Thursday, October 30, 2014

Pistons Stink, Wings Don't, Hoke Absolutely Does

Well, that was disappointing. The Pistons kicked off the season last night shooting 37% and losing 89-79 in Denver. They managed to get semi-decent offense out of Josh Smith (9-22 isn't great, but he got to the line), DJ Augustin (5-10 including 2-6 from 3pt range), and Drummond (5-10 with 9 boards, but only played 27 min & fouled out), but no one else seemed to have a pulse. Jennings played bad enough that SVG effectively benched him. KCP shot a nightmare-ish 3-19, and Caron Butler submitted a donut - he shot 0-5 in 23 minutes.

The Pistons were missing 3 of their top 5 offensive options with Greg Monroe serving his 2-game suspension for a DUI, Meeks recovering from a fractured lower back, and Cartier Martin a late scratch (due to a plantar fascia strain, an injury that doesn't sound bad but can keep you off the court for a while). The good news is, Monroe comes back after tonight's game in Minnesota, and KCP's shot should return soon. This whole game had the feeling of a bunch of guys who hadn't played together before playing in a system they hadn't played in before. They should work out the kinks in a couple weeks or so. Hopefully.

Bright spots: Andre Drummond, while struggling with foul trouble, show a more diverse post game. He still isn't making much outside of 3 ft from the hoop, but he's added some moves to a repertoire that mainly consisted of dunks last year. Jonas Jerebko played well and deserved more than the 12 minutes he got. If someone could have convinced Josh Smith that he shouldn't shoot any threes, he'd have a much better looking shot chart:

Smith is a career .279 3P% shot, and last year's .264% effort isn't the type of thing to give one any mis-placed confidence. Smith, a lefty, tends to shoot a decent baseline jumper from the right-side of the court, a zone that is conspicuously vacant on this shot chart. Outside of those 3 misses from 3, J-Smoove shot 9-19 from 2-pt land. It's not a bad percentage, but normally I'd say 19 attempts is more than I want a notoriously inefficient shooter taking in one game. However, this wasn't a normal game, and Smith taking over kept Detroit close-ish in a losing effort.


The Wings continued a good start to the '14-'15 hockey season, and despite getting totally hosed by a bogus goalie interference call in the 1st period, negating a goal, they went on to triumph. Wings winger/youngster Justin Abdelkader netted 2 goals, including this beauty:

Abdelkader's 2nd goal came courtesy of a nifty move & pass from Pavel Datsyuk, who's clearly still got it. Zetterberg is the Wings' points leader (12 points, 3 goals) and Datsyuk would be up there too, had he not missed 5 games with a separated shoulder, but next on the list is "Abby" with 8 points (5 goals) and Nyquist with 6 points (also 5 goals).

While most of the production has come from the big names through Detroit's first 9 games, recent draft picks & young acquisitions Luke Glendenning (25 yrs old, signed with Detroit out of the AHL), Tomas Tatar (2nd round pick in 2009), Tomas Jurco (2nd round pick in 2011), and Riley Sheahan (1st round pick in 2010) have played well in support and should start showing up more on the stat sheet. After Niklas Kronwall, the Wings top defensemen are Brendan Smith (1st round pick, 2007) and Danny DeKeyser (24 yrs old, signed with Detroit out of the CCHA).

Detroit has the 5th oldest team in the NHL with Datsyuk, Cleary, Franzen, and Zetterberg tipping the scales at 34+ yrs old. Clear is done, but the other 3 still have it (although it's debatable whether Franzen really ever had IT). The rest of the team is actually pretty young, with the rest averaging around 27 yrs old. The Wings showed they could sustain extensive injuries to Datsyuk (37 games missed), Zetterberg (37 games missed) and Franzen (28 games missed) last year and still make the playoffs. With no Olympics to put extra wear & tear on them and a burgeoning young core to shoulder more of the load, the Wings might just have the right mix to get into the Finals again.


I am REALLY sick of Brady Hoke's act. Really. Chris Spielman raised a criticism of Hoke in the MSU vs. U of M game broadcast, saying Hoke isn't developing his players. The original question was something like, "If Hoke has had all these great recruiting classes since he showed up, why does Michigan suck so bad?" Obviously I'm paraphrasing, but since this point was raised on air during a nationally televised game, it has come up here and there

When asked about it by the freep, his response was predictable.
“I think it’s being done,” he said. “When you look at our roster, we had a meeting the other day with the first- and second-year players — 54 of them — and that’s not counting redshirts. You look at the guys who are getting on the field.”
That response reminds me of nothing so much as a politician who has screwed up and is looking to put a good spin on a bad situation. First, let's break down his answer, which is pretty muddled, as usual:

"I think it's being done" (referring to player development) - Of course you do, but you're an idiot. By almost every standard, it isn't happening.

"When you look at our roster" - This is a sentence fragment that is about to wander off into the desert and die...

"we had a meeting the other day with the 1st & 2nd year players - 54 of them - and that's not counting redshirts" - Yep, totally left that sentence fragment for the wolves. Not sure why he's bringing up redshirts, since they don't actually play and therefore no evidence of their development can be seen on the field. In fact, why is he bringing up 1st & 2nd year players at all?

"You look at the guys who are getting on the field." - I assume he's inferring that there is a large portion of those 54 first- & second-year players that are playing for Michigan. That may be, but only because HE'S FAILED TO DEVELOP THE 3RD and 4TH YEAR PLAYERS!

This is the whole point to the question. Where are the 3rd and 4th year players solidifying this roster? Where are the NFL prospects? Outside of LB Jake Ryan, WR Devin Funchess, and DE Frank Clark, who has a shot at making a pro roster? More to the point, why does Devin Gardner look worse than he did when he took over for Denard in 2012? Gardner was a Rich Rod recruit, but 4 of his 5 years have been with Hoke. Michigan was a great QB school, once upon a time. But Hoke has failed to develop Gardner as a viable QB, and he's failed to develop a viable replacement so he can slide Gardner over to WR, where he probably belongs.

Hoke's verbal, mental, and coaching failings are shown in stark contrast with Mark Dantonio. When Dantonio talks, he sounds like he's in command. I know this is kind of superficial, but it's also kind of not. He's direct, to the point, and he usually looks and sounds slightly pissed off, except when he's actually pissed off and then he sounds furious. Hoke sounds (and looks) like a doughy, oblivious guy who you might trust to successfully complete a beer run, but not a pizza run and certainly not a major football program. In other words, if Hoke is a comic book character, he's probably this guy. Or this guy.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Piston Profiles

I've already done a season preview for the Pistons, but with game 1 of 82 coming up, I thought I'd profile a couple of the many new faces in the organization (had I planned this a little more in advance, best believe I'd have sketched actual profile portraits of these guys).

First, the new players - Jodie Meeks, Cartier Martin, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caron Butler, DJ Augustin, and Joel Anthony - represent 40% of the Pistons current roster. That's a LOT of turnover, but Dumars had built a team full of holes and redundancies, so turnover is for the best in this case. Top 4 additions, in order of importance:

Jodie Meeks: Had an out-of-the-blue breakout season with the Lakers last year, was one of the most efficient scorers in the league last year (5th highest True Shooting % among SGs, over Ray Allen and Manu Ginobili), and leveraged that into a contract with Detroit worth $6M/yr over 3 yrs. Before you cry "OVERPAY", know that Meeks averaged nearly 16 ppg on great shooting %s. He's not spectacular on D, but he's exactly the kind of offensive player Detroit has been missing since Chauncey Billups was traded to Denver. Unfortunately, Meeks fractured his lower back in the preseason and is expected to miss at least 2 months. This is less of a huge deal than it should be because...

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: Ok, KCP isn't a new face. But by the some token, he kind of is. His rookie season was as uneven as Detroit's coaching situation, and he barely saw the court. The Acronym (my just made-up nickname for KCP, we'll see how it feels) went on to light up the Orlando Summer League to the tune of 24 ppg and 7.4 rpg. Yes, summer league is wonderful for stat-padding, but he followed up summer league with 2 1/2 REALLY nice preseason games before spraining his knee in the 3rd. He's probably Detroit's best wing defender, he's poised to make the leap this season, and Jodie Meeks' absence provides him the opportunity to do so. Can he continue that crazy scoring production with Jennings running the offense? I hope so.
DJ Augustin: Nearly 2 years ago, I thought Augustin was a good option for the Pistons' starting PG spot. They traded for Brandon Jennings instead, who had a crappy season last year while Augustin averaged 13.1 ppg, 4.4 apg with 1.8 turnovers coming off of the bench for Chicago. Like the recently departed Will Bynum, he's short and not a great defender. UNLIKE Bynum, he shoots the 3 really well and could be trusted with the starting PG role if Jennings goes off the reservation.

As far as the other guys go, Cartier Martin represents the streaky hot-hand off the bench role, something Detroit has lacked since Jon Barry left town, Dinwiddie is the lone rookie and at 6'6" can play either SG or PG (probably 3rd on the depth chart at both positions), Butler was once an All-Star SF but now represents Singler's backup and a veteran voice in the locker room, and Joel Anthony is another vet who shores up the C position.

Stan Van Gundy, Coach/GM: This was the biggest addition to the team this off-season. By far. I'd rate SVG as the Pistons' best coach since Larry Brown, ranking him over Flip and roughly equal to Carlisle. That is high praise. SVG (yeah, he's another acronym) coached Orlando to 4 straight 50+ win seasons, including 2 straight 59-win seasons, before things soured with Dwight Howard. His offenses ranked in the top 10 in scoring, despite not really having a dynamic scorer (his top 3 scorers were Howard, who had like 2 post moves, Rashad Lewis, a classic stretch 4, and Turkoglu). His defenses often ranked in the top 5, despite Dwight Howard being the only good defender on the team (I know that's like saying "my only gun is a bazooka", but the entire rest of the team were defensive liabilities). He's made the NBA Finals, and his teams have made the playoffs 7 out of 7 seasons (not counting the season he stepped down from the Miami HC job & they went on to win it all). He even wrung a playoff appearance out of that Orlando team that Dwight Howard murdered. The guy can coach.
I've been distantly impressed by SVG the GM so far as well. He hasn't made a WOW move yet and he probably overpaid for Meeks, but at least the Meeks overpay was for a player that fits the team! Compare to Dumars overpaying for Jennings and Josh Smith, who don't fit. While none of the players he's brought in knock you over, look at the team as a whole. It's a LOT better. Van Gundy plays down his role as Basketball Overlord, but the moves the team has made certainly have the scent of Stan on them (which I imagine as smelling like tanning lotion mixed with bacon).

The Lions are headed into a bye week, so not much to say there. Fairley sprained a couple of ligaments in his knee Sunday, is expected to miss the next 4-5 games, and the coaches say they aren't worried about his weight. Yeah. Right. Anyway, the Lions will have to bring back CJ Mosley for DT depth, they'll need a solid 2nd half performance from Caraun Reid, and they'll probably bring in another guy for DT depth.

The Lions' 2nd half opponents are stars & scrubs. The Cardinals are the top team in the NFC, maybe in football. New England is #2 in the AFC. Green Bay is back on track, more or less. On the other hand, Chicago, Minnesota, and Tampa Bay are all having wastoid seasons and represent half of Detroit's remaining opponents. I expect a tough games from Chicago, because they tend to play tough even in bad season. But Tampa Bay might be the worst team in football, and Detroit steamrolled Minnesota in their first matchup. Fairley should be out for the Lions' 2 toughest games, and that hurts. Hopefully getting some guys back makes up for the loss of Fairley.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Tale of Two Halves

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
- Charles Dickens, opening paragraph of
A Tale of Two Cities 

It's ironic that the Lions played a game in London that reminded me of a book written by Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities is about, among other things, the differences and similarities between London and Paris during the times leading up to the French Revolution, and ultimately the simultaneous death & resurrection of the main character. The Lions game at Wembley was kind of like that.

In the first half, that #1 defense was gashed for yards and points at a rate unheard of this season. Falcons QB "Matty Ice" was nearly perfect, Stephen Jackson was ripping off 7 yards almost every time he touched the ball, and the Falcons finished the half with 21 points on over 200 yards. On the flip side, Lions QB Matt Stafford was often inaccurate, the run game couldn't get any push, and the Lions' best drive ended when WR Corey Fuller slipped and Stafford's throw went right into the arms of Robert Alford, who plays for the Falcons.

In the second half the Lions scored every time they had the ball, Matt Stafford's accuracy was much improved, Golden Tate went nuts, Theo Riddick capably replaced Reggie Bush in the passing game (great one-handed catch on the game winning drive), and the run game started getting some push. On the flip side, Matt Ryan got intercepted, the Falcons fumbled 3 times (recovering each fumble themselves), and committed several penalties that helped the Lions seal the deal. It was almost as if the teams started out in their opponent's uniforms and then switched back at halftime.

The endgame was especially weird. Detroit had just scored with 4 minutes left to cut Atlanta's lead to 2. An extra point does nothing at this point, so they tried to make a 2 point conversion and get the tie. The Atlanta defender clearly held intended receiver Golden Tate on the attempt, but the refs swallowed their whistles and Stafford's pass fell incomplete. I wasn't a huge fan of the playcall, but Tate probably makes the catch & gets in if he's allowed to make the catch unmolested. The Falcons got the ball back after the kickoff and proceeded to run clock. They picked up 2 first downs, with the Lions applying their timeouts in an attempt to staunch the hemoraging seconds. One more first down ends the game, 2 running plays and a punt would leave Detroit with around a minute to work with. Then the really weird thing happened.

Ndamukong Suh beat his guy badly off the block and had a shot at tackling RB Stephen Jackson deep in the backfield. At this point in the game, it doesn't matter much to Atlanta whether they gain another yard as long as they can run a bunch of time off the clock.This is what made Atlanta's holding penalty so incredibly stupid. It stopped the clock. At this point it was 3rd and 10 with about 1:50 left to play. Not much chance of picking up the 1st down, but they can probably run the clock down 45-50 seconds with a running play before punting the ball back to Detroit. They threw a short pass instead, Julio Jones dropped the pass and the clock stopped.

With 1:38 to work with an no time outs, the Lions worked their way into what we all hoped was field goal range. They then began the infuriating process of moving the ball into better position to kick and running the clock down (I hate this, always think they should at least take a crack at the end zone, especially with all the bad luck the Lions have had in the kicking game - Bill Barnwell expressed the appropriate of anger at the poor coaching in the last 2 minutes of this game). Stafford clocked the ball with 4 seconds to go. The field goal unit came on, the snap was low, and Prater slipped on his approach, pushing the kick a little too far right. Fortunately the Lions were so disorganized that they didn't get their kick off before the play clock expired. Delay of game (I think this was 100% Prater's fault, by the way. The holder waits for him to signal that he's ready, then the holder signals the center for the snap. Prater was taking breaths like he was entering the 2nd stage of labor. He took a while to get himself together). On Prater's 2nd attempt, now 5 yards longer, he kicked it towards the left upright, it straightened out and the Lions got the win.

You can tell this is a neutral site based on the crowd reaction to the missed kick (subdued cheering and ambling towards the exits), the penalty (confusion, ambling back towards their seats), and then the made kick (subdued cheering and ambling towards the exits).

The bye week is coming at a great time for the Lions. Calvin Johnson is nearly healed up, 2nd round pick Kyle Van Noy should be ready to contribute, and it gives time for Reggie Bush, Pettigrew, Ebron and Fauria to get ready for the Miami game. Fairly went down with a knee injury, and it looked bad. I doubt he'll be ready to go after the break.

After 1 half of the season, the Lions stand at 6-2 (should be 7-1, thanks to kicking issues). We've been here before. It feels different, but it's hard to get hopes too high. This team has let us down before amidst cries of, "these aren't the Same Old Lions" (they were). The only way to know if things have changed is to see how the rest of the season plays out.

I think this team will look different in the 2nd half, with Johnson giving a BIG boost to the offense and rookie OLB Van Noy should help the defense some as well. Currently starting OLB Ashlee Palmer hasn't logged more than 2 tackles in a game since getting the starting job and he's an embarrassment in pass coverage (for comparison, Stephen Tulloch played about 2 1/4 games and has 20 tackles, Palmer's played in 5 games and has only 8 tackles. Tahir Whitehead, playing the same position, had 9 tackles through 3 games before moving to the middle).

Will this season's second half look like the 1st half? Or last year's 2nd half? Will they be the team that shut down Atlanta and scored 22 unanswered points? Or will they be the team that couldn't score or stop Atlanta from scoring? Do you see why the Lions make me think of Dickens' opening paragraph?


The less said about Michigan's effort vs. Michigan State the better (if you want more said, check mgoblog's post on the game). 97.1 The Ticket's Jeff Riger pointed out that Michigan OC Doug Nussmeier was inordinately pleased when the offense finally managed to drag itself across the goal line during garbage time (the offense got a huge boost when the defense recovered a fumble on MSU's 33, otherwise they probably don't score a TD). A psyched up fist pump is not the appropriate response when you're still losing to your in-state rival 11-28 with less than 4 min to go. Riger compared it to Notre Dame's DC's reaction after Notre Dame shut Michigan out (this was a more appropriate situation for that response).

MSU responded to Michigan's first offensive TD against them since 2011 by putting together a methodical drive of strictly running plays that Michigan was helpless to stop. That last MSU touchdown drive reminded me of the scene towards the end of Saving Private Ryan when the German soldier kills Adam Goldberg by slowly pushing the knife into his chest. It was brutal and inevitable.

As if there was any doubt, Hoke is DONE. Michigan could beat OSU and he'd still be gone. I also declare this the death of Devin Gardner the Quarterback. Exhibit A is the 2nd interception he threw, which was unequivocably the ugliest play I've seen since Mark Sanchez's butt-fumble.

This was a serious Garo Yepremian-style pass, which is pretty bad considering Yepremian was an Armenian-born kicker who had never thrown a pass in a game before and Gardner is Michigan's starting QB with 4 years college experience. Devin Gardner the Wide Receiver is in a coma right now, but could easily be woken up if Michigan only had a capable QB on the roster.

Gardner's not a particularly good passer, but his main problem is his decision making, which has led to a bunch of turnovers and some extra lost yardage. The problem is, Shane Morris is actually worse in every respect. At 6'4" and with decent straight line speed, Gardner's best position is probably WR. You may recall in 2012 when Gardner played WR for the first 8 games?

This season those numbers would be good for 2nd on the team in receiving yards, tied for 1st in TDs (and that was with Denard Robinson's noodle arm throwing the passes). I think Devin Gardner the WR projects as a pro prospect, if given the opportunity. Devin Gardner the QB is a waste. Hoke is lost because he hasn't managed to develop a capable QB in the 4 years he's been here, so Gardner will probably play out the string as a QB.

This year, 3 former MSU quarterbacks started games in the NFL, Hoyer being the best of the lot. Hoyer and Cousins were both of the Dantonio era, and at times have looked pretty good (Hoyer currently posting a 91.0 passer rating). Of the 3 U of M quarterback that started a game this year, only Denard Robinson comes from the Rich Rod/Hoke era, and he's an RB. Prior to the Rich Rod era, Michigan would crank out pro QBs left and right - Harbaugh, Grbac, Collins, Griese, Brady, etc. Now they can't develop a QB to save their lives, and to top it off they are being beaten handily by MSU right now - in QB development as well as all things football-related. 

If Michigan wants to turn this thing around, that has to change. They need a coach who's 1) not completely out of his depth (Hoke is like a 6 year-old trying to wade through the deep end), 2) capable of developing players, especially the  QB position, and 3) actually has some innovative ideas on what direction to take this team. Rich Rod checked 1 1/2 of those, Hoke checks absolutely none of them. MSU fans are loving the Brady Hoke era. This says everything (I say we poach their DC Pat Narduzzi for Hoke's replacement in retaliation):

Friday, October 24, 2014

I Dread this Saturday

There is a game going on this Saturday that normally I look forward to, but this year I am completely dreading it. The M & M Game was long dominated by Michigan, with Michigan State sometimes overcoming with better effort, a standout star going unstoppable, or maybe it was a tight game that a bad call made the difference.

For the record, the "Clock-gate" game was NOT gift-wrapped by the refs. Michigan lost that game because they got ran over by TJ Duckett (211 yards rushing). Similarly in the 1999 game, Plaxico Burress was uncoverable (10 catches for 255 yards, plus a large number of pass interference penalties drawn), and State was able to drive down at the end and get a TD. The main "bad call" game that comes to mind is the 1990 game when Desmond Howard was knocked down on what would have been the game-winning 2pt conversion and no pass interference was called. These days that gets called 11 times out of 10, and twice that on Sunday.

This year I dread the game because Michigan is severely out-classed. Their new offense looks abysmal (excluding the Miami of Ohio & App State games, they average 272 yards per game and 13.2 points per game). Michigan State's defense isn't nearly the force it was last year, but believe me it is more than capable of keeping Michigan off the scoreboard. Michigan's defense is acceptable, but they don't have the stones to stop MSU if Connor Cook is at least average. Plus, they probably will be on the field a lot because Michigan's offense turns the ball over A LOT. I'll watch the game, but I'm preparing myself for a painful afternoon. To quote Clubber Lang, "Prediction? Pain."


The Pistons won their final preseason game last night against a Philly team that is probably still tanking, since the NBA somehow failed to pass some anti-tanking legislation. Anyway, check all the DNPs on that box score:

Backup C Aaron Gray is out indefinitely after having some kind of heart murmur, Meeks is out for several weeks due to a broken tailbone, and now Jennings is being rested with a sore achilles. KCP is probably ok to go after spraining his knee but they're taking it slow, and Greg Monroe has to serve a 2-game suspension for an off-season DUI. This resulted in a really weird starting lineup of a center, 3 forwards and a PG.

The way things are going, it looks like the starting SF will likely be Cartier Martin (who for some stupid reason is listed as a PF on ESPN), although it's tough to say for certain yet with out. Van Gundy says he doesn't know who his starters are yet, and because of the injuries I almost believe that. As it stands, I see 2 different possibilities for the starting 5:
  1. PG - Jennings, SG - KCP, SF - Cartier Martin, PF - Josh Smith, C Drummond
  2. PG -  Jennings, SG - KCP, SF - Cartier Martin, PF - Greg Monroe, C - Drummond
  3. PG - Jennings, SG - Jodie Meeks, SF - KCP, PF - Josh Smith, C Drummond
The first two lineups are the same, just with J-Smoove and Monroe swapped. The third is a small-ball lineup I think SVG would really like to run. It'll be interesting. This isn't a world-beating roster by any stretch of the imagination, but it does offer a lot of possibilities. Check that 3PM-A and % in the box score: 15-28 for .536% (an average of 28 attempts would have led the league last year). Last year they averaged 6.2-19.3 for .321% and I doubt they ever attempted 28 threes in a game once. This preseason they've never attempted less than 20, with a high of 32. This is a good thing, and the offense should flow much better this year.

One guy who shouldn't be shooting a ton of threes is J-Smoove. He managed to convert 1 out of 2 this game, but he also shot a lot of mid-range shots and long 2s. He finished 6-14 shooting, which isn't good, and that was mainly due to his shot selection (as per usual):

He was 2-7 on shots taken outside of 8 feet, and this is not an anomaly. Now Smith did nearly log a triple-double, with a 17-10-7 line. This is his value - he's a really good defender. who rebounds and passes well, and he can score it if he's in the paint. As long as he takes over half of his shots from inside, I don't have a problem with it. He also does things like this a couple of times a game (Noel has my sympathy. He was totally out of depth here, coming back from an injury season off, facing a vicious lefty dunker like Smith).

Spencer Dinwiddie made his Pistons debut. He's their lone rookie this year, a big combo-PG with a nice shot. His minutes were limited because he's coming back from a torn ACL that cut his junior season short. He bears watching. KCP should be back for the season opener next week, Monroe and Meeks will miss it for reasons previously mentioned. This looks to be an interesting season.


Lastly, the Wings added to their points total by topping the Penguins in OT last night. Kronwall netted 2 goals & an assist (including this game tying goal, playing with the extra skater & goalie Howard on the bench), but the hero was Justin Abdelkader with the OT winner:

Zetterberg is the Wings' points leader with 10 (tied for 2nd in the NHL), Nyquist still has the goals lead with 4, but Pavel Datsyuk is making his presence felt, despite only just getting back from a separated shoulder injury. Through 7 games (just 75 more to go) the Wings are tied with the Islanders for 2nd in the East, behind Montreal. It's a long grind, but with the contributions the younger players made last year, this team is better equipped to go for the long haul than they have in a while.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pistons Preview

DEEE-troit BAAAS-ketball is around the corner, believe it or not. The last preseason game is tomorrow, the regular season kicks off in 1 week at Denver. So what have we got to look forward to?

I love this series, the Bill & Jalen's NBA Preview series. They're funny, Jalen knows the league as a former player, Simmons has interesting theories, and Jalen (being a native Detroiter) is a Pistons fan! It's a good breakdown of what is or may be in store for the Pistons this season, so if you have the time (it runs about 13 min long) you should check it out. Instead of doing a broad overview, I'm going to focus on a couple different areas and then give a prediction for the season. Here we go:

Andre Drummond's development. Offensively, Drummond was basically the same guy in his 2nd year as he was his rookie year. He just got more minutes & took more shots. 81% of his shots came from inside 3 ft and he made 69% of them, and he made less that 40% of his shots in the 3-10 ft range. I'd like him to expand out as far as 12 ft, take more shots from 3-10 ft (say 25-30%), and up his shooting % at that distance to about 40-44%. He's got a hook shot that's a work in progress, he'll also need to add a turn around jumper and an up & under move to get there. Defensively, Drummond needs to improve his on-the-ball defense. He's a capable help defender (not on that Ben Wallace level though), but his man defense needs some work. If his defense improves and his offense stays the same, Drummond makes an All Star team.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's emergence as a scorer. I didn't like the KCP draft pick last year. The Pistons needed a PG, Trey Burke was available, and they took a 2 guard. I still don't like the pick because Burke looks GOOD for Utah, and Detroit swung a trade & a big extension to bring the mercurial Brandon Jennings over from Milwaukee. Plus, KCP's rookie season was underwhelming... UNTIL he lit up the Thunder for 30 pts, 6 boards, 2 steals & a block. Yes, it was the last game of the season, but Durant, Westbrook & Ibaka all played over 30 min, so it wasn't like KCP was torching some scrubs. He carried that success into Summer League, then into the preseason before spraining his knee. With KCP jumping from a come & go bench player into a starting role, all his numbers should increase. I think he could be a Paul George-type player, only with fewer rebounds and much higher 3P%. Expect 12-16 ppg this season, shooting something like .450/.400/.800 and playing pretty good D.

3 men, 2 positions. These 3 guys CANNOT all share the court at the same time. Drummond is a C and is basically tied to the paint on offense. Monroe is a C/PF, meaning he's really a C but can play PF if you need him to. Josh Smith is a PF and only a PF. Playing him on the wing is a mistake (his shooting outside of 3 ft gets bad QUICK, and I mean BAD). This frontcourt needs to get figured out. Ultimately, either Monroe or Smith have to go. They can't pay Smith $14M/yr (this is a TERRIBLE contract, by the way), re-sign Monroe for the max deal that he wants next year, AND lock up Drummond the following year. That is a LOT of money to spend on 3 players that play 2 positions. Too much. New coach/GM Stan Van Gundy is nobody's fool, so he's got to do 1 of 3 things: 1) trade Josh Smith, 2) trade Monroe before the trade deadline, or 3) ride the season out with both players and either sign & trade Monroe or let him go for nothing as an UFA. You never want to let a good player go for nothing, so look for SVG to make a move before the deadline. The Pistons are either trotting out Singler or Caron Butler at SF (neither of whom averaged better than 10 ppg last year and both played iffy D), so look for SVG to pop for a 3 & D wing.

 The man, the myth... Stan Van Gundy. The Pistons ushered in a new era by ushering out Joe Dumars & his revolving door of coaches. They ushered in a new GM, Stan Van Gundy, and a more stable coaching situation of... Stan Van Gundy. This is doubly good, because Van Gundy seems to understand building a roster better than Joe D did the last 6 years, and he's a better coach than Joe D was able to hire since Larry Brown. This is all to the good. Unfortunately, Dumars didn't leave SVG with much to work with. A mis-matched roster with some crappy contracts (Smith & Jennings), and no 1st round draft pick in a supposedly DEEP draft.

What did Van Gundy do? Used the 2nd round pick to get a a high risk/high reward guy and signed several pieces that actually make sense. The Pistons were one of the bottom 3PT shooting teams last year in both attempts and percent. Defenses could pack the paint on Detroit and very few Pistons could make them pay. More KCP (expect his 3P% to be about 50-100 points higher this season) and new acquisitions Jodie Meeks (.401%), Caron Butler (.394%), DJ Augustin (.401%), and Cartier Martin (.391%) will help in that area BIG TIME. The Pistons' 2nd round pick, Spencer Dinwiddie (great name), looks like a big combo guard who can score (shooting .515/.413/.857 thru 17 games his junior season). I'm not crazy about combo guards as starters, but Dinwiddie might turn into a legit PG (Van Gundy has a history of making that work) or else a scorer off the bench.

I wrote a breakdown on SVG & some other potential Pistons coaches back before Dumars eventually hired Cheeks. I think some of SVG's weaknesses go away because he's also the GM. Part of why things disintegrated in Miami & Orlando was because he didn't have enough clout. Now he does. He can draw up a pretty good defense and he's not bad on offense either.

If Van Gundy can pull off a trade for a legit SF and ship out either Smith or Monroe, this team could be a 4 seed in the East. If the Pistons go through the season with the personnel they have right now, they'll struggle to make the playoffs (7-8 seed or just out). This is the first year in a while where I don't feel like I'm talking myself into this. Sweet.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hot Starts, Slow Finishes

We've been here before. Kind of. Last year the Lions started 6-3, finished 7-9. The Lions started 4-4 in 2012, then they lost their final 8 games. Historically the Lions have had problems with that hot-start/cold-finish issue (2004, 2007), but almost no players or coaches remain from those teams. So, the Lions made the playoffs in 2011. In the next 3 seasons the Lions have had decent starts and really poor finishes in the last 2. Will this 3rd straight good-start end the same way?

I hesitate to make predictions about this team because I've been burned SO many times. Last year I predicted them for 11 wins. With 7 games left I thought I'd guessed low (they would have needed to go 5-2 but their remaining schedule was weak), but they fell apart. So why should 2014 be different? Well for starters, each of those last couple of late-season meltdowns featured the bad version of Stafford showing up bigtime. I don't know which Matt Stafford has been showing up the last 6 weeks, but it isn't the good one. Calvin Johnson coming back next Sunday or after the bye week will help a lot. Also, remember that Stafford is learning a new offense and I expect him to IMPROVE over the course of the season.

Their remaining games are ATLANTA (a BAD 2-5) in London, MIAMI (an average 3-3) at home, ARIZONA (a GOOD 5-1) away, NEW ENGLAND (an iffy 5-2) at home, a crappy CHICAGO team twice, a crappy TAMPA team once, and MINNESOTA and GREEN BAY. The Cardinals and New England are probably the only tough teams left, and Green Bay looks better now than they did vs. Detroit in week 3. I expect at least 2 wins out of the ATL/MIA/AZ/NE run of games. I expect 4 wins out of that CHI/TB/CHI/MIN run. That GB game... who knows. The last game is hard to predict, since possibly GB and Detroit could be resting up for the playoffs. Looking ahead is always dangerous, especially since we still don't know how good NE, MIA and GB are (throw the Lions in that category too), but 11 wins is not out of the question this year.

Every year since 2011, an article (usually several dozen) is published to the effect of "the Same Old Lions are gone" and this year is no exception. We keep looking for signs that this team is ready to shed the stigma of a perpetually disappointing team. As long as I can remember, the best the Lions have done is hint that they might be ready to turn the corner, make the leap. Then they fall apart. I repeat my question from earlier - why is this season different? Well...
  • As we mentioned, the offense isn't exactly playing over its head. Stafford has been... meh. CJ has barely played. The run game is just not there. Pass blocking isn't there. This offense can only go up.
  • This defense is GOOD. I can't remember a Lions defense that looked this stout (the aptly named Jerry Ball notwithstanding). Opponents are averaging 15 points per game, and less than 300 yards. The Saints, the #2 offense after Indianapolis, racked up 408 yards on Detroit. This sounds like a lot, but against everyone else New Orleans has averaged 442.8 yards. On top of that, the defense stood tall when they needed a stop, they got a pick that led to a TD and then stuffed the Saints offense on 4th and short. A far cry from that 2011 playoff team that couldn't stop Drew Brees to save its season.
  • Another aspect of this defense is the ability to generate big defensive plays. The Lions are tied for 3rd in sacks, 3rd in INTs, and middle of the pack in forced fumbles. They've scored 2 TDs (Rashean Mathis returned a pick and Don Carey returned a fumble) and had a safety as well. They are 2nd in 3rd down conversions NOT allowed, meaning they get off the field.
Ok, that paints a pretty picture. An offense that really should be producing more, and will as soon as CJ gets healthy. A defense that stops the other team, scores points and makes big plays. So what's the other side?
  • The. Kicking. Game. The Lions are on their 3rd kicker, after Freese and Henery lost the job due to EXTREME incompetence. Prater hasn't looked stellar either, however. He's missed 2 out of his 4 attempts, and his make from only 21 yds (basically an extra point) dinked in off the upright...
    I think he's rusty from a long layoff. Other than a couple of down years, he's converted between 80-95% of his FGs prior to this year & 78% of FGs at 50+ yds. He'll even out.
  • There is a reason the Lions have a history of bad finishes to a season - they get figured out. Gunther Cunningham, gotta love him, but that wide-9, rush 4 thing he did for the last several years got figured out pretty quick. About mid-way through the 2011 season, opponents figured out that they could send a RB to chip the DEs, the interior line could double Suh every play, and Cunningham would never make them pay by sending a blitz. If opposing offenses solve Teryl Austin's D, will he be able to adjust?
    They never figure Austin out. Cunningham's problem wasn't just his lack of blitzing, he also ran his basic defense every week. Austin actually varies up his game plans and has better personnel to work with. Austin has basically out-coached or coached a draw against every team the Lions have faced so far.
The Lions are 5-2 despite having one of the worst offenses in the NFL. Their defense is #1, so it balances out. They would be 6-1 or possibly even 7-0 if they had a decent kicking game. The offense should get better as Stafford learns Lombardi's system and Calvin Johnson gets back, and don't expect the defense to regress much because a) the talent is better, and b) so is the coaching.

Per Gregg Easterbrook, teams that start 5-2 make the playoffs 67% of the time and win the Super Bowl 6% of the time. This is not to say that these are Detroit's odds, just that historically this is what has happened. Recent team history is against them. Which history wins?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tigers Hopes & Dreams... Realistically Speaking

Kind of a slow week this week. The Red Wings are in mid-season form (meaning they're losing shootouts & getting out-hustled), the Pistons are still in pre-season, and a wide variety of articles breaking down the Tigers' season and hopes for the future, displaying varied degrees of insanity on the part of the writer.

My favorites of this last came courtesy of Lynn Henning and Tom Gage of The Detroit News. Henning, never reliable for objective, fact-based reporting, conjectured that a healthy Bruce Rondon would've gotten the Tigers a World Series title. Bruce. Rondon. This guy. Other than a REALLY hot fastball, this guy was the definition of average as a reliever in 2013. A mediocre WHIP and ERA, some outings where he dominated and some where he was wildly disappointing. Ok, I'd have taken him over Joba and Coke (sounds like a cocktail in the Mos Eisley cantina), no doubt... But Henning is saying a setup guy with less than 30 innings of MLB experience would have been the difference between 0 playoff wins and 11 playoff wins is CRAZY.

Tom Gage exhibited a different version of crazy, namely saying that "all is well" and Dombrowski should basically bring the same group of players back, minus Soria and Chamberlain and Ezeqiel Carrera, adding Austin Jackson back to the mix, and paying Scherzer, Victor Martinez, and Donny Kelly Baby raises to stick around. He actually suggests offering Scherzer $27 million per year over 6 years, which is INSANE. Scherzer made $15M in 2014 and they offered $144M over 6 years (a $24M/yr average), which he declined. The way Detroit's payroll is set up, Miguel is roughly getting $22M, Verlander is getting $20M, and in 2014 they had 6 other players making $10M or more. They would need to pay Victor at least $16-$18M to get him to stick, which is a $4-$6M raise. They can't afford to pay Scherzer $10M more than he's making right now, and there's no need to do it! They've got 3 VERY good pitchers under contract, Porcello is decent, and they can get a solid 4th or 5th starter for something like $6-$10M without hurting the World Series odds too much.

The Tigers needs are bullpen, CF, bench depth, bullpen, defense, bullpen, and bullpen. Walkoff Woodward put it pretty well: FIX THE BULLPEN! Assuming Scherzer walks, the Tigers could make a run at drawing James Shields away from KC, but that would take $18-$20M. Or they could try to get someone slightly cheaper like Jason Hammel, Edinson Volquez or Kyle Kendrick, or they could take a flyer on a guy recovering from an injury like Josh Johnson or Wandy Rodriguez. This would save something like $10-$15M over reupping with Scherzer, money which would be better spent on the bullpen and their CF situation. The big name CFs going into free agency are Rasmus, Young and Aoki, all of whom are better defensive CFs than anyone Detroit had in 2014. Cheaper options out there are Nyjer Morgan or Franklin Gutierrez. I like Morgan. He's a speed demon, pretty good defensively, and he handled the bat well with limited opportunities in 2014.

The big problem is the bullpen. Joe Nathan is most likely coming back, for better or worse. Joba is gone, Soria is probably gone, and Phil Coke is 50/50. The best relievers under contract are probably Albuquerque, Rondon, and Hardy in some order. Rondon would be the setup guy if healthy. The Tigers could do what they did last year, swing for the fences with a couple of big name, high priced closers, or they could go after 2 or 3 solid arms. Luke Gregerson is available, with an ok strikeout rate, a pretty good walk rate, and 4 straight years of sub-3.00 ERAs. Scott Downs is getting old but still gets lefties out and would be a good replacement for Phil Coke (who doesn't). Former Tiger Andrew Miller (a lefty who gets out everybody), should be Dombrowski's #1 target for the 'pen. He had a fabulous season (great WHIP & ERA, crazy K-rate, etc.), and followed it up with a great post-season as well:

That's 7 and 1/3 innings, 1 hit allowed, 1 walk yielded, and 8 strikeouts. I know, small sample size, but Miller was that guy all season and last year and, to some extent, the year before. Ausmus did a pretty bad job of managing his bullpen, so some of the mess that resulted in the Divisional Series sweep, but he didn't really have a shut down guy like Miller in his 'pen either (not that Ausmus would've used Miller anyway - Al Albuquerque was probably the Tigers' 2nd or 3rd best arm in the 'pen, didn't pitch at all in October).

If the Tigers are going to make some noise in October next year, they need a couple solid relievers after the closer (I didn't like Nathan closing games last year & would have rather had Soria, but Dombrowski is probably keeping Nathan on & ditching Soria), Ausmus needs to manage his 'pen better (probably the hardest thing for a new manager to figure out), the defense needs to improve (getting Iglesias back at SS and signing a quality CF will help a lot, although Castellanos is still a butcher at 3B), and the bench needs to get deeper.

I thought Aumus's rookie season as a manager was a mixed bag. He did some interesting things on offense, which was a little more varied than when Leyland was in charge, but he was way too committed to a shaky back end of the bullpen. It was almost like he was obstinately ignoring Joba's performance at the end of the season (ERA climbed from 2.40 on 7/23 to 3.57 on 9/28), and the fact that Nathan was the worst closer in baseball who still held that role. Hopefully he's learned a lot, but he may give us another Alan Trammell performance from the dugout.