Thursday, April 27, 2017

2017 NFL Schedule Analysis: Known Unknowns

Eagles 2017 Schedule Feel
Almost lost in the run-up to the NFL Draft, the 2017 schedule was rolled out, and far be it for us to avoid the temptation to predict wins, losses, and who got boned and blessed by the powers that be.

To be very candid about this... the exercise speaks, honestly, to just how criminally underserved the American sports public is for actual football content... and yes, this is where we can speak to the eternal dream of promotion and relegation. At least now there are other sites that are banging that drum.

Just in case you don't believe the idea that we aren't getting enough NFL in our lives, consider that a quarter of a million people will venture into Philadelphia to be near a reading of names, and the city has shut down vast portions of itself to give the league all the space it would want to make that seem interesting. Sorry, I've just never bought into the idea that Draft is a spectator sport. Until these guys start hitting each other on the way to the podium, I'm going to find better things to watch. But hey, zip lining down the Parkway is cool, right?

 Let's stop avoiding the temptation! Here's my picks for schedule winners and losers.  

Losers

Oakland. This team was always going to have major (self-inflicted) problems from the fact that they turned their home field advantage into a short-term nightmare, but the league then doubled down with the NFC East home and away schedule, which makes for 3K+ flights and all kinds of time zone issues. There's also the give up of a home game to play New England in Mexico City, which might not be that much worse than Oakland, but there are altitude and pollution concerns with that venue, too -- might come back to haunt them later.  

Dallas. Division winners always get the short straw on schedules, but when you add in the West Coast travel and prime time shows, this might be the most obvious division winner to fall. They host the Giants to start, which is a game they've frequently blown, then go to Denver and Arizona; 0-3 is a real possibility. The offensive line isn't as deep as it used to be, and you have to wonder if Dak Prescott gets exposed a bit - Alexander P of Mytopsportsbooks.com is only giving him 2/1 odds of keeping his passer rating over 100 this year. Plus, Zeke Elliott's legal issues could really create a problem.. The Thanksgiving game against the Chargers is a gimme, but the closing run of at Oakland, hosting Seattle, then at Philly also doesn't sound like fun.  

Philadelphia. Last year my laundry had a half dozen games against teams coming off byes. This year, they get to start on the road against DC, then KC with a bye. In December, there is a 3-game road swing, with games in Seattle and LA, and a road game in Carolina on Terrible Night for Football also doesn't look fun. I'm not sure there's an NFC East team that should win the division, given how DC shot themselves in the face with GM turnover and the Giants just seem aimless, but .500 might do it. Special bonus to the Eagle schedule for not having any real fun road games for the fan base to join in, assuming your idea of fun isn't multiple dates in LA.  

Winners 

New England. This is pretty much a given nearly every year, since the AFC East is such a cakewalk, but the league does the champions more favors by not subjecting them to a UK trip, and all of their terrible night football games are done by October 5. They open with the Chiefs at home, which is usually a win, and on the off chance in hell that they need to close with a rush, they get back to back home games with Buffalo and the Jets. The easiest bet in the NFL this year is for the Patriots to host a second round playoff game.  

Denver. The point about schedules is that it's not just how tough yours is, but also how it impacts your rivals. The Broncos get four of five at home to start, don't have the absurd home field issues that the Chargers and Raiders are going to have to endure, and miss the KC opening loss. So while the rest of the schedule doesn't look easy, they are still going to have a significant edge on the rest of the division.  

Seattle. The opener in Green Bay isn't going to be fun, but the follow up home game against the Niners is as close to a homecoming game as the NFL gets, and copious quantities of the AFC South helps, too. Arizona opens with far harder issues, and the rest of the division (the Rams, no home field advantage in year two in random LA, and the trash fire Niners) should offer light resistance. I'm not certain that the window hasn't set on Seattle's championship aspirations; defenses don't last forever, and the secondary is starting to show cracks. But the schedule might prop them up a bit longer.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Lonesome Crowded West



A week ago, the NBA playoffs started, and it looked like the Cavs, indifferent to the point of absurdity since the All Star Break, were in real trouble. LeBron James was looking old and tired, the team wasn't bringing any heat on defense, and they weren't even the #1 seed.

A week later... they are the only team to sweep, Boston is in a 2-2 dogfight that's actually kind of miraculous, considering that the road team has won every game, and there next opponent (Milwaukee or Toronto) is going to have two, if not three, more games in front of them in a first round bloodbath. Even the Wiz, probably the best looking team in the East in the last two months, blew game 3 in Atlanta, and could be going deeper.

But all of that seems trivial compared to what's going on out West, where the finalist was expected to come out and roll the lEastern team, because the Western team always should.

Here, we've got the Warriors up 3-0... but only after a huge comeback, and with Kevin Durant having injury issues, and Steve Kerr maybe not even being well enough to coach again, um, ever. (Back surgery is a terrible thing, people.) On the off chance that you think that head coaches don't matter, um, change your mind on that, because the guy in that seat if Kerr can't go is Mike Brown now, and Mike Brown nearly kept James from making the Finals not so long ago. Any coach that can keep prime James out of the Finals is, honestly, a force that hasn't been seen in the NBA, well, ever.

But the West was supposed to be more than the Dubs, yes? Well, the Spurs are 2-2 with the ever-tenacious Grizzlies. Utah is 2-2 with the Clips in a series where it seems like both teams are going to shed themselves of all positive elements by the close. (The Clips have lost Blake Griffin Yet Again, while the Jazz have been dodging food poisoning for Gordon Hayward and a troublesome knee for Rudy Gobert.) Houston is up 3-1 on OKC, but only because OKC was too dumb for words in fouling decisions in today's Game 4. They should close it out in five, but that's a Mike D'Antoni team, and Mike's teams in the playoffs are never to be trusted.

So we're a week into the playoffs, and the good news? Six out of eight series are in serious doubt, and the actual games have been as compelling as ever.

The bad news?

Well, I don't know about you, but one of these years, there's going to be a Finals without James. And as a guy who respects the hell out of him, but has almost never rooted for his laundry?

Not really the bold and novel narrative you might hope for...

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Rusell Westbrook: The New Iverson

Rage On
Last night in Game 2 in Houston, the visiting Thunder were playing a dramatically better game than the opener, and held a 12-point lead in the third quarter. Houston Rockets PG and MVP candidate James Harden couldn't put it in the ocean, the Thunder were closing out on three-point shooters like they were hungry dogs, and the Rockets couldn't get boards or transition looks against the bigger and burlier road team. It looked like playoff basketball, and Mike D'Antoni teams have a long and storied history of coming up small there, along with the usual prejudice against offense-first squads. The crowd was restless and nervous, and Russell Westbrook was the best basketball player in the world.

Then he took his rest, as he generally does because head coach Billy Donovan knows how to manage his resources, and the Rockets perked up immediately. A few threes went in, the crowd smelled blood in the water, and Westbrook lit angrily into his teammates and pleaded with his coach to let him back in. The lead was cut to manageable by the end of the third, and some part of me thought, "I've seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well for Iver... err, Westbrook."

There really isn't that much similarity between the two men, honestly. Iverson was an undersized shooting guard in an undersized point guard's body, and while he created an untold amount of offense in transition and from creating easy rebound opportunities for teammates from opponent double teams, he never put up similar assist or rebound numbers to Westbrook, and didn't have the same off the charts explosion and finishing ability. You could also, in his era of no zone defense, punish him in the post, the way that Mark Jackson did in multiple series losses to the Pacers. What AI had over Westbrook, in spades, was the ability to handle monster minutes and not have it effect his late play.

But there is one key similarity between the two men, and that's this: they are both trying to win basketball games, against the best players in the world, with wildly inadequate rosters... that actually get closer than you'd expect, because they have been built around their flawed but fantastic talents.

OKC without Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka should be a 40-win 8th seed and easy first round out. Stephen Adams is a good 2-way player, but he's turnover-prone in the block and has limited range. Viktor Oladipo is an athletic 2-guard, but his handle and shot are too suspect for routine starring minutes. Enes Kanter is a good post bench scorer, but indifferent at defense. Taj Gibson tries hard and is tolerable, but is best seen as solid bench. And that's, well, about it. Trying to win a playoff series with these guys in the loaded West should be impossible, and probably is.


But that didn't stop Westbrook, like AI before him, from lashing himself to the mast and charging into the fray. It got them to a 6th seed and a lead in last night's game, but with Westbrook pressed into extra minutes and no one else in his laundry willing or able to step up and make shots, the Thunder were doomed. To the stat sheet eye, he's an unconscionable gunner; to the actual game eye, he's trying to will these guys beyond their means, especially in the half-court. More tellingly, by the end of the game last night, he was spent beyond measure, and got to endure any amount of idiot takes about how Durant's better. (He might be, because Durant's 7 feet tall and can stop people at the rim, but that's beyond the point.) At the end of the night, Westbrook had a 50+ point triple double. But Harden and the Rockets had the win and the 2-0 series lead.

I suspect OKC might win a game in this series, because the Rockets can look bad when the jumpers aren't falling, and Harden isn't going to go to the line a couple of dozen times on the road, the way he did tonight. The NBA's predilection toward long series, suspicious officiating and complacent Game 3 road work is powerful, and Houston isn't filled with lockdown playoff veterans. But the road steal that they needed was last night, and you really got the sense that Westbrook knew it by the close.

One against five might make for great television, and a staple of karate movies. But it doesn't work in the NBA, and it certainly doesn't work four times out of five.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Meaning In Life

What's It All Mean
Today during the Golden State vs. Portland game, the ESPN crew, as it does with disturbing frequency, went into matters of Not Game. In this case, the tragic passing of Isiah Thomas's sister in a car accident yesterday, and how Boston's star guard was going to play despite his heavy heart.

To which color analyst Jeff van Gundy, in his usual role as Guy Who Knows Everything and has Higher Priorities Than You, said "Who cares?"

He wasn't trying to be disrespectful of what Thomas was going through, just that we shouldn't care about a game when such More Important Things were going on.

And, well, um, screw you, Jeff van Gundy.

We have no idea what's going through Thomas' mind during this time of grief. From watching him in tonight's tight Bulls-Celtics game, I suspect there was distraction during his bench minutes, but when he was on the floor, muscle memory took over. Chicago won behind a great fourth quarter from Jimmy Butler, and because Boston plays tight games all the time and so be it.

But what's really telling here is that in trying to be supportive, Van Gundy was as reductive and reactionary as anyone who wants to just tell Thomas to suck it up and play. Grief is personal, and private, and unique and unpredictable. It hits you in waves, sneaks up on you in odd moments, and isn't something you can really speak to if you aren't going through it.

Except, of course, when you are employed by ESPN, and are paid to speak about anything and everything, without regard to human decency or societal mores.

When you are employed by ESPN, you just go and go and go, with a hot take on everything, because that's what fits their terrible, terrible business model.

Here's what you should say about Thomas and his condition: as little as possible. Respect that the audience for Game is an audience for Game, and does not need, nor even appreciate, your efforts to make it about anything else.

We don't need you to tell us what's more important than all of that, really. We've made the choice to turn on the game, rather than go do yard work or parenting or emotional labor or cleaning or walking the dog or sleeping or any of the billion of other activities that we could be doing instead.

All of which might have more Meaning, because Meaning is where you find it.

And what you should be doing is to respect that choice, and COVER THE GODDAMNED GAME.

Because that is doing your job. You know, what Thomas did by playing today.

Honestly, why is this so hard for them to understand?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

NBA FIrst Round Playoff Picks

Boston v Chicago - Boston in five.
Cleveland vs Indiana - Cleveland in six.
Toronto vs Milwaukee - Toronto in six.
Washington vs Atlanta - Washington in five.
Golden State vs Portland - Golden State in five.
San Antonio vs Memphis - San Antonio in five.
Houston vs Oklahoma City - Houston in five.
Los Angeles vs Utah - Utah in six.

No time for details or defending the picks. Enjoy the games, everyone.

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