If this weekend’s conference championship games feel as if they were predestined, it’s no accident. In fact, many prognosticators projected a version of this for these four teams — the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC and the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC — as the season began. That means we could be in for an outstanding weekend of games between the very cream of the NFL’s crop.
In the NFC, this is a matchup of the conference’s top offense (the Eagles) versus its top defense (the 49ers). Philadelphia played like the NFL’s best team all season behind their Most Valuable Player award finalist Jalen Hurts at quarterback. However, uncertainty crept in as Hurts injured his shoulder late in the season (and his replacement, Gardner Minshew, appeared to be in over his head). Nonetheless, when Hurts returned from injury he regained the form that made Philadelphia one of the most dangerous teams in the league. Somehow, being injured and missing games only solidified his MVP case — only in his absence did we see just how valuable he truly is.
Hurts is protected up front by arguably the NFL’s best offensive line — they ranked first in ProFootballFocus’s pass-blocking grade and third in run-blocking — led by center Jason Kelce, who could find himself in Canton when his career concludes. And when given enough time, Hurts has been able to efficiently get the ball to his dynamic wide receivers. DeVonta Smith had 1,196 yards on the season while his teammate A.J. Brown had 1,496. But the Eagles also have a well-balanced offensive attack. Running back Miles Sanders was fifth in the NFL in rushing yardage this season, eclipsing the 1,200-yard mark, and he wasn’t even the team’s leading rusher in the divisional round win over the rival New York Giants (that would be third-stringer Kenneth Gainwell, showcasing just how much depth Philly’s offense has). The Eagles also have the best defense by yards per game allowed, anchored by an elite pass-rusher in 2023 Pro Bowler Haason Reddick. And on the back end, they boast what most would consider the league’s best secondary with Darius Slay, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and James Bradberry — all considered in the upper tier at their respective positions in the NFL.
Lest you think the Eagles are alone in their across-the-board strength, the 49ers similarly boast a healthy balance of efficient offense paired with an exceptional defense. San Francisco sets the tone for its top-ranked defense by dominating the line of scrimmage. The Niners’ ability to generate pressure with their front four affords defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans great schematic flexibility. (And his ability to effectively implement his scheme is part of what has made him a hot head-coaching candidate this offseason.) It also helps to have one of the league’s premier pass rushers in Nick Bosa, who led the NFL in sacks this season. At the second level, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are a formidable linebacking tandem and compliment each other’s style of play as well as any pair in the league. San Francisco’s secondary is solid — Charvarius Ward, signed from K.C., has been their most consistent cornerback, and Jimmie Ward continues to be a leader on defense — while 2023 Pro Bowler Talanoa Hufanga has been a breakout star.
Offensively, do-everything running back Christian McCaffrey has arguably been one of the best mid-season acquisitions in NFL history, when considering his immediate impact on a Super Bowl-caliber team. He brings another dynamic dimension for one of the league’s preeminent play-callers, Kyle Shanahan, in what will be a matchup of teams with more similarities than differences. This game might come down to how well rookie seventh-round pick Brock Purdy can continue to play under center. San Francisco’s offense hasn’t missed a beat with Purdy at the helm. Purdy is undefeated since taking over as starter. He continues to manage the game and get the ball into the hands of the team’s best playmakers.
But given how strong both teams are in all facets of the game, this is likely to be a hard-fought game. The FiveThirtyEight model gives the Eagles a 59 percent chance of winning at home and advancing to the Super Bowl, and I don’t disagree with the idea of a narrow Philly victory.
If the NFC championship is a tale of two of the NFL’s best defenses, the AFC championship could very well be a showdown between the league’s most prolific offenses.
The Bengals were the Cinderella story of 2021: In what was believed to be a “make or break” year for head coach Zac Taylor, all he did was guide Cincinnati to knock off the team that was favored to return to the Super Bowl, en route to Cincy’s own appearance in the Big Game. You’d think the Bengals would not sneak up on anyone again, but they upset another team considered the Super Bowl favorite this year — the Buffalo Bills — when Buffalo seemed poised for a huge win at home. The NFL even pre-sold over 50,000 tickets for a potential neutral-site AFC championship game between K.C. and Buffalo before the outcome of the Bills-Bengals game had been decided.
Last week’s win over Buffalo solidified the notion that Cincinnati has indeed found its franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow. Affectionately nicknamed “Joe Cool” for his unflappable demeanor, particularly in big games, he has led his Bengals to three consecutive victories over the Chiefs (including the postseason). He also has help: The Bengals’ offensive line, which has been an Achilles’ heel of sorts in the past, has played much better this season than last, when Burrow was sacked more than any QB in the NFL. The line could be missing as many as three starters heading into the AFC title game, but it has played its best down the stretch in 2022. Plus, Burrow has helped the protection some by getting the ball out more quickly to his dynamic weapons Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Ja’Marr Chase. And Joe Mixon continues to run the ball effectively, helping give this team balance offensively.
Mixon is key to the Bengals’ chances, as they will need to maintain an effective running game to ultimately keep the Kansas City offense on the sideline. Defending the prolific Chiefs offense will be a tall task for a Cincinnati pass defense that has been somewhat inconsistent this season. The Chiefs are led by a trio that are all but certain future Hall of Famers: coach Andy Reid, tight end Travis Kelce and possible two-time NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes.1 Mahomes orchestrates the wildly innovative Chiefs offense and all of their talented weapons. Rookie seventh-round draft pick Isiah Pacheco runs with a type of physicality that is a healthy complement to the Chiefs’ finesse passing game. Receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster offer a bigger physical presence, in contrast to the smaller “race car” types of Skyy Moore, Kadarius Toney and Mecole Hardman. And tight end Kelce is a matchup nightmare for defenders between the numbers.
For these reasons, the Chiefs are nearly impossible to consistently stop while at full strength. But it’s important to note that Kansas City’s most important player may not be fully healthy for Sunday’s game — Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain early in K.C.’s divisional win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. While the Chiefs’ QB says he will be “ready to go” for the game against Cincinnati, there are lingering questions about how much the injury will limit Mahomes’ trademark mobility and ability to make plays with both his arm and legs.
In large part because of those injury concerns, the Chiefs might even be considered underdogs in this game according to the Vegas oddsmakers. (The game is listed as a toss-up now, but Cincinnati had been favored earlier in the week.) With all the talk that the Bengals have overtaken the Chiefs as the prettiest girl at the AFC dance, you can be assured that Reid will have his team motivated and ready to play. Since Mahomes is expected to start,2 the FiveThirtyEight model has K.C. installed as 58 percent favorites, and I personally would not be surprised if the Chiefs win by convincing margin.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.
During the MLB offseason, we can rely on at least two things: players changing uniforms via trades or free-agent signings, and the ensuing roster crunch that usually follows. Oftentimes, these moves require making space on the team for said new acquisition, resulting in bumping a player who either may not be a good fit for the organization, is in excess at his position (making him expendable) or both.
But all hope is not lost for these players. Getting removed from the 40-man roster — otherwise known as being designated for assignment, or “DFA’d” for short — means a club has seven days to trade the player or pass him through waivers (where another team can claim him). Players often change teams through this process, especially when they have upside, as these moves can sometimes involve younger players with fringe MLB potential. The catch? The acquiring or claiming team needs to fit the player onto their 40-man roster.
Such can begin a cycle of a player being in both too much demand and too little — and perhaps no one embodies that more than Baltimore Orioles first baseman Lewin Díaz. To say that Díaz has endured a roller-coaster of an offseason thus far would be an understatement: Since last November, he was DFA’d an astounding five times before finally clearing waivers and getting outrighted to the minors by the Orioles. As a result, Díaz’s transaction offseason sheet is now as long as a CVS receipt.
|11/15/2022||Designated for assignment||Miami Marlins||—|
|11/15/2022||Assigned||Miami Marlins||Estrellas Orientales|
|11/22/2022||Claimed off waivers||Miami Marlins||Pittsburgh Pirates|
|11/30/2022||Designated for assignment||Pittsburgh Pirates||—|
|12/02/2022||Claimed off waivers||Pittsburgh Pirates||Baltimore Orioles|
|12/21/2022||Designated for assignment||Baltimore Orioles||—|
|12/23/2022||Traded||Baltimore Orioles||Atlanta Braves|
|12/28/2022||Designated for assignment||Atlanta Braves||—|
|01/05/2023||Claimed off waivers||Atlanta Braves||Baltimore Orioles|
|01/11/2023||Designated for assignment||Baltimore Orioles||—|
|01/17/2023||Outrighted||Baltimore Orioles||Norfolk Tides|
Getting DFA’d that often in one offseason isn’t just uncommon — it’s impressive. It signals that even though these clubs may not think he is good enough to stay on their respective 40-man rosters, Díaz still has a skill set that these organizations are willing to take a chance on, even if their plan is only to stash him in Triple-A until he is contributing at the major-league level.
And that makes sense if you dig into Díaz’s history. The Minnesota Twins signed him as an international free agent back in 2013, when he was 16 years old, and at the time, he was a top-10 international prospect, according to MLB.com. The Twins committed a sizable amount of money to him, too — $1.4 million, to be exact. Scouts immediately took notice of his big, raw power, even comparing him with Ryan Howard. His bat translated to the professional ranks immediately, posting a 142 weighted runs created plus in rookie ball, at the age of 17.
Díaz continued to hit as he ascended through the minors with the Twins, and he was acquired by the Marlins in 2019. He clubbed 27 homers and went into the 2020 season as Miami’s seventh-best prospect, having moved from the outfield to first base. He gained a reputation for being a plus defender at the position, and in 2020, he got his first taste of major-league action.
The problem? He just didn’t hit. Because there was no minor league season that year, Díaz had to adjust to facing MLB pitching without a single plate appearance in AAA. Though it was just a 14-game sample, Díaz posted a wRC+ mark of just 9. (Nine!) Things didn’t improve a whole lot over the next two seasons; although he showed some power (13 home runs in 98 games), a 60 wRC+ wasn’t enough to turn heads.
One thing that has translated to the major-league level, however, is Díaz’s aforementioned defensive prowess. Remarkably, he ranks second among all first basemen in Defensive Runs Saved (16) since the 2020 season, despite playing only 753 ⅔ innings. If we are to believe what DRS is telling us, then Díaz doesn’t just have a good glove at first base, it’s actually the best in baseball on a per-inning basis (and it isn’t even that close).
It’s that defensive value, combined with the power potential — particularly of the left-handed variety — that has made the Pirates, Orioles, Braves and Orioles (again) want to take a chance on Díaz. Based on his per-inning defensive track record, Díaz could be worth at least a win (if not much more) over a whole season with his glove alone. And we’ve seen shades of what he might do with the bat in a similar span of games: Over the past two years, he has swatted 39 homers in 156 AAA contests. We even got another taste of it when Díaz was playing in the Dominican Winter League last month, between DFAs:
Díaz will still be just 26 on opening day, so there is still reason to believe he can turn things around offensively. And the Orioles, a squad who made an unlikely playoff push in 2022, will now be able to stash Díaz as a depth piece in the minors, waiting for his chance to shine with the big club. As of now, the team has Ryan Mountcastle listed as the starting first baseman and Anthony Santander as the designated hitter. There is always the outside chance that Díaz could make the team out of spring training as a non-roster invitee, though it would likely take a monster March to do so. But those are just normal baseball-prospect hurdles to clear. Once you’ve changed organizations four times in the span of 44 days, simply knowing what franchise you’ll be competing for is half the battle.
Welcome to The Riddler. Every week, I offer up problems related to the things we hold dear around here: math, logic and probability. Two puzzles are presented each week: the Riddler Express for those of you who want something bite-size and the Riddler Classic for those of you in the slow-puzzle movement. Submit a correct answer for either, win , I need to receive your correct answer before 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on Monday. Have a great weekend!</p> </p>">3 and you may get a shoutout in the next column. Please wait until Monday to publicly share your answers! If you need a hint or have a favorite puzzle collecting dust in your attic, find me on Twitter or send me an email.
From Kyle Willstatter comes a puzzle that’s right on target:
You’re playing darts and trying to maximize the number of points you earn with each throw. You are deciding which sector to aim for. Your dart has a 50 percent chance of landing in that sector and a 25 percent chance of landing in one of the two neighboring sectors. Reading clockwise, the sectors are worth 20, 1, 18, 4, 13, 6, 10, 15, 2, 17, 3, 19, 7, 16, 8, 11, 14, 9, 12 and 5 points, as shown below. (For the purposes of this puzzle, don’t worry about the bullseye, the outer ring that’s worth double or the inner ring that’s worth triple.)
Which sector should you aim for to maximize your expected score?
Extra credit: How would you “fairly” (by some definition of fair for you to define) assign the point values around a dartboard? Explain your thinking.
From Angela Zhou comes a challenging meme analysis:
The #blindletterchallenge has recently taken TikTok by storm. In this challenge, you are presented with five letters, one at a time. Letters are picked randomly, but you can assume that no two letters are the same (i.e., letters are picked without replacement). As each letter is presented, you must identify which of five slots you will place it. The goal is for the letters in all five slots to be in alphabetical order at the end.
For example, consider an attempt at the challenge by Michael DiCostanzo. The first letter is X. Since this occurs relatively late in the alphabet, he puts this in the fifth slot. The second letter is U. He puts that in the fourth slot, since it also comes relatively late (and the fifth slot is already occupied). Next, the third letter is E. He takes a gamble, and places E in the first slot. The fourth letter is D. Since D comes before E alphabetically, but no slots prior to E are now available, Michael loses this attempt.
If you play with an optimal strategy, always placing letters in slots to maximize your chances of victory, what is your probability of winning?
Congratulations to Amy Leblang of Wayland, Massachusetts, winner of last week’s Riddler Express.
Last week, you were introduced to two friends who had birthdays on Feb. 9 and Nov. 18. When written numerically in MM/DD formatting, these dates were 02/09 and 11/18. Interestingly, the latter date included both the sum and the product of the values in the former date: 11 = 02 + 09 and 18 = 02 × 09.
How many pairs of dates were there such that one of the dates included both the product and the sum of the values in the other date (in either order)? Here, the order of the dates in the pair didn’t matter, so “02/09 and 11/18” was considered the same as “11/18 and 02/09.”
It turned out that there were quite a few such pairs. The key here was to carefully organize your counting so that you didn’t double-count any dates or miss any of them. Suppose the first date was A/B. Solver Jenny Mitchell distinctly considered when the second date was “sum-first” — A+B/A·B — or “product-first” — A·B/A+B. Sometimes, only one of these was possible. And occasionally, they were the same.
Here are the “sum-first” possibilities, organized by A:
In total, this accounted for 61 “sum-first” pairings. But what about when the second date was “product-first”?
This accounted for another 35 “product-first” pairings. In all, that meant you had 61 pairs plus another 35 pairs, which meant there were 96 possible pairs. Right?
Wrong. That’s because of the special case of 02/02. Its “sum-first” pair was 04/04, and its “product-first” pair was also 04/04. Since we counted this pair in both lists — rather than counting it once — the total tally was one too high. In the end, there were 95 pairs of dates.
Congratulations to Matt Frank of New York, New York, winner of last week’s Riddler Classic.
Last week, a restaurant at the center of Riddler City was testing an airborne drone delivery service against their existing fleet of scooters. The restaurant was at the center of a large Manhattan-like array of square city blocks, which the scooter had to follow.
Both vehicles traveled at the same speed, which meant drones could make more deliveries per unit of time. You could also assume that (1) Riddler City was circular in shape (2) deliveries were made to random locations throughout the city and (3) the city was much, much larger than its individual blocks.
In a (large) given amount of time, what was the expected ratio between the number of deliveries a drone could make to the number of deliveries a scooter could make?
This was equivalent to finding the ratio between the average distances — measured two different ways — from the center of Riddler City to a random location within Riddler City. For the drone, you simply needed the average Euclidean distance, or the straight-line distance.
For simplicity, let’s scale down Riddler City to a unit circle, centered at the origin and with radius 1. The distance between the origin and a point in the circle (x, y) was √(x2+y2). Since the city was circular, it actually made more sense to write this in polar notation: A point at (r, 𝜃) was a distance r from the origin. To find the average distance among all the points in the circle, you had to integrate r from 0 to 1, and 𝜃 from 0 to 2𝜋, using the area differential rdrd𝜃. Evaluating this integral gave you 2𝜋/3. Finally, you had to normalize by dividing by the total area of the circle, which was 𝜋. In the end, the average distance between a random point in a unit circle and the circle’s center was 2/3.
For our same point (x, y), the scooter traveled the “Manhattan distance,” or x+y. In polar form, this distance was |rcos𝜃| + |rsin𝜃|. After plugging this distance into the integral and separating variables, you were still integrating r2 from 0 to 1, which was 1/3. As for 𝜃, you were now integrating |cos𝜃|+|sin𝜃| from 0 to 2𝜋, which was 8. The total integral was the product of these two separated integrals, or 8/3. Normalizing by the area of the circle meant the average Manhattan distance was 8/(3𝜋).
At this point, you had the average Euclidean and Manhattan distances. All that was left was to find the ratio of these two values, which was 2/3 ÷ 8/(3𝜋), or 𝜋/4. Again, this was the ratio of the average distances traveled by the drone and scooter. To find the ratio of their expected number of deliveries, you needed to take the reciprocal, since distance and delivery rate were inversely related. In the end, the ratio of drone deliveries to scooter deliveries was 4/𝜋, or about 1.273.
For extra credit, in addition to traveling parallel to the city blocks, scooters could also move diagonally from one corner of a block to the opposite corner of the block. With this additional motion in play, what was the expected ratio between the number of deliveries a drone could make and the number of deliveries a scooter could make?
Since the drone didn’t use these new paths, its average distance traveled in the unit circle remained 2/3. However, these new paths decreased the average distance for the scooter.
Consider points in the unit circle (x, y) with x > y > 0. (Note that these points make up one-eighth of the unit circle.) As shown below, the distance the scooter would travel to reach such a point was (x−y)+y√2.
In polar coordinates, this was rcos𝜃 + rsin𝜃(√2−1). Integrating and normalizing over the eighth of the unit circle resulted in an average distance of 16/(3𝜋)·(√2-1). And thanks to symmetry, this was the average for the other seven-eighths of the unit circle, meaning it was the average for the entire unit circle.
And so, with these diagonal routes now available, the ratio of drone deliveries to scooter deliveries was 8/𝜋(√2-1), or about 1.055. While the drone was still more efficient than the scooter, the additional diagonal paths impressively brought the scooter’s efficiency 80 percent closer to that of the drone.
Well, aren’t you lucky? There’s a whole book full of the best puzzles from this column and some never-before-seen head-scratchers. It’s called “The Riddler,” and it’s in stores now!
Email Zach Wissner-Gross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.
At some point last year — maybe around when my child woke up wailing at 4 a.m. for the thousandth time — I gave up wondering when I would stop being so tired. For parents of young children, “tired” isn’t a state of being that can be sloughed off with a few good nights’ sleep. It’s an innate condition — the thing I say reflexively when people ask me how I am, the excuse I use for days when everything I touch feels mediocre. Burnout, exhaustion — call it what you want, but I’m not the only one who can’t stop talking about how tired I am. Stories about parental exhaustion are ubiquitous.
Except that burden of fatigue isn’t evenly distributed, and parents are feeling a lot of other things, too. In a newly released survey of 3,757 parents of children under the age of 18 conducted last fall, the Pew Research Center dug into the drama of raising kids in the United States today, asking about parents’ worries and dreams for their children, how caring for kids is divvied up at home and — yes — how tired parents really are.
The survey found that the stress and worry of parenting are disproportionately affecting mothers and parents of color.4 But that doesn’t mean the stress is getting to them — the groups that reported higher levels of stress, fatigue and worry were among the most likely to say that having children is rewarding and enjoyable all of the time. Perhaps it’s a kind of parental Stockholm syndrome, where the parents in the most arduous conditions grow to love their misery.
Fathers took on more caregiving responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Pew survey indicates that in most households, the emotional weight of parenting still falls on mothers. According to the survey, mothers are more likely than fathers to say that being a parent is tiring (47 percent vs. 34 percent) or stressful (33 percent vs. 24 percent) all or most of the time. Mothers are also more worried than fathers about whether their children will face hardships, like being bullied or struggling with anxiety and depression, and they’re more likely to say that they experience judgment about their parenting from friends, other parents in their community and other parents online.
Mothers in heterosexual relationships also reported that they do more child care tasks and their perceptions of the division of labor did not always line up with the way fathers saw things.5 For example, a majority (58 percent) of mothers say they do more work providing comfort or emotional support to their children, while the same share (58 percent) of fathers said that this task was shared equally. The only area asked about in which mothers and fathers generally agreed that the work was shared equally was on disciplining their children — and even there, 31 percent of fathers said that they did more of the work, compared to 36 percent of mothers.
So who’s right? Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also supports the idea that women are spending more of their time on most forms of childcare. According to the latest American Time Use Survey, which measures the amount of time people spend on various activities throughout their day, mothers of children under the age of 18 report spending 1.76 hours per day with childcare as their main activity, while men only spent 1.02 hours. When the survey researchers broke it down, women reported spending more time than men on physical care for kids and activities related to their education — but men and women were spending about the same amount of time playing with their kids. (The BLS definition specifically excludes sports from “playing with children.”)
But mothers and fathers weren’t the only groups with different outlooks on parenting. There were also substantial divides by race and ethnicity. In the Pew survey, Black and Hispanic parents expressed more concern than white or Asian parents about their children facing challenges like being bullied, struggling with anxiety and depression, or being beaten up. Other groups suffered from different forms of anxiety: Asian parents were more likely than parents from other racial and ethnic groups to say they feel judged by their own parents at least sometimes, and white parents were more likely to say they feel judged by other parents in their community.
One of the biggest racial and ethnic divides wasn’t about the downsides of parenting, though — it was about the benefits. Black (39 percent) and Hispanic (39 percent) parents were more likely than white (18 percent) and Asian (13 percent) parents to say that they find being a parent to be enjoyable all the time. There’s a similar — although slightly less dramatic divide — when parents were asked whether they find parenting rewarding.
There’s a tension in those findings. Black and Hispanic parents were more likely to fear for their children’s safety — but they’re also the most likely to find consistent joy in being a parent. There was a similar pattern for lower-income parents, who were much more worried about a wide range of concerns — their children being bullied, kidnapped, beaten up, getting shot, or getting trouble with the police — than middle or higher-income parents, but also were substantially more likely to say they enjoy being a parent all the time. And all of the most worried groups — mothers, Black and Hispanic parents, and lower-income parents — were more likely than other parents to say that being a parent is the most important part of their identity.
Why are the most anxious parents in Pew’s survey also the most likely to find daily joy in raising children? Shouldn’t all that worry make parenting less fun? There could be a lot going on here, including differences in which respondents felt more comfortable reporting an emotion like worry (probably women), or more pressure to say they enjoy being a parent (again, probably women). But maybe it’s simply that the joys of parenting are inextricably linked with its frustrations and anxieties — and the more you have of one, the more you have of another. At least, that’s what I’ll tell myself the next time my daughter keeps me up all night.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,6 42 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 52.4 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -10.4 points). At this time last week, 43.4 percent approved and 51.3 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -7.9 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 43.4 percent and a disapproval rating of 51.5 percent, for a net approval rating of -8.1 points.
CORRECTION (Jan. 27, 2023, 10:45 a.m.): A previous version of this story included a chart with incorrect data on mothers’ and fathers’ thoughts about who provided more comfort or emotional support to their children. The shares of mothers who thought mothers did more, fathers did more and both did about equal were incorrect, as was the share of fathers who thought both did about equal. They have been updated.
In his new book “Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America,” Washington Post national columnist Philip Bump argues that many of the fissures that the country is facing today — politically, economically, culturally — have to do with the Baby Boomers getting old. In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast, Galen Druke speaks with Bump about what he found.
In his new book “Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America,” Washington Post national columnist Philip Bump argues that many of the fissures that the country is facing today — politically, economically, culturally — have to do with the Baby Boomers getting old. In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, Galen Druke speaks with Bump about what he found.
You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.
The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.
The election for speaker of the House may have gripped Washington, D.C., for almost a week earlier this month, but the rest of the country apparently reacted with a big fat shrug.
According to polls, Americans are indifferent about both Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s election and the chaotic process that led to it. Despite what some suggestive surveys might lead you to believe, the GOP revolt against McCarthy doesn’t seem to have turned more Americans off from the Republican Party. But the nation does have low expectations for the next two years of federal governance.
Let’s start with some sexy toplines. (We’ll get to what’s wrong with them in a moment.) Two polls found that a plurality of Americans thought that the drama surrounding the speaker election hurt the GOP. According to a HarrisX/Deseret News poll conducted right after McCarthy’s election, 41 percent of registered voters felt that the Republican Party was weaker after the speaker election, and only 23 percent thought it was stronger. In addition, 43 percent of registered voters told HarrisX/the Deseret News that the ordeal made them trust the Republican Party less. Meanwhile, 34 percent of respondents told Ipsos that the drama weakened the Republican Party, and only 19 percent said it strengthened the party.
In reality, these poll questions don’t tell us that much. We’ve written previously about the dangers of pollsters asking whether a given event makes people more or less likely to vote for a candidate or party. Asking whether the speaker election made people trust the GOP less falls into the same trap. The question allows people to express dissatisfaction with the election without considering where their feelings started on the issue. (For example, quite a few of those people — i.e., Democrats — probably had little or no trust for the GOP to begin with.)
And asking Americans to be pundits and assess whether the GOP is weaker in the wake of the speaker vote is less informative than just looking at the GOP’s actual standing. Several polls have shown that the Republican Party’s brand hasn’t changed since the disharmony. It was damaged before the speaker vote, and it’s still damaged after it:
Ultimately, Americans didn’t seem to care whether McCarthy won the speakership election. The Ipsos poll found that 33 percent of Americans approved of McCarthy’s selection, but only 35 percent disapproved; 33 percent weren’t sure. And YouGov/The Economist found that 27 percent thought McCarthy should have been elected speaker, while only 13 percent preferred another Republican; the remaining 60 percent weren’t sure or didn’t care.
That could be key to understanding why the speaker election didn’t seem to budge public opinion: Americans weren’t tuning in. According to Ipsos, almost half of adults (49 percent) did not follow the speaker election news at all or followed it “not so closely.” A similar 42 percent felt that the fight over the speakership had very little to do with their daily lives.
Another reason could be that Americans were already so cynical about Congress that the chaos of early January made them nod and say, “Yup, sounds about right.” In the HarrisX/Deseret News survey, 56 percent of registered voters thought that the dispute was just “politics as usual.”
And that cynicism apparently means Americans are just expecting more of the same from this Congress. According to YouGov/The Economist, they don’t believe McCarthy will be able to serve effectively as speaker (33 percent to 25 percent). And according to Ipsos, 61 percent of Americans think the speaker fight made it less likely that Republicans and President Biden will get anything done together in the next two years. So further gridlock in Congress may not affect how Americans feel about it, either; their expectations are already on the floor.
According to most of the football world, Jalen Hurts should not be a Philadelphia Eagle. Even Hurts was incredulous at the beginning. When his phone rang on draft day and the area code was 215 — a Pennsylvania number — at first Hurts thought it was the Steelers calling. Instead, it was Eagles general manager Howie Roseman telling Hurts they were selecting him with the 53rd pick of the 2020 NFL draft.
“I had no idea I would come here,” Hurts said on New Heights with Jason and Travis Kelce.
Hurts wasn’t alone. Philadelphia fans — folks not known to be particularly temperate in expressing their emotions, even at the best of times — were apoplectic. NFL talking heads said the pick didn’t make sense; that Hurts couldn’t help enough immediately to justify his second-round selection; that owner Jeffrey Lurie should fire everyone if the Eagles moved on from 2019 starter Carson Wentz. Even sharp young analysts with an analytical bent declared it extremely unlikely that Hurts would ever deliver value to the Eagles. It seemed as if the entire football world was convinced Roseman had bungled things badly.
Perhaps the world can be forgiven for not imagining a future where Wentz would lose his job, or that just two short years later, Hurts would lead the Eagles to the NFC championship game. After all, Wentz was coming off a solid year in 2019 (6.7 YPA, 27 touchdowns, seven interceptions for a 62.8 QBR) and had led the team to the wild card while staying healthy. Perhaps more importantly, he’d just signed a $128 million extension the previous June. Most viewed Hurts as either an expensive insurance policy taken out against another Wentz injury, or an upscale version of the New Orleans Saints’ do-everything gadget player Taysom Hill. But no one gave the notion that Wentz could suddenly turn into a pumpkin any real credence … until it happened the very next season. In 2020, Wentz led the league in sacks (50), tied for the lead in interceptions (15) and ranked 28th in QBR. By the end of the year, Hurts was starting; soon after the season, coach Doug Pederson was fired and Wentz was traded.
Did the Eagles see the implosion coming when no one else did? Probably not. In his news conference after the Hurts pick, Roseman said that having a strong QB room was the bedrock of the team’s philosophy. When Roseman said, “Our priorities are that … quarterback position,” he was expressing the attitude that having multiple quarterbacks was simply sound team-building — not that Wentz’s downfall was assumed to be imminent.
We should probably take him at his word. Just look at how Roseman has allocated draft capital since he reclaimed personnel power over the Eagles in December 2015. If we include trades involving first-round picks,7 the Eagles have spent more draft capital (as defined by the net expected future value of each pick plus the net future value of players acquired for traded picks) on quarterbacks than any other position besides wide receivers — and they’ve used three times as many picks on receivers.
|Position||Total picks||Draft capital|
|Interior defensive line||4||254|
In fact, the Eagles’ allocation of draft capital has been nearly identical to what “the analytics” say about positional value. From the series of trades that landed the Eagles the No. 2 overall pick (ultimately used on Wentz); to the Hurts pick; to the nine selections that the team has spent on wide receivers;8 to the eight picks spent on edge rushers and the four shots taken on interior linemen9 to provide a stout inside push (allowing those edge rushers to flourish): Roseman has followed an evidence-based approach to team-building almost perfectly.
And when Wentz went all pear-shaped in 2020, that approach helped save the team. It certainly wasn’t Roseman’s ability to “pick the right players.” Every team misses on picks, and the Eagles are no exception. Roseman spent a first-, fourth- and sixth-round pick to move up three spots and draft tackle Andre Dillard at No. 22 in 2019. Dillard is a first-round bust who still hasn’t played more than 35 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in a season. Second-round cornerback Sidney Jones was waived after just three seasons in Philadelphia. And most egregiously, Roseman missed out on perhaps the best receiver in the league in 2020. He bet and lost on wide receiver Jalen Reagor in the same draft that he took Hurts, picking Reagor one spot ahead of future Minnesota Vikings superstar wideout Justin Jefferson. Reagor was eventually traded to the Vikings (of all teams) this past August for a 2023 seventh-rounder and a conditional 2024 pick.10
Yet despite all the failure, the power of allocating draft capital to high-value positions is that it gives a franchise the cushion to absorb the calamity of a missed premium pick, an unexpected injury or a precipitous decline in performance. It can even help a team survive the chaos of firing the only Super Bowl-winning head coach in franchise history.
Spending premium draft capital selecting extra quarterbacks is an expensive insurance policy, but it’s insurance that should become table stakes across the league. It’s so obviously advantageous to have a better-than-average Plan B for your starting quarterback, as both the Eagles and the 49ers have shown, that other teams can’t help but take note. And it’s why it shouldn’t be shocking if the Eagles use a high pick on yet another quarterback this offseason. Injury or ineffectiveness lurks around the corner every year, and preparing for the worst is the most important thing a GM can do.
So Hurts’s rise proves that another famous Philadelphian, Ben Franklin, had it backward: When it comes to quarterbacks, if you’re not planning to fail, you’re failing to plan.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.
CORRECTION (Jan. 26, 2023, 2:20 p.m.): A previous version of this story said Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Sidney Jones was traded to the Seattle Seahawks for a sixth-round pick. Jones was waived by the Eagles and later traded to Seattle for a sixth-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
President this, Senate that. FiveThirtyEight has already expended ample digital ink looking ahead to the elections that will take place in 2024, including the nascent presidential nomination race and the fate of the Democrats’ slim majority in the U.S. Senate. We’re not going to apologize for this — and don’t pretend you’re not interested, too.
But there are also a bevy of fascinating contests on the ballot this calendar year that will affect the lives of millions of Americans. Three states will hold gubernatorial elections, four will decide the makeup of their state legislatures and two will vote for potentially critical seats on their supreme courts. Additionally, a host of large cities will cast ballots for mayor. With so much on the docket in 2023, we decided to take a look at the high-profile races you should be watching.
Three southern, Republican-leaning places are voting for governor this year. However, Democrats currently control the governorships in Kentucky and Louisiana, while the GOP holds Mississippi via Gov. Tate Reeves. Republicans are hoping to flip the other two, as Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana is term-limited and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky is likely to face a formidable Republican opponent. Victories in these gubernatorial races would give the GOP full control of state government — a “trifecta” — in Kentucky and Louisiana (and maintain it in Mississippi).
|State||Incumbent||Party||Running?||Median rating||2020 Pres. Margin|
|Kentucky||Andy Beshear||D||Yes||Lean D||R+25.9|
|Louisiana||John Bel Edwards||D||No||Lean R||R+18.6|
|Mississippi||Tate Reeves||R||Yes||Likely R||R+16.5|
Now, Beshear does have a decent chance of bucking Kentucky’s red lean to win a second term. In the last quarter of 2022, Beshear’s 60 percent approval rating made him the most popular Democratic governor in the country, according to Morning Consult. And while Kentucky Republicans added more seats to their supermajorities in the state legislature in the 2022 election, voters didn’t back conservative positions at every turn: They rejected a constitutional amendment that would’ve denied the possibility of constitutional protection for abortion rights, 52 percent to 48 percent. The referendum result mirrored in part some of Beshear’s success in 2019, when he defeated unpopular Republican Gov. Matt Bevin by less than 0.4 percentage points.
But Beshear is far from a shoo-in considering Kentucky ranks as the reddest state in the country with a Democratic governor, based on the 2020 presidential vote. And an array of Republican candidates are champing at the bit to take him on. Of those, the leading contenders are probably state Attorney General Daniel Cameron and former U.N. ambassador Kelly Craft, a high-profile GOP donor who served under former President Donald Trump. Cameron, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has Trump’s endorsement and would be Kentucky’s first Black governor, while Craft has led the way in fundraising. The only primary polling we’ve seen comes from Cameron’s campaign, which found him ahead of Craft and other notable contenders.
By comparison, Republicans have a clearer shot of capturing a Democratic-held governorship in Louisiana, where Edwards is leaving office after two terms. The candidate field remains in flux — the filing deadline isn’t until August — but the early GOP front-runners appear to be state Attorney General Jeff Landry, state Senate Majority Leader Sharon Hewitt and Treasurer John Schroder. Landry has a conservative reputation and, controversially, received the state party’s early endorsement, so he should attract ample GOP support. In many red states, that might be enough in a primary — but not necessarily in Louisiana, which uses a “jungle primary” system in which all candidates regardless of party run together and, if no candidate wins a majority in the first round, ends in a runoff between the two leading vote-getters. One of Landry’s political rivals, Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, had signaled he would challenge Landry, likely by running to the center. But then Nungesser surprisingly chose to seek reelection, which created an opening that Hewitt and Schroder have jumped into. They may have more company: Republican Rep. Garrett Graves is also considering a bid.
While Republicans have many high-profile names, no major Democrat has yet entered. But that could soon change: Earlier this week, state Democratic Party chair Katie Bernhardt grabbed headlines with an ad run by an allied political action committee that featured her wielding a shotgun. Another Democrat who might run is Louisiana Secretary of Transportation Shawn Wilson, who serves under Edwards. But given Louisiana’s Republican lean, Democrats will need some things to go their way if they want to replicate Edwards’s success.
Lastly, Reeves is somewhat favored in Mississippi, although he’s received mixed ratings for his performance as governor. Only 49 percent of the state’s registered voters approved of Reeves in the last quarter of 2022, according to Morning Consult, while an early January survey from Siena College/Mississippi Today found his approval rating at 48 percent. The state has faced a growing scandal over the misuse of federal welfare funds during the previous governorship, which could damage Reeves, who served as lieutenant governor at the time.
In fact, Reeves could face both a serious primary challenge and just about the strongest potential candidate the Democrats could have in the general election. Back in 2019, Reeves won a competitive primary runoff against former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., who ran as a more moderate option and may decide to take on Reeves again. If Reeves gets past his primary, he’ll face Public Commissioner Brandon Presley, a longtime state official and distant relative of Elvis Presley who declared his candidacy earlier this month. The Siena College/Mississippi Today poll found Reeves ahead of Presley by 4 points, 43 percent to 39 percent. But considering Reeves fended off a popular statewide-elected Democrat in 2019, it will still be a tall order for Democrats to win this race.
Four states have elections for their state legislatures this year, with Louisiana and Mississippi holding them in tandem with their gubernatorial elections, and New Jersey and Virginia holding legislative midterms. The dominant party in three of those states — Republicans in Louisiana and Mississippi, Democrats in New Jersey — are likely to retain full control, though there’s a question of whether the GOP can hold onto or win veto-proof majorities in Louisiana and Mississippi, in case a Democrat manages to win either governorship.
As a result, only Virginia looks set to see much drama on this front. That’s because it’s one of the only states where each party controls one legislative chamber. And with Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin in office, the results will determine whether Republicans can capture full control of state government.
Thanks to redistricting, Virginia’s elections will take place on new maps, which should produce a number of highly competitive races — although each party may have a slim edge in the chamber it already controls.11 The November environment is difficult to know, but Democrats did claim a pivotal 2-point victory in a Jan. 10 special election for a Senate district that Youngkin had carried by 4 points, in a race that centered largely on the future of abortion rights in Virginia.
We’ve covered the executive and legislative branches, but two states — Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — also have elections for state supreme court in 2023. Wisconsin hosts what is undoubtedly the key judicial election this year. Retiring Justice Patience Roggensack is part of the court’s 4-3 conservative majority, so a liberal victory would flip control of the court. The state’s high court has made many major rulings in recent years, including on redistricting and election-related matters, and could soon hear a case challenging the state’s 1849 ban on abortion. This election will determine which side has control until at least 2025.
Four candidates are running, two from each side of the ideological divide: on the right, Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, and on the left, Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell and Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz. The top-two finishers in next month’s primary will advance to the April general election; because the race is technically nonpartisan, two conservatives or two liberals could advance out of the primary, although one of each is most likely to move on. But other issues could help drive voters to the polls, including two ballot measures added by the GOP-controlled state legislature: a constitutional amendment that would require judges to consider a defendant’s risk to public safety when setting bail, and an advisory referendum asking voters if they believe that able-bodied, childless welfare recipients should be required to seek work.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats had a 5-2 edge on the state’s high court prior to last fall, when Chief Justice Max Baer died. Baer, a Democrat, was set to retire, so the election this year is for his old seat, which, while important, won’t alter partisan control of the court.
Last but definitely not least, 12 of the nation’s 25 largest cities by population have mayoral elections this year. Most of these cities employ a “strong mayor” form of government — where the mayor is the city’s chief executive and can veto actions by the city council — so these elections could have major repercussions for millions of Americans. Democrats or left-leaning politicians tend to run most of these cities,12 so municipal elections can also reveal divisions on the left on matters such as crime, police reform and housing.
There are too many contests to cover in depth here, but Chicago’s race is probably the headliner. There, Mayor Lori Lightfoot faces a difficult reelection battle amid high crime rates, and she has also faced potentially sexist criticism over her combative personal style. Democratic Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia decided to challenge her, and Lightfoot’s list of opponents has grown to also include Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and former city budget director Paul Vallas. Recent surveys suggest Lightfoot might not just struggle to win the officially nonpartisan race; she might not even make it to the April runoff, assuming no candidate wins a majority in the initial election.
Outside of Chicago, big candidate fields have emerged in cities where incumbents won’t be on the ballot. In Philadelphia, at least 10 candidates (mostly Democrats) look set to run in the race to succeed outgoing Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney, while in Houston, eight candidates have filed so far in the hopes of taking the place of term-limited Mayor Sylvester Turner. And in Denver, at least 14 candidates have qualified in the officially nonpartisan race to succeed term-limited Mayor Michael Hancock. Meanwhile, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry is one of the only Republicans leading a big city, but he’s leaving office, and seven candidates have entered the race to succeed him.
We know 2024 election activities will pick up steam as 2023 progresses, but as you can see, there’s plenty going on in 2023 itself! We’ll be keeping a close eye on all of it in the weeks and months to come.
When the 2022-23 Premier League season began, the FiveThirtyEight Club Soccer Predictions model gave Liverpool the second-best odds of winning the title.13 More than five months and 20 matchweeks later, however,14 the Reds sit ninth in the table, behind minnows like Brentford, newly promoted Fulham, and Brighton & Hove Albion, and the model gives them a less than 1 percent chance of domestic glory.15
At the same time last season, Liverpool sat in third, nine points behind eventual champions Manchester City, but with a game in hand. The model favored City then — and was eventually vindicated — but Liverpool played nearly flawless soccer from that point forward, buoyed by the signing of former Porto forward and Colombia national team superstar Luis Díaz during the winter transfer window. The Díaz signing was, by and large, one of the great masterstrokes in the history of Premier League winter signings: His non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists per 90 minutes played (npxG+xAG/90) ranked in a tie for ninth (with Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez) among players with at least 11 starts.
Of course, the Reds ultimately fell agonizingly short in their pursuit of a record-tying 20th English top-flight title — thanks to an Aston Villa collapse — but their brilliant winter transfer business gave them a puncher’s chance.
The same can’t be said this season, even if they did recently lure Dutch forward Cody Gakpo — one of Europe’s most exciting young attacking talents, and one of the breakout stars of the 2022 World Cup — away from PSV Eindhoven. As good as Gakpo is now (and as world-class as he may eventually become),16 it’s far too little, far too late. Besides, Liverpool’s issues don’t lie with its forward line — they lie (mostly) with its midfield (and an inability to keep opponents from scoring first).
To put it lightly, Liverpool’s midfield is a mess. It is a miserable combination of being too old and too injured. Club captain Jordan Henderson — whose presence at Liverpool has been simultaneously fraught (unfairly) and decorated — was probably never meant to play as many minutes as he has in his age-32 season. The same goes for maestro Thiago Alcántara and destroyer Fabinho, both of whom are on the wrong side of 29.
A year ago, those three comprised one of the best midfields in world soccer — a combination that (more or less) brought Liverpool to the precipice of an unprecedented quadruple.17 As such, they each played more than 2,300 minutes across all competitions, which is a lot of minutes for any player, let alone players in (or approaching) their 30s. It’s impossible to know what manager Jürgen Klopp was thinking at the beginning of the season, but it’s also somewhat unbelievable to think he planned to play his midfield elder statesmen as much as he’s been forced to this season. However, long-term injuries to Curtis Jones, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and loanee Arthur have given Klopp precious few options but to run it back.
Signing a midfielder during the transfer window (which ends Jan. 31) would make sense — probably more sense than signing a forward, even as Díaz and fellow forward Diogo Jota are sidelined with long-term injuries of their own — but to this point, Liverpool hasn’t dipped its toes into the market to improve its fortunes. And it might just be that Liverpool can’t be fixed (at least not this season). When a team relies on a strong press — which is to say, when a team relies on defending from the front (Díaz and Jota are two fantastic pressing forwards, but have been out for months) — and the press is broken, it makes the midfield’s job, and the job of the back line, a lot harder.
So, is Liverpool’s season over? Not exactly. The league title is almost certainly out of touch, and the same can be said for a top-4 finish, which would be borderline catastrophic financially — Champions League qualification equals tens of millions of dollars that clubs can use to reinvest in the squad and facilities, making them more attractive to potential future signings. But the Reds are still alive in the FA Cup and the Champions League. Klopp’s teams have historically been monsters in knockout tournaments — Liverpool has reached the final in three of the past five Champions League campaigns, winning one, and won the FA Cup last season — so silverware is still a possibility.18 But without signing a midfielder (or two, or three), that possibility is dwindling by the day.
Check out our latest soccer predictions.
After making just their second playoff appearance in nearly 20 years, the Minnesota Timberwolves entered full win-now mode with a blockbuster trade during the offseason — sending five players and four first-round picks to the Utah Jazz in exchange for superstar center Rudy Gobert. The expectation was that pairing Gobert with fellow All-Star big Karl-Anthony Towns would form a dominant frontcourt duo and allow the franchise to continue its ascent.
While there’s still a chance that could happen, that has yet to be the case for Minnesota (24-25). Just past the midpoint of the season, the team sits ninth in the Western Conference and has hovered around .500 practically all season. While competing in the middle of the pack was viewed as a sign of progress for this team last season, that’s no longer the case after last season’s success and the acquisition of a player as decorated as Gobert.
In an interview after the trade, Gobert said his goal was to compete for a championship with this team. But how has the trade affected his play on the court? And has his addition to the team actually made the Timberwolves any better?
At first glance, Gobert’s performance this season appears comparable to what he did with Utah in the past. He’s averaging a double-double in points (13.3) and rebounds (11.6) while also recording over one block (1.3) per game. He’s also shooting 67.8 percent from the field, which ranks second-best in the NBA. But with a closer look, you’ll find that this has been one of the worst statistical seasons of the big man’s 10-year career.
Gobert’s 13.3 points per game are the second-fewest he’s averaged since taking over as a full-time starter for the Jazz in 2014-15. And his 1.3 blocks and 0.8 assists per game are the fewest he has posted since his rookie season. If that holds up, this would be the only season since his rookie year that Gobert didn’t average at least two blocks per game. (It also would be the first year that he didn’t finish among the top 10 in the league in the category.)
Moreover, Gobert’s on-court impact has been surprisingly limited. After posting a career-best RAPTOR plus/minus of +7.8 in 2020-21 and following that up with a strong +6.9 mark last year, his RAPTOR is down to +1.7 this season — the second-worst performance of his career (again, ahead of only his rookie year). And according to NBA Advanced Stats, we’ve never seen a more porous Gobert-led defensive effort. Minnesota’s defensive efficiency rating with Gobert on the court, 108.7, is the worst that he’s ever had, and his team’s -1.2 net rating while he’s in the game is the lowest since his rookie season.
Those are not exactly the results a team would expect when trading for a three-time defensive player of the year, particularly given what the T-Wolves’ needs were coming into the season.
Last year, Minnesota had one of the best offenses in the NBA, leading the league in points per game, and the team also posted a top-10 offensive efficiency rating (114.3). But it was also among the worst defensive teams, giving up 113.3 points a night — the seventh-most in the NBA last season. One of the main goals of the Gobert deal was to improve at that end of the court.
Since trading for Gobert, Minnesota has taken a step back offensively, which — to an extent — was to be expected. The biggest knock on the French big man has been his limited offensive game. Although the team is scoring nearly the exact same amount of points per game this year (115.3), which would have been tied for the fourth-most last season, the league has caught up. This season, Minnesota is ranked 11th in points per game, and the team has fallen to 20th in offensive efficiency (113.6). But the surprising part is the lack of improvement Minnesota has shown on defense. Even with Gobert playing 40 out of a possible 49 games, the team is allowing the league’s 11th-most points (115.6), only a four-spot improvement from last year. And its defensive efficiency rating is actually worse this season, rising from 111.2 to 113.4.
With the addition of Gobert, the thought was that pairing a defense-minded big with a skilled, shooting big like Towns would allow both players to make up for each other’s deficiencies, but that simply hasn’t been the case so far. Before Towns was forced to miss time due to a calf injury, the two weren’t even among the Timberwolves’ top two-man lineups. Of the 19 pairs to log 400 or more minutes on the court together this season, Gobert and Towns have the worst offensive rating (106.6) and the seventh-worst net rating (-0.7).
Minnesota’s new big man hasn’t been much better with the team’s other young star, Anthony Edwards, either: The pair also has a -0.7 net rating when sharing the floor. And in the limited time that all three stars are on the court together, the production has been mixed. While it has been one of the team’s better defensive combos, posting a 106.6 defensive rating (second-best among three-man units on the team this season), the Gobert-Towns-Edwards trio has been the second-worst offensively of any three-man lineup with more than 350 minutes together this season (with a 107.4 offensive rating). That has led the trio’s overall net rating to just barely break-even (+0.8 points per 100 possessions) despite its abundance of talent.
It’s still too early to tell whether this newly formed Timberwolves core can eventually be good enough to play at the championship level Gobert referred to before the season. But it is clearly off to a bad start, and it is concerning that the big-ticket acquisition of Gobert has yet to make the team much better … if at all.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.
FiveThirtyEight’s senior elections analyst, Nathaniel Rakich, is a big movie buff. Each year, he keeps a spreadsheet of films to track nominations and predict which might win Academy Awards. He recently went on ABC News Live to talk about his 2023 Oscar predictions.
Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): President Biden is in hot water over the discovery of classified documents from the Obama administration in his possession. In November, attorneys for the president discovered a handful of documents with classified markings on them at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C., and immediately contacted the National Archives, who took back possession of the documents the next day. However, we didn’t learn this until a couple weeks ago, and since then, Biden aides have found more pages of classified material at Biden’s home in Delaware, and Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to look into the matter impartially. And this past week, at Biden’s invitation, the Justice Department searched Biden’s Delaware home and took away six additional items, some with classified markings.
The story has drawn comparisons to former President Donald Trump’s possession of classified documents, which led to an FBI search of Mar-a-Lago last summer. (Editor’s note: This chat was conducted before Tuesday’s revelation that classified documents were also found at former Vice President Mike Pence’s home.) But given the important differences between the two cases, is that a fair comparison to make? Or is this just a trumped-up (pun intended) story driven by a slow news cycle?
kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, technology and politics reporter): I think it’s a fair comparison. The differences in how each president responded to the revelation are certainly noteworthy, but I feel like they’ve been overemphasized a bit. At the end of the day, they both did the same wrong thing, which is keeping documents that they weren’t supposed to keep. Now, you can argue about whether the current system for determining how documents are classified even makes sense, but that argument doesn’t favor one president’s situation over the other’s.
ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): It’s a comparison that people will inevitably make because both of the cases involve special counsels, and both involve classified documents. From a legal perspective, there are a lot of important differences, including — crucially — how the documents were discovered and how Trump and Biden responded. But once the special counsel has been appointed it’s harder for people to understand that nuance.
This is generally the issue presidents run into with special counsel investigations — it’s all well and good to say you want the role to exist, but they’ve nettled most modern presidents regardless of how the investigations actually turned out. In this case, Garland really had no option but to appoint a special counsel to investigate Biden because he had just appointed one to investigate Trump. And the mere act of appointing the special counsel sends the signal that these are equally serious cases.
nrakich: I think of it this way: These are fundamentally the same genre of scandal, but the degree of seriousness is different. As Amelia alluded to, Biden and Trump have responded very differently: Biden contacted the National Archives right away and invited the Justice Department to search his home. For Trump, it was actually the National Archives that contacted him, and a grand jury had to issue a subpoena to get the documents back. And even after Trump’s team said he complied with the subpoena, it turned out he still hadn’t handed over everything, prompting the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago — which Trump very much did not consent to.
kaleigh: But don’t you think Biden’s reaction was, in part, an attempt to create some daylight between him and Trump since, essentially, they both did the same thing? Biden had to kind of be over-the-top with transparency and invite investigators into his home because otherwise it just looks like Biden did the same thing as Trump, which Democrats and left-wing media had just spent months saying was Really Bad.
nrakich: Yeah, Kaleigh, I think that’s right. But I also think there are questions of intentionality that, unfortunately, we may never get a definitive answer to. There have been allegations that Trump wanted to hold onto these classified documents after he left office, as mementos almost. By contrast, I don’t think there’s much reason to think Biden’s possession of these documents was anything other than carelessness (which, to be clear, is still really bad when you’re talking about state secrets!).
Interestingly, though, Americans may not distinguish much between Biden and Trump on the intentionality point. According to a recent survey from YouGov/The Economist, Americans said that Biden took the classified documents intentionally 39 percent to 28 percent. They said the same thing about Trump 50 percent to 24 percent. Of course, a lot of respondents were (rightfully, IMO) not sure about both questions.
kaleigh: Surely the special counsel investigation will reveal all the answers, Nathaniel!
nrakich: Amelia, you said earlier that Garland’s appointment of special counsels to investigate both Trump and Biden implies that they’re parallel cases even though the legal facts are different. So do you think Garland shouldn’t have appointed a special counsel in Biden’s case?
ameliatd: I don’t mean that he should or shouldn’t have — without knowing the details, it’s hard to say. As Kaleigh said, keeping classified documents in your home (or garage) after leaving the White House is bad. My concern is that the politics of the situation will overshadow the legal outcomes because the mechanism for figuring out what happened is so similar.
kaleigh: My own point is, the parallelism was already there, and that’s why Garland had to appoint the second special counsel. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
ameliatd: There’s an argument that the role of special counsels is overblown anyway. They’re empowered to investigate with a measure of independence from the Department of Justice. Now, as we saw during Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference into the 2016 election, many of the rules surrounding special counsels are open to interpretation, and the attorney general can end up playing a significant role — as when former Attorney General Bill Barr wrote a misleading summary of Mueller’s report that ended up shaping the initial narrative.
There’s also a history of special counsels overreaching and having their power curbed. In the 1980s and 1990s, independent counsels were much more independent than they are now (yes, “independent counsels” are different from special counsels — welcome to the word-soup nightmare that I lived in for several years), and Congress ended up clawing back their power. In fact, that’s how we ended up with the much more pared-down role that we have now.
Now, instead of being appointed by a court, special counsels’ credibility with the public is derived from the fact that they’re perceived as being independent from the executive branch, so their findings can be trusted. And my concern is that the more special counsel investigations happen, the less power they’ll have to do the thing they’re actually supposed to do — and the less trust there will be in the outcome — because the process has become so enmeshed with politics.
nrakich: Interesting. If you had to guess, Amelia, how do you think these special counsel investigations will end? It almost sounds like they will just release their reports and nothing will happen, no one’s minds will change — except maybe to think that the special counsel investigations were toothless from the start.
ameliatd: I’m not sure how they’ll end. It’s possible that they’ll result in charges. But from a public opinion perspective, I’m not sure it matters because people generally perceive that the two counsels are dealing with the same types of issues (the mishandling of classified documents), even though, from a legal perspective, how Trump and Biden responded actually matters a lot.
nrakich: Well, we are a public opinion website, so let’s talk about that public opinion. Do we have any polls yet showing how Americans are thinking about Biden’s classified documents scandal vs. Trump’s?
kaleigh: Yeah, there was a YouGov/Yahoo News survey earlier this month that captured a striking dynamic, in my (non-public) opinion. When asked whether they thought Biden keeping classified documents was more serious than Trump or vice versa, 31 percent of Americans said Biden’s situation was less serious than Trump’s, 21 percent said it was more serious than Trump’s and 32 percent said the situations were equally serious.
One thing that stood out to me was the fact that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say Biden’s and Trump’s transgressions were equally serious. Forty-two percent of Republicans said both cases were equally serious, while 41 percent said Biden’s was more serious, but a majority of Democrats (57 percent) said Biden’s incident was less serious than Trump’s and only 24 percent said they were equivalent.
You might expect the results to be more baldly partisan with a majority of Republicans saying Biden’s case is more serious and a majority of Democrats saying Biden’s is less serious. So the fact that a plurality of Republicans said they’re equal, I think, gets to the inescapable reality here, which is that it’s really hard to say what Biden did was awful and then turn around and claim Trump did nothing wrong.
nrakich: Yeah, the official Republican Party line on this — among elites as well as voters — seems to be, “See, Biden did it too! They are just as bad!” Whereas the Democratic position is, “What Biden did is bad, but what Trump did is worse.”
ameliatd: That’s interesting, Kaleigh. So you think it does matter how it unfolds? And if the outcome is more serious in the Trump investigation, that won’t be seen as a political outcome?
kaleigh: I wouldn’t go that far. I think the reactions to both these cases are still going to break down along partisan lines, but I think they suggest that Republicans didn’t love how Trump handled things here, and Biden’s actions after the documents were discovered were a little more palatable even if, at the root, they both started off doing the same wrong thing.
ameliatd: My cynical view is that special counsel investigations are rarely going to move the needle anyway, but now they really won’t because Biden no longer has the ability to claim the moral high ground.
The lesson: Never criticize a past president’s behavior until you are absolutely sure there are no classified documents in your garage.
nrakich: I might go that far. Maybe this isn’t cynical enough of me, but I feel like the fact that the cases are initially being handled the same way will create more credibility if their findings diverge.
As we’ve already discussed, Garland appointing a special counsel in both cases does create this initial impression that they are equivalent, which is how a plurality of Americans feel, according to both Kaleigh’s YouGov/Yahoo News poll and the YouGov/The Economist poll I cited earlier. (That said, a poll from Ipsos/ABC News found that only 30 percent of Americans viewed the two scandals equivalently, while 43 percent believed Trump’s was worse.) But after counsels finish their work, Americans may feel differently.
ameliatd: But fundamentally they’re both happening under Garland’s watch. And that’s why I think the role is flawed — it’s kind of independent, but still enmeshed enough in the executive branch that it’s pretty easy for people to mistrust or misread.
nrakich: Yes, true.
ameliatd: And if you make the investigation truly independent, then you run into the situation we had in the 1980s and 1990s, where members of the executive branch (and the president) were constantly being investigated, and one investigation on a completely unrelated topic led to former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
kaleigh: I wondered how long it would take us to get to Ken Starr!
ameliatd: To be clear, I don’t think there’s an easy answer here! There are certainly situations where independence from the Department of Justice is valuable and necessary, and maybe this is one of them. But the special counsel-upon-special counsel domino effect doesn’t seem great to me.
nrakich: We’ve been putting a lot on poor Merrick Garland (hasn’t he been through enough???) and the special counsels, but I want to make sure we acknowledge our own role here — and by “we,” I mean the media. How would you guys grade media coverage of this story for Biden, especially in comparison to media coverage of Trump? How much responsibility does the media bear for many Americans thinking Biden and Trump are equally guilty?
ameliatd: I do think Kaleigh is right that Garland had no choice but to appoint a special counsel in part because of the media coverage.
It’s hard, though. As journalists, we want to hold powerful figures accountable, and that certainly includes the president. And Biden did spend months talking about how bad it was that Trump kept classified documents — only to have it turn out that he did (sort of) the same thing.
kaleigh: To be honest, and maybe this is indicative of the media I consume, I’ve seen an effort from the media to try to differentiate the two. You can’t listen to an NPR hit or read a New York Times story about it without getting an obligatory mention of how Biden responded differently, alerted the National Archives right away, cooperated with investigators, etc., etc.
nrakich: Yep. CBS News, which broke the original story, had a whole section in its article about that:
The Penn Biden Center case has parallels to the Justice Department’s pursuit of Donald Trump’s presidential records — but the scope and scale are materially different. In August, the FBI executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago that yielded hundreds of documents marked classified.
That unprecedented search followed more than a year of tussling between Trump’s representatives, the National Archives, and the Justice Department. The search warrant was sought and executed in August after multiple failed attempts by the federal government to retrieve what it considered to be sensitive documents at the former president’s personal residence that should have been turned over to Archives under law.
kaleigh: I mean, look. That is part of the story, so this is partly due diligence. It would be negligent to not even mention that aspect. But at some point, it feels like a RIGBY situation, where there’s this obligation to caveat any coverage lest it comes across as equating the two in any way.
nrakich: When you look at volume, though, cable news at least has been covering Biden’s story more. According to closed-captioning data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive, the three major cable news networks (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) mentioned the word “classified” in an average of 357 15-second clips per day in the two weeks following the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago (Aug. 8-21, 2022). Meanwhile, the networks mentioned the same word in an average of 478 15-second clips per day in the two weeks after Biden’s own classified documents story broke (Jan. 9-22, 2023).
But the coverage gap is due to one channel in particular. CNN has covered the stories the most equally, with an average of 136 mentions per day over the August 2022 time period (Trump) and 154 this month (Biden). MSNBC covered Trump’s case a little more than it has covered Biden’s, with an average 153 mentions of “classified” per day in the August timeframe and 125 in the January one. But Fox News has covered Biden’s scandal way more than it covered Trump’s, mentioning “classified” an average of 199 times per day during the January time period but only 68 times per day during the August one.
kaleigh: Right, and it’s not shocking that MSNBC covered Trump’s documents more than it’s covering Biden’s documents and Fox covered Biden’s documents more than it covered Trump’s documents. What’s interesting to me is that in both cases there was kind of a frenzy right away, but it has tapered off at about the same rate.
ameliatd: I also wonder how much coverage the Biden story would be getting if we weren't in a slow news cycle...
kaleigh: And if Trump hadn’t just done the same thing, basically. The Democrats could wave this off as a nothingburger a lot more easily if they hadn’t just been dragging Trump for doing the same thing.
nrakich: Yeah, I think the slow news cycle is a big part of it. I'll get a little meta here and talk about how we’ve covered these scandals here at FiveThirtyEight: This is the third piece of content we have published about Biden's classified documents, but we only published two about Trump's. But it's not because we think Biden's case is more serious than Trump's; it's because last August was a much busier time for political news. If we had had unlimited resources, I think we would have written more about Trump’s predicament, but that was the thick of midterm-election season, and we had so much else to cover that we just didn't get to it.
Biden’s story has also come out in dribs and drabs — the first documents were found at the Penn Biden Center, and then a few more were found at Biden's home, and then a few more were found there, etc. I think that has given it a little more life than it otherwise would have. But I’m curious to see if it has staying power in the media’s and public’s minds even after new revelations stop coming to light.
kaleigh: That will partly depend on whether anything more newsworthy happens … or if the most exciting debate is still about kitchen appliances.
The election for the Baseball Hall of Fame is fun again — mostly. After a decade of debate over whether baseball bad boys such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling were worthy of induction into the sport’s most sacred shrine, that trio has lapsed off the regular ballot (though they are still periodically eligible for reconsideration in a separate special election that is held every third December). By contrast, this year’s election — the results of which will be announced Tuesday at 6 p.m. ET — is headlined by Scott Rolen, Todd Helton and Billy Wagner, three candidates untainted by allegations of steroid use or other major controversies.
And each has a compelling case for his enshrinement. Though perhaps underappreciated in his day, Rolen’s combination of great offense and defense made him one of the top 10 most valuable third basemen of all time — and the Hall of Fame needs more third basemen. (There are only 17 of them in the Hall, fewer than any other position.) Helton is one of only 13 players in history with a career batting average over .300, an on-base percentage over .400 and a slugging percentage over .500 in at least 9,000 plate appearances, and one of only six who did it all for one team.19 And Wagner has the lowest career opponent’s batting average and second-lowest WHIP of any pitcher who has thrown more than 800 innings. Relief pitchers of his ilk are also underrepresented in the Hall, with only three and a half modern-day closers enshrined.20
All three are flirting with the magic number of 75 percent, the share of the vote they need to get elected. We know this thanks to baseball fans Ryan Thibodaux, Anthony Calamis and Adam Dore, who do the hard work of canvassing every Hall of Fame ballot that is publicly released before the announcement and publishing a running tracker of each candidate’s vote total so far. And as of Jan. 23 at 5 p.m. ET, Rolen and Helton were each above 75 percent, with Wagner just a few points behind.
|Player||Vote Share So Far|
But as I write every year, you can’t take these numbers at face value. Thibodaux and company’s tracker is the Hall of Fame election equivalent of an unweighted poll, and certain types of voters are more likely than others to respond to it. Specifically, voters willing to share their ballots publicly are also more likely to vote for players who score better on advanced metrics or who were connected to performance-enhancing drugs, and they’re also likely to use more slots on their ballot (voters can vote for anywhere between zero and 10 candidates). As a result, most candidates tend to underperform their “polls,” except those whose Hall of Fame cases are driven by vibes more than stats.
The table below shows how much lower each player’s final vote share was than their public vote share in Thibodaux and company’s tracker — both in last year’s election and on average across all the elections in which they’ve been candidates.
|Player||2023 Public Vote Share||2022 Election||Career Avg.|
Rolen has historically seen the largest such drop-off of any player on this year’s ballot. On average for his career, his final vote share has been 6.8 percentage points lower than his public vote share. If that happens this year, he’ll finish at only 72.4 percent of the vote. In order to get elected this year, he’ll need to drop off by around 4.2 points or fewer — something he hasn’t done since the 2019 election.
Helton typically sees his support slip in the final results too, but not by as much: His average drop-off is just 3.1 points. Given that he’s currently sitting at 79.8 percent in public ballots, he can withstand a hit similar to his drop-offs from 2019 (1.2 points), 2020 (3.7 points) or 2021 (2.7 points) and still get elected. Unfortunately for Helton, though, his most recent drop-off (5.0 points in 2022) would be enough to sink his chances, so he’d better hope that that election was a fluke.
Finally, Wagner’s final vote share typically looks very similar to his public vote share; his average career drop-off has been just 0.6 points. However, since Wagner is currently pulling just 73.2 percent of the public vote, he’ll need to gain 1.8 points from private ballots in order to get elected. He’s never done that in his electoral career; the closest he’s come was gaining 1.4 points in 2016.
Based on all of this history, it would seem like Helton has the best chance of getting elected to the Hall this year, with Rolen and especially Wagner looking like longer shots.
However, the Nate Silver of Hall of Fame elections disagrees. Jason Sardell’s Hall of Fame forecasting model divides voters into groups based on the number of candidates they vote for and their attitude toward steroid use, then extrapolates each candidate’s net gained or lost votes among public voters in each group to the group’s private voters in order to come up with projected final vote shares for each candidate. Sardell has been the most accurate Hall of Fame prognosticator for four straight election cycles, and this year, he thinks Rolen has the best shot — albeit with just a 9 percent chance of getting in. In other words, Sardell is currently predicting that Hall of Fame voters will pitch a shutout.
Rolen, Helton and Wagner aren’t the only players on the ballot, of course. I said that this year’s election was still only “mostly” fun; there are still a few controversial candidates whose finishes will be comment-worthy, even if they have no chance of getting in.
Sardell is projecting Álex Rodríguez, the superstar infielder who was suspended for the entire 2014 season for using performance-enhancing drugs, to finish with 34 percent of the vote in his second year on the ballot, virtually identical to the share of votes he received last year. He’ll probably need something to fundamentally change in order for him to climb to 75 percent before his candidacy expires.
Sardell also expects Carlos Beltrán to get around 50 percent of the vote in his ballot debut. The center fielder was once seen as a surefire Hall of Famer, but that was before he was identified as a central figure in the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal of 2017. There was a lot of speculation as to how many votes this would cost him, however, and a debut at 50 percent would still be pretty solid for him. Not counting the candidates still on the ballot, every player who has received 50 percent or more in a Hall of Fame election has eventually been elected, except for three. (You guessed it: Bonds, Clemens and Schilling.)
Rodríguez, Beltrán and most of the other candidates on the ballot will be back for another try in 2024 if they don’t get elected this year, but some won’t be so lucky. Candidates lapse off the ballot if they receive less than 5 percent of the vote, which will almost certainly happen to the 12 candidates who have received zero or one public votes to date. But it’s going to be a close call for Torii Hunter, who has received just 3.3 percent of the vote thus far. And finally, this is definitely the last time on the ballot for Jeff Kent — not because he will finish below 5 percent (Sardell currently projects him to get 45 percent), but because he debuted on the ballot in 2014 and candidates can appear on the ballot for a maximum of 10 years.
But like Bonds, Clemens and Schilling, Kent will have more opportunities to get elected in the future, thanks to those aforementioned special elections — the next of which is scheduled for December 2025. So just like the never-ending political election season, Baseball Hall of Fame elections are never really over.
The NBA is in the midst of an offensive explosion, with 14 of the best 15 historical offensive ratings for teams coming in the past four seasons. The Boston Celtics currently boast the third-best offensive rating in NBA history,21 and like so many teams in the new, high-scoring NBA, they do it in part by overloading the floor with shooting. Though they’ve cooled a bit from deep since the start of the season, they’re one of only 13 teams in history to attempt at least 40 triples per game, and they’re connecting on 37.1 percent with four rotation players22 over 40 percent.
Why, then, in crunch time of their Nov. 14 game against the Oklahoma City Thunder — to take just one example — did the Celtics opt to utilize MVP candidate Jayson Tatum on a post-up, far inside the 3-point arc, executing what many consider an outdated and obsolete type of play?
For one reason, it was because Tatum is one of the game’s best overall scorers and was guarded in single-coverage by the opponent’s point guard. (It also worked: Tatum used his body to create space, took one dribble and pivoted to the rim for the inside-hand layup, helping the Celtics eventually grab the W.) But there’s another good reason: Because post-ups are actually the most efficient play in basketball.
|Play type||Frequency per 100 possessions||Points per chance|
How did posting up go from “deader than dead” to the NBA’s best play? And does this mean big men are really having their revival at long last? (While centers may have been the purveyors of post-up buckets in decades past, forwards have actually surpassed them in post-up frequency — perhaps giving credence to Dr. James Naismith’s original positional conception of “forward” being the main attacking position.)
Still, we should pump the brakes a bit on any notion that the days of Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon are upon us once again. Perhaps the most rudimentary explanation for the renewed success of the post-up is a form of selection bias: The play is now reserved mostly for those who do it best. Post-ups occur only 5.887 times per 100 possessions, and the 20 players with the most post-ups on the season combine for nearly half (43.6 percent) of the league’s total post-ups. Nikola Jokić accounts for an absurd 4.7 percent of leaguewide post-ups on his own. Only four teams, excluding the Denver Nuggets themselves, have posted up more than Jokić on his own this season,23 and he scores 1.263 points per chance on such plays. (The best offense in the league scores 1.065 points per chance.)
As a point of comparison, the 20 players with the most pick-and-rolls in the league combine for just over a quarter (26.9 percent) of the league’s total pick and rolls, per Second Spectrum. If the NBA’s pick-and-roll leaders — Luka Dončić, for example, scoring 1.124 points per chance on pick and rolls — contributed more significantly to the total share of such plays, the play type would be more successful than its current 0.979 points per chance (but of course, it would also be used at a much lower frequency per 100 possessions).
Thinking about post-ups in a vacuum, however, misses what makes them so valuable in the current NBA. The league is shifting away from static plays of any kind, and toward a fluid state of multiple actions layered on top of one another. The post-up as a primary playcall, with a ball handler dribbling downcourt and dumping the ball into the post, where a center promptly battles another center before shooting, is finished; that precise sequence has happened only twice this season.24
Post-ups are now becoming dynamic. The percentage of post-ups that have featured a positional mismatch — with a center defended by a guard or forward (or a forward defended by a guard) — has increased from approximately one-quarter in 2013-14 to just over half this season, per Second Spectrum. Those mismatches have to come from somewhere, and such advantages can be created by other events on the court — like pick and rolls or handoffs — before being converted into points via the post.
The dropping frequency of the post-up has coincided with the rise of the hand-off. Similar to picks, approximately a quarter of hand-offs result in switches this season, creating a potentially advantageous mismatch. (Less than 10 percent of hand-offs were switched by the defense in 2013-14.) And as leaguewide frequency for post-ups has plummeted by almost 6 plays per 100 possessions from 2013-14 to today, hand-off frequency has increased by almost 8 plays per 100 possessions. But a post-up can flow out of a hand-off, especially after the defense is forced to switch or rotate or open up some other weakness.
At the bare minimum, using a pick-and-roll and/or a hand-off to flow into a post-up can make sure that help defenders are as far away from the offensive player as possible, giving him plenty of time to work alone in the post.
There are correlations between the players who are best at posting up, those best at hand-offs and their teams’ offensive efficiency. Jokić and Sacramento Kings center Domantas Sabonis are two of the league’s most efficient and frequent post players, and so too are they the two most frequent hand-off providers. And both of their teams currently rank among the top 5 highest offensive ratings in history.
One common thread is that Jokić and Sabonis are brilliant scorers and passers; using them in either capacity out of the post is a good tactic. That’s not unusual: Across the league, possessions with passes coming out of the post carry practically the same efficiency as possessions seeing shots coming off of post-ups. For today’s multi-talented bigs, the post can be used as a vehicle between every kind of event on the court, rather than an end in and of itself.
And yet, in the entirety of Second Spectrum’s database (beginning in 2013-14), 2022-23’s post-ups are the both most efficient play type on record and the least frequent. In fact, post-ups have been the most efficient and least frequent play type in every season in the database other than 2013-14 (when it was the most efficient and second-least frequent play type).
|Season||Post-ups per 100 possessions||Points Per Chance|
There is an inherent tension in a play slowly growing in efficiency yet shrinking in usage. Are teams now using post-ups too infrequently? Will there be diminishing returns if they’re used more often again? With (most) teams in the league maximizing efficiency and applying Moneyball principles to the NBA, there must exist to some extent a relative “objective” equilibrium between frequency and efficiency of individual play types.
Other factors impacting where such an equilibrium might settle haven’t shifted dramatically for the past few seasons. While 3-point attempts have generally been on the rise over the past few decades in the NBA, they’ve been stable for the last four seasons. So too has 3-point accuracy and pace.
But unless the rules change, or post-up artists like Jokić and Sabonis lose their skills to alien invaders in a real-life Space Jam situation, it’s hard to see plays in the post becoming less efficient. More likely, their frequency could rise at some point. And wings like Tatum are perhaps the next frontier in the post-up’s reclamation of offensive attention. The Toronto Raptors last season went all-in on non-big post-ups. Wings like DeMar DeRozan have long been post-up wizards. But as post-ups are becoming tools to punish mismatches created elsewhere, or a means of chaining together events like hand-offs and pick-and-rolls, the wing’s ability in the post will be an important tool in any necromantic resurrection of the play.
The day of the post-up receiving the first billing is likely done; no realistic amount of equilibrium shift can undo so many years of tactical evolution. Teams can certainly turn to the post for simple, static buckets at times — like the Celtics did with Tatum against the Thunder. And it’s important to remember that modern NBA offensive sets are often in flux, with multiple pieces flowing together like a complex ballet. How post-ups can fit into the theater around them, as finishing moments to exploit mismatches or as continuation events to move players or the ball across the floor, is changing. There are now many advantageous uses for the post-up in the NBA. And as its efficiency continues to rise, teams are poised to recommit to more and more of them.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.
In Part 1 of this week’s FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast, the crew discusses why raising the debt ceiling this congress may prove more challenging than during past episodes of debt limit brinkmanship.
In Part 2 of this week’s FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast, the crew asks why House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has declined to call Rep. George Santos to resign and considers a poll showing that 60 percent of his district’s voters want him to.
In Part 3 of this week’s FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast, the crew looks at how the decline in union membership has shaped U.S. politics.
Last week showed the diversity of challenges House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will be faced with as the leader of a five-seat Republican majority — from what to do with a swing district fabulist to the prospect of the United States defaulting on its debt. In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, the crew discusses how debates on both the debt ceiling and the future of Rep. George Santos’s career might unfold. In light of new data showing union membership at its lowest point since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began counting, they also look at how that decline has shaped U.S. politics.
You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.
The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.
maya (Maya Sweedler, editor): After an almost (sorry, New York teams) equally fabulous divisional round, we’re looking ahead to some fabulous football in next week’s conference championships, when the San Francisco 49ers travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles and the Cincinnati Bengals head to Kansas City to play the Chiefs. We’re going to discuss all four games in more detail, but let’s get right into it.
Are these the four best teams in football right now?
neil (Neil Paine, acting sports editor): I don’t see how you could say they aren’t. They are four of the top five teams in our full-strength Elo ratings and four of the top six in points-per-game margin across the entire season. And the only interlopers in those categories are the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys, who just lost head-to-head (and not in particularly fluky fashion). In a top-heavy season, these are the cream of the crop by far.
ty (Ty Schalter, FiveThirtyEight contributor): The easy answer is “yes” — not just because they’re the last four teams in the tournament, but because the tournament seeding captured team strength well, and the results have been rather chalky. The only upset this weekend, the Bengals’ 27-10 road win over the Bills, looked definitive. But even including playoffs, the Bills (No. 3, 155.03) and Cowboys (No. 4, 137.22) bump the Bengals (No. 6, 125.44) and Kansas City Chiefs (No. 5, 131.16) out of the top four in total expected points added, per ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. Going by straight scoring margin gives us the exact same 1-6 ranking, by the way. DVOA still loves Buffalo so much that even recency-weighted DVOA has Buffalo at No. 2 overall.
joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Agreed, Neil and Ty. In point margin this year through the playoffs, the only real outlier was the Giants, way down at No. 23 with negative-30 points. So the only real question is: What does that say about the strength of the Eagles relative to the rest of the playoff teams that had to face real tests this weekend?
neil: For me, the Eagles’ big question was about Jalen Hurts’s health, given how he looked in the regular-season finale and those reports about him not being 100 percent on Saturday morning. But let’s just say he dismissed those concerns.
The Giants are a bad defensive team, but that would have been a clinic against anybody.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I guess I would have liked to see Hurts be a bit more prolific with his arm, as 6.4 YPA and 154 passing yards isn’t incredible.
neil: There was no need Josh, given how the Eagles got off to literally the best start possible.
maya: Right, he didn’t have to be more prolific! The Eagles had 44 called runs in a game where they dominated time of possession by more than 11 minutes.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It was the week of one-handed tight end catches. Dallas Goedert’s first-quarter touchdown started the Eagles rolling on Saturday against the Giants, and George Kittle’s one-handed double-bobble reception against Dallas sparked the 49ers’ lone touchdown drive.
maya: I think if you had given me these semifinalists a month ago, I would’ve said no way are these the best four teams. But here is where I owe the city of Cincinnati a serious apology. I wrote this team off way too early and didn’t pay that much attention to the offensive resurgence they’ve had over the past few months. Cincy put up 51 combined points against two top-3 scoring defenses in back-to-back weeks.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Joe Mixon looked like he was running on a different surface than the Bills defenders. It was wild.
neil: Talk about clinics. I understood the Eagles getting off to that start against the Giants (even though I picked the G-Men for vibe reasons, LOL), but what I did not expect at all was for Cincinnati to get out to a pretty similar start against the mighty Bills, in Buffalo.
Buffalo had ranked second in fewest PPG allowed during the regular season. Joe Burrow and company made them look like, IDK, the Texans.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bills needed Allen to put the team on his back like Mahomes does with such regularity. They have a very good team, but they need Allen playing his best ball to win Super Bowls, and he didn’t do that this postseason.
neil: What’s crazy, though, is that he had zero turnovers until that garbage-time pick late.
If you’d told me the Bengals went into Buffalo and won like that, I would have said for SURE that Allen turned it over four times or something.
joshua.hermsmeyer: He looked lost quite a bit though. His average time to throw was 3.2 seconds, higher even than Daniel Jones against the Eagles.
maya: I felt like Allen was spending a bit too much time looking downfield and not enough time looking for situational gains. I don’t want to call it hero ball, because that’s not really what it was, but he played more aggressively than I would’ve expected. As a result, he had the second-biggest gap between his air yards per attempt and actual yards per dropback this week, behind only Jones.
maya: Burrow should be first in that category, right? The Bengals had the most yards after the catch this week with 140.
Not bad for a team that came in with just one receiver in the top 40 in terms of regular-season YAC (Ja’Marr Chase, who tied for third on the weekend with 42 yards after the catch).
neil: One of the problems was that Cincy put them in a two-TD hole with just a little under 4 minutes left in the first quarter. Buffalo was battling back from that all game, and it seemed to send Allen into that aggressive mode early.
But the Bengals defense also shut down the Bills’ patented explosive offense, for the most part. They were fourth in explosive plays per game (7.1) during the regular season, but only got three of those Sunday (none of which went for scores).
joshua.hermsmeyer: Josh definitely chucked it up there, but he was off the mark in ways Buffalo fans aren’t accustomed to. Seeing Diggs yelling at him with his arms in the air on the sideline was a scene.
maya: His off-target rate of 15 percent this weekend was only off his regular-season average by three-tenths of a percentage point, though. Say more about how he was off the mark, Josh?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m thinking specifically of a sideline throw to Diggs that was overthrown, and the interception intended for Beasley. On passes over 10 air yards, ESPN charting has his off-target rate in the game at 26.7 percent, off his season average of 21.8 percent.
maya: Let’s move to the other team remaining in the AFC: The Kansas City Chiefs, who had a flawless first drive and then appeared to have a one-legged quarterback for most of the rest of the game. How much does a high ankle sprain for Patrick Mahomes cap the Chiefs’ ceiling?
neil: It seems like a significant problem for K.C. Mahomes ranked second in passing yards outside the pocket this regular season, so his ability to make those magic plays with his mobility is a key component of this Chiefs offense.
And with apologies to Jacksonville, the Bengals aren’t the Jaguars.
maya: Yeah, the out-of-pocket passing seems to be an issue. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Mahomes’s numbers were similar before and after the injury (he still managed a ridiculous QBR rating of 97.9 against man coverage on the game, the weekend’s best) — but he did not throw a single pass from outside the pocket after getting hurt.
ty: For what it’s worth, Mahomes has been No. 1 in raw QBR from inside the pocket all year.
joshua.hermsmeyer: If anyone not named Kyle Shanahan can design a game plan around a backup QB, it’s Andy Reid. But that’s probably small consolation to the Chiefs.
neil: Maybe this version of the Chiefs can survive a hobbling Mahomes more than, say, the 2020 version could. Their pass protection is much better this season, and they’ve relied on quick passing much more than in the past.
(If Mahomes plays, that is.)
maya: Mahomes has never beat the Burrow-led Bengals — Cincinnati is 3-0 against Kansas City since Burrow got there. Just sayin’!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Is this where we are supposed to mention the Chiefs’ improved run game?
neil: Give us the Isiah Pacheco love, Josh!
joshua.hermsmeyer: The seventh-rounder learned everything he knows from the first-round pick. You can’t spell Pacheco without C-E-H!
maya: Let’s return to the NFC, and the matchup we’ve got coming down the pike there. What’s the biggest wild card for the Eagles and the Niners?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I think the Eagles will need to continue to win on the ground, and I’m not sure how much success they’ll have if they try to do it the way they did against the G-Men. But most of their success — 11 of 16.6 EPA on runs — came outside the tackles. With the Niners’ rangy linebackers (that Fred Warner pass breakup on CeeDee Lamb was bananas), they will probably have to switch things up.
neil: Yes, the Niners defense is simply on another level compared with the Giants.
ty: The Eagles will need to cover the middle of the field. Per NFL NextGen Stats, the 49ers have targeted in-breaking routes at the highest rate in the league each of the last five seasons — and we saw Brock Purdy working those areas effectively against the Cowboys.
maya: How could it not be effective when you’re throwing to guys who need only one hand and one face to catch a ball?
neil: For San Francisco, I think one big wild card is that now they aren’t facing an opponent who will find ways to botch the end of a game in increasingly comical ways like the Cowboys did (and always do).
I don’t think the Eagles will be trotting out … whatever that last play call was by Dallas.
maya: The Eagles also don’t need to game plan around keeping their kicker off the field for as long as possible.
Who would have guessed Maher would be so low on the blame list for Dallas losing?
ty: In theory, Neil, I like lining up skill-position players as ineligible “linemen” if you’re doing a planned many-laterals play. But whatever practice time was dedicated to installing that (a) clearly wasn’t enough, and (b) should have been spent on getting the punt team ready to line up faster at the end of the previous series.
neil: Let’s just say that play had a lot of “Colts punt vs. the Patriots” energy.
joshua.hermsmeyer: As someone who revels in the pain of Cowboys fans, it was the perfect ending.
ty: As I said on Twitter, that second-to-last possession was really where the Cowboys lost the game. Dak had time to execute a full, normal game-winning drive, and he immediately threw what should have been a pick, severely underthrew an open receiver on what would have been a chunk play, and took a bad sack.
neil: Oh yeah, for sure. Mistakes had already been made long ago.
In fact, their win probability slide began with that decision to take an intentional delay of game at the Niners’ 40 and then punt.
That was literally the last time they were above 50 percent to win.
ty: Yeah, that tight end Dalton Schultz made an absolute hash of nearly all those endgame boundary passes wasn’t the difference here.
neil: (Although that didn’t help! LOL.)
maya: That was tough to watch. There were just mistakes across the board. The Cowboys had the second-highest drop rate on the weekend, and while I don’t want to fully blame Prescott for some bad decisions, we’ve known his turnovers have been a problem for a while now …
joshua.hermsmeyer: Instead of blaming Dak, I’m giving credit to Purdy. He once again did the unthinkable for the last pick of the draft, and led all passers in the divisional round with 7.38 YPA.
ty: Iiiiii’m still blaming Dak. After he was so superlative against Tampa, I hoped we’d see him at at least close to his best again this week — instead, his performance was in his personal bottom-four games played this year per raw QBR, completion percentage over expected, adjusted net yards per attempt, and passing EPA.
maya: This game convinced me that Purdy is Good. He was so cool under pressure, zipping balls all over the field for his bajillion weapons. This was his seventh start. His SEVENTH!
joshua.hermsmeyer: Niners are Super Bowl bound, baby.
neil: On the one hand, this was Purdy’s second-lowest QBR in a start (53.1), a far cry from the 89.4 he had against Seattle in the wild card.
On the other hand, if the floor is a 53.1 QBR, that’s not bad! Only 17 QBs were above that for the entire season, and big names like Tom Brady were not among them.
joshua.hermsmeyer: He should be expected to struggle! But as Maya mentioned, he is always looking to make plays, and his scrambles are mostly smart, not panicked. He’s a game manager in the very best sense.
maya: I think the difference for Purdy was a bit more pressure this week. He faced almost twice as many blitzes this week than last, and had a contact rate almost 5 percentage points higher against Dallas than against Seattle.
But even against pressure, he wasn’t that bad! Purdy took pressure on a career-high 14 dropbacks, going 3-of-10, but he didn’t turn the ball over. Plus, he completed a career-high 84 percent of his passes when not pressured, per ESPN Stats & Info.
joshua.hermsmeyer: He also completed more passes than expected — a knock against him in the Shanahan system, where for most of the year he’s had a negative CPOE.
neil: Now let’s see what he does against the defense that had 15 more sacks than any other team this season …
maya: Given how talented the skill players are in San Francisco, I’m particularly interested to see how the Eagles generate pressure.
joshua.hermsmeyer: I actually think that Dallas D-line was a great test for what he’s about to face in Philly. I remain all-in!
neil: Well, the Cowboys have one Micah Parsons. The Eagles have four of them. (Or at least, four guys with at least 11 sacks, which is insane.)
maya: It felt like every quarter featured a different Niners receiver popping free. Brandon Aiyuk! Kittle! Deebo Samuel! Christian McCaffrey! And Elijah Mitchell just scampering through every gap whenever the team needed to wind down the clock.
joshua.hermsmeyer: CMC even took large portions of two quarters off.
(I know because I bet the under on total carries for him, and was sweating it all game.)
maya: LOL. Hope you took the under on the point total, too.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Anyone think the NFC champ wins the Super Bowl? Or are the AFC teams the toast of the league?
I’m torn, hopefully NOT like Mahomes’ ankle.
maya: I think if the Chiefs win but Mahomes isn’t 100 percent, it’s going to be like that 2021 Buccaneers-Chiefs Super Bowl. I would take either the Niners or the Eagles in that case.
neil: So much of it depends on the Mahomes injury. But conditional on K.C. winning the AFC, you’d think that would mean he was healthier than we might think right now.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Bengals disrespect remains. Still, they almost lost to a Lamar-less Ravens team.
neil: No Bengals disrespect here! This final four is all pretty evenly matched now.
So I don’t think there’s any huge lopsided conference imbalance in a potential Super Bowl matchup, and the conference title games are also fairly close to 50-50.
The football should be really good next weekend.
maya: OK folks, I think it’s time to get everyone on the record. Let’s have your conference championship picks with some scorelines. I want circulate-on-Twitter-with-the-caption-freezing-cold-takes level stuff.
neil: I tried that last week, Maya.
(RIP Danny Dimes.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: Niners 27, Eagles 10
Bengals 35, Kansas City 28
maya: Bengals 28, Chiefs 24
Niners 12, Eagles 7
ty: I’ve been saying for the past couple of weeks that the experience of lucking into a Super Bowl appearance last year might have given them the experience they need to go head-to-head with the AFC’s best and win decisively. Zac Taylor is coaching his brains out, and the patched-together offensive line has handled as strong a test they’ll face. I’ll take the Bengals in a barnburner, 37-34.
On the other side, I think Purdy’s magic toe shoes run out of magic. Eagles 27, Niners 17.
neil: Eagles 24, Niners 21
Bengals 27, Chiefs 24
maya: Did we overcorrect on the Bengals disrespect? I can’t believe all of us are picking against Mahomes!
joshua.hermsmeyer: I have a bad feeling about this …
neil: The entire NFL season revolves around his ankle!
(Also, Cincy literally beat K.C. in December, 27-24, LOL.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s cheating, Neil.
ty: And of course, this is literally a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game, which the Bengals also won … 27-24.
neil: Also Maya, 12-7? Why not just pick a Scoragami and get it over with.
maya: Ooh, I should’ve done that. How low-scoring can I go without making it too weird?
Regardless, these games should be terrific. I’m looking forward to them almost as much as I’m looking forward to never seeing those Verizon commercials with Paul Giamatti as Albert Einstein again.
neil: That’s something we can ALL agree on.
joshua.hermsmeyer: One more crypto ad, for the memories. All I ask.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.