During the 2013-14 regular season, the Los Angeles Kings were the NHL’s fifth-lowest scoring team, notching just 2.4 goals for every 60 minutes they were on the ice. On paper, no team headed into the postseason with as anemic an offense. Yet fast forward a month and a half and Los Angeles is on the verge of closing out the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals partly because the Kings’ offense is sizzling. They put together a five-goal barrage in Game 4 against Chicago, and Los Angeles’ 3.3 goals per 60 minute mark leads all teams in scoring during the postseason.How did the Kings’ offense suddenly become so potent? During the regular season, LA converted their shots into goals at a paltry 7.6 percent rate, which tied the Vancouver Canucks for the second-worst shooting percentage in the entire NHL. In the playoffs, though, they’ve upped their conversion rate to 11.3 percent (including 14.5 percent against the Blackhawks), which ranks second among playoff teams. Since they’re not shooting more often (to the contrary — they’re actually averaging 1.6 fewer shots per 60 minutes in the playoffs than during the regular season), the Kings’ goal-scoring increase can be traced to the huge uptick in shooting accuracy.The Kings’ increased shooting percentage hasn’t been driven by facing a particularly easy set of goaltenders. Weighted by the number of shots they had against each opponent, Los Angeles’ playoff foes have had a composite save percentage of .913 during the regular season, which is slightly higher than the overall league average of .911 — certainly nothing that would explain a 3.7-percentage-point leap in shooting percentage. Nor has it been fueled by more time on the power play, where shooting percentages are higher: during the postseason, LA spent about 28 fewer seconds per game with a man advantage than they did in the regular season.One other place to look is where the Kings’ goals have been coming from. For example, during the regular season, LA’s shooting percentage was well below the NHL average on shots from the high slot, the space between the two face-off circles and above the hash marks. And in their Game 1 loss to Chicago, the Kings attempted three shots from that area, missing all three. But ever since, they’ve scored three goals on eight shots (a shooting percentage of 37.5) from a zone of the ice where they usually turn only 6.7 percent of their shots into goals. Since goals are such rare events, even a shift like that on just one section of the ice can lead to a big overall increase in scoring.Likewise, the late-season addition of Marian Gaborik, who leads LA in shots during the playoffs, and whose lifetime shooting percentage of 12.9 percent is well above the league average over his career, explains part of the team’s scoring burst. But it bears mentioning that while shot quality — and converting those chances into goals — makes a big difference in retrospect, it’s hard to tell how much is luck and how much is skill.In other words, the biggest reason the Kings’ offense has caught fire in the postseason may simply be good fortune, with some regression to the mean thrown in for good measure. Los Angeles wasn’t ever as bad at shooting as their regular-season percentage suggested (they were in the middle of the pack the season before), nor are they as good as their postseason run would indicate. The truth lies somewhere in between, and as we’ve seen before with hockey stats, it’s a truth mixed in with a lot of noise.
San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and wide receiver Marquise Goodwin (11) kneel during the performance of the national anthem before an NFL football game against the New York Giants in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)Papa John’s Pizza apologized Tuesday night for comments made by CEO John Schnatter blaming sluggish pizza sales on NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.The Louisville, Kentucky-based company is a major NFL sponsor and advertiser, and Schnatter said on an earnings call on Nov. 1 that “NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders” and that the protests “should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.”The company tweeted a statement offering to “work with the players and league to find a positive way forward.”“The statements made on our earnings call were describing the factors that impact our business and we sincerely apologize to anyone that thought they were divisive,” it said. “That definitely was not our intention.“We believe in the right to protest inequality and support the players’ movement to create a new platform for change. We also believe, as Americans, we should honor our anthem. There is a way to do both.”The movement was started last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled to protest what he said was police mistreatment of blacks. More players began kneeling after President Donald Trump said at an Alabama rally in September that team owners should get rid of players who protest during the anthem.Papa John’s added that it is “open to ideas from all. Except neo-Nazis.” It previously has tried to distance itself from white supremacists who praised Schnatter’s comments, saying it does not want those groups to buy its pizza.The company’s stock has fallen by nearly 13 percent since Schnatter’s comments.
Hot Takedown The vine of LeBron James and Dion Waiters that Chadwick Matlin mentions on the show.Rob Arthur on the best Royals team ever.Neil Paine breaks down the cost of leaving Matt Harvey in the game.FiveThirtyEight’s NBA preview.ESPN breaks down the stats in New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup victory.Brett McKay on the difference between rugby in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere.Significant Digit: 38. That is the longest New York City Marathon streak held by a woman. Connie Brown, at 71, finished her 38th marathon; her time was 5:50:44. Welcome to this week’s episode of Hot Takedown, our podcast where the hot sports takes of the week meet the numbers that prove them right or tear them down. On this week’s show (Nov. 3, 2015), we ask whether the Kansas City Royals won the World Series or the New York Mets lost it. We also preview the NBA’s Western Conference and where FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO NBA player projections rank Kobe Bryant this season. Plus, a look at New Zealand’s victory in the Rugby World Cup with Brett McKay, ESPN Scrum writer and host of The Cheap Seats podcast. And a Significant Digit on a New York City Marathon streak.Stream the episode by clicking the play button, or subscribe using one of the podcast clients we’ve linked to above. Video, bonus audio and links to what we discussed are below. How many times did the Mets blow it? If you’re a fan of our podcasts, be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts and leave a rating/review. That helps spread the word to other listeners. And get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments. Tell us what you think, send us hot takes to discuss and tell us why we’re wrong. More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS
Because Schröder’s passes have generally left him with nothing to do but lay the ball in, particularly against lesser opponents such as the Sixers, Howard’s average time of possession per touch is down nearly 16 percent from last season and has decreased more than 27 percent from two seasons ago. Additionally, his dribbles per touch are down 10 percent and 27 percent, respectively, from last year and two years ago, according to SportVU.Can it last?Yet for all that, it’s fair to wonder how much of Atlanta’s hot start is sustainable.Schröder, in his first year as a starter, probably won’t finish this season with a higher three-point mark (42.9 percent so far) than his overall field-goal percentage last year (42.1 percent). Howard left Tuesday night’s win with a thigh bruise, and the injury will be a problem if it persists. The team is already thin in spots, including at center, since backup big man Tiago Splitter is still recovering from a February hip surgery. And there’s also the matter of the team’s soft schedule (fifth-easiest in the NBA) to this point: The Hawks are the only team to have beaten the defending-champion Cleveland Cavaliers, but as of Wednesday afternoon, five of their eight wins had come against Philadelphia, Washington and Miami, the Eastern Conference’s three worst teams.Still, Atlanta — outscoring opponents by more than 10 points per 100 possessions — has generally dominated its competition. The Hawks are limiting opposing offenses to just over 95 points per 100 plays, second-best in the NBA, trailing only the Clippers.The defense, which has been active and has deflected more passes than any Eastern Conference team, appears to be staying home a bit more often than in years past, to allow Howard to serve as a rim protector as opposed to chasing guards all over the court. That has paid dividends: They’re limiting opponents to 52.8 percent shooting from inside five feet, outpacing last year’s impressive 55.5 percent mark.Even with all this in mind, and Howard playing well, the same question as before still faces this team: Does the team — however good it might be — realistically have enough scoring, or enough stoppers, to get the best of LeBron James and the Cavaliers?Probably not. But by changing their look, and playing more inside-out than they have in years past, there might be a little more intrigue this time around, even if the end result turns out to be the same.Check out our latest NBA predictions. 20141.840.62 20151.590.50 Dwight Howard is making faster decisions For years, the Atlanta Hawks have had two guiding philosophies. Under coach Mike Budenholzer, the club has prioritized moving the ball in an uptempo offense, fashioning every player into a jump-shooting threat. On defense, Atlanta thrived thanks to the unusual frontcourt mobility of Paul Millsap and Al Horford. While neither was a traditional rim protector, the team used an array of hedges and switches to slow down pick-and-rolls and limit drives to the basket.With that in mind, things were bound to get interesting one way or another this season. Horford bolted for the Celtics over the summer, taking with him the unique passing and mobility he provides at the center position. He was replaced by Dwight Howard, who is a totally different player from a stylistic standpoint even if he’s a surefire Hall of Famer. The Hawks, who for years lived on ball movement and swiftness, seem to be replacing those virtues with brute strength.The swap — along with promoting point guard Dennis Schröder to a starting role after dealing away former All-Star Jeff Teague — has brought about some encouraging signs for the 8-2 Hawks, who probably needed a bit of a shake-up despite their relative success in recent years. Howard’s replacing Horford doesn’t necessarily make the Hawks more of a contender, but the move at least allows them to try a different look, both offensively and defensively, in hopes of finding a way forward.Howard on the boardsThe clearest difference from last season is the team’s overnight transformation into an offensive-rebounding powerhouse.The Hawks from previous years — much like the Spurs model that Budenholzer borrowed from his time as an assistant in San Antonio — didn’t concern themselves with offensive rebounding, instead preferring to space the court and simply retreat back on defense following a miss.As such, Atlanta ranked dead last in offensive-rebound rate in 2015. This year’s team, by contrast, is tied for the NBA’s fourth-best offensive-rebounding rate. The Hawks, who had ranked in the NBA’s bottom five in second-chance points in each of the previous three seasons, are currently ninth in second-chance points per game. Howard has everything to do with that. His personal numbers look good — he’s averaging 14.8 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, with eight double-doubles in 10 games — but his effect on Atlanta’s overall numbers appear to be even better. The club’s 31.1 percent offensive-rebound percentage with him on the court this season would be tied for the highest in the league, alongside the Chicago Bulls. The team’s offensive-rebound rate falls to a below-league average rate of 22.2 percent when Howard is on the sideline.Between those easy putbacks, and Howard’s pick-and-roll feeds from Schröder, Atlanta is shooting nearly 67 percent at the rim — up from just over 60 percent last year — second only to the Golden State Warriors so far. (Note the proximity that NBA.com uses for its at-the-rim stats differs slightly from the one the site uses in its shot charts, embedded below, but the trend holds true in both.) Howard, taking more than 80 percent of his shots from there (and also connecting on about 67 percent of those attempts), is fundamentally changing the way the team’s shot chart looks in the process.Howard on the blockBefore Tuesday’s quad injury, Howard was enjoying a bit of a renaissance after three frustrating seasons in Houston, where he felt underutilized and in the shadow of James Harden. Aside from cleaning the glass for easy putbacks, he was jelling with Schröder in pick-and-roll scenarios, regularly catching lobs from his new point guard, who appears to be making a concerted effort to keep him involved. And defenses, as much as they’d like to flood the paint to prevent Howard from getting easy baskets, have been reluctant to help too much in that part of the floor. Usual suspects such as sharpshooter Kyle Korver, along with Kent Bazemore and Millsap, are all threats to connect from outside if left open as a result of overhelping.With the Rockets, Howard’s offensive involvement wavered from time to time. Consider the fact that Howard received 6.7 passes per game from Harden during his first year there, before getting just 2.2 passes from him in 2014 and 4.5 passes from the Rockets star in 2015. Schröder, in Atlanta’s equal-opportunity system, is finding Howard more than eight times a night, according to SportVU tracking.Perhaps because of those frequent opportunities — and the fact that he’s no longer wondering if or when he’ll touch the ball, the way he sometimes did in Houston — Howard’s possessing the rock for shorter amounts of time as opposed to slowing his team’s offense to back down an opponent and force up an ugly hook shot, merely to create a scoring chance for himself. YEARSECONDS PER TOUCHDRIBBLES PER TOUCH 20131.820.70 Source: nba.com 20161.390.45
The Washington Capitals are on fire right now. They’ve lost only three times since the calendar flipped to 2017 and have outscored their opponents 95 to 44 over that stretch. Aside from an 8-7 overtime loss to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 16, the Capitals have only surrendered more than three goals two times during their hot streak. In a league in which holding the opponent to three goals or fewer will earn you at least a shootout most nights, it’s easy to see why Washington is piling up points in the standings.Not only do the Caps own the league’s best record, but they also have the most dominant stats in hockey. They lead the league in Hockey-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), which estimates the strength of every team in the NHL,1Technically speaking, SRS measures a team’s average goal differential after adjusting for strength of schedule. as well as team goals against average, the mark of a stingy defense. They also rank in the top five in several other major statistical categories, including goals scored per game; power play percentage; penalty kill percentage; and Corsi percentage, which estimates a team’s all-important possession rate by measuring the percentage of shot attempts it directed at the opponent’s net during games.2Adjusted for score, zone and venue.This is all to say that the Capitals look really, really ridiculously good on paper. But they’ve also ranked highly in a few key stats that are traditionally more in the realm of luck than skill. For example, they’re No. 1 in PDO, which is the sum of shooting percentage and save percentage (a notoriously unstable indicator in stathead circles), both of which the Capitals also either lead the league in or are tied for No. 1. Ordinarily, a high PDO could be seen as a red flag — suggesting that a team’s statistical résumé is like a house of cards, ready to collapse at any moment. But in Washington’s case, the team even seems to have come by the percentages that make up PDO (mostly) honestly. It’s the consequence of a roster design that could mean it’s finally Washington’s year to hoist Lord Stanley’s cup.The Capitals’ statistical excellence is nothing new — in each of the past three seasons, they’ve ranked among the NHL’s top eight in both points and SRS. Perhaps even more telling, they’ve been among the NHL’s top three in PDO for the past two seasons. Their good fortune in the percentages is commonplace by now.So how do we know Washington’s success isn’t purely based on good luck? For one thing, they’ve assembled a roster that perennially shoots the lights out. The Capitals have finished outside of the top 10 in shooting percentage only once since 2009-10. And since Barry Trotz took the helm as head coach in 2014-15, the team has ranked no worse than fourth. Only the Dallas Stars outperformed the Capitals in shooting percentage in both 2014-15 and 2015-16, but while the Stars have regressed — they sit in the middle of the pack (12th) in 2016-17 — the Capitals continue to put the puck in the net with a high degree of efficiency, thanks to that group of good shooters.A handful of said marksmen are having personal best shooting percentage seasons: T.J. Oshie, whose career shooting percentage of 13.1 percent is good for 24th among active players, is scoring on 23.7 percent of his shots in 2016-17. Frequent playoff hero3This is one of the reasons the Capitals signed him. Justin Williams has a career shooting percentage of 9.7 percent, but he’s scoring on 15.7 percent of his shots. Left winger Marcus Johansson has a career shooting percentage of 14.0 percent but is scoring on an astounding 22.9 percent of his shots. And he looks poised to shatter his career high mark for goals in a season. Some of that overachievement is bound to regress to the mean, but if the Caps’ history as a team is any indicator, Washington should be able to hold onto at least some of their improvements.That’s just one of PDO’s two (usually unstable) components. The other half of the Capitals’ brilliant, odds-beating equation is goaltender Braden Holtby. Holtby is among the best netminders in the world (his career save percentage is third-best among active goalies), and he’s only getting better. His goals against average and save percentage are both better than they were last season, and if it weren’t for Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk’s ridiculously impressive performance in 2016-17, Holtby would be a lock for a second consecutive Vezina Trophy. Goaltending statistics can be notoriously fluky, but they tend to be more stable over a career, particularly when they’re as consistently great as Holtby’s have been.The main criticism of the Capitals — and especially their captain, Alex Ovechkin — has been that they’re playoff underachievers.4It’s hilarious to assign an “underachiever” tag to a guy who ranks sixth all-time — and first among active skaters — in goals scored per game. Alexander Ovechkin is a gift and a once-in-a-generation talent, and every hockey fan on Earth — Washington Capitals fan or not — should cherish his existence. They’ve qualified for the postseason in eight of the past nine seasons but haven’t managed to get past the conference semifinals despite having rosters stacked with such quality players as Ovechkin, Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alexander Semin (when he was actually good), Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green (when he was actually good), and Holtby.When juxtaposed against the Capitals’ inability to make a deep playoff run, Washington’s degree of statistical dominance suggests that, sure, perhaps the team has underachieved a bit. But there’s no doubt that Trotz and general manager Brian MacLellan have built a team poised to succeed in the modern era of the NHL. Not only do they have a group that controls the puck well, but they’ve also hacked through the noise of PDO to assemble a roster that isn’t just lucky when it beats the percentages. Who knows if the Capitals will win the Cup this year, but they’re a legitimately dominant team and, as things sit now, championship favorites. Maybe this is the year they finally shrug off the underachievers tag and deliver on that promise.