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Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-15 18:21
When James Harden arrived in Houston on Oct. 27, 2012 — via one of the most second-guessed trades in NBA history — he instantly transformed the Rockets into a perennial contender and changed how basketball was played. Several times in the Harden era, which saw Houston make the playoffs in each of his eight full seasons with the club, the Rockets appeared poised to convert their paradigm-breaking style into championship greatness. But each time, they managed to fall short. Now that Harden is a member of the Brooklyn Nets, it’s worth taking stock of his Houston days: Did this team make the most of its potential? If not, why not? And in the end, what will the legacy of the Harden-era Rockets be?
There’s no doubt that, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey (and coaches Kevin McHale, J.B. Bickerstaff and Mike D’Antoni), Harden’s Rockets had a profound effect on the NBA — one that we probably don’t yet fully understand. Harden didn’t invent the 3-point shot, nor the concept of drawing fouls as a core offensive philosophy. Houston was already taking nearly a quarter of its shots from beyond the arc before it traded for Harden, ranking in the top half of the league in 2011-12. But the addition of a player who had been arguably the foremost practitioner of “threes and frees” (even as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder) led to an explosive evolution in Houston’s offense.
Before the Harden-era Rockets, no team had ever attempted threes on more than 35 percent of its shots. (The 2009-10 Orlando Magic finished the regular season with exactly that share.) Houston came within 0.1 percentage points of Orlando’s record in Harden’s first season as a Rocket, broke it two years later, surged across the 45 percent threshold in 2016-17, and finally climbed above 50 percent — a ratio that had been completely unthinkable just a decade earlier — in 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20. Harden himself trended in the same direction, inching toward 50 percent in 2016-17 and 2017-18 before breaking the barrier in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. (During this evolution, he also routinely drew more fouls on threes than many entire teams, to the point that the league changed the rules about how to interpret contact in the act of shooting.) Over his final two full seasons in Houston, Harden scored 35.3 points per game while taking around 55 percent of his shots from downtown1 — a combination posted only three times over a season: once by Steph Curry and twice by Harden.
To gaze upon the Harden-era Rockets’ shot chart was to see the apotheosis of analytics-based offensive strategy. The team almost never attempted a shot that wasn’t either a 3-pointer or in the immediate vicinity of the basket. From 2013 through 2020, Houston took:
Aside from letting Chris Paul — one of the best midrange shooters ever — try from that distance during the two seasons he spent in Houston, Harden’s Rockets basically built their entire scheme around never taking those shots. The team’s shot selection combined Morey’s algorithms with the star who embodied them more than any other NBA player ever has — an approach that came to be often imitated but never perfected like the Rockets at their peak.
Immediately after Harden landed in Houston, the Rockets’ offensive efficiency got a boost of 4.2 points per 100 possessions, improving from 12th in the league in 2011-12 to sixth in 2012-13. It got better by another 1.3 points in 2013-14, landing Houston at No. 4 in the league. After brief dips in 2014-15 and 2015-16, the 2016-17 Rockets — with Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson hoisting threes on roughly two-thirds of their shots alongside Harden — were second only to the dynasty Golden State Warriors. And the following season, even Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and company couldn’t top Houston’s offensive greatness. With an average offensive rating 5.7 points better than the league average in the 2016-17 through 2018-19 seasons, Houston was on one of the best three-year offensive runs of any team in NBA history:
|Offensive rating vs. NBA Avg.|
|Team||Seasons*||Year 1||Year 2||Year 3||Average|
|Golden State Warriors||2015-17||+6.0||+8.1||+6.8||+6.9|
|Los Angeles Lakers||1985-87||+6.2||+6.1||+7.3||+6.5|
|Los Angeles Clippers||2013-15||+4.8||+5.4||+6.8||+5.6|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||2011-13||+4.0||+5.2||+6.5||+5.2|
Beyond how they played, the Rockets were also notable for how they were built.
First, there was the long, winding process of accumulating other teams’ draft picks to flip those assets for a major piece — Harden — and speed up the organization’s timeline. The run-up to that move was meaningful not only because it ultimately led to Houston’s success, but also because Sam Hinkie, a Morey protege, quietly took the laundry list of transactions that set up the Harden trade and pulled it out in his interviews with the Sixers, explaining that it was the blueprint for organizations to build sustainable success. On the strength of his argument — that landing superstar talent mattered more than anything else — Hinkie took the reins of the Sixers and undertook one of the past few decades’ most fascinating experiments in sports. (Interestingly enough, now Morey is running the club.)
In prioritizing flexibility, the Rockets often shuffled the rest of the deck around their star player — starting off with Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, and then slotting in, by turns, Dwight Howard, Paul, Russell Westbrook and John Wall. And while that process isn’t unheard of, it’s very rare to see a contending club take so many swings at the piñata with the same ringless centerpiece running the show. The Rockets used 103 different players during the Harden era, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group — a total that puts them in the same company as teams like the Sixers, Cavaliers, Suns and Nets, who blew up their rosters to start from scratch and ended up with hold-your-nose records to show for it. Yet Houston posted a .635 winning percentage over that span, by far the best mark of any team that cycled through 100 players or more.2
But for all of their innovations in playing style and team-building, the legacy of the Harden-era Rockets will hinge on their inability to get over the hump in the playoffs — particularly when it came to their rivalry with the Warriors.
For a season or two, Houston was one of the very few teams that could go toe-to-toe with Golden State. Harden and Paul took turns giving the Warriors fits, while the Rockets’ underrated, switch-everything defense was among the best in the NBA. But the playing style, particularly on offense, seemed to exact a toll on the stars. Harden was often worn down by the end of a series, while Paul’s hamstring injury in the closing moments of Game 5 in the 2018 conference finals turned out to be an enormous blow to Houston. (The Rockets had a 3-2 series lead but couldn’t close the door on the Warriors without him.) Even more disheartening for the team in retrospect: the 27 consecutive misses — an NBA postseason record — from long distance in Game 7 of that matchup, which doomed the club’s best shot at a championship.
The Rockets never had quite enough to reach the NBA’s promised land — especially once more and more teams began emulating their strategies. But given how Harden, Morey and those Houston teams changed the league, they won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-15 17:32
cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): Readers! It’s been ages since we last came to you with our half-baked ideas about who the greatest soccer player in the world is, well-meaning jokes about Tony’s outrageous collection of soccer kits, and deeply-researched analysis about what is happening in the English Premier League and Champions Leagues.
It’s such a treat to be back and joined once again by Ryan O’Hanlon, Tony Chow, and Grace Robertson for the rest of this soccer season. They’re the sharpest minds around about the analytical, psychological and sociological realities of global soccer, and at least one of them is convinced Arsenal’s best days are ahead of it.
grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): I’ve been staying home, staying safe, and having absolutely no sense of time since the Premier League is on 24/7 now.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): That period between our last chat and now was a time of self-reflection for me. There was a lot of anger. There was a lot of crying. And you know what? Not much has changed since actually.
cwick: In case that somehow didn’t make it clear, we should note for new readers that Tony is the Arsenal fan among us.
ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): I’ve missed you guys! I hesitate to admit this publicly, but I held my own “chats” where I played all four roles myself, every other week.
tchow: Ryan, you cheated on us???
ryan: No, quite the opposite. “I think the Rob Holding signing was a great value!” See, my Tony impersonation is pitch-perfect.
tchow: Ryan I know some clubs who would LOVE to have a center back like Rob Holding right now.
grace: Maybe we can be the Mauricio Pochettino of chats this year. Having won nothing, perhaps we’ll win a trophy from our first chat this season.
cwick: We’ve reconvened about halfway through the EPL season, and so much has already happened. (Especially to Virgil Van Dijk’s ACL.) Yet the top of the table is just as muddled as it was before the season began (if not moreso). Manchester United head into the weekend in first, but six teams are within six points and Chelsea isn’t even one of them. So we thought we could go through the six teams most actively challenging for the trophy, and talk through how likely they are to end the season on top.
So let’s work our way up and start with the team in sixth: Tottenham. They were atop the table at times this season but have just a 2 percent chance to win according to our EPL forecast. Is the forecast wrong?
grace: I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that Spurs win the league, but everything has to break right for them and Jose Mourinho needs to adapt his approach. There’s a lot of multiplying probabilities and such there.
cwick: Grace, what does Mourinho need to change? How has it been limiting Spurs?
ryan: Seems right to me. They’re probably somewhere between the third- and sixth-best team in the league. Given the way they play, they don’t really seem like a team that’ll come from behind.
grace: The world where Spurs win the league is if they keep finishing shots extremely well at 0-0, then Mourinho stops putting the handbrake on so much while they’re ahead. It’s a battle between Jose’s best and worst impulses. They’re arguably the best team in England at turning 1-0 into 2-0, but Mourinho often just doesn’t seem interested in doing that.
ryan: If I could sum it up in one number, it’d be this: Spurs have allowed 58 more passes into the penalty area than they’ve completed. Only Wolves, Burnley, Newcastle, and West Brom have worse margins. Not the company you wanna be keeping if you wanna win a title!
tchow: They have pulled off some impressive wins so far this season though (particularly against Man City back in November and Man United way back at the beginning of the season). Unfortunately, they have a tough schedule coming up.
grace: If they could just get Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso in the same midfield, that’s a lot of creative passing to help solve some of the issues Ryan is mentioning, but Mourinho doesn’t seem interested.
cwick: Is there something about Mourinho’s style that has made Kane and Son even more dominant on the stat sheets than they were before? 12 goals for Son; 11 for Kane. (Along with 11 assists for the latter!)
ryan: Their entire approach is built around getting the ball to Kane and then to Son in transition. I do think Mourinho’s done a great job of getting the best out of his best two players; he just hasn’t gotten the best out of anyone else on the attacking end. After those two, Sergio Reguillon has attempted the most shots. He, of course, is a fullback.
grace: If only they had some kind of goalscoring midfielder at the club who could be useful to get shots.
tchow: Yea their next highest goal scorer after Kane and Son is Ndombele, who has 2 goals this season in the league.
grace: Though part of the shot-taking issue here is that Gareth Bale has just bombed. I have to imagine they were expecting more from him.
cwick: OK let’s move on to Everton, who is in fifth place in the table and … eighth in our forecast. (Less than 1 percent chance of winning the league.) James Rodriguez was a big boon to them early on but injuries kept him on the sideline as Everton scrapped through some fixtures. Has the team already reached its ceiling?
tchow: I think Everton and Everton fans would be really happy with a Champions League place (the FiveThirtyEight model gives them a 13 percent chance of doing that). That seemed a lot more likely before Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s injury.
ryan: It’s funny. They added James, while DCL made a leap, and yet their expected goal differential per 90 minutes is the exact same as it was last year, per FBref.
tchow: They need to sign another forward in this transfer window if they really want a chance at making this happen, and even then it’s a big ask.
grace: Everton have been on a bit of a hot run finishing-wise, and I think this might be around the ceiling for their talent right now. Ancelotti has done a good job getting them here.
tchow: So I guess to answer Chad’s question. I think their ceiling is a Champions League spot which is still possible, but not likely in my opinion.
grace: Sounds about right to me.
ryan: They have no fullbacks, which has also been a bit of an issue. I think if they can get DCL, Richarlison, James, Lucas Digne, and Allan on the field together for most of the rest of the season, they’ll be a slightly better team than the numbers suggest.
cwick: Are they likely to get better as the next few seasons unfold? Is this the beginning of their window?
grace: I think it depends on which matters more: guys like James and Allan hitting the post-30 years of the age curve or Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison and others coming into their peak years.
ryan: Yeah, the only internal bounce might come from Richarlison and DCL, and then there’s also the chance someone else comes in and buys one of ‘em.
grace: I think they’re in the Wilfried Zaha zone where no one can really pay the ungodly amount of money it’d cost to get them out.
ryan: Probably only three or four teams who could do it, and I’m not sure any of them will ever want to.
grace: And one of them is Liverpool who Everton would never sell to.
tchow: Now we’re getting into pure speculation territory but with the season DCL has had, he seems like that classic English striker who gets scooped up by the bigger EPL clubs, the ones that can pay the ungodly amount of money. Or the kind that goes to Spain.
ryan: Fifteen years ago, and he’s on Manchester United next season.
grace: Exactly, Ferguson calls Moyes and that deal happens tomorrow for below market value.
cwick: Next: Leicester City in fourth (29 percent chance of qualifying for Champions League, less than 1 percent to win), again stalking the upper echelon thanks to Jamie Vardy. Vardy has 11 goals and five assists and continues to be a pain to opposing sides. Is anything different with Vardy this season than in years past?
grace: He has six from penalties, which helps. But he has been good at stripping away more and more from his game as he ages and focusing on playing in the box.
tchow: I’m going to be honest. I don’t know what to make of this Leicester team. They just kinda always seem to be hanging around. Like that random person you keep bumping into at house parties. (Remember those?)
ryan: If you strip out the penalties, they actually have a negative expected-goal differential. I’m not sure if that’s fair since Vardy is the Messi of drawing penalties, but it’s certainly not a good sign! Like, last year they got unlucky with injuries and actually played reasonably well down the stretch despite the collapse out of the Top Four. This year … they haven’t been all that good, but they’ve been getting the results.
cwick: Do they have an xPK stat yet?
ryan: Vardy has single-handedly made it impossible to unskew the dataset.
cwick: Alright now to where the real action is: the top three. These teams are the only ones with more than a 2 percent chance of winning the EPL, according to our model, and it’s the team in third that has the best shot. Our model loved Manchester City even when they were in the middle of the table, and it now thinks Pep’s crew has a 70 percent chance of winning the league, despite City having been unable to get the ball in the net at times this season.
So, is the model right? Is City the favorite? And if so, what was with the early season struggles?
ryan: Betting markets agree. Sporting Index has them finishing five points clear of second.
tchow: I think our model can feel pretty good about sticking with Man City even through those October/November months. I got a number of messages and saw a lot of chatter online wondering why the model still had them as favorites even though they were 8 or 9 points behind Liverpool at one point. That said, 70 percent seems considerably too high given how close the race is at this point.
grace: I think City are favorites, yes. They’ve really started turning it on recently and now have the best xG difference in the league once again. If the early stumbles are just that then they have every chance of really blowing everyone away.
tchow: It helps that when you seem unable to get the ball in the net, you’re pretty good at preventing the other team from doing so as well.
grace: They’ve been really good at turning down the high press this year, and with everyone exhausted in the Covid condensed schedule era, it’s helping.
cwick: Grace, you wrote about the exhaustion in your newsletter recently. Can you say more about how that’s affecting play?
grace: Every team is down in terms of the number of pressure events they’re exerting per game. The intensity seems to have dropped off in the numbers and to my eyes. City have done a clearer job than most in focusing that and reorganizing their game around this lack of energy.
ryan: Pep Guardiola put it pretty plainly the other day: “The only difference is that we run less. We were running too much. When you play football you have to walk — or run much much less.” Ladies and gentlemen, A Football Genius.
cwick: If there were ever a season I could hack it in the EPL, this is it.
cwick: Grace, what does it mean to reorganize around a lack of energy? Different formations?
grace: I would say the biggest thing is not pressing so high and aggressively, and thus staying a bit more compact and deeper without the ball. It’s hard to press without 100 percent commitment from everyone.
ryan: Seems like they’re being a little more careful with the ball, too, right? Not as many shots and not as many passes into the penalty area.
grace: Yeah, very much so. It’s much more controlled and patient, more reminiscent of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona than the Man City of recent years.
tchow: Do you all want to take a guess as to which team has declined the most in pressuring the ball according to Grace’s analysis?
ryan: As a devoted “Grace on Football” subscriber, I already know the answer.
cwick: As someone who has no memory for statistics (I have found my natural job, I know), I will guess Liverpool.
grace: I was kind of shocked by just how much it was Arsenal. 32 percent decline!
tchow: Liverpool (who I guess we’ll talk about next) has actually been pretty in line with most of the other teams (18 percent decline).
grace: We’ve been writing this as Arsenal have played out a 0-0 draw with Palace and it seems… apt.
ryan: I know a lot of people are having a tough time sleeping right now. We may have just discovered a cure.
tchow: * cries in corner * I appreciate you all scheduling this chat during that game so I wouldn’t have to watch it. How kind of you.
cwick: Interceding so we can continue to help Tony divert his attention. Liverpool seem … not great. They’re injury-ravaged with a case of the midfield blahs, and they drew against Newcastle and West Brom along with a loss to Southampton. They have only a 14 percent chance of winning the league. What’s not working for the champions?
tchow: This is the part of the chat everyone’s been waiting for.
grace: This team is actually not that different in terms of xG from last year’s, somehow.
ryan: You’d think that the issue would be the defense, but over the last three games, the problem has been they can’t score! Just one league goal since the 7-0 win against Palace.
grace: To the eye, it’s seemed like the biggest factor is fatigue and having to cover for the issues at center back (Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams probably shouldn’t be playing at this level). It’s rebalancing the whole team, pulling others back.
tchow: That’s the strange thing! So much has been said about their center back injury problems but actually they conceded 16 goals in the first eight games of the season. In these last nine games, they’ve only conceded five goals. So maybe Fabinho + someone is good enough and the problem lies elsewhere on the field?
grace: I think the story is that in order to plug that hole, you leave yourself short elsewhere.
tchow: That’s a good point. I mean, I don’t think a Fabinho + Jordan Henderson center back pairing can make Liverpool title champions again if they don’t have a capable midfield after those shifts.
ryan: Yeah, if we want to create a grand theory of their struggles, maybe it’s that the midfield can’t be as secure without Fabinho, so the fullbacks can’t get forward as much, which makes the attack worse but … the defense better?
tchow: I am kind of surprised they haven’t brought in anyone during this transfer window to help.
ryan: It’s some bad luck recently, too. They had the edge in all three lackluster games judging by xG and non-shot xG, per the FiveThirtyEight model, and by a good deal in each one.
cwick: Are the front three blameless?
ryan: They have the best attack in the league by a good margin, so I have a hard time pinning it on any of those guys.
tchow: Out of the top six teams, they’ve scored the most goals this season. Tough to say the attackers are to blame.
grace: I still think Liverpool are going to be fine, but probably not enough for the title.
cwick: So what’s the fix? Hope that Thiago shores things up in the middle and a CB comes back from injury? Just a matter of being patient?
tchow: I said it before but the transfer window is wide open here folks. 15 more days?
tchow: I’ve heard Dayot Upamecano’s name come up a bunch. He’s a RB Leipzig defender that seems to draw interest every transfer window. I don’t know if Liverpool has the funds for it, but I do think a CB signing would go a long way here for the team.
grace: The noises are that Liverpool won’t be making a move in January. I think the hope has to be that Thiago helps Liverpool control games better and adds more of a patient buildup to go into a different, less energetic, gear, not unlike City this season.
ryan: I wonder if they don’t push things even more toward the attack. Before Diogo Jota got hurt, it seemed like Klopp was potentially gonna start the Front Three, plus him. Thiago did really well last year in a system with what was essentially a front four, too. Seems counter-intuitive, but more goals would be a good thing.
grace: My concern is whether the full backs have to change in such a system. You, er, don’t want Trent Alexander-Arnold defending in his own box all the time.
cwick: Sounds like old-school Klopp, where he just goes for broke every game.
cwick: Manchester United is on top of the table, and Solskjaer’s very hot-and-cold run in charge of the team continues. What’s working for Man United, and is this title contention for real (11 percent to win according to our model)?
tchow: Bruno Fernandes is working for Man United.
ryan: It’s definitely real — they’ve banked enough points for it to happen. But they have the sixth-best goal differential in the league. It isn’t a great team by any means.
grace: United are structurally a mess in attack and just have to rely on individuals. But those individuals are good!
tchow: I think this title contention is real?? Leading, albeit a slim lead, into Week 18 is not worth nothing. Last time United led at this point, they ended up winning the league, so maybe history does repeat itself (but please let it not). But yeah, I agree with Grace. Man United will go as far as the individuals take them. For me, that’s namely Fernandes but also individuals like Pogba who seems to be in form at the moment.
grace: Especially with sides maybe not at their best this season, individuals doing good stuff can reap more rewards than it otherwise might.
ryan: Yeah, and I think the lack of pressing leaguewide probably gives those individuals a bit more room to make things happen. Kind of like the mid-aughts Premier League. At the same time, the FiveThirtyEight model gives these guys a better chance of falling out of the top four than winning the league.
cwick: Tony, I feel like every time we’ve talked about Bruno it’s been a question of whether United had to bend too much to his style to succeed. So how do you know it’s working this year? (Aside from goals and wins, of course.)
tchow: I mean, he leads the team, or is at least top 3, in basically every stat if you account for minutes played. Goals, assists, xG the list goes on and on.
ryan: Russell Westbrook never won a ring …
tchow: LOL point taken.
cwick: Yeah, I guess what I am trying to scratch at is that Fernandes is the kind of player who will always be the center of his team’s universe. So are we to judge the success of that just by whether the team is successful? There’s a direct correlation?
ryan: Yeah, he’s probably one of the easier players to connect to winning. We’re still scratching the surface of what leads to winning in terms of individual actions, but he has the highest usage rate in the league, so what he does has a bigger impact on United’s results than any other player in England.
grace: He leads United in progressive passes, shot creating actions, the works. He’s found the perfect spot at Utd, in that they’ll just let him do whatever and he’s good enough to make it work.
cwick: As goes Bruno, so go we all.
tchow: I guess to test Chad’s question, you would have to put him on a team of scrubs (which United are not) and see if they still win?
grace: It feels outdated in this post-Guardiola structured positional play world, but when it works, it works.
cwick: OK, the last question I have for you all: What are your thoughts on “Ted Lasso?” I just finished last night and was won over as the episodes went by, especially by the goofy CGI crowds inserted into the “game” footage.
tchow: Ted Lasso makes Apple TV worth it.
ryan: I … still haven’t seen it. Just watched a great Jacques Tati doc about Bastia, though!
grace: My thoughts on “Ted Lasso” are that they should hire me as a consultant.
cwick: A New Years Resolution we can all get behind.
grace: It’s a fun show that has maybe read three books on the sport without watching any games.
cwick: The idea that Roy Kent had never been subbed out of a game all season long (and thus never had to give up his captain’s armband) was … ambitious.
grace: Jamie was happy he had 10 touches in a game! Ten! In a whole game! I am aware this has nothing to do with the quality of the television show, but they should hire me as a consultant.
cwick: Ted would say it’s what you do with the touches that matters, Grace.
ryan: SPOILER ALERT WHAT THE HELL! (I may never actually watch the show.)
tchow: Back to real soccer (football), Liverpool play Man United this weekend. Are you three Liverpool fans ready? How do you think that game will go?
grace: Liverpool just look zapped, so no. It just seems like one of those games where Solskjaer will improvise a weird system and it’ll be a tough watch.
cwick: Liverpool matches have been very relaxed for me this season. I am having a hard time getting upset about anything that happens, between COVID-19 and last season’s championship.
ryan: United are scary. They have some Villa vibes in terms of how fast they attack. But the game is at Anfield. It’s the kind of match Liverpool would’ve won 3-0 in each of the past two seasons. They’re still a significantly better team, in my opinion.
grace: It would all be very stressful if Liverpool hadn’t won the title last season.
tchow: Smh, winning has changed all of you.
cwick: It’s made us more peaceful and generous. Someday you too can reach this higher plane, Tony.
Alright readers, we’re going to leave it there. We didn’t even get a chance to talk about Chelsea! So maybe that’ll be the next topic when we next convene in a couple weeks. Until then, keep sending your biscuits to the “Ted Lasso” showrunners along with your petitions to get Grace a gig.
tchow: They’re called cookies.
grace: No they’re not!
cwick: See? Grace is perfect for this role.
grace: I could talk about the subtle UK differences between biscuits and cookies but then we’d be here all day.
Check out our latest soccer predictions.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-15 15:46
Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Last Wednesday, the U.S. Capitol was attacked by a mob of President Trump’s supporters, many of whom had very explicit and not so explicit ties to right-wing extremism in the U.S. There are reports now, too, that there could be subsequent attacks in state capitals this weekend. President Trump’s time in office has undoubtedly had a mainstreaming effect on right-wing extremism, too, with as many as 20 percent of Americans saying they supported the rioters. But as we also know, much of this predates Trump, too. Right-wing extremism has a long, sordid history in the U.S.
The big question I want to ask all of you today is twofold: First, how did we get here, and second, where do we go from here?
Let’s start by unpacking how right-wing extremism has changed in the Trump presidency. How has it?
ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): Well, the first and most obvious thing is that Trump has spoken directly to right-wing extremists. That is to say, using their language, condoning previous armed protests at government buildings and explicitly calling on them to support and protect him. And that, probably unsurprisingly, has emboldened right-wing extremists and made their extremism seem — well, less extreme.
That goes for a wide array of extremists in the U.S., too. I’m thinking, of course, about Trump’s comment after the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he said there were “very fine people on both sides.” But Trump has also encouraged white Christian nationalists, anti-government extremists and other groups and individuals that I certainly never thought I’d hear a president expressing sympathy or support for.
jennifer.chudy (Jennifer Chudy, political science professor at Wellesley College): Absolutely, Amelia. And while the actual extremists may represent a small group of the public, the share of Republicans who support their behavior, whether explicitly or implicitly, is not as small. This is, in part, due to mainstream political institutions — like the Republican Party, with Trump at its helm — helping make their mission and behavior seem legitimate.
maggie.koerth (Maggie Koerth, senior science writer): I’ve been talking to experts about this all week, and I think it’s really interesting how even the academics who study this stuff are kind of arguing over the role class plays in it. People like Christian Davenport at the University of Michigan have argued that we should understand that all of this is happening in the context of decades of growing income inequality and political stagnation. In other words, he contends that there are legitimate reasons to be angry at and mistrust the government. But it also seems like this crowd was not even close to being uniformly working class and probably contained people from a range of different backgrounds. And that’s why I liked one of the points Joseph Uscinski at the University of Miami made: We might be seeing a coalescing of two groups: the people who have been actually hurt by that inequality and are angry about it AND the people who are doing pretty well but who feel like somebody might come and take that away. And, of course, both those positions can dovetail very easily into racial animus and white supremacy.
ameliatd: That’s interesting, Maggie. As you alluded to, though, it’s important to be clear that economic anxiety — which was used in the aftermath of Trump’s election to explain why so many Americans voted for a candidate who framed much of his candidacy around animus toward nonwhite people — doesn’t mean that racism or white supremacy isn’t a driving force here, too.
Part of what’s so complex about the mob that attacked the Capitol is that it was a bunch of different people, with somewhat disparate ideologies and goals, united under the “stop the steal” mantra. But underlying a lot of that, even people’s anger over economic inequality or mistrust in institutions, is the fundamental idea that white status and power are being threatened.
jennifer.chudy: There is also just a lot of evidence in political science that racial attitudes are associated with emotions like anger. Two great books, one by Antoine Banks of the University of Maryland and the other by Davin Phoenix of the University of California, Irvine, consider this point in depth. Insofar as right-wing extremists express anger at the system (in contrast to fear or disgust), their anger appears more likely to be motivated by racial grievances than by economic ones.
Additionally, the Republican Party’s base has, for years now, become more racially homogeneous, in part because of the party providing a welcome home to white grievances. But some have argued that this has also been exacerbated by the Democratic Party speaking more explicitly about racial inequality in the U.S., something that wasn’t the case in the 1990s. Regardless, a more racially homogeneous base can make a party’s members more receptive to this type of extremist behavior.
We also can’t underestimate the role that COVID-19 plays here. As Maggie and Amelia suggested in their article from this summer on militias and the coronavirus, many folks are at home and glued to their computers in ways that facilitate this type of organizing. They can burrow themselves into online communities of like-minded folks which may intensify their attitudes and lead to extreme behavior.
Kaleigh: (Kaleigh Rogers, tech and politics reporter): Polling has shown that ideas that previously had been considered extreme, like using violence if your party loses an election, or supporting authoritarian ideas, have definitely become more mainstream.
This is partly due to Trump’s own rhetoric, but also due to the effects of online communities where far-right extremists and white nationalists mingle with more moderate Trump supporters, effectively radicalizing some of them over time.
What’s interesting to me about all of these different factions, though, is there is actually a lot of division among these groups: Many members of the Proud Boys aren’t fans of the QAnon conspiracy, for instance. And a lot of white nationalists don’t like Trump, but they still end up uniting against a perceived common enemy. That’s why you saw people in the mob at the Capitol waving MAGA flags alongside people with clear Nazi symbolism. They are not all white nationalists, but they’re willing to march beside them because they think they’re on the same side.
But in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, those divisions are becoming more stark in these online communities. I’m seeing a lot of infighting over whether planned marches are a good idea, whether they are “false flag” events or traps or whether they should be armed. There just seems to be this heightened anxiety as they draw closer to an inevitable line that they can’t come back from: Biden’s inauguration.
sarahf: That’s a super important point, Kaleigh, on how different extremist groups have rallied behind this. But given how much Trump has directly spoken to right-wing extremists, as Amelia mentioned up top, can we drill in on the violence, as well? It’s not just that different factions have united or that these views have mainstreamed under Trump, but also that there’s been an actual uptick in violence, too, right?
ameliatd: One thing Maggie and I heard from experts on the modern militia movement is that these groups’ activity levels depend on the political context. The uptick in violence under Trump is real, but it’s not something that’s only happened under Trump. There was a surge in militia activity early in Obama’s presidency, too, for example.
maggie.koerth: Very much so, Amelia. The reality is that the right-wing extremism we’re seeing now is a symptom of long-running trends in American society, including white resentment and racial animus. And on top of that, you have these trends interacting with partisan polarization, which means the political left and right (which used to have fairly similar levels of white racial resentment) began to diverge on measures of racial resentment in the late 1980s and now differ greatly.
Kaleigh: Exactly, Maggie. That’s also why the FBI and other experts are particularly concerned about planned militia marches ahead of the inauguration. These groups tend to be much more organized and deliberate in their actions than the mob we saw last week. And because of that, they’re even more dangerous.
ameliatd: Right, so this violence isn’t new. But I do think it’s fair to say that Trump has raised the stakes so dramatically for right-wing extremists that we’d see a throng of them storming the Capitol. A lot of them see him as their guy in the White House!
jennifer.chudy: That’s true, Amelia, but work in political science shows just how much of this change was afoot prior to Trump’s election. Some tie it to Hillary Clinton talking too much about race during the 2016 election — they argue that this drove away some white voters who had previously voted Democratic (and could do so in 2008 and ‘12 because Obama, despite being Black, did not mention race much during his candidacy). But Clare Malone’s article for FiveThirtyEight on how Republicans have spent decades prioritizing white people’s interests does a great job of tracing these roots even further back.
maggie.koerth: Yeah, I’m really leery of the tendency I’ve seen in the media to act like this is something that started with Trump, or even that started post-Obama. Most of the experts I’ve spoken with have framed this more like … Trump’s escalation of these dangerous trends is a symptom of the trends. We’re talking about a lot of indicators that have been going in this direction since at least the 1980s.
jennifer.chudy: True, Maggie, from the beginning of the Republic, I might argue! But one reason the tie to Trump and Obama is so interesting is that Trump’s baseless claims around Obama’s birth certificate correspond with his debut on the national political stage. So even as there is a long thread of white supremacy throughout American history that has facilitated Trump’s ascension, there may also be a more proximate connection to recent elections, too.
ameliatd: Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at Duke University, has done some really compelling research on white identity politics — specifically how the country’s diversification has created a kind of “white awareness” among white Americans who are essentially afraid of losing their cultural status and power.
This is a complicated force — she’s clear that it’s not exactly the same thing as racial prejudice — but the result is that many white people have a sense that the hierarchy in which they’ve been privileged is being upset, and they want things to return to the old status quo, which of course was racist. And the Republican Party has been tapping into that sense of fear for a while. Trump’s departure was that he started doing it much more explicitly than previous Republican politicians had mostly done.
So yes, Maggie, you’re absolutely right that it’s not like Trump came on the scene and suddenly right-wing extremism or white supremacist violence became a part of our political landscape. Or partisan hatred, for that matter! FiveThirtyEight contributor Lee Drutman has written about the effect of political polarization and how it’s created intense loathing of the other party, and he’s clear that it’s been a long time coming. It didn’t just emerge out of nowhere in 2016, as you can see in the chart below.
On the other hand, though, it’s hard to imagine the events of last week without four years of Trump fanning the flames.
maggie.koerth: Right, Amelia. Trump is a symptom AND he’s making it worse. At the same time.
Kaleigh: What you said, Amelia, also speaks to just how many Trump supporters don’t consider themselves racist and find it insulting to be called so. A lot of Trump supporters think Democrats are obsessed with race and identity politics, and think racism isn’t as systemic of a problem as it is. There are also, of course, nonwhite Trump supporters, which complicates the image that only white working-class Americans feel threatened by efforts to create racial equality.
ameliatd: That’s right, Kaleigh. We haven’t talked about the protests against police brutality and misconduct this summer, but I think that’s a big factor here as well — politicians like Biden saying that we have to deal with systemic racism is itself threatening to a lot of people.
sarahf: It does seem as if we’re in this gray zone, where so much of this predates Trump, and yet Trump has activated underlying sentiments that were perhaps dormant for at least a little while. Any child of the 1990s remembers, for instance, the Oklahoma City bombing and Timothy McVeigh, who held a number of extreme, anti-government views, or the deadly standoff between federal law enforcement officials and right-wing fundamentalists at Ruby Ridge.
And as Jennifer pointed out with Malone’s piece, the thread runs even further back. It’s almost as if it’s always been part of the U.S. but maybe not as omnipresent. That’s also possibly naive, but I’m curious to hear where you all think we go from here — in how does President Biden start to move the U.S. forward?
maggie.koerth: Honestly, that’s the scary part for me, Sarah. Because I don’t really think he can. Everything we know about how you change deeply held beliefs that have to do with identity suggests that the appeals of outsiders doesn’t work.
jennifer.chudy: Yes — one would think that a common formidable challenge, like COVID-19, would help unite different political factions. But if you look at the last few months, that’s not what we see.
maggie.koerth: Even Republican elites who they push back on this stuff get branded as apostates.
ameliatd: And there’s evidence that when Republican elites are perceived as apostates, they may also become targets for violence.
Kaleigh: But we also know that deplatforming agitators helps reduce the spread of their ideas and how much people are exposed to/talk about them. Losing the presidency is kind of the ultimate deplatforming, no?
jennifer.chudy: Is it deplatforming, though? Or is it just moving the platform to a different setting? I don’t know the ins and outs of the technology, but it seems like the message has become dispersed but maybe not extinguished.
sarahf: That’s a good point, Jennifer, and something I think Kaleigh hits on in her article — that is, this question of … was it too little, too late?
maggie.koerth: I think it has been a deplatforming, Jennifer. If for no other reason than it’s removed Trump’s ability to viscerally respond to millions of people immediately. And you see some really big differences between the things he said on Twitter about these extremists last week and the statements he’s made this week, which have had to go through other people.
It’s not so much taken away from his ability to speak, but it does seem to have affected his ability to speak without somebody thinking about the consequences first.
ameliatd: There is an argument that Trump’s presidency and the violence he’s spurred is making the underlying problems impossible to ignore. I’m not sure whether that makes it easier for Biden to deal with them, but it does make it harder for him to just say, ‘Okay, let’s move past this.’
Lilliana Mason, a professor at the University of Maryland who’s written extensively about partisan discord and political violence, told me in a recent interview that while someone like Biden shouldn’t be afraid to push back against Trump or his followers because it will lead to more violence (an argument against impeachment that’s circulated in the past week), she does think pushing back against Trump and his followers probably will result in more violence.
So that leaves us, and Biden, in a pretty scary place.
Republicans are in a bind, too. Electorally, many of them depend on a system where certain voters — white voters, rural voters, etc. — do have more power. So yeah, Sarah, that doesn’t make me especially optimistic about a big Republican elite turnaround on Trumpism, separate from the question of whether that would actually diffuse some of these tensions.
sarahf: One silver lining in all this is we don’t yet know the full extent to which Trump and Trumpism has taken a hit. That is, plenty of Republicans still support him, but his approval rating has taken a pretty big hit, the biggest since his first few months in office in 2017 — that’s atypical for a president on his way out the door. More Republicans also support impeachment of Trump this time around.
There is a radicalized element here in American politics — and as you’ve all said — it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but I do wonder if we still don’t fully understand where this goes next.
Kaleigh: What gives me some peace in this time is looking back at history. America has dealt with far-right extremists before. It has dealt with violent insurrectionists before. We have continued, however slowly, to make progress. Sometimes the only way out is through.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-15 14:41
On this week’s episode of PODCAST-19, we talk with Dr. Margaret Liu, one of the pioneers of gene-based vaccines, about vaccines that use mRNA to help us build immunity to COVID-19, including the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. How is this method different from vaccines in the past, and what does the mRNA do once it gets inside our bodies?
Don’t want to miss an episode of PODCAST-19, FiveThirtyEight’s weekly look at what we know — and what we know we don’t know — about COVID-19? Subscribe on your favorite podcasting app. For example, here’s where to do it on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-15 13:00
Welcome to The Riddler. Every week, I offer up problems related to the things we hold dear around here: math, logic and probability. Two puzzles are presented each week: the Riddler Express for those of you who want something bite-size and the Riddler Classic for those of you in the slow-puzzle movement. Submit a correct answer for either,3 and you may get a shoutout in the next column. Please wait until Monday to publicly share your answers! If you need a hint or have a favorite puzzle collecting dust in your attic, find me on Twitter.
From Lucas Jaeger comes a “flute-iful” challenge:
You’re a contestant on the hit new game show, “You Bet Your Fife.” On the show, a random real number (i.e., decimals are allowed) is chosen between 0 and 100. Your job is to guess a value that is less than this randomly chosen number. Your reward for winning is a novelty fife that is valued precisely at your guess. For example, if the number is 75 and you guess 5, you’d win a $5 fife, but if you’d guessed 60, you’d win a $60 fife. Meanwhile, a guess of 80 would win you nothing.
What number should you guess to maximize the average value of your fifing winnings?
In a world of sudokus, KenKens and kakuros, Barbara Yew offers a different sort of number puzzle:
There are eight three-digit numbers — each belongs in a row of the table below, with one digit per cell. The products of the three digits of each number are shown in the rightmost column. Meanwhile, the products of the digits in the hundreds, tens, and ones places, respectively, are shown in the bottom row.
Can you find all eight three-digit numbers and complete the table? It’s a bit of a mystery, but I’m sure you have it within you to hunt down the answer!
Congratulations to 👏 Jacob Kopczynski 👏 of San Francisco, California, winner of last week’s Riddler Express.
Last week, you were slicing one big square into smaller squares (not necessarily of equal size), so that the smaller squares didn’t overlap, while still making up the entire area of the big square.
What whole numbers of squares could you not have sliced the big square into?
Many solvers began by trying out small numbers of squares. Of course, it was possible to slice the big square into one square by simply leaving it alone. The next smallest number of squares you could get was 4, each a quarter of the big square. That meant getting either two squares or three squares was impossible. (A rigorous proof of this is left as an exercise for you, the reader — hah!)
Another possible number was 9, since that would be a 3-by-3 array of equally sized squares. Similarly, any square number was possible. But what about numbers between the perfect squares?
As noted by solver America Masaros, if it was possible to create N squares, it was also possible to create N+3 squares by taking any undivided square and slicing it into four equally sized squares. This effectively replaced one square with four new squares — a net gain of three squares. That meant any number that was 4 or 9 plus a multiple of 3 (i.e., of the form 4+3k or 9+3k, where k is a whole number) was also possible, ruling out a whole bunch of numbers.
But there were still a few numbers less than 9 that had to be checked: 5, 6 and 8 (7 was 3 more than 4, so it was possible). While 5 was not possible (again, you are welcome to prove this!), both 6 and 8 were possible using unequally sized squares, as shown below:
Indeed, this strategy with one larger square and an elbow of smaller squares around it worked for any even number greater than 2.
Finally, since 8 was possible, any number that was a multiple of 3 greater than 8 was also possible, again by picking one of the squares and slicing it into four equal squares. That meant the only numbers that were not possible were 2, 3 and 5.
It remains unclear why a value of 14 was chosen for this exercise, rather than the actual lower bound of 5.
At least one solver extended the puzzle further, looking at how a cube could be partitioned into smaller cubes. But let’s save that for a future riddle!
Congratulations to 👏 Eilon 👏 of Chicago, Illinois, winner of last week’s Riddler Classic.
Last week, Robin of Foxley entered the FiveThirtyEight archery tournament. She was guaranteed to hit the circular target, which had no subdivisions — it was just one big circle. However, her arrows were equally likely to hit each location within the target.
Her true love, Marian, had issued a challenge. Robin had to fire as many arrows as she could, such that each arrow was closer to the center of the target than the previous arrow. For example, if Robin fired three arrows, each closer to the center than the previous, but the fourth arrow was farther than the third, then she was done with the challenge and her score was 4.
On average, what score could Robin have expected to achieve in this archery challenge?
First off, a surprising and subtle fact about this riddle was that the geometry (in this case, a circle) didn’t matter. What did matter was how close each arrow was to the center relative to the other arrows. That meant the target could have been a square, a line segment or even a sphere — the answer would be the same.
A good first step was then to restate the problem and forget about the geometry: If you pick random values between 0 and 1 uniformly — each representing the relative distance of an arrow to the center — how many consecutive decreasing values would you expect (plus one, for the arrow that broke the streak)?
Solver Balthazar Potet approached this by thinking about the values for the first N arrows Robin fired and the probability they’d result in a score of N. With any N values, there were N! ways to order them. For Robin to have a score of N, the smallest value couldn’t have been in the Nth position, since it had to be greater than the previous value. And when each of the other N−1 values occurred in the Nth position, there was exactly one way to order the remaining values so that they formed a decreasing sequence. So of the N! orderings, N−1 resulted in a score of N, meaning the probability was (N−1)/N!
From there, you had to use these probabilities to compute an average score, which you could find by multiplying each score by its probability and then adding up all those products. The probability Robin scored 2 was (2−1)/2!, or 1/2, which meant a score of 2 contributed 2·1/2, or 1, to her average score. The probability Robin scored 3 was (3−1)/3!, or 1/3, which meant a score of 3 contributed 3·1/3, or 1 (again!), to her average score. In general, the probability Robin scored N was (N−1)/N!, which meant a score of N contributed N·(N−1)/N!, or 1/(N−2)!, to her average score. Since N was at least 2 — meaning Robin fired at least two arrows — her average score was 1/0! + 1/1! + 1/2! + 1/3! + …, a sum that converges to e, which is approximately 2.71828. Huzzah, another riddle whose answer was a famous mathematical constant!
For extra credit, you had to calculate Robin’s average score when the target had 10 concentric circles, whose radii were 1, 2, 3, etc., all the way up to 10 (the radius of the entire target). This time, Robin had to fire as many arrows as she could, such that each arrow fell within a smaller concentric circle than the previous arrow.
Here, the geometry of the target was relevant, since there was now a nonzero probability that consecutive arrows could fall within the same ring. The chances that any given arrow landed in one of the rings (from the smallest ring to the largest) were 1 percent, 3 percent, 5 percent, 7 percent, 9 percent, 11 percent, 13 percent, 15 percent, 17 percent and 19 percent.
Having the discrete rings (perhaps counterintuitively) made the problem more complex, but several solvers persisted. Emma Knight was able to set up and solve a system of 10 equations, finding that the average number of arrows was approximately 2.5585. Josh Silverman was further able to come up with a closed formula for the solution and a precise rational result.
Meanwhile, solvers like Paulina Leperi and Angelos Tzelepis (whose results are shown below) approximated the answer by simulating many arrows.
That was the answer when there were 10 rings. As the number of rings increased, the average score also increased, approaching e in the limit of infinitely many rings.
By now, I bet you’re curious how Robin of Foxley actually performed at Marian’s archery challenge. Robin was such a good archer that she was able to fire off two arrows that were exactly the same distance from the target’s center. Marian’s mind was blown by this probability-zero event, and they lived happily ever after.
Well, aren’t you lucky? There’s a whole book full of the best puzzles from this column and some never-before-seen head-scratchers. It’s called “The Riddler,” and it’s in stores now!
Email Zach Wissner-Gross at email@example.com
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-15 11:00
Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, public opinion is souring quickly on President Trump as he enters the final days of his term. Not only do a majority of Americans blame him for the riot at the Capitol and favor removing him from office, but his job approval rating has fallen faster in recent days than at any point in his presidency.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s approval tracker,5 39.4 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 56.3 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -16.8 percentage points). On Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol attack, Trump’s net approval rating stood at -10.3 points, which means his net approval rating has fallen 6.5 points in just eight days.
It turns out that’s the biggest drop in Trump’s net approval that our tracker has ever recorded. To put this into perspective, there have been only two other times when Trump’s net approval rating fell by at least 5 points over an eight-day period: once in February 2017, after he issued executive orders to begin construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to suspend the refugee program and prohibit entry for visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries,6 and then again in March 2017, after Republicans began their legislative efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.7 But the lack of sharp drops in Trump’s rating outside of these two episodes isn’t all that stunning, considering that both positive and negative opinions of him are largely baked in.
But now Trump’s tumbling approval rating suggests he is losing some support among his party base and swing voters (his approval rating among Democrats was already abysmal). Take Morning Consult/Politico’s latest survey, which found Trump’s net approval at +51 points among Republicans and -35 points among independents; these numbers might not sound that bad, especially among Republicans, but they were down 15 points among both Republicans and independents from mid-December. Quinnipiac University’s new poll also put Trump’s net approval among Republicans at +51, a decrease from +80 in early December, while independents fell to -37 from -15 in the same period. Additionally, a new survey from Marist College on behalf of PBS NewsHour found Trump at +56 among Republicans and -20 among independents, both down from +83 and -14, respectively, in Marist’s early December poll.
There’s also evidence of Trump’s image suffering in polling on impeachment and whether he should be removed from office. Back during Trump’s first impeachment in late 2019 and early 2020, net support for his removal never grew beyond +4. But now net support for removal stands at about +11, with about 53 percent of Americans supporting it and 42 percent opposing it. And while it’s still true that a majority of Republicans do not support Trump’s impeachment, the same pattern we observed in Trump’s approval rating (a dip among Republicans) is true here as well. The first time Trump was impeached, less than 10 percent of Republicans backed removing him from office, compared with 15 percent now. Among independents, the magnitude of the shift is similar, up from the low 40 percent range to 48 percent. And, once again, Democrats overwhelmingly back removal.
As Trump continues to falter, it’s worth noting just how atypical this trend is for a president in his last couple of months in office. Outgoing presidents often get at least a little bump in approval, regardless of whether they were popular or unpopular. For instance, President Barack Obama’s net approval rating rose from about +8 after the 2016 election to almost +20 when Trump took office, while President George W. Bush’s net approval rating rose from -43 in November 2008 to about -30 going into Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. Even President George H.W. Bush, the last incumbent president to lose reelection before Trump, saw his net approval go from -23 after the election to +18 by the time he left the White House. It’s hard to imagine such a huge shift in this more polarized era, but Trump’s net approval has definitely declined more than his predecessors’.
While commentators have often called Trump “Teflon Don” because few of his actions seem to stick and perceptibly alter public opinion, this has its limits. Inciting an attack on the American government is pretty damaging: It has caused a rapid decline in his approval rating, prompted more than half of Americans to support his removal from office, and even impelled 10 House Republicans to back his impeachment — the most members of a president’s party to ever do so.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-14 15:54
Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma has a theory on why anyone thinks there’s a better freshman in the country than his starting point guard, Paige Bueckers.
“I’m not boasting, but if I talked to every single coach in America and they told you they’d rather have their freshmen than Paige, I would tell you they’re only saying that to be nice to their own players,” Auriemma told a media gathering on Zoom last week. “In my mind, there isn’t anything Paige can’t do on the court.”
His praise for Bueckers is understandable, even if the assertion of dominance led to some anger around the Twittersphere from those who resent UConn’s claims to glory. (How anyone can deny them is another story altogether.)
But Bueckers, the consensus top recruit in her class, has more than lived up to her advanced billing. In her first seven games, Bueckers is averaging 18.9 points per game on 58 percent shooting, including making half of her threes. Even rarer for a freshman, she is a difference-maker at the defensive end, with 2.7 steals per game — a true two-way star from the moment she stepped onto the court.
It is no reflection on Bueckers and her prodigious talent that there’s a debate over who is the best freshman in this class. Nor does it speak poorly of numerous other immediate starters and contributors across the country that all of them are struggling to break through in that debate.
Somehow, little has been said about Te-Hina Paopao. All she’s done since arriving at Oregon is take over the role Sabrina Ionescu held down, running the Ducks’ offense at a comparable level to when it contained three picks in the 2020 draft, while already collecting 2.6 win shares through 11 games played.
Paopao was the first player coach Kelly Graves cited back in mid-December, after the Ducks demolished their in-state rivals, Oregon State, 79-59.
“I thought Te-Hina really controlled that game from the point,” Graves said. “Such a tremendous job.”
Paopao faced off against another exciting freshman last week when Oregon fell to top-ranked Stanford. The 6-foot-4 Cameron Brink is shooting better than 62 percent from the field, and her 16.3 block percentage ranks third in the country, regardless of class.
Even so, the biggest challenge to Bueckers as the best freshman this season doesn’t come from Brink or from Paopao. Nor does it come from the dynamic combo guard Diamond Johnson at Rutgers, who has scored in double figures in her first eight games and at least 18 in her past four contests.
It’s not even the duo of Hailey Van Lith and Olivia Cochran of Louisville, a pair of newcomers both north of two win shares already, helping Jeff Walz’s Cardinals to title contention once more alongside player of the year candidate Dana Evans. Nor is it Lexi Fleming, the nation’s leader in win shares among freshmen, hitting 37.3 percent of her threes with a 7.6 turnover percentage as a 5-foot-5 point guard for Bowling Green.
No, it is Caitlin Clark of Iowa, who is staking her claim as not only freshman of the year, but player of the year as well.
|Lexi Fleming||Bowling Green||4.8||2.5||46.8||19.6|
|Charlisse Leger-Walker||Wash. St.||5.2||4.1||40.1||18.8|
|Hailey Van Lith||Louisville||6.6||1.6||44.4||12.6|
After her 27-point, 10-rebound performance in Wednesday’s overtime loss to undefeated Ohio State, Clark is averaging 25.7 points per game, good for third in the country among all players. She is shooting 53.1 percent from two and 37 percent from three, but even these lofty numbers undersell her offensive value, as she is a volume shooter from all three levels on the floor. Her finishing at the rim is pro-ready, and she’s taking 8.4 threes per game — reflecting an Iowa team that is absolutely committed to giving her the reins.
Her teammate, Monika Czinano, has a joint perspective on the great Bueckers vs. Clark debate, as a Minnesota native like Bueckers. She’s not ready to declare a winner just yet.
“They’re both really amazing, and I’d say they play very differently,” Czinano said of the duo. “I think a lot of the freshmen in this class, they have different things, different niches, different things that they’re really good at. And I do think that with this team at this time, Caitlin is kind of what we needed — and things are moving and flowing really well.”
Like Paopao, Clark took over a position previously occupied by a now-WNBA point guard, in Iowa’s case Kathleen Doyle, and the offensive production of the Hawkeyes really hasn’t suffered at all — in fact, Iowa’s offense has improved significantly so far, producing 113.7 points per 100 possessions compared to 106.9 in 2019-20. That’s in large part due to Clark’s ability to find her teammates, despite her volume shooting — her 37 percent assist rate ranks 25th in the country, while her turnover rate of 18.2 percent, in the 52nd percentile nationally, reveals an ability to avoid bad decisions well beyond her years.
In what is best chalked up to the difference between the brashness of a Philly guy in Auriemma and the Midwesterner inside Lisa Bluder, Clark’s coach, the bragging on behalf of her player has a few more caveats.
“Well, I think you could give an argument for that,” Bluder said. “She’s certainly producing as she is one of the best freshmen in the country, and to be quite honest, I haven’t paid attention to a lot of the other ones. That’s just not on my radar right now. … So I’m really not in tune with what’s going on around the rest of the country with the rest of the freshmen, but I will just say just now obviously watching her, coaching her for the past few months, that she is certainly producing like she’s one of the best, if not the best, freshmen in the United States.”
Clark is not one to shy away from the moment. Here’s what she did against in-state rival Iowa State:
That’s a Diana Taurasi move. That’s not a freshman move.
But it is. That’s the level Clark is playing at.
So does she think she’s the best freshman in the country?
“I’m not going to comment on if I’m the best because there’s just so many talented ones and a lot I got to play with, for sure, that I know really well,” Clark said. “And I think that’s great for women’s basketball as well. You want those good players, you want great freshmen, and I think that’s just great for the game and brings a lot of attention to the game for sure.”
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-14 14:00
We know which athletes are great, but we know less about what makes them great. To help, FiveThirtyEight is compiling The Greatness Files, a compendium of, well, what makes great athletes great. Next up in our series: some guy named Patrick Mahomes.
I grew up a Joe Montana fan. I was 2 years old when San Francisco hired Bill Walsh from Stanford and drafted Montana with the last pick in the third round.8 One of my earliest memories is wandering through a stranger’s house while our entire neighborhood took to the streets to celebrate the 49ers’ win in Super Bowl XVI — a community of sports fans unburdening itself after years of futility. And perhaps the most exciting part of that first Super Bowl win was the tantalizing prospect of more to follow.
Knowing your team possesses the league’s best player — at the sport’s most important position — can be intoxicating. You expect to win every game. These days, it’s Kansas City Chiefs fans who know what this feels like. Patrick Mahomes — a starter for only three years, yet already a Super Bowl champion — is the greatest quarterback of this generation. Under Mahomes, the Chiefs have never lost more than four games in the regular season and have finished in first place in the AFC West every year since he became the starter. Mahomes is just 25, yet he already owns one league MVP and may bag another once this season is complete.
So, Mahomes is great. But you likely knew that already. It’s what makes Mahomes great that’s so revolutionary. He has the hardest job on the field and makes that job’s hardest tasks routine — so routine that he’s one of the most consistent quarterbacks of all time. Good quarterbacks excel at the mundane stuff; Mahomes excels at the seemingly impossible.
The hardest passes in pro football are on third down. If an offense is throwing on third, it typically needs to gain a lot of yards, and third down and long screams: “A pass is coming!” Yet since 2017 Mahomes is second only to Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson in third-down QBR. And while the Ravens’ Jackson does most of his third down damage with his legs, Mahomes dissects teams with his arm, averaging 9.5 yards per pass attempt with 32 touchdowns, 6 interceptions and 27 sacks on 433 dropbacks.
But that kind of success isn’t just limited to third downs. Mahomes is generally excellent in any situation when teams know he’s passing. His success seems inevitable.
Mahomes’s mastery at a high difficulty level isn’t just evident in the numbers. You can also see it in how he anticipates his receivers’ improvisational scrambles. Whether it’s via flashy no-look passes or simply delivering the ball to a spot on the field well before his receivers are open, time and again Mahomes has shown an uncanny ability to know where his receivers will run their option routes. Sometimes he’ll throw before his receiver is even sure where he’s going.
But even when he and his receiver aren’t on the same page Mahomes still has the ability to save the play.
In the aborted pass to Tyreek Hill on third down and five shown above, Mahomes somehow holds his fire at the last moment, contorts his body in the air — confounding blitzing Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey — and then escapes the pocket to his left. Mahomes then charges the line of scrimmage, causing a defender to abandon his coverage, and throws a pass back across his body for a first down, making Humphrey nearly rage-quit in the process.
Underneath all the flash and sizzle of his unorthodox passing is an arm strong and accurate enough to rival the best in the league. Mahomes has literally thrown a ball out of Arrowhead Stadium, and his raw power is matched by a deft touch.
Deep throws are also some of the hardest in the NFL because they leave little room for error in accuracy while simultaneously requiring pro-level arm strength. Over his career, Mahomes has been dominant on deep passes — particularly over the middle of the field.
And Mahomes can make deep throws from clean pockets or under duress. On the deep completion along the right sideline to Tyreek Hill shown below, Mahomes rolls to his right, attracting the attention of a nearby linebacker. Despite throwing on the run while under pressure — and leaving his feet on the throw — Mahomes leads Hill past the numbers and drops an arcing pass right into his outstretched hands.
Because of the breadth of his skillset and the depth of his natural talent, Mahomes just does not have bad games very often. According to our QB Elo metric, 43 of Mahomes’s first 50 career starts rated above average, a level of consistency nearly unmatched in recorded NFL history. Since 1950 — our first year with data — only Dan Marino and Johnny Unitas had a higher share of above-average games over their first 50 starts.
|Quarterback||From||To||Total||Share of Starts||Avg Start*|
There have been 23 perfect games pitched in Major League Baseball’s 150 year history. The NFL equivalent is even more rare: the perfect season. A perfect season is one in which a QB has no games in which he’s below average. In 2018 — his first season as a starter! — Mahomes pitched one of just eight perfect seasons in the past 70 years, joining a list that includes Hall of Famers Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas and Dan Marino — as well as sure-fire future Canton inductees Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
|Quarterback||season||Starts||Total||Share of Starts||Avg Start**|
Perfection is a hard act to follow, but when you don’t have bad games, the numbers start to pile up, and Mahomes’s sustained game-to-game greatness has led to gaudy stats. Two years after his perfect season, Mahomes’s consistency has manifested itself in the all-time record books. This season, when he qualified for inclusion by meeting minimum attempt requirements, Mahomes instantly became the NFL leader in a slew of key QB metrics, including passing yards per game, adjusted yards per pass attempt,9 passer rating, and QBR.10
|Passing Yards per Game||Net Yards per Pass|
|Adjusted Yards per Pass||Lowest Interception Rate|
|Passer Rating||Total QBR*|
Of course, comparisons with players who have already hung up their cleats are inherently unfair — Mahomes is just 25, and his career decline is nowhere in sight. But the speed with which he ascended the all-time charts in so many important categories is remarkable. And when we combine perhaps the four most important quarterback metrics into an all-encompassing advanced passing index, we find Mahomes in rare company: on a list with only Montana, my childhood hero, among passers who were at least two-thirds of a standard deviation better than an average QB in essentially every statistical category.
|Advanced Passing Index*|
|Quarterback||Yds/Att.||TD%||Int%||Sack%||Adj. Net YPA|
Mahomes may be the most talented quarterback the NFL has ever seen. We’ve watched players like Montana and Steve Young excel under a Hall of Fame head coach, in systems tailored to their strengths. But Montana lacked Mahomes’s raw physical gifts, while Young began his career late, spending four years as a backup. There are no weaknesses in Mahomes’s skill set, in his athletic ability or in his situation — and he’s still young. The expectations for the rest of his career are enormous, but the chances of failure seem impossibly small. If he remains healthy, it’s no stretch to predict that Mahomes has the potential to match the longevity of a player like Tom Brady and, in the process, redefine excellence at the QB position. That sounds difficult — bordering on impossible — but Mahomes is good at that kind of thing.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-14 02:34
In this episode of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, HuffPost polling editor Ariel Edwards-Levy joined Galen Druke and Perry Bacon Jr. to discuss the second impeachment of President Trump: why the House votes broke down the way they did, what the different camps are in the GOP and what will happen next.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-14 01:15
On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 232-197 to impeach President Trump. Ten Republicans broke with their caucus to vote with the Democrats this time — a more bipartisan vote than Trump’s first impeachment but still representing just a sliver of the GOP. In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, HuffPost polling editor Ariel Edwards-Levy joined Galen Druke and Perry Bacon Jr. to discuss why the votes broke down the way they did, what the different camps are in the GOP and what will happen next.
You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.
The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-14 00:47
After a month of drama and no shortage of trade speculation, the Houston Rockets finally dealt disgruntled superstar James Harden on Wednesday, shipping him to the Brooklyn Nets in a four-team megatrade that also involved the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers. The haul for Harden? Three players (headlined by Caris LeVert, whom Houston sent to Indiana for Victor Oladipo), four first-round picks and four other pick swaps headed to the Rockets, with Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince on the move to Cleveland in the trade.
This is nothing if not a blockbuster deal, with plenty of aftereffects that are sure to reverberate across the league. According to our NBA forecast (based on our RAPTOR player ratings), Wednesday’s moves made Brooklyn the favorite to win the Eastern Conference and the second-most-likely team to win the 2020-21 NBA title, with a 16 percent probability that trails only the Los Angeles Lakers. (Before the deal, the Nets’ chances were at only 2 percent, which trailed eight other teams.) In that sense, the Nets and Rockets are both winners here — Brooklyn enhanced its status as a championship contender, while Houston gathered a boatload of players and picks in return for its erstwhile star.11
It had become quite obvious why the Rockets needed to unload Harden. After he showed up late to training camp amid reports that he wanted out of Houston, Harden all but said to the organization, “It’s not me; it’s you.” During a Tuesday night press conference, Harden said, “We’re just not good enough. … I’ve literally done everything that I can. … It’s something that I don’t think can be fixed.” (Teammate DeMarcus Cousins said Harden’s antics and lack of effort — even prior to that interview — had been disrespectful to the Rockets.)
Brooklyn swinging a deal of this nature — giving up not just LeVert and Allen but also all those picks — is a bit tougher to understand, especially given the franchise’s history of big — and ultimately bad — trades. But it makes more sense when thinking about the Los Angeles Clippers’ move to get Paul George in the summer of 2019: Though they parted ways with a historic number of first-rounders, they saw it as a trade to land both George and Kawhi Leonard. In this case, Brooklyn decided to push all its chips in, knowing that this move would help its chances to retain Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving after next season, when the two stars can opt out and become unrestricted free agents. Harden can also opt out of his contract after the 2021-22 campaign.
That doesn’t mean the deal isn’t without its risks. It can be a slow process for three players of this caliber to learn how to play off one another, given how much they’re all used to having the ball in their hands. Sometimes players have the same sweet spots on the court. And even when players are a good fit in both theory and practice — for instance, Durant in Golden State, where he won two NBA titles — the stylistic differences can create media narratives that fray the egos and relationships involved.12
But there’s a case to be made that, with this much elite offensive talent, none of that matters. By adding Harden, the Nets have now assembled the second-, seventh- and eighth-best offensive players in the league since 2015 according to our RAPTOR metric.13
When that trio plays together, the Nets could be a truly unstoppable offensive force. All three stars are phenomenal scorers, of course, averaging more than 33 points per 100 possessions in their careers. But they’re also all elite shooters and playmakers; the career assist rates of Harden and Irving are both north of 30 percent, and Durant’s has crept up toward that mark in recent seasons. So can they coexist on the Nets? With shooters like Joe Harris and Landry Shamet on the court, spacing won’t be an issue; ball movement shouldn’t be, either. And during his time with the Warriors’ dynasty, KD showed he can pick his spots and fit seamlessly into an offensive superteam, so he clearly can thrive alongside players as ball-dominant as Harden and Irving (even if playing that way wasn’t always his preference).
But there are downsides to Brooklyn’s ever-expanding experiment. Led by a number of coaches who excelled on the offensive side — like Steve Nash, Mike D’Antoni and Amar’e Stoudemire — the Nets have looked questionable at times on the defensive end. Though it ranks 12th in defensive efficiency to this point, Brooklyn has logged an 0-5 mark when it scores fewer than 120 points this season, a seemingly unsustainable way to win big in the NBA.14 Losing Allen, the team’s best rim protector, won’t help in that regard. He’s a bit undersized against the biggest centers, but at the time of the deal, he was holding opponents nearly 9 percentage points below their average marks at the basket. On the other hand, DeAndre Jordan — 10 years older, and no longer the athlete he once was — is allowing players to shoot a few points better than their average so far.
According to RAPTOR, both LeVert and Allen were each more than a point of defensive efficiency better than the NBA average per 100 possessions. Although Harden’s defensive RAPTOR is usually better than his reputation might suggest, he won’t exactly help the Nets replace the lost defensive contributions. The best the Nets can hope for is that some part of Harden’s awful -5.8 defensive RAPTOR this season was tied up in his desire to no longer be a Houston Rocket. And they’ll have to hope the likes of Jordan and Bruce Brown can step up and fill the necessary minutes with at least decent defensive performances in what figure to be enhanced roles on the post-trade roster. Also, look for the Nets to add defensive help via minimum-salary pickups when filling their myriad empty roster spots.
But Brooklyn already had depth issues before the deal, with the NBA’s second-largest split in efficiency differential between that of its starters (+8.7, second-best in the league behind Milwaukee) and its bench (-2.8, ninth-worst).15 Now the Nets have sent away their second- and third-biggest minute-earners in LeVert and Allen, along with Prince, who was in the rotation with 18.2 minutes per game. Notably, the team had been playing much better with LeVert and Allen on the court than off early this season. It will have to make do with an even thinner rotation after the trade, along with the reality that Durant is still just eight games into his comeback from a very serious injury and Irving is maybe the sport’s ultimate wild card in terms of his availability on any given night. This team was always going to spend plenty of time during the regular season playing at something less than its full potential; now that might be doubly so.
That potential is what continues to make the Nets such a tantalizing team, though, especially now that Harden is in the mix. The Nets were already under tremendous pressure to capitalize on the Durant-Irving tandem, and they only leaned into that further on Wednesday. But in many ways, that’s what the modern NBA is about — building a trio of superstars and taking your shot while you have the chance. If nothing else, Brooklyn’s version of that plan should be spellbinding to watch play out.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-13 22:21
Donald Trump has now been rebuked like no other president: He is the first-ever president to be impeached by the House of Representatives twice, and he is also the first-ever president to have the House call for his Cabinet and vice president to remove him from office.
In fact, there have been just four presidential impeachments in American history — and Trump now represents half of that total. The actual words used in the article of impeachment adopted by the House on Wednesday were both incredibly damning and also an accurate portrayal of the president’s conduct since November’s election. Trump, according to the House, was “inciting violence against the Government of the United States,” “threatened the integrity of the democratic system,” and “imperiled a coequal branch of Government.”
But the power of the rebukes of Trump is somewhat blunted by the fact that they have been largely partisan. No House Republican voted for Trump’s impeachment in 2019 over the pressure he exerted on the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens, and only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney of Utah, supported removing Trump from office. In the wake of the attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters, only one Republican House member, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, supported invoking the 25th Amendment to have Trump removed from office on Tuesday, and today only nine House Republicans joined Kinzinger in supporting impeachment.
This strong Republican loyalty to the president is a very important and historic dynamic.
It’s important not to overstate the size of the opposition to Trump in the GOP simply because it includes some high-profile members of the party. Romney, the party’s one-time presidential nominee, and Rep. Liz Cheney, both the No. 3 Republican in the party’s leadership and the daughter of a Republican vice president, have cast Trump as a terrible president and supported his removal from office. A third major Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has allowed his allies to leak to the press that he believes Trump has committed impeachable offenses. A few other Republicans in the Senate, most notably Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, have suggested that they might back Trump’s removal from office or a post-presidency conviction of the impeachment charge, but it’s still unclear if they would actually do so.
But the overwhelming majority of Republicans in the House still voted against impeachment even after the invasion of the Capitol that put their lives at risk. McConnell is also not pushing to have a quick Senate vote to remove Trump from office, because it’s likely that most Republican senators don’t want to deal with the issue, not wanting to cast a vote in favor of Trump’s actions but also wary of trying to force him from office. Pence and Trump’s Cabinet opposed the idea of removing him via the 25th Amendment. And polls suggest that a clear majority of Republican voters don’t want Trump impeached or removed from office.
If there is a battle going on for control of the Republican Party, at least right now, those allied with Trump and Trumpism are winning — and it’s not particularly close. The Republican Party has a bloc of people like Cheney and Sasse that is clearly uncomfortable with Trump and Trumpism and a group that strongly embraces Trumpism, such as Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and others in the House Freedom Caucus.
But a lot of Republicans in Congress aren’t necessarily all that committed to Trumpism or all that firmly against it. Rather, they are politicians who are trying to land in the right spot to keep their jobs and position themselves for runs for higher office. And the impeachment votes from Republicans on Capitol Hill tell a clear story: They think the best bet for a Republican politician, at least right now, is to stay aligned with Trump, and that the party base is more connected to Trump than to traditional democratic norms and values or the GOP of the past, led by people like former Vice President Dick Cheney and Romney. In fact, the person who might lose their job through this process is not Trump but Liz Cheney, as Jordan and his allies are trying to have her removed from Republican leadership because of her impeachment vote.
Finally, despite this vote, it seems almost certain that Trump will get to finish out his term, something that didn’t seem so clear a week ago. This, too, is basically a story of the Republican Party sticking with Trump — the Cabinet was unwilling to remove him, and so were GOP senators.
Put all this together and you have a complicated story of the end of Trump’s presidency. The House of Representatives has rebuked him like it has no other president — passing two separate provisions (the 25th Amendment proposal, then impeachment) in a rush to get him out of office, even though he had only two weeks left in his presidency and had already been impeached once. But while it’s officially the U.S. House that rebuked Trump, it was essentially only Democrats who rebuked him. Trump will now get to finish out his term and avoid a complete repudiation of his presidency, with a lot of votes in opposition to him from both parties. So right now, it’s not clear whether Trump will be remembered as a historically terrible president — or just a historically terrible president according to Democrats.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-13 18:16
With one weekend of the 2020-21 NFL playoffs in the books, we’re excited to see what kind of football treats the divisional round will bring. For each matchup, we’re breaking things down using our Elo ratings — which track how well each team is currently playing, with adjustments for the quality of each starting quarterback — and also identifying the facets of the game in which each team was best (and worst) according to ESPN’s expected points added (EPA)16 this season. So here is our guide to the good, the bad and the must-see for each matchup in next weekend’s slate of games:
|Green Bay||Category||Los Angeles|
|Aaron Rodgers||Starting QB||Jared Goff✚|
|3rd||QB Elo rank||20th|
|5th||QB’s supporting cast||2nd|
|15th||Avg. QB Elo defense||1st|
|Pass offense||Biggest EPA strength||Pass defense|
|Special teams||Biggest EPA weakness||Special teams|
A week ago, we wondered if the Rams were doomed with obscure backup QB John Wolford starting a playoff game. And start Wolford did … but he was quickly knocked out of the game, forcing regular starter Jared Goff to play through a broken thumb the rest of the way. The results were passable:17 enough to beat the Seahawks when coupled with Cam Akers’s running and an outstanding performance bottling up Russell Wilson by arguably the league’s best defense. Can they do it again versus the Packers, with Goff’s status still up in the air? If DT Aaron Donald is healthy, L.A.’s defense (No. 1 in EPA) could pose problems for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ top-ranked offense, in what is just the fifth meeting between the No. 1 EPA offense and defense in a playoff game since 2006.18 The Rams are an intriguing matchup for Green Bay because their strengths line up to potentially exploit the Packers’ weaknesses (like Akers against the 22nd-ranked EPA run D) or neutralize their strengths (like All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey against Rodgers’s favorite target, Davante Adams).19 But the biggest question is whether Goff/Wolford and the Rams can move the ball well enough for it to matter. Green Bay’s pass D is significantly better than Seattle’s, making an upset much more difficult to pull off this time around. In fact, our model gives the Packers a sizable edge here — particularly if Goff can’t make the start. Elo’s spread: Green Bay -9
|Josh Allen||Starting QB||Lamar Jackson|
|1st||QB Elo rank||5th|
|4th||QB’s supporting cast||6th|
|18th||Avg. QB Elo defense||19th|
|Pass offense||Biggest EPA strength||Run offense|
|Run offense||Biggest EPA weakness||Pass offense|
The best game of the divisional round will feature Lamar Jackson’s Ravens paying a visit to fellow 2018 draftee Josh Allen and the Bills. Baltimore eked out a 24-17 win at Buffalo when last they met, in 2019 — but the Bills have gotten significantly better since then, while the Ravens were diminished somewhat in 2020 (though they have looked like their old selves of late). What’s left is a balanced matchup in which Buffalo holds the all-important advantage in the passing game but Baltimore has an edge running the ball and on defense. Based on those two strengths, the Ravens’ path to the upset is not dissimilar to the one Indianapolis nearly executed against Buffalo last Saturday, nor is it even much different from the formula Baltimore used in Sunday’s signature win over the rival Tennessee Titans. Look for Jackson to try to exploit Buffalo’s soft rush defense (No. 20 in EPA) as a runner but for Allen to throw the ball early and often, as the Bills had the league’s pass-happiest offense in “normal” game situations20 all year long. Although Baltimore is a very dangerous team, our model gives Buffalo a 65 percent chance to grab the win at home and advance to its first AFC title game since January 1994. Elo’s spread: Buffalo -4½
|Patrick Mahomes||Starting QB||Baker Mayfield|
|2nd||QB Elo rank||15th|
|3rd||QB’s supporting cast||9th|
|25th||Avg. QB Elo defense||26th|
|Pass offense||Biggest EPA strength||Pass offense|
|Run defense||Biggest EPA weakness||Pass defense|
After a week off, the defending champion Chiefs will begin their postseason journey against the Cleveland Browns — engineers of the wild-card round’s biggest upset. Against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland relied on its defense to generate a flurry of turnovers and never took its foot off the offensive gas pedal all game long, with QB Baker Mayfield putting in one of the best performances of his NFL career at the best possible time. History will have to repeat in order for the Browns to have a real shot at knocking off Kansas City. It’s true that the Chiefs (No. 18 in defensive EPA) might struggle to slow down Cleveland’s offense, particularly when it comes to Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and the Browns rushing attack. But it will be more difficult to force so many mistakes from Patrick Mahomes, who is literally the best QB in NFL history at avoiding interceptions (among many other things). Barring that, the matchup between the explosive Chiefs offense and Cleveland’s suspect defense could get ugly fast. And remember, although Mahomes has never surmounted a 28-point deficit like the one the Browns opened up early against Pittsburgh, he did overcome a pretty similar one (24 points) against the Texans in last year’s playoffs. So even if Cleveland gets off to another fast start, no lead is safe against K.C. — one of many reasons that Elo gives the Chiefs a 79 percent probability of getting the W here. Elo’s spread: Kansas City -9
|New Orleans||Category||Tampa Bay|
|Drew Brees||Starting QB||Tom Brady|
|7th||QB Elo rank||8th|
|1st||QB’s supporting cast||7th|
|4th||Avg. QB Elo defense||16th|
|Run offense||Biggest EPA strength||Pass offense|
|Special teams||Biggest EPA weakness||Special teams|
If Bills-Ravens is the best matchup of the weekend, Saints-Bucs is a very close second. Yes, these two teams have faced off twice already this season, with New Orleans winning both by double digits — including a 38-3 romp in November.21 That was easily the worst QB Elo game of the season for Tom Brady and the second-worst of his long NFL career. But Brady rallied to post above-average numbers in seven of his next eight starts, saving his best play for late in the season (including a rock-solid performance in the wild-card game against the Washington Football Team). And despite the many parallels to be drawn between ancient QBs Brady and Drew Brees in their first-ever playoff meeting, this contest might come down to the supporting casts. New Orleans has the ever-so-slight edge on defense (No. 3 in EPA, versus No. 5 for Tampa), the superior rushing support (No. 2, versus No. 23 for Tampa) spearheaded by Pro Bowl RB Alvin Kamara, and the better special teams unit (No. 20 versus No. 28 for Tampa). If the Saints’ defense can generate big pressure on Brady again — he was pressured on a season-high 46 percent of dropbacks in Week 9, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group — and get their usual mix of contributions from up and down the roster,22 New Orleans should deliver on the 71 percent win probability Elo is currently giving them. But at the same time, this game may be much closer than the season series would have you believe. Elo’s spread: New Orleans -6
Check out our latest NFL predictions.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-13 17:58
It was The Trump Show 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For years, Trump has used social media to set the agenda with every one of his thoughts, policies and lies. Then suddenly, just like that, The Trump Show went off the air.
Last week, Twitter made the unprecedented decision to permanently suspend Trump’s personal account, saying he had broken the site’s rules by inciting violence. Facebook did the same, indefinitely, and Instagram (which Facebook owns) banned Trump for at least the duration of his term. Amazon made similar moves by kicking Parler, an alternative social media platform favored by right-wing groups, off its servers, causing the site to go dark. Reddit, Snapchat, Twitch, and many other platforms made similar moves to limit or ban Trump’s content.
These actions — with just days to go in the president’s term and only after a pro-Trump mob rioted inside the U.S. Capitol — will undoubtedly make an impact, but they’re not a panacea. Research shows that this kind of deplatforming can work, but millions of Americans have already been exposed to Trump’s lies and extremist rhetoric, and they won’t simply stop believing him because he can no longer tweet his thoughts.
Trump is far from the first controversial figure to be booted off social media, which means we have some data showing how deplatforming can work. A 2015 study looked at Reddit’s decision to remove its most toxic subreddits and analyzed the behavior of those subreddits users after the ban. Using machine learning23 the study found that many of the users stopped using the site entirely, and those that stayed posted far less hate speech on the rest of the site — by at least 80 percent.
Amy Bruckman, a professor and associate chair in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, is currently working on a study that looks at the deplatforming of major controversial figures like far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Though the study has not yet been peer-reviewed and published, Bruckman said it shows similar findings to the Reddit study.
“We found that after they’re kicked off Twitter people talk about them less on Twitter, and people talk about their ideas less on Twitter,” Bruckman said. “Looking at the supporters, we found that the toxicity of their speech went down.”
Of course, those who really want certain content can always just go somewhere else to get it. But deplatforming can still drain the bad actors’ audience and change the behavior of the subscribers left behind. A study posted on the prepublication site arXiv last fall analyzed what happened after Reddit banned r/TheDonald and r/Incels, both of which spurred users to create off-platform communities. The researchers found that, compared to the subreddits, “there was a substantial decrease in the number of newcomers, active users, and posts” on the new sites, but they also noted that they found “an increase in the relative activity for both communities: per user, substantially more daily posts occurred on the fringe websites.”
A similar pattern was seen after Facebook banned high-profile members of anti-vaccination groups such as Larry Cook, whose page had some 195,000 followers on Facebook. He moved to Parler where, before it was shut down, he had 14,000 followers.
Experts I spoke to also noted that removing bad actors from a platform can help prevent users who aren’t yet down the rabbit hole from being radicalized.
“We need to protect those normies, the normal users who don’t want to be radicalized into neo-nazism or whatever it may be. We need to protect them from being harassed and recruited,” said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who studies online extremism.
Of course, removing Trump himself from a platform is quite different from removing, say, a subreddit, or even an Alex Jones. Trump is the president, after all. He has spent the past four-plus years seeding many of the ideas that incited people to reject the peaceful transfer of power and storm the Capitol last week. Those ideas don’t just vanish along with Trump’s profile pages.
This is part of the reason why critics wanted tech companies to do something about Trump’s rhetoric before it got too late. When deplatforming is the last-ditch effort, much of the damage has already been done, according to Julia DeCook, a professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Communication.
“Most platform moderation policies, especially with deplatforming, are reactive instead of preventative,” DeCook said. “We’re not actually trying to prevent the spread of these kinds of ideologies on these platforms, we’re more just playing whack-a-mole and hoping that the things we do stick.”
So deplatforming doesn’t completely solve the problem of baseless or harmful language online. Banning Trump alone, especially after refusing to act for so many years, isn’t nearly enough to undo the damage and convince millions of Americans of the truth, that the 2020 election wasn’t stolen. Just consider the potentially violent events already planned around D.C., and across the country, ahead of Biden’s inauguration.
Changing the channel on The Trump Show only does so much when its audience has reruns playing in their heads.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-13 17:30
A new NHL season is about to begin, and it comes after one unlike any other in the history of the league. After the coronavirus pandemic forced the NHL to pause for nearly five months, the 2019-20 season resumed play inside two bubbles in Canada, with the Tampa Bay Lightning exorcising some pretty nasty demons in the playoffs and emerging as Stanley Cup champions.
And it wouldn’t be a bizarre hockey season without labor drama, which we got in the offseason when league owners lobbied players for extra financial concessions — despite the fact that the two sides had seemingly agreed to the terms of a new deal just months earlier. The players union held its ground — but the battle almost sank the ship.
And yet, here we are at the beginning of a new, albeit shortened,24 NHL season. It will almost certainly be a weird one, with teams playing in realigned divisions, which, among other things, separate the Canadian teams from the rest of the league. Against that backdrop, who looks good, who looks bad and who has an outside shot at lifting the Stanley Cup?
The Lightning probably should have been lifting their second consecutive Stanley Cup in September, but their historic unravelling in the 2018-19 playoffs kept them from getting the first of what might have been a pair. One Cup is still better than no Cups, however, and Tampa must have liked its chances to repeat in 2021 … until it discovered that star forward Nikita Kucherov would miss the entire regular season (at least) with a hip injury that required surgery.
Losing any player to injury is a blow for a locker room and a headache for a coaching staff, but a player of Kucherov’s caliber is nearly impossible to replace because there aren’t many (or any) players of Kucherov’s caliber that aren’t named Kucherov. According to goals above replacement (GAR),25 which estimates the total net goals added or saved by each skater and goalie based on their box score stats, Kucherov has been the best player in the NHL over the past three seasons — even better than Edmonton Oilers sensation Connor McDavid, if just barely.
|Goals Above Replacement*|
|Artemi Panarin||LW||CBJ, NYR||44.8||13.9||0.0||58.7|
Add in the loss of star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk — who accounted for more GAR than Erik Karlsson and as much GAR as Brent Burns a season ago, for context — and a dearth of consequential offseason signings, and the Bolts have bled quite a bit of value since lifting Lord Stanley’s bowl three and a half months ago. That said, there’s still quite a bit of talent left on Tampa’s roster,26 between dangerous forward Brayden Point,27 defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman, former Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and captain Steven Stamkos, who is finally healthy after missing all but one playoff game last season.
Losing Kucherov is a tough pill to swallow, but Tampa just won the Stanley Cup without the services of Stamkos, who is arguably the best player in franchise history. The Lightning clearly know how to handle adversity, and they’re entering the new season with enough of their championship-winning roster intact to be scary.
The Colorado Avalanche finished the 2019-20 regular season tied with the Lightning for third in points percentage, and they were tied with the Capitals as the league’s third-most-prolific goal scorers. According to GAR, the Avs enter the new season with the most talented roster in the NHL. Center Nathan MacKinnon is a big reason for that; he had the fifth-most GAR28 of any skater in the NHL a season ago (better than Kucherov, even). Second-year defenseman Cale Makar will look to build on his Calder Trophy-winning season from a year ago. Add Stanley Cup winner Brandon Saad to the mix and consider that Colorado’s goaltenders combined for one of the league’s best save percentages a season ago, and it’s clear why the Avs enter the new season with the best betting odds to lift the Stanley Cup.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Toronto Maple Leafs also rank near the top of the Cup odds, trailing only the Avalanche, the Lightning and the Vegas Golden Knights. Nothing has changed in Toronto in terms of silverware: The Leafs remain the only Original Six team to not win a Stanley Cup since expansion began in 1967. But their new crop of stars — led by American wunderkind Auston Matthews, who was the fourth-best skater in the NHL a season ago according to GAR, and buttressed by veterans like John Tavares and Joe Thornton (!) — could have something to say about that this season, particularly since Toronto has the league’s sixth-best team in terms of GAR talent. It feels like Thornton has been chasing a Stanley Cup for as long as the Leafs have, so perhaps a victory is written in the stars.
Each new offseason goes mostly like the previous one: Some teams make signings that change the trajectory of the franchise, some teams part ways with beloved icons, and some teams do next to nothing. This offseason was no different (well, aside from the fact that it was substantially shorter than usual).
To help judge how much each team improved its veteran talent over that period, we can use GAR29 to measure the expected value a team gained from acquiring new players and lost from players who departed since the previous regular season. By that measure, the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils had the best offseasons — though you could argue there was almost nowhere to go except up for two of the NHL’s worst teams from a year ago.
|Weighted GAR* from…||Overall Rank|
|Team||Incoming Players||Rk||Outgoing Players||Rk||Sum of Ranks||Rk|
Among teams that might actually make some noise in the playoffs, the Golden Knights, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals added some very intriguing talent. The Knights traded veteran centerman Paul Stastny and defenseman Nate Schmidt over the break, but they also signed free-agent defenseman Alex Pietrangelo away from St. Louis. Pietrangelo, who turns 31 next week, has been in the Norris conversation (even if only as a whisper) almost every year since his second full season in the league, and he was the offseason’s biggest pickup according to GAR.
The Blues would miss their former captain if they hadn’t also signed a marquee free-agent defenseman during the offseason. Former Bruin Torey Krug was the second-best blue liner available this offseason, behind Pietrangelo. He’s every bit as good on the offensive side of the ice as Pietrangelo — and probably better at quarterbacking the power play — and he’s both younger and cheaper. The Blues had the third-best power play percentage in the league in 2019-20; Krug might make it the best. St. Louis also signed sharpshooting forward Mike Hoffman, who’s been a lock for at least 22 goals during each of the past six seasons. According to GAR, he was the fourth-best signing of the offseason.
The Capitals have never been darlings in the betting odds, even after winning it all in 2018, and they are tied with the Hurricanes and Blues as 20-to-1 shots going into this season. Washington probably merits better treatment after losing little of consequence — save for the poorly performing Braden Holtby in net — from last year’s roster, and adding a few useful parts over the offseason (even after it was announced that Henrik Lundqvist would miss the season with a heart condition). If pickups like Zdeno Chara and Conor Sheary have anything in the tank, and if young Ilya Samsonov can improve on last year’s Holtby-fueled No. 28 ranking in goaltending GAR, the Caps could have another run left in them.
And a couple of last season’s Canadian playoff teams also rank among the most improved for 2021. Montreal lost winger Max Domi — a big departure — but added goalie Jake Allen and improved its weakness on the blue line with Tyler Toffoli and Joel Edmundson. And the Oilers picked up some fresh talent (headlined by D-man Tyson Barrie) to go with their two generational talents in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Yes, this is a franchise that’s notorious for wasting generational talents, but maybe splitting the pair up and divvying up their abilities more evenly across the first and second lines will help an offense that ranked just 12th in goals last year.
Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins lost some of the most established talent of any contender this offseason. With former captain and franchise heart and soul Chara now playing his hockey in D.C., it will be on 23-year-old Charlie McAvoy to lead the defensive unit. And the Bruins said goodbye to the lynchpin of their power play when they let Krug walk, which means they must be betting that Matt Grzelcyk is ready to make the leap. They will also be without David Pastrňák for at least the first month of the season, after the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner underwent hip surgery in September. Despite all of that, the Bruins still have the second-most-talented roster in the league according to GAR, but Boston’s fate probably depends on how well it can cope with the many changes this offseason brought.
Hockey is blessed with a wealth of talented young players right now, including Pastrňák, McDavid, Matthews and Jack Eichel at forward, and Makar and Columbus’s Zach Werenski on the blue line — all of them 24 or younger. Beyond them, Hurricanes winger Andrei Svechnikov and D-men Adam Fox of the Rangers, Quinn Hughes of the Canucks and Rasmus Dahlin of the Sabres should only get better after impressive seasons in 2020. And keep an eye on a pair of 21-year-old centers — Robert Thomas of the Blues and Nick Suzuki of the Canadiens — who should build on their ahead-of-the-curve performances. Last season, 33 percent of leaguewide value was generated by players aged 24 or younger, part of a three-year trend that has seen that figure reach its highest levels since 1990.
|Goals Above Replacement*|
Of course, all eyes will also be on the 2020-21 rookie class. No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafrenière will get regular duty right away for the New York Rangers, and the 19-year-old is already impressing teammates with his skill level. At age 23, former KHL standout Kirill Kaprizov is poised to make an instant impact in his NHL debut with the Minnesota Wild. And Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin is still officially a rookie after excelling in spot duty late last season. Widely viewed as the heir to legendary N.Y. goalie Lundqvist, the 25-year-old led all goalies in save percentage (with a minimum of 400 shots faced) last year; if given the chance to start permanently, Shesterkin could be one of the league’s best breakout candidates in net this season.
Because of the ongoing pandemic — and perhaps specifically because travel is still restricted at the U.S.-Canadian border — the NHL split its divisions in a new way for this season. It isolated all teams north of the border in their own, aptly named North Division, while scattering the rest of the league across three other divisions in vaguely geographic fashion. The new configuration (which is likely a one-and-done plan) will revive some old rivalries gutted by modern realignment, such as the Red Wings and Blackhawks — who will play eight times in 56 games this season — and create some interesting new ones involving the Jets, who usually don’t get to face their cross-country rivals from Ontario much during a normal season.
The all-Canadian division should also be a good, mostly balanced group from top to bottom. Save for the Senators, every team in the North is a legitimate threat to grab one of the four available playoff spots — and to vie for the conference-final slot guaranteed to the division’s last team standing, an important stepping-stone on the path to ending Canada’s Stanley Cup drought. Among the other divisions, the West is an even mix of good and bad, the East is stacked with perhaps an unreasonable number of Cup hopefuls — Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and Pittsburgh, plus the two New York clubs — while the Central will be weak if the Stars take a step back after some key injuries and regression to the mean take their toll.30
Just like the previous season, the 2020-21 NHL campaign is sure to be unusual. Despite an uncommonly chalky outcome from last year’s bubble, the defending champs are weaker now — with a wide-open field of challengers coming for their crown. The offseason’s chaotic calendar helped set the tone for the short 56-game sample that will now determine each team’s destiny. (As if hockey needed more randomness.) All of the ingredients are there for a downright wild season on ice, and we can’t wait for the puck to drop.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-13 04:57
Virtually all congressional Democrats and even some Republicans have condemned President Trump’s incitement of the insurrection at the Capitol. Virtually all congressional Democrats and even some Republicans appear to want Trump out of office as soon as possible. The U.S. House of Representative seems likely, this week, to impeach Trump for a second time, with at least five Republicans likely to vote in favor of it. Allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as first reported by the New York Times and then confirmed by ABC News, say McConnell believes that Trump committed impeachable offenses and supports Democrats moving forward on impeachment.
Where does all that leave us? It’s complicated. It still seems fairly likely that Trump will remain in office until Jan. 20, with the House impeaching Trump on a mostly party-line vote but the Senate not taking up impeachment before Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Still, we’ll have to wait to see how it all unfolds to know for sure. Either way, we do know that one big step in this process occurred on Tuesday night: The House adopted a resolution calling on Vice President Mike Pence and the remaining members of Trump’s Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove Trump from the presidency.
This vote was historic — the House has voted to impeach three presidents (including Trump), but never before formally suggested that the president be removed by his Cabinet. At the same time, the vote has no real impact. Pence said in a letter to Pelosi released before the vote that he and the Cabinet will not try to force Trump from office via the 25th Amendment. So Tuesday’s vote was really only a prelude to a separate vote on Trump’s impeachment, which could come as soon as Wednesday. House Democrats have promised they will move to impeach Trump, for the second time, if the Cabinet does not remove him.
Tuesday night’s vote on the 25th Amendment resolution, while symbolic, does help us understand some dynamics within the two parties — particularly if you consider it alongside last week’s votes on whether to certify the results of the November election. Here are four things we’ve learned …
Only 83 of the 204 House Republicans who participated in the vote opposed the effort last week to effectively disqualify the presidential votes in Arizona. Only 64 of the 202 House Republicans who participated in the vote opposed the effort to disqualify the electoral results in Pennsylvania. In other words, a clear majority of House Republicans voted to bar the presidential results from Arizona and Pennsylvania, joining with Trump’s effort to disqualify the votes of swing states where he narrowly lost. And these were votes held after Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol.
On Tuesday night, the number of House Republicans who were willing to call for Trump to be pushed out of office was even lower — just one, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, supported the resolution calling for Trump’s removal. There may be some Republicans who vote for impeachment but not the 25th Amendment resolution (more on that below). But it seems likely that the overwhelming majority of Republicans will oppose any effort to remove Trump from office, no matter the method.
The upcoming impeachment vote will be the fourth vote in the span of a week that is effectively a proxy for how loyal a House Republican is to Trump and strongly pro-Trump voters. And it appears that most House Republicans will take Trump’s side all four times despite an attack on the Capitol that was inspired in part by Trump’s words, resulted in the deaths of five people, and easily could have resulted in members of Congress and even Pence being killed.
It’s worth noting that the strong support for Trump among Republicans in the House may not be shared in the Senate. Only eight of the 51 Republicans in the Senate supported the efforts to contest the results in either Arizona, Pennsylvania or both states. Unlike McConnell, allies of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, have not suggested that McCarthy is open to Trump’s impeachment. That said, it’s not clear that a lot of Senate Republicans support invoking the 25th Amendment or trying to impeach and remove Trump either. (More on that in a minute).
The 63 House Republican members who affirmed the electoral results in both Arizona and Pennsylvania were from across the ideological and geographic spectrum — some were fairly moderate members from more liberal-leaning areas, such as Rep. John Katko of New York, but some were also conservatives from more right-wing areas, most notably the No. 3 Republican in the party’s leadership, Liz Cheney of Wyoming.
But voting to remove Trump appears to be a bridge too far, even for these Republicans. Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, Katko and Cheney have indicated that they will support impeachment, even though they didn’t also back the 25th Amendment process like Kinzinger did. But overall, there is little indication that most of these 63 members will vote for impeachment.
Impeachment in the House doesn’t really need Republican votes, since Democrats are in the majority and they are likely to be universally behind impeachment. But this House sentiment may be an indication of things in the Senate too …
McConnell, while floating the idea that he is frustrated with Trump, has also suggested that the Senate can’t really start an impeachment trial until Jan 19, according to a memo he sent to Republican senators that was obtained by the Washington Post. If the Senate really wanted to push out Trump immediately, I think they would figure out a way to do it. What’s more likely is that McConnell wants to publicly get out the message that he personally is mad at Trump but not necessarily require Republican senators to go on the record with a vote. Remember that McConnell just won a six-year term in 2020 and is 78 years old. He probably isn’t that worried about being cast as insuffienciently pro-Trump and losing a Republican primary in 2026 if he decided to run for another term at age 84. But younger Republican senators, those with presidential ambitions and/or those coming up for reelection next year may want to avoid a vote either defending Trump or removing him from office.
So it’s not clear McConnell would move towards a vote before Jan 20. There is not yet a clamoring of GOP senators urging the Senate to meet immediately after the House impeaches Trump, nor is it clear that there are anywhere close to the 18 GOP senators that would be needed to remove him from office. So unless something dramatically changes, in terms of the posture of GOP senators, Trump is likely to remain in office on Jan. 20
By the end of this month, with a 50-50 Senate and Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote, Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer will be the majority leader. There is little precedent for this, but some legal experts say that the Senate could, in a two-thirds vote, convict Trump of the impeachment charges, even if he is out of office. Then, with a simple majority, the Senate could vote to disqualify Trump from holding any office again. But I should emphasize: We have no idea if any of that will happen. With Trump out of office, would Democrats, particularly Biden, be eager to focus on the Democrats’ policy agenda, as opposed to trying to punish Trump? Would Republicans in the Senate go along with trying to convict Trump and disqualify him from running for office again? Would a disqualification of Trump from holding other offices stand up against legal challenges?
All of the 222 congressional Democrats who participated in the vote on Tuesday supported invoking the 25th Amendment. Impeachment is also likely to be a unanimous vote among Democrats. This is not surprising — in 2019, all but three of the 232 House Democrats backed Trump’s impeachment over his scheme to force the Ukranian government to investigate the Bidens. There has been some turnover in terms of members, but the overwhelming majority of House Democrats have already tried to force Trump out of office and probably feel comfortable casting such votes again, particularly in light of last week’s terrible incident at the Capitol.
Combining today’s 25th Amendment resolution with the 2019 impeachment, Democrats have ensured that Trump will have been rebuked by the House of Representatives in a way that no previous president has: Both impeached and urged to be removed from office by the president’s Cabinet. No president has been impeached in two separate instances (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached on multiple articles, but in the same series of House votes). House Democrats are almost certain to make Trump the first this week.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-12 23:38
We start with college football’s national championship game, in which Alabama dominated a slightly winded Ohio State. The Tide’s victory was, seemingly, inevitable. But how they did it remains impressive — with an offense of stars, including DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris. If anything, quarterback Mac Jones has gotten sold a little short, putting up numbers similar to what Joe Burrow did last year. But Alabama’s absurdity of riches makes it hard for any one player to be the hero. They may not be perfect, but their opponents have to be in order to beat them — on both sides of the ball. We’re used to thinking about unstoppable offenses or immovable defenses, but this Alabama team can do it all. As soon as Ohio State punted for the first time, the game was kind of over. Monday’s result sets itself a little apart from the volatility of the 2020 college football season as a whole, and it will probably be easy to think of this Bama team separately from the trials and tribulations of playing in a pandemic.
Next, we look at how the sports world has gotten pulled into the political shifts of the past week. We talk about how the PGA of America breaking an agreement with a golf course owned by President Trump was only surprising inasmuch as the president seems to care about it more than he cares about getting impeached again. We also discuss how the WNBA’s activism on behalf of Raphael Warnock may not have been the difference in his successful run for the Senate, but it certainly counted for a lot, especially in the moment that players for the Atlanta Dream and other WNBA teams started wearing Vote Warnock T-shirts. With more visibility, Warnock was able to fundraise and consolidate his support for the Nov. 3 vote, uniting Democrats for the runoff election. While the effort was very specific in a lot of ways to the WNBA — a league that has a longstanding history of political engagement and in which Dream owner Kelly Loeffler’s political values are an outlier — it certainly paves the way for other teams in other leagues to be difference-makers in the future. We’ll likely see more campaigns like this as the country continues to become more and more polarized — both because athletes are more empowered to speak up about issues that matter to them and because sports aren’t as unifying a force as they were, say, in the aftermath of 9/11. Sports can and still do provide a lot of relief from the stress of our current political upheavals, but because this is a crisis that doesn’t make us feel like we’re all in it together, it’s hard for sports to be the glue that binds the nation’s wounds.
Finally, in the Rabbit Hole, Neil previews the exciting developments in this upcoming NHL season, with interesting tweaks to navigate the ongoing COVID-19 concerns, including an all-Canadian division. He also talks about which teams got better or worse over the offseason, including how the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning are dealing with the loss of their best skater. And hey, budding hockey fan Sara Ziegler might be interested in committing to the New York Rangers, who have a bunch of exciting new players they’re building around.
What we’re looking at this week:
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-12 20:17
Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): On Wednesday, a mob of pro-Trump rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol as Congress met to certify the 2020 presidential election results. But as shocking as Wednesday’s events were, they were, in many ways, the culmination of the past four years of Trump’s presidency.
President Trump has long spewed lies to his supporters about the election, refusing until very recently to concede, and routinely has shown his disdain for both the integrity of America’s elections and its tradition of a peaceful transfer of power. And right before the chaos broke out on Wednesday, Trump had just finished urging his supporters to protest Congress’s vote to certify the election results, telling them “[Y]ou’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” Within an hour, the Capitol was under attack.
This violent episode raises many questions about the future of democracy in America — not only its continued health, but the extent to which the U.S. has already become less democratic. So let’s first unpack this question by diving into this data point: Polls show while the majority of Americans condemn what happened on Wednesday, a plurality of Republican voters support it. What does that say about the current state of democracy in the U.S.?
jennifer.mccoy (Jennifer McCoy, professor of political science at Georgia State University): It shows that Americans are terribly divided over the perception of democracy itself — including whether it is even under threat and who is responsible for the threat. This makes it extremely difficult to propose solutions. But it’s important to keep in mind that we’re talking about 15 percent of the population, maybe 20 percent, who said they condoned the violence.
lee.drutman (Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Democracy requires parties that are committed to free and fair elections and will accept the outcome — even if they lose. So if the dominant position in the Republican Party is that the only free and fair elections are those where Republicans win, and anything else is “stolen” and fraudulent, then we’re on the precipice of not having a democracy.
But as Jennifer said, the one silver lining here is that the overwhelming majority of Americans reject the anti-democratic rhetoric of Trump and his allies. This is important.
cyrus.samii (Cyrus Samii, professor of politics at New York University): I find it helpful to place this moment in a broader historical context, as I think there are two trends at play here. First, decades of mobilization and a fight for a more democractic, inclusive society have brought about generational changes in America’s politics, including more women, people of color and other long-excluded groups now having a seat at the table. That has made our politics more inclusive and more democratic, but there is a second trend here — a politics of resentment that cannot tolerate this growing diversity. This mindset is particularly rampant within the Republican Party, and part of what CNN’s Van Jones has called a “whitelash,” or conservative white Christian Americans mobilizing against the type of progress embodied by President Barack Obama’s time in office. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has also written on the pendulum swinging between moments of progress on inclusion and white resistance.
Last Wednesday embodied this dynamic in the span of a few hours: We had the historic election of two Democratic senators in Georgia, followed then by a mob, including a number of white supremacists sacking the Capitol in the name of Trump, and most Republicans to date being unwilling to do much about it.
jennifer.mccoy: Yes, and I think the question now is whether this unwillingness to condemn the mob, or call out their colleagues who are perpetuating the myth of a “stolen election,” is the dominant position in the Republican Party or only a faction that can be contained.
sarah: Do we have a sense of what is driving these attitudes?
jennifer.mccoy: The politics of resentment, written about by a number of scholars, including Kathy Cramer and Arlie Hochschild, who wrote definitive books on the topic, derives from perceptions of unfairness or injustice that accompany the diversification of one’s workplace or community, changing the power structures that Cyrus spoke about. The urban-rural divide in America’s politics exemplifies this. Rural Americans, mostly Republicans, perceive urban dwellers, more Democratic and more racially diverse, as receiving more than their “fair share” of tax revenues and opportunities. With wage stagnation and the growing service-based economy, white males without a college degree, in particular, feel a loss of social status that can lead to rage and support for more authoritarian politics. This is why “identity politics” are arguably more of an issue for the GOP than the Democratic Party today. What’s particularly troubling here, though, is that the political rhetoric from politicians and media personalities are really whipping up latent attitudes of resentment to create the politics of outrage we saw on display last Wednesday. Republicans have gone further than Democrats in using vilifying language and painting horrific scenarios if the “radical, liberal, socialist Democrats” and their “anarchic mobs” take over.
lee.drutman: To follow up on Jennifer’s point about politicians driving some of this, take what Vice President Mike Pence said at the Republican National Convention this summer. He said that the election was about “whether America remains America.” Those are incredibly high stakes, so when you add that kind of rhetoric to our winner-take-all election system, you have a recipe for a very angry minority convinced that the system is rigged against them. As we saw last Wednesday, one response is to take matters into their own hands through violence.
We also know that opposition to democracy is much stronger among Republicans who have beliefs that political scientist Larry Bartels has called “ethnic antagonism,” a measure of “unfavorable feelings towards Muslims, immigrants and other out-groups … [and] concerns about these groups’ political and social claims” in his research.
The chart below is extremely striking as it shows that among Republicans, the higher the level of ethnic antagonism, the more likely they are to say they don’t trust election results, use force as an alternative and support authoritarian stances. (Bartels “normalizes” the distribution so that half of Republicans are above zero on the ethnic antagonism scale, and then presents the data two ways — using statistical analysis to estimate values (left) and reporting the actual data in the limited survey sample (right).) Overall, though, the takeaway is clear: Bartels finds troublingly high support for these sentiments among Republicans.
sarah: Is what happened Wednesday, then, a somewhat expected consequence of what happens when a sizable portion of the electorate loses faith in our elections and institutions?
jennifer.mccoy: To be clear, the research we have doesn’t necessarily show that losing faith in elections and institutions leads to violence. It can, for instance, have repercussions like withdrawal and political apathy. We saw this in Venezuela when the opposition cried fraud, without evidence, after losing a referendum to remove President Hugo Chávez in 2004. They had trouble turning out supporters in governor elections right after, and then called for a boycott in the 2005 legislative elections, handing total control to Chávez’s party and enabling them to name loyalists to all of Venezuela’s political institutions. It took another decade before Venezuelans could mobilize to win back the legislature, but by that time, Chávez’s successor had turned even more authoritarian and remains in power today.
However, if political rhetoric is drumming up violence, using demonizing and dehumanizing language and glorifying battle language, then yes, supporters are likely to engage in violence, thinking their leaders are urging that, as we saw last Wednesday.
lee.drutman: Jennifer’s point about political rhetoric is extremely important. The level of nativism, or anti-immigration sentiment, has been roughly consistent in the population for a while now. But there are signs that it has become a much stronger partisan issue in the last decade or so as Trump and other Republicans have played with rhetorical fire. It’s true that far-right leaders have been stoking this issue in multiple western democracies, and as the chart below shows, it’s evident among Republicans in the U.S.
jennifer.mccoy: And the future of the Republican Party is absolutely key to what happens to U.S. democracy. Early signs after Jan. 6 are not encouraging — the party reelected Trump’s hand-picked candidates for the RNC, chair Ronna McDaniel and co-chair Tommy Hicks, and many party leaders have also avoided calling for any accountability for Trump, instead saying that this will further divide the country when we need to unify.
sarah: Some historians have argued if there isn’t accountability, this will all escalate. Is that accurate? How are you all thinking about the importance of consequences for what happened Wednesday for democracy moving forward?
cyrus.samii: If there is no accountability, then the lesson for Republicans will be that they can continue to use illiberal means to maintain a grip on power. And on the left, this might play into the hands of those who would say there is no point in sticking with liberal institutional processes when the other side doesn’t. A clear recipe, in other words, for escalation.
jennifer.mccoy: And if there isn’t any accountability for what happened Wednesday, it gives organized citizens, as well as the next generation of political leaders, license to engage in the same — or worse. Political learning is a real thing, and it can be positive or negative.
If Congress or others fail to act, the road remains open to Trump (and anyone else) to continue to act with impunity, run for office again or support future violent acts. Congress has the ability to impeach Trump and take the extra step of disqualifying him from running again, and the power to censure and even expel the members of Congress who spread the same disinformation about the election and voted against the certification of results in two states. This is important because failing to condemn the exclusionary and hate-filled rhetoric Trump used in his presidency means that catering to the fears, anxieties and resentments of a portion of the electorate might remain a viable political path moving forward.
sarah: Let’s take a step back. In November, The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz wrote a feature on how civil resistance can stop authoritarian-style leaders from cementing their power, comparing what’s happened in the U.S. under Trump to other parts of the world. “In the past 15 years, there has been a marked global increase in what international relations scholars call ‘democratic backsliding,’” wrote Marantz, “with more authoritarians and authoritarian-style leaders consolidating power.” To what extent is there democratic backsliding in the U.S.?
lee.drutman: If democracy depends on a set of shared rules for free and fair elections, we are definitely in a period of backsliding.
cyrus.samii: I don’t know, the term “democratic backsliding” is problematic in my opinion insofar as it fails to clarify how the conflict in the U.S. is between those using democratic means to achieve progressive change (and succeeding at some moments) versus those who want to push back against that change by undermining democracy. The fact is, a lot of progress is occurring through the ballot box, the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia being a prime example, and this is precisely why Republicans are intent on throwing up obstacles to its broad-based use. Republicans have been trying to disenfranchise minority voters, for example, and these efforts are subject to heated legal fights.
sarah: So as Cyrus said, democratic backsliding may be too toothless of a term, but how would we describe the trajectory of democracy in the U.S.? Are we less democratic than one year ago? Four years ago?
jennifer.mccoy: According to international rankings, U.S. democracy is eroding faster than what we see in other major western democracies — it is more on par with Brazil, Bangladesh, Turkey and India, according to the global think tank V-Dem Institute’s 2020 democracy report. The Economist Intelligence Unit also downgraded the U.S. to a flawed democracy in 2016. Expert surveys of political scientists, such as Bright Line Watch and Authoritarian Warning Survey, also measure higher threats.
Each of these groups measure democracy using different measures — electoral integrity, rule of law, media and academic freedom, civil liberties, to name a few. But one measure I want to zoom in on is “toxic polarization” (which I call “pernicious polarization” in my research with Murat Somer), as we’ve found it’s especially delegitimizing and on the rise. Essentially, it’s when society is divided into two mutually distrustful camps and there is increased demonization and delegitimization of opponents. Our research has found that it can often result in calls to violence, too.
It’s also something V-Dem uses in its assessments. It found in a 2020 paper that the Republican Party was on par with autocratic parties in Turkey, India and Hungary on their new illiberalism index, especially in their use of demonizing language to describe political opponents, disrespect for fundamental minority rights and encouragement of political violence.
lee.drutman: (If you’re interested in how these various surveys evaluate the quality of a country’s democracy, here’s a great paper that outlines the different ways they measure democracy — summary table below.)
sarah: It’s true that in survey after survey, Republicans, as you all have said, have expressed less support for democracy than Democrats, but I was hoping we could unpack a little more the debilitating effect that this has had on American democracy writ large.
For instance, in the wake of the protests in Portland, Oregon, last summer, FiveThirtyEight’s Maggie Koerth and contributor Shom Mazumder found evidence of members of both parties holding anti-democratic views.
As the chart illustrates, this was especially true among Republicans, so I’m not trying to “both sides” this, but I do want to unpack the effect that severe polarization might have on democratic erosion. That is, how do you factor in polarization when looking at how the U.S. has become less democratic? Is it the number one factor driving what we’re seeing? Or is that too simplistic?
cyrus.samii: Breakdown by party is exactly the right way to look at it. Democrats are involved in a bottom-up struggle to broaden political inclusion while Republicans have been fighting to limit that, including in this past year’s elections. And so it is not so much a question of democratic backsliding at the country level, but rather in terms of whether parties see themselves as being competitive democratically or whether they need to use anti-democratic strategies to maintain their grip.
lee.drutman: Jennifer’s work on pernicious polarization is incredibly important here, and has really influenced my thinking. When politics becomes deeply divided in a binary way along cultural and identity lines (as it is now in the U.S.), democracy is in a really dangerous place.
jennifer.mccoy: And this type of polarization is more likely to lead to democratic erosion because it is based on an “us vs. them” division, not just disagreement on issues.
lee.drutman: On that chart, Sarah, showing support for strong leader/army rule, I’ve co-authored two recent reports on the topic, one in 2018 and another in 2020. And it’s true, we did find some support for these alternatives to democracy on both sides, which is worrying. But again, the overwhelming majority of Americans are in support of democratic institutions.
But here is where political leadership is so important. That some voters have weak connections to democracy is not a new problem. In fact, research has found that is typical among those who are the least educated and least politically engaged. The new problem is having political leadership that encourages and stokes these anti-democratic sentiments.
jennifer.mccoy: And as partisan antipathy grows, perceptions of out-party threat grow, and that leads people to challenge democratic norms so as to keep their own party in power and keep the others out.
cyrus.samii: The way I interpret the question, Sarah, is: How does polarization affect Republicans’ thinking on whether or not to abandon the strategy of limiting democratic processes to retain their hold on power, rather than seeking new coalitions, broadening their appeal and making themselves more competitive democratically?
In other words, it’s all about the strategy that the Republicans pursue. So when you take that into consideration, increased polarization — by which I mean distancing oneself from and dehumanizing outgroups — could sustain Republicans’ fixation on limiting democracy because they cannot see themselves forming any new alliances with people outside their traditional white Christian base.
lee.drutman: Cyrus — that is the central question, but I think there is a significant division among Republicans. So let me reframe your question slightly: What will it take for Republicans who want to build a more inclusive, pro-democracy party to triumph over those who are committed to ethnonationalism and grievance?
cyrus.samii: Yes, Lee, exactly.
lee.drutman: And as long as we think of this as a zero-sum Democrats vs. Republicans fight, we’re stuck. But if we think of this in terms of the forces of democracy vs. the forces of ethnonationalism (or whatever you want to call it), I do think we can make some progress.
sarah: Are there institutional changes (abolishing the Electoral College, reforming the Senate, etc.) that would bolster American democracy or make it less vulnerable to similar challenges in the future?
lee.drutman: I’ve written a lot about what would happen if the U.S. moved to a more proportional voting system, and I do think that would enable a center-right party to operate independent of a far-right party. It also might allow for a broader governing coalition that could keep the far-right out of government, as has happened in many Western democracies with more proportional voting systems.
And maybe we see this play out a little in the U.S. That is, I could see a pro-democracy faction within the Republican Party joining with Democrats to support electoral reforms (such as the Fair Representation Act, a piece of election reform legislation that would establish multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting).
cyrus.samii: Institutional changes to the Electoral College or the Senate would certainly make a difference, since those institutions are a part of what Republicans currently rely on in the anti-democractic aspects of their strategy. But changing them is probably too hard, politically.
Of course, once, say, Texas goes blue, those institutions will come to have the opposite effect and lock out Republicans — unless they change who they can attract. Also, Sarah, I think the idea that “overall trends point to increased illiberalism” is only true when it comes to the kinds of strategies that Republicans are using to try to maintain a grip on their power, rather than with respect to U.S. democratic politics as a whole.
lee.drutman: Yes, changing the Electoral College or the Senate would require constitutional amendments. Enacting proportional representation, interestingly enough, is entirely within Congress’s power, though.
jennifer.mccoy: I want to go back to an earlier point about HOW we get here. I’ve written with Somer about how democracies could solve this dilemma by “repolarizing” along democratic lines vs. authoritarian lines, and what we found is very similar to Lee’s and Cyrus’s point about inclusive movements vs. exclusionary ethnonationalist movements. That is, shifting the axes of polarization to the principle of protecting democracy instead of a divide between different partisan and social identities could actually help protect democracy, as long as it’s not done with demonizing or hyperbolic language.
And that’s important, because as political scientist Daniel Ziblatt has written, a principled conservative or center-right party is essential for a functioning democracy. Even President-elect Joe Biden has reiterated the need for a Republican Party for the health of our democracy. The problem is our two-party system is currently mired in toxic polarization and so the extreme elements within the parties are amplified. We need institutional reforms to allow for political incentives to change.
lee.drutman: I do think the events of Jan. 6 have been a tremendous wake-up call to many on the urgency of democracy reform.
cyrus.samii: It certainly was a wake-up call, Lee. I also think that the incredibly tumultuous times that current 18- to 35-year-olds have endured — 9/11, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, Trump’s presidency, the events that inspired the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, and of course, COVID-19 — could generate a political consciousness that we haven’t seen since the 1960s or 70s.
lee.drutman: Cyrus — yes, there are lots of similarities to the Great Society Era which was the last era of major democracy reform and included major voting rights reform. There are also lots of similarities to the Progressive Era, which was the previous era of large-scale democracy reform.
So if you believe in political scientist Samuel Huntington’s theory that there is a 60-year cycle of democracy reform movements — that every six decades or so, American democracy falls short of its democratic ideals and reform movements emerge to expand our democracy, we’re right on schedule.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-12 17:40
Less than six months after the COVID-19 pandemic nearly closed its campus, the Alabama Crimson Tide will return to Tuscaloosa31 having laid claim to the greatest college football team of all time. Of course they did. The team with the most national championships to its credit in the poll era32 won yet another, while Nick Saban has reduced dominance to an expectation, eclipsing Bear Bryant for most national titles among head coaches.
And yet, who saw this coming? It’s not as though the Tide came out of nowhere, but they did enter the season with their worst ranking — third, gasp! — since 2015. That’s largely because last season’s offense now plays on Sundays. Four of the first 15 picks of last year’s NFL draft were members of the Alabama offense, including arguably the best quarterback in school history.
And then the unit improved. It bounced back with the best quarterback, best running back, best receiver, best center, best interior lineman and best offensive line in the sport. In receiver and return-man wizard DeVonta Smith, it also featured the best and most versatile player.
Saban put the finishing touches on his seventh national championship-winning season Monday night with a 52-24 shellacking of Ohio State, rounding out the Tide’s 10th undefeated season and first since 2009. It was close for about 15 minutes, which is a lot more that can be said of most Alabama games in 2020.
“To me, this team accomplished more almost than any team,” Saban said after the game, referring more to the pandemic than to any on-field accomplishments.
But did we witness the swan song of the greatest college football team of the modern era? It’s a question we can’t help but ask every year: Where does the team that just won it all fit in the history of the sport?
Let’s start with the overall resume. Alabama played a gauntlet schedule that included a 10-game regular-season SEC slate and precisely zero nonconference opponents. It beat it like a drum. Then the Tide downed Florida in the SEC championship game and blasted its two playoff opponents by at least three scores apiece. All amidst a pandemic.
“I think we’re the best team to ever play,” quarterback Mac Jones said Monday. “There’s no team that will ever play an SEC schedule like that again.”
The games were not close. Alabama never trailed entering the fourth quarter. On average, the Tide spent more than 19 minutes each game sitting on the ball with a double-digit lead.
By Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, the Tide was 30.18 points better than the average team this season, making this the best single-season performance in school history, with Saban finally usurping the 1970s dominance of Bryant. You have to go all the way back to the powerhouse teams of that decade to find any squad with a higher SRS than this year’s Alabama.
As Spencer Hall put it on ESPN Daily, “You’ve pretty much seen the best college football team you’ll ever see.”
|2||Notre Dame Fighting Irish||1946||32.88|
|4||Notre Dame Fighting Irish||1949||32.35|
|8||Southern California Trojans||1972||30.33|
|9||Alabama Crimson Tide||2020||30.18|
|10||Ohio State Buckeyes||1973||29.66|
How did Alabama do it? With its offense.
The Tide fielded a unit that averaged 48.5 points per game and outscored opponents by nearly 30. Both exceeded the marks set by last year’s LSU, which itself had a claim to college football’s greatest team of all time.
The Tide scored on a higher percentage of team drives (62 percent) and produced more points per drive (3.97)33 than any team in any season for which data is available.34 On a per-play basis, only 2018 Oklahoma (0.39) put up more expected points than the Tide (0.38).
Under the director of Broyles Award-winning offensive coordinator — and soon-to-be Texas head coach — Steve Sarkisian, Saban had an offense unlike anything he’d ever led in Tuscaloosa. Context is key: Saban’s last three teams were nationally ranked second, second and 11th respectively in expected points added per play.
Both Jones and Smith entered the national title game as the highest-graded college players at their respective positions in PFF history.35 “I think we would be negligent if we didn’t consider them either among the best of all time or the best of all time,” said longtime college sports analyst Paul Finebaum.
The season that was hardly guaranteed its conclusion was vanquished by perhaps the most decorated program of all time. Alabama has now won three national championships since the playoff was introduced seven years ago, with its latest by way of a breathtaking offense that rewrote record books and wrought havoc on every field it stepped foot on. One season after arguably the greatest quarterbacking season of all time gave us the most dangerous offense to that point, we may have a new club leader for the sport’s best team.
Neil Paine contributed research.
Permalink - Posted on 2021-01-12 15:00
The 2020-21 NBA season has been in action for a couple of weeks now, and the stats have begun to stabilize. (Somewhat.) So it is now time for us to roll out the newest edition of our RAPTOR NBA player ratings dashboard, with updated data to help you track the best players in the league all year long.
RAPTOR, of course, is the Robust Algorithm (using) Player Tracking (and) On/Off Ratings — FiveThirtyEight’s way of measuring each NBA player’s contribution to his team’s offensive and defensive efficiency while on the court. RAPTOR is derived by blending two components: one based on individual box score and player-tracking data, and another based on how the player’s team does with the player on the court (versus without) after adjusting for the quality of his teammates and opposing lineups. Just like last season, you can find both of these components in our dashboard, allowing you to judge where a player’s value is coming from.
With the default minimum of 13.4 minutes per team game,36 this year’s top RAPTOR players (in terms of who has played best on a per-possession basis) are a pretty fascinating mix of the expected and wildly unexpected so far:
Denver’s Nikola Jokić at No. 1? Not inconceivable. Kyrie Irving helping to power the Brooklyn Nets to the league’s fourth-best point differential? Makes total sense. Ditto Paul George and Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers ranking among this season’s best duos. And it’s no shock to see Lakers superstar Anthony Davis in RAPTOR’s top 10. But it is surprising to see journeyman Cameron Payne at No. 4 overall with a +9.6 RAPTOR, or third-year swingman Hamidou Diallo and fourth-year big man Chris Boucher rank among the top 10. We’re quite sure these are the usual outliers and weird artifacts you tend to find in early season small samples — although soon enough, the rankings will become more “real.” In our research, we found that a player’s RAPTOR is pretty reliable after about 1,000 minutes played.
(Note that for the links above, you can now generate custom player URLs in the interactive by clicking on their name in the table — perfect for pointing Cameron Payne doubters to evidence of his emerging greatness!)
Perhaps a better measure of early value is our RAPTOR wins above replacement (WAR) metric, which fuses per-possession performance with playing time to determine how many more wins each player has produced than a generic player would have in the same minutes:
With playing time included, a few more familiar players rise toward the top — including the magnificent LeBron James, currently running in fourth, and a resurgent Steph Curry at No. 6. And funky outliers like Payne and Diallo are nowhere to be found here. But Clippers veteran Nicolas Batum and John Collins of the Atlanta Hawks (a good young player, though not necessarily a star) might be surprises in the top 15, ahead of even some of their higher-profile teammates. Although it’s still very early, we’ll have to keep an eye on their RAPTOR progress as the year goes on.
One of the other cool features we’ve added to this year’s dashboard is the ability to look at RAPTOR from past seasons, going back to 2013-14 (the earliest season for which the NBA collected player-tracking data). So you can explore Steph Curry’s epic 25-WAR seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16, or look at last year’s leaders to compare which players are performing better or worse than in 2019-20. Among players with at least 130 minutes in 2021 and 950 in 2020, here are RAPTOR’s most (and least) improved players so far:
|Biggest gainers||RAPTOR +/-|
|Biggest decliners||RAPTOR +/-|
|5||Danuel House Jr.||Rockets||+0.0||-6.9||-6.9|
|11||Kelly Oubre Jr.||Warriors||+0.1||-6.1||-6.2|
|15||Gary Trent Jr.||Blazers||+0.0||-5.5||-5.5|
As we’ve said many times in this story, it’s still very early in the season! So many of the biggest RAPTOR risers and fallers should change as the year goes on — or, at the very least, revert some toward their previous levels of performance. But if you’re wondering why certain teams have been better or worse than expected early on, these lists can help explain some of that.
At any rate, we hope you enjoy using the new RAPTOR interactive this season. While you’re at it, you can also download the data to play around with yourself, and be sure to let us know if you have any feature requests for future iterations of the dashboard.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.