJ-ness I can’t really get behind this headline. LeBron didn’t even crack the Top 8 producing players this game! He had twenty-three-on-twenty-three (blah) and missed half his free throws. His was not a bad game by any means, but in this outing he was definitely out-dueled by Carmelo, who despite only seventeen-on-eighteen (worse than LBJ’s offense), pulled down twelve rebounds and generally took care of the ball.

Some other headline ideas:

Knicks fail to hold monster first quarter lead

or

LeBron James actually starts killing it after killing sleeves

Outcome: Cavs by 10

The Top 8

02

The best player by far, though, was once again Tristan Thompson! Double-double in only twenty-six minutes; thirteen boards with crazy four-for-six shooting. Mikey likey.

Game Six: Sixers at Cavaliers 11/06/15

ESPN Headline: James scores 31 as Cavaliers beat Sixers 108-102

This James headline is fine. He in fact had the best game, which included three three-pointers and an absolutely filthy thirteen rebounds.

Outcome: Cavs by 6

The Top 8

03

James was resplendent in this game, but surprisingly, only a hair better than Noel. Noel went 9-18 for eighteen points (blah) but pulled down twelve rebounds and got five (!!!!!) steals. Steals in general have been called the hardest part of the box score to fill; steals out of your big man are great things indeed.

Kevin Love had a weak shooting night but cracked our Top 8 on the strength of fourteen rebounds.

It’s tough to argue with 3-0 on the week, and 5-1 overall.

We know, because it has already happened, that the Cavs opened up Week Three with yet another win (this time against the Indiana Pacers); which is great. The only thing I’m concerned about right now is that the Cavs’ opposition has been quite soft. The Knicks are bad; the Sixers are bad and we played them twice; the Pacers missed the playoffs last year, as did the Heat. A 6-1 start with the second-best differential in the league is an outstanding way to begin the season… I just wish it had been against stronger opposition so I could buy in more.

I am quite positively inclined to the Cavs’ guard situation; Mo Williams looks more consistent, and Delly is showing flashes of superstar, especially in the passing department. Nothing would make me happier in a basketball sense than if the Cavs developed a Spurs-like approach to minutes allocation, with the bench players — in particular Delly and TT — essentially acting as backup All-Stars. The question mark is how Kyrie will fit in when he returns; both Mo and Delly are PGs.

LOVE
MIKE

The Top 8 is produced via Simple Models of Player Performance + Box Score data from ESPN.com

The Top 8 – Week One

Posted by michaelj | Sports

NBA season is upon us!

“The Top 8” is going to be a weekly column focusing on the trials and tribulations of my beloved Cleveland Cavaliers… Stats-based but still super biased (probably)

Here goes!

Game One: Cavs at Bulls 10/27/15

ESPN Headline: Pau Gasol stuffs LeBron James’ would-be tying layup as Bulls hold off Cavs

There are lots of despicable cliches in sports narrative reporting. High — if not chief — among them is the concept that crunch time shot attempts are somehow worth more points than those in the first forty-odd minutes of a game.

The headline accompanying the opening game of the 2015-2016 Cavs season is a good example of this.

Gasol, in thirty-two minutes of play, had a mediocre game at best. Two points on seven shots (barf); and only two rebounds (!!!) starting at Center. He did, however, record six blocked shots, and the one on LBJ at the buzzer did make for good dramatic narrative.

Outcome: Bulls by 2

It’s tough to dissect what happened in this game. The Cavs actually put up more shots (94 to 87) and neither team shot the lights out or anyting (though the Bulls did put up 42% to the Cavaliers’ 40%). Moreover the Cavs outrebounded the Bulls while the Bulls gave up more turnovers. Decided by only two points, it looks as if this was the rare, mythical, game actually decided on the free throw line: The Bulls shot 16-23 from the charity stripe while Cleveland only 10-17. And sure, it was a two-point game!

BUT!

I think if the Cavs simply calmed down and shot their season average from 2014-2015 (five clicks up from last Tuesday night) they would have handled the Bulls; that, and committed fewer fouls. Both of these things, for an elite squad coming off of so many injuries and having played so few minutes together, are just artifacts of it being the first game.

Despite the outcome (two-point loss) there were a lot of nice things to take away. Besides those two percentage points on goal there was almost nothing the Bulls did better than the Cavs.

The Top 8

gameone

Unsurprisingly the best player in the game had the best game (even if he was stuffed by Gasol for the ESPN headline). Even if conceding his starting spot to Nikola Mirotic wasn’t the more storied Noah’s idea, Noah and Mirotic were both effective producers. What was more surprising to me was how good Mo Williams was in his Cavs return! Nineteen points on fifteen shots, four rebounds, seven assists, and only one turnover with starter’s minutes! If Mo plays like this consistently he’ll be back on the All-Star team!

I didn’t register how well Tristan Thompson played just watching the game (which I guess is easy to miss considering he was 1-4 from the field) but if TT keeps putting up double-digit rebounds off the bench the Cavs are going to be borderline unstoppable (and his giant contract will be more-or-less justified).

And honestly? I thought he Cavs would be rusty enough with TT having sat out all of the preseason and half the starters still injured that they would have lost by twelve. Merely two was like winning by ten 🙂

Game Two: Cavs at Grizzlies 10/28/15

ESPN Headline: Love leads Cavaliers past Grizzlies 106-76

Simple. In this case accurate. The Cavs starting PF played nearly as well as the best two Grizzlies in this game. The storied Memphis defense was eviscerated on Wednesday night… Which pretty much had to be the case with LeBron James nowhere near his usual form… As his team won by thirty points.

Outcome: Cavs by 30!!!

Obviously this was a super encouraging game, with the Cavs demolishing one of the better teams in the league by huge margins on a back-to-back (with LBJ on “mortal” mode). Nuff said.

The Top 8

gametwo

Game Three: Heat at Cavaliers 10/30/15

ESPN Headline: LeBron James (29 points), Kevin Love (24) help Cavs topple Heat

The main thing wrong with this headline is that Kevin Love’s name should have come first!

Outcome: Cavs by 10

The Top 8

gamethree

This game was way less close than even the ten-point drubbing would imply. Cleveland was up by 18 — eighteen — with a minute to go and the third string managed to give Goran Dragic almost his entire night’s production in circa the final one hundred seconds.

The Cavs starting guards — Mo and Smith — were atrocious, combining for 8 points on 18 shots; Jefferson was no better (five points on seven shots)… but the frontcourt was absolute music. If Kevin Love can continue play as well as he has for the first three games of the season LeBron’s prediction will come true and Kev will be back in the All-Star game. LeBron played a workmanlike great game while Dellavedova aped CP3, lobbing an unending string of alley oop assists to Tristan Thompson.

The Heat stars played well too, actually; Miami just got very little production from their bench.

Speaking of which: Hassan Whiteside is the truth! He is very clearly one of the best players in the NBA, racking up SIX (!!!!!!) blocks in this game. Amazing! What is even more amazing is that as good as he was, Whiteside was outplayed by two different Cavaliers PF/Cs. I’ll take it!

I know the first week was just three games, but like I said already: They were super encouraging. Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are both playing like All-Stars. The fact that LeBron was not the best Cavalier in either win means that maybe he will be able to rest more during the regular season. I would love Love LOVE to see a team configuration where LeBron takes a backseat during most of the regular season and lets the younger guys get us to 60+ regular season wins and just shows up to claim his Finals MVP.

I am a little concerned about the Cavs guard play, though. Mo was excellent in the Chicago game; J.R. was good in the Memphis game, but neither starter has strung together even two above average games. Hopefully both sharpshooters can get back into the three-point form that earned them All-Star and Sixth Man of the Year awards in past years.

LOVE
MIKE

The Top 8 is produced via Simple Models of Player Performance + Box Score data from ESPN.com

My Mets fandom is pretty well-documented. From me in an orange Mets hoodie slumped over my computer, as Carlos Beltran took a called strike three half a world away, in the Pro Tour coverage to the hundred-odd followers I lost while posting incessantly about “sportsball” throughout the playoffs. There is no way I could possibly write an objective World Series preview so I reached out to someone who could — Toby Wachter. Okay…he can’t either but as he documents below he is much more rational than I when it comes to the NY Mets. — BDM

Like most gamers, I tend to be a fairly logically minded person. One of the many reasons I love baseball is that seemingly everything is quantifiable, from wins over replacement players to calculating open market value for any player in dollars. You can even run studies on whether intangible concepts like “clutch” are quantifiably true. More than ten years removed from the release of Moneyball, this is old hat news: most professional sports teams now use some form of advanced analytics.

This viewpoint is particularly bad in my situation, because I’m a Mets fan. Mets fandom usually requires some form of optimism that is irrational at best, delusional at worst. One particular memory that stands out in my mind is walking back to the subway in 2009 after going to a Mets game with BDM, as he told me he felt the Mets offense was better than the Phillies. This was a Met squad that featured such luminaries as Jeff Francouer, Alex Cora, Fernando Tatis and an age 40 Gary Sheffield. The Phillies offense that year was pure bonkers, with Howard, Rollins, Werth and Chase Fucking Utley all in their prime, with an inexplicable awesome season from Raul Ibanez thrown in for good measure.

Needless to say, Brian has always been quick to rush to an optimistic assessment of all things Mets. I’ve consistently been the ass who is impulsively compelled to splash cold water on any and all rays of hope. But I just have to listen to my brain over my heart.

“No Brian, Josh Thole is not a regular, everyday major league catcher.”

“Nick Evans is actually trash.”

“Josh Satin’s best trait is actually his crazy eyebrows, not his bat (and no, he’s not the second coming of John Olerud).”

But something crazy happened. The Mets are in the World Series, and in my humble opinion, they should be the favorite to win. For real, looked at objectively; not just in BDM’s world of “Jeremy Hefner is going to be a solid cog in the rotation for years to come”.

So, as repayment for years of playing “No, that’s just not realistic”, here are seven entirely rational reasons why the Mets are going to win their first championship in 29 years.

1: Infinite Heat

The Mets postseason rotation of Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard and Matz is worthy of all the praise heaped upon it. Every expert from ESPN to MLB Network has said there is no rotation in baseball history comparable where pure stuff is concerned. If you’ve looked at any sports broadcast or newspaper since the World Series matchup was set, you’ve seen how no team throws more 95mph+ pitches than the Mets, by a wide margin.

Those same media outlets are pointing to the Royals’ ability to hit 95mph+ better than any team in the league. Okay. That’s tracking results on one pitch, not on sequences. Anyone who has watched the Mets aces can tell you while the speed is the foundation, they mix in offspeed pitches and breaking balls quite well. When Thor brings the hammer curveball after a steady diet of 99mph, it’s entirely unfair for the batter.

Contrary to popular belief, the Mets rotation is not made up of fastball throwing robots, but human beings that can come in with a gameplan and mix pitches to break up the batter’s rhythm.

On subject . . .

2: Contact, Schmontact

Sure, you can talk up the Royals “putting the ball in play” all day long. Yes, they were ranked #1 in contact this season. It’s legit. But if the Mets can carve up a powerful Cubs lineup with power in every spot, they can do the same to a singles happy Royals team. I’ll certainly feel more comfortable with Harvey, deGrom or Syndergaard pitching with men on base to a guy unlikely to hit a home run than I did when it was Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber or Kris Bryant in that same spot.

When your whole plan is to make contact and do the “paper cut the pitcher to death” thing, it just means you need to beat one of these pitchers multiple times in an inning. The Royals ranked 11th in slugging this year, and 24th in home runs. This is not the stuff of nightmares with men on base. Go ahead, hang out at first base and have a chat with Lucas Duda (what you’d actually talk about with him, I have no idea). Maybe try to steal second and if that works, have a chat with Wilmer Flores about bottling tears and turning them into walkoff power through gypsy magic. But that’s probably where the adventure on the basepaths ends.

All the data on baseball tells us the best way to score runs is getting on base and hitting for power. While the Royals provide a different look that has been successful, the edge it might provide against good pitching is marginal at best.

3: Too Many Flukes (Too Many Flukes!)

Let’s not forget the Royals needed a lot of luck to get here. They were only successful in a must win Game 4 in the ALDS against the Astros because sure handed Carlos Correa managed to mishandle a double play ball. The ALCS saw Ryan Goins and Jose Bautista botch an easy out in the outfield. Seriously, look at those graphs and see how close they were to losing.

Game 6 featured a Royals fan doing his best Jeffrey Maier impression to boost a ball into a home run, and then some pretty shoddy ball and strike calls by the umpire at a critical moment for the Jays (tying run at third with less than two outs).

To be fair, some of this is due to persistence on the part of the Royals. They put the ball in play, and when that happens, bobbles by otherwise sure handed fielders can happen. But let’s contrast to how the Mets got here: they grinded through a five game series against the Dodgers where two of the three best starters in the National League (Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke) made appearances in all but one. For an encore, they swept a juggernaut offense in the Cubs, and took out the other best pitcher in the league (Jake Arrieta). One of these things is not like the others.

4: The Ace That Isn’t

At the trade deadline, the Royals were the first team to jump into the “Rent an Ace” market, giving away some young talent to get Johnny Cueto for the stretch run and playoffs. This was done with the knowledge that he wouldn’t be in their future after 2015, as he was in his walk year and many big market teams were primed to pony up the absurd amounts of money necessary to lock up his services (a luxury Kansas City can’t afford).

Cueto had posted an ERA under 3.00 every season since 2011, and ranked second in Cy Young voting for 2014 with 20 wins (if you’re the kind of person who cares about that sort of thing). 2015 looked to be more of the same, with Cueto posting a 2.62 ERA for the going nowhere Reds.

For whatever reason, since jumping to Kansas City, he posted a 4.76 during the regular season, and has been on a short leash in October. The Royals didn’t get what they thought they were trading for, and being unfamiliar with the player, they’re struggling to address what’s wrong. There was some thought that Salvador Perez was too big a catcher and wasn’t setting up the glove low enough, for one theory. Ned Yost sounded entirely puzzled whenever asked by media.

How can you fix a player that’s been in your organization for a few months? You can try, but it’s guesswork. When asked what they can do to get Cueto right, Ned Yost sounds like a manager with a player he rightly doesn’t know very well, and is grasping at straws to figure out a solution. They’ll have to throw Cueto out there because it’s what he’s there for and it’s not like they have many better options. Bad for Kansas City, and certainly not a good spot for Johnny’s bank account come this winter.

5: Lucas Duda Unleashed

Lucas Duda is the baseball version of The Incredible Hulk. Sometimes, he is a mild mannered large beast of a man who is as weak as a baby bird with a bat. He swings at bad, low breaking balls and makes you tear your hair out.

But after weeks upon weeks of watching him put down so many doughnuts, eventually he gets into one. The confidence goes up, and he turns into an otherworldy tater mashing machine. His last such streak during the summer featured eight home runs in seven games. A good number of Mets winning streaks during the season were powered by Duda literally carrying the team’s offense.

In the deciding NLCS game against the Cubs, the Hulk woke up and Duda hit two doubles and a home run, bringing in five RBI. It’s a shame he has to sit for almost a week after that performance, but Duda’s hot and cold streaks seem to be based more around confidence than timing. I expect we’ll get The Good Lucas Duda for the World Series, who can carry the Mets offense just as well as Daniel Murphy did during his hot streak. Three of the four Royals starters are average at best right handed pitchers, setting up Duda for a great series.

6: Ned Yost’s Follies

I’m in the camp of believing there are three kinds of managers: a select few who can actually add wins to your team (Buck Showalter, Joe Maddon), those who actively lose your team games (Matt Williams, and . . . I’ll just say Matt Williams again here), and the vast majority are fairly neutral. I’ll put Terry Collins into that bucket. If Ned Yost is in the neutral bucket, he’s teetering on the edge and closing in on “loses you games” territory.

For a very recent example, in the clinching ALCS game Yost put Kelvin Herrera out for the 7th, and brought in Ryan Madson in for the 8th . . . who promptly gave up a huge home run. Questionable on two levels: why is Madson the 8th inning guy over Herrera, and why not bring Herrera out for a second inning when you’re trying to keep the lead and go onto the World Series?

The Royals 2014 postseason saw plenty of questionable decisions by Yost: in the Wild Card game alone he called for a botched double steal, and inexplicably brought young starter Yordano Ventura into a key spot pitching out of relief, where he promptly gave up three runs. There were plenty of other questionable decisions throughout their 2014 postseason. Almost every time, despite making a bad call, his team managed to bail out the manager. At some point, Yost’s “misplay, but topdeck, I win!” luck has to run out.

7: Who Have You Faced Lately?

Pitchers the Royals have faced in the postseason: Colin McHugh, Scott Kazmir, Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers, Colin McHugh (2), Marco Estrada, David Price, Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey (who departed for the sins of the Wilpons so we may have Thor and d’Arnaud, praise his name, still a Met in spirit), Marco Estrada (2), David Price (2).

That’s a whole lot of “good, not great”; the only aces in the bunch are Keuchel and Price. Keuchel shut down the Royals in his start, though granted he’s a control artist and not a flamethrower like the Mets staff. The “David Price can’t pitch in the postseason” noise is just as silly as it was with Kershaw before this year. He pitched an excellent Game 2 until the aforementioned Goins/Bautista debacle unraveled everything, and performed quite well in Game 6 removed from two solo home runs.

Point is, the Royals have faced two aces this postseason. One carved them up, the other actually pitched excellently if not for a few bad pitches, or one bad defensive cue behind him. In the World Series, they’ll be facing three legit aces, and one not too far behind that tag in Steven Matz.

On the other side of the coin, the Mets have faced Greinke twice, Kershaw twice, Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. The three times they didn’t get an ace were Brett Anderson, Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel. All were either shellacked, or chased out of the game early.

Aside from “coin flip to see if he’s an ace or terrible” Johnny Cueto, the Royals rotation is made up of unstable, easily tilt-able hothead Yordano Ventura (scouts actively encourage opposing batters to try and get under his skin), along with journeymen Edinson Volquez and Chris Young (the tall, old one from Princeton, not the terrible former Mets outfielder turned adequate Yankees platoon guy). Past Mets teams have had issues with handling average pitchers like these. Sometimes, this pops up and I get 2011 Mets PTSD; for example, their inexplicable ability to hit National League punching bag Matt Wisler this season. But I’m going to remind myself that it’s easier to hit against average pitching than great pitching. The Royals rotation is “good” on the right days, and certainly nowhere near great.

Teams That Are Good at Baseball Things Win Baseball Games

The media is pumping up the Royals as the team that “does things the right way”, “makes things happen on the basepaths”, and every other cliché you can think of for a team that doesn’t do the things most great baseball teams do. At the end of the day it may not be the most romantic notion in the world, but 98mph heaters and three run homers are better at winning baseball games than hitting singles, stealing bases and making contact.

If Matt Harvey shows up for Game 1 as himself despite the long rest, I expect the Mets will sweep the first two games in Kansas City, with deGrom going in Game 2. My overall prediction: Mets in six, though I’d love to see them win it in five and celebrate in front of the hometown crowd.

One of my favorite Magic-playing sports fanatics is Patrick Sullivan. Make that one of my favorite humans.

The first time I played Patrick he had two 2/1 White Weenie creatures and a Phyrexian Negator in play while I had a Masticore… that I forgot to pay upkeep on. The beatdown specialist has not been one whit kinder to opponents in the ensuing fourteen years.

A Red Deck specialist with numerous Open, Invitational, and Grand Prix Top 8s, Patrick is both a highly active game designer and a full time Magic commentator for StarCity Games, covering their Open Series and Invitationals. You can follow Patrick on Twitter at @basicmountain.

fl

I.
Relatively early on in our friendship I expressed to you that my favorite NBA player was not the obvious choice of hometown hero LeBron James, but the animated Brazilian Anderson Varejao. You responded that that opinion was consistent with having “a black and white MySpace profile pic” and just spammed my wall with a bunch of Josh Smith highlight videos. How did a lifelong Jersey boy get into then-Atlanta’s Josh Smith?

I’ve always been passionately, foolishly drawn to players who can do everything except shoot the ball, and Josh perhaps is the most intense iteration of that player in the history of the league. Combine that with a guy playing with his hometown team right out of high school (a particular charm for a Jersey kid who grew up with Springsteen and The Sopranos), and I was immediately drawn to Smoove. The last few years have been painful, but I really enjoyed this year’s quasi-vindication in the playoffs, even if it came at the expense of the Clippers.

II.
Since moving to California you seem to have transplanted your NBA fandom squarely into the Staples Center. Was there any indication at the time the Clippers were going to be any good at all [let alone perennial contenders]?

The Clippers nailed a couple of drafts in a row, the most important thing for a franchise that, shall we say, wasn’t a free agent destination for the last few decades. Blake seemed like a no-brainer star the second he hit the court, and DJ, Eric Bledsoe, and Eric Gordon all looked like promising players early in their careers. It seemed likely that the group would either develop into a promising core on their own, or that some of them would get flipped for Hypothetical Disgruntled Star X when one became available. You never know how it’s going to play out, but it seemed like only a (short) matter of time before the Clippers became, at the minimum, a 50 win team for a couple of years.

III.
How do you feel about this week’s Clippers trade for Lance Stephenson? (a year ago I would have put him as a Top 20 NBA star BTW)

The Clippers are capped out and don’t own a first round pick this year. Besides trading someone in the Big 3, the only way the Clippers were going to add any talent was by taking a flyer on a guy who wore out his stay somewhere else. Combined with the fact that the Clippers got to dump the heinous Hawes deal, I’d make this trade 100 times out of 100. Feel free to dredge this paragraph up when Lance is screaming at CP3 or running his fingers through Harden’s beard during the playoffs next year.

IV.
As a relatively young Clippers fan, how gratifying is it to have seen DeAndre Jordan’s improvement over the past couple of seasons? Personally, I feel he is like the defensive Steph Curry in terms of development and trajectory.

DJ’s improvement has been startling, both in terms of physique (I screamed “You look heavy!” at him his first year in the league, back when I said things like that at strangers) and his overall basketball acumen. In the long-term, I think the pairing with Blake is awkward enough that I think the Clippers should look to move him for a star who can space the floor, but when he’s engaged he’s one of the most significant defensive players in the league.

V.
Were you ever worried that the Clips were going to win it all, tear off their jerseys, and reveal that — ZOINK! — the CP3 trade had actually gone through and they were secretly the Lakers after all?

No — those dudes hate the other team in LA, and the Clippers rubbing the Lakers’ noses in sh*t has been a 4-times-a-year delight for your’s truly. On a related note, the last few years have revealed some deep insecurities among Lakers fans, like handling a few years in the doghouse is beneath them or something. Were I a Lakers fan, I’d like to think that witnessing the current tragicomic Kobe Bryant era would hold me over until the next transcendent superstar decides to sign over there, but I can’t say for sure. It’s easy to get spoiled, I guess.

VI.
Who is the best player in the NBA? The GOAT?

I think Anthony Davis was the best player in the league during the regular season, but LeBron was so impressive/inspiring/cyborg-ish during the playoffs that I can’t discuss this rationally right now. I hate discussing the GOAT because it’s so hard to account for how different diet, travel, pace of play, etc., were during different eras, but I think LeBron, MJ, Magic, or Bill Russell are all fine answers.

VII.
BDM claims that being a sports fan is like a religion; you get born into it and that’s it. As someone born into the Nets, what can you say to an embattled Knickerbockers guy about how you’ve not only dipped your toe into the Hawks but really gone full-bore into the Clips?

I spent a few years as a passionate basketball agnostic, but I got to do that in part because the Nets were so uninspiring, even when they were very good, that bouncing around didn’t feel like a violation of some sacred oath or something. Now, I go to Clippers games, I’m invested, and I like to think I’ll continue to do so when Chris and Blake inevitably leave and I’m stuck rooting for some sad-sack group of recent lottery picks and veteran retreads in 2020. I might return to basketball agnosticism at some point, but I won’t ever root for another franchise again, assuming the Clippers stay in LA and remain owned by a human instead of a ghoul.

VIII.
Two words: Doc Rivers

A good X’s and O’s guy, a great Leader of Men, and a well-below-average GM, even factoring the Stephenson heist. I wish he would stay out of front office affairs, but as someone who has watched Mike Dunleavy and Vinny Del Negro coach the basketball team he roots for, it’s worth the cost of doing business.