Month: September 2019

The Rangers Are The San Antonio Spurs Of The NHL

It was Chris Kreider and Ryan McDonagh’s turn to play hero for the New York Rangers on Friday. Kreider’s goal to tie the game against the Washington Capitals with 1:41 left in regulation and McDonagh’s overtime winner saved the Rangers from elimination and sent the Eastern Conference semifinal back to Washington for Game 6 on Sunday.The Rangers aren’t a bunch of scrappy underdogs, exactly. They reached the Stanley Cup Final last season. They won the Presidents’ Trophy this year by being the NHL’s best regular-season team. And they play in New York.But they’re unusually well-balanced, running three or four lines deep with quality forwards and defensemen. They don’t have a superstar with the wattage of the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, however. What about their goalie, Henrik Lundqvist? He’s almost certainly the most popular Ranger, and he’s among the best goalies in the NHL. But Lundqvist started only 43 of the Rangers’ 82 regular-season games; he missed several weeks of action after being hit in the throat with a puck Jan. 31. Fortunately for the Blueshirts, Lundqvist’s backup, Cam Talbot, was just as effective.Here’s one way to measure whether an NHL team is star-dominated, like the Capitals, or balanced, like the Rangers. Take what’s essentially each team’s first line — their top three forwards, top two defensemen and best goaltender — according to’s point shares (an all-in-one statistic that’s equivalent to wins above replacement) and divide the first line’s point shares by the total for all players on the team.For the Capitals, the top forwards by point shares are Ovechkin (12.6), Nicklas Backstrom (8.1) and Marcus Johansson (5.4), the top defensemen are John Carlson (10.0) and Mike Green (8.6), and the top goalie is Braden Holtby (14.4), who’s been spectacular in both the regular season and the playoffs. Together, they accounted for 56 percent of the 104.7 point shares the Caps accumulated during the regular season. That’s a reasonably high figure.For the Rangers, the top forwards are Rick Nash (11.4), Derek Stepan (7.0) and Derick Brassard (6.9), the top defensemen are McDonagh (7.3) and Kevin Klein (6.5), and the top goalie is Lundqvist (9.2). As good as they were, they were responsible for just 42 percent of the Rangers’ team point share total.That’s a low figure. In fact, it’s the lowest for any Presidents’ Trophy winner1The Presidents’ Trophy wasn’t officially created until the 1985-86 regular season. For seasons before that, I assigned it to the team with the most points in the regular season, giving it to the team with the most wins in the event of a tie. in the NHL’s expansion era (since 1967-68):So, by this measure, the Rangers are one of the most balanced great teams ever — the hockey equivalent of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs or the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons. The second-most-balanced team was the 2003-04 Detroit Red Wings, although they were something of an unusual case, with a combination of rising stars (Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg) and waning ones (Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan).The list of the most star-dominated teams will come as no surprise. It includes Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins, and the early 1970s Boston Bruins, led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. (The 1973-74 Bruins have the top slot; 64 percent of their point shares come from their top line.) The 1993-94 Rangers, who won both the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup, also had a top-heavy roster, with Mark Messier, Adam Graves, Brian Leetch and Sergei Zubov.Unfortunately for the Rangers, neither the star-dominated nor the well-balanced Presidents’ Trophy winners have had all that high a success rate at turning regular-season success into a Stanley Cup. So they’ll have to find a few more heroes to survive against Washington and bring the Stanley Cup back to New York. read more

Cowboys WR Dez Bryant Predicts 2000 Receiving Yards

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, who had a breakout season is 2012, said he expects to  become the NFL’s first 2,000-yard receiver.“I feel like it can be a lot more than that,” Bryant said in a telephone interview with “I honestly feel like [2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns] can potentially happen.”The 24-year-old Bryant caught 92 passes for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. His projection will be considered far-fetched until accomplished. Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice maxed out at 1,848 for the San Francisco 49ers in 1995. That mark was broken last season by the Detroit Lions’ receiver Calvin Johnson, who almost achieved it with 1,964 yards–just 36 yards short.Bryant did show remarkable toughness and talent last season, especially in the last eight games, when he became Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo’s favorite target with 50 catches for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns.“That’s still scratching the surface,” Bryant said. “It’s only going to get better, to be honest. I still have a lot to give. I feel like nobody’s seen anything. Nothing.”Bryant played the final three games of the season with a broken index finger, which required offseason surgery.After losing to the Washington Redskins, Bryant said it took him a week to get over the disappointment. But not making the playoffs has made him more determined, he said. But staying healthy has to be a priority for Bryant.He has yet to participate in offseason drills due to a lower-back injury he suffered in December to Washington. He left FedEx Field that night in a wheelchair.“It just makes you want it even more,” Bryant said. “I’m so confident. I view myself as an up-and-coming leader. That’s how I view myself. With that attitude, you have to feel like anything’s possible. That’s how I feel.” read more

Rockets Forward Terrence Jones Arrested For Stomping on Homeless

Houston Rockets’ forward Terrence Jones was arrested Wednesday night after allegedly stomping on a homeless man outside of a Portland bar.According to KATU-TV in Portland, Jones left the bar and walked by a doorway where two homeless men were sleeping. Jones yelled, “Wake up!” to the men, then stomped down on one of the homeless man’s legs.A policeman on patrol witnessed the alleged incident and arrested Jones on the spot. It was reported that the alleged victim had no serious injuries and did not need medical attention.Jones is out on $1,500 bail and is due in court on Sept. 6. He was drafted 18th overall pick by the Rockets last year, but spent most of the season in the development league. read more

Is There Any Stopping Another AlabamaClemson Title Game

gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): After weeks of crunching every possible playoff scenario, we finally got our two matchups for the College Football Playoff: Clemson vs. Notre Dame and Alabama vs. Oklahoma. We have to wait until Dec. 29 to see those games. But in the meantime, we have some 37 bowl games to distract us from our families over the holidays.Let’s start with the big two. Were you surprised by the playoff selections? I think the committee avoided all of the doomsday scenarios as the conference championships played to form.neil (Neil Paine, senior sports writer): Yeah, they mostly got out of the woods compared with some of the scenarios we talked about here. Only thing that would have helped them more would be if either Oklahoma or Ohio State lost, but that didn’t happen.To your question, I wasn’t too shocked about the picks. Much was made of Georgia potentially making it, but it seemed very unlikely that they’d take a two-loss nonconference champ over a pair of one-loss conference champs — even if UGA was probably better talent-wise. I was really only slightly surprised they took Oklahoma over the Buckeyes. If you look at the power ratings like Football Power Index or Simple Rating System, or something like ESPN’s Strength of Record, Ohio State was the superior team. But the committee probably held OSU’s strength of schedule against it — as well as that bad loss to Purdue and the near-loss against Maryland.sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, general editor): It helped for the Sooners that, in the Big 12 title game, they beat the only team to have beaten them.neil: Yes — you definitely heard the phrase “they beat every team on the schedule” thrown around.sara.ziegler: And I feel like the committee members had Ohio State’s near-loss to Maryland on their minds.(I know I did.)Josh Planos (Josh Planos, contributor): I wasn’t all that surprised either. Three were shoe-ins, and if the playoff format has taught us anything it’s that most of college football’s elite programs hog all the playoff spots, and the committee will do everything in its power to eschew controversy. Ohio State certainly wasn’t lacking in that department this season.gfoster: Oddly, I think blowing out Michigan in such ugly fashion actually hurt Ohio State, because most people seemed to write off that game (rightly) as UM being overrated rather than Ohio State beating a team ranked fourth in the country.neil: And yet the Wolverines were allowed to (easily) be Notre Dame’s most signature win… 🤔🤔🤔sara.ziegler: Notre Dame getting its special dispensation, as per usual.neil: It was funny during the selection show to hear the note about how Vegas would have the Irish as underdogs against every other team in the playoff conversation (except UCF, I guess).Josh Planos: During Northwestern’s third-quarter scoring run on Saturday night, while Gus Johnson was firing off catch phrases, you could almost hear the committee scratching out the Buckeyes. Would a 40-point win in the Big Ten championship game even have gotten Ohio State over Georgia?gfoster: Last year, if it hadn’t lost to Stanford, Notre Dame could have easily finished the season with one loss and would have not have made the playoff. In that spot, not having a conference championship would have really worked against the Irish because they wouldn’t have had another opportunity for a signature win. But this year, we see the advantage for ND. Win all your regular season games, as easy as they may be, and you are in.But likewise, Northwestern didn’t really give Ohio State much of a resume boost. So … it’s Wisconsin’s fault for being lousy I guess.sara.ziegler: But of course, Geoff, that’s only the case for ND — not for any other non-Power Five teams. (😢 UCF)gfoster: UCF needs to boost its strength of schedule if it wants to be taken seriously.sara.ziegler: For sure. And I don’t think the Knights should have gotten in. But it’s not like Notre Dame’s schedule was off the charts.gfoster: For all we knock ND, they are playing teams like NC State, USC, Syracuse — all of whom would be one of the hardest games on UCF’s schedule.neil: How can they improve their SOS, short of joining a better conference? (Or is that basically it?)I don’t think any real power team wants to play them nonconference. No upside there, only downside.gfoster: You could get a mid-tier Power-Five team that would take them at home, no? When Notre Dame was playing Michigan in Week 1, UCF had UConn — quite possibly the worst team in FBS.neil: Defensively, at least.sara.ziegler: Though that UConn game was a conference game.Josh Planos: They followed it up by playing South Carolina State, too.sara.ziegler: They scheduled North Carolina, but that was canceled because of the hurricane.gfoster: North Carolina is also terrible.sara.ziegler: And that’s the other problem: You can schedule a mid-tier Power-Five team, but you can’t guarantee they’ll be good.neil: Or if you’re Notre Dame, you can schedule prestige Power 5 teams and not know if they’ll be good.sara.ziegler: UCF did schedule and beat Pitt, which was good enough to get trampled by Clemson in the ACC title game.gfoster: Truth is, maybe UCF does need to move conferences? TCU managed to do that when it was facing similar problem.sara.ziegler: Or we could solve this with an eight-team playoff!neil: This.^^gfoster: Well, yes.sara.ziegler: Solve it for this year, anyway.LOLgfoster: NO ONE is against that.neil: Except conference and university presidents.gfoster: As for this year, this is the first time both playoff games have double-digit spreads. Which falls in line with some lopsided lines in the conference championships. Any reason to like the underdogs here?Or is this destined for Clemson vs. Alabama again?neil: Maybe if Tua is still hurt? (He won’t be. And they will destroy Oklahoma.)sara.ziegler: And it’s hard to see Notre Dame doing much against Clemson.neil: Clemson vs. Bama Part IV is pretty redundant at this point. But at least there’s a chance it doesn’t play out according to chalk. Under the old BCS system, they’d automatically be slotted in at 1-2. (Although that would have been very uncontroversial.)gfoster: It’s hard to see any team doing much against the Tigers’ defense. Look at the line of Pitt QB Kenny Pickett in the ACC title game: 4 of 16 for … wait for it … 8 YARDS.That’s 0.5 yards per pass attempt. (538 math skills, folks.)Josh Planos: Yeah, we don’t know about Tua’s health. Oklahoma’s offense puts up video game numbers, so you’d expect Alabama to need to bring at least something to the table in that regard. Trevor Lawrence is playing the best secondary he’s seen all season. Brian Kelly is probably pretty motivated that his team’s recent struggles were broadcast on a Showtime series.sara.ziegler: If Tua plays, you gotta think he’ll go to town on the Oklahoma defense.Will he actually have to play all four quarters? LOLJosh Planos: Have we ever seen the likely two top vote-getters in the Heisman race square off in the postseason? Is this the best QB battle in terms of single-season QBR that we’ve ever seen? Each is on pace to set the single-season record (though that will change, I’m sure).gfoster: It might not change for Tua against that Oklahoma defense that gave up 700 yards to West Virginia.The Sooners also might be without their best receiver: Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, which would be a significant blow to Kyler Murray.neil: Josh, we almost got 1-2 Heisman QBs in the 2008 title game: Tebow vs. Bradford.(But Tebow finished 3rd in the voting.)(Colt McCoy finished 2nd????)sara.ziegler: Wowgfoster: If we had an eight-team playoff, my guess is that it would be Alabama-UCF (lol), Clemson-Washington (I’m thinking they must include a token Pac-12 in this new world), Notre Dame-Ohio State, Oklahoma-Georgia.neil: What would the line be on that Tide-vs.-Knights game?gfoster: 28.5Josh Planos: Without McKenzie Milton? 30+neil: Isn’t that the same line they gave the Buffalo Bills vs. Alabama?gfoster: The Bills are like the sixth worst team in the NFL now. Shows how misguided those types of stories are.sara.ziegler: Would a Pac-12 team even make an eight-team playoff this year? The committee had Michigan at No. 7.Which is kind of amazing — another two-loss Power-Five team above poor UCF.neil: I would guess an eight-team playoff would have an automatic berth for a Pac-12 champ.sara.ziegler: There’s obviously no way to do this without some controversy.neil: Then we can get into those fun March Madness arguments about “at-large” bids.gfoster: Right … and one token non-Power Five. (Or in this case two, because of ND.)neil: Notre Dame is Power Five! (According to our tier system.)gfoster: Let’s talk about the other bowl games. Any others you are particularly excited for?neil: UGA-Texas should be fun, I think.Josh Planos: Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for the nostalgia of Big 8 football, but Missouri vs. Oklahoma State. FPI is really high on the four-loss Tigers (like, higher on the Tigers than UCF and LSU), and each of Oklahoma State’s past five games have been decided by no more than 7 points. If nothing else, there will be a lot of points.sara.ziegler: Missouri never should have left the Big 12.neil: I always forget they aren’t in the Big 12 now.sara.ziegler: Wisconsin vs. Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl is kind of a fun throwback.gfoster: That should be called the Pinstripe Lack Of Motivation Bowl.sara.ziegler: HahaJosh Planos: Fun is an interesting word.Is this the underachieving bowl? And did any team underachieve more than Wisconsin? All we heard throughout the preseason was that Jonathan Taylor could win the Heisman, they returned the entire offensive line, and Alex Hornibrook was returning for a 12th year of eligibility.gfoster: In the bowl games, it’s always fun to identify the games where one team is really pumped to be there and the other has zero interest. For instance, Purdue vs. Auburn in the Music City.You think Auburn is getting up for that?Josh Planos: If they couldn’t get up to bully UCF last year, they’re not getting up to try and corral Rondale Moore.neil: Also, the biggest early spread in a lower-tier bowl might be the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. ESPN has BYU as a 14-point favorite over Western MichiganI always root for the Directional Michigans though.gfoster: Sad that Alabama-Oklahoma might be the most lopsided bowl game.Also a 14-point spread.sara.ziegler: I’m actually pretty interested in how UCF does against LSU.LSU is a good proxy for a playoff team, since the Tigers did OK against Bama (at least early on) and pounded Georgia.gfoster: I actually think LSU will get up for UCF, mainly because of what happened to Auburn and all this chatter.neil: Although I wish UCF had gotten one of the just-missed-it playoff contenders like UGA or Ohio State, just for experiment’s sake.sara.ziegler: Yeah, that would have been better.Though maybe it’s all moot with no Milton.neil: True. It wouldn’t have settled the debate.gfoster: LSU is actually still playing that game against Texas A&M. They are in their 134th overtime.sara.ziegler: 🏈 💤gfoster: But Neil, didn’t we see kinda see that the year they let Hawaii play UGA?neil: Hah, yes I was thinking of that exactly. Poor Colt Brennan.Josh Planos: Should’ve known that a haircut like this didn’t stand a chance.gfoster: OMGsara.ziegler: Why … would … you … do … that?gfoster: He even has the little island that they don’t let anyone on.neil: The run-n-shoot makes you do crazy things.gfoster: OK, what’s the worst bowl game.This answer is two parts.Worst name and worst game.neil: Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla BowlCan anything top that?Short of bringing back the Poulan Weed Eater Bowl?sara.ziegler: I love the Boca Raton Bowl.Congrats, teams! You’re going to … Boca Raton!gfoster: That’s the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl, Sara.Josh Planos: Best bowl experience: The Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl, FIU vs. Toledo.Last season, folks could bring beer into the stadium. There were also archery opportunities near the concession stand.I apologize for not answering the question, Geoff.neil: I do miss the Popeye’s sponsorship for that one. Gave us an excuse to pick up fried chicken at Times Square and eat it in the office.sara.ziegler: As if you needed an excuse for that, Neil.neil: (Sorry again about the spicy tenders, Geoff.)gfoster: The DXL Frisco Bowl is a rare short name that is terrible.Jared Birmingham Bowl? It sounds like its named after someone named Jared Birmingham.neil: I think “Jared Birmingham” is UCF’s backup QB.Josh Planos: LOLgfoster: I will say. I’m a big fan of the Cheez-It BowlI wish I had a bowl of Cheez-Its right now.sara.ziegler: We didn’t talk about the best game of the weekend.neil: Iowa State!sara.ziegler: A dominant (not at all) win over powerhouse (not at all) Drake!Josh Planos: I think Washington State could beat Iowa State by 40 points. Or the Cyclones could ride the Matt Campbell relevancy train to a 13-10 win.sara.ziegler: That’s quite a range.neil: And nothing in between.sara.ziegler: LOLneil: I’m also kinda intrigued by the Peach Bowl: Michigan vs. Florida. Feels like that is a constant matchup in the tier of bowls just below the prestige level.That has happened in many Citrus Bowls, for instance.Josh Planos: How. Do. These. Teams. Keep. Playing.gfoster: Harbaugh’s only bowl win at Michigan was a romp of Florida. And Lloyd Carr’s final win was an upset of Tim Tebow Florida.neil: And don’t forget about the 2003 Outback Bowl!sara.ziegler: Who can forget?neil: Grossman vs. Navarre.gfoster: I’m excited for West Virginia vs. Syracuse in the Camping World. That feels like a 100-point game. I also am oddly interested in Boca Raton bowl! UAB is an amazing story. They won Conference USA just a few years removed from having their football program eliminated.It’s at this time where I’d normally ask for predictions. But I imagine no one is picking an upset in the first two playoff games?So let’s skip to the final predictions.sara.ziegler: It’s pretty hard to pick against Alabama.neil: Alabama 27, Clemson 24sara.ziegler: Clemson has been dominant, obviously, ever since squeaking by Syracuse. But Bama is just too good.Alabama 30, Clemson 18gfoster: Clemson 35, Alabama 28This isn’t (entirely) me being the contrarian. I think the Crimson Tide are kinda vulnerable to an upset. They start slow every game (tied with Citadel at halftime, remember) and it’s going to catch up to them at some point. Clemson defense can keep Tua off the field enough to win.(Assuming they beat ND, who I think will make a game of it against Clemson.)Josh Planos: Alabama over Oklahoma 35-14Clemson over Notre Dame 21-7Alabama over Clemson 28-14sara.ziegler: I guess there’s nothing left to do but watch the games! read more

Cardinals Fans Shouldnt Panic Just Yet About The Loss of Carson Palmer

The Arizona Cardinals are having an excellent season. At 8-1, they’ve got the NFL’s top record, and they’re fourth in our NFL Elo rankings with the best rating the franchise has had since 1977. In the most recent edition of our Elo-fueled simulations, they had the league’s second-best chance of winning Super Bowl XLIX.But disaster struck the Cardinals on Sunday when Carson Palmer, their starting quarterback (and the recent recipient of a huge contract extension), injured his left knee early in the fourth quarter of the team’s win over the St. Louis Rams. Arizona announced Monday afternoon that Palmer suffered a torn ACL, which ends his season and hands the reins to backup quarterback Drew Stanton.As I wrote last week (when Mark Sanchez assumed the Philadelphia Eagles’ starting QB job), there’s typically a noticeable decline in team performance — about 1.5 wins per 16 games — when a backup has to play. But in that same study, I also found little evidence the degree to which the starter is better than the backup — in terms of their respective career passing efficiency indices before the injury — changes the expected team decline on a case-by-case basis. This was good news for Philly and also would help Arizona, as Stanton’s career Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt index (ANY/A+) is an abysmal 85 (100 is the NFL average), making him worse than the bottom bound of acceptable performance for a starter.The latter finding doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no difference in ability across the league’s starters and across its backups. More likely, it’s evidence that for the majority of quarterbacks in the NFL, we simply don’t have a large enough sample of past data to know who’s actually good or bad — at least not enough to predict which ones will sustain their performance. Certainly Stanton’s track record tells us next to nothing about how good he is beyond the knowledge he’s a career backup. He’s thrown 280 career passes, but the majority of the damage to his career ANY/A+ was done in 51 horrid attempts for the Detroit Lions five years ago, aside from which his career ANY/A+ is an almost precisely average 99.And amid the worries about whether Arizona can survive without Palmer, it’s also worth remembering that Palmer is one of the few QBs about whom we might have enough evidence to pass real judgment — and that evidence says he’s basically an average starting quarterback. In nearly 5,000 attempts, his career ANY/A+ is 104 — exactly the average ANY/A+ of injured starters who were replaced by backups in the data set I used last week.The odds of Arizona becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home building definitely decreased when Palmer was injured Sunday. But if the Cardinals were going to win the Super Bowl with Palmer as their starter, it would have been more because of their defense than their offense. Either way, this is another reminder that we can’t peg the damage of losing a starting QB any more precisely than when a generic backup takes over for a generic starter — particularly because Palmer’s career numbers say he typifies that generic starter. read more

Steph Curry Finally Looks Like Steph Curry Again

Video Player Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.Video Player Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.There have been other great indications for Curry. Even with all those turnovers, he’s creating a ton of looks for his teammates — 13.5 potential assists per game in this series, up from 8.4 last year.2He also posted 13.5 potential assists per game in the 2015 Finals. A potential assist is a pass that leads to a shot attempt. He’s been the fastest offensive player on the court3Among those playing 10 minutes or more per game. by far. And, so far, he’s been getting considerably more accurate with his shot as he gets deeper into each game, much the way he did in 2015.4He’s made just 33 percent of his shots and 27 percent of his 3-point attempts in first halves of the Finals this year, but he is hitting 61 percent of his shots and 64 percent of his 3s in second halves. Last year, his shooting percentages were basically flat from one half to the next, while in 2015, they got stronger as the games wore on.Following the game, Cleveland star LeBron James was asked whether the Cavs were still trying to feel out the new-look Warriors. “They’re a different team. You guys asked me, ‘What was the difference?’ And I told you. They’re a different team.”James was referring to the addition of Durant. But with Curry playing this well too, even James might not be able to do enough to allow Cleveland to turn things around.Durant is defense-proofWhen the Warriors signed Durant, much was made about how much more space he would have to work with on offense now that he was surrounded by shooters. Game 1 showed how deadly that works out to be in practice. But the other thing Durant adds is the ability to Go Get A Bucket, to take and make tough shots when the defense tightens up in critical moments of the game. That came out in Game 2.Durant had 33 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals and five blocks Sunday night, and he played as well defensively as he has all season. That’s an outstanding line all on its own, but he was also 10-for-15 on contested looks in Game 2, bringing him to 17-for-29 for the series. The Cavs tightened up their defense considerably from Game 1, but with Durant hitting everything he threw up regardless of coverage, it hardly mattered. And strange as it sounds in a game decided by 19 points, the Warriors needed Durant to carry them with those tough shots.“Tonight was a game based on talent,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game when asked about Golden State’s 13 first-half turnovers. “We had a lot of guys play great individually.”Durant was right in the the middle of it, especially early in the game, when he was hitting contested step-backs and keying fast breaks with his defense. And he pretty much put the game away in the fourth quarter when he blocked a Kevin Love post-up on one end and hit a twisting, falling fadeaway over two defenders to put the Warriors up 18 with seven minutes to play. It was an incredible 1-2 sequence that only a few players in the league are capable of putting together. But creating offense out of nothing is Durant’s specialty, especially on contested attempts like that.Coming into the season, our colleague Ben Morris mapped out how Durant adds as much value to the average 2-point shot as Curry does to a 3-pointer. But in Oklahoma City, Durant had generally been getting bad looks and turning them into good ones. In Golden State, he’s finally been getting good shots, but he has shown that he still has the chops to turn bad ones good.That’s a skill the Warriors don’t necessarily have. Even with Curry playing like his old MVP self, he was just 4-for-11 on contested looks in Game 1 and 2-for-7 Sunday night. But that has hardly mattered. With Durant on the roster, this is no longer the team that couldn’t find a way to score in the final 4:39 of the fourth quarter of Game 7 last year. It’s a team that can go get a bucket whenever it needs one.LeBron may be tiredIt never quite seemed like LeBron and the Cavs were about to run away with the game, but for a while at least, things looked like they were going to work. Cleveland was running and gunning, and the offense was working in all the ways it hadn’t in Game 1. James was 8-for-12 for 18 points and 10 assists in the first half, mostly on drives that produced good shots around the rim or open looks for teammates. Throw out a few what-were-they-thinking fouls on Curry in the first quarter, which gave him eight of his 10 free throw attempts in that period, and they might have taken a lead into halftime. But even when they wound up down three at the break, it seemed like we had a game on our hands. Then the Cavs ran out of gas.The first half was played at a pace factor of 119, meaning the full game would have seen 119 possessions if play had kept going at that speed. That’s staggeringly high, and while the game did slow down after halftime, the final pace rating was still 106.4, making it the second-fastest game Cleveland played all season. (The fourth-fastest was a January matchup against the Warriors that Golden State won by 35.) The pace proved to be too much.After his strong opening half, James shot just six times in the second half and just once in the fourth quarter. He was also much less involved overall, letting other players initiate the offense instead of hammering on the drive-and-kick game that had kept Cleveland in it early.But James isn’t simply carrying the offense — he’s also guarding Durant for long stretches, and that hasn’t worked out so well. When James is guarding him this series, Durant is 10-for-17 for 23 points with just one turnover. On the whole, when James is the primary defender, the Warriors are shooting 63 percent against him and scoring 21.5 points per game.James hasn’t been a disaster on defense — the highlight-reel moment where he gets spin-cycled by Curry seems likely to have been a reaction to a double dribble — but he’s also clearly no longer the man-eater he was at his height, when he both carried the offense and was one of the most fearsome perimeter defenders in the league.The Cavs are rich in top-tier role players, but they don’t have a true defensive stopper on the perimeter; Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith have both looked overmatched in the series, which makes James’s job even more demanding than usual. He might just need a breather. So while it was nice to see the Cavs offense operating at a high level again, Cleveland may want to consider slowing things down. OAKLAND, Calif. — Many comparisons in the coming days can and will be made between this year’s NBA Finals and last year’s series. As in 2016, the Cavaliers got pasted in their first two games on the road. And similar to last time, the Cavs will try to find some footing in Cleveland in hopes of bringing the series back to Oakland for at least a fifth game.But aside from the painfully obvious observation — that Kevin Durant is an absolute monster who makes a comeback far more difficult than the one Cleveland pulled off a year ago — the Cavs have another problem: After a relatively poor showing in last season’s finals, Stephen Curry appears to have returned to form.The 29-year-old logged the first triple-double of his postseason career, finishing with 32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds on Sunday. His game was far from perfect, as he had eight turnovers to go with those gaudy numbers. But as reckless as he was at times, it was hard not to notice how fast and healthy he looked compared to last year’s Finals, where he didn’t have the burst to both dazzle past defenders and finish over them at the rim.In the 2015 Finals, Curry was dangerous when he controlled the ball inside the arc for seven dribbles or more, hitting 55 percent of those shots. But that number fell to 35 percent last year on the biggest stage, as he faltered late in the deciding Game 7, unable to get around Tristan Thompson, Richard Jefferson and Kevin Love — all respectable players, but guys that a great scorer like Curry should be able to put in the blender in 1-on-1 scenarios.That has not been a problem in this series, which is part of the best postseason of his career. He’s not only getting a step on bigger defenders, he’s also knocking down 50 percent of those looks inside the arc once he does.1Yes, if you look closely, you’ll see that Curry almost certainly double-dribbled on the jaw-dropping move he pulled on LeBron James on Sunday. read more

DeSean Jackson Makes His Teams Better

TeamYearsYear beforeFirst yearLast yearYear after DeSean Jackson makes the offense betterNet yards gained per team passing attempt for DeSean Jackson’s teams, by when he was on the team Net yards per pass attempt counts sacks as pass plays and subtracts those yards from the total passing yards.Source: Pass yards5,53540,772 Net yards/pass play5.636.56 DeSean Jackson may seem like a pedestrian NFL wide receiver — very talented but far from spectacular in an era when wideouts regularly post 100-catch campaigns. Since he came into the NFL in 2008, Jackson is 17th overall in receptions and 15th in touchdown catches.But Jackson, now with Philadelphia, has led the NFL four times in yards per receptions, including last year for the Buccaneers at age 32. That’s more than any other player in NFL history.1Since 1932, when the NFL began keeping individual statistics. And his electrifying speed seems to dramatically enhance his team’s overall passing game. Having Jackson in uniform has boosted the yards per pass play of his teams. And when he’s gone, his former teams have quickly lost these games. That bad news for Tampa Bay, Jackson’s team last year, which had the 23rd best season in the statistic since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.Jackson’s newest quarterback noticed quickly that Jackson’s ability to take the top off the defense by getting behind the secondary makes the rest of the field easier to attack. Defenses have no choice but to play deeper.“(This) takes pressure off all the other guys,” Carson Wentz said. “He’ll open up a lot of things underneath, we truly believe. … He just threatens defenders in a different way.”Still, teams seem to have a hard time reconciling Jackson’s team value with his often underwhelming personal statistics. Since he broke into the league, he’s been on four squads, if you count his two stints with Philadelphia.Jackson’s nomadic career makes it easier to quantify his impact. This effect can be seen at the team level when looking at how they perform during Jackson’s stay there compared with before as well as immediately after he leaves. Tampa Bay2017- Philadelphia2008-1366.27.46.7 Source: Yards per pass by when Jackson joined the team Washington2014- StatWithoutWith Pass attempts8615,478 Jackson’s active-and-inactive effect is even more pronounced than the difference before and after he joined his teams, at 1.03 yards per pass play.Not surprisingly, given the impact of yards per pass play on wins and losses, Jackson’s teams with him inactive are 8-15 (.348 win percentage) compared with 75-76-2 (.497) when he plays.It’s also possible that the effect Jackson seems to be creating for his team is really just a result of his own efficiency. After all, he’s averaged 9.7 yards on the 1,057 passes he’s been thrown in his career, counting incompletions.But last year, Jackson’s ability to threaten defenses deep did seem to significantly benefit his team’s primary receiver. Mike Evans averaged a career-best 11.0 yards every time a pass was thrown his way, a startling 2.4 yards greater than his prior season high (in 2014). And Evans was thrown the ball 138 times, nearly twice as frequently as Jackson (74 targets). For Washington, Jackson’s tight end teammate Vernon Davis (2016) boosted his yards per target by over 3.0 yards from the prior year. And another Washington tight end, Jordan Reed, averaged 7.8 yards per target with Jackson from 2014 to 2016 and since has dropped to just 6.5. During Jackson’s last stint in Philly, Riley Cooper averaged 9.9 yards per target, 10th-best in the league that year. But the next year, without Jackson, that collapsed to 6.1. Cooper has been out of the NFL since 2015.The question now is whetherJackson can be expected to maintain his fleet feet entering his age-33 season. The Eagles sure seem to think so, awarding him a three-year, $27.9 million contract this offseason with more than half the money guaranteed.Jackson’s 18.9 yards per catch in his age-32 season was third-most since the merger (minimum 40 catches). The average age-33 season of the other seven receivers with more than 17.0 yards at age 32 was 53 catches for 769 yards. Two of them, Irving Fryar and Frank Lewis, subsequently made the Pro Bowl. Another, Steve Smith, had two 1,000-yard seasons. But unlike Jackson, none of these other seven receivers led the NFL in yards per reception even once, never mind a record-setting four times.While there’s no way to know for certain the player the Eagles have, there’s little question about what Jackson has been so far in his career. The numbers in Jackson’s last year with his teams are especially noteworthy. Among all teams since 1970 — that’s out of 1,445 team seasons in the period — they rank 57th (2013 Philadelphia), 32nd (2016 Washington) and 23rd (2018 Tampa Bay) in yards per pass play.2Using net yards per attempt, which counts sacks as pass plays and subtracts those yards from the total passing yards. This means each one finished in the 95th percentile or better.Each of Jackson’s teams immediately gained in passing efficiency once he arrived. And both Philadelphia and Washington significantly declined once he left, by nearly 1 yard net per pass play. To put that into context, ranking last year’s teams by that measure, just 0.9 net yards per attempt separated the ninth-ranked Colts (6.7) and the 25th-ranked Lions (5.8). Those teams were 10-6 and 6-10, respectively, which is not surprising given that teams that win the yards-per-pass-play stat by any margin have won about 74 percent of games since the merger, according to my reporting for The Wall Street Journal.Of course, it’s possible that these teams became more prolific at passing coincidentally upon Jackson’s arrival, via coaching, play-calling, quarterback performance or the skills of the team’s other receivers. Jackson has struggled with durability during his career, missing nine games in his first stint with the Eagles, eight with Washington and six with the Buccaneers. So if there is a significant Jackson effect, it should be apparent when looking at his team’s performance when he plays versus when he’s inactive. And it is: The splits on Jackson’s teams when he’s on and off the field read more

Formula One Has A New Top Contender

2010Red Bull RacingMark Webber136811581st QualifyingRaces* 2016Scuderia FerrariKimi Räikkönen94315714th 2011Red Bull RacingMark Webber168414741st 1586815365 2017Scuderia FerrariKimi Räikkönen157516802nd Despite the back-to-back losses, Mercedes isn’t exactly worried about Leclerc chasing Hamilton down for the title. The quick circuits of the past two races probably favored Ferrari, with the superior straight-line speed of its SF90 car. And even after Leclerc’s big breakthrough, he remains 102 points behind Hamilton (and 39 behind Bottas) in the standings, with Ferrari running 154 behind Mercedes in the team tally as they look ahead to the season’s final seven races.But although Leclerc’s wins didn’t make much impact on the overall championship picture, they may have represented something of a turning point in F1 history. Going into 2019, Vettel had outqualified his teammates — a strong group that included Räikkönen, Daniel Ricciardo and Mark Webber — 69 percent of the time and outraced them 66 percent of the time in his career. Against Leclerc this season, those numbers are only 43 percent and 57 percent, respectively, and getting worse by the moment.Vettel entered the season as a championship contender and the clear standard-bearer for the sport’s most storied team. Now his place is in doubt. With another year left on his contract, Vettel probably isn’t going anywhere (despite tabloid rumors to the contrary), but it’s hard not to juxtapose Leclerc’s recent surge against Vettel’s growing tendency toward crucial errors and on-track decisions that put other drivers at risk. So the biggest question for the season’s home stretch isn’t whether Leclerc is the future of the sport — that now seems established — but rather, it’s whether Vettel can avoid being left in the past. 2007Sauber/Toro RossoHeidfeld/Liuzzi338%338%14th 2013Red Bull RacingMark Webber178917891st 2018Scuderia FerrariKimi Räikkönen157112572nd SeasonTeamTeammateH2H WinsWin%H2H WinsWin%Champ. Rk 2014Red Bull RacingDaniel Ricciardo9476325th In recent years, Formula One’s defining rivalry has seemed clear: Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes (and before that, McLaren) vs. Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari (and before that, Red Bull). The two have combined to win nine of the past 11 world driver’s championships, with the only interlopers being Jenson Button in 2009 and Nico Rosberg, another of Hamilton’s most bitter rivals, in 2016. Hamilton and Vettel finished 1-2 in each of the previous two seasons’ standings, so the path to the F1 title seemed very likely to go through them in 2019 as well.This year, though, only one of the two has held up his end of the bargain. Hamilton currently leads the championship, 63 points clear of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas. But instead of vying for the title as well, Vettel is all the way back in fifth place, 115 points behind his English archrival. The German hasn’t finished so low in the standings since 2014, his tumultuous final season with Red Bull.With the recent breakout of Vettel’s Ferrari teammate, Charles Leclerc — the 21-year-old rising star who just grabbed his first two F1 career wins in back-to-back races — there are legitimate questions as to which driver Hamilton should be more concerned about as a rival going forward. In fact, Leclerc has done so well in his second F1 season that the four-time world champ Vettel might not even be the No. 1 driver on his own team anymore.That this is up for debate speaks volumes about Leclerc’s meteoric ascent. The Monégasque phenom was a teenager in Formula Two just a couple of years ago, impressing as a test driver but failing to nail down a seat at a prestige team for his rookie F1 season. Leclerc joined Alfa Romeo-Sauber for 2018 instead and flashed his potential with a very strong qualifying performance against teammate Marcus Ericsson, whom he started ahead of on the grid 17 times in 21 races (81 percent) last season. But on race days, Leclerc finished slightly worse than he started,1Finishing in an average position of 12.5 versus starting at 12.3. beat Ericsson only 57 percent of the time (after adjusting for grid position)2To do this, I used a regression analysis to predict a driver’s percentile rank in a given race based on his percentile rank in qualifying. To make sure this factor didn’t get too much weight — since it’s kind of a chicken-or-egg question about how much grid position causes good race performances or is just correlated with them — I halved the effect when applying the adjustment. and notched only 39 points in the championship, finishing a distant 13th.(Besides, Ericsson wasn’t exactly the toughest competition; he didn’t secure an F1 ride in 2019 and currently competes in the IndyCar series.)Still, Ferrari saw the talent evident in Leclerc’s performance and pegged him to replace folk hero Kimi Räikkönen as Vettel’s No. 2 going into 2019. But Vettel’s place atop the pecking order seemed secure. He had spent most of the previous four seasons driving circles around Räikkönen, beating the 2007 world champion in 67 percent of qualifying runs and 73 percent of races. Although he couldn’t quite outduel Hamilton, finishing an average of 101 points behind him in the overall standings during those seasons, Vettel was still very competitive — and hopeful that a new 2019 design package would bring the Prancing Horse its first championship (as either a constructor or for its drivers) since the late 2000s.The early returns seemed like business as usual. Although Mercedes opened the season with an eight-race winning streak, as Hamilton took six of those checkered flags himself, Vettel had also outdriven Leclerc 12 times in 14 chances (including both qualifying and races) over the first seven events on the schedule. (The only exception was the Bahrain Grand Prix, where Leclerc won the pole and finished third to Vettel’s fifth.) Vettel even technically crossed the finish line first in Canada, only to see Hamilton be awarded the win because of a controversial penalty assessed when Vettel swerved back onto the track after a missed turn.Ever since that moment, however, Leclerc has surged past his older, more decorated teammate at a breathtaking pace. If we build an Elo rating using the same head-to-head approach that I used in this story about Fernando Alonso from last summer — which just compared teammate performances with each other (to control for differences in constructor quality) and gave qualifiers half-weight as compared with races — Leclerc moved past Vettel for the very first time in his career when he won the Italian Grand Prix last Sunday: 2015Scuderia FerrariKimi Räikkönen157916843rd 2009Red Bull RacingMark Webber14828472nd Total This teammate-versus-teammate approach isn’t perfect, particularly when it involves drivers who haven’t changed teams much. But it is able to infer one driver’s performance from how often he beats another driver of an established ability level. And Vettel is certainly established; he went into the season (and his partnership with Leclerc) with the third-best rating of any driver in the 2019 field, trailing only Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen — another Leclerc-esque wunderkind (also 21 years old) trying to end the Hamilton-Vettel hegemony atop the F1 standings.For Leclerc’s part, he has risen from a relatively mediocre head-to-head Elo of 1454 after the Canadian Grand Prix on June 9 to a 1529 mark (fourth-best in the field) after back-to-back victories in Belgium and Italy these past two weeks. He has now outperformed Vettel in each of the past seven qualifying sessions and five of the past seven races (the only exceptions being Germany and Hungary). By coolly fending off the best attacks Hamilton and Bottas could throw at him, the “unflappable” Leclerc gave Ferrari a win at Monza — its home race — for the first time since Alonso did it in 2010. Along the way, he has given Vettel more fits than just about any teammate in his entire career: 2019Scuderia FerrariCharles Leclerc6438575th 2012Red Bull RacingMark Webber126014701st 2008Toro RossoS. Bourdais147813728th *Race performance is adjusted slightly for starting grid positionSource: Vettel’s teammates seldom challenge as much as LeclercHead-to-head comparisons between Sebastian Vettel and teammates — in qualifying and races — by season, 2007-19 read more

Back where he belongs former Buckeye Nugent back kicking in Ohio

Mike Nugent was not used to being home at this time of year. After becoming a beloved place kicker as a Buckeye and playing for four seasons with the New York Jets in the NFL, Nugent was in an unfamiliar place last season. He was sitting at home on his couch in Columbus, watching NFL games on Sundays with his brother, Kevin. “He’d kind of been the man since high school and college, so it was definitely a reality check,” Kevin said. What a difference a year makes. Nugent is now the starting kicker for the Cincinnati Bengals and received the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month award for September. “I was working with my coaches a lot, but we didn’t re-invent the wheel or anything,” Nugent said. “We made a few changes here and there, and I feel like I’ve been hitting the ball much more consistently.” Although his recent success shouldn’t come as a surprise to any Ohio State follower, the inconsistencies and unemployment issues he suffered through a year ago certainly could have. At OSU, Nugent was automatic. He holds the school record for field goal percentage for a career (82 percent) and a season (89 percent in 2002). His most accurate season coincided with the Buckeyes’ last National Championship win 2003. “My favorite memory was the National Championship game because we were big underdogs,” Nugent said. “It’s great going into a game knowing that you have nothing to lose. And to come out on top, that was definitely my greatest memory at Ohio State.” Nugent’s accuracy wasn’t the only trait that OSU fans loved about him. He was also clutch when the game was on the line. In fact, approaching any hardcore Buckeye fan and saying the words “55 yards against Marshall” will immediately conjure up images of a game-winning kick in 2004. “For OSU fans it was unexpectedly close at 21-21, and he kicks a 55-yard field goal on the last play of the game to win the game,” said Jack Park, OSU football historian. “He was accurate, dependable, could kick from a long distance, and is a very likeable person.” Kevin Nugent, a former OSU men’s soccer player, mentioned that kick as one of his favorites. “As far as a single kick, the one that sticks out in my mind was the kick against Marshall in his senior year,” he said.   When Nugent’s OSU career ended, he entered the 2005 NFL Draft. The Jets desperately needed an accurate kicker. Facing the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs that year, Jets incumbent Doug Brien missed two consecutive game-winning field goals. The Steelers went on to win the game in overtime, and the Jets were out of the playoffs. Hoping to avoid having similar issues the following season, the Jets selected Nugent in the second round of the draft (47th overall). It was the highest position of any kicker selected in the last decade, save for Sebastian Janikowski, who was a first-round pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2000. Kickers typically aren’t selected until at least the fifth round. To his credit, Nugent wouldn’t allow himself to feel pressured by the early selection. “I was really happy to be drafted by the Jets, it was a lot of fun playing there,” Nugent said. “As far as the pressure, I felt like the only pressure I should really experience was the pressure I put on myself.” After three years in New York, Nugent suffered a torn quadriceps injury in the first game of his fourth season. The Jets brought in veteran kicker Jay Feely, who kept the starting job for the remainder of the year. “I was in a contract year, and I had to make a decision whether or not I wanted to re-sign with Jets,” Nugent said. “It just got to a point where I thought maybe there were other opportunities out there to play for a different team.” His first opportunity came as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009. In four games, Nugent made only two of his six attempts. He was then released by the Bucs. “It was kind of a shock that he didn’t start out very well,” Kevin Nugent said. “He was hoping that they’d continue on with him, but we got another shock when he was released.” Although it would have been easy to blame the quadriceps injury from the previous year for his inconsistencies, Nugent refused to do so. “The injury felt fine,” Nugent said. “I was missing some longer field goals and just wasn’t hitting the ball the way I wanted to.” He signed on with the Arizona Cardinals in December 2009 as a temporary replacement for Cardinals starter Neil Rackers and was released when Rackers returned two weeks later. This was the same guy who Buckeye teammates cheered as soon as his foot hit the ball because they assumed every kick was splitting the uprights. Yet here he was, unemployed, watching the games at home. “That was tough, just sitting on Sundays and watching games,” Nugent said. “You want to be out there, having people watch you instead of you watching them. “It’s one of those things where you’re watching and keeping an eye out on what’s going on, who’s kicking well and who’s not,” he said. “You never wish for others to miss, but it’s tough to cheer for people when they’re all in the same position you want to be in.” Kevin agreed that it was a tough time for his brother. “He’s always worked hard and he’s usually done pretty well, so it was hard,” Kevin said. “You’re kind of just sitting back and hoping for a team to call.” There are only 32 teams in the NFL, so there aren’t many kicking positions to fill. Still, NFL coaches are notorious for losing faith in their starting kickers. “I think I was flown to six or seven different places for a workout,” Nugent said. With the 2010 NFL season fast approaching, the Bengals brought in Nugent to compete with Dave Rayner for the starting job. Nugent won the job in camp and hasn’t looked back.   He’s made 10 out of 11 attempts this season. His only miss of the year was a blocked kick in last Sunday’s contest against the Cleveland Browns. If Nugent is able to finish this season in a similar fashion to the way he’s started it, he won’t have to worry about waiting for a phone call in the offseason. read more

Victory could put senior class in OSU record books

NEW ORLEANS — A victory in tonight’s Sugar Bowl would not only give Ohio State football back-to-back BCS bowl victories, but the 2010 senior class would also claim its 44th win and tie the program record for wins. The 2010 seniors hope to emulate the record-holding 2009 senior class, which ended its collegiate career in a blaze of BCS glory, defeating Oregon 26-17 in the Rose Bowl for its 44th win. The 2009 seniors “were proud of that record,” said wide receiver Grant Schwartz. “I would have liked to break it, but definitely looking forward to trying to tie it.” Linebacker Ross Homan echoed Schwartz’s sentiments. “This is our last hooray,” Homan said. “We want to go out on top.” Defensive end Cameron Heyward was sentimental about his OSU playing days. “It’s just been a fun ride,” Heyward said. “I can truly say that I’ve enjoyed my four years to the fullest.” The 2010 seniors have provided an unblemished 4-0 record against Michigan, four Big Ten titles and a fourth consecutive BCS bowl appearance. Before touching down in New Orleans, Homan talked about the preparations that will hopefully get him and his classmates their 44th win, as well as a Sugar Bowl championship title for Buckeye Nation to celebrate. “The seniors that we have, I think it’s going to be more of a business-oriented trip,” Homan said. “We’ll take it a lot more serious.” read more

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