Tuesday, October 21, 2014

San Francisco Giants: From Divisional Underdogs to World Series Contenders

The San Francisco Giants are heading to their third World Series in the last five years. Previous to their title win in 2010, the team went winless for 56 years. The last time they won a World Series was in 1956, two years before they relocated from New York to California. But as the time passed by, the San Francisco underwent a transformation that turned the team from dormant Giants to one of the most dominant squads in the Major Leagues.

The team has entered the World Series twice in five years and won the title the same number of times. A third World Series title, this time over the Kansas City Royals, would solidify their status as one of the most unexpected five-year runs in MLB history.

Each run has been different, with different actors and circumstances, but thay all have something in common: The Giants never been betting favorites before the Series

In 2010, the Giants spent much of the season trailing the San Diego Padres and on occasion the Los Angeles Dodgers or Colorado Rockies.  They were down 6.5 games in the NL West only weeks before the end of the regular season, but they went 19-10 in September and October.  Giants manager Bruce Bochy sent Pablo Sandoval to the bench during the postseason due his poor production. Pitcher Barry Zito was left completely off the Giants' 25-man active roster for the postseason for the same reason.

In the Division Series, the Giants faced the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS, winning the series three games to one (all the wins were by 1 run only). San Francisco won behind Lincecum's 14 strikeouts in Game 1 and come-from-behind wins in Games 3 and 4. In the NLCS, they were heavy underdogs against to the two-time defending National League champion Philadelphia Phillies.Against all odds, the Giants won the series 4–2 and went on to beat the Texas Rangers to win the 2010 World Series in five games.

In 2012, they won the division but had the worst record of any of the other National League division winners. The Giants finished with a record of 94–68, 1st place in the NL West, and beat the Cincinnati Reds in five games in the NLDS,  becoming the first National League team to come back from a 2–0 deficit in a best-of-five series by sweeping three games on the road. The Giants went on to beat the Cardinals in seven games in the NL Championship Series and advanced to the 2012 World Series, sweeping the Detroit Tigers in four games to win their second World Series title in three years.

This season was not the exception. The L.A Dodgers were clear favorites to win the NL West, and Giants had to struggle to clinch their ticket to the Wild Card. No other playoff team had a worse record than the Giants at 88-74, although the Pittsburgh Pirates and Oakland A's  matched it.

The Giants won a sudden-death Wild Card Game against the Pirates to move to the Divisional Series, beating the number-one seeded Washington Nationals in four games. Another improbable run took place in the NL Championship Series, but the extraordinary performance put by players such as Madison Bumgarner, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Buster Posey, Travis Ishikawa, Hunter Pence, Joe Panik, Ryan Vogelsong and Michael Morse made the impossible look possible, sealing the victory in five games and sending the Giants to their third World Series.  

"You look at what we've done, it's special and impressive. Some guys spend their whole career not even making it to the playoffs, and here we are dancing again." commented Sergio Romo.

The bottom line here is simple: The road to the World Series have looked improbable for the Giants, but if they find a way to beat the Royals and win another championship, then they will undoubtedly set their name in the record books.

This article was written by a guest writer to Bases and Baskets. Contact our support team if you are interested in writing one!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

9 Bold Predictions for the 2015 NBA Season

[Editor’s Note: Daniel Fotinich is a regular reader, and a good friend, who wanted to throw his hat in the ring with some bold predictions prior to the commencement of this highly anticipated NBA season. I won’t give anything about his work away here…just give it a read! – Elijah Abramson]

One of my favorite things about the NBA is debating outrageous claims made by others. It seems that almost every year, a few things that basically nobody predicts happen (and the few that predicted them have an ego that skyrockets). Many people have different definitions of a “bold prediction”, but I will use this one: A bold prediction is one that is significantly different than what the general consensus is among NBA fans and writers. So, even though plenty of Golden State fans might think that “Stephen Curry averaging 30ppg this year” is actually highly likely, the average impartial fan or writer would think the chance of that is very slim. Keep in mind that this is also a matter of degree; most people around the NBA believe that the Heat will decline, but saying that they will miss the playoffs with both Wade and Bosh would qualify as a bold prediction.

Without further ado, here are 9 bold predictions for the 2014-2015 NBA season:

The Indiana Pacers will miss the playoffs.

In fact, I don’t even think it will be close. The only teams in the East that I am confident will be worse than Indiana are Philadelphia and Orlando. I’ve always liked Indiana and their hard-nosed defense—I picked them to make the NBA finals last year over Miami. However, their well-publicized decline in the second half of last season was extremely concerning. Zach Lowe noted that over the last 30 or so games that Indiana had the worst offense of any team in the league besides Philadelphia. Now, that already-putrid offense loses the only two guys who can actually create their own shots. Lance Stephenson is now in Charlotte (more on that later), while Paul George fractured his tibia and fibia and is unlikely to play this season. They replaced those two with… Rodney Stuckey and CJ Miles? David West has had a great run in Indiana, but he’s already 34 and will have much less space to shoot his patented 18-footers. Hibbert has almost no offense to speak of, and the rest of the team is full of complimentary offensive players. A team with a bottom-five offense and a middle-of-the-road defense (Stuckey and Miles are obvious defensive downgrades from Stephenson and George) isn’t a playoff team. I think the Pacers will be lucky to win 30 games even if George makes a miraculous return. So who will take their place? Well…

The New York Knicks will make the playoffs.

In fact, I have them as the sixth seed and possibly winning a playoff series. Carmelo Anthony just signed for five years, and now that he can finally afford to feed his family, he should be solely focused on winning a championship in New York City. Jose Calderon isn’t a great defender, but he is a significant upgrade over Ray “Cheeseburger” Felton, and his pass-first style will help create better shots for Carmelo, Shumpert, and others. Although both Carmelo and new GM Phil Jackson have talked about this being a transition year, I don’t see either of them being satisfied with missing the playoffs. Additionally, I wouldn’t rule out a mid-season trade that would help them this year and in the future. Of course, the Knicks are banking on next summer when Amare Stoudemire’s atrocious contact expires, but I think they’ll be better this year than people think.

Lance Stephenson will average 20+ppg and 5+apg and clearly make the all-star team.

Instead of signing a five-year deal with somebody else, Lance chose to bet on himself this offseason and signed a three-year deal which will make him a free agent again when he turns 26. Lance has had obvious maturity issues, but these mask the fact that he just turned 24 and has made significant improvements in his game every single year. Going from Indiana to Charlotte will help his stats, of course, but I think that in the long-run, Lance deserves to be paid significantly more than he does today. As long as he doesn’t blow in Michael Jordan’s ear, he’s making the All-Star team this season.

Ricky Rubio will learn how to shoot and earn a long-term contract starting at ~$10m/year.

This is a complete shot in the dark, and Rubio could easily shoot 36% this season and struggle to sign for the mid-level exception in the offseason. However, it just doesn’t make sense to me how a guy as talented as Rubio cannot shoot more than 38% in a season. The best example of a guy who figured it out is Jason Kidd - in his first three seasons, Kidd shot 38.5%, 38.1%, and 36.9% from the field. In his fourth season, he picked it up to 42.3%, and the rest is history; he finished his career 3rd on the list of the most 3-pointers made. Of course, Rubio is already an excellent passer, and if he can shoot over, say, 42% in a season, he will earn himself a long-term contract. I have no idea how good Minnesota will be this season with Wiggins/Bennett instead of Love, but I believe that Rubio will get his shooting percentages up into the low-40s.

Kevin Love will average under 20 pgg.

The return of King James and the trade for Kevin Love has made Cleveland a clear favorite to the win the Eastern Conference, and possibly, the NBA title. However, sacrifices must be made. Most people believe that Love will sacrifice some numbers playing with James, but I think that it will occur on a much larger scale. Last season, he averaged 26.5ppg, but this was with a very high usage rate, playing on a horrible Minnesota team. With James and Irving around, Love should be third in the pecking order, and it’s not as if Dion Waiters and Tristian Thompson won’t get some shots. No way does Love score remotely close to how much he did in Minnesota. I’m of the mindset that this season will reveal Love to be a far worse player than everybody thinks, even though Cleveland’s offense should be among the best in the league.

The Golden State Warriors will have the best defense in the league.

Surprisingly, a team starting Stephen Curry and David Lee actually had the third best defense last year, after Indiana and Chicago. Chicago should be a very good team, but I think that Golden State has more room for improvement this season. While the loss of coach Mark Jackson is disappointing, Klay Thompson should continue to improve as a defender, and David Lee’s inevitable decline (he is on the wrong side of 30, after all) should open up more minutes for Draymond Green, who is a significantly better defender. The Dubs’ offense was disappointing under Jackson, so if Steve Kerr is able to bring in new and more creative offensive sets, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them in the top-10 on offense. These two should combine for a top-four seed in the West.

The Houston Rockets will be a 7th seed or worse.

For the first time in the Daryl Morey era, the Rockets had what seems to be a pretty horrible off-season. They started by declining Parson’s 5th year option (which would have paid him $960k) and made him a restricted free agent, only to watch the Mavs swoop in and offer him a contract starting at $15m/year. Next, they traded Jeremy Lin, another solid starter, to the Lakers for chump change. Then, they were spurned by both Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony. Not to be outdone, James Harden won the award for “misguided comment of the year” by referring to all of his teammates besides Dwight Howard as “role players” (even if it’s true, you don’t say that about your teammates), and then made several comments about finally starting to play defense (really…?). Parsons and Lin are both solid starters, and even though the Rockets are clearly desperate for their 3rd star, losing those two will hurt them this season. Going forward, I just don’t see which star player will fit in well with Howard and Harden, and they definitely aren’t going to find one this season. I wouldn’t be shocked if they miss the playoffs in the ultra-competitive West, but I’ll predict that they just sneak in as a 7 or 8 seed.

The Dallas Mavericks will win the battle of Texas.

I won’t go as far as to pick them to have a better overall record than the Spurs (I learned that the hard way last year when I predicted the Spurs would barely make the playoffs), but I think they will have the best record in their games against other Texas teams (Houston, San Antonio). I already discussed that I think Houston will be a worse team this year, but I think Dallas will be better than expected. Their offense last year was the best in the league after the all-star break, and after adding Tyson Chandler to shore up the middle, Dallas will match up extremely well against San Antonio. Additionally, they took the Spurs to 7 games in the first round last year.

The Los Angeles Lakers will make the playoffs.

And Kobe Bryant will average 25+ppg. No explanation for this one, I’m just a Lakers fan. :)

This column is the original work of Daniel Fotinich. Follow him on Twitter here:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Steph Curry vs. Russell Westbrook: Comparing Two Superstars

Two years ago, comparing Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook would have been laughable. But when a friend of mine suggested a few weeks ago to analyze the differences between two of the NBA's elite point guards, I paused. Curry's rapid ascension to superstardom hit national airwaves a year and a half ago, when he went off for 54 points in Madison Square Garden on ESPN. He hit an unconscious 11 of 13 from beyond the arc...something even the best NBA 2K players probably couldn't do in the video game. He's one of three players in NBA history to hit 10+ threes on 80%+ from the field, and the only one to hit 11 threes. At that point, Russell Westbrook had already seen time in the NBA Finals alongside the now-2014 MVP, Kevin Durant. A comparison of Steph Curry vs. Russell Westbrook is an appropriate one to have.

Despite playing the same position, the difference in how Curry and Westbrook play is striking. Both qualify as "scoring point guards" under a metric, traditional-to-scorer rating (TSR), that I developed in December 2012. The keys to Westbrook's success in scoring rely on his umatched athleticism, both in speed and in strength. His signature pull-up jumper at the free-throw line is a deadly counter to his vicious drives to the rim. Something that I've always been baffled by, though, is Westbrook's ability and desire to consistently shoot more than Kevin Durant, now a three-time scoring champion. Westbrook's and Durant's relationship parallels the early 00s version of Kobe and Shaq. Both are top players in the game, but one in their established prime/peak while the younger one vies for often less efficient shots. Westbrook has a career 43 percent FG pecentage. Kobe is at 45 percent for his career.

Now, although a strictly statistical comparison is incomplete, Curry's and Westbrook's career numbers, and peak seasons, should be considered. (Both are within a couple months of being the same age.)

The salient point of Curry's and Westbrook's career numbers are that they are incredibly similar. The only noticeable differences are in rebounds, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, three-point percentage, true shooting percentage, and usage rate. The main surprise worth noting that favors Curry is the difference in usage rates. Westbrook has a 20% higher usage rate than Curry which means even though Curry is the clear number one option on his team, Westbrook still uses more of his teams' possessions.

It might be attractive to point out that the numbers don't show that Westbrook has a superstar on his team while Curry does not. But that point is mitigated when considering this discrepancy in usage rate that shows Westbrook still manages to use more of his team's possessions. The corollary to this is that as defenses can hone in on one player, that players efficiency should suffer. This was true for Curry, who has taken on a greater percentage of the scoring load and seen marginal decreases in efficiency over the past few years.

Opponents know that the Warriors offense runs through Curry. David Lee's jumper evaporated last year, Iguodala did not seem to want to score (unless there were less than 10 seconds in regulation, and Warriors fans did not have a problem with those shots), and Klay Thompson was effective but not always consistent. Harrison Barnes simply did not have a good year. Meanwhile, Westbrook has the luxury of playing off Durant, so it logically follows that if Westbrook was in Curry's position, the former UCLA guard's efficiency would drop because Golden State does not have a Durant. Which brings us to each player's respective peak seasons:

It's clear who has the statistical edge here. It's also a very short list of seasons in NBA history where a player has hit 200+ threes and had a true shooting percentage above 60. Curry is on there with a performance considered mildly "inefficient" for him.

Where stats often fail to grasp a player's value is on defense. Defensive win shares and defensive rating both suggest that Curry is on par with Westbrook, but it's clear that this would be a misguided conclusion. Westbrook's athleticism and tenacity on offense don't disappear on defense. Curry's mediocre defense is not for a lack of effort so much as it is simply just a lack of size and raw athleticism. The Warriors strive to cover up Curry as their primary weakness on defense whereas the Thunder can count on Westbrook to contribute on both ends of the floor.

Belittling a player's defensive value would be a mistake, but the NBA is a scoring league first and foremost. The Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, both known as defensive juggernauts, ultimately met their demise in the 2014 NBA playoffs. As Magic Johnson would say, to win you need to score more points than the other team.

Anyone who regularly reads my writing knows how much I love the hypothetical switches when comparing players. We already went through one on this Curry vs. Westbrook comparison (how would Westbrook fair as a primary scoring option a la on the Warriors?). Now for the other side of the coin: what if Curry were to be on the OKC Thunder? Curry, Durant, and Ibaka as a Big 3 would be one of the best Big 3 in recent memory. I would take those guys over LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. Over Pierce, KG, and Allen. On par with LeBron, Love, and Kyrie. Imagine an unselfish point guard - who can score in any variety of ways - paired up with the league's most prolific scorer and a defensive stalwart who can also hit midrange jumpers and run the P&R as necessary. A trio of Curry, Durant, and Ibaka would win bigger than Westbrook, Durant, and Ibaka has or will.

Can I prove that? No. But chemistry is a big key and while Durant likes to play up the brotherly love that he has with Westbrook, does he really have a choice? KD realizes that he's not getting a better sidekick, so might as well butter him up and feed him what he wants to hear. Curry's style would mesh better with Durant and OKC could cover up Curry's weaknesses on defense without a problem. And they seem like they get along fine off the court.

Curry's finesse game relies on the game's best jump-shot and handles that can break down anybody. We are trained, as NBA fans, to have less respect for that. The best player in the game, LeBron James, has made NBA fans appreciate the dominance that can be enforced by strength, skill, and speed. The greats before him did, too. Curry doesn't have the same strength and perceived toughness as the Melos, LeBrons, Kobes, and Westbrooks of the NBA. He takes a hit in the eyes of NBA fans as a result.

Westbrook is an All Star. He's a superstar. I must say I surprised myself with the conclusion of this column because I had just sketched a rough draft for my top 30 NBA players for the 2014-15 season and I had Westbrook ahead of Curry. The numbers say otherwise. The hypotheticals do, too. OKC's success has a lot to do with Westbrook, but he's playing with the NBA MVP as well as another borderline All Star.

So Curry or Westbrook? Let's boil it down to three questions: who would prefer to build a franchise around, who would win you more games as the point guard for the 2015 Warriors, and who would win you more games as the point guard for the 2015 Thunder?

The Akron native, Wardell Stephen Curry, is my pick.

The column lead photo and statistical comparison photos are my original designs. I spent way too much time doing them. But they were fun to do. No more boring Excel tables for comparisons!