For years, Tiger Woods dominated golf and anyone who came along as he predecessor, he demolished. As Woods returns to form – and he is playing outstanding again – he has finally met his golfing match.Rory McIlroy has, in the last several weeks, solidified himself as the No. 1 player in the world. More than that, at just 23, he has made a case for being the new dominant force in the sport.Sunday, McIlroy eclipsed the strongest field of the year – a field that included Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Lee Westwood, et al – shooting a final-round 67 for a two-shot win.It was McIlroy’s second straight win in two weeks, making him the first to do so since Woods in 2009. He’s won three of his last four tournaments – including the PGA Championshp for his second major. He is a remarkable 53-under par in those wins.”He’s going out there and is up near the lead and posts a good number,” Woods said. ”He’s doing the things he needs to do, and as he said, he’s feeling very confident about his game. Right now he’s just really played well, and he’s making a ton of putts. That’s a great combo.”Woods and McIlroy have been spending a lot of time together in the last month – whether they’re in the same group on the golf course, as they have been four times during the playoffs and will be again for the opening round of the Tour Championship; in TV interviews together; in the interview room, where one is behind a microphone and the other waiting his turn in the back of the room; or at lunch after the pro-am.McIlroy from Northern Ireland said he recalls vividly watching Woods do as he is doing now.”I think I’ve always had an appreciation for what Tiger did over the years,” McIlroy said. ”The more you put yourself in this position, and the more you win, and the more you pick up trophies, it becomes normal, and it feels like this is what you’re supposed to do. I’m sure that’s how he felt when he was on that run, and how he still feels. He still won three times this year.”Part of McIlroy’s success is that he seems humble.”I don’t think I’m quite there yet,” he said. ”But I’m getting to that stage where I’m thinking, ‘This is what I should be doing. I should be lifting a trophy at the end of the week.’ It’s been great. The last four weeks, five weeks have been incredible, some of the best golf that I’ve ever played. I’m going to try and keep the run going for as long as possible.”
Kobe Bryant is so concerned about the state of affairs with his struggling Los Angeles Lakers that he reached out to another champion, Magic Johnson, for guidance on how to handle the drama.After seeing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall with his family, Bryant called Johnson and said the conversation was “very helpful. . .“We just talked about some of the experiences he went through and some of the systematic changes that he had to go through after Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) retired and how he kind of managed through that and how he dealt with that,” Bryant said to the media after the Lakers shootaround in preparation for their game against the New York Knicks on Thursday.Bryant was guarded about the specifics of the conversation, saying, “The advice I get from Magic, Michael (Jordan) and those guys, that’s always sacred. That’s going to the mountain top and talking to Buddha, know what I mean? That’s privileged information.”Johnson expressed his displeasure with the way coach Mike D’Antoni has used all-star big man Pau Gasol, said it “doesn’t make sesnes.” A 7-footer with immense talent in the low post, D’Antoni has him playing on the perimeter mostly, which means the team has not been maximizing his skill set.Bryant remained relatively calm after the Lakers lost their fifth in six games at lowly Cleveland Tuesday night. But the fact that he called on Johnson speaks to his concern at his team’s 9-15 record going into Madison Square Garden.It would help Bryant and the Lakers if point guard Steve Nash could get healthy. He has missed all but one game with a leg injury that still will require another two weeks to heal, he said.“He’s getting closer,” D’Antoni said of Nash. “He worked out pretty well today. We see some flickers at the end of the tunnel.”Then he added: “He hasn’t progressed that far. But we’re getting closer. I just don’t want to build up expectations and he has a little setback and then everybody goes crazy. It’s going to be a whille. But a while, I don’t know what that is.”
Running back Trent Richardson, who was traded from the Cleveland Brown to Indianapolis Colts earlier this week, says he has no malice towards his former team for their decision. In a recent interview, Richardson focused on the excitement of being a Colts player.The 2012 No. 3 overall draft pick will now be on a team with all-star players such as Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne and up-and-coming receiver, T.Y. Hilton, which is why Richardson may be so positive about the trade.“[The Colts] gave up a first-round pick. That shows a lot of respect they have for me,” said Richardson, who will wear No. 34 with the Colts. “Playing against these guys twice, just seeing how they are around each other when they’re on the sideline, how they’re jelling together, just being in the locker room for these couple hours, it’s been a big change. They’re happy to come to work, and they’re ready to go.”The Colts traded a first-round pick in the 2014 draft to get Richardson from Cleveland on Wednesday. Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said he first approached the Browns about Richardson earlier in the week.“He loves football,” Grigson said about Richardson. “He has the right body type for his style as a runner, and his style fits this offense.”Richardson has 1,055 yards, 3.5 yards per carry, on 298 carries through his first 17 career games—a total of 11 touchdowns with the Browns. He also caught 58 passes for 418 yards and another TD.
O.J. Simpon sided with President Trump over Colin Kaepernick when it comes to protesting the national anthem. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)/Julie Jacobson-Pool/Getty Images/)O.J. Simpson doesn’t think Colin Kaepernick made the best decision when he decided to kneel during the national anthem two NFL seasons ago. While the formerly incarcerated football star initially gave the ex-San Francisco 49er credit for standing up for his beliefs, he admitted he felt Kaep made a “mistake.”“I think Colin made a mistake,” Simpson told Buffalo News Friday, March 16. “I really appreciate what he was trying to say. I thought he made a bad choice in attacking the flag.“I grew up at a time when deacons were in the KKK,” adds Simpson, who generally sides with President Donald Trump on his stance on NFL players protesting. “I don’t disrespect the Bible because of those guys. The flag shouldn’t be disrespected because of what cops do. The flag represents what we want America to be.”Trump has voiced similar support for the flag and last year he called for players who exercise their first amendment right on the field to be fired.Ahead of Trump’s statement, Kaepernick left the 49ers and became a free agent. He hasn’t been signed by an NFL team ever since.Still, other athletes have protested the anthem too and his movement has spread beyond football and into leagues like the NHL.“When he did it the first time I thought, ‘Well, you took a gamble, and I give you credit,’” Simpson said, reflecting on Kaepernick. “But it was him continuing to do it where he made the biggest mistake.“I’m a firm believer of doing what you think is right, but I would always stand for the flag.”
LeBron JamesSFCleveland136.3+1.4 Manu GinobiliSGSan Antonio5739.2+1.1 PJ TuckerSFPhoenix/Toronto3535.7+1.4 2016-17203726 Khris MiddletonSGMilwaukee3943.3+1.1 Jimmy ButlerSFChicago3036.7+2.2 Danny GreenSGSan Antonio4637.9+2.0 2013-14153039 James Ennis IIISFMemphis5037.2+1.4 Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder washed out of the playoffs Tuesday night in a 105-99 Game 5 loss, the last sigh of a frustrating 4-1 series loss to the Houston Rockets. The game followed a familiar script, with the Thunder rushing out to an early lead as Westbrook put a good and thorough thumping on the Rockets defense. But as the game wore on, Westbrook began to tire, the Houston defense began to tighten, and the OKC bench hemorrhaged an enormous number of points. As the Rockets pulled away, the Thunder had no means to make up that ground, because the Thunder cannot shoot.Oklahoma City’s glaring lack of shooting is nothing new. The team shot just 31.1 percent from 3 in the series, and that’s humiliating, sure, but it’s also not too far off of the Thunder’s regular season average of 32.7. Westbrook himself threw up brick after brick, going 13 for 49 from 3 (26.5 percent), many in the desperate fourth-quarter scrums that always seem to wrap up Oklahoma City’s games. But this paucity of reliable shooters isn’t simply because Kevin Durant left town over the summer and the team traded Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo; it’s the result of a yearslong failure of the Thunder to find perimeter players who fit the modern NBA landscape.For as long as there’s been an NBA analytics movement, the 3-and-D wing player has been one of the atomic units of the mathematically sound game. The role of perimeter defender and long-range specialist isn’t necessarily new. In the generation before Shane Battier was beatified by Michael Lewis in The New York Times Magazine, Bruce Bowen, Rick Fox and Doug Christie were manning the position, and before them, guys such as the Showtime Lakers’ Michael Cooper or the Bad Boy Pistons’ Joe Dumars filled the role. But now the 3-and-D guy is more in focus than ever. Which is why it might be a surprise that there are still relatively few players who fit the description.Over the last four seasons, the number of players who qualify1These cutoffs are somewhat arbitrary — they’re only meant to broadly capture the essence of the role — but if anything they stand to underestimate the number of players with the skills to perform roles other than 3-and-D. That’s because there’s a theoretically limitless number of players who fit the 3-and-D description, while rebound rate and assist rate are limited by the number of opportunities for a team, so the thresholds wouldn’t pick up a good rebounder like Steven Adams who yields rebounds to Westbrook, or a point guard such as the Spurs’ Patty Mills, who shares time with distributors like Kyle Anderson and Manu Ginobili. as a 3-and-D (hitting a breakeven 33 percent of their 3s and a defensive Real Plus/Minus of at least 12While playing at least 15 minutes per game in 20 or more games.) has lagged far behind the number of players who fit other traditional roles, such as the rebounding, defensive big man3Defensive RPM of at least 1 and a defensive rebounding percentage of at least 20 or the playmaking point guard.4Offensive RPM of at least 0 and an assist percentage of at least 20. Andre IguodalaSFGolden State936.2+1.8 The Thunder have had a lot more success finding big men — rebounding defenders like Steven Adams, or players to clean the offensive boards, like Enes Kanter — but such players are far more common than a prototypical 3-and-D guy, and even if they weren’t, a surplus of rebounding isn’t as viable as a surplus of shooting.Yet while there isn’t an abundance of shooter-defenders, they also aren’t impossible to find for a team that knows where to look. Yes, some like Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant and LeBron James are simply good at everything. And some, like Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu, are lottery picks who end up as just role players. But the vast majority of the players who turn out to be 3-and-D studs come from the late-first or second round of the draft, meaning every team has a chance at drafting and developing them. Here are the 20 players who fit the bill this season: Luke BabbittSFMiami1641.4+1.2 Number of NBA players in key roles, by season Solomon HillSFNew Orleans2334.8+1.5 Rudy GaySFSacramento837.2+2.0 2015-16114728 DeMarre CarrollSFToronto2734.1+1.0 Al-Farouq AminuSFPortland833.0+3.2 The NBA’s 3-and-D wings, 2016-17 Jae CrowderSFBoston3439.8+1.4 Since the Thunder allowed Thabo Sefolosha to leave via sign-and-trade in 2014, the Thunder have struggled to find perimeter role players who can both shoot from distance and hold their own on defense. This season, Oladipo has taken on Ibaka and Durant’s spacing responsibilities (and beginning next year, much of their salary cap space) while being a worse shooter than either. In past seasons, the Thunder’s meek supporting cast could be somewhat attributed to the luxury of having Durant and Ibaka — both excellent spot-up shooters — which let the Thunder fill out the roster with more specialized (or, to put it less generously, more limited) players thanks to Durant and Westbrook’s versatility. But even that strategy eventually reached its limits late in games, when the Thunder offense would grind down to Durant holding the ball, surrounded by questionable-at-best shooters. And this season the issues have only intensified: The Thunder placed their man on the table above, sure, but only after replacing one of the best players in the league with a baseline role player.That’s because the few shooters the team has come up with in recent years have all been uniformly bad defenders. Teams can get away with having mediocre defenders who can shoot — think Kevin Love and Channing Frye on the Cavs — but not apocalyptically bad ones. In 2014-15 and 2015-16, the Thunder filled that role with Anthony Morrow, who was the functional counterweight to Andre Roberson, a superb defender who might as well be shooting with his eyes closed. Morrow shot 38.7 from 3 in 2015-16 for the Thunder but was one of the worst defenders in the league, with a defensive RPM of -3.05. This season’s Morrow is Alex Abrines, a 23-year-old out of Spain who shot 38.1 percent from 3 and made the opposing offense 4.3 points better when he was on the court. The maxim might be that a player only needs one elite skill to be useful to an NBA team, but the corollary is that he can’t be among the worst in the league at everything else to be useful to a playoff contender.These specific deficiencies showed themselves during those late-game panics against the Rockets. The Oklahoma City bench units have been lambasted for their startlingly bad numbers without Westbrook, and the shooters’ inability to play defense is a big reason why. The defense gave up 117.1 points per 100 possessions (-12.1 net) when Abrines shared the floor with Westbrook, and a shocking 147.1 points per 100 (-42.1) when he was paired with Jerami Grant, one of the Thunder’s other sort-of shooters off the bench.It’s clear that the Thunder roster cannot persist in its current state, and in the first season after losing a player like Durant, certain allowances ought to be made for holes in the team’s roster. But the persistent lack of shooting in Oklahoma City, and the persistent rostering of one-dimensional players in a league run by multidimensional lineups, is reason enough to question whether the problems facing the Thunder are ones the team is capable of overcoming. Data includes regular season games only. 3-and-D players hit 33 percent of their 3s and a defensive Real Plus/Minus of at least 1. Rebounding bigs had a defensive RPM of at least 1 and a defensive rebounding percentage of at least 20. Playmaker point guards had an offensive RPM of at least 0 and an assist percentage of at least 20.Sources: NBA.com, basketball-reference.com Kevin DurantSFGolden State237.5+1.4 NAMEPOSITIONTEAMDRAFT #3 POINT %DEFENSIVE REAL +/- Robert CovingtonSFPhiladelphia—33.3%+4.3 Trevor ArizaSFHouston4334.4+1.3 Victor OladipoSGOklahoma City236.1+1.6 SEASON3-AND-DREBOUNDING BIGPLAYMAKER PG Thabo SefoloshaSFAtlanta1334.2+2.4 2014-15184235 Patrick BeverleySGHouston4238.2+1.6 Data includes regular-season games only.Sources: basketball-reference.com, nba.com
Russell Wilson has carried the Seattle Seahawks this year, and his play in the fourth quarter has been particularly brilliant. Watch the video above to find out just how good he’s been — and how crucial the Seahawks’ matchup against the Los Angeles Rams is on Sunday.
When I was asked to write a data-driven “analytical profile” of the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT) before it heads to Canada for the World Cup, I quickly realized something: There wasn’t enough data. I wasn’t that surprised; women’s sports data is severely lacking.Sure, there are goals and assists, but anything beyond basic stats is unlikely to exist for non-World Cup matches. Looking at how a team performed four years ago with a different coach and different players isn’t very informative.We’re left with the USWNT’s three “send-off series” matches against Ireland, Mexico and South Korea. These games received top-notch coverage and provide some rich data.What did we learn about the USWNT during these matches — a 3-0 win against Ireland, a 5-1 victory over Mexico and an uninspiring 0-0 draw against South Korea? With the understanding that the competition and substitutions patterns will differ in Canada, and that three games does not a large sample size make, below are five takeaways from the U.S.’s friendly matches.1. The backline looks ready defensively for the World CupGoalie Hope Solo barely broke a sweat in any of these games; she faced 14 shots (six on goal), made five saves and allowed one goal in 270 minutes. Only two of those shots came from inside the box.Solo’s relative boredom is a testament to the team’s backline, which featured starters Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston and Ali Krieger. Christie Rampone, who will turn 40 during the World Cup, Lori Chalupny and Kelley O’Hara also contributed as substitutes.Overall, the U.S. allowed a total of 68 completed passes in its defensive third in the three games, including just nine into the penalty area. To put that in perspective, the USWNT completed at least 80 passes in the attacking third in each of the three games.The one area where the defense might need to improve is set pieces. Mexico’s lone goal came off a free kick, and the only other shot the U.S. relinquished in the box was off a corner. The outside defenders will also be key attacking up the wing in Coach Jill Ellis’ 4-4-2 formation, an area that was lacking in the U.S.’s final game against South Korea.Here’s the ESPN/TruMedia/Opta shot chart:2. They’re creating opportunities but having trouble finishingThe U.S. averaged more than 23 shots per game, including an average of 16 from inside the penalty area. Both of those stats would have led all teams at the 2011 Women’s World Cup.The good news for the U.S. is that it is creating chances; the Americans created more than 15 scoring chances per game off passes, and all seven of their non-penalty-kick goals were assisted. Most of those chances led directly to a shot from within the penalty box.The U.S. left a number of goals on the table, however, particularly early in games. In the first 40 minutes, they took 30 shots and scored one goal. As a result, they entered halftime tied with both Mexico and South Korea.In the second half against Mexico, the U.S. exploded for four goals, but otherwise they struggled to put the ball in the back of the net. In the other five halves combined, the U.S. scored about three fewer goals than was expected based on the type and location of their shots, according to ESPN/TruMedia’s model for predicting a team’s expected goals. Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Christen Press were all held scoreless despite a number of opportunities from close range.3. Possession/tempo will be keyThe United States was one of the most direct teams in the 2011 World Cup, and when Ellis took the job, there were fears that she would continue to focus on long forward passes. Although the U.S. played more direct than they probably wanted to against South Korea, it appears they have taken steps toward a more possession-oriented style in this small sample of games.In the three friendlies, the U.S. had a higher possession percentage (64 percent vs. 53 percent) and pass-completion rate (77 percent vs. 70 percent) than it had in the 2011 World Cup. Besides the lower level of competition, the main reason for the higher percentage is the length of their passes; the U.S.’s average pass traveled 17.4 yards, about 4 fewer than in 2011, and their percentage of long balls (passes of 35 yards or longer) dropped significantly. For context, no team had an average pass distance shorter than 18 yards in the 2011 World Cup.In the game in which the U.S. struggled most, against South Korea, the Americans slowed the pace and resorted to more long balls. As Ellis has noted, it is essential for the U.S. to push the tempo and play at a faster pace, especially since the tournament is played on turf.4. They have options at forwardAlex Morgan was held out of the friendlies with a bone bruise on her knee, which gave Abby Wambach, Amy Rodriguez, Christen Press and Sydney Leroux the chance to start at forward. Morgan is expected to be healthy for the tournament, which gives Ellis choices up top.Wambach, the international leader in goals, is always a threat to score. She led the U.S. with four goals, including two signature headers, in the friendlies. Wambach turns 35 on Tuesday, and she is likely to have a mixed role as a sub and starter at the World Cup, which opens up playing time for others.Leroux enters the World Cup averaging the fewest minutes per goal in USWNT history. In the friendlies she led the U.S. with 16 shots, including 14 in the penalty area, but struggled to get them on target. In limited action, Rodriguez showcased her speed and could also start for the Americans. With so many options at forward, the biggest question will be whether they can develop chemistry. No two forwards completed more than seven passes to each other in the three matches combined, and at various points this year each forward missed time with injury or illness.5. There will be no easy games in CanadaOver the next month, you will hear over and over again that the rest of the world is catching up to the top teams in women’s soccer. The U.S.’s 0-0 draw against South Korea is just one example of how the U.S. could lose to anyone if it is not on top of its game.The U.S. is second in the FIFA World Rankings behind Germany, but in 2015 the Americans already have two ties (Iceland and South Korea), one loss (France) and two one-goal victories (England and Norway) in 10 games. Even in its seemingly “easy” victories against Ireland and Mexico, the Americans struggled to finish in the first half.Although questions remain after the three friendlies, the U.S. heads to Canada with a “title or bust” mentality. Can the U.S. win its first World Cup since 1999? To do so, they’ll need to build on the defensive prowess they’ve shown and find a set of forwards who can convert scoring chances.
2Ohio StateMichigan Wisconsin OklahomaPenn State— How accounting for head-to-head results changes playoff odds 5MichiganWisconsin Penn State ColoradoOhio State— 8Colorado—MichiganWashington Alabama9292 How the top 10 teams have fared head-to-head 6Wisconsin—Ohio State MichiganPenn State 4Washington——Colorado We’ve been getting a lot of angry notes from Michigan fans. And even though I’m from East Lansing, I think they have a point. Sort of.Here’s the rub: Michigan fans claim their Wolverines have a shot at the college football playoff, even though they rank fifth (the top four teams make the playoff) and have finished their regular season (Wisconsin and Penn State are playing for the Big Ten championship instead).Even the most rabid Michigan backers don’t expect their team to displace any of the current top four if everyone wins out. Undefeated No. 1 Alabama is one of the strongest college teams in history and will become the SEC Champion if it beats Florida on Saturday. No. 2 Ohio State — which, like Michigan, is idle this weekend — just beat Michigan last Saturday. And No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Washington are potential one-loss conference champions, while two-loss Michigan is neither of those things.Alabama would have a decent shot at the playoff even with a loss, but if either Clemson or Washington falls, another slot could open up. Apart from Michigan, the most plausible contenders to fill it are Wisconsin and Penn State — whichever one wins the Big Ten championship — and Colorado, if it beats Washington for the Pac-12 title.Wisconsin, Penn State and Colorado would each be 11-2 conference champions, as compared to 10-2 non-champion Michigan. The playoff selection committee explicitly accounts for conference championships as part of its selection criteria. So Michigan has a hard argument to make, it would seem.Except for one thing: Michigan played Wisconsin, Penn State and Colorado. It beat all three of them. And although the committee says it considers conference championships, it also says it takes head-to-head results into account. How would the committee weigh everything? Nobody’s quite sure. RANKSCHOOLWINSLOSSESPLAYING THIS WEEK Oklahoma65 10Oklahoma State——Oklahoma Oklahoma State12 Michigan16 3Clemson——— Ohio State92%94% CHANCE OF MAKING COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF Penn State2122 Clemson8081 Washington6666 SCHOOLPREVIOUSLYWITH HEAD-TO-HEAD ADJUSTMENT Wisconsin3021 Colorado1010 7Penn StateOhio StateMichiganWisconsin 9Oklahoma—Ohio StateOklahoma State Our college football playoff model, however, had been putting a fairly heavy thumb on the scale against Michigan. That’s because we’d programmed it to account for conference championships, but not for head-to-head results. Why not? There wasn’t any particularly good reason; we’d intended to build in a head-to-head adjustment earlier this fall and then got distracted by that whole presidential election thing. Also, because head-to-head results didn’t happen to matter very much in the first two years of the committee’s rankings — there was no case analogous to the one Michigan faces this year — we didn’t have much data on how much the committee really cares about them.Still, we think making some effort to account for head-to-head results is better than nothing, even if we’re basically just making an educated guess about the magnitude of the effect. So we’ve built an adjustment into our model. As before, the program runs a series of simulations in which it plays out the remaining games and estimates how the committee will rank the teams. Then there’s a new step: It checks to see if teams that are ranked in close proximity played one another. If in one simulation it initially had Colorado ranked No. 4 and Michigan No. 5, for instance, it might flip them because of the head-to-head result. Or it might not: The magnitude of the head-to-head adjustment is randomized a bit from simulation to simulation but generally set to a fairly conservative value. (We’ll recalibrate everything next year; how the committee untangles Michigan and the other teams will tell us a lot about how much it really cares about head-to-head play.)As a result of this change, Michigan’s chance of making the playoff increases to 6 percent. That’s still not very good — the model thinks it’s unlikely that the committee will put an idle team into the playoff, especially when it has two losses and didn’t win its conference championship. (The loss to Ohio State is especially complicating, because the committee would have to take two teams from the Big Ten but not the conference champion?) The committee could also evade the head-to-head question by taking two-loss Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, whichever one wins the Big 12 this weekend,1The Big 12 doesn’t have a championship game, but Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are playing one another, and it just so happens that the winner of that game will win the Big 12. instead of a second Big Ten team. But 6 percent is an improvement for Michigan from the 1 percent chance our model gave it before the adjustment. 1Alabama——— Apart from Michigan, this change also affects Ohio State’s calculus a bit. Aren’t the Buckeyes shoo-ins? Would the committee really demote a team all the way from No. 2 to No. 5?Probably not, but consider what happened in 2014. The committee — to our model’s surprise — dropped TCU all the way from No. 3 to No. 6 in its final rankings despite TCU having won. We learned from that experience that the committee isn’t necessarily all that consistent from week to week. So Ohio State, which won’t be the Big Ten champion, might be just a little bit nervous if the committee decides it values conference championships highly.But it matters which team wins the Big Ten instead of Ohio State. If it’s Wisconsin, the Buckeyes have less to worry about because they beat the Badgers head-to-head. (Wisconsin might make the playoff as a second Big Ten team, but probably not without Ohio State making it as well.) Ohio State lost to Penn State in the regular season, however. So if Penn State wins the Big Ten, it will be able to cite both a head-to-head victory and a conference championship in its case to get in ahead of Ohio State. Our model expects that Ohio State would probably still make it under such circumstances — quite possibly alongside Penn State — but it isn’t quite as safe. (In the new version of our model, Ohio State has a 97 percent chance of making the playoff if Wisconsin wins the Big Ten and a 91 percent chance if Penn State wins instead.)So almost no matter what happens, we’ll be left with a bit of a mess. One solution? Expand the playoff to six or eight teams, so the close calls stemming from janky conference-championship scenarios are resolved on the field and not in a conference room.
kyle:and champions leaguesurely counts more than mlsneil:MLS fans get in my inbox every time I’ve written about the Sports Equinoxtony:LA derby > Manchester Derbycwick:El Trafico is such a great name for a derbyPredictions NBA See more NBA predictions Things That Caught My EyePredators are the starless favoritesThe Nashville Predators are the betting favorites to win the Stanley Cup, with the team accumulating the most overall points this past season. What’s remarkable about the Predators is that they don’t have a single offensive star; seven forwards finished with at least 35 points but none of them had more than 64 points. That’s the fewest points for an NHL Presidents’ Cup winner’s top scorer in more than 30 years. [FiveThirtyEight]Ohtani is bona fideAngels phenomenon Shohei Ohtani is the superstar he was touted to be; he got three homers and two wins as a pitcher in his first 10 games, the first time a pitcher has pulled that off since about 1920 and the dead ball era. He’s got the fourth highest strikeout rate and the 17th lowest walk percentage this year. [FiveThirtyEight]LeBron is new StephThrough Monday, LeBron James has made 52.3 percent of his shots from 28 feet or further from the hoop. That is the best deep ball percentage since at least the 2000-01 season, when such play-by-play data is first available. That success is outpacing Steph Curry’s death-from-above three pointer season in 2015-16. [FiveThirtyEight]Try out our interactive, Which World Cup Team Should You Root For?FIFA officials offered money, gosh I wonder if they take it.A consortium of investors is offering FIFA $25 billion for the rights to FIFA’s club competitions and a potential global league for national teams. This eye-popping figure wasn’t enough to overcome a tabling of the matter ahead of additional research — European representatives worry that such a competition would compete with UEFA Champions League. But come on, money is offered to FIFA you think they can push that off forever? [The New York Times]Good luck seeing playoff hockey in CanadaThere are 18,201 total seats in the Toronto Maple Leafs arena. There were 672 of those seats available to an exclusive pre-sale for their first home game. After the pre-sale, there were a mere 96 available seats left to the general public. I’m beginning to get the idea that the biggest city in Canada may like hockey. [CBC]LGMAs of right now, FiveThirtyEight’s model gives the 10-1 New York Mets a 50 percent chance of making the playoffs. Eleven games ago, during the preseason, the odds were half that, with a 24 percent chance of making the playoffs. Heck of a start for the Mets. Meanwhile, a bit uptown, the 6-6 Yankees’ odds of making the postseason have fallen around 10 points in the same period to 65 percent. [FiveThirtyEight]Big Number(s)150/1Those were the Las Vegas preseason odds of the expansion team Vegas Golden Knights winning the Stanley Cup. As of March 18, those long odds had steadily dropped to 6/1, and now the William Hill sportsbook puts them at 13/2. [Darren Rovell]Leaks from Slackneil: Oh, and don’t forgetNew record We’re launching a sports newsletter. 🏆 Join the squad. Subscribe All newsletters
The dream-team paradigm has gone through several permutations over the years. In the era before the salary cap, star-powered rosters could stay together for many consecutive seasons, resulting in monstrous talent collections such as the Steel Curtain-era Pittsburgh Steelers (who had an absurd nine Hall of Famers on their roster in 1978) and even more recent teams such as Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers and Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys. But the advent of free agency in 1993 — and the subsequent addition of the salary cap — made such dream teams more difficult to keep together, whether by pre-emptively forcing teams to let useful players go or penalizing for years teams that tried to skirt the cap by pushing player paydays into the future.More recent dream team attempts have been the subject of ridicule, such as when the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles signed a group of veteran free agents that included Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jason Babin and — of course — Vince Young. When Young was asked to describe Philly’s new squad, he infamously responded with a smile and two words: “dream team.” In the end, the Eagles went a disappointing 8-8, writing a cautionary tale for future free-agent spending sprees.But around the same time, the NFL’s current preferred team-building strategy began to come into focus as young, cheap (at the time) quarterbacks such as Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Seattle’s Russell Wilson won Super Bowls. With a change to the league’s collective bargaining agreement significantly lowering the price tags on incoming rookie QBs, teams realized that they could use the draft to acquire the most important asset in football — a star quarterback — for a relatively low price and then trick out the rest of their roster with the savings. The dream team concept was reborn.Take the 2017 champion Eagles, who spent a combined 4.5 percent of the cap on signal-callers Carson Wentz and Nick Foles — the former of whom vied for league MVP honors before a knee injury ended his season and the latter of whom was the Super Bowl MVP. That Philly team was laden with non-QB talent, and many of its members were productive veterans (Ronald Darby, Jay Ajayi, Alshon Jeffery, Timmy Jernigan, etc.) who had been plucked from other teams.This season’s Rams have taken a version of that same formula and run with it even further. They got 40 total points of Approximate Value1Pro-Football-Reference.com’s single-number measure of player value. out of veteran newcomers, which would rank 10th among Super Bowl winners, and that was with Talib, Peters, Suh and Fowler all having relative down seasons.That last part makes the Rams a bit different from other successful dream teams of the past. The 1994 49ers, for instance, were jam-packed with talented veteran newcomers — including Rickey Jackson, Ken Norton Jr. and Bart Oates, each of whom posted double-digit AV the previous season. The crown jewel, of course, was Deion Sanders, who arrived from Atlanta in free agency. They were all meaningful contributors to the Niners’ Super Bowl win that season, most notably Sanders, who won defensive player of the year honors. Similarly, the 1999 St. Louis Rams picked up Marshall Faulk from the Indianapolis Colts, along with many other newcomers, and went on to win the Super Bowl thanks to Faulk’s NFL offensive player of the year season.2An MVP turn from QB Kurt Warner didn’t hurt, either.The 2018 Rams don’t have anyone with the instant impact of a Sanders or Faulk. But one thing that makes them intriguing is how they’ve supplemented the dream-teamers they do have with younger, cheaper talent. The average age (weighted by AV) for the 10 Super Bowl champs most laden with new veteran talent3Ages are as of Dec. 31 for each season. I used a quick-and-dirty calculation that multiplies together AV from the current and previous seasons for incoming veteran players, to capture both established production and current-season value. was 27.6 years old; for L.A. this season, that number is 26.8. The Rams’ four best players by AV — Gurley, Donald, Jared Goff and Robert Woods — are all 27 or younger, and none of them were among the newcomers L.A. brought in this season. (And only Donald and Gurley were playing on contracts guaranteeing more than $30 million.) Whereas yesterday’s dream teams rose or fell more on the performances of their incoming stars, the new formula for general manager Les Snead and coach Sean McVay has been to use them as supplemental pieces to help support a young core.Not that the current Rams have nothing in common with their dream-team precursors, mind you. Even though teams have gotten much savvier about using contractual tricks to free up cap space and avoid the kind of “salary-cap hell” that, say, the 49ers found themselves in during the late 1990s, the Rams’ aggressive roster moves have still ratcheted up the pressure to win in a relatively short window of time. While most of the Rams’ key starters are still locked up in 2019 as well (with the exceptions of Suh, Cory Littleton and Rodger Saffold), they will begin facing tough salary constraints in the offseason before 2020 — when most of the current secondary and offensive line hits free agency — and particularly before 2021, when Goff will need to sign an extension. Compounding things, L.A. also traded away its second- and third-round draft picks this spring to snag Peters and Fowler.4On top of downgrading from the fourth round to the sixth in 2018 and losing a 2020 fifth-rounder. Even a smartly managed win-now strategy has an expiration date.But then again, so does every team-building tactic in the NFL — unless we’re talking about the Patriots. The Rams are exactly where they knew they’d need to be to justify their all-in roster strategy. They have the young stars and the veteran talent, plus the right coach to steer things in McVay. All that’s left is one more win to prove that dream teams are a viable way to build an NFL champion after all. The Super Bowl-bound Los Angeles Rams are a fascinating exercise in modern NFL team-building. While their opponents in Atlanta, the dynastic New England Patriots, seldom break the bank for anybody other than quarterback Tom Brady — who has been under center for a record nine Super Bowls with the Pats — the Rams spent aggressively after the end of last season. They opened the pocketbook for homegrown stars such as Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley, who each signed massive extensions, and also made a handful of outside pickups, including Brandin Cooks, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Dante Fowler Jr.All told, the spree left L.A. with 34 percent of its 2018 salary-cap dollars committed to returning veteran players on fresh extensions (tops among playoff teams) and an additional 22 percent of the cap spent on incoming veterans (third only to the Bears and Texans among playoff teams), according to data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. The result was a star-studded roster that many called the dreaded D-word — “dream team” — a label that has come to symbolize a roster concept that doesn’t always work in the NFL. But unlike previous dream-team iterations, the Rams have made it work, primarily by relying less on the newcomers and more on the talent they’ve developed. And that might provide a blueprint for future champions, if not exactly future dynasties.