Friday, February 09, 2018

After the Deadline, It's Houston v. Golden State

At the break update: With a close loss in Portland, the Golden State Warriors dropped to second place vs. Houston, in the competition for home court throughout the playoffs.  There are several ways to look at that loss.  On the one hand, on a night when the entire team shot poorly, the Dubs came within a few points of winning anyway, due to a 50 point performance by Kevin Durant.  On the other hand, even the Durant insurance policy wasn't enough to offset subpar performances by the other stars and the bench.  Is there a problem in team dynamics?  That possibility can no longer be ignored.

Meanwhile Houston looks invincible, as do the reborn Cavs.  The championship is really not a foregone conclusion, the playoffs aren't going to be as smooth as last year, and if there are weaknesses they need to be identified before it's too late.

As the fallout from trades and signings around the NBA trade deadline continue, some conclusions can already be drawn.  For the Golden State Warriors, they mostly reinforce what's become evident over the past month.

The wholesale changes in the Cleveland Cavs lineup suggest the team may yet get into the playoffs and make some noise.  But until the new Cavs can prove otherwise, the Celtics remain the only (remote) challenge to the Warriors in a finals series.

The Warriors are very likely to get their major challenge from Houston in the Western Conference playoffs.  With the addition of another big man, Houston added to its formidable scoring machine.  Houston is performing better than the Dubs right now, and they look likely to first of all challenge for home court throughout the playoffs.  They appear to be the only team in the NBA that can hang with the Dubs for a seven game series, although when the Warriors aren't playing well (not enough defense, too many turnovers), they are vulnerable to teams like OKC and Boston.

The Warriors have made zero moves so far.  Neither did the Spurs, and they are fading.  So the season and the playoffs are shaping up to be Houston v. Golden State.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Not So Fast

It's not the All-Star Game break yet, and some are declaring the NBA season over, with the Golden State Warriors as playoff champs.  An article in Slate declares: "Sure, someone else could win this year’s championship. It’s also possible the sun could take tomorrow off and we could wake up to find the forest moon of Endor hanging in the sky."

But a couple of games this past week suggest, not so fast.  Right now the Warriors are champions of the regular season.  Other teams have slumps.  The Warriors rarely lose even two games in a row.  The Warriors slump at times during games, which could become a fatal habit in the playoffs.  But their depth protects them in the regular season.

But the playoffs are about match-ups.  And this week's game with Houston showed that when its three stars are playing, that team can beat the Warriors, as they did in that game.  Only a playoff series itself can say at this point whether they've got enough to win four out of seven.  And with the star of the team that presents Houston with matchup problems--the Pelicans--down for the season, it seems pretty likely that they will survive the playoffs long enough to meet the Warriors in the western conference finals.

If the Dubs win that series and either Cleveland or Toronto wins the east, then it could be time to say the Warriors will be champs.  Neither of those teams can beat the Dubs in multiple games.  But if Boston wins the east, then it gets more interesting, and there will be a real Finals series.  The Dubs have problems with them, as evidenced by Saturday's game, when the Warriors won by just 5 points at home, due to a 49 point outburst by Steph Curry. The problem for the Celtics is getting there.  For awhile now they've haven't been able to beat anyone else.

But even beyond all this, the playoffs depend on which star players are healthy and which are not.  That can't be predicted this far in advance.  The quality of team play and their physical and mental condition at the end of the season are also determinative and unpredictable.  The second half of the season means something, and anyway, it's a long time till May and June.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Corners Set for the Giants, Dubs Wait for Cavs Moves

It's official in San Francisco.  Andrew McCutchen is slated to play right field for the Giants, while Hunter Pence moves to left.  Both players said they were with the program, which has several advantages.  Both Cutch in center for the Pirates and Pence in right for the Giants had sub-par defensive years the last year or two.  Cutch is definitely faster and covers more ground than Pence, so he's a good fit for right.  Pence still has a rocket arm, so playing left is an upgrade for the defense.

With lesser defensive ground to cover, both players may see the offensive upside, in hitting but also base-running.  Cutch is always a threat to run and to take the extra base.  It should be a more dynamic situation out there.

With their outfield corners set, Evan Longoria, their other big acquisition, will start at third, the hot corner of the infield. That makes a potentially solid infield, though whether it can return to the chemistry it had with Matt Duffy at third remains to be seen.

This of course leaves center field as the big question mark.  The Giants are open about wanting to deal for an established center fielder, opting for defense over offense if necessary.  Currently the speedy journeyman Jarrod Dyson is the favorite, since the Giants dropped out of bidding for the Royals' Lorenzo Cain. Cain's free agent price has reportedly been dropping though, so that could change. Failing a deal, they have a few speedsters in their farm system to examine.

 The club also says it's on the lookout for relief pitchers but didn't sound hopeful.  This remains a conspicuous vulnerability.  Their closer, Mark Melancon, another former Pirate, is reportedly healthy after a year of injury and bad results.

Meanwhile, the two teams who've met in the NBA finals for the past three years and are expected to again, are looking at the February trade deadline in totally opposite ways.  The Warriors are pretty much uninterested.  The Cavs are desperate.

News is flying about the Cavs many interests--notably in a couple of Clippers (a team that lost 11 games in a row to the Dubs)--and it appears that nobody but LeBron (and a few of his close friends) is off the trade table.  The urgency increased after the Cavs lost to the Dubs again, at home, by ten.

Meanwhile the Warriors keep winning through injuries to their stars and supporting cast.  The injuries have had an up side in that more players on the roster have gotten playing time and Coach Kerr has been able to experiment with different combinations of players in game conditions.

Whatever combinations of stars played, they tended to dominate.  Klay Thompson is still capable of breakout scoring games, Kevin Durant takes over games and ran the offense in Curry's absense, and very quietly perhaps, Steph Curry is leading the league in scoring efficiency, with a higher shooting percentage than in his unanimous MVP year.

As for new talent, well, the Warriors are watching yet another young talent in Chris Boucher--playing in their first G-league game after recovering from a serious injury, which is how the Dubs got him for almost nothing.  They are quite simply loaded.  That doesn't mean they won't surprise with a deal before deadline, if opportunity knocks.  But they really don't have to.  The overheated media rumor mills suggest the Cavs aren't being shy about their belief that they really really do.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Money Ball

As if the Steelers  playoff loss weren't bad enough, along with the very cold winter and snow, Pittsburgh now has to endure the dismantling of the Pittsburgh Pirates (again.)  What a holiday weekend: The Pirates lost their best pitcher on Saturday, the Steelers were eliminated on Sunday, and on Monday it was announced that Andrew McCutchen, perhaps their most beloved Pirates player since Willie Stargell, was traded to the San Francisco Giants.

The Giants and the Pirates are both coming off bad years (two years for the Bucs, a year and a half for the Giants), after some very good ones.   MVP and All-Star McCutchen was the anchor of the Pirates' good years, the personification of Pittsburgh that for awhile lifted the Pirates over the Steelers in hometown popularity.  Though they got close they never won even a division championship, but they ended decades of losing seasons with nameless and faceless revolving door lineups, ever since Barry Bonds was sent to San Francisco.

The Giants had bigger success and little competition for fan affection.  The team that barely avoided losing 100 games last season had many of the players that won at least one championship, and especially that had the best record in baseball for the first half of 2016.  But that's not necessarily the reason the two teams have responded to a bad year in the opposite way, more than symbolized by this trade.

Pittsburgh has clearly opted for rebuilding with young talent while San Francisco is keeping its star (and high priced) core while adding experienced players with stardom at least in their recent past.  So while the Pirates are essentially conceding at least next season, the Giants are all in, though there are plenty of skeptics who just don't see it happening.

But it's more a Giants' bet that their core needed a few better pieces and better luck and health to get to the playoffs.  It's that the Giants can afford to place this particular bet, but the Pirates cannot.

The Giants play in one of the most affluent cities and regions in the country.  People with money are among their active fans.  The team organization is well connected. Except for the American League A's playing across the Bay, their market extends hundreds of miles in all directions.  They can afford to put some big names out there and keep trying to win big, while it's not clear they can as easily afford to lose status and fans by rebuilding.

The Pirates are in a vibrant city but less affluent part of the country.  They are the definition of a small market team--hemmed in by Cleveland (an hour's drive away) and Cinncy to the west, the Phillies etc. to the East.  While they won the hearts of Pittsburgh area sports fans again, they're still at least second and probably third in affluent fans and connections to the Steelers and perhaps the Penguins.

I recall a general manager of the Pirates explaining this situation to me just one season after their last World Championship in 1979.  Then in the 90s when the Bonds, Bonilla and Van Slyke teams kept winning divisions but couldn't quite get beyond that, and the big contracts were up, the Pirates dismantled that team.  It took until this current decade of the 21st century for them to be competitive again.

Ironically (or Iron City-ically) they were able to keep a very good team going this time because Andrew McCutchen really wanted to play in Pittsburgh and didn't demand the money that his MVP status earned.  Now he's coming to San Francisco, with a year left on his bargain contract and perhaps on the downward curve of his career.  Or, at 31, perhaps not.

So far he's slated for centerfield but stories today suggest the Giants would like to play him at one of the corners.  There was concern in Pittsburgh over his defense last year in center.  Iron City-ically again, when I saw the Pirates defeat the Giants last season in San Francisco, it was McCutchen's great late inning catch in center with men on base that preserved the win.

 Assuming he takes to the city, Cutch should be an asset on and off the field--and eventually a fan favorite.  Whether the new bats have a good year in new surroundings will be one factor.  But it seems as if the weakness of the bullpen, so fatal so many times in late innings last year, has not yet been addressed.

As for the Pirates, it may be back to the pre-Cutch Bucs for the fans, enjoying a great ball park and those Primanti sandwiches.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Steelers Bitter End

The defeat suffered by the Pittsburgh Steelers in their playoff game against Jacksonville is the kind that shakes a franchise.

The numbers-addled experts predicted a low scoring game, since the stats showed the Jags gave up few points but also scored few. Then the Pittsburgh offense scorched that defense for 42 points, the highest point total achieved by the Steelers in  a single game this season.  But that weak Jags offense scored 45 points against a team that historically defines itself by defense.

That defensive failure added to what some observers saw as poor coaching decisions, which Steelers fans will undoubtedly be screaming about for months.  The absence of the captain of the defense, the injured Ryan Shazier, was keenly felt.  But that's unlikely to be seen as the whole problem.  There could well be some coaching changes coming, perhaps including at the very top.  The window for this current team core to make it to the Super Bowl can close fast.

The Golden State Warriors have had an odd month.  Steph Curry came back and tore up the league, as Kevin Durant, who led the team to a superior record in his absence, went down.  Durant came back, and Curry went down again.  Without Curry or the resting Klay Thompson, the Dubs lost to a Clippers team of mostly rookies.  Then with both Durant and Curry in the lineup as well as Thompson, the Warriors had their highest point total for a first half all year against Toronto, before fading so seriously in the second half (in the second game of a back to back on the road) that they totally lost a 27 point lead and nearly lost the game.

Moreover, the Dubs are losing their games at home, where they've usually been unbeatable, and continuing a long winning streak on the road.  It's all been weird but most of the time, highly entertaining.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Stephing Up

Steph Curry missed nearly the last calendar month of 2017.  In the 11 games he didn't play due to his ankle injury the Warriors were 9-2. That included winning games in which only two regular starters actually started, due to other injuries. So they continued to look like a championship team, and some began to wonder if Kevin Durant wasn't really the true leader and best player on Golden State.

Then Steph came back.  He scored 38 points on limited minutes, including 10 three pointers, the most any single player has hit in a game this NBA season.  His moves to the basket were equally dazzling, he pushed the pace, got opportunities for others as the Dubs distributed, assisted and cut down turnovers. The Warriors scored 141 points, easily outdistancing any single game in the past month without him.  He played with enthusiasm and fire. The energy on the court and in the Golden State stands was electric.

In one game, Curry proved he is the heart and soul of the Warriors, their most valuable player, and at least in terms of how he transforms the game, the MVP of the NBA.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

December Update: Steelers Challenge, Dubs Rule

On Sunday night the Pittsburgh Steelers once again came from behind and for the third straight game won on a field goal with under a minute to play (the previous two were last-second walkoffs.) This victory gave them the AFC championship.  But their defense, particularly defensive secondary, was criticized as weak.

On Monday night the New England Patriots fell to Miami because of what was described as a  chaotic offense.  The two teams meet on Sunday to decide the division champion who gets home field in the playoffs.  It's very likely they will face each other again in those playoffs.

In the past weekend's games, the Steelers felt the absence of injured defensive captain Ryan Shazier.  The Patriots missed tight end Gronkowski.  The difference this coming weekend is that Gronk will be back, but Shazier will not.  His injury suffered in a particularly brutal game against the Bengals is so severe that he may not play ever again.  And yes, I'm feeling very guilty for continuing to follow football because so little has been done to prevent all these devastating injuries.  But I feel its days are numbered and besides there's so much else I'm trying to avoid following in the news.

Tom Brady is unlikely to have two bad games in a row, and with Gronk back and the Steelers struggling to put up enough points to overcome their defensive lapses, the Patriots have the edge.  There were very good signs for the Steelers in the Ravens game Sunday, especially long pass routes (and the offensive line providing the time), which together with past victories indicates that they can win with various combinations of run, short pass and long pass offenses.  So they can't be counted out by any means.

Meanwhile in the NBA the Dubs have undergone an array of injuries in which one or two principal players have been out in one game, with a couple of elite reserves unavailable.  They've still won.  They completed a 6-0 road trip for the first time in team history.  They beat Portland at home without Steph and Green.  Top to bottom, the Warriors appear to have an historically great team.

Meanwhile, Cleveland got over its early season confusion and won 13 in a row, while LeBron is having a reportedly banner year.  OKC played its best game to beat the Dubs at home and immediately went on a losing streak afterwards.  The Clippers have collapsed, Boston has cooled only slightly, Houston continues to make noise and San Antonio once again very quietly wins games.

So at this point the East looks like a battle between Cleveland and Boston.  It still does not appear that any team in the West can win a 7 game series against the Warriors, even if they are not at full strength.  But several can give them problems.  It remains to be seen if OKC is a match-up problem, or whether they had extraordinary performances plus friendly calls and non-calls at home.

The big MLB news is Guancarlo Stanton going to the Yankees, who are once again building a superteam based on power.  There's the whiff of the Mantle/Maris years, which fascinated me when I was first getting interested in the game.  The San Francisco Giants were the first team Stanton talked to but he passed.  Judging from his comments on the Yankees' winning attitude, I suspect he passed on the Giants because he doesn't believe they're going to be contenders again for awhile.  Certainly the Yankees, who went deep in the playoffs, are a better bet for next year.