My latest column for Sportsnaut is about why the NBA's lack of parity is a good thing. Here's the link. Enjoy!
Serge Ibaka is in Toronto, Mason Plumlee is in Denver and Carmelo Anthony is still in New York. That means trade season is officially open in the NBA, so what better way to celebrate than looking at six fits that make too much sense not to happen.
Lou Williams to Oklahoma City
Williams’ deal—with 2-years, $14 million left on it—is an absolute bargain in this market. He’s a bad defender, but a volume scorer off the bench who shoots 38.2 percent from 3 with a 23.4 PER has value.
However, the Lakers desperately need to tank. Not only is their pick for this season only top-3 protected, but if it conveys then Orlando gets their 2019 unprotected first rounder. If they tank and keep the pick, they only owe Orlando their 2017 and ’18 second rounders. They have to trade Williams and the Thunder needs his scoring.
Russell Westbrook is their only player averaging more than 20 per game—his 41.8 percent usage is as alarming as it is astounding. Someone has to carry the load when Westbrook sits—a time during which OKC has a 97.3 offensive rating and -10.9 net rating. Throw in the fact that Williams’ salary fits right into Ersan Ilyasova’s trade exception and the bevy of OKC young guys the Lakers would be interested in—Jerami Grant, Cameron Payne, Domantas Sabonis—and this makes perfect sense for both sides.
Jahlil Okafor to Dallas
With the Mavericks’ season having turned into a dumpster fire and Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement looming, the team needs to get younger. I’m no fan of Okafor, but he’s only 21 and has immense skill as a post player. He may have to come off the bench for the rest of the year if the Mavericks can’t unload Andrew Bogut, but Okafor could be a long-term solution at center.
If Philly isn’t interested in any of Dallas’ point guards then this deal could hit a road bump, but the Mavericks have all of their first rounders. A top-5 protected 2018 first and a veteran point guard like Deron Williams or Devin Harris could get the job done.
Jrue Holiday to Philadelphia
Come on, who doesn’t want to see this? The Sixers’ trade of Holiday to New Orleans for Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first rounder (which became Elfrid Payton, whom the Sixers immediately traded for Dario Saric, a 2015 second rounder which became Wily Hernangomez and a 2017 first rounder) kickstarted The Process.
Now that the end of The Process is in sight—especially if the Lakers relinquish that pick to the Sixers—bringing Holiday back to the Wells Fargo Center is only fitting. New Orleans could get back one of the Sixers’ bigs—Okafor, Noel or Saric—to play alongside Anthony Davis for the long term. If the right pieces are involved, maybe they could even persuade Bryan Colangelo to take on Omer Asik’s disastrous contract. The Sixers have the cap room and could use the stretch provision immediately, providing cap relief to New Orleans to help sweeten the deal for themselves.
Ricky Rubio to Milwaukee
With Minnesota’s season lost and Kris Dunn waiting in the wings for a starting job, trading Ricky Rubio is only logical for the Timberwolves. Milwaukee is one of few teams that aren’t set at point guard—they’re currently starting Matthew Dellavedova and, after Jabari Parker’s devastating injury, need a spark to keep them in the playoff race. Rubio won’t help the Bucks’ already-cramped spacing, but he’ll make the players around him better just as he has for his entire career. He’ll help young players like Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker develop, be a creator the Bucks haven’t had at point guard and play respectable defense.
This gets interesting when you consider what Milwaukee may send back. Could Tom Thibodeau decide he can remake Greg Monroe into a respectable defender and take his contract? Does he want Tony Snell back? Can he redeem Rashad Vaughn? What if a third team gets involved? There are an endless number of permutations to this, which is what makes it so fascinating.
Goran Dragic to Chicago
This made more sense before the Heat ripped off an improbable win-streak that vaulted them back into the playoff conversation, but hear me out. The 2017 Draft is stacked and the Heat still don’t have much talent on their roster. If they somehow make the playoffs, they’re getting swept in the first round anyway and they’re not too far out of the #4 lottery spot.
The Bulls need to save face on this awful season and if they swap Rajon Rondo, Doug McDermott and the better of Sacramento’s top-10 protected first rounder and their first rounder for Dragic, they could compete in the playoffs. Dragic has gone scorched earth the past month with a 67.6 true shooting percentage—including 59.3 percent from 3—and an absurd +7.8 net rating. That’s unsustainable, but he would add spacing to Chicago, which they desperately need.
Trading for Rondo, on the other hand, is the perfect stealth-tanking move for Miami. There are only two years on his contract—Miami could release him over the summer with a relatively small hit—and putting Rondo on the floor with Dion Waiters would be must-see on League Pass for all the wrong reasons. This would reverse all of the damage the win streak has done to Miami’s long-term outlook and allow the Bulls to put a happy face on their front office failures.
Brook Lopez to Portland
The Nets are in desperate need of assets. They don’t have first round picks and they don’t have good players, which is a bad combination. Lopez may be their only trade asset with Jeremy Lin injured and the Blazers need a big man. New acquisition Jusuf Nurkic won’t carry the load, Meyers Leonard can’t defend, Festus Ezeli is injured and Ed Davis can’t play center. Flip Leonard and Memphis’ first round pick—maybe even throw in Evan Turner’s contract if Brooklyn will take it—for Lopez and Portland’s playoff chances improve dramatically.
Because he plays for Brooklyn, Lopez has become massively underrated. He averages 1.01 points per possession on post-ups—more than Marc Gasol, Joel Embiid, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. He’s shooting 33.3 percent from 3—respectable for a 7-footer—ranks 10th in blocks per game and plays respectable defense at the rim. If the Nets get Leonard and—for the sake of conversation—Turner in return, those are two more assets they can flip in a year or two for picks. Throw in the first rounder—which probably turns into another Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Caris LeVert—and this is an easy decision for both teams.
All stats are from basketball-reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted
Yesterday afternoon the Denver Nuggets traded Jusuf Nurkic and their 2017 first round pick to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Mason Plumlee and a 2018-second round pick, a move that hurts their long-term interest in favor of short-term mediocrity. The Nuggets last made the playoffs in 2013, when they lost in the first round against the then-burgeoning Golden State Warriors. Since then, the national spotlight has looked at the team and shrugged its shoulders as the Nuggets languished not just in record but in attendance, where they’ve finished 19th, 27th, and 30th in the past three years—an embarrassment which the Kroenke family evidently wants to fix before getting to the team’s long-term success.
At 24-30, the Nuggets sit at eighth in the Western Conference and Mason Plumlee will undoubtedly help them stay there. A significantly better passer and overall better player than Nurkic, whose -10.3 net rating was disastrous for a player averaging 18 minutes per game, Plumlee can slide right into bench units. Denver hopes his passing will spark the offense when Nikola Jokic sits—the Nuggets are top-10 in assist percentage this year, but when Nurkic played without Jokic that changed dramatically. Their most-played lineup this season with Nurkic and without Jokic has a lowly 35.8 assist percentage, which would rank dead last in the league by a longshot. If you only look at lineups without Jokic, the shift is less drastic, but the on/off numbers still show a difference of nearly 10 percent. Denver, rightfully, is optimistic that will change with Plumlee, whose 21.4 assist percentage blows away Nurkic’s 11.0 percent. With Plumlee on the court, Portland assists 58.4 percent of their baskets—better than with any other individual. Switch him out with Nurkic and Denver can breathe easy with Jokic off the court, knowing the ball will keep whizzing around the interior without the flashy Serbian out there. Mike Malone can even feel comfortable putting the two together—in 108 minutes, this year; Jokic and Nurkic have a -15.6 net rating. Spacing will still be an issue with Jokic and Plumlee—though Jokic is at a cool 36.3 percent from 3 and getting better by the month—but Plumlee is more developed than Nurkic. Even at age 26, he’s an old man in some of Denver’s lineups. In the short-term, this helps Denver makes the playoffs—especially given that a competitor is on the other end of the deal.
But in the long-term? Both players are on rookie deals, but Plumlee is a restricted free agent after this season. After recent cap spikes, he could easily command $18 million a year, in the same range as Greg Monroe, Joakim Noah and Ian Mahinmi. Nurkic is 22, has an extra year on his deal and won’t command as much in the open market without a big improvement over the next year. Moreover, Denver also gave a first rounder from Memphis. Even if they make the playoffs as the #8 seed, that pick is probably around #20 in a stacked draft. Harry Giles, Ike Anigbogu and OG Anuoby on rookie deals are all worth more than Mason Plumlee is in the long term. Portland gets that—they now have three picks in this draft: their own, Memphis’ and Cleveland’s, a good way to start making up for the slew of horrific deals they signed this offseason. If they make the playoffs, Denver will get two games of ticket revenue and some national exposure, but it won’t move them any closer to winning a championship. The Nuggets have the pieces to be a title contender in a few years—Jokic is every bit as good as Kristaps Porzingis but fails to get the same attention because he plays for Denver, Jamal Murray has flashed this year despite tailing off recently and there’s still hope for Mudiay. However, their core is still raw—there’s a lot of building left to do and a lot of questions to be answered—namely those surrounding Mudiay. I’m not against trading Nurkic—there probably wasn’t room for him long-term anyway—but a first rounder is a lot to pay when you consider the cap space Denver will have to devote to Plumlee. Even if they manage to offload Kenneth Faried’s 4-year, $50 million deal, which sporadically pops up in trade rumors every few months, there’s no point in handicapping themselves in free agency for players who, ultimately, won’t be a deciding factor in whether or not they eventually compete for a title. Yet, the Nuggets continue to chase short-term mediocrity at the expense of long-term gain. We saw it this summer when they tried to sign Dwyane Wade and we’re seeing it again now.
All stats are from NBA.com or basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted
 Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Emmanuel Mudiay and Nurkic
Two weeks ago tonight, Tom Brady’s 384 yards and three touchdowns guided the New England Patriots past the Pittsburgh Steelers in a decisive 36-17 victory, sending New England to its seventh Super Bowl since 2001. As the New England lead went from an early 3-0, to a healthy 17-9 margin to a 33-9 blowout by the end of the third quarter, the Gillette Stadium crowd transformed into a rip-roaring, rollicking picture of vengeance, gleefully belting out the words to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” before descending into an umpteenth spiteful chant of “Where is Roger?,” a dig at the man who dared to slight New England and will hear about it as long as he lives.
Every story about the Patriots of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick begins and ends with Deflategate: a textbook example of the Ideal Gas Law used against a football team for dubious reasons, resulting in a suspension leveled against a star quarterback, causing righteous outrage among an entire region of the country. Two summers ago, Deflategate captivated a nation split between hatred for a football team and the knowledge that, upon examining the evidence, the football team was railroaded by Roger Goodell. In New England, Goodell’s accusation that the Patriots of deflating footballs in a game they had won 45-7, based on shoddy and circumstantial evidence—the ball boy brought the bag of balls into the bathroom for 90 seconds and Tom Brady destroyed his phone!—sparked immediate outrage from owner Robert Kraft on down. When the initial judge ruled in favor of Brady, and the Patriots started 10-0 behind an MVP-caliber season from the quarterback, the entire region was vindicated. Then came the AFC title game, where Brady was made to look like a rag doll and the Patriots fell to the eventual-champion Broncos. Then came the ensuing summer, where NFL appealed the initial Deflategate ruling and won—not on the grounds that New England had deflated the footballs but on the grounds that it didn’t matter, that because of the CBA, Goodell could suspend players with or without evidence that they had done anything wrong. Instead of feeling vindicated, Patriots fans felt like Andy Dufresne. For the next season, they did the football version of funneling money into bank accounts under the name Randall Stephens while simultaneously using a rock hammer to chip away at the cement wall of a prison cell. Their Super Bowl LI victory—cementing Brady as the greatest quarterback of all-time, Belichick as the greatest coach and New England as the greatest dynasty—was the metaphorical crawl through 500 yards of shit, ending in freedom.
Their comeback, from 25 points down with 8:31 to go in the third quarter, was the greatest in Super Bowl history. Julian Edelman’s 23-yard catch with 2:28 to go in the fourth, initially off the hand of Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford, then hit back into the air by a diving Edelman and bouncing off the foot of Alford, suspending itself into the air for an agonizing split-second that will live forever before settling into the receiver’s hands, was the greatest in the history of the sport. All that happened in between—and all that happened after—will go down in history as well. The drive commandeered by Brady at 28-3 that brought back some of New England’s hope. The doinked extra point that took it all away again. The ensuing Atlanta 3 and out. The 25-yard catch and run by Martellus Bennett on third down to put New England in field goal range and the 33-yarder by Stephen Gostkowski that snaked through the right upright—when everyone in America turned to the person beside them, saying that, just maybe, the Patriots had it in them.
From then on, the Falcons were on death row, waiting for the executioner to come and come he did, in the form of a disastrous Matt Ryan fumble that accelerated the inevitable. Once New England capitalized on the turnover and scored, the Super Bowl became a game of chess that Dan Quinn couldn’t win. On their first 2-point conversion, the Patriots snapped the ball directly to James White—sugaring the fake by having Brady act like the snap was over his head. It was the same play they ran in Super Bowl XXXVIII—another 2-point conversion to put New England ahead of the Carolina Panthers 29-22, 13 years ago in the same stadium. The play was on tape, but not recently enough for Quinn and the Falcons to be ready for it and White coasted in to make it a one-score game. When they got the ball back, Quinn bungled the clock in a manner that would make Andy Reid smug, throwing the ball on 2nd and 11 with 3:56 to go in the game with Atlanta well within field goal range. Trey Flowers sacked Matt Ryan; ultimately forcing a punt when the MVP’s third down pass went for only nine yards. Then came a 91-yard drive to tie it, a drive where New England got to third down just once, where Edelman’s catch was entered into the scrapbook of history, where Tom Brady proved the last holdouts wrong, tying the game with a 2-point conversion pass to Danny Amendola.
The Falcons had a chance to score again in regulation, but the game was over. Even with the overtime coin toss still to come, along with another Brady drive that will go down in history, it was over.
New England’s 17-year dynasty is one of improbabilities. It started with a hit that injured their quarterback, whose backup ended up being the greatest ever. Its first playoff victory happened because of a little-known rule and an impossible kick through a foot of snow without which Tom Brady would have likely returned to the bench the following season. Cemented by an improbable interception in Arizona and an impossible catch in Houston, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady exited NRG Stadium the undisputed greatest player in football’s history, William Stephen Belichick as its greatest coach and the New England Patriots as its greatest dynasty.
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted
 Brady also offered the NFL printouts of any relevant text messages, which they refused and which they had anyway because the “co-conspirators” turned over their phones.
Back in August, I started my New England Patriots' season preview by saying “On February 5, 2017, the Patriots are going to win their fifth Super Bowl.” A little more than five months later, I stand by that statement.
They were practically dead even with the Falcons by weighted offensive DVOA this season—New England finished first by 0.2 percent, but there is a massive difference between the two defenses. Atlanta finished 27th in defensive DVOA and 22nd in weighted DVOA; New England finished 16th in regular and 11th in weighted. There’s no doubt that both teams can move the ball—the over/under is 59—but this game is going to come down to which defense can step up when it matters and that defense is New England’s.
The Falcons will almost certainly come out aggressively. As good as New England’s secondary is, it’s easier to attack the Patriots via the passing game thanks to their 5.1 percent adjusted sack rate—a number good for 26th in the league. Couple that with an Atlanta offense that already ranks ninth in first-half passing plays and the Falcons will almost certainly start the game throwing. For New England, the challenge is finding a way to contain Julio Jones without giving too much space to other receivers or letting Atlanta run it. That’s a two-pronged challenge, but it’s not dissimilar to the one the Patriots faced—and met—against Pittsburgh. In the AFC title game, the Patriots constantly showed five-man fronts to goad the Steelers into passing and plug up the gaps when they handed the ball to Le’Veon Bell. They had Malcolm Butler shadow Antonio Brown, rarely giving off coverage, but frequently helping the corner by having a safety bracket Brown or, in single-high, shade over to his side of the field. And in the red zone, they straight-up doubled the receiver on practically every play.
I doubt their plan against Jones will mirror that strategy exactly—expect less nickel early in the game and fewer five-man fronts. However, the job Butler did against Brown is was impressive. I think we’ll see a similar strategy there—though whether or not Butler will shadow Jones when he goes into the slot remains to be seen, New England will likely give their corners help from over the top, even out of single-high safety packages. In the red zone, I’d be surprised if we don’t see double teams again.
Of course, the Falcons have had success when teams managed to keep Jones quiet this year and Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel present a challenge to a New England defense that could be preoccupied with Jones. I expect Belichick to take his chances with Sanu and leave him 1-on-1 with Logan Ryan, or Eric Rowe if Sanu ventures outside. Things are more complicated for Gabriel, who, per NFL GSIS, averages 8.11 YAC per reception. No doubt New England will be on high alert for screens and they’ve done a nice job limiting YAC this season—ranking first in the league with just 4.1 YAC per opposing reception this season—but Gabriel is volatile. More than anyone, he can swing this game by turning a screen into an electric 70something-yard catch and run. If the Falcons pull off the upset, there will be at least one of those plays.
With Matt Ryan under center, the Falcons will throw the ball with success even if New England executes perfectly. Ryan’s brilliance this season is the biggest reason they are playing on Sunday. The quarterback will probably win the MVP Award this week, deservedly so, and I don’t doubt that he’ll keep playing at this level on Sunday. However, the Patriots don’t need to stop Ryan; they just need to slow him down.
In the trenches, the only area where New England may be able to get pressure is with Trey Flowers going up against Jake Matthews. Flowers has often been New England’s lone productive pass rusher, leading the team with seven sacks and 14 hits, per NFL GSIS. Matthews put up a solid 75.3 PFF grade this season, but looks shaky at times. If Flowers is isolated against him or New England can force him to block Alan Branch on a stunt, it could be enough to end an Atlanta drive.
When Atlanta turns to the run, New England has to win inside. Branch and Malcom Brown anchored New England’s run defense—which finished fourth in DVOA—but Atlanta’s run blocking is one of its strongest attributes. Chris Chester may be vulnerable at right guard, but Andy Levitre and Alex Mack have handled duos better than Branch and Brown all season. When running to the middle, Atlanta averaged 4.26 adjusted line yards, which ranked 4th in the league. Defending those runs, New England allowed 3.76 ALY, good for 13th. However, when Atlanta goes to outside zone, one of their signatures, expect less success. New England was top-5 defending runs to the left end and finished sixth against runs inside the right tackle. They were vulnerable when opponents went inside the left tackle, but Atlanta struggled when they ran there as well. Expect the Falcons to play to their strengths and run it to other areas, instead of leaning on Matthews and his 49.2 PFF run blocking grade to open up holes.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are also dangerous in the screen game. The Falcons are aggressive in putting either running back--or both--outside and picking on a defense scrambling to match up. New England will be ready for that, but both Freeman and Coleman will get their fair share of balls thrown their way. It’s one of the ways Kyle Shanahan can exploit a New England linebacking corps that, outside of Dont’a Hightower, is beatable. If Kyle Van Noy or Shea McClellin lines up against a running back—a likely scenario since New England usually plays man—Atlanta should be aggressive in getting the ball there.
No doubt, Atlanta will move the ball, but the Patriots can slow them down just enough to win. It won’t take much from the New England defense—I’m betting that the Patriots win if they hold the Falcons to under 30 points, something they’re capable of doing. With Belichick at the helm, a capable secondary and just enough matchup advantages, the Patriots can hold Atlanta.
On the other side of the ball, it comes down to whether or not Atlanta can pressure Tom Brady. Throughout Brady’s career, that’s been the way to beat him. But unlike last season, New England’s offensive line is strength, not a weakness. Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder have PFF grades of 88.1 and 88.0, both inside the top-10 among tackles. Shaq Mason played a huge role in the success of the Patriots’ rushing attack and David Andrews is a stalwart at center. The one place Atlanta can attack them is at left guard, where Joe Thuney’s been shaky at times. The problem for the Falcons is that their pass rush just isn’t that good. They finished 24th in adjusted sack rate at 5.4 percent. Vic Beasley, responsible for much of that 5.4 percent, has to go up against Cannon—one of the tougher matchups he’s faced this season. Grady Jarrett will be a key component in run defense, but the defensive tackle has been largely invisible as a pass rusher throughout his career.
Maybe Dan Quinn gets creative with blitzes—Atlanta has found success blitzing this postseason—but New England’s offense is practically built to beat blitzes. They design quick-developing routes and get the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands ASAP. If you’re blitzing against New England, you have to hit home fast and I don’t think Atlanta can.
Atlanta’s secondary has impressed this season—especially after Desmond Trufant’s injury—but they’ll struggle to match up against the Patriots. When Julian Edelman is in the slot, he can eat Brian Poole for lunch. Poole isn’t terrible, but he’s clearly the weak link in Atlanta’s secondary. The Patriots will pick on him like they picked on Tharold Simon two years ago—constantly throwing it his way and forcing Dan Quinn to consider putting Jalen Collins in the slot to match up with Edelman instead. Chris Hogan stealthily finished the year 11th in DVOA among receivers; he could be an issue for Atlanta, especially if Robert Alford ends up in coverage against him. Collins is the lone corner I trust in a game like this, but New England has enough depth to get around any matchup advantage he holds. If he shuts down Hogan and the Patriots need Malcolm Mitchell or Danny Amendola to play a big role, it’s no issue (just ask Shane Vereen). Brady and Belichick make everyone better.
I do like Keanu Neal’s chances against Martellus Bennett. The Falcons were 11th in pass defense DVOA against tight ends this season and Neal has the physical prowess to keep up with Bennett. There are worse things for Atlanta than Deion Jones ending up in man against Dion Lewis or James White as well. However, Bennett was third among tight ends in DYAR and DVOA. White was third among running backs in passing DYAR. (Lewis didn’t have enough targets to qualify.) However, all it takes is a small crack in Atlanta’s defense for New England to exploit and eventually, the Patriots will find that crack.
New England will also find success running the ball. The Falcons were 29th in run defense DVOA and 25th in adjusted line yards. When the Patriots run power with LeGarrette Blount, Atlanta may not be able to stop it. It was 27th in adjusted line yards when opponents ran to the middle. And as good as Vic Beasley was as a pass rusher, his 43.8 PFF run defense grade underscores a major hole for Atlanta, which was dead last in adjusted line yards when opponents ran to the right tackle at 4.99. Against a truck like Blount, the magnitude of that problem will multiply.
In the red zone, Atlanta’s defense has been horrific. Per Football Outsiders’ premium database, the Falcons are 29th in red zone defense DVOA, ranking 27th in run defense and 31st in pass defense. Against New England, that might as well be a death sentence.
Tom Brady is the best QB of all-time and Bill Belichick is the best football coach of all-time. New England doesn’t have many weaknesses in this game, but those two can cover them up better than anyone else in the history of the game can. Belichick, coaching against Dan Quinn, represents the biggest advantage New England has in this Super Bowl. Quinn’s done a nice job this season, but he’s no match for Belichick as we saw in Super Bowl XLIX, when he helped Brady engineer two scoring drives in eight minutes to put New England ahead. The talent on this Atlanta defense isn’t comparable to Seattle’s two years ago. The Patriots will move the ball easily against them and slow the Falcons on the other side. New England should win this game and they will win this game.
Pick: Patriots -3 over Falcons
Last Week: 2-0-0
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted
 I haven’t forgotten Quinn kicking a field goal down 4 points with 2 minutes left in San Francisco last season. I don’t care if he goes on to win 12 Super Bowls, that decision will always cast doubt in my mind when it comes to the coaching ability of Dan Quinn.