How can it be that Kellen Winslow Jr., a tight end of immense skill and apparently sound health, not have a team to call his own two days before the first weekend of the NFL season?That is a mystery of significant proportions.A free agent five years removed from a Pro Bowl appearance because of injuries, Winslow was not signed by the New England Patriots after a workout with the team.Speculation mounted that Winslow’s creaky knees were a reason the Patriots passed on him. But ESPN reports that was not the case. Apparently, he just did not impress enough, despite playing in all 16 games in the last three seasons with the Cleveland Browns.Rather, New England already had tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Visanthe Shiancoe on the roster.It had to hurt – and puzzle Winslow – that New England placed Shiancoe on the injured reserve list and signed veteran free agent Michael Hoomanawanui.Winslow, who is not year 30, was solid, but not spectacular last year. In 2011 he caught 75 passes for 763 yards and two touchdowns. Winslow has caught 437 passes for 4,836 yards and 23 touchdowns in his seven years in the league.The Associated Press reported that Winslow was acquired this off season by the Seattle Seahawks for a conditional draft pick. The idea, apparently, was to pair him with tight end with Zach Miller, creating a double threat from that position.But Winslow was cut this week. In preseason games, he finished with just three catches for 34 yards and a touchdown.He is the son of Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow, perhaps the most dynamic player at his position ever. While it is surprising the younger Winslow will be sitting home this Sunday, it is likely that he will get signed by someone before long.
LeBron James’ amazing year – league MVP, NBA championship, NBA Finals MVP, Olympic gold medal – added another memorable accolade: comic book character.Marvel Comics and ESPN have teamed up for “LeBron: King of the Rings,” a limited-edition comic book that will be published in the Oct. 19 NBA Preview issue of ESPN The Magazine. A preview of the comic is currently available online at ESPN.com.The comic imagines what would happen if James actually did make good on his promise to bring Miami not one, “not two, not three. . . not seven” championships.”The story begins after Team USA wins Olympic gold, and it follows James’ journey through self-improvement, as he works on late-game free throws with Golden State Warriors legend and foul-shooting phenom Rick Barry picks up helpful pick-and-roll tips from Tibetan monks. Seriously.Along the way, he defeats a zombie Shane Battier and overcomes recurring quad injuries by building himself bionic legs. The comic follows him through the 2029-30 season, when, after finally winning his seventh title – as a Cleveland Cavalier, believe it or not — King James finally announces his retirement.Fans will have to wait to find out if LeBron wins that elusive eighth title, as the ending will be decided by a SportsNational poll on ESPN.com.The comic was announced at Saturday’s New York Comic Con by ESPN The Magazine editors Ty Wenger and Otto Strong.“We tried to play off the known story lines of LeBron James and his career,” Wenger said in an interview with Marvel.com. He also pointed to his “personal theory about why basketball and super heroes go together very well” as part of his inspiration for the story.There has been debate about whether James could eclipse Michael Jordan as the best player of all time. Chances are, Kobe Bryant will end up as the closet to touch Jordan’s legacy. But neither Bryant nor Jordan can claim to be a comic book hero.
Jeffrey Loria, Miami Marlins owner, defended the pending blockbuster trade Wednesday that would send shortstop Jose Reyes, pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, catcher John Buck and infielder-outfielder Emilio Bonifacio to the Toronto Blue Jays for your prospects.Loria was asked Wednesday during the winter meetings in Chicago why he dismantled most of the talent on the team after a short period of time.“We finished in last place. Figure it out,” he told CBSSports.com in aggravation.Loria went on to tell the website that trading the veterans was the right decision after finishing 69-93 for the season.“We have to get better,” Loria added. “We can’t finish in last place. We finished in last place. That’s unacceptable. We have to take a new course.”Loria hopes that he can production out the players that he will receive from the Blue Jays: shortstop Yunel Escobar, right-hander Henderson Alvarez, catcher Jeff Mathis and prospects Jake Marisnick (OF), Adeiny Hechavarria (SS), Justin Nicolino (LHP) and Anthony DeSclafani (RHP) to the Marlins, according to ESPN.The trade will potentially save Loria and the Marlins approximately $150 million, if the players pass their physicals, which does not sit well with South Floridians who just paid for the new ballpark.“Everybody in the world wants to talk about the Marlins and the fact that they’re now a Triple-A team,” city commissioner Marc Sarnoff said, who was against the building of the new stadium. “The Marlins have lost pretty much all credibility with fans. Even if this trade is a positive move from the baseball standpoint, it won’t be viewed by the general public as a positive move.”Reyes and Buehrle were signed to massive contracts in free agency last season to draw attendance to the new stadium. The attendance barley topped 2.2 million after being projected to draw almost 3 million fans.Former Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen may have contributed to the low attendance. In April, Guillen praised former Cuba leader Fidel Castro, which ignited backlash from Cuban residents and members in Miami’s Little Havana community. The attendance was unable to recover after Guillen’s remarks.While the projections were off by the Marlins management, they have potentially unloaded a total of $163.75 million in guaranteed salaries through 2018, which includes the $96 million due to Reyes.The salaries for 2013 include $11 million for Buehrle, $10 million for Reyes and $13.75 million for Johnson in the final year of his contract. Approximately $154 million of guaranteed salaries are coming off the Marlins’ books, which does not include cash that may be involved in the trade.When the Marlins begin opening day, their payroll is estimated to be $34 million, which would be their lowest since 2008. The Marlins reached an agreement three years ago with the players’ union to increase spending due to complaints team payroll was small and violated baseball’s revenue-sharing provisions. The Oakland Athletics had the lowest payroll last year with $53 million.Some have wondered if Loria trading the best players is an early sign in attempts to sell the team. Loria denies those notions.“Absolutely not,” Loria said, according to CBSSports.com. “That’s more stupidity.”
Deon Grant had his mind set on one thing upon entering the NFL back in 2000—making sure he retired from the game as a New York Giant, so he could be one for the rest of his life.Grant, the defensive leader of the Giants Super Bowl XLVI champions, officially announced his retirement on Wednesday.In a statement provided by the Giant ball club, Grant said, “The Giants are a connection in my heart that I knew that I was supposed to be there. The last year that I signed there to go to the Super Bowl I could have signed with a bunch of teams, but I wanted to sign with the Giants. The way that the owners opened the doors and signed me back and the general manager (Jerry Reese) and the coaching staff … we did each other a favor, but it definitely solidified my career for me.”Grant, 34, played with the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks before signing with the Giants in 2010. After undergoing several surgeries to his shoulder, ankle and hand, he knew he’d had enough.Yet this might not be the last we see of the Giants’ safety, Grant hasn’t completely given up on the game and hopes to someday return as a coach.“I still study the game a lot,” he said. “I study the game because I think that’s going to be a place where I land on my feet as far as coaching. I do a lot of charity work, I have other businesses running for me, but my main thing right now is getting back into that whole football swing of things.”
Rivalry week, college football’s cancel-all-plans showcase in late November, is perennially viewed as having top billing on the sport’s calendar — chock-full of postseason implications in addition to bragging rights. But this year, there might be a challenger to rivalry week’s throne: There may be no more pivotal slate of games this season than that of Week 10, with three games on the Nov. 3 docket with critical consequences for the College Football Playoff.Our playoff model simulates every game of the season, extracting the likelihood of each outcome as well as the probability of every team to reach the final four. To help you prepare for Week 10, here are the games that matter most, as defined by their potential cumulative effect on the entire nation’s playoff chances. TeamCurrent Playoff %winslosesWeighted Difference* Kentucky6.8-0.6+1.30.8 31.4 Georgia32.2-1.6+3.72.3 Alabama66.8+12.2-27.817.0 Change in odds if Alabama… * Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.† Total swing includes every game in the country — not just those listed here. No. 4 Notre Dame (8-0) at Northwestern (5-3)Favorite: Notre Dame (70.7 percent)Total potential CFP swing: 31.4 pointsThe stakes: Few teams can challenge Northwestern for the national lead in inconsistency. The Wildcats have pirouetted to double-digit victories over two ranked opponents and come within fourth-quarter scoring drives of losses to upset-minded-but-inferior Nebraska and Rutgers. After dropping three of its first four games — including home losses to Duke and Akron — Northwestern responded by winning four straight Big Ten contests to occupy the driver’s seat of the Big Ten West.Notre Dame has handled its business — and still had to watch as one-loss LSU was ranked ahead of it on Tuesday night. Through no fault of its own, Notre Dame’s victories over then-No. 7 Stanford and then-No. 24 Virginia Tech haven’t exactly aged well. Now under the guidance of dual-threat quarterback Ian Book, Notre Dame’s offense has improved substantially, and Brian Kelly is shepherding one of his top defenses since his arrival in 2010.Considering that no team with three losses has qualified for the College Football Playoff in its four-year history, Northwestern faces long odds. But because of the imbalance in the Big Ten, the Wildcats have a clear path to the Big Ten championship and a resume-boosting opportunity to play a top-tier opponent, likely either Michigan or Ohio State, at the end of the season. So a loss this weekend would serve as a death knell, but a win keeps those slim hopes alive at 1.4 percent.Every team on the outside looking in is pulling for Northwestern, who could provide a huge odds boost to the other contenders with a win. Notre Dame controls its destiny, with a win improving its odds to 61.1 percent. But a loss would drop the Irish’s chances to 23.3 percent, suggesting that even with only one loss, it would need serious help to maintain its spot in the top four. Oklahoma35.3+0.6-1.40.9 Ohio State23.9+0.7-1.50.9 TeamCurrent Playoff %WinsLosesWeighted Difference Change in odds if Georgia… * Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.† Total swing includes every game in the country — not just those listed here. Georgia32.2%+12.4-30.1+/-17.5 No. 1 Alabama (8-0) at No. 3 LSU (7-1)Favorite: Alabama (69.4 percent)Total potential CFP swing: 43.6 pointsThe stakes: With both programs having two weeks to prepare, the Crimson Tide and Tigers will clash in a matchup that has often decided the SEC West division. This year’s installment pits one of the best LSU defenses in recent years against potentially the best offense Alabama has ever fielded.After losing to then-No. 22 Florida in Gainesville, LSU rebounded with consecutive wins over ranked opponents: a 36-16 disposal of then-No. 2 Georgia and a 19-3 thrashing of then-No. 22 Mississippi State. Four wins over ranked opponents charmed the College Football Playoff committee into putting the Tigers third in the first iteration of its rankings.1The Tigers are at No. 4 in the Associated Press poll.Behind Heisman front-runner Tua Tagovailoa and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley’s run-pass option attack, Alabama’s point margin is plus-252 in first halves this season, nearly 100 points better than any other team, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. In most seasons, it would be absurd to label a team as two-touchdown favorites against the third-ranked team in the nation, a team with a 1-in-5 chance of reaching the playoff — but that’s how good Alabama is. It’s been 21 years since LSU was this big of a home underdog.Even though the Tide have been unquestionably the most dominant team this season, a loss would still hurt — dropping their likelihood of reaching the playoff by nearly 30 points. An LSU win would give the Tigers nearly coin-flip odds (49.8 percent) of reaching the playoff, and it would provide a bump for Georgia (from 32.2 percent to 35.9 percent) and Kentucky (from 6.8 percent to 8.1 percent) because it would likely mean that neither of those SEC East leaders would face Alabama in the conference championship game. Should Alabama win, the Tide’s odds of reaching the playoff would spike to 79 percent. A loss for LSU would drop the Tigers’ chances to 7.1 percent, effectively removing the team from contention. Michigan26.6-2.0+4.82.8 Georgia32.2-0.9+2.11.2 TeamCurrent Playoff %WinsLosesWeighted Difference* Kentucky6.8-6.7+16.29.5 Alabama66.8-2.7+6.43.8 LSU20.2-0.8+1.81.1 Change in odds if Notre Dame … Ohio State23.9-0.5+1.10.6 Notre Dame50.0%+11.1-26.7+/-15.6 36.0 Total † Neil Paine contributed research.Check out our latest college football predictions. How Notre Dame-Northwestern swings the playoff picturePotential changes in College Football Playoff probability for selected teams based on the outcome of the Nov. 3 Notre Dame-Northwestern game Oklahoma35.3-0.6+1.40.8 LSU20.2%-13.0+29.6+/-18.1 Total† How Alabama-LSU swings the playoff picturePotential changes in College Football Playoff probability for selected teams based on the outcome of the Nov. 3 Alabama-LSU game Alabama66.8-0.8+1.91.1 How Georgia-Kentucky swings the playoff picturePotential changes in College Football Playoff probability for selected teams based on the outcome of the Nov. 3 Georgia-Kentucky game Total† No. 6 Georgia (7-1) at No. 9 Kentucky (7-1)Favorite: Georgia (70.8 percent)Total potential CFP swing: 36 pointsThe stakes: For the better part of three decades, Kentucky has served as the doormat of the SEC East, while Georgia has routinely contended for conference championships. So while it’s no surprise that the loaded Bulldogs have a 1-in-3 chance of returning to the playoff, few preseason prognosticators would have guessed that the Wildcats would be relevant this late in the season. But here we are, with coach Mark Stoops crowd-surfing in locker rooms as his team rattles off victories. The winner of Saturday’s ground-and-pound clash is guaranteed a spot in the SEC title game.Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm, who last season led Georgia to the national championship game as a true freshman, has withstood ample criticism and an eye-gouging in his sophomore campaign. As it stands, the Justin Fields experience is on hiatus. Across the field, Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson is largely tasked with getting the ball to Benny Snell Jr. ad nauseam. The sophomore has attempted only 153 passes this season — one more than Tagovailoa, who largely sits the second half of games.Saturday should be a blistering defensive fight. Kentucky has held seven consecutive opponents to fewer than 20 points, a feat last accomplished by the Wildcats nearly six decades ago. Both teams rank in the top 20 in opponent adjusted quarterback rating and in the top eight in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information.Whoever loses this game will see the near-annihilation of its playoff hopes: Kentucky’s odds would drop to 0.1 percent, and Georgia’s odds would drop to 2.1 percent. A win would improve the Wildcats’ odds to 16.2 percent, while Georgia’s odds would spike by 12.4 points to 44.5 percent. Kentucky toppling Georgia would greatly benefit just about every other team in the running: Alabama’s odds would jump to 73.2 percent, Notre Dame’s to 51.1 percent, Oklahoma’s to 36.7 percent, Ohio State’s to 25 percent and LSU’s to 22 percent. LSU20.2-1.1+2.61.5 43.6 * Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.† Total swing includes every game in the country — not just those listed here. Oklahoma35.3-1.1+2.81.6
sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It‘s been quite an opening week in the NFL — and that’s just on the field. We started with an old-fashioned defensive slugfest on Thursday and ended Sunday night with the Patriots still looking like the Patriots. And we still have two games left tonight! Throw in a tie for good measure, and the season is off and running.There was a lot to unpack in Week 1. What were your biggest surprises of the week?Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think the Browns are the biggest surprise of Week 1. Not just Baker Mayfield and the offense — because maybe the Titans have a good defense. Who knows at this stage of the season? But the Cleveland defense, which seemed like it was perfectly designed to dominate in the trenches and on the perimeter with the corners, was just shredded. Marcus Mariota had 10.3 yards per attempt, admittedly inflated by a screen pass to Derrick Henry. And the Titans ran the ball well. So it was just a total team collapse by the Browns.sara.ziegler: I do feel like Cleveland was classically set up for this disappointment. Our model didn’t think the Browns would be nearly as good as everyone else seemed to think they would be.neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Yes, we had warned Cleveland fans to kind of pump the brakes before the season. This was a good-looking team by Browns standards, but that’s different from being a good-looking team, period.Salfino: I know this is a little Narrative Street, but the Browns really set themselves up to be the hunted and not the hunters with all the offseason talk. I don’t know if there’s ever been a team coming off a losing season that had every opponent circling their game on the schedule. Maybe now they will just shut up and play because obviously there is a lot of talent there. Maybe the humiliation on Sunday in Cleveland will actually be good for them, since they needed humbling.neil: For me, the biggest surprise was Lamar Jackson. He was one of the worst QBs in the league as a rookie last season, and the Ravens adapted their offense to be incredibly run-heavy (particularly by 2018 standards) because he was such a better runner than passer. So to see him come out and throw for 324 yards on 17-for-20 passing, 5 TDs, 0 picks and a perfect 158.3 passer rating was nothing short of astonishing.You could have told me a QB would do that Week 1, and I would have guessed 25 QBs before Jackson.Salfino: The tricky thing with this game is whether the Dolphins are the 1962 Mets — or did the Ravens make them look that way? Let’s put it this way: If the Dolphins are trying to lose, they couldn’t have done it any better.neil: That’s a great point to keep in mind. The Dolphins have been accused of tanking all offseason, and they played like it Sunday.Incidentally, what’s the opening line on Pats-Dolphins next week? I shudder to think.Salfino: New England minus-14.5 at Miami, up to 17 now. That would put them among the biggest home underdogs since 1970.sara.ziegler: And now Miami players are reportedly asking their agents to get them off the team! Not great.neil: What was your biggest surprise, Sara?sara.ziegler: Arizona! Loved to see the fight from Kyler Murray and Co.neil: Fighting back for a TIE, no less.sara.ziegler: So great.neil: That’s just fighting back for the love of the game, not the glory. Lol.Salfino: Murray was Tebowing on Sunday: horrible for most of the game and then turned it on in the fourth quarter. I guess the slow start was opening day jitters. Maybe it was a mistake to not use the regular offense in the preseason.sara.ziegler: That’s a great point, Mike.So many of these offenses have looked SOOOOO bad. Maybe a few more reps in the preseason could help?neil: Maybe this is the year the “rest the starters all preseason” trend jumps the shark.Salfino: Start with Mitch Trubisky and the Bears.sara.ziegler: And Aaron Rodgers and the Packers!neil: That game was SO ugly.sara.ziegler: It kinda hurt to watch.neil: Although if they were going for symbolism with the NFL of 100 years ago, they kinda got what they were asking for.Salfino: Bears-Packers set back offensive football 100 years, so….sara.ziegler: So true.Salfino: I just am skeptical about changing the offensive system of an inner-circle Hall of Fame player — especially someone as generally grumpy as Rodgers — with that young of a coach who has not proven anything. How does this work? I would have given Rodgers Mike Shanahan — someone he had to respect — if you want to switch to a Mike Shanahan offense.sara.ziegler: Our colleague Josh Hermsmeyer wrote about the Packer play-calling that might have been holding Rodgers back last year … but I’m skeptical, too, about changing that on a dime.Salfino: And it’s kind of like, “Mike Shanahan is standing right here.” But the league is all about young coaches now. Does this work with a 35-year-old QB though? Will the QB, especially this QB, buy in?sara.ziegler: Hahahaneil: But at least there, you can use the coaching change as an excuse. Maybe they’ll find more of a rhythm as the season goes on. There were no such excuses for Trubisky’s poor performance.Salfino: For Trubisky, we kind of know what he is, right? His ability to execute plays that work as designed is definitely below the line. He sort of has to play with his hair on fire, out of structure, so he’s a tough player to design an offense for.Based on one game, I’d set the Browns over/under at nine wins, the Ravens at 10 and the Cardinals at six. (I mean, it was Matt Patricia blowing a game, right?)sara.ziegler: HahaWhat’s the over/under at Patricia still being the coach in January?neil: That’s the REAL over/under to worry about.Salfino: I think Patricia has to be a favorite to be fired in-season. The Dolphins aren’t going to fire a coach. It has to be a team that thinks they’re good with a “franchise” QB, I assume.neil: The funny thing is, Matt Stafford actually played well overall, with a 110.0 passer rating. But the defense badly collapsed down the stretch.sara.ziegler: Who else stood out? Philadelphia? Kansas City?Salfino: I wrote about the impact a downfield weapon has on the entire offense, regarding DeSean Jackson. That certainly was a factor in Sunday’s Eagles win, though Jackson did most of the damage himself. But now the best of these players for Kansas City, Tyreek Hill, is probably out a significant amount of time with a shoulder injury, and I wonder if this will slow down the Chiefs offense. Sammy Watkins was unreal on Sunday, but he did a lot of that damage with Hill in the game. Does the Chiefs offense seem more mortal now?neil: Not to mention that Pat Mahomes was hobbling around on a bum ankle.Salfino: And he no-looked away a TD to a wide-open Travis Kelce like he was Meadowlark Lemon.neil: If Mahomes shakes off any effects of that ankle — and it’s not supposed to be serious — they still have a lot of weapons even without Hill. But they were a team everyone was already wondering about perhaps regressing offensively, just because the highest-scoring offenses usually tend to fall off some in the following season.sara.ziegler: LeSean McCoy looked decent as one of those weapons.Salfino: They do seem to have an endless supply of super-athletic players, but Hill really dictates coverage and makes defenses more easy to dissect. The McCoy thing is interesting — Damien Williams still had 65 percent of snaps, compared to just 30 percent for McCoy. But how does Andy Reid tell a guy like McCoy — with over 14,000 scrimmage yards who just outplayed Williams — that he’s sitting behind Williams? I have to think McCoy is the primary back near term for the Chiefs — and he may be washed up, I know.Speaking of running backs, not a good day for Melvin Gordon.sara.ziegler: 🤣Salfino: You want to say that RBs are fungible, but Austin Ekeler is not just an ordinary backup. He’s electric. I think him leading a committee is perfect, and the Chargers are now 5-0 since 2018 without Gordon in the regular season.sara.ziegler: Not gonna lie: I forgot for a second about the Gordon holdout. The Antonio Brown drama just eclipsed everything.neil: Austin Ekeler:Melvin Gordon::James Conner:Le’Veon Bell ?(I think I got my SAT analogy format right there?)sara.ziegler: Very nice, LOLSalfino: Well, the Steelers looked like they missed Bell and Brown on Sunday night.neil: Steelers looked like they missed a lot of things Sunday night.Salfino: I think the story with the Steelers is that Juju Smith-Schuster is not a downfield wide receiver, and they have no one who can threaten defenses deep like Brown could (even though he was used all over the field). So the Steelers offense looked suffocated on Sunday. There was just no room to breathe.Ironically, the team on the field that really needs Brown was the Steelers.sara.ziegler: It was hard to watch that game and not think, “Oh, the Patriots are unstoppable again.”Salfino: But why even add Brown? I guess it makes sense if you are worried about Josh Gordon’s status, given that he has not completed an NFL season since 2013. But if you know you have Gordon — which of course you can never know — Brown is another mouth to feed and obviously a volatile personality on a team that does not remotely need his talent. Put it this way, if the Patriots had not signed Brown, the story off that game would be, “Of course they shouldn’t have signed Brown because they are a finely tuned machine right now, so why mess with that?”neil: That’s true. It sort of adds diminishing returns on the field and the potential for chaos off the field. But maybe they wanted extra insurance for Tom Brady at receiver with Gronk retired.Salfino: Brady is 42. He threw the ball very well, especially deep. But the expectation with an older player is that he will fade as the season progresses. It’s really the Patriots and Brady vs. Father Time. That’s the Battle of the Ages, not New England vs. the NFL.sara.ziegler: I just assume it’s part of the overall Evil Plan that Patriots always execute to perfection.neil: I will say this. I have compared Brady’s downfall (whenever it happens) to Peyton Manning’s in 2015, in the sense that when it does happen, it will probably happen very quickly. But for whatever one game is worth, Manning already showed signs of what was to come with a terrible opener that year against Baltimore. Brady, on the other hand, was perfectly fine. So if you’re mentally tracking the odds of a Brady collapse in 2019, those odds had to go down quite a bit just after a game.Salfino: But what about Peyton in 2014? Isn’t that the example that the Patriots (and Saints) have to fear? That did come all at once. And we ignored it heading into 2015, mostly, attributing it to nagging injuries, which probably was the point. Peyton started 2014 with 22 TDs and three picks in seven games.neil: True, while Brady was not great in the Super Bowl and had a mediocre game or two down the stretch, he wasn’t consistently struggling late in 2018 as much as Peyton did in 2014. So maybe that does mean the writing was more on the wall for him than Brady, anyway.Whatever happens, I love Week 1 because we’re all so eager to overreact to every little thing that happens once real football starts. So I wonder which things that seem clear right now will end up looking foolish in a couple months.sara.ziegler: Can’t wait to find out!Check out our latest NFL predictions.
In the run up to Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, the Serge Ibaka story dominated the series. Ibaka injured his calf in the final game of the Thunder’s series against the Clippers and isn’t expected to return, leaving the Thunder without their starting power forward. It was clear how that might become a problem for the Thunder; Ibaka was one of the most active and effective rim defenders this season, according to the NBA’s SportVU Player Tracking. He defended an average of 9.5 shots at the rim per game (defined as any shot attempt where he was within 5 feet of both the basket and the shooter), seventh most in the league, and held opponents to 43.9 percent shooting on those attempts, sixth lowest among players who defended at least five shots at the rim per game.Without Ibaka on the floor, the Spurs partied down low Monday night, making 67 percent of their shots in the paint, 33 of 49 overall. With Ibaka healthy, the Thunder’s playoff opponents had made only 51 percent of their inside shots.Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City’s coach, decided to go small for much of Game 1, playing Kevin Durant at power forward and entirely neglecting a big lineup that had been instrumental in helping close out the Clippers. According to SportVU, the Thunder defended 34 shots at the rim Monday night, just a touch under the 35.1 they’ve been averaging in the playoffs. But far fewer of those shots were defended by front-court players — the tall guys.Thunder Defense at the RimDurant, Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson are fantastic, but their size offers less resistance at the rim than a guy nicknamed “Iblocka.” During the regular season, those three players combined to defend 6.3 shots at the rim per game. On Monday night, they defended 16. The Spurs made 12 of them.In Game 2, there may be an opportunity to play Steven Adams more minutes, but the Thunder simply don’t have the bodies to avoid these small lineups. If they can’t figure out how to assemble a better defensive structure with the players available, this series might not last long.
2. New England (11-2) vs. Denver (8-5) — 90 total ‘swing’ points Only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome shown CHANCE OF MAKING PLAYOFFS Green Bay3127347– Detroit84987127– Buffalo24—4– Tampa Bay5457516– We’re down to one wild card slot in the AFC. While neither Oakland nor Kansas City has officially clinched the postseason, we currently give both teams a greater than 99 percent chance, and only one of them (probably the Chiefs) will make it in as the AFC West champion. Denver is still clinging to that second wild card spot, but their loss to the Titans in Week 14 set their chances back. They’ll now face a brutal end-of-season schedule, facing New England, Kansas City and Oakland. Tennessee24%53%19%34– Washington46375013– Baltimore27322110– CHANCE OF MAKING PLAYOFFS Only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome shown Only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome shown N.Y. Giants75%54%93%39– Atlanta9193894– 4. Carolina (5-8) vs. Washington (7-5-1) — 88 total ‘swing’ points AFFECTED TEAMCURRENTIF NE WINSIF DEN WINSSWING Only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome shown Miami27361521– Indianapolis3142– Atlanta9192893– AFFECTED TEAMCURRENTIF CAR WINSIF WAS WINSSWING AFFECTED TEAMCURRENTIF TB WINSIF DAL WINSSWING Washington4649445– Minnesota1922174– Only teams with a playoff swing of at least 2 percentage points based on the game outcome shown The Panthers’ playoff chances are more or less nil, but they have the opportunity to play spoiler three games in a row against Washington, Atlanta and Tampa Bay.2You may have noticed that Tampa Bay-Dallas and Carolina-Washington both have a “swing” total of 88 points. That number is rounded, but we use a little more precision when we determine the rankings, and Tampa Bay-Dallas is the (very slightly) more impactful game. Washington would miss the playoffs if the season ended today and would fall to having just a 1-in-5 chance of making them with a loss here. Green Bay31243310– 1. Detroit (9-4) vs. N.Y. Giants (9-4) — 93 total ‘swing’ points Minnesota1914217– Tennessee2425232– Atlanta9189912– 3. Tampa Bay (8-5) vs. Dallas (11-2) — 88 total ‘swing’ points CHANCE OF MAKING PLAYOFFS The Buccaneers have won five straight and control their own playoff destiny. Dallas is guaranteed a postseason slot, but if you choose an outcome to this game on our new NFL predictions page you’ll see that a win improves their chance of a first-round bye to 99 percent, and a loss drops them to 80 percent. This makes a huge impact on their Super Bowl probabilities, so the Cowboys — who are at risk of dipping into a quarterback controversy — have quite a bit to play for here. N.Y. Giants7570778– Pittsburgh8991874– 5. Tennessee (7-6) vs. Kansas City (10-3) — 72 total ‘swing’ points N.Y. Giants75827012– Washington46%22%64%43– CHANCE OF MAKING PLAYOFFS AFFECTED TEAMCURRENTIF TEN WINSIF KC WINSSWING CHANCE OF MAKING PLAYOFFS Detroit8486824– Detroit8482853– The Lions had their eighth fourth-quarter/overtime comeback of the season on Sunday, and now somehow find themselves in contention for a first-round bye. But Detroit’s remarkable season has come against a pretty weak schedule, and they’ll have to wrap up the year against the Giants, Cowboys and Packers. The winner of this game would be nearly assured of a playoff spot, but the loser will be in decent shape. Green Bay, which is in the hunt for the NFC North, is rooting for the Giants. Tampa Bay, Washington, Atlanta and (somewhat surprisingly) Minnesota would prefer a Detroit win to improve their wild card standing. Tampa Bay54%85%42%43– With three weeks left in the NFL season, 11 playoff spots are open. That means that most of the remaining 48 games — save some stinkers like 49ers-Rams — will make some impact on the postseason. What are this week’s biggest games?For the last month, we’ve been using the model behind our 2016 NFL predictions to calculate how much each team’s playoff chances “swing” depending on the outcome of each game. For example, we currently give the Green Bay Packers a 31 percent chance of making the playoffs. If they beat Chicago this week, we project those chances will increase to 40 percent (independent of other games). If they lose, their chances drop to 11 percent.1Our NFL predictions are based on 100,000 simulations of the rest of the season and are updated after every game ends. In the simulations in which Green Bay beats Chicago, they make the playoffs 40 percent of the time. In simulations where they lose, they make the playoffs 11 percent of the time. But it’s unlikely that Green Bay’s playoff probabilities will be exactly 40 percent or exactly 11 percent at the end of Week 15, because the team’s chances depend on the outcome of several games, not just their own. The Packers’ current chances are much closer to 40 percent than to 11 percent because they are much more likely to beat the Bears (69 percent) than lose to them (31 percent). That’s a 29 percentage point swing! By doing this same math for every matchup and factoring in how each team’s resulting record will affect others’ playoff odds, we can find out which games are the most impactful.But “most impactful” only tells part of the story. Let’s say you’re a Green Bay fan, or a fan of any other team on the playoff bubble. Which set of outcomes would help the most this week? To help answer this question, we’ve updated our predictions page to allow you to pick the outcomes of every game for Weeks 15 through 17, so you can see how each matchup affects every team’s probabilities. In the “best case” scenario I could find for the Packers, they’d beat the Bears, but also Dallas would beat Tampa Bay, San Francisco would beat Atlanta, the New York Giants would beat Detroit, Indianapolis would beat Minnesota, and Carolina would beat Washington.With these six outcomes, Green Bay’s playoff chances rise to 58 percent. Go create your own scenarios! The five biggest games of Week 15 are below. Denver5452542– Tampa Bay5458508– Houston75537926– Denver54%33%78%44– Green Bay3135287– Minnesota1923176– AFFECTED TEAMCURRENTIF DET WINSIF NYG WINSSWING The Titans also control their own destiny! Wins against the Chiefs, Jaguars and Texans in the final three weeks will leave the Titans with a 10-6 record and an AFC South title. And yet, we give them just a 24 percent chance of making the playoffs. One reason for this is that this week’s matchup in Kansas City, where the Titans will be major underdogs by any measure. But it’s also possible that our ratings are understating the Titans’ overall strength. Elo carries over from season to season, and while most teams have shaken whatever effect 2015 had on their rating, Tennessee started in such a huge hole — their 2015 end-of-season rating was 1272 — that we’re still rating them as a significantly below-average team. A win in Kansas City would send their Elo, and their playoff chances, skyrocketing.CORRECTION (Dec. 15, 2:13 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the best-case scenario for the Packers in Week 15. In that scenario, the best outcome for Green Bay would be the Giants beating the Lions, not the other way around.Check out our latest NFL predictions.
This NBA season has produced more than its fair share of ridiculous, eye-popping statistics. Russell Westbrook got his record-tying 41st triple-double of the season on Tuesday. The Rockets shattered the league record for threes made in a single campaign with two weeks left to play. And 20-year-old Devin Booker, who’d never even scored 40 points in a contest before, somehow logged 70 points in one game last month.But Booker’s team is on the cusp of crossing a less-than-ideal threshold as things wind down: The Phoenix Suns, who lead the NBA in fouls by a wide margin with 1,963 so far, are on pace to eclipse the 2,000-foul mark, which would make them the first NBA club to hit that mark in 10 years.The Suns commit 25 fouls per game (the NBA average is 20) and send their opponents to the free-throw line an NBA-high 29 times a night. It isn’t necessarily a new problem, since Phoenix allowed opponents to go to the stripe more than anyone last season, too. But the team’s fouls are up 10 percent from last year, and the team is becoming a bit of an outlier by fouling more often, given that NBA foul rates have decreased over the past decade as more and more shooters space the floor, leading to less contact from play to play.The chronic fouling is a symptom of two much larger issues: 1. The team’s inability to contain their opponents on defense, where the Suns allow 109 points per 100 plays, third-worst in the league. Being that bad leaves their players out of position, often leading to more desperate fouls as they try to recover. And 2. Phoenix’s relative youth and inexperience, especially in the post, where it’s fairly common for players to struggle with foul trouble at the beginning of their careers.This talented group is still developing, both physically and mentally. The Suns are one of the NBA’s shortest and lightest teams, which might make them a bit easier to push around. But Phoenix — which last month used the youngest starting five in NBA history — also has plenty to learn when it comes to countering the offensive tricks and techniques that veteran players acquire over the years.“You ever seen a young group of guys play against a group of older guys in pickup? The older guys somehow manage to physically take advantage of the younger guys without making it look like that’s what they’re doing. Then the young guy starts to hit back, and it’s completely obvious? That’s what we look like sometimes,” coach Earl Watson told me last week during his club’s East Coast trip. “Players in this league are so good, and our guys are still learning how to be aggressive without committing obvious fouls.”Those gaps in experience are most apparent in scenarios where a single defender is being asked to hold his own: 1-on-1s and post-ups. The Suns have committed the second- and fourth-highest rates of shooting fouls this season when guarding 1-on-1s and post-ups, respectively,1Phoenix has been whistled for shooting fouls 14 percent of the time in isolation scenarios and about 15 percent of the time when guarding post-up opportunities. according to Synergy Sports.It’s hard to fault the players’ intent, despite the dismal results. They often sacrifice their bodies in hopes of forcing a turnover, but many times they haven’t established good enough positioning to ward off defensive-foul calls. This has been especially true of some young players, like Booker, rookie power forward Marquese Chriss and fourth-year center Alex Len, who are 1-of-18, 5-of-28 and 0-of-14 when it comes drawing charge calls this season. (Those numbers are pretty abysmal, considering that the leaguewide average charge rate is 40 percent.)Phoenix’s learning curve has gotten considerably steeper in recent weeks, since the Suns elected to shut down a handful of healthy veteran players, including usual starters Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler, in pursuit of some lottery ping-pong balls and a chance to give their younger, less-used talent some spin over the final month of a losing season.That has meant fielding lineups that have little institutional knowledge of how to defend without fouling.“If I’m the only young guy out there with four veterans, those four can kind of direct traffic and help cover for me when I mess up,” said Chriss, who commits 5.5 fouls per 36 minutes, tied for the NBA’s fourth-highest rate among players who’ve logged at least 1,000 minutes.2He’s tied with Len. “But when it’s a situation where everybody on the floor is, at most, 3 or 4 years into their career, that’s kind of tough, because then we’re all kind of lost, and still learning how to communicate with each other as players.”It’s not just an issue of youth. There are several other, less-examined factors that help explain why they’ve committed so many fouls. Phoenix plays at a blistering pace, handling more possessions than most, which puts the team in a position to commit more fouls than any other club. The Suns have been in more close games where they trailed late than any other team, meaning a decent number of their infractions were likely intentional and committed in hopes of stopping the clock. And it’s worth noting that Phoenix also comfortably leads the NBA in offensive fouls. So, not every foul Phoenix commits is a symptom of the Suns’ weak defense.Make no mistake, though: The Suns do an absolute ton of hacking, and they usually get called for it.“Refs officiate games with a certain rhythm. They’re used to a certain speed and rhythm. When you jump out of that rhythm, it’s easy for them to see, and you’re going to get called for it,” said Chandler, an NBA champion who joined the league as a teenager and went from committing more than 5 fouls per 36 minutes in his fifth season to eventually winning Defensive Player of the Year. Chandler added that the Suns, much like he was as a youngster, are often overeager to make a play, and wind up swiping or jumping when they shouldn’t.Nevertheless, struggles and all, Watson is an eternal optimist. He takes ample time most days to walk through film of the team’s fouling tendencies, and he told me that he feels his team is only a reinforcement or two away from a huge turnaround if the young players keep developing.“I was with OKC during Russ’s first year” — Westbrook, of course — “and I always let [my Phoenix players] know: That year, [the Thunder] won 23 games. The next year they won 50, and did it because their young guys had gotten so much experience and developed a supreme confidence.”Phoenix may not go on to write the kind of success story that the Thunder did, at least not next season. But if putting in a year at the School of Hard Knocks helps this team improve on defense, maybe the Suns will eventually be able to say that this furious foul pace was a worthwhile learning experience.Check out our NBA predictions.
Of all the storylines to watch as Major League Baseball begins the second half of the 2018 season, the most interesting might be whether the Seattle Mariners can hold on to their current position in the standings — and, in the process, end the longest active postseason drought in major professional sports. (The Mariners earned this dubious honor when the Buffalo Bills grabbed an AFC wild card last season.)It’s been a magical start to the summer so far in Seattle. Picked preseason to finish around .500, the Mariners instead sit nearly 20 games over that benchmark. Surprisingly, they spent much of the first half challenging the defending champion Houston Astros for the top spot in the American League West; they’ve also built for themselves a three-game cushion over the division-rival Oakland A’s in the race for the AL’s second wild card. (And they’ve done it even after losing star second baseman Robinson Cano, who was putting up great numbers before getting busted for steroids in mid-May.) If the regular season ended today, the M’s would finally be back in the playoffs.That would be a major accomplishment for a Seattle club that hasn’t tasted postseason baseball since its disappointing five-game exit from the American League Championship Series 17 years ago. When my former colleague Rob Arthur wrote about the Mariners’ streak a few seasons back, he found that no team in baseball had made the playoffs fewer times relative to expectation (based on their regular-season records) since 1998 than Seattle. It’s undeniable that, with just a little better luck, the Mariners would have sneaked into the playoffs at least a few times over the span of their drought. In that regard, they are long overdue to catch a break.In 2018, however, Seattle might be collecting all of the extra good fortune it’s owed at once. According to The Baseball Gauge, no first-half team exceeded its expected record more through luck in close games or favorable “sequencing”1Bunching hits within innings on offense and scattering them across innings on defense. than the Mariners. For instance, if you simply looked at Seattle’s runs scored (412) and allowed (414), you’d think it was precisely the .500-ish team that the preseason projections had called for. Instead, the Mariners have gone 26-12 in one-run games, which — while not exactly in 2016 Texas Rangers territory — suggests they could be due for a serious second-half downturn.In fact, Seattle’s combination of win-loss record and negative run differential is so unusual that it’s tough to find similar historical teams. Since 1950, the Mariners are the only team to be 19 games over .500 through a similar stage of the season2Specifically, between 90 and 100 games into the schedule. while also having a run differential below zero. But if we just limit ourselves to the 13 teams that were at least 10 wins above .500 and had outscored opponents by 10 runs or fewer through 97 games, those clubs won only 51 percent of their games over the rest of the season (an 83-win pace per 162). So the Mariners probably shouldn’t expect to keep cruising along at a clip remotely close to their current .598 winning percentage.Indeed, if the wheels do fall off for Seattle, naysayers may point to the team’s poor play just before the All-Star break — eight losses in its last 11 games — as a sign of when things started to go wrong. But ace pitcher James Paxton will be back from the disabled list soon, and Cano is eligible to return Aug. 14. Meanwhile, the time off should benefit the slumping quintet of Kyle Seager, Jean Segura, Dee Gordon, Ryon Healy and Nelson Cruz, each of whom seemed to be running out of gas heading into the break.In the bigger picture, there’s also something to be said for the team’s overall balance as an antidote to the notion of an impending collapse. The Mariners are one of only six teams in baseball to rank among the top 10 in wins above replacement3Averaging together the WAR values found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. from both its pure hitting and its pitching, joining the Astros, Red Sox, Yankees, Indians and Dodgers — pretty good company! Of course, that brushes aside Mariner weaknesses such as baserunning (they rank 24th) and fielding (20th), but it also underscores that despite Seattle’s uninspiring run differential, the fundamentals of the team aren’t necessarily unsound.In order to stay on course for the playoffs, Seattle will need to keep getting unexpected performances like the ones they’ve enjoyed from first-time All-Star Mitch Haniger and journeyman-turned-10-game winner Marco Gonzales. Closer Edwin Diaz (who leads baseball with 36 saves) will have to keep slamming the door shut in the ninth inning, and the lineup will need to continue hitting well in big moments. None of that will be easy, especially not with Oakland zooming up in the rearview mirror. But after nearly two decades of the pieces never falling into place for a postseason push, it’s high time the Mariners had the breaks go their way.Check out our latest MLB predictions.