The 2012 London Olympics were filled with so many dramatic victories for the U.S. swimming team that the debut of then-15-year-old Katie Ledecky was a bit overshadowed. She entered only one event and won it easily. Three years later, Ledecky is the most dominant freestyle swimmer on Earth. She’s the first to own world records in three different freestyle distances simultaneously since Ian Thorpe. Barring the unforeseeable, the 2016 Olympics will undoubtedly make her one of the biggest stars in athletics.Over distances of 400 meters or more, she’s already faster than Mark Spitz. Yes, Mark Spitz, winner of nine Olympic gold medals — tied for the most of anyone not named Phelps — the guy who set world records at three freestyle distances, including the 400 meters, in which his top world-record time (4:07.7) now trails Ledecky’s (3:58.37) by over nine seconds.But this week she made headlines at the swimming world championships not only for her usual slate of fresh records and golds in her usual distances, but also for expanding her dominance by taking gold in the 200-meter race. Being able to win both sprints and endurance events is much more common in swimming than in track,1There have been 32 different swimmers who owned world records in at least three freestyle distances, including eight who have held both the 1,500- and the 200-meter records and two who have held the world record for all five traditional distances (100 meters through 1,500 meters). though it has been getting rarer of late.And Ledecky, who turned 18 in March, is just getting started. Who knows what heights she might reach? For now, we know she has been getting better and better at every distance — despite racing some only occasionally and/or in lower-pressure situations:While her meteoric improvement has started to flatten out a bit (as we would expect), there are no indications that she has peaked (or valleyed, as the case may be). She just matched her personal best of 1:55.16 in the 200 meters, and her times in that event are still declining (with a fairly linear trend). She is currently just over 2 seconds off of Federica Pellegrini’s record of 1:52.98 — which Pellegrini set just before turning 21. Pellegrini first set the record in this event at age 18, with a time of 1:56.47 — more than a second slower than Ledecky’s time Wednesday at the same age. Ledecky’s 100-meter time is a little bit further away from Britta Steffen’s record — about 2.5 seconds back — but Ledecky has been improving that mark by about 1 second per year even without it being one of her main races. It’s conceivable that she could become the first swimmer since Shane Gould to own all five traditional distance records (the 50-meter sprint only became recognized in 1976).Ledecky’s dominance has led to inevitable comparisons to men. She made a splash in April when she matched Michael Phelps’s time in a 400-meter preliminary, and her latest 1,500-meter record time has only been bested by 80 men in the world this year.She will likely rise even higher in those ranks in coming years, although she is still unlikely to topple any current male records. (Sorry to be a party-pooper!) Her best shot would theoretically be in the 1,500 meters, where she is about 55 seconds behind Sun Yang of China. While she seems to break her own record in that event practically every day, she has improved it by only 11 seconds in the past two years.However, she has caught up with or surpassed many record-holding men from the past (like Spitz). We can compare the lifetime progression of her personal-best swims (she has been on USA Swimming’s radar since she was 6) to the progression of the men’s world record for each distance like so:It’s fascinating that even her juvenilia has often been faster than many swimming legends. At just 13 years of age, Ledecky swam the 100-meter event faster than Hawaiian legend Duke Kahanamoku, who set his 100-meter world record time of 1:00.4 in 1920 — at age 30. (It’s almost like athletes get better and better over time.)By now, she has put the whole first half of the 20th century in her wake. For example, it’s highly probable that before June 1975, no human in history had ever swum 1,500 meters faster than Ledecky did Tuesday.So here’s a timeline of just when Ledecky’s current bests would have been the fastest ever:2I’ve left out the 50-meter event because there’s no record before 1976, but based on an eyeballing of the trendlines above, it looks pretty similar to the 100. In other words, it’s not just that she can play with the boys. If you took Katie Ledecky in a (backward) time machine to some point before August 1961, she would quite likely be the fastest human being in water in the history of the Earth — over any distance.3Barring “marathon” distances substantially greater than 1,500 meters — like the Olympics’ 10-kilometer open water event, which Ledecky doesn’t compete in. Yet.As she keeps improving her times and lowering her records, I like to think of each new milestone as her advancing through time, knocking down legend after legend as they pop up. It isn’t just a new record — it’s another period of history in which no one could beat her. How far can she get?(UPDATE: Aug. 10, 3:50 p.m.): The charts in this post have been updated to include Ledecky’s latest 800m world record, which she set at the world championships on Saturday.
Canada188.8.131.52F1530447730103 Colombia184.108.40.206G19292441<1 South Africa220.127.116.11E39242641<1 USA18.104.22.168G71%23%5%98%77%56%38% Sweden22.214.171.124E2837258339155 CHANCE OF FINISHING GROUPCHANCE OF REACHING ROUND France126.96.36.199G2348218643228 China85.02.00.7E132638652161 Brazil91.02.70.6E55281394602814 Group E: Brazil, Sweden, China, South AfricaBrazil sits atop Group E, the weakest of the groups with an average WSPI of 85.3, and with home field advantage adding a boost of about 0.35 goals per game they are very likely to medal this tournament — they’ve got a 94 percent chance to make the knockout stage and a 60 percent chance of making it to the semifinals. If five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta has any hat-trick surprises left at age 30, the Brazilians could go even further. Sweden is the next-best team in group E and has a 83 percent chance of advancing to the knockout rounds. They tied the U.S. in group play last year at the World Cup and are known to match up well against the Americans thanks to the former U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage. China exited the World Cup early last year in the quarterfinals, losing to the U.S. 1-0, but they’ve got a 65 percent chance of making it back to the knockout rounds this year as one of the two third-place teams that will advance. South Africa, despite holding the U.S. to only one goal last month, has only an 11 percent chance of advancing from the group stage.Group F: Germany, Australia, Canada, ZimbabweThe second-ranked team in the world, Germany, will be the biggest challenge for the Americans at the Olympics. The U.S. defeated the Germans in the semifinals of the World Cup 2-0 and 2-1 at the SheBelieves tournament in March, but Germany remains the next most-likely team to win gold, with a 21 percent chance. Australia, despite having only a 7 percent chance of winning the Olympics, is a sleeper pick from Group F; they beat Japan, 3-1, in the Asian Qualifiers in February to eliminate the World Cup runners-up from the Olympics. Canada will likely feel snubbed by their third-place rank in Group F, but an early exit at last year’s World Cup quarterfinals and a loss to France just a few weeks ago moved them further down in our ratings. Zimbabwe upset Cameroon on aggregate goals in last year’s Confederation of African Football (CAF) qualifiers to make it to their first major national tournament, but it’s unlikely they’ll see anything past the group games.Group G: U.S., France, New Zealand, ColombiaThe group that features the American women will usually be the de facto “Group Of Death,” but this tournament’s version earns the title with the largest average WSPI of all of the groups, 87.2. France will give the U.S. its most difficult group game, especially if injuries continue to nag the U.S. midfield — the area of the field where France excels. Les Bleues have a 22 percent chance of making the final game and an 8 percent chance of winning it all. New Zealand’s scrappiness can be effective — they held Canada to a draw at the World Cup last year — and they’ve got a 44 percent chance of squeezing into the knockout rounds as the third-place team from Group G. As for Colombia, I’m still waiting for the breakout performance of Yoreli Rincón, but there’s a 61 percent chance the Colombians go out in the group stage.CORRECTON (Aug. 3, 5:23 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misidentified the French women’s national soccer team. The team’s name is Les Bleues, not Les Bleus. TEAMWSPIOFFDEFGRP.1ST2ND3RDQTR.SEMIFINALWIN We’re on the ground in Rio covering the 2016 Summer Olympics. Check out all our coverage here.RIO DE JANEIRO — The 2016 Olympic Games start Wednesday — not with Friday’s opening ceremony — with group play in the women’s soccer tournament. The reigning World Cup champions and four-time Olympic gold medalists, the U.S. women’s national team, play New Zealand in Belo Horizonte, but I’m hundreds of miles away in Rio de Janeiro, the epicenter of the Olympic Games and the city where the host nation’s team will begin its Olympic run against China this afternoon. It seemed like a good chance to catch a Brazil game among local fans. So far, I can’t even find a place to watch the game.“Rio is made of bars, but I’m not sure many people will be watching the women’s game,” Patricia “Patchy” Toledo, a former professional women’s soccer player in Brazil, told me when I asked if there are any places where Brazilian fans will be watching their team play. Cíntia Barlem, a journalist covering women’s soccer in Brazil for Globo Esporte, one of the largest sports news sites in Brazil, said she didn’t think most Brazilians would be paying attention. I told her that in the U.S., everyone will be watching the U.S. women’s national team play. “I would like it if the Brazilians do the same here, but it is not the reality.”Reality has been a trip for the U.S. women. Just over a year ago I sat in a stadium with 53,000 people and watched Carli Lloyd rocket a shot from half-field, sailing the ball over Japan’s backtracking keeper and scoring her third goal in the first 20 minutes of the Women’s World Cup final. Since then, the USWNT — which has won four of the five gold medals handed out in the history of women’s soccer at the Olympics, including three in a row since 2004 — has lost only one game in the past year. It has also added fresh, young talent — Mallory Pugh, Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan — to a roster of World Cup champions. All of this makes them heavily favored to win a fifth gold medal this year: They have a 38 percent chance of doing so — almost double the odds of Germany, the next-best team — according to our forecasting model. If they get the fifth gold, they’d be the first team in history to win the World Cup and Olympics in consecutive years.Our projections are based on the Women’s Soccer Power Index (WSPI) we created last year, which uses game-based offensive and defensive ratings to estimate a team’s overall skill level. The 12-team Olympic tournament is much smaller than the Women’s World Cup (which fields 24 teams) which means some of the world’s best teams, such as Japan and Norway, did not qualify while some, like England, have their own reasons not to compete in the Olympics. Instead, the field is stocked with teams like Zimbabwe, ranked 93rd in the world by FIFA and making their international tournament debut.This isn’t to say the Olympics will be inferior to the World Cup. In fact, the overall average WSPI of the teams at the Olympics is greater than it those that were at the World Cup (86 compared to 84) but the tournament is much more stratified with great teams at the top of the table — Germany, France and Brazil — and much weaker teams at the bottom like South Africa and Zimbabwe. Below, we take a closer look at the 2016 Olympic tournament, breaking down each team’s chances of advancing from the group stage to the knockout rounds. At the Olympics, the top two teams (as well as the top two third-place finishers) advance from each of the three four-team groups to the single-elimination knockout rounds: the quarterfinals, semifinals and the championship game. New Zealand83.82.00.9G52044511441 Germany188.8.131.52F58281397634121 Zimbabwe184.108.40.206F<1314111<1<1 Australia220.127.116.11F2738298844187
Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, who was beaten by five attackers near campus this week suffered a concussion and will not be healthy enough to participate in the opening of camp on Monday, coach Bret Bielema said.Bielema did not indicate Ball had suffered any long-term problems. He said keeping Ball out for a while would spare last year’s Heisman Trophy finalist hits that could exacerbate the injury. And it would give give other backs more repetitions in practice.Police said five men knocked Ball down as he was walking near campus early Wednesday. The men kicked him in the head and chest before fleeing.“My concern right now is for Montee’s health and well-being,” Bielema said Wednesday in a statement. “Montee has been released from the hospital and is under the care and supervision of our sports medicine staff. We will continue to evaluate him as we approach the start of fall camp this weekend. I do expect Montee to make a full recovery.”The Badgers open the season at home Sept. 1 against Northern Iowa and it is expected that Ball will be ready to play. He led the team in rushing last year with more than 1200 yards and was named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year.Meanwhile, according to TMZ, Ball and several Wisconsin teammates may have been involved in a fight at a home several days before Wednesday’s attack, which may have precipitated the attack on Ball.TMZ said cops have been told Ball was at the home and along with some of his teammates, may have participated in beating up a non-football player.Of course, that theory leads to the idea what happened to Ball was payback for the earlier situation.Ball rejected that notion through Twitter, posting, “The report that I was involved in a fight is totally false.”
Photo by AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe New York Yankees failed to make the playoffs, so their season will end on Sunday. Since there are no more games for the Yanks, Alex Rodriguez’s 211-game suspension appeal will start Monday. After being penalized for so many games, the third baseman has been telling reporters he is looking forward to going through due process and will fight the Major League Baseball decision.“Let’s get it on,” said Rodriguez as he talked to reports Saturday. “It starts on Monday. We’ve got to face it head on … I’ll be there every day. I’m fighting for my whole life, my whole legacy. I hope everyone is there.”The appeal process is expected to go on for months, and a decision may not be made until November or December. Frederic Horowitz, who will be a mutual arbitrator, will have the power to uphold, overturn or reduce Rodriguez’s suspension.The league suspended A-Rod for his alleged ties to Biogenesis and an alleged attempt to interfere with its investigation. Biogenesis of America, is a debunked Florida anti-aging clinic accused of distributing banned performance-enhancing drugs to several MLB players. The company was reportedly responsible for giving 13 MLB players, including Rodriguez, PEDs and masking them to prevent the athletes from failing their drug tests.
Serena Williams from the U.S. returns the ball to Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia during the final day of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Serena Williams lost on her return to competitive tennis after giving birth, going down to French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in an exhibition in the United Arab Emirates on Saturday.“I don’t think I am going to rate my performance,” Williams said. “I have plenty of comebacks, from injuries, from surgeries, but I’ve never had a comeback after actually giving birth to a human being. So, in my eyes, I feel it was a wonderful, wonderful match for me.”Williams struggled with her serve and Ostapenko won 6-2, 3-6 and then 10-5 in a super tiebreaker, but the American still impressed to take a set off the No. 7-ranked Ostapenko after nearly a year away from tennis.Williams said after the 67-minute match at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship that she is still undecided on her title defense of the Australian Open, which starts Jan. 15, but delivered a warning to rivals.“I don’t know if I am totally ready to come back on the tour yet. I know that when I come back I definitely want to be competing for championships,” Williams said. “I am definitely looking forward to getting back out there.“I am taking it one day at a time. I am going to assess everything with my team before deciding.”The 36-year-old Williams took time off after winning the Australian Open last January while pregnant. She gave birth to her first child, a girl named Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., on Sept. 1. She married Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in November.Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, a record for the professional era.“Knowing that I have won 23 Grand Slam titles and several other titles, I don’t think I have anything more left to prove. But I am not done yet,” Williams said.Despite winning her opening game when she broke Ostapenko, Williams was nowhere near her best in the first set, before fighting back and winning the second.After the initial break, Ostapenko latched onto the weak serves of Williams, and several unforced errors helped, as she stormed back into the match to go 4-1 up with two breaks.Williams struggled with her serve in the second set too, but went ahead 3-0 with a couple of early breaks as she started to hit more confident shots, including several crowd-pleasing double-handed passing shots. Another break in the ninth game delivered her first set of the comeback.“In the beginning, it felt a little tough. But as the match moved on, I was less afraid. I knew I was not going to fall over and break,” said Williams.“The more I played, the more confident I felt that I would be able to go for shots that I was afraid to go for in the first set.”In the super tiebreaker, Ostapenko raced to an 8-2 lead before quelling a brief recovery by Williams.Williams said she was delighted with the way she competed.“For me, it is all about physical, how I am feeling physically … I am just proud being out here and playing in Abu Dhabi and to be able to just compete. I have had a tough few months and I am just excited to be able to play again.”It was the first time a women’s match had been played in the traditionally men’s only exhibition event.South Africa’s Kevin Anderson defeated Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4, 7-6 (0) in the men’s final.
The World Cup is not traditionally the tournament for underdogs. The trophy has been lifted by just eight countries — and five of those have won multiple times. But there’s usually enough room for a few Cinderella stories to creep into the knockout phase: Bulgaria (1994), South Korea (2002) and Turkey (2002) were unexpected semifinalists, while Cameroon (1990), Ghana (2010) and Costa Rica (2014) crashed the quarterfinals. At least one country seems to do this every four years.We see three teams that could fit the bill this summer. Before the tournament, each of them had no greater than a 3 percent chance of winning it all, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model, but each has performed well so far and could make a strong run in the knockout rounds.Croatia3 percent chance pre-tournament to win it all, 7 percent nowAs we noted in our preview of Group D, Croatia is blessed with an abundance of central midfield talent, most notably Luka Modric of Real Madrid and Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona. Getting the pair ticking together was the most important challenge for manager Zlatko Dalic coming into Russia.The two started together as a double pivot in Croatia’s opening game against Nigeria, but the risk of playing two aging, attack-minded central midfielders is too great against teams with a potent counterattack — as Germany found out after fielding Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos together against Mexico. Dalic’s solution against better teams seems to be playing the pair in front of Marcelo Brozovic, who is comfortable taking care of the defensive duties, freeing up Modric and Rakitic to focus on the attack.In its second game, Croatia comfortably outclassed Argentina — which employed an extremely high press to avoid playing through Croatia’s midfield. The Argentine press allowed Modric and Rakitic to become the focal point of Croatia’s counterattacks, feeding the ball quickly into their wingers, Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic. Spain5.0 Belgium7.5 Source: Opta Sports Shots3.838 France5.0 Unlike other small teams, the Swiss press high and aggressively rather than waiting for their opposition to come to them: The team ranks second for possession regains in the attacking third of the pitch per game so far in Russia. Brazil7.0 Against Serbia, Switzerland came from behind dramatically to snatch a victory. The Swiss now have a 96 percent chance of making the round of 16, despite a controversy over political celebrations that threatened to embroil the team: Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, who each scored a goal against Serbia, made eagle gestures referring to their Albanian Kosovar heritage,1Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, and Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo as a country. and team captain Stephan Lichtsteiner also made the gesture. Luckily for the Swiss, though, FIFA decided to fine rather than ban them.Switzerland has a style of play that could cause serious problems for bigger teams — and is in the strongest position it has been to reach a quarterfinal for the first time since 1954.Check out our latest World Cup predictions. Among attackers with a minimum of 800 minutesSource: Football Whispers Russia5.5 Goals0.653 Rank Assists0.3014 Argentina8.0 Denmark6.0 Successful dribbles2.3426 Serbia6.0 Offensive statistics per 90 minutes for Mexico’s Hirving Lozano with PSV in the Dutch Eredivisie, 2017-18 The terrifying pace of Lozano, who is rumored to be a target of Barcelona, is complemented well by the positioning and hold-up play of Javier Hernandez, with the two combining for goals against both Germany and South Korea. Carlos Vela, meanwhile, has a relatively free role in the attack, drifting into pockets of space to get the ball and take men on.If Mexico does manage to finish first in the group, it will probably have to play Switzerland, another team that has performed surprisingly well in Russia.Switzerland2 percent chance pre-tournament, 3 percent nowTwenty minutes into the opener against Brazil, when Philippe Coutinho scored a characteristically brilliant long-range goal for the Selecao, many had already written off Switzerland’s chances of getting anything from the game. But the underdogs rallied in the second half, grabbing an equalizer to frustrate the Brazilians and hold out for a crucial point. Switzerland7.5 Both Modric and Rakitic scored in a victory that crystallized Croatia’s position as an underdog to watch this summer. Croatia should get a relatively easy matchup against Denmark in the Round of 16 and would be a tough out for any team after that.MexicoLess than 1 percent chance pre-tournament, 1 percent nowMexico’s chances haven’t risen much, but that’s mainly because of how tight Group F is after Germany’s last-gasp winner against Sweden. Despite winning its first two matches, including beating the defending champions in the opener, El Tri has just a 72 percent of making it through the group right now, with its fate riding on the match with Sweden.If it does make it through, Mexico has a pesky combination of compact defensive structure and electric counterattacking ability that will cause any big opposition real problems. Hirving “Chucky” Lozano is looking like this World Cup’s breakout star, with a goal and an assist in his first two appearances — no surprise to those who saw him help PSV Eindhoven to a title this season in the Dutch Eredivisie. Possessions won per match in the attacking third of the field for 2018 World Cup teams, through June 24 England5.0 Open-play assists1.4523 teamPossessions Won
After the arrests of several senior FIFA leaders and widespread evidence of graft, bribery and general corruption at the highest levels of the global soccer conglomerate, FIFA’s selection of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup has come under renewed criticism. The indictments allege that vote-buying occurred in past World Cup host selections, and there have been other allegations that millions of dollars were paid to rig the vote for Qatar in 2010.And when you look at all the World Cup hosts since 1978, it’s clear that Qatar is in many ways an outlier.Compared with other World Cup hosts, Qatar is at the extremes on almost every metric I looked at. The data wasn’t perfect — two of the data sets I used weren’t measured annually when it would have been ideal if they were (the United Nations Development Program’s carbon-emissions reading and Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index). Also, the Press Freedom Index did not exist before 2002, so I used the 2002 mark for the World Cups that came before that year. It’s an estimation, but because that measurement is less susceptible to annual change, I felt safe in using it. And one last thing while we’re here: The Elo and GDP numbers for Russia and Qatar aren’t projections but are the most recent data available.Qatar was definitely not selected for its temperate weather in June, the typical time for the FIFA tournament. There has historically been some variation here — Argentina’s average June temperature is in the low 50s (it being in the Southern Hemisphere and all), and Mexico’s is in the mid-70s. But Qatar’s average June temperature is in the 90s.Perhaps Qatar is a real soccer up-and-comer, then? Not quite! I pulled the Elo rating of each men’s national team on the first game they played the year they hosted the cup1The last game of the previous year for Colombia, which resigned from hosting the 1986 cup and did not play soccer that year, and the most recent game for Russia and Qatar. to get the gist of how good the teams were on the world stage. Qatar has the second-lowest score ever.2Might they improve substantially in the next seven years? Sure, it’s possible. But the point is they’re not an unrecognized powerhouse in the sport at this point in time, and the fact that the host nation gets a free bid may mean they don’t have a ton of incentive to drastically improve.And it’s not like Qatar holds a bulk of the world’s population, either. Typically the country that gets the cup has somewhere around 1 percent to 5 percent of the world’s population, but not Qatar. With a projected population of 2.24 million in 2022, it’ll have a whopping 0.03 percent of the global population within its borders in a few years, not counting the spectators. What’s more, that population mostly comprises people who weren’t born in Qatar — as of 2013, according to the U.N., 1.6 million of the country’s 2.2 million people were international migrants.Although Qatar will be a global hub for sports journalists in several years, FIFA apparently did not select the country to highlight its illustrious human-rights record. Qatar has extreme restrictions on press freedoms that put it in league with Russia (the 2018 host) and Brazil (the 2014 one). They have a very high score on the Press Freedom Index, where a low score indicates a great deal of freedom.It’s also not for the nation’s climate record, either, as it’s by far the highest polluter — measured in metric tons of carbon emitted per capita. And that’s on a list that includes America. That was our category to lose!But Qatar does have one metric by which it is off-the-charts outstanding: gross domestic product per capita. Namely, it’s a small country that makes a whole lot of money. In the chart, we’re looking at the ratio of GDP per capita the year each nation hosted the cup to the United States’ GDP per capita that year, to keep it apples to apples.None of this proves vote-rigging, obviously. But when a country lacks many of the competitive advantages of other countries’ bids, some extra scrutiny is probably worthwhile.
This weekend, only one batter — Houston Astros stalwart Craig Biggio — will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. One major reason for the lack of swingers: The folks voting people into Cooperstown are (how can we say it?) skeptical of hitting records achieved during baseball’s “steroid era.”Spanning from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s, those juiced-up years saw a number of the game’s most treasured records assaulted by players who were later implicated in the use of performance-enhancing drugs. And that presents a bit of a pickle: On the one hand, players set new milestones in America’s pastime; we can’t just ignore those, right? On the other hand, a lot of those people were injecting a cocktail of hormones and steroids into their buttocks to reach those milestones. Factor in baseball’s revered position in American society and the diversity of opinions about how severe said crimes against the game actually were, and you have an ethical/bookkeeping quandary of profound proportions.This issue is particularly thorny for folks like us, who use statistics to understand the game. We could strike the steroid-era records entirely, and then all of a sudden, the all-time top list is the same as it was in 1993. We could count all of them, but that won’t make them legitimate in the minds of many people. So, what to do?Mutually exclusive solutions — strike ’em or count ’em — make this a tough nut to crack. Alternatively, though, we could apply a discount — a penalty in percentage terms deducted from players’ individual statistics. That would then alter the record books, penalizing players who juiced.We asked SurveyMonkey Audience to run a poll asking Americans all about baseball, and one question was whether a player’s statistics — such as home runs — should be partially discounted for the purposes of records and leaderboards if he is found to be using performance-enhancing drugs (PED), and if so, how much of a penalty should be applied.In the survey results, there were essentially three camps:The first group — 41 percent of all respondents — thought no discount should be applied and the records should stand as-is.An additional 23 percent said the records of juicers should be stripped entirely — press ctrl-a and then delete.Finally, 36 percent of respondents took a more nuanced view, providing a percentage1Ranging between 1 percent and 99 percent. by which offending players’ statistics ought to be docked.The median voter suggested a 20 percent penalty for juicers,2For self-identified fans of baseball, the median was a 10 percent discount. while the average penalty was 36 percent. The strip-everything crowd drags the average up. But if you cut out the all-or-nothing extremists, the median increases to 30 percent.So what would baseball history look like if we applied a few of these penalties to the steroid-era stats3Docking all users for stats accumulated between 1993 and 2004 — the widely acknowledged duration of the PED epoch — probably casts too wide of a net in some cases, but it’s also impossible to make case-by-case determinations of when each player began juicing. of implicated players? (Specifically, players who were suspended for PED offenses, were linked to the Biogenesis scandal, were named in the Mitchell Report or whose failed drug tests were leaked to the media.) Could we successfully penalize performance-enhancers without pretending that an entire era’s worth of great players didn’t accomplish a thing?Here’s how the all-time home run leaderboard would change if we applied discount rates of either one-fifth or one-third to the round-trippers mashed by PED users:The poster boy for steroid-fueled home run dominance, Barry Bonds would lose about 105 home runs under a 20 percent discount and nearly 174 if we dock users by 33 percent. The latter penalty would still land him in the top six for career dingers, but he’d also sit a distant 167 home runs behind Hank Aaron for the all-time lead. Also, Alex Rodriguez would go from fourth to 11th on the lifetime list; the quartet of Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield would drop by roughly 30 slots apiece; and Juan Gonzalez would fall by 73 spots.This process doesn’t have to be restricted to home runs. Here are the all-time leaderboards for position-player wins above replacement (WAR)4Averaging together the versions from Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs. if we apply the same discount rates detailed above:Perilously close to overtaking Babe Ruth as the GOAT in real life, Bonds drops to eighth in position-player WAR when we dock his steroid-era production by 33 percent. That leaves us with an all-time top five far more palatable to baseball traditionalists: Ruth, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Aaron and Honus Wagner.5Ted Williams still ranks 10th under either schema, a product of his multiple military-related absences from the game.The debate over steroids in baseball is bitter and divisive, but this solution represents a compromise, based on real data, that attempts to meet all camps somewhere in the middle.(Just kidding, this will never be settled and will remain a festering puncture wound to the game of baseball for generations to come. Play ball!)
If early reports turn out to be accurate, Markelle Fultz is headed to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers traded the third pick in this year’s draft and a protected first round pick in either the 2018 or 2019 draft to the Boston Celtics. It’s a mammoth deal for both teams, and it has ramifications for the long-term outlooks of both. But lost in the commotion of assets changing hands and the deal’s implications on other big-ticket trades are the particulars about the player at the heart of the deal: Fultz himself.Playing in the Pacific Northwest on a nontournament team (and missing a chunk of time because of injury) made Fultz one of the most anonymous presumptive No. 1 picks in living memory. Just about every argument about the Washington Huskies guard is phrased in the subjunctive — a theoretical commodity more than a concrete set of skills. But dig down into what actually makes his game so good and it becomes obvious in a hurry that Fultz is a monster.Fultz has been billed as a pick-and-roll playmaker, which is true but vague. He doesn’t sit up high and find long, surprising passing lanes like James Harden does, nor does he feint and jab on a defense until it cedes ground like Chris Paul does. Fultz’s game is built around his jumper and his handle. He’s a strong shooter off the dribble and a strong enough dribbler to operate in tight spaces and get to the rim, where he’s an excellent finisher. This means defenses have to crowd him wherever he is on the floor, whether it’s 25 feet from the rim or having turned the corner on a pick and roll. And if a defense sends help, he’s a willing passer to the open man, even if that means a 40-foot, cross-court pass.The Huskies scored 109 points per 100 plays1Per Synergy Sports Technology when Fultz passed out the pick-and-roll, including 115 points per 100 on passes to spot-up shooters. To get a sense of how much the team relied on Fultz, consider those numbers in their full context. On spot-up jumpers that weren’t set up by a Fultz pick-and-roll or taken by Fultz himself (101 points per 100 plays), the Huskies managed just 82 points per 100 plays. That’s dreadful. That would have ranked 333rd out of 351 D-I schools. But Fultz was able to draw so much attention and create such good shots for his teammates that they went from one of the worst-shooting teams in the country to one of the best when he set them up.Not just any player commands the sort of defensive attention Fultz saw — even when he is by far the best player on his team. And what makes Fultz special is how good he is shooting off the dribble in traffic. On all pull-up jumpers, he scored 102 points per 100 plays, which is already very good. But when he was working out of the pick and roll, that number shot up to 118 points per 100 plays, as Fultz took advantage of the little bit of daylight created by the screen to get a slightly better look or to a better spot on the floor.Having a god-tier pull-up jumper is an increasingly critical skill for NBA guards, but so is finishing at the rim. Being a genuine threat on the drive is the reason the pick-and-roll offense works — it’s what makes James Harden and Russell Westbrook nightmares for opponents and what powers the LeBron Offense in Cleveland. And Fultz scored 130 points per 100 plays when going to the rim out of pick-and-roll plays. He has a tight (though not exactly dazzling) handle — aided by a nice little hesitation/head-fake move that freezes defenders who have to respect that pullup — and he uses it to get into the lane at will.All that said, the most spectacular offense in the league can’t do much for you if you’re giving up points at the other end. The Huskies were abysmal on the defensive end — they ranked 250th of 351 D-I men’s teams in defensive SRS — and Fultz’s personal numbers aren’t much better. He ranked in the bottom third of all D-I men’s players while defending all but one shot type, according to Synergy. But the defense Fultz plays in the NBA will be much different, mainly because the Huskies spent a lot of time in zone, and that asks players to do very different things to contest shots and deny space than pro-style defenses. But defense should still be a concern. Fultz has good physical tools — he averaged 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks per game — and he was actually quite good the few times he was isolated in man-on-man situations, but his attention away from the ball will need the same improvements as most rookies.Fultz is a top overall prospect because he’s very, very good at things that are fundamental to the pro game — pick-and-roll playmaking, pull-up shooting, finishing at the rim. He has fewer jaw-dropping highlights as fellow prospects Lonzo Ball or De’Aaron Fox do (though he does have a few); but he has fewer holes in his game, as well. If there’s one thing that could unravel his game as a pro, it would be his shot not translating. It’s not exactly the same species of skepticism as the concern trolling over Ball’s shooting form, but there’s at least some reason to wonder if Fultz will be as lights-out from deep in the NBA. His range doesn’t extend far beyond the college line, and his release is on the slow side. Just as concerning, he shot 64.9 percent on foul shots, which ESPN Insider’s Kevin Pelton pointed out is a slightly better predictor of NBA 3-point shooting ability than college 3-point percentage on its own — and Fultz wasn’t overwhelming enough from 3 (41.3 percent) to make up for the free throws.But the way Fultz had to manufacture his offense should also be taken into account: He practically never had an open shot he didn’t create himself. He scored 116 points per 100 plays coming off of screens, but that was largely because of the same things that make him good in pick and rolls, not effective screens. Fultz’s Washington teammates didn’t set great screens, but this is an area where he needs to improve as well. If Fultz is going to play off the ball in the NBA he’ll have to improve his feel for how to angle his runs to get the screener between the defender and the spot where he wants to catch the ball.This of course leads back to the question of how Fultz will fit in with the Sixers. Given that early reports suggest forward Ben Simmons, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, will play a de facto point guard role for Philadelphia, an ideal fit for Fultz might be as a sort of über-Bradley Beal. John Wall handles the majority of playmaking for Washington, and Beal runs off of flare screens and other off-ball actions to free himself up for jumpers. But when Wall doesn’t have the ball, Beal runs a fair bit of pick and roll himself (despite being a weak dribbler) and generally controls the offense. A similar division of labor between Simmons and Fultz would make a lot of sense for Philly.But that’s deeper into specifics than we need to go for now. Teams tend to find ways to make things work with players who can dribble, pass and shoot. For now, Fultz is a perfect fit for a Philly roster that needs ballhandling and shooting, and just as important, a perfect fit for the directions the NBA game is headed.
If he keeps this up, Harden would become the first qualified1Minimum 25 percent of a team’s minutes played in a season, or about 1,000 minutes over an 82-game schedule. player since at least the 1976 ABA-NBA merger to use 35 percent or more of a team’s possessions while putting up an offensive rating of 120 or more. Depending on how you look at it, he would either be the most efficient high-usage player ever or shoulder the biggest responsibility of any high-efficiency player ever. Either way, it would make Harden the most valuable offensive weapon in the game.What’s unique about Harden is how his scoring and passing play off of each other, making it virtually impossible to shut off his firehose of production. He currently leads the league in both assist rate2The percentage of teammate buckets a player assists while on the court. and usage rate,3The percentage of team shot attempts plus turnovers a player records while in the game. an accomplishment that has been pulled off only one other time — by Russell Westbrook last season. And while Westbrook ranked 126th in true shooting percentage last year, Harden ranks 25th this season thanks to an eye-popping assortment of shot-making numbers: 51 percent on 2-pointers, 41 percent on threes and 86 percent from the line (where he still finagles himself 9.3 times per game, the most in the league). Among players in the 50-40-85 club for those percentages in a season, nobody has ever come close to doing it with a usage rate like Harden’s so far this year. Whenever Harden touches the ball, almost exclusively good things happen for Houston.Thanks in large part to Harden’s complete offensive clinic, the Rockets currently rank second only to the Golden State Warriors in points per 100 possessions. They’re shattering their own benchmark for the most made threes per game in NBA history (knocking down a stunning 16.1 a night while taking 53 percent of their field goal attempts from deep), and they also rank third in pick-and-roll efficiency,4Including both when the ball handler and the roll man finish the play. averaging 0.98 points per possession on the play, according to NBA.com.All the while, Houston is providing an interesting counterpoint to the Warriors in terms of offensive basketball philosophy. Golden State is a joy to watch because of its pure shooting talent, frequently knocking down looks that mortal players have no business making: The Warriors rank only ninth in Second Spectrum’s Quantified Shot Quality metric, which measures the expected value of a team’s shot selection based on league averages, but they lead the NBA in shooting efficiency anyway because nobody outperforms the expected value of their shots by more. The Rockets are the opposite. They make their shots at a slightly higher clip than average, but it’s nothing special; instead, they thrive on relentlessly creating prime scoring chances, leading the league in shot quality with the highest expected value (a 54.1 effective field goal percentage) of any season in Second Spectrum’s database.5Which goes back to the 2014 season. You can argue with the aesthetics of Harden and the Rockets’ methodical exploitation of basketball’s percentages, but it’s never worked to greater effect than in the early stages of this season.The only unresolved question about Harden and his hardware is whether Paul’s return will disrupt Harden’s early-season flow. Before the season, we noted that the NBA had never seen a pairing of two ball-dominant guards quite like Harden and Paul before, and that Houston’s success would largely hinge on how the two could co-exist and alter their games to complement each other. But with Paul missing 14 of Houston’s first 15 contests, the pairing hasn’t received a great deal of stress-testing yet — Harden has largely been able to play in the manner he’s been accustomed to over the past few years, when he seldom had to share playmaking responsibilities with anybody.The good news is that in the few games since Paul’s return, Harden has been as outstanding as ever. He’s averaging 34.4 points and 8.2 assists per game with a 68.7 true shooting percentage and an average Game Score of 28.6 — a better number than he was putting up while Paul was out of the lineup. The bad news is that the Rockets have barely scraped past the opposition (+2.4 points per 100 possessions) with their two stars on the court when compared with the +16.3 margin they have with one but not the other. And most concerning (but not surprising) for Harden’s MVP campaign, his stat-stuffing ways are indeed getting curtailed when he shares the court with Paul. According to NBA.com, Harden’s rates of assists, usage and even rebounds all take a hit with Paul in the game. Granted, his shooting efficiency is up with Paul, one of the great passers of his generation, but Harden’s overall production — as measured by the percentage of total “good things” (for both teams) he’s responsible for while in the game6NBA.com calls this statistic the Player Impact Estimate. — is down from 20.1 percent without Paul to 15.7 percent with him.7For context, the current league leader is Hassan Whiteside at 20.9 percent.To help avoid the redundancy in their stars’ skill sets, the Rockets are staggering Harden and CP3’s minutes some. (And Paul has been on a program of reduced minutes anyway, while working his way back into form.) The Rockets have most of the season ahead of them to figure out how the two players fit together, with the primary goal of finally getting over the hump in the Western Conference playoffs, not to maximize Harden’s stat lines. But as well as Harden has played early this season, this looks like his best shot yet at ending his string of MVP near-misses. He just needs to figure out how to play his hyper-efficient, do-everything game while simultaneously sharing the ball with another superstar — a task easier said than done.Check out our latest NBA predictions. Thanks to a combination of novelty and voter fatigue, it’s rare for an NBA player to remain MVP bridesmaid for too long. For every block of seasons where a Michael Jordan or LeBron James dominates the consensus at No. 1, a Charles Barkley or Derrick Rose will still manage to slip in and break up the monotony. That’s a big reason why, in all of NBA history, only three players have finished as MVP runners-up multiple times without ever actually taking home the award themselves.Two of those are retired Hall of Famers: Jerry West (who came in second an astonishing four times without winning) and George Gervin. The third, James Harden of the Houston Rockets, is still very much active. But the way he’s playing this season, he might not be MVP-less much longer. After finishing second in two of the previous three seasons, Harden has established himself as the early award favorite while leading the Rockets to the best record in the West and the league’s top per-possession point differential. At long last, it might be time for the greatest bearded MVP since Bill Walton — just so long as the recent return of domineering fellow guard Chris Paul doesn’t get in Harden’s way.By the numbers, Harden has never been better. He’s currently either first or second (behind LeBron James) in virtually every advanced value metric, including Value Over Replacement Player, Win Shares, Estimated Wins Added and ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus (RPM) wins above replacement. Harden has long been known for his ridiculous efficiency — he generates more points per possession than any other big-time scorer in the game today (including Steph Curry) — but he’s taken that approach to an entirely new level so far this year. He’s producing about 122 points for every 100 possessions he’s personally responsible for, a number usually reserved for three-point specialists, low-scoring big men and LeBron, but with the usage rate of a player who controls his team’s every offensive move. Once again, Harden is pushing the boundaries of just how many points one player can create for his team: