All posts by connorlocke

Defending Champs Watch: Pats Win Again in Week 3

Positives

Passing Attack

For the second straight week, the passing attack is the highlight of a Patriots victory. Tom Brady finished the game 25/35 for 378 yards and five touchdowns, including the 25-yard game winner to Brandin Cooks. Rob Gronkowski had a second straight big game, despite leaving with a groin injury in last week’s game against New Orleans. He finished the game with eight receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown. After a week one in which he and Brady looked disconnected, it is nice to see Gronk back as an integral part of the offense. With the absence of Edelman, a consistent and healthy Gronkowski is the only way that I see the Patriots hoisting their second straight Lombardi Trophy.

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Brandin Cooks looked like the receiver the Patriots gave up a first round pick for. He led the team in receiving with five catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns. Not only was he making big plays, but he also created space for other receivers. Cooks was almost solely responsible for Chris Hogan’s two wide-open touchdowns, drawing the defenders away on both plays. Cooks also showed off his speed on a 42-yard touchdown and made an incredible toe-tap reception to win the game. Last week, I wrote that Brandin Cooks was a player to keep an eye on, given his performance in the first two weeks to go along with Brady’s history of having a hard time of integrating new wide receivers into the offense. If he continues to flash like this and draw away defenders on deeper routes, I was absolutely wrong.

Negatives

Devin McCourty

This was the worst game that I have ever seen McCourty play as a safety. He was at least partially responsible for two touchdowns. On the first, Deshaun Watson fired a 29-yard touchdown to Bruce Ellington, who was left in single coverage with Jonathan Jones. On this play, the eyes of the rookie quarterback fooled McCourty. To be fair, Watson looked to star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who got safety help almost all game, on the fake. However, it looked like Gilmore was playing pretty good man-coverage on Hopkins and McCourty did not need to jump the gun like he did. On the second touchdown, McCourty simply got beat in single coverage by tight end Ryan Griffin, who has never been known for his playmaking capabilities. McCourty was symptomatic of issues that the entire Patriots secondary faced against Watson, who completed 22 of 33 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions (one came on an attempted hail-mary at the end of the game). Watson had success scrambling, and he was also able to simply drop back and beat the Patriots defense. Being a veteran leader and an established player, I expect McCourty to bounce back next week, but this secondary, which was projected to be one of the best in the league, has raised many questions with no answers through three weeks.

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Offensive Line

Through three weeks, the offensive line has been the biggest issue with the team. I cannot remember a year when the Patriots had a remarkably good offensive line. I can, however, remember years in which the Patriots have had a bad offensive line. Those years, like 2007 when Brady was sacked five times for 37 yards in the Super Bowl, never end well. Last week, I wrote that this game against Houston would be a good test for the offensive line. After allowing five sacks for 41 yards on Sunday, it is safe to say that they failed, and were the reason that the game was much closer than it should have been. The fact that the Texans only recorded five sacks is a product of Brady’s amazing play.

According to Greg Bedard of Boston Sports Journal, the Patriots offensive line allowed pressure on almost 50% of Brady’s drop-backs. Going up against a Texans defensive front with J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney is a tough task, especially when missing right tackle Marcus Cannon who was out with a concussion. However, the biggest issue on the line was not LaAdrian Waddle, who was filling in for the injured Cannon; it was Nate Solder. According to Bedard, Solder was responsible for three sacks on Brady, and did not even touch the pass-rusher on one of them. If the Patriots wish to have success against defensive teams like the Texans, the offensive line will have to do better to protect a 40-year-old Brady.

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Things to Keep an Eye On

Third and One

So far this year, the Patriots are 1-5 on third and fourth down with one yard to go. Last season they were 19-26, boasting a success rate of 73.1%. Up to this point, the Patriots have only attempted a quarterback sneak with Brady once, a play that has been extremely successful in past years. This could be an effort by the Patriots to protect their 40-year-old star quarterback, but such inefficiencies in these short yardage situations may also be due to poor play from the offensive line. The Patriots currently rank 23rd in the league in rushing yards per attempt, which is likely a result of poor blocking. Third down efficiency is extremely important for this Patriots team, especially with the absence of Julian Edelman. They cannot afford to miss out on such short yardage opportunities, and the offensive line must do better to protect in these situations.

Next Week: Home vs. Carolina

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This game should be a big opportunity for the defense to rebound after allowing 26 points to Houston. Cam Newton is not playing well, and the Panthers put up a mere 13 points against an abysmal Saints defense last week. After allowing Deshaun Watson to have a big game, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots defense plays against another mobile quarterback. The Patriots should generally not have any difficulty moving the ball against a Carolina defense which carried it to a 2015 Super Bowl appearance but has since lost its edge. The New England defense should have a field day against a sputtering Carolina offense.

Prediction: Patriots 34, Panthers 16

Defending Champs Watch: Analyzing the Patriots’ Week Two

Sunday’s one o’clock game against the New Orleans Saints featured a far more Patriot-like performance than that of last Thursday’s opener against Kansas City. The 36-20 decisive win featured a clicking offense, an improving defense, and, of course, brilliant play at the quarterback position. The game was effectively decided after a 20-3 first quarter in which Brady completed 11 of his 15 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns. He finished 30 of 39 for 447 yards, the fourth most in his career, and three touchdowns. Despite an impressive start, the Patriots were far from perfect. Here are my positives, negatives, and nit-picks from Sunday’s win.

Positives

The Passing Attack

The Patriots offense in the first quarter was the biggest takeaway from their week two game in New Orleans. They scored touchdowns on all three opening drives pummeling 75 yards down the field twice, and 67 yards once. After an underwhelming performance in week one by Brady and his receiving core, the offense looked to spread the ball around, with nine players recording receptions (compared to six players from week one). Rather than attempting to force the deep passing game, New England moved back to their bread and butter, 10-20 yard intermediate passes and exploiting whatever matchup they saw fit. It was good to see the Patriots distancing themselves from the deep passing game plan that we saw in week one. After a subpar week one from Rob Gronkowski, James White and Chris Hogan, they turned it around to lead the receiving corps in week two. Most importantly, the Patriots were six of twelve on third down, improving on five of fifteen from week one.

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Unheard-of Defensive Players

In the first two weeks, I have seen nothing impressive from the Patriots’ top defensive players, which I will address later. But in their absence, a few surprising players stepped up and turned in big performances. Defensive End Deatrich Wise, the Patriots’ fourth round draft pick this year, led the way for a New England defensive line which allowed 185 rushing yards to the Chiefs in week one. Wise recorded two tackles, a sack, a run stuff, and five hits on the quarterback in a disruptive day on the line for him. Wise’s strong start overshadowed veteran defensive tackle Alan Branch’s poor performance. Against New Orleans, Branch saw his playing time reduced, and failed to record a single tackle. I would like to see an even better performance from the run defense which allowed 4.8 yards per carry this week against the Saints. However, week two was certainly an improvement on the run defense compared to week one, and Deatrich Wise was a big reason why.

The biggest defensive standout from Sunday was cornerback and second-year undrafted player Jonathon Jones. He finished the game with two passes defended, the same amount as big-name corners Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore combined. The highlight from his game was breaking up a would-be touchdown reception from Ted Ginn Jr. and forcing fourth down. If Malcolm Butler continues to struggle, Jones may see an increase in playing time.

Negatives

Big-Name Defensive Players

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It has not been a good couple of weeks for Malcolm Butler. The Super Bowl 49 hero-turned stud cornerback had some offseason conflicts with the Patriots organization over his contract negotiations. The restricted free agent refused to sign his restricted tender, which would increase his salary to $4 million, as he was asking for more. At one point, it seemed as though a trade with the Saints involving Butler was imminent. When talks fell through, I was under the impression that Butler would still be an effective member in the Patriots secondary, especially in a contract year. Through two games, he has been anything but effective. Butler was benched at the start of week two against New Orleans in favor of Eric Rowe (who later suffered an injury which put Butler in the game). It was the first time since the beginning of the 2015 season that Butler did not start a game. However, Butler does more than just start; he plays almost every single down. Since 2015, Butler has been on the field for 98% of defensive snaps. However, his recent poor play earned him a spot on the bench. If Butler fails to improve his play, his name could join Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins on the list of Patriots who were traded in a contract year.

Things to Keep an Eye On

The Brady-Cooks Connection

It is impossible to deny that wide receiver Brandin Cooks has talent. However, earning the trust of Tom Brady is not an easy thing to do. Many receivers have failed to get on the same page with Brady, and never shine in New England. Through two weeks, Cooks has yet to flash the prowess that he showed on the Saints. Despite a couple of big plays, he has not had a few weeks. It may just be an adjustment period, but I’m not too sure that a big-play receiver like Cooks will fit well in the Patriots’ short yardage passing attack. It is far too early to be pressing the panic button, but Cooks may need a prolonged adjustment period, and may not work out as a Patriot.

Second Half Performance

Do the Patriots have an issue late in games? Through two weeks, the Patriots have scored a mere 16 points in the second half, and only three points in the fourth quarter. It is easy to look at the game against the Saints and believe that the game was over after the first quarter, and so the Patriot offense took their foot off the gas. While this may be the case, New England was outscored 28-10 in the second half and 21-0 in the fourth quarter during their week one game against Kansas City. The Thursday night opener was the first game in Tom Brady’s career in which he lost a home game with a lead in the fourth quarter. Normally, I would not worry over a lack of offensive production after a 36-20 win featuring a 20-point quarter, but given the second half of week one, I would say that the Patriots’ second half performances are something to keep an eye on.

Red Zone Production

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So far this season, the Patriots have not had much of an issue with moving the ball. They currently lead the league in total yards, a statistic aided by Sunday’s 555-yard performance. However, New England has struggled to cap off many of their drives once they reach the red zone. In two games, the Patriots have scored touchdowns in six of their thirteen trips to the red zone, ranking twentieth in the NFL. The last time that the Patriots finished the season ranking outside of the top ten in red zone efficiency was 2009 when they ranked twelfth. You don’t win the Super Bowl by kicking field goals, and if the Patriots continue to settle for three points in the red zone, the offense may come up short in the playoffs.

Next Week at Home vs. the Houston Texans

This game will be a big test for the Patriots offensive line, as the go up against J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilous and the rest of that relentless Texans pass rush. Marcus Cannon may miss the game with a concussion, providing even more of a challenge for the questionable offensive line. With some recent turmoil in the secondary, pay attention to who will cover star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Stephon Gilmore is the safe bet, given his height and the poor play of Malcolm Butler. The Texans offense currently ranks 29th in the NFL in both total yardage and points per game. Their two games have featured a 29-7 blowout at the hands of the Jaguars and a 13-9 win against Cincinnati. If the defense has problems in this game, they will likely have problems all season.

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Prediction: Patriots 30, Texans 6

What the Julian Edelman Injury Means for the Patriots

It has been a crazy week in the world of Boston sports. The Red Sox, who had a record of 15-4 in August coming into last Thursday night’s game in Cleveland, went on a four game losing skid, including a sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles. The Celtics pulled off a blockbuster trade that was finally completed after they resolved the concern over the condition of Isaiah Thomas’ hip. However, despite these developments, the Saturday news that Julian Edelman has a completely torn ACL is the lead story in Boston this week. This news did not come as much of a surprise to anyone who heard that Edelman had been carted off the field in Friday night’s preseason game against Detroit with a non-contact knee injury. Later that night, Adam Schefter reported that the Patriots believed the injury to be a torn ACL. Even with Edelman out for the season, anything short of a Super Bowl title for this Patriots team would be a disappointment because of their wide receiver depth to make up for the loss of the Kent State product. Aside from Edelman, the Patriots will have former Saints top option Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan, as well as undrafted rookie Austin Carr who showed flashes of talent in the preseason. Edelman’s injury shouldn’t have much of an impact on the regular season, and this team has enough talent to hypothetically replace his production in the postseason. However, the loss of Edelman has the potential to trip the Patriots up in a big game given his standing and his versatility within the Patriots offense.
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Ever since Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos after the 2012 season, Julian Edelman has solidified himself as a staple of the Patriots offense. Over that time, he has become Tom Brady’s favorite receiver (discounting Gronk because of his tight end status), and his best friend. The go-to factor with Edelman cannot be overstated. He is the best third down receiver in football, leading the league in third down yardage and finishing second in third down receptions in 2016. When the Patriots won their recent championships, they relied heavily on converting in third down situations at a high clip throughout the seasons. In three of their last four Super Bowl-winning seasons (this stat was not recorded in 2001), the Patriots finished top five in the NFL in third down conversion percentage.

In their last two Super Bowls, New England dominated their opponents in third down conversions, largely thanks to Julian Edelman. In Super Bowl 49 against Seattle, the Patriots converted on eight of fourteen third down attempts, while the Seahawks converted three of ten attempts. The story was the same in Super Bowl 51. The Patriots converted seven of fourteen (50%) third down attempts, while the Falcons converted just one of eight (12%). Third down success can serve as a pretty accurate barometer for the Patriots’ success overall, and without Brady’s go-to receiver in the slot, I question how effective New England will be on third down. chris-hogan-tom-brady-nfl-baltimore-ravens-new-england-patriots-850x560

The offense will have to go through drastic changes to make up for the loss of Edelman. There is no player in New England or in free agency that could possibly fill the role of Julian Edelman. Instead, Belichick and Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels will have to fundamentally change how the offensive is run. Instead of relying on Edelman to move the chains on third and long, the Patriots must perform more on first and second downs to alleviate the pressure. With Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan at the top of the depth chart at wide receiver, the Patriots will try to incorporate the deep ball into their offense. If the Patriots’ offense is centered on the deep ball, they will not win the championship. I do not trust a 40-year-old Tom Brady to deliver deep passes with the same consistency that he did in his prime, even if he is indeed the G.O.A.T. The only year when the offense was centered on Brady throwing the deep ball ended with him recording 50 touchdown passes, but no Super Bowl ring. They are better off relying on Brady to make pinpoint 10-15 yard throws and using his brain to dissect defensive schemes.

Even with a new offensive game plan, I am not sure that the Patriots have reliable weapons to win it all this year. With Edelman out for the year, New England will rely on Rob Gronkowski to stay healthy for the full season, a rarity over the course of his career. In his six years in the NFL, Gronkowski has only stayed fully healthy for two seasons. One of them was his rookie campaign in which he only made 11 starts. I do not trust Gronk to remain healthy for the entire season, and an offense without Gronkowski and Edelman could come to be the nail in the coffin for the 2017 Patriots season. There are other concerns in the Patriots’ offense as well. 2016 fourth round draft pick Malcolm Mitchell flashed talent last season, but also showed some injury concerns and is hurt again this preseason. Danny Amendola would be a potential fill-in for Julian Edelman, but he has injury concerns as well. In his eight seasons in the NFL, he has played 16 games twice. If we were to get the same amount of touches as Edelman, he would likely not last the full season.

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Despite potential injury risks, the Patriots have enough talent in their receiving core to make up for Julian Edelman’s production. Barring another injury, I do not believe that Edelman’s absence will prevent the Patriots from reaching the AFC Championship Game, or even another Super Bowl. However, I have concerns about what will happen in the Super Bowl without Julian Edelman. Out of the five Super Bowls won by the Patriots franchise, every single one has been close. The Patriots’ 34-28 overtime win over the Falcons was the biggest point differential in a Patriots Super Bowl victory. If the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl, it will be close, and this is what scares me. Brady has weapons this year, but we have seen wide receivers get shut out of the offense because Brady does not trust them. With new characters, young players attempting to solidify themselves in the offense, injury risks and no go-to receiver in sight, I am not sure about who will deliver for the reigning champs with the Super Bowl on the line.

Analyzing the Kyrie Irving Trade from the Celtics Standpoint

The race to lose to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals just got a lot more interesting. The Association was shaken up Tuesday night as a blockbuster trade saw Kyrie Irving traded to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and next year’s first round draft pick acquired in the Brooklyn trade. This is a deal with a lot of moving parts, so here is a breakdown of each piece involved (from a Boston perspective, off course).

Isaiah Thomas

I’m not going to say I told you so (but see my earlier article “Why the Celtics Should Explore Trading Isaiah Thomas”). Coming off of a season in which he was the third leading scorer in the NBA, Thomas’ stock has never been higher. Despite his recent success, I have serious questions as to whether or not a 5’9” player can be a superstar, especially given the fact that much of Thomas’ game relies on his ability to get to the basket. Another facet to keep an eye on moving forward will be Thomas’ hip injury that forced him out of the Eastern Conference Finals and is forcing the Cavs to re-think the trade. While I believe that Thomas would have continued to play if the series had been more competitive, reports Tuesday prior to the trade were that Isaiah would be re-evaluated prior to training camp. I do not believe that his hip will be an issue, but as a small guard who relies on quickness to get to the hoop, any lingering issue with that hip could significantly impact Thomas’ 2017-2018 season.

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Thomas (right) was sidelined after injuring his hip against the Cavs. After news of the potential increased severity of this injury, there is talk that this trade may be reversed.

To me, moving Thomas was more about his contract than anything else. He has made it apparent that he is expecting a max deal at the end of this season, telling the team that they should expect to “backup the Brink’s truck” after this season. I had serious doubts as to whether or not his one-and-a-half seasons of success in the league deserves a max contract. It is not a question of whether or not he will get the max. The max contract has become essentially a formality for any good player in the league. However, in a time of rebuilding for the Celtics, I do not want to commit max money over five years to anyone who is not an established superstar. Kyrie Irving is exactly that – an established superstar who deserves that deal – and I certainly do not mind sending Thomas in exchange.

Jae Crowder

Goodbye. See you later. I could not care less. For some reason, Celtics fans have fallen in love with Crowder as a tough and gritty player who is an example of the Celtics way. His hard-nosed play combined with his team-friendly contract (Crowder is signed until 2020 for about seven million dollars each year) has created the illusion that his loss will impact the team. First of all, recent moves made by the Celtics have made Jae Crowder obsolete. If he was still on the team, he would be the third option at small forward. The signing of Gordon Hayward and the drafting of Jayson Tatum has solidified the position for Boston. While Brad Stevens likes to play “positionless basketball,” Crowder is too small to play the four and too raw to play the two. If anything, moving Crowder should leave more room for Tatum’s development. While his toughness on the defensive end is something that this Celtics team will not have at the small forward position, the addition of Marcus Morris at power forward adds a gritty element that Boston did not find in Amir Johnson, while increasing offensive production.

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Ante Zizic

It is difficult to make an assessment of a player we have yet to see in the NBA. However, a lot of basketball analysts significantly value the 20 year-old from Croatia. Many believed that he would potentially find his way into the starting line-up, as Al Horford would prefer to play the four rather than the five, and the seven-footer would add much-needed size in the paint. That being said, the Celtics have seen their fair share of seven-footers who cannot rebound (Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller) and Zizic did not have a very good showing during Summer League action. I am more than happy to give up Zizic, a complete unknown, for a top ten player in the NBA, despite how highly regarded he is by some Celtics analysts.

Brooklyn First Round Pick

This is the worst part of the trade. I am far more hesitant to give up the pick than I am to give up Isaiah Thomas. Isaiah was a good player for the past few years when the Celtics did not have a chance of winning a title. Those Brooklyn picks are for when Golden State’s dominance runs its course and the rest of the league can become competitive again. However, given reports that Cleveland was asking for this year’s first round pick (Jayson Tatum) in place of the pick, I do not mind parting with that last Nets pick. Boston was able to keep a shot at a high pick by trading down from first overall to third last year. In return, they received either the Lakers’ 2018 first round pick if it is number two through five or the Kings’ 2019 pick if it is number two through five. With the potential to remain at the top of the draft, it is not as detrimental it would first appear to give up that Brooklyn pick. Additionally, for the first time in a few years, there is some uncertainty as to where that pick will land. After an abysmal 20-62 season, the Nets revamped their roster with D’Angelo Russell, Timofey Mozgov, DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe poised for major minutes. This is not to say that the Nets have a good roster, and certainly not what some Celtics fans now believe (that the Nets might make the playoffs). But with an improving roster and no need to tank, there is a chance that the pick falls outside of the top five.

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Jeremy Lin (pictured) comes back with more weapons to work with as they (and the Celtics) hope to improve on their last season in a continuous rebuild campaign.

The pick could be incredibly important this season for Cleveland amidst rumors of LeBron leaving in free agency. They could flip it at the deadline for a player like DeMarcus Cousins to help encourage their star to stay. A supporting cast of Thomas, Cousins and Love may be enough to entice LeBron to stay. If he chooses to move to Los Angeles and join Lonzo Ball and a potential addition of hometown kid Paul George on the Lakers, Cleveland has a piece to potentially start over in his absence. In order to make a deal, they required a young player from Boston’s core – either Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum, or that Nets pick. Brown is highly regarded by the Celtics organization and will likely be the starting shooting guard this season, with the ability to play at the forward spots as well. Tatum flashed moments of greatness in Summer League action, showing offensive ability and a good-looking shot. It took a young piece to get the deal done, and out of the three on the table, Boston chose the right one to give up.

Kyrie Irving

The Celtics just got younger, taller, and better and point guard. Kyrie is a similar player to Isaiah, only with more height, better defense (still bad defense, but better), and a better ability to get to the basket. He is an established NBA superstar, while Thomas had a few good seasons and one great one. I feel far more comfortable giving Kyrie a max contract when his time comes, and I believe that Boston acquired him with the expectation that he will re-sign. Reports after the deal said that Irving was excited to be in Boston and would work on an extension or on re-signing. It is difficult to not get excited as a Celtics fan for an established NBA superstar and a top-ten player in the league.

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Overall

From the perspective of a Celtics fan, I love the trade. That is not to say that it was a steal; the deal required giving up some real assets. There is a genuine concern that Boston overpaid for a player who wanted out of Cleveland. That being said, given the player they received, I do not mind giving up any of the assets involved, and Irving is under contract for the next couple of years. For the last year, I have been pleading that the Celtics organization does not give Thomas a max contract. The deal tells me that they have the same opinion, and see no issues with moving him in the last year of his contract. Jae Crowder is more than overrated, and moving him will actually help the Celtics in the long term. The signing of Gordon Hayward and the drafting of Jayson Tatum forced Crowder out of a role, and moving Crowder will allow Tatum more space to grow. Although his grit and defense be missed, a replacement can be found in Marcus Morris who provides that very same intensity. Parting with that first round pick is tough, especially in a year of what is supposed to another loaded draft. But there is no way of knowing for sure what that asset will be, and the Celtics have already acquired two players for the future. It was time for this franchise to make a big move, and they did just that.

Analyzing the Postseason Chances of the Boston Red Sox in 2017

The trade deadline came and went, and it is time to make a mid-season assessment of the 2017 Boston Red Sox. Boston entered this season with high expectations, especially given their offseason acquisition of ace Chris Sale from the White Sox. Ideally, they believed that an improved rotation would make up for the loss of David Ortiz’s power bat, if not his identity in the club house. Going into the season, the team was built to improve upon their pathetic performance in last year’s ALDS where they got swept by the Cleveland Indians. However, with the trade deadline deals made by the Yankees, the AL East is far from locked up. I have to put stock in the fact that the team is in first place, one game ahead of a New York team that is surprisingly contending far earlier than people expected. That being said, I am not ready to buy into this team. This year’s Red Sox have failed to show any improvement from last year, which is not entirely surprising given the loss of Big Papi. With one of the best starting rotations (on paper) in baseball and only one major loss from last year, it is not crazy to expect Boston to be in the ALCS. However, given their play thus far, it seems more likely that we will see a repeat of last year down the stretch as opposed to a World Series run.

The Strengths

The Starting Rotation

Going into the season, the Red Sox had one of the best rotations in baseball. The acquisition of Chris Sale added dominance to last year’s group, headlined by 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and an above average David Price. Despite high exceptions in spring training, the Sox are lucky to be seeing continued strong pitching performances from their rotation. After going on the disabled list in the spring, it seemed as if it was only a matter of time until David Price was shut down for the season to get Tommy John surgery. Instead, Price returned to the mound in May, and since then has pitched better than last year, with a 3.39 ERA and increased velocity on his fastball. In his first year in Boston, Chris Sale has been dominant, with a 2.70 ERA and 216 strikeouts (12.7 strikeouts per nine innings). His success, furthermore, has overshadowed Porcello’s horrible season. Last year’s Cy Young winner has had few bright moments all season, with a 5-14 record and a 4.70 ERA. Up to this point in the year, Porcello has been the only negative in the rotation for the Red Sox. Drew Pomeranz has had a surprisingly successful 2017 season with a 10-4 record and a 3.46 ERA. Despite the struggles of Porcello, the starting pitching remains the best part of this Red Sox team. However, come playoff time, more questions will arise about the rotation. Currently, the only Red Sox starting pitcher to win a postseason start is Doug Fister, who is soon to be released or designated for assignment. While I have confidence in Sale on the mound in the regular season and playoffs, this team will need more than just Chris Sale to propel them to the ALCS.

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Closer – Craig Kimbrel

This year, the Red Sox have not only the best starting pitcher in the game, but also the best closer. After facing issues with control and pitching in non-save situations in 2016, Kimbrel has silenced critics with a phenomenal year. He is currently boasting a 1.61 ERA with 25 saves and a 0.672 WHIP. Even more impressive has been his improved control. He is issuing just 1.6 walks per nine innings, compared to 5.1 last season and 10.13 strikeouts per walk, compared to 2.77 from last year. Furthermore, he has developed an ability to pitch in the eighth inning. His presence at the end of games has helped shore up an otherwise mediocre bullpen.

Question Marks

The Rest of the Bullpen

The Red Sox bullpen has put up great numbers this season. They currently rank third in the majors in ERA, fourth in losses and sixth in batting average against. While these numbers indicate a bullpen which is dominant beyond just one closer, it is not really the case. Aside from Kimbrel, the Red Sox’ pen is mostly mediocre. As long as Kimbrel remains lights-out, the bullpen should continue to perform decently. However, the bullpen is currently devoid of an eighth inning reliever, which may hinder potential success in October. This is an issue created by the fact that the bullpen help acquired by team president Dave Dombrowski is injured. Tyler Thornburg needed season-ending surgery and Carson Smith has yet to step on the mound. In order to create buzz in the postseason, Boston must find an effective eighth inning reliever to take some pressure off of Kimbrel. The Sox made a move to help fill that eighth inning hole at the deadline, acquiring Addison Reed from the Mets. Reed could be a legitimate eighth inning reliever, boasting a 2.65 ERA and 1.10 WHIP this season. However, there should be questions concerning how his move from the National League to the more offensively prolific American League will impact his performance. In his first game in a Boston uniform, Reed was handed the ball in the eighth, only to give up a solo home run to Carlos Santana.

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Designated Hitter – Hanley Ramirez

This season, Hanley Ramirez was given the impossible task of replacing David Ortiz’s presence in the Sox lineup. Thus far, his season has been a failure. His performance is closer to that of his abysmal 2015 season than that of last year, when he helped lead the Red Sox into the postseason with his hot second half. He is currently batting .253 (he batted .249 in 2015 and .286 in 2016) with 17 home runs and 42 RBI. However, it’s not just Hanley. The entire Red Sox team has failed to replicate their offensive production from last year. Currently, there is only one player hitting above .300 (Dustin Pedroia). The team ranks 28th in the majors in home runs, 24th in slugging, 19th in OPS, 16th in RBI, and 12th in runs. The team has an issue with offensive production, and it starts at designated hitter. I do not rule out Hanley turning things around in the second half of the season — Last year, it was his production in the second half that helped carry the Red Sox into the postseason. However, at the DH position, Hanley seems less invested in the team’s performance than he did while playing first base. If the current offensive woes are to turn around, Hanley Ramirez will have to increase his production at DH.

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Overall Assessment

Without a doubt, the Red Sox have enough talent in their roster to make a run at a title this season. First of all, they certainly have the pitching to get them there. Additionally, it seems that all of their problems can be solved internally, meaning that their deadline performance won’t be a massive factor. Carson Smith’s potential return would help solidify the bullpen in the eighth inning, although I do not trust that he can be effective this season. In October, the Red Sox may look for Kimbrel to take the eighth inning in closeout games, a move which has worked so far this season. As far as the offense goes, this team has enough talent between Betts, Bogaerts, Ramirez, Bradley, Pedroia and Benintendi to make some noise. There is a good chance that Betts, Bogaerts or Ramirez finds their power in the second half. Even more favorably, this team does not need to score 6+ runs every night like they did last season in order to win. Behind an extremely talented pitching staff, they should be able to contend as long as the team is able to manufacture runs and hit for power in key situations.

The Boston Celtics: The Most Interesting Team in Free Agency – or Not.

There was no Porzingis, no Butler, and no draft-night fireworks for the Boston Celtics. For the second straight year, the Cs used their lottery pick earned in the Garnett, Pierce and Terry trade to monotonously select a small forward coming out of college, despite a plethora of intriguing rumors centered around their high draft position. The pre-draft speculation got far more interesting on Thursday with the New York Knicks’ former President Phil Jackson announcing that the team would be entertaining trade offers on big man and budding superstar Kristaps Porzingis. Given the Celtics’ recent move of trading down to the number three draft spot, many believed that if Porzingis were to move, Boston would be a potential suitable location. On draft night, another rumor popped up involving the Celtics. Prior to his move to the Timberwolves, the Bulls reportedly offered to trade Jimmy Butler to the Celtics for the number three pick in this year’s draft, but Boston declined. While another year of drafting and developing may be the boring route to take, it is the right move for a team that should not be in win-now mode.

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Despite their success this past season, the Celtics are currently building for the future. The 2014 trade with the Brooklyn Nets has allowed the Celtics to be a competitive team while they are rebuilding their young talent, which will eventually give them a chance to win a title. Notice how I called them a competitive team, not a contending team. In the modern NBA, there are two and a half teams in true contention for the title; Golden State, Cleveland and San Antonio. While the Spurs lag behind the top two, it is difficult for me to rule them out entirely. The playoffs say everything you need to know about the state on the NBA. This year, there was only one series upset in the entire tournament, with the fifth seeded Utah Jazz defeating the fourth seeded L.A. Clippers in seven games (I don’t count the Eastern Conference Finals). The last three years have featured the exact same Finals match-up. The NBA has become the worst thing a league can be: predictable. Almost a year before next year’s Finals, I predict that the Golden State Warriors will defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers to claim their second straight title, their third in four years.

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The Celtics should take the state of the league into account when building their team this offseason. While their current success is exciting, the team cannot risk its chance to win a title four or five years from now in order to reach the Eastern Conference Finals now. This is not an argument for tanking, it is an argument for not being stupid. As a Celtics fan, I was praying for Porzingis to make a move to Boston, mostly because he is 22 years old. If another young, proven player is on the move, the team should use their assets to make the deal happen. However, I am not willing to give up the number three pick in a deep draft for two years of Jimmy Butler (before his contract expires and likely joins a super-team of his own). I would rather see Jayson Tatum in a Celtics uniform than Jimmy Butler, because Tatum has chance to play a role in a championship. The goal of the organization should be titles, not marginal competition. While that competition is great in the short-term, this team has amassed too many assets and has had too much of a winning history to be thinking about Eastern Conference Finals appearances over banners.

With Paul George off the table as of Friday night, the Celtics must turn towards free agency. While this is an option which will allow Boston to win in the short-term without giving up assets which may win them a championship in the future, drawing free agents to Boston has always been a challenge. In his 14-year tenure as the Celtics’ General Manager, Danny Ainge has hardly been known for his free agent signings. Before last years’ signing of Al Horford, Ainge’s notable free agents have included Rasheed Wallace and an extremely washed up Shaq. Given recent history, Celtics fans should be reluctant to fall into the whirlwind of free agent rumors. That being said, it is hard not to fall into the trap. Boston is currently one of three teams that will have a meeting with Gordon Hayward this off-season. Compared to the Jazz and the Heat, the Celtics are the best fit for Hayward from a basketball standpoint. Adding him would likely solidify the Celtics as the second best team in the East, and moving out of the West would keep Hayward away from the Golden State Goliath that swept his Jazz in the Conference Semifinals. Furthermore, the small forward is proven to work well in Brad Stevens’ system from his days playing under him at Butler.

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Hayward (right) has a history of being coached by Brad Stevens (left), and it could be the key in getting him to sign with Boston.

If the Cs’ free agent woes continue and they are unable to sign Hayward, there are a few mid-level players that Boston should consider. Both Rudy Gay and Danilo Gallinari have been linked to the Celtics. I would be hesitant to sign either player to a long-term contract which would prevent the team from making moves in the future; I believe they would both be effective signings to help the team in the short-run and players would give the team a scoring boost as well as provide a height advantage over current small forward Jae Crowder (especially the 6’10” Gallinari). Despite these potential improvements and the fact that there are moves to make this offseason for the Celtics, who should look to upgrade at the small forward position, these moves could bind them financially from taking that next step of being able to vie for a spot in the Finals. They should remain the favorite for landing Gordon Hayward this July, and at the very least make a smaller acquisition if their bigger plans fall through. However, if this is another offseason of disappointment, the franchise should refrain from over-extending itself for a mediocre free agent. As far as this Celtics team is concerned, doing nothing is better than doing something which will prevent them from signing a marque free agent in five years.

Why the Celtics Should Explore Trading Isaiah Thomas

Believe it or not, the Boston Celtics are in the middle of a rebuild. This remains true, despite earning the (fake) number one seed in the East and reaching their first Eastern Conference Final since 2012. Just three seasons ago, in Brad Stevens’ first year as head coach, the team finished 25-57 feeling the immediate repercussions of trading Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for three first round draft picks. In this short period of time, the Celtics have solidified themselves as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, largely due to the 2015 deadline trade for point guard Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns. Over the next two and a half seasons, Isaiah would emerge as the center-piece of the franchise, leading Boston into the playoffs all three years. This 2017 season was different for Thomas, as the Celtics acquired big-man and facilitator Al Horford. The Horford signing enabled Boston to play an effective high pick-and-roll offense, capitalizing on a strong shooting season from Isaiah. This addition, coupled with Thomas’ development, helped the 5’9” powerhouse become the NBA’s third leading scorer in 2017, behind MVP favorites Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

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Despite Isaiah’s impressive scoring season, the Eastern Conference Finals cast doubt on his future with the Celtics. Thomas was pulled out of game two with a hip injury, while the Cleveland Cavaliers were up by about 50 points. He was sidelined for the rest of the series, and is currently being evaluated to see if surgery is necessary. Down two games to none with their best player out, the Celtics stole game three in Cleveland, raising the idea of moving on from Thomas in the off-season. Not to say that the team is better without Isaiah at the helm, but deficiencies in his game, his expiring contract, and the need for the Celtics to develop young players makes a deal involving Thomas possible, if a team is willing to overpay based on his 2017 regular season performance.

The Case for Trading Isaiah Thomas

It is difficult to remember a time when the third leading scorer in the NBA was not on the trading block. This is because Isaiah Thomas is not the typical third leading scorer, and the Celtics are not the typical number one seed. At 5’9”, Thomas is tied with rookie Kay Felder as the shortest player in the NBA. In a tall man’s game, Isaiah’s height has held him back on the defensive end, making him a liability late in games. In an article written for Bleacher Report in April 2017, author Adam Fromal ranks Isaiah Thomas as the second worst defensive point guard in the league (out of players who play a minimum of 15 minutes per game) based on metrics. He stands dead last among those qualifying players in Defensive Real Plus/Minus and Defensive Points Saved. His defensive shortcomings are well displayed on the court. While Thomas has been embraced in Boston for his late-game offensive heroics, Brad Stevens is quick to take him off the floor in key defensive scenarios down the stretch, whenever he has the chance. During the regular season, Isaiah’s small stature did not impact his offensive game. Not only was he able to create separation and make jump shots, but Thomas was also successful in finishing around the basket. Despite being towered over in the paint, Thomas posted an NBA-best 12.7 drives to the basket per game, allowing him to get high-percentage shots.

Thomas’ scoring success came to an end during the Eastern Conference Finals. The increased defensive efforts of the Cavaliers, led by a dominant Tristan Thompson in the paint shut down the small-statured Isaiah. He shot 7-19 (.368) for 17 points in a 13-point loss in game one, and shot 0-6 before leaving with a hip injury in the second quarter of game 2, an eventual 44 point loss. If winning championships is the goal, Thomas’ performance against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals should be weighed more heavily than that of the regular season in deciding his fate with the team. This season, Thomas proved that he is capable of being a prolific scorer in the NBA, but can he act as the centerpiece of championship winning team?

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Tristan Thompson (right) played a huge role in neutralizing Isaiah Thomas (left) in the Eastern Conference Finals.

I do not believe that a player who is only capable of dominating one side of the court can be a championship winning franchise player, especially one who is 5’9”. While Isaiah may have the potential to be the number three player on a championship team, his ball-dependent style of play is best suited for an offense that runs through him. In a league where Mike Conley is the second highest paid player, Thomas is likely to receive max contract offers when his deal with the Celtics expires in 2018. Given the current landscape of the Eastern Conference, a Celtics team centered around Isaiah Thomas likely lacks the star power necessary to get past the dominant Cavaliers, even with the addition of a player like Jimmy Butler or Gordon Hayward. Locking Isaiah up for the future would only help the team compete in the short-run, and would not bring them any closer to winning their 18th title. Furthermore, it could possibly hurt the development of potential number one pick Markelle Fultz. Isaiah’s presence in the back-court is likely to take playing time away from the prospect, who has the potential to be a generational talent, and could even turn the team off from drafting him if the Boston thinks they have found their point guard of the future in Thomas. The Celtics should be more focused on winning a title after LeBron’s decline than on improving their current marginal success. In order to make way for Fultz’s development and to get some return on possibly losing Thomas to free agency if he demands a max contract (which the Celtics should not give him), they should explore the market for Thomas in a trade while his stock is the highest it has ever been.

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Can Isaiah Thomas and Markelle Fultz (right) coexist on the Celtics?