The Potential Effects of a Kyrie Irving Trade

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Yesterday, NBA Twitter collapsed on itself with the report from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving is asking for a trade out of Cleveland. Irving has been the second-most important player on a Cavaliers squad that has reached the NBA Finals in three consecutive seasons, and the news of his trade request comes as a complete shock to both the Cavs and the rest of the league. Irving’s reasoning for doing this is to get out of the shadow of LeBron James, who is somehow still the best player on the planet at age 32. The Cavaliers are reportedly none too pleased with the demands becoming public because the news lessens Irving’s trade value. Needless to say, there’s a lot going on here.

Irving has stated that he prefers four potential destinations: San Antonio, Minnesota, Miami, or the Knicks. Let’s just say that he would make any of those four teams better, with the degree of improvement being dependent on how much each team is willing to fork over in a deal. We’ll leave this space to what a possible trade would do to the Cleveland Cavaliers as they are currently constituted.

The present-day Cavalier offense is built around isolation sets for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. While the Cavs averaged 110.3 points per game last season, James and Irving, on average, scored 51.6 of those points; combined, the two accounted for nearly 47% of their team’s points in every game they played. Kyrie averaged career highs in points and shots taken per game a season ago, and a 32-year-old James appears to have been ready to cede more of the offense to the team’s star point guard. In fact, Irving’s regular season usage rate was higher than LeBron’s a season ago.

Of course, Irving is not a true point guard in every sense. He has never averaged more than 6.1 assists in a season and has drawn comparisons to Allen Iverson both for his slick ball-handling and his isolation tendencies. This doesn’t mean that he’s a selfish player; he wasn’t even the primary ball-handler in Cleveland’s offense when he and James were on the floor together. But it would be a stretch to see him putting up numbers akin to the league’s best assist men (John Wall, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, etc.) anytime soon.

That being said, the impact of his impending departure from Cleveland cannot be overstated. Many of the problems Cleveland had last season, particularly against the Warriors, came because of the overuse of James and Irving. If you think LeBron James is currently overworked (which he is), you won’t want to see the Cavaliers without a legitimate second option to give him relief. There are numbers to back this up.

For example, in last year’s NBA Finals, James and Irving both pulled usage rates of over 30 percent. Translated: when both players were on the floor, they accounted for over 60% of the Cavaliers’ offense. Cleveland wasn’t playing two-on-five, but at times, it felt like they were. Irving’s usage rate increased when James went to the bench while James’ increased without Irving. The two players averaged a ridiculous 41.4 (!) minutes per game in this past Finals but without the defensive attention devoted to Irving, the Cavaliers offense simply does not operate as efficiently.

Together, James and Irving chipped in 77 points in Game 3 of the 2017 Finals. The Cavaliers won that game by…. that’s right, they lost. One of the best performances by two teammates in an NBA Finals game still wasn’t enough to topple the mighty Golden State Warriors. Even with Irving, the Cavaliers, as currently constituted, are not nearly good enough to win a championship. Without him, they’re still a dangerous team in the Eastern Conference (having the best player on Earth will do that to you), but they are not the unassailable force out East that they are right now.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that Irving is traded to the Knicks for Carmelo Anthony. Let’s also assume that the Knicks’ star power forward, Kristaps Porzingis, is not involved in any potential deal. Irving’s PER (player efficiency rating) last season was 23.0 while Anthony’s was 17.9 (league average in 15). Anthony’s VORP (value over replacement player) was 0.7 while Irving’s was 2.9. Irving ranked in the top 15 of all players last season in Offensive Box Plus/Minus, while Anthony barely scratched the top 50. Most interestingly, Anthony’s Box Plus/Minus last year was -2.2, a rating similar to players such as Derrick Rose, Arron Afflalo, Jamal Crawford…. and Kyrie Irving. The Cavs would essentially be trading away one of the best offensive players in the game for an aging player whose career trajectory is quickly hurtling toward a serious decline at age 33.  The Cavs would also not improve at all on defense, which was easily their weakest point last year. This trade would make perfect sense for the Knicks, which obviously means that there’s no way it’ll ever come to fruition.

The Cavaliers, though, are likely left with no better options. The team and new GM Koby Altman are faced with no good alternatives after Irving’s trade demands became public knowledge yesterday. Altman is taking over for the jettisoned David Griffin, who was fired on June 30, much to the dismay of the Cavs’ best player. The Cavaliers are also the biggest soap opera in the NBA today; their superstars are disgruntled, their owner is meddling in the team’s success, and their roster could be gutted by this time next year. In the short term, though, a potential Irving trade may put the Celtics ahead of the Cavs in the Eastern Conference next season. With all indications pointing to James potentially leaving Cleveland after next season, his second stint with the Cavs may end like the first one did: with a playoff loss to the Celtics. I’m not ready to say that for sure just yet, but Irving’s loss would be catastrophic to Cleveland’s championship hopes.

Kyrie Irving shocked the basketball world yesterday by asking for a trade out of Cleveland. Because Irving made the request, the trade is likely to happen sooner rather than later, and it will be interesting to see where he goes and what the Cavaliers can get in return for his services.

His demands truly put the Cavaliers in a peculiar place, but Cleveland has itself to blame for his wanting out.

The Diamondbacks Just Robbed the Tigers in Plain Sight

Rick Osentoski/USA Today

Last night, the Yankees and White Sox pulled off the biggest blockbuster trade of this calendar year. Chicago will be sending third baseman Todd Frazier and relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to the Bronx in exchange for prospects Blake Rutherford, Tito Polo, and Ian Clarkin, as well as embattled relief pitcher Tyler Clippard. The trade is easily the headline-making deal of the day, and one that promises to affect both organizations going forward.

I’d like to talk today, though, about another trade that went down yesterday that will actually have a far bigger impact on the rest of baseball.

Yesterday, the Detroit Tigers pulled the plug on their hopelessly mediocre season by trading outfielder J.D. Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for minor-league infielders Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King. Martinez is a free agent after the season and has indicated that he may possibly go back to Detroit in the offseason. If he does, it’s obvious that the Tigers will have taken advantage of the last 69 regular season games of Martinez’s current contract by getting at least something for him. For now, however, let’s look at what Martinez will give the Diamondbacks for the rest of this season.

Despite the fact that Martinez may only stay in Arizona for the rest of this season, a large sample size exists to demonstrate that he is entirely worth the team’s investment. In the statistic of Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), which is an attempt to take the outcomes of a player’s at-bats into account while also accounting for the differences in each major league ballpark, Martinez is near the top of the league. Just how good is he? Since 2014, this is the list of the top eight hitters in wRC+ (100 is league average):

  1. Mike Trout (173)
  2. Joey Votto (159)
  3. Bryce Harper (151)
  4. Paul Goldschmidt (151)
  5. Miguel Cabrera (148)
  6. Freddie Freeman (147)
  7. Nelson Cruz (146)
  8. J.D. Martinez (146)

Okay. This is not to say that Martinez has been one of the eight best hitters in baseball over a nearly four-year span. We should definitely look at something more mainstream and commonly-used in the baseball community. Let’s look at something like Offense Plus Slugging (OPS). These are some of the top hitters in baseball in that category, over the same time span:

  1. Mike Trout (.992)
  2. Joey Votto (.974)
  3. Paul Goldschmidt (.960)
  4. Bryce Harper (.946)
  5. David Ortiz (.937)
  6. Miguel Cabrera (.917)
  7. Freddie Freeman (.915)
  8. Giancarlo Stanton (.915)
  9. J.D. Martinez (.912)

To be fair, OPS has its warts: it devalues on-base percentage and hitters who hit a lot of home runs and extra base hits are at a clear advantage. However, it’s clear that Martinez has consistently been one of the best hitters in baseball over a long period of time. This is not a three-month stretch we’re talking about; rather, we’re discussing a three-year stretch. If the MLB season ended today, just two of the teams that made the 2014 postseason (the Dodgers and Nationals) would make this year’s playoffs. Some hitters are great over the stretch of 300 or even 600 plate appearances. Martinez has been consistently great over his last 1886 plate appearances. The sample size should be enough to convince you that even two and a half months of him in the lineup is worth it for the Diamondbacks.

Martinez can play either corner outfield spot, and one would figure that he’ll be playing left field for Arizona for the rest of the season. That position has been something of a trouble spot for Arizona this season and Martinez can immediately fortify that position for a team looking to make a run in October. Where he fits in the lineup is up to the team and manager Torey Lovullo, but a hitter of his caliber should be able to fit just about anywhere with one of baseball’s better offenses.

Of course, there is something to be said to Martinez’s adjustment to playing in Arizona. After all, he was already discussing returning to Detroit just moments after he was traded to the Diamondbacks. That doesn’t mean he won’t produce in Arizona, but his acclimation to his new surroundings is something to keep an eye on.

Something he won’t have to worry about is the new ballpark he’ll be playing in. Martinez used to play in Comerica Park, a fairly neutral park for hitters and pitchers. He’ll be moving to Chase Field, the extremely hitter-friendly domain that is second only to Yankee Stadium in home runs hit per game this season. For context, the Diamondbacks rank fourteenth in baseball in home runs this season. It’s not about them; it’s about the home field they play in.

As for the return the Tigers got for Martinez? Many baseball scouts and reporters were less than impressed. The Diamondbacks did not surrender any of their top prospects from a farm system that has consistently been ranked near the bottom of baseball; it has never been last in the league, of course, because the Los Angeles Angels exist. Still, the return for one of the best hitters in the league seems very light. It’s possible that all of the players in the deal could be successful, but for right now, it looks like the Diamondbacks got an extraordinary talent without having to part with extraordinary value in return. Not bad for an organization that just a year and a half ago traded top prospect Dansby Swanson and now-star outfielder Ender Inciarte to the Atlanta Braves for 24 (mostly terrible) starts from Shelby Miller. I digress.

Let me say this, just so we’re absolutely clear: the acquisition of J.D. Martinez is absolutely not enough for the Diamondbacks to close their 10.5-game deficit on the Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL West crown. The Dodgers are literally the best team I’ve ever seen and Arizona better bring much more than J.D. Martinez to the table if they want to win the division.

Today, most baseball observers are buzzing about the Yankees’ acquisition of Todd Frazier and David Robertson. It’s obvious, though, that the Diamondbacks have pulled off the heist of the MLB trading season.

The Dodgers And Astros Are Having Historic Seasons

Kevin Sousa/USA Today

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros are currently the two best teams in their respective leagues.

Both teams are on fire right now. The Dodgers have won nine in a row and 29 of their last 33 games. The Astros have won 16 of their last 22 games, demonstrating that their blazing 42-16 start was no fluke. At their current pace, Houston would win 109 games while the Dodgers would win a staggering 111. If both teams were to finish the season like they’ve started it, they would rank among the winningest regular season teams in baseball history. Of course, only one team can win the World Series, and this isn’t to say that Houston or Los Angeles necessarily will.

To this point, though, both teams have been far and away ahead of the rest of baseball’s pack.

Think about this, for example: do you know who the third-best team in baseball is? By record, it’s the NL East-leading Washington Nationals, who are on pace for a not-so-insignificant 98 wins. Because of the Dodgers’ dominance over the rest of the National League, though, much of the narrative around Washington’s season has revolved around their league-worst bullpen, a  hodgepodge of arms that possesses the worst bullpen ERA in the game. But the Nationals beat the Dodgers in two out of three games in June and play Houston near the end of August. In most years, the Nationals would be the best team in baseball. Instead, most are busy identifying all of the different ways Washington will succumb to the rest of baseball in October.

Let’s look in the American League, shall we? The Boston Red Sox are the AL’s second-best team at 52-41. They are currently on pace for 91 wins, which is a full 18 victories behind Houston’s current pace. Boston does have the one thing the Astros don’t, which just so happens to be the best pitcher in baseball, Chris Sale. Of course, Sale can only pitch a maximum of three games in a seven-game series and has never previously pitched in the postseason. Other teams that could challenge Houston include the reigning AL champion Cleveland Indians, the New York Yankees, and Tampa Bay Rays. Cleveland is the most likely playoff threat because of their playoff experience, but they are currently just 1.5 games ahead of the Minnesota Twins in the mediocre AL Central.

Many would think that the performance of both teams in the first half of the season is nothing more than an unsustainable and anomalous blip. Let’s examine that assumption a little more closely.

Pythagorean W-L is a statistic that attempts to quantify what a team’s record should be based on its run differential. Basically, it is an attempt to remove luck from a team’s performance. Currently, the Astros’ Pythagorean record is 61-31, just one win off their actual record. At this rate, the team will score a wholly absurd 958 runs this season and concede just 664. (Note: no team scored more than 878 runs last season.) If those figures hold true, Houston will win 109 games, exactly what their current pace is in real life. Amazing. Now, let’s go back to the Dodgers.

As we sit right now, the Dodgers’ Pythagorean W-L is 64-29, the same as their actual record. At their current pace, L.A. is going to score 834 runs and allow all of 535. (No team allowed fewer than 556 runs in 2016.) If those numbers are sustained, the Dodgers would have, and you may want to be sitting down for this, a 115-47 record for the season. That would put them one win ahead of the 1998 New York Yankees and one game behind the 2001 Seattle Mariners for the best 162-game record ever.

Baseball fans shouldn’t overthink what’s going on here: we’re watching two of the best teams in the history of the game. Nate Silver’s website FiveThirtyEight uses what it calls “ELO Rating”, a numerical figure given to a team throughout the season, to calculate the best teams of all time. In this all-encompassing measure of greatness, both the Dodgers and the Astros ranked in the top 20 teams ever at the All-Star break, with both teams coming within four points of the 1927 Yankees and light years ahead of last year’s World Series champions, the Chicago Cubs. There are reasonable questions as to whether or not this can be sustained, but over 90 games is a very healthy sample size for the prospects of both teams’ continued success.

About that: it’s entirely possible that both teams start to fall off their scorching pace in the second half of the season. The Astros, however, will soon be getting reinforcements: ace Dallas Keuchel is making the first start of his rehab assignment in Corpus Christi, Texas tonight. The 2015 Cy Young winner hasn’t pitched since June 2 because of a pinched nerve in his neck. For as ridiculously good as the Astros have been this year, they might get even better. Let that thought sit with you for just a moment.

As for the Dodgers, there are likely no more reinforcements coming. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez may return before the end of the season after herniating multiple disks in his back. He was replaced by none other than Cody Bellinger, who is expected to run away with the National League Rookie of the Year Award barring unforeseen circumstances. If Gonzalez were to return, he could provide a spark off the bench; he won’t get his first base job back, as Bellinger is playing too well to go back to the bench. Also, Clayton Kershaw is, by his standards, having a down year. That’s another thing you should probably take into consideration.

In Major League Baseball this season, we are seeing something that rarely occurs: two teams that are re-writing the record books in the exact same season. While it remains to be seen whether or not the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros can cash in their regular season success with a championship, one thing is clear:

They have rampaged through baseball in 2017, leaving 28 Major League franchises in their wake. They’re also leaving much of baseball’s history in the rear view mirror, re-writing records on their way to historic campaigns.

LeBron vs. Jordan, From a Different Perspective

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Sports is dead.

Well, at least until tomorrow. This week marks the only time in the calendar year in which no professional sports games will be played. It’s a slow news week and at this point, it seems like we’re almost inventing news to get us through it. Think about that story: a player took his franchise’s ineptitude into account, as well as the sport’s inherent health risks, when deciding whether or not to keep playing football. No, never! Anyhow, it’s not the best week for new developments in the sports world.

This is good. Really, it is. We need breaks every now and then to take us out of a 500-mile-per-hour sports news cycle rife with blowhard dads, out-of-control beefs, and lots and lots of basketball. (The last game of the NBA Finals was on June 12. It feels like the sport never left us.) This also gives yours truly an opportunity to examine something I’ve somehow become opinionated about over the past year or so:

The debate over who is truly the best basketball player of all time, a debate that can be narrowed down to just two players: LeBron James and Michael Jordan.

You’ve probably heard the crazier, louder, and most controversial opinions on this subject. From our flawed memories to the supposed clutch gene, we’ve heard just about every possible opinion on this subject. It’s not that these opinions are bad or even wrong, but they do become tiring after a while. Once the discussion reaches a certain point, it feels like the same facts (or opinions) are being regurgitated and we try to come up with new, more interesting, and more controversial ways to address this matter.

This used to be something I spent zero time and energy on. After all, it’s the most hotly-contested debate in sports between fans, pundits, and even players. The contrarian in me said that I should ignore this and pay attention to other issues in sports that I viewed as being more important at the time. It really does put the psycho in psychoanalysis and I used to loathe it with a burning passion:

Anyone who makes a sincere argument about James’ legacy compared to Jordan’s clearly doesn’t understand just how much basketball has changed over the past 20 years. These people also don’t understand that the two men are completely different players who do completely different things on the court.  LeBron has always been aware of this, thankfully.

Sure, the game of basketball has changed over the past 20 years. And I’d like to think that I’ve become less of a sarcastic, angry curmudgeon over the past thirteen months (wishful thinking). So I decided to further investigate some things myself, and even I must admit that I was surprised by just some of what I found. For all of my life, I had always assumed that Jordan was better, but I gave myself a serious self-examination to discover why I held that opinion and whether or not I was right.

I decided that I was going to examine this analytically and accept that I may not expect the outcome I would eventually come to. I was jumping in on the hottest debate in sports.


For starters, most everyone agrees that James is a better passer than Jordan. This is certifiably true; not only does James (7.0) average more career assists per game than MJ (5.2), LeBron’s 35.0% assist percentage easily outshines Jordan’s (24.9%). Okay, we’ll give this facet of the game of basketball to LeBron. As long as Jordan isn’t hurting his teammates on the offensive end, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal, right?

As many will tell you, the absolute worst thing you can possibly do with the basketball is turn it over. In the case of an unskilled player like me, the worst thing you can do is shoot it, but that’s an entirely different conversation. Anyway, James has, as you would expect, more turnovers per game than Jordan. Again, this is over the course of both players’ full careers, so everything they have done is being factored in.

Take a closer look at that number, though, and you’ll see that it isn’t as black-and-white as it may seem. Sure, James averages more than three turnovers per game, but as we pointed out earlier, he also gets about seven assists. In terms of career totals, James’ assist-to-turnover ratio is about 2.06. Jordan, who obviously passed the ball less in his day, has an assist-to-turnover ratio of roughly 1.93. At this stage, I should point out that I won’t be counting Jordan’s comeback season in 1995, one in which he played just 17 regular season games. While much is often made of James’ turnovers, particularly in the playoffs, the problem is actually overblown in the regular season. If you take James over Jordan, you’re getting an extra 106 assists in exchange for just over 36 more turnovers. Wouldn’t you take that literally every single time? I know I would.

If you place a lot of import in playoff statistics, like I also do, you’ll notice that these numbers are slightly different. James’ assist-to-turnover ratio dips to 1.93 while Jordan’s hovers around 1.87. While both players are down, James is still slightly better. If you hitch your wagons to playoff LeBron and ditch playoff Jordan, you’re signing up for 45 more assists and 22 more turnovers. Again, you’d take that trade-off.

Another common knock against James’ overall game is his shooting ability. For some reason, many have made LeBron’s “inability to shoot” their justification for knocking him as a player. So of course Jordan’s shooting numbers have to be better, right?

Actually, that’s not necessarily the case. What if I told you that James has better career percentages on both two-pointers and three-pointers? That would probably shock you, right? Well, it’s true. While Jordan has a better field goal percentage in the playoffs, James actually has a better true shooting percentage; true shooting percentage, or TS%, is a measure of every “shot” a player takes over the course of a game or a season (twos, threes, and free throws). The numbers state that James is kind of, sort of a better shooter than Michael Jordan. Funny how that happens.

Now, many Jordan zealots will point to his scoring numbers (three more points per game in the regular season and five more in the playoffs) as a way to essentially stiff-arm these critiques. But in the playoffs, Jordan is able to pull off these numbers by taking over four more shots per game (in the regular season, it’s just over three extra shots per contest). Those numbers, then, are not as impressive when you consider how much harder he has to work for them. That isn’t meant to be a knock on Jordan’s offensive prowess but it does put both players’ scoring ability into context.

There’s one more thing to think about here: Jordan appeared in six NBA Finals and LeBron has appeared in eight. While most will take this time to point out that Jordan has six rings as opposed to James’ three, the fact that James has been to eight Finals total and seven in a row speaks to how consistently good he has been. Of course, if Jordan didn’t take the better part of two years off to play baseball, he may have matched or even surpassed this feat. And while Jordan has a 6-0 record in the Finals, he also lost to other Eastern Conference teams in the playoffs in the earlier stages of his career. That should also factor into his playoff greatness, whether you like it or not. This is the question: would you rather lose early in the playoffs or get to basketball’s biggest stage and then succumb to a simply better team? That’s pretty much what you’re saying if you bring up Jordan’s Finals record as the be-all, end-all answer in the debate between these two titans of basketball.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that I am something of an advanced stats nerd. Advanced analytics, particularly in basketball, place everyone on a level playing field and make all things virtually equal. This next section may bore you, but it is arguably most significant when comparing both players.


One of the main statistics used to evaluate players in basketball is Player Efficiency Rating, or PER for short. In that category, Jordan is slightly ahead of James (27.9 to 27.6). The distance between these two players, the top two in the history of the NBA in PER, and the third-place player (Shaquille O’Neal) is sizable. Jordan and LeBron are the two best players in this all-encompassing category, but we’ll cede the high ground to MJ on this one.

The more revealing stat in this debate is Value Over Replacement Player, otherwise known as VORP. VORP essentially tries to quantify just how much better (or worse) a player is than just about any other replacement player in the league in terms of points per 100 team possessions added (or subtracted). It is basically basketball’s answer to Wins Above Replacement. You get it, I VORP. I’m sorry. I had to throw that in.

Back to the matter at hand now. Just like with PER, both players are in the top two all time (it should be noted that these rankings also encompass the ABA). This time, though, James finds himself on top (115.9 to Jordan’s 104.4). While career PER is an average of a player’s efficiency rating over the course of his career, VORP is a statistic that accumulates as a player racks up more career minutes. So surely, upon seeing this, you would think James has played significantly more career games and minutes than Jordan, right?

Well, it’s not exactly that way. James has played 41,272 career regular season minutes. Jordan has played 41,011. The difference in service time between the two all-time greats? 261 minutes, a difference that Jordan would have compensated for in roughly seven games.

Another similar measure of a player’s success is a stat called Box Plus/Minus (BPM). Box Plus/Minus is almost identical to VORP, except that it attempts to quantify the contributions of a player per 100 possessions while he is on the floor. BPM, just like PER, is an averaged statistic and is not dependent on minutes played. James and Jordan possess all three of the greatest BPM seasons of all time, but James has a slightly better BPM than Michael (9.1 to 8.1). There are also separate calculations for offensive and defensive BPM. LeBron has the advantage in both figures.

Advanced statistics have spoken. They say that LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all-time.


This is a debate that you could spin yourself in knots with. There are legitimate arguments to be made for both players and it’s hard to find blame with any opinion… as long as it makes logical sense, of course. To tell you the truth, I’m still not entirely comfortable having this conversation, as Jordan’s second retirement came just under four weeks before my birth. I’m also not comfortable with some seemingly downplaying Michael Jordan’s impact on the game of basketball, as he came into the league when NBA Finals games were broadcast on tape delay and left the sport of basketball as the second-most popular sport in the United States.

That being said, this discussion is simply about which man is the better basketball player and, by extension, the best basketball player ever. My careful study of the numbers shows that LeBron James has a slight but clear advantage.

We Need To Talk About the Milwaukee Brewers

David Banks/USA Today

Coming into this season, the Chicago Cubs were heavily favored to win the NL Central while the Milwaukee Brewers were expected to finish third in the division (at best). I’ll give you three guesses who’s in first place at the All-Star Break.

The Milwaukee Brewers are currently 50-41 and 5.5 games ahead of both the Cubs and Cardinals for first place in the National League Central. The division is absolutely one of the weaker ones in baseball (the Cincinnati Reds, at 39-49, are within shouting distance of first at 9.5 games back) but the Brewers’ success has put just about all of baseball on notice. While many expected the team to continue its ongoing rebuilding efforts, the organization, led by General Manager and Harvard political science major David Stearns, is competing for a playoff berth. While Milwaukee’s first-half triumphs may not have been in the organization’s plans, the Brewers are in full command of first place with just 71 games left in the season. Their dominion over their division is getting more and more serious with each passing day. Even though many have tried to punt on having this conversation, we must force ourselves to face this inexorable fact:

The Milwaukee Brewers are for real.

How they have gotten to this point is most certainly a matter of intrigue. In terms of Wins Above Replacement, the team’s leading hitter is third baseman Travis Shaw. Shaw and two other prospects were sent to Milwaukee from the Red Sox in exchange for reliever Tyler Thornburg after last season. This year, Shaw is batting .299 with a .570 slugging percentage; the latter figure ranks fourteenth in all of baseball, ahead of noted big boppers such as Logan Morrison, Mike Moustakas, and Miguel Sanó. Thornburg, on the other hand, will not pitch for the Red Sox after undergoing season-ending surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome last month. Whoops.

The next most fascinating Brewer story is that of first baseman Eric Thames. In stints with the Mariners and Blue Jays in 2011 and 2012, Thames hit a competent but unspectacular .250 with 21 home runs. After being demoted late in the 2012 season and bouncing around the minors with three different clubs in 2013, Thames was signed by the NC Dinos of South Korea’s KBO League. Thames suddenly turned into South Korea’s answer to Miguel Cabrera, hitting 124 home runs in just three seasons. Additionally, he hit .349 and was the KBO’s Most Valuable Player in 2015.

And, as you probably figured, he’s now producing serious results for the Milwaukee Brewers. Thames leads the team in home runs (23) and runs scored (58). While his batting average has fallen to .248 after a scorching start to the season, he still has a .374 on-base percentage and has walked in 15.5% of his plate appearances.

There have been other contributors to the Brewers’ success, too. Players such as Domingo Santana, Manny Piña, Orlando Arcia, Jesus Aguilar, and even Eric Sogard have all contributed at least one win this season. If the last name I mentioned sounds familiar, it is; Sogard, while playing for the Oakland A’s in 2014, very nearly became the “Face of MLB” after an inside joke that went way, way too far. Sogard eventually lost the contest to Mets third baseman David Wright; just three years later, Wright’s career is likely over after a prolonged and continuing bout with spinal stenosis in his back. The contest was proof positive that you should never, ever decide things on Twitter. After all, the site’s most popular tweet comes from a man named Carter Wilkinson. The subject matter? Wilkinson was asking Wendy’s for a year’s supply of chicken nuggets. So there you go.

Anyway, where the Brewers’ story becomes truly impressive is with their pitching staff. Both Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson have turned in outstanding first halves, with Anderson pitching to a sub-3.00 ERA. While he has not pitched since leaving his June 28 start against the Reds with an oblique injury, Anderson is expected to return after the All-Star break. Nelson, though, has been the true ace of the starting rotation, having tossed 109 innings in 18 starts and pitching to a 3.30 ERA. Nelson is becoming the Brewers’ ace, as he’s been the team’s best (and most consistent) starter to this point in the season. In fact, Nelson’s WAR ranks in the top ten among all starting pitchers in baseball. Nelson is easily having the best year of his career, and it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be able to keep it up. But his sudden dominance is part of the Brewers’ early-season success.

The other prominent hurler for the Brew Crew is closer Corey Knebel. Knebel is also having the best season of his career and has become one of the best closers in baseball in 2017. Knebel has been so good, in fact, that his K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) rate is third among all relief pitchers, behind only the Red Sox’ Craig Kimbrel and the Yankees’ Dellin Betances. It’s entirely possible that Knebel falls off in the second half of the season, but he too has been vital to Milwaukee’s ascendancy to the top of the NL Central.

Of course, this story would be incomplete without addressing the Chicago Cubs and, more broadly, the collective mediocrity of the rest of the NL Central. While Chicago likely still has the most talent of any team in the division (FanGraphs still projects them to win the NL Central), the Brewers have separated from the pack as a result of their World Series hangover. And even as the Cubs’ season has slowly morphed into the title defense from hell, no one in the division, aside from Milwaukee, has taken advantage of their struggles.

The Milwaukee Brewers are no joke. They’ve been in first place outright since June 7 and while many have panicked about the state of the Cubs, the Brewers have started to pull away in a somewhat stunning development. They’ve gotten excellent pitching and timely hitting from unlikely sources and their run differential says that they should have performed exactly as well as they did in the first half of the season.

And whether they have gotten their most important pieces from the minor leagues, the Red Sox, or South Korea, the Milwaukee Brewers will try to finish what they started and lock up the National League Central in the second half of the season.

Everything and Nothing Is Changing in the NBA

Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Gordon Hayward is shipping up to Boston.

The former Utah Jazz forward will sign with the Celtics on a 4-year, $128 million deal, with the fourth year being a player option. Hayward is the asset Celtics GM Danny Ainge had wanted all along, and he didn’t have to give up any of his precious assets to get the best free agent on the market. This, ultimately, was Boston’s endgame; save the team’s stockpile of draft picks and most of its key pieces to acquire Hayward, who just last year was a 10-win player for the Jazz and a top-15 player in the league, having earned career highs in points and rebounds.

One would figure that Hayward’s decision would significantly change the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. If this is your opinion, you may want to seriously rethink it.

In order to make room for Hayward on their roster, the Celtics are expected to trade any one of Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, or Marcus Smart; rumors are that the front office is looking to jettison one of the three players to Utah in a sign-and-trade to acquire Hayward. The most likely scenario is that Crowder is traded, as he would likely be cast as an undersized power forward in Boston’s new offense. However, his loss would be a bitter pill to swallow; Crowder ranked second on the team in win shares (6.7) last season and third in value over replacement player. While he probably wouldn’t be as productive if he stayed in Boston, don’t think that the Celtics are losing nothing if they trade him. Advanced statistics are not as friendly to Bradley or Smart, but the former was Boston’s second-leading scorer a season ago and the latter was the team’s sixth man. If it were up to me, I’d trade Marcus Smart; he only shot 36% from the field last season and just over 28% from deep. Smart, though, is one of the best defensive players on the team (tied for first in defensive win shares) and his departure would likely force Terry Rozier to step in as the Celtics’ backup point guard. While acquiring Hayward is definitely worth it for the Celtics, the team will likely be faced with non-trivial losses after his signing becomes official.

While the Celtics were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference a season ago, their Pythagorean win-loss record says that Boston should have been 48-34 based on last season’s point differential of +216, or +2.6 points per game. Let’s say that the Celtics send Crowder to Utah in the sign-and-trade. In terms of win shares, the Celtics are getting a +3.7 net change, but if you take that number and add it to their expected win-loss record and not their real one (53-29), the team would finish at 52-30. Granted, this does not take the overall fit of either player into account, but it does provide a starting point to figuring out just how much better Boston is with Hayward’s addition. Personally, I’d say that the Celtics are about three wins better than they were last season if they don’t trade Crowder. If they do, they’re probably right back where they were a season ago, even though their roster is more talented and, simply put, better. The team is due for a market correction after essentially stealing an extra five wins last season, but Hayward will help them once he gets acclimated to his new surroundings.

Remember when I told you that Hayward was worth just over ten wins for the Jazz last season? Well, that isn’t the important thing when considering his move. The main question to ask yourself is this: is Gordon Hayward worth an extra three wins in late May?

That’s the amount of wins the Celtics would have needed to get past the Great Wall of LeBron in last year’s playoffs. Even with one of the luckiest and most surprising wins in NBA playoff history, Boston was absolutely no match for the James-led Cavaliers in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Does the acquisition of a player like Hayward push the Celtics over the edge and past the Cavaliers? My guess, at least for next year, is that it doesn’t. It does make things more interesting, but it’s unlikely that Hayward instantly makes the Celtics the best team in the Eastern Conference; after all, the Celtics were immolated to the tune of a -100 point differential in last year’s Conference Finals, one that lasted just five games.

Now, Hayward’s signing is not solely a play towards 2018. The Celtics, assuming Ainge can re-sign star point guard Isaiah Thomas next year, are squarely in position to ascend to the Eastern Conference throne should James begin to decline (he turns 33 in late December) or leave the Cavaliers after next season. From that point of view, the acquisition is very smart; Boston gets a star player while giving up relatively few assets to do so. However, those picking the Celtics to win the East next year are probably at least a year ahead of themselves.

Of course, Hayward’s move isn’t the only significant development in this year’s free agency window. Let’s take a look at what’s been going on in the Western Conference, shall we?

In my view, the most significant move out west was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ draft day acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. Chicago, for reasons passing understanding, only took Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh overall pick (Lauri Markkanen) from Chicago for a player who ranked in the top fifteen in both offensive and defensive win shares last season. Then, Minnesota signed Indiana Pacers (more on them later) point guard Jeff Teague and dealt Ricky Rubio to Utah. While the two are similar players, Teague is a slightly better shooter and, by extension, a slightly better floor-spacer for an offense that will likely run more isolation sets for Butler. Also, the addition of Butler should help budding stars Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, both of whom are just 21 years old. Butler’s arrival should be beneficial to Wiggins, in particular, as he struggled mightily on defense last season. For added measure, the team later signed power forward Taj Gibson to play alongside Towns in the paint.

Here’s the catch, though: the most transformative acquisition of the past two weeks came to a team that finished 31-51 last season. While their Pythagorean win percentage says they should have won seven more games than they did, the Timberwolves have a ways to go before becoming a serious championship contender. While the Celtics can at least see the light at the end of the tunnel with the Cavs’ dominance, there still exists a gulf between Minnesota and the Golden State Warriors. And Golden State doesn’t have aging superstars who are likely to leave the team anytime soon. So while Butler makes the Timberwolves a lot better than they were, he shouldn’t be enough to make the difference between them and the Warriors.

Another huge trade in the West was the Oklahoma City Thunder’s acquisition of Pacers forward Paul George. George announced shortly before the deal that he had absolutely no intention of re-signing with Indiana when he becomes a free agent in 2018. This left team president Kevin Pritchard between a rock and a hard place; trade George and receive less than he should in return or keep George for one more year and let him walk, likely to the Los Angeles Lakers, next summer. Pritchard decided to cut his losses and deal George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. George is a legitimate star in today’s NBA, and his numbers would suggest that the Pacers should get far more than they did in the trade. However, his preemptive decision left Pritchard with no good alternatives, so trading him for far less than market value was probably his only move to get himself out of check with his superstar. While many observers have chided the Pacers for getting fleeced in the deal, they had very few good options in this situation. They should be let off the hook just for getting anything at all for George’s services.

George, by all standards, is a very good player. He had a career year last year and has averaged over 20 points per game in each of the last three full seasons he has played. Where he has struggled recently is with his defense, as he accrued a negative defensive box plus/minus rating last season. This year, though, he’ll be playing with Russell Westbrook, the league’s reigning MVP. Chances are that he won’t be carrying all of the offensive load like he did with Indiana last season, thus giving him more energy to spend on defense. The two should have a symbiotic relationship next season, and while Westbrook probably won’t be averaging a triple-double next season, the addition of a player like George will take some of the burden from both players.

That being said, the Thunder won just 47 games a season ago. They were the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and were bounced in an exciting but anticlimactic five games by the Houston Rockets in the first round last season. While the Thunder will try to keep George after next season, the Lakers are still the favorites to reel him in next summer. And even with him, the Thunder are likely not good enough to make a serious run at a championship this season. While George is an objectively excellent player, he shouldn’t move the needle enough to push the Thunder past the Warriors.

The one team that can claim to have a fighting chance at winning the West next season is the Houston Rockets. The team acquired star point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers in a monster trade that included the Rockets sending seven players back to L.A. The numbers, though, suggest that the hefty price Houston paid (Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, others) is more than worth it; Paul contributed just under 11 wins to the Clippers last year in all of 61 games. Even at 32, Paul is still one of the best point guards in the league, and his addition could very well make the Rockets the second best team in the Western Conference. While some have made the argument that Paul and superstar James Harden will struggle to coexist because, as they say, there is only one basketball, the Rockets now have two of the best guards in the game. Somehow, I’m inclined to think they’ll make it work.

But, again, can they beat the Warriors? Paul has never been to the Conference Finals and the Rockets couldn’t even get past the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs in Game 6 of the conference semis last year. In a vacuum, this move would likely make the Rockets the title favorite next season. Instead, Houston will have to contend with the monolith that is the most talented basketball team ever assembled.

And also, the Warriors will be even more absurd than they were just last year. In free agency, the team has added shooters Omri Casspi and Nick Young (yes, that Nick Young) to their already-loaded bench. Meanwhile, they have also managed to keep all of their core pieces intact while making their roster even better than it already was. If a team is going to catch the Warriors for the NBA title next season, I haven’t found it yet. While CP3 makes the Rockets significantly better, Houston would need several things to go right for them to get past Golden State.

Many important moves have been made in NBA free agency and trades in the last few days. Several teams have gotten better this month, such as the Thunder, Celtics, Timberwolves, and Rockets. We haven’t even gotten to mention the Denver Nuggets, who will be a ton of fun next year after signing power forward Paul Millsap to a 3-year, $90 million deal. Also, the Sacramento Kings are pushing toward playoff contention (don’t laugh) with the signings of George Hill and Zach Randolph, as well as the drafting of Kentucky’s DeAaron Fox with the fifth overall pick in the draft.

Many NBA teams have gotten better over the past couple of weeks. Unfortunately for them, the moves made this June and July likely won’t make much of a difference come next May and June.

Paul Goldschmidt Is Having the Best Season You’ve Never Heard Of

Rob Schultz/Getty Images

We are at about the halfway point of the Major League Baseball season and it’s been a year of fascinating storylines. Some of those include the dominance of rookies Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, the emergence of the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers as the two best teams in baseball, and the underwhelming performance of the defending champion Chicago Cubs. It has been, to this point, an exciting exhibition of both team and individual performances, one that is sure to pave the way for a fascinating second half of the season.

One of the best performaces of this young season, though, has gone completely under the radar.

It’s not exactly a secret that I really like Paul Goldschmidt; in fact, I’ve actually commissioned myself as the president of the Society of Paul Goldschmidt Admirers. He is easily the most underrated superstar in today’s game and the consistency of his performance on a daily basis almost always goes unnoticed. Part of the problem is that he plays on the Arizona Diamondbacks in one of baseball’s more anonymous markets; most of Arizona’s home games don’t begin until 9:30 on the east coast, meaning that many baseball fans aren’t able to stay up late to see just how good Goldschmidt really is. The other issue is that because Goldschmidt is such a well-rounded player there isn’t really one thing to zero in on in terms of his abilities on an everyday basis. It’s hard to think of him as just a power hitter, speedster, or elite defender.

If you want a measure of just how talented Goldschmidt really is, consider this: he ranks first among major league first basemen in both runs scored and stolen bases while also coming in third in home runs. At a position where most players simply don’t run well, Goldschmidt is on pace for around 25 steals this year. For a more all-encompassing look at Goldschmidt’s base running abilities, we turn to BsR, the base running component of wins above replacement. In that category, he is also tops among all first basemen, but that’s not all: among all position players, Goldschmidt is tied for third in all of baseball. The two players he’s tied with, the Royals’ Jarrod Dyson and the Marlins’ Dee Gordon, are two of the fastest players in the game today. However, both players only get on base roughly 33% of the time. Goldschmidt, on the other hand, reaches base in nearly 44% of his plate appearances. So not only is he reaching base at an extremely high rate (second among all position players) but he is also a true asset to his team when he gets there.

Next, we move to the all-important power category. While most players who run well are not able to hit for power, Goldschmidt is the rare exception. He ranks seventh in the league in slugging percentage, a measure of a player’s total bases divided by the number of at-bats he has. A deeper dive into this, though, shows that his performance in this category is even more impressive than advertised. Out of the top 35 players in the league in slugging, Goldschmidt is the only player with double-digit stolen bases. Eight of those 35 players have zero steals on the season, and 22 of the 35 have negative BsR ratings. Goldschmidt really is the exception instead of the rule, and his all-around prowess of the offensive game is truly something to behold.

If his performance this season were a surprise, chances are it would be covered more vigorously on a national level. This year’s showing, however, is a continuation of a trend that started back in 2012. With the exception of his 2014 season, one that ended when he broke his hand on August 1 of that year, Goldschmidt has had at least 20 home runs and 15 stolen bases every single year. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he’s going to do that again this year. His exploits have guided the Diamondbacks and their horrendous uniforms to a 52-31 start; Arizona has the third-best record in baseball and is just 2.5 games behind the Dodgers for first place in the NL West.

Even with all that, Goldschmidt still isn’t earning the recognition he deserves. His jersey is not in the top 20 of all jerseys sold on MLBShop.com since last year’s World Series. He has ceded much of the attention at his own position to players such as Anthony Rizzo and Ryan Zimmerman. Even with the success of the Diamondbacks, Goldschmidt still hasn’t earned the respect or praise he has truly earned. Many around the team and the league speak of Goldschmidt as a quiet individual who doesn’t necessarily seek out the media spotlight. However, he deserves to be shouted out here, even if he isn’t going to be the one doing the talking.

There is also this last note to consider: among all players in Major League Baseball, Goldschmidt ranks fourth in wins above replacement. Only Aaron Judge, Chris Sale, and Max Scherzer are ahead of him in that category. While I don’t consider myself a blind slave to WAR, the figure provides a starting point for evaluating players based on their production to this particular point in the season. And through three months of baseball, WAR says that Goldschmidt is the fourth-best player in the league. It also says that he’s the second-best position player in baseball, and the guy he’s behind in that category has his own cheering section in Yankee Stadium. Paul Goldschmidt, for nearly as productive a season, has some hardcore fans and, well, this blog post. The difference between the two may not be that disparate, but it’s pretty close.

It’s very unlikely that many people will come to appreciate the greatness of Paul Goldschmidt anytime soon. The fact of the matter is, though, that he has been one of baseball’s brightest stars over the past couple of seasons. This year, the Diamondbacks find themselves in contention for a playoff spot and (potentially) a run into October. if Arizona can maintain its first-half success, much of America may finally realize just how good the Diamondbacks’ first baseman really is when the playoffs roll around.

But until then, he’ll continue to put together an MVP-caliber season, regardless of whether or not anyone outside Arizona notices or cares.

Phil Jackson Isn’t Leaving the Knicks in Dire Straits

David Dow/Getty Images

Phil Jackson is goink, goink, gone as President of the New York Knicks.

The news was passed down early yesterday morning, as Jackson and owner James Dolan began to have major philosophical differences about the future of the franchise. This frustration is reported to have revolved around a potential buyout of Carmelo Anthony, an avenue that would have entailed the Knicks paying him a large sum of money, potentially up to $54 million, to play elsewhere. While Anthony wanted out of New York, Jackson wanted to get something back for his services. With this, the tumultuous, turbulent, three-year tenure of Jackson’s rule over the Knicks came to an end yesterday.

The reaction to this news? Predictable:

HALLELUJAH.

A post shared by Spike Lee (@officialspikelee) on

Needless to say, Knick fans are pretty stoked about the team getting out of Jackson’s grasp. At this point, though, it’s probably a good idea to take a look back at Jackson’s time with the Knicks and just what exactly went so wrong for him and the team over these past three years. It’s also important to look at where the Knicks are now as opposed to where they were when Jackson took over as the team’s lead executive.

On March 18, 2014, the Knicks hired Jackson as their team president. The team was 28-40 at the time and in no position to make a run towards the playoffs. In fact, Phil’s first move as the lead executive, as certain individuals will happily remind you, was to sign Lamar Odom, who, at the time, was in the midst of an addiction to alcohol and cocaine. As a metaphor, it wasn’t the best start to the Jackson era in New York.

After the season, Jackson fired head coach Mike Woodson and replaced him with the recently-retired Derek Fisher. While the hiring was met with optimism, the Knicks previously had their heart set on Steve Kerr, who instead took a job with the Golden State Warriors. The team reportedly low-balled Kerr by offering him $13 million for three years; the Warriors offered to pay Kerr $5 million per year for five years, an offer he happily accepted. Three years and two Golden State championships later, it’s clear that the disenfranchisement of Kerr set a negative tone for Phil Jackson’s tenure as president of the Knicks.

Perhaps more telling, though, were the assistant coaches hired by Jackson to help the inexperienced Fisher. Among others, Jackson hired Jim Cleamons and Kurt Rambis to spots on Fisher’s bench. Why was this significant? Well, both men were former assistant coaches under Jackson in his time with the Bulls and Lakers; they would help implement Jackson’s favored Triangle offense, an offensive system he used in both of his previous coaching stints to help him win eleven championships. The Knicks, however, did not have Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, and it showed, as the team went 17-65 for the 2014-15 season, Jackson’s first full campaign as leader of the Knicks’ front office.

The seminal move of that season was the team’s trade of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In a three-team trade that also included Dion Waiters and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Knicks acquired… Alex Kirk, Lou Amundson, and Lance Thomas. Smith and Shumpert became important pieces to the Cavaliers’ run to the NBA Finals that season and both are still in Cleveland. Jackson had finally helped build a title contender. Unfortunately, that title contender played in Cleveland, serving as yet another metaphor for the hapless Knicks.

Jackson’s lasting legacy as an executive will be his selection of Latvian power forward Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Porzingis has been excellent as a Knick and represents the team’s future as Carmelo Anthony begins to decline. Of course, in true Jacksonian fashion, he tried to trade the 21-year-old Porzingis before this year’s draft. When asked why he would even think about doing such a thing, the principal reason he cited was the Knicks’ future. The main reason for trading Porzingis would have been because he blew off last year’s end-of-season exit meetings because he, like everyone else, was and is frustrated with the Knicks’ dysfunction. While Phil cited the future to explain why the Knicks took calls about Porzingis’ availability, little did he know that trading the team’s best asset would have sabotaged the future Jackson said he was trying to protect.

This is also to say nothing of the relationship (or lack thereof) Jackson cultivated with Anthony. Among other insults, Jackson suggested that Anthony was a ball hog and didn’t necessarily care about winning. Jackson later went back to his Twitter with this truly bizarre clarification after subtweeting his star player:

One thing Jackson does understand about being an executive is the use of social media. As an influential leader in the 21st Century, Jackson understands that Twitter is a way to get your message out without going through the media. Unfortunately, his Twitter usage only created further problems for the Knicks, a team already torn apart by bad management and poor performance.

So where are the Knicks right now? After firing Fisher and bringing in new coach Jeff Hornacek before last season, the Knicks are at something of a crossroads. While Jackson and the Triangle are out, Hornacek and the remains of his staff and the team’s front office will have to fend for themselves with a roster somewhat in question; point guard Derrick Rose is a free agent and the team reportedly wants to try to trade Anthony, even though Jackson has left the front office.

Even though Phil Jackson proved to be a fairly awful executive (the Knicks were 80-171 under his leadership), he didn’t completely sabotage the team’s future. While there were times it looked like he would, Jackson still left the Knicks with Kristaps Porzingis and the opportunity to get something meaningful in exchange for Anthony’s services.

As for who will replace Jackson, that still remains to be seen. The top candidates to emerge for the position are former Cavaliers GM David Griffin and Raptors president Masai Ujiri. If the Knicks can lure Ujiri from Canada, the Raptors are likely to receive draft pick compensation in return. Of course, the success of Jackson’s replacement will depend on how willing owner James Dolan is to trust the new decision-maker(s). Dolan’s track record could use some improvement; since 2002, the Seattle SuperSonics have won more playoff games than the Knicks. Since 2008, the Seattle SuperSonics have been known as the Oklahoma City Thunder. The task awaiting whoever takes over as the president of the Knicks is to rebuild the worst-run franchise in the NBA into a contender. Good luck.

But the new president of the team will have Porzingis, Anthony, and, most importantly, a bright future for a team that has not reached the Eastern Conference Finals since 2000. That’s a lot better than nothing.

A Few Forgotten Men: Reassigning Credit for the Dodgers’ Success

Harry How/Getty Images

Let’s go back to 1984. Before I tell you this story, let me assure you that I know where I’m going with this.

The music legend and founder of the Motown record label, Berry Gordy, has a 20-year-old son looking to break into the music industry. He has changed his name, with the help of his father’s company, to create his own image outside of his father’s shadow. The younger Gordy has a song that he believes can be a hit, but while he liked the tune, he wanted to bring in a more established singer to perform the song’s hook.

When that person came along, the song became internationally-renowned and reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”, and the man singing the chorus was none other than Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. Keep in mind that Jackson released his “Thriller” album over 13 months before and was truly at the peak of his powers as a musician and performer. The chorus (“I always feel like, somebody’s watchin’ meeeeeeeeeee”) is easily the most memorable part of the song, and Jackson’s role in the hit single is what allowed it to be released in the first place.

At the time, many simply assumed that “Somebody’s Watching Me” was Jackson’s song. And while MJ’s are some of the most famous backing vocals ever, he was not actually credited on the song itself. While his contribution to the song is minimal in time, it is what many remember about it, even if Rockwell performed most of the song. It would be Rockwell’s biggest and, for all intents and purposes, only hit. “Somebody’s Watching Me” has now been the anthem of everyday paranoia for over 33 years, but it likely never reaches the light of day without Jackson’s help.

So what’s the point of me telling you all this? Well, it looks like a similar situation is brewing with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers lead the NL West by 2.5 games and are currently on a 10-game winning streak. Much of the hype surrounding the team’s hot start has revolved around star rookie outfielder Cody Bellinger, who leads the National League with 24 home runs despite having played just 57 of Los Angeles’ 77 games this season. Of course, a lot of the recent attention Bellinger has received concerns his oblivion towards the existence of Jerry Seinfeld, but we’ll let that go for now.

Many will presume that Bellinger has been the Dodgers’ best (and most important) player to this point in the season. After all, he has hit twelve home runs in his team’s last fifteen games, and the Dodgers are 14-1 in that span. A closer look at the numbers, though, shows that he has been far from the only key to the Dodgers’ success.

Consider this: for as good as Bellinger has been to this point in the season, he has only hit .282. In some ways, that makes his home run binge even more impressive, as the longball has accounted for over 40% of his hits this season. It is fair to ask yourself, however, if he can continue at his torrid pace for the rest of the season; while he leads the league in isolated power, a measure of a batter’s raw power, major league pitchers may be able to somewhat figure him out sooner or later. While they may not be able to stop him completely, they could attack him more intelligently as they get a feel for his strengths and weaknesses.

Here’s something else to think about: is Bellinger’s success a result of the hitters in front of him in the lineup?

Since third baseman Justin Turner returned from the disabled list on June 9, the Dodgers and manager Dave Roberts have employed a lineup with shortstop Corey Seager hitting second, Turner hitting third, and Bellinger cleaning up. Roberts had tried this lineup earlier in the season and has gone back to it since Turner’s return. In this version of the Dodgers’ lineup, the three hitters have formed something of a Mortal Kombat combination; in the sixteen games the three players have hit 2-3-4 in the starting lineup, the Dodgers are 13-3 and are averaging nearly seven runs per game.

Bellinger plays a role in that success, but so do Turner and Seager; the two infielders lead the team in WAR (wins above replacement). In fact, Turner has been so successful that he is hitting .393 on June 26. While it’s very unlikely that he hits .400 for the season, he’s been the Dodgers’ best hitter when he’s been in the lineup this season. Seager has also been outstanding this year, as he has an on-base percentage over .400. More importantly, Seager has only missed four games so far this year; while he’s listed as day-to-day with a hamstring injury, he is not expected to miss significant time. As both players lead the league at their positions in WAR, it’s become clear that the Dodgers easily have the best left side of the infield in baseball.

Another thing to address when looking at the Dodgers’ success is their pitching staff and, in particular, their starting rotation. While ace Clayton Kershaw has been outstanding as usual, the team has gotten pleasantly surprising performances this season from starters Alex Wood and Brandon McCarthy. Wood has been so spectacular, in fact, that he is second in the league in ERA among pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched this season. While the offense has gotten all of the headlines, LA’s pitching staff has quietly held down the fort en route to the league’s lowest staff ERA.

The Dodgers are 51-26 and just one game behind the Houston Astros for the best record in baseball. While Bellinger has been amazing and will rightfully get most of the credit for the team’s success, other players, such as Turner and Seager, also deserve praise for the critical roles they’ve played in pushing the Dodgers to the front of the best division in baseball. The team does not appear to be showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon, and it appears as if their success in the first half of the season is no fluke.

The Los Angeles Dodgers may very well continue their first-half success on their way to bigger and better things. Their starting rotation could continue to perform like they have in the team’s first 77 games, and their offense may continue to perform, albeit probably not at their current pace.

And Cody Bellinger will continue to play a leading role, even if he was only asked to sing backing vocals for baseball’s best offense.

Some Thoughts on the NBA Draft

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Another NBA Draft has come and gone and, as usual, there are plenty of storylines to go around. Markelle Fultz was taken first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, Lonzo Ball went second to the Lakers, the Timberwolves traded for Bulls superstar Jimmy Butler, and college freshmen (or the age equivalent of college freshmen) accounted for the first eleven picks in the draft.

Needless to say, there is plenty to talk about after last night’s NBA Draft. Here are some unsolicited thoughts on the last night’s draft and the events that surrounded it.

Ball Don’t Lie

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Lakers traded away guard D’Angelo Russell and the unyielding contract of Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for center Brook Lopez. Many believed the move was meant to make room for the team, led by new President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson, to draft UCLA guard Lonzo Ball. Sure enough, that’s what the Lakers did with the second overall pick in last night’s draft.

Ball is the team’s point guard of the future and has the ability to make all of his teammates better. The Lakers aren’t going back to the glory years of “Showtime”, but the acquisition of Ball could be what helps them get back into playoff contention. And while the specter of Lonzo’s father, LaVar, hangs over the selection, Johnson and General Manager Sam Seaborn Rob Pelinka have decided that hitching the Lakers’ wagon to the UCLA guard is worth the risk. And personally, I must say that I agree. Ball was the best player available for the Lakers and he could start the team toward a return to prominence. Don’t let a crazy father stop you from thinking that.

The Timberwolves’ Future Is Now

Arguably the biggest move on draft night was the Minnesota Timberwolves’ acquisition of Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. In return, Chicago acquired guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn from Minnesota; the Bulls also acquired the draft rights to Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen, the seventh pick in the draft. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, also received the rights to the 16th pick in the draft, Justin Patton of Creighton.

While LaVine is an exciting player who averaged nearly 20 points per game last season, he suffered a season-ending ACL tear on February 3. Dunn, on the other hand, averaged all of 3.8 points per game in his rookie season after being drafted last year to unseat Ricky Rubio as Minnesota’s starting point guard. Rubio, though, had possibly the best year of his career last season, making the 23-year-old Dunn more than expendable this summer. Markkanen is an intriguing player who has drawn comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis as a sharpshooting seven-footer, but it’s very fair to wonder just how much more the Bulls could have gotten for Jimmy Butler, one of the best players in the game today.

Last season, Butler ranked fifth in the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes, and before you cast that aside, consider that he came in ahead of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Stephen Curry, among others, in that category. In the category of VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), Butler again was fifth in the league, ahead of Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant. The T’Wolves, led by Butler’s former coach, Tom Thibodeau, are getting a legitimate and experienced superstar who is one of the best players in the league at both ends.

The Timberwolves were able to get that caliber of player without having to gut their assets to do so. And the Bulls gave up the face of their franchise without getting many good assets in return. The Timberwolves are the clear winner in this deal, and the acquisition of Butler could help the team reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

The Knicks May Have Stumbled Into a Good Decision

I get it, the Knicks and good decisions go together like toothpaste and orange juice. But hear me out here.

While it’s not a long line of great players, the Knicks have had success in recent years with international players. This has entailed both drafting and signing foreign talent, including drafting Kristaps Porzingis, acquiring Willy Hernangómez in a draft night trade two years ago, and signing Lithuania’s Mindaugas Kuzminskas last summer. And, not to belabor the point, but all of those moves were made, with varying levels of success, by Phil Jackson. Thank me later.

Last night, the Knicks continued that trend, selecting France’s Frank Ntilikina with the eighth overall pick. Whlie Ntilikina is raw, he won’t turn 19 until next month, and at 6’5″ he has elite length for a point guard. Most importantly from the Knicks perspective, he fits Jackson’s Triangle offense, a system that is very successful when it’s led by Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, the best out of any point guard in this year’s draft. While you may not agree with that, Ntilikina is a system pick and could prove to be successful. I would have taken NC State’s Dennis Smith, but I understand the Knicks’ reasoning.

And besides, the Knicks front office knows what it’s doing. Just ask them. And even as their owner played a blues concert with his band during a huge night for his organization, the Knicks may have done something right, even if they didn’t do it on purpose.

Speaking of Teams Accidentally Doing Good Things…

The Sacramento Kings have not had many things go right for them recently. The team’s last playoff appearance was in 2006 and the last eleven years have consisted of bad trades, multitudes of head coaches, and general dysfunction both on and off the floor. Last night, though, the Kings did good things with their first-round picks.

With the fifth pick, the Kings selected Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox. Fox played the aforementioned Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16 of this year’s NCAA Tournament and absolutely dominated the matchup, scoring 39 points in a Kentucky victory. Fox is a dynamic playmaker with amazing speed and athleticism, and he looks to be Sacramento’s point guard of the future.

While the Kings possessed the tenth pick in the first round, they decided to flip that pick to the Trail Blazers for the 15th and 20th overall picks. They would use those picks on North Carolina’s Justin Jackson and Duke’s Harry Giles, respectively. Jackson is an intriguing player because of his length and his perimeter shooting, but I was most impressed with the selection of Giles. Giles is an energetic big man who would have been selected earlier in the draft if he had not suffered two ACL tears in the span of just four years. The Kings could be getting a steal with the Duke big man, as he is an excellent rebounder and finisher inside. If he can stay healthy, he’ll prove to be far more valuable than his 20th overall selection.

Hopefully for the Kings, Fox, Jackson, Giles, and others can help the organization move forward in a post-DeMarcus Cousins world.