03 May

How Tennessee EDGE James Pearce Jr. went from unheralded recruit to one of college football’s names to know

Few Tennessee defenders have generated more buzz in recent years than James Pearce Jr. Ranked No. 2 behind only Colorado star Travis Hunter in CBS Sports’ Top 100 players in college football for 2024, Pearce has entered the conversation as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2025 NFL Draft.

He earned All-SEC First Team honors last season after recording 10 sacks — tied for most in the conference — and 28 tackles, half of which were for a loss, plus 52 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. He capped the year with a pick six in the Volunteers’ Citrus Bowl win over Iowa.

Ask Tennessee’s coaching staff, and they’ll tell you Pearce has the potential to be so much more. That’s a terrifying thought for opposing offenses.

“We think the sky’s the limit for him,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said of Pearce this spring. “Obviously, he was just a sophomore. I think he’s just scratching the surface on how good he can be. He’s extremely versatile … I think James would be the first one to tell you there’s a lot of room for improvement on his end, and the good news is he’s working extremely hard right now to take another step.”

Being a No. 1 pick is rarified air at Tennessee. The program has produced just two in its history, both of which were quarterbacks. The last one? A guy named Peyton Manning, who was taken first off the board by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1998 NFL Draft. Tennessee hasn’t even had a defensive player taken in the first round of the NFL Draft since 2017, when the Philadelphia Eagles selected Derek Barnett, the Vols’ career sack record-holder, with the No. 14 overall pick.

But Pearce is just that good — or, rather, he could be. The 6-foot-5 EDGE still has a ways to go and a whole season of football to play before he hears his name called next April — not that long roads are anything new to Pearce.

Humble beginnings
Just three years ago, barely anyone on a national scale knew Pearce’s name. A product of Julius L. Chambers High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the Class of 2022, Pearce didn’t receive his first power-conference offer (Oklahoma) until March 30, 2021. He didn’t earn a ranking from 247Sports until August of that year, and even then he was a three-star prospect.

But Tennessee came calling relatively early, and by September Pearce was on campus for a visit. A few more visits throughout the 2021 season — coach Josh Heupel’s first with the program — had the Vols steadily climbing up Pearce’s list of contenders, even as offers started to flow in from the likes of Georgia and Florida.

That December, Pearce signed with Tennessee seemingly out of the blue. He didn’t hold a big ceremony until after his signature was sent in and later confirmed that he almost waited until the traditional signing day in February 2022 to make a final decision. He never even made a commitment post on social media, though his addition was confirmed by Tennessee’s official X (formerly Twitter) account.

It wasn’t until a month after he signed that Pearce’s stock started to climb. In January 2022, he rose nearly 400 spots to land at No. 171 in the Top247 with a four-star ranking. In that May’s final 2022 rankings release, he occupied the No. 173 spot nationally.

Three months later, Pearce made his humble debut. As a freshman in 2022, he spent most of the year buried on the defensive depth chart and only appeared in garbage time. Even so, he flashed his potential with sacks against Akron and Missouri.

An NFL-coveted skill set
Though he made a rapid ascent up the recruiting rankings and impressed Tennessee’s coaching staff as a freshman, it was hard to imagine Pearce would have so much success as a sophomore. He had big shoes to fill in replacing Byron Young, who was selected by the Los Angeles Rams in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft and went on to lead all rookies with eight sacks.

It didn’t take very long for Pearce, who garnered some acclaim with his efforts in offseason practices, to make a tangible impact. He had two sacks in Tennessee’s season-opening win against Virginia and almost singlehandedly wrecked the game as a constant presence in the backfield.

That was the first of three multi-sack games for Pearce, who also wreaked havoc against South Carolina and Iowa. He had at least one sack, tackle for a loss or quarterback pressure in all of Tennessee’s 13 games.

Simply put, Pearce has an immense toolbox. Though his 242-pound frame looks slight when lined up against SEC offensive tackles, he has the power to push linemen all the way into the quarterback’s pocket, something he did multiple times throughout the 2023 season. He’s incredibly quick off the snap and doesn’t lose any of that speed as he engages at the line of scrimmage. Though he has a deep package of pass-rush sets, he often won with a lethal swim move while utilizing that speed to take advantage of the stagger.

His raw athleticism and natural ability sets him apart from a lot of defenders at the collegiate level. As he continues to develop technique and finesse, it’s not hard to see him entering that No. 1 pick echelon — something no Tennessee defender has ever accomplished.

03 May

Penn State, Arizona among teams facing nightmare scenarios in spring window

The 2024 spring transfer window promises to be one of the most chaotic periods since its inception. Due to recent litigation between the NCAA and various parties, courts have issued injunctions that have severely limited the NCAA’s ability to regulate the transfer portal.

In December, a court ordered a temporary injunction that halts an NCAA rule limiting eligibility for multi-time transfer through the end of the 2024 spring sports calendar. While the effects of that were felt during the winter transfer window, which closed in January, another court in February issued an injunction against the NCAA that stops it from enforcing any rules relating to third-party negotiation on NIL compensation until a final decision is reached in a case stemming from an NCAA violations investigation into the University of Tennessee.

No matter what players may have said or done in the past, anything is possible. All of this creates some potential chaos scenarios for teams, which may have held onto stars during the first window but could have trouble doing so now.

This isn’t meant as a prediction, nor is it a guarantee that anything outlined will actually happen. These are just feasible transfer events that could occur once the spring transfer period opens on Tuesday — some of which would have major implications on the national landscape.

Arizona stars look elsewhere
Arizona quarterback Noah Fifita and wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan bucked the new college football trend when they decided to stick around after former Wildcats coach Jedd Fisch left for Washington. Despite some significant transfer losses elsewhere, those are two elite building blocks for new coach Brent Brennan. They combined for more than 1,000 yards last season as McMillan earned Second Team All-Pac-12 honors and Fifita was named the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year.

Since the first transfer window closed, both have maintained that they’re happy with their current situation and have no intentions of entering the portal. So did Oregon State running back Damien Martinez, who’s currently searching for a new home after electing to take his talents elsewhere. In particular, Fisch could try and drum up his connection with McMillan — Kevin Cummings, who recruited McMillan to Arizona, is now at Washington as well — and get some wide receiver help for the Huskies, who are losing an overwhelming amount of talent off of last season’s College Football Playoff National Championship runner-up team.

Alabama’s QB room thins out
The transfer portal has made it almost impossible to build quality depth at the quarterback position. After all, only one player can really step into the position, and that’s not conducive to retention when there are multiple mouths to feed. Given that context, new Crimson Tide coach Kalen DeBoer is stepping into a privileged position at Alabama. He inherited a quarterback room with three scholarship options, including incumbent starter Jalen Milroe, and that was before he brought Austin Mack with him from Washington.

That’s not to say Alabama is going to leave the spring with its quarterback room in tact. Former five-star Ty Simpson is entering his third year in the program with only 10 appearances and zero starts. Dylan Lonergan, a four-star signee from the Class of 2023, redshirted in his first year with the program. Especially with Mack in the fold, Simpson seems a long way off from seeing the field in Tuscaloosa. Milroe’s return means Simpson will go at least another year without any meaningful work, though his blue-chip status (he chose Alabama over Clemson in a blue-blood battle) might give him an immediate opportunity at another program. Milroe’s return gives Alabama a top-tier starter, but one or two defections to the transfer portal could be disastrous for the depth of a College Football Playoff competitor.

Penn State loses top returning WR
This is one that’s already come to fruition. KeAndre Lambert-Smith, the Nittany Lions’ top returning receiver, has entered the transfer portal as a graduate, according to 247Sports. Penn State has its eyes set on a College Football Playoff run, and the pieces are certainly there across the roster, but the Nittany Lions were dangerously thin at wide receiver — and that was before Lambert-Smith decided to move on. He was the only player on the roster, regardless of position, to log more than 500 yards receiving last year.

Penn State did turn to the portal to add ex-Ohio State wideout Julian Fleming as a solid option for young quarterback Drew Allar. Given his experience and reliability, Fleming already looks like the go-to in Penn State’s offense. Though he has an injury history that gives rise to some concern down the line, Fleming is quite literally the only wideout on Penn State’s roster that has made a meaningful impact at the collegiate level.

“No one in this position room beyond Fleming owns even 600 career yards, and the Nittany Lions must maximize quarterback Drew Allar’s junior campaign under new offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnick,” says Tyler Donohue of Lions247.

Redshirt junior Harrison Wallace and former blue-chip prospect Kaden Saunders are going to have to step up, and Penn State will almost assuredly comb the portal for further help.

UNLV wide receiver becomes major target
Group Five rosters typically get gutted by the transfer portal, but every once in a while a prolific star will decide to stick around and play it out despite immense interest from programs nationwide. That was the case with UNLV wide receiver Ricky White, who did not enter the portal during the first window and said in December that he would be back with the Rebels in 2024. His teammate and former quarterback, Jayden Maiava, also said that he was excited to “run it back” with UNLV next season. Maiava is now at USC, battling Miller Moss for the Trojans’ starting job.

White would instantly become one of the top wide receivers available if he hit the market. He’s done nothing but produce since transferring to UNLV in 2022 and last season he broke out with 88 catches for 1,483 yards and eight touchdowns while helping power UNLV to the Mountain West Conference Championship Game in coach Barry Odom’s first year with the program. It goes without saying that White’s departure would be devastating for a team that already lost its starting quarterback.

UNC RB adds to deep group already in portal
North Carolina had to fend off transfer portal poachers a season ago; coach Mack Brown said star quarterback Drake Maye “turned down a whole lot of money,” to stay in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels avoided any such anxiety during the winter window and did not lose any coveted players, but it so happens UNC’s best offensive player happens to play a position that two of the most aggressive portal spenders happen to need …

Running back Omarion Hampton, who had 1,504 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns last season, could see the potential of a nice NIL payday and decide to test the waters. There are some teams that aren’t shy about spending big, like Ole Miss and Miami, that are on the market for running back help (the aforementioned Martinez, from Oregon State, could end up at either place). Hampton would be an immediate workhorse that increases an offense’s ceiling.

He’s in for a feature role at North Carolina, especially since the offense is undergoing massive transition after the loss Drake Maye, so it might not be easy to draw him away from the Tar Heels. But Ole Miss has upside as a College Football Playoff competitor, while Miami made a splash in the portal by convincing ex-Washington State quarterback Cam Ward to spurn the NFL Draft and suit up for the Hurricanes. That’s a big selling point for Miami. North Carolina, meanwhile, is coming off an 8-5 season in which it failed to compete for the ACC, lost to conference bottom-feeder Virginia and sputtered to a 30-10 loss to West Virginia in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.

03 May

Penn State’s top WR exits, limiting options for QB Drew Allar

Penn State receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith has entered the transfer portal as a graduate, he announced Monday. Lambert-Smith ranks as the most experienced wide receiver in the Big Ten with 38 starts to his name.

Lambert-Smith led the Nittany Lions with 53 catches for 673 yards and four touchdowns in 2023 and was the only wide receiver on the team to post more than 250 yards receiving. Across his 48-game career, Lambert-Smith posted 1,721 yards and 11 touchdowns at Penn State. Over his final two seasons, PSU posted a 21-5 record with two New Year’s Six appearances.

Wide receiver has quickly become a top priority for teams in the transfer portal. 247Sports’ Chris Hummer lists wide receiver as a top need for 16 power-conference programs, including Clemson, Michigan and USC. With the transfer portal set to officially open on Tuesday, Lambert-Smith becomes the early frontrunner for best player available at wide receiver.

Ironically, Penn State ranked among the programs that needed the most help in the transfer portal at wide receiver. The Nittany Lions averaged just 215 passing yards per game with former five-star quarterback Drew Allar under center; three of the top four receiving leaders on the roster were running backs or tight ends.

The Nittany Lions were aggressive early, nabbing former blue-chip recruit Julian Fleming from Ohio State. New offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki also remains an expert at using misdirection to free receivers in space. However, the rest of the team is notably bare of proven talent.

Penn State could quickly turn to the transfer portal itself to find new options at receiver when the window opens on Tuesday. Getting Allar some proven commodities should be top priority for James Franklin and his staff heading into perhaps his most important season at Penn State.

19 Apr

Prediction, TV channel, live stream, how to watch NBA Play-In Tournament online, odds, time

The final Eastern Conference Play-In Tournament game is set, as the Miami Heat will host the Chicago Bulls on Friday night. The winner will claim the No. 8 seed and advance to face the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, while the loser will head to the lottery.

Miami is here after blowing a 14-point lead to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the Play-In Tournament on Wednesday, and will be without star forward Jimmy Butler (knee) and key guard Terry Rozier (neck). Chicago is coming off a convincing win over the Atlanta Hawks in their first Play-In Game, and will be shorthanded as well. Defensive specialist Alex Caruso sprained his ankle against the Hawks and may join Zach LaVine and Patrick Williams among those unavailable for the Bulls.

Ahead of Friday’s showdown, here’s everything you need to know:

Heat vs. Bulls
Date: Friday, April 19 | Time: 7 p.m. ET
Location: Kaseya Center — Miami, Florida
TV channel: ESPN | Live stream: fubo (try for free)
Odds: Heat -1.5; O/U 205.5
Heat: The Heat were a few wins away from avoiding the Play-In Tournament all together. Now, they’re a few losses away from their first trip to the lottery since 2019. As if blowing a double-digit lead to the Sixers in the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game wasn’t bad enough, the Heat learned they’ll be without Jimmy Butler, who suffered a knee injury in Philadelphia, and Terry Rozier for Friday’s matchup with the Bulls. The Heat were a bottom-third offensive team this season, and now, will be without two of their primary scorers and creators. For the season, they had a plus-5.5 net rating with Butler on the court and a minus-2.0 net rating without him.

Bulls: All season, there were calls for the Bulls to blow things up and tank for a high draft pick. Suddenly, they’re one win away from an improbable trip to the playoffs. They went 36-46 this season, and with the obvious caveat that the Play-In Tournament didn’t exist until 2020, that would be the fewest wins for an Eastern Conference playoff team in an 82-game season since the Celtics earned the No. 8 seed in 2004 with the same number of victories.

Picking against the Heat at home in a one-game situation is risky, but losing Butler and Rozier feels like too much to overcome. I’ll ride with the hot hand of Coby White. Pick: Bulls +1.5

19 Apr

Time’s up for short-handed Heat as Pelicans quell De’Aaron Fox

Now that the 2024 NBA postseason has begun, the basketball betting market is hotter than ever. CBS Sports will be providing daily picks for the duration of the postseason. Sam Quinn will make at least one pick for every game between now and the NBA Finals.

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Alex Caruso is questionable due to an ankle injury. He’s Chicago’s entire defense—Bulls lineups without him decline by seven points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. If ever you were going to go into an elimination game without your defense, it would be against this version of the Miami Heat. They already ranked 22nd in offense on the season. Now they enter this game without Jimmy Butler and Terry Rozier. Lineups featuring neither scored a paltry 112 points per 100 possessions. Duncan Robinson was listed as available against the 76ers but ultimately didn’t play. If he’s out too, that lineup figure drops further to 109.3 points per 100 possessions. If a do-or-die game is close, would you rather have the likely Clutch Player of the Year in DeMar DeRozan and one of the Most Improved Player favorites in Coby White leading the way? Or… Tyler Herro? Caleb Martin? Bam Adebayo is a fantastic player who has grown meaningfully on offense this year. He’s not someone you should be running your offense through in a do-or-die situation. The Pick: Bulls +1.5

Caruso’s injury takes an easy under off the table, but that’s still the pick here. The Bulls scored only 1.015 points per possession against zone defenses this season, which was below league-average. We saw just how much an unexpected zone can throw an opponent off in the Philly game, and it’s potentially even deadlier to Chicago, given its reluctance to shoot 3’s, which is the best answer against a zone. Expect Erik Spoelstra to come up with some creative defensive wrinkles around that zone defense to try to flummox Chicago. It won’t lead to a win, but it will limit the point total. The Pick: Under 205

Bam Adebayo attempted 14 3-pointers in his first 54 games this season. He then shot 14-of-28 from 3-point range in his last 17 games. He’s clearly at least become comfortable enough from deep to try when he’s left wide open. Chicago starts a very immobile center in Nikola Vucevic, so odds are, Adebayo is going to have chances to try. With a plus-money line, I like the odds of Bam hitting at least one triple. The Pick: Adebayo Over 0.5 3-Pointers

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Obviously, the absence of Zion Williamson matters here… but the Pelicans went 5-0 against the Kings this season and are somehow underdogs at home despite Sacramento missing Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter. The biggest reason for New Orleans’ success in this matchup isn’t Williamson. It’s Herb Jones. When defended by Jones this season, De’Aaron Fox has shot 40.7% from the floor and 27.3% on 3-pointers. If Monk and Huerter were healthy, the Kings would have ways of countering that matchup. Right now, Sacramento’s offense is so dependent on Fox for creation that Jones defending him this well poses an enormous threat to their entire offense. The Pick: Pelicans +1.5

We’ve already covered why I’m bullish on the New Orleans defense. Sacramento has been playing great defense for two solid months now. They have the NBA’s No. 3 ranked defense since March 1 and just held the Warriors to 94 points in the first Play-In game. Williamson’s brute force was the Pelicans’ best answer for Sacramento’s smaller lineup, but without him, scoring won’t be easy for them either. New Orleans has other answers, but don’t expect this to be a shootout. The Pick: Under 212

Keon Ellis is the one offensive player I do like in this matchup. He’s hit double-figures in four of his last five games and is averaging 15.2 points in that stretch. He’s grown into a deceptively effective secondary ball-handler and his confidence on jumpers is through the roof right now. Fox is desperately going to need escape valves with Jones defending him, and I expect Ellis to be the beneficiary. The Pick: Ellis Over 10.5 Points

19 Apr

Sixers wanted ‘easier’ Knicks as backup center Paul Reed tosses first barb of NBA playoffs

The Philadelphia 76ers survived a scare against the Miami Heat in their play-in game Wednesday night, escaping with a 105-104 win, setting up a first-round matchup against the No. 2-seeded New York Knicks. It took overcoming a 14-point deficit and Nicolas Batum catching fire off the bench for 20 points on 6 of 10 from deep for the Sixers to get past Miami. And yet, as close of a call as that win was, Philadelphia is already trash talking ahead of its meeting with the Knicks.

Backup center Paul Reed didn’t shy away when talking about the upcoming matchup with New York, and said that the Sixers wanted to play the Knicks.

“We ain’t ducking no smoke, but yeah, we wanted the Knicks matchup, of course,” Reed said on Run It Back. “That’s the easier team I guess, but you know it’s going to be fun, we match up pretty well. They got a great guard, we got a great guard, we also got Joel, MVP, so like you said earlier, he’s one of the most unstoppable guys in the league right now. They’re gonna have to send triple teams, and he’s gonna get everybody else involved.”

This is both A: confirming that the Sixers are relieved not to have to play the Celtics in the first round and B: that they do not fear the Knicks. Surely, no team in the East would want to play the Celtics in the first round, given how dominant they’ve been all season, and yes, New York is the inferior team when holding them up to Boston. But this feels like one of those situations where you don’t want to poke the bear.

Despite all the injuries the Knicks have had, they managed to finish the season strong, and Jalen Brunson played himself into the fringes of the MVP conversation as well as the All-NBA First Team chatter as well. The Knicks have also had the fifth-best net rating in the league since the All-Star break, so throwing verbal jabs after just beating a Heat team that was playing with a hobbled Jimmy Butler doesn’t seem like a great strategy.

The Knicks may not be the Celtics, but going against them isn’t going to be a walk in the park for Philadelphia. We just saw in that Heat game how unreliable Tobias Harris can be in must-win situations, and Kelly Oubre Jr. wasn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard, finishing the game with 11 points on a poor 3 of 9 from the floor. If it weren’t for Batum coming to life in the second half the Sixers could very well be preparing for another play-in game against the Bulls instead of a postseason series with New York.

This isn’t to say that the Sixers aren’t right in being confident entering this series. As Reed said, Embiid is difficult to gameplan for, and he was on track to win MVP for the second consecutive year had he not gone down with a meniscus injury. Prior to that injury, the Sixers were humming along and looked like the team that could meet the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. But this feels like one of those “be careful what you wished for” situations, and against a Knicks team that has been playing incredibly well as of late, it doesn’t seem wise to give them more motivation before you head into Madison Square Garden to try and beat them.

19 Apr

Peyton Watson, Isaiah Joe set to make a name for themselves

Bruce Brown’s stock dropped so low by the 2022 free agency that his former team, the Brooklyn Nets, didn’t even make a significant attempt to re-sign him. Why would they? They already had a questionable shooter who could handle the ball and defend multiple positions. His name… and I promise I’m not kidding… was Ben Simmons. So Brown hit the open market. The best he could do was a two-year, $13 million tax-payer mid-level contract with the Nuggets.

Well, that turned out to be one of the best decisions of his career. Brown’s shot improved just enough for the rest of his versatile skill set to flourish in the right setting. His high basketball IQ made him an immediate fit within Denver’s cerebral offense, and his positional versatility made him an essential defensive cog on their way to a championship. Brown closed some games for Denver during that title run. Even when he didn’t, he was by far their most reserved.

Fast forward to the 2023 offseason, and Brown is suddenly a household name. He immediately inks a two-year, $45 million deal with the Indiana Pacers after sparking a bidding war that seemingly included every contender in the NBA. It’s amazing what a difference one strong playoff run can make for a player. It’s even more amazing what it can do for a team. The Nuggets, in part because of Brown, won their first championship in franchise history.

Every NBA postseason includes a player or two like Brown, someone that the wider NBA fan base doesn’t quite know in April but has fallen in love with by June. So with the playoffs now at hand, we’re going to try to identify who those players might be during the 2024 postseason.

  1. Peyton Watson
    We’re beginning with Brown’s immediate replacement. That title comes directly from Denver’s general manager, who didn’t just expect Peyton Watson to fill in for Brown, but to surpass them. “Some of these teams were trying to get Bruce, trying to make it worth it; it’s like, just be careful what you wish for,” Booth told The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor after Brown left for Indiana. “Peyton’s bigger. He’s longer. He’s more athletic. He guards better. He passes better.”

I’m going to set the bar higher. Watson isn’t just a better defender than Brown. Watson is the best defender on the Denver Nuggets roster. Yes, that includes All-Defense candidates Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Watson doesn’t play their minutes yet, so such accolades are still beyond his grasp. But the metrics favor the second-year forward. Watson had the best Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus on the Team this season. He trailed only Nikola Jokic in terms of Defensive Box Plus-Minus within Denver’s rotation, and on a per-minute basis, the same was true for Defensive Win Shares. I may have just bored you with the analytics. I promise, I’m not going to bore you with the clips. Because dear god, how did he do this?

Peyton Watson jumped over Nikola Jokic as he tried to block Jaylen Brown 😅pic.twitter.com/58KLw2SXEG

— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPoints) March 8, 2024
Or this…

INCREDIBLE block from Peyton Watson in transition but what I love is that he stays in the play to contest CJ McCollum’s layup after the offensive rebound. pic.twitter.com/ReoXzSMppg

— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) January 13, 2024
We’d be here all day if I shared every incredible Peyton Watson block, yet he doesn’t really chase them. It’s just the natural result of his combination of length, reflexes and closing speed. It turns out those are traits that translate to basically every tenet of defense. Kevin Durant shot 6-of-20 when matched up against Watson this season. Paul George shot 4-of-13. LeBron James shot 4-of-11. Again, we could go on, but we just don’t have the time.

Watson’s weakness is his shooting. Most teams would struggle to compensate for a 29.6% 3-point shooter from deep playing any position other than center. Playing with Nikola Jokic has its advantages. He’s not nearly as adept a cutter as Gordon is yet, but he can capably fill in for him as Jokic’s alley-oop muse for stretches. When Jokic goes to the bench in the playoffs, Gordon will move to center and Watson will fill in at power forward. Not great spacing. Utterly absurd athleticism for an offense that’s used to moving and passing more than most.

If Denver wins the championship again this season, Watson will be to them what Brown was a year ago: not quite as important as the core starters, but utterly essential nonetheless. The key difference? He’s not going anywhere with two years left on his rookie deal. My condolences to the rest of the Western Conference.

  1. Jonathan Isaac
    Oh, we’re talking about under-the-radar defenders now? Might as well cover the best of them all. Jonathan Isaac only played 15.8 minutes per game this season. Within those minutes, he was the best defensive player in basketball. Better than Victor Wembanyama. Better than Rudy Gobert. Better than anyone. I’ve covered him in more depth here. In the meantime, enjoy my favorite screenshot of the season.

Jonathan Isaac blocked this dunk attempt.

Look at where he is. Look at where KAT is. Look at where the ball is. Just a breathtaking piece of defense by the best per-minute defender in the NBA. pic.twitter.com/YdjjCB6vrH

— Sam Quinn (@SamQuinnCBS) February 3, 2024
The Nuggets can get a player on this list playing bench minutes because, well, they might win the championship. It would be much harder to justify 15 minutes of Isaac as a breakout candidate. That’s where this gets interesting.

Orlando limited Isaac’s minutes for medical reasons. They slowly ramped him up down the stretch. And then, in the season finale, he was in the starting lineup and played 26 minutes. That’s meaningful for a variety of reasons. The biggest is that it means more minutes playing alongside Jalen Suggs, which the rotation rarely allowed during the regular season. During the 183 minutes they did play together across Orlando’s first 82 games, that pairing held opponents to 98.1 points per 100 possessions. Do you know how long it’s been since an NBA team had a defensive rating that low over a full season? I’ll give you a hint: every player on that roster is now retired except for Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson.

If Orlando starts the Isaac-Suggs pairing and plays them together for a meaningful number of minutes, the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t going to be able to score in the first round. Think about the longer-term implications of such an outcome. There is a reasonable chance that two weeks from now, the Donovan Mitchell era in Cleveland will have ended in a storm of Isaac blocks. The Magic aren’t quite ready for championship contention, but they’re certainly ready to break up the Cavaliers.

  1. Deuce McBride
    Denver gets away with a bit more questionable shooting than most teams because of Jokic. The Knicks are a bit more conventional and, at times, old fashioned. They like to play non-shooting big men. That makes their non-shooting wings a tougher sell. Josh Hart is the prime example here. He does too many important things for the Knicks to adequately list in a single sentence, but when it came down to it against Miami last season, his shooting was problematic. The Heat never guarded him. He shot 3-of-13 from 3-point range. The Knicks scored only 106.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and lost the series largely on offense.

In a perfect world, Hart makes his 3’s and this isn’t an issue. But the playoffs are messy, and Hart shot just 32.3% on wide-open 3’s during the regular season. Series are won or lost based on what sort of pivots a coach is willing to make when these things happen. If defenses won’t defend Hart, McBride is Thibodeau’s pivot.

His playing time has been… erratic. In the span of a single week in March, he had one game in which he played under 12 minutes and another in which he played all 48. Availability contributed to that disparity but so did Thibodeau’s propensity for shorter rotations. When you’re in with him, you’re in. When someone he likes better returns, you might lose 30 minutes through no fault of your own.

McBride isn’t quite as “jack of all trades” as Hart. He certainly doesn’t rebound like him, for instance, and until this season, he fell into the shaky shooter bucket as well. But in the calendar year of 2024, he’s averaged five 3-point attempts per game and made just under 41% of them. He’s not going to be left open, but he’s not a defense-for-offense sacrifice like, say, Bojan Bogdanovic is. He can’t defend quite as high on the positional spectrum as Hart, but he brings similar traits against most perimeter players. Against guards, he’s a shade better, a useful card to play when OG Anunoby has a higher-priority assignment.

McBride won’t and shouldn’t replace Hart outright. There’s a reason Thibodeau trusts Hart so much, after all. But there will be a game or two in which Hart’s shot isn’t falling, and the outcome is going to hinge on the shots McBride makes in his place. His role will continue to be erratic, but he’s at the top of the list of “unheralded role players likeliest to swing an important playoff game.”

  1. Isaiah Joe
    Enough with these tough, gritty defenders. Let’s talk fireworks. Joe attempts over 11 3-pointers per 100 possessions and makes 41.6% of them. Among players with consistent rotation roles, the only other players to do that this season were Luke Kennard, CJ McCollum and Sam Hauser.

Kennard is a worthwhile starting point for this conversation because we saw how wildly he could swing a playoff series last season when Taylor Jenkins slowly realized that putting him on the floor was the only way Memphis was going to consistently score against the Lakers. This isn’t a typo: the Grizzlies were 28.6 points per 100 possessions better offensively against the Lakers with Kennard on the floor. There were rumblings that he might replace Dillon Brooks in the starting lineup for Game 6. Instead he got hurt, and the Lakers blew the Grizzlies out by 40 in the series clincher.

That’s an extreme example, but it shows just how much a single, elite shooter can complicate life for an opposing defense in a playoff series when the rest of that offense can generate rim pressure. Any team that faces Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in a playoff series is going to focus the entirety of its game plan on keeping him away from the basket. Having Josh Giddey on the floor creates a convenient help spot for defenses. Whenever those defenses seem to realize that, Mark Daigneault dials the difficulty meter up to 11 and says, “OK, try to stop Shai now that our real spacer is on the floor.”

This tends to be Daigneault’s “we’re not messing around anymore” adjustment in big games. When the Thunder faced the Clippers in a critical seeding matchup right after the All-Star break, for instance, they led by only two at halftime after starting Giddey. When they emerged for the second half, Joe had replaced Giddey in the starting lineup. The Thunder won by 22.

We’re going to see this adjustment quickly in the playoffs. Giddey will almost certainly remain a starter throughout the postseason, but he’s going to cede more and more high-leverage minutes to Joe as defenses get more and more aggressive in ignoring him. This has suited the Thunder just fine all season. Joe has the best offensive rating on the team. They are so stout and so creative everywhere else defensively that they can endure his presence there. It’s worth it when he swings a game with four 3’s in a quarter.

  1. Daniel Gafford
    You could realistically list essentially the entire Dallas supporting cast as breakout candidates. P.J. Washington, in typical “rescued from a bad team” fashion, has gone from a toolsy but inconsistent defender in Charlotte to an essential part of what has been the NBA’s best defense for the past month in Dallas. Dante Exum returned from Barcelona as a stellar defender and a passable jump-shooter. Dereck Lively emerged from Duke as a teenager somehow more polished at center than most 30-year-olds. All of them will play essential parts in any extended Mavericks run.

None are quite as interesting as Daniel Gafford, who is steadily emerging Luka Doncic’s basketball soulmate. Gafford has made 145 total shots as a Maverick. Exactly 40% of them, 58, have been assisted by Doncic. That number might not seem huge, but remember, every other Maverick combined has assisted Gafford 59 times. Doncic is matching his entire team when it comes to passing to this single player. Doncic actually has outpaced his entire roster when it comes to assisting Lively, and their relevant offensive numbers are somewhat similar. Both are shooting above 74% from the floor on all of the easy looks Doncic creates. Both are scoring at least 1.36 points per possession as pick-and-roll finishers, again, largely with Doncic as their table-setter.

But where Gafford stands out here is defensively. Lively has all of the tools to be a defensive star, and he flashes them frequently. But rookies tend to be vulnerable defensively in the playoffs, and the lineup data suggests that Lively still has plenty to work on as a defender. Gafford, for basically his entire NBA career, seemingly did as well. And then he got to Dallas and turned into Rudy Gobert. The Mavericks are allowing only 108.2 points per 100 possessions during his minutes this season, a hair below Minnesota’s full-season number. He’s blocking more than three shots per 100 possessions. Since Gafford’s acquisition, no team has allowed a lower field goal percentage in the restricted area than Dallas at 62.7%. The pre-Gafford Mavericks ranked 29th at 70.2%.

The sample is way too small to jump to conclusions, and there are other extenuating factors at play here. But for the price of a single first-round pick, the Mavericks have thus far stumbled into what is essentially the perfect Doncic center: an unstoppable rim-runner that protects the basket at the other end. Lively is going to be that player, too, someday. For now, it’s the Gafford show, and if he keeps this up throughout the postseason, there’s a real chance that the Mavericks are going to the Finals.

19 Apr

2024 NBA Play-In Tournament picks, April 19 best bets by proven model

The Miami Heat will look to secure the eighth and final playoff spot when they battle the Chicago Bulls in an Eastern Conference Play-In Tournament game on Friday in Miami. The Heat (46-36), who squandered a double-digit lead in Wednesday’s 105-104 game at Philadelphia, are looking to reach the postseason for the fifth consecutive season. The Bulls (39-43), who defeated Atlanta 131-116 in Wednesday’s matchup, are looking to reach the first round of the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2021-2022, when they lost in five games to the Bucks. The Heat will be without Jimmy Butler (knee) on Friday.

Tipoff from the Kaseya Center in Miami is set for 7 p.m. ET. Miami is a 2.5-point favorite in the latest Bulls vs. Heat odds from SportsLine consensus, while the over/under for total points scored is 205.5. Before making any Heat vs. Bulls picks, you’ll want to see the NBA predictions and betting advice from the proven computer model at SportsLine.

The SportsLine Projection Model simulates every NBA game 10,000 times and has returned well over $10,000 in profit for $100 players on its top-rated NBA picks over the past five-plus seasons. The model enters the 2024 NBA playoffs on a sizzling 88-58 roll on all top-rated NBA picks this season, returning more than $2,600. Anyone following it has seen huge returns.

Now, the model has set its sights on Bulls vs. Heat and just locked in its picks and NBA playoff predictions. You can head to SportsLine now to see the model’s picks. Here are several NBA odds and betting lines for Heat vs. Bulls:

Bulls vs. Heat spread: Miami -2.5
Bulls vs. Heat over/under: 205.5 points
Bulls vs. Heat money line: Chicago +108, Miami -128
CHI: The Bulls had a minus-1.4 point differential during the regular season
MIA: The Heat were 32-20 against Eastern Conference foes in 2023-24
Bulls vs. Heat picks: See picks at SportsLine
Why the Heat can cover
Point guard Tyler Herro has been on a tear of late. In Wednesday’s loss at Philadelphia, he scored 25 points, while adding nine assists and two rebounds. It was the 26th consecutive double-figure scoring game in a row for the fifth-year veteran. In nine career games against the Bulls, Herro is averaging 17 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 33 minutes. In 42 games this season, including 40 starts, he is averaging 20.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists.

Also helping power the Heat is center Bam Adebayo. Adebayo recorded a double-double in Wednesday’s loss at Philadelphia, finishing with 10 points and 12 rebounds. He has reached double-digit scoring in 18 of his last 19 games, including 12 double-doubles during that span. For the season, he’s averaging 19.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. See who to back at SportsLine.

Why the Bulls can cover
Small forward DeMar DeRozan powers Chicago’s offense. In 79 games, all starts, DeRozan has been dominant, averaging 24 points, 5.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.1 steals. In his last four regular-season games, he scored no fewer than 30 points, including a 39-point performance in a 127-105 win at Detroit on April 11. In four games against the Heat this season, he is averaging 22 points, four rebounds, 4.5 assists and one block.

Point guard Coby White has been effective of late, scoring a career-high 42 points in Wednesday’s win over the Hawks. In Sunday’s regular-season finale at New York, he scored 26 points, while dishing out four assists in a 120-119 overtime loss. He had 20 points, four rebounds and four assists in a 129-127 win at Washington on April 12. In 79 games, including 78 starts, he is averaging 19.1 points, 5.1 assists and 4.5 rebounds in 36.5 minutes. See who to back at SportsLine.

How to make Heat vs. Bulls picks
SportsLine’s model is leaning Over on the point total, projecting the teams to combine for 219 points. The model also says one side of the spread hits well over 50% of the time. You can only get the model’s picks at SportsLine.

So who wins Bulls vs. Heat, and which side of the spread hits well over 50% of the time? Visit SportsLine now to see which side of the spread you need to jump on, all from the model that’s 88-58 on top-rated NBA picks this season, and find out.

19 Apr

Patriots must get offensive

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🏀 🏒 🏈 Good morning to everyone but especially to …

No one, and I mean no one, is having a better morning than diehard sports fans. Arguably the one of the best part of the sports calendar begins tonight, and the next two months will feature playoff action in the NBA and NHL virtually every single night.

On Friday, the NBA playoff first-round matchups will be solidified with the final two Play-In Tournament games. The Heat and Bulls will battle in Miami for the East’s No. 8 seed, while the Pelicans will host the Kings to see who captures the final playoff spot in the West.

After that the first round begins in earnest on Saturday afternoon, and it’ll roll through Sunday night.


Game 1: Magic at Cavaliers, 1 p.m. on ESPN
Game 1: Suns at Timberwolves, 3:30 p.m. on ESPN
Game 1: 76ers at Knicks, 6 p.m. on ESPN
Game 1: Lakers at Nuggets, 8:30 p.m. on ABC

Game 1: Heat or Bulls at Celtics, 1 p.m. on ABC
Game 1: Mavericks at Clippers, 3:30 p.m. on ABC
Game 1: Pacers at Bucks, 7 p.m. on TNT
Game 1: Pelicans or Kings at Thunder, 9:30 p.m. on TNT
Before the first round tips off, be sure to get caught up on our expert picks at CBS Sports. Our NBA analysts reveal their brackets and make their Finals predictions.

The NBA isn’t the only league that begins its postseason this weekend. The NHL playoffs will also fire up its 16 teams chasing down the Stanley Cup, with 12 of them taking the ice this weekend. (Stars-Golden Knights and Kings-Oilers will open their series on Monday night.)


Game 1: Islanders at Hurricanes, 5 p.m. on TBS
Game 1: Maple Leafs at Bruins, 8 p.m. on TBS

Game 1: Lightning at Panthers, 12:30 p.m. on ESPN
Game 1: Capitals vs. Rangers, 3 p.m. on ESPN
Game 1: Avalanche at Jets, 7 p.m. on ESPN2
Game 1: Predators at Canucks, 10 p.m. on ESPN
Those schedules are a beautiful sight, but — wait — there’s still more.

In addition to the frenzy of 14 NBA and NHL playoff series starting in a 36-hour span, the 2024 NFL Draft is less than a week away. As the first round draws ever closer, keep it locked on CBS Sports’ coverage, which includes a slew of mock drafts and the latest information on what teams will do when the clock starts ticking.

👍 Honorable mentions
Rangers pitching prospect Jack Leiter struck out the first batter he faced in his MLB debut.
Former 5-star CB Cormani McClain is getting his shot at redemption with Colorado.
The Lions unveiled new uniforms for the 2024 season, including alternate black jerseys.
Kentucky star Reed Sheppard, the Freshman of the Year, has declared for the 2024 NBA Draft.
😩 And not such a good morning for…
Getty Images

The Heat will host the Bulls tonight with the East’s No. 8 seed on the line. If the Heat are going to earn a shot at the NBA’s best, the top-seeded Celtics, they will have to do so without Jimmy Butler.

On Tuesday, Butler exited during the first quarter of Miami’s loss to the 76ers with a knee injury, but he was able to return. Unfortunately for the Heat, Butler suffered a sprained MCL that will keep him out of Friday’s do-or-die game, the team announced on Thursday. Heat Culture aside, expect Miami to have an uphill battle all night as the offense certainly doesn’t get better with Butler on the bench, as our own Colin Ward-Henninger points out.

Ward-Henninger: “What Butler brings on both ends of the court — not to mention his leadership — simply cannot be replaced by anyone on the Heat roster. Miami’s offense landed in the bottom-10 during the regular season and dropped significantly with Butler off the floor. In his minutes, the Heat averaged 116 points per 100 possessions, compared to 109 when he was on the bench.”
In Butler’s 60 regular season games, he averaged 20.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. And the loss of that production puts Miami’s run of four straight playoff appearances in jeopardy. On the other side, all eyes will be on Chicago’s Coby White, who exploded for 42 points in Wednesday’s win over the Hawks.

👎 Not so honorable mentions
Leiter also surrendered eight hits and seven earned runs in 3.2 innings of work.
The Red Sox placed OF Tyler O’Neill on the concussion list amidst a hot start to the 2024 season.
Both the Eagles and the Packers may be prevented from wearing green when they play in Brazil next season.
😲 76ers’ Reed delivers bulletin board material to the Knicks
Getty Images
This time of year, NBA teams are scouring news clippings in hopes of finding bulletin board material for the playoffs. Luckily for the Knicks, 76ers center Paul Reed delivered some to their front door, free of charge.

After the Sixers edged the Heat to secure the No. 7 seed and a first-round series with the Knicks, Reed said the quiet part out loud when asked about that matchup on “Run It Back.”

Reed: “We ain’t ducking no smoke, but, yeah, we wanted the Knicks matchup, of course. That’s the easier team I guess, but you know it’s going to be fun, we match up pretty well. They got a great guard, we got a great guard, we also got Joel, MVP, so like you said earlier, he’s one of the most unstoppable guys in the league right now. They’re gonna have to send triple teams, and he’s gonna get everybody else involved.”
That textbook example of oversharing may come back to bite Reed and the 76ers. The Knicks may not be the Celtics, but they won 50 games, got the 2 seed and beat Philly 3-1 head-to-head this season. Reed will get the chance to back up his words starting Saturday when the series tips off at Madison Square Garden.

🚚 Coyotes bid farewell to Arizona in advance of move to Utah
Getty Images
Over the last week, the worst-kept secret in the NHL was the news that the Coyotes would be moving to Utah. On Thursday, the NHL Board of Governors officially approved the Coyotes’ relocation to Salt Lake City.

Ryan Smith, who also owns the NBA’s Jazz, purchased the Coyotes’ players and assets from former owner Alex Meruelo. The team will make the move this summer, and the NHL will make its Utah debut this fall.

This marks the first time the NHL has relocated a franchise since the Thrashers moved from Atlanta to Winnipeg and became the Jets in 2011, but the “Coyotes” aren’t necessarily dead. Meruelo will have the opportunity to reactivate the franchise in the next five years, as long as he meets certain requirements.

One of those requirements will probably be finding a permanent home for the team. The lack of an arena was one of the major reasons why the Coyotes are now packing up for the Beehive State. The team spent the last two seasons in Mullett Arena, a 5,000-seat venue it shared with Arizona State. A plan to build an arena and entertainment district in Tempe faced a lot of opposition and was rejected by voters.

The Coyotes also failed to put a respectable product on the ice. With one playoff berth in the last 12 seasons, the postseason was about as common as finding ice in the desert. Alas, the Coyotes did go out with a 5-2 win over the Oilers on Wednesday. Defenseman Sean Durzi scored the last goal, and fans were emotional as they bid farewell to the Yotes, at least, for now.

🏈 Patriots revamp offense in Josh Edwards’ mock draft
Getty Images
The NFL Draft will give the Patriots the chance to rejuvenate what has become a stale offense. In his latest seven-round mock draft for CBS Sports, Josh Edwards laid out his plan for New England to do just that.

Watching the Patriots’ offense over the last two years has been akin to watching grass grow, only less fun. Last season, they were tied with the Panthers for dead last in scoring offense. With the No. 3 overall pick on Thursday night, New England can start to address that problem under new head coach Jerod Mayo.

In his new mock draft, Edwards has the Patriots selecting LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels. The Mac Jones experiment is over, and so the Pats must find a long-term solution under center in the post-Brady, post-Belichick era.

Edwards: “There’s simply no way in my mind the Patriots move out of this spot and/or don’t take a quarterback. The way the offseason has gone — and the way the last three years have gone — they have to.”
The Pats’ offensive-minded approach doesn’t end there in the mock draft. Edwards also has them adding three more offensive pieces throughout the weekend.

Round 2: Ladd McConkey | WR | Georgia
Round 3: Roger Rosengarten | OT | Washington
Round 5: Brenden Rice | WR | USC
📺 What we’re watching this weekend

🏀 Play-In: Bulls at Heat, 7 p.m. on ESPN
⚾ Rangers at Braves, 7:20 p.m. on Apple TV+
🏀 Play-In: Kings at Pelicans, 9:30 p.m. on TNT


🏀 Game 1: Magic at Cavaliers, 1 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Game 1: Suns at Timberwolves, 3:30 p.m. on ESPN
⚾ Mets at Dodgers, 4:05 p.m. on FS1
🏒 Game 1: Islanders at Hurricanes, 5 p.m. on TBS
🏀 Game 1: 76ers at Knicks, 6 p.m. on ESPN
🏒 Game 1: Maple Leafs at Bruins, 8 p.m. on TBS
🏀 Game 1: Lakers at Nuggets, 8:30 p.m. on ABC


🏒 Game 1: Lightning at Panthers, 12:30 p.m. on ESPN
🏒 Game 1: Capitals at Rangers, 3 p.m. on ESPN
🏀 Game 1: Mavericks at Clippers, 3:30 p.m. on ABC
🏀 Game 1: Pacers at Bucks, 7 p.m. on TNT
⚾ Rangers at Braves, 7:10 p.m. on ESPN