In the Around the Dorm playoffs, the “Ref,” Mike Herold, challenges staff writer Andrew Grossman, Sports Assistant Peter Fiorilla and correspondent Joe Caputo to answer questions about upsets in the NBA playoffs, which MLB aces will bounce back from rough starts, and who will be the biggest steal and bust in the NFL draft.
1. The NBA playoffs are just getting under way. Give me your upset special for the first round, and tell me why you think they can pull off the surprise.
AG: The No. 5 seed Chicago Bulls will defeat the No. 4 seed Brooklyn Nets. Throughout the season, the Bulls have played well despite having former NBA MVP point guard Derek Rose sidelined with a torn ACL. There is no doubt they are a different team in his absence, but they have figured out their winning formula by having the third best defense in terms of points allowed. With one of the best frontcourts featuring Deng, Boozer and Noah, the Bulls will be tough to contain. During the season, the Nets averaged only 88.8 possessions per game, which was 28th in the NBA. This will add pressure for Brooklyn to capitalize when they get the ball. One other problem for the Nets is their record against teams over .500. This season they went 14-26, a far cry from a team who holds the No. 4 seed. Chicago also holds the advantage in the head-to-head record against the Nets, so expect that trend to continue with the Bulls winning in six.
PF: I see a few lower seeds winning in the first round, including Memphis and Chicago, but the only genuine upset I think will happen is Golden State beating the snakebit Nuggets. If nothing else, it will be a series to watch for entertainment value: both teams live and die on fast-paced transition basketball and are both a top-six NBA team in possessions per game. And while Denver is 40-10 in its last 50, the injury situation heavily favors Golden State — Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari are out while Andrew Bogut is in — which will help paper over the cracks of the Warriors’ roster. The series will be decided primarily through (who else?) Stephen Curry, and the Warriors’ jump shot. Given how poor Denver can be at defending mid-range jumpers and the perimeter, it feels like this is the perfect time for Curry to have a memorable series and establish himself in the postseason, which could happen against any team — but especially Denver. If the Warriors hit their shots in transition (they will) and David Lee can mitigate Denver’s size advantage in the paint (he might), Golden State will take this series in six or seven games.
JC: Watch out for the Celtics. Of all the teams seeded No. 6 or lower, the Celtics have the best matchup advantage by far, and it comes at the power forward position. Assuming Kevin Garnett is healthy, the Knicks have absolutely no reliable answer for him. Will that single matchup advantage result in a Celtics series win? It could. Garnett only played in two of the Celtics’ four games against the Knicks this year, and the Celtics split those two matchups (Amar’e Stoudemire played in both). In the Celtics’ win, Garnett went for a double-double, while in their loss he was nearly a nonfactor. On the other end of the ball, the combination of Pierce, Bass and Garnett has posed some problems for Carmelo Anthony throughout the year. In his four games vs. Boston, Anthony has shot a very poor 35 percent from the field. If Boston can continue their stingy defensive play and get a monster series out of Garnett, they have the ability to pull the first round No. 7 over No. 2 upset.
Andrew gets 3 points for mentioning the Nets’ poor record against good teams. Peter gets 2 points for discussing how the exciting Warriors-Nuggets series could turn on injuries. Joe gets 1 point because KG’s advantage is limited somewhat by Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin.
2. The opening weeks of the MLB season have not been kind to many star pitchers, including Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke and last year’s Cy Young winners R.A. Dickey and David Price. Which, if any, of these pitchers will turn things around and remain near the top of the pitching profession?
AG: Tampa Bay’s David Price might have started the season off slowly, but thanks to his young age, he has the most potential to turn things around. Price has not lost any speed in his pitching, but has been leaving the ball up in the zone, and that has cost him many home runs. His WHIP is still at a respectable 1.57, so expect him to get the ball down in the zone more as he moves on into the season. On the other hand, both Halladay and Dickey are over 35 and struggling mightily. Halladay has not yet figured out how to compensate for his loss of velocity. Dickey has moved to a tougher division in the AL East and is coming off a career year that would be nearly impossible for a knuckleballer to repeat. As for Greinke, his status will be unknown as a broken collarbone could take months to heal.
PF: I can’t say anything about Greinke, who has a few extra question marks since he currently doesn’t have a functioning collarbone, but Roy Halladay is definitely not at the top of the pyramid anymore. Halladay’s velocity has dropped from the mid-90’s in his heyday to about 90 or 91 now, and he no longer possesses the ability to hit the strike zone with any consistency, partially due to injuries and age. His curveball and splitter, arguably two of his greatest assets in years past, are hitting the strike zone just 32.4 percent and 40.7 percent of the time, respectively, and, as a result, batters are more content to wait him out and take a free base — which is why he’s walked double his career average of hitters this year. R.A. Dickey is also allergic to hitting the strike zone this year and is battling injuries, so I doubt he will be able to make a full recovery, either. The only one of these four who will have an elite ERA and record by the end of the season is David Price, who has already rebounded a bit, has the benefit of relative youth and has been able to stay healthy consistently (33 starts per year since 2010), which is the greatest obstacle facing many of these otherwise talented pitchers.
JC: I have absolutely no concerns about David Price. His first four starts have been a complete fluke. While his K/9 and walk/9 ratios have stayed consistent with his numbers the last three years (two of which he posted a sub-3.00 ERA), his opponents’ batting average on balls in play have been abnormally high. In Price’s career, opposing hitters have hit only .278 on balls put in play, but this year opponents are hitting a whopping .353, while they are only hitting two percent more line drives than usual. Historically, without fail, numbers like this will always regress, which is why I have no concerns with Price. On the other hand, the career numbers of R.A. Dickey suggest that last year was actually the fluke, and his starts this year more so reflect his historical numbers. While he strikes out an average of only 6.31 batters per nine in his career, he posted an 8.86 K/9 last season.
Joe gets 3 points for talking about how the numbers say that Price is more unlucky. Peter gets 2 points for pointing out Price’s ability to stay healthy. Andrew gets 1 point for saying that Dickey’s move to a tougher division will hurt him.
3. The NFL draft is very close. Pick one bust that will go too high and one potential stud getting picked much later than he should.
AG: Whether or not Manti Te’o was involved in the girlfriend hoax, there is one thing everyone knows: he is a proven leader and smart player on the football field. This member of the Fighting Irish was the anchor of the nation’s top defense and nearly led Notre Dame to their first national title since 1988. Despite all of this success, draft experts predict Te’o to go late in the first round, even though he was almost a guaranteed top-10 draft pick prior to the hoax. At the end of the day, it is about the performance on the field, and judging from last season, Te’o will get picked much later than what he deserves. On the flip side, the experts who predict Geno Smith to be a top-10 draft pick are giving the Mountaineer too much credit. Sure, his statistics at West Virginia are impressive, but with the NFL being a quarterback-driven league, teams are asking him for too much. He may be the best quarterback available, but this year’s draft class is not as impressive as recent seasons with Newton, Luck and RG3. Smith may end up being a starting quarterback, but taking him in the top-10 is too high of a risk.
PF: It’s an obvious choice because of his position, but Geno Smith is going to be the highest-picked bust in this year’s NFL draft. One team is going to look at his ability to run the ball, get desperate and make him a top-10 pick — whether it’s the Bills, Eagles, Cardinals or someone else — even though his final season at West Virginia, which ended on a 2-6 slide, leaves a lot to be desired for a probable first-rounder. Smith has the potential to be a passable quarterback in the NFL, but because there are so many teams in need of an on-field general, he’ll get scooped up early and expectations will crash down around him. On the other side of the coin, junior college player Courtney Gardner might be overlooked a little because he has never played for a Division I program, but that’s only because of his grades — LSU wanted him last year, among other schools. As an athlete he looks phenomenally gifted, and depending on how well his football brain adjusts to the NFL, Gardner could be a solid receiver or special teams player who drops into the later rounds.
JC: I think Geno Smith is one of the biggest hit-or-miss players in this draft. As we’ve seen from past experience, this applies to many quarterbacks in the NFL Draft, and we’ve seen a lot of them get “over-drafted.” This year, it’s almost a guarantee that Smith is going to be overdrafted, and has a huge potential to be a bust. What’s helping Smith is that he is being rumored to be on the Eagles’ wish list, which would mean he does not have to come in and start right away. However, if a team picking lower than No. 4 decides they want to make a move and trade up to make Smith their franchise quarterback, that could put him in an extremely unfavorable position. My biggest sleeper is tight end Michael Williams from Alabama. Could he have Rob Gronkowski potential? Well, he has Rob Gronkowski size. He’s 6’6” and 270 pounds, and although he did not put up big numbers at Alabama, he has a huge potential to be a big-time red zone target in the NFL.
Andrew gets 3 points for saying the obvious, that Te’o’s off-field mishaps shouldn’t hurt his on-field performance too much. Peter gets 2 points for explaining that Gardner’s athletic talent will outshine his choice in school. Joe gets 1 point for talking about the size of Michael Williams.