Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Robbins Rants: Putting Golden State's Historic Start in Perspective

Treat yourself or someone else to a great holiday treat:  my Live Album of Poetry!  Click HERE to check it out on iTunes today!!!

The Golden State Warriors are off to a phenomenal start to the season, the type of start that has rarely been seen in NBA history.  In addition to having won their last 16 games in a row, the Warriors own the NBA’s best record at 21-2 (good for a .913 win percentage).

Coming into the season the Warriors were projected to be a fan favorite, with their high-octane offence led by Splash Brothers Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, and a revamped offense and defense under the guidance of new head coach Steve Kerr.  While they were expected to be competitive in an incredibly deep Western Conference that saw the eighth seed win 49 (of 82) games during the regular season last year, nobody expected this start from the Warriors—or any other team for that matter.

So how good are they?  Does their record lie?  Do the stats support what the Warriors are doing?  As we near tip-off for the Warriors’ matchup with the second-best-team-in-the-NBA Memphis Grizzlies (19-4 record), let’s take a deeper look and find out just how good these Warriors actually are 23 games into the regular season…

  • The Warriors are leading the NBA in Field Goal Percentage at a whopping 48.2% from the field.  By comparison, the league average is 45.1% from the field.
  • The Warriors average the second-most points per game in the NBA at 107.6 points per contest.
  • The Warriors are the least-blocked team in the league.  They may miss 51.8% of the shots they take, but it is not because the other team is swatting them away.
  • The Warriors have the seventh-best offensive rating in the NBA.
  • The Warriors are the fifth-most efficient offensive team in the NBA.
  • The Warriors have the second best pace in the NBA, meaning they average the second-most possessions per 48 minutes (the length of a regulation NBA game).  When you have the most possessions and lead the league in field goal percentage, you are going to score a lot of points (see above points per game statistic).
  • Unsurprisingly, and befitting of their “Splash Brothers” nickname, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have combined for the most three-pointers out of any backcourt in the NBA.
  • The Warriors were always thought to be an offensively gifted team under Marc Jackson because of their talent.  However, metrics and statistics show that the offense was often stagnant and not very efficient over the past few years.  The Warriors hit three pointers and were exciting on offense, but they didn’t move the ball well or execute to their potential.  Under Steve Kerr, the Warriors have actually become the offense every casual NBA fan thought they were over the past two seasons.

  • The Warriors have the best defensive rating in the NBA, meaning they allow the fewest points in the NBA per 100 possessions.
  • The Warriors also have the best defensive efficiency ranking in the NBA.  (The Warriors were third in this category last season.  In addition to improving offensively, they have continued to work on and improve the defensive feats they accomplished under Marc Jackson).
  • The Warriors allow the seventh-fewest points per game in the NBA, holding opponents to 96.8 points per game.  The league average is 100.
  • The Warriors have the best opponent field goal percentage in the NBA, holding their opponents to a measly 41.1% shooting per game.  The league average is 45.1%.
  • The Warriors lead the league in blocked shots at just over 6.5 blocks per game.  The league average is 4.75 blocks per game.
  • In 23 games, the Warriors have not allowed an opponent to shoot 50% from the field a single time.  Because it’s worth repeating:  no team has hit half of its shots against the Warriors in a game yet this season.

Overall (Offense + Defense)
  • The Warriors are one of two teams—with the Memphis Grizzlies squad they face in primetime this evening being the other—to rank in the top-25% of the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
  • The Warriors have a point differential or margin of victory (points per game for the Warriors minus points per game for their opponents) of 10.78.  This means that on average, they win by double-digits.  This is the best point differential in the NBA by far.  The next best belongs to the Toronto Raptors—currently the top-team in the Eastern Conference with a 19-6 record—who post a differential of 8.28 points.

The Streak
Coming into this season, the Warriors’ franchise record winning streak was 11 games in the 1971-1972 season, ultimately snapped by the Chicago Bulls.  The Warriors set a franchise-record by defeating the Bulls in Chicago this season to extend their winning streak to 12 games, on December 6th.  Since then, the Warriors are 4-0, and have extended the win streak to 16 games.

The last three wins came against the Houston Rockets in Oakland, the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas, and the New Orleans Pelicans in New Orleans.  While the Rockets were missing All-Star big man Dwight Howard, the Warriors were also missing star big man and defensive stud Andrew Bogut.  The game was close until late in the fourth quarter, when the Warriors blew it open on the offensive end—and continued their strong defensive play—with a 17-3 run that saw the Warriors score on nine-straight possessions.  The Warriors won 105-93, holding the Rockets well under their season average of 99.6 points per game, while scoring 10 points more than what the Rockets allow on average.

Against the Mavericks, the Warriors used a 39-18 first quarter to blow the game open.  While the Mavericks fought hard in the second half and closed the gap to seven within the waning minutes of the game, the Warriors—still without Bogut—held on to win 105-98, again holding their opponent under the century mark while topping it themselves.

On Sunday the Warriors had a “trap game” (a game that seems easy on paper and is easy to overlook, but easily could have caught them by surprise and ended the streak).  They faced a .500 New Orleans squad playing without its star player—and the only person leading Steph Curry in the early MVP race—Anthony Davis.  It was also the second day of the road back-to-back that began in Dallas against the tough Mavericks team that fought until the end.  The Warriors easily could have acted tired and overlooked the Pelicans en route to a New Orleans win.  However, they came from six down in the final minutes to force overtime and blitz the Pelicans in overtime en route to a 128-122 win.  While it was not an offensively efficient game with the Warriors committing 19 turnovers, or a good defensive win with the Warriors giving up 122 points, they fought hard and willed themselves to victory to keep the streak alive.

Historically Good
It is not often in the NBA that a 16-game winning streak is overlooked.  After all, the Warriors are now tied for the 20th-longest winning streak in NBA history.  If you take out the teams that played fewer than 82 games in a season, only 21 teams in league history have won as many games in a row as the Warriors, and only 14 teams have longer winning streaks.  And yet, the streak is an afterthought because the Warriors have been that good, overall.

Al Cervi of the Syracuse Nationals had the record for the best start to a coaching career in NBA history with an 18-2 record in the 1949-1950 season.  Steve Kerr tied the record against the Timberwolves, broke it against the Rockets, and has extended it against Dallas and New Orleans since then.  The Warriors record now stands at 21-2.  The Warriors are the twelfth team in NBA History to start 20-2 or better.  Only seven teams in NBA History (including the Warriors) have started a season 21-2.  Win tonight and the numbers become even gaudier.

But How Good is This Team Really?
Six out of the 11 teams to start a season 20-2 in the past won NBA Titles.  Additionally, the Warriors have the 17th best point differential through 23 games in NBA History.  Seven of the previous 16 teams to do it won the NBA Title that season.

Does this mean the Warriors are going to win the NBA Title?  Definitely not.  While it is obviously the hope of all Warriors fans, they play in the toughest conference and one of the tougher divisions in basketball.  Will they continue this pace and break the Bulls’ all-time great record of 72-10?  It is possible, but again, most-likely not.  However, they have definitely positioned themselves to contend in the West this year.

The Warriors won 51 games last season.  They only need to go 30-29 the rest of the way (a paltry .508 win percentage) to equal last season’s total.  Additionally, they only need to go 39-20 (a .661 win percentage) the rest of the way to finish with an all-time franchise-high 60 wins, while a 41-18 finish to the season (a .694 win percentage) will give them the same record as the reigning NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs had when they finished with the best record in the NBA last year.

There is no question that the Warriors’ schedule will get tougher from here.  After Memphis tonight they face the streaking-now-that-they-are-healthy Oklahoma City Thunder, followed by a game at the Clippers next week.  The Warriors opponents through the first 23 games of the season had a combined win percentage of .496 (14th in the NBA).  This will increase as they play the aforementioned tougher competition and continue to play teams from the Western Conference.  They also need to stay healthy, and injuries have begun to pile up.  Having said all of that, the Warriors have played the third-most road games in the NBA thus far this season, meaning they can look forward to a bevy of games at Oracle Arena in the future.

Bottom Line
The Warriors were projected to be exciting, with a superstar in Steph Curry, a fiery rookie head coach, and a supporting cast including star Klay Thompson.  Curry has grown to new heights, Thompson is playing like a superstar and justifying the big payday he received before the beginning of the season, Draymond Green has emerged as a star—and they’ve done all of this without All-Star David Lee who is nursing a hamstring injury.  While it is close to a given that the Warriors will not stay on this pace and win over 91% of their games this season, they have emerged as true contenders who can size up—and defeat—any team in the NBA.  While historical and modern perspective shows that the Warriors record may be bloated, they are by far the best team in the NBA at this point, and there is no reason why that cannot continue for the rest of the season.

The first step:  beating the Memphis Grizzlies in Memphis tonight to have the best win of the young NBA season, and extend the franchise-best, historical win streak and start to 17 games and a 22-2 record, respectively.  Hey, “It Could Happen.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Robbins Rants: Why Arizona will make the College Football Playoff—without help from other teams—if they beat Oregon in the PAC-12 Championship Game

I released a Live Album of my Poetry!  Click HERE to check it out on iTunes today!!!

The inaugural College Football Playoff (CFP) will kick off on New Years Day, with two semifinals featuring the top four teams in college football.  While the field for this historic playoff (that finally signals death to the rightfully vilified BCS) will be set on Tuesday, December 9th, there is much football to be played between now and then—which means there is much discussion and debate to be had, as well.

During my time at the University of Arizona, scientific skills and analysis earned me the nickname, “Stat. Boy.”  Over the past few weeks, I used these skills to figure out the scenario by which U of A could reach the PAC-12 Title Game—two weeks before the Thanksgiving slate of games—and to show why Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III deserves an invite to this year’s Heisman ceremony in New York*.  I am now turning my attention to the College Football Playoff, with the bold assertion that the University of Arizona will make the field of four without help from any other team(s) if they beat Oregon in the PAC-12 Title Game.  Consider this your College Football Playoff primer.  

To quote a beer company that will remain unnamed until they decide to sponsor this blog:  “Here We Go!”

The latest CFP rankings came out as follows:

1. Alabama (11-1 Record, SEC)
2. Oregon (11-1 Record, PAC-12)
3. TCU (10-1 Record, Big 12)
4. Florida State (12-0 Record, ACC)
5. Ohio State (11-1 Record, Big 10)
6. Baylor (11-1 Record, Big 12)
7. University of Arizona (10-2 Record, PAC-12)

The top four teams in the field face each other in two national semifinals on New Years Day.  #1 will face #4 in the Sugar Bowl, while #2 will face #3 in the Rose Bowl.  The winners of each semifinal will face off in the National Championship game in the House That Jerry Built in Arlington, Texas on January 12th.

Predictions & Projections (Team Rankings in Parentheses)
(1) Alabama faces (16) Missouri in the SEC Title Game.  Alabama should have no problem keeping its number one slot in the CFP rankings.

(2) Oregon faces (7) Arizona in the PAC-12 Title Game.  This should be a great game between two high-powered offenses and hard-hitting defenses.  It features Heisman leader Marcus Mariota running the offense for the Ducks, and Heisman contender Scooby Wright III leading the defense for the Wildcats.  Oregon opened up as more than a two-touchdown favorite, and understandably so:  it will be extremely tough for Arizona to win this game.  Oregon is one of the top teams in the nation.  It is also extremely difficult for any team to beat an opponent twice in one season—regardless of how good the opponent is.  Oregon will be ready for this game, and it will be ready to exact revenge on the Wildcats for its lone loss of the season, suffered at home in Eugene on October 2nd.  Having said all of this—unbiased by my Arizona Fandom and Fanhood—I am going to go with the Wildcats winning this matchup, for the simple reason that this article would be pointless—and will be rendered useless aside from featuring aesthetically pleasing writing—if the Wildcats lose.  U of A completes the season sweep and rides the victory into the CFP.

(3) TCU faces lowly Iowa State—with its 2-9 record—in a “gimme game.”  TCU should win and win big.

(4) Florida State—which has won its last three games (all against) unranked opponents by a combined 12 points—faces (11) Georgia Tech and the swarming defense that would have any offense in the nation scared right now.  Florida State doesn’t win this game playing the way it has played since the beginning of October.  Look for the upset to finally end FSU’s tumultuous and barely undefeated season, once and for all.

(5) Ohio St. faces (13) Wisconsin in the Big 10 Title Game.  Both teams have been overrated for most of the season, but they have both (somehow) managed to get to the Title Game.  Ohio State did it behind its phenomenal redshirt freshman quarterback JT Barrett, despite its porous run defense.  Wisconsin did it on the strength of its fabulous running back Melvin Gordon.  On paper I would have liked Wisconsin anyway, but Barrett unfortunately suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Ohio State’s win over Michigan last week, like dashing all hopes for Ohio State.  Struggling on offense and keeping a defense that is weak at stopping the run on the field against one of the top running backs in the nation is a recipe for disaster for Ohio State, and a recipe for success for Wisconsin.  Look for the Badgers to win this one.

(6) Baylor hosts (9) Kansas St. in a game with potentially big playoff implications.  If Baylor wins, it will make its case for the final playoff spot if Florida State goes down.  If Baylor loses, it will open the doors for a lot of other teams, depending on who else goes down.  Baylor barely beat Texas Tech last weekend in a game Texas Tech’s coaching staff probably gave away by going for a two-point conversion with eight minutes remaining in the contest.  This forced them to go for two after they scored their final touchdown.  They were unable to convert, and Baylor escaped with a 48-46 win.  Baylor’s star quarterback Bryce Petty also went down with a concussion in that game.  While Baylor is 10-1, Kansas State is 9-2, with its only two losses coming to (3) TCU and (19) Auburn.  Baylor should win this one, but it will be no surprise if they lose, if they play the way they did against Texas Tech last weekend.

What Does It All Mean?
Alabama and TCU are locks for the CFP.  While an upset is always a possibility, Alabama is too good to fall to Missouri after the season both squads have had, and TCU losing to lowly Iowa State when winning means a guaranteed spot in the CFP would be one of the biggest chokes in history.  Any team can win any given Friday/Saturday (Michigan vs. Appalachian State anybody?), just not Iowa State on this Saturday.

Since the premise of this article is Arizona making the CFP without help from other teams, we’ll say that Alabama and TCU are locks, and Florida State finds a way to eke out another win.  For the sake of the article, we’ll also say that Ohio State beats Wisconsin and Baylor beats Kansas State.  With Oregon falling, this leaves one spot for winning teams Ohio State, Baylor, and Arizona.

So how can Arizona possibly make the CFP?  How can it jump two teams already ahead of it, who will have just beaten ranked opponents?  Assuming the College Football Selection Committee sticks to its trends and doesn’t throw us all a curve ball, the answer is “Pretty easily.”

The Case Against Ohio State & Baylor, & The Case For Arizona
The Committee has forgotten Ohio State.  They moved up last week because Mississippi State lost ahead of them and Baylor nearly lost to Texas Tech, but they were essentially dead to the committee when Heisman hopeful JT Barrett broke his ankle.  As has been discussed many times over the past week, this is essentially the “Kenyon Martin effect.”  Martin was a star for the number-one-in-the-land Cincinnati Bearcats basketball squad when he broke his leg the game before March Madness.  The Bearcats lost their number one seed (they fell to a two-seed, essentially ranking them as the fifth best team in the tournament at best), and sure enough, were eliminated early on in the tournament.  Ohio State may be able to play without their QB, but even if they can do so against an overrated Wisconsin team, the Committee has already said it will look at how well they believe a team can do going forward (i.e. how competitive they can be in the Playoff with their team as it currently is).  Ohio State should struggle to win this weekend.  Even if it does, Baylor and Arizona will easily jump the Buckeyes should each team win their respective games against better, tougher opponents than Ohio State is facing.

The Committee never liked Baylor.  Baylor and TCU play in the same conference and have the same record.  The difference is, TCU’s lone loss was to Baylor!  And yet, Baylor is behind TCU—not by one spot, but by three.  The Committee has said they will not drop Florida State out of the Playoff as long as it keeps winning and remains undefeated, so it is understandable Baylor is behind FSU, but there is no reason for the Bears be ranked below Ohio St.  In addition to losing Barrett, Ohio State is worse than Baylor across the board, both in terms of teams it has beaten, and the lone team each has lost to.  For whatever reason—a TCU win over Minnesota that grows more suspect by the week—the Committee values TCU over Baylor.  While the rankings aren’t done with public percentages released by the Committee like the BCS did and other polls currently do, Arizona can’t be far behind Baylor.  If they are pretty even going into the weekend and Baylor Beats the ninth-ranked team while Arizona beats the second-ranked team, Arizona should definitely jump Baylor—especially if Baylor ekes out a win like it did against Texas Tech last week.

The Committee likes Arizona.  For what seems like the first time in College Football History, the Committee values the PAC-12 Conference.  The Conference has been touting the PAC-12 Championship Game as a CFP play-in game:  the winner will make the Playoff.  Arizona would have had a good resume ranked eighth in the nation coming into this weekend.  The Committee favored the Wildcats and surprisingly had them jump Michigan State last week after beating ranked Arizona State, putting Arizona in the perfect position to make the CFP.

If Arizona beats Oregon, it will arguably have the two best wins of any team in the nation, having beaten an Oregon team ranked second in the nation on two separate occasions away from Tucson (once on the road, once at a neutral site).  Its only losses will have come on a last-second missed field goal to ranked USC, and on the road to ranked UCLA.  While the Committee says that it looks at teams where they were when the matchup happened, it has to help Arizona that UCLA and USC are both ranked in the latest CFP rankings (#15 and #25 respectively).  Also ranked are the aforementioned Arizona State Devils (#17), and Utah Utes (#23), both of whom lost to Arizona.  Arizona will have won the most conference games of any conference champion in the nation, and will be the champions of the conference with the second-most teams ranked in the CFP Rankings (behind only the mighty SEC).

Why Arizona?
So why does the CFP Selection Committee like Arizona?  Maybe it’s because they are an upstart team.  Maybe they like Coach Rich Rodriguez or Scooby Wright.  Maybe they recognize how far the program has come, that this was the same program that won eight games total from 2003-2005 and has won 10 already this season.  Maybe they think the style of spread offense Arizona runs will wow and excite fans, and maybe they just don’t like teams that wear green and yellow or gold—whether they are from Texas or Oregon.

Regardless of the reason, the Arizona Wildcats control their own destiny:  beat Oregon to become PAC-12 Champions, and they will find themselves in the inaugural College Football Playoff—regardless of what other teams do.

WARNING:  Biased Fan Comment Coming Soon…

Will I feel better if Baylor, Ohio State, and Florida State lose?  No question.  Any Arizona fan would be silly to rely solely on the CFP Committee.  However, we should take solace in the fact that any help locks Arizona into a Playoff spot—as opposed to the Wildcats needing help to make it to the CFP.


*Column on Scooby’s candidacy coming after the CFP field is announced

Joseph D. Robbins is a poet and an educator based in New York City.  He has a BA in Creative Writing & Judaic Studies from the University of Arizona, a Masters in the Teaching of English from Columbia Teachers College, and a Masters in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.  He is pursuing State Certification in Students with Learning Disabilities at Teachers College.  You can find his poetry album, “One Man Gang Live” at: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/one-man-gang-live/id769044733.