Monday, August 22, 2016

Lions Preseason Game #2: Definitely Not Ready Yet

I take all preseason games with a grain of salt the size of Lot's wife, but they're still fun(ish) to watch and try to draw conclusions. Last night, the Lions looked very shaky on almost every level. Not REALLY shaky, but they certainly weren't firing on all cylinders. 

The Good

Matt Stafford did a pretty good job of moving the offense. He wasn't super crisp - missing a read in the end zone that would've gotten a TD and air-mailing a pass into the flat on 3rd & 4 - but he managed to rack up 113 yards on just 11 throws, which is pretty good. He seemed to be developing a rapport with Marvin Jones, who caught 4 passes on 5 targets for a total of 65 yards.

The Receiving Corps in general look pretty good, which is something I've said before. We don't have anybody SO good that defenses will key on him, like they did with Calvin Johnson, but maybe that's a good thing. Tate does so many different things well that you can't cheat on him one way without losing in another. Jones can take the top off of a defense, and Boldin is good at dishing out body blows in the middle. I predict that one of Roberts, Billingsley, or Kerley will emerge as a credible #4 WR.

The defense was a lot of good and bad, but the DBs looked solid, and Ngata is definitely still a capable DT. Actually, that's not really fair to our defense, since we rested our top 2 defensive ends. I don't know that Tyrunn Walker (the other starting DT) played either. And of course DeAndre Levy is still out. Anyway, mixed bag from the defense, but some areas looked pretty good.

The Bad


First, Taylor Decker looked like a rookie. He was often a bit overmatched, and he missed several key blocks on running plays. The offensive line is still playing as a unit that is trying to get to know each other, and the communication and anticipation aren't great. The pass protection was decent in general, although Stafford had ANOTHER fumble-sack on a blindside "look out" block from TE understudy Cole Wick. Speaking of Wick, I was hoping that he would be a more palatable alternative to Ebron, but his blocking skills are severely lacking. His hands are good though.

TJ Jones is probably playing himself out of a roster spot. He's a borderline WR at best, but any value the Lions were hoping he'd add as returner is just not there. He's not decisive, and he runs backwards A LOT. On kickoffs that he returns, I think the Lions' average starting position is probably the 10 yard line. I'd place more blame on the blockers if guys like Andre Roberts and Dwayne Washington weren't doing so much better in the return game.

Dan Orlovsky looks like a capable backup like 75% of the time, but every so often he'll do something monumentally stupid. In the first game, it was the wounded duck he threw that didn't make it out of bounds. In this game, it was yet another pick 6 that I saw coming the second the ball left his hands. I'd like to see what Rudock does with the 2nd team offense.

The defense against the run was atrocious, and they put zero pressure on the QB - . Tackling wasn't great, except from the DBs. Kick and punt coverage was absolutely terrible this week - the Bengals had punt returns of 24 & 30 yards, and two kick returns over 30 yards. That is unacceptable.

 The So-So


I'd put current starting LB and ill-advised draft pick Kyle Van Noy squarely in this category. He totally blew some plays, but also made some nice ones, including a well-timed blitz that resulted in a tackle for a loss. The good news is, he looks like an NFL player for the first time in his career, although he's still a long way away from looking like a high 2nd-round pick. So that's something, I guess.

Theo Riddick looked like a stud in the passing game last year (80 rec for 697 yds), but he hasn't looked like much this preseason. Washington, the 7th-round pick, has looked much better in both the passing and running game, and his TD kickoff return definitely put him on the radar. Zenner and Ridley have been pretty "meh" as well.

The Verdict

It's a preseason game. You can never tell very much anything definitive based on a preseason game, especially one this early. But what I saw was a lot of "not ready yet". 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Lions Preseason Game 1 Tidbits

A few quick things about the Lions' first preseason game:
  • Decker definitely is the LT this year. He got beat by James Harrison for a strip sack, which wasn't good, but he was decent overall
  • Stafford's protection in general was pretty horrible though. He didn't have a ton of time or a good pocket to throw from. I'm not sure how much we can blame on the center not calling the right protection schemes and how much is due to the RB not reading the blitzes. Keep an eye on this as the first team starts playing more in these games. Glasgow might sneak into that unit if Swanson continues to struggle
  • This might be a better WR corps than we had last year. It's amazing to think that despite the loss of Calvin Johnson, we'd be better off, but that's what I think. Golden Tate is actually a better target for Stafford than Johnson, since he's got better hands (70% catch rate to CJ's 59%) and he tends to get open at shorter distances, making Stafford's throw that much easier. Marvin Jones, the #2 WR, has top flight speed AND better hands (63% catch rate), and Anquan Boldin is far over-qualified as a possession WR. With guys like Kerley, Roberts, and Davis fighting for the #4 and #5 spots (all of whom seem better than last year's #3, Lance Moore), this looks like a pretty good position group
  • This is the deepest Lions team I can remember. It's not the most talented, but we can afford an injury in almost every area. LB and TE are the 2 thinnest spots, so naturally that's where all the injuries have come from, but other than that... We've got a number of guys who can play in the defensive backfield. DT is a strong spot, although DE is a little weak. Offensive line is strong, WR is good, and we have a ton of RBs. We have a good kicker and punter, and there's another guy getting reps at both spots just in case. We even have 2 long snappers. Team depth is most evident when you look at special teams. In the past, this has been a weak point, but the Lions looked pretty good last Friday, especially on the 96-yd kick return

Here are the highlights in total:


There's not much else to take from this. The starters who even played only played for a couple of series. They got some yards but didn't score. Several of Pittsburgh's key guys didn't even play.

Good news though. DeAndre Levy was taken of the injury list, and presumably is ready to play this week. Andrew Quarless is also getting a look at the injury-depleted TE unit, despite his weapons charge and 2 game suspension to start the year. No real updates on Ebron's injury. It doesn't look super bad, but he's still not practicing. Cole Wick looked adequate in the first preseason game though, so odds are he starts the season as the starting TE until Ebron or Quarless can go.

Danny Kelly at The Ringer REALLY likes Golden Tate's odds to breakout as a star WR this year. He highlights the extra complexities that the Lions' new OC Jim Bob Cooter implemented last year, and how well Tate fit in that system. Some receivers are deep ball, downfield threats. Some are better route runners, good at finding space in the middle of the field. Some are crazy juking maniacs that excel at the bubble screen. Tate does all of these things, and then some. Put it this way - Tate is like Draymond Green, but for the WR position.

I'm starting to get more optimistic about this offense, if you couldn't tell. The passing game should be fun to watch, if Stafford can get some protection. Hopefully the running game is good enough.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Football-like substance begins this week


The Lions are getting set to open the preseason this Friday in Pittsburgh against the Steelers. While preseason games, especially early preseason, are hardly must-see TV, it's a good time to review the state of the team and get ready for the actual season.

Key Subtractions

Foremost was the retirement of Calvin Johnson. This was teased almost from the end of the season until his actual announcement in March, which gave the Lions plenty of time to prepare. They lost their best receiver, and still one of the best in the game, but Calvin was in a decline while occupying a good chunk of the Lions' salary cap space. CB Rashean Mathis also retired (thank god). Stephen Tulloch was a total liability last year and was released, as was Joique Bell. James Ihedigbo's contract was up, and he's yet to sign anywhere. Based on his declining skills and rocky play last year, the Lions were glad to see his back. But they failed to re-sign Isa Abdul-Quddus, the safety next in line to Ihedigbo. They also lost backup DE Darryl Tapp and G Manny Ramirez in free agency.

Key Additions

The biggest addition was the hiring of now-GM Bob Quinn, formerly New England's Director of Pro Scouting. So ended the influence of Matt Millen and his hires.

The offensive line was terrible last year, and the defense fell from 3rd in the NFL to 16th. The loss of Ndamukong Suh certainly hurt, but the Lions had poor defensive play on all 3 levels, not just the line. Quinn used the first 6 picks in the draft to address O-line and defense, taking OT Taylor Decker in the first round, getting DT A'Shawn Robinson in the 2nd, C Graham Glasgow in the 3rd, S Miles Killebrew in the 4th, and G Joe Dahl & OLB Antwoine (I swear to god that's not a typo) Williams in the 5th. I expect at least the first 3 of those players to see the field this season.

In free agency, Quinn would first look to replace the gaping hole left by Calvin Johnson. He signed WR Marvin Jones from Cincinnati, a burner with great hands. He also signed super-vet Anquan Boldin, a big-bodied, sure-handed WR who at age 36 still has value as a possession receiver. Quinn also added a slew of mid-level players on both sides of the ball who should bolster the team's overall depth. Mayhew's 2010 & 2011 drafts combined to yield 7 players who were cut and 2 who left the team in free agency, so depth was an issue (2012 was also pretty brutal, yielding 2 starters and a backup now lost to free agency, but also 5 players who were cut). 


Also, cheerleaders. The Lions have cheerleaders now. I took a sort of pride in that we were one of the few organizations without a cheer squad. Nothing against cheerleaders in general, I just liked that we were one of the few holdouts (Bears, Giants, Steelers, Packers, and Browns being the remaining holdouts). 

Battle for Jobs

I'm particularly interested to see how the offensive line will shake out. Does Taylor Decker start out on the blindside, or does he get a year on the right to get used to NFL-level speed rushers? Travis Swanson was an absolute butcher at C last year, and many blame him for causing the O-line as a whole to have a bad year. Some articles this summer have rated him as the 5th-best C in the league, which is utter BS. The Lions drafted Michigan C Graham Glasgow in the 3rd round exactly because Swanson was so terrible. Swanson also can play G, so if Glasgow beats him out at C, he could provide some competition with Schwartz and Tomlinson there. If Glasgow DOES beat out Swanson, by the way, and Decker starts at LT, expect the O-line to have a rocky start to the season.

After the O-line, the defensive secondary is the next place that still has a lot to resolve. You can put Glover Quin at FS and Darius Slay at CB in stone, but after that it gets shaky. Quandry Diggs is the best best to play opposite Slay, but Crezdon Butler filled in well last year for Mathis, Nevin Lawson should be healthy, and Tavon Wilson might fill in there as well. The SS spot opposite Quin could finally be Don Carey's, but I suspect new acquisition Rafael Bush ends up there. Wilson, Killebrew, and Isaiah Johnson also factor into the competition.

Linebacker is pretty straightforward, but the D-line could get interesting. DT A'Shawn Robinson was  a steal for the Lions in the 2nd round, and he could push Tyrunn Walker for snaps. Ngata was solid last year, but is well past his prime and isn't going to play a ton of snaps. Stefan Charles, Caraun Reid, and Gabe Wright are all fighting for the 2nd backup role. The DE position, after Ansah and Taylor, is really thin. Possibly as thin as it's been in quite a while. I'd say we have 1 semi-credible backup, and then... who knows.


Injury Report

DeAndre Levy is still on the Active/Non-football Injury list. The Lions are protecting the nature of the injury as though it's the nuclear launch codes, although they expect Levy to return soon. I wouldn't think that's such a big deal, Levy's injury last year got the exact same treatment and it turned out he was basically done for the year. We are ill-prepared to go another year without Levy, so hopefully this is just some recovery stuff and he's back to playing at a Pro Bowl level.

Another injury we were ill-prepared to deal with was the possible Achilles injury that TE Eric Ebron suffered this weekend. With Brandon Pettigrew still on the PUP list while recovering from HIS Achilles injury from last year, the Lions really don't have a legit TE to throw out there. Ebron is apparently participating in some drills, which rules out a rupture, but even a strain can take 4-6 weeks to heal. None of the remaining TEs on the roster are acceptable enough to start if neither Ebron or Pettigrew can go when the season kicks on on 9/11. They may be forced to scour the remaining free agents at the position, or else be resigned to watch more of Tim Wright's outstanding blocking moves...


Season Outlook

Too early to tell. Obviously. That's the cop out answer, and really anyone can write that. It's accurate too, since there are a lot of untested units on this team. So as a way of avoiding the cop out answer, we'll examine the Lions' ceiling and the floor.

First, the floor. If the O-line never gels, the defense has more injuries than it can overcome, and the Jim Bob Cooter-Stafford relationship that all our offensive hopes are built on turns out to be so much fluff, this is at least a 7-9 team if not worse. Worst case scenario, we're still not as bad as Chicago, who was already slated to finish last in the division and just lost their starting C to an ACL tear. So the Lions' floor is in the 7-9 to 6-10 range.

Now, the ceiling. Before I delve into this, let me titillate you with an excerpt from an article on The Ringer:
Matthew Stafford’s passer rating at the season’s midway point was 84.1; his passer rating over the Lions’ final eight games: 110.1.
Like Cousins in Washington, Stafford did something around the midway point of Detroit’s season that changed everything, and the Lions offense got its groove back.
Detroit’s turnaround did coincide pretty clearly with the Week 8 firing of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and subsequent promotion of Jim Bob Cooter, the awesomest-named person on Earth. After the transition, Detroit came out of a Week 9 bye and finished the year off on a 6–2 run, a stretch during which Stafford exploded, completing 70 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns (fourth most in the NFL over that period) and just two picks. The Lions’ first half saw defenses calling out their offensive plays before they ran them; the second half of the year saw them become the seventh-highest-scoring team in the NFL over that stretch. This second-half surge went largely unnoticed because of their putrid start, but it should put Detroit back on the playoff radar for 2016. 
Joe Lombardi really should've been fired after his first season, and Caldwell definitely could've salvaged last season by dumping him 4 games earlier. It has to be mentioned that the Lions' 6-2 record in the 2nd half of the season came against a much weaker schedule, but Cooter's offense and fit with Stafford cannot be ignored. So, if Levy remains healthy, the line holds up, and the run game is good enough to keep opposing defenses honest, this is an 11 win team. 

Which will happen? Well, the fact that Levy isn't 100% yet, and the Lions are perilously thin at LB, TE, and DE are causes for concern. But that iffy offensive line is the main reason why I think the Lions end up closer to 7-9 than 11-5. Communication and cohesiveness are possibly the most important components of line play, and a unit featuring up to 2 rookies and possibly 2 position changes will not have that. At best, they'll take 4 weeks to figure it out, and it may not even happen until the end of the season.

I like most of what GM Bob Quinn has done so far, but I doubt we'll see the fruits this season. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Pistons Offseason Grades - Did We Get Better?


The Pistons went into the NBA offseason looking to take The Next Step. After a 1st round playoff sweep at the hands of the eventual champs, the Cavs, it became clear that several areas needed to be addressed. Our bench was atrocious, and had been all year. The position most in need of improvement was backup PG. Steve Blake spent most of the year in that role, and he was the 6th worst PG in the league in Value Added. Post defense also needed a boost, presumably at the PF position, and we needed better outside shooting (especially from the bench).

The first domino to fall was the draft. Henry Ellenson was by all accounts a steal with the 18th pick. He drew a lot of comparisons to Kevin Love - tall, white (following the unwritten "must comp a player of the same race" rule), good shooter, good rebounder, terrible defender - and Stan Van Gundy was ecstatic he had slipped. The 2nd round pick, Michael Gbinije, seemed to be a wing/3rd string PG pick that could end up paying off down the road.

Stan then set up free agency by clearing cap space. Jodie Meeks (he of the 63 total appearances in the last 2 seasons) and his $6.5M salary were shipped out to Orlando for a future 2nd round pick. This cleared enough cap space to make a near-max offer to someone, presumably Al Horford. I considered this extremely unlikely, as we were still short of a full max deal (a trade of Aron Baynes was the likely accompanying move), not as near contention as some of his other suitors, and still needed to spend on a backup PG. Stan reportedly met with Horford and was turned down. So their first "big move" was to offer Ish Smith 3 yrs at $6M/yr. He accepted. I was less than thrilled.



First, let me say that I don't think Ish Smith is a terrible player. He should represent an upgrade over what we got from Blake last year. But... where to begin?
  1. He's worn 10 different uniforms in only 6 years! There's only one season there where he played for the same team all year. That's more than a little troubling.
  2. Look at those 3P%... ugh. .298 for his career, and even his career best last year, .329, is well below league average (usually around .350 or so). The 2P% is pretty low, too.
  3. At 6'0", he's on the smaller side. He does ok getting steals, but his overall defense is not good. I wouldn't mind the poor defense if he made up for it on the other end, but the offense just isn't strong enough.
  4. His best games were with Philly. He had decent counting numbers - ppg, assists, etc. - but they were largely inefficient and could've been a product of the good-stats/bad-team phenomenon.
You might presume that Smith is good at SOMETHING, and he is. We think. He's got a good assist/tov ratio, is supposed to be decent at setting teammates up, and is reasonably athletic. The fans and players in Philly seemed to like him. And Nerlens Noel once called him "the first true point-guard" he'd ever played with, although given what has lined up at PG for the 76ers the past few years, that's very much like calling Smith the coolest mathlete ever, or the most attractive garden slug

Anyway. All that is to say that I don't particularly DISLIKE Ish Smith and I'll be rooting for him to play well & everything, but... the Pistons had an opportunity to massively upgrade an important position and they didn't do it. I think we'll see Ish in Steve Blake's role next year and it'll be obvious Ish is the better player, but he isn't better by a whole lot. The Pistons had the money to go after somebody like Jordan Clarkson (re-signed w/ LAL for $12.5M/yr), Matthew Dellavedova (signed w/ MIL for $9.6M/yr), Deron Williams (re-signed for 1 yr, $10M w/ DAL), or Jeremy Lin (signed w/ NJN for $12M/yr). Even Brandon Jennings ($5M w/ the Knicks), Jerryd Bayless ($9M/yr w/ Philly), and DJ Augustin ($7.3M/yr for ORL) would've been bigger upgrades. I hope Ish out-plays all those guys, but I really wish Stan had done more here.

The next move was to sign PF Jon Leuer to a 4-yr, $10.5M/yr deal. This one I liked a lot better, although it raise a few more questions... which I'll get to in a minute. Leuer is a classic SVG style stretch 4. Career 3P% .375, rebounds well, moves well, defends... ok. Better than Harris, anyway. And that is a fair contract in this market for that skill set. At this point, I figured we were set, but the rumor was that Stan wanted to add one more big. I didn't see much point, since the Pistons already had 3.5 guys who could play C, but SVG went on and signed Boban Marjanovic from Serbia, by way of San Antonio. Boban is a BIG big, at 7'3", 290 lbs. He had good efficiency numbers last year, but he didn't get a lot of burn, and I don't see how he'll get that much more here unless we dump Baynes.

Now we have a glut at PF and C. Drummond is our starting center, no doubt. Boban and Baynes are both backups, but I'm not sure which is the better option. Jon Leuer also does a decent job at the 5 spot. Then you have PF. Tobias Harris, Leuer, and Ellenson should all get the bulk of their minutes at the 4, although Harris may split time between the 4 and the 3. Harris is the most talented player of the 3, but the Pistons might be better off if Leuer starts and Harris plays as a sort of 6th man - coming off the bench but playing more minutes. Ellenson is the odd man out at this point, but if he develops quickly, Stan will need to figure out how to juggle an overloaded frontcourt.

Not to be lost in the hustle is Andre Drummond's new contract - a max deal that averages out to about $25.4M/yr for 5 years, the 5th year being a player option. This locks him up through 2020. I'm not going to argue whether or not Andre is REALLY a max player or just a near-max player (he's a max player, that's all there is to it), we needed to lock him up. Players of that caliber don't fall into our lap very often. So good move. There's speculation as to whether or not KCP will get his extension before the October deadline. He's not a $20M player to me yet, so I have no problem in letting KCP hang out and try to earn that paycheck. A $20M deal might put us over the luxury tax too, so a better option could be to let him slide
and sign somebody who can actually shoot for a lot cheaper.

Grades
I give the draft an A. Ellenson was a steal, Gbinije was a solid pick as well.
Free Agency gets a C+. We addressed most of our problem areas, acquired mostly good players, and we didn't grossly overpay anybody. But we did the worst job addressing our biggest need, and the Boban signing was unnecessary. I'd have rather that money gone towards a better backup PG. Plus, we now have a glut at the 4 & 5 positions. The Leuer signing was good, but it made less sense after the draft.
Re-signing Drummond gets an A. It needed to happen, and it seemed to happen rather seamlessly. No feathers ruffled, Drummond seems down to business... If you can re-sign your star for what he's worth without pissing him off, that's worth an A to me.

Overall grade: B+. I didn't like the Ish Smith signing or the overall strategy Stan seemed to employ, but I think that despite that, he managed to improve the team without upsetting anything. There's always a danger of doing too much, and the Pistons are a team whose best chance of improvement is through internal development. Messing with that would be bad. Now, they still have KCP's contract situation up in the air, and I think they may trade Baynes away for something at some point between now and the deadline in February, but Stan definitely managed to improve the team.

***

I had high hopes this offseason that the NBA would pass some rule changes that would curtail the Hack-A strategy. They KIND of did. Some of the more ridiculous fouls we saw last year will now be called flagrant, and Drummond is now protected for 8 minutes a game instead of 4. Great.

If they had expanded protection from the Hack-A strategy to cover the entire 48+ minutes in a game, Drummond would still have to work on his FTs because there is no protection if he's involved in the play. But it would have significantly altered the Hack-A strategy, to the benefit of the NBA. The rule changes they passed represent the bare minimum improvement imaginable, and they still do nothing to prevent this:



Friday, June 24, 2016

Pistons get a steal in Ellenson


I never imagined Henry Ellenson would be available when the Pistons' pick came up, #18 in the first round. I'd seen him projected as early as 4th, and rarely as late as 12th. But this was a weird draft. There were four outright WEIRD picks taken in a row - Maker going #10 to Milwaukee, Sabonis (a lesser version of Ellenson, in my opinion) going to OKC via Orlando at #11, and then Taurean Prince to Atlanta via Utah with the 12th pick. Then, Phoenix, picking for Sacramento (who had traded back from #8 with a superior talent in Marquese Chriss available) took Greek center Georgios Papagiannis with the 13th pick. Yeah, I'd never heard of him either, until a couple of days ago.

Anyway, a couple of decent looking foreign players were then taken about 10 picks earlier than I expected, Valentine and Baldwin also, and that left Henry Ellenson, the #10 guy on Stan Van Gundy's board, for the Pistons to take with the 18th pick. I didn't really look at him prior to the draft because I figured he'd be long gone, so let's take a closer look now.

1st rd, 18th pick - PF Henry Ellenson, Marquette
Physical stats: 19 yrs old, 6'10.5", 242#, 7'2" wingspan, 9'0" reach
College stats: 17.0 ppg, 9.7 rebs, 1.8 asts, 1.5 blks, .446/.288/.749 shooting


Ellenson is big and offensively skilled. He's drawn a lot of Kevin Love comps, but Jalen Rose's Troy Murphy comp may have been the most spot on. His college 3P% is a little low for a prototypical stretch 4, but he hits the midrange jumper at a nice rate, and based on his shooting motion, most experts think he should be able to stretch it out to an NBA 3pt range. He's a smart offensive player, and I think he'll make an immediate impact on the Pistons next year. He also rebounds well, improves our size at the 4, and possibly could run some at the backup 5 spot as well. 



The downside is he's a pretty crappy defender. I mean BAD. He's not very athletic, which usually shows up on defense, and he doesn't know how to use his body to his advantage. This HAS to get better, or he'll never crack a starting rotation. He'll probably never be a shot-blocking threat, but he needs to learn how to push back down low and how to move his feet and flatten out on perimeter switches.

You can really see the good and the bad in Ellenson in his earlier matchup with #1 pick Ben Simmons. He hit some nice shots and rebounded well, but Ellenson couldn't hang with Simmons on the other end. Now Simmons is a top-level talent, but that's closer to what Ellenson would see on a regular basis in the NBA. Simmons is obviously good enough to start now, Ellenson isn't. But with an improved 3P% and some pushback on D, he'll get there. I like the pick.

The next pick the Pistons had was 19th in the 2nd round, 49th overall. There were several players that slipped into the 2nd round - Patrick McCaw, Deyonta Davis,  Demetrius Jackson, and Tyler Ulis - that the Pistons might've gone with if they'd still been around at 49. Kay Felder, a local kid that a lot of people liked, was available when the Pistons came up.

2nd rd, 19th pick (49 overall) - G/F Michael Gbinije, Syracuse
Physical stats: 24 yrs old, 6'7", 205#, 6'7.5" wingspan, 8'5" reach, 37.5 max vert
College stats: 17.5 ppg, 4.1 rebs, 4.3 asts, 2.8 tov, 1.9 stls, .461/.391/.663 shooting


Gbinije is supremely athletic, with superior vertical, agility, and one of the top sprint finishes in the combine. He's 6'7" and can handle the ball, run backup PG, and defend 3 positions. He's pretty old for his draft class at 24 (already older than 5 current Pistons Drummond, Harris, KCP, Hilliard, and Johnson), but I'm not sure that's a bad thing. He also shoots a pretty poor FT% for a guy who knocks down threes at a .391 clip, which is weird. Gbinije transitioned from an off-ball SF to Syracuse's primary ball handler, and was really their main guy. His nickname is "Silent G" (which could REALLY be my nickname, for other reasons), which is pretty cool and gives a clue how to pronounce his last name. He also looks a lot like The Game, which is also pretty cool.

I think a lot of the league is looking at what Golden State has done and saying, "we need passing, length, and defense at every position, and some shooting wouldn't hurt either." Gbinije, if he works out, absolutely fits that mold. He doesn't have Shaun Livingston's crazy wingspan, but he has a better 3pt shot and positional versatility, able to play and guard positions 1-3. I like this pick as well, especially in today's NBA.

Overall I give the Pistons an A for their draft. They didn't succumb to the temptation to trade up, they got a LOT lucky when Ellenson dropped to them, they addressed positional needs AND skill set needs with both picks, and I think they got players who can help them right now, as well as in the future. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

NBA Finals/Draft Preview Edition


This NBA Finals was a disappointment in a lot of ways. First and foremost, the Warriors were my adopted team. I've liked Steph Curry since his Davidson days. Despite being a Michigan fan, I've always (or almost always) liked Draymond Green. Secondly, most of the games were pretty bad. As in, hard to watch to the end. Games 1 & 2 were blowouts for GS. Game 3 was a blowout for Cleveland. Game 4 was tight until the 4th quarter, when GS ran away with it. Game 5 was missing Draymond (more on this) and Cleveland had the lead the whole 2nd half. Game 6 might've been the worst game in the series, Cleveland rarely allowing their lead to fall into the single digits. Game 7 was the only wire to wire game in the series. Thirdly, the officiating was wildly uneven.  Part of the reason Cleveland ran away with game 3 was that the officials swallowed the whistle A LOT. I counted three shots in Golden State's first several possessions that should've been shooting fouls but went uncalled. The Draymond Green suspension was retroactively awarded and HIGHLY controversial. I firmly believe that Green's swipe merited a Tech at best (with no accompanying suspension), that the league primarily called it based on LeBron complaining after the fact & things always look worse in slo-mo. Some of the fouls that caused Curry to foul out of game 6 were ridiculous, especially the last two calls. I don't think the NBA actually "rigged" the games, but they had an interest in extending the series and I think that played into how some of the games were called. It's interesting (and by "interesting" I mean "suspicious") how the way they called the series changed dramatically after the first 2 blowouts by GS, when it looked like Cleveland might get swept in embarrassing fashion.

And fourthly, I hate LeBron. I hate his contrived persona, how he effed over Cleveland so publicly in The Decision, how he arrived in Miami, how he complains (my hatred of the LeBron WHAT FOUL??? face is 2nd only to the one Tim Duncan mercifully retired several years ago), how he was catered to in Cleveland, how he was courted during The Decision, how he came back like NBD, how he AGAIN hand-picked the team (mandating the trade for Kevin Love), killed the coach & picked his replacement... There's a lot there to dislike. There was a fair bit of schadenfreude involved in watching Miami lose to Dallas and San Antonio, and again in watching Cleveland lose last year. I was really looking forward to a year full of "LeBron is a choker" articles. Alas...

I hate to admit it, but LeBron OWNED these finals as completely as it's possible for one player to own a series. He averaged 29.7 ppg, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, 2.3 blocks, and shot .494/.371/.721 from the field (despite prior reports of his jumper deserting him). He played impeccable defense, and the only real flaw in his game was a propensity to turn the ball over because he was passing too much instead of attacking. Yikes.

On the flip, Steph Curry, unanimous MVP of the regular season, was a HUGE disappointment. He shot well below his season averages from the field, and was significantly down in every single category except turnovers. Both LeBron and Curry averaged over 4 turnovers a game, but where LeBron's were largely due to passing too much, Curry's were largely due to being REALLY careless with the ball. We've now seen Curry in back-to-back NBA Finals, and we've yet to see him play like the same guy we see in the regular season. This is usual in the playoffs when buckets are harder to come by. In fact, last year his finals performance probably wasn't as bad as you think you remember. Iggy won the Finals MVP, but Curry probably would've won it if it hadn't been for the turnovers. This year though, Draymond Green was CLEARLY the best player on his team (his line for game 7 - 32pts, 15rebs, 9asts, 2 stls, shot 11-15 FGs, 6-8 3Ps, 4-4 FTs. He'd have gotten a triple-double if Ezeli could've converted an easy alley-oop), even considering the fact that he got himself suspended for game 5 and laid a couple of eggs in games 3 & 6.

This brings up the question - is Curry's MVP counterfeit? He lights it up in the regular season, lays a relative egg in the playoffs and his team loses after being up 3-1. That shouldn't happen to a league MVP, right? Well, yeah, but... what about Kobe's 2008 finals (especially the elimination game)? Curry certainly wasn't as bad as Dirk Nowitzki in 2007, losing in the first round in a #1 vs. #8 upset, during which Nowitzki couldn't buy a three. 2007 Nowitzki is the gold standard for counterfeit MVP campaigns. No, I would say the best comp for Curry's choke-job is Karl Malone in 1997. It's not a perfect comp - Curry was (rightfully) unanimous whereas Jordan was a VERY close 2nd in '97 (and mainly lost due to voter fatigue), Curry's team set the NBA record for wins while Utah finished 1st in the West but still behind Chicago - but look at finals performance vs. regular season. Malone's FG% dropped a full 11% in the Finals vs. his regular season number (Curry's dropped 10%), and his FT% dropped by 15%. In the series clinching game, Malone shot a Drummond-like 7-15 from the FT line. In HIS series clinching game, Curry only managed 17 points on 19 shots.

Again, I actually believe Curry deserved his regular season MVP award. LeBron just wasn't good enough, no one else was, and Curry's season was transcendent. It was arguably the best shooting season of all time. I'd argue that, anyway (no one has shot like that AND led the league in scoring). He also played good defense at the PG position (lead the league in steals), and nearly averaged 7 assists to boot. Even with the benefits of hindsight, this was as solid an MVP campaign as you can get (contrasting with Malone, who was in the conversation but definitely benefited from voter fatigue that negatively affected Jordan). But I think we should start viewing Curry similarly to how we now view Malone - as a really good player (Malone is 2nd all-time in points, 7th in rebounds), but ultimately struggled in the clutch. Curry SHOULD get credit for the 2015 title, but he had a TON of help.

***

Now that the Finals are over, the Draft is next and the question is WHO WILL THE PISTONS DRAFT???

With the 18th pick - and out of the lottery for the first time since 2009 (not counting the pick traded to Charlotte in 2014) - the pickings are slimmer than we're used to seeing. Initially I was hoping that MSU's Denzel Valentine might fall to the Pistons. Then it started to look like he might, as doubts about his relative upside (as one of the older players in the draft), defensive abilities, and health were raised. Then, a report came out that he suffered from a degenerative cartilage issue in both of his knees that could REALLY shorten his career. Normally that would knock him out of contention for the 18th pick, but the draft REALLY thins out right around 18.

Ideally, Furkan Korkmaz, a SG out of Turkey, would slide a couple of spots (currently projected to go around 15th). He's a solid shooting SG who can defend a little and make plays as well. Short of trading up though, it's a longshot he falls to 18th. Wade Baldwin is another guy who'll probably go earlier, but I wouldn't mind taking at 18. Other guys I like but would need to trade up for - Marquese Chriss (PF Washington) and Dragan Bender (PF Croatia). A lot of people like Henry Ellenson (PF Marquette), but he looks like a slow, no D stretch-4 who doesn't shoot the three ALL that well. I'd also say that if a guy like Brandon Ingram drops (say if the Lakers take Chriss instead or something), Boston might be open to trading their pick or something.

Short of trading up or hoping somebody falls, there are four players that I'd be looking at with the 18th pick. In reverse order:

#4 - PF Thon Maker, Athletic Institute (HS) ONTARIO
7'1", 216#, good reach, good athleticism


Wherever he goes, Maker will be a project. He looks REALLY, really raw, and he needs to add about 20-30 lbs of muscle to make it through an NBA season. He's got the physical tools, and the report is that he might be able to shoot a little. He put up KG-like HS numbers, but as a 19-year old, and in Canada instead of Chicago. I think he has a pretty high ceiling, but a low floor in the Hasheem Thabeet neighborhood.

#3 - SG/SF Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
6'6", 210#, good reach, poor athleticism
2016 stats: 19.2 ppg, 7.5 rebs, 7.8 asts, .462/.444/.853 shooting


Valentine would be at the top of this list if it weren't for the knees. His defense is bad, he's one of the least athletic wings in the draft, but I'd take him in a heartbeat if I weren't worried his knees were about to go Brandon Roy. He has one of the best shooting touches in the draft, and he gives you rebounding and passing. He could double as a backup PG in a pinch, since he basically was MSU's starting PG when healthy. But the knee thing is a concern.

#2 - PF Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga
6'10", 231#, limited reach, average to low athleticism
2016 stats: 17.5 ppg, 11.8 rebs, 1.8 asts, .606/.357/.768 shooting


Sabonis is a smart, effective, but limited player. He looks like he has his dad's head for the game, but not his legendary physical profile (Arvydas Sabonis was 7'3" and reportedly phenomenally athletic until injuries took their toll). He fits with what Stan wants to do, and I think he could be the #3 guy on a good team, best case.

#1 - SG/SF Timothe Luwawu, Mega Leks (INT'L) ABA/KLS 
6'7", 205#, good reach, good athleticism
2016 stats: 14.5 ppg, 4.6 rebs, 2.8 asts, 1.7 stls, .402/.358/.697 shooting


The shooting numbers don't blow you away, and that's a concern. But he's developing his 3pt shot, and I think you'll start to see some of these numbers get better as he operates under better coaching. I like the athleticism, which based on the tape is pretty good. He seems to have good bounce and should be able to develop into a stopper. He reminds me of KCP, only better, and with a lot more vertical ability. He looks like he can guard anybody from PG to SF, or should be able to once he gets his feet wet. He actually reminds me a lot of Kawhi Leonard coming out of college. Not that I think he'll be quite that good, but a lot of the raw tools are there.

Some people are huge Maker fans. I'm not, I think he's too big of a risk, but given what else is available, I'm ok with the Pistons taking him as long as none of my top 3 here are available. With the Pistons' needs at backup PG, PF, and 3pt shooting, I don't see a ton of options.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

May the Fourth Be With You... Always



It's May, the Pistons and Red Wings are bounced out of the playoffs, the NFL Draft is over, the NBA Draft isn't for another month & a half... Time to talk Tigers!

The Tigers are 25 games into the season and stand at a healthy 14-11, after last night's abysmal performance by Verlander. The team, like Verlander, has been pretty hot & cold, and they've gotten boosts from unexpected places while getting slumps from others. Currently, the Tigers' best hitter is NOT Miguel Cabrera, JD Martinez, Victor Martinez (although he's actually 2nd best, which is also kind of a surprise) or Justin Upton, but Nick Castellanos. Nick was a pretty big prospect coming up, but he'd been a disappointment so far, both with his bat and with his glove. His batting average was in the .250s his first 2 seasons, and his HR, RBI, and other numbers were pretty mediocre. Currently he's leading the AL in hitting with a .368 BA, roughly 100 points higher than he'd ever hit before. He's got 4 HR and 19 RBI, which put him on pace for 26 HR and 123 RBI through 162 games.

It's dangerous to extrapolate such a small sample and set it as an expectation, and that's not what this is for. I'm trying to highlight his hot start, and put it in perspective with what he's done in the past. Castellanos has never had a month this hot in his career. He picked up the hitting in the last 3 months of 2016, but even then he didn't have a month where he hit .290. Based on his strong-ish finish in 2015 and REALLY strong start to 2016, I think we can expect a breakout performance from Castellanos this year. 

Victor has started well and that's a good sign. Kinsler's been really good in the leadoff spot. Saltalamacchia has filled in nicely for McCann and added some much needed pop in the bottom of the order. On the flip, Justin Upton has been striking out A TON (on pace for 252 for the season), but he's cut that down in the last 5 games and brought his average up from sub-Mendoza to .252. Cabrera's average got down to .206, but the next game he went 4 for 4 and really broke out of his slump. Since April 25th, he's on a 8-game hitting streak, during which he's popped 3 HR, 3 2B, and 6 RBI. Also, Cameron Maybin, one of the better offseason acquisitions, hasn't played yet and is due to come back soon.

As far as pitching goes... Well, the Tigers have flipped there. Historically, and last year especially, the Tigers have had pretty good starting pitching and a pretty bad bullpen. This year, Jordan Zimmerman has been excellent, but all the other starters have been mediocre to ATROCIOUS (looking at you, Mike Pelfrey). The bullpen this year has been the 8th best in baseball, according to fangraphs (the starting pitching is 19th out of 30, and without Zimmerman they'd be last). I love how good our 'pen has been, but the starting pitching is a Problem. Capital P. Verlander... ugh. He's had a couple of absolute stinkers already this year. His velocity is down, he's blaming bad pitching on his SLEEVES... I'm not optimistic. He could round up to a #2 or #3-level guy, but the Tigers either need to make a move or get a big year from one of Greene, Norris (still out with a back injury), Boyd, or Fulmer. They need a miracle.

The Tigers might be able to get by with a good offense, mediocre starting pitching, and good relieving - that formula worked for Toronto last year, although their offense was SWEET - but the offense and starting pitching has to improve or they're missing the playoffs.