2020-2021 NBA First Half Analysis

Whether it’s luck, ignorance or a blessing (or a combination of all three), the National Basketball Association has played the first half of the 2020-2021 season despite COVID problems. Unlike last year’s first half analysis, death of significant figures hasn’t lingered. However, issues such as league parity have grown and will need to be addressed in the offseason/second half.

Here’s what we’ve learned throughout the first half of this year’s NBA regular season.

Last year there was no clear winner for Coach of the Year. This year there’s no clear winner for League MVP.

Giannis Antetokounmpo decisively won MVP the past two years, but it’s unlikely by audiences and analysts alike he’ll win it this year. Outside of this thinking, the choices are muddled. 38 year old LeBron James and Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid are the top considerations for the award, but they’re not the only names who should be in the running. Without Stephen Curry, the Warriors would be the worst team in the league. Golden State is in the race for the eighth seed because of Curry.

Bradley Beal (left) and Steph Curry (right) should be in the conversation for League MVP because of how far they’ve been pushing their teams closer to the playoffs.

Bradley Beal should be the other name in this category. The Wizards, like the Warriors, should be the dregs of the league especially after John Wall was traded to Houston. They aren’t because Beal’s 32.9 PPG, 4.8 APG and 1.4 Stl. per game have kept Washington sub .500.

Whoever of the four wins league MVP will deserve the award. It’s worth wondering if the award could be split since there’s no clear choice.

The Houston exodus benefitted everyone except the Rockets

The Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets are neck and neck in the Atlantic division, but they both have prominent members in their organizations who were with the Houston Rockets last season. Daryl Morey is the president of basketball operations for the Sixers, while James Harden was traded in a blockbuster deal to the Nets. Brooklyn isn’t just the most interesting team to watch, they’re the funnest because of the lack of league parity they use. Harden’s role changes every other night because of who sits out (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving due to whatever).

The breaking report Daryl Morey left the Rockets because he saw a Harden trade request inevitable proves he made the right move at the right time.

The Rockets meanwhile have lost 13 straight, dropping to second to last in the western conference. Steve Silas is a good hire, and that showed with how early he handled turmoil at the beginning of the season, but the drop-off was coming and now, it’s a free-fall. At least they have first round draft picks after the season.

For one season, Michael Jordan can shut critics up with his management of the Charlotte Hornets

Something that hasn’t changed the past ten years are the criticisms on how owner Michael Jordan runs the Charlotte Hornets. Much of that criticism is valid, and this past offseason looked no different. Hornets management decided it was a good move to walk away from franchise star Kemba Walker and go after injury prone small forward Gordon Hayward. They added Terry Rozier and drafted LaMelo Ball with the third overall pick in the draft.

Terry Rozier is the second leading scorer on the Charlotte Hornets, averaging over 20 points a game. Meanwhile, his former team the Boston Celtics are one game over .500

All three moves have turned out to be home runs. LaMelo Ball will probably win rookie of the year, while Hayward and Rozier are the top scorers and defenders. While they’re in second place in the worst division in basketball, they might make the the playoffs as the eighth seed, possibly facing Philadelphia in the first round. Even if they lose that round, the future is bright and there are good cornerstones to build on.

Now for what each of the 30 teams can do to improve upon or keep doing right the remainder of this season.

Atlanta: If Lloyd Pierce was fired because the Hawks blew over 11 fourth quarter leads, then that was the right move. Looks like there’s one team in Georgia that wants a divorce from giving wins away.

Boston: Brad Stevens has to give Tacko Fall more minutes. Daniel Theis the starting power forward trails Fall in both blocked shots and field goal percentage. Theis is in his third year and the only constant is Boston’s need for a big man. It wouldn’t be bad to move on from Kemba Walker midseason. He’s not helping the team as much as was anticipated.

Brooklyn: The Nets have held under five teams to under 100 points five times this year, but three were last month and two of those were in two weeks before March. If they can hold four teams to under 100 in March (looking at their schedule it’s likely), we could see a dangerous and almost complete Brooklyn squad heading into the playoffs.

Charlotte: Strangely, there are talks of trading Terry Rozier for additional players. Charlotte shouldn’t move Rozier for someone unless they know what they’re getting is better. This is a team that can and should sneak into the playoffs, then keep building in the offseason.

Chicago: The Bulls are where a lot of people expected them to be: finding good rhythm at the right time. Coach Billy Donovan will still needs more than a season to implement his system, but the Bulls are much better than last year.

Cleveland: After their hot start, they’ve lost enough games to be the third worst team in the East. With rookie guards and some positive center depth, they could use some forwards this offseason and shop Kevin Love. Their re-build has to be thorough.

Dallas: Stunning how they didn’t start the season better, but it could be how much Kristaps Porzingis was missed. If he and Luka Doncic finish the season healthy, the Mavericks won’t have too much to address outside of bench depth.

Denver: Unlike the past few seasons where they’ve dominated the first halves of regular games, the Nuggets are adapting and seem to want better production heading into the playoffs. They’re learning lessons from past postseason failures. Rookie backup shooting guard Facundo Campazzo and second year center Isaiah Hartenstein will be tested when that time comes.

Detroit: They finally reached double digit wins. Hurray. Now to pressing matters. Dwane Casey has to go. The roster and the Pistons have gotten worse in his tenure. Granted there are five rookies and notable players injured, but what can we say during Casey’s tenure that we like what he’s done?

Golden State: It might be time to let Steve Kerr go. There’s no ill-will towards Kerr or anger now that the Warriors aren’t in the Finals anymore. The Warriors have lost three games they should have won against Orlando, Charlotte and last night Portland. That’s on coaching especially when those losses occur after double digit leads. It leads to quick exits in the playoffs.

Houston: P.J. Tucker and Victor Oladipo figured out early there’s no reason to stay with the Rockets for a full re-build. This will be a long second-half season for the franchise. Steve Silas is a great coach to keep moving forward. He just came in at a conflicting time.

Indiana: Coach Nate Bjorkgren is a clear downgrade from Nate McMillan, and they traded away Victor Oladipo to the Rockets in the blockbuster James Harden trade. If self-sabotage is the goal they’re doing great.

Los Angeles Clippers: Didn’t think Tyronn Lue would be this good coaching the Clippers, but it’s a pleasant surprise. Outside of playing the Lakers, the team still struggles to beat quality opponents on a consistent basis, especially when Paul George plays a lot of minutes. Despite the upgrade at coach, keep watch of how well the Clippers perform in the postseason.

Los Angeles Lakers: The only knock against this team is Frank Vogel’s unwillingness to learn offense. As we’ve seen since Anthony Davis’ injury, the Laker offense is anemic if he’s not on the court starting. Dennis Schroder was a great point-guard pickup while Wesley Matthews has run out of gas just like Danny Green did last year.

Memphis: They’ll need to fill out the roster more (especially bench depth), but pending a second half collapse, they’ve shown improvement this year. Taylor Jenkins was a great hire for this franchise.

Miami: The Heat’s March schedule is the kindest of the first three in 2021. The clear favorite in the pitiful Southeast division, they’ve found their groove the longer the season’s continued. Just like the Chicago Bulls, this is where we expected them to be.

Milwaukee: With very few changes made even to the defense, it’s inevitable Mike Budenholzer will get the boot at the end of the year. If the Bucks get a great option at coach this offseason (because they will be bounced out of the playoffs), they’ll take the next steps towards winning a championship.

Minnesota: There are two teams that no matter what they do, no matter who they add, no matter the stats or efforts, they’re just awful and hard to watch on a regular basis. The Timberwolves are one of those two teams.

New Orleans: Since that awful start to the season, the Pelicans have gone 10-10. They’ll have another good start to March, but the second half would be easier if they weren’t climbing out of the western conference hole. Disappointing too with the roster that’s been constructed.

New York: Truly unexpected. Tom Thibodeau has coached the Knicks to the fifth seed in the East. While they need depth at center behind Nerlens Noel, forwards RJ Barrett and Julius Randle are pushing the team forward. The addition of Derrick Rose helps at point-guard and helps the team believe more in Thibodeau’s defense-first philosophy.

Oklahoma City: Fans and analysts didn’t expect much of the Thunder this year. They’re only better than the Rockets and Timberwolves in the west, but it’s free-agency and the draft that will show how well the Thunder make their moves.

Orlando: If the New York Knicks are the pleasant surprise, this is the downtrodden disappointment. Dead last in field goal percentage, they’ve cratered due to injuries involving Evan Fournier, Markelle Fultz, and Aaron Gordon. One of the few times we’re left wondering if a team will trade or cut players at the end of the season or bring everyone back. It’s a franchise changing decision.

Philadelphia: Doc Rivers has made the 76ers a much more disciplined and better team on the court. It’s important for them to win the number one seed in the East since the Brooklyn Nets could be the better team at home in the post-season. Point guard Ben Simmons has to improve scoring in the second half and heading into the playoffs.

Phoenix: Nick Nurse did deserve to win the coach of the year award last year, but Monty Williams could’ve won it too. The big addition the Suns made was bringing in Chris Paul, a former Williams player who helped the New Orleans Hornets to multiple playoff berths. The Suns should be able to make the playoffs, but it’s important they keep pushing this season to get the best seed possible. The Suns have a shot at knocking out some good teams in the playoffs thanks to their quality leadership.

Portland: If you’ve listened to any of the sports shows I’ve recorded or aired in the past few months, you’re familiar with a topic I brought up to my partner Wesley Woods about the Trailblazers, leading to a thought-provoking conversation. Portland had one of the worst defenses in the league before CJ McCollum injured his left foot. Since that injury, the Trailblazers have ascended to the fifth seed in the west and look much better on defense.

It’s not that Damian Lillard and McCollum can’t play well together. They’ve shown great chemistry for years. However, one has to wonder if McCollum could be the leader of the second string behind the starters. It would help the Blazers preserve most of their leads and would be a problem for playoff contending teams to try and match up against. It probably won’t happen, but it’s something coach Terry Stotts should consider heading into the playoffs.

Sacramento Kings: There are two teams that no matter what they do, no matter who they add, no matter the stats or efforts, they’re just awful and hard to watch on a regular basis. The Kings are the second of those two teams.

San Antonio: Despite news of COVID scares, the Spurs haven’t been talked about much this season. That is surprising since they have a better record than both Nicola Jokic’s Nuggets and Doncic’s Mavericks. The chances for them making the playoffs are 50/50 but they’re re-building faster than most people thought.

Toronto: Nick Nurse can only do so much with a depleted roster and the team re-locating to Tampa for the season. While the Raptors are in last place in the Atlantic, they’re the eighth seed if the postseason started. They’re one of the few teams who could make excuses this season but aren’t. That’s something to feel good about when they’re knocked out of contention.

Utah: In order for this team to show they’ve taken the next few steps in winning a championship, they need to win a series against a quality opponent in the playoffs. The Jazz blew a lead and lost in overtime to the Philadelphia 76ers after splitting their Florida and Los Angeles Clippers series. Considering Utah is the best team in the NBA record-wise, this isn’t a good look. If they draw a team like Dallas or Denver in the first round, the smart money goes to those two teams until the Jazz prove otherwise.

Washington: As was stated after last year’s first half analysis, Scott Brooks has to get the axe in D.C. Bradley Beal is a worthy candidate for Most Valuable Player this year. Sadly, it’s being wasted on a team that should be vying for the number one pick. The Wizards need to trade Beal and acquire a fortune to rebuild right after the season.

2021 AFC Championship Game

Three games. Four teams, with two in each conference. The remaining two in the AFC are the AFC East division winning Buffalo Bills and the AFC West division winning and conference leading Kansas City Chiefs. Both teams have potent offenses, young and talented quarterbacks, solid defenses, and brilliant coaches. Time to determine who will advance to the Super Bowl.

#2 Buffalo Bills v. #1 Kansas City Chiefs

Two different stories on their successes this season, both teams have a good chance to not just go to the Super Bowl, but win it. This game comes down to which defense makes the most stops in the second half.

Buffalo’s offense has frustrated defenses because offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has used every receiver to quarterback Josh Allen’s advantage. If star receiver Stefon Diggs draws double or triple coverage, John Brown, Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis will be primary targets. Davis’ emergence as a receiver who makes difficult catches near sidelines makes him a threat to Kansas City’s cornerbacks playing closer inside. At the line of scrimmage Buffalo’s offensive line nullifies even the best pass rush (just ask the Pittsburgh Steelers). Tackles Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams should give Josh Allen enough time to throw passes around a four second average.

Gabriel Davis (white) makes a great catch early in the season against the Los Angeles Rams. No one’s been working the sideline receptions in the playoffs more than Davis.

While a lot of people have focused on Patrick Mahomes passing concussion protocol, there hasn’t been as much focus on his toe injury earlier in the game against Cleveland. That could be an issue if Mahomes tries to scramble for a bigger play or run for yardage. The Chiefs have a great receiver duo who can make up some of those mistakes/negatives, but the offensive line hasn’t been solid, and it showed against a Browns defense that has a good pass rush and not much else. While Kansas City’s running game is the opposite of Baltimore’s because it features more runningbacks and not much read-option, Buffalo can stop the run well early in games.

Prediction: Buffalo Bills win the AFC Championship 44-34

Divisional Round Record: 1-3, 168-92 overall this season

2021 NFC Championship Prediction

Three games. Four teams, with two in each conference. The remaining two in the NFC are the NFC South wild-card Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFC North division winning and conference leading Green Bay Packers. Both teams have potent offenses, Hall of Fame quarterbacks, solid defenses, and brilliant coaches. Time to determine who will advance to the Super Bowl.

#5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers v. #1 Green Bay Packers

It’s fitting the NFC title comes down to Tom Brady v. Aaron Rodgers. These two never played against each other in the playoffs, so viewers are in for a great game. Nose tackle Vita Vea finally returns to Tampa Bay’s starting lineup. Vea is a player who gave Green Bay’s interior offensive line problems in the regular season matchup.

The Packers held a ten point lead before the Buccaneers scored 38 unanswered. An unexpected outcome, that shouldn’t happen again since the Packers spent a lot of time watching the film and working more on offense.Green Bay’s offensive line got better and fixed their issues the following weeks. Tampa Bay’s offensive line on the opposite should be able to control the pace if they run the ball early with Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette.

Ten years ago, Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers celebrated his first and only championship hugging the general manager who drafted him, Ted Thompson. With Thompson’s passing this past Thursday, one can expect Rodgers, runningback Aaron Jones and star receiver Davante Adams to have a performance of a lifetime this Sunday.

Green Bay has multiple advantages including playing at home, better control of personnel and no trash-talking. Teams are winless trash-talking opponents heading into games, and some of Tampa’s defensive players such as Devin White haven’t held back on their views of the Packers from last time. Coach Matt LaFleur and quarterback Aaron Rodgers have more motivation to win this matchup since the meltdown in October. Although it could be a shootout, the Packers have enough to pull out the win.

Prediction: Packers win the Conference Championship 38-35

2021 Central Division Playoff Picks.

2021 will be a year unlike any other in the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League split up all 31 teams into four new divisions. In these divisions, seven to eight teams will play each other throughout the season. The top four teams will try to win their respective divisions and make it to the final four. Those final four teams play to advance for the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Central division is a mix of teams in three previous divisions. With COVID-19 still an issue, the Central teams will be closer and will play only each other to eliminate any elongated quarantine time. The Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings, Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning will compete for the top four spots in this division. Who of the eight have the best chance of not just clinching a top four spot, but a trip to the final four?

#1 Tampa Bay Lightning

The reigning Stanley Cup Champions received a major tradeoff this offseason. Former Hart trophy winner (the NHL’s version of league MVP) Nikita Kucherov was placed on injured reserve and will miss most if not all of the regular season. However, captain Steven Stamkos is back at full health and should make up most of Kucherov’s impact.

Former Vezina trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy is currently the best goaltender in all the NHL, and even with losses of Brayden Coburn, Cedric Paquette and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Lightning retained most of their core, especially the gritty and physical third line. With a divisional realignment, the Lightning are the favorite to take first.

#2 Carolina Hurricanes

Captain Jordan Staal can lead the ‘Canes to a division title if they play top-notch hockey most of the season and the Lightning slip.

The recent Stanley Cup Champions and Carolina Hurricanes are by far the best two teams in the Central. The latter couldn’t get past the Boston Bruins the last two years. Fortunately Carolina doesn’t have to play them unless it’s the final four. The goalie combination of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer can take Carolina far in the playoffs.

The Hurricanes retain the same depth at both center and forward they had last year. The defensive pairs of Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce make them an easy team to pencil in for the Central’s four best.

#3 Columbus Blue Jackets

Despite a solid roster and determined amount of veteran players, the Blue Jackets are anchored by phenom goaltender Joonas Korpisalo. It’s up to him to keep the Columbus alive as long as possible.

John Tortorella’s physically and mentally tough unit should make the final four this year. Columbus can’t have a slow start heading into Valentine’s Day. The Dallas Stars have yet to take the ice and the Jackets lost a pair of games against the Nashville Predators . They’re known to play better the longer a season goes on, but must stay alive before going on a run.

The Pierre-Luc Dubois situation will either result in a great amount of depth brought in the next few years or make Dubois consider staying with the team. The Blue Jackets’ depth on defense isn’t an issue, but the amount of offense they can string together remains a concern. Center Max Domi was their big free agent acquisition, and will be a big part of the offensive scoring chances in every game.

The Jackets get the nod for either the third or fourth spot available for a few reasons: Dallas may not make the playoffs because of the injuries to assistant captain Tyler Seguin and starting goalie Ben Bishop. That will hurt on special teams. If they play Columbus, they’ll have a hard time scoring against their defense on the power-play. The Red Wings and Blackhawks aren’t good enough to compete against most of this division. The Predators and the Panthers are Columbus’ real threats. Speaking of the Panthers and Predators…

#4 Nashville Predators

The Predators have the best defensemen duo in the league with Ryan Ellis (left) and Roman Josi (right) anchoring all sides of the puck. Nashville’s defense plays hard and should be good enough to squeak into the playoffs.

The Predators have what the Florida Panthers still lack: consistent defense. Florida’s offense is among the best in the league, but unless Sergei Bobrovsky is pulled, the Panthers will be on the outside looking in. Juuse Saros looks better as a starter over time and at worst, Pekka Rinne can close out games or play a few for Saros to get rest.

On offense, players like Matt Duchene have to adjust to coach John Hynes’ system. Can Rocco Grimaldi, Yakov Trenin, Calle Jarnkrok, and Mikael Grandlund increase their production this year? Given the better defensive play and how the first three lines can create chances, they’re definitely a bet to make the third or fourth spot.

2021 Western Division Playoff Picks

2021 will be a year unlike any other in the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League split up all 31 teams into four new divisions. In these divisions, seven to eight teams will play each other throughout the season. The top four teams will try to win their respective divisions and make it to the final four. Those final four teams play to advance for the Stanley Cup Finals.

The former Pacific division will add three new teams with the five remaining U.S. teams. With COVID-19 still an issue, the Pacific teams will be closer and will play only each other to eliminate any elongated quarantine time. The San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, Vegas Golden Knights, Arizona Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild will compete for the top four spots in this division. Who of the eight have the best chance of not just clinching a top four spot, but a trip to the final four?

#1 St. Louis Blues

It’s Ryan O’Reilly’s team now with the departure of captain Alex Pietrangelo. The Blues have a great chance to be a serious contender again, possibly claiming the number one spot in the Western division.

The big three contenders will be the St. Louis Blues, the Vegas Golden Knights and the Colorado Avalanche. Vegas was exposed by the Dallas Stars playing bad defense in front of the goalie. The Blues, like the Stars, are fantastic on defense and physical on offense. They can expose that problem further against the all-out offense of Peter DeBoer’s Knights. The Avalanche have injury and health issues, despite being neck-and-neck with St. Louis. Barring interruption in the season again, the Blues are the most complete team in this realignment.

Until starting goalie Jordan Binnington and coach Craig Berube crash like they did in last year’s postseason, they’re the best bet to advance to not just the final four, but the Stanley Cup Finals. The Blues couldn’t hang on to team captain Alex Pietrangelo, but they added Mike Hoffman, Torey Krug, and Zach Sanford. They’ll be dangerous to keep up with for 56 games.

#2 Vegas Golden Knights

Mark Stone (right) and Max Pacioretty celebrate after scoring early last season. Two of the best first-line pairings in the NHL will cause havoc in the West this year.

This comes down to the health of the Avalanche v. the exposed middle front of the Vegas defense, and that favors the Golden Knights. DeBoer will have a full season of goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner, and defense was boosted by signing Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo.

The offense is a handful for any team (just ask Travis Green’s Canucks) with Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Tuch and much more. At least three teams are re-building or on the rise, and the Knights will expose every weakness to rack up goals and points. It’ll take perfect defense and constant offensive pressure to beat them.

#3 Colorado Avalanche

The Coyotes and Avalanche will see a lot of each other this year, and that means more Nathan MacKinnon-Christian Fischer fights.

The third of the three-headed monster in this division, health will determine where Colorado goes, and that will be decisive later in the season. Star player Nathan MacKinnon looks to take the next step and become the best player in the NHL. Additions Devon Toews and Brandon Saad are boosts to both offense and defense when the first two lines can’t get going.

Coach Jared Bednar needs to find ways to get the Avalanche into the final four this year with the amount of talent on this roster. There’s more pressure given how Colorado got to the second round of the playoffs and lost in game seven for two straight years. If he can’t lead this team to the final four when Nathan MacKinnon is peaking, management could take action.

#4 Anaheim Ducks

If the Ducks have any hope of advancing to the top four in the West, it’s because phenom goaltender John Gibson plays Vezina-like defense, which he’s done for the past two years.

A dark-horse pick for any of the top four spots in the four divisions, there are good reasons why the Anaheim Ducks can sneak into the four team playoffs in the West. Let’s start with what the Ducks have over the remaining four.

  • The lights-out play of goaltender John Gibson. He’s faced more high-risk shots than any other starting net-minder in the past two years, and has stopped more of those shots than any other. He stays healthy too at 27, so if he’s in net, Anaheim has a shot.
  • Added veteran depth with David Backes and Kevin Shattenkirk. Both have played in deep postseason runs, with Shattenkirk winning two Stanley Cups.
  • Like the other two California teams, Anaheim hasn’t played in almost a year. A lot of their defensemen are young and needed to adapt to the NHL style of play during the break. Rookie Kodie Curran will be learning with Andy Welinski and Jani Hakanpaa on how to make Gibson not stress about high-risk shots.
  • Teams such as San Jose and Arizona will have injury issues like they have the past few seasons with their rosters mostly intact. Anaheim can outlast both teams and stay in the middle of the pack at worst.
  • Minnesota and Los Angeles are re-building most of their rosters. While Jonathan Quick could be back at full health, the Kings will struggle on offense compared with Anaheim. Minnesota’s depth isn’t as solid nor tenured on their third or fourth lines as the Ducks have focused on.

The Sharks and Wild have little to offer at goaltending. The Kings and Coyotes could present the toughest challenge, but how will they score consistently outside of a few franchise players? They won’t be a pretty choice, but they’re the best team to play 56 games without injury problems to sneak into the final four.

2021 Canadian Division Playoff Picks

2021 will be a year unlike any other in the NHL. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the National Hockey League split up all 31 teams into four new divisions. In these divisions, seven to eight teams will play each other throughout the season. The top four teams will try to win their respective divisions and make it to the final four. Those final four teams play to advance for the Stanley Cup Finals.

To make this simpler: the Canadian teams are in three of the four divisions before this realignment. With COVID-19 still an issue, the Canadian teams, from Vancouver to Montreal, will play only each other to eliminate any elongated quarantine time. The Canucks, Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets will compete for the top four spots in this division. Who of the seven have the best chance of not just clinching a top four spot, but a trip to the final four?

#1 Edmonton Oilers

Leon Draisaitl and Co. look to have a historic, and this time uninterrupted year in Canada.

In the Pacific division, the Vegas Golden Knights reign supreme, but if we’re talking the Canadian teams, Edmonton’s the best and most talented. Coach Dave Tippett will look to build on the progress made from last year’s season, and continue to tweak line changes.

Edmonton has the edge over the Flames, Leafs and Canucks because of their overwhelming offense, special teams advantages, and pesky defense. While Vancouver is ahead of schedule, they don’t have Conor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (the reigning league MVP) reaching their prime. Most defenses of the other five Canadian teams are shaky at best.

#2 Vancouver Canucks

Vancouver Canucks goalies Thatcher Demko, left, and newly-signed Braden Holtby, right, appear supportive of each other as they vie for starts this season. (The Canadian Press)

Anyone supporting the Canucks couldn’t feel more positive going into the season. The combination of general manager Jim Benning and coach Travis Green have the team ahead of schedule contending for a championship. Quinn Hughes is a spectacular defenseman. Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson and depth at the forward position make the Canucks a real threat to advance to the final two in the Canadian division.

To have a playoff run, the Canucks have two great goaltenders in Thatcher Demko (who is the starter and presumed 1A), with Stanley Cup champion Braden Holtby as 1B/backup. Holtby should be relieved to play with a better defense this year, getting back to his better days when playoff runs were expected. While Edmonton is the presumed favorite, Vancouver won’t be far behind.

#3 Toronto Maple Leafs

The stars of the Toronto Maple Leafs look on as Columbus advanced to the playoffs. This year should be better for a unit that’s known for scoring and some defensive improvements…right?

After the Canucks, there’s a drop-off in quality play in the North. The Canadiens need more offense, the Jets need more defense, and the Senators are still re-building. That leaves Toronto and Calgary as the two attractive options left. Between the Flames and the Leafs, the Leafs are the better team.

Toronto will be an offense-first team with the talent and stars they have. They overwhelm opponents with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander on offense. The improvements on defense should solidify. T.J. Brodie comes over from the Flames to anchor a top defense spot with Morgan Reilly. Zach Bogosian signed with Toronto in the offseason after winning a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay. Jack Campbell is an interesting choice at backup behind goaltender Frederick Anderson, though he’s a better option than Aaron Dell.

The Leafs need improved coaching, better and consistent physical play and to win the games they need to early on, such as opening night in Montreal. They should take the positive step this season.

#4 Calgary Flames

Jacob Markstrom (blue) is familiar with Mikael Backlund (11) and Calgary’s offense. This year, he’ll integrate with the defense more in order to get the Flames to the playoffs.

The Flames could go as far as Cam Talbot took them, and that dropped off after their third game against the Dallas Stars. After an ugly series loss, the Flames signed Vancouver Canucks starting goalie Jacob Markstrom to a six year deal, while Talbot signed with Minnesota.

The offense, coaching and defense are solid, but Calgary has a lot to prove and work through this season. The Bill Peters saga is over and Geoff Ward will have a better philosophy with the players. They can’t afford season ending injuries when the other three teams will scrape what they can for the fourth spot. While the Flames will get the fourth spot, this could be a long season for the team and fans.

2021 AFC Wild Card Weekend.

The seven playoff seeds in the American Football Conference are finalized! In this new playoff format, the top seeded Kansas City Chiefs will have a week off, while the other six teams (Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills) play this upcoming weekend. Three teams will advance to the divisional round and inch closer to the Super Bowl. Time to decipher which three teams have the best shot of advancing to the next round.

#6 Cleveland Browns v. #3 Pittsburgh Steelers

This is the least interesting playoff game of the weekend. The Browns barely beat Mason Rudolph and a backup defense last weekend in Cleveland.

Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski finally got the Browns into the playoffs, but it may be short-lived since COVID-19 is hurting the team.

With no head coach and COVID-19 still a factor in who plays for the Browns, Pittsburgh is in a good position to advance. They’ll be playing with their starting defense and Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback instead of Rudolph. The Cleveland defense isn’t a threat against a serious Steelers squad.

Prediction: Steelers win 31-13

#5 Baltimore Ravens v. #4 Tennessee Titans

Like the Bears-Saints game, this is a re-match of an earlier season win (by the Titans) which went to OT. The Raven offense, like the Bears offense, has surged and fixed their issues, making their teams look like threats heading into the weekend.

For the Ravens to be a threat in the post-season, Lamar Jackson needs to have the dazzling performances he does in the regular season.

The Ravens offense might have the same issues Titans head coach Mike Vrabel presented last year. Vrabel’s defense might have a porous secondary, but they’ve forced quarterback Lamar Jackson to throw the ball precisely on the outside instead of the middle of the field.

The Ravens offense is designed to play ahead and run points up. This works against opposing offenses that can’t score every drive. The Titans are one of the teams that can score every possession if needed. Behemoth runningback Derrick Henry is a nightmare the Ravens defense doesn’t want to see again. Ryan Tannehill has dependable receiving options and the offensive line is pretty solid.

Upset Prediction of the Week: Titans win 40-34 (OT)

#7 Indianapolis Colts v. #2 Buffalo Bills

Bills head coach Sean McDermott is seen by many fans as the coach of the year. He needs a playoff win to prove he’s more than just a regular season winner who turns teams around.

The best game this weekend will be the first one aired. MVP candidate Josh Allen will face one of the best defenses in the NFL, while the Bills defense has a sizable task in containing the Colts running game.

The Bills are the hottest team right now, destroying a desperate Miami Dolphins team where their starters played only the first half and still scored 56. They’re getting receiver John Brown back at the right time to pair with Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley. Zach Moss has turned into a reliable runningback, the last piece the Bills needed before they went on a run.

The Bills won’t steamroll through Indianapolis’ defense if linebacker Darius Leonard has any say in it.

The Colts on the other hand will miss Anthony Castonzo on the offensive line. Philip Rivers has a lot of pressure to get to the Super Bowl since this could be his last season. Jonathan Taylor can help take the pressure off, but the Bills could play their best if Rivers drops back to pass.

Prediction: Bills win 21-20

2021 NFC Wild Card Weekend

The seven playoff seeds in the National Football Conference are finalized! In this new playoff format, the top seeded Green Bay Packers will have a week off, while the other six teams (Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Washington Football Team, Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints) play this upcoming weekend. Three teams will advance to the divisional round and inch closer to the Super Bowl. Time to decipher which three teams have the best shot of advancing to the next round.

#7 Chicago Bears v. #2 New Orleans Saints

The regular season match-up featured a different quarterback for the Bears (Nick Foles), a star receiver out (Michael Thomas), and defenses stopping the run early and often. A lot has changed the past month and a half. Mitchell Trubisky is back starting and presents the best opportunity to beat a stout Saints defense that can rush opposing quarterbacks well, and Michael Thomas (per ESPN) should play this Sunday for the first time in a month.

Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (10) and the Bears offense must do against the Saints what he couldn’t do against the Packers last Sunday: score touchdowns and not field goals.

Analysis: This favors New Orleans heavily. Chicago’s defense couldn’t get pressure on a backup left tackle against Green Bay last Sunday. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s bull-rush first mentality has burned the defensive front out. The Saints’ offensive line should give Drew Brees a lot of time especially the second half. Chicago’s offensive line will help Trubisky a bit since he’s a mobile threat, but the potential loss of Darnell Mooney hurts.

Prediction: New Orleans wins 30-17

#6 Los Angeles Rams v. #3 Seattle Seahawks

Another Rams-Seahawks game means Round 3 of the elite Jalen Ramsey v. the intimidating DK Metcalf matchup.

The Rams and Seahawks play in a third straight divisional game, and their third game against each other this season. The first two games featured defensive highlights, hard hits and not a lot of scoring. Both starting quarterbacks struggled to make plays and stretch the field. This game looks to continue that trend.

Analysis: Between Jared Goff’s injured thumb, a short week to prepare and the unspectacular performance by John Wolford last Sunday, the Rams defense is critical for creating turnovers and scoring opportunities. Kicker Matt Gay has range even if the offense can’t get touchdowns, but the return of runningback Cam Akers and offensive captain Andrew Whitworth will help even if it’s a small net positive.

The more mobile the quarterback, the better chance of winning for either team. Thankfully for Seattle, Russell Wilson (3, white) is more mobile than either Jared Goff or John Wolford.

Seattle’s Mike Iupati and Brandon Shell returning gives Seattle an offensive line at full strength. Russell Wilson’s struggles against Aaron Donald and the Rams defensive front presents opportunities for runningbacks Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde to control the game tempo. For the Seahawks, keeping the Rams offensive stars off the field notably in the second half is important for an early playoff win on a short week.

Prediction: Seahawks win 23-13

#5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers v. #4 Washington Football Team

The third playoff matchup between Ron Rivera (left) and Bruce Arians (right). Rivera is 2-0 in both meetings, but this time Arians has the quarterback and roster he didn’t have against Rivera’s Panthers.

The trilogy meeting between Bruce Arians v. Ron Rivera is what we wanted. Tampa’s defense has dealt with COVID-19 issues the past week and a half, and Washington’s offense is so-so. Tampa’s offense is loaded even if Mike Evans doesn’t play. On the opposite, Washington boasts the best pass defense and the best front defensive four in the NFL. This will be a great game even with a 7-9 team in the playoffs.

Analysis: The key to winning for both teams involves the running game. Antonio Gibson is the key for the Football Team in order to win, so he should get a lot of touches early and often. Alex Smith is a bright quarterback who knows how to win in the playoffs despite his leg injury being a problem in the past week. Tampa may have an advantage smothering his best receivers in coverage, but there’s enough creativity with runningbacks to keep Washington hanging around.

Brady’s first game as a wild-card road team could mean one of two things: things go well, or things play out poorly and he grills his teammates.

Ronald Jones is a top three runningback in the NFL, but the offensive stubbornness of Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich prevent him from shining when it matters most. Arians does have the quarterback that takes competition to the next level in Tom Brady, and one would think despite Arians calling plays, this is Brady’s game. Rookie defensive end Chase Young opened his mouth too early and talked on how he wants to sack Brady at least once. The best quarterback in our lifetime took this personally, and we’ve seen Brady show up when he takes things to heart.

Prediction: Buccaneers win 27-17

Author’s picks last week: 10-6

Author’s picks this season: 164-86

No Country for Old Men: Older, Franchise Quarterbacks in the NFL Have to Hang it Up

Cam Newton and the New England Patriots were one point away from tying the Buffalo Bills at ten points each until kicker Nick Folk missed the extra point. After that kick, the Bills played the Patriots like a playoff team and bludgeoned them.

Newton was pulled in the middle of the third quarter, throwing for 34 yards and sacked twice for 20 yards. That’s a finish of +14 yards for the reigning 2015 league MVP. Newton hasn’t looked right since he caught COVID-19, and it’s fair to ask has that affected his play.

All of this is important because Newton said at the beginning of December that he isn’t done playing and has a lot to prove. Anyone who’s watched Newton since he contracted COVID, knows he has nothing left to prove. Minus the upcoming Sunday game, Newton came back to start 14 games and was critical to the Patriots not being worse than the New York Jets. His foot injuries seem to have taken a toll, and he’s a shell of that 2015 greatness.

Bill defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson (90, white) sacks Cam Newton (1, blue) in the first half of Week 16’s Monday Night game. This was one of two times Newton was sacked.

None of this is to antagonize him for clinging onto his starting spot. In fact, it’s the opposite. There are at least a half dozen starting quarterbacks holding teams back from playing at their best, and it’s time for them to retire or step down. Think about it this way; if this was a politician who served a state/country over 25 years, citizens would want a fresh face. It’s the same with sports, the only difference is sports wins championships.

Starting quarterbacks who need to retire

  • Drew Brees – Probably 95% of football fans (outside of Louisiana) agree with this one. Brees is not the same player he was even five years ago. There are valid reasons why Brees should retire. To start, he’s had issues throwing deep passes consistently. Early this season, New Orleans had the fewest yards per pass (just over five yards). It’s not much better heading into 2021. The final clue was the number of broken ribs Brees sustained mid-November against the San Francisco 49ers. With close to a dozen ribs out of place and a punctured lung, he came back a month later to play. Brees is an icon in New Orleans and a relic of the culture change he and coach Sean Payton brought to a losing franchise. That’s a problem. He’s a relic, not a quarterback who can carry a team to a championship. The Saints have to find a young quarterback in the offseason.
  • Ben Roethlisberger – The Steelers are a mess even with a comeback win against the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday. In order to see where the Steelers and Roethlisberger are, watch game-tape of December 21st’s Steelers-Bengals game. Roethlisberger, who’s one of the 2004 drafted quarterbacks on this list, struggled to throw downfield. Yes, he threw well in Lucas Oil Stadium the following Sunday, but Pittsburgh was down double-digits in the second half and Indianapolis made few second half adjustments. The focus for the Steelers offense is to get the ball out of Ben’s hands at record speed, hoping his receivers catch the passes and make plays after. It’s not sustainable. Whoever the sixth seed heading into wild card weekend is, that team has the advantage of shutting down a rapid fire offense with few answers when contained. Mason Rudolph isn’t the solution long-term, so the Steelers must look in free agency and the draft for their future.
  • Philip Rivers – The other 2004 drafted quarterback is on a one year $25 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts. Rivers’ odd throwing motion has shown the downside of his career. He’s made efforts to get the Colts’ best receiver T.Y. Hilton the ball the past month and a half, but there may not be enough tape for general manager Chris Ballard to consider re-signing him this offseason. Along with his throwing motion, his lack of mobility outside the pocket and lack of game winning drives against playoff opponents says Rivers is likely to go within the next few years, if not after this season. Unlike the other two names above, Rivers can call it quits before he plays like a shell of his former self.
  • Cam Newton – Newton was hit a lot during his tenure in Carolina, and those hits took a toll. His lis franc injury was enough to not play a season and a half, which is why New England took a chance on him with a small contract. There aren’t many talented receivers in New England (outside of Julian Edelman) and COVID-19 possibly affected him before the Patriots played Kansas City. It’s evident he is not comfortable and nowhere near the top threat even three years ago. Despite him saying he has much to prove, there’s nothing left he has to do almost ten years in the NFL.
  • Alex Smith – the Comeback Player of the Year winner is a great story after a year and a half out of the NFL for breaking his leg and an infection right after. If we take emotions out of this, Smith is the fifth quarterback on this list who’s 35 years or older who’s been in the playoffs multiple times. The Washington Football Team needs to find a franchise quarterback, which is on the list of things the franchise faces in the upcoming years. While Smith brings stability, how can we be sure Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Allen, or an outsider such as Mitchell Trubisky or Brandon Allen isn’t the answer if they don’t have opportunities to prove themselves?
  • Matt Ryan – Last year might have been the last good year we see from the tenured Atlanta Falcon quarterback. Despite a fantastic receiving core and a solid offensive line, Ryan has yet to throw 20 or more touchdowns this season. The Falcons are a punchline for choking games, but Ryan isn’t a game-changer like he was middle last decade. At 35, it’s best he retire before his career ends sour.
  • Matthew Stafford – The eye-opening one on here and understandably so. He has two years remaining on his contract and could get traded to a team that needs a quarterback such as New Orleans, San Francisco or Pittsburgh. Stafford’s been consistent enough to keep the Detroit Lions competitive most of the seasons he’s played. There are some things that warrant him being in this category. His injury list is longer than most starting quarterbacks. Last time he finished a season healthy, he threw 21 touchdowns. His offensive line has been better this season, but he still takes sacks he shouldn’t go down on, an issue most of his career. Adding to his decision making, consider quality play against winning teams. He can get to the playoffs, but can he take the extra step with a better roster on all three sides of the ball? At 32, we might have seen his peak since he entered the league in 2009, so it’s possible he has a steady decline.

Just how life is outside of sports, there are exceptions to the rule. 37 year old Aaron Rodgers is the front runner to not just win league MVP this season, but to lead Green Bay back to the Super Bowl. Tom Brady’s the oldest quarterback to start on any team, and he’s looking pretty good despite being 43. Brady winning six championships with no losing seasons in his NFL career is a talent we may not see from anyone else in our lifetime. Andy Dalton and Ryan Fitzpatrick have accepted their 1B/backup roles, helping their teams when needed most.

Alex Smith (11, burgundy) has had a wild NFL career, and his best story is leading the Washington Football Team to a possible playoff berth. However, injuries have been a factor in his career, and there are good reasons why he should retire after this season.

It’s possible that Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers could be great backup/1B options, but there are valid questions and cases on why new quarterbacks should have a chance to start without controversy. Sam Darnold needs a coach who can teach him consistency. Mitchell Trubisky is finally thriving with an offensive coordinator who understands how to use him. Jimmy Garappolo may do well in New England since Bill Belichick knew how to get the best out of him. Sit back and ask how many talented quarterbacks are we not watching the best of week-to-week because they don’t have the chance to show it?

NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions

It’s been a wild 2020. First the NBA season paused until mid-summer, then the Miami Heat went on a tear dismantling the Milwaukee Bucks and edging the Boston Celtics to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.

The NBA bubble in Orlando won’t be back, yet there won’t be many fans in stadiums due to COVID-19 precautions. The season starts tonight despite these fan restrictions, so it’s time to pick which eight teams in the East have the best chance to make the playoffs.

#1 Milwaukee Bucks

This isn’t a hard one. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in professional basketball and the Bucks have a solid supporting cast. Coach Mike Budenholzer is good in the regular season (post-season is a different story). Milwaukee might lock up the first seed early since there’s enough depth to hold leads or make games competitive. The addition of point guard Jrue Holiday solidifies the Bucks holding onto their number one spot.

#2 Boston Celtics

The Toronto Raptors lost their core depth and height in free agency. As good as coach Nick Nurse is, I don’t see how the Raptors come out on top and retain the number two seed. Boston did add Tristan Thompson in the offseason, a center who has championship experience to compliment Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart.

Jrue Holliday (11, white) is exactly who Milwaukee needs to compliment their two-time Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo. Kemba Walker (8, black) looks to return for a full season and play a bigger role in Boston’s rise in the East.

The Celtics have more to work with and look to be the most complete team on paper. Even with injuries, coach Brad Stevens will find ways to keep them a top four seed.

#3 Miami Heat

Outside of teams wearing green, this may be the best team. Miami retains most of their roster from their Finals trip in September. Coach Eric Spoelstra can improve breakout role players Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. Starting center Bam Adebayo, point guard Goran Dragic and team star Jimmy Butler will be enough for this team to cement the Southeast Division.

What sets this team apart is how they can play as a whole unit, their coaching, and they match up well against dangerous teams such as Brooklyn and Philadelphia.

Joel Embiid (21, blue) has to improve his game like he did in 2018 for the 76ers to go far in the playoffs, especially with Doc Rivers behind the bench. Jimmy Butler (22, red) is the star the Miami Heat needed and wanted. They’ll be the top target in the East since they were conference champions.

#4 Philadelphia 76ers

Doc Rivers is a clear upgrade from Brett Brown at head coach. Dwight Howard as the backup center behind Joel Embiid will be interesting, and shooting guard additions Danny Green and Seth Curry will make this a polar year for the Sixers.

Unfortunately for them, the Heat have shown to be a true contender as they won the East last year, taking out the top two teams of this list. Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris aren’t players to win championships with, but they can take Philly far if there’s a good core who can shoot.

Despite the cons, they’re much better than all but a few teams in the East. Let’s see how long coach Doc Rivers can improve this team.

#5 Indiana Pacers

The Pacers get overlooked because of the drop-off in star talent outside of Milwaukee, but they’re a real playoff threat…if they can win a game. New coach Nate Bjorkgren needs to find ways to win when it matters especially in the playoffs.

Outside of two sweeps the past two playoff appearances, the Pacers have solid players to clinch a five or six seed. Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis and Justin Holiday are a good core Bjorkgren can work with early in the season. Outside of bench players Doug McDermott and Jeremy Lamb, the Pacers have to shoot better from mid-to-long range.

Indiana plays well defensively, something they have to do considering the Bucks and Celtics are the top teams who push them around. Outside their shooting issues, that should play another pivotal part of their season and in the division.

#6 Brooklyn Nets

The team everyone wants to see early and often. The Nets look to be one of the best teams to score and dominate on offense, but defensively a sieve. Coach Steve Nash will have his hands full when the Nets have to defend in close games.

Kevin Durant (in black, left) and Kyrie Irving (right) will be a fiery duo for Brooklyn this season, but will they be a factor in the playoffs?

The returns of Kevin Durant and point guard Kyrie Irving are what basketball fans want to see. Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris provide offensive flexibility and long-range scoring. However, outside of an aging DeAndre Jordan there isn’t anyone who shows they’re a defensive star.

The sky is the limit for the Nets. They could fix the defensive issues by mid-season or crash and burn. Too many questions remain that can’t be answered at once. The sixth seed is fitting since they couldn’t be any worse to start the season.

#7 Chicago Bulls

Coach Jim Boylen deservedly got the boot and was replaced by phenom Billy Donovan. That puts the Bulls and Donovan in a much better spot than the beginning of 2020. Boylen had no idea what to do with the talent in front of him.

Point guard Coby White’s trajectory looks positive going into his second season. Bulls stars Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. will be led and taught by Billy Donovan on how to improve their individual and team games. Markkanen is playing for the right coach and should have a career year.

In order for the Bulls to push back against the Bucks/make the playoffs, they have to open up the play-book on offense. Lauri Markkanen (24, black) and Zach LaVine (8, black) should show that improvement this year.

Otto Porter Jr., Thaddeus Young and Denzel Valentine are good bench players who will help out and play team-first basketball. Donovan didn’t have this much talent to work with in Oklahoma City. The Bulls are ready to take the next steps with a new coach and general manager.

#8 Orlando Magic

A second team has to make the playoffs from the Southeast division…I think. The Magic or the Atlanta Hawks are the best bets to grab the last seed since Washington and Charlotte will probably sink this season. The Magic get the nod for two reasons: they’ve drafted and designed a better roster and they have playoff experience.

The Magic were thrown out of the playoffs by a championship Toronto Raptors team in 2019 and a dominant Milwaukee team in 2020. However, they grabbed one win against both of those teams. They’re not some mediocre team with no stars, they’re still developing like the Chicago Bulls are.

The good thing for Orlando is their added depth behind their starters. Michael Carter-Williams, Al-Farouq Aminu, Terrence Ross and Mo Bamba should keep the Magic in games especially against teams close to getting into the playoffs.

Magic point guard Markelle Fultz signed a three year extension this past weekend. Fultz and the Magic starting five should find ways to get back into the playoffs, even if it’s the last seed.