Hometown Melee Heroes: Klap$

WEST DENNIS, MA – It’s a loser’s bracket match at the New England Invitational – and Captain Falcon main Pedro “Klap$” Otero had just blown a three to one stock lead against Jigglypuff main dudutsai. With both players on their last respective stock, Otero dashed back and quickly threw out a seemingly random knee. Somehow, the move successfully hit.

After the match, while nearly everyone else at the beach house kept chatting with each other, just quietly enough to avoid disrupting the players in the other room, Otero sat down on a chair near the game room entrance, silently watching a set between two fellow competitors, Mr. Lemon and Squible.

“Pedro, have you played like more than ten minutes of friendlies this weekend? I’m pretty sure you’ve just been straight chilling here,” joked David “ZoSo” Hughes, one of the invited players competing at the beach house. Everyone in the room, including Otero, who was sent into losers by Maine Fox main Captain Crunch, laughed.

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The view from the back of the New England Invitational beach house’s venue.

With the backdrop of the calm beach waves behind the porch of the house, Otero quipped back: “Yeah, man – I’m just here to chill.” He went back to quietly watching the set in the competitor’s room.

Otero is New England’s hidden boss: a top player mostly unknown outside of his regional scene. The No. 9 Super Smash Bros. Melee player in New England, Otero has beaten Mafia, Infinite Numbers and Swiftbass in tournament, along with many first-place finishes at Amesbury Melee tournaments.

If you’re not from New England, chances are you’ve never heard of him.

Otero started casually playing Melee around January 2011, when his cousin Josh “Bugatti” Guerrero introduced him to the game after the two played its sequel, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. They learned how to wavedash and L-Cancel, but didn’t regularly go to tournaments.

“Pedro and I always played together, but most of our sets were initially just us goofing around,” said Guerrero. “I still knew he loved to compete though.”

At the time, Otero was a Falco main named “SlimFast,” whose first tournament came two years later at Seven Years 2, when he got double four-stocked by Sora, a Massachusetts Marth player. After frequently getting comboed and not knowing how to avoid losing stocks at early percents, Otero quickly realized he didn’t like playing Falco against better opponents.

However, after briefly toying around with Luigi’s fast wavedash speed and pokes, Otero decided to become a Falcon player, changing his tag eventually to “Klap$.”

“I always thought Falcon was fifth best,” said Otero, mentioning that he was drawn to the character’s ability to hypothetically kill any character on touch, as well as his innate speed allowing players to react to more opportunities than if they played other characters.

Even with Falcon’s limited defensive options and bad recovery, the character’s ground speed gave Otero more of an opportunity to express himself within Melee’s dynamic engine.

“I love Melee because I feel like it’s one of the only games where I can play how I want to play and be remotely successful or happy with how I can do with my playstyle,” said Otero. “I like a challenge; and as a problem solver, I think there’s so many different pieces of Melee to learn.”

For Otero, the first problem was learning how to get good while not having an interest playing in tournaments. But a year after Seven Years 2, Guerrero endlessly irritated Otero with news of a supposedly better Falcon player in Boston: someone by the name of Relax. That was when Otero’s competitive drive kicked in.

“My goal was to prove I was a better player that tournament,” said Otero. “It didn’t happen immediately, but I think I eventually proved my worth.”

After winning an amateur bracket at Mass Madness, Boston’s most famous monthly series, Otero rapidly rose through the ranks, eventually taking a set off of Mr. Lemon, Boston’s best Dr. Mario player.

“I’d say that was probably my first big victory at the time,” Otero said, citing Lemon’s well-known reputation across New England as its “gatekeeper” for the upper echelon of players.

What started off as an impressive tournament win ended up being a sign of future improvement for the Boston Falcon, as he soon started placing in weekly top eights. Otero also became a member of the vaunted University of Massachusetts Boston crew within The Melee Games, who were consecutive winners from the New England division in both Season 2 and 3.

Because of his young age, quick rise to prominence and dedication to grinding hours each week to improve mostly on his own, Otero became a hometown hero. And word about him spread outside of Boston.

Tim “Swiftbass” Tilley, a Connecticut Marth player, remembered what it was like to hear news about Otero’s rise to prominence.

“I remember hearing about an up and coming Boston Captain Falcon main,” said Tilley. “I was pretty excited and surprised when I got to see him play in person – the kid’s good.”

Unlike what you might expect from a player with such a huge local support network, Otero improved from playing and thinking on his own about Melee, rather than necessarily getting consistent high-level practice or studying high-level Captain Falcon players like Wizzrobe or S2J.

“I don’t really have an idol or anyone I’ve tried to emulate, but I think being unique and learning how to play my own style made me what I am today,” said Otero.

James “Flambo” Philiossaint, one of Otero’s best friends since they went to high school, said one of Otero’s biggest strengths was his ability to dedicate himself to practice anything he wanted to pursue, as well as thinking of in-game questions and answering them himself.

“Pedro’s so good because he really takes the time to think about himself and apply himself to anything he wants to do,” said Philiossaint. “He’s always thinking about something, even if he might not openly say it.”

Around the same time as Otero’s rapid improvement came the rise of another college player from the same region: a then-Jigglypuff main named Squible who was known for his troll-esque, campy and patient playstyle.

“I remember Squible as this little white kid that played Jiggs,” said Otero, mentioning that Squible’s strategy was frequently psychologically frustrating to play against. “He beat me a month after I deemed him terrible and it came to bite me in the ass.”

Squible began beating Otero in tournament and taking sets off players like MattDotZeb, Mafia and even Animal at Apex 2015, becoming a consistent top eight-presence at weekly Boston tournaments. Now playing Fox, Squible is Northeastern University’s No. 1 Melee player and is ranked the No. 11 player in New England. Otero currently has a 14-13 lead in their head to head.

“I think rivalries like me and Squible are really healthy because you’re going to need motivation somewhere, like a way to channel the kind of bumping heads into something productive,” said Otero. “With someone like that, you get to test yourself in tough situations and have someone challenge you.”

Otero paused for a moment after being asked which player in New England he liked beating most. “Mafia,” Otero eventually answered before chuckling to himself.

“To be honest, most of it is because I like when he goes on Twitter to complain about Falcon, especially because I personally know him,” Otero added, mentioning that playing against Peach was his favorite matchup.

Though Otero is still down (18-42) in sets against Mafia, he currently holds a combined 20-0 record over local Peach players Rime and Mr. Tuesday since 2015, along with a convincing 13-1 lead over Boston’s two best Marth mains (Sora and Makari) combined. Otero also has a 13-5 record against Infinite Numbers, a 8-1 lead against Ice Climbers frame data nerd BVB, an 8-5 record over dudutsai and a 22-set winning streak against Mr. Lemon, since beating him in April last year at Game Over 12.

Part of Otero’s success in his region comes from his unique read-heavy approach to Melee.

“When I started to going to tourneys, my idea was that I had to beat everyone that attended, so I studied playstyles of all people from Massachusetts and created direct counterplay in my own head to their habits and decision-making,” said Otero.

Otero acknowledged getting familiar with several character matchups as an important factor in his improvement, citing floaty characters’ lack of defensive options against safe pressure and in “RPS situations.” Yet most of his success comes from his deliberate attention to detail on the other players’ habits, along with recognizing and punishing mistakes.

“I look like I play risk averse, but when I go for hits on my opponent, it’s actually very dependent on my reading their movement,” Otero said. “It looks safe, but gets me hurt a lot.”

Otero still struggles against top-level competition. After losing an early 3-1 set to a Maine Fox player Captain Crunch and getting dominantly swept by The Moon at Mega Mass Madness for a ninth-place finish, Otero had his most disappointing tournament in a year at New Game Plus 54, Boston’s premier weekly tournament series.

At NGP 54, he breezed through his first opponent before losing to a New York Marth named Young, who was underseeded at 29th during the tournament.  Otero made his way through two more players before falling 2-1 to the Southern California power-ranked EastCoastJeff, hastily shaking his hand and leaving the venue, with a relatively disastrous 17th-place conclusion to his night.

It was the first time Otero finished outside of top eight in a New Game Plus since June 2015’s New Game Plus 10, when he lost to Delaware’s current No. 1 R2Dliu and dudutsai.

Even though Otero came back the next week to beat Mafia and finish second to Crush at NGP 55, results like NGP 54 and MMM are a frustrating bump in his development as a player. More morbidly, they’re a reminder that despite the last three years of improvement, he’s so close, yet so far from reaching the next level of play.

“Right now, I have little to no shot at beating players like The Moon,” said Otero, adding that he could tell when opponents were far more deliberate, technically sound and superior to himself.

“It’s not the most inspiring answer, but I know that when it comes down to it, I’m still a small fish in a large pond.”

At Apex 2015, Otero’s only attended national, he finished third behind only Dev and Bladewise in his pool, beating tri-state players Chuuper and Zodiac to a 145th place finish at what was then the largest Melee tournament ever.

“It’s tough to determine if I want to spend most of my money and time in Melee,” said Otero, adding how his lack of travel obscures his out-of-region reputation. “It feels like I’m at a crossroads – I can’t keep doing what I’m doing if I want to improve, but I also don’t know what my priorities are.”

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Otero playing friendlies with Jason “Infinite Numbers” Gauthier at the New England Invitational early in the first day.

In addition to having never won a set against Slox and th0rn, Otero has never beaten ZoSo’s Marth in tournament, holds a losing 1-9 record against Crush since 2015 and is 2-13 against MattDotZeb in that same timespan. He’s also lost the last three sets he played against Captain Crunch.

Otero acknowledged a real weakness in his play: his tendency to nervously “make things happen when they’re not there.” This, he admitted, was a habit coming partially from his reliance on familiarity with his opposition and lack of confidence playing different play styles.

“For example, if I’m playing against a strong Marth and both of us are dash dancing, I like after two iterations of full dashing, I’ll full analog forward jump and aerial to try to force them into the corner,” said Otero, mentioning that this got him heavily punished in recent sets against The Moon.

The same weakness has also, admittedly from him, slowed his ability to understand how to play the stage positioning game against fast characters like Fox and Falco, to whom he still “has no idea how to play neutral against.”

“I talked to Smuckers about this a while ago and he told me that I throw out moves hoping they’ll hit because I know how to punish afterwards,” said Otero. “It’s one of those things, like a cheap band-aid that works only temporarily.”

When asked if he ever felt jealous or underappreciated for not getting the same kind of national exposure as other New England contemporaries, Otero immediately refuted the idea.

“Not at all – they’ve put in the time and effort and I can’t be mad at them for that,” Otero responded, mentioning that he loved watching any New England player do well at nationals. “I know I can’t do what a few other players can do, but what really matters to me is my own growth and what I take from each match I play.”

Otero still struggles with balancing Melee with both his time in school and his personal life, but he added that it was important for him to figure out a balance between life and his hobbies that worked for himself – even if it meant maybe not improving at the same rate as the players that usually beat him.

Instead of comparing himself to his competition, Otero tries to focus on his own improvement as a person and competitor, with separate goals in and out of the game.

“I definitely want to defend the home turf,” Otero said in reference to preparing for Boston’s upcoming national, Shine 2016, and still competing in Boston. “But I don’t have specific goals in mind – I just want to put everything to the test and keep challenging myself as long as I can.”


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Otero getting ready to play Tilley for a spot in the top-eight stage of the New England Invitational.

Otero is on his tournament stock again, but his character somehow lands on the right cloud in Yoshi’s Story after getting spiked by Tilley, surprising every gasping spectator in the other room. There’s a brief moment of hope for the Boston Falcon, but seconds later, Otero gets sent off stage by a forward smash, cementing his ninth-place finish at the New England Invitational.

After his loss, Otero left the venue, along with two other eliminated competitors from the invitational. It’s an abrupt close to his tourney, though understandable given the hour and a half trek from Boston to Cape Cod.

In Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” the narrator woefully regrets the path he’s chosen out of two, bemoaning the missed opportunities he might have gained on the other one. Otero is at a point in his Melee playing career where he’ll have to decide which road he’ll take: the one as a full-time Melee competitor and hometown hero, or the one where he continues playing a game he loves, but doesn’t pursue it further than as a hobby.

The people who want to be the best in the world at Melee dedicate weeks of their lives to playing, often practicing for hours each day and treating Melee like a job. They are the ones with the most to lose, with their emotional well-being and sometimes even financial situation at stake in each tournament match.

Maybe Otero will become one of those people. Maybe he won’t – and that’s okay too. Either way, he’ll have no regrets.

Why You Should be Excited for this year’s NBA Finals

I may have unintentionally jinxed the Oklahoma City Thunder last week, but the Golden State Warriors have another opponent coming up – this time in the NBA Finals. We’re about to see a rematch between one historically dominant team vs. another that’s starting to heat up at the right time.

After a relatively rocky season involving possible chemistry issues between players and the loss of a head coach, the Cleveland Cavaliers look better than they have all season. LeBron James may have permanently lost his jumper, but his team has decimated its competition – and the numbers goes beyond Cleveland’s scorching 10-0 start to its playoffs.

Although it’s possible that Golden State could just catch on fire and sweep Cleveland – given that Stephen Curry is not a mere moral – basketball fans have plenty of reasons to be thrilled for this season’s NBA Finals.

Cleveland has outscored its playoff competition in record-breaking, dominant fashion.

The Cavaliers were already an elite offense during the regular season, as indicated by a 110.9 offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions), which ranked No. 3 in the NBA. That number has gone up this postseason to 119.2, putting them not only comfortably in the top position for best playoff offense, but perhaps as the best postseason scoring team we’ve seen from a basketball team in the last 25 years. This kind of scoring is literally so good that it invalidates other weaknesses the team might have.

I looked at every playoff team since 1974: no team since has outscored its opponents so thoroughly in the postseason. Here’s the kind of peers the Cavaliers have, for reference of how ridiculous this is.

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These are the only teams within the last 42 years to outscore their opponents by at least ten points per 100 possessions within the playoffs. It’s not a coincidence that all of the Cavaliers’ contemporaries are title winners. If you’re not familiar with any of the teams, keep in mind that the 1986 Celtics boasted a 40-1 regular season home record, while the 2001 Lakers were known for mostly coasting through the season before tearing off an absurd 15-1 run through the playoffs. These are immortals – not just champions.

If Cleveland keeps its performance up, LeBron James and his teammates have a chance to put the icing on top of their dominant playoff run: one that, if successful, will definitely eclipse Golden State’s incredible 73-9 regular season record.

However, unlike Oklahoma City, the Cavaliers have another way that they hope to beat the Warriors.

Cleveland and Golden State play two opposite, but similar styles.

Statistically speaking, the grind-it-out Cavaliers are a completely different beast than anyone the Warriors have played in the postseason.

Unlike the Thunder, who tried to beat Golden State at its own game, Cleveland will try to make this series a slower-paced affair. Already a slow-paced team throughout the regular season, the Cavaliers’ pace during the playoffs is currently at 89.7 possessions per game. This marks a drastic difference in an opponent for the Warriors, who have currently played at a 98.8 pace throughout the postseason.

Though the Cavaliers can successfully take advantage of transition opportunities, grading at a blitzing 1.25 points per possession on the fast break this postseason, per NBA stats, they’ll most likely be looking to do the same thing as last year: opt for long, methodical and shot clock-draining half-court sets to tire out the Warriors.

However, unlike last year, Cleveland has many of the same strengths as their opponent. Not only can both teams score around the same level, but they go for the same kind of shots. Both Golden State (.357) and the Cavaliers (.408) are in the top three for highest three point attempt rate, with Cleveland leading every postseason team. Moreover, while we’re all used to the Warriors being dazzling from three (.402), the Cavaliers have been even better (.434), though this might be partially due to small sample size.

They’re essentially like two opposite sides of the same coin – and a fitting match up to close out the year.

It’s a rematch where Cleveland is at 100 percent.

It sounds like a bit too obvious to write as a reason for excitement, but consider how enthralling last year’s NBA Finals were, even with Kyrie Irving’s injury in Game 1 and Kevin Love missing the entire series. Although the series still ended in a convincing 4-2 Warriors victory, it also brought role players like Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova to the national spotlight, particularly for Thompson’s rebounding prowess and Dellavedova’s courageous, if not occasionally questionable do-or-die attitude on the court.

Instead of watching James try to be a one-man team on offense, while being too tired to effectively be the defensive anchor his team, we’re going to see an all-rounds-firing Cavaliers squad face off against what might be the greatest basketball team in NBA history. It’s fast vs. slow; James vs. Curry; big men vs. small ball; flipping the switch vs. sustained excellence; the old guard vs. the new, etc. For our sake as viewers, let’s hope J.R. Smith doesn’t shoot 29.4 percent from the arc again and keeps up his 40 percent regular season numbers.

This column sounds Cavaliers-biased, but most of the tone comes from a level of familiarity with how machine-like and brilliant the Warriors have been all season. As basketball fans, we’ve grown accustomed to their pursuit of basketball perfection, but as shown through the Cavaliers’ performance this postseason, we could also be seeing the best playoffs run ever.

Put the two together on the biggest stage and you have a recipe for entertainment. Tweet to me, @ssbmjecht, for which team you think will win the NBA Finals!

The Present and Future of Marth in Melee

Although Super Smash Bros. Melee has a dynamic and competitive meta, there are a few aspects of competitive play that many of its players take for granted: Fox is a good character, Ice Climbers vs. Peach will always be a brutal matchup and any character below 10th or so on the tier list doesn’t have a chance of winning a large international tournament.

For a long time, Marth was considered one of the game’s premier characters, with players like Ken and Azen practically having a guaranteed appearance in a major’s top eight or even grand finals. In early 2015, when PPMD won Apex 2015 playing mostly Marth, it was the first time a Marth won a Melee major since Azen won Viva La Smash in 2007, per Juggleguy. Afterwards, people wondered if a Marth renaissance would start again.

As we head into the summer of smash in 2016, Marth hasn’t won another major yet, but it doesn’t mean his time is over. Here are some notes to consider about everyone’s favorite tiara-wearing prince.

The best Marth players currently use him as a situational counterpick – and not as a dedicated main.

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Although PPMD won Apex 2015 by going Marth through most of the tournament’s top-eight, this was mostly due to his opponents playing characters with perceived favorable matchups for Marth, with Leffen going Fox and Armada going Peach, before switching back to Fox. At the time, he was still a Falco player in most other matchups. In fact, before switching to Marth at Apex, PPMD tried playing Falco against PewPewU in Winners’ Quarters and used the bird to win an earlier set against S2J.

Similarly, Mew2King brings out Marth against Fox and Falco, while he only sometimes uses him against Peach and Marth, depending on his mood. Meanwhile, we’ve seen Mango pull out his Marth in bracket against space animals like Hax and Leffen, though this strategy currently has done a better job giving himself gfycat-worthy moments of greatness and “busterdom.

Using Marth isn’t limited to the top echelon of players. Axe and Shroomed have played Marth in bracket before in order to avoid traditionally unfavorable matchups, like the Ice Climbers, for their mains. Colbol, who doesn’t like playing the Fox ditto or against Falco, now plays mostly Marth against these characters. DruggedFox also saw success against Mango at HTC Throwdown last year as Marth, though he hasn’t played Marth this year.

Though Marth as a character hasn’t won a tournament on his own, his relative success as a situational counterpick has clearly been valuable. Genesis, Pax Arena, Beat VI, Battle of the Five Gods, Pound 2016, Smash Summit 2, EGLX, DreamHack Austin and GOML all had Marth play at some point during their top eight phases.

All of this leaves Marth players in a weird position: where his use in a variety of matchups illustrates Marth’s incredible versatility as a counterpick, but his lack of solo success highlights consistency issues that come with playing the character. Does that mean it’s difficult to play only Marth at the top level?

The solo Marth mains are struggling.

If we count PewPewU’s use of Fox at GOML as something he’ll be using long-term, here’s how a few ranked dedicated and listed solo Marth mains from last year’s MIOM’s Top 100 fared this year in terms of major results and their losses.

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Along with the massive amount of N/A’s, notice how this already small table doesn’t take into account players like reaper, ZoSo or Dart, who have seen limited exposure to a wider audience and are seen as regional heroes, although these players could also rise nationally by the end of the year. The table also excludes PewPewU, who might be using Fox for more matchups that he currently struggles with, like Captain Falcon.

None of this is to diminish their work and placements as competitors – the relative lack of dedicated representation to using only Marth in bracket shows how the data points are too few in 2016 to definitively have an opinion on if he’s falling off in the meta as a solo main. Then again, you could argue that this clearly illustrates consistency issues as a legitimate weakness deterring other players from dedicating themselves to playing Marth over a character like Fox.

However, as seen from above, Marth mains aren’t just losing in unfamiliar matchups (such as Samus or Yoshi), like popular convention might hold true. They’re losing their stronghold on a matchup they used to dominate.

20xx is approaching/Fox players are starting to beat Marth/FD isn’t a guaranteed win.

Fox players have adapted to what was formerly considered one of the hardest matchups in the game for them. Their reign on the metagame has gotten to the point where some Marth mains have actually stopped counterpicking to Final Destination. At Get On My Level 2016, The Moon opted to go to Yoshi’s Story against Leffen for his stage pick.

When I asked The Moon why he counterpicked there instead of FD, he responded that he wanted a smaller stage, but I also think part of why FD doesn’t feel so safe is because Fox players have leveled up there.

Unfortunately for Marth mains, this isn’t relegated to only the large, flat space allowing for laser camping. Fox players have figured out how to hit Marth back – and sometimes even harder. Take a look at the following match at how each player converts off one grab, both in terms of guaranteed follow-ups and additional hits from stage positioning.

PewPewU grabbed Ice only twice throughout the entire game, averaging 33 percent damage on Marth’s follow ups. Meanwhile, Ice grabbed PewPewU five times and had just above 65 percent for his average combo game, including two that led to death. Ice both outplayed PewPewU in the neutral and followed following up much harder in his combos on stage. Only a few missed edgeguards and high variance situations, like when Ice overextended his character off stage and got killed at an absurdly low percent, made the game look closer than it actually was.

You can tell the difference in production partially comes from PewPewU being relatively weak at the matchup on FD. But even assuming PewPewU as an outlier, just use common sense. What’s an easier way to get 36 or more percent on a character: grabbing them and hitting two following up airs/aerials afterwards or having to mix up between frame perfect pivot regrabbing and regular regrabbing to avoid getting shined on the first frame out of hitstun? Marth could still win the matchup on FD, but not every Marth is going to be Mew2King.

Also consider the head to head game record of Fox vs. Marth within the Top 30 on every stage over the last two years. Per TafoStats, an online database with data from Daniel “tafokints” Lee, Fox players in this group maintain a solid 70-68 record against Marth. The only Marth players within the Top 30 to hold a lead in the head to head are Mew2King (23-17) and The Moon (12-5).

Although part of the data set still needs to be updated and could be biased given the sheer number of Fox players there are near the late-bracket stage of tournaments, consider that if Marth was really as valuable of a counterpick against space animals as people say he is, the record would be in his favor – and Fox players would pick other characters against him.

Moreover, in addition to Fox players doing better on FD  than in the post, they’re also hindering Marth’s combo ability on other stages. Take a look at how Armada quickly escapes a would-be combo from PPMD below.

Yoshi’s Story used to be considered a strong stage for Marth a decade ago due to the platforms setting him up for easy tipper forward smashes, but the short stage and platforms are not lopsided for Marth any more, due to Fox players playing faster, being able to shield drop, having better DI, etc. One thing we could see more from Marth players are the reaction forward throw tech chases as a mixup from just throwing Fox up on a platform. However, even that has counterplay, with Fox being able to mix up teching options, aSDI’ing jab resets on missed techs and also being able to escape to ledge when cornered.

Marth players were given a glimmer of hope at Apex 2015. But with Fox players fighting back, a lack of data points with solo Marth mains at majors and his heavy use as a complementary character to cover weak matchups, it’s tough to say where his future lies for sure. Only time will tell if we’ll see another prince take the crown in the game of Melee thrones.

The Greatest Basketball Team Ever Might Lose.

As of last night, the Oklahoma City Thunder are leading the Golden State Warriors 3-1: a result that almost no one expected heading into the Western Conference Finals. Given the Warriors’ record-breaking 73-9 regular season record, this series now has legendary upset potential.

Going into the playoffs, Golden State played dominantly to the point where it went beyond just their W-L record. They were beating both bad and good opponents by an absurd margin. Here’s a look at the kind of company that the Warriors historically have for their regular season success.

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Screenshot per me, from Basketball-Reference.com

I would write something like “these aren’t your dad’s teams,” but given some of the teams on the list, it’s probably safe to assume that many of them are. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note that within the top ten greatest teams ever per SRS, only the 1972 Bucks and 2016 Spurs didn’t end up winning an NBA title, with the Bucks losing to the No. 3 team on the list and this year’s San Antonio team losing to Oklahoma City.

If the Thunder can close out their series against the Warriors, they will have the highest combined SRS of two consecutively defeated opponents ever. Here’s the secret to how Oklahoma City is now one game away from making history.

The Thunder brought the Warriors’ three-point shooting to earth.

Going from a collective .416 to a .355 three-point percentage makes a huge difference for a team like Golden State that shoots more than a third of its field goal attempts from the arc. This resulted in a drop off from a 114.5 regular season offensive rating to a 103.9 offensive rating in the series so far. The Thunder are making the Warriors play more like the Bucks.

In order to understand how much worse the Warriors are shooting this series, it’s important to look at Curry’s return to mortality.  Curry’s 24/5/5 (rounded up) box-score stat line on a 58 percent TS% might look deceptively pretty, but consider his 30/5/7 average on 67 percent TS% from the regular season. His current performance is quite different from what many people, myself included, considered to maybe be the best individual season ever. When you’re that good, the standards are that high and make that much of a difference for your team.

Kevin Durant (who has done excellently in defending Curry in isolation situations) and the rest of the Thunder’s defense may not be shutting him down, but they don’t need to if they’re holding him beneath his averages on a mix of strong isolation defense and giving Curry different looks. Of course, Curry missing wide open three pointers by virtue of bad luck and possibly injuries also helps, even if he denies it.

That’s not to say Curry is to blame for his team’s disappointing performance in the series. Klay Thompson’s subpar .317 three point shooting percentage hasn’t helped either. In fact, Draymond Green might actually be the biggest factor in his team’s sinking performance.

What’s up with Green?

Per Basketball Reference’s calculated offensive rating stat, the Warriors with Green on the floor have averaged an 84 offensive rating, which would put them as the worst team in the league. While this is a box score-calculated +/- stat, rather than a more predictive metric like Real Plus Minus, it’s not like raw +/- has Green rating favorably either.

Take a look at his now-infamous -73 rating over the last two games against the Thunder. For the series, Green has shot at a pitiful .167 three point percentage. Even if you doubled how well he shot, he would still be playing below average. That’s a huge change in fate for a guy who is currently No. 2 in the NBA in RPM. Think him going from superstar to LVP could have anything to do with the Warriors’ twist of fate?

Normally the heart and soul of the Warriors’ team-heralded passing, Green has also turned the ball over 13 times in the series, while having only 16 assists. Rather than letting his versatility as a premier passing big man intimidate them, the Thunder are using their lengthy group of defenders, from Durant to Steven Adams to the 6”11 wing-spanned Andre Roberson to play Green tightly.

His struggles aren’t unprecedented. When the Cleveland Cavaliers briefly led the Warriors 2-1 in last year’s NBA Finals, Green received a lot of flak for his disappointing performance before eventually shooting well again and helping Golden State win three more games. In this series, his struggles could be attributed to both a combination of luck going against him, as well as great help defense from the Thunder.

That said, though much of Oklahoma City’s success can be attributed to both their own play and the Warriors’ sudden mediocrity in shooting, they’re also doing something that Golden State fans might want to consider before dismissing the series as a fluke.

Oklahoma City is straight up beating Golden State at its own game.

Statistically speaking, underdogs tend to play at a slower pace when facing traditionally “better” teams. If there is a talent difference between two teams, a lower amount of possessions innately emphasizes high-variance aspects of basketball (like loose ball situations and fouls).

However, in this series, the Thunder have been more than willing to play the Warriors’ game – and to a ridiculously successful point. Rather than trying to slow down the tempo of each game, Oklahoma City have been playing chiefly in transition, with both teams playing at a 100.3 pace. The Thunder have clearly kept up the pace against the normally comfortable Golden State squad, often going for steals early in a possession and attacking on the fast break.

In addition to making Golden State’s offense look inadequate, Oklahoma City has been scoring at will, averaging a 111.6 offensive rating. That’s less than their regular season rating (which ironically ranked only behind the Warriors), but consider the expectation heading into a series against the No. 6 defense in the NBA, per defensive rating.

Perhaps most surprisingly is how effective the Thunder are neutralizing Golden State’s small ball lineups with their own. Long known as the vaunted “Death Lineup,” the mix of Curry/Thompson/Andre Iguodala/Harrison Barnes/Green (outscoring opponents by 45 points per 100 possessions against opposing lineups, per 82games.com) struggled immensely this series against Oklahoma City. Per ESPN, the lineup of Russell Westbrook/Dion Waiters/Roberson/Durant/Serge Ibaka killed the Death Lineup to a 55-13 tune over the last two games.

Can the Thunder keep up the good work? Much of Oklahoma City’s success has come from Westbrook (arguably the NBA’s playoffs MVP so far), Roberson and Waiters shooting above 40 percent from the arc this series: a far cry from Oklahoma City’s below average three-point shooting percentage for the year. Moreover, like last year’s NBA Finals, the Warriors’ relatively cold shooting for this series could be by virtue of players missing open shots.

While only eight teams have ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit, it would be silly to count out the Warriors. If teams like the 1981 Boston Celtics, 1995 Houston Rockets and 1968 Celtics can both make those comebacks and win NBA titles, it’s reasonable to predict Golden State to join that group of teams, considering its legendary season so far. But at the same time, Warriors fans might have to deal with incoming heartbreak.

Either way, exciting history is in the making.

The Return of Colbol

It’s becoming easier to say that the competitive “Super Smash Bros. Melee” talent pool is bigger than ever. With the vast increase in gameplay and rapid improvement by many its members, longtime veterans have seen a high level of success too. This includes one of Melee’s most criminally underrated smashers: Colbol.

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Colbol’s Twitter profile picture.

Often mentioned as an afterthought in relation to second-tier Fox players like SFAT, Lucky, Silent Wolf and Ice, the Florida Fox is having a bit of a rebirth in 2016. If you don’t believe me about him being underrated, check out the difference in Twitter followers between him and the rest of his contemporaries. 

It’s arguable whether Colbol is Top 15 or not, but nonetheless, here’s why you should pay attention to the return of #colinballin.

He is one of the world’s most aggressive players.

At a glance, most Melee players usually think of two kinds of Fox players: aggressive and campy. If you’ve ever watched Colbol, you can attest to how he might just be the embodiment of the first category, far different than what you might expect from a player on the East Coast.

While every top-level Fox player has to be somewhat comfortable playing in extremely tight-spacing situations, they will more than often avoid blatantly unsafe commitments. For example, Lucky with stage positioning frequently uses baits like wavedash down to visually trick his opponent into making an unsafe commitment before reactively punishing them with something like a grab or running shine-nair, though Lucky certainly goes for reads every now and then. On the other hand, Silent Wolf frequently employs extremely quick and short dash dances, while SFAT is known for his slick platform retreats and safe stage control.

In comparison, Colbol’s Fox plays one of the most balls-to-the-wall play styles. His movement isn’t ridiculous in the same way of players like Ice or Alex19, but his aggression, trap-based setups and willingness to fearlessly throw himself at his opponent make for a highly entertaining play style full of charged up smashes, upsmashes to cover tech rolls as a read, clean drillshine upsmashes and, well, just watch this match (even if he loses the set).

Colbol’s Marth, while having a great dash dancing game, can also be identified from other Marth players in its heavy emphasis on mixing up aerial timings and proactive reads, even throwing in seemingly out of nowhere dash attacks on the ground. Although his Marth sometimes doesn’t go for the most optimal of punishes and occasionally drops the spacies chaingrab, Colbol certainly developed an effective secondary to deal with both Fox and Falco.

Obviously, his trap-heavy gameplan isn’t always successful and can lead to somewhat streaky play. Anyone who watched Paragon Los Angeles last year can cite Westballz’s crazy three-stock comeback on Colbol’s Marth as an example of how Colbol’s hot and cold tendencies in gameplay can be a double-edged sword.

Conversely, watch Colbol dismantle Plup’s Falco in the last three games of CFL Smackdown from earlier this week, when he three-stocked, four-stocked and three-stocked him in less than three minutes to win the tourney. Even if that was one of Plup’s secondaries, consider that Plup’s Fox, another secondary, earlier this year 3-0’d Axe, who is considered a Top Ten player in the world.

When he’s on point, Colbol turns from just another Fox player to one of the most unpredictable, brilliant and in-your-face players in competitive Melee. And contrary to what you might expect to be the weakness of someone so aggressive, Colbol has a huge consistency mark in an area unlike many other Fox players.

Colbol dominates lower tier characters/unfamiliar matchups

Most Fox players tend to attack these matchups through a lengthy process of laser camping, platform movement and forcing characters like Jigglypuff, Samus and even Captain Falcon to approach. However, Colbol, while still often employing shooting lasers as safe means of racking up damage, will instead exploit these characters’ lack of defensive options while cornered or in shield.

In a way, instead of playing the “lower tier” game of seeing who approaches first, Colbol is instead pushing his character’s immediate strengths and waiting to see what his opponents can do. This is the mark of a player who has strong enough fundamentals and confidence in tech skill to where they can both quickly figure out both their opponent’s weaknesses and deal with unfamiliarity.

Take Colbol’s set against aMSa at Apex 2014. Throughout his career and that tournament, aMSa destroyed players that were unfamiliar with how to approach the Yoshi matchup. While Silent Wolf, SFAT and others (in tourney and in the post-tourney exhibition) were taken by surprise at aMSa’s precise movement and heavy use of parrying, crouch cancel and double jump cancel nairs, Colbol quickly figured out how to expose Yoshi’s limited options against drill, along with understanding when it wasn’t safe to continue a combo. This is despite having little to no practice against a Yoshi of aMSa’s caliber.

Additionally, outside of Plup’s Samus, which almost every spacie main in the world struggles to beat, Colbol dominates the Fox v. Samus matchup like no one around his skill level. In 2016, Colbol holds a 6-0 record against HugS and Duck, two Samus mains known for their proficiency against both Fox and Falco. For reference, Duck currently boasts a 2-0 record over the last year against Leffen and eliminated Silent Wolf at Smash Summit 2, while HugS drowned SFAT during pools in the Battle of the Five Gods tournament. 

In 2016, Colbol has so far maintained dominance over Wizzrobe, Gahtzu and Gravy: strong evidence of both his expertise against Falcon and how often he is a guarantee for Grand Finals. His tournament record against each of the Florida Falcons also is more impressive than even Lucky’s – and Lucky has an absurdly high win rate against Falcon from his lopsided record against S2J. Though Colbol’s loss to n0ne last year at Tipped Off 11 marks a relative blip in his record, Colbol also 3-0’d n0ne back at Fight Pitt.

Either way, Colbol’s fundamentals don’t extend only to Samus and Falcon. Colbol dominated dizzkidboogie twice at Fight Pitt VI and hasn’t lost to an ICs player in the last year, unlike several of his contemporaries. His experience against Luigi through his training with Blea Gelo also clearly shows through his victories over Abate at Fight Pitt V. Colbol also went even with Axe this year in two sets, per Tafokints’ smash database.

So How Good is Colbol? 

Other than “pretty damn good,” it’s hard to say for sure where he ranks. You could attribute some of Colbol’s bracket success in two of the year’s largest tournaments to bracket luck, as he got to flex his Samus matchup knowledge at Genesis and got to play Infinite Numbers for a top eight finish at Pound. Those are also only two majors for the year: a relatively small sample size.

Moreover, we shouldn’t ignore Colbol’s flaws. Along with his exciting victories come disappointing performances against Fox players in particular, like when he was double eliminated by Twitch at Bad Moon Rising, sent to losers by Redd at Super Smash Con 2015, and eliminated by  MikeHaze at The Big House 5 (where he was also sent to losers by MacD).

Yet historically speaking, Colbol isn’t exactly unproven either. Even last year, Colbol still managed to bring Armada to a last-stock and last-hit situation at Paragon Orlando, 3-0’d Hungrybox and sent Mew2King to loser’s bracket at HTC Throwdown, among numerous victories over Plup’s Sheik in several Central Florida tournaments. Not many people took two sets off two non-sandbagging “gods,” while also beating Plup within the last two years. 


Furthermore, are Colbol’s losses really any worse than people around his skill level? If you’re going to bring down Colbol for losing to players like Pengie, it’s only fair to criticize MacD for losing a lopsided matchup in his favor to Infinite Numbers, along with someone like Duck for losing to a fresh out of retirement Bizzarro Flame at Pound. By virtue of Melee growing, there’s more more potential for upsets at a tournament than ever. They’re hardly a reason to sleep on someone any more. 

Though last year was a harsh return to Earth , it looks like Colbol is back and better in 2016. Whether or not he’ll keep up his latest streak of performances remains up for debate, but if you’re a fan of competitive Melee, you should definitely be paying attention to one of its most wacky, freestyle and underrated players.

Tweet your Melee thoughts to @ssbmjecht for your thoughts on Colbol and follow me for more smash content! Also feel free to correct/inform me on any missed sets or anything I wasn’t able to find. 

How About Them Red Sox?

The Boston Red Sox have been killing it. By almost any metric, the Red Sox have been the best team in the American League and one of the best in the MLB. Judging by Wins Above Average By Position, the Red Sox lead the way at 7.4 wins above average. For reference, the Chicago White Sox are in second place at 5.6. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider that Boston also leads its conference in point differential (+59) and SRS (1.1), which measures both point differential and strength of schedule. Clearly the Red Sox aren’t just beating up on bad teams or barely passing by.

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So here’s the question that everyone’s asking: how did a team that finished at the bottom of its division turn it around so far in a year?

David Ortiz is going out with a bang. 

It shouldn’t surprise too many of us, but the Red Sox designated hitter is a legend. And this just might be his finest season yet. Judging by traditional statistics, his 10 home runs, 33 RBIs and .320 batting average put him as one of the league’s best batters. Even that might be underselling how phenomenal he has been there.

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David Ortiz hitting a home run against the Cleveland Indians in 2016. Photo is per Ken Blaze/USA TODAY

“Moneyball” statistics like on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS (which combines the two) put Big Papi as either the best or one of baseball’s premier hitters. He’s third in the MLB in OBP (.405), while leading the league in SLG (.695), OPS (1.101) and isolated power (.375). This is a rare breed of a player: someone simultaneously fantastic at getting on base and hitting for power. Ortiz is literally so good that his hitting value alone practically nullifies any kind of baserunning flaws he might have. Hell, he’s had his moments there anyway.

Perhaps he’ll keep up his fantastic production – or he’ll slow down as the grind of a season brings him closer to expectations heading into the season. Given that he plans to retire after this year, it’s easier to be skeptical about Ortiz keeping up his incredible production. But it’s not as if the Red Sox are entirely dependent on him.

Boston’s pitching has been just fine.

Ask any Red Sox fan about what they have to complain about: chances are they’ll mention how frustrated they are with the team’s pitching. I talked to my dad about his thoughts on Boston’s starting pitchers and he rolled his eyes in response. Given that the Red Sox’s offense basically grading as “terror on wheels” this season, it’s natural to assume pitching as the team’s Achilles heel – especially given last week’s embarrassing 6-5 loss against the Houston Astros after they opened up with a 5-1 lead early in the game.

Yet look beyond Boston’s deceptive 4.21 ERA. The team plays half of its games in one of baseball’s most hitter-friendly ballparks. Qualitatively speaking, it’s easier for batters to score there, thus inflating opposing team’s offensive production. You could bring up Boston’s question marks at the end of their starting rotation in terms of talent, but having amazing No. 4 or 5 starting pitchers isn’t exactly a necessity.

Per Fielding Independent Pitching, which measures a pitcher’s ability to prevent home runs, avoid walks and cause strikeouts, the Red Sox have actually been above MLB average, ranking tenth (3.82 FIP) out of all 30 teams. While the criteria sounds arbitrary – being easy to dismiss as overly complex math that has little bearing to do with a pitcher trying to give up hits – remember that there’s been tons of statistical research put into the metric’s merits, showing that pitchers actually don’t have much agency over the outcome of balls put into play.

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Red Sox pitcher David Price playing against the Minnesota Twins during the beginning of a spring training game on March 10, 2016. Photo used per the Boston Herald, which used an AP Photo from Patrick Semansky.

In particular, the performance of David Price, who is perhaps the league’s most “unlucky” pitcher, has been of notable critique from Red Sox fans. But while his 6.00 ERA may initially depict a bust of an pitching ace, FIP actually has him as the second best starter in the AL (2.53), just behind the White Sox’s Jose Quintana. That’s drastically different and more worthy of a $30 million price tag.

If you don’t believe the predictive value of FIP for future success, here’s an example that Red Sox fans may not want to remember: Daisuke Matsuzaka. In 2008, the Japanese pitcher’s 18-3 and sub-3.00 ERA told the story of a foreign pitcher that turned into one of the league’s premier aces, but his 4.03 FIP and high walk-rate showed a pitcher with an unsustainable process – and you can ask Bostonians how he turned out for them over the future, when he never reached that level of production again. It’s sometimes hard to believe, but even a full season of individual production in the MLB can be reliant on factors outside a player’s control.

Though it’s naive to expect Price suddenly ending the season as a Cy Young candidate, it’s just as silly to dismiss him as a failed star pitcher. Most likely he will “regain” form through the year as the outcome of balls put into play slowly moves back towards league average. His improvement alone, ignoring the development of the Red Sox’s backend pitchers, will go a long way towards Boston’s future success.

The Young Guns are Blazing

Guys like David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez and Dustin Pedroia have been stars before, so it’s not unexpected to see them succeed. While it’s easy to attribute Boston’s monstrous, world-breaking and  6.03 runs per game to these veterans, what’s more promising is the development of Boston’s young guns – and I don’t mean in a Laremy Tunsil way.

Already one of the league’s best fielders at his position, 26 year-old center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. went from being an offensive albatross (.241 BA/.335 OBP) and weak link in a stacked lineup to being one of the league’s best contact hitters (.331 BA/.374 OBP) and one of the Red Sox’s safest bets to getting on base. If Bradley Jr. turned his former weakness to just being “okay,” his work would have already done wonders for his player value. Becoming one of the league’s best hitters, while somewhat implausible over the long-term, is simply an added bonus for Boston if he keeps it up.

Moreover, the 23 year-old Xander Bogaerts continued his breakout year from 2015 and has even (.338 BA/.390 OBP) improved as a batter. While Bogaerts still has questions about his fielding, watching him play shows that he’s clearly improved from the year before. Quantitatively, Bogaerts went from a negative (-10) in Zone Fielding Runs Above Average per 1,200 innings to grading decently (7). The +17 difference doesn’t sound like that much over the course of a year, but consider how innately low-scoring baseball can be in comparison to sports like football or basketball.  Those runs matter a lot more over the course of a season.

However, the biggest surprise for Boston is the guy they replaced their now disgruntled, hurt and possibly eating problem-ridden Pablo Sandoval with. In fact, Travis Shaw (.317 BA/.391 OBP) hasn’t just outplayed Sandoval for the job – he’s played like the best third baseman in the AL, while being paid this season just under three percent of Sandoval’s $17 million salary. Even if Shaw doesn’t keep his level of performance up, he’s already vastly exceeded expectations.

Ultimately, if you’re a Red Sox fan, there’s plenty to be excited about. The team has the best offense in baseball by a good margin due to both veteran and rising stars, while the starting pitching is due for a turnaround. I wouldn’t expect Boston to make the crazy 11-1 scores routine over the course of a season, but for Bostonians who have suffered the last two years of uninspiring play, this year so far rightfully got them talking again.

All statistics are as of May 17, 2016.

Where Has Big Nokh Been?

Hi.

This is probably coming completely out of the blue – hell, if you’re reading this right now, chances are that I probably asked you to reading this for me, considering I haven’t written on this blog in what feels like forever.

I could bore all of you with excuses about why I haven’t updated the blog, but long-story-short: most material I’ve written has already been published for the Daily Campus during my last semester in college. I also became too busy to write in my free time, due to obligations as a section editor and student.

However, now that I have a bit more free time after college, I’m ready to write again. Later I’ll try to post a “mailbag” edition where I’ll try to answer some questions that you guys (or at least a few of my close friends) have for me. This can be something as simple as a “who is better between Player A and Player B” vs. a more complex topic, like the rebirth of the transition game in the NBA.

Feel free to tweet questions to my Twitter, @ssbmjecht. It’s good to be back. Or at least to have enough free time to write for fun, before I eventually start working full-time.

EDIT: An earlier version of this article had the words “later today.” That clearly did not happen.

Who’s fighting for the Eastern Conference?

A version of the below article was published in the Daily Campus. 

Last week, I wrote that there were two teams in the NBA that looked like two of the best teams in NBA history: the Warriors and Spurs: and I made sure to mention how dominant San Antonio had looked recently. In classic jinx fashion, they suffered a 30-point blowout loss against Golden State last Monday. While that’s only one game – and it’d be foolish to totally discount the Spurs for a singular bad performance – it’s becoming harder to argue against the Warriors being the favorites for the Western Conference. The more interesting question remains about who’ll be coming from the East to possibly play them in the NBA Finals.


The Cleveland Cavaliers, who were finalists last season, are the favorites to return. After all, they were able to take two games from the Warriors in the previous Finals series – and that was without their star power forward Kevin Love and mostly without their other star, point guard Kyrie Irving. If LeBron James can almost single-handedly take two wins away from Golden State in the NBA Finals, it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility to envision a healthy Cleveland team having a late-season resurgence of sorts ala the 2013 Miami Heat.

By their standards, the Cavaliers have had an underwhelming season, but you still can’t sleep on them. They currently boast the third slowest paced team in the league (92.8 possessions per game), along with the third best defensive rebounding percentage. At their best, they grind out victories against other teams and overwhelm their opponents with James, Irving and Love: all of whom can also play uptempo successfully.

Yet, their success earlier in the year and last season was with their now former coach David Blatt, who is essentially the most successful coach ever to be fired midseason. Questions now remain about the direction of their team. I’ve heard a lot of sports fans talk about how easy it is to coach these guys, but for the time being, let’s assume that the Cavs fired Blatt because their front office thought the team would stand a better chance to win an NBA title with the current coach Tyronn Lue.

 

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Photo comes from fansided.com.

Under that criteria for success, only two coaches in NBA history have successfully led a team from midseason: Pat Riley for the 2005-2006 Miami Heat and the 1981-1982 Los Angeles Lakers, and Paul Westhead who took over 1979-1980 Lakers before ironically getting replaced by Riley two seasons later. This doesn’t mean the Cavs are doomed losers, but the odds are certainly not great for them in the long run.

Are the Cavs even that much better than the rest of their conference? It sounds like heresy, but the current No. 2 seed Toronto Raptors are a threat to take the East and also possibly a low-key team that has already kept up with Golden State before, losing both of their games to them only by a combined eight points. With possibly the best point guard defender in Kyle Lowry, the Raptors could have a gameplan to stop any offensive threat that faces their team.


Ranking second out of everyone in position in ESPN’s defensive real plus minus and at just about six feet, Lowry is a few inches shorter than average, but also relatively big at 205 pounds. He is both physically imposing against smaller guards and agile enough to keep up with them. Not to mention – his defensive IQ is incredibly high and he’ll rarely get lost on a rotation, switch or any kind of off-ball play. If anything, his size makes it harder for point guards to try to neutralize him with a pick.

The per-play statistics back up the eye test when it comes to his evaluating his defensive performances. His 0.58 points per possession on isolation plays and 0.71 points per possession when defending pick and roll ball handlers, on 45.4 percent of shot attempts against him show that he is a defensive force to fear. Lowry also gives up only 0.61 points per possession when teams try to exploit him in off-screen play types and only 0.81 points per possession on spot-up defensive plays. Keep in mind that the Celtics are ranked No. 1 as a team in points per possession in that category (at 0.84) and you’ll realize that Lowry’s skillset is just about as good as anyone else in stopping an opposing player.


Which leads me into my next point: something being possible on paper doesn’t make it a reality. In fact, defense wasn’t why the Raptors were able to keep it close against the Warriors in both of their games, when Curry still dropped a combined 81 points to lead Golden State to higher one-game offensive ratings than their average across the season. This suggests that if the Raptors want to outdo their close calls, they have to retain playing better than usual on offense, while stepping up their in-theory solid defense to another level against their contemporaries in the East.

Could the possible dark horse of the East end up as the No. 5 seed Boston Celtics, who took the Warriors to double overtime earlier in the year and were a terrible Isaiah Thomas brick away from actually beating them? After all, they’re the third ranked East team by SRS. It’ll be a tough ride to get there, as the Celtics have lost all their games to Cleveland and Toronto this season, but if you look at how the team is constructed, they have quite a few strengths that could go in their favor.

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Photo from Zimbio.


They’re the best non-Spurs defensive team in the NBA, with a 101.3 defensive rating. The Celtics are also the third fastest paced team, averaging 98.4 possessions a game: just a possession slower than the Warriors, but still very close . A lot of this comes from how their wing defenders, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder are ball hawks, leading a team that ranks No. 3 in opposing turnover percent. When they get on defense, they’re not looking to just stop the opponent from shooting; they’re looking to steal the ball and pounce in transition.

As said before, the Celtics could be a tough matchup for teams that try to get shooters open, as they are the best team in the league at defending spot up plays. In other categories of points allowed per possession, they’re also No. 8 in defending the fast break, No. 10 in isolation and No. 8 against roll men.

Their biggest weakness might be defending the post-up, where they rank No. 27, but these are still statistically inefficient plays for an opposing offense to run in contrast to setting up shooters on the floor. If a team like Cleveland, Toronto or even Golden State tries to beat the Celtics through running low-percentage plays, the Celtics will take that any day over being blitzed by threes. What could be a bigger issue on the defensive end is Boston’s tendency to let up the second highest opponent free throws per attempt, but that’s almost inevitable considering their physicality on the perimeter.

That said, though the Celtics stand at No. 14 in the NBA in offensive rating, that’s also not exactly something they should feel confident in when playing an offensive powerhouse or even just a team that can get to the line at will against them. Their lack of star players on the offensive end isn’t bad because they need a closer or a “clutch player”, but because they need a guy to draw defensive attention and maximize play from their role players.

It honestly seems almost like every non-Warriors team is playing for runner-up status anyways – and who wins the East might ultimately not matter. However, if there’s one thing watching professional sports has taught us as fans, it’s to never count out the underdog. At least until Curry puts them on a Vine and has his team blow them out by 30.

A Clash of Titans

The following was also partially published in the Daily Campus on 1/20/2016. 

We’re off the heels of a Golden State Warriors blowout over last year’s Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Yet, make no mistake: despite their 38-4 record, the Warriors may not be the best team in the league. They might not even be the best team in the Western Conference.

Along with their double-digit winning streak, the San Antonio Spurs have been ridiculously dominant for the first half of the season and have an even better point differential than Golden State, outscoring their opponents by an average of 14.3 points per game, and 15.1 points per 100 possessions. If you don’t know the value of that, consider this: not even the 1996 Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls destroyed their opponents by that much.

Obviously this doesn’t mean that the Spurs are expected to keep up this kind of production, nor does not it mean that they are without-question better than the Warriors or any other team in NBA history. What it does tell us is that San Antonio’s performance is about as well as any team has ever played.

Of course they have an incredible offense, but in classic Spurs style, their success this season starts with their defense. Being anchored by stalwarts like Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan shows some level of expectation when it comes to leading the league in defensive rating, but the numbers are even more staggering than you may think.

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Their 95.3 defensive rating is about 9.8 points better than league average – a higher number than any other defense of this millennium. For reference, the gap between the Spurs and the second ranked defense, the Boston Celtics, is larger than the difference between Boston and the New York Knicks.

In addition to being at the top of the league in opponent’s three point attempt rate, the Spurs are also third in opponent’s field goal percent at the rim and tied with the Warriors for lowest opponent’s three point field goal percent. Being able to stop both the three point shot and attempts at the rim is so valuable in today’s league – a theoretical blueprint on slowing down not just the Warriors, but any team. It doesn’t hurt that they are the best defensive rebounding team and give up the lowest effective field goal percent in basketball.

Leonard, in particular has transformed himself into an all-time great defender on the caliber of guys like prime Ron Artest, Scottie Pippen and Bruce Bowen. That sounds like hyperbole, but from watching the tape and looking at the numbers, Leonard’s long arms, quick athleticism and strength while defending the block make him both a force to fear on the pick and roll (0.61 points per possession to roll men), at the rim (44.7 opposing field goal percent) and in isolation (0.55 PPP). He isn’t very good at chasing off-ball shooters, but along with his position and time spent playing both the opposing team’s best on-ball scorer and the paint, consider that the Spurs rarely allow shots from the perimeter anyways.

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Photo of Leonard, per Flickr.


Moreover, starting big man and free agent acquisition LaMarcus Aldridge has transformed into an excellent defender, allowing only 50.5 field goal percent at the basket on more than five opposing shot attempts per game, as well as allowing only 0.59 points per possession to roll men on pick and rolls. While he doesn’t have the kind of defensive volume that the elite defenders of the NBA have, like Rudy Gobert or Duncan, make no mistake that the Spurs’ ability to shut down the interior is a team effort and not just Duncan.

When the Spurs almost certainly, barring no major injuries, matchup against the Warriors for the Western Conference Finals, the resulting matchup is going to make the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 80s look silly. Old-timers could scoff at this suggestion, but there is no evidence that we have ever seen two incredibly dominant teams in the same league.

Judging by Simple Rating System, which measures both point differential and strength of schedule, both the Spurs (12.8) and Warriors (10.3) are already in a category that places them with all-time great teams. If they met this year in the playoffs, it would be the highest combined SRS by two teams in NBA history. It might not be definitive proof that it’s the best matchup ever, but you would have to be a complete buffoon to deny the historical implications of them meeting in the playoffs.

Factually speaking, these two are not playing for an NBA title if they meet in the Western Conference Finals. But saying they’re playing for a chance at a championship is a gross understatement. These are two historic trail blazers that, come May, could be playing in the highest caliber matchup of professional basketball in NBA history.

Coaching Corner Finale: 2015 Awards

That’s it, folks. We’re done with the 2015-2016 regular season of the NFL – and a result, done with this column. It’s been a fun ride, with several halftime draws, kicks on fourth and shorts, blown timeouts and wasted challenges throughout the year. At the time I’m writing this, seven head coaches have either been fired or resigned from their franchise.

That said, it’s time to celebrate the end of the regular season with some totally-official and objective coaching awards.

NOTE: Apologies for the late article this week. Turns out that I still have to put in a good amount of work for an online class.


“Most Likely To Be Compared To A Fascist By His Players” = Chip Kelly

Last week, I wrote a 1500 word or so piece centered around Kelly’s rise and fall with the Philadelphia Eagles. Among rumors that circulated about him were that he was a racist, dictator-like megalomaniac within the locker room.

Like I said earlier, the problem with Kelly wasn’t his inability to coach a game – it was him losing a power struggle with the front office and also not having enough support in the locker room to keep him around.

Although this is mostly speculation on my part, I suspect that the Eagles would have probably kept Kelly around had he not been such an albatross within the front office as well. Perhaps Philadelphia offered him a chance to come back on the condition that he was no longer allowed to maintain control over the team’s scouting, personnel management, etc.

The Romeo Crennel Cowardly Lion Award” = Jeff Fisher

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I already took a look at the teams that were most unwilling to go for it earlier this year when I created the “Chicken Index:” a number that takes the amount of times a team punts or kicks a field goal on fourth and short (defined by needing two yards or less), divides it by the total amount of fourth and short attempts and multiplies the result by 100. Take a wild guess where its name comes from.

When I updated the Chicken Index for end of the season stats, I found out that the biggest chicken in the NFL was Fisher with an 86.7 rating on 15 attempts.

While his conservatism might stem from the Rams’ lack of an offense outside of running back Todd Gurley (they rank No. 29 in Football Outsiders’ offensive defense-adjusted value over average), it certainly doesn’t help. If anything, continuing to play passively on fourth down only contributes more to an inability to score points.

For those curious about the rest of the Chicken Index, here’s the full table. It’s obvious not an absolute indicator of passive coaching or effective coaching, but just a fun “statistic” I made.

“The Out of Time Award” = Tom Coughlin

Despite what I’ve written before. Coughlin is most certainly a Hall of Fame caliber coach. Even outside of his Super Bowl-winning success with the New York Giants, Coughlin’s decade-long run with the Giants should be a model for future coaches on how to maintain relationships with players and the front office.

What should not be emulated is Coughlin’s penchant for blowing late games – especially this season, where New York finished 3-8 in games decided by one possession or less. This included a painful opening loss where Coughlin left too much time left in the game for his opponents to make a comeback, another loss which I wrote about in great detail and three consecutive late-game losses to New England, Washington and the cross-town rival Jets in the middle of the season. Had the Giants won half of those, they could have still made the playoffs. Instead, they are at home and without a head coach.

A 3-8 record in one-possession games is inexcusable, but it’s not as if this year was some kind of deviation from the norm. Ever since winning another Super Bowl in the 2011 season, Coughlin has consistently lost one-possession games to opponents and his inability to use timeouts effectively or deal with late-game situations has consistently hurt his team.

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For reference, a 9-19 record in one-possession games is equal to about a 47.4 winning percent, which over the course of a regular season would be about 7.5 wins. While some might point to this record as simply bad luck on the Giants’ part and not necessarily Coughlin’s fault, I think the record over four seasons illustrates a pretty strong correlation between his mismanagement of timeouts in late-game situations and losing.

Consider that the results of one-possession games are essentially a coin flip between the team teams playing (due to its innately high-variance) and it becomes clear that though Coughlin may benefit his teams in other areas, late-game situations are not one of them – even if two of his Super Bowl victories ironically came from clutch plays near the end of the games.

Second Worst Playcall of the Year: Half-time draw by Andy Reid against the Broncos

There is literally no point to this play, as I have mentioned before. Don’t do it, coaches.

Most Hilarious Playcall of the Year: Snapfu by Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano

Was there any doubt which play I had to mention in this column?

Another funny note: when informed that he was staying with Indianapolis after their disappointing 8-8 season, Pagano said it was “absolutely the best day of my life.” This came from a guy who literally survived cancer. Just think about how messed up that is.

The Coaching Corner Goat of the Year = Mike McCoy

Where do I start with McCoy? His conservatism on fourth and short, which ranked just behind Fisher as the biggest wuss in the league, per the Chicken Index? The San Diego Chargers’ 3-9 record in one-possession games, including a stretch where they lost five straight games by a combined 24 points?

Even when it came to developing a successful offense, where the former Broncos offensive coordinator and quarterback coach McCoy was supposed to shine, he was relatively disappointing, leading the Chargers to a mediocre No. 26 placing in points scored per game. This included a No. 31 finish in offensive rushing defense-adjusted value over average, per Football Outsiders. Banged up offensive line or not, such a statistic is unacceptable for a team that starts Phillip Rivers.

Although he never had legendarily horrible performances like some of his peers, McCoy’s consistently disappointing talent development, passiveness on fourth down and inability to deal with late game situations makes him worthy as the worst coach of the year and a great conclusion for a column I have thoroughly enjoyed writing throughout the season. Thank you to all my readers (all five of you), my friends , family and especially two of my awesome colleagues: Daily Campus sports editor Matt Zampini and my managing editor Matt Zabierek – both who inspired me to write this column every week and further instilled my love of professional sports. See you next week, with another topic!