Real Deal Basketball Report: October/November recap

We’re a month and a half in and things have been really exciting, and I got a column done on time! Let’s dive right in.

 

WHO’S HOT

SACRAMENTO

Nobody got a hotter start to the season than the Kings, and that’s mostly because nobody got a hotter start than DeMarcus Cousins. The guy has been putting together an absolute beast of a season so far – easily his best yet and the third best in the league behind only James Harden and LeBron James. This team is good…but is it really 21-1 good? Maybe not. Despite owning the best record in the league and playing in a weak Pacific division, the Kings have only scored the sixth most points in the league. They’re a lot closer in terms of points to teams like the Knicks, Bulls and Raptors than they are to the top three teams in scoring so far: the Pelicans, Mavs and Hornets. Sacramento is easily a top team as long as Boogie keeps producing, and Bradley Beal taking yet another big step forward is great news. As with many of the teams we’re used to calling elite in this league, though, depth might be a concern. After Beal, the talent drops off considerably. Barton, Wade, Gay and Mike James are all contributing at decent clips, but I wouldn’t call any of their situations stable. McBuckets has improved as a basketball player, but it’s not translating to fantasy. And Chriss has actually regressed. It will be difficult for the Kings to improve through trade using only their bench assets, but this team could get a lot better in a hurry if they’re willing to part with one of their three likely lottery picks over the next two years. The Kings could go in a lot of different directions, but with Cousins and Beal having their best seasons yet, they should roll the dice and see how far they can go.

PORTLAND

My word, has this team looked good. The Blazers would still have a perfect record if it weren’t for a roster violation a few weeks ago. And that’s with DeAndre Jordan and Jimmy Butler taking a step back. Damian Lillard is having an MVP type season, but the real reason for this team’s success is its depth. With six players averaging 30 or more points a game, Portland is one of our league’s deepest squads. If Ibaka starts putting up better numbers, this team looks absolutely deadly. Losing Beverley for the season is a real bummer, but the Blazers had six players better than him anyway, so it’s not a colossal loss. Lillard, DJ and Butler remain the core here, but Portland owes much of its success to a breakout season from Tim Hardaway Jr., he of the much-maligned contract. In New York, THJ has basically become an offense unto himself, essentially by default. With the Knicks playing better than expected, I don’t anticipate Hardaway slowing down at all this year. JJ Redick is having his best season yet. Thad Young has come back to life yet again. The Blazers do have some disappointing pieces on the bench – namely the Cavs duo of Jae Crowder and JR Smith – but this team is still looking like one of the very best.

NEW YORK

I have to admit it: I was dead wrong about this team. Granted, I made my predictions about them before the Dwight Howard trade, but still, I was wrong. At almost 33 years old, LeBron James is somehow having his best season ever. And that really is saying something. Dwight has been doing Dwight things. He continues to be much maligned, and he’s not Superman anymore, but the dude is just flat out useful in fantasy. And of course Porzingis has unleashed full unicorn mode this season. With Melo out, Kristaps has taken a monumental step forward in his development and is a sure top-15 player in the league. There is still room for improvement here, as the Knicks are barely above division rivals Toronto and sub-.500 Brooklyn in the scoring standings, but New York has to be pleased with the production it’s gotten from guys like Ulis, Chalmers and Moore. Toronto has its first ever challenger for the Atlantic crown, and it’ll likely be a two-man race over the course of the rest of the season.

DALLAS

Is it possible to have a quiet 20-2 start? If it is, Dallas has done it. With injuries to the Pelicans and Spurs, the Mavs have stormed out to grab this division by the throat in the early goings. After starting the summer off with a bang by (relatively easily) acquiring early MVP frontrunner James Harden, Dallas continued improving by adding players who have had breakout seasons, like Lee, Collison and especially Victor Oladipo, who has become a borderline elite fantasy option. The Mavs finished with the sixth-worst record last year and are now the second-best team in the league in terms of scoring. Talk about a transformation. This has been a masterful turnaround, especially considering how quickly it was done, and it’s leaving teams like New Orleans and San Antonio pretty nervous – especially with their mounting injuries. This team is a title contender.

WHO’S COLD

Surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly), a lot of teams. This is really the first year where there are a lot of truly bad teams. In the past, there were always three or four bottom feeders, but so far there are five teams who have yet to hit the 5-win mark and three more who are just above that mark. As the years progress, the teams are slowly migrating into three categories: the elite, the .500 teams and the teams all the way at the bottom. Usually it’s pretty rare in this league for a lot of teams to go around .500, but so far we’ve got 10 teams hovering around that mark. It seems to be the natural order of things. The good teams have become a lot better and there are several bona fide super teams this season. The bad teams have gotten worse. So the rest of us really have no other course of action than to suck up the wins from the teams on decline, but still get crushed by the giants of the league. It’s a race to the bottom for anywhere from six to eight teams for one of those sweet high lottery picks. In looking at next year’s draft class, it kind of seems like there’s a clear top five of elite prospects and the talent kind of really falls off after that. My feeling is things are going to get really ugly for some of these teams soon. Godspeed.

WHO’S MAKIN’ MOVES

ATLANTA

After auctioning off almost everyone from last year’s record-setting 71-win team for picks, the Hawks just as quickly turned it right back around and began selling off the picks (and injured players) to fill out the roster in an attempt to come back from a 1-10 start. So far it’s worked. They’ve gone 8-3 since. But did they wait too long? And did they get enough value back? The Hawks effectively turned Oladipo, Millsap, Ariza, Reggie Jackson, Tyler Johnson, Lou Williams, Rondo, Redick and Dwight into Thon Maker, Evan Fournier, Draymond Green, Robin Lopez, Derrick Favors, DJ Augustin and KCP – and only two first round picks remain. Nevertheless, it was a bold and admirable decision by Atlanta to defy the tradition of tanking and put up a good fight. The Hawks are now the likeliest candidate to grab one of the East’s last two playoff spots, but they went through a lot of changes to get here. Let’s see how the strategy pans out.

THE EAST’S MIDDLE OF THE PACK

In the Eastern Conference, there are six clear playoff teams: Indiana, Charlotte, Chicago, New York, Toronto and Milwaukee. There are another seven that will be fighting for those last two playoff spots: Atlanta, Miami, Washington, Detroit, Brooklyn, Orlando and Philadelphia. That’s right. We’re a month and a half into the season and only two teams in the East are definitely out of the playoff picture: Boston and Cleveland. I don’t think we’ve ever had that happen before. The playoff picture, especially in the East, has always been pretty open and shut pretty much right out of the gate. But this season? Intrigue! There’s so much to dissect here. So now I’ll break off of this segment and rank these seven teams by their likeliness to make the playoffs.
1. ATLANTA
After their in-season quick fix turnaround, the Hawks clearly have the best roster of these teams. No one else in this conversation can really match the output Atlanta will be getting from guys like Green, Fournier and KCP for the rest of the season as presently constructed. I wouldn’t say any team is a lock to make the postseason, but Atlanta is closest.
2. MIAMI
The Heat should definitely have been a sure playoff team, but they’ve been seriously let down by some new acquisitions like Tyler Johnson, Cody Zeller and the always injured Danilo Gallinari. Mainstays like Valanciunas have been extremely disappointing, as well. I believe Miami still should make the postseason, but it’ll be hard to get there when the team is relying on Goran Dragic and Harrison Barnes to get it done.
3. WASHINGTON
I really think Washington would be a shoe-in if Wall was still around, but alas. This team still has so much young talent that is performing way above expectations, chiefly Sabonis and Kuzma. Jrue Holiday has returned to form this season and whether or not he sticks around could determine if the Wizards make the playoffs this year. With some not-yet-totally-developed prospects like Skal, Kennard and even Julius Randle still, along with four first round picks, the Wizards have options.
4. BROOKLYN
I would have ranked myself higher if I still had Fournier, but it’s not likely that I’m getting to the playoffs this year with Steven Adams as my best player. Fultz’s injury and Derrick Rose’s disappearing act have kind of sunk the ship, and it’s already too late for me to get a good pick in the summer. Oh well. At least Ingram is looking good. And hey! Gordon Hayward next year!
5. PHILADELPHIA
This team has become a major sleeper and could skyrocket with some more moves. LaMarcus Aldridge has somehow miraculously become a great player again. Will he keep it up when Kawhi comes back? I dunno. But it’s encouraging. Melo might be having his last useful season in fantasy, but he’s still good for now. CP3 is doing the thing where he refuses to try and score, but he’s still great and, from a non-scoring perspective, is having one of the best pure point guard seasons of all time. Seriously, that assist-turnover ratio is insane. But after those three the production falls off a cliff. Brogdon and Crabbe have been decent, but almost everyone else on the roster is scoring in the teens or worse. Philly can get there, but as of now, they’re on the outside looking in.
6. DETROIT
I don’t think Detroit can quite get there, but if they do, it’ll be because of Lou Williams, and yes, I know that is a truly crazy thing to say. But when other guys are injured like they are on the Clippers, Lou goes nuts. Look at his scoring over the past week or so. This is an official advertisement on behalf of the Pistons to trade Lou for some really nice prize. Detroit has a lot of things laying in wait, chief among them Jahlil Okafor. We’ve all heard the song a million times. He’s really good at a couple of things but can’t get any time with Embiid there and he’d average 20 and 10 on the Bulls and bla bla. The good news for Detroit is that most of their players – Hield, the Portland power forwards, Okafor, Nance, Hernangomez – are looking at an upward trajectory. Not this year, but maybe next year.
7. ORLANDO
The Magic seem to be a bit mired in mediocrity, and there is no depth to speak of. Tyreke Evans is having a great season and Reggie Jackson is back-ish…but that’s pretty much it. Ross, Monroe, Ariza…those guys are all fine, but they’re probably never going to give you more than they’re doing right now. Where does Orlando go from here? They could sell off Evans and Jackson, or they could see what’s out there for Bender if they want to make a playoff run. Could go either way.
And that’s it for this month! Let me know what you think about how this season is going so far.

Real Deal (Football) Report: Week 8 Recap

For a week that had a lot of big games, week 8 sure ended up chalk.  There was not a single game in week 8 where a team with a worse record beat a team with a better record.  Not one.  Not a single upset.  The folks fighting upwards broadly missed chances to get back into contention, while the dominant simply reasserted themselves for yet one more week.  While it does lead to a dearth of drama, it also helps to crystallize a rapidly forming playoff picture.  To the games!

Finish Reading: Real Deal (Football) Report: Week 8 Recap

Game of the Week: Detroit Lions 236, Pittsburgh Steelers 210

While an argument can be made for Arizona’s bubble victory over Green Bay as more relevant to the playoffs or Kansas City’s Monday night comeback over Denver as more dramatic, the Lions and Steelers game was the highest scoring game of the week played by two division champions, and featured just enough drama and playoff implications to give it the nod.

After a series of wins that didn’t quite live up to their exacting standards, the Lions will take this one, exploding out of the gate with 27 from Matthew Stafford and Tyler Lockett, 24 from Marvin Jones, and over 100 points from the defense yet again.  Much more exciting for Detroit is that who did the scoring.  On a day when Tyreek Hill and Brandin Cooks combined for only 13.5 points, and they got a goose egg from TE Charles Clay, it was secondary offensive players who carried the Lions, including a nice 18 point game from ascendant Colts RB Marlon Mack.  Cooks and Hill will get theirs.  If guys like Mack and Lockett can keep it up, look out.

For Pittsburgh, it was a better effort but still a frustrating defeat.  Juju “Tour de France” Smith-Schuster explored for 44 – only to see Jarvis Landry and Le’Veon bell fall off their MVP paces and the bottom of the offensive lineup continue to not perform.  You won’t ever argue with 210 points, but Pittsburgh would have loved a win here and fall back to within a game of the “we might not be great, but we never ever go away” Bengals.

One interesting note – no defender on either side scored over 20 points, but both defenses passed the century mark.  I think that might be a first!

 

Teams Rising: Tough to find a lot of risers and fallers in a week where all the favorites won and the underdogs did not, but when have we at the Real Deal Report ever shied away from a challenge?

Cincinnati Bengals: They down.  They up.  They back.  They forth.  Come see the amazing “what the hell are they doing”?  crazy unpredictable Cincinnati Bengals!  After blowing multiple chances to pass Pittsburgh and laying a relative egg during their rivalry game with the Steelers, the Bengals respond not by folding, but by crushing Indianapolis 178-84. The offense continued its putrid stench for Cincinnati with only 41 points, but the defense played nicely, putting in 114 points and led by an 18 point night from Geno Atkins.  Coupled with Pittsburgh’s loss, the Bengals somehow find themselves only a half game back yet again, and with another (gulp) opportunity in week 9.

Denver Broncos: Denver has had a rough year.  Marshawn Lynch hasn’t really worked out as hoped.  Paxton Lynch and Tom Savage both looked like potential starting QBs and then neither were.  Dion Lewis has been eclipsed in New England by Mike Gillislee, and the Denver host franchise hasn’t really put up the points.  Even McManus has missed field goals.  And yet, Denver has been surprisingly competitive, only 43 points back of the Raders for the season.  They showed it this weekend.  Explosive performances from Jack Doyle (36), DeAndre Washington (22), and Adrian Phillips (22) pushed the Broncos well over 200 points.  There are two types of teams with rough records in this league – the “gimme games” who are not competitive at all, and the talented teams that have a great chance to win every week.  Denver is in the second category – and are a quarterback and a couple pieces away from being playoff ready.

Buffalo Bills: It’s hard to rise when you are 11-0 and tops in the league.  There’s no where to rise from when you are already at the top.  But in a week where the favorites all won, it only seems appropriate to honor just how dominant the Bills have been and just how easy they have made it look in cruising to an 11-0 record and clinching the AFC East title in week 11.

The Bills have scored over 200 points every single week except for week 1.  With the exception of two games that were within 15 points (one against the Jets and one against Cincy), Buffalo has won every single game on their schedule by 50 or more points, and most by over 75.  They lead RDFL with 2634 fantasy points (almost 200 more than second place Detroit), and have both a top 4 offense and top 4 defense.

It’s not easy to dominate as smoothly and easily as the Bills have done this year.  It’s unprecedented in our league.  Can they go undefeated?  Their remaining schedule includes the LA Chargers (should be an easy win), New England (same), those pesky NY Jets, the New Orleans Saints (how ironic would it be if NO knocked them out of the ranks of the unbeaten?) and a week 12 showdown with Alex Smith and the Chiefs.

My prediction: Buffalo goes undefeated.

Honorable Mentions: The NFC South not named Tampa Bay, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals

Teams Falling:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Stop me if you’ve heard this theme before.  Tampa Bay loses a game they really needed while the entire rest of the NFC South wins.  This isn’t the first time this year, and it’s backbreaking.  The quarterbackless Bucs offense, hampered by bye weeks, shut down entirely for a 25 point output that did not feature a single double digit performance as the Bucs were smashed by divisional rival Carolina 190-149.  The defense, led by Halloween sensation Jadeveon Clowney (24), put up a game fight, but it wasn’t enough.  Tampa now finds itself at 5-6, 4 out in the division and two back of both Atlanta and New Orleans for the wild card.  They aren’t quite eliminated.  But it’s close.  Might be time to pack it up again in Florida.

Houston Texans: There is just no way the Texans should be 2-8-1.  I still don’t understand it.  That team has so much talent.  So many good players.  I thought they would be Buffalo’s chief rival for the AFC championship.  And quite frankly, if I were picking today, I think I might still go with them.  That team just looks so good.  And yet, somehow, they can’t quite win games.  The latest in the disappointing chapter is a 190-172 loss to Seattle where Jameis Winston regressed to 4 points, no single player scored more than 17, and the defense put in 67 total.  Blech.  Seattle wasn’t much better, but got a combined 110 points from the combination of Russell Wilson, Ezekiel “Is he suspended or not” Elliott, and Travis Kelce.  Seattle bounces back from a brutal stat correction loss to the Giants, while Houston continues to wonder what the hell is going on.

Tennessee Titans: Just two short weeks ago, Tennessee was tied with Jacksonville atop the AFC South with a scintillating 7-2 record and a couple of convincing victories.  As the old reliable good team in the division, it seemed quite likely that they would outrace Jacksonville for the South and potentially contend for a first round bye.  Two weeks later, and the Titans would simply take a playoff berth.  It wasn’t so much that they lost to the Giants in week 8 (everybody loses to the Giants).  Instead it was how they lost.  Under 50 points on offense with Case Keenum as the only double digit scorer.  85 points for the defense which would have been much lower if Jimmy Smith hadn’t taken advantage of the hapless Dolphins for a 50 yard pick six in London.  Two straight weeks under 140 points.  And only a 1 game cushion now over Oakland and Cincinnati in the Wild Card race.  Tennessee can get things back on track.  But they are closer to missing the playoffs than they are to a division title at this point.

Dishonorable Mentions: Washington Redskins, Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns

 

Week 9 Games of the Week: So fair warning – this week’s games kind of suck in RDFL.  Good weekend to check out and take advantage of some family time, because there ain’t much to see in week 9’s slate.

Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers: Probably the best game of the week, this one pits a pair of rivals against each other.  Carolina has a two game lead over both the Falcons and Panthers at this point.  With a win this week, that lead would remain a minimum of two over New Orleans and three over Atlanta with only four to go.  Put another way, Carolina can come close to clinching this week.  A win by Atlanta, however, puts this division right back in reach.  Kelvin Benjamin in Buffalo, Jay Ajayi in Philly and Willie Snead back from the dead provide some interesting question marks for key playmakers that will be worth watching also.

Tennessee Titans vs. Baltimore Ravens: As mentioned, Tennessee is trending the wrong direction.  Baltimore, while just about dead, is only two games out of the wild card.  A win by Baltimore would put them back at 6-6 and within a game of the wild card.  The Vikings bye is going to leave Tennessee without a quarterback for this week, but Baltimore will be starting a concussed and ineffective Flacco in addition to other bye week challenges.  This should be a slog fest – and one I predict to see Tennessee emerge from.

Cincinnati Bengals vs. Jacksonville Jaguars: And what an obvious set up for the pattern to repeat itself.  The Bengals have a chance to take over first place yet again from the Steelers – and failing that, to grab hold of a wild car spot in the AFC.  To do so, they have to beat the Jaguars, who suddenly have a pair of QBs.  It’s going to be tough.  Jacksonsville is at full strength, playing great, and in a position to place the AFC South on lockdown.  In the meantime, the Steelers have a winnable game with New England.  If the pattern holds, the lead will be extended again.

New Orleans Saints vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Desperation time for Tampa, contention time for New Orleans.  This is a big game for the wild card, and possibly a big game for the divisional race.  Thank goodness for the wild and wacky NFC South to provide big games on a week with a major dearth of them.  New Orleans will have to adjust to a third string role for Wendell Smallwood, while the Bucs have to get that offense on track and face serious questions about famous Jameis.  I hate to say it, but I’m guessing this officially makes the NFC South a three team league.

Good luck this week, friends!