Eagles in Need of Less Kelly, More Defense

By Sean McAlevey

IN THE MONSTAR LOCKER ROOM, Toon Land — Slated as Superbowl contenders following an offseason of bold roster moves, the Philadelphia Eagles are currently 3-3 and in the midst of an identity crisis. The Chip Kelly-led Eagles, who ran the most offensive plays in the league last year, are looking less like the offensive juggernaut everyone expected them to be and more like a hard-nosed defensive unit with a game manager at quarterback. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Sam Bradford, who arrived in Philadelphia this offseason in a one-for-one exchange for counterpart Nick Foles, has been dreadful at quarterback, tossing the second-most interceptions in the NFL this year (nine). Prized offseason acquisition DeMarco Murray hasn’t been utilized properly, taking handoffs primarily flat-footed out of the shotgun, and has a meager 239 rushing yards to show for it through six weeks. Outside of a few well-oiled drives sprinkled throughout, the Eagles offense has been inept in 2015.

The defense, on the other hand, has been a revelation. The stats: 18.3 points allowed per game, 8 interceptions, and 14 sacks. Their run-stopping has been on point, allowing a mere 94.2 yards per game. The front four of Connor Barwin, Fletcher Cox, Vinnie Curry, and Brandon Graham have played as well as any in the league. And although the pass defense has at times been a letdown, particularly when Byron Maxwell has been in man coverage on opponents’ #1 receivers, it has come through in the clutch and limited the deep ball. The coming return of injured star linebackers Kiko Alonso and Mychal Kendricks will only further bolster the unit.

The Eagles defense dominated the Giants for most of the night on Monday.

The Eagles defense dominated the Giants for most of the night on Monday.

You don’t need a dominant offense to win games when your defense is only allowing 18 points per game. But you do have to limit turnovers and give your defense a chance to catch its breath. The way to do that is to simplify the offense: accentuate the run game and slow down the pace. That means less shotgun and more I-formation to give Murray a chance to gain a head of steam coming downhill between the tackles, a running style that produced the most rushing yards in the league last year (1,845). That also means fewer hurry-up plays and less chicanery. What it really amounts to is less Chip Kelly.

Whether Kelly will learn to step out of the way and allow his brainchild to develop according to its own strengths remains to be seen. Kelly has earned a reputation as a nit-picky micromanager who believes in his system more than his players (see: the 2015 offseason). It is doubtful he will have the wherewithal to strategically limit his offense in order to feature his upstart defense. But whether he likes it or not, it may be the most prudent way to salvage this season.


The End of Westbrook and Durant?

By Jeremy Rucker

STANLEY PODOLAK’S FAVORITE LAUNDROMAT, Maryland, Earth — Here we are again. Another year, another deep but ultimately unsuccessful Thunder playoff run.

For the fourth year in a row, Kevin Durant and company made it to at least the conference semifinals, only to come up short of the NBA title. It’s not that that this exit comes as a shock, or that any of the previous Thunder teams were heavily favored to win an NBA championship. But what is worth noting is that this playoff exit comes at a time when the Thunder’s future is looking somewhat less optimistic than usual.

Kevin Durant and the Thunder have reached at least the conference semifinals the last four seasons in a row but have yet to claim an NBA title

Kevin Durant and the Thunder have reached at least the conference semifinals the last four seasons in a row but have yet to claim an NBA title

The abrupt departure of James Harden clearly shifted the immediate expectations, but Durant’s elevation to LeBron-level superstardom this year suggested that his path to Finals greatness might be more achievable than previously thought. Although the Thunder were never favorites to knock off the Miami Heat for the NBA title, in April there was a thought that some more wear and tear on the Heat’s big 3 could have primed a fully realized Durant and a seasoned Thunder team for a 2015 or 2016 NBA championship.

Fast-forward to now, where another series loss formally concludes a Thunder playoff run that suggests what many have feared: Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will never win an NBA title together. Westbrook has always been hot and cold in the eyes of basketball enthusiasts. His athleticism is second only to LeBron James, and his knack for finishing at the rim, as well as his near-perfect midrange jumper, makes him one the league’s premier players.

On the flip side, six years of NBA exposure has done little to boost his basketball IQ or curb his tendency to act recklessly, especially in the clutch. His turnovers have actually climbed slightly from 3.3 a game his rookie year to 3.8 this season. While pinning the Thunder’s 112-107 Game 6 loss on Westbrook is definitely far-fetched – there’s plenty of blame to go around – his offensive tendencies, and more importantly, Durant’s inability to assume dominance in response, suggest an incompatibility between the two – an incompatibility that will prevent them from ever reaching the top together.

Sure, Ibaka’s injury and a complete lack of bench consistency beyond Reggie Jackson didn’t help Durant and Westbrook in battling a VERY good Spurs team. And the rest of the duo’s supporting cast was questionable all year. Thabo Sefolosha forgot how to shoot and Kendrick Perkins looked far-removed from his 2008 Celtics championship form. (He’s been so bad that a 2014 Perkins vs. 2014 Bill Russell 1v1 matchup might be a toss up at this point.) But even with some better luck in those areas, the Heat, and maybe even the Spurs, would still be able to expose OKC’s weaknesses in a 7 game series.

Some have placed OKC's playoff failings on head coach Scott Brooks

Some have placed OKC’s playoff failings on head coach Scott Brooks

What if it’s just head coach Scott Brooks, as some have suggested? The duo’s playoff struggles almost mirror Jordan and Pippen’s struggles under Doug Collins in Chicago, who failed to lead the Bulls to a championship in four playoff appearances despite All-World talent. After Collins was fired, it only took Phil Jackson two years to win a title. The difference, however, is that MJ is MJ and Pippen wasn’t nearly the on-ball offensive player that Westbrook is now. Durant is great and might get even better, but a Jordan-Durant comparison isn’t happening anytime soon. In all fairness, Brooks is a great coach and he’s taken them as far as he can. At this p0int, even a coaching upgrade wouldn’t propel this team much further.

The issue here is with Westbrook and Durant. While Westbrook opted to accept an extension lower than the maximum in order to stay alongside Durant, his reduced salary didn’t equate to a reduction in his usage. This season, Westbrook had the highest usage rate in the league at 33.5, and Durant was right behind him at 31.5. But the league MVP is the last guy you want playing second fiddle on his own team. Unfortunately, Westbrook’s sensational stats make this power dynamic a tricky situation for any coach, especially during these playoffs. To be clear, Westbrook’s playoff stats were insane. His point, assist, rebound, and steal line was THE BEST IN NBA PLAYOFF HISTORY. He became the only NBA player to average at least 26 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, and 1.5 steals. Ever.

Despite tearing his meniscus a year ago, Westbrook returned stronger than ever en route to a record-setting NBA playoffs performance

Despite tearing his meniscus a year ago, Westbrook returned stronger than ever en route to a record-setting NBA playoffs performance

But that’s the issue. Westbrook’s playoff performance this year showed that both he and KD are ready to take that next step. The only problem is, they can’t get there together. The Pippen-Jordan duo and the Shaq-Kobe duo (as tenuous as it was) were clearly Batman and Robin situations. You could make the case that Kobe’s stats were on par with Shaq’s by the 2002 title, but that Laker team, and Shaq especially, were good enough before Kobe reached that next level to rattle off a three peat. Thanks to LeBron and one of the deepest conferences in recent memory, the Thunder haven’t been good enough. And now Westbrook and Durant are too good, and this Thunder team needs to be split up.

Durant hasn’t yet indicated a desire for dramatic change and Westbrook doesn’t seemed inclined to shake things up either. They also both endorsed Brooks after their Saturday night elimination game. As far as egos go, all is right in Oklahoma City. But then again, Durant seems like the last person who would voice his displeasure on national media, and a recent trend of axing quality coaches suggests that Brooks’ job may be far from safe. Speculation has begun regarding the future of the Thunder’s coaching job, and fans have been questioning Brooks’ ability to feature Durant properly for years.

This season marked a turning point for both of OKC’s stars. Durant reached MVP status and Westbrook exceeded everybody’s expectations in his return from knee surgery. What this postseason indicated, however, is that the Westbrook-Durant tandem is at a crossroads. Durant’s play has made clear that he needs to be the focal point of their offense, especially in the playoffs, but his demeanor has often resulted in him quietly standing and watching Westbrook run the show in late game situations. Although Westbrook is about to fully grow into his ridiculously athletic prime, his improvement is inseparable from his usage rate, and KD’s scoring ability this season suggests that he needs the ball in his hands more than maybe anybody else in the league.

Durant’s time is now and Westbrook’s game has outgrown his place alongside Durant in the Thunder’s offense. Another season together would only limit their respective growth. Change is coming in Oklahoma City.

The Preseason Top 25 and the 16 Seed’s Burden

By Sean McAlevey

THE MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL FIELD WHERE THE LOONEY TOON SPACESHIP FIRST LANDS, USA, Earth — With the Final Four coming to a close tonight as Kentucky squares off against Connecticut in Arlington, Texas, two quick thoughts on the NCAA tournament.

1. The Preseason Top 25 is an incredibly useful predictive tool for March Madness, despite being nearly five months removed.

Louisville, Kentucky, Duke, and Michigan State were all ranked in the preseason top five.

Louisville, Kentucky, Duke, and Michigan State were all ranked in the preseason top five.

Kentucky and Connecticut ranked #1 and #18, respectively, in October’s AP Preseason Poll. The Wildcats entered the 2013-14 season with POY candidate Julius Randle, a projected 2014 NBA lottery pick, and a slew of other five-star studs like Mr. Clutch (aka Aaron Harrison), his twin brother Andrew, and fellow freshman Marcus Lee. It would have been a travesty for Kentucky not to have been the preseason number one. A wager on Kentucky in October would have returned 7/2. Now consider that the Wildcats are one win away from winning it all, and they’re currently 2.5-point favorites to do so. Bad decision to leave the money in your pockets, right? Not nearly as bad as missing out on Connecticut.

The Huskies began the season as the boilerplate savvy veteran bunch led by a young, optimistic head coach – a lot of potential alongside a lot of question marks. Still reeling from the previous season’s NCAA sanctions, Connecticut was a far cry from a hot ticket to win it all: a wager on the Huskies in October would have returned 75-1! The best assets head coach Kevin Ollie had were his two veteran guards: star senior Shabazz Napier, a holdover from the 2011 national title team, and junior Ryan Boatright, Robin to Napier’s Batman. In hindsight, given the performance Napier and Boatright have put on in the tournament, Connecticut came into the season with arguably the best backcourt combo in the country.

These two teams were always contenders, and they are now more than ever. Who knows why they fell asleep at the wheel during conference play? On paper they’re elite programs: combined, they feature at least six future NBA players. But they were both undervalued by the selection committee as a result of their sub-par records in the latter half of the season. They both owned sterling pre-conference records but then stumbled through conference play, going 12-6 each in the two weakest “power” conferences, the SEC and inaugural AAC. Although Kentucky and Connecticut made deep runs in their conference tournaments, the selection committee viewed the Wildcats as a band of “show me the money” prima donnas and the Huskies as a group of question marks. Hence their low seeds.

But there’s good news: Kentucky and Connecticut are more or less the same teams as the ones ranked #1 and #18 in October. And if you had applied that knowledge at the beginning of the NCAA tournament, taking advantage of the vast disparities between their preseason rankings and tournament seeds, you wouldn’t be reading this because you’d be too busy picking out the water slide for your new yacht. “But what about all the valuable experience they gained along the way?” “What about their bond as brothers in arms after the season they’ve gone through?” “What about” – Spare me. Here’s the bottom line: Kentucky and Connecticut still have all those same four- and five-star players on their roster. They still have the same coaches. They might not have played up to expectations during the regular season, but they’re still immensely talented – and if there’s one forum for unrealized potential to rise to the surface, it’s the NCAA tournament.

2. I’m not sure we’ll ever see a 16-over-1 upset.

With three 15-over-2 upsets in the last three years, and seven in tournament history (7 out of 116 matchups, 6%), you would think there would have been at least one 16-over-1 upset by now, right? Well, yes, but it’s not so cut and dried. First, the history. There have been 116 1 vs. 16 matchups since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and never has a 16 seed pulled off the upset. Fifteen of those losses were by single digits. Two were decided by one point; one was decided by two; and one went to overtime. In all fairness, we should have had one 16-over-1 upset by now. If Alonzo Mourning doesn’t unleash his inner NBA Hall of Fame ‘Zo in the closing seconds against Princeton in 1989, blocking the final two attempts by the Tigers to lift Georgetown, 50-49, we’ve got our first 16-over-1 upset. This year, in fact, Weber State (21-point underdogs) “almost” upset Arizona, falling by only nine. We’ve been that close so many times, but nay, we’ve never actually seen it happen… Since the basketball gods have smitten us for our apparently excessive hubris – how dare we expect such a holy event to occur – who knows if we’ll ever see the mythical 16-over-1 upset?

Now the “science.” After the selection committee has established the 68 teams that will make the tournament, those 68 teams are then ranked first to last. (There will be changes made to this master list in order to accommodate the NCAA’s restrictions, such as those against inter-conference matchups and regional advantages, but for the most part it is essentially a power ranking of the top 68.) The four 1 seeds are roughly the best four teams in the country, and the four surviving 16 seeds (two will be knocked out in the first round) typically rank in the range of 100th to 250th nationally (out of 351 D1 teams). On the other hand, 2 seeds have a lower and much wider range. For example, a 2 seed might be one of the five best teams in the nation or it might be 25th-best. Moreover, 15 seeds are also much more capable than 16 seeds: instead of a range of 100th-250th, a 15 seed’s range is approximately 60th-150th, with a mean somewhere around 90th-100th. The point is that 1 seeds are significantly better (“significantly” in a statistical sense) than 2 seeds, while 16 seeds are significantly worse than 15 seeds. Take a look at the graph below:

The above graph shows the average expected tournament wins per seed. 1 seeds win significantly more games than 2 seeds, and although 15 seeds don't win much more than 16 seeds, at least they win at all!

Average expected tournament wins per seed.

The graph “snakes” downwards from left to right, flattening out around the 7-12 seed range, increasing exponentially as you approach highest seeds, and dwindling down to nothing as you near the 16 seeds. This is exactly what you would expect to see if 68 teams were ranked from best to worst and then matched up in the NCAA tournament – bravo, selection committee (it’s really not that hard to do, but we can give them a little credit). The salient point to take away, however, is that 1 seeds have significantly higher expected win averages than 2 seeds (0.91 wins, almost a full game). And although 15 seeds don’t win much more than 16 seeds, at least they win some of the time.

I personally haven’t even watched a 1 vs. 16 matchup since 8th grade. I USED TO BELIEVE. Now I know better. A game where the outcome is known beforehand doesn’t interest me in the slightest; I’m just watching actors go through the motions. It’s a waste of time – which is unfortunate, because a 16 seed upsetting a 1 seed would make for great television. Instead it’s just an exercise in futility. I can watch people walk to their cars, get in them, and drive off successfully all day – it’s just not that interesting. Neither is watching Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young run a fast break against a vastly inferior U of Albany team. When I fill out my brackets, I write the 16 seeds off instantly, immediately penciling in all four 1 seeds in my bracket without the slightest thought, no matter how good people tell me this year’s Sam Houston State squad is. But when I pick the 2 vs. 15 games, I actually check to see if there’s any dangerous 15 seed that might be worth a look against a 2 seed that isn’t going anywhere.

I know one day I and every other sane bracket-filling being out there will be wrong when a Alabam A&M upsets Georgetown. (The funny thing is that it actually will be Georgetown that blows it first, because LOLZ GEORGETOWN SUCKS IN THE NCAA TOURNAMENT.) And I know that I, just as much as the next guy, would love to witness that glorious 16-over-1 upset – re-feel the thrill of 11-seed George Mason upsetting Connecticut in the Elite Eight in 2006 and then going toe-to-toe with Florida in the Final Four; the thrill of Ali Farokhmanesh drilling the nail-in-the-coffin three to give 8-seed Northern Iowa the upset over top-seeded Kansas in 2010; the thrill of CJ McCollum and 15-seed Lehigh upsetting 2-seed Duke in 2012. But I won’t get to. And neither will most people. Not because it won’t happen, but because we won’t be watching.

When’s a Lead Safe in Baseball?

By Sean McAlevey

THE SHADE OF BILL MURRAY’S UMBRELLA HAT, USA, Earth — Yesterday I rediscovered the timeless Bill James “safe lead” formula for college basketball, which calculates exactly when a given lead is so large that it’s effectively insurmountable. As I was reading through it, I thought, Why not adapt the formula for Major League Baseball? It is the first week of the season after all.

Why bother calculating when the lead’s safe, you ask? “With apologies to the Sage of St. Louis,” says James, “there comes a time when it ain’t over, but … it’s over.” There comes a point when we all want to say, “Ok, the Cubs are up four runs in the middle of the eighth at home” – obvious fantasy by the way, THE CUBS BLOW LOLOLOLZ – “am I allowed to dig into my celebratory bratwurst yet?” Even more importantly, though, this knowledge is useful for managers: put in the lights-out closer or save him for tomorrow? Rest your superstar’s legs by pinch hitting or keep him in and hope for a comeback?


Bill James and his quantitative obsession with baseball.

So where exactly is that point? When can we exhale with a four-run lead? Obviously, the team with a ten-run lead in the ninth has a safe lead – they’ve started singing “Dirty Water” at Fenway. Alternately, the team with a one-run lead in the bottom of the first isn’t anywhere close to having a safe lead. Those are easy examples though. A harder one: The Twins lead the Tigers 8-2 with a runner on second and one out in the top of the sixth. Safe? Not nearly as cut-and-dried a situation. (Spoiler: The lead is safe according the formula below. But how’s some schmuck color analyst going to know that? “Ehh I don’t know, Joe, I think this game’s still a toss-up. Sure, the Twins are in a dominant position, but I like the Tigers to mount a comeback in the next few innings; you never know.” Not happening, you moron; I can tell you for a (quasi-)fact that this game is over, period.)

The Jamesian heuristic I adapted for baseball makes calculating when your favorite team’s lead is safe – and if not, how close – an easy task. (A heuristic is defined by James as “a mathematical rule that works even though no licensed mathematician would be caught dead associating with it.”) So without further ado, the DynamicPicks MLB Safe Lead Formula:

1) Take the leading team’s run advantage and subtract one run. (Team A is up 4 runs, 6-2, at home against Team B going into the bottom of the eighth – so Team A has 3 “safe runs.”)
2*) Subtract one run for every opposing runner on base. Add 0.5 runs for the leading team’s baserunners. (No runners; Team A is still at 3 safe runs.)
3*) An additional half-inning is worth 0.5 safe runs (0.17 per out). If, as in our example, the leading team is at home and up to bat with no outs, they have a three-out advantage, which is worth an additional 0.5 additional safe runs. (Three extra outs for Team A, for a total of 3.5 safe runs.)
4) Square the total and divide by two. (Team A now has 6.13 safe runs.)
5) When that number is greater than or equal to the number of outs remaining for the trailing team, the lead is safe – the outcome is 99%+ certain. (Team A has 6.13 “safe runs” against Team B’s three remaining outs. The lead’s safe.)

*Note, however, that in the above formula, rules 2 and 3 provide nearly all of the apparent complexity. To streamline the formula, only calculate between innings, using rules 1, 4, and 5. For example, take Team A’s four-run lead, but instead of going into the bottom of the eighth – let’s say they go three up, three down – the game’s headed into the ninth inning. Subtract one: Three safe runs. Square that: Nine. Divide by two: Four and a half. Three outs remaining. Team A’s lead is still safe.

James' quantitative analysis helped the Red Sox win their first World Series in over eight decades in 2004.

James’ quantitative analysis helped the Red Sox win their first World Series in over eight decades in 2004.

The most fascinating thing about a safe lead is that once it’s safe, it’s always safe. It’s like a law of nature in that sense, except not at all: once a lead’s safe, the outcome is (almost) as good a fact. Even if a team that was once leading by 14 runs in the sixth inning serves up two grand salamis and a bases-clearing double to their opponent in the eighth, cutting their lead to three, they still have a safe lead. “Once a lead is safe, it’s permanently safe,” explains James. “The theory of a safe lead is that to overcome it requires a series of events so improbable as to be essentially impossible.” Pretty sweet, eh? Go ahead – walk under the ladder in your garage; find a black cat and toss it in your path; place any ridiculous wager you want – “Yo, brah, if we lose, I’ll dress as a gimp for my grad ceremony.” Do anything you want, really, because it’s over; the fridge is closed, the lights are out, the butter’s getting hard, and the jello’s a-jigglin’.

Why don’t we take the formula for a spin in more complex situations? Is a one-run lead with the bases loaded and no outs in the top of the ninth safe? The leading team, Team A, has a one-run lead, which amounts to zero safe runs after subtracting the initial run. However, Team A has three runners on base: +1.5 safe runs (3 x 0.5 each). There isn’t an out advantage, as both teams have three remaining apiece. The square of 1.5 is 2.25. Divide that by two and you’re left with 1.13 safe runs, which means that Team A’s one-run lead with the bases loaded in the top of the ninth and no outs is far from a safe lead (1.13 safe runs > 3 outs remaining; only 37.67% safe).

What about Team Z’s seven-run lead going into the fourth inning? A seven-run lead amounts to six safe runs. There are no runners on, and there isn’t an out advantage, so Team Z still has six safe runs. The square of six is 36, divided by two is 18. Thus, Team Z’s seven-run lead going into the fourth (18 outs remaining for Team B) is just enough of a lead to be considered safe; they should win that game 99%+ of the time. That might be a somewhat shocking conclusion to some. Most if not all people would be hesitant to call any game after only three innings, let alone one with only a seven-run lead. At first glance it seems like that lead isn’t all that safe, but it is, however unintuitive it may sound. Team Z is winning that game whether you and I like it or not.

Think about it another way. James’ widely popular Pythagorean expectation formula – Runs^2/(Runs^2+OppRuns^2) – says that if a Team Q is up by seven runs on the road in the top of the first with no outs, 7-0, they have an expected win probability of approximately 88.3%, which is nearly a safe lead – and an out’s yet to be recorded! In Team Z’s case, the game is already in the fourth inning when they have their seven-run lead; a third of the game is no mas. With three less innings to mount a comeback, Team Z’s opponent is in significantly worse shape than their counterparts, Team Q’s opponent, down seven with no outs and none on in the top of the first. In fact, in Team Q’s case the lead is only 66.67% (2/3rds) safe. Those nine outs make all the difference, turning a comfortable lead into a safe one.

James, who originally created the Safe Lead formula for college basketball, sits at a SABERmetrics conference.

James, who originally created the Safe Lead formula for college basketball, sits at a SABERmetrics conference.

So when Craig Kimbrel comes jogging in from the ‘pen to close out the top of the ninth in Atlanta for a Braves squad sitting on a three-run lead against the rival Nationals, Braves fans shouldn’t crack that celebratory brew just yet; the game’s still not over. The Safe Lead Calculator says that the Braves’ lead is only 66.67% (2/3rds) safe. But after Kimbrel gets the first batter to chase an eye-level fastball in a 1-2 count for a strikeout, the Braves lead is then safe. A three-run lead with no runners on and a one-out advantage (if necessary, the Braves still have all three of their outs in the bottom half) is worth 2.35 safe runs. Against only two outs remaining, that’s a safe lead.

This formula does not, however, take into consideration relative team strengths. But that’s an unproblematic fact. Even though a seven-run Tigers lead is safer than a seven-run ‘Stros lead, per se, the difference is marginal. The greatest teams in the best of circumstances (ace vs. fifth starter, at home, etc.) win no more than 75% of their games, and rarely more than 70%. Moreover, we’re (usually) dealing with small fractions of games (12 outs left, 7 outs left, 2 outs left) and many times it’s the mediocre, 4.3+ ERA relievers that dominate the hill in the later stages of games, muddling relative team strength and reducing the home-field advantage factor to such a degree that taking them into consideration wouldn’t be worth the effort. Most importantly, if a team is winning by enough to be wondering if their lead is safe, they’re probably a pretty good team in the first place.

Check that Craig Kimbrel example, by the way. I doubt there’s ever been an unsafe lead with someone as dominant as Kimbrel on the mound.

Joakim Noah and the Rise of the Point Center

By Sean McAlevey

SECTION 310, ROW 14, SEAT 6, LOONEY TOON ARENA, Toon Land — For many years, at least as far back as the 1980s, certain star forwards have been tasked with running their team’s offense from the point. The position has been aptly titled the “point forward,” since such players share the attributes of both a point guard and forward. From Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen to LeBron James and Kevin Durant, the point forward had without a doubt been the most captivating position of the last three decades… Until Joakim Noah happened on Sunday.

The high-energy Chicago Bulls center has my vote for the most fascinating player of 2014, but let’s put aside his rasta hair bun and gyrocopter jump shot for a moment. Thanks to the former University of Florida star’s unique style of play and absurd 14-assist performance against the Knicks on Sunday, a hybrid position – the “point center” – was spawned. Think about that concept for a minute. This is the synthesis of the game’s two most disparate positions. This is speed and agility plus height and strength. This is Allen Iverson meets Shaquille O’Neal, Steve Nash meets Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul meets Dwight Howard. It doesn’t get much weirder – or cooler – than that.

Whatever his nominal position title, Joakim Noah plays like a "point center."

Whatever his nominal position title, Joakim Noah plays like a “point center.”

Noah is a center first, point center second. For the first five years of his career, the 6’11” French national roamed the paint for Chicago and averaged nearly 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. As a Gator, Noah won back-to-back national championships in ’06 and ’07, taking home All-America honors as a center in the process. And if Derrick Rose’s knees weren’t sculpted from the leftover glue, water, and scrap pages of Reader’s Digest mags from a third-grader’s summer camp project, Noah would still be doing the same. But since we do live in this sick world of paper mache knees, Noah has taken it upon himself to run the Bulls’ offense in his teammate’s wake. Keep in mind, though, he’s not exactly Eurostepping his way through the lane or snapping ankles with stutter crossovers; we’re still talking about Joakim Noah. He’s still a big man.

But insofar as he’s a big man by trade, he’s a point guard at heart. Noah uses his height and length to sling passes across the court and set up high percentage looks for backdoor cutters; when he’s feeling the offense stagnate, he’ll even bring the ball up in transition. He uses his size and court awareness to relentlessly attack the paint, and when the defense over-compensates and tightens up around the rim, he casually lasers kick-out passes to the outside option.

Noah was an explosive player in college as a Florida Gator.

Noah was an explosive player in college as a Florida Gator.

In the two seasons Rose has been sidelined, Noah has averaged 4.0 and 4.7 assists per game. That’s immensely impressive considering his previous career best was 2.5, which was already top notch for a center. He upped the ante with 14 assists against the Knicks, the most by a center in the last 35 years. And in February, he cracked the 10-assist mark in three games – 13, 11, and 11. He ranks first overall among centers in assists, and third overall among forwards, trailing only LeBron James (6.4) and Kevin Durant (5.5). Applied retroactively to the last eight seasons, 4.7 assists never ranks lower than fourth in the league for forwards and centers.

I’d be impressed with a five-assist season from Noah this year. Saying you’re the best at a niche skill for your position is great and all, but passing a threshold number like five changes the game: you’re half way to the mecca of ten assists. Five assists also guarantees a yearly top-40 ranking among all players – something that’s worthy of starting point guard consideration in and of itself. Then you throw 11.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks into the mix and suddenly you’re left with a former collegiate All-American, two time All-Star center capable of running your team’s half-court offense from the point to the low post.

Raising the roof: Noah is changing the game for centers.

Raising the roof: Noah is changing the game for centers.

The difference between what Noah’s doing and what others have done previously, such as 6’8″ point guard Magic Johnson playing center for the Lakers in the wake of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s absence, is that Noah has transitioned from a big man to a point center, as opposed to the other way around. It’s a lot easier for a point guard with an abnormal height advantage to help out in the front court than it is for a center with handles to help out in the back court.

After Noah, Spencer Hawes is the next most prominent current point center. The 7’0″ Hawes, who recently made headlines a couple weeks back when he was traded from Philly to Cleveland, has made a name from himself with impressive high-post passing (3.2 assists/gm.) and efficient outside shooting (41.6% from three). Teams love players like Hawes, who space the offense and swap inside-out with the bigger guards and forwards, disorienting the defense and creating enviable mismatches.

It’s only a matter of time before the league adjusts to accommodate more point center-esque players. Noah, Hawes, and the other few point centers lingering in the wings will have to settle, for now, with being the most fascinating emerging players of the next generation.

Rob Ryan and the Importance of Defensive Coordinators

By Sean McAlevey

THE TOON SQUAD LOCKER ROOM, TOON ARENA, Toon Land — After failing to reach the playoffs last season, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones did what Jerry Jones does best: he found a scapegoat and fired him.

Dallas, according to Jones, missed the playoffs not because its franchise quarterback, the one who makes nearly $20 million per year and is the highest payed Cowboy in history, threw three interceptions against one of the league’s worst defenses in the decisive final game of the season. Nor was it because of the team’s moronic GM that cobbles together unseemly rosters year after year. Well, that would be Jones himself, and the Cowboys’ Dear Leader is never wrong.

Rob Ryan was underrated by Jerry Jones and the Cowboys. Now the Saints are reaping the reward of his firing.

Rob Ryan was underrated by Jerry Jones and the Cowboys. Now the Saints are reaping the reward of his firing.

The ‘Boys lost their NFC East-deciding contest against the Washington Redskins because of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Or at least that’s how Jones saw it. And as it turns out, he couldn’t have been more wrong, as Ryan is currently running one of the NFL’s most effective defenses in New Orleans while Monte Kiffin’s Dallas D has been historically bad this year.

But this column doesn’t have anything to do with the unquestioned authority of an egomaniacal oil tycoon from Arkansas. This has to do with the important and surprising effect that defensive coordinators have on defensive performance. (The reason for singling out defensive as opposed to offensive coordinators is because offensive performance is highly predicated on quarterback skill. You think Peyton Manning needs some dude in a glass box barking calls into his helmet play after play? He could throw for 4,000+ yards a season with his team running around touch football-style.)

Originally, I was of the school of thought that put more emphasis on talent than coaching. And I believe many others still subscribe to this line of thinking. It’s undoubtedly true that coaches play a role, but talent – at least on the face of it – seems to be 95% of the story, and coaching the remaining 5%. Occasionally turning the undrafted rookie into an All-Pro corner, the smart scheme to pack nine in the box against the Vikings, the good call to blitz on third-and-long – you know, the small, underrated things that can make a difference in the long run. Outside of that, what else can a defensive coordinator do?

As it turns out, quite a lot. The above line of thought severely underestimates the role of the defensive coordinator in today’s NFL. Good DCs like Rob Ryan can be the difference between a garbage defense and a good one, the difference between a mediocre defense and an All-World one. Let’s run with the Ryan example for a minute.

In 2011 and 2012, Ryan’s last two seasons running the Cowboy defense, Dallas allowed a pedestrian, but by no means disastrous, 5.7 yards per play. (The league average is typically around 5.4. The best defenses allow roughly 4.4-4.7, while the worst allow in the 6.1-6.4 range.) Over the same time period, the New Orleans Saints defense, which Ryan currently heads, allowed a league-worst 6.2 YPP. Flash to this year. Through 13 games, the Saint defense is the 13th-best in the NFL, allowing a mere 5.2 YPP, while the Cowboy defense is ranked second-worst (and by some other measures, the worst) at 6.2 YPP.

If we put those changes all on Ryan, he was responsible for improving the Saints by a full 1.0 YPP and for keeping Dallas better by 0.5 YPP, a net 1.5-YPP swing. To put that in perspective, the difference between the league’s current best defense, Seattle, and the league’s worst, San Diego, is 1.7 YPP. In other words, Ryan took the Chargers and Manti Te’o and turned them into Seattle and Richard Sherman. Jesus. Smooth firing, Jerry.

What about other defensive coordinators hired this offseason? Buffalo’s hiring of Mike Pettine turned a 5.75-YPP defense (’11 and ’12) into a 5.0-YPP defense. Cleveland’s Ray Horton improved the Brown defense from a solid 5.05 YPP to a league-best 4.6 YPP. After hiring Todd Bowles, Arizona went from 5.2 YPP to 4.8 YPP. And the defensive coordinator effect can be just as disastrous as it can be helpful. A bad defensive coordinator can have a deleterious effect on an otherwise sound defense: Monte Kiffin in Dallas (from 5.7 to 6.2) and Mel Tucker in Chicago (5.15 to 6.0).

Todd Bowles has done a fantastic job with the Cardinal defense this season.

Todd Bowles has done a fantastic job with the Cardinal defense this season.

Of course, all of these increases/decreases in YPP can’t be solely pinned on the defensive coordinator. A good deal has to be attributed to the gain/loss of personnel and talent, particularly in the case of a team like Chicago, which lost its long-time defensive general, Brian Urlacher, to retirement. There’s also the influence of luck and randomness. No team plays at its true skill-level every game; there’s going to be natural variation. In a brief 16-game season, that variation can strongly influence team stats. But despite these considerations, can anyone seriously believe it’s a coincidence that of the 12 defensive coordinators hired in the offseason, six are experiencing monumental (and in the case of Ryan, unprecedented) increases/decreases in their defensive production?

I don’t have the resources to compile an exhaustive list of every defensive coordinator change over the past 15 years and the corresponding increases or decreases in defensive production. (Let’s get Brian Burke on it!) But the semi-anecdotal evidence I’ve provided above shows that defensive coordinators can have an impressive impact on their units.

But where does this influence come from? How can a coach have such a critical effect on his team? That’s not for me to answer. I have a whopping three years of high school playing experience to contribute regarding the day-to-day, hour-to-hour prep work and decision-making coordinators go through each week – so I’ll sit this one out and leave it up to personal conjecture and the reports of others who’ve played at the higher levels.

Regardless, this is an important phenomenon to understand for predicting future outcomes. A defense isn’t great solely because it’s stacked with talent; nor is it terrible because it lacks star power. Who remembers the historic calamity of the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles? After signing a swath of defensive All-Pros in the offseason, the NFL’s biggest underachievers dubbed themselves the “Dream Team” – which, by the way, is probably in the top five douchiest things of all time, Matt Hasselbeck’s in-game “we’re gonna score” comment and all – but went a dreamlike 8-8 and missed the playoffs, crippled by the moronic decisions of first year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, a career offensive line coach prior to his promotion.

Juan Castillo had no idea what he was doing as the Eagles' defensive coordinator, and it showed in the team's 8-8 record.

Juan Castillo had no idea what he was doing as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, and it showed in the team’s 8-8 record.

The salient point is that coaching plays a much bigger role than the mere 5% or so I estimated it did before this analysis. What that percentage is exactly is hard to say. It might be that the defensive coordinator effect is larger on younger teams; or that it’s smaller on teams with strong rush defenses; or something else entirely. Generally speaking, however, it’s definitely a key factor in determining defensive success. But while I can’t say exactly how large the effect is or how it changes in varying team dimensions, I can say this: Jerry Jones cost his team a chance at a Super Bowl run by underestimating the effectiveness of Rob Ryan.

Jamaal Charles the Future of NFL Running Game

By Sean McAlevey

THE GOLF COURSE WORMHOLE, USA, Earth — It’s not a secret that the NFL has witnessed less rushing in recent years as teams have taken a liking to the pass. Teams are averaging a mere 27 rushing attempts per game this year, which is the lowest in the history of the league.

And it’s entirely justified. Passing is a wholly more effective method of moving the ball offensively. This year, teams are averaging 6.8 yards per pass attempt and only 4.1 yards per rush attempt. Until those two numbers meet or near each other, it will continue to be more effective to pass. If you think the NFL’s throwing too often now, give it five years; I’d be surprised if rushing attempts remain above 25 per game.

So is the running game all but dead in the NFL? Well, not quite; not if the typical running back starts to become more like speed back Jamaal Charles. If teams keep drafting power duds like Mike Tolbert and LaGarrette Blount, the rushing average will continue to decline or, at best, stagnate. Those Jerome Bettis types are only good for short yardage situations; they’re a waste of a space (and yardage) otherwise.

Charles is currently the most effective running back in NFL history. He owns the best career rushing average at 5.5 yards per carry, which is a tenth of a yard more than Bo Jackson’s career average of 5.4. Don’t underestimate this fact. Charles is extremely effective at moving the ball; in fact, he moves the ball an average of 1.4 yards per carry more than the league-average back. He’s as good at picking up yards rushing as the Cleveland Browns (5.5 yards/att.) are at throwing!

Jamaal Charles' speed style is the future of the NFL's running game.

Jamaal Charles’ speed style is the future of the NFL’s running game.

Being equal to the Browns is typically an unimpressive feat, but not when we’re comparing rushing to passing. Remember, teams average 2.7 yards per attempt more at passing than running. Giving Charles the ball on the ground is just as effective as having Brandon Weeden drop back to throw, the occasional 60-yard completion to Josh Gordon and all. That’s truly impressive.

The NFL will need to convert its running backs into speed rushers or the running game will eventually die out. Although teams are typically slow to adjust in the face of obvious inefficiencies (punting on fourth-and-short immediately comes to mind), I’m confident the league will eventually welcome runners like Charles.

You’re seeing it already. CJ Spiller, Reggie Bush, and Chris Johnson are perfect examples. Imagine being an agent and having to pitch this idea to a late-90s GM: I’ve got this great running back; he’s 185 pounds and he’s as quick as a wide receiver; he’ll break off 80-yard runs if you give him time, but he’s not the best at running between the tackles. You’d be laughed out of the room before you finished the word “tackles”. If you can’t POUND THE ROCK LIKE A REAL MAN, you’re worthless.

CJ Spiller is averaging an impressive 5.1 yards per carry for his career as a speed back

CJ Spiller is averaging an impressive 5.1 yards per carry for his career as a speed back

Now teams are searching for runners like Charles, Spiller, Bush, and Johnson. I expect more will be on the way in the near future. The reasoning should be obvious by now. Gaining a consistent one, two, or three yards per carry is nice (it’s always nice not to take a loss on a play), but even if scatback runners sometimes take a handful of losses or no-gains per game, their one 80-yard touchdown run and multiple 12-20 yard gainers more than make up for their occasional ineptitude.

It’s a high-risk, high-reward venture – like passing. Just because you occasionally take a sack, or throw an incompletion, or throw an interception, doesn’t mean you stop throwing the ball. Those drive-extending 13-yard completions are the reason you take the risk of throwing a pick or taking a sack. And sometimes you connect on a 60-yard bomb to Calvin Johnson, confounded that you ever questioned the holiness of passing in the first place.

Understand that I’m not suggesting speed runners like Charles and the lot are as good as passing. That may not be the case for a decade or longer, or at least until defenses start adjusting to defend the pass, leaving more room in the box for runners to work. But at least speed runners can improve on the NFL’s pitiful 4.1 yards per carry average, and that’s really the bottom line at the end of the day.

For the time being, we’ll have to live with the reality of the pass being significantly more effective than the run; and we’ll have to live with moronic coaches calling as many runs as passes. But that’s only for now.

Give it a handful of years. The 185-pound, 4.3-40 runner will be the talk of the NFL. Either that, or running won’t survive long enough to even be talked about.