The Houston Astros came out of nowhere. Just two seasons after occupying the basement of the American League West, the Astros have returned to take the top spot. Their turnaround is so sizable and so swift that it’s historic.In 2014, the Astros finished fourth in the division, with a correspondingly putrid winning percentage of .432. This year, the Astros are projected1Using FanGraphs’ projected standings. I am using the projected standings to take into account that the Astros’ performance is likely to regress somewhat. to end with a .530 winning percentage, sixth-best in the majors. Turnarounds like that don’t happen often, but they do happen: Since 1950, only 114 teams (7.2 percent of the total number) have managed to increase their winning percentage by .100 or more over the course of a single season.2I am using data from Sean Lahman’s database. The 2013 World Series-winning Boston Red Sox managed it, as did the 2014 Los Angeles Angels.3Notably, both of these teams had been quite good two years before, implying that their improved winning percentages were returns to their expected level of play. That statement holds generally: The teams that improved their winning percentage by .100 or more had a .478 winning percentage two years prior, much better than the Astros’ woeful mark (.315). We’d expect to see a couple of teams every year bump their winning percentage by a similar margin.The Astros’ turnaround becomes historic, however, when you look at how bad they were two years ago. In 2013, the Astros finished 51-111, good for a .315 winning percentage and the bottom of the division. The team was not felled by injuries or misfortune — it was genuinely terrible in every phase of the game. The Astros’ hitters racked up 1.4 wins above replacement (WAR) — 29th in the league — and their pitchers totaled 1.2 — 30th in the league. That’s what happens when your team is essentially replacement level. A team full of anonymous, AAA types who couldn’t make it in the major leagues would have been projected to finish at a winning percentage of .294, barely worse than the Astros’ actual performance.If the projection for this season holds, the Astros will have increased their winning percentage by .200 over two years. Since 1950, that kind of reversal has happened a grand total of seven times — and when it has, it’s usually because a decent team has gotten radically better. The 2001 Seattle Mariners assembled a historic juggernaut of a team that won 71.6 percent of its games after winning 48.8 percent two years earlier. The team before the Mariners to accomplish this feat, the 1995 Cleveland Indians, became a 100-win team from a borderline contender. Only one team — the 1963 Philadelphia Phillies — had a starting winning percentage as poor as the Astros did at the end of their 2013 season.It’s still early in the season, and the Astros likely won’t finish as well as they have started. That doesn’t mean, though, that the Astros’ current winning percentage (.625) is founded purely on luck. They have one of the best run differentials in the league, scoring 28 more runs than they’ve allowed.4According to Russell Carleton’s work at Baseball Prospectus, run differential doesn’t stabilize until 70 games have been played. But such a strong differential does portend positive things for the Astros, even if the sample size is not yet large enough to be certain. The Astros aren’t getting terribly lucky in terms of their batting average on balls in play (BABIP), either offensively (.278, good for 24th in the league) or defensively (.283, also 24th). They have been a little bit lucky in terms of clustering their hits, but even if we remove that, they’d have earned a .576 winning percentage so far, good for fourth in the league.Most teams that accomplished turnarounds like the Astros’ did so on the basis of vastly improved play — both on offense and defense. On average, teams that saw their winning percentage improve by .100 year to year were helped by their offenses putting up .46 more runs per game and their defense allowing .54 fewer runs per game. The Astros are doing just as well. Their runs per game have improved by .55 relative to last year, and their runs allowed per game have declined by .61. In other words, this kind of improvement is no fluke.The Astros have built their team on a combination of savvy trades (outfielder Jake Marisnick), high draft picks (right fielder George Springer) and an eye for talent disregarded by other teams (second baseman Jose Altuve and starting pitcher Collin McHugh). Guys like McHugh offer an insight into the front office’s analytics-heavy approach. McHugh was acquired not because of his results but because the spin on his curveball suggested that he could become a success.As with any turnaround, however, luck does play a role. Indeed, projection systems are relatively unchanged in their opinion of the Astros despite their success. FanGraphs’ Steamer projection pegs them as a roughly .500 team going forward, and Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA is even less optimistic.But all those wins in the bank mean that even if they regress, the Astros stand a good chance at making the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Both projections tab them as better-than-even to get into the postseason, and their unexpectedly exceptional play may convince the front office to make further improvements to the roster.One of the most optimistic parallels for the Astros’ recent success comes from the last team to increase its winning percentage by .200 in two years: the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. Like the Astros, those Rays were coming from the basement, riding a wave of young talent gathered by a recently installed, sabermetrically advanced front office. For the Rays, 2008’s turnaround was the beginning of an impressive run that saw them make the playoffs in four of six years (getting all the way to the World Series in 2008).If those Rays are any guide, we may be witnessing the rise of a new contender — one that will be competitive in the AL West for several years. This may be the last year the Astros sneak up on people.
1985Chicago11312713412512.2 In the aftermath of C.J. Anderson’s 48-yard overtime touchdown — which unceremoniously ended the Patriots’ undefeated season — just one NFL team remains perfect: the Carolina Panthers. Unlike New England, Carolina delivered the goods again in Week 12, routing the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day to become just the 12th team of the Super Bowl era1Since 1966. to start a season 11-0.Already, this is the best team in franchise history. It’s hard to go 11-0; the other teams to pull it off have been historically great. But despite the unblemished start, there remain statistical reasons to wonder if these Panthers are quite as great as their 11-0 forebears — and, perhaps, reasons to wonder if the stats are missing something about their style of play.Let’s start at the top: This season, Carolina is outscoring foes by about 11.5 points per game, which is relatively low by the standards of an undefeated team. Among the 11-0 club’s dozen members, only the 2009 Indianapolis Colts and 1969 Los Angeles Rams had lower per-game scoring margins than the 2015 Panthers. Further, the Panthers have piled up the wins against a schedule rated as the league’s second-weakest by Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS). According to SRS, only two of the Panthers’ opponents thus far have been above-average teams: the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.Add in the fact that Carolina wasn’t expected to be anything special before the season began, and it isn’t hard to see why our Elo ratings2FiveThirtyEight’s pet metric for gauging a team’s talent level at any given moment in time. still doubt that the Panthers are even the NFL’s best team this season. (So forget about asking if their rating measures up to that of great historical squads.) By Elo, the 2015 Panthers are the worst team of the Super Bowl era to start a season 11-0: To find an 11-0 team led by an aerial attack similar to the Panthers’ — decent, but not great — you’d need to go back to the fabled 1985 Bears, which only serves to underscore just how rare (and challenging) it is to put up a long winning streak without a standout QB. That Chicago team was unique; it used Jim McMahon’s solid passing to complement the elite rushing of Walter Payton and one of the most dominant defenses ever. It should also be noted that the league had not fully opened up the passing game by the mid-1980s, so top-flight passing was not as much of a requirement as it is now.Although the Panthers, including Newton, run the ball well and their D has been terrific against the pass thus far,7In that area, their EPA allowed per play (relative to the league) is actually the same as that of the mighty ’85 Bears! I don’t think anyone’s confusing this Carolina team with the ’85 Bears — going by Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), the Carolina defense doesn’t even match up with the 2013 Seahawks.But if Carolina does have a secret weapon in the passing game, a place where the overall stats have a blind spot, it could be in Newton’s ability to throw the ball deep. Among qualified passers this season,8According to TruMedia’s proprietary database made available to ESPN. Newton ranks seventh in QBR on passes that travel 20 or more yards through the air. The ability to complete deep passes affords a QB more margin for error on shorter passes — good news for Newton, whose completion percentage hovers near the bottom of the league — and leaning on the deep pass also meshes well with a roster built around efficient rushing and tough D. In an inversion of the typical QB-for-MVP argument, the makeup of the Panthers may actually help boost Newton’s value.While the Panthers’ unbeaten run is an outlier among 11-0 starts, both in quality and composition, there are far worse fates than potentially being the worst team to accomplish the feat. In fact, how they’ve done it emphasizes how impressive the streak is: 11 wins without a loss in the NFL is truly rarified territory, and Carolina got there without putting up the rarified stats that typically go along with the record. Put another way: The Panthers win ugly.Check out our NFL predictions for each team’s chances of advancing to the playoffs and winning Super Bowl 50. 2015Carolina1689147530.218.6— 1984Miami1391151067612.5 1991Washington1740151332.812.614-2 2009New Orleans1221171187412.1 1972Miami1712145828.112.514-0 1998Denver1773148533.617.314-2 Elo assigns Carolina a rating that implies it would win about 11.5 games against an average slate of 16 randomly drawn opponents. That’s quite good — in terms of true talent, it’s better than about 93 percent of teams under the current structure of the NFL. But going into this season, the average historical 11-0 team had the talent to win 12.5 games against the same kind of schedule. In other words, the 2015 Panthers are missing a whole win of talent compared with their 11-0 peers. And a win of talent goes a long way — according to Elo, it’s roughly the difference between Carolina and the 6-5 Kansas City Chiefs.Abstracted strength of the team’s true talent aside, the most glaring way in which Carolina lags behind those historical squads is under center. Although Panthers QB Cam Newton is a strong MVP candidate, it’s more because he’s the charismatic face of an undefeated franchise than his own statistical performance. According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (QBR),3Which measures a quarterback’s contribution to his team’s offense on a 0-to-100 scale. Newton ranks 20th out of 31 qualified passers this season. QBR is hardly an infallible metric, but in Newton’s case, it’s notable because in addition to passing, QBR also accounts for his strong rushing ability. That makes his QBR underperformance especially disappointing, and it’s corroborated by other data points.4We even tortured the numbers to see if Newton performs especially well on, say, third- or fourth-and-long plays when he needed to throw the ball at least 15 yards — plays where his combination of athleticism and arm strength would theoretically shine. Even then, he still shows up in the middle of the league in QBR. Simply put, quarterback play probably isn’t the main driving force behind the Panthers’ success.You can see this in the team’s expected points added (EPA), which tracks how many net points can be credited to each phase of the game. EPA says Carolina possesses a strong rushing attack and the league’s top defense against the pass,5In a tie with Denver. so even though the Panthers’ passing offense is also above average, it isn’t the team’s strongest suit. This stands out when compared with the other 11 Super Bowl-era teams to start 11-0: Only those ’69 Rams averaged fewer EPA per pass play (relative to the league) than Carolina has,6Estimating EPA for pre-2006 teams using the method I outlined here. with most getting far more production through the air than Newton’s Panthers: 2007New England1806153740.216.816-0 2009Indianapolis121911069212.2 2009New Orleans1727150737.020.113-3 1969Los Angeles1730147227.316.511-3 1969Los Angeles1107711011212.4 2011Green Bay13794987712.8 2005Indianapolis133981139512.8 YEARTEAMPASS OFF.RUN OFF.PASS DEF.RUN DEF.TALENT WINS 2007New England1411241288213.2 2005Indianapolis1772148830.014.514-2 2009Indianapolis1735150027.616.714-2 1998Denver12313510110812.8 2015Carolina11111713410611.5 1991Washington1371061239612.3 1985Chicago1732149229.411.615-1 2011Green Bay1772147134.720.615-1 THROUGH 11 GAMES EPA RATING (100 = AVERAGE) 1972Miami12712212711812.0 1984Miami1754147732.714.914-2 YEARTEAMELOOPP. ELOPPGOPP. PPGFINAL W-L
Winning the offseason — signing the marquee free agent and/or making the headline-grabbing trade — does not correlate strongly with actual winning. The San Diego Padres “won” the 2014-15 offseason by adding Craig Kimbrel, James Shields and a host of other players, then went on to lose 88 games the following season. The previous winter, Seattle shocked the baseball world by outbidding the Yankees for All-Star Robinson Cano, but the Mariners still haven’t made the playoffs since 2001. In December 2011, the Los Angeles Angels signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract — a contract that quickly became one of the great albatrosses in the sport. The deal has compromised the Angels’ ability to improve their club; Angels star Mike Trout has participated in only three playoff games in his career.But last winter, something unusual happened: The Milwaukee Brewers won the offseason and went on to win in the actual season. The Brewers, who will begin the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, acquired the best player in the trade market last winter in Christian Yelich and the best player in the free-agent market in Lorenzo Cain. They also found an undervalued arm in Jhoulys Chacin.These big-name acquisitions exceeded expectations. In total, no team had a better year-to-year roster overhaul than the Brewers — and it wasn’t close.The Brewers added 18.90 wins above replacement1Using a mix of the WAR values found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. from outside their organization in 2018. The next closest teams were the Tampa Bay Rays (11.93 WAR) and Houston Astros (9.05). In terms of net gains and losses from last offseason, the Brewers’ departing players accounted for -0.02 WAR of value in 2018 with their new teams, making their net WAR gain from offseason transactions 18.92. The next closest clubs? The Red Sox (7.78) and Reds (5.43). Yelich (7.61 WAR), Cain (6.30) and Chacin (2.50) accounted for 39.7 percent of Milwaukee’s WAR this season. San Francisco Giants+3.33– Los Angeles Dodgers+1.45– New York Yankees+3.77– Baltimore Orioles-2.47– St. Louis Cardinals-13.27– Cleveland Indians+3.97– Toronto Blue Jays+3.95– Milwaukee Brewers+18.92– San Diego Padres+1.48– Pittsburgh Pirates-2.49– Oakland Athletics-0.49– Miami Marlins-13.59– Sources: Fangraphs, Baseball-reference.com Chicago Cubs-5.55– Chicago White Sox-5.93– teamNet WAR Arizona Diamondbacks-5.91– Kansas City Royals-16.22– Texas Rangers-1.46– New York Mets-1.84– Los Angeles Angels-5.81– The Brewers won the offseason … and the NL CentralMLB teams by net wins above replacement (WAR) for the 2018 regular season Boston Red Sox+7.78– Detroit Tigers-15.01– Tampa Bay Rays+1.84– Houston Astros+2.73– Seattle Mariners+0.73– Philadelphia Phillies+2.15– Cinncinati Reds+5.43– Washington Nationals-1.53– One reason it’s so difficult to translate offseason success to the actual playing field is that predicting player performance is a difficult task in just about every sport — even a sport rich in data like baseball. Injury and misfortune can derail the best of plans.Another reason is tied to a macro-level trend in baseball: Free agency has been devalued.Because of both performance and financial motivations, teams are prizing cheaper, younger talent more. The average age of an MLB player in 2004 hit a post-World War II high of 29.2, but that has gradually declined to a 21st-century low of 28.2 years this season. Testing for performance-enhancing drugs, which began in earnest in 2004, has also likely played a role in the disappearance of 30-somethings — ages when players are typically acquired as free agents. Simply put, it’s more difficult to buy a competitive team in baseball, while the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros have won titles with homegrown efforts and given MLB a blueprint in the past several seasons.Yet Milwaukee defied the odds and — partially through spending — got itself a contending team. As the industry zigged, the Brewers zagged.Conventional wisdom has it that small-market baseball teams must be homegrown because there is no financial mechanism like a salary cap to level the playing field, though baseball’s strengthened penalties for exceeding the luxury tax are acting something like a soft cap.2The New York Yankees stayed below the tax floor this season for the first time in the tax era; the Los Angeles Dodgers also stayed below the floor after paying the highest tax bill during the past four years. But the Brewers, ranking 23rd in opening day payroll, had the second lowest amount of homegrown production this season, according to MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, who found that only the Oakland A’s had a lower share of homegrown WAR than the Brewers’ mark of 17 percent.The Brewers’ offseason and in-season success is tied to being opportunistic. The team took advantage of a suppressed free-agent market to land Cain, an effort perhaps aided by clubs saving dollars to pursue Bryce Harper and Manny Machado this coming offseason. Star-level free agents often sign before New Year’s Day, but it wasn’t until late January that Cain reached a five-year agreement worth $80 million. While the back end of the deal might not turn out to be favorable for the club, the 32-year-old Cain’s 6.3-win season has already covered much of the expense in terms of performance value. Among 2017-18 free agents, no one was more valuable than Cain this season — even J.D. Martinez, who is guaranteed $30 million more over five years.While teams have become more leery of free agency, they’ve also become less likely to part with prospect talent. Milwaukee went against the grain here, too, in acquiring Yelich, who may very well be the NL MVP. The Brewers surrendered four prospects — including their top prospect, Lewis Brinson — to acquire Yelich. The 26-year-old is under club control through the 2022 season at $51.3 million.All clubs are interested in free-agent bargain hunting to fill out their rosters — and the Brewers did well here, too, in signing Chacin to a two-year, $15.5 million deal. Chacin’s 2.50 WAR was third only to Miles Mikolas (4.47 WAR)3Mikolas came over from Japan on a two-year, $15.5 million deal with St. Louis. and Jake Arrieta (2.65 WAR) among free-agent starting pitchers signed over the winter.With the Brewers, Chacin and Yelich have gotten more out of their abilities. Chacin’s slider usage rate has increased to a career-high 43.9 percent; in run value per 100 pitches, it was the 11th-best slider in baseball. Yelich became more aggressive in swinging in early counts in the second half, and his home run-to-fly ball rate surged to 48.1 percent.The Brewers were also able to avoid the overpriced relief market, returning Josh Hader and Corey Knebel — their top two relievers from 2017. Their bullpen is the strength of their pitching staff.Milwaukee invested wisely. The Brewers saw undervalued players and opportunity last winter. Because of that, this high-import, small-budget team is four wins from the World Series.Neil Paine contributed research.Check out our latest MLB predictions. Minnesota Twins+3.26– Atlanta Braves+1.94– Colorado Rockies-0.47–
Week 1 of the 2014 NFL season isn’t over yet — there’s a pair of games Monday night — but through Sunday’s slate of matchups, you might get the distinct sense that upheaval is afoot. The New Orleans Saints lost in Atlanta, the Buffalo Bills beat the Chicago Bears on the road, the Kansas City Chiefs were manhandled by the Tennessee Titans, the New England Patriots lost their opening game for the first time in 11 years, and the Cincinnati Bengals went into Baltimore and handed the Ravens a rare home loss.According to our pre-game Elo ratings (which are computer power ratings that factor in each team’s strength of schedule and margin of victory, along with a prior of how good it was last season), only 57.1 percent of favorites have won so far this week, which would be tied for the 15th-most chaotic opening week since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. (The average NFL Week 1 sees 62 percent of favorites win.)There are alternative ways to measure how upset-happy a week was, though. And when you look at how the games were won or lost, Week 1 (thus far) has actually been less surprising than the typical opening week.For instance, we can look at the root-mean-square error (RMSE) between the predicted point spreads of games — our NFL Elo ratings can generate an expected point spread for a given game, using the location of the game and the difference in the two teams’ ratings — and the actual point differentials of the games. By that standard, 2014 featured the 13th-most accurate Elo predictions of any opening week since the merger. In other words, the actual margins weren’t far off from what we expected going into the games.Or we could just look at how much the Elo ratings shifted after each game, on average. One key concept of Elo’s system is that the ratings update based on how unexpected a game’s outcome was; the more surprising the result, the more the ratings change in the face of new evidence. By that metric, Week 1 of 2014 was pretty typical of an opening week: The average game saw a 19.9-point shift in Elo ratings, while the average opening week since 1970 saw a 20.5-point shift per game.A number of the aforementioned upsets were won by small margins. While the Titans and Miami Dolphins prevailed by double-digits, the Atlanta Falcons and the Bills only won by three points apiece, and the Bengals won by seven in a game where they had the superior pre-game Elo rating (Baltimore was only slightly favored because it was at home). Plus, the rest of the schedule saw things pretty much go according to form, with a few exceptions, such as the St. Louis Rams losing by 28 at home.In general, we know less than we think when it comes to how good NFL teams are early in the season. But this year, Week 1 has been slightly more predictable than the norm thus far.
Games like the one Anthony Davis had Sunday night don’t come along very often — at least not in the modern NBA.With 59 points in the New Orleans Pelicans’ 111-106 win over the Detroit Pistons, Davis set new scoring highs for both his own career and the 2015-16 NBA season. He also pulled down a whopping 20 rebounds. Basketball-Reference.com doesn’t have complete game-by-game rebounding records from before the 1983-84 season (more on that later), but since then, there have only been two other 50/20 games: a 2000 contest in which Shaquille O’Neal scored 61 points and grabbed 23 boards against the Clippers and a 2001 tilt during which Chris Webber dropped 51 and 26 on the Pacers.Davis’s eye-popping numbers on Sunday came through incredible efficiency. His true shooting percentage in the game was 76.8, far above the league’s season-long average of 53.9. (By comparison, Webber’s true shooting percentage was only 51.4 in his big game, and Shaq’s was 68.3 — outstanding, but below Davis’s mark.) On the other hand, Davis’s Pelicans also played a fast pace — 100.2 possessions — compared with other big scoring/rebounding games from the recent past. So where does Davis rank if we account for both these factors?To answer that, I grabbed game-level data from Basketball-Reference.com starting in 1983-84, and adjusted each player’s scoring and rebounding totals for the pace of the game, setting them all to a pace of exactly 100 team possessions per 48 minutes. I also adjusted for a player’s efficiency, giving his scoring tally an extra bump if he was more efficient than the league average. This is to account for games like Webber’s that have impressive raw stats but required a large number of attempts.1Specifically, I computed how many more points a player scored than one of average efficiency would have in the same number of shot attempts. Historically, multiplying that number by 0.8 and adding it to the player’s actual (pace-adjusted) point total gives an “adjusted scoring” figure that best correlates with a player’s offensive adjusted plus minus. Finally, I took the geometric mean — a special average used when combining two numbers from different scales2Point totals tend to be bigger than rebounds on average and in terms of how high they can vary upward. — of the player’s adjusted point and rebound totals, arriving at this list of the best scoring/rebounding games of the past 33 seasons: UNADJUSTEDADJUSTED Shaquille O’Neal3/21/03LALBOS91.139487420582235.8 Charles Oakley3/15/86CHIMIL91.144355726392933.4 Chris Webber1/5/01SACIND90.350515126562940.3 Hakeem Olajuwon3/14/89HOUSAC92.742405724442633.8 Hakeem Olajuwon5/14/87HOUSEA95.753496325542637.6 Al Jefferson1/27/08MINNJ85.442407019512233.5 Dwight Howard2/17/09ORLCHA88.247457319562234.6 Shaquille O’Neal3/6/00LALLAC95.645616823702440.9 Pau Gasol1/10/15CHIMIL83.739466418582235.4 Dwight Howard1/12/12ORLGSW94.844455923492434.6 Carmelo Anthony1/24/14NYCHA85.139627913811535.1 Charles Barkley3/24/95PHOHOU87.642346726413035.1 Shaquille O’Neal6/9/00LALIND94.246405724442533.4 Dwight Howard4/16/11ORLATL89.146467019562134.5 After crunching the numbers, Davis’s game slips to No. 6, behind not only O’Neal’s and Webber’s but also games from Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and even Michael Jordan. (We don’t tend to think of Jordan as a big rebounder, but he snagged 18 boards in his 69-point game against Cleveland in 1990.) Davis gets extra credit — about 7 points’ worth — for his efficiency but loses ground in the pace adjustment. A faster pace means more chances to score and snag rebounds, and Davis’s game had about 7 percent more possessions than the average game above him on the list.Of course, quibbling about where Davis’s game ranks among the biggest scoring/rebounding performances in recent memory misses the bigger picture that games like Davis’s (adjusted or no) are much more uncommon now than they were in the past. According to ESPN’s Stats and Info crew, there were 36 games in NBA history (before Davis’s on Sunday) featuring a player with a 59/20 stat line: the aforementioned Shaq game … and 35 games from Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain, all before the mid-1970s. Chamberlain himself accounted for 33 of those games — 17 of which came during his legendary 1961-62 season alone.The simple truth is that outrageous single-game stat totals were a lot easier to come by in that era. The average pace factor for teams in 2015-16 is about 96 possessions per 48 minutes; the average in 1961-62, as best we can estimate it, was 126. In other words, compared with the modern game, that season’s players had over 31 percent more chances to score points and grab rebounds — 59/20, for instance, becomes a “mere” 45/15 after adjusting away those extra possessions — and there’s a good argument that rebounding numbers were inflated even further by the era’s abysmally low field goal percentages (resulting in more missed shots to rebound). There’s a reason that Kevin Love in 2011 became the first player to average 20 points and 15 rebounds since 1983 and that 92 percent of the player-seasons meeting those criteria took place before 1976’s NBA-ABA merger. The game was radically different back then, both on the court and in the stat sheets.That’s why we should appreciate games like Davis’s even more when they come along in today’s NBA. Fifty-point, 20-rebound games have always represented special individual performances, but they’ve become exponentially rarer these days, especially given recent changes to how the game is played. (Hello, Warriors!) So it might be a long time before you see another statistical game quite like the one Davis produced Sunday. Charles Barkley12/9/87PHIPOR93.242387224452633.9 Shaquille O’Neal2/16/93ORLDET92.649467221542335.1 Shaquille O’Neal6/6/01LALPHI90.452445820512233.5 Dirk Nowitzki12/2/04DALHOU89.249536416631833.6 Karl Malone1/27/90UTAMIL104.033618418681734.2 The best scoring/rebounding games since 1983-84 Kevin Willis4/13/93ATLCLE85.855355125402934.2 Charles Barkley6/5/93PHOSEA93.446447424522636.6 Zach Randolph12/4/12MEMPHO88.144387422472534.4 Hakeem Olajuwon4/30/88HOUDAL98.143416226442734.1 Michael Jordan3/28/90CHICLE95.650697318801938.7 PLAYERDATETEAMOPPPACEMINPTSTS%REBPTSREBGEOMETRIC MEAN Patrick Ewing1/7/90NYKLAC92.248446622512434.9 Source: basketball-reference.com Anthony Davis2/21/16NODET100.343597720662036.2
As we near the end of a weeklong frenzy of NBA signings and dealings, our NBA braintrust discusses which teams made themselves better and which got worse. The transcript below has been lightly edited.neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): OK! The draft is over and most of the major free agents have signed on the dotted lines. (Although I know we’re all waiting with bated breath to see if Washington matches the offer to Otto Porter.) So we thought now would be a good time to survey the NBA landscape and take stock of the biggest offseason moves.First, I wanted to ask: Which team improved themselves the most in the offseason thus far?chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Oklahoma City made a massive trade for Paul George that at least puts them in the conversation again. Maybe not for a title, but at least they’re interesting enough that I want to talk about them again. Minnesota also made some nice moves.kyle (Kyle Wagner, senior editor): Yeah, it’s between OKC and Minnesota, but I’d go with Oklahoma City. Nate wrote that the Wolves are threatening to enter the Western Conference elite, but that’s based on a lot more hypotheticals than Oklahoma City returning to the mix. We’ve already seen the Thunder look like a championship-level team when they had Kevin Durant and the rest of the roster was largely the same. Paul George obviously isn’t KD, but the fit is similar enough that we have proof of concept. The Minnesota team looks much better, but we still have to see them play.chris.herring: I would’ve been all in on the T-Wolves if they could’ve landed J.J. Redick. They still would’ve been light on defense, but all they really need is a shooter to be able to score with anyone.kyle: Speaking of J.J., the 76ers are a good answer if we’re defining improvement as “Who’s going to see the biggest bump in win total?” It’s not nearly as hard to add wins from the bottom of the pile, but it’s good to see Philly fielding an actual team.neil: I think that was an interesting comment Chris made earlier about what “the conversation” is: These are all teams that have become fun again, though not necessarily teams that are likely title contenders. Is that one of the themes of this offseason? That NBA junkies like us are looking for reasons to find teams interesting, but it’s less clear whether anyone is closer to knocking off the Warriors?kyle: If anything, teams are getting further away from competing with the Warriors. San Antonio, for instance, beat the hell out of Golden State for two and a half quarters before Kawhi Leonard landed on Zaza’s size 17s, but they haven’t fared well this offseason. They whiffed on a rumored swing at bringing on Chris Paul; they’ll be missing Tony Parker; they don’t seem to know what to do with LaMarcus Aldridge; and they haven’t locked up key rotation guys like Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon, who are in talks with other teams. (Simmons in particular is a flight risk, as he’s the kind of wing defender/scorer a lot of teams need and a long shot to take a San Antonio discount at age 28, having been one bad D-league tryout away from getting his barber’s license just a few years ago.)Meanwhile, the Cavs haven’t yet been able to pull off a trade to bring in an extra star. Melo would help, but it’s hard to say how much, even when looking at the projections, since their sleepwalked regular season threw their projection off so much this past year.chris.herring: And the Warriors very quietly added more talent while keeping all their main guys on totally reasonable deals. Not even sure how you’re supposed to compete with them when Durant takes a deal that’s worth $9 million less than market value.Because of that, the free agent conversation begins to feel a bit academic. Who is realistically beating the Warriors over the next two years?kyle: Right! The biggest key to building a championship team is finding stars who give you surplus value, whether it’s talented young guys on rookie deals and second contracts or superstars worth far more than even the max. With the Warriors, they have Steph projected to be outperforming his $201 million deal for the next five years and KD taking less than the max.neil: And I think that whole feeling of league-wide ennui was fueled a little by this year’s free-agent class not necessarily being very star-packed. Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign with Boston received a lot of attention this week, but even he is only classified by CARMELO as a “borderline All-Star.”(Ditto Paul George, who wasn’t a free agent but was, as you mention, maybe the biggest name on the move.)This wasn’t KD and LeBron changing addresses.chris.herring: There are two teams that intrigue me a bit, that could be in the playoffs now but weren’t before: Denver and Minnesota.Denver got an absolute steal in Paul Millsap on a three-year, $90 million deal. The last year of the contract is a team option. One of the best contracts of the summer thus far. That Northwest division could be tough.kyle: Yeah, Hayward and George have near-identical five-year projections just about in line with what they can be paid on a max deal, prorated for four years. That’s obviously very good, but simply living up to a max deal traditionally hasn’t been good enough for the best player on a championship team. For now, Boston still has a ton of young talent on cheap deals (and Isaiah Thomas playing for a little more than $6 million in his final season before unrestricted free agency), but the Celtics still have no one creating value at the top end.Oklahoma City, meanwhile, has Russell Westbrook projecting to produce about $80 million in 2017-18 alone. Westbrook’s projection is a little nutty because of his preposterous MVP season, and his game will change a ton now that he’s not the only gun in the valley, but it’s a more promising starting point for the next few seasons. But even then, OKC is capped out enough that adding pieces to truly challenge Golden State (such as Rudy Gay) remains a long shot.neil: OK, so it sounds like little has been done to close the gap between Golden State and the rest of the West. But while we’re speaking of Hayward and the Celtics, are they (or anybody else) closer to being competitive with Cleveland in the East?chris.herring: The Celtics might be the future of the East, depending on what happens after this season with LeBron. Though I have to think he’d avoid going west given how much of a free ride the Eastern Conference will be for the foreseeable future. That said, I’d be beyond shocked if Boston takes out Cleveland unless they add one more star.kyle: Boston’s problems in their series were what to do when Isaiah wasn’t firing and the offense breaks down, and Hayward doesn’t solve that. He was a strong pick-and-roll scorer last season, but the Celtics offense runs on movement and passing — when things go bad, they haven’t been equipped to hustle up an impromptu high screen. And if the Celtics are going to rely on Hayward to just muscle up some buckets, they may be disappointed — he was a middling isolation player last season, scoring 82 points per 100 plays, according to Synergy.neil: I was stunned to plug Boston’s depth chart — including Hayward — into CARMELO and get a 45-win projection back out. I’d still probably take the over on that, but it underscores how much work these other teams have to do.kyle: Yeah, and this goes back to a pillar of Boston plan, which has been to hoard “assets” who are good rotation players, but not much better than any other playoff team’s average starter. Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are good players, but at some point your roster full of 45-win talent isn’t a pile of assets — it’s just your roster.chris.herring: I’ll one-up you, Kyle. What about a 55-win roster that can’t win anything past a first-round series? Because that’s what you have with the Clippers. Only now they don’t have Chris Paul, either.They are paying a whole lot of money to be decent these next few years. Huge, $173 million payout to Blake Griffin. Big money for Gallinari, who I love, but who also can’t stay healthy. They’re spinning this as the best frontcourt in the league, with DeAndre Jordan. But what about their backcourt? And why is Doc still in charge of personnel?!neil: Yeah — while most teams in recent years have been trying to get out of the no-man’s land between contending and rebuilding, the Clippers seem like they just locked themselves in that zone for a while.chris.herring: I have a feeling Toronto just did the same thing. Although I’d have a hard time blowing everything up if LeBron might be leaving Cleveland in a year, too.kyle: Yeah, the Clippers’ frontcourt will be amazing for the 20-odd games they’re on the court together. I do love Gallo, though, who’s a really underrated player and drives the lane like he’s running from the cops on stilts.But I respect teams not just immediately tearing down. This is the first extended run of success the team has had in god knows how long. It’s a bummer that they’re not sniffing the Warriors’ contrails, but putting out a basketball team that doesn’t raise Clippers fans’ depression rate is an OK place for them to be.neil: And just to bring it back to the “interesting” (if not championship-level) teams angle, maybe that’s an encouraging sign for the league next year. Between the Chris Paul experiment in Houston; these new free agents; Denver; and maybe the most compelling future team, the Pelicans, who scarcely made a splash this offseason, it seems like we’ll have plenty of interesting teams and rosters, even if the Warriors are heavy favorites again (and again, and again).chris.herring: The NBA’s got me addicted. I can’t quit now, even if we pretty much know how this will end this time next year.kyle: And the rookies! This year’s lottery class will add a bunch of entertaining League Pass teams, and CARMELO has a bunch slated as great prospects. Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball at the top are both on interesting young teams (the Sixers more so than the Lakers, obviously), but teams like the Kings (with De’Aaron Fox, Harry Giles and second-year Buddy Hield) or Hornets (with Malik Monk pairing with Kemba Walker, who’s become a legitimate star) will be a lot of fun.neil: Lonzo in L.A. alone should be worth the price of admission.kyle: Without the Warriors, this would be one of the most entertaining, wide-open eras the league has ever seen. With them around, the season should be a hell of a party before the scheduled execution.
From the very first day he set foot on campus, Evan Turner dreamt of leaving Columbus for the fame and fortune of professional basketball. But those dreams were quickly put on hold.“Once you get here it’s so tough,” Turner said. “I had the roughest time ever here and I wasn’t sure I could play at this level. I definitely wasn’t ready for college. I was like, ‘Man I can’t do anything.’”Three years later, Turner has gone from “can’t do anything” to “capable of everything.” The Buckeye point guard has turned in one of the best seasons in school history and has his team in position for something he has had his sights set on since his freshman year: a Big Ten championship.Tonight, Ohio State takes on Illinois and with a win the Buckeyes can clinch at least a share of the conference championship. A title would be the first for the program since 2007 and, perhaps more importantly, a first for Turner. But as the potential championship weighs heavily on the minds of Buckeye fans, an even bigger question looms. Is this the last time we’ll see Evan Turner play at the Schottenstein Center?Turner is considered by many as the front-runner in the race for the National Player of the Year award and would likely be a top five pick in the NBA Draft if he chose to enter. The thought of leaving school early was something that Turner admits he considered a year ago.“When I first found out I could [leave school early], I thought, ‘You know that’d be cool.’”And who could blame him? Just like any other student at OSU, Turner isn’t living a glamorous lifestyle. He doesn’t live in a big house, he doesn’t drive a fancy car and he certainly doesn’t have anywhere near the bankroll that would come with an NBA contract. The chance to leave Columbus for the fame and fortune of the NBA is one that a typical college basketball player would jump at. Just ask Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Kosta Koufos or B.J. Mullens.But if there’s one thing Turner has shown in his three years in Columbus, it’s that he is far from the typical college basketball player.“What really just stuck in me was, you know I haven’t really done anything here,” Turner said. “I haven’t left my mark. Not winning a Big Ten title or anything like that, that would have nagged me for the rest of my life. I didn’t really accomplish anything in college and that’s why I came back.”And that’s exactly what has set him apart. He didn’t come to college and treat the university as a mere stepping stone to a professional career. He isn’t at OSU to simply draw the attention of NBA scouts.Turner has, or at least appears to have, a genuine interest in winning at the college level. “His focus now is on becoming the best basketball player he can become and knowing that, if he does that, we’ve got a better basketball team,” coach Thad Matta said. “I’m grateful for him doing that because it hasn’t been easy. Every time you pick up the magazine or turn on the TV, they’re talking about him. It’s just a tribute to him and who he is as a person.”Matta has often been forced to deal with the speculation of one or more of his players prematurely leaving the program. One reporter went so far as to dub him the “national expert” on players bolting for the NBA.But for Matta, Turner has provided a welcome change.“He’s done a fabulous job of keeping the focus on the right things,” Matta said. “You look at how he’s developed, how he’s matured over the course of a three year span. To me that’s exciting because I think that we as a program, we as a university have really helped him develop and that’s something that I enjoy seeing.”Like Matta, junior forward David Lighty has been around long enough to see many of his teammates head to the NBA. Now in his fourth year in the program, Lighty has been witness to five different Buckeyes who forewent their college eligibility and opted to enter the draft.Lighty admits that his time in Columbus has been, “kind of wild,” in regards to the number of changes his team’s have undergone, but acknowledged that it’s all part of the process. He said that his advice to those considering the jump has always been the same.“I just tell them to do what’s best for them and their families,” Lighty said. “A lot of people dream of going to the NBA so you can’t deny someone their dream if they had the opportunity to go do it.”That is not to say, however, that Lighty doesn’t want to see Turner return for his senior season.“Of course you would love them to come back,” Lighty said. “But it’s kind of like being selfish if you say, ‘you don’t love us if you leave’ and stuff like that.” Turner admitted that the result of tonight’s game could impact his decision. He said that if the Buckeyes were to lose and miss out on a Big Ten title that there is a “greater chance” that he’ll be back for another year, but joked that he still would like for the fans to cheer for an OSU victory.And because tonight’s game will mark the final home game of the season, Turner will be witness to all of the festivities of senior night at the Schottenstein Center. OSU will honor five players who are playing their final games in Columbus, but naturally the majority of the discussion is centered on a possible sixth.The questions regarding Turner’s future are far from over, but as long as the Buckeyes are still competing for a conference and potential national championship, Turner has no intention of making a decision any time soon.“I don’t want to have one foot out the door and think too far into the future,” Turner said. “You really have to take care of what you have right now. When you do stuff out of order, that’s when everything gets messed up.”Whether he decides to leave or stay, Turner said he can’t go wrong. “If I stay it definitely wouldn’t hurt,” Turner said. “I’d get better as a basketball player and keep maturing as a person. You just have to really consider everything, but no matter what it should be fine.”
Ohio State men’s basketball freshman forward LaQuinton Ross used social media to voice frustration about playing time after the team’s 78-68 Tuesday win at Minnesota. Coach Thad Matta and a teammate agreed Ross has learned a lesson from the ordeal. Following the Buckeyes’ road victory against the Golden Gophers in which Ross watched from the bench as 10 of his teammates entered the game, the player let fly with a tweet from his account, @qross2011, which read: “Don’t know how much longer I can take this BULLSHIT!!!!!.” Matta said Ross, rated the No. 43 overall recruit in the class of 2011 by Rivals.com, came to him minutes later to discuss the tweet. “He said, ‘I think I made a mistake,’” Matta said during a Friday press conference. “I was shocked.” Ross deleted the tweet and told his coach he wanted to issue an apology, which later read: “I let my emotions get the best of me!!! I want to apologize to #buckeyenation that should have been something I took up with my coaches!!,” Ross said from his Twitter account. Shortly after, Ross tweeted again, saying: “At the end of the day I’m just a competitor.” Matta said he appreciates Ross’ desire to play, adding that he wants the player to display that in practice and not on social media websites. “I think he knows that he has a tremendous future here, there’s no doubt about that,” Matta said. “He’s been awesome at practice.” Sophomore forward Jared Sullinger announced earlier in the season that he was taking a vacation from Twitter and said he therefore didn’t know exactly what Ross tweeted. Sullinger said he addressed the issue with Ross. “I told him that it’s going to be all right,” Sullinger said. “Most talented players go through something like this. Honestly, to put it out there in the public eye was wrong and he understands now.” Ross’ frustration might stem from the fact that he missed team activities during the fall academic quarter after being ruled academically ineligible on Sept. 26, 2011, Sullinger said. “He didn’t have a chance to tryout in the two weeks before we played our (preseason) exhibition game,” Sullinger said of Ross, who rejoined the team at the start of the winter academic quarter. “So, he was kind of behind the eight ball. He understands that now. All you can do is get better and keep plugging away and just compete.” Ross has played in a team-low six games during the 2011-12 campaign and is averaging just four minutes per game. The forward is 2-of-10 from the field and has scored 11 points during the playing time he’s received. Sullinger said that while Ross might not be on the floor helping the team during games, his effort in practice has been valuable. “I think he understands that he has next year,” Sullinger said. “He also has this year. You never know what can happen.” The No. 6-ranked Buckeyes (22-4, 10-3 Big Ten) continue Big Ten play against No. 17-ranked Michigan (19-7, 9-4) Saturday at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. Tipoff is set for 9 p.m. and the game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Darron Lee steps into the end zone for a score during a game against Northern Illinois on Sept. 19. OSU won 20-13. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead / Photo EditorWhile the defense has kept Ohio State No. 1 in the country and undefeated through three games, team members have made it clear that its current pace will not work throughout the season.“We have to play better, we have to coach better, we have to play better. We have to execute. We have to do a better job as an offensive unit,” running backs coach Tony Alford said Monday.In OSU’s first two home games — victories against Hawaii and Northern Illinois — the Buckeyes’ two quarterbacks, redshirt junior Cardale Jones and redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett, combined to go just 35-of-61 for 314 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.Jones’ 4-of-9 start against Northern Illinois caused coach Urban Meyer to pull the plug on him for that game early in the second quarter. However, Meyer said on Wednesday that Barrett has not done enough to unseat Jones as the starter, and Jones will make his seventh consecutive start on Saturday.After the Northern Illinois game, junior running back Ezekiel Elliott said that a more aggressive mindset is required to be successful regardless of which player is under center.“The thing is, we’re just really not starting drives well,” Elliott said. “So we get behind and behind, and we’re the type of offense that’s always running, so that’s a problem.”On Saturday, OSU is gearing up to welcome the Western Michigan Broncos for its fourth and final nonconference game, and third consecutive home contest. The Broncos are paced by redshirt junior quarterback Zach Terrell, who ranks 10th in the nation with 947 passing yards through three games.“I’m very excited for this matchup,” redshirt sophomore cornerback Eli Apple said. “They’re a very good receiving corps, for sure, and have a good quarterback as well, so I’m ready, I can’t wait.”Missing in actionWhile the core of the Buckeyes is still mostly intact heading into the fourth game of the season, there are a few players who serve as valuable depth that OSU will likely be without on Saturday.Redshirt freshman wide receiver Parris Campbell has started each of the Buckeyes’ three games this season opposite redshirt junior Michael Thomas but is still seeking his first collegiate reception.That appears to be on hold for at least one more week, as the Akron, Ohio, product was not listed in the depth chart for the WMU game. Campbell left Saturday’s game during the first quarter with a left knee bruise and did not return. Taking his place at the second starting wideout spot on the depth chart is sophomore Curtis Samuel, who leads the team with 11 receptions.Also away from the field on Saturday will be sophomore cornerback Damon Webb, who is suspended indefinitely from the team for an undisclosed violation of an athletics department policy.“Damon was playing well for us, and he’ll be missed,” co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash said on Monday. “But we’ve got enough people that will fill in, and we’ll continue to get the production that we need.”Finally, the date of freshman running back Mike Weber’s return from a meniscus tear is still not clear. OSU coaches have mentioned for a few weeks that he is near a return to make his debut.“We’ll see. That’s a day-to-day deal as he works through with the trainers,” Alford said. The coach said the team doesn’t plan to redshirt the Detroit native.Previously for Western MichiganThe first three games of the season for WMU were marked by inconsistency.The Broncos began the season by putting somewhat of a scare into now-No. 2 Michigan State in a home game, falling 37-24 after cutting the deficit to 10 early in the fourth quarter. Terrell had a big game, completing 33 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns, but two interceptions and seven sacks marred the effort.The next game was not as encouraging for WMU, as it was crushed by Georgia Southern 43-17. Terrell threw three more interceptions, and the Broncos allowed 413 rushing yards.Finally, in last week’s game they allowed 367 total yards to Football Championship Subdivision opponent Murray State, but won 52-20 to grab its first win. Terrell had a huge game, going 25-of-30 for 355 yards and four scores, without throwing a pick.MACtionAgainst teams currently in Western Michigan’s Mid-American Conference, the Buckeyes hold a 31-1 record. The one loss? Just 111 years ago against Akron — known then as Buchtel College and coached by trophy-namesake John Heisman.Northern Illinois had a chance to end that streak last week but came up seven points short. Now, the Broncos will get a crack at it Saturday. WMU has never faced the Buckeyes.Up nextAfter wrapping up its nonconference schedule against the Broncos, OSU is set to travel to Bloomington, Indiana, to open up Big Ten play against the Hoosiers. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
When Pat Elflein announced he was returning to the Ohio State football team in 2016, he and then-redshirt sophomore guard Billy Price were the only two returning members for the Buckeyes. Coaches decided that Elflein would be shifting to play center, a move which could have seen the Pickerington, Ohio, native fall flat on his face in his final year of eligibility. Instead, Elflein is now considered the third-best center in this year’s draft, and is projected as high as a third-round pick according to Walterfootball.com.2/2 – 6 weeks… The rabbit hole is deep with this one…. It’s the process…. @elflein65 #OLPBuiltToDominate™ pic.twitter.com/4aVR421DKe— Offensive Line Performance (@OLPerformance) February 23, 2017A staple of the offensive line last season for the Buckeyes and the unquestioned leader of “The Slobs,” Elflein has been criticized for a lack of strength and occasionally slow feet. Said to give up too much room and lack speed, Elflein arrived at OSU’s Pro Day with a much trimmer and impressive physique.“It’s all diet,” he said. “Diet, obviously training hard with great trainer, great coach LeCharles Bentley. It’s just all about the way you eat, what you’re putting in your body and training hard.”Bentley, a former four-year letterwinner for OSU from 1998-2001, owns and runs O-Line Performance, a training center for upcoming NFL lineman hopefuls. Although Elflein was listed at 303 pounds during the combine after being listed at 300 pounds during the season, he has made a clear change in his physicality. 1/2 – 6 weeks of doing what needed to be done. We’re not finished… It’s the process @elflein65 #OLPBuiltToDominate™ pic.twitter.com/WkjDO5KDVS— Offensive Line Performance (@OLPerformance) February 23, 2017Elflein anchored the middle of the offensive line last season, and Price said not having him next season will be a tough pill to swallow.“I’m going to try and follow Pat’s step, Pat’s lead,” Price said. “The transformation I’ve been able to make over four years, following behind Pat — that’s going to be tough losing him.”With his change in physique, Elflein might have gained some of the strength he lacked at the combine. Whomever takes a chance on him is still a mystery, but he will likely hear his name called in the middle rounds of the draft.Even with the steps forward in his diet, Elflein said he still allows himself just one cheat meal every now and then.“Roosters,” Elflein said with a smile.The Pickerington native said he was actually at Rooster’s last year watching the draft when teammate, and friend, Taylor Decker was drafted in the first round. While he won’t be there this season, he’s still hoping for the chain chicken fingers restaurant to keep him in mind.“Please sponsor me,” he said. “I’ll be your wingman.”