This view suggests the U.S. may have reached a new plateau. The performance of the 2002 team, for instance, is problematic from this vantage point. If the U.S. fails to beat Belgium on Tuesday, that means it will have gone three World Cups without equaling (much less improving upon) the 2002 team’s performance. Perhaps we’re left with the global soccer equivalent of the Atlanta Hawks: a team that will usually make the “playoffs” then lose in the first round.This might seem like a contrived reading of the evidence. But mapping the Americans’ trajectory from 1986 onward is also selective: It’s easy to make an upward pattern look more impressive by starting from what you know to be a low point.There’s a credible story behind each theory. Under the steady-improvement theory, the story is one of demographic and cultural trends abetted by some measure of self-perpetuating success (a positive feedback loop). Soccer has been a big youth-participation sport since the 1970s, but immigration from Latin America may be giving the U.S. even more young athletes who are interested in soccer. The occasional successes of the U.S. men’s national team, along with an increasingly popular domestic league (and improved television visibility for the English Premier League and Liga MX) may motivate some of these young athletes to play soccer professionally instead of transitioning into baseball, football or another sport.The punctuated-equilibrium theory suggests that the U.S. was badly underachieving its soccer potential for many years. Then it got its act together when it was chosen to host a World Cup: better facilities, more investment in the national team, a sustainable domestic league and so forth. But it was picking low-hanging fruit. It shouldn’t be that difficult for a super-wealthy country like the United States, which excels at so many other sports, to be half-decent at soccer if it tries.What’s more challenging is going from a country that sometimes makes the knockout phase to one that sometimes makes the World Cup semifinals — or beyond. It’s not clear that the U.S.’s wealth, or its athletic prowess, implies that it ought to be much more successful at soccer than it has been in recent years. For instance, we can compare each country’s GDP (taken as a natural logarithm) against its soccer team’s Elo rating as of June. There’s certainly some relationship, but it’s rough (soccer is a comparatively inexpensive sport). The trendline in the chart implies that a best guess for the United States is an Elo rating somewhere in mid-1,800s, almost exactly where it is today.The same story holds if we compare the number of medals each country has won at the Summer Olympics since 2000 (again taken as a natural logarithm5Because a number of countries have won no medals since 2000 — meaning that their natural logarithm would be undefined — I instead take the log of the number of medals won plus one.) against its soccer team’s Elo rating.There’s a high margin of error on these estimates. China’s GDP (and its Olympic medal count) is just a little less than the United States’ — but its soccer team has qualified for only one World Cup and has gotten worse in recent years. Germany also has a big economy and a big medal count — and its soccer team is great. The point is that the U.S. men’s national team is no longer underachieving reasonable expectations, as it was before the 1990s. Nor is it exceeding them. Perhaps what we’ve seen is about what we’re due to get in a populous, wealthy, athletic country — where interest in soccer is average, at best, by global standards.The success of the U.S. women’s national soccer team stands in contrast to that of the men’s. But soccer players are among the highest-profile female athletes in the U.S., suggesting that part of the problem for the men’s side is competition from other sports.The punctuated-equilibrium theory would imply that it may take some time for the U.S. men’s team to reach the next plateau. Perhaps an external catalyst would help: another American World Cup, a run to the World Cup semifinals, the emergence of an American soccer player who is recognized as among the best in the world. (Personally, I’d hope for him to be as brash as Cristiano Ronaldo, the better to spark headlines and stoke rivalries with other countries.) But it could be a long while before any of those things happen, and there could be some further delay before their feedback effects kick in.Or it could be that the steady-improvement theory is right. It also reflects a reasonable interpretation of the evidence. The data on youth interest in soccer is very encouraging, for instance.Tuesday’s game against Belgium will provide us with one data point — but just one. Unlike in the past, however, we might not need to wait four years for the next one. Instead, in 2016, the United States will host the Copa América Centenario, a special one-off tournament that will feature the best teams from both North and South America. It could serve as a preview of our soccer future. Playing at home produces the equivalent of an 100 Elo-point bonus — equal to eight years of improvement for the U.S. based on its 1986 to 2014 trajectory. If the U.S. will be ready to compete with the Colombias and Argentinas and Brazils of the world on neutral turf by 2022 and 2026, it should be able to do so on home soil in 2016.CORRECTION (July 1, 4:54 p.m.): A chart in an earlier version of this post mislabeled the Elo ratings vs. Olympic medal counts for China and Russia. The chart has been updated. For the United States, almost every recent World Cup match has been billed as the most important game in the history of the men’s national team. Its knockout-stage match against Belgium on Tuesday isn’t receiving quite as much hype.1The New Republic does describe the U.S.-Belgium game as the “most important sporting event in American history.” That’s apparently a joke, however. But a win would advance the U.S. to the World Cup quarterfinals for a Saturday afternoon match against Argentina or Switzerland. That would probably be the most-watched game in U.S. soccer history — the first World Cup quarterfinal that many American fans would ever see their men play live.2The U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals in 2002, but its game against Germany was played in South Korea at 7:30 a.m. Eastern time on a Saturday morning — not ideal viewing hours. The U.S. also advanced from its group to the semifinals in the inaugural World Cup in 1930, but that was when just four teams made the knockout stage.It’s tempting to say that these matches are the soccer equivalent of political “game changers” — much-ballyhooed events that seem exciting at the time but which rarely have as much lasting impact as the pundits claim. But it’s not unreasonable to feel as though every World Cup game is more important than the last. It’s a consequence of the long-term state of U.S. soccer.On the one hand, expectations are getting higher. The U.S. advanced from the group stage in 1994, 2002, 2010 and now 2014. Matches against England or Portugal or Germany are now thought of as opportunities rather than sure losses. On the other hand, the men’s national team has never quite had its breakthrough moment.When might the bar be raised? When might U.S. fans view a Round of 16 exit as a travesty and not a triumph?If you’re in your mid-30s, like me, the advance of the U.S. men’s national team might seem as inevitable as that of gay marriage. You’ll be just old enough to remember that the U.S. was once a soccer backwater. But you might not remember how long it took the Americans to get where they are today. The trajectory since the 1980s has always been upward:This chart shows the Elo rating for the U.S. in each World Cup year3Specifically, it shows the U.S.’s Elo rating as of the date of the World Cup final — whether or not the U.S. actually qualified for the tournament. For 2014, I’ve used the U.S.’s Elo rating at the end of the group stage. since 1986 — the last World Cup where the Americans failed to qualify, and the last one before 1988, when FIFA declared the 1994 World Cup would be played in the U.S.From this perspective, the upward trend has been extremely steady. In fact, other than the 2002 team arriving in the quarterfinals a little ahead of schedule, it’s been almost perfectly linear. Since 1986, the U.S.’s Elo rating has improved by almost exactly 50 points every four years.Imagine that the trend continues. Right now, the U.S. team’s Elo rating is nearly 1,850, which places it 15th in the world. Add another 50 points, and by 2018 it would be at 1,900 — somewhere around eighth or 10th in the world and near where Belgium and Uruguay and France are today. That’s a team that could be a dark-horse World Cup contender. By 2026, its Elo rating would be 2,000 — not far from where Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands began this year’s tournament. So in just 12 more years — in a World Cup that could possibly be held in the United States — the U.S. will be a global soccer powerhouse.Or perhaps not. Consider another look at the evidence, one where we run the numbers back further. For much of the 1970s, there was a lot of hope surrounding the growth of U.S. soccer, but the men’s national team repeatedly failed to qualify for the World Cup. In one year, the U.S. failed to win a single qualifying match. But let’s go back ever further, to 1950. This tells a different story. The men’s national team got worse from 1950 to 1958, bottomed out for almost 30 years with no sign of life, improved rather sharply in a concentrated period from 1986 through 2002, and has been fairly steady since.Yes, the U.S. has still gotten better by this reckoning — but it looks more like a case of punctuated equilibrium — a sudden change after years of stasis.4The so-called punctuated trend in the chart is drawn by fitting a regression with a dummy variable that is taken as zero between 1950 and 1986 and one between 2002 and 2014 and allowed to vary at a linear rate only in the intervening years.
Led by Kevin Durant, the U.S. Men’s Basketball team rolled over France in its Olympic opener, 98-71. Durant was the hot hand on the court, collecting 22 points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes. After a close first quarter the U.S. blew the game open, taking a 27-point lead into the fourth. Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs led a valiant French team, but went 4/11 from the field with just 10 points.Behind Durant the rest of Team USA shared a balanced workload, with most of the team taking the court for at least 10 minutes each. Small ball was the theme of the day, with point guards Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Russell Westbrook maxing out their playing time behind Durant and Lebron James. Kevin Love and Kobe Bryant contributed 14 and 10 points, respectively.France is not considered a medal contender at this year’s games, but features a handful of NBA players, including Boris Diaw and Ronny Turiaf, as well as Parker. A buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Yannick Bokolo at the end of the first quarter left the score at 22-21, invigorating French fans in the crowd. That was the peak of the game for France however, as they were outscored 56-30 in the next two quarters.Parker was seen wearing goggles during the game, as he plans to do throughout the tournament. He sustained a serious eye-injury as a bystander in a New York club fight between Chris Brown and Drake’s entourages.”It’s so funny, because I just had my best year in the NBA and in one night it can change,” Parker told the AP of the incident. ”It just puts life in perspective and you think, ‘OK, next time I have to be careful,’ but at the same time you can’t stop living because then you don’t even cross the street.”Durant was a large piece of the 2010 U.S. team that took home the FIBA world championship, and looks poised to lead this year’s team to the gold as well. After losing to Olympic teammate James and the Miami Heat in the NBA finals, he most certainly has intensity to spare.
Michael Vick will not be supplanted from his starting job as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, although it was a serious consideration, according to multiple reports.Coach Andy Reid makes the decision on that position, and he likely will stay with the four-time Pro Bowler over rookie Nick Foles, who is unproven.The Eagles are 3-4, and Vick has been part of the Philly problems, which are not limited to Vick.Reid didn’t endorse Vick after Sunday’s 30-17 loss to Atlanta, saying he’s going to evaluate all his starters. Vick then said he would support whatever decision Reid makes, which was different from saying he deserves to be replaced.The Eagles’ headquarters was closed Monday because of superstorm Sandy, and there was no media availability.Reid has changed his mind on his starting quarterbacks in a 24-hour period before, reversing his call on Kevin Kolb and replacing him with Vick in 2010. It’s unlikely he would do it again and give Foles his first NFL snap on the road in a Monday night game against New Orleans (2-5) next week.Foles, a third-round pick out of Arizona, had an outstanding preseason. However, he did so playing against backups, third-stringers and guys who didn’t make a roster. Foles impressed coaches and teammates, and fans have been calling for him to start since Week 1.Simply, Vick wasn’t the problem against the Falcons. He did not turn the ball over and he does not play defense. Under new coordinator Todd Bowles, the Eagles allowed scores on Atlanta’s first six possessions, including touchdowns on the first three.As for the offense, injuries to All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelcehave crippled the unit. Vick hasn’t had much time to throw and gets hit often. Playcalling isn’t helping, either. Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have underused All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy in the past three losses.Vick led Philadelphia to comeback wins with go-ahead touchdowns on its final drive the first two games of the season. But he’s been inconsistent and turnover-prone overall. Vick has just a 78.6 passer rating, his lowest since joining the Eagles. He’s coming off a rare turnover-free performance after throwing eight interceptions and losing five fumbles in the first six games.Benching Vick and turning the offense over to Foles could be a way to shake things up. It also could be interpreted as giving up on the season.
Quite a lot is happening in the Western Conference playoff race. Postseason fixtures like San Antonio and Oklahoma City are struggling. Minnesota is without Jimmy Butler for the foreseeable future. The Pelicans are surging, but thin. This has set up a power vacuum behind the top two teams, Houston and Golden State, ripe for just about any team in the contending peloton to push into a high playoff seed and home-court advantage. Maybe even an upstart like the Portland Trail Blazers.With 19 games to play, the Blazers sit third in the West, looking as likely as anyone to hold onto home court over the final month and change. Portland is on an 8-1 run, including six straight wins. Damian Lillard has averaged 33 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds over that stretch. He has jump-started an uncharacteristically dormant offense, and the wins have followed. But it isn’t Lillard’s outbursts that have lifted Portland’s profile above where it’s been in past seasons. That would be the defense.After years of playing some of the worst team defense in the league, the Blazers are seventh in defensive rating on the season, according to NBA.com. It hasn’t been entirely smooth — after a strong start to the season, the team ranked just 22nd in January and 12th in February — but Portland seems to have righted the ship during this latest stretch. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the team had a 102.9 defensive rating during that stretch, which would put Portland at the top of the league if that were its season-long figure.The curious thing is the Blazers have done this without many of the obvious tells of a good defense. They don’t force many turnovers (third-fewest per 100 possessions); they give up free throws at an average rate; they are average to below-average defending the pick-and-roll and drives, according to data from Second Spectrum; and they don’t block an extreme number of shots or keep opponents out of the paint. In a way, it’s the opposite of the Milwaukee Bucks conundrum: The team gets results without the typical stats that go along with them.What Portland does do is stay in good position and limit high-value shots. According to Second Spectrum’s quantified shot quality stat, which takes into account shooter and defender position, as well as other variables, the Blazers give up the lowest quality shots of any defense in the league, at an implied 49.5 effective field goal percentage. This is in part because the team denies 3-point attempts, ranking fourth in opponent 3-point attempts per game, and keeps high-value corner-three attempts down.In fact, if we think about the Portland defense as a longer term proposition, there’s some reason to believe that the team’s defensive slide in January had as much to do with random chance as anything else. Over that month, the Blazers improved their defense as far as opponent shot quality goes, posting an implied 49.3 eFG% in that month, better than its current league-leading 49.5 figure. More goes into a defense than the X and Y coordinates of opposing shooters, but given Portland’s contain-first system, it’s crucial that the fundamentals held up even when the defense was struggling.The way that system works also allows for Lillard and backcourt partner CJ McCollum, not exactly lockdown defenders, to contribute to the defense without having to stick with their opponent. It involves dropping the defending big man very deep into the lane in pick-and-roll coverage and daring the ballhandler to shoot a pull-up. From there, the defense is set up to defend a drive or a pass to a roller, thanks to the deep-lying big man, and if the ballhandler pulls up or hesitates for even a half-step, Portland’s guards can fight over the screen and get back into the play to challenge.This isn’t always a sure bet — Lillard can still be bullied by bigger guards like Russell Westbrook when isolated — but overall it engages weaker defenders into the plan rather than leaving them to their fates and hoping they don’t spring a play-ending leak. In all variations on the design, the goal is to take the responsibility of containing dribble penetration away from the backcourt and to put it on center Jusuf Nurkic in the middle or more capable defenders on the wings. (Nurkic defends the most shots on a per possession basis and does so while holding opponents to an acceptable eFG and, crucially, not fouling at an astronomically high rate as he did early in his career — an important task for any defender playing the garbage-man role. This volume is a big reason the guards can play as they do. It’s also likely a big reason that Nurkic gets clocked in the face so often.) It doesn’t always work. But the team didn’t need a league-stopping defense; it needed to dredge its defense out of the depths of the league table.Ironically, it’s been the Blazer offense that has been holding the team back for much of the season, which is why Lillard’s recent dominance has translated so neatly into wins.Lillard isn’t as efficient as other star guards, such as Steph Curry or James Harden, but he’s having a career-best year running the pick-and-roll, creating 101 points per 100 chances, according to Second Spectrum, and 103 points per 100 chances on drives. These are very good numbers, particularly for a player burdened with as much defensive attention as Lillard typically gets, but not quite good enough to carry an entire team. McCollum has had a slightly down year, but he’s still hugely productive.Aside from Lillard and McCollum, no other Blazer can produce on the drive, which makes creating space difficult for this offense. Bad things happen when Shabazz Napier and Evan Turner drive. And insofar as the Blazers even have a post game, it’s not one that anyone would want to claim. They rank 27th in points per direct post-up, according to Second Spectrum, down among bottom-dwellers like Atlanta and Memphis. Nurkic takes the biggest share of blame here, registering fewer than 80 points per 100 chances created out of post-ups. There are some brights spots, such as the Lillard-to-Al-Farouq Aminu connection, but when every functional piece of the offense shares a vector through one or two players, the team will rise and fall as its stars do. Luckily, the Portland stars can thrive on their own, at least to a point. Lillard is one of the premier practitioners of the pull-up 3-pointer, a staple of the best offenses in the league — he’s shooting more than five per game and converting 38 percent of them. McCollum, meanwhile, takes his pull-up game inside the line. He shoots 40 percent on his pull-up threes but takes only three per game, compared with more than six pull-up twos. His season is a bit of a dropoff from his last, but an enviable one for nearly anyone else’s standards.The Blazers have one of the harder schedules remaining in the Western Conference playoff race and will have to rely not only on Lillard and McCollum to continue to lift an otherwise leaden offense, but also young players like rookie Zach Collins and Pat Connaughton to continue contributing through a playoff push. It’s a lot to ask. But Portland’s last several playoff runs have involved juggling a similar number of balls in the air. And with what appears to be a firm foundation on defense for the first time in years, the backcourt only has to make up for the deficiencies of one side of the ball, not two. That may not be enough to give the Blazers much of a shot of getting past Houston or Golden State, but it’s progress just the same.Check out our latest NBA predictions.
Embed Code FiveThirtyEight As a show that hinges on the hot takes of the sports world, Hot Takedown this week does a retrospective dive into the many takes that defined this NBA Finals: from “the Warriors will sweep” to “the Warriors dynasty is over,” and every narrative in between. We ask ourselves what role analytics plays in driving this “narrative whiplash” and how the era of player empowerment factors into these discussions.The Women’s World Cup is in full swing, and the U.S. women are off to an exhilarating start, but there’s a lot of tournament left. We dig into why our model no longer favors France and which matchups we are most looking forward to.Finally, Sara kicks off our latest edition of “Get Off My Field” with a thoughtful rant advocating for a return of the glowing puck in hockey.What we’re looking at this week:This thoughtful interview on the role of basketball analytics with Jalen Rose from The New Yorker.Our Women’s World Cup Predictions!The NHL’s glowing puck may have just been ahead of its time. More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed
Read more: Mets Pitchers Have Found Their Kryptonite Today is an off day for the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets, but not for us. As the teams traveled to New York City to resume the World Series on Friday with the Royals leading by two games to none, ESPN.com editor and writer Christina Kahrl joined FiveThirtyEight’s biggest baseball obsessives from her Kansas City hotel to look ahead to Game 3. As usual, the transcript below has been lightly edited. Carl Bialik, lead news writer: Welcome, baseball fans! Historically, five out of six teams down two games to none in a best-of-seven series go on to lose. Can the Mets be the one out of six? Is there anything you see that makes that look likely?Neil Paine, senior sportswriter: Well, according to ESPN Stats & Info, the last time the Mets were outscored by exactly seven runs in the first two games of a World Series was in 1986, and we know what happened then. (But seriously, they are in deep trouble.)Christina Kahrl, ESPN.com editor and writer: Hrm. 1986: John McNamara, Red Sox manager and a model manager if tactical passivity is your thing. 2015: Ned Yost, Royals manager and a model manager if tactical passivity is your thing. I’m sensing a trend.Nate Silver, editor in chief: Well, the Mets are playing at home. They probably have the best of the starting pitching matchups in Games 3 and 4, especially with Chris Young coming into Game 4 with some extra mileage on his arm.Harry Enten, senior political writer: Let me offer this piece of hope for the Mets (because, as Neil notes, they are in trouble): The Royals are hitting at about their average through the small sample size of two games (.721 OPS vs .734 in the regular season), while the Mets are hitting quite below their average (.432 vs. .712 in the regular season).Neil: Yeah, perhaps one ray of sunshine is that the Mets were this close to getting a split in KC, if Jeurys Familia doesn’t make that one mistake. And that was with Mets bats underperforming.Harry: And then, surely Yost is bound to cost the Royals. Right?! Right?!Christina: Actually, the thing you can say for Yost is that, a little like Tony La Russa in 2011 or Bruce Bochy in any World Series, he’s been working with what he’s got this postseason. Chris Young probably won’t have to face the Mets a third time through the order, he’ll be out and the Mets will be dealing with Kris Medlen or Danny Duffy in the middle innings.Harry: Christina, you mentioned that Yost wouldn’t stick with Chris Young. The Mets bullpen is so weak that they had to bring in Jon Niese again in Game 2. And while it worked for one inning, it killed them in that second inning.Carl: The starting-pitching matchups look good for the Mets on paper, and it does seem like the Mets bats are due to regress upward (progress?). So to what extent do we say the first two games were fluky, and to what extent do we reconsider our assessment of the two teams? Is Thor’s fastball advantage neutralized because of what we’ve seen Royals bats do to fastballs in the first two games?Nate: The prior for anything that happened in a two-game series is pretty much always that it was random. These are two fairly evenly matched baseball teams. The coin came up heads twice. There were some interesting strategic decisions in Game 1: I think Yost was smart to bring in Chris Young, for instance, and the Mets might have been better off with Steven Matz or Thor in the game. But basically, this stuff is random. Also, I’m in the Ned-Yost-is-not-a-moron camp. He’s actually pretty laissez-faire, other than using his bullpen fairly aggressively. There are a lot of worse things to be.Christina: The Mets pen — and Terry Collins’s remarkably retro usage pattern of his relievers, because he just hasn’t done the situational specialist thing with a guy like lefty Sean Gilmartin all year — is not really a significant asset. It makes for some interesting stuff to speculate about as far as the aggregate value of a skipper, as Nate just pointed out.Dave Schoenfield and I were both scratching our heads about the decision to pull Niese as quickly as he was pulled in Game 1; he looked great, and if the alternative is feeding Bartolo Colon to that lineup …Nate: The Niese decision also strikes me as having been dumb. Someone out there needs to put together a primer on extra-inning bullpen strategy; teams sometimes seem to forget that the average extra inning starts with a leverage index of 2.0 or so.Carl: Part of the fun of a 14-inning Game 1 was how it generated so many tactical decisions we could debate afterward. We know from more than just the last two games that KC’s bullpen > Mets’ bullpen, as Christina mentioned. Were you surprised Yost left Johnny Cueto in for all nine innings in Game 2? How important is it to rest a bullpen after an epic game? And Neil, any evidence Yost and Collins aren’t headed for the Hall of Mediocrity you’ve written about?Christina: I’d also put myself in the “Ned knows what he’s doing” camp. Is it more sort of a Burt Shotton thing, where he’s pretty easygoing? Yes. Are people over-freaked on his sporadic bunting? Yes — the Royals got just 32 sacrifice bunts from non-pitchers this year, which ranked sixth in the AL, behind the smart guys in Cleveland and Toronto, among others.Harry: Soon enough, Yost will be wearing a bow tie in the dugout.Neil: FWIW, I think both managers have squeezed a lot out of their talent this year. For Yost, this is part of a two-year pattern, so there could be something there.Nate: One thing I’ve wondered about, Carl, is how leaving the pitcher in longer affects his next start. Cueto threw 122 pitches in a lopsided game. Is he 3 percent worse in Game 6 as a result? That’s not trivial, on the scale of these things. Maybe Yost was a little too laissez-faire in this case.Christina: I loved Yost’s decision to stick with Cueto, both for what it did for the rest of the pen, but also because it was an endorsement of sorts. Much as he had during his bad patch in August and September, Cueto seemed to struggle with slider location, but he nevertheless did a superb job of keeping the Mets guessing. And remember, he will get an extra day’s rest before his next start, if it ever comes.Neil: Right — maybe in that situation, you see the lead ballooning, so you know you’re on the verge of being up two games to none. The probability of needing another Cueto start goes down, but you can shield the weaker parts of the bullpen for later and simultaneously give Cueto that vote of confidence.Carl: Endgame strategies certainly take a new shape when they could be endseason strategies. Cueto might not throw another meaningful pitch until spring.Christina: I think my other big takeaway from Game 2 was that the Royals gave us a demonstration of one of the other important tactical factors that went into Terry Collins’s Game 1 lineup, which is that a bum wing handicaps Juan Lagares’s arm in center. With nobody aboard, no biggie, but it was part of the problem in that fifth inning. In that, you can feel badly for Collins — he “guessed” wrong in consecutive games, but he had good reasons both times for doing what he did, only to see the Royals exploit both options.Neil: Game 1 showed us what can happen with Yoenis Cespedes in center field.Christina: Exactly.Harry: It’s amazing how that cost the Mets not once but twice. If you look back at the highlight reels of Cespedes’ great throws, he often boots it before firing out of his cannon, like he booted it in Game 1. Yet I think Johnny Damon may have a better arm than Juan L. (Kidding.)Nate: I’m still having nightmares of watching Kyle Schwarber in left field. Compared to him, Cespedes looks like Willie Mays out there.Neil: And, in fact, he made a Mays-esque catch last night.Carl: Will it help the Mets to return to the outfield they’re more familiar with? Are there any other ways home field might help?Nate: Citi Field is a quirkier ballpark than you might think — and, sure, it helps the Mets to know the outfield angles pretty well. But it’s also a park that suppresses run scoring, and that could make bullpen and endgame strategy more important, possibly to KC’s benefit.Christina: I wonder if the Royals won’t profit here, as well. The Mets don’t really “do” the situational lefty thing, so the Royals could stack their lefties in the lineup even without Kendrys Morales and not have to worry too much about an in-game tactical penalty. I mean, Alex Gordon batting eighth is … simultaneously silly from our point of view, perhaps, but a reflection of how deep that lineup is in terms of not having one or two guys you can blow away handily.Neil: Also, home-field advantage probably shows up in how the umps call the strike zone as anywhere else. And the Mets need strikeouts. They need to avoid putting KC in hitter’s counts. (Then again, there isn’t much strike-zone home-cooking can do about allowing first-pitch contact.)Harry: The Royals have struck out just 10 times compared to the Mets’ 19 through two games. The Mets starting-pitching speciality is pitching the fast ball. Thor, who throws the fastest of any of the starters, is going in Game 3. This is not good. But then again, they play the game for a reason.Christina: Alcides Escobar: Positively ump-proof.Carl: We’ve praised the Royals lineup for handling the Mets heat so well. Why haven’t the Mets been able to hit for the last 16 innings or so? They obviously miss the home-run-a-game pace Murphy couldn’t sustain (to no one’s surprise), but what about everyone else? I mean, when a Lucas Duda infield single is about as good as it gets …Harry: Duda is hitting .444 (or 4 for 9) this series. Every other Met who started both games is hitting .222 or lower. My goodness.Christina: I can totally see a situation where Thor gives the Mets a great six innings, and maybe that’s enough to win with some run support. But the Royals are even better at making good contact against lefties, so I’m not wild about Matz’s chances if that makes the Mets defense a factor again.Harry: Matz has not been very good this postseason. Yes, he hasn’t given up the long ball, but his WHIP is 1.45. I mean, he just doesn’t strike people out. But that may actually be a good thing given the Royals can’t be struck out. But as Christina points out, you can forget about the Mets if they don’t start hitting. That’s their problem right now. I don’t care if you have Sal Maglie going in Games 3 and 4; you don’t hit, you don’t win.Christina: I also wonder if we weren’t oversold on Michael Conforto. His homer against Zack Greinke earlier this month is no small thing, but he fattened up on teams like the Phillies after his call-up. Cespedes is a notorious streak hitter; if tomorrow is the start of a hot streak, he could change up this source of concern in no time flat. And it is supposed to be warmer in New York than it was here in K.C., which ought to help.Nate: One theme I’m picking up in several threads here is that the Royals, top to bottom, are a really hard team to exploit. Which, if you’re into game theory and all that, is one hallmark of having a highly effective strategy.Harry: Here’s another question: How many runs has the Mets defense cost them? At least the first and last runs of Game 1. Beating a team that puts the ball in play like the Royals likely requires a good defense. The Mets defense has been “meh.”Christina: Murphy costs you every time out there; he’s just not a good second baseman. Add that to Wilmer Flores’s inadequacy at short, and it’s hard to see the defense conjuring up anything like a Goins-Tulo ballet on the double play to save somebody’s bacon.Harry: Such a change from the ‘99 Mets.Neil: Yet the Royals’ offensive batting average on balls in play hasn’t been notably great in the series as a whole. (Even if you count that Escobar inside-the-park home run as a “ball in play.”) The Mets haven’t been great situationally on defense, though — they’ve often had their struggles in bunches. Which goes to something KC has done all year: sequencing, bunching hits, etc.Carl: The Mets are struggling at pitching, fielding and hitting; the Royals are looking like a team with no exploitable weaknesses after being two innings from elimination against the Astros. Most sports books have the Royals as 1-4 favorites. Would you take those odds? And how many games do you think we have left in this series?Harry: I would bet on the Mets at those odds because they are a better team than they have shown so far. Now, maybe they end up dropping the next two. It’s happened before. But the pre-series statistics showed the Royals and Mets to be pretty even. If you assume each game is a tossup, then the Mets have a 25 percent chance to win both of the next two games. It’s probably a little higher at home. Then who knows in a best-of-three?Christina: I think if the Mets win Game 3, things get interesting, because I don’t know if anybody knows what to expect from Edinson Volquez in a Game 5.Carl: Yes, when Volquez was last pitching, in Game 1, he hadn’t heard the awful news that his father died just before the game. It’s uncharted territory for Kansas City and for Fox, which didn’t mention it on air until Volquez knew, at the Royals’ request.Christina: Indeed. Plus two flights to/from the Dominican Republic for Volquez, and what that does to a body. That’s where we just have to sit and watch, but how much Game 4 is won (or lost) by the Royals pen could be a factor in Game 5.Neil: I think about 4-to-1 odds of a Mets comeback make sense. I think the Royals probably win in 6 now.Christina: I’d subscribe to that line of thought, Neil. I can see the Mets winning two of three to get this back to K.C., but I still see this as a series the Royals ultimately win.Nate: I’ll take Mets in 11.
The NBA Christmas Day games are one of the league’s most visible showcases. Rivalries are deepened, as with the Clippers-Warriors matchups in 2013 and 2014, or rejoined, as with the centerpiece of this year’s slate, a finals rematch between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the last seven years, the Oklahoma City Thunder have enjoyed prime placement on the Christmas marquee, playing against some of the best teams in the league. But this season, after former MVP Kevin Durant left town over the summer, the Thunder’s star power has diminished enough to warrant a matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves, currently 9-19 and one of the worst teams in the league.We can use FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings to see just how far the Wolves fall below the Thunder’s standards. Here are Oklahoma City’s Christmas Day opponents beginning in 2010: The best pace-adjusted triple-double seasons K. Love2013-1497.335.517.06.015.4 J. Harden2016-1797.737.110.715.718.4 R. Westbrook2016-1798.043.714.715.021.3 C. Paul2008-0987.832.47.915.715.9 M. Johnson1986-87101.622.214.171.1245.9 L. James2010-1190.936.410.29.615.3 12/25/2010ThunderNuggets15701595 M. Johnson1989-9096.330.08.915.416.0 (Amazingly, the top two seasons by this measure are happening right now. The No. 2 spot belongs to Rockets star and former Thunder sixth man James Harden, who is averaging a per-100-possessions triple-double of his own for new coach Mike D’Antoni, in a role I like to think of as “overgrown Steve Nash does his best Corey Maggette impersonation.” Giannis Antetokounmpo, who turned 22 this month, comes in 27th.)This won’t be the first time Westbrook will be playing Christmas Day without Durant. In 2014, Oklahoma City drew the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs (also without Kawhi Leonard) as its opponent, and won 114-106, with Westbrook pouring in 34 points, 11 assists, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals. It was a brilliant game, the type of which we’ve become accustomed to from Westbrook the last few seasons. The difference this season is that if he repeats that line on Sunday, or even if he racks up his 14th triple-double of the season, it will be away from the biggest stage of the day.Check out our latest NBA predictions. PLAYERSEASONPACEPOINTSREBOUNDSASSISTSVERSATILITY INDEX K. Garnett2004-0589.131.419.18.016.9 12/25/2013KnicksThunder17131451 K. Malone1996-9790.040.014.46.515.5 DATEHOME TEAMAWAY TEAMTHUNDER ELOOPPONENT ELO 12/25/2011ThunderMagic16201583 O. Robertson1961-62124.926.710.89.914.2 L. James2015-1693.3126.96.36.1995.6 G. McGinnis1974-75105.133.7188.8.131.52 12/25/2014SpursThunder15591671 G. Hill1996-9784.530.913.010.516.2 12/25/2015ThunderBulls16501524 STATS PER 100 POSSESSIONS K. Garnett2003-0489.033.219.06.816.2 L. Bird1987-8897.937.611.67.715.0 R. Westbrook2013-1495.435.79.411.415.6 K. Garnett2002-0391.929.617.37.815.9 M. Johnson1990-9184.108.40.2067.216.4 L. James2007-0890.239.610.49.515.8 D. Cousins2014-1595.435.5220.127.116.11 G. Antetokounmpo2016-1796.132.713.08.315.2 L. James2011-1218.104.22.168.815.5 D. Robinson1993-9422.214.171.124.315.2 L. James2009-1091.440.09.811.516.5 R. Westbrook2015-1696.733.911.315.118.0 Versatility Index is the geometric mean of points, rebounds and assists (per 100 possessions). Data is through Dec. 23, 2016.Source: Basketball-Reference.com 12/25/2016ThunderTimberwolves15961426 12/25/2012HeatThunder16991661 L. James2008-0988.740.810.910.416.7 M. Johnson1988-89100.128.710.116.416.8 L. Bird1984-85101.634.312.67.915.1 You might notice that in 2013 the Thunder got stuck playing the New York Knicks, TV’s worst recurring Christmas Day special. Except 2013 was the rare occasion when the Knicks looked like a legitimate NBA team coming into the season. Their preseason Elo rating was 1579, 128 points higher than their rating on Christmas Day, or the difference between a top-10 team and a bottom-5 one. So the Thunder weren’t supposed to have a dog of a game, they just ended up with one because the Knicks fell off the wagon.That wasn’t the case for this season’s Timberwolves. Minnesota came into the season with a rating of 1434, and has since fallen to 1426. The idea with the Wolves was that they have one of the brightest talents in the league, Karl-Anthony Towns, and a roster packed with young, exciting players liable to throw a 30-foot alley-oop or dunk on your head. They were supposed to be among the baby-faced upstarts in the league this season, and they might yet be if they ever figure out how to hold onto a lead.This is a flavor of game the league likes to book. Last Christmas saw a similar matchup between the Miami Heat, two years removed from LeBron James’ leaving in free agency to return to Cleveland, and the New Orleans Pelicans, home to Anthony Davis. The matchmaking logic made sense enough: Pair off a franchise familiar to fans with a few stars left over from deep playoff runs against an up-and-coming face-of-the-league-type star.Things didn’t work out so well then, either. The Heat came into the game looking like dark-horse contenders in the east, with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside playing at high levels. But the Pelicans were beset by injuries early in the season, and Davis never took the leap forward many expected. New Orleans came into the game at 9-20, and while it took the game into overtime, it was hardly the glamour matchup the league had hoped for.Last year’s Pelicans-Heat and this year’s Wolves-Thunder aren’t quite parallel, though, because the year before — the Heat’s first without LeBron — saw Miami host James and his Cavs, beating them 101-91. Durant’s Warriors make a fine partner for the Cavs, but a Christmas Day reunion with Russell Westbrook would have been something to see.Westbrook is averaging 31.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.8 assists with a 41.9 usage percentage and a 54.1 true shooting percentage. But as if the phrase “averaging a triple-double through Christmas Day” isn’t impressive enough, the triple-doubles he’s racking up are far removed from the basic 10-10-10 variety. If we adjust for pace of play (which has slowed from the breakneck days of Oscar and Magic), he’s having the finest triple-double-type season we’ve ever seen.Below is a versatility index1We’re using John Hollinger’s old formulation, which is the geometric mean of points, rebounds and assists, to capture players who have high averages in all three stats. (Simply adding the three stats up and taking an average would over-weight scoring, since point totals tend to be higher than assists and rebounds.) for the players with the highest point-rebound-assist per-possession averages in NBA history: W. Chamberlain1963-64115.133.320.24.614.6 L. Bird1986-8798.633.611.09.215.0 M. Jordan1988-8997.040.09.99.915.8 L. James2012-1390.737.5126.96.36.199 R. Westbrook2014-1595.741.110.612.517.6
Trial by fire. Those three words personify the Ohio State hockey team more than any other as it gets set to begin its 2015-16 campaign this week.The departure of 10 players — eight by graduation, one leaving the program and another signing a contract into the American Hockey League with Rockford — opened the door for 10 freshmen to kickstart their collegiate careers.Senior captain and defenseman Craig Dalrymple said he realizes that with only three seniors on this year’s team, it’s imperative that he and the other upperclassmen get the new guys up to speed as quickly as possible. “It’s just about getting to know them,” Dalrymple said. “You’ve got to bring all 10 of those guys into your team as fast as you can whether that’s creating relationships on the ice and off the ice. Hopefully they have the want to buy into this program as well.”Once they do buy in, they have to adapt to a whole new level of play.“This is a whole new animal,” Dalrymple said. “The college hockey game is a whole lot faster. There’s a lot less games (than in junior hockey), so the energy in the games are amped up twice as much. It’s going to take one, maybe two weekends to get them all into it. The sooner we can get everyone into it as a team, the better we’re going to do right off the hop, which will benefit us in the long run.”Senior captain and forward Anthony Greco has played in 89 games over the past three seasons. He’s been through enough ups and downs with the program to be able to lead the young team in the right direction.“It’s funny, because you’re sort of able to see the way you acted as a freshman, and now you’re an older guy and you have a grasp on the way you should be dealing with everything,” Greco said chuckling. “You don’t want to change the way they play the game. You want them to play their game but make sure that they’re team first.”So far, so good after the first weekend.OSU defeated Brock University 4-0 in an exhibition contest on Saturday at the Schottenstein Center. The game saw a goal and two assists chipped in by the freshman class.Freshman forward Freddy Gerard popped home the first of the four goals on the night for OSU at the 9:21 mark of the first period. Sophomore Matthew Weis and freshman Tommy Parran assisted on the goal.Mason Jobst contributed the other assist by a freshman on sophomore Luke Stork’s goal with 3:41 remaining in the second period. His classmate Christian Lampasso assisted on the goal as well after setting Stork up in the slot area with a feed from behind the net. It was a game thoroughly dominated by the Scarlet and Gray, as the Buckeyes outshot the visiting Badgers 43-15.Junior goaltenders Christian Frey and Matt Tomkins split time in the dual shutout effort. Frey started and made nine saves, while Tomkins had cleanup duty, stopping all six shots sent his way.Although the regular season hasn’t officially started yet, Gerard says that this year’s freshman class is already a tight-knit group.“There’s a lot of chemistry going on,” Gerard said. “We’re a really close freshman class. We’re all brothers already. We’ve been here for two months now and we’ve all been working hard as a team.”That chemistry will be needed in full force right off the bat for the Buckeyes.With arguably the toughest nonconference schedule in the nation, OSU is scheduled to take on No. 16 Bowling Green and No. 11 Miami (Ohio) in a home-and-home series to begin the year. The Buckeyes are then set to travel to play defending national champion and seventh-ranked Providence. Following a late November weekend series at No. 10 Nebraska-Omaha, the Buckeyes face off against No. 1 Boston College in the Florida College Classic in late December.For OSU coach Steve Rohlik, it doesn’t matter if his team is playing the No. 1 team every weekend. He expects his players to bring their “A” game every time they hit the ice.“My expectations are to go out and to be the hardest team to play against and give everything we’ve got every night,” Rohlik said. “I’m trying to instill that into these young guys and hopefully the culture with our older guys brings that. Where that leads us? I’m not sure.”What is sure is that the questions surrounding this team will soon be answered.Puck drop between OSU and Bowling Green is set for 7 p.m. on Friday at the Schottenstein Center. Members of the OSU Mens Ice Hockey team during the Buckeyes 4-0 shut out on Oct. 3 at Value City Arena. Credit: Kaley Rentz / Asst. Sports Director
OSU sophomore forward Keita Bates-Diop (33) during a game against Rutgers on Jan. 13 at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo EditorThe Ohio State men’s basketball team has been a mystery wrapped in a riddle for much of the season.It has been nearly impossible to get any kind of gauge on what kind of team the Buckeyes are, to learn if the team that has shown itself thus far in 2015-16 is underperforming, lacking talent, lacking experience or some combination of the three.One thing has become abundantly clear, however: OSU is far from the worst team in the Big Ten. After beating Rutgers, which is still winless in conference games this season, by a combined 38 points in their two meetings, it is clear that the Buckeyes have placed themselves well above the basement of the conference.Their opponent on Saturday, however, might want to be on the lookout for flooding after heavy rainfall.The Buckeyes (16-10, 8-5) handled the Scarlet Knights (6-19, 0-12) on their home floor in Piscataway, New Jersey, on Saturday by a score of 79-69 in a game that was never really in question. That contest came a month to the day since OSU handled Rutgers in Columbus 94-68.A pair of sophomore forwards in Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate were major contributors in the game for the Buckeyes, with a double-double each. Bates-Diop scored 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting and had 14 rebounds, while Tate added 22 points and 13 rebounds. Redshirt sophomore guard Kam Williams was also big, scoring 19 points off the bench, including 12 in the second half.The Buckeyes did not get off to a tremendous start shooting the ball, but they really didn’t need to, as Rutgers started the game shooting a grotesque 3-of-20 — which included making its first shot of the game 22 seconds in.When all was said and done on the first 10 minutes of the game, the Buckeyes held a 20-6 lead, shooting 8-of-18. That effort was led by Bates-Diop, who scored a quick 10 points, including a pair of 3-pointers in quick succession.An extended 13-0 spurt by Rutgers made a dent in the lopsided score, cutting it to 22-19, but the Scarlet and Gray snapped their lengthy scoreless drought with a jump shot by Bates-Diop. That was followed up on the next possession with a layup by Tate to bring the lead back up to seven points.The visitors were then able to jump their lead back up as high as 14 points en route to a 35-26 halftime margin.Bates-Diop led all first-half scorers with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, while the Scarlet Knights countered with freshman guard Corey Sanders’ 13. Williams contributed seven points while Tate had six, but junior forward Marc Loving continued his extended period of poor play with zero points, four missed shots, a turnover and a few defensive lapses throughout the opening 20 minutes.The opening minutes of the second half featured much more efficient scoring for the Buckeyes, who put nine points on the scoreboard in the first four minutes of the stanza. That enabled them to take control of the game, holding onto a comfortable lead throughout the half that never got smaller than seven points.Twice when the home team threatened to get the deficit back down to single digits, Williams knocked down a shot from outside to take the crowd out of it. The Scarlet Knights finally did get it back there with a 9-0 run midway through the half, but, once again, Williams dropped in a shot from the outside to move the momentum back toward the Scarlet and Gray.Eventually, the Buckeyes’ 61.5 percent shooting mark in the second half was too much for Rutgers to ever mount a real comeback, sealing OSU’s 17th victory of the year, with five contests left on the regular-season schedule.OSU freshman guard JaQuan Lyle, who had the strongest all-around performance of his young college career with a triple-double in the teams’ first matchup, was unable to replicate the dominant performance. He finished with four points, three rebounds and five assists, and played just eight minutes in the second half.Loving was also absent for much of the second half after struggling while on the court. He was on the court for just five of the final 20 minutes and failed to score a point. Sanders was the Scarlet Knights’ leading scorer with 23 points.One very unsatisfactory statistic for OSU coach Thad Matta was the turnover column, where his team coughed the ball up 19 times to Rutgers’ 11.A trip back home is next in the cards for the Buckeyes, as they are scheduled to take on Michigan on Tuesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.