Warriors will still win the Western Conference, without Kevin Durant

Warriors will still win the Western Conference, without Kevin Durant
Despite Kevin Durant’s absence for what is likely the rest of the regular season, the Golden State Warriors will still finish first in the West, because of the team’s big three from last season: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.

Stephen Curry

With Kevin Durant’s ascension as the Warriors’ number one scoring option, people seem to forget just how dominant Steph Curry can be. Curry is a player who just last season was being hailed as the poster boy of the new NBA era, one that emphasizes three-point shooting above anything else. Curry was revolutionizing the way basketball was played in 2016, one 40-foot three-pointer at a time.

Need further proof of Curry’s dominance? Here’s his 2016-17 regular season numbers provided by NBA.com (apologies for the small font):

screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-5-08-55-pm

Those numbers made NBA analysts and fans alike debate whether Curry’s 16-17 season was the greatest of all-time.

With Durant out, Curry has the ability to become the Warriors’ number one scoring option once again. It may take a few games of adjustment, but the back-to-back MVP has proven his worth as one of the league’s best superstars. The Warriors will be just fine with Curry stepping in as the team’s offensive leader for the time being.

Klay Thompson

Remember Klay Thompson’s 37-point third quarter last season? I do too!

Thompson, one of the league’s best pure shooters, now gets the opportunity to have even more touches on the offensive end. With Durant’s arrival, Thompson has been relegated to playing more off the ball, which has in turn helped him develop weaker links in his game. The crazy part about Thompson’s season, though, is how he’s virtually averaging the exact same numbers as last season. The Warriors’ coaching staff has to take credit for that. Somehow, even with Durant in town, Thompson hasn’t lost any shot attempts.

With Durant out, Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr will surely rely on Thompson for more offensive production.

Draymond Green

The only one of the four all-stars in Golden State’s starting lineup whose scoring production decreased is Draymond Green. Green makes up for his decreased scoring numbers in every way imaginable, collecting steals, blocks, assists, and rebounds. He’s the clear defensive anchor of this team.

With the incredibly versatile Draymond Green and a competent enough centre in Zaza Pachulia, this Warriors’ team has more than enough firepower to win the West.

If there’s any concern for Golden State, it’s the team’s lack of depth and rim protection. In the regular season, rim protection is not nearly as important compared to its impact in the playoffs. As for the team’s lack of depth, the Warriors’ starting lineup alone has enough talent to dominate opposing teams even when the bench has inevitable off nights.

Remember, Curry, Thompson, and Green were at the forefront of a team that won an NBA-record 73 regular season games. This team has more than enough talent to win the West, even without its prized offseason addition.

 

Image found on wikipedia.com. The photo of Stephen Curry found on Wikipedia is taken by Keith Allison.
Advertisements

Despite popular belief, defence will decide Patriots/Falcons Super Bowl

Heading into Super Bowl weekend, media members and fans alike have been fixated on both offensive and legacy-related story lines. Some feel Sunday’s game will emphasize a battle of two of the NFL’s top offences. Others are focused on what a record fifth Super Bowl ring would mean for Tom Brady’s legacy. Some focus on the emergence of Matt Ryan. While these are viable storylines, not enough people are paying attention to these two teams’ defences. In particular, how these defences will decide who wins Super Bowl LI.

Despite Brady and the Patriots’ offence being the main subject of discussion, not enough credit has been given to the team’s defence. New England ranked first in scoring defence during the regular season, allowing only 15.9 points per game. Per USA Today’s Nate Davis, this year’s Patriots defence was the first New England defence to lead the league in fewest points allowed since 2003. Through two playoff games, the Patriots’ defence has continue its dominance, having allowed only 33 points total (16.5 points per game).

Looking closer at the Patriots, their pass coverage is the defence’s most glaring deficiency. New England allowed 237.9 yards per game during the regular season, which ranked 12th most league-wide. The key for New England is to stop Atlanta’s top passing offence, particularly Ryan and receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. The Patriots’ secondary, most notably Super Bowl L hero Malcolm Butler, will have to play the best they have all year if they hope to contain the Falcons. Butler will have a tough coverage assignment in Jones.

Speaking of Matt Ryan and the Falcons, Atlanta’s offence finished the regular season ranked first in points per game at 33.8. And the offence has showed no signs of slowing down; if anything, it’s only gotten stronger. Through two playoff games, Atlanta has average an incredible 457.5 yards in total offence, along with 40 points per game. With Ryan in the midst of a career year and firmly in the MVP conversation, Falcons’ fans are hoping the star quarterback can wrap up the team’s dream season with its first ever championship. If that is to happen though, the Falcons’ offence has to continue its scorching level of play so that Brady and company are under immediate pressure to score.

The importance of getting out to an early lead for Atlanta is crucial, especially when you consider the team’s defensive unit. The Falcons allowed a whopping 25.4 points per game and 266.7 passing yards during the regular season, which ranked 27th and 28threspectively. Those numbers improved over a smaller postseason sample size, with Atlanta allowing 238 yards per game and 20.5 points per game in two playoff games. Despite small defensive improvements across two playoff games, the Falcons defence will need big plays if they hope to stop Brady and the Patriots potent offence. Both Atlanta and New England ranked tied for second in turnover margin at +0.8, meaning both teams create approximately an extra possession off a turnover each game. This means that both teams will have to take full advantage of offensive opportunities. Look for guys like NFL sack leader Vic Beasley and linebacker Deion Jones to lead the charge against a Patriots’ offence that put up 27.6 points per game, third-best during the regular season.

Once you get past the Super Bowl plot-points that focus on the offences or the quarterbacks, the most important storyline in determining the result of the game emerges: defence. That very storyline will make or break one of these two team’s Super Bowl aspirations.

If history is indicator, New England has the edge ahead of the Super Bowl. That’s due to the fact that the Patriots have the stronger defensive unit of the two teams. Looking back at past Super Bowls that slated the league’s top offence and defence against one another, the defensive team won the majority of the time (five out of six Super Bowls, excluding 1989 between San Francisco and Denver).

While high-powered offence may steal headlines, it’s evident a strong defence puts you in better position to win a Super Bowl.

It’s time for a Giant retool

By: Brad Joosse

Time to Retool.

New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese went big in free agency and the draft last off-season.

He needs to do it again.

Reese’s big moves paid off. Defensive end Olivier Vernon signed for five years worth $85 million. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins signed for five years worth $62.5 million. Defensive tackle Damon Harrison signed for five years worth $46.5 million.

Reese and the Giants were rewarded with excellent seasons from all three. Harrison was voted first team All-Pro, Jenkins and Vernon both made second team All-Pro. Rookie wide receiver Sterling Sheppard and cornerback Eli Apple consistently produced all year in their roles.

The Giants made the playoffs for the first time in five years, though the team struggled and were eliminated by the Green Bay Packers. Reese needs to retool his team for the playoffs and the chance to win the Super Bowl.

Reese must rebuild the offence though he hardly needs to start from scratch. Eli Manning is a solid veteran quarterback with two Super Bowl MVP’s in his career. Odell Beckham is one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. Rookie Sterling Sheppard finished the year with 683 yards and eight touchdown receptions. The Giants have clear holes at other positions however. No Giant running back rushed for 600 yards while none of the tight ends had more than one touchdown reception.

There are options for the Giants. Tight end Martellus Bennent is a former Giant and will be a free agent. Bennent had a strong season with over 700 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. Jordan Cameron, Jared Cook, and Vernon Davis are all veterans with previous success and could be bargains for the Giants to sign.

Running back is a tougher position to address via free agency. There is a long list of running backs whose production dropped off after reaching the age of 30. Backs like Jaquizz Rodgers and Andre Ellington are impressive young talents but both struggle with injuries.

The Giants should draft a running back to tandem with rookie Paul Perkins who showed flashes and rushed for over 100 yards in week 17. The two best draft running back prospects are Dalvin Cook from Florida State and Leonard Fournette from LSU, they are ranked 4th and 10th respectively in the top 250 prospects list. The Giants will be drafting later in the first round and may need to trade up or can look to Christian McCaffrey from Stanford who is ranked 26th.

NFL rosters are constantly changing. The Giants made big changes last year and it paid off in a playoff appearance. The team needs to aim higher next year and aim for the Super Bowl. Drafting a young running back and signing a veteran tight end are just two changes the Giants can get closer to that goal.

Russell Westbrook: Redefining the NBA one game at a time

To say this past summer was a tumultuous one for Russell Westbrook would be an understatement.

The Thunder could taste the Finals. There they were: Game Six of the Western Conference Finals against Golden State, up seven points with under five minutes to go. Then, the collapse happened.

Over the next five minutes, Golden State chipped away at the Thunder lead one basket at a time. Swarming defense and costly turnovers by Russell Westbrook down the stretch gave the Warriors the opportunity they needed to steal the game away. And steal it they did. Golden State outscored Oklahoma City 19-5 in the final five minutes to shock the Thunder on their home floor 108-101. Golden State would go on to win Game Seven, eliminating  the Thunder, while advancing to their second consecutive Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Meanwhile, the Thunder were not only left heartbroken, but also forced to deal with the impending free agency of one of their star players, Kevin Durant.

And that was only the beginning.

July 7, 2016: Kevin Durant signs with Golden State for $54 million over 2 years.

The sudden departure of Durant sent shock-waves throughout the NBA world, while also sparking questions about how Westbrook would respond. Could Westbrook carry a team to the playoffs while being relied on so heavily? Would Durant’s departure negatively impact Westbrook’s play?

Fast forward seven months, where having doubts about how Westbrook would play without Durant seem ridiculous. The Thunder superstar is in the midst of a historic season, carrying his Thunder team into a playoff spot almost single-handedly. Through 38 games, Westbrook is averaging a triple-double with 31.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 10.4 assists. To put those numbers in perspective, no one has averaged a triple-double over an entire NBA season since Oscar Robertson did so in the 1961-62 season, at a time where he was physically superior to the majority of his opponents. Further, Westbrook has 17 triple-doubles this season, whereas the rest of the league has 27 combined (10 of which belong to James Harden).

The dominance Russell Westbrook displays night-in and night-out cannot be overstated; he single-handedly gives the Thunder a chance to win on a nightly basis. Russell Westbrook’s usage percentage of 41.4% indicates how his team relies on him to play a role in nearly half of his team’s possessions. Rather than let Durant’s departure negatively affect his play, Westbrook used it as a way to further himself as a leader, a leader Oklahoma City desperately needs.

Nearly halfway through the 2016-17 season, it’s safe to say the void Durant’s departure left in Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder has been filled. Westbrook continues to silence critics by refusing to let his Thunder slide out of a Western Conference playoff spot, playing with an unseen level of energy on the court, and putting up triple-doubles like it’s his day job. When Westbrook is locked in, no one can stop him; defenders can only hope to contain him.

Russell Westbrook and the Thunder’s heartbreaking summer is quickly becoming an after-thought.

Connor Cook crucial to Oakland’s playoff success: Derek Carr’s injury forces rookie quarterback into spotlight for Saturday’s wild card game

Dreams are often too good to come true for Raiders’ fans.
Heading into Week 16, the Raiders were in the midst of a dream season. After years of mediocrity, the team held an impressive 11-3 record heading into their matchup against a weak Colts team. With Khalil Mack leading Oakland’s defensive unit and star quarterback Derek Carr orchestrating the team’s offense, the Raiders were considered one of the few strong AFC contenders to make the Super Bowl.

Although the Raiders edged the Colts 33-25 to improve their record to 12-3, the team lost more than it won that day. Just a minute into the fourth quarter, Carr went down after a sack and was forced out of the game. It would later be revealed Oakland’s prized quarterback suffered a broken fibula on the play. Just like that, Oakland’s dream season and Super Bowl hopes took a huge hit.

It didn’t take long to see how the team would respond in the wake of the injury. Oakland faced the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos for its final regular season game, and the absence of Carr was quickly showing. The Raiders’ star-powered offense fell flat without its leader under centre, mustering up only six points in the team’s 24-6 blowout loss. To make matters worse, Carr’s replacement, backup quarterback Matt McGloin, suffered an injury and will miss the team’s Wild Card game.

With only a few days remaining until Oakland’s Wild Card tilt against Houston, all eyes now focus on rookie quarterback Connor Cook, who will be making his NFL debut. Cook, who started in college for Michigan State from 2013-2015, was announced as the starting quarterback ahead of Saturday’s game. Pressure is square on the rookie’s shoulders to improve his team’s chances of advancing to the division round. And it won’t be easy.

Cook will be up against a dominant Texans defense that ranked 1st overall in the NFL this season. If Cook hopes to cement his name in Raiders’ history with a breakout Wild Card game performance, now would certainly be a good time.

After all, rookies can step into the league and make a huge impact right away. Ask Cowboys’ rook’ Ezekiel Elliott, who’s led his Dallas Cowboys to a league-best 14-2 record…(!?!!..DAK PRESCOTT!) Even the greatest QB of all-time Tom Brady (sorry Peyton!) had to fill a star quarterback’s shoes at some point (throwback to Drew Bledsoe).
Raiders’ fans can never dream too much. Here’s to a New Year’s miracle; never know what can happen.

Reasons you can’t count out the Jays in the ALCS

After four games the Blue Jays find themselves in a 3-1 hole heading into Game Five of the American League Championship Series. Aaron Sanchez just pitched a dandy in Game Four at Rogers Centre, allowing two hits over six strong innings, along with five strikeouts to help keep Toronto’s season alive.

Through the first three games of the series the Jays only mustered a measly three runs. While Cleveland’s pitching has been stellar, the umpire’s certainly haven’t been doing the Jays hitters any favours. Is it the umps’ faults though? A recent ESPN blog post noted that through the first two games of the series, Indians’ pitchers got the benefit of questionable strike calls far more often than the Jays pitchers, in part because of the framing ability of Indians’ catcher Roberto Perez. That same trend continued into Game Three when the series shifted to Rogers Centre.

Perez’s framing didn’t have as much of an impact in Game Four though, with the Jays’ bats finally coming alive in their 5-1 win. Perez’s pitch framing won’t even be a topic of discussion if the Jays’ offense can do its part in backing up the team’s strong pitching.

Of the 34 major league teams to go down 3-0 in a best of seven playoff series, only the 2004 Boston Red Sox came back to win. The Jays’ have a chance at doing just that, for a few reasons:

  1. If the Jays can get leads early on and avoid facing Andrew Miller when trailing, their chances of success would definitely increase. Miller has thoroughly dominated Toronto hitters this series, striking out 10 of 12 batters he’s faced.
  2. Through four games, the Jays’ have only a minus-one run differential in the series. This shows that even though Toronto’s offense slumped miserably through the first three games, the games were all still close. Cleveland could be in a load of trouble if Toronto’s offense gets on a tear when it matters most.
  3. With Cleveland ace Corey Kluber having just pitched on three-day rest and Trevor Bauer’s health in question, the Indians rotation has some major question marks. Rookie Ryan Merritt, who’s scheduled to start Game Five, lacks both postseason and starting experience. Merritt has had some success coming out of the bullpen, but he’ll likely be on a tight leash in a high leverage game, especially with only one start in his young career.
  4. If Merritt can’t last long, Cleveland’s bullpen will once again have to carry a heavy burden, which could be a tough task to handle for an Indians bullpen that pitched over eight innings in Game Three. Aside from Miller, the Jays’ have started to show signs they can hit Indians’ relievers.
  5. Per Zachary Rymer of Bleacher Report, the Jays won four straight games seven times during the regular season. Who’s to say they can’t do it again?

Get ahead early, avoid Andrew Miller, get the bats going. Easy enough, right? A historic comeback is definitely on the table.

What the Blue Jays playoff rotation should look like come October

Barring any major injuries to Toronto’s starters and continued offensive production, the four-man playoff rotation the Blue Jays could potentially be trotting out for the playoffs is one of the stronger rotations in all of baseball.

Cy Young candidate and 17-game winner J.A. Happ (3.19 ERA) is positioned to start Game 1 of the ALDS, assuming the Blue Jays close out the season with a second straight pennant crown. Happ epitomizes consistency every time he trots out to the mound this season, putting the Blue Jays in a favourable position to win. The run support he receives in his starts helps, but the work Happ exhibits on the mound doesn’t go unnoticed. Aside from his last two near-quality starts (5IP, 6H, 4ER, 1BB, 6K vs the Los Angeles Angels / 7.1IP, 7H, 4ER, 1BB, 9K vs the New York Yankees) and one start against the Oakland A’s back in mid-July, Happ has held opposing lineups to 1 earned run or fewer for nearly a six week stretch.

The debate is in full throttle as to whether the Jays will elect to start youngster Aaron Sanchez or Happ for Game 1 of the ALDS. Personally, I think Happ’s consistency is the more favourable choice to get the Blue Jays momentum going to start the playoffs. Sanchez (12-2, 2.99 ERA) has been incredibly consistent in his own right, but the career-high innings total (156.1 by the end of August) could factor into management’s decision-making come October. Slotting Sanchez in as the second man in the playoff rotation appears to be the safer choice of the two.

Given Marcus Stroman’s improved play over the past two months and ability to carry the Blue Jays deep into close games (excluding two or three starts), I would slot the other youngter of the rotation in for Game 3 of the ALDS. Stroman’s ERA (4.58) has dropped considerably over the past couple months, vaulting him back into his accustomed role as a reliable Blue Jays starter. His mastery of his pitches as well as his ability to keep the ball down and hit the corners of the strike zone are the main factors that are attributed to his revitalization. Something about Stroman’s September performance last season further encourages me to slot him in for Game 3; Marcus appears to up his game when it really counts most is not phased by the pressure.

To close out the playoff rotation, I’d slot in Marco Estrada. Aside from his last two starts, Estrada since coming off the disabled list has picked up where he left off and owns an impressive 3.47 ERA. I know you may be thinking based on his ERA alone that Estrada should be the Blue Jays #3 starter in the rotation, but there is one main reason I would argue the contrary. Assuming that the Blue Jays are in a tight series, positioning Estrada to pitch a potential close out game would be in their best interest. If history is any indicator, when the Blue Jays had their backs against the wall heading into Game 5 of the 2015 ALCS against the Kansas City Royals at Rogers Centre, Estrada came out and pitched one of the best starts of his career to send the series back to KC, much to the appreciation of Blue Jays fans (http://www.sportsnet.ca/baseball/mlb/gotta-see-it-estrada-gets-huge-ovation-from-blue-jays-faithful/). Estrada has proven to be a big game pitcher, and that’s what you need most if you hope to go deep into October.

As September approaches and the stretch run continues to heat up with the AL East pennant still up for grabs, let’s hope the Blue Jays continue their stellar play and lock up a second straight division title so this playoff rotation can become a reality. If this recent Minnesota series is any indication, the Blue Jays offense along with their sluggers are willing to contribute their fair share towards the cause.