This week on Hot Takedown, we’re joined by FiveThirtyEight editor in chief Nate Silver as we look ahead to the second round of the NBA playoffs and the potential Warriors-vs.-Rockets rematch. Some experts are picking Houston to advance, but our model still favors Golden State. Who’s right? As for the other opening rounds, with the exception of the all-knotted-up Nuggets-Spurs series, the higher seeds seem likely to advance — which leads us to ponder some possible restructuring of the NBA’s playoff format.
With the NFL draft starting Thursday, the big question on everyone’s mind is whether the Arizona Cardinals will take Kyler Murray with the No. 1 pick. We discuss Murray’s draft position and take a look at the draft value of quarterbacks in a year when there aren’t a lot of great QB prospects available. As for the teams in general, is it better to draft for need or draft for talent?
We’re also introducing a new segment called “Get Off My Field.” This week, Nate thinks there are too many home runs and strikeouts in baseball.
Here’s what we’re looking at this week:
Baseball has always prized players who can hit the ball a country mile or run like the wind. And when the same player can do both of those things, he becomes the stuff of legends — like when Willie Mays hit 36 home runs and swiped 40 bases in 1956, or when Jose Canseco inaugurated the 40-40 club in 1988.
So, who is today’s version of Mays or Canseco — the best mix of both power and speed? There is the traditional way of measuring it, but we can do a better job using MLB’s new Statcast metrics, which track the exact velocity of a ball off a player’s bat and the speed of his body around the basepaths.
Bill James originally captured a player’s combination of slugging and running by inventing a statistic called the Power/Speed Number, introduced in his 1980 “Baseball Abstract.” The formula is simply the harmonic mean of home runs and stolen bases: two times home runs times stolen bases, divided by the sum of home runs and stolen bases. “It is so crafted that a player who does well in both home runs and stolen bases will rate high,” James wrote, “and his rating is determined by the balance of the two as well as by the total.”
According to this basic accounting system, the best combo of power and speed in any single season belonged to Alex Rodriguez in 1998, when he hit 42 home runs and stole 46 bases — just the third of four 40/40 seasons in MLB history.1 The best Power/Speed Number last season belonged to Jose Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians, who hit 39 home runs and stole 34 bases; that season is tied for 31st all-time in James’s metric.
For this season, White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson led baseball on April 18 with a 4.8 Power/Speed Number (four homers and six steals) — though that’s not really comparable to full-season numbers because the metric is a mean of two cumulative stats, meaning that it grows as the season goes on.2 A better way to get numbers that resemble full-season stats is to combine actual results from the first few weeks of the season with rest-of-season projected homers and steals from FanGraphs’ depth charts. After we did that, the top projected Power/Speed player of 2019 was Adalberto Mondesi of the blazing-fast Kansas City Royals — he’s on pace for 48 stolen bases and 22 home runs.
Mondesi certainly is fast — he ranks second in all of baseball (behind Minnesota’s Byron Buxton) in Statcast’s sprint speed metric, which tracks a player’s velocity on running plays in which he is theoretically hustling. His pop is also impressive for a speedster. If Mondesi were to hit his projections, he would be in great company: The 40/40 club’s lesser cousin, in which a player has 20 homers and 40 steals, has been done only 50 times in history and not at all since 2013. But according to Statcast, the average exit velocity of Mondesi’s batted balls is 88.9 miles per hour, which puts him in the bottom half of all qualified hitters.3
Homers and steals are proxies for power and speed, but they’re imperfect ones. If we use Statcast’s rankings as the basis for a new conception of James’s old Power/Speed Number — measuring power with exit velocity and speed with sprint velocity — it turns out that there are hitters who do an even better job than Mondesi of combining these two facets of the game.
I took every player who had at least one batted-ball event and one running event in every 1.8 games through April 184 and calculated his percentile rank in each category. Then, like with James’s original metric, I took the harmonic mean of those two values for a combined score that rewards high rankings in both power and speed.
Last season’s top power-speed player was — who else? — Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, who ranked 31st in exit velocity and 17th in sprint speed.
Of course, Trout also ranked fifth on our original Power/Speed leaderboard … but where is Ramirez in this updated version? Surprisingly, the Indians’ MVP candidate was only 85th in the new ranking, despite leading MLB in James’s metric. He had a lot more steals and homers than we would have expected from his raw physical tools. As my colleague Travis Sawchik documented last season, Ramirez made up for a lack of pure power with a concerted focus on lifting the ball in the air to his pull side, particularly to right field as a lefty hitter. (Ramirez hits from both sides of the plate.) He was also smart about picking his spots as a base-stealer, ranking seventh in stolen-base percentage with an 85 percent success rate.
But this version of the Power/Speed Number is more about measuring the skills that help lead to home runs and steals — rather than the homers and steals themselves — so players like Ramirez are out in favor of those like the Braves’ great young left fielder Ronald Acuña Jr., who consistently hits rockets off the bat and is one of the fastest runners in the sport.
Acuña was second last year and is third so far in 2019, coming up on the heels of Buxton (who might be the anti-Ramirez — he has one of the league’s highest average exit velocities despite zero home runs this season or last). But neither player ranks No. 1. That honor belongs to Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The power part isn’t shocking. Bellinger already has 11 home runs this season, second in the majors behind Christian Yelich. He’s leading the majors in an absurd array of stats, including wins above replacement, batting average, slugging percentage, hits, runs, total bases and on-base plus slugging (OPS). Through April 18, Bellinger ranked sixth in average exit velocity at 95.9 miles per hour.
But speed? According to FanGraphs, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Bellinger was rated by scouts as a “45” in the category back in 2017, with average at 50. And yet, Bellinger was up to 16th in Statcast sprint speed at 29.0 feet per second, tied with Kansas City speed-merchant Billy Hamilton (!). In just the first three weeks of the season, Bellinger already had 27 of what Statcast classifies as “competitive runs,” which contribute to his average, so it’s unlikely that the radar-trackers merely picked up a few aberrant readings. That’s particularly the case since Bellinger also ranked 35th overall in sprint speed last season, with a 28.8 feet-per-second average over 224 competitive runs.
Interestingly, the power component might be the more likely area of regression for Bellinger. Although he exploded for 39 home runs in his first 132 major league games in 2017, his power dipped last season, with an average exit velocity that didn’t rank among the top quarter of MLB hitters. He appears to have made adjustments after a classic sophomore-slump campaign, blistering the ball early this season, but Bellinger has the longer track record of having an elite sprint speed than having elite batted-ball metrics.
Bellinger is simply surprisingly fast in terms of in-game speed. And that works in concert with his crazy mashing to make him MLB’s best power-speed player in the early part of this season.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.
The Tampa Bay Rays are not supposed to be in first place in the AL East. Since 2008, the Rays have never ranked higher than 20th in payroll. This season, the Rays opened with a payroll $176 million less than the Red Sox and $144 million less than the Yankees. There are underdogs and then there are the Rays.
Yet, it’s a few weeks into the 2019 season, and the Rays are still in first place. And our projections predict that they’ll be a playoff team. It’s still early, of course, and the Rays’ hot start could cool as more games are played — and they did take a tumble over the weekend against the Red Sox. But they’ve been so successful — going into the weekend, their pitching staff had the lowest ERA and fielding-independent pitching in the majors and no lineup was making more quality contact, for example — that it’s worth trying to make sense of how the Rays are defying the odds. It’s not just homegrown talent and innovative strategies propelling them this year, though the defensive shifts and the reliever openers are still happening. Instead, they’ve found yet another way to win: They’re getting more out of other clubs’ players.
Their top two and three of their top six position players this season were acquired from teams via trade during the last calendar year, and the 2.5 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs’ measurement, of those three accounts for almost half of the Rays’ position player total. And their top pitcher to date, Tyler Glasnow, was acquired in the same July 31 trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates that brought them their best position player, Austin Meadows.1
“We feel very strongly about our ability to get the best out of guys,” Chaim Bloom, Tampa’s vice president of baseball operations, told FiveThirtyEight last summer.
Two of those guys — third baseman Yandy Diaz, acquired in a December trade, and Glasnow — provide a glimpse into what the Rays might be doing right, and why this surprising start might be sustainable.
Prior to arriving in Tampa, Diaz was known for an excellent batting eye and elite exit velocity. From 2017-18, among batters to put at least 200 balls in play, Diaz ranked 13th in average exit velocity (91.7 mph). But that didn’t translate to power as well as we might have expected. He hit only one home run in 299 plate appearances in Cleveland and had the fourth-lowest launch angle among that same cohort, at 1.9 degrees. (The MLB average this season is 12.3 degrees.) Diaz was pounding ground balls into the turf too often.
Another issue last season: Diaz hit 57.1 percent of balls in the air to the opposite field, the fourth-highest mark in the league. That’s not conducive to power: Leaguewide this season, 33.4 percent of fly balls hit to the pull side have gone for homers but just 5.2 percent of those hit to the opposite field.
It’s not an ideal batted-ball profile for a player who, well, has muscles like these:
But the Rays had a plan to get more out of all their batters, particularly those with Diaz’s tendencies. During spring training this year in Port Charlotte, Florida, hitting coach Chad Mottola and the Rays came up with an idea for a practice constraint: They were going to build an on-field wall.
They didn’t have what they needed at the spring facility, so they sent a truck 90 miles up I-75 to Tropicana Field, their major league home, to commandeer the netting typically used to shield players and coaches during batting practice. The next morning during batting practice, Rays hitters found a barrier of netting on the infield. They were asked to hit over it — to lift and pull the ball.
“I saw it on the internet,” Mottola said of the practice, similar to what the University of Iowa called The Great Wall of Groundball Prevention in 2016. “I said, ‘Why don’t we just do it?’ At the major league level, it wasn’t anything more than a conversion starter. For younger kids, it was a way to stimulate thoughts more than anything.”
This spring, the Rays’ Great Wall of Groundball Prevention evolved to focus not just on trying to get the ball in the air but also on getting the ball in the air to batters’ pull side. The team also used pitching machines to produce velocity and spin more like what batters would see in actual games.
The Rays wanted to move the point at which hitters contacted the ball to out in front of the plate, which would allow them to pull the ball better, Mottola said. After all, that’s where the most power is generated. When Mottola began his coaching career in the Toronto organization in the late 2000s, he watched as Jose Bautista was taught to change his focus and try to pull everything. He became a star.
Whether because of the wall or something else, Diaz has changed the way he’s hitting this season. After an offseason of focus on contact point with the Rays, he’s now pulling 41.4 percent of batted balls, up from 28.9 percent last season — the 26th greatest increase in the sport. He’s hit five home runs in 89 plate appearances so far.
Diaz never pulled a home run in Cleveland. He has done so three times in Tampa.
“He was never given the opportunity with Cleveland in a way he thought he deserved,” Mottola said. “Letting him know he’s going to be in the lineup no matter how he plays today, that makes you a better player immediately.”
This season, the Rays have the second-lowest share of balls hit to the opposite field. (They had the highest share last season.) The Rays rank second in the majors in average exit velocity (90.3 mph), up from 26th last season (87.0 mph). It’s still early, of course, but those are marked changes.
The wall — or something — appears to be working.
With the Pirates last season, Glasnow, a once highly touted prospect, found himself in a long-relief role. He had lost his command and his confidence. What the Rays acquired at the trade deadline was a struggling pitcher, but one with intriguing underlying skills: a sharp breaking ball and a fastball that ranked at the top of the “perceived velocity”2 leaderboard since his debut. Glasnow’s average fastball of 96.7 mph looks like it’s going 99.3 mph because he releases the ball, on average, 7.6 feet in front of the pitching rubber. (He ranks first in the majors in perceived velocity this season.)
The data-heavy Rays began with a simple message to Glasnow: Trust that your fastball will still work in the strike zone.
“I tried to express to him that he could be really aggressive in the strike zone,” Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “The guy is 6-foot-8. He throws the ball from 52 and a half feet [from home plate]. He’s an upper 90s guy. It’s an all-power, no-art approach. I just think the more he understood that the hitter in the box had to respect the fastball and cheat to it, the better the breaking ball was going to be.”
Glasnow’s share of pitches thrown within the strike zone has increased by 4.7 percentage points this season, the 24th greatest improvement in the majors, just behind teammate and reigning AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell. While it’s early, Glasnow has also had the sixth-greatest decline in walk rate in the sport (5.9 percentage points).
Glasnow said the team also wanted him to focus on keeping his fastball elevated and his curveball down, while throwing the latter more frequently.
While he and the Pirates had agreed in 2018 to change his approach to one similar to what the Rays are espousing, Glasnow said it was hard to alter how he had thrown since being drafted in 2011. “The [Pirates] were very down in the zone, downhill angle,” he told FiveThirtyEight last September.
The Rays reinforced how his elevated fastball and 12-to-6 breaking curve could play together by sharing the same path, or tunnel, before the curveball breaks downward. Making the pitches look similar as they approached the plate would create confusion for batters.
“Tunneling is important,” Glasnow said. “It’s definitely more of an emphasis here.”
Consider the pitches working in tandem against the White Sox on April when Glasnow struck out 11 over six scoreless innings. His elevated fastball:
And his whiff-generating curveball, which currently ranks fifth in vertical movement and 15th in swing-and-miss rate among pitchers who have thrown at least 50 curves, falling below the zone:
Glasnow and Diaz have made what appear to be real skill gains since arriving in Tampa. Of course, the sample size remains small early his season, and they will have to prove that their starts are sustainable. But if the Rays are indeed spinning developmental gold, the team may have landed on a path to long-term success.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.
There was a moment in the fourth quarter Sunday night, just before the Thunder officially found their backs against the playoff wall, where Russell Westbrook had a decision to make. He had Blazers center Enes Kanter defending him in a 1-on-1 scenario in the corner, backpedaling — an instruction that was reportedly being shouted at him by members of the Portland bench,1 who wanted Westbrook to be goaded into taking the low-percentage shot attempt from 3-point range.
Westbrook, as he often does, took the defense’s bait and missed the shot, one of his 16 that misfired Sunday. Oklahoma City lost and is now down 3-1 to Portland in a series the Thunder were heavily favored to win, mainly because of their regular-season sweep of Portland and the absence of Blazers star Jusuf Nurkic.2 If they are unable to pull off the series comeback, it will be the third consecutive first-round elimination for Westbrook and his club. And when the dust settles, it will be more than fair to question how big a role Westbrook’s struggles are to blame for that.
There are a handful of relatively clear reasons why Portland is winning, of course. Enes Kanter has been solid and has surprisingly replaced a great deal of Nurkic’s production, even on the defensive end at times. Damian Lillard has perhaps been the MVP of the playoffs thus far, while teammate CJ McCollum has been locked in since returning from his late-season knee injury. And most obvious: Portland has three different players — Lillard, McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu — shooting 40 percent or better from three, while the Thunder have none.
But it’s hard to explain OKC’s failures here without mentioning Westbrook, who shot 5-for-21 in Game 4, including an 0-for-7 showing in the second half — the worst half of his playoff career. All told, he’s averaging 21, eight rebounds and almost 10 assists per game against Portland, but is doing so with terrible efficiency, connecting on just 36 percent of his shots, 30 percent of his threes. It’s made for a pretty ghastly looking shot chart.
Fellow star Paul George deserves blame, too. We wrote earlier in the season that George had finally begun to take control of the team from an offensive standpoint. George’s percentages are only slightly better than Westbrook’s, and his dropoff in production — because of his injured shoulder or otherwise — has a lot to do with the Thunder struggling to get out of the first round.
Yet there are key differences between the players. First, George is balancing his shooting woes some by aggressively going to the basket, attempting more than 10 free throws a game — almost twice as many as Westbrook. This postseason is on pace to be the third-straight for the Thunder (all since the departure of Kevin Durant) in which Westbrook shoots worse than 40 percent, an obstacle for OKC to overcome given how big a part of the offense he accounts for. The distinction of George recognizing his shortcomings and adjusting seems particularly significant here, though. Westbrook’s gunslinging mentality — and insistence on trying unsuccessful jumper after unsuccessful jumper — often kills any sort of offensive rhythm the Thunder manage to muster.
And in continuing to take them, he makes life far easier on opponents. Since his MVP season in 2016-17, in which he shot slightly worse than league average from behind the arc, Westbrook has not only shot worse than 30 percent from deep in consecutive seasons, but has also done so while taking almost five attempts per game. That’s largely the problem here. Teams are often unable to stop Westbrook once he gets to the rim, where he shot a career-best 65 percent this season. So why is he so hellbent on settling for wide-open jumpers, with which he was the least efficient player in basketball all season?3
To be clear, no one is questioning Westbrook’s talent. His end-of-season performance against the Lakers, in which he scored 20 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and dished out 20 assists, was one of the more underrated and remarkable feats the league has seen in some time. And it largely happened because Westbrook willed it to happen, saying after the game that it was an effort to honor slain rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle.
But that’s seemingly the question at play: If Westbrook can simply snap his fingers and put his imprint on the game the way he wants to at times, why does he opt to settle for the sorts of shot attempts that he rarely gets to fall? His lack of consistency — which seems bizarre to knock after seeing him average a triple-double for the third straight year — becomes amplified in a postseason setting, where transition possessions are limited, each shot is meaningful, and every loss feels close to fatal.
The biggest question that lies ahead, assuming OKC doesn’t complete a 3-1 comeback, is what all does Thunder general manager Sam Presti needs to do to retool this club around Westbrook and George (both at the front end of of big-money, long-term contracts) to break through this first-round wall? Some may suggest ousting coach Billy Donovan, who’s now completing his fourth year. And even beyond Westbrook, the team’s perimeter shooting is highly problematic, something that’s been the case for a while now.
We know from past instances that Presti won’t be shy about shaking things up. But if the Thunder are going to find themselves back in the Western Conference Finals anytime soon, they’re almost certainly going to need a more consistent version of Westbrook to get there.
sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): We’ve had almost one full week of games in the NBA playoffs, and trends are emerging. Golden State took a 31-point third-quarter lead over the Clippers on Thursday night … and didn’t lose! So after a few early surprises, things seem to be getting back to what we expected.
One series not playing out according to seeding is San Antonio-Denver. The No. 7 Spurs beat the No. 2 Nuggets 118-108 on Thursday to take a 2-1 lead in the series. This comes as a surprise to the FiveThirtyEight NBA Predictions model, which had Denver as an 88 percent favorite to move on. The Nuggets are still favored, but just 60-40. Are you guys surprised by how this series is going?
chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior staff writer): Not all that much, no. I think I picked Denver out of respect for the season it had. But this was the one team basically everybody had questions about coming in.
I had the series going seven games, with Denver winning. It could easily be 3-0 Spurs right now.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): I am surprised, but I don’t think we really should be. It’s the Spurs being the Spurs again.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Our model doesn’t like San Antonio very much, so given their regular-season performance and home-court advantage — and Denver has a big home-court advantage — the Nuggets were pretty clear favorites. But it didn’t really like the Nuggets all that much either. They aren’t a great playoff team because their depth doesn’t really help them in the playoffs, the topline talent is not all that good, and they don’t have much playoff experience.
So I’m surprised that we had them as high as 88 percent, frankly! But not surprised that the Spurs are ahead in the series.
chris.herring: On Denver’s home-court advantage: The Nuggets haven’t beaten the Spurs in San Antonio in 14 tries now.
tchow: I am surprised because at one point in the season, our model gave the Spurs just a 4 percent chance of even making the postseason. We had a story a while back that talked about how they started turning it around (better defense, better bench production), but they were still underdogs going into this series, in my opinion.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, I had sort of counted the Spurs out a long time ago.
Let that be a lesson to me: Never count out Pop.
The experience factor really seems to be hurting the Nuggets so far. (And our model took 3 points away from them for their lack of playoff experience.)
chris.herring: Nuggets coach Mike Malone has talked about the experience factor a pretty decent amount in the past week
His young starting point guard, Jamal Murray, began Game 2 going 0-for-8. Malone was asked if he gave thought to pulling him because of Murray’s performance. He said no, in part because he needed to show his young players that he believed in them, and that he’s with them, win or lose. Murray responded by hitting 8-of-9 in the final quarter to bring the Nuggets all the way back for a dramatic win.
The win probably saved their season for the time being. But it speaks to the volatility of having such a young/young-minded club.
tchow: Murray wasn’t much better in Game 3 — just 6 points and two assists. I’m not trying to pin Denver’s failing’s this postseason all on Murray, though. All the Nuggets starters were pretty terrible in Game 3.
chris.herring: It’s a pretty big contrast between the teams.
While we’re talking about the growing pains for a young team, it’s worth pointing out that the Spurs are being led in part by youngster Derrick White, whose defense is his calling card. I think this is his first real exposure to a national audience, but he’s been playing really well for months.
tchow: White’s Game 3 performance was kind of a reminder for a lot of people who don’t watch the Spurs that he existed.
chris.herring: White’s experience has been different because of all the injuries they’ve had. But White and Dejounte Murray are going to be an annoyingly good backcourt once the team is healthy again next season. AND there’s Bryn Forbes, too.
natesilver: The whole Nuggets backcourt feels like it’s way short of championship caliber. It needs an anchor. There are lots of useful pieces you could rotate around that anchor, like Murray and Gary Harris, but without that anchor, it doesn’t quite come together.
chris.herring: It’s tough: They have a fantastic, sure-handed backup in Monte Morris, who led the NBA in assist/turnover ratio.
sara.ziegler: MORE MONTE MORRIS
chris.herring: He may not win a game for you. But he’s extremely unlikely to ever lose one for you, which you could argue Murray either occasionally does, or comes close to doing. Again: These are the growing pains for a young team sometimes.
sara.ziegler: On to another team that has seemed shaky at times this postseason: the Philadelphia 76ers. But they seem to have recovered from their upset in Game 1 — they’ve beaten the Nets convincingly twice in a row now. What looked different for them in Games 2 and 3?
tchow: Ben. Simmons.
natesilver: Sen. Bimmons.
chris.herring: Yeah, that sounds about right. Whether it was Jared Dudley that got in his head, or just him recognizing that he had to be more aggressive, Simmons has been a completely different player since Game 1.
chris.herring: I hate to say this, because maybe it’s premature, but I was beginning to think that the Nets could steal this series if things broke right for them.
tchow: I think a lot of people thought that, Chris. The Nets are legit and play really hard.
chris.herring: The Nets stole home-court advantage in Game 1. Were basically even at halftime of Game 2. And then get a gift rolled out on a platter for them, with Joel Embiid sitting out of a Game 3 played in their home arena, in front of a fan base that hasn’t hosted a playoff game in four years.
Thursday was their chance. And I think with the loss now, that might be about it.
natesilver: I’m in the Ben-Simmons-is-underrated camp. Yeah, he doesn’t really have a jumpshot. But he does pretty much everything else well. And there have been a lot of players throughout NBA history who have survived or even thrived without jump shots — Giannis Antetokounmpo basically does that now. The advanced stats like Simmons.
tchow: I think it’s very different for a player like Giannis to not have a jump shot than Simmons.
chris.herring: While we’re on the issue of Simmons, I think we learned that Embiid not being there might have been a help for him
For all the wonderful things Embiid does, he plays at a plodding pace.
Someone like Simmons thrives in an up-tempo environment because of his inability to shoot.
tchow: Sara, I found the hot take for next week’s Hot Takedown episode: FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring says Sixers are better without Joel Embiid.
chris.herring: They might be in this series! Well, probably not: Greg Monroe was rough.
If they had more depth, they might be.
natesilver: That’s the thing about Philly. Look how bad their bench is:
Everyone’s like, “Why are these four stars such awkward fits together” — and I’ll admit that they’re a little awkward, but with a half-decent bench, it’s an entirely different team.
chris.herring: I don’t think it’s a terrible bench. And the truth is, you can stagger when you have that many stars.
But the spots in which it’s terrible … yeah.
tchow: Sixers’ bench: Who? Who? Who? The big guy. Who? and Who?
chris.herring: That’s their issue, I think. I’m not sure Boban Marjanovic would work against every team. But he’s their backup big.
natesilver: I saw Boban at the United Airlines lounge at Newark Airport one time. He was very big and tall and sitting in a giant lounge chair and still looked very big and tall.
chris.herring: I tweeted last night that I’m pretty sure he dunked last night with one foot still on the ground.
Anyway: I want to talk more about how disappointed I am in Brooklyn
tchow: Are you just disappointed in their central A/C system at Barclays, Chris?
chris.herring: Well, that too.
sara.ziegler: Are you disappointed that their slogan is “We go hard,” and then they didn’t?
chris.herring: They did go hard!
It’s not a question of effort with them. It never is. But I think what Nate alluded to is exactly the issue here. The Sixers’ bench isn’t great/may be bad. And the Nets’ second-best player is their bench.
natesilver: Yeah, Brooklyn’s not totally unlike Denver. Excellent depth, no playoff experience, frontline talent is meh.
tchow: Nate, they’re both small-market teams. I get it. (Queens represent!)
Tony trying to start a borough war here.
chris.herring: You generally see Brooklyn go on these massive runs in the second quarter of these games. But then after halftime, the game gets broken open, and Kenny Atkinson — who I really, really like — waits too long to call a timeout!
The Sixers went on a 21-2 (!!!!) run in Game 2 before Atkinson called for timeout. It took a 1-point deficit and expanded it to a 20-point lead for the Sixers. And then the game was over.
tchow: Maybe Atkinson is from the Phil Jackson school of letting the players figure it out on their own.
natesilver: What was the atmosphere like at Barclay’s, Chris? I think it’s one of the coolest venues in sports from an architectural/amenities standpoint, but every time I’ve gone, the fans are sort of half-hearted.
chris.herring: Last night was amazing to start the game. But I think they were sort of stunned to see the team run out of steam.
And as Tony said: I was freezing.
sara.ziegler: Well, it is a hockey rink, too.
chris.herring: So maybe the have to have the ice ready? But good lord.
My phone turned off at one point because of how cold it was.
chris.herring: The atmosphere was really great. It’s good to have the playoffs in Brooklyn again. And hopefully Manhattan at some point in the next couple years. (side-eyes Knicks)
natesilver: Knicks fans should be rooting against Boston and against Golden State, right?
chris.herring: I’ve heard the same stuff everyone else has about Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving coming to the Knicks. As much as I hear it, I just have to see it to believe that it’ll actually happen.
natesilver: I think KD could leave either after a championship or a flameout. But Kyrie — yeah, he’s already flip-flopped enough that I think Knicks fans want the Celtics out by Round 2.
chris.herring: I think I’m just too conditioned to believe that nothing overwhelmingly good can happen for/with the Knicks unless there’s an enormous downside that comes with it.
natesilver: My current scenario is that they get Kyrie and also draft Ja Morant and somehow that turns into a disaster.
sara.ziegler: Speaking of Kyrie, the Celtics are making quick work of the Pacers. Indiana doesn’t seem to have quite enough offense so far to hang with Boston.
tchow: I’m actually interesting to read Chris’s thoughts on this series. I remember A LOT of people were down on Boston going into the playoffs.
chris.herring: Yeah. I had some hope that this could be an interesting series.
But I also was tasked with writing an Indiana-based primer for the ESPN side ahead of this series. When I got to the “Why Indiana can win section,” I sat and stared at my screen for like an hour.
So this actually doesn’t surprise me all that much.
They simply don’t have enough offense. Or ingenuity.
natesilver: I haven’t watched much of that series; pretty much my only recollection was seeing a score that was like 76-59 in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and thinking I needed to update my contact lens prescription, but nope, that was the actual score.
chris.herring: They basically hand the ball off to Bojan Bogdanovic and say, “Do something.” Kind of like a kid who does a magic trick, but is still holding the quarter in his hand, in plain sight, for everyone to see.
tchow: Has Boston done anything to change people’s minds about their chances though?
chris.herring: No. They’re merely beating a flawed, weakened team, IMO.
tchow: That’s what I figured about Boston. The real test, if they do end up beating the Pacers, will probably come against Milwaukee.
chris.herring: In fairness to Nate McMillan and the Pacers, this was always going to be an uphill battle, because they’re playing without Victor Oladipo. It was a great accomplishment to go 21-21 this season without their star player after going 0-7 without him last season.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, they don’t really have anything to feel embarrassed about.
chris.herring: I really like Indiana, and have a soft spot for Little-Engine-That-Could sort of teams. But they need some reinvention.
They could use more firepower. But they need better schemes.
natesilver: I feel like the whole first round could use more firepower. Between inexperienced teams, teams with injury problems, teams without any star talent … it feels a little bit like spring training or something.
tchow: I agree, but it has been more interesting than I imagined.
chris.herring: A little.
sara.ziegler: Let’s talk about the other interesting series in the East: No. 2 Toronto has had its hands full with No. 7 Orlando. The Magic took the first game, but the Raptors stormed back in Game 2. The teams will face off Friday night in Orlando. Do we think the Magic have a realistic shot in this series?
chris.herring: It depends on what you define as “a shot.” I think they can get another game, potentially. I don’t think they will win the series. The Raptors responded in Game 2 the way you hoped a top-flight team would.
sara.ziegler: But the Magic are underrated, Chris!
chris.herring: Oh, they are. And not enough people know that.
But I don’t think that I ever conflated them being underrated with the notion that they should somehow beat the Raptors in a series.
tchow: Kyle Lowry responded in Game 2 the way you hoped. Chris wrote about Lowry’s Game 1 woes before, but he responded in a big way.
natesilver: Orlando is a weird-ass team, and they played very well in the second half of the season.
If you’re looking for an upset pick, I’d rather pick a weird team than a normal one.
chris.herring: If they had played competitively in Game 2, sure.
Or had a matchup they could readily exploit.
sara.ziegler: The Raptors had a 98 percent chance to win this series before the playoffs start, and now they’re all the way down to 93 percent. So things are still looking pretty good for them.
In the last series in the East, the Bucks had a little trouble with Detroit before pulling away in Game 2. But the most interesting thing to me about that game was Blake Griffin picking up his second technical foul of the series.
Blake Griffin, you’ll recall, has not actually played yet in this series.
tchow: Bucks in four. I think we can move on?
chris.herring: Yeah. That’s literally the only thing I find interesting about this series. That, and finding out how far away from the basket Giannis can dunk from.
tchow: The NBA tweet highlights of Giannis dunks have been the only saving grace of this series.
chris.herring: If and when the NBA move the first round back to a best-of-five, they’re going to use this series as evidence as why. (edited)
natesilver: I think there needs to be a mercy rule where you can concede your playoff series and get like three Lottery Balls or whatever.
sara.ziegler: OK, let’s move back to the West. The Trail Blazers are off to a great start, up 2-0 against the Thunder. Our model is surprised at this series — it had given the Thunder a 77-23 edge. Are you guys surprised?
chris.herring: Yes. I’m surprised. Maybe stupid, too.
natesilver: I mean, if Paul George isn’t himself, our model is gonna screw that series up.
tchow: He’s hurt!
chris.herring: I feel like a contrarian now, but I don’t even think he’s shoulder is the problem anymore. He shot the ball semi-decently last game.
Russ is shooting like he’s the one injured.
tchow: Our model can’t predict that Russell Westbrook will shoot 35 percent and 10 percent from 3-point range in this series.
What I will say is that I don’t have a lot of faith in OKC if it’s simply relying on the notion that its shooting will improve.
They are shooting 16 PERCENT from three in this series.
Which, while God awful, is only a slight regression for them!
natesilver: That whole quadrant of the bracket — OKC, Portland, San Antonio, Denver — seems incredibly weak to me.
chris.herring: If OKC had a team full of sharpshooters, I could understand having more confidence.
But Russ still defends Damian Lillard as if he’s surprised that Dame can/will pull up from 35 feet.
The guy needs to be treated as if he’s Steph at this point
tchow: I don’t want to take anything away from Portland. Yes, they lost Jusuf Nurkic, but CJ and Dame have been awesome this series.
chris.herring: I came in thinking that this might be a sweep or a 4-1 series in favor of OKC. Simply thought that not having Nurkic would hurt against someone like Steven Adams. I thought CJ McCollum would struggle to find a rhythm (he’s coming off an injury and wasn’t good vs. OKC during the season). We watched Dame log 35 a night against the Thunder during the season and still get swept 4-0 during the regular season.
tchow: CJ has been
chris.herring: I didn’t think they had a great chance in this series. They had lost 10 playoff games in a row. With the exception of perimeter shooting, I thought just about everything else would be in OKC’s favor. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
tchow: If Dame wasn’t in Portland, would he still be this underrated? It feels like this is a storyline every season.
sara.ziegler: That’s a good question.
How many people regularly see him play?
tchow: Basketball nerds: “Look at Damian Lillard!”
Basketball fans: “Who this?”
chris.herring: I guess we have to define underrated.
natesilver: He was All-NBA First Team last season, no?
But, yeah, Portland has to be one of the least-watched teams in the league, or at least by people not in the Pacific Time Zone.
chris.herring: Even if you know who he is, and how great he is, I think you could objectively look at this series — and what the Blazers have done the last two years in the playoffs (0-8) — and say OKC should have been favored.
tchow: For OKC to take Game 3, they need to ____________.
And don’t say something like “play better” (looks at Nate).
sara.ziegler: SHOOT BETTER
chris.herring: … shoot better than my 4-year-old nephew does from outside of 23 feet.
natesilver: I’d say they need to play better basketball.
sara.ziegler: In the other non-Warriors series out West, the Rockets are handling the Jazz easily so far, setting up a showdown with Golden State in the second round. This has played out about as expected, right?
chris.herring: I had higher hopes for Jazz-Rockets. Am impressed with how dominant Houston has looked, but thought Utah would play better than this. Their defensive scheme has looked downright nonsensical to me
tchow: If Chris has a soft spot for Indiana, I think I have a soft spot for Utah. I love this team and wanted more out of them this series.
sara.ziegler: Utah is a very likable team.
natesilver: I didn’t expect Houston to dismantle Utah quite so thoroughly.
In fact, I think that’s the story of the first round so far. It’s a highly consequential story because the Rockets are absolutely good enough to give the Warriors a series.
chris.herring: The disappointment I feel with Utah is equivalent to how excited I am for the second round, with Warriors-Rockets.
That will seemingly be the Western Conference finals, just a round early.
natesilver: It would be quite something if the Rockets actually need fewer games to dispatch Utah than Golden State needs with the Clippers.
tchow: The Jazz just seem like a team that’s so close to figuring it out. Maybe not to a point where you think they can beat Golden State, but they’re so good in the regular season. I don’t know what happens to them in the playoffs.
chris.herring: Yeah, I sort of agree in theory, Tony.
But I think what I’ve learned is that I have to be leery of a team that relies on such a young player to be its leading scorer.
natesilver: Maybe you just need more isolation scoring in the playoffs? Or more scoring, period?
chris.herring: I remember a stat from last year: Donovan Mitchell was the first rookie to lead a playoff team in regular-season scoring since Carmelo Anthony.
I think there’s a reason we don’t see it happen much. And I think it’s even more problematic for a team built like that to have all sorts of horrible defensive breakdowns, because at that point, you know they have no shot at keeping up in a shootout against one of the best scorers in modern history.
If Quin Snyder rolls out the exact same defensive scheme that he did in Games 1 and 2, this series will end in a sweep.
natesilver: Is Mitchell … a little bit like Carmelo Anthony in that he’s taking too many shots? I mean, I guess he has to take a lot of shots with that lineup. But Utah really needs another player who can create his own shot.
tchow: What if you played a player like Royce O’Neale more? He’s +1.8 on defense (according to our model), and it looks like they do a bit better defensively with him on the floor.
chris.herring: He’s another example of what Nate is talking about, though: A guy that isn’t likely to create his own shot.
This is a team that will need to take a long, hard look at itself this summer despite how well it’s played during the second half of these last two seasons.
tchow: One obvious fix would be to get rid of Grayson Allen.
natesilver: I also think Utah benefits from being a bit unorthodox. Rubio is an unorthodox point guard. They’re defense-first. They can play at a slow pace, although they picked up their pace a lot this year. They’re well-coached. So there’s an advantage from game-planning in the regular season. But Daryl Morey and the Rockets are going to study the hell out of the Jazz and know how to counter.
chris.herring: Some of these teams are built to play really, really well in the regular season. And there’s incredible value in that, for seeding purposes, etc.
But the inability to change your playing style when you’re forced to is often fatal this time of year.
sara.ziegler: Finally, Golden State seemed like Golden State in Game 3 of their series against the Clippers. So that panic appears to be over?
chris.herring: Hell, they seemed like Golden State in Game 2 to me!
It was just a massive collapse at the end of Game 2.
chris.herring: I actually pointed out yesterday that the game played out exactly the same way for a long while:
natesilver: Our model thought the DeMarcus Cousins injury was a pretty big deal. Although I think it overrated how effective Cousins had been this season.
sara.ziegler: All season, Cousins has been more about potential in our model.
But the Warriors didn’t need him early in the season, obviously.
tchow: I have nothing much to say about this series, but I do want to point readers to this interview KD gave before Game 3.
natesilver: It’s not that they’re going to lose to the Clippers, but I do just have to wonder about a team’s mentality when they can blow a 30-point lead.
chris.herring: NBC analyst Tom Haberstroh pointed out that Steph was only averaging 19.9 points per 36 minutes this season with Boogie on the court, and that he essentially morphed into Malcolm Brogdon.
Averaged 31.4 points per 36 minutes without DeMarcus on the floor.
natesilver: I mean, part of that might be that Steph was being deferential in an effort to get Cousins feeling like himself again.
Which … there isn’t time to do that in the playoffs.
tchow: Definitely. I think Steph went through a similar dip when KD joined too.
chris.herring: The last thing you want is Steph playing nice when you need him to be Steph.
natesilver: It does just seem kind of impossible when you have to shut down Steph AND KD and Klay. Even if the rest of the team kind of sucks.
chris.herring: I tend to think this helps them for now, but the Rockets series was one of the overarching reasons they signed Cousins — to make it so Houston couldn’t switch as much as they did on them last year
natesilver: Yeah. So in some ways, we’re back to last year’s series, which was as even as it gets. The Rockets lately are playing as well as last year. And the Warriors without Cousins are basically last year’s team.
sara.ziegler: After this matchup, will we even want to finish out the playoffs??
natesilver: Well, the Western Conference finals are likely to be an anti-climax.
tchow: LOL. Yes! I for one am very interested to see who comes out of the East to play against Warriors/Rockets.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.
A strong NFL draft can instantly transform a franchise. But the draft isn’t just about getting great players — it’s about getting great players on the cheap. The league’s rookie wage scale allows teams to employ impact players for far less than what they’re worth on the open market and this surplus value frees teams to spend elsewhere.
But not all positions are of equal value — or at least they aren’t according to the share of money teams allocate to them. So it stands to reason that to maximize the value of first-round picks (and those bargain rookie contracts) in the draft, teams should prioritize the positions that will cost NFL general managers the most amount of money on the open market. At the extremes, this does happen: It’s why 13 of the 19 first overall picks this century have been quarterbacks and why no team has taken a punter or kicker in the first round since 2000.
To look more closely at value per position, we used Chase Stuart’s Draft Value Chart to assign points to every pick since 2010 and then tallied up all of the points at each position. We then compared the share of total value for each position with the share of total (nonkicking) position salaries for each position group. For example, teams in the 2019 season will spend 11.12 percent on cornerbacks, while in drafts since 2010, teams have allocated 11.23 percent of their first-round capital on the position — very close. But most other positions don’t align so neatly.
Tight ends will get 4.9 percent of the salary pie this year, but teams have spent only 1.8 percent of first-round value on the position. Looking at the past nine drafts, it’s also clear that the running back balance is out of whack: GMs have spent 5.5 percent of their draft capital on the position (led by the game’s fiercest defender of RB value, the Giants’ Dave Gettleman) compared with just 4.3 percent of 2019 salaries.
Wide receivers also seem to be getting short-changed on draft day. But this may have to do more with how difficult it is to assess them. The position has proved exceedingly difficult to scout, judging by first-round bust rate. What’s more, many of the drills that wide receivers endure at the scouting combine don’t seem to predict actual NFL success. The position has proved exceedingly difficult to scout, judging by first-round bust rate. So maybe spending more money on proven receivers rather than rolling the dice in the draft than you are willing to spend in the draft is wise. After all, the smartest team in football hasn’t drafted a wide receiver in the first round in 23 years.
But by far the biggest incongruity in absolute value among the positions is on the defensive line, where teams are spending 16.6 percent of their money but 22.4 percent of their first-round draft power. Teams seem to be buying into the belief that, after quarterback, the most valuable player in the league is the person who trying to throw the quarterback to the ground.
The rate at which teams spend first-round picks on pass rushers is likely to climb even higher this year given that defensive linemen are expected to rule this draft like no other. In some mock drafts, as many as five or six defensive linemen are projected to be selected among the first 10 picks. Looking at SBNation’s mock draft database 1 and pairing that with Chase Stuart’s Draft Value Chart, we can predict that an amazing 37.7 percent of first-round draft capital will be spent on defensive linemen. Yet not one safety is expected to be drafted in the first round, and just two linebackers who aren’t pass-rush specialists, LSU’s Devin White and Michigan’s Devin Bush.
The experts who follow the draft most closely are also predicting that general managers will more heavily weight a prospect playing quarterback than his scouting grade. Despite this quarterback draft class being regarded by some experts as subpar, four signal callers are expected to be selected in the first round, including three in the top 10 — something that’s happened just five times since 1970. Any chance to land a good quarterback at the relative bargain-basement price of a rookie contract is apparently too tempting to pass up.
It’s a bad idea to read too much into any April baseball games, but this week’s two-game sweep at the hands of the archrival New York Yankees appears to have officially sent the Boston Red Sox into a full-blown crisis. The team’s record dipped to 6-13 — tied for the second-worst for a defending champ since 1947 (trailing only the fire-sale 1998 Marlins) — and they landed once again in last place in the American League East.
“This is flat-out embarrassing for my family, for my team, for our fans,” Boston ace Chris Sale told reporters after giving up four runs over five innings in Tuesday’s 8-0 loss. “This is about as bad as it gets. I have to pitch better.”
“We’re not really playing very well anywhere,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski added. “Our starting pitching hasn’t been very good, our defense hasn’t been overly good, our hitting hasn’t been like it’s been capable of being.”
As Dombrowski suggests, Boston has come by its horrible record honestly: Only the dreadful, rebuilding Miami Marlins (-49) have a worse run differential than the Red Sox’s -42 mark this season. Bad stretches happen to good teams sometimes, but ones this terrible haven’t happened often to teams that were supposed to be as good as Boston — especially coming off last year’s 108-win season. Since World War II, only six other teams that started a season with an Elo rating of at least 1562 (like the 2019 Red Sox) had any 19-game stretch in which they won six or fewer games — much less had those be the only 19 games we saw of them.
(The good news for the Red Sox? Those other teams posted an average of 94.3 wins per 162 games even with the bad 19-game stretch, and none won fewer than 87. But again, those 19 games weren’t the only bits of evidence we had about the teams to begin the season.)
It was always likely that the Red Sox would regress some — and perhaps even a lot — after last year’s storybook season. But nobody could have predicted that the wheels would fall off so quickly and thoroughly as they have. According to wins above replacement (WAR),1 the Red Sox went from the third-best team in MLB last season (behind the Astros and Yankees) to the fourth-worst this year (ahead of the Orioles, Marlins and Rockies). For two categories in which the team ranked among the top six last season — hitting and starting pitching — Boston has dropped into the bottom nine (including the very worst starting performance in baseball), and the bullpen has also dropped from the top five to the league’s bottom half:
In the bullpen, the team probably has missed closer Craig Kimbrel, who recorded 1.8 WAR last season but was not re-signed (and remains a free agent today). But mostly the story of the 2019 Red Sox is of the holdovers from last year’s championship team — and most of those have fallen short of the performance standards they set for themselves a season ago.
Shortstop Xander Bogaerts has actually played extremely well in the early part of this season, starter David Price and first baseman Mitch Moreland have been solid, and third baseman Rafael Devers has improved on last year’s disappointing sophomore campaign. But those gains don’t make up for declines by Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez and subreplacement starts from Jackie Bradley Jr., Eduardo Nunez, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi and — most concerning — Sale.
Betts has placed a lot of the responsibility for the team’s slow start on himself. “Basically, what I’m doing is unacceptable,” Betts said Monday. “I have to figure out a way to get something done and help the team.”
The reigning AL MVP should start to turn things around sooner or later, though. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is an unsustainably low .208 this season, indicating a lot of potential for improvement, and most of his Statcast metrics are in line with his career numbers before last year’s career season — when he still was a .292/.351/.488 hitter with outstanding defensive skills.
If Betts will be fine, Sale is a bigger worry. The lanky left-hander’s fastball velocity has been low in three of four starts — though he did reach an average of 96.1 mph against the Yankees on Tuesday (which is near where he was most of last season before a sharp drop-off in September). But radar-gun readings aside, Sale is also walking a career-high2 2.5 batters per nine innings and has already given up nearly half as many home runs (five) as he yielded all of last year. The Red Sox have enough other talented players to remain a good team in a down year from Sale, but they might not be able to be a truly great team without him pitching at his best.
And are they actually a good team, despite this horrid start? Or will this season eventually spiral into disaster the way Boston’s last championship defense did? As bad as the Red Sox have looked, it still seems foolish to count them out. In a sport where it takes 67 games before a team’s record is even roughly half-luck and half-skill, 19 games shouldn’t matter much to our expectation for a team going forward. Even after this rough start, our Elo model gives the Sox a rating of 1538, which equates to the talent needed to win about 89 times per 162 games. That’s only about five and a half fewer wins of talent than Elo thought they had before opening day.
But the problem is that the Red Sox have to live with that 6-13 record they’ve banked for themselves so far. If they play like an 89-win team over the rest of the season, they’d still only end up with 85 wins by season’s end. In a division where the Tampa Bay Rays and even the up-and-down Yankees are on track for 92 or more wins, 85 to 90 wins might leave Boston right on the edge of the playoffs. (And to get to, say, 95 wins, they’d have to play at a 102-win pace over the rest of the season.) Although it is often said that the MLB season is a marathon and not a sprint, don’t be surprised if Boston’s early struggles force it to run ragged down the stretch just to make a bid for the AL’s second wild-card spot.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.
Eight days ago, the FiveThirtyEight Soccer Power Index (SPI) gave Manchester City the best chance to win the Champions League. On Wednesday, Manchester City crashed out of the competition in spectacular fashion, conceding three goals at home to Premier League rival Tottenham Hotspur. The series finished 4-4 on aggregate, but Spurs get to play on because of the competition’s away-goals rule. Remember all that talk about City winning the historic quadruple? That’s all over now.
Pep Guardiola’s Sky Blues got off to a quick start, grabbing the lead via a strike from Raheem Sterling in the game’s fourth minute. Sterling’s goal canceled out Tottenham’s 1-0 aggregate lead, and the tilt was on. But it wasn’t long before Son Heung-min struck to give the lead back to Spurs, and it wasn’t long before he struck again. At that point it looked like City was doomed, but then they stormed back, scoring twice to tilt things back in their favor. Spurs were not done, however, and got the series-winning goal from unlikely hero Fernando Llorente in the 73rd minute. They still had to survive some end-of-the-game drama: City scored what appeared to be the winning goal, but VAR ruled that forward Sergio Aguero was offside in the buildup, and Tottenham was on to the semifinals to face Ajax.1
City is out, but the favorites to win the whole thing still hail from Northern England. According to our SPI, Liverpool has the best chance to conquer Europe. The Reds followed up their very professional 2-0 win over Porto at Anfield last week with a very professional 4-1 win over Porto at Estadio de Dragao on Wednesday. Porto needed to score at least two goals to send the series to extra time — and at least three to win it outright — and the first 35 minutes of the match reflected that: Porto completed twice as many passes in the attacking third as did its opponents from Merseyside en route to outshooting them 14 to 3.
But then Liverpool scored a goal in the 26th minute, and it was all but in the bag for Jurgen Klopp’s side. Eder Militao, future center back for Real Madrid, scored a late goal for Porto, but it was merely consolation. And Liverpool’s reward for its 6-1 aggregate victory? A date with Barcelona in the semifinals.
Speaking of the Catalonians, they made relatively light work of Manchester United in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. Lionel Messi did Lionel Messi things at Camp Nou, scoring twice from outside the box — one shot with his left foot, the other with his weaker right — in a matter of four minutes. The first was vintage Messi, a left-footed effort driven low that curled past the outstretched body of Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea and into the bottom left corner of the goal. The second was less spectacular, a speculative effort that de Gea whiffed on uncharacteristically. Gift or not, the goal put Messi two clear at the top of the Champions League Golden Boot race. A goal in the 61st minute from old United foe Philippe Coutinho put the series out of reach for the Mancs. And now the soccer world can salivate over a Messi-vs.-Salah showdown in the semifinals.
If the result in Barcelona felt like a forgone conclusion, the result in Turin felt like anything but. Ajax’s 2-1 Tuesday win (3-2 aggregate) marked a sort of long-fermented revenge: In April 1997, the last time the Dutch giants played in the Champions League semifinals — a month before the team’s current best player, Frenkie de Jong, was born — they were eviscerated by Juventus, losing by an aggregate score of 6-2. That Ajax team featured club and country legends Edwin van der Sar, Frank de Boer, Marc Overmars and Danny Blind,2 but Lucky Ajax wasn’t very lucky on that occasion.
This time around, Ajax took the game to Juventus from the opening whistle, a strategy that should have stunned exactly no one who watched the team embarrass Real Madrid last month. Total shots and shots on target were nearly equal Tuesday in Turin, but Ajax created more big chances and completed a higher percentage of passes in the attacking third than Juventus. Crucially, the Dutchmen didn’t panic when Cristiano Ronaldo scored to give the Italians the lead in the 28th minute. They kept pressing, kept playing on the front foot, and midfielder Donny van de Beek bagged an equalizer just six minutes later. And even after it took the lead on a header from team captain Matthijs de Ligt in the 67th minute, Ajax didn’t sit back. The side smelled blood and attempted more passes inside the penalty area in the final 23 minutes plus stoppage time than its opponents. Ajax could have scored a couple more — and now it has a 16 percent chance in our SPI model to win the whole thing, up significantly from before the quarterfinal’s second leg.
It’s hard to predict whether Ajax pups like de Jong, de Ligt and van de Beek will go on to have the kinds of long, fruitful careers their elder countrymen did, but there’s little doubt that they’ve cemented themselves as club legends. They’ve made Ajax relevant again. Now all that’s left for them to do is to make Ajax champions again.
Check out our latest soccer predictions.
The worst fears of the WNBA and its fans were officially confirmed Wednesday: Reigning league and finals MVP Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm tore her right Achilles tendon — an injury that will sideline her for the season and at least temporarily shift the WNBA’s balance of power.
She sustained the rupture over the weekend when she rose for a jump shot and landed on the foot of fellow WNBA star Brittney Griner during the EuroLeague championship game. Stewart and scores of other American players use their offseasons to play in leagues overseas while the WNBA is off, as those opportunities often pay far more than their salaries here in the states. This injury is likely to intensify the debate over WNBA pay.
But for the Storm, the loss of the 24-year-old is devastating, and it figures to totally alter the WNBA’s landscape for the time being.1 At 26-8 last season, the Storm finished with the league’s best record and went on to sweep the Washington Mystics in three games for the championship — with Stewart a catalyst of both efforts.
The former UConn star made her presence felt on offense (she led the league in total points and offensive win shares and ranked as the most-efficient offensive player in the league on a per-possession basis, per Synergy Sports) and on defense (second in defensive win shares). Her game had expanded considerably in her third year, in which she streamlined her shot profile and became a more prolific 3-point shooter while also developing into one of the WNBA’s three most-efficient offensive players in the post. (Star scorer Liz Cambage and Griner are the others, according to data from Synergy Sports.)2
There’s almost certainly no way the Storm can replace Stewart’s all-around impact — something that few players in the world, if any, can make on a night-to-night basis. She was averaging almost 22 points (shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc) and eight rebounds while collecting more than two assists, one block and one steal per game. But the Storm does still have a talented roster without Stewart.
Even at 38, as the WNBA’s oldest player, point guard Sue Bird has shown that she may have plenty left in the tank. In 2018, she logged career-best marks in virtually all her shooting metrics, while also assisting at the best rate she ever has. Fellow guard Jewell Loyd, a former No. 1 overall pick, is more aggressive and finished second on the team in scoring, with almost 16 points per game. She attacks the basket regularly and gets frequent trips to the line as a result. Natasha Howard was far and away the team’s best offensive rebounder — a skill that, without Stewart’s stellar shooting, will become even more important.
Yet the team’s best bet offensively without Stewart may be to use more of an up-tempo style. The Storm were the WNBA’s most efficient team in transition last season, with players like Loyd and Jordin Canada in particular excelling when they played with improved pace. Playing faster might be a bit tough at times on the aging Bird. But the alternative — playing more slowly and being more deliberate about finding shot attempts — may not work all that well. Seattle was solid when the shot clock ticked under the four-second mark last year (ranking second in efficiency when that was the case, per Synergy). But Stewart was a primary reason for that, scoring on 43 percent of her plays that went late into the clock.3
Assuming that the Storm take a considerable step back, the door figures to open for the semifinalist Phoenix Mercury — led by Diana Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner and Griner — to win their first title since 2014, when they set a record for wins in a season.
Last season, Phoenix pushed Seattle to a fifth and deciding game for the right to play in the WNBA Finals, even entering the fourth quarter with the lead, despite being on the road in front of a raucous Storm crowd. It took arguably the best showing of Bird’s life in that last period to eliminate the Mercury.
But now, without a superstar like Stewart, several Herculean efforts from a number of her teammates may be necessary to get Seattle anywhere close to the promised land again this year.
The NBA playoffs can sometimes come down to key role players knocking down clutch shots in important moments. But mostly, it’s all about the stars. The league revolves around its top players more than any other sport, and those players usually determine where the championship resides each season.
So which playoff team has the most star power? One way to measure this is to break players into tiers based on their performance metrics. A few years back, my boss Nate Silver devised a system called “star points,” which awarded teams a score based on how many stars it had on its roster. Players in the top tier of stars (“Alphas”) are worth 3 points apiece, those in the next (“Betas”) are worth 2, and the lower tier (“Gammas”) are 1 apiece. Teams generally need at least 5 of these star points in total to begin thinking about a title run, and 7 star points is where a championship roster really begins to take form.
Perhaps surprisingly, there aren’t any teams with 7 or more star points this season. The Golden State Warriors would have had 8 if DeMarcus Cousins hadn’t been injured Monday night, but Cousins is out indefinitely with a torn quadriceps and may miss the rest of the playoffs. That drops the Warriors into the co-lead with 6 star points, alongside Toronto. And that could mean a more wide-open postseason than we’ve been used to, in which role players might take on an even greater degree of importance.
To calculate star points this season, I turned to the constantly updating player talent ratings from our CARMELO projection-system depth charts. (In the previous iteration of star points, Nate used an amalgam of various advanced metrics, but that was before our player ratings updated in-season.) After resetting the cutoffs for each tier to maintain a similar number of players of each type,1 I found that the NBA has six current Alphas (four of whom are active in the playoffs), 13 Betas (12 of whom are in the playoffs, but one of those — Cousins — is injured) and 17 Gammas (13 whose teams are in the playoffs, with two injured).
In an unusual twist, two of this season’s Alphas — LeBron James and Anthony Davis — actually missed the playoffs. (Their intertwined soap opera is worth its own set of charts.) But among the postseason’s remaining star power, there are some interesting mixes of player tiers on the top teams.
The Warriors might be a surprise with only one Alpha (Stephen Curry), one Beta (Kevin Durant) and one Gamma (Draymond Green). Durant didn’t quite qualify for Alpha status, in part because he ranked only ninth in Real Plus-Minus (and 18th in Box Plus/Minus) this season. Meanwhile, Green was downgraded to a Gamma because of a weak offensive season,2 Klay Thompson barely broke even in projected plus/minus talent (+0.1), and Cousins now appears to be lost for at least most of the playoffs. The usual caveats about the Warriors’ sometimes lax regular-season efforts apply, but based on performance metrics, this team’s name recognition might outpace its actual star power at this point.
And yet, only the Raptors match the Warriors in that regard among postseason teams. They also did it in a very different way: Unlike Golden State, Toronto boasts no Alphas, but it does have one Beta (Kyle Lowry) and four Gammas (Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Danny Green and Marc Gasol). Wait … Lowry is a Beta and Leonard is only a Gamma? The difference between the two (+4.0 vs. +3.7) is so slim as to be splitting hairs, but Leonard had a surprisingly down year in RPM, ranking just 37th in the league, while Lowry ranked 20th. The broader point, however, is that Toronto has assembled an unusually deep stable of star talent. The team has long been known for its depth down the roster, but a series of moves helped turn that depth into something slightly different: a collection of quasi-star-level talent at the top of the lineup.
The Rockets and Sixers rank just below the Warriors and Raptors in star points with 5 apiece, but where in that group is Milwaukee, the East’s No. 1 seed? The Bucks have perhaps the Alpha of all Alphas this season in Giannis Antetokounmpo. But only one other player around him qualified as a star: Eric Bledsoe is a Gamma, while Brook Lopez barely misses the cutoff. Milwaukee’s overall lack of supporting star power would make it a historical anomaly if it does end up winning the NBA title.
The Utah Jazz, in the midst of a brutal first-round matchup against the Rockets, also has very little star power (one Beta in Rudy Gobert). But they have a bunch of guys who just barely missed Gamma status: Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Ekpe Udoh and Donovan Mitchell all had CARMELO plus/minus ratings under +2.5 but greater than +1.5. If we added an extra category for “Deltas” — worth, say, a half-point per player — the Jazz would leapfrog Boston and be much closer to the top of the heap than the bottom.
Regardless, there’s a reason that star points don’t track perfectly with a team’s CARMELO rating or its championship odds. Depth does matter some, even if the effect is less of a factor as rotations shorten during the postseason. And sometimes teams are simply built with a blueprint that helps them perform better than their star power would suggest (the Bucks are a good test case there as well), while others aren’t quite as good as their multiple stars say they should be (the Sixers could be lumped into that group).
Before they blew a 31-point lead Monday night — and, more importantly, lost Cousins to injury — the Warriors were looking every bit the star-studded machine we thought they’d be all season long. Now, they are still sizable favorites to win it all, but their edge in star power is not quite as decisive as it’s been in recent seasons. We’ll find out soon enough whether that will matter in Golden State’s quest for a third straight championship, or if another team near the top of the rankings above can finally supplant the Warriors and build a star-powered legacy of its own.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.