Just two minutes into the CONCACAF Women’s World Cup Qualifiers semifinal game in 2010, a free-kick from distance was flicked behind the U.S. back line, and a Mexican player running forward slotted it into the net. The U.S. looked stunned. Mexico scored again in the 27th minute and would go on to defeat the U.S. 2-1 — the only time it has managed to do so in the two teams’ 31 matchups — nearly eliminating one of the world’s best teams from the 2011 Women’s World Cup. (The U.S. was forced to play a two-games series against Italy to qualify for the World Cup, where it eventually finished second to Japan on penalty kicks.)On Friday night, the two teams will meet again in the CONCACAF Qualifiers semifinal, this time on U.S. soil. Despite handedly beating Mexico in two friendlies last month, 8-0 and 4-0, that 2010 semifinal game serves as a reminder for the U.S.: World Cup hopes can fade in a flash — even for a powerhouse team — with one bad game.We’ve updated our projections, and the U.S. now has a 95 percent chance of beating Mexico and advancing to the finals. That number makes it seem like Friday’s matchup will be lopsided, and it may be. But if Mexico sits in and defends as anticipated, the Americans may find it difficult to score and could be forced into overtime or penalty-kicks.Mexico, however, has not looked as strong at this year’s CONCACAF Qualifiers compared to 2010’s, losing to Costa Rica in group play 1-0. It has only a 4 percent chance of winning the tournament, but a 74 percent chance of placing third — enough to qualify for next summer’s World Cup.Below are the updated expected-win probabilities for the remaining CONCACAF tournament teams:The other semifinal matchup Friday night, between Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago, is evenly matched. Costa Rica is a slight favorite, with a 57 percent chance of beating Trinidad and facing the Americans in the final. The two teams have drawn two out of their five matchups. Costa Rica has beaten Trinidad twice, and Trinidad has beaten Costa Rica once. The last time they met, however, in December 2012, Trinidad crushed Costa Rica 4-0 (how seriously the teams took this game is unclear though, as it wasn’t recorded as an official qualifying or friendly match).The winners of the two semifinal games will play in the championship Sunday, with their World Cup berths already secured. The more interesting match may be the third-place game (also Sunday), when the winner will secure the last reserved CONCACAF spot at the World Cup. The fourth-place team, however, is not automatically eliminated and will play Ecuador in a two-game series for another World Cup berth.
On NBA fan engagementI was yesterday at the Boston Celtics game, and there was a lot going on besides the pitch. There were a lot of gadgets and bling bling. And it was good. I liked it. Audio Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/carl_bayernanalytics.mp300:0000:0000:00Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.At Boston’s annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the main focus is on U.S. sports. But people come from all over the sporting world, and the globe, to exchange ideas and learn about what’s happening in the major U.S. sports. This was important enough for FC Bayern Munich, one of the best practitioners of the most popular sport on the planet in the middle of its season, to have its head of match analysis, Michael Niemeyer, come to Sloan — and catch a Celtics game in between sessions.He came by our booth at Sloan to talk to us about how Bayern and its recent coaches, especially current boss Pep Guardiola, are embracing analytics even as some U.S. coaches are free to ignore it as a sideshow. Listen to or download the interview via the player above. And read highlights from the conversation below. On the difference between Bayern and U.S. teamsOur job is seen differently in the U.S. You have data people who are not sitting out in the coaching office. … I think that you have to be in the coaching office. If you sit somewhere else, you never get it on the pitch. It won’t work. The only way it works is you have to sit right next to the coach. On in-game analytics-driven coachingNiemeyer: For me, the one thing that really has to come is the exchange from the analytics under the roof, the exchange between us with the bench. It’s not allowed in soccer.Carl Bialik: During the game.Niemeyer: During a game.Bialik: To say, hey, we picked up on this tendency.Niemeyer: Yeah. We can do it in halftime, and we do, but you’re not allowed to exchange during the game.Bialik: And if you could, that makes your department a lot more valuable.Niemeyer: Yeah, of course, of course. On Pep GuardiolaAs he came to Bayern, the first thing he said was: “The match analysis department is the most important department for me.” The second thing was: “I see a big part of my work in the auditorium.” The auditorium is the place where he has video sessions. If you want to bring your ideas to the pitch, you have to use these technologies and you have to use match analysis. On technology[Players] have laptops or iPads where they can see — we have an online platform similar to Facebook where they can discuss. And it’s an exchange platform.
Kentucky has to win two more games to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1975-76. And if the Wildcats succeed, the stats we have suggest that they’re a notch or two more dominant than those Hoosiers were.Getting data on Kentucky is easy: The Wildcats’ every game has a digital box score that’s been compiled and analyzed by the likes of Ken Pomeroy and our own March Madness predictions. But Indiana’s statistical record from its undefeated season remains in the analog age, locked in scans of stat sheets.To truly measure the 32-0 Hoosiers’ greatness, we’d want to compile the schedule and results of every Division I team that year. Unfortunately, that would involve inputting dozens of data points from hundreds of image files. And our favorite speed typist was busy.1Seriously, we asked him. So we simplified our analysis: We entered the scores of every Indiana game, then adjusted the Hoosiers’ average margin of victory by the average margin of victory of each of its opponents that season.2Accounting for home-court advantage. That gave us an estimate of Indiana’s Simple Rating System scores, which otherwise aren’t available for teams that far back.3We checked how well this technique estimates SRS for teams from the Big Ten — Indiana’s conference — and the SEC — Kentucky’s — for more recent seasons. We found it’s very reliable, with an r-squared of 0.96 against actual SRS for seasons since 1984-85. The distribution of its errors is approximately normal, with mean of zero and a standard deviation of 1.26, allowing us to create a confidence interval around its predictions and estimate the likelihood that Indiana’s true SRS was greater than or less than the known SRS ratings of more modern teams.What we found is that Kentucky has been slightly better, relative to its opposition, than Indiana was. Kentucky’s SRS is 29.05, meaning it would beat an average team on a neutral floor by about 29 points. Indiana’s estimated SRS is 27.49. Though that’s just an estimate, we can be fairly confident — about 90% sure — that Kentucky is the more dominant team. (Again, these are estimates only relative to the average team each season — the question of which team would win head-to-head is an entirely different one.) We also did a bit more data entry from those NCAA.org scans of old team stat sheets to compare Indiana’s core stats with Kentucky’s. Our former ESPN colleague Dean Oliver, now with the Sacramento Kings, developed four factors to describe teams’ style of play. We estimated these for Indiana,4We had to guess what share of its and its opponents’ rebounds came on the offensive side of the floor, because offensive and defensive rebounds weren’t listed separately in the stat sheets that year. To that end, we estimated from trends in recent college data (paywalled) and in the NBA that 35 percent of rebounds by Indiana and its opponents were of the offensive variety. and we also computed each undefeated team’s pace of play and its points scored and allowed per 100 possessions.Indiana was better than Kentucky in a few ways: It allowed fewer points per possession, shot for a slightly higher effective field goal percentage, forced a greater rate of turnovers and allowed slightly fewer free-throw attempts per shot from the floor. But in every other respect, and every net measure, the Wildcats best the Hoosiers.Of course, Kentucky is trying to finish as undefeated champion in 2015 — it’s not chasing the 1975-76 Hoosiers or perfection. Or, as Kentucky coach John Calipari keeps emphasizing to the media when they ask about his team’s quest to finish 40-0, “We know we’re not perfect. We’re undefeated, but we’re not perfect.” The coach is right, and he’d be just as correct if he were describing the 1975-76 Hoosiers.Both the 2014-15 Wildcats and the 1975-76 Hoosiers are great teams — probably among the 25 best teams relative to their competition in the last 40 years of men’s college basketball. But neither team ranks as the best in recent decades. What sets apart Kentucky and Indiana is that they managed to win all their close games and remain undefeated. Indiana won two games in overtime, and five more by five points or fewer. Kentucky has also won two OT games, and two other games by five points or fewer. Each team played nailbiters against Notre Dame: Indiana won by three on Dec. 11, 1975, while Kentucky won by two on Saturday to advance to this weekend’s Final Four in Indianapolis.We have reliable SRS data going back to 1985. Eight teams rank ahead of this season’s Kentucky squad, including two previous Kentucky teams: the 1996 two-loss champs, and the 1997 national runners-up. Those 1997 Wildcats — along with the No. 1 team on our list, the 1999 runners-up, the Duke Blue Devils — provide a warning to this year’s Kentucky squad that the best team usually doesn’t win the NCAA tournament. Even among the eight teams of the last 30 years that were more dominant than Kentucky has been so far this year, just two won the title.
Source: Kevin Pelton/ESPN Philadelphia 76ers7933.27710-223.2 4th266011th1930 6th238013th1760 Charlotte Hornets/Bobcats5644.16900+1255.9 New York Knicks3138.72660-478.7 NBA draft lotteries, 2013-15Sources: Basketball-Reference.COM, Wikipedia New Orleans Pelicans2850.92380-470.9 7th228014th1690 Toronto Raptors100.20-100.2 TEAMEXPECTEDACTUALLUCK Armed with those pick values — and the lottery probabilities for the past three years — we can run a series of simulations to figure out how much value each team was expected to glean from the draft before the lottery balls bounced, and how that value changed after the picks were finalized. I included lottery-protected draft-pick trades in this accounting, so situations where a team’s pick would or would not be traded depending on the outcome of the lottery are reflected — and, as we’ll see, can make a pretty big difference. Portland Trail Blazers2078.32030-48.3 Which teams have enjoyed the most (and least) lottery luck? Tuesday night marks the NBA’s draft lottery, the annual spectacle in which 14 franchises hitch their futures to a sack of pingpong balls. (And not the kind Michael Jordan plays with these days.) Although the process is weighted toward giving better picks to teams with worse records, it’s also an exercise in pure luck as to where the picks are ultimately distributed within that setup. So we decided to take a look at how much effect luck has had, and which teams have benefited from it in recent lotteries.First, we have to quantify the value of an NBA draft pick. Last summer, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton developed a draft value chart on a similar scale to the NFL’s famous Jimmy Johnson chart, based on the net wins above replacement value of the typical player picked in each slot (relative to his salary). Here were Pelton’s values for lottery picks: Milwaukee Bucks3132.43250+117.6 Minnesota Timberwolves7111.17880+768.9 Washington Wizards2329.62890+560.4 Dallas Mavericks1793.11760-33.1 The value of an NBA lottery pick 1st40008th2200 Cleveland Cavaliers5121.88000+2878.2 Phoenix Suns6312.75950-362.7 Oklahoma City Thunder3497.43530+32.6 Sacramento Kings7533.66860-673.6 Orlando Magic8720.88410-310.8 PICKVALUEPICKVALUE 2nd32509th2120 5th250012th1840 Boston Celtics2720.62380-340.6 Los Angeles Lakers5377.65530+152.4 Detroit Pistons6588.84400-2188.8 Denver Nuggets4324.24210-114.2 It’s no surprise to see Cleveland at the top — the Cavs won the lottery from the third slot (despite 16 percent odds) in 2013, when they drafted Anthony Bennett, then won it again the next year from the ninth slot (a 1.7 percent proposition!) and drafted Andrew Wiggins. Bennett’s awfulness aside, in recent lotteries no team has seen the balls bounce in a luckier direction than the Cavs. Meanwhile, the next-luckiest — and the least lucky — teams are linked through a trade conditional on where a pick landed, which Cleveland’s stroke of luck also influenced. In 2014, the Detroit Pistons’ first-round pick was top-8 protected, and they finished in the No. 8 lottery slot, with an 83 percent chance the pick would not be conveyed to the Hornets. Instead, because the Cavs won the lottery and everything else played out according to the pre-aligned slots, Detroit fell outside the top 8 and lost the pick, which Charlotte used on Noah Vonleh. (It almost certainly would have been conveyed to Charlotte anyway the following season, but it illustrates how one team’s unexpected lottery luck can have ripple effects for numerous other teams.)Finally, since we all love focusing on the tank-tastic Philadelphia 76ers, here’s that same distribution chart for their past three lotteries: 3rd289010th2030 CUMULATIVE PICK VALUE Miami Heat2067.42030-37.4 Utah Jazz6376.36030-346.3 To underscore that point, here’s a look at the possible distributions of Cleveland’s draft outcomes, and where they actually ended up: Indiana Pacers1967.11930-37.1 Notice that the entire x-axis of their distribution is shifted far farther right than, say, Cleveland’s — because the Sixers were so bad, their drafts had an enormous amount of expected value. But given that, they essentially hit on exactly the median expected value of those picks — with average luck, multiple years of tanking only carried them to the fourth-most valuable set of picks after the balls finished bouncing.Tuesday night, Philadelphia will have the highest probability of picking No. 1 — albeit with only a 25 percent chance. Let’s see if they can exceed the straight-down-the-middle lottery luck they’ve had the past few seasons.CORRECTION (May 18, 11:03 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the years in which two Cleveland players were drafted. Kyrie Irving was drafted in 2011, not in 2013, and Anthony Bennett was drafted in 2013, not 2014.
Few colleges had more success in the first decade of this century than the University of Texas, whose football and men’s basketball programs regularly brushed shoulders with the nation’s elite. But what’s been happening in recent years has been nothing short of bewildering.With Mack Brown at the helm, the football team won 158 games in 16 seasons, for a win percentage of .767. That span included the Longhorns’ famous undefeated season of 2005, when Vince Young helped defeat USC and win the school’s first undisputed national title in 35 years. On the court, the Rick Barnes-era was the most successful in the school’s history. Barnes won 402 games in 17 seasons, for a win rate of .691, and took the Longhorns to their first Final Four in 56 years. Under Brown and Barnes, who both coached their first game for the Longhorns in 1998, the University of Texas represented dominance and stability. But after the football team fell to 4-5 on the season under Tom Herman last Saturday and with the men’s basketball team set to open its new season on Friday coming off of an 11-22 record last year, it’s the women’s basketball and volleyball teams keeping the Longhorns from total irrelevance.Don’t get us wrong, the Longhorns will survive regardless of what happens to their two largest sports for generating revenue, especially if the women’s hoops team continues to make it to the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament. But it’s certainly baffling how much this former juggernaut of football and men’s basketball has declined considering the resources at its disposal to hire top coaches and recruit the best talent. It reportedly cost Texas $19 million to fire Charlie Strong from the top football coaching position and hire Herman from the University of Houston. And the deal to hire current men’s basketball head coach Shaka Smart — who had numerous schools trying to secure his services after taking Virginia Commonwealth, a mid-major, to the Final Four in 2011 — wasn’t cheap either, costing Texas about $22 million over seven years.The regression has been significant: Since Brown and Barnes departed, the football and men’s basketball programs combined to win less than half of their games.1Longhorn football has a .435 win percentage since 2014 while the basketball team has a .470 win percentage since 2015. To give this some context, we compared Texas to some of the other schools that have been consistently competitive in both sports — in other words, not one-sport powers like Kansas (basketball) or Georgia (football). Specifically, we looked at every school that ranked inside the top 50 in all-time wins for both football and men’s basketball and calculated the harmonic mean of their football and men’s basketball Elo ratings since 1988, the earliest we have data for both sports.2We used a harmonic mean instead of a straight average to make sure a team was performing well (or poorly) in both sports at the same time. This allows us to see how these teams compare in the combined success of their two biggest programs. UT’s decline has been rapid and, for Longhorns fans, the results will be depressing. 201421.58816.462 201327.68616.615 The basketball program’s recruitment problem hasn’t been attracting top talent — the Longhorns have produced several NBA stars in recent years, including Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson and, most recently, Myles Turner. Instead the Longhorns have failed to translate their NBA-caliber talent into postseason success — the Longhorns have failed to make the Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament since 2008.But things may finally be turning around. After its rough recruiting class in 2017 — which was disrupted by the firing of Strong and hiring of Herman — the football team has rebounded to secure 16 commitments from the ESPN Top 300 so far for the 2018 class and is No. 2 in team rankings. And Smart has the basketball team ranked No. 12 as of Thursday, which is impressive considering that the school is coming off its worst season in decades. Smart’s class could improve after the early signing period, which is happening now. The Longhorns are in the hunt for No. 7 Keldon Johnson and No. 13 Quentin Grimes. 20176?33.444 RECRUITING CLASSTEAM RANKWIN PCT.TEAM RANKWIN PCT. 201515.6069.417 20114.5885.615 BASKETBALLFOOTBALL 20094.7063.929 *2018 basketball team rank as of Nov. 9, 2017; 2018 football team rank as of Nov. 8, 2017**For basketball, the year of a recruiting class is for freshmen whose first season begins that fallSource: ESPN Currently, only Missouri ranks worse than Texas, and Missouri’s problems in and away from the sports world have been well documented (sorry to drag you into this, Mizzou fans). For more context, Wisconsin is currently the best two-sport school.3Greg Gard took the men’s basketball team to the Sweet 16 last season, and Paul Chryst’s football team is currently 9-0 and ranked No.8 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Based on this measure, it’s fair to say that the Longhorns are in the midst of one of their worst stretches in almost 30 years.On the football side, the problem can be traced to recruitment. Between 2009 and 2012, Texas registered four consecutive top-5 recruiting classes, according to ESPN’s team rankings. In the next five years: zero. Last season, they ranked No. 33. Think about that for a second: The University of Texas with the 33rd-best crop of freshman football talent. The turnover from Brown to Strong to Herman is certainly a factor here. Since NCAA rules stipulate that football players must stay in school for three years, talented high-school players seek stability — not knowing who your head coach will be next year can be the difference between a top recruit committing to your program and going elsewhere.But another disconcerting thing about the Longhorns’ recent dip in recruitment is that Texas plays in the epicenter of high school football — no state produced more recruits in ESPN’s Top 300 rankings in 2016, and only Florida produced more in 2017. But recently, it has lost its hold on the best prospects from within its own borders. As a result, the top Texas high school recruits are increasingly looking outside of the state. Among the top 30 recruits in Texas in 2017, LSU was the most popular destination (five players chose to go to Baton Rouge, compared with the three who picked Austin). 20124.4713.692 Texas is finding its way back onto the recruiting mapUniversity of Texas men’s basketball and football recruiting class ranks 201812?2? 20108.7782.417 201611.33310.417 Although the school has been rocked by huge personnel turnover over the past four years, there’s a little light on the horizon. The football team has three games remaining on its schedule and is just one win away from being bowl eligible, so Herman’s team could end another tough year on a positive note (Granted, Texas’s boosters won’t be doing backflips over a trip to the Cactus Bowl — but it’s something.) As for Smart and the basketball team, they’re resting their hopes on freshman center Mohamed Bamba, who is ranked No. 4 among incoming freshmen by ESPN heading into the new season. With a fresh start kicking off Friday, Smart will be looking to take his team back to the NCAA Tournament.
Here are the notes Neil worked from for the conversation: Embed Code Hot Takedown More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed After Chris Paul and Alex Ovechkin were knocked out of their playoffs this month, there were a lot of hot takes about how neither was a big enough star to carry his team to a championship. On this week’s “Hot Takedown,” Kate Fagan, Neil Paine and Chadwick Matlin look at some of the research on whether you need a star to win a title, or whether winning a title makes you a star. According to Neil’s analysis, the sport that relies on star players the most is basketball — then come baseball, football and hockey.
Welcome to this week’s episode of Hot Takedown, our podcast where the hot sports takes of the week meet the numbers that prove them right or tear them down. On this week’s special show (July 14, 2015), we go to Stat School. With Kate on vacation, Chad out of the office and Neil stuck in New York, we pre-taped an episode that breaks down three ways to measure batting, in increasing complexity: batting average, OPS (on-base plus slugging) and wRC+ (weighted runs created plus). Neil schools Kate and Chad on the pros and cons of the stats, and what sabermetrics has taught us about players like the Colorado Rockies’ Nolan Arenado.Stream the episode by clicking the play button, or subscribe using one of the podcast clients we’ve linked to above.Below are some links to what we discuss on this week’s show:Nolan Arenado’s stat page.An in-depth explanation of batting average.An OPS breakdown.What is wRC+? More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS Hot Takedown If you’re a fan of our podcasts, be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts and leave a rating/review. That helps spread the word to other listeners. And get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments. Tell us what you think, send us hot takes to discuss and tell us why we’re wrong.
As if to put an exclamation point on their recent winning ways, the Toronto Blue Jays went into the Bronx over the weekend and swept the AL East-leading New York Yankees by a combined score of 10-1, narrowing New York’s division lead to a mere game and a half.The Blue Jays’ hot streak has been linked to their aggressive deal-making before MLB’s July 31 trade deadline. But as Victor Mather of The New York Times rightly pointed out in a column Monday, Toronto had the characteristics of a dominant team before they added any players. As of July 28, they possessed the American League’s top per-game run differential and its best underlying statistical fundamentals, despite a sub-.500 record.Baseball statheads have long known that a team’s run differential is generally a better predictor of future wins and losses than its record. So, it stood to reason that the Blue Jays would eventually turn things around. But we should also be careful not to swing too far in the opposite direction and ignore team records entirely.Run differential — which is usually expressed on the same scale as a winning percentage using the pythagorean formula — is indeed a better predictor than a team’s actual record. When predicting future wins at this stage of the baseball season, run differential is about 1.8 times as important as actual winning percentage. But that still means the optimal mix of pythagorean and actual winning percentages is roughly a 65-35 split, a ratio that gets closer to 50-50 as the season draws toward its end.This means that even if you know a team’s run differential, it also pays quite a bit to know its W-L record. While teams do tend to regress toward their underlying metrics, especially early in the season, we can capture additional signal by measuring a team’s ability to actually win ballgames (shock!).As for the Blue Jays, they’re clearly one of the AL’s best teams, especially with the extra weapons they picked up at the deadline. But their recent run of success wasn’t completely fated by their great underlying metrics earlier in the season — odds are, that disappointing record also said something real about them.
Junior forward Claudia Kepler (24) looks to pass the puck during a game against Minnesota State on Oct. 23 at the Schottenstein Center. OSU won 5-3.Credit: Courtesy of OSUThe Ohio State women’s hockey team (9-20-1, 5-18-1) was swept in a home series by the No. 2 Wisconsin Badgers (28-1-1, 22-1-1) over the weekend despite putting up a battle in both games against one of the nation’s elite teams.Heading into the series, the Buckeyes were on their best four-game stretch of the season after recording two wins, a tie and a loss over their last two series.This was the second series between the Badgers and Buckeyes this season. The two teams played in the first conference series of the season in Madison, Wisconsin, in early October. Wisconsin outscored OSU 15-0 over those two games.This time around, the Buckeyes showcased their improved play despite losing both contests by scores of 2-1 on Friday and 2-0 on Saturday.In Game 1, the Buckeyes held with the conference leaders throughout the first period but allowed a late power-play goal with less than two minutes remaining in the period. The goal for the Badgers was scored by junior defenseman Jenny Ryan.Both teams continued to battle in the second and third periods, and the Badgers broke through with a goal from sophomore Annie Pankowski to double their lead.The Buckeyes were able to find the net against the country’s best defense when junior Claudia Kepler scored her 12th goal of the season about halfway through the period. However, that was all the scoring the home team could manage despite a late power-play opportunity, and the game ended with Wisconsin taking the 2-1 win.On Saturday, in an emotionally charged contest, neither the Badgers nor Buckeyes were able to break through offensively in the first period. The Buckeyes got out to a slow offensive start with only two shots in the period, but sophomore goalie Alex LaMere was able to block all 12 of the Wisconsin shots to keep the game goalless.Four minutes into the second period, however, sophomore forward Baylee Wellhausen broke through to give the Badgers a one-goal lead. Then, a little over a minute into the third period, the Badgers got their second goal of the game when freshman Sam Cogan beat LaMere, sealing the 2-0 win.OSU will look to rediscover its ability to put points on the scoreboard when it travels to Bemidji State University next weekend to take on the Beavers in its final away series of the regular season. The games are scheduled to begin on Friday at 8:07 p.m. and Saturday at 5:07 p.m.A request for comments from the team after the second game of the weekend was denied.
Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue questions an official’s call during a game on Feb. 8 at in Cleveland. Credit: Courtesy of TNSFifty-two years.That is the amount of time since the city of Cleveland has been able to lay claim to a professional sports championship. Fifty-two years of long, agonizing pain for most Cleveland sports fans. However, a dawn seems to be coming.This year’s Cleveland Cavaliers look poised to be the city’s best chance in the past couple decades to defeat a sports curse that has plagued the town for the better part of the past century.The Cavs came as close to a championship in 2015 as any Cleveland team since the Indians lost in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series to the Florida Marlins. They lost in six games to the Golden State Warriors in a series in which they were hampered by injuries, playing without stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.This year, the Cavaliers have had their ups and downs. Former coach David Blatt was fired about a month ago despite leading the team to a 30-11 record to start the season. Assistant coach Tyronn Lue was promoted to the head role, and the team is 10-4 since the move.Lue’s promotion, seemingly, was put in motion in order to counteract the Warriors’ offensive juggernaut, as many expect the two teams to meet again in the NBA Finals come June. Lue has stressed a more up-tempo offense, and it’s worked, evidenced by an increase in scoring from 101.4 points per game to 107.3 under the 38-year-old rookie coach.Although the team did not necessarily have bad conditioning before the coaching change, Lue has stated on many occasions that the Cavaliers need to get in better shape.This is something Cleveland will need if it goes up against the Warriors — a team that averages an astonishing 115.0 points per game and usually has five players on the court who can run in transition.One thing the Cavs have focused on is incorporating Love into their offense more. At times, Love looked out of place in Blatt’s offense, and he was visibly frustrated when he did not receive the ball.The Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James (23) puts up a shot during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant in Cleveland on Feb. 10. Credit: Courtesy of TNSUnder Lue’s offense, Love has seen an increase in touches, both in the post and at the elbow.Love is especially dangerous at the elbow, where he is able to hit the mid-range jumper. In the post, he has success backing down his defender for a baby hook near the block or pass to open shooters like J.R. Smith and Richard Jefferson that spot up on the 3-point line.Channing Frye, who was recently acquired in a trade from Orlando, looks to play a pivotal part in the Cleveland offense as well. A 6-foot-11 post who shoots 3-pointers well, Frye playing alongside Love would give James four different options to kick the ball out to when he’s driving to the rim.Not surprisingly, a game plan to stop the Warriors first starts with containing Stephen Curry. Curry, the reigning MVP, is averaging 29.8 points per game this year and has terrorized the league from the 3-point line.Matthew Dellavedova proved capable at times guarding Curry in last year’s Finals. The key to his performance, and something the Cavs need to emulate again, is constant pressure on Curry. Whoever guards Curry has to pick him up right as he crosses half court and not leave his side until the rebound is secured.Additionally, if the Warriors do employ their small-ball lineup, Cleveland needs to use its size to gain an advantage on both the offensive and defensive boards.After losing to the Warriors last year in the Finals and both games this season, including a 132-98 blowout, the Cavaliers will undoubtedly have one eye on the Finals as they finish the season and head into the postseason.One could argue that Cleveland needs to focus on one game at a time. It’s a valid point, as the Cavs have a tendency at times this year to play down to the level of their opponents, namely a 106-97 loss to a Charlotte Hornets team playing with neither Al Jefferson nor Kemba Walker.However, the Cavaliers have shown they can make quick work of Eastern Conference foes in the playoffs. Besides perhaps the Toronto Raptors, no team poses a real threat to Cleveland’s hopes for back-to-back Finals appearances.Most importantly, the Cavaliers need to stay healthy. Fans and analysts alike have questioned, “What if?” in regards to Love and Irving’s absences in the Finals last year. Irving has a history of being injury-prone, so his minutes will need to be monitored as the Cavaliers advance deep into the playoffs.Despite what many say, the “Cleveland Curse” is real. Fans of the Cavaliers, Indians and Browns have gotten their hearts broken time and time again whenever it seems a championship run is impending. However, it is very possible that this just might finally be the year that the city of Cleveland can forget years of misery and rejoice as the Cavaliers bring home a championship.