Of the 866 players who qualified for that plot — by playing in 50-plus games and averaging at least one shot attempt per game — Messi is the ninth-most efficient shooter overall (Ronaldo is 173rd), and he’s by far the most efficient of anyone with a similar shot volume. The highest-volume shooter who is more efficient is Mario Gomez, the former Bayern Munich striker, who takes about two-thirds as many shots as Messi.But in soccer, unlike in basketball, shooting efficiency isn’t the single most important stat. Since the value of a possession in soccer is much lower, so is the cost of missing a shot (and missed shots often have good outcomes as well). That said, quality shot opportunities in soccer are still a limited resource, so making the most of them is important.To generalize a bit, some of the value a shooter provides comes from taking more and better shots (e.g. taking them closer to the goal, at a better angle, amid fewer defenders, etc.), and some of it comes from putting in those shots more often. For example, Messi’s typical regular (non-set piece) shot comes from 14.9 yards out, while Ronaldo’s average shot comes from 20.1 yards out. ESPN/TruMedia has a model for estimating the chances of a player making each shot he takes based on type and location (this metric is known as expected goals). The difference between a player’s actual goals and his expected goals is called “goals above average” (or GAA). Because Messi takes shots that are more likely to go in, his average attempt has an expectation of .182 goals, while the average Ronaldo shot has an expectation of .124 goals — so we would expect Messi’s shooting to be more efficient based on that alone. However, Messi has also exceeded that expectation by a greater amount than Ronaldo has. Messi scored .220 goals per shot attempt for .038 GAA per goal. Ronaldo scored .139 goals per attempt, so he had .015 GAA per goal.Here’s a comparison of the top 20 shot-takers overall (regular shots in all games since the 2010 World Cup):In this group, Messi both takes the best shots and does the most with those attempts.If we break this down using shot-location data, it’s clear that Messi is highly efficient across a wide range of distances.The percentage of shots Messi makes from outside the penalty area is absolutely stunning. He scores almost as often per shot from outside the penalty area (12.1 percent) as most players do inside it (13.1 percent).Of 8,335 players in our dataset who have taken at least one shot from outside the box, only 1,835 have scored from that distance at any point. There are 47 players with 50 or more attempts from outside the box without a single goal, and about 500 with at least 20 attempts and no goals. Messi leads the world with 21 goals from outside the penalty area, on just 173 shot attempts.Ronaldo takes more than twice as many shots from this distance, but still has fewer goals overall. Messi, meanwhile, scores at a remarkable rate. Adjusting for shot quality with the GAA model, Messi is running 12.6 goals above expectation (based on shot-by-shot expectation, not the trend line in the chart). Ronaldo, with more than twice as many shots, ran just 5.5 goals above expectation, and no one but Messi is higher than 7.5 goals.The 21st of those outside-the-penalty-area goals was Messi’s extra-time winner against Iran, which came from 29 yards out (33 yards to where it went in). That goal was quintessential Messi: He got the ball on the right side of the field, held it for a few seconds, broke to the middle and — in heavy traffic — swerved it in on off his left foot. Plus he did it all without an assist.Unassisted ShootingDespite dishing a large number of assists (more on that to come), Messi sometimes gets called “selfish.” But maybe he isn’t selfish enough.About 44 percent of Messi’s “open” (non-set piece) shots are “individual plays,” taken without an assist.5I should note that the data on this has a little gray area. The play-by-play data lists “assisters” on several plays that are nonetheless designated as “individual plays” and for which no one was awarded an assist. I treated all such shots as unassisted, even if another player’s assistance was noted. This is lower than the 46 percent of unassisted shots for players overall, but Messi scores on these shots more than 23 percent of the time, compared to all players’ 5 percent. Additionally, he gains .089 goals above average on each unassisted shot. Ronaldo gains .023, and the average player is slightly negative at -.004 GAA.Let’s look at how Messi’s assisted shooting compares to other players with 100 or more shots both assisted and unassisted6Since assist-related stats tend to be dependent on a team’s offensive system, for this chart I’ve grouped shots by team, so it only includes Messi’s shots for Barcelona and Ronaldo’s for Real Madrid.:Somehow, Messi has done even better when taking it on his own than when somebody sets him up. Moreover, on unassisted shots he shoots nearly 10 percent and .044 GAA better than the next best player (Sergio Aguero for Manchester City) does, despite taking the fourth-most such shots of the 28 players in the group.To be clear, you could probably choose any skills for your axes and produce a similar graph. Messi can shoot it just about any which way. Here are some miscellaneous shooting stats he’s accrued at Barcelona:Messi loves his left foot, shooting with it 78 percent of the time, and scoring 23 percent. But don’t sleep on his right foot: When he uses it, he scores 23 percent of the time. He shoots slightly below average on (a limited number of) headers (10 percent vs. 13 percent).About 8 percent of his shots are “weak” kicks (compared to 6 percent for all players in the data set), but he makes 27 percent of them, and does so more often than we’d expect. He has an average GAA of .026 on those kicks (all players: 5 percent shooting on weak kicks with -.055 GAA). Only 5 percent of his kicks are “strong” ones (compared to 8 percent for all players), but those kicks score 36 percent of the time, and have .251 GAA each! All players have scored on 11 percent of their “strong kick” shots and have an average .051 GAA per shot.About 12 percent of his shots have “swerve” on them (compared to 10 percent for all players); 31 percent of those swervy kicks score, for a huge .202 GAA (all players: 8 percent, .020 GAA).On direct free kicks (like the one he scored on against Nigeria), Messi has scored about 8 percent of the time (compared to all players’ 5 percent), with .021 GAA per shot (Ronaldo has scored on 7 percent with an identical .021 GAA).7I’ve excluded other set-piece attempts because they’re very dependent on each player’s role on his team. Ronaldo has taken five times as many shots in those situations, but Messi has been slightly more efficient.Messi has scored on 86 percent of his penalty kicks, versus an average of 77 percent for all players. But put one check-mark in Ronaldo’s column, as he has scored on 93 percent of his penalty attempts. Since both are the primary PK-takers for both their club and national teams, this difference — if it held up in the long run — would be worth about three-quarters of a goal per year.To make all those unassisted shots possible, Messi has to take on a lot of defenders one on one. There’s a stat for that, and in my view it’s one of the most revealing, reflecting both Messi’s skill and style, and the relationship between the two. Of all forwards in our data set who’ve played 100-plus games, he “takes on” defenders the most, and he’s the most successful at it.The only forward who takes on defenders nearly as aggressively as Messi is Luis Suarez, the Uruguayan striker for Liverpool who is perhaps too aggressive for his own good (ahem). Suarez is successful less than 35 percent of the time.This may help explain how Messi gets so many better shots, and why his “unassisted” shots are so good. It also points to the main stylistic difference between Messi and Ronaldo: Ronaldo takes more mid-range shots but misses a lot of them; Messi tries to beat a lot more defenders, loses sometimes, and then makes up for it (and then some) by having better assisting and shooting opportunities as a result. That’s not to say one approach is better than the other, but note that it means that the observed shooting gap between them is at least somewhat exaggerated. While Messi appears to shoot much more efficiently, that’s partly because he loses the ball more during failed take-on attempts, while Ronaldo loses it more because of missed shots. Only the second of those is accounted for in shooting stats. (I’ll get more into how we can account for loss of possession in the touch-by-touch analysis later.)Passing and AssistsFrom the above, you might think Messi is a selfish player. Or you might assume that if Messi is so good at shooting, he’d focus on it to the exclusion of other skills. But, in true Wayne Gretzky-esque fashion, Messi is also one of the top assisters in our data set. Once again, that makes him a crazy outlier: No one else (aside from, yes, Ronaldo) even comes close to his combination of goals scored versus goals dished.Not only is Messi the top game-by-game goal-scorer of the last four years, he’s the third-most productive distributor of assists, despite being the primary scorer on his own team! Only Mesut Ozil and Franck Ribery8Frank Ribery is a terrific winger/midfielder who can sometimes put the ball in the net, but he’s the fourth-leading scorer on powerhouse Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga-winning squad. earned more assists than Messi, and Ozil did it on Real Madrid9Messi and his Argentina teammate Angel di Maria (also of Real Madrid) are tied to four decimal places, but Messi just edges him in the fifth. — setting up Cristiano Ronaldo.But how does he do it? The biggest obstacle to evaluating Messi’s passing ability is accounting for the fact that he plays for the most pass-happy team in the world. Watching Barcelona can be a bit like watching a playground game of keep away. Barcelona’s players are infamous for their “tiki-taka” style of play, which relies on an enormous amount of short, high percentage passing. Above all else, they try to maintain possession of the ball until a chance opens up. This sounds like a great strategy, but there’s a reason it isn’t employed universally: To make it work, a team has to be stocked with amazing passers, and it has to have strikers capable of creating chances against set defenses.10Whether “possession football” — much less the extreme form employed by Barca — is even a good strategy at all is controversial. In a seminal 1968 study, Charles Reep noted that 80 percent of goals came from possessions involving three or fewer passes, and that successfully completing a lot of passes without losing the ball was very difficult. He thought this proved that possession football was inefficient, but many have disagreed with his logic, and subsequent studies have shown mixed results.Messi is both of those things. And what’s more, his passing profile is nothing like the other Barcelona forwards, who typically send 72 percent of their passes back or square. Messi is far more likely to try to advance the ball toward the goal, and far more likely to succeed: Messi makes more passes than the other forwards, with a higher percentage of those passes trying to advance the ball toward the goal, and a higher percentage of those passes finding their targets (typical Messi!). His 3,800-plus completed forward passes are nearly twice as many as any forward in our data set (Francesco Totti for FC Roma has 2,200, followed by Wayne Rooney, the English striker, with 1,800 and Ronaldo with 1,500).One measure of the quality of a group of passes is how many are completed successfully, but it also matters what happens when those passes get where they’re going. It doesn’t help if a player passes 60 yards to someone swarmed with defenders. So a useful metric (made possible by play-by-play data) is the percentage of a player’s passes that lead to “successful” plays on the other end — meaning the receiving player manages to get off a shot, or passes the ball to someone else, and so on.As it turns out, not only does Messi pass the ball forward aggressively, he does so accurately, and the balls he delivers are “successful” a very high percentage of the time.For example, let’s look at Messi’s long ball forward passes from the midfield area. I’ve created a scatter comparing each player’s completion percentage for these passes to the percentage of them that are “successful,” and I’ve shown the volume of long pass attempts for each player as bubble sizes:Messi is among the most accurate passers for both metrics, and no one with as many attempts is more accurate.11Yes, that giant bubble in the middle is Wayne Rooney. There are players who complete a higher percentage of these passes and/or are more “successful” with them, but they’re typically being more selective in their attempts. For example, Ronaldo’s “success” rate of 60 percent beats Messi’s 54 percent (with a slightly lower completion percentage), but Ronaldo has only 35 successful long ball passes to Messi’s 81.Given that, it’s no surprise that Messi excels at the through-ball, the delicate and gorgeous play that requires perfect circumstances and perfect timing to be successful. Messi attempts almost twice as many of these passes as any other forward, and still manages to beat the trend.And then there’s the bread and butter of aggressive passing: moving it toward the goal on the opponent’s side of the field. In attacking territory, no one attacks as often as Messi does, and no one has more success doing so.These passes are where most assists come from, and indeed, Messi has the most assists per game from these kinds of passes of any forward, by a large margin. And again, despite making twice as many attempts as most people, he beats expectations.Touch by TouchBy this point, it should be evident that Messi has at least a little bit of skill. But there’s still heavy lifting to do: We have to show that he actually makes his team better.First, to ensure that we’re celebrating the greatness of Messi and not the greatness of Barcelona, we need to make sense of Messi on Barcelona. The easiest way to do that is to evaluate Barcelona without Messi, also known as the Spanish national team.The contrast between Spain in 2010 and Spain in 2014 seems huge: The 2010 team won the World Cup, and the 2014 team was tied for first in the tournament to be mathematically eliminated. But lost in this narrative is that the 2010 championship team wasn’t all that great, at least on offense. That World Cup team scored fewer goals per game than this year’s: only eight goals in seven games in 2010, while this year’s group-stage dropouts scored four goals in three. (That’s 1.2 goals per game overall.) For comparison, in the 2010-11 UEFA Champions League (the highest level of competition for European club soccer), Barcelona scored 30 goals in 13 games. In 47 UEFA matches since 2010, Barcelona has scored 104 goals, or 1.08 goals per game more than a Spanish team comprised of a similar offensive core and using the same “tiki-taka” playing style, minus Lionel Messi.Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison to make — but it’s consistent with the theory that Barcelona’s “play keep away until lightning strikes” offense really only works when it has Messi as its striker.Between Messi’s shots taken and chances created, he is responsible for about 48 percent of Barcelona’s regular (non-penalty, non-set play) shot attempts. Yet he and the players he assists score about 60 percent of Barca’s goals.In fact, the more involved Messi is in a shot attempt, the more likely his team is to score. He has scored on 22.1 percent of his regular (non-set, non-penalty, non-shootout) shots for Barca himself. The people to whom he’s dished assists and chances have scored on 18.1 percent of their shots. Meanwhile, Barcelona shots that didn’t come from Messi’s foot12Or other non-arm body part. But he mostly uses his feet. or Messi’s passing scored just 12.5 percent of the time.Even though Barcelona is one of the best teams in the world, there’s a huge difference between when Messi is involved in creating shots and chances and when he isn’t. Here are the equivalent differences for all players since 2010 with more than 100 games played and four or more shots or assist chances per game:Of course, these are raw shooting percentages and don’t account for the types of shots each player is taking or assisting, or the number of attempts. It’s generally harder to stay valuable over a larger number of shots, and we haven’t yet factored in that difficulty.For that, we turn back to the goals above average model, which compares each shot or chance outcome with its expectation. From this, we can tell whether a player has exceeded expectations for all of his shot attempts and chances created. Then we can do the same for all shots taken by his team without the player’s involvement, and compare the two. For example, if the player scored .02 goals above expectation per shot attempt, and the rest of his team scored -.01 goals less than expectation, that player’s value-added would be +.03 goals per shot (the value above replacement for that player on that team). Now let’s plot that added value against each player’s13Among players who played 100 games with two or more shots per game and one or more chance created per game. total offensive participation (the percentage of team shots he’s involved with):Finally, after however many charts, we see a diminishing return. At least for everyone not named Lionel Messi. He once again tops the field, impervious to the burden.But that’s just what happens once the shots are lined up. If we want to explore a player’s efficiency, we have to look into his touches more deeply. For this purpose, I created a stat called “possessions used.” It’s a little bit analogous to usage rate in basketball, and incorporates the number of touches in which a player:Takes a shot;Passes the ball to a player who takes a shot;Turns the ball over;Tries to pass the ball and fails;Tries to take on a defender and fails.In other words, it’s a stat meant to reflect anything that ends a team’s possession, whether that outcome is positive or negative. Events that simply prolong the possession (taking on a defender and succeeding, or passing the ball to another teammate who does not take a shot) aren’t factored in.Obviously passing the ball is an important skill (which I covered a bit above), but for this metric I just want to know about the relative likelihood of good outcomes (goals, assists) to bad ones (misses, turnovers, etc.) when the player does something possession-ending.14This also somewhat neutralizes any statistical advantage for players who play for pass-happy teams like Barcelona. Looking at players who “use” more than 15 possessions per game, we can plot possessions used against scoring and assists like so:Cutting out all the passing that doesn’t end in a shot, Messi generates the most points per touch of any player with a similar usage rate. But there are a couple of other important things to notice in this graph: Despite not taking as many shots, Messi uses more possessions per game than Ronaldo does. This is generally because Messi is much more likely to take on defenders, and thus is much more likely to lose possession of the ball or turn it over entirely. (He is also relatively more likely to set up a potential assist.)Importantly, turnovers in soccer aren’t as big of a deal as they are in basketball or American football. Shots, even bad ones, are more of a limited resource in soccer than possessions. Risking a turnover to increase your chances of scoring a goal even by a small amount can be worth it.Finally, Messi’s defense is consistent with that of a high-volume striker.15Which is to say, players who’ve logged 100-plus games, taken an average of three or more shots per game, and who’ve made at least 50 percent of their touches in the attacking third. That he’s practically munchkin-sized (he’s only 1.69 met — ahem, excuse me — 5’ 7” tall) seems not to matter.To look at Messi’s defensive skill, I combined successful tackles,16I didn’t count missed tackles as either positive or negative, because they aren’t nearly as bad as a successful tackle is good. interceptions and blocked shots, then adjusted for number of opponent possessions (as I did with offense above).There are a few lines where Messi’s stats are considerably worse than his peers’ (meaning Ronaldo’s): He doesn’t get a lot of clearances — although this is partly style, as Messi is more willing to pass out of defensive territory (or even take on defenders). And he doesn’t go for (or succeed at) a lot of aerials (50-50 balls in the air). While I haven’t studied this aspect of his game in depth, soccer experts in the FiveThirtyEight office theorize that it has something to do with his stature.ConclusionHow should Argentina fans feel about all this, given the disappointment they’ve experienced in World Cups past and the hopes they’ve pinned on Messi this year? So far in the 2014 tournament, Messi has been erasing whatever gap there was between his Barcelona stats and his Argentina stats, with style. And that gap was never really as big as it appeared.Since the 2010 World Cup, Messi has scored 19 goals and six assists for Argentina in 22 games (.9 goals per game and .3 assists per game, compared to 1.1 and .4 for Barca). For shooting/assisting efficiency, he has scored .199 GAA per game for Argentina versus .262 for Barca. He also has better defensive stats for Argentina, so even if there are persistent differences, it’s quite possible it has to do with style and Messi’s role on each team rather than the quality of his play.And 22 games is a tiny sample. Even so, these stats are perfectly consistent with the argument that Messi is the best footballer on earth: That .199 GAA is better than the .175 GAA per game that Ronaldo has earned at Real Madrid since 2010. This is what that .199 GAA looks like:In other words, if Barca-Messi and Argentina-Messi were two different people, even based solely on the stats recorded since 2010, there’s a good chance they’d be the two best players in the world.One of them is playing on Tuesday.CORRECTION (July 1, 12:32 p.m.): The axes in an earlier version of the chart on through-balls above misstated what they measured. The chart shows attempted through-balls and through-ball assists, not attempted and successful assists.CORRECTION (July 1, 1:06 p.m.): This article originally misstated that Cristiano Ronaldo had 289 goals since the 2010 World Cup. He had 230 goals, and 59 assists in that time, for 289 combined goals and assists.CORRECTION (July 7, 7:29 a.m.): An earlier version of this article also incorrectly said that Ronaldo had 41 successful long ball passes when in fact he had 35. In their Group F World Cup match late last month, Argentina and Iran were still deadlocked after 90 minutes. With the game in stoppage time and the score tied at 0-0, Lionel Messi took the ball near the right corner of the penalty area, held it for a moment, then broke left, found his seam, took his strike and curled it in from 29 yards. What was going to be a draw was now a win, and Messi had put Argentina into the Round of 16.It was the sort of play that inspired the phrase “Messi magic.” But for those who only watch soccer when the World Cup rolls around, this was probably only the second (or at most third) goal they’d seen from the little man they call La Pulga (“The Flea”). Despite having 407 career goals in club and international play (including a record 91 in 2012 alone) and a record four Ballon d’Or (World Player of the Year) awards, until this year’s tournament, Messi hadn’t scored in a World Cup match since 2006.Since scoring an eerily familiar goal in the 2007 Copa Del Rey, Messi has constantly been compared to Argentine great and his former national team coach Diego Maradona. Despite his young age — he turned 27 on June 24 — Messi has taken substantial criticism in Argentina and elsewhere for failing to engineer a World Cup run like that of the man with the “Hand of God.”To Argentina devotees, it probably doesn’t help that during Messi’s tenure at FC Barcelona the club team has won two FIFA Club World Cups to go with six La Liga and three UEFA (All-European) championships.Perhaps this year will be different. Messi is finally having the kind of World Cup expected of him. He has scored in every game so far (four goals overall), including one on a beautiful free kick against Nigeria and the aforementioned game-winner against Iran. As of this writing, FiveThirtyEight gives Messi and his compatriots a 16 percent chance of winning the tournament — second only to host nation Brazil.Even though national teams are patchwork and only play together for a handful of games each year, how Messi plays with Argentina relates to what is ultimately a fair criticism of his success: Most of it has come for FC Barcelona, a free-spending virtual all-star squad, packed with many of the world’s best players.1Imagine how good Peyton Manning would be if whomever he played for could spend three times as much as 90 percent of NFL teams.As the primary striker for such a juggernaut, it can be hard to detangle Messi’s goal-scoring prowess from Barcelona’s general offensive dominance. And the 2013-14 season hasn’t helped: Battling minor injuries and facing competition for touches from superstar arrival Neymar, Messi’s most recent season was slightly below par by his standards, yet Barca finished second in La Liga. (And in the seven games Messi missed, they went 6-1.) He still scored 41 goals, but that total was less than the 60 he scored the year before, and fewer than the 51 that rival Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid scored en route to capturing the Ballon d’Or.I think this criticism is fair — and I found it intriguing enough to look into the matter myself. So I gathered and organized data, crunched it, re-crunched it, and gathered more data2The crux of my research is based on play-by-play data (plus x-y coordinates) from ESPN’s partnership with the sports data companies Opta and TruMedia. and crunched it some more.By now I’ve studied nearly every aspect of Messi’s game, down to a touch-by-touch level: his shooting and scoring production; where he shoots from; how often he sets up his own shots; what kind of kicks he uses to make those shots; his ability to take on defenders; how accurate his passes are; the kind of passes he makes; how often he creates scoring chances; how often those chances lead to goals; even how his defensive playmaking compares to other high-volume shooters.And that’s just the stuff that made it into this article. I arrived at a conclusion that I wasn’t really expecting or prepared for: Lionel Messi is impossible.It’s not possible to shoot more efficiently from outside the penalty area than many players shoot inside it. It’s not possible to lead the world in weak-kick goals and long-range goals. It’s not possible to score on unassisted plays as well as the best players in the world score on assisted ones. It’s not possible to lead the world’s forwards both in taking on defenders and in dishing the ball to others. And it’s certainly not possible to do most of these things by insanely wide margins.But Messi does all of this and more.ScoringI think it’s fair to say that goals mean more in soccer than points do in most sports. And Messi scores a lot of them. Since the end of the 2010 World Cup, Messi has been responsible for 291 goals and assists in the 201 of his games in club and national team play tracked by the sports analytics company Opta. How does that compare with other soccer stars across top leagues around the world? (The Opta data set includes 16,574 players and 24,904 games in both league and international play since the end of the 2010 World Cup.)Coming in just behind Messi with 289 goals and assists since the 2010 World Cup is Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi’s rival from Real Madrid. When it comes to scoring, these two aren’t just on top of the pile, they’re hang-gliding somewhere way above it. Messi and Ronaldo have been compared to each other so often by sports media and fans alike that it almost feels trite to compare them again, but it can���t be helped. If we want to compare Messi to all players with a remotely similar volume of production, we’re left with Ronaldo.Now let’s leave assists aside for a second (much more on them later), and concentrate on Messi’s shooting. Like Ronaldo, he has an enormous number of goals, but also takes an enormous number of shots. If this were basketball, we might expect a negative (or at least decelerating) relationship between shot volume and shot efficiency — the more shots a player takes the less efficient he is.3Unless he is LeBron James. But it turns out this isn’t really the case in soccer: More efficient shooters tend to take more shots. Despite this, Messi is still a trend-breaker:4For this plot, I’ve excluded penalty shots, shootout shots and direct free kicks. I’ll discuss those separately.
New York Jets star cornerback Darrelle Revis responded Thursday on Twitter to the notion that Jets owner Woody Johnson is considering trading him during the offseason, leaving him “speechless.”“I’m speechless by far but more importantly I feel more upset for the jet nation for having to go through this!!!” Revis tweeted. “I guess we’ll see how this plays out.”Revis’ tweet came late Thursday evening after the Jets introduced their new general manager, John Idzik, Thursday morning at news conference. Idzik immediately found himself answering questions about trade rumors surrounding the highly touted cornerback.Idzik, who replaced Mike Tannenbaum, stressed to the media that it was too early to even discuss Revis’ situation, but emphasized every player on the roster is being evaluated. His evaluation includes highly publicized quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez. He declined to comment on their futures with the team.Coach Rex Ryan, Johnson and Idzik have previously called Revis the greatest player in the franchise, but now Johnson is looking to get the maximum return for Revis.“I’m not going to get into any of those specifics right now. Let’s let the process run its course,” Ryan said. “I’m confident that any decision made by this organization without question will be in the best interest of the team.”Revis, who missed a majority of last season due to an ACL injury, will become a free agent after 2013. But he cannot be franchise-tagged by the team because his contract prevents the team from doing so.During the 2010 preseason, Revis sat out to receive an extension on his original deal. The Jets gave him a four-year deal worth $46 million dollars.But things have quickly changed for Johnson, who only two years ago said it was the franchise’s goal to make Revis a Jet for life.“I gathered from Woody that, in his mind, (Revis) is gone,” a source told ESPNNewYork.com.Once Revis hits the free agent market, he is likely to demand the salary of a starting quarterback, which will be around $16 million per year. The Jets would be unable to meet his demands because they would be over the salary cap, thus making him an appealing bargaining chip now.The only dilemma with Johnson shopping Revis right now is that he is recovering from major knee surgery and teams may want to see how he recovers before making a deal.If Revis is traded, the Jets would be losing a big defensive playmaker.
Oregon was supposed to be doomed by Chris Boucher’s season-ending knee injury. South Carolina wasn’t supposed to go deep into the tournament, especially after the Gamecocks lost their first game in the SEC tournament, a quarterfinal matchup. So how’d these two programs end up in the Final Four? In the video above, FiveThirtyEight sports editor Chadwick Matlin walks us through their journeys and talks about just how improbable they’ve been.
A new season of the English Premier League has arrived! We’ve dragged our scarves out of storage, dusted off our Britishisms and settled down at the computer to chat about the season to come.Chadwick Matlin (senior editor): Hello! I promise not to use too many cliches about the British. Before we start, let’s consult FiveThirtyEight’s new club soccer predictions, which estimate every EPL team’s chance of winning the league and making the Champions League. There’s a lot of uncertainty in which team will win — the favorite has only a 27 percent of winning as of now. But let’s start there: FiveThirtyEight’s projections say that Manchester City is likeliest to end up on top. Does that make sense, given the transfer market and how last season ended?Neil Paine (senior sportswriter): Certainly on paper, City is “supposed” to be the best team — just like they were going into last season, for what that was worth. They had the EPL’s best possession rate last season, the best ratio of shots taken to shots conceded, and the top percentage of play in the opponent’s third of the field. So you could argue that even as they finished third last season, they played the best of any team — and they still have the Premier League’s most talented roster, according to sources like the player-valuation site Transfermarkt.Tony Chow (video producer): I think “supposed to” is the key phrase here. The Citizens certainly seem to have added all the right players. They’ve splashed money on a supposed better goalkeeper in Ederson. They added key players like Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker to supposedly help with a spotty defense. I’m not saying City shouldn’t be listed as favorites this season. When you give a coach like Pep Guardiola one full season to get acclimated AND allow him to spend over 200 million pounds on transfers, it should be title or bust for City fans this season. But I still think it remains to be seen how all these pieces work together. It’s a lot of ifs.Chadwick: An aside: Is it rare to find a one-name goalkeeper, as Ederson essentially is? if you’re going to go one-name, I always thought you needed to score goals.Neil: Yes, flair is usually essential for a single-namer.Chadwick: Neil, get to work on your all-time ranking of one-name soccer players.Chadwick: So if Man City wins the league, they’d supplant Chelsea, which steamrolled their way to the championship last season. Our model says they have the next best chance of winning the league (20 percent), which to me reflects their so-so transfer market pick-ups. Am I — or our model — missing something?Neil: In some ways, Chelsea probably overachieved in getting to 93 points last season, so the model is probably anticipating some regression. If you believe in the possession and shot-quality metrics as good predictors of success, Chelsea was not overly impressive in that department last season. The team also had a mixed transfer window, so the predictions don’t think their talent is much improved. That said, they still have one of the EPL’s best rosters.Tony: The 20 percent chance for Chelsea surprised me actually. I’m reminded of a piece we wrote last season about Arsenal with the headline “Arsenal Stood Still While Its Rivals Got Better.” It seems like the same could be true for Chelsea this season. Yes, they brought in a promising striker in Alvaro Morata, but they lost Nemanja Matic, a key player in their title-winning season, to a rival (Man U). Also, their star, Eden Hazard, is hurt for the beginning of the season. A legitimate title defense will most likely have to wait until he returns.Neil: Hazard plays a huge role in that Chelsea offense. He was second in the EPL last season in successful “take-ons,” with 143, and his 75 percent success rate in 1-vs-1 situations was much, much higher than the overall EPL average of 55 percent.Chadwick: OK, now on to Man U, which made the splashiest signing in the Premier League this transfer window, sniping Romelu Lukaku from Everton for about 75 million pounds. Lukaku replaces Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Man U seems primed to once again make a run at glory after several years out of the top three. Our model gives them an 18 percent of winning the league — is Man U ready to be obnoxiously good again?Neil: It really has been a drought for United. They haven’t won the league since 2012-13, and in fact, over that span, they haven’t finished higher than fourth. You have to go back to the late 1980s to find another stretch quite so barren. But there’s been a lot of buzz this offseason about how Man U might be poised for a comeback.Tony: Never bet against Jose Mourinho in his second season with a team.Chadwick: Why do you say that, Tony?Tony: The guy has won a league title in the second season of every one of the teams he’s managed (Porto, Inter, Chelsea, Real Madrid and then Chelsea again). I wouldn’t be surprised if this pattern continues.Lukaku might be getting all the buzz, but Man United’s path back to glory will have to come through the former most expensive player in the world, Paul Pogba. He had a good but not great debut in the Premier League last season (5 goals, 4 assists), but the addition of Matic to Man United’s midfield should allow Pogba to have a breakout season.Neil: Matic’s passing could open up a new dimension for United. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, he added 4.3 goals above average with his passing — thanks to not only a really high completion percentage on his own passes, but also a stellar success rate for teammates on plays following his passes.Tony: Yeah, that’s a scary, scary duo in midfield for the Red Devils.Chadwick: Anything’s possible without Wayne Rooney.OK, next up: the second tier of the top tier — Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool.I feel like Tottenham was all the rage in the U.S. a few years ago for people just starting to stumble their way into EPL fandom, but the Spurs never quite seem to be able to break through. They haven’t signed any starter of note, and their rivals have gotten better. The model is giving Tottenham a 13 percent chance of winning the league, but that seems somehow too high for me. You guys?Tony: Why are all new American soccer fans seemingly Tottenham fans?Neil: Blame Bill Simmons.Tony: 13 percent seems about right to me. They still have two-time Golden Boot winner Harry Kane. To me, the biggest questions facing Tottenham are how they deal with the loss of Kyle Walker to Man City and how they adjust to not being able to play at White Hart Lane while it undergoes renovations. They were undefeated at home last season (17 wins, 0 losses, 2 draws), and now they no longer have that home-field advantage.Neil: The Spurs did probably overachieve more than any other EPL team last year. They were no Leicester in 2015, of course, but they finished with 28 more points than our model projected last season, and a lot of that was on the strength of some favorable shooting and save percentages (what’s known as ‘PDO’), which are more variable stats than something like possession rate. Plus, like you mentioned, they did next to nothing of note on the transfer market. A regression could be coming.Tony: The save percentages — is that all because of Hugo Lloris, or do solid defensive players factor into that as well?Neil: It’s probably a combination of both. Lloris is pretty well-regarded, but there’s also a big luck component that will likely fall away — particularly on offense, where they took a league-high 47 percent of their shots from outside the box last season. Those generally aren’t good scoring chances.Chadwick: OK — on to Arsenal. They have a 10 percent chance of winning the league and a 46 percent chance of making the Champions League. Tony, do you need to excuse yourself because of a conflict of interest?Tony: I’m going to try my best to hide my biases, but based on my calculations, I think Arsenal is going to win the league.Chadwick: Of all the teams in the top six, Arsenal seems like the one most likely to crater. (Doesn’t mean there’s a high chance of that, though.) Alexis Sanchez may not be there in a few weeks, Arsene Wenger barely held on to his job last season and Tony’s spirit animal, Mesut Ozil, isn’t getting younger. Tony, shine your optimistic light upon me!Tony: One word: Lacazette. Wenger should be pleased with what he’s seen from Lacazette in preseason, and his performances should help mitigate any off-field turmoil and contract negotiations that are sure to dominate Arsenal talks this season.Neil: Like we mentioned with Tottenham, though, Arsenal relied on a pretty fortunate combination of percentages last season — they led the Premier League in PDO, which will probably come back down to earth, while they only ranked sixth in the ratio of shots taken to shots allowed. Having said that, they have a better talent base than the Spurs do (for now), so they might weather the regression better.Chadwick: Tony, I saw you pacing around the office on game days last season bemoaning a team you felt was going nowhere. Is it just the hopeful air of summer that has you high on them, or do you really see it all coming together?Tony: There’s a famous saying among Gunner fandom — “form is temporary, fourth is permanent” — and although they failed to live up to even that self-deprecating motto last season, I do believe they have better than a 46 percent chance of qualifying for the Champions League.Chadwick: OK on to our final significant contender: Liverpool, which seems like they still have some work to do in the transfer market if they want to make a real run at the Champions League. Depth seems to be the real issue after a quiet transfer season, and extra games are looming because of their tournament play.Tony: Depth is definitely their biggest issue. They were hampered by injuries last year to key players like Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana and, of course, Daniel Sturridge. AND Sturridge and Lallana are already injured starting this year. Plus, they haven’t really done anything this summer. Their biggest transfer is Mohamed Salah, and while he makes them probably the fastest attacking team in the league, he doesn’t add any depth to their starting 11.Neil: Liverpool were another team that slightly outplayed expectations last season, but their underlying numbers also ended up being top-notch — they were second in both possession rate and share of shots taken in their games. So who knows what exactly to make of them this season?Tony: All this is not even taking into account that their main creative player, Philippe Coutinho, could be gone by the end of this transfer season. As much as Jurgen Klopp is denying it, if this happens, that 8 percent chance of winning the league will drop drastically.Out of these six teams, any combination of four teams wouldn’t surprise me to qualify for Champions League next season.Chadwick: All right, enough with the good teams. On to the ones that might fail spectacularly. And, yes, that includes you, Everton.Tony: To be fair to Everton fans, our projections give them only a 5 percent chance of being relegated. No way that really happens, right?Neil: It would be pretty shocking — but the fact it’s that high for a team we’re projecting to finish seventh underscores how much of a gap there is between the top six and the rest of the league.Chadwick: Besides the six teams we’ve already discussed, the FiveThirtyEight soccer model thinks every other team has at least a 1 in 20 chance of being relegated. More teams have a legitimate chance of being kicked out of the league than winning it!Neil: Is that normal? Certainly the EPL isn’t usually held up as a bastion of competitive balance.Tony: Yeah, it’s not looking like there will be a Leicester City-circa-2015 this year.Neil: Although to be fair, it wasn’t looking like there would be a Leicester 2015 in 2015, either.Chadwick: Last season, our model somehow projected even more teams as having a 5 percent chance of being relegated.Neil: True. But the teams with the highest probabilities of relegation last year were still somewhat likely to stay in the EPL. Crystal Palace was the highest, at 32 percent. This season, the two most likely relegation candidates — Huddersfield and Brighton — are both more than 45 percent likely to be bumped back down to the Championship.Chadwick: And here I thought I had finally found a Premier League team to root for in Huddersfield.Tony: I thought you were an Arsenal fan, Chad?Chadwick: I’m already a Mets fan, Tony.All right, any final thoughts before we log off and Tony tries to convince me that it’s somehow coincidental that Arsenal has a coach named Arsene?Neil: It seems like all signs are pointing to another top-heavy year. I’m interested in the battle at the top: Chelsea’s title defense against Man City’s sheer talent.Tony: Both Pep and Jose begin their sophomore efforts with good teams, and it’ll be interesting to see how their successes and failures are covered and compared. It’s looking like those Manchester derbies will be incredibly important games this year.Also, COYG!! I’m allowed to say that right? Too late. COYG!!Chadwick: Tony, is that English? Maybe all too English, come to think of it.
Washington15.9198.874.4 16LA Chargers84.476.5+7.9 23Minnesota76.775.0+1.7 The Eagles have the fourth-worst differential between how they defend wide receivers (71.2 passer rating allowed) versus how they defend tight ends and running backs (100.5). And this deficiency has played a significant role in their infrequent struggles this year. In Philly’s lone low point in the NFC Championship, it was tight end Kyle Rudolph who Keenum found for a 25-yard touchdown on the game’s opening drive. In the regular season, three of the Eagles’ four worst games in terms of passer rating allowed when guarding running backs were in the team’s three defeats, including a 144.1 passer rating allowed on RB/TE targets against the Seahawks (including two touchdowns), and 134.3 on 13 targets against the Chiefs. While they allowed a 100.0 rating on eight targets in an otherwise sterling defensive effort during a 6-0 loss to the Cowboys in the final week, many starters were sitting for large stretches of that game.1The Eagles also allowed a 143 passer rating when defending RB/TE in a Week 7 win over Washington.But there’s also statistical evidence that passer rating may be underselling Philadelphia’s efficiency in defending targets to running backs and tight ends. When we focus only on yards per attempt on these targets, the Eagles defense ranks as the fourth best (6.18 allowed per attempt). Similarly, the Eagles rank fifth-best in Raw Quarterback Rating (Raw QBR) because that statistic is based on expected points and makes an adjustment for yards after the catch.But before any jubilant Eagle fan starts scaling the “Rocky” steps in a dune buggy, consider that the Eagles didn’t play many teams this season that excel at passing to non-WRs. The Patriots’ offense is No. 1 not just in total yards on passes to RB/TEs but also in Raw QBR on passes to those players, and the only offenses the Eagles faced that ranked in the top 10 in both of those statistics were Kansas City, Washington (twice) and the Los Angeles Chargers. So let’s isolate those games: 1Baltimore100.860.4+40.4 8Detroit98.677.1+21.5 2Jacksonville95.155.9+39.2 30Houston101.6106.9-5.3 Passer Rating Against 15Dallas102.493.9+8.5 28Oakland102.6105.5-2.9 4Philadelphia100.571.2+29.3 32Seattle72.288.0-15.8 5Buffalo96.169.7+26.4 LA Chargers44.7199.126.1 11Cleveland113.097.4+15.6 This is all well and good until you consider that the Patriots pass like no other team. No team in the NFL needs to worry less than the Patriots about a defense like Philadelphia’s taking away their wide receivers because no team in the NFL does more damage on throws to running backs and tight ends. Top threat Rob Gronkowski at tight end (health permitting), along with pass-catching running backs James White and Dion Lewis, can consistently abuse vulnerable linebackers and safeties that opposing teams typically try to hide in pass coverage.So will the Eagles be able to slow the non-receiver receivers of New England? The regular-season evidence looks damning for Philadelphia. The traditional measure of NFL passing efficiency is passer rating. So let’s look at how opponents’ passers fare when the Eagles defend running backs and tight ends in coverage versus when they defend wide receivers. Passes to tight ends and running backs cause problemsRegular-season difference in passer rating allowed when the opponent threw to wide receivers vs. when it threw to tight ends or running backs 9LA Rams92.472.4+20.0 On paper, the Eagles seem well constructed to stop the Patriots’ fearsome passing game. Like most teams that can defend in this league, the Eagles built their pass defense around edge rushers and cornerbacks in order to keep teams from beating them on deeper passes outside the numbers to wide receivers. This approach paid huge dividends in their upset victory over the Vikings in the NFC Championship, as Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum simply didn’t have the time to find his elite wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who also were given less cushion to operate. 13NY Jets102.889.6+13.2 19Carolina99.795.3+4.4 TeamTight ends/running backsWide receiversDifference Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group 20New Orleans84.980.5+4.4 21Atlanta96.993.9+3.0 22Tampa Bay98.896.5+2.3 Average vs. all other teams5.70.3386.339.1 7Cincinnati99.376.3+23.0 29Green Bay102.2107.2-5.0 25New England92.592.3+0.2 OpponentWeekYd/AttPass TDRatingRawQBR 18Chicago95.389.8+5.5 17Tennessee95.988.9+7.0 26Kansas City82.685.1-2.5 31Pittsburgh81.387.9-6.6 Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group Kansas City210.11134.383.1 The Eagles had trouble with teams that pass well to TE/RBsHow Philadelphia’s pass defense did in the regular season when it faced teams that ranked highly in passing to non-receivers vs. teams that didn’t 6Miami110.485.7+24.7 27San Francisco96.098.8-2.8 24Arizona87.085.7+1.3 14Washington90.679.0+11.6 Washington78.83143.092.7 10NY Giants108.389.2+19.1 Average7.41.50118.869.1 12Indianapolis103.890.6+13.2 3Denver113.381.7+31.6 Their average Raw QBR allowed to these teams was 69.1, which is 30 points worse than their average in all other games. And that 69.1 Raw QBR against would rank sixth-worst in the league. Similarly, the Eagles allowed an average of 7.37 yards per attempt to these opponents versus just 5.72 to teams that are not nearly as prolific in throwing to non-WRs.So when you adjust for tendencies of opponent, all three statistics (rating, Raw QBR and yards per attempt) converge and it’s clear that, on paper, the Patriots have a decided edge against an otherwise sound pass defense. Of course, all this largely evaporates if Gronkowski, who suffered a concussion 10 days ago, is not recovered and can participate in Minnesota. While he’s returned to practice, he’s still in the concussion protocol and has to be cleared to play by an independent doctor. The team’s backup tight end, Dwayne Allen, caught just 10 passes all year and wasn’t even targeted by Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game, though Allen played over two quarters after Gronkowski’s injury against the Jaguars.If Gronkowski does play, the Patriots will be in an unusual spot for a game of this magnitude. The Patriots have long been famous for their a chameleon-like offense — the team will find your biggest weakness and design a fresh game plan around exploiting it. But based on the Eagles’ defensive splits, the New England offense may not have to morph into something else this time, but instead may be able to simply play to its greatest strength.
When Lamar Odom heaved the ball down-court to drain away what seconds remained between the 2010 Los Angeles Lakers and a championship, few realized that it marked the start of a new era. The period that followed was defined by who wasn’t in L.A. that June night: LeBron James. For each of the next eight seasons, a James-led team would make the NBA Finals — a streak of contesting the championship that won’t technically end until Thursday’s Game 1 between the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors.As the confetti filled the Staples Center air, there was little sense of just how profoundly the game was about to change — some changes because of James himself, others just moving on a parallel track to the game’s biggest star. With the benefit of hindsight, then, let’s take a look at exactly how many huge developments have transpired across the league since the last time we had an NBA Finals without LeBron James.From ABC News: In many ways, it’s fitting that these 2019 finals would pit two of James’s longtime foils — the Raptors (who could never beat him in the playoffs) and the Warriors (whom he could seldom beat) — against each other. James’s shadow hangs over the series in absentia, if not simply for what his vacancy signals. He may return to the championship stage again sooner than later, particularly if the Warriors’ hegemony is threatened this summer. But for now, this series marks the end of an era — and the culmination of all the many changes that have remade basketball since the last time we weren’t debating James’s chances of adding another ring to his collection.Check out our latest NBA predictions. LeBron’s GOAT turnGoing into the summer of 2010, James’s future was as uncertain as it would ever be. He had just suffered the most high-profile failure of his career, inexplicably struggling as his Cleveland Cavaliers were bounced from the second round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics. He faced a looming free-agency “decision” — would he betray his hometown Cavs? — and persistent questions about whether he could lead a championship team. Statistically, James’s career was off to a stellar start, but by the NBA’s ring-obsessed standards, his path toward GOAT status was wobbling.Nearly a decade later, James is still not universally hailed as the greatest ever. (Michael Jordan’s shadow looms large.) But he is generally placed right in the conversation with MJ. He answered postseason critics with eight straight conference titles and three rings, including one that involved: a) one of the greatest NBA Finals comebacks ever; b) upsetting the winningest regular-season team in history; and c) ending Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought. At the same time, James has climbed up the all-time statistical mountain in countless categories, including passing Jordan on points in March. If James isn’t the GOAT, he has at least become the defining player of his generation — and in some ways, he even redefined the role of a superstar and the criteria we use to judge all-time greats.The rise of the WarriorsThe 2009-10 Golden State Warriors won only 26 games and got their coach, Don Nelson, fired. (The team would go through two more coaches before finding current boss Steve Kerr.) Few vestiges of Nelson’s 2006-07 “We Believe” Warriors — the franchise’s high-water mark for postseason success since the early 1990s — were still on the roster anyway. Newcomer Stephen Curry finished second in Rookie of the Year voting but gave scarcely any clues that he’d eventually become a transformational player. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were still 20-year-old college kids. From these not-so-promising beginnings, the single greatest dynasty in basketball history1If not all of sports history, if you compare their run to those of greats from other leagues. would be formed.Every dynasty requires a series of unlikely breaks to fall its way, but it’s difficult to overstate just how surprising it was that Golden State would barge into an NBA championship club that included just eight franchises (the Celtics, Bulls, Pistons, Rockets, Lakers, Heat, 76ers and Spurs) hoarding the 31 titles up for grabs from 1980 through 2010. Before they added Kevin Durant in free agency, the Warriors were a testament to the power of drafting home-grown stars and locking them up on team-friendly contract extensions. After inking Durant, they became the scariest collection of talent ever assembled. And it would all come completely out of the blue, from the perspective of a neutral observer in the summer of 2010.The superteam craze gets crazierIn conjunction with James’s emergence as arguably the best player ever (see above), he also helped usher in an era of star players dictating the direction of the league on their own terms. The Age of the Superteam had already gotten underway with the 2008 Boston Celtics’ title-winning team-up between Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. But James pushed the trend even further when he joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a trio of prime-age superstars on the 2011 Miami Heat. Ever since, most of the game’s highest-profile moves have been designed to either counterbalance or mimic James’s original flight of fancy made good.The league’s power balance, of course, has almost always been about an ever-escalating arms race between Big Twos and Threes. The difference this decade has been about who gets to choose both how and where those combinations form. Encouraged by a salary structure that prioritizes nonmonetary benefits and empowered by what strange quirks of the system do arise, superstars (and their agents) have become every bit as powerful in team-building as general managers. You can’t fault them for it, either: Rings are how players are judged, and star recruiting is the most sensible path to a title in the NBA. This was bound to happen eventually — and the past decade has only solidified the trend.Pacing and spacingThe Warriors didn’t just break the mold of dynasty-building — they helped redefine how a championship team plays the game. Before Curry and Co., the conventional wisdom was that a team who lives by the 3-pointer would eventually die by it before the playoffs ended. During the 2015 playoffs, former Lakers coach Phil Jackson famously tweeted a critique of jump-shooting teams during the 2015 playoffs; Charles Barkley voiced the same sentiment around the same time. The Warriors’ title that summer felt like a retort, invalidating any preconceived notions about what kind of great team could successfully win a title.Although the rise of the 3-point shot was set in motion long before Golden State formed its dynasty, the Warriors became its symbolic standard-bearer — even after they shifted away from small-ball lineups a bit and were surpassed by many other teams in their actual use of the 3-pointer. Whether influenced by Golden State or not, the league’s obsession with speed, spacing and shooting has intensified greatly over the past decade. Pace factor is up 8 percent since 2010, and 3-pointers per game are up 78 percent. (Huge dinosaurs still roamed the paint back in 2010; today’s game looks very different.) Offenses are the most efficient they’ve ever been, and the range at which players can reliably make threes is expanding constantly. James’s own development even mirrored these changes: Once criticized for a lack of shooting touch, he improved to eventually become one of the game’s best deep 3-point bombers by the end of the decade.The evolution of tankingIn addition to the LeBron-influenced spate of superteams, one of the league’s other primary off-court concerns this decade has been how to prevent teams from tanking — deliberately building bad (and often dirt-cheap) rosters in order to get high picks in that summer’s draft. The tactic is nothing new, but back in 2010, it still hadn’t been fully explored to its cynical conclusion — that wouldn’t truly come until Sam Hinkie took over the Philadelphia 76ers in 2013.2Perhaps the SuperSonics/Thunder of the mid-to-late 2000s could also be seen as a precursor to Hinkie’s Sixers, but even those teams were not as brazen in their tanking efforts as Philadelphia would become.Hinkie’s “Process” — designed specifically to acquire a franchise-altering talent like James — left a controversial legacy. It helped Philly eventually acquire many building blocks for their current contending squad, even after missing on a number of their high picks. It also produced some of the worst basketball ever along the way, and the results underscored the complete lack of certainty inherent in hitching a franchise’s fortunes to a randomized lottery system. Neither of this year’s NBA Finalists were built by tanking — in fact, Toronto methodically built a solid team until a superstar (Kawhi Leonard) fell into its lap. And the league readjusted its lottery odds this year anyway, flattening out the rewards for poor records and further discouraging intentionally bad roster construction. Unlike the dreadful 2002-03 Cavaliers team that drafted James, the next LeBron might not even enter the league with a team that lost on purpose to get him.The end of ‘Lakers exceptionalism’?Perhaps the starkest contrast between 2010 and the present is in the state of James’s current club, the L.A. Lakers. With a core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Odom and young center Andrew Bynum, coached by Jackson, Los Angeles had just won its second consecutive title — and they appeared poised to contend for even more over the next few seasons. But Jackson retired from coaching in 2011; Bryant and Gasol got older; Bynum couldn’t stay healthy; Odom was traded; and the front office struggled to upgrade the supporting cast.An attempted superteam of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Bryant and Gasol failed miserably. It also represented the last time the Lakers made the playoffs. Ever since, the team has tried desperately to replenish its once-endless supply of Hall of Famers, whether through the draft or in signing James, the game’s biggest star. But at the same time, L.A. has been hamstrung by ineffectual management, a story that extended to this week’s ESPN report about dysfunction between Magic Johnson, former president of basketball operations; general manager Rob Pelinka; James’s agent, Rich Paul; and the rest of the team and its staff. The Lakers still figure to aim for another huge star acquisition this offseason, but the era of what SB Nation’s Tom Ziller calls “Lakers exceptionalism” — the idea that L.A. is entitled to always dominate the NBA — is over, difficult as that would have been to believe in 2010.
Ohio State offensive junior Claudia Kepler (24) controls the puck during a game against Bemidji State University on Nov. 6 at St. John Arena. OSU lost 2-1. Credit: Eileen McClory | Senior Lantern ReporterThe Ohio State women’s ice hockey team is preparing for a long road swing — it will not play in Columbus again until Dec. 11 — so it is preparing to take its game on the road.First, the Buckeyes travel this weekend to Grand Forks, North Dakota, for two games against University of North Dakota (6-2-2), winners of two of its last four contests.Despite outshooting Bemidji State in both losses of its series last weekend, the OSU offense could only generate two goals. The team took to the ice for its final practice on Thursday before leaving expecting to score more goals over the weekend.“Until they decide on a different way to decide hockey games, we need to score goals,” assistant coach Carson Duggan said. “I thought we had a really solid weekend and weren’t rewarded.”Goal scoringJunior forward Claudia Kepler, who leads the team in shots with 28, wants to see her forward unit score more goals.“Our line, (Kendall Curtis) is a very skilled player, and I’d say one of my strengths is shooting the puck,” Kepler said. “So we try to use our strengths as much as possible.”Curtis, the senior forward who scored the lone goal in the loss last Saturday, welcomed the pressure she, Kepler and sophomore Julianna Iafallo put on themselves in order for the team to be successful. But Kepler took it one step further, saying she wants to generate more scoring on her own.“There have been a lot of times I should have taken the puck to the net but instead I kind of held up and looked to make a pass,” Kepler said. The Buckeyes were off on Wednesday to coincide with classes being canceled for Veterans Day. With a road trip, the first in a month, the members of the team think the odd schedule is an opportunity to shake up their play.“I think these girls have been working really hard on the ice,” Duggan said. “The conditioning is obviously still there, but it’s nice to get a little break.”In Duggan’s opinion, the break was the opportunity to spark the offense without taking to the ice.“You want to keep the edge and the excitement in coming to the rink, so a day off like that was a mental break, which I think is just as important,” Duggan said.Kepler, who is second to Curtis in goals scored on the season, will look to simplify her game in order to generate more offense for the team.“Creating scoring chances, you’ve got to shoot to get chances,” Kepler said.Dinged-up defenseThe Buckeyes have eight defenders on their roster, but will head to North Dakota with only five ready to play on Friday night. Freshman Jincy Dunne and her sophomore sister, Jessica, have yet to play this season. Redshirt junior Bryanna Neuwald did not play last Saturday and is expected to be sidelined this weekend too. Shorthanded, coach Jenny Potter played senior forward Julia McKinnon on defense, where she is set to remain against North Dakota.“It’s obviously hard with five D-men and one forward back there,” junior defender Alexa Ranahan said. “She’s doing an amazing job, you can’t tell she’s new to it.”Ranahan believes despite the injuries, the defense has turned into a strength for the Buckeyes, who have allowed only eight goals in their last four contests.“It’s definitely helpful in our situation right now where we are struggling to score,” Ranahan said. “I think as long as we stay solid on (defense) and score a little we’ll be good.”Strong defense will be important for the Buckeyes on the road this weekend, which may have another low-scoring series in front of them. North Dakota has allowed only 21 goals this season, 23 fewer than the Buckeyes.Duggan, whose skaters have been focusing on scoring more goals, welcomes the opportunity to face another tough defensive squad only one week after dropping both games to the Beavers.“We’ve got to stick to our systems without getting frustrated,” Duggan said. “Otherwise you’ll start to grip your stick tighter, but once we get one, it’ll turn into two and three.”Ranahan, who last week was named a co-captain, said she expects the defense to continue to perform while the offense looks to get into form.“You can always expect good competition,” Ranahan said. “We know it’s always really tough against North Dakota. I know I love the nitty-gritty battles.”Opponent notesNorth Dakota will take to the ice against the Buckeyes off 13 days of rest. It last played Minnesota on Oct. 30, winning 4-3 to split its weekend series with the Golden Gophers.The Buckeyes lost both their contests to Minnesota by a combined score of 17-4 to start a home stand that would finish 2-4.Puck drops in Grand Forks at 3:07 p.m. on Saturday and 2:07 p.m. on Sunday.Correction 9/13: An earlier version of this story said the two games were to take place on Friday and Saturday, when in fact they are on Saturday and Sunday.
Illinois junior wide reciever Mike Dudek (18) runs the ball during a game against Western Kentucky. Credit: Courtesy of University of Illinois AthleticsLocation: Champaign, Illinois2016 Record: 3-9 (2-7)Head Coach: Lovie Smith2017 Record so far: 2-0All time record vs. OSU: 30-67What has happened thus far in 2017: Illinois opened its season with a narrow 24-21 win over Ball State, which was cause for concern. Junior quarterback Chayce Crouch was sacked four times, and the Illini’s offensive line could not make much room for Illinois’ stable of running backs. In Week 2, the Fighting Illini continued to struggle, but the defense improved dramatically, holding Western Kentucky to one touchdown in a 20-7 victory. Impact player (offense or defense)Redshirt junior wide receiver Mike Dudek has suited up for the first time in two seasons, after suffering two ACL tears. In his true freshman season, he caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards, was voted second-team all-conference and led the Big Ten in receptions and receiving yards during conference play. His absence might take a toll on his production, but his impact has been visible. In Illinois’ close bout with Ball State, Dudek’s 52-yard punt return eventually secured the win, and he led the team in receiving yards against Western Kentucky, pulling in six catches for 46 yards. StrengthsIllinois resolved its glaring quarterback issue in the offseason. Last season there was a revolving door of quarterbacks, as a different starter took the field on four separate occasions due to both injury and poor performance. If all goes according to plan, Crouch will start and add stability to the offense. Additionally, there is potential in the young talent that Illinois will have to rely on this season, such as freshman running back Mike Epstein, who got his first start against Western Kentucky and rushed for 111 yards. WeaknessesIllinois’ depth on the offensive line raises some concerns. With only three starters returning, this team must rely heavily on inexperienced players. There have been glaring issues, like Ball State sacking Crouch four times. Star running back Kendrick Foster has sputtered to start the season, though part of that can be attributed to a struggling offensive line. He led Illinois in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns and all-purpose yards last season, but could only scrounge eight carries for 15 yards against Ball State and three carries for 11 yards against Western Kentucky. The youth of this team is apparent on both sides of the ball and will be difficult to overcome as the Illini head into Big Ten play.
Ohio State junior starting pitcher Connor Curlis delivers a pitch against University Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Snowbird Classic on Feb. 16, 2018. Ohio State won 11-7. Credit: Courtesy of Press Pros Magazine.The Ohio State baseball team rode 35 combined runs in its first three games in Surprise, Arizona, to capture two of its first three in the Big Ten/Pac-12 challenge.In game four the bats cooled off in the desert, and after getting shut out by No. 2 Oregon State (8-0, 0-0 Pac-12) on Saturday, the Buckeyes (5-3, 0-0 Big Ten) finished the road trip with an even two wins and two losses. Ohio State won both game against Utah (0-6).Defense was of significant concern for the Buckeyes across the four games, with a total of 12 errors on the weekend.Game 1: UtahOhio State already had a 4-0 lead in the opening frame when sophomore right fielder Dominic Canzone stepped up to the plate for his second time that inning, this trip with the bases loaded. He saw a 1-0 pitch he liked and smacked it into left, scoring a pair of runs as part of a seven-run opening inning for the Buckeyes Thursday.It was more than enough offense to get Ohio State past Utah 7-2.Junior Connor Curlis took the hill to start for the Buckeyes and pitched well, surrendering just one earned run in 5.1 innings with five strikeouts. He received credit for the win, his first of the season.Game 2: Oregon StateThe Buckeyes held a 6-4 advantage over the No. 2 Oregon State Beavers leading into the bottom of the eighth inning, but the Beavers came back with six runs in the frame aided by a pair of errors by Ohio State junior second baseman Brady Cherry.Ohio State attempted a comeback in the final at-bat, scoring two runs in the top of the ninth, one from third baseman Conner Pohl’s second home run of the day, but Oregon State was able to hold on for the 10-8 victory against the Buckeyes.Junior starting pitcher Ryan Feltner opened the game on the hill, going six innings and giving up four earned runs. Senior reliever Seth Kinker took his first loss on the year after surrendering six runs in the eighth inning — none of them earned.The Ohio State defense committed four errors in the game.Game 3: UtahA 20-run offensive explosion propelled Ohio State to a second win, 20-13, against Utah Saturday in Surprise, Arizona.Five different hitters had at least three hits for the Buckeyes in the game, including a 5-for-7, four-RBI day from senior right fielder Noah McGowan, who hit his third home run of the season during the contest. This marked the seventh straight game with an RBI for the Ohio State right fielder. Canzone had a 4-for-6 day with two RBIs and his third stolen base on the year. Senior left fielder Tyler Cowles went 3-for-6 with a pair of RBIs.Redshirt senior pitcher Adam Niemeyer started the game for the Buckeyes, going four innings and giving up six runs, four of them earned. Redshirt senior Curtiss Irving (1-0) was credited with the win after a scoreless eighth inning in relief.Game 4: Oregon StateOhio State might have kept it close with Oregon State in the initial meeting Friday, but on Sunday, Oregon State sophomore pitcher Grant Gambrell took the hill and delivered seven shutout innings. He retired a dozen hitters by strikeout.It was more than enough for the Beavers to notch a 6-1 win over the Buckeyes . The Beavers found six runs despite losing their best hitter, junior second baseman Nick Madrigal, before the game with a broken wrist.Redshirt senior pitcher Yianni Pavlopoulos (1-1) got the start for the Buckeyes and pitched four innings giving up six runs, only two of them earned after a pair of errors by senior first baseman Bo Coolen.