Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Lions Still Are Who I Thought They Were

The Lions posted back-to-back-to-back losses, and each loss was a special, unique snowflake, if snowflakes were depressing dumpster fire horror-shows. First, they lost to Tennessee (a team they should've beaten), by committing roughly a thousand penalties and losing a bajillion yards and having multiple TDs taken off the board (exaggerating about everything but the TDs). Some of those penalties were legit, some were just the result of a crew that seemed a little too flag-happy. For example, one of the TDs that was disallowed was the result of a phantom Eric Ebron offensive pass interference. Anyway, 17 penalties for 138 yards probably cost them the game, without even getting into player performance. It was absolutely a game they should've won, but they shot themselves in the foot.

The next week the Lions lost no time in playing themselves out of the game. They were facing the Packers at Lambeau, so no small task there, and they had a number of injuries to overcome. I had switched the game off before the end of the half (when it was 31-3) for medicinal purposes and was pleasantly surprised to see that they had actually scored some and were only a couple of TDs away from a tie. They of course blew the endgame, since their defense couldn't stop Green Bay's running game despite the fact that everyone KNEW GB had to run it. Anyway, clock ran out, Lions lost down by 1 TD.

I considered the Bears one of the bottom 3 teams in the NFL, so week 3 should've been a gimme. It wasn't. Still pretty banged up on defense (no Levy, Ansah, and weak in general at LB), the Lions surrendered 300+ yds to Chicago's anemic passing attack and allowed a 100+ yd rusher, despite the fact that Chicago was missing it's top RB and 2 offensive lineman. The offense was... thinking of synonyms for putrid... ghastly. The only touchdown was scored by Andre Roberts on an 85-yd punt return. Stafford threw 2 picks in the red zone that likely took points off the board for the Lions. With that, the total lack of a running game (66 total rushing yards) and lack of sustained drives (6 of their 9 possessions were 5 plays or less), the offense flat-out failed to show up for this one. And the defense was little better. The family was travelling back home from my cousin's wedding on the east coast, so I mercifully missed this game entirely.

In one loss, the Lions had the lead and played their way out of the game. In the next, the Lions decided they were going to lose early on, then changed their mind but it was too late. In the third, they decided not to show up entirely. Two of those games were against opponents most expected the Lions to handle. So, facing the 3-0 Eagles, the Lions seemed to be on their way to four straight losses, a 1-4 record, virtual playoff elimination (needing to finish 9-2 to have a shot), and a dead-in-the-water head coach.

Well, the Lions came out firing. They scored TDs on their first three possessions, and the defense managed to hold the Eagles to 10 points in the first half. Unfortunately, the script flipped in the second half. Philly scored a TD on the opening possession, then Stafford fumbled the ball without being touched, giving Philly the ball on our 16 yard line. The defense managed to hold them to a FG, preserving the lead by 1 point. 

At some point after this, one of the commentators, Charles Davis, suggested the Lions employ a run-out-the clock type of strategy. They had a 1-point lead and all of the 4th quarter still to go. I'd like to point out that Charles Davis was actually getting paid by Fox for his supposedly informed football opinion. After that statement, I thought Fox might have a case for taking him to court so they could get their money back.

Naturally, Philly kicked a FG on their next drive and the Lions were behind and squeezed for time. They mounted a majestic 3-yd drive, and I figured the game was probably over. Philly managed to bail us out. Darius Slay forced a fumble, Detroit recovered, and after a long review (during which I was SURE the officials were going to screw us, as they have been wont to do in moments like that), the Lions got the ball back in Eagles territory. Unfortunately, the Lions couldn't punch it in, but they managed to hit the FG after Stafford took the sack (with Jones and Boldin open in the end zone) on 3rd & goal. 

Philly had no timeouts but a decent amount of time to get in FG range, but Wentz got greedy and threw his first pick of the season. Darius Slay (definitely Player of the Game) got in phenomenal position, ran the receiver's route for him, got a nice over the shoulder catch, and ran it back a bit before sliding to avoid a potential fumble. A couple of kneel downs sealed the victory.

This was not a pretty game by any means. The running game hasn't been adequate since Abdullah went down, and the passing game hasn't been lit for 2 straight weeks now. The Lions are still really banged up. They should be getting Ansah back, but now Ngata is down for 3-4 weeks. They added Justin Forsett to boost the running game, but that offense is pretty banged up. The injury list includes Abdullah, Washington, Boldin, Ebron, Riddick, and Laken Tomlinson. That's like ALL our RBs, half our receivers, and our sort of starting LG. The defense is little better, with Levy and Ngata out of course, Ansah is still limited, and Ngata's most capable replacement on the starting line, A'Shawn Robinson, was limited as well. The Rams are a very beatable team, but the Lions might be too banged up to take advantage.

Looking ahead, that's kind of my prognosis for the season. We took 2 really big hits when Levy & Ansah went down, and then our offense lost all pretense of a running game when Abdullah went down as well. This is pretty close to the worst-case scenario I outlined at the start of the season. On the plus side, I expect our offensive line to improve as the year goes on, so we should start looking a lot better in the last few games. It just won't be soon enough to make the playoffs, or probably even finish with a winning record.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Lions Recap and Look Ahead

The Lions game was an interesting experience this past weekend. The family was just arriving home from the Wheatland Music Festival as the game started, so the game was playing in the background as we unloaded the car. Then I needed to get ready for a 10 mile run (prepping for a half marathon this weekend), so I watched most of the remaining 1st half and went on my run. Finished my run (1:39:55 later), stretched a bit, and turned the tv on JUST as the Colts scored the tying TD, with the XP putting them up by one with 37 sec left in the game.

To sum up, the Lions get the ball on the 25 with all of their timeouts (more on this in a second), run 3 plays that get them in FG range, run an additional time-wasting play, drill the 43-yd game-winner, and then watch Indy fiddle the ensuing kickoff away into a safety. At no point did the Lions clock the ball (spike it to stop the clock), and they only ran one play toward the sideline (not counting the wasted play), during which the receiver inexplicably neglected to get out of bounds. It was intense yet somehow methodical & easy, and after the fact I wondered why I was so stressed (answer: it's the Lions, and anything can and will go wrong).

Anyway, to the timeout thing. NFL common sense says when your opponent is running out the clock with the lead or on their way to getting the lead, you use your timeouts to extend the game. The rationale is to use your timeouts when your opponent has the ball because they control the clock. You control the clock when you have the ball, so you can run sideline plays or spike the ball to stop the clock. Caldwell didn't do this, either because he didn't think Indy was going to score, or he had other plans for those timeouts.

First, how much time would really have been saved? The average NFL play takes 5-7 seconds of clock. The Colts got the ball at the 4:04 mark. If the Lions had used their 3 timeouts immediately, they would've saved about 1:30. With all the extra time, the Colts don't use their 2nd timeout, they could run off an additional 40 sec up to the 2min warning. All told, the Lions probably get an extra minute out of using their timeouts when the Colts had the ball. However, they lose the ability to use the middle of the field and probably over half the plays in their 2-min offense playbook. Or you play with fire, run up and spike the ball after any play that doesn't stop the clock. Since that takes at least 15 seconds to pull off, you might say the Lions would've had a net gain of 15 seconds had they followed conventional NFL wisdom.

I'm not going to kill Caldwell over costing the Lions 15 seconds. In my opinion, adding several pages of the playbook outweighs the advantage of 15 extra seconds. Plus, you've got the added benefit of not having to rush your linemen to the line to clock the ball all the time, you can get plays in more easily and with less confusion, etc. There are a lot of benefits to keeping your timeouts.

However (there's always a however), the last 2 plays were a bit of a cluster. First, Marvin Jones catches the ball at the sideline AND DOESN'T GET OUT, forcing the Lions to use their last timeout with 12 sec left. For some reason, Caldwell opts to run another play before kicking the FG. WHY? If he wanted to run clock, a better way would be to have waited to call the TO after the Marvin Jones play. The idea that anything positive was going to come out of this play is ludicrous. The only possible place to go is toward the sideline, which the Colts would've been covering like crazy. They tried a 5-yd out to Tate and Stafford threw it away. The best positive outcome was Tate catching it and instantly going out of bounds, giving Prater a 38-yd FG instead of a 43-yarder. Great. The next best outcome was what happened, incomplete pass. The other possible outcomes were all negative:
  1. Tate catches the ball but gets tackled in-bounds. Result: Game over, Colts win.
  2. Stafford gets sacked. Result: Game over, Colts win.
  3. The offense commits a penalty, leading to a 10 sec runoff.  Result: Game over, Colts win.
  4. Tate fumbles, doesn't matter who recovers.  Result: Game over, Colts win.
  5. Stafford fumbles, doesn't matter who recovers.  Result: Game over, Colts win.
  6. Stafford throws a pick.  Result: Game over, Colts win.
Out of 8 possible outcomes, 1 marginally increases the Lions' odds, 1 is neutral, and 6 essentially ensure their defeat. Running that play was STUPID. No excuse.

The Game

I missed about half of it, so I'll have to base my half-baked analysis off of what I did see, along with stuff like box scores and what other people are saying. Not super in-depth, sorry.

First, the rushing attack... Ok, we're not the '72 Dolphins, but the NFL doesn't run like that anymore either. 116 rushing yards was good enough for 11th in the league, and 4.8 yards per attempt was good enough for 9th. We only averaged 83 rushing yards per game last year, so 116 would be a big improvement, if we can keep it up. The Colts were pretty banged up, and aren't a good defensive team in general.

Second, pass protect... 1 sack, 6 QB hits is decent, not great. And of course, this was the Colts. Tennessee has a stouter D line, so this next game will be more of a challenge. Still, when Stafford puts out a performance like he did, some credit has to go to the line.

Third, speaking of Stafford... #4 in Total QBR, #2 in Passer Rating, and as for FootballOutsiders... Well, they really liked him:

He didn't go down field much, which resulted in a ridiculously high completion %. As they mentioned, he used his RBs REALLY well in the passing game. Riddick and Abdullah are pretty good multi-purpose backs, totalling 10 catches on 10 targets for 120 yards and 2 TDs between the two. He spread it around pretty well too, targeting Marvin Jones 10 times, Tate 7, Ebron 5 and Boldin 3. I'd like to see him look for Boldin more. Jones had the worst catch rate, and that's probably in part due to the fact that Stafford often was trying to force something there when Boldin was open on a shorter route.

All told, I think this could be a pretty good offense. Stafford looks like he's still figuring out who to throw to, but that should start to smooth out as the season moves on. He'll have to face tougher defenses down the road, but it's really hard to take away 4 credible receiving threats AND stop a less-than-anemic running game. The defense gave up a bunch of yards and points, which isn't ideal. I didn't see a lot of pressure being put on Luck, which is a huge red flag. When Preseason Stud Kerry Hyder wasn't in the game (2 sacks, 2 QB hits), the Lions managed only 3 QB hits and 0 sacks. That needs to get better if they're going to compete for a playoff spot.

Next Game

The Lions face the Titans. QB Marcus Mariota had a mediocre game vs. the Vikings in week 1. He's a running QB who can throw, although he still makes some rookie-level mistakes with the ball (1 fumble, 1 BAD interception). The Lions will need to both pressure him AND contain him in the pocket, no easy charge. DeMarco Murray is Tennessee's only other "name" on offense, but he didn't get much on the ground in week 1. They really don't have a lot of weapons.

Their defense is a bit stouter than the offense. They managed to shut down Minnesota's running game (to the chagrin of my fantasy team), but they still lost. Now the Vikes are no great shakes either, with Bridgewater's injury basically leaving them one-dimensional on offense, and they really only managed the win thanks to the 2 defensive TDs.

Initially I had the Lions penciled in for a Loss in week 1, and they nearly complied. However, they might be a bit better than I expected, and the Colts might be a bit worse. The Titans are definitely a bad team, although I don't expect them to be a walkover.

Prediction: Lions, by less than a TD. 

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.

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.