2017 NBA Conference Finals Predictions

dm_170515_NBA_Highlight_Wizards-Celtics.jpgAnother round in the books, and another undefeated string of predictions by yours truly, Mark Leopold. This time, I was only a single game away from selecting the exact series results of each of the 4 match-ups in the Conference Semifinals. Now, as the Top 2 seeds of both divisions square off, who will emerge as Conference Champions and whose dream will fall just short? If there is anything we know about Leopold’s 12-0 record, it’s that one would be hard-pressed to go against him when the games matter the most. Let’s take a look at who will be competing in the NBA Finals.

(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (2) San Antonio SpursC_l2f5NXkAAgd1U.jpg

The Warriors advance into their 3rd straight conference finals without having lost a game in the 2017 playoffs, despite coach Steve Kerr being sidelined with a back injury. Well, off the sidelines in this case. That said, Mike Brown has done an exceptional job stepping in during Kerr’s absence as Golden State appears destined for another shot at reclaiming their title. What’s most exceptional is that the superstars haven’t even played their best basketball yet. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant struggle to find chemistry and work together. Meanwhile, Draymond Green hasn’t been the dominant force he’s known to be in the lane, and Klay Thompson has yet to catch fire.

I would think these struggles are primarily due to a lack of playing time. A sweep in the first round left the Warriors waiting nearly a week to find out who their next opponent was to be, as the Utah Jazz took 7 games to defeat the L.A. Clippers. Now, after another quick sweep of a tired Utah team, GSW was forced to wait another 6 days to play again on Sunday night. One could argue that Golden State may never find their rhythm due to the unfortunate scheduling nature of the playoffs. Then again, the extra rest hasn’t hurt them a bit so far. Although, they haven’t yet drawn a team as talented as the Spurs.

San Antonio has a lot of heart. After suffering a crushing home loss in Game 1 of the Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets, Kawhi Leonard and Co. fought hard to win 4 of the next 5 games. Tired and a little beaten up, they face an incredible Warriors team. With no time to celebrate or rest and recover, the Spurs are forced to jump right into Oracle Arena in Northern California and make a statement. Yikes. It’s not impossible, but San Antonio will need every ounce of luck they can get.

Spurs 6th man Patty Mills has been playing out of his mind as of late, and Lamarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol have held down the block pretty well. With Leonard’s clutch shooting, it’s no surprise they’ve made it this far. However, the focus shifts to Leonard’s right ankle. He was forced out of Game 5 with the injury, and was unable to play in Game 6. It goes without saying, but the Spurs will need their superstar on the court if they want any chance of outlasting the Warriors. Even if he’s not 100%, his presence and leadership can give the Spurs the energy and confidence they need to make all the right plays. However, if he’s not good enough to go, it’s not far-fetched to expect the well-rested Warriors to shake off the rust and dominate every game en route to another sweep.

Prediction: Both of these perennial Western Conference favorites have great home crowds, and this series will be the most interesting for the Warriors yet, but nothing keeps them out of their 3rd straight NBA Finals. They clinch in 5.

 

(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (1) Boston Celtics9651893-nba-boston-celtics-at-cleveland-cavaliers-850x560.jpeg

Speaking of back-to-back sweeps, the Cavaliers are shredding the Eastern Conference in the same fashion as the Warriors are in the West. Lebron James and Kyrie Irving are gelling to perfection, and with textbook ball movement each time down the floor, Cleveland looks unbeatable. Not to mention, as their starters get rest in between scoring runs, the bench steps up to keep momentum with Cleveland. Draymond Green of the Warriors has stated that he credits Cleveland’s run due to poorer competition than that of the Warriors, but regardless, it’s been impressive to watch. Looking ahead, they face a tired but resilient Celtics team that has overcome almost every obstacle imaginable to be here, and they’re not ready to be denied a chance to extend their season.

So, the key for Cleveland is to avoid looking ahead to a potential return to the Finals, and to just play the game they have been known for all season. Trusting their teammates and playing good defense will allow them to control the pace of play as they hope to inevitably become too much for Boston. Obviously, this is easier said than done, and after a full 10 days of rest before Game 1 on Wednesday, anything can happen. There have been tactical moves between coaches Tyronn Lue and Brad Stevens all season, and this chess match will be no different. I’m very excited to see how the hot Celtics play against the rested Cavs in Game 1.

Right, the Celtics are hot. Coasting off momentum from an emotional Game 7 win against their bitter rival Washington Wizards, the Celtics must bring the momentum into the Q for Game 1. Delivering a huge blow by stealing one on the road to kick off the series would do wonders for their ‘upset’ hopes. Despite being favorites on paper, it’s an uphill battle for Boston to overcome the Cavaliers. Point guard Isaiah Thomas has had the best stretch of his career during these playoffs, and it’s crucial that he keeps up this play during the Conference Finals. His ball distribution and court vision are unparalleled, and it gives Boston a huge advantage against Cleveland’s normally-average defense.

Meanwhile, alongside Thomas’s heroics are the clutch performances of his teammates in every game. Whether it’s Al Horford, Avery Bradley, or Kelly Olynyk putting on a clinic, the Celtics always seem to find the hot hand. Keeping up this unselfish basketball and letting the energy flow through each other has been an integral part of Boston’s success this season. So will they continue to exploit unaware defenses, or has Cleveland read the scouting report and expect to shut them down? Only one way to find out..

Prediction: A very fun series to watch might go longer than some expect as these teams bring out the best in each other, but there is no denying Warriors vs. Cavaliers III. Cavs drop Game 1, but win 4 straight to advance.

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2017 NFL Draft 1st Round Grades

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The 2017 Draft was undoubtedly unlike any other. With a couple of notable trades and a record-shattering plethora of DBs taken, there’s a lot to break down. Which picks can help their team turn their recent down seasons around and which are the biggest busts? Who has the best chance at winning the next Lombardi Trophy and which teams may fall out of playoff contention? Let’s take a look.

1      Cleveland Browns – Myles Garrett, DE Texas A&M

Grade – A. They did what they were supposed to do. By far the most talented and versatile player in the draft, Garrett can provide an explosive presence for a struggling defensive line. Cleveland should be very excited to build their defense around this young man. The only question is whether or not he can give 100% effort to every play.

2      Chicago Bears – Mitchell Trubisky, QB North Carolina

Grade – D. In a surprising trade with San Francisco, the Bears moved up one spot to grab Trubisky. In doing so, they may have made one of the worst mistakes in franchise history. Put aside the fact that the Bears gave away a 3rd and 4th pick to move up, but note that the 49ers weren’t even remotely considering drafting a QB. In other words, the trade was completely unnecessary and Chicago gave away too much when they could have gotten their man anyway. Also, in my opinion, Trubisky isn’t even the best QB in the draft! Horrible trade.

3      San Fransisco 49ers –  Solomon Thomas, DT Stanford

Grade – A+. Awesome trade. The 49ers have stated how ecstatic they are to land their #1 man in Thomas, and in doing so they virtually stole a couple of picks from Chicago. Knowing that the Bears weren’t looking for a defensive end, San Fran happily let them skip ahead for an unreasonably high offer. Picture-perfect beginning to a new era for the 49ers.

4      Jacksonville Jaguars – Leonard Fournette, RB LSU

Grade – B. I mentioned how desperately the Jags needed a defensive end, but I’ve got no problem with picking up Fournette. A strong running back with patience and acceleration, he can provide a lot of help in the backfield for QB Blake Bortles. Locking in this explosive duo gives Jacksonville some stability and allowed for some defensive picks in later rounds. Let’s hope they don’t regret passing on a big DT to be mentioned later..

5      Tennessee Titans – Corey Davis, WR Western Michigan

Grade – B-. Davis is a good pick that the Titans need, but it was made too early.  I had him going to Tennessee with the 18th pick, but I think they needed a cornerback for this turn. With so many available DBs, it would’ve been awesome to get a head start, but they chose to address that need later instead. The Titans likely felt that since there were less WRs available, they didn’t want to miss a chance to grab this talent. Better safe than sorry.

6      New York Jets – Jamal Adams, S LSU

Grade – B+. This is as good a pick as can be expected. I really would’ve liked to have seen Deshaun Watson go here, but I understand that was unlikely to happen. Adams is an amazing safety much like Patrick Peterson. Replacing Darrelle Revis was also a top priority and New York nailed it. LSU is DBU and Adams will show it for the Jets.

7      Los Angeles Chargers – Mike Williams, WR Clemson

Grade – C+. More than anything, I just don’t understand this one. Williams is a big, solid receiver, but where does he fit? The Chargers already have numerous WRs rotating in and out, and I don’t see the value of adding another to the mix. I expected L.A. to improve their weak secondary, but I guess they have other plans.

8      Carolina Panthers – Christian McCaffrey, RB Stanford

Grade – A. I like this pick because he’s the next best running back to Fournette with arguably more pass-catching ability. He fits perfectly into the spread-offense with Cam Newton, and I’m sure Carolina won’t be upset about settling for the second-best back in the draft. When it’s all said and done, McCaffrey could be a Super Bowl MVP… You heard it here first.

9      Cincinnati Bengals – Joe Ross, WR Washington

Grade – C-. This is another perplexing pick because Cinci has an awful secondary that continues to get burned by its AFC North rivals. Ross provides some great speed, but little else. He has been known to drop more than his fair share of passes and doesn’t have the muscle to break tackles. He’ll be great for the deep ball that Andy Dalton loves, but I don’t seem him being very productive in the long run.

10      Kansas City Chiefs – Patrick Mahomes, QB Texas Tech

Grade – F. I have no idea what the Chiefs were thinking. Not only was getting a quarterback completely unnecessary as it calls into question the relationship with their current QB Alex Smith, but they didn’t even get the best one available! Mahomes almost certainly would’ve been draftable at their regular position, solely due to the fact that he isn’t as polished as other signal-callers. Meanwhile, there were far more pressing issues in KC than QB. Horrible. Horrible. Horrible.

11      New Orleans Saints – Marshon Lattimore, CB Ohio State

Grade – A+. Following perhaps the worst pick of the draft, the Saints get a beauty. Lattimore is a cornerback who has top 5 talent and is perfect for a lackluster Saints secondary. His leadership, strength, and excellent cover skills make him a formidable plug-and-play option in New Orleans.

12      Houston Texans – Deshaun Watson, QB Clemson

Grade – A+. The 3rd time is the charm for the trade market. The Texans desperately needed a QB after the fiasco this offseason, and upon seeing two quarterbacks get picked up already, Houston needed to make their move. Best of all, they only surrendered their 2018 1st rounder. A small price to pay for the best playmaker in the draft and the future of the franchise for the Texans. Watson is a proven winner who will make a big impact as the Texans try to extend their playoff run in 2017.

13      Arizona Cardinals – Haason Reddick, ILB Temple

Grade – A. The only thing better than Reddick would have been Rueben Foster. However, with the diluted sample allegations against him, I’m perfectly fine with taking the safe pick with Reddick. Listed as an LB, this pick can actually play anywhere and will wreak havoc against opposing offensive. Well done.

14      Philadelphia Eagles – Derek Barnett, DE Tennessee

Grade – B. This pick is fine, especially considering they landed RB Donnell Pumphrey in Round 4 to address the need in the backfield. However, if you’re going to get a defensive end, why not Jonathan Allen!? Barnett is a solid D-end, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t understand how they would pass on Allen in this position.

15      Indianapolis Colts – Malik Hooker, S Ohio State

Grade – C-. How do you not get Jonathan Allen!? There is a huge need on the defensive line, and they don’t need a DB yet. If you take into account the depth of both positions in this draft, there is very little reason to pass on Allen. Worse, and I hate to say it as a student at Ohio State, Hooker is not ready for the NFL. He had a phenomenal season at OSU, but I think he’s still very raw. It will take time for the Colts to develop him into the dominant safety they want him to be.

16      Baltimore Ravens – Marlon Humphrey, CB Alabama

Grade – C+. Humphrey is a solid corner with a quality upside, but again… there were better options on defense. Despite my prediction of drafting a TE, I like the move to improve one of the worst defenses in the country. Baltimore is known for their toughness, and Alabama’s Humphrey fits the bill. The main downside is that Humphrey is undersized and doesn’t have the high profile experience of other DBs and DLs on the board.

17      Washington Redskins – Jonathan Allen, DT Alabama

Grade – A+. Finally!! The best pick of the draft goes to D.C. How this guy dropped this far is beyond me, but the Redskins landed an absolute stud. By stealing this huge defensive tackle, Washington can replace Chris Baker with insane upside. Ready to play on Day 1, this pick will go down as one of the greatest steals in NFL history.

18      Tennessee Titans – Adoree’ Jackson, CB USC

Grade – B+. This is a great pick because it fills the void in the secondary with the best available cornerback. Jackson has the speed and the hands to compete with any receiver in the league. My only issue is that the Titans didn’t prioritize correctly. I think that the secondary was a much more important need, and they could have landed a better CB with their 1st pick and gotten Davis now. Oh well, they didn’t do too badly overall.

19     Tampa Bay Buccaneers – O.J. Howard, TE Alabama

Grade – B+. I was unsure of how I felt about this pick at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I like it. I just wonder what will happen to their current tight-end and standout Cameron Brate. Then again, Howard has way more talent and potential than Brate already. Plus, Howard is not the quintessential TE. While he is a big body on the line, he has surprising quickness and speed but can also block to help out Jameis Winston. The dual-threat of sorts can give defenses fits.

20      Denver Broncos – Garett Bolles, OT Utah

Grade – A-. The Broncos #1 priority was to beef up their offensive line, and they did so with Bolles. Though he was my 3rd-rated offensive lineman, I still like this pick. Bolles provides a big body that thwarts outside rushers attacks on the quarterback. With the extra time, Denver’s offense can start humming again.

21      Detroit Lions – Jarrad Davis, ILB Florida

Grade – A. Davis is a great value pick that fills a void in the middle of the Lions defense. He has a powerful step and a run-stuffing mentality that should limit opponents’ play calling with each year he’s in the NFL. His dominance in Florida should translate well for Detroit. I just think there was one linebacker better than Davis…

22      Miami Dolphins – Charles Harris, OLB Missouri

Grade – A+. I believe the Dolphins were able to snag the best linebacker on the board after the Lions’ slight misfire. However, after signing free agent Lawrence Timmons, I expected the Dolphins to pick an inside linebacker, but the Lions to went to the outside before them. Oh well, no matter where these big men play, they’ll be a key piece in their teams’ defenses.

23      New York Giants – Evan Engram, TE Ole Miss

Grade – B-. The Giants love to use their tight-ends to the fullest, so drafting this Mississippi talent should’ve been no surprise. Well, while he is a great fit in New York, a much better fit would’ve been an offensive tackle. It’s well known that the Giants have one of the weakest offensive lines in the NFL, and I’m baffled that they didn’t seize the opportunity to take one of the best linemen in this class in Cam Robinson or Ryan Ramczyk.

24      Oakland Raiders – Gareon Conley, CB Ohio State

Grade – A. Conley is a top 10 talent with great leadership and experience. His drop in my Mock Draft and on Thursday was a result of a false rape allegation lingering over his head before the draft. The Raiders took a chance on him, and it should pay off with big dividends. With a glaring need for cornerbacks, the Raiders got a man with size, speed, and vision to have a proficient NFL career.

25      Cleveland Browns – Jabrill Peppers, S Michigan

Grade – B+. Peppers is listed as a safety, but he can play anywhere. Whether it’s in the secondary, as a linebacker, or on offense, Peppers can be a game-changer. The Browns can look forward to his big play potential and his ability to be all over the field on any given play. The downside: A jack of all trades, a master of none. How effective can he be in any of these positions without a pure niche? We’ll find out.

26      Atlanta Falcons – Takkarist McKinley, DE UCLA

Grade – A-. This man bleeds passion. He loves the game and will put 110% into every play. After Atlanta’s collapse during last year’s Super Bowl, it’s clear how much they need an edge rusher. Enter McKinley. McKinley is a disruptive force that will draw a double team if they want to slow down his motor. Overall, a very good pick. I just thought the Falcons would try to grab an offensive guard first.

27      Buffalo Bills – Tre’Davious White, CB LSU

Grade – A. The 5th and final cornerback to fall in this draft lands in Buffalo. White is another tall player with good hip movement who can irritate even the best of receivers. I expect him to boost a lackluster Bills defense as they try to finally break into the playoffs. The only corner still on the board that I thought was better was Kevin King, so it’ll be interesting to see if the Bills indeed chose correctly between the two.

28      Dallas Cowboys – Taco Charlton, DE Michigan

Grade – A-. With this pick the Cowboys pick up an excellent pass rusher with a similar skill set to the infamous Greg Hardy. Again, as an Ohio State student, I must make the comparison. But all jabs aside, Charlton is a superb talent that fits the Dallas mentality. A hard-nosed player with a respectable work ethic, Charlton will be a handful for the NFC East. But, where is the cornerback that the Cowboys have talked about landing?

29      Cleveland Browns – David Njoku, TE Miami

Grade – B. Well, I guess that’s the end of Gary Barnidge’s career with the Browns… Njoku is definitely an upgrade, but I don’t know that it’s a big enough difference in just the first round. As Barnidge’s tenure has been plagued with drops, the Browns hope Njoku’s steady hands and reliable route-running can give Cleveland a considerable boost. His versatility honestly makes him more of a slow, tough WR than a TE. It’s clear with their first three picks that the Browns are going to love playing around with utility men.

30      Pittsburgh Steelers – T.J. Watt, OLB Wisconsin

Grade – B+. It’s good to see Pittsburgh go back to their roots and pick up a tough linebacker. With the defense aging, they have the right idea to target some young reinforcements. Watt is a very safe pick as he is another leader in the locker room, and represents a proud Watt family. You may wonder why they passed on Reuben Foster, but the Steelers rarely take unnecessary risks, and Foster’s injured shoulder was a chance they weren’t willing to take.

31      San Francisco 49ers – Reuben Foster, ILB Alabama

Grade – A+. Apparently the 49ers were willing to take a chance on Foster, and I think it was worth it. Already with an explosive defensive tackle, adding a talented and experienced linebacker is icing. Once healed, Foster is a plug-and-play linebacker that gives more strength to one of the league’s worst defenses. It’s a work in progress, but San Fran is moving in the right direction.

32      New Orleans Saints – Ryan Ramczyk, OT Wisconsin

Grade – C. Ramczyk is a great offensive tackle, but why?? Drew Brees has one of the quickest releases in the NFL, and the Saints’ running backs are thriving by bouncing outside the pocket. With a horrendous secondary, the Saints should still be focused on stopping their opponents’ offenses rather than trying to improve their own. Already with one of the highest-scoring units in the NFL, I feel this is a wasted opportunity. At least Ramczyk is sure to give the Saints the production they wanted.

2017 NBA Conference Semifinals Predictions

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The first round is in the books, and famed sports blogger Mark Leopold is 8-0, including the daring prediction of the Jazz prevailing in game 7. Now as we march on to the Conference Semifinals, the final 8 teams look to move one step closer to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. So many questions loom: Which teams can be the first to 4 wins? Which teams will enter their offseason prematurely? But most importantly… will Mark Leopold improve to 12-0?? Let’s take a look…

Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Utah Jazz (5)

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Even though the Jazz just came away with one of the biggest wins in their franchise’s history, they now must face a red-hot and well-rested Warriors team that is out for blood. Golden State hardly broke a sweat in its first round sweep of the Trailblazers, and they look to do the same against the Jazz. With a healthy roster complete with 4 All-stars, the Warriors look unstoppable. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have built chemistry all season, and now is the time for it to pay off. The only thing that can get in the way of the Warriors’ advancing to the Conference Finals is if their textbook ball movement gets disrupted.

For the Jazz, it’s imperative to keep playing tenacious defense, and to avoid letting Golden State play within their game. Gordon Hayward has been the leader for Utah all season, and he’ll need to step up and play the best series of his life for the young Jazz to have a chance. Furthermore, it’s a gift that Rudy Gobert is back, but he needs to stay healthy and stay out of foul trouble. His presence inside is invaluable, and he’ll look to win the one-on-one match-ups with Draymond Green. You cannot overstate this David vs. Goliath series, but if the Jazz follow this plan and catch some lucky breaks, they might have a chance to win a game or two at home.

Prediction: The Warriors are forced to fight hard on the road, but don’t drop a game… move to 8-0 in the 2017 Playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Houston Rockets (3)

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From one MVP candidate match-up to another, now the #2 and #3 contenders square off. With the superior Russell Westbrook out of the way, James Harden can breathe a sigh of relief as his Rockets turn to face a complete Spurs team. From veteran point guard Tony Parker to the newly acquired Lamarcus Aldridge, this team has it all. Of course, the x-factor is superstar Kawhi Leonard. Coming off the best season of his career, he continued to dominate on both ends of the floor against the Memphis Grizzlies in Round 1. Hitting clutch shot after clutch shot while providing suffocating defense on the other end gives San Antonio a huge boost in the Conference Semifinals.

As for the Rockets, the key is guard play. Both of these Texas teams’ strengths are in the back court. It’ll be very important for Houston’s Harden and Patrick Beverley to win the battle against the Spurs’ guards. With San Antonio owning a slight edge under the rim thanks to Aldridge, it’s imperative for Houston to beat Parker up top. Harden is certainly capable, as he averages almost 30 points and 11 assists per game, but can he do it against the league’s 2nd best overall defense?

Prediction: A back-and-forth series comes down to who wants it more, Spurs pull it out in 6.

 

Boston Celtics (1) vs. Washington Wizards (4)

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This blossoming bitter rivalry will come to a head in these next couple weeks as All-star point guards Isaiah Thomas and John Wall go one-on-one for a chance at their first Conference Finals appearance. Not only that, Wall hopes he can lead his team past the Conference Semis for the first time in 38 years. But a resilient Boston team stands in his way. Following the unexpected passing of Thomas’s sister, the Celtics dropped the first two games of the first round series against the Chicago Bulls before rattling off 4-straight wins. How Thomas performed at such a high clip despite unimaginable pain is nothing short of incredible. It’ll be interesting to see if he gets better as time passes, or if his emotions get the best of him.

For Washington, watch for them to continue the excellent team ball they’ve showcased this season. Beyond the hot shooting of Wall and Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. has shown he’s capable of greatness, too. Finally, long-time big man Marcin Gortat has competed with the best from the league, and should control Al Horford’s numbers. All in all, The Wizards are a complete team with outstanding guard play run by Wall. His handles, ball distribution, and trust in his teammates to hit big shots are the reason they’re in the position they are. It’s been 38 years in the making, but could this be the year the Wizards finally break into the National Semis?

Prediction: Isaiah Thomas is just too good for Washington, Celtics outlast Wizards in a high-scoring series… winning in game 7.

 

Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs. Toronto Raptors (3)lebron-james-driving-on-demar-derozan_0.jpg

After a scare from Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, the Raptors return to the Conference Semis. More importantly, they have a chance to exact revenge on the team who ended their title chance in Game 6 of the Conference Finals. Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan will have a tough challenge when not one, but three superstars come up north. As frustrating as the Greek Freak was, imagine how they try to handle Lebron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. Toronto will have to hope their home crowd and blistering momentum can help them escape Cleveland, because I’m not sure that all the talent is there for revenge.

The Cavaliers just need to stay focused and play their game. This won’t be an open and shut series, so Cleveland needs to learn from mistakes and have a tactical approach. Go moment by moment, and don’t let the slides snowball. If they keep up chemistry and continue to fight, there is no reason they won’t see the final 4. Look for Irving and James to control the tempo and make the necessary plays to clinch this series.

Prediction: Cavs are in full playoff mode, and regardless of how short or long this series is, they don’t get eliminated- I’ll predict it ends in 5.