The Carolina Panthers on Thursday released Steve Smith, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, and he was snapped up Friday by the Baltimore Ravens — so it’s a good time to take stock of his career. The numbers say Smith is one of the best, and most underrated, wideouts of all time.As my former colleague Chase Stuart has repeatedly noted, Smith’s raw numbers have always understated his worth because of an unfortunate combination of injuries, a mediocre supporting cast at quarterback and receiver, and the team’s run-heavy strategy. But when Smith was healthy, he was as valuable as any pass-catcher.After the 2012 season — and before the 2013 season, when it became clear Smith had exited his prime years — Stuart found that Smith rated as the sixth-best receiver ever in two important yet under-the-radar stats: individual percentage of team receiving yards and receiving yards per team passing attempt. Neither metric is the final word on a receiver, but both reflect aspects that are central to the position.A player’s share of his team’s receiving yards is important because it represents a receiver’s market share of available statistics. As Pro-Football-Reference.com founder Doug Drinen once pointed out, receivers are the only players in football who directly compete with their own teammates for touches. (Other positions have their skirmishes, but they rarely battle while on the field at the same time.) So it really means something when a team funnels so many of its passes to one guy.Yards per passing attempt is also crucial. It accounts for how much a team throws the ball. Stuart and I conducted research last summer suggesting that when a team increases its passing attempts by 2 percent, its receivers will see about a 1 percent boost in production — a factor that can really add up at the extremes. Smith’s numbers were stunted relative to his peers because he played in rush-focused offenses that passed about 8 percent less than the NFL average over the course of his career.After we account for these handicaps, Smith looks like an all-time great. His 2005 campaign ranks extremely high in the aforementioned metrics, and his performance in 2008 stands out as one of the most commanding ever by a receiver. That year, Smith led the NFL in receiving yards per game despite the Panthers attempting the fewest passes in the league — the only time that’s happened since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.Smith’s numbers have dropped off in recent years (no surprise; he’ll turn 35 in May), so it’s not clear how much production he’ll bring to Baltimore in 2014. But when he was at his peak, few receivers ever dominated their team’s passing game more.
We won’t be able to fully assess the quality of this year’s NFL draft class until all the players retire. But we can be pretty sure their success will depend on more than innate ability. One important factor will be something they have little control over: The more success produced by a draft’s immediate predecessor and successor, the less value that draft is likely to produce.It’s a surprising finding. Normally we’d expect talent to be roughly equally distributed each draft, with some fluctuations. The draft process isn’t entirely random: College players can leave school early. But that should smooth any fluctuations, because the draft is, after all, an efficient market, so rational players should time their exit for when they’ll have the least competition from their peers.And yet, total value from a single draft depends on the year before and the year after.Two explanations strike me as most plausible.The first is that the total talent entering the draft each year does oscillate. That could happen because a particularly strong college class will get a disproportionate share of playing time and coaching, leaving surrounding classes weaker.The second possible explanation is that NFL teams can only play 11 men at a time; being surrounded by other young athletes getting a lot of playing time makes it harder for rookies to get on the field. That suggests that the underperforming draft class’s sin isn’t being less talented, but having bad timing, and therefore less opportunity.I think one of these two explanations is more likely than the other. But before I explain why, here’s what I did:I downloaded the data for every draft from 1970 — the year the AFL and NFL merged — to 2013 from Pro-Football-Reference. For each drafted player, each year, the website lists his career contribution to team success. Its unit of measure is the player’s approximate value (AV), an all-encompassing estimate of a player’s usefulness, for all positions. For its draft pages, PFR doesn’t use a simple sum of AV, but instead an alternative measure that takes into account a player’s overall career contribution and his peak value. (100 percent of his best single-season AV, plus 95 percent of his second-best season total, and so on.)To compare adjacent draft classes’ total AV, I had to account for the varying number of draft picks in a given season: as low as 222 in 1994, as many as 487 in 1976. For each pair of adjacent drafts, I chose the lower of the pair’s number of picks, n, and summed the AV of the players selected in the first n picks, for each draft. I then restricted the analysis to the period 1970 to 2002, because many of the players for subsequent seasons remain active, which could affect the year-to-year correlations. Then I checked the correlation of one draft class’s total value to the total value of the preceding and subsequent drafts. Each correlation was -0.54. The negative sign means the higher one class’s value, the lower the preceding year’s and following year’s. And the correlation was even more strongly negative between the value of one year and the average of the value for the year before and after: -0.7.The most extreme fluctuation, as Brady Butterfield noted this week on his blog, was from 1982 to 1983. The 1983 class, which included six Hall of Famers in the first round, produced 53 percent more AV than the year before. It also produced 36 percent more AV than the 1984 class.I then performed similar checks of offensive stats to see whether they hinted at the reason for the negative correlation. I wanted to check whether the effect was due to opportunity or performance. Counting stats represent opportunity: If players are getting on the field more, they’ll put up better numbers and higher AV totals, on average. Rate stats represent quality of performance: The more a player does with his opportunities, the better his rate stats and higher his AV totals.What I found is that opportunity was the chief driver of the results. Counting stats exhibited the same sort of negative correlation from year to year, especially for quarterbacks: For completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns, the higher the numbers the classes before and after compiled in their career, the lower the numbers that year’s class racked up, with a correlation for each of about -0.4. Yet for rate stats, the opposite effect held: The higher completion percentage and passer rating were for neighboring years, the higher it was for that year’s draft class, with a correlation for each of about 0.5. Quarterbacks surrounded by draft classes with lots of QBs who got a lot of playing time got to play less, but when they did, they were better. That suggested they had to do better to even get the chance to play.Opportunity matters in sports, as in other walks of life. General managers are inclined to give top draft picks playing time in the hope they’ll justify the pick. The careers of Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell demonstrate this phenomenon on a micro level. The macro-level data tells the same story.
The signature event of LeBron James’s first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers was probably his 48-point outburst against the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. His performance in that game said everything about the team James carried to the NBA Finals that year. In a game that was 3.1 times as important as the average playoff contest, James used 43 percent of the team’s possessions and scored 29 of its final 30 points en route to victory. He essentially rendered his supporting cast superfluous: Aside from James, the ’07 Cavs still rank among the least-talented teams ever to reach the brink of an NBA title.Upon joining the Miami Heat in 2010, James of course enjoyed a far better set of teammates, including future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen (and borderline candidate Chris Bosh). But now James is back with the Cavaliers — and back to carrying a mediocre set of teammates through the playoffs.While we speculated last August that this year’s Cavs might actually represent the best group of players James has ever taken the court with (All-Star Games and the Olympics notwithstanding), that was before Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao were lost for the postseason, and before Kyrie Irving was hobbled with a knee injury. As a result, James’s best teammates of late have been the solid-but-unspectacular trio of Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert — a far cry from Wade, Bosh and Allen.1And truth be told, even when healthy, the Cavs were never as good as expected this season. According to statistical projections, Cleveland’s efficiency differential was in the fourth percentile of what could have been expected of the team before the season began — even after accounting for its many injuries — in part because of the diminishing returns of mashing together multiple stars on the same team.If we look at a multi-year Statistical Plus/Minus talent projection for every NBA Finals team,2Weighted by a combination of leverage index and minutes played in the playoffs through the conference final. this Cavs team ranks as the ninth-least talented NBA finalist since 1985. (By contrast, Cleveland’s opponents, the mighty Golden State Warriors, rank as the 14th-most talented.) Remove James, and things get even more dire; his supporting cast ranks as the third-worst team carried by its best player3As measured by a combination of the player’s multi-year talent rating and his leverage-weighted minutes in the playoffs through the conference final. to the NBA Finals since 1985.For James, though, this year’s supporting cast still eclipses the group he dragged to the Finals in 2007 — if barely so. Replacing James with a league-average player (rated 0.0) would drop this season’s Cavaliers from a +5.4 talent rating to -0.1. Yanking James off the 2007 Cavs would make a +6.2 team play to a rating of -0.2. James’s own rating was marginally better that year, but the 30-year-old has also relied more heavily on his teammates this season, playing 10 percent fewer minutes per game (weighted by the leverage of each game) than when he was an up-and-coming 22-year-old.Either way, these are not the types of teams Lebron took to the Finals as a member of the Heat. Then again, it also bears mentioning that his supporting cast in Miami in last year’s playoffs wasn’t much better. That team was soundly beaten in the Finals by the San Antonio Spurs — as were James’s 2007 Cavs — so there’s a reason the Warriors are favorites in Vegas this year. But it’s also a testament to James that he’s carried the load for two of the bottom three — and three of the bottom eight — Finals supporting casts of the past 30 years.
Ray Rice, banned from the NFL last week after TMZ released the video of him punching unconscious his fiancee in February, will fight the indefinite suspension through the NFL Players Association.The league originally levied a two-game suspension on Rice. A few weeks ago, the NFL instituted a domestic violence policy that called for a six-game suspension for first-time offenders and a permanent ban for second-time violators.But after the release of the footage a few days later, the Baltimore Ravens released their star running back, which it has the right to do, and the NFL changed his suspension from two games to indefinite, which is a point of contention for Rice.At issue will be how the NFL went from two games to indefinite, even skipping over the six-game ban it instituted after it had reprimanded Rice, a first-time offender.Rice must file the appeal by 11:59 p.m. Tuesday — three business days after the NFL officially notified the players’ union of the suspension.The NFLPA still has not finalized its plan on a basis for the appeal and is considering multiple options, according to ESPN.The two-game ban drew widespread criticism of the NFL’s policy on domestic violence, prompting the tougher penalties. Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted that he “didn’t get it right” in a letter to team owners with the initial minor punishment of Rice.But public outrage intensified this past week in the aftermath of the circulation of the video, which clearly showed Rice punching Janay Palmer, who is now his wife, in the face. She hit her head on a railing inside the elevator and was knocked unconscious.The NFL and the Ravens both have repeatedly said that they saw the video footage from inside the elevator for the first time when it was released by TMZ last week.But an anonymous law enforcement officer told The Associated Press that he personally sent a tape of Rice striking Palmer to an NFL executive in April, sparking further scrutiny of Goodell and the league. A team headed by a former FBI chief is investigating.
England and Uruguay, two of the tournament’s strongest teams to lose their openers, play in what is essentially a must-win match for each side on Thursday, and is the pick of the day’s matches.Colombia vs. Ivory Coast: 12 p.m. EDTUruguay vs. England: 3 p.m. EDTJapan vs. Greece: 6 p.m. EDTIN BRIEFSee our World Cup predictions for the latest probabilities. IN DEPTHColombia versus Ivory Coast should be a slightly better match than England versus Uruguay, according to the method we’ve been using to identify each day’s best match (calculating the harmonic mean of each team’s Soccer Power Index rating). But they’re also much more mismatched: Colombia ranks fifth in SPI among the 32 World Cup teams, while Ivory Coast ranks 17th. England and Uruguay rank ninth and 11th, respectively, so while there will be a bit less quality on the pitch according to SPI, it should be a closer contest.FiveThirtyEight’s SPI-based model gives England a 37.3 percent chance of winning, compared to 33.9 percent for Uruguay. Colombia, meanwhile, has a 54.2 percent chance of beating Ivory Coast, and just a 25.7 percent chance of losing. We touted England’s opener, against Italy, as likely to be one the group stage’s most competitive matches; England-Uruguay could be just as close.This match wasn’t supposed to be a must-win for the pre-tournament co-favorites in Group D. Uruguay and England each started the Cup with a more than 60 percent chance of making it through the group. Then, disaster struck: Each team lost its opener: England 2-1 to Italy and Uruguay 3-1 to Costa Rica.England and Uruguay each can blame bad luck for their poor starts, though the true culprit may be failure to succeed at the twin soccer skills of finishing and goalkeeping. TruMedia, which provides soccer stats to ESPN based on Opta’s match-logging, estimates how many goals a team should score, using the location of the shots it takes and a model based on where those shots are taken and how successful they are. (There are other, similar models of expected goals.)By TruMedia estimates, instead of losing 2-1, England should have expected to score 1.32 goals against Italy and yielded 1.01. And Uruguay could have expected to lose 1.32-1.27, instead of 3-1, to Costa Rica. (There are no fractional goals in soccer, but this is a probability-based model, so it shows how teams could have expected to do, on average, given the shots they took and allowed.)Those are two of the worst results for teams in their Cup openers this year, relative to expectations. Two teams other than England that produced better scoring opportunities than their opponents also lost: Ghana, against the United States; and Algeria, against Belgium. And two teams other than Uruguay lost by even more than expected based on scoring chances: Greece, against Colombia; and defending champion Spain, against the Netherlands. That new way of looking at Colombia’s 3-0 defeat of Greece might mean Thursday’s other two matches will be closer than they appear, since Colombia is heavily favored against Ivory Coast and Japan is favored against Greece.Then again, this method may just identify teams that are better at creating and denying opportunities than they are at finishing and keeping balls out of the goal. Maybe Wayne Rooney and Raheem Sterling weren’t unlucky in going a combined 0 for 7 on shots against Italy — maybe they’re not good finishers. And the same goes for Spain, eliminated from the knockout stage after scoring just one goal against an expected total of 3.43 goals in its two matches.The last World Cup showed that some teams that struggle to finish and to deny opponents shots in their openers rebound later in the tournament. Spain lost its opener to Switzerland in 2010 despite producing and allowing shots that should have given it a 0.34-goal win, on average. Spain won its next six matches, and the World Cup. But other sides that fit the profile didn’t produce better results in their second and third matches: France, Cameroon and Algeria all looked primed to improve yet exited the 2010 tournament without a win. England and Uruguay must try to channel Spain’s 2010 improvement. The side that doesn’t likely only gets one more match in this tournament.YESTERDAYCONMEBOL, the South American Football Confederation, is the only confederation with a winning record against Europe’s UEFA at the World Cup, 87-78-48 all-time. And not much has changed this year. On Wednesday, Chile became the third South American team to beat a European side in four tries in Brazil, eliminating defending champion Spain with a 2-0 win.Goalkeeper Iker Casillas is a legend in Spain, but he has had a nightmare tournament, making crucial errors that both of Spain’s first two opponents converted for goals. In 2010, Casillas stopped 15 of 17 shots on goal, captaining Spain to its first World Cup title. Casillas was excellent again at Euro 2012, making 15 saves of 16 shots on goal, as Spain successfully defended its European championship.Casillas has faced 14 shots on goal in two games at the 2014 World Cup. Seven found the back of the net.Spain’s problems aren’t just in goal. Diego Costa scored on 27 of 54 shots on target (50 percent) in La Liga play during the 2013-14 season, better than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Costa steered Atlético Madrid to the title.In Brazil, Costa has four shots in two games, with one on target. Against Chile, he finished with 20 touches before being subbed off. In Atlético’s league games last season, Costa averaged 39 touches per 90 minutes.But let’s not blame Spain’s offensive woes all on Costa; he wasn’t alone in his inability to penetrate Chile’s defense. Chile finished with 33 clearances, the most by a team to beat Spain in the World Cup since clearances have been tracked (starting in 1966). Defense, plus Spain’s critical errors, has Chile in the World Cup knockout stage for the second consecutive tournament, with Spain’s golden generation on the outside looking in. — Zachary Singer, statistics analyst, ESPNOFF THE PITCHWe’re projecting Japan versus Greece as Thursday’s lowest-scoring and one of its closest matches, 1.1-1.2. It turns out these countries have a pretty symbiotic relationship when it comes to their trade, according to OECD trade data from 2012. Japanese exports to Greece are unsurprisingly dominated by cars and car parts (which, with a small percentage of other machinery such as computers, made up about 65 percent of the exports). Greece reciprocates with a healthy dose of refined petroleum (36 percent of exports), as well as a wide range of food, including everything from pasta and chocolate to seafood and olive oil. Greece may not be able to match Japan’s $179 million in exports, but its $126 million isn’t too shabby, either. — Hayley MunguiaFURTHER READINGBrazil’s Presidents Are More Maradona Than PeléWorld Cup Players You Need to Know: Mexico Goalkeeper Guillermo OchoaSportstorialist World Cup Edition: Ghana Wore It Best; Alexi Lalas Wore It … Not the Best
Related: Hot Takedown The No. 1-ranked Connecticut Huskies beat the 6th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks 66-55 on Monday night for their NCAA-record 100th consecutive win. They last lost on Nov. 17, 2014, when they fell to the No. 6 Stanford Cardinal, 88-86 in overtime. That loss snapped a 47-game winning streak itself, meaning that, between March 13, 2013, and today, the Huskies have won four NCAA Championships and lost one game.Yes, once more for emphasis: Between March 13, 2013, and today, the Huskies have four times as many national championships as they have losses.This is Connecticut’s third record-breaking streak this millennium. First, between 2001 and 2003, they won 70 games in a row – the longest winning streak in NCAA women’s basketball history, and in 2008-10, they won 90 games to break UCLA’s 88-game record set in 1970-74. Here’s what being the mother of all powerhouses looks like: Who’s Going Where As The NBA Trade Deadline Approaches? Though they’ve managed to keep the streak that was built on the back of Breanna Stewart’s remarkable career going, the Huskies haven’t dominated as much as they’re used to. This is unsurprising, considering they lost Stewart and their two other best players to the WNBA draft after last season (those players went 1st, 2nd and 3rd overall). Indeed, they’re probably having one of their worst statistical seasons in several years. Unfortunately for the rest of basketball, the Huskies’ off years are the stuff most schools’ dreams are made of: The streak is likely to survive into the NCAA tournament. The Huskies have one game scheduled against a ranked opponent: Feb. 27 against 22nd-ranked University of South Florida Bulls – whom the Huskies beat in January 102-37 (no joke). But once they get to the tournament, they have a better chance than most years of losing, particularly to the Maryland Terrapins, whom they only beat by 6 points in December, or the Baylor Lady Bears, who despite also losing to the Huskies in November have been putting up Huskies numbers themselves this season. Leading by only 2 points with under 6 minutes left in the third quarter against the Gamecocks, the Huskies looked beatable — yet they won again. Such has been the story of the season so far. We’ll see if they can keep it up through March Madness.
There have been a handful of seismic shifts since NBA free agency began earlier this month — LeBron James heading west to join the Lakers, DeMarcus Cousins signing with Golden State and Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard being shipped to Canada for DeMar DeRozan — but the dust is finally beginning to settle some, allowing us to make sense of what has happened.Two things have become relatively clear: 1) This was a lean, challenging year for players who might have otherwise taken long-term deals, as around half of the pacts this summer have been for a single season; 2) With Cousins in tow, the Warriors may be in a league of their own again when it comes to contending for the title.But that doesn’t mean we can’t give a brief rundown of the teams that have wowed, disappointed or befuddled us this offseason. Here’s our look at the good, the bad and the confusing from the past month.WinnersIndiana PacersThe Pacers were arguably the league’s biggest surprise last season, going from what many analysts figured would be a lottery team after the Paul George trade with Oklahoma City to one win away from knocking out LeBron and the Cavaliers in the first round. An enormous part of that, of course, was Victor Oladipo having a better statistical campaign than George en route to becoming an All-Star and winning the Most Improved Player award.The other element flew under the radar but was just as integral: Indiana’s offense, gladly taking what the defense gave it, went against the grain and launched far more midrange jump shots than any other club, essentially making the Pacers the antithesis of the Rockets. With a group of decent jump-shooters, the strategy worked. But as a team that doesn’t shoot a ton of threes or get to the line much (Indiana had the NBA’s fifth-lowest 3-point attempt rate and the fifth-worst free-throw rate), the Pacers could have entered the 2018-19 season somewhat vulnerable to opponents who can score in bunches more quickly and efficiently.But inking perpetual-motion sharpshooter Doug McDermott should make Indiana less predictable and more of a threat from outside. And Tyreke Evans — who has quietly shot nearly 39 percent from the arc over the past three years after shooting about 28 percent in his first six seasons — was a solid, under-the-radar pickup who should be a huge upgrade over Lance Stephenson.Kyle O’Quinn, who came over for the room exception at one year and $4.5 million, will fit right in with the Pacers’ offensive philosophy; he hit better than 44 percent of his long 2s last season. He can get himself in trouble as a playmaker, but he’ll be a more-than-adequate backup to Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis.Almost no analyst will pick the Pacers to land a top-three seed in the East. But should the Celtics, Raptors or Sixers struggle out of the gate, it wouldn’t be that surprising if Indiana did just that. The Pacers finished just outside the top 10 last season in both offensive and defensive efficiency — a hint that they weren’t far from contention. If things break right for them this year, they could reach that level with their improved roster.Memphis GrizzliesJust when we thought we had left the Grit-n-Grind era behind us, it found its way back into our hearts and, soon enough, onto the court at FedEx Forum.The Grizzlies battled through a miserable year that included the firing of coach David Fizdale after he and center Marc Gasol failed to see eye-to-eye, and that was after losing point guard Mike Conley to a heel injury that eventually led to season-ending surgery. From the outside, a total teardown might have seemed like the best course of action. But for a small-market franchise — which has big-money deals on the books and is already dealing with attendance problems — that avenue might have been too dire, leading the club to reload instead.Memphis did so by trying to get back to what made it special a few years ago: It loaded up on solid players who aren’t the most glitzy but tend to get the job done on both ends of the floor.While they started that process at the draft with forward Jaren Jackson Jr. — a player whom FiveThirtyEight’s projection models like a great deal — the Grizzlies also landed advanced-stats darling Kyle Anderson, who ranked second among small forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus this past season. With his ball-handling ability and size, Anderson is a lower-scoring, better-defending version of the Grizzlies’ Chandler Parsons, who has been sapped by injuries in recent years. Memphis also picked up wing Garrett Temple, a reliable defender and 39-percent 3-point shooter this past year, from Sacramento via trade.It’s not often that a 22-win team jumps into the playoff conversation without adding a bona fide star. But merely getting healthy again after adding this many capable two-way players could let the Grizzlies improve by leaps and bounds.LosersPortland Trail BlazersSimilar to how the Raptors needed a shakeup after multiple seasons fizzled out in a similar manner, the Blazers seemingly needed one in 2017-18, too. Even after realizing they couldn’t go about things the exact same way and altering a handful of schematic details, those fixes weren’t nearly enough, and the club got swept in the first round by Anthony Davis and the Pelicans.But the beatdown didn’t bring about big changes for the West’s No. 3 seed. Instead, the Blazers brought back restricted free agent center Jusuf Nurkic (who’s highly productive when he’s not getting whacked in the face) while losing solid bench contributors in guard Shabazz Napier and reserve big Ed Davis.1Seth Curry may be able to replace Napier’s production, and the hope is that skilled big man Zach Collins can play a bigger role in his second year.If there’s a sour taste in the mouths of Blazers fans, though, it should stem from the notion that Portland could have — and possibly would have — completed a sign-and-trade for Cousins had it not been that he and Nurkic have representatives who work for the same agency, potentially creating a conflict. Such a deal would have provided the sort of shakeup that a capped-out team like Portland needs. Instead, we may see this team — one of the few that enjoyed good health last year — finish near the bottom of the playoff pool in the West.Houston RocketsAny way you slice it, it’s tough to make sense of the Rockets’ offseason. This team was one decent half away from knocking off the vaunted Warriors and reaching the NBA Finals when its players short-circuited and couldn’t make a 3-pointer to save their lives.The Rockets were close enough that you could almost understand bringing back the same team to try again. But instead, Houston lost starting forward Trevor Ariza right out of the gate (granted, for big money at $15 million this season with a young Phoenix team). Then Luc Mbah a Moute followed suit, rejoining the Clippers about a week later for just one year and $4.3 million. Both were enormous contributors to the Rockets’ vast defensive improvement, and they played key roles in the team’s switch-everything scheme, a must-have against a club like Golden State, which screens away from the ball so well.Houston’s interest in Carmelo Anthony wasn’t terribly surprising, after it pursued him the year before. Yet while there’s a chance Anthony plays far better with the Rockets than he did in a down year with Oklahoma City, it’s hard to see him being much better than either of the two aforementioned wing players, given how Anthony is frequently exploited on defense.James Ennis may help in replacing the lost production on D, and getting guard De’Anthony Melton in the second round of the draft was seemingly a steal. Still, with the gap between the Rockets and Warriors as small as it was in the postseason, you get the feeling that these moves might have widened the chasm.Somewhere in betweenChicago BullsEven if you don’t think Zach LaVine is worth the four years and $78 million that the Bulls ponied up to keep him from becoming a Sacramento King, the logic is clear: LaVine, at one point, was the centerpiece of what Chicago got in the Jimmy Butler deal last summer.What’s tougher to understand is the logic behind pairing LaVine with free agent Jabari Parker.Yes, this ACL-hobbled duo has clear scoring chops, and both are just 23. But neither can really defend on the wing just yet, potentially making life far more challenging for impressive youngster Wendell Carter Jr. than it should be this early on.“Well, I don’t know — I just stick to my strengths,” Parker said when asked about defense during a Chicago radio interview. “Look at everybody in the league. They don’t pay players to play defense. … I’m not gonna say I won’t, but to say that’s a weakness is like saying that’s everybody’s weakness. I’ve scored 30s and 20s off of guys who say they try to play defense.”The Parker deal, for two years and $40 million, isn’t awful. The second year of the contract is a team option, giving the Bulls an out if he doesn’t return to form. But the biggest challenge, and one that gives analysts around the league pause, is his defense. Statistically, Parker has surrendered2By percentage, with a minimum of 5,000 possessions against. more blow-by opportunities on D than any other NBA player over the past three seasons, according to data from Second Spectrum. Some of that, of course, stems from the head-scratching scheme the Bucks used for so long. But other times, it was a function of Parker playing out of position at small forward, where he’s not quick enough to stay in front.It’s safe to assume that someone — be it Parker, the guy he’s guarding or both — is going to score a lot next season. We look forward to seeing who gets the upper hand.Los Angeles LakersNo one is knocking the LeBron signing itself. (How could you?) But add me to the list of people who have struggled to understand the free-agent signings around him.Regardless of whether you plan to have James control the ball a ton or you prefer that he operates more from the post, he would benefit most by having a stable of capable jump-shooters to give him the time and space he needs to create scoring chances.For the better part of eight years, James’s rosters have generally featured several shooting specialists who afford him ample room to drive and kick. A number of players — James Jones, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Matthew Dellavedova, JR Smith, Kyle Korver, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, just to name a few — have logged seasons in which they shot 40 percent or better3On 100 attempts or more. from deep when playing alongside James. By contrast, no one on this Lakers roster — outside of James — has ever logged even one season of 40 percent or better.4On 100 attempts or more.This might be an arbitrary threshold. Aside from the fact that many players on this club are in the early stages of their career, Brandon Ingram shot 39.0 percent from there last year, and Josh Hart was at 39.6 percent. And it seems a given that the team’s best young players stand to take massive steps forward by playing with a great setup man who demands so much of the opponent’s attention.The bigger question, in light of comments he made during the NBA Finals, is whether this team will possess the sort of collective basketball IQ that James feels he needs around him. We know Rajon Rondo, however combustible he might be, is set in that regard. But the additions of Stephenson and JaVale McGee were tougher to square from that standpoint.At their best, with the right surroundings, Stephenson and McGee can lead the NBA in triple-doubles and wreak havoc in pick-and-roll scenarios, respectively. At their worst, they create blooper reels. We have no idea which versions will emerge. But rest assured: LeBron and the youthful Lakers will be anything but boring as we tune in to find out.
OSU redshirt sophomore center Trevor Thompson (32) posts up during a game against Air Force on Dec. 8 at the Schottenstein Center. OSU won 74-50.Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo EditorThe Ohio State men’s basketball team dipped back under the .500 mark in a game at Connecticut on Saturday afternoon that wasn’t ever much in question.Playing in their first true road game of the season in Storrs, Connecticut, the Buckeyes (4-5) were manhandled in the first half, setting the stage for a 75-55 loss.UCONN (6-3) received heavy contributions from a pair of guards coming off its bench, as senior Omar Calhoun and freshman Jalen Adams combined for 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting.Calhoun’s performance also featured a perfect 4-of-4 from beyond the 3-point arc.OSU received 15 points from sophomore forward Jae’Sean Tate and 14 from junior forward Marc Loving, but an inability to get a stop all afternoon did the visitors in. For the game, UCONN shot a stunning 60.4 percent (32-of-53).The Buckeyes hung around for the early part of the first half, trailing 22-16 at the 10-minute mark. From there, however, the Huskies took complete control, winning the rest of the half 21-6 to take a 21-point lead into the intermission.OSU had no answer for the Huskies’ inside game, as UCONN held a 38-20 edge in points in the paint, including 24-10 in the first half. A big reason for that was redshirt senior forward Shonn Miller, a Cleveland native and transfer from Cornell, who finished the game 5-of-8 for 11 points, while also pulling down nine rebounds.Junior center Amida Brimah was also a factor for the Huskies, contributing 11 points on an efficient 5-of-6 from the field.The Buckeyes led at no point in the game on Saturday, which ended their brief two-game winning streak.OSU also failed to block a shot on Saturday, despite the return of freshman center Daniel Giddens from a two-game absence. Giddens came into the game leading the Big Ten with 3.3 blocks per game, having blocked multiple shots in each of his previous five games. OSU’s previous season low for blocks was four, in the opening game.Freshman guard JaQuan Lyle had a miserable game for the Buckeyes, going 0-of-7 to finish scoreless. It was the third game in his last four that Lyle was held under 10 points.Loving played all 40 minutes for coach Thad Matta, pulling down six rebounds to go with his 14 points.OSU is set to return home to try to reclaim the .500 mark on Wednesday against another Huskies squad, this one of Northern Illinois. Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.
OSU sophomore attacker Colin Chell (22) prepares to shoot during a scrimmage against The Hill Academy on Jan. 30. Credit: Kylie Bryant | | For The LanternThe Ohio State men’s lacrosse team is gearing up to host the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the Buckeyes’ first game in Ohio Stadium of the 2016 season on Friday.OSU (2-1) is coming off its first loss of the season last week against Massachusetts. The team looked disorganized in the second half, which led to a 16-9 defeat at the hands of the Minutemen.“I think guys are really taking it on themselves as more a personal thing and something that we need to fix within ourselves,” redshirt junior midfielder and co-captain Tyler Pfister said. “We’re definitely learning from it but not dwelling on it.”OSU coach Nick Myers said the team is evaluating last week’s performance, but he does not want his guys to get hung up on it.“There’s been some reflection off of what we thought was a really disappointing loss,” Myers said. “We’re trying to put that behind us now and focus on us and prepare for a very good team that’s coming into Columbus on Friday night.”UMBC is arriving in Columbus on the heels of a loss to Richmond in its first game of the season by a score of 7-5. The team had a disappointing campaign last year, going 5-8. Still, Myers said he fully expects the program to have a bounceback year.“I just think, top to bottom, it’s a team that’s very disciplined,” he said. “We’re going to have to really work hard as a collective group to have success on Friday night.”UMBC is led by its pair of senior captains: attacker Nate Lewnes and defender Zach Esser.Esser guides a defense that allowed seven goals in the team’s first game. Last year, he became the first defender in the history of UMBC to earn back-to-back America East first-team honors.One of the focuses heading into Friday’s game for the Buckeyes will be stopping the Retrievers’ pair of experienced attackers: Lewnes and junior Max Maxwell.Lewnes saw his 18-game goal-scoring streak, which was sixth in the country at the time, end in the team’s loss to Richmond. A co-captain, Lewnes is the leader of the offense and has been a model of consistency over his first three years at UMBC.Maxwell, who scored a goal last week against Richmond, earned all-rookie team honors as a freshman.OSU senior midfielder and co-captain Kacy Kapinos stressed the importance of the defense playing together in order to stop the UMBC attack.“We have a great, close (defensive) unit in Robby Haus, Chris Mahoney and Erik Evans. It’s just playing team defense,” Kapinos said. “It’s not two guys shutting them down –— it’s everybody talking, communicating (and) making sure we’re all on the same page.” The game is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. on Friday at the ‘Shoe.Man-up opportunityOne thing the Buckeyes will look to improve on this week is the man-up. The man-up, or extra-man opportunity, is akin to the power play in hockey. In these situations, the offense has a one-man advantage because a penalty on the other team forces a player to stay off the field for a duration of time.OSU sophomore defender Erik Evans (43) controls the ball during a scrimmage against The Hill Academy on Jan. 30. Credit: Kylie Bryant | | For The LanternOSU has struggled in capitalizing on these opportunities so far this year. The team went 0-4 in man-up opportunities last week against UMass, including failing to score on one occasion when the Minutemen were two players down after a succession of penalties.“We have to give it to UMass,” Kapinos said. “They did a good job in man-down and picked off a couple of our passes.”The Buckeyes have struggled in this area the whole season, only capitalizing on two of their 12 man-up opportunities, which ranks them tied for 47th nationally. “We’re trying to find the right pieces and the right fit, but that’s a fine line,” Myers said of the man-up unit. “We’re going to keep chipping away at it. I’ve got a lot of confidence in that group.”National showcaseFriday’s game against UMBC will be OSU’s first time this year playing in front of a nationally televised audience, as the game is scheduled to be aired on ESPNU.“Playing in the ‘Shoe too is something that guys are really looking forward to, and I think is going to be a motivator for us going into it,” Pfister said.Myers said he knows his team is excited to play in front of viewers across the country, but he wants the team to stay focused on the task at hand.“I think the opportunity, anytime you’re on national TV, to not only play well but to just showcase what Buckeye lacrosse is all about is a responsibility,” Myers said. “But at the end of the day, it’s the next game on our schedule.”What’s nextAfter Friday’s game against UMBC, the Buckeyes are set to host the Midwest Lacrosse Classic. OSU is scheduled play Marquette on March 4 and Bellarmine on March 6. The games are slated for 6 p.m. and 3 p.m., respectively, at the ‘Shoe.
OSU then-junior catcher Jalen Washington (2) swings at a ball during a game against Bethune-Cookman at Bill Davis Stadium on April 1, 2016. Lantern file photoEntering the 2017 season, the biggest question surrounding the Ohio State baseball team was how coach Greg Beals would replace seven everyday starters.The Buckeyes seemed to answer that question emphatically, combining for 21 runs on 18 hits during the first two games at the Sunshine State Classic Series. But, their offense slumped across the final two contests, posting only four runs on 11 hits.The offense found over the weekend came largely from the bats of redshirt senior designated hitter Zach Ratcliff and senior shortstop and co-captain Jalen Washington. Ratcliff hit .438 with seven hits, two home runs, six RBIs and five runs scored. Washington finished the weekend with a .385 batting average, one stolen base, three runs scored and was hit by four pitches.OSU opened its season with a 2-2 start.Game 1 versus Kansas StateA dominant outing from redshirt junior starting pitcher and co-captain Adam Niemeyer on Opening Day helped led the Buckeyes to a 6-3 victory over the Wildcats.The scoring began in the top half of the third for OSU. After Kansas State redshirt sophomore starting pitcher Bryce Ward set the first two down in order, OSU junior center fielder Tre’ Gantt tripled down the right field line. Washington followed that up with a grounder to the second baseman who couldn’t handle it, allowing Washington to reach first and Gantt to score the first Buckeye run of the season.A double and a walk loaded the bases for junior first baseman Bo Coolen who doubled down the left field line, driving in two runs and bringing the OSU lead to 3-0.The next inning, the Buckeyes would again put up a crooked number. After the first two batters of the inning reached base and a sac bunt put them both in scoring position, a wild pitch was thrown by freshman reliever Tyler McKay, allowing sophomore third baseman Brady Cherry to score from third.A walk to Gantt brought Washington to the plate who lined a base hit down the left field line, scoring another run and expanding the Buckeye lead to 5-0. A bases-loaded walk later in the inning added to the OSU lead, putting them ahead 6-0.The only run Niemeyer surrendered came in the bottom half of the sixth inning after the first two runners he faced reached base on a single and an error. A single by redshirt senior outfielder Steve Serratore drove in the run, drawing the Wildcats closer, 6-1. The Wildcats plated two unearned runs off junior reliever Seth Kinker in the bottom of the ninth inning, but the Buckeyes held on for the 6-3 victory. Niemeyer finished the game having allowed only one unearned run on six hits, no walks and one strikeout.Game 2 versus DelawareIn a high-scoring affair driven by three grand slams, OSU beat Delaware 15-10 thanks to Ratcliff’s monster day. The fifth-year designated hitter delivered the game’s first runs with a two-run home run to left field in the bottom of the second, giving OSU the early 2-0 lead.But Delaware responded in a big way in the top of the third. A grand slam from redshirt senior outfielder Jordan Glover led the Blue Hens’ offensive charge as they jumped out to an early 6-2 lead. An inning later, Delaware added another run to bring the score to 7-2.In the bottom-half of the fourth inning, Ratcliff came up to bat and for the second time, deposited a two-run home run over the left field fence to draw the Buckeyes within five. The Blue Hens responded, adding two more of their own in the top of the fifth.Down 9-4, the OSU offense exploded in the bottom of the seventh inning. Junior second baseman Noah McGowan stepped up to the plate with a bases-loaded opportunity and cashed in with a grand slam, drawing the Scarlet and Gray to within one.The next two batters reached base for Ratcliff who again delivered, this time with a two-RBI double to the right-center field gap. Ratliff would later score, expanding the Buckeye lead to 11-9.The next inning, OSU got right back where they left off. Now with the score tied, Cherry stepped up to the dish with the bases juiced and delivered his second career grand slam to left-center field, jumping the OSU offense out to a commanding 15-9 lead. The Blue Hens added another run in the top of the ninth, but their comeback attempt fell short as OSU won the first game of their Saturday double-header 15-10. Ratcliff finished the day 4-4 with a pair of homers, a walk, four runs scored and six RBIs.Game 3 versus PittsburghThe Buckeye offense came rolling into this game, but they were completely silenced by senior right-hander Josh Falk in a 7-2 loss against Pittsburgh.The Buckeyes drew first blood. Gantt led off the top of the second inning with a ground-rule double and scored on a sacrifice fly from McGowan, giving OSU the early 1-0 lead.Pitt quickly took back the game with two runs scored in the bottom of the second on a two-run double from freshman right fielder Nico Popa. Another run in the bottom of the third expanded their lead to 3-1.The Panthers put up another run in the fourth, one in the seventh and two in the eighth to give them a 7-1 lead. As soon as Falk left the game in the ninth inning, the Buckeye offense started showing some life. The first two batters of the inning went down, but a pair of singles, a hit-by-pitch and an RBI walk from redshirt senior left fielder Shea Murray brought the score to 7-2. The OSU comeback ended there, however, as the pinch-hitter lined out to shortstop to end their comeback.Falk finished the game with eight innings of one-run, three-hit ball. He walked three and struck out seven.Game 4 versus Kansas StateComing off a game where the offense looked stagnant, OSU once again came out of the gate slow, and fell to Kansas State 3-2 in their second meeting with the Wildcats.Down 2-0 in the bottom half of the fifth inning, OSU found some life in their offense. After a triple and a walk put runners on the corners, Gantt singled to right center to put the Scarlet and Gray on the scoreboard. Washington followed that up with a double to left, tying the game at two.The game remained tied until the top of the eighth inning. Redshirt senior shortstop Jake Wodtke led off the frame with a single up the middle and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. Senior first baseman Jake Scudder followed the sacrifice with a single to center, driving in the Wildcats’ third run of the game and bringing the score to 3-2. In his first game since Tommy John surgery, OSU redshirt senior starting pitcher Jake Post looked solid, delivering six innings with only two runs allowed on five hits while striking out three. Washington and Ratcliff were the only two Buckeye hitters with multi-hit games.The Buckeyes will travel to Surprise, Arizona, on Thursday to begin the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge. They open against Utah on at 8 p.m. and will split four games over the weekend between the Utes and the No. 8 Oregon State Beavers.