The perception after the NFL’s fourth week of play is that parity reigns supreme. Only two teams, the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals, remain undefeated — and they’re both 3-0 rather than 4-0, having had a bye last week. No one else seems to have much momentum. Consider the Atlanta Falcons, who crushed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 56-14 two Thursdays ago in one of the most dominant single-game performances in NFL history. Last week, the Falcons lost by 13 points to the Minnesota Vikings. The Buccaneers? They upset the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were coming off a big win against the Carolina Panthers.Here’s the thing: All of this is pretty normal. Parity exerts a profound gravitational pull on the NFL. It’s a league of short careers, hard salary caps and redistributive schedules that punish winning teams. Its season is just 16 games. There’s always a lot of parity in the league.The question is whether there’s more than usual, and as best as I can tell, the answer is no. One way to evaluate this is through FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings. (For the methodology, see here.) We can look at the standard deviation of each team’s Elo ratings through the first four weeks of the season. The higher it is, the less parity.After the first four weeks this year, the standard deviation is 92 Elo points. That doesn’t mean much except by comparison to past seasons; but by comparison, it’s about average. In 2013, the standard deviation through Week 4 was … 92 Elo points. In 2012, it was 87 points. In 2011, it was 90 points. The average since 1970 has been about 90 points.Some of the perceived parity in Week 4 is because a number of the best teams were out of action, including the Bengals, Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos.Meanwhile, there are at least two really terrible teams in the NFL, and terrible teams count as much as great ones when measuring standard deviation. The Oakland Raiders squandered one of their better opportunities to pick up a win in a London game against the Miami Dolphins last week and now project to win only 2.4 games, according to the Elo simulations. That’s in part because of a tough schedule. (The Raiders have about a 10 percent chance of going 0-16.) The Jacksonville Jaguars have a more forgiving schedule, but they’re worse than the Raiders, according to Elo.We haven’t, however, seen much turnover in which teams might be considered great, average or poor. Before the season began — based on their Elo ratings at the end of 2013 — Elo’s top 10 teams were, in order, the Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Broncos, New England Patriots, Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Bengals, San Diego Chargers, Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts.Are any of those teams clearly outside of the top 10 now? Only the Panthers and Saints have fallen out of the Elo top 10; they rank at No. 14 and 15, respectively. You could also make a case for the Patriots after their disastrous performance Monday night. But if there’s anything Week 4 demonstrated, it’s that one game may not tell us much.Meanwhile, the worst 10 teams at the start of the year were — from the bottom up — the Jaguars, Raiders, Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins, Buccaneers, Buffalo Bills, Falcons, New York Jets and Tennessee Titans. Nine of those teams remain in the bottom 10. The exception is Atlanta, which has climbed to 22nd place.We’ve seen more reshuffling in the middle tier of teams. The Dallas Cowboys are the biggest gainers so far on the season, having added 61 Elo points. Still, the Cowboys’ schedule has been easy, and Elo will need to see more from them before it concludes they’re anything beyond slightly above average. The same might be said for the Detroit Lions, who are the next-biggest gainers, with 54 Elo points added.But if the early games have not done much to contradict preseason expectations, they have had a pronounced impact on playoff odds. A 10-6 team almost always makes the playoffs, an 8-8 team almost never does and a 9-7 team does about half the time. A “bad” or unlucky or uncharacteristic loss still matters a great deal whether it comes in Week 4 or Week 17. So, which teams have dug themselves the biggest holes, and which have more slack?The Patriots, despite their loss in Kansas City, are still more likely than not to make the playoffs. There are three major reasons for this: The Bills, Dolphins and Jets, the other teams in the AFC East. The Jets project to just a 5-11 record. Buffalo and Miami are better, but with each team at 2-2, Elo is still putting its money on a diminished version of Tom Brady rather than a team with an actual quarterback controversy.The Saints, 1-3 after a loss in Dallas, have seen their playoff chances fall more than any other team since the start of the season (they’ve dropped from 56 percent to 30 percent). Still, New Orleans got a reprieve because division rivals Carolina and Atlanta also lost last week. Every team in the NFC South now projects to finish the season with a negative point differential, and none projects to win more than 8.3 games. That means New Orleans can recover with a merely good — rather than extraordinary — performance. In our simulations, the Saints made the playoffs about 60 percent of the time when they finished 9-7, and almost 25 percent of the time when they went 8-8.The 49ers, on the other hand, still have their work cut out for them despite having secured a victory against Philadelphia last week and ranking third overall in the Elo ratings. They play in the NFC West, by far the NFL’s toughest division. In our simulations, a 9-7 record won San Francisco the NFC West only 1 percent of the time (although it was occasionally good enough to back the Niners into a wild card). The 49ers’ playoff chances improved, but only to 47 percent, from 40 percent a week ago.The loss hurt the Eagles more than the win helped San Francisco; Philadelphia’s playoff chances fell from 65 percent to 51 percent, in part because Dallas (now the divisional favorite) and the New York Giants won.The NFC North, meanwhile, has parity befitting the NFL’s old Norris Division: All four teams have an Elo rating between 1489 and 1521. But the Lions have three wins when everyone else has two, and that makes them the best bet to make the playoffs.Elo ratings can also be used to project point spreads. Since the start of the season, we’ve been recommending that you don’t bet on them, and we hope you’ve heeded that advice. They went 5-7-1 against closing betting lines in Week 4 and are 25-33-2 overall on the season. (As an aside, the Elo point spreads would have had you take Miami over Oakland against the point spread last week if we’d realized the game was in England instead of California. But that wasn’t the forecast we published, so we’ll take the loss.) On the positive side, Elo’s picks are 41-20 straight up this year, including a 10-3 performance in Week 4.In contrast to Week 4, when there were a number of “pick ’em” games, Week 5 features some easier calls, in part because the stronger teams tend to be playing at home. Straight-up (not against the point spread), Elo would have you take the home team in 13 of 15 games. The exceptions are clear: No home-field advantage would be enough to make Washington favored over Seattle, or Jacksonville over Pittsburgh.Compared against early Vegas point spreads, there are several cases with a discrepancy of at least a field goal. Against the point spreads, Elo would have you bet on the Chargers and Cowboys and against the Packers, Saints and Broncos. But to reiterate, we don’t recommend that you do this. I have nothing against gambling; I have something against losing money.
Watching the World Chess Championship is an essentially digital experience. The players still play analog — they sit in chairs in the same room as each other, pushing boxwood pieces across a rosewood and maple board. But the pieces are equipped with sensors that digitize the moves, sending them to phone and laptop screens around the world. Even at the venue, only a small minority watch the actual human players through the thick one-way glass in the viewing hall. Far more stare at large flat-screen monitors, or at smartphones or tablets, exactly as they’d be doing were they watching in their living room.Along the lefthand side of the chess board in the official match broadcast, and in other popular live streams such as chess24, is a bit of data visualization. It’s a long bar, a certain proportion of which is filled white, the other black. In an even position, the split is 50-50. If white is clearly winning, it may be something like 65-35, say.“It’s bullshit,” one grandmaster told me at the match.And it is, in some ways. The most obvious way to interpret the bar is as a winning percentage for white and for black, but that’s inaccurate. The bar doesn’t include a proportion for draws, for example, which are the single most likely outcome at the beginning of a grandmaster game. The computer is also bad at recognizing clearly drawn endgames, often giving an advantage to one side when none truly exists. It also seems miscalibrated. If the bars read 80 for white and 20 for black, black is toast in these elite-level games and would resign forthwith. So shouldn’t the bars have read 100-0?To the extent that “the computer” and the almighty bar blind us to the chess being played, they’re a problem. We shouldn’t be watching the World Bar Shifting Championship. My colleague Ben Morris, who is watching the match from afar, noticed this effect. After 11 often grueling games over the past 16 days, the World Chess Championship is right where it started — tied. There is one full-length game remaining.Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the world No. 1 and defending champion, has spent the past two weeks jousting with his challenger, the underdog Sergey Karjakin of Russia. With defensive stands worthy of the Battle of Thermopylae, and an improbable win with the black pieces in Game 8, Karjakin is still alive. If he wins as black on Monday, Karjakin will unseat Carlsen, the heavy favorite and “Mozart of chess.” If Carlsen prevails with white, he’ll have successfully defended his title for the second time. The match has been a tense human drama. But the watchful eyes of computer chess engines have also been observing, quantifying the ups and downs and framing the conversation for commentators and spectators.Saturday’s 11th game of the best-of-12 World Chess Championship in New York City was a quick, 34-move draw — the ninth draw of the match — and took just more than three hours. The match is now tied at 5.5 in a race to 6.5 and chess’s ultimate prize.1Wins are worth 1 point, draws are worth half a point for each player, and losses are worth 0 points. If the match is tied after 12 games, speedier tiebreaker games will be played Wednesday. More on those below.Yet again, the game began with an opening called the Ruy Lopez — the seventh time in 11 games. While the match between the two grandmasters is tied, the real winner might be Rodrigo (Ruy) López de Segura, the Spanish priest who undertook the first systematic examination of this opening in 1561.This most recent game may have revealed more about the players’ states of mind than any deep chess truths or dramatic or instructive positions. Karjakin was handling the white pieces for the final time in the set of 12 games. Chess fans expected (and many hoped) he’d “push,” opting for sharp attacking lines, playing for a win rather than settling for a draw. Instead it appeared to be Carlsen who was seeking winning edges as black. On the 24th move, Carlsen faced this position: An obvious move here, and the one preferred by the computer chess engine Stockfish, is for black to take the white pawn on d3 with his own. Carlsen, however, did not surrender one of his pieces so easily. Instead, he pushed that same pawn to e3, a step closer to its possible promotion to a queen, seeing if there was still any blood to be squeezed from the stone of a position. There wasn’t. Karjakin blocked the pawn’s advance, and the two grandmasters agreed to a draw 10 moves later.But one wonders how much fight Karjakin has left in him. “I’m not happy with how I played, but at least I managed to hold,” Karjakin said after the game.“In the first part of the match, it was 80 percent chess,” he added. “Now, it’s 80 percent psychology.”Carlsen, meanwhile, said it’s still about the chess. “The match is trending in a positive direction for me, and today, I have to say, I was a lot calmer than I was in the last few games,” Carlsen said. “I’m optimistic about the rest.”If Monday’s game is drawn, the match will be tied at 6. That tie would then be broken, and a world champion crowned, Wednesday with four rapid chess games — 25 minutes a side with 10 bonus seconds added per move. If those are tied, two blitz games — five minutes a side with three seconds added per move — will follow. If those are tied, they’ll play another two five-minute games up to four more times. And finally, if those are tied, they’ll play a final sudden-death game, using a format known as armageddon. In armageddon, black gets “time odds”: White gets five minutes while black gets just four, but a draw counts as a win for black.Carlsen is the No. 1 rapid player in the world and the No. 2 blitz player. Karjakin is No. 11 in blitz. Wednesday also happens to be Carlsen’s 26th birthday. “The computer says …”This is a common refrain at the championship venue on the East River in lower Manhattan. It’s repeated in the spectators’ gallery, the cafe and the press room. It is also declaimed on live-streaming chess broadcasts and bounces around Chess Twitter. It’s the lens through which the world championship is viewed and the rubric by which the players are praised and criticized.“The computer” is a chess engine. There are many incredibly strong engines, capable of laying easy waste to the best humans. They go by names such as Stockfish, Komodo and Houdini. After a few split-seconds of considering a position, an engine like Stockfish spits out an “evaluation.” This is a single number, measured in fractions of a pawn. If the number is positive, the computer sees the position as better for white, and if it’s negative, better for black. This is how “the computer” has seen the match’s ups and downs so far: But to the extent that they illuminate the deep chess being played, and teach a middling-at-best player like me what makes a position comfortable for white, or troublesome for black, they’re a boon. Like advanced metrics in other sports, they are debated — loved and hated. But the digital tools can serve as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, what’s happening on the field (er, the board).One of the players in the match has dominated the public digital chess experience. Carlsen recently won Chess.com’s internet Grandmaster Blitz Battle. Carlsen’s personage is now prominently plastered on two apps — one launched during the championship match. Carlsen has a slickly designed home page, magnuscarlsen.com, featuring cool-sounding sponsors like Nordic Semiconductor and Arctic Securities.The other player has struggled with his online presence. The websites sergeykarjakin.com and karjakin.com, as of this writing, redirect to Carlsen’s website. Karjakin has said he’s considered suing, while the Carlsen team has denied any involvement. Using a whois query, the closest I could come to identifying the true owner was through a domain registration privatizing company, with a Phoenix address and a Google Voice number, called PrivacyGuardian. (Magnuscarlsen.com is registered to an owner in Oslo.) I left a voicemail at the number and sent a message for the domains’ owner through the PrivacyGuardian website, saying I’d like to talk.The next day, someone going by “A A” emailed me back from a nondescript email address. They didn’t identify themselves, but they did make me an offer. A bundle of 11 Karjakin-centric domains, they wrote, including karjakin.com and sergeykarjakin.com, was available. The quoted price: 46,464.64 euro. “Anyone can buy the domains and make a gift to the future of the world chess champion,” they wrote.Game 12 is Monday afternoon, and the tiebreakers, if necessary, will be Wednesday afternoon. I’ll be covering the rest of the match here and on Twitter.
After the Memphis Grizzlies got trounced 96-82 on Monday night by the San Antonio Spurs in Game 2 of their series, Memphis coach David Fizdale couldn’t help but notice a disparity in the number of fouls that were called. The Grizzlies shot just 15 free throws to San Antonio’s 32. Fizdale blamed the refs.“Zach Randolph, the most rugged guy in the game, had zero free throws,” Fizdale said after Monday’s game. “But somehow Kawhi Leonard had 19 free throws. First half, we shot 19 shots in the paint, and we had six free throws. They shot 11 times in the paint, and they had 23 free throws. I’m not a numbers guy, but that doesn’t seem to add up. Overall, 35 times we shot the ball in the paint. We had 15 free throws for the game. They shot 18 times in the paint and had 32 free throws. Kawhi shot more free throws than our whole team. Explain it to me.”In general, Fizdale had a point: The more teams go to the rim, the more they draw free throws. And he’s right that Game 2 fell outside the norm. Here’s a chart showing how often each team in the league took a shot within 3 feet of the basket versus how often they drew fouls: On Monday night, the Grizzlies attempted 25.6 percent of their shots from within 3 feet and had a free-throw rate of .183; the Spurs attempted 19.7 from that range and had a free-throw rate of .525. The free-throw rates of both teams for Game 2 would be literally off the chart — although they aren’t crazy disparities for an individual game (in fact, Game 1 of the Wizards-Hawks series featured a similar split) — so the game pretty obviously falls outside of the usual averages for NBA teams.There’s also a little more to it than how often a team gets to the line, and that’s how often a team sends its opponent there. For the season, the Grizzlies were the team with the biggest disparity between their own free-throw rate and their opponents’. (Free-throw rate is a team’s free-throw attempts divided by its field-goal attempts.) Memphis had a free-throw rate of .280 (pretty good, 11th in the league) and an opponent free-throw rate of .341 (worst in the league) for a league-worst difference of -.061. (The Spurs, meanwhile, were tenth in the league, with a .014 difference.)That means Memphis spent the whole season sending their opponents to the line more than they got there, which makes Fizdale’s complaint a bit harder to take at face value. The disparity with the Spurs may not have been because of officiating in a single game, but more likely because the Grizzlies’ inside shots often rely on pivot moves or quick stops instead of the bruising drives that are rewarded with free throws, and because of their season-long penchant for fouling shooters.
Kyrie Irving103— Against the Cavaliers specifically, Boston’s chances of winning a seven-game series drop from 41 percent with Irving to 26 percent if he’s replaced by a -1.0 RPM player (or collection of players). So much for the Celtics — and Irving, who got himself traded from Cleveland to Boston last summer — delivering a dose of comeuppance to LeBron James and the three-time defending East champs.Without Irving, the Celtics will have to lean more on Horford, who is having an outstanding season of his own. But Horford is a big man, and Irving’s absence creates a major need for ballhandlers — an ironic twist for a team that just last season seemed to roster a good 20 point guards. As with many injuries to star players, the backup isn’t necessarily the issue, but the backup’s backup. Marcus Smart, who has missed the past 11 games with a thumb injury (after missing another 11 games earlier this year), hopes to return in time for the Celtics’ first-round series, and Terry Rozier has held down the position capably in recent weeks. But with Rozier playing starter’s minutes, Shane Larkin has been forced into extended playing time, and that has not gone nearly as well. Yes, it hurts the Celtics to lose Irving’s own production. But it really hurts that they have to run significant chunks of the offense through end-of-the-bench-level players. (To add, um, injury to injury, Rozier missed Tuesday’s game with an ankle injury, and Larkin has been out for three games due to illness.) Shane Larkin—80 Other Celtics fall off without IrvingPoints per 100 chances created by Celtic players’ pick-and-roll offense, by whether Kyrie Irving is on or off the court Marcus Smart11291 Points per 100 chances BallhandlerIrving onIrving off Includes points scored by the ballhandler himself and those by players the ballhandler passes toSource: second spectrum Team10089 Moreover, without Irving to draw defenders’ attention, other Celtics produce less. For example, Smart’s production plummets. He creates 112 points per 100 chances on the pick and roll when he shares the floor with Irving — that’s ahead of even Chris Paul and James Harden. Without Irving, that falls to 91 points per 100 chances, which is more akin to Reggie Jackson. Not great. Larkin, meanwhile, hasn’t played enough minutes alongside Irving to give us a meaningful idea of what that looks like (though what we have seen ain’t pretty), but his production in Irving’s absence has been dreadful.The news gets worse. Irving has been crucially important to parts of Boston’s offense, but the team’s defense has been largely responsible for its success this season. Reason stands that without Irving, the team could fall back on solid defense in an attempt to grind out wins. But while the Celtics remain the season leader for defensive rating, their defense has tailed off in recent months — and more important, so have the underlying metrics.Boston began the season playing suffocating defense, forcing difficult shots on practically every possession. According to Second Spectrum’s quantified shot quality metric,1qSQ uses shot location, defender location and other variables to measure how difficult a shot is. Boston forced the second-most-difficult shots before the new year and held relatively steady at sixth from Jan. 1 to the All-Star break. But since the break, Boston has fallen to a three-way tie for 17th in defensive qSQ — meaning that its slide on defense has been more than simple bad luck. That should improve some when Smart returns to the lineup and resumes his bump-and-run-coverage routine, but the season-long trend isn’t in Boston’s favor heading into the postseason.There are some traces of hope, if you squint hard enough. While the Celtics offense gets much less production out of drives to the rim without Irving on the floor — falling from 101 points per 100 chances to 92, per Second Spectrum — some individual players have thrived with more room to work. Jayson Tatum’s points created per drive increase from 87 per 100 chances to 92; Jaylen Brown’s from 82 to 99; Horford’s from 106 to 128 (on a relatively small number of attempts). But Smart’s production again plummets, dropping from 120 points per 100 chances with Irving to 95 without him. For his part, Rozier again stays steady at a lackluster 82 points per 100 chances.From one angle, that only highlights Boston’s cavernous hole at ballhandler. Irving’s absence might lead to more production from players with more minor ballhandling roles, but that improvement is outpaced by decline among the rest of the team, which is reflected in the team’s overall decline. But in a way, that’s fitting for this Celtics team. Early in the season, just after the Gordon Hayward injury, we wrote that Boston would need an outsize contribution from its young lottery picks, specifically Brown, in order to remain competitive this season. And in fact, both Brown and Tatum performed far above expectation, in ways it was difficult to imagine for such inexperienced players. So with them showing signs of improvement in just this scenario — Kyrie out, the defense keyed in on them — maybe it isn’t unreasonable to hope they can rise to the moment. Reasonable or not, the Celtics will need something more from its young stars for the team to have much chance of returning to the Eastern Conference finals, or beyond.Check out our latest NBA predictions.Jay Boice contributed research. Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving will miss the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. Losing Irving probably ruins the Celtics’ chances of winning the NBA title. It also takes a big bite out of Boston’s odds of even advancing deep enough for, say, a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.We can model out just how much losing Kyrie figures to hurt Boston with the help of our CARM-Elo ratings and ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric. Irving ranks 13th among point guards in RPM this season, with a +2.5 mark (meaning he adds that many points to Boston’s bottom line per 100 possessions). And depending on who’s eating up Kyrie’s minutes — more on that later — losing a player of his magnitude could cost a team anywhere between 50 and 80 points of CARM-Elo (or roughly the difference between the Warriors and the Heat). Beyond that, Irving was also Boston’s second-most-seasoned playoff performer, trailing only Al Horford in career postseason games. Because our model takes playoff experience into account, the loss of Irving is a double whammy for Boston, costing the Celtics talent and crucial familiarity with playoff basketball.Add it up, and if Irving is replaced with an ordinary group of backups who average an RPM of -1.0 — below-average, but typical bench-caliber players — the Celtics’ chances of winning the East drop from 12 percent with Irving to a mere 5 percent without him. Here’s how Boston’s outlook changes if he is replaced with players of various RPM levels, from 0 (league average) to -2 (replacement level): Terry Rozier8989
The Western Conference playoff matchup between the fourth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder and fifth-seeded Utah Jazz is the embodiment of a Super Mario Bros. mystery block: No one really knows what to expect. And either of these hard-nosed defensive clubs could put a scare into the dominant Houston Rockets, who figure to be waiting for the winner of this best-of-seven series in the next round.FiveThirtyEight’s projection model has basically thrown up its hands. It deems this the most evenly matched first-round series, giving a slight edge to the Thunder, with a 52 percent chance of advancing (in part a nod to their home-court advantage). And with almost every traditional way of analyzing the teams straight up, you run into dead ends. The Thunder and Jazz both boast top-10 defenses and finished with identical records, at 48-34. Oklahoma City won the season series 3-1, which sounds convincing until you realize that the clubs played their last game against each other back on Dec. 23, nearly four months ago — before the Jazz got their best player back from injury and the Thunder lost their best defender — and prior to Utah catching fire ahead of a key swap at the trade deadline.Put another way: These teams haven’t played each other in their current form. Given that, here are the most important things to watch during what could turn out to be one of the best series we see all postseason.Will Westbrook challenge Gobert at the rim?If there’s one thing we know about reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, it’s that he might be the most fearless player in the entire league, especially when it comes to navigating his way to the basket. But Westbrook has treated the area around the rim like a flaming hornets’ nest when Rudy Gobert, the likely defensive player of the year, is the one defending it.Westbrook has taken nearly 40 percent of his shot attempts this season from inside the restricted area. That figure shrinks considerably, to just 29 percent, against Utah without Gobert on the floor. But in the 55 minutes he’s played with Gobert on the court, Westbrook’s taken a miniscule 16 percent of his shots from that range, according to NBA Advanced Stats. While it might be fair to dismiss that statistic because of the small sample size this year, it’s harder to ignore when you look at Westbrook’s play against Gobert last season, too: Just 21 percent of Westbrook’s attempts came from the restricted area in the 93 minutes he played last year with Gobert on the court.Video Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/russnotattacking.mp400:0000:0000:00Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.Those would represent massive swings in any team’s shot selection, but they matter even more to a club like Oklahoma City because of Westbrook’s aggressive, domineering offensive style, which — love it or hate it — generates open looks for the Thunder’s corner shooters. Westbrook dished out 234 passes this season to teammates who then shot a three from the corner, according to data from Second Spectrum — a figure that trailed only LeBron James.1Another thing: How will the Thunder balance using Corey Brewer — whom defenses often abandon in the corner because of his unreliability from deep — versus Alex Abrines, who’s a far better shooter but a lesser defender? Abrines is still recovering from a concussion, and it’s not immediately clear yet when he’ll return. Brewer sprained his knee in the final game of the season but will play in Game 1.But if Russ can’t get deep enough into the paint to free up those looks, where is Oklahoma City’s scoring supposed to come from? The Thunder are fantastic at running the floor, but most teams would have better luck drawing blood from a stone than scoring in transition against Utah.If Westbrook can’t get to the rim against Gobert, look for the Thunder to force Utah to switch — leaving either Ricky Rubio or Donovan Mitchell on a much bigger, stronger Steven Adams.Video Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/adams.mp400:0000:0000:09Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume. Can Utah limit OKC on the offensive glass?The Jazz defense, the best in the NBA by a mile since the All-Star break, is already good at forcing teams into long, difficult 2-point shots. And while Oklahoma City’s gotten less stagnant over the course of the year, it still plays directly into that strategy from time to time.But if there’s a saving grace for the Thunder, it’s that they not only rebound their own misses at the NBA’s best rate, but they also score more than any team off those second chances.No team was better on the offensive glass against Utah this past season than the Thunder. And while it’s fair to wonder whether those numbers were skewed by Gobert missing two of the clubs’ four matchups, Oklahoma City actually managed to grab rebounds at an even higher clip (31 percent) when Gobert was on the floor.NBA stat guru John Schuhmann noted that the Jazz went just 19-21 when surrendering 11 or more second-chance points this season, a stark contrast from their 29-13 mark when allowing 10 such points or fewer. In that same vein, the Thunder went 18-9 when grabbing 15 offensive boards or more, considerably better than the 30-25 record they had when generating fewer than that.So, for how great Utah’s defense is, if the Jazz can’t finish defensive possessions by collecting rebounds, they could be in for a frustrating series.Will Rubio and the other Jazz ballhandlers make their mark?Among the biggest developments in the months since these teams last played: Rubio has looked more and more comfortable in his new surroundings after a tough start in Utah.He shot a career best on the season from the floor as a whole but also from 3-point range, where he took more shots than he ever has before. Rubio is still picking his spots — he drives into the paint then dribbles out of it without shooting, turning the ball over or getting fouled more than any starting point guard, according to Second Spectrum data run by STATS SportVu. But his scoring is crucial to Utah’s success at this point. The Jazz won just 29 percent of the games (5-12) in which Rubio scored 8 points or fewer, but they won 65 percent of their games in which he had 9 or more points. (They went 0-3 against OKC when he scored 8 or fewer; in the game they won against the Thunder, Rubio scored 16.)Hyper-efficient forward Joe Ingles, who also has a tendency to get into the paint without shooting but has been more aggressive lately, will also be interesting to watch. Should ace defender Paul George cover him — as was often the case during the teams’ previous matchups — the crafty left-hander may find himself blanketed at times.Still, finding ways to score will likely be key for Ingles. The two games in which Ingles shot poorly against the Thunder were blowout losses, while his more typical stat lines produced far closer outcomes in the other two games. At a bare minimum, Ingles handling the ball occasionally and creating looks for others will be paramount. Rubio will expend considerable energy staying in front of Westbrook, and Mitchell — the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring average since Carmelo Anthony in 2003-04 — may need time to adjust to this new level of defensive intensity.Really, we all might need time to adjust to the intensity this series may bring. If we’re lucky, we’ll have a full seven games of this matchup to get us ready for the next round of the playoffs.Check out our latest NBA predictions.
A quick word on this opening’s eponymous Rossolimo himself seems warranted, given that Monday’s game was lacking in fireworks and Rossolimo’s name has figured more prominently thus far in this world championship than any but Caruana and Carlsen. He was Nicolas Rossolimo, Renaissance man: one of the U.S.’s 12 grandmasters at the time, fluent in Russian, Greek, French and English, and the “proprietor of a chess studio,” which became a second home to some players. He was also a judo master and a New York City cab driver and recorded an album of Russian folk songs, according to The New York Times. He died in 1975 after a fall near the storied Marshall Chess Club in Manhattan.
The average age of position players last season (28.1 years) was the youngest since 1979. That age has gradually declined from a peak of 29.3 years in 2004. The average age of pitchers has also declined from a free-agency-era peak of 29.2 years in 2005 to 28.4 last season, tied for the third-youngest this century.Yet the average debut age for hitters and pitchers has remained static.The average debut age last season was 24.3 years for hitters and 24.6 for pitchers. For hitters, the average debut age has ranged between 24.0 and 24.6 years since 2000, and for pitchers, it’s ranged between 23.8 and 24.9 years.What it all means is that hundreds of age 30-plus seasons have gone missing from baseball. In 2004, there were 250 players age 32 or older who recorded at least 100 plate appearances or faced 100 batters on the mound. Last season? There were 190 such players. There have only been four seasons — 1915, 1917, 1965 and 1975 — in which age 32 and older position players accounted for a lesser share of wins above replacement than last season, at 12.9 percent. The fifth-lowest share was 2017’s 13.1 percent.This youth movement is likely tied to performance-enhancing drug testing that began to be attached with penalties in 2004 as PEDs were thought to extend careers. But teams have also never had more data to understand how players age. Clubs seem increasingly unwilling to spend on 30-something free agents.And while the back end of careers are being squeezed, clubs are often accused of manipulating the service time of players, particularly elite-level prospects, on the front end of their careers to push down wages in prime earning years and gain more controllable years over players.While this offseason has warmed after an even colder start than the previous winter, the 2017-18 class was considered to be a weak crop of free agents. This year’s class was long considered elite, with some forecasting that the total contract amount would set a record, with $3 billion or more guaranteed to players. But the total dollars guaranteed through Feb. 5 — or 100 days after the World Series — hit just $1,066.78 million, which fell well short of the totals through the same point in recent offseasons, excluding the winter of 2017-18. And it’s not just total dollars that are off those of the not-so-distant past, but also the annual average value of contracts. 2014-155277213.71,558.614211.0 2015-165788214.02,298.318212.6 free agentsContracts 2013-145307514.2%$1,527.5m152$10.1m 2018-195408015.01,066.81238.7 2016-175438014.71,295.41409.3 2017-18569508.8736.7957.8 Free agency is becoming less lucrative for MLB playersAverage value per contracted season for MLB free agents through the first 100 days of the past six offseasons In the midst of the 1994-95 baseball strike, 38 players received surprising news: They had been granted free agency. They were a new type of free agent — a restricted free agent. Players with at least four years of service time in the major leagues but fewer than six — which is still required to become a free agent today — could field offers on the market. Their previous teams could match any offer they received, much like teams do in the NBA or NFL.As Major League Baseball remained engaged in a bitter labor dispute that wiped out the World Series, owners had declared an impasse and implemented the restricted free agency plan, along with a salary cap, to replace salary arbitration. The Boston Red Sox even reached verbal agreements with restricted free agents Sammy Sosa and Kevin Appier before the MLB players association filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and the owners’ new system was scrapped.MLB has not had a work stoppage since 1994-95, its longest stretch of labor peace in the free-agency era. But because free agency seems broken for many players, and accusations of collusion are being levied, there’s growing speculation that labor strife could await when the collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season.To save free agency, it turns out that players could actually benefit from what the owners proposed nearly a quarter-century ago. What players need is a pathway to the marketplace nearer their prime seasons.The MLBPA’s biggest problem with the current free-agency structure is that to become a free agent, a player must accumulate six full years of service time, which players typically reach after age 30. The average age of a free agent signed so far this winter was 32.2 years, according to data compiled by The Baseball Cube.1We used the player’s age as of the start of the season. Since the 2013-14 offseason, the average signing age has hovered around 33 years. That’s well past a player’s prime.Position players generally peak between age 26 and 28. Pitchers peak even earlier. Those years are almost always controlled by the club at below-market wages, unless a player debuts at an extremely young age like Bryce Harper (who was 19) and Manny Machado (20) — unusually young free agents who are entering their age-26 seasons.The other issue for players and free agency is that the game is becoming younger. OffseasontotalSigningsshare signedtotal valuetotal seasonsAvg. Value per season Our pool of available free agents includes any player with major league experience who was granted free agency or released in October and November of each season. That excludes players signed internationally or those waived by a club before the season ended or later in the offseason.Source: The Baseball Cube FanGraphs forecasts that payrolls could decline for the second straight year this season, while revenues grow and values of franchises soar.Moreover, the percentage of one-year deals signed has spiked. Of the 80 free-agent deals signed through Feb. 5 this offseason, 51 — or 63.8 percent — were of the one-year variety. That’s the greatest one-year contract share since at least the 2013-14 offseason, perhaps suggestive of players lessening their contract expectations.So how would restricted free agency help beyond getting players to the market earlier? It should also increase their share of revenue.Players with more than three years of service time but less than six are eligible for arbitration. The first year of arbitration eligibility is supposed to garner a player about 40 percent of their open-market value, the second year 60 percent, and the third year of arbitration approximately 80 percent, though that estimate does not always apply. While arbitration earnings are far greater than pre-arbitration salaries, which are typically near the minimum salary, they are still short of market value.The type of restricted free-agency system that owners attempted to implement in 1994 seems increasingly beneficial to players today. That system could have made young star Francisco Lindor a 25-year-old free agent this winter and Mookie Betts a 25-year-old free agent last winter.While clubs would likely fight today against something they proposed a quarter-century ago, free agency isn’t working as intended for many players. The union might need to be more creative and dig in for change.“As we approach the next round of collective bargaining, we’re going to be considering all aspects of the system, as we always do,” an MLBPA spokesperson told FiveThirtyEight in November.And perhaps that should include an examination of an idea that originated from the other side.Neil Paine contributed research.
OSU then-junior forward Shayla Cooper (32) takes a shot during a game against Nebraska on Feb. 18 at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Lantern file photoBeing the only senior on a highly-ranked college basketball team may be too tough a challenge for some. Not for OSU senior forward Shayla Cooper.“No pressure,” Cooper said. “It’s a great time for me to be able to lead. I’ve been able to lead in other ways, but this year I’ve been able to be more vocal.”Cooper, a 6’2” forward out of Norcross, Georgia, is embracing her role as the team’s lone senior. She has the backing of her coaches, who are confident in her leadership abilities.“She is leading by example,” OSU coach Kevin McGuff said. “She’s been really consistent in her effort, intensity and focus on a daily basis.”Her leadership has already rubbed off on Jensen Caretti, Tori McCoy and Kiara Lewis, OSU’s three true freshmen. They’re a soft-spoken trio, but they all perked up when asked about Cooper.McCoy said Cooper’s leadership is easy to follow. During her official visit to OSU, McCoy said said Cooper made the experience enjoyable and put her mind at ease.“She always makes sure that we are OK, makes sure we have rides,” Lewis said. “She tries to take us places with her just to hang out and bond.”Although the freshmen haven’t registered an official game yet, McGuff said they are already benefitting from Cooper’s guidance.“If they are out of place or not quite understanding what they are supposed to do, she can articulate to them what they are supposed to be doing and how they are supposed to be doing it in a way that they get,” McGuff said.Before becoming a Buckeye, Cooper graduated from Norcross High School and began attending Georgetown University in 2013. Just two games into her freshman season, the forward decided to transfer. She had to sit out the rest of her freshman year and one semester into her sophomore season before finally suiting up for OSU on Dec. 22, 2014.Last season, as a junior, Cooper appeared in all 32 games, making 11 starts. She improved on her 10.7 points per game and 7.8 rebounds per game in 2014-15, to 13.3 points and 8.1 boards per game in 2015-16. She also shot 46 percent from beyond the arc last season.Now entering her third season with the Buckeyes, Cooper said that she has spent this offseason working on different parts of her game to become a better all-around player. Cooper would pull junior guard Kelsey Mitchell into the gym for a defender. Cooper said when it comes to defense, Mitchell is extremely active that it helps her with her ball handling and beating a defender off the dribble.“If I can be able to change directions the way that she does it at my size, I think that’ll be a great tool for us to use,” Cooper said.The improvements that Cooper is trying to make should be easier with OSU’s newfound depth. A season ago, Cooper often had to move into the middle of the paint and act as a big for the Buckeyes. She said that she sees herself more as a guard and that the additions of redshirt junior Stephanie Mavunga and freshman forward Tori McCoy will allow her to slide into a more natural role.“For me to be able to kind of take my game out to the three-point land a little bit more, that’ll help me here a lot and at the next level,” Cooper said.With a more comfortable role now, McGuff believes that a special season could be in store for the senior.“She’s a unique player because she’s a power forward who plays on the perimeter,” McGuff said. “She’s hard to guard out there because she can shoot it, she can drive it and she’s got the physicality to score around the basket.”Individual accomplishes aside, Cooper said that she believes talent and depth can propel the Lady Buckeyes to new heights in 2016-17.“I feel like the team we have this year is very capable of making it to the final four,” Cooper said. “If not the finals.”
OSU senior forward Marc Loving (left), junior Trevor Thompson (middle) and sophomore guard C.J. Jackson defend Fairleigh Dickinson junior guard Darian Anderson in the Buckeyes win over the Knights.In Ohio State’s last performance, coach Thad Matta and company put on an impressive display against the No. 6 ranked Virginia Cavaliers. On Saturday afternoon, that impressive play seemed to disappear, as OSU struggled to get ahead against Fairleigh Dickinson before the Buckeyes pulled away 70-62. “I’m just proud of my guys fighting to the very end,” Fairleigh Dickinson coach Greg Herenda said following the game. Saturday was the first time the two teams had met. It took nearly three minutes before either side found the bottom of the net. The first time a Buckeye touched the ball, it was a turnover, committed by junior forward Jae’Sean Tate. OSU junior center Trevor Thompson provided a spark off the bench on the defensive end, registering three blocks and pulling down four defensive rebounds in the first. Two of his first half blocks came on the same defensive frame. The long arms and physical play of Thompson was noticed by the Knights coaching staff.“Guys like that don’t exist in our league,” Herenda said.Senior forward Marc Loving and redshirt junior guard Kam Williams led the Buckeyes with 13 and 10 point in the first half, respectively. By the end of the game, the pair had poured in a combined 35 points.Fairleigh Dickinson leaned on junior guard Darian Anderson to lead the offense in the first, as well as the rest of the game. Anderson had eight points in the first, along with three assists. By the final whistle, he had 17 points and six assists.Tate shook off a rough start to finish with his third double-double of the 2016 season, racking up 12 points and pulling down 12 rebounds. Early in the second, the junior provided a spark with a no-look, over his head pass from the right elbow to a cutting Thompson for an emphatic alley-oop slam.After a forced turnover on the other end, OSU kept the momentum with a and-one dunk for Loving. The Buckeyes made eight of their first 10 shots to start the second, stretching out to a 51-34 lead off a layup by freshman forward Andre Wesson. The Buckeyes held on to a comfortable lead for the rest of the game, using a fast break to pick up 14 points. OSU’s defense pestered the Knights for most of the night, as Matta’s team picked up five blocks and seven steals.A 6-0 run for Fairleigh Dickinson that started with 11:13 left in the second, pair with a three minute scoring drought for the Buckeyes brought the Knights with nine, but was not enough in the end.“I just didn’t like the overall effort we had today,” Matta said. “We gotta get that corrected by Tuesday night.”Turnovers and poor free throw shooting continue to plague OSU, as the Scarlet and Gray made just 12 free throws of their 21 attempts. The Buckeyes were guilty of 14 turnovers, and averaged 14.6 turnovers per game coming into the contest.Even though the team struggled at times, The Buckeyes walked away victorious, albeit with a few things to work on in the next few weeks.“Today wasn’t a complete L,” Williams said. “We won the game. Just go back to the drawing board.” The biggest for Buckeyes fans following the win might not be the poor showing, but the potential effects on Thompson. Following the game the junior center appeared to be limping. When asked about it, he said it should not be a factor in OSU’s next game.“I just wanted to win, so regardless of any type of pain or whatever that I was going through, I knew I had to push through for the team,” Thompson said. “I don’t know what happened. I went up for like an offensive rebound when Marc shot it and I twisted my ankle, but I should be fine.”The Buckeyes remain at home to face Florida Atlantic at 7 p.m. on Tuesday. The Owls are currently 2-4 this season, with wins over Edward Waters College and University of South Florida.
The Cleveland Indians will begin their 111th MLB season Friday at Progressive Field against division rival Chicago White Sox. Manny Acta, entering his second season as the Tribe’s manager, will see if his young team can produce enough to improve on a 2010 record of 69-93 and compete in the American League Central Division. The tight-budgeted Indians management was not very active in free agency, instead relying on prospects to fill major roles for this year’s team. Here is a positional preview of the 2011 season: Catchers If there is one Cleveland player to watch this season, it is Carlos Santana. The 24-year-old will start at catcher and hit cleanup for the Tribe. Santana burst onto the scene after a June call-up last year, batting .345 with 15 RBIs in his first 18 games, but his season was cut short by a knee injury Aug. 2. Fully healed heading into 2011, Santana should be the Indians’ best hitter by the end of the season. Lou Marson will back up Santana at catcher. Marson, 24, struggled at the plate last season, hitting .195, but finished third among AL catchers in caught stealing percentage, throwing out base stealers 38 percent of the time. Infielders The front office did very little to address what was arguably Cleveland’s weakest position set at the end of last season. Asdrubal Cabrera and Matt LaPorta retain their starting positions at shortstop and first base, respectively, and Acta is counting on the 26-year-old LaPorta to rebound from a disappointing 2010 campaign (.221, 12 home runs, 41 RBIs). Cabrera, 25, will be joined up the middle by 36-year-old Orlando Cabrera (no relation), whom the Indians signed to a one-year contract to be the starting second baseman. Although he’s started just 27 games at second base during his 14-year career, the older Cabrera should provide a veteran presence in the locker room. Jack Hannahan, a nonroster invitee to spring training, became the starting third baseman after projected starter Jason Donald injured his hand in early March. The 31-year-old Hannahan, primarily known for his defense, will keep the hot corner warm until highly touted prospect Lonnie Chisenhall gets promoted from Columbus, probably sometime about the All-Star break. Outfielders/designated hitter Shin-Soo Choo enters 2011 as the Tribe’s best player, and should garner consideration to represent Cleveland at the 2011 All-Star Game. The 28-year-old will start in right field and bat third in the order. Much of Cleveland’s 2011 hopes lie in how well former All-Star center fielder Grady Sizemore returns from having knee surgery last June. Sizemore, 28, will not begin the season in Cleveland as he finishes his rehab, but should return sometime in late April. Until then, 23-year-old Michael Brantley will start in center field and lead off in Sizemore’s absence, shifting to left field once Sizemore returns. Veteran outfielder Austin Kearns returns for his second tour of duty with Cleveland after being traded to the New York Yankees halfway through last season. The Tribe also desperately needs designated hitter Travis “Pronk” Hafner to regain his presence in the middle of the lineup. A series of shoulder injuries over the past few seasons have sapped some of Hafner’s power, but Acta said he believes Pronk still has some good hitting left. Starting pitchers 2010 All-Star Fausto Carmona will lead the starting rotation. After Carmona, there is a lot of inexperience and questions. After posting six quality starts (six or more innings pitched, three or fewer runs allowed) in his seven outings last year, 24-year-old right-hander Carlos Carrasco assumes the No. 2 spot. Right-handers Justin Masterson, 26, and Mitch Talbot, 27, will begin their second season in the Tribe rotation. After Carmona’s 13 wins, Talbot was second on the team, with 10 victories last season. Josh Tomlin, a 25-year-old right-hander, beat out Jeanmar Gomez and David Huff during spring training for the final spot in the rotation. Bullpen Closer Chris Perez appears to be on the verge of a breakout season. The 25-year-old right-hander saved 23 games in 27 opportunities in 2010, including a 0.63 ERA during the second half of the season. Left-handers Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp return from the 2010 bullpen, and both will be counted on to pitch in key situations. Right-hander J.D. Durbin was signed as a free agent, and the 29-year-old veteran should see plenty of appearances as well. Acta selected young right-handers Frank Herrmann, Vinnie Pestano and Justin Germano to fill out the relief corps.