Another Thunderous Playoff Long Shot

In a year of sporting upsets and odd ball long shots, no one should have been surprised at the outcome of golf’s 2016 Masters down in Georgia. The addictive nature of sport is everywhere like never before as spring springs into action. Motivation and dreamy foresight must be at an all-time high further south at the Major League’s spring training camps. For the first time in a long time, literally anyone can and will win.

Take the oft mentioned Foxes of Leicester City who are within three wins of the most unfathomable English Premier League Title in its history. Some say it surely ranks up there in the history of all sport. The most watched league in the world is within stumbling distance of crowing a pauper, ahead of royalty like the Manchester’s United and City and London’s Chelsea and Arsenal. Being a born and bred fox fan myself, conveying my disbelief and the grandeur of it all to my American friends is proving to be as difficult as the team’s next five games.

So let’s put it into a numerical context many will understand. Leicester were long odds to pull off this remarkable almost feat. And even if they fail to do so, the sheer number of column inches given over to such a season will ensure their place in folk lore. Bookies had the blue army at 5000/1 to win the league this year. How does that compare? Other equally high value risky investments back in the summer of 2015 would have been, the Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster proved to actually exist. Perhaps backing Christmas Day to be the warmest day of the year in England sounds like a more sound investment to you.

Now those examples may still be a little too worldly for many stateside given their Himalayan, Celtic and downright English locales. So Elvis being found alive and well was also a 5000/1 shot to tie this back to the deep south of the USA. But for those looking for a more sporting comparison, let’s put this into dollars and pounds. Leicester’s payroll for player salaries this year ranked 17th of 20 Premiership Teams at 48 million pounds. That’s just a shade over 68 million dollars give or take a quid or two. Last year’s Champions and current 10th place Chelsea are spending the most, at a wallet bulging 215 million pounds ($306,000,000).

To put that in purely financial terms of the modern day NBA, Cleveland are the big spenders and preseason favorites in Vegas at $108,000,000. Making basketball’s Leicester equivalent, the Toronto Raptors ranked 23rd in the salary spending stakes. In fact, even the league’s lowest spending Portland Trailblazers ($53,000,000) are still spending just under half of LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers. Leicester by comparison are spending less than a quarter of the Premier League’s wealthiest team.

Despite finance not offering up a direct comparison for the American sports fan, one can only hope the enormity of their season is beginning to take shape. Even if money doesn’t buy you love or wins, there may be something to learn from Leicester’s rampant ascension to would be kings of the hill. Looking to the NBA Playoffs, perhaps those rank outsiders can learn from Leicester’s unconventional style of play and parlay that into a joyous June.

So here’s the top ten factors of league leading success from a Roman city in the middle of England that dates back to 1086’s Doomsday Book. All of which will help us predict with an uncertain level of certainty which NBA team will surprise anyone not reading this and upset the Warriors on their way to continuing this sporting season of shockers.

1) Leicester play with a never-ending intensity: Regardless of the score on the board or time on the clock, the foxes seem to forever chase lost causes, run down lose balls and hammer into 50:50 challenges. More often than not it starts with Jamie Vardy, the team’s striker and leading scorer. That first line of defense when possession changes is key in the NBA too. With guards often first up to cover transition responsibilities if and when they arise. So Playoff bound NBA players who have that same frenetic approach to their time between the lines are Draymond Green and Russell Westbrook. But with passionate post season performers like Joakim Noah and Kobe at home, spare a though for those with a more brooding intensity like the Spurs Kawai Leonard. So score one for the Thunder and Spurs as we are trying to find an alternative to the Warriors. Sorry Draymond, don’t get mad. Please. Draymond…?

2) Leicester’s formation fits their personnel like a glove: Some deem the 4-4-2 formation to be a touch outdated and in many ways inflexible. But it meets the needs of a ragtag City roster and shows them in their best light. Offering defensive protection at the back and a pulsating counter attack going forward. While some NBA peers battle with similarly perceived outdated schemes like the triangulated Knicks, Dallas and Memphis have made speedy adjustments in both directions on the fly to adapt to changing rotations. This gives them the best chance of success today and tomorrow, both carefree about the plans of yesterday. While others have their mindset from day one with the Spurs and Hawks both capable of running while never at the expense of over stretching their defense. The key is finding the best fit as early as possible. Score one for the Spurs and Hawks.

3) Leicester are one of the fittest teams in the league: Granted only playing one game a week unlike their European bound competition at the top, yet these foxes are a well-conditioned skulk who can run, hit and head better than anyone else. Shinji Okazaki is the most substituted player in Premiership. In part because he literally runs himself into the ground after three quarters of the game. So even after a long season the table toppers can still counter attack like no other, play the full 90 minutes at pace while covering any holes in defense. If pace is an issue for hardwood heroics look no further than the Celtics, Thunder and Hawks. All joining the Warriors in the top five. But that needs to be combined with efficiency going forward to ensure effort isn’t wasted. Only the Thunder join the Champs in fast break efficiency and points scored. The Thunder are also the only team to join the Warriors in the top five of overall offensive efficiency with the Spurs and Cavs. So strike one up for OKC.

4) Leicester’s chemistry is in perfect balance: Team chemistry is hardly a scientific art but the foxes have tried and tested partnerships all over the park and none better than on the right wing. Danny Simpson & Riyad Mahrez both know their role and act it out to rave reviews. Simpson’s defense first approach allows his more flamboyant team mate to launch multiple counter attacks safe in the knowledge his partner in crime will be there to cover for any change in possession. Therefore if time served is get out of jail free card, then teams have to stay on the pitch and out of the infirmary. Memphis lead the post season teams with a bone crushing 302 games lost to injury. While the surprising Warriors lost over 180 games to a myriad of ailments during the regular season. Less threatened by the next man up philosophy were OKC (23 games lost), San Antonio (58) and Portland (64). Chalk one up for the Thunder, Spurs and Blazers.

5) Leicester simply never know when they’re beat: Granted any league leader rarely experiences such a feeling and so is out of practice when losing. But City’s style and consistency of effort means when they do fall behind, it’s never for too long. They keep coming at you with waves of counter attacks that begin right after conceding. This year’s NBA witnessed the biggest statistical upset when the Lakers beat GSW on March 6th. The 112-95 Lake Show victory offered up the biggest gap in winning percentage between teams ever. The Lakers 19% of wins somehow beating out the record setting 91% of games won by the Warriors. So take heart fearless foes. The NBA is that good, top to toe. If it’s your night David, it’s goodnight Goliath. While the Warriors slipped to such a shocking defeat just once, the Thunder have matched the processed Sixers by blowing a league high ten leads going into the fourth quarter. On the flip side to this key indicator, the Grizzlies, Clippers and Celtics all have the best point differential in the final stanza. Score one for Memphis, Boston and the other LA. While knocking one off the Thunder.

6) Leicester have two lights out scorers to show the way to victory: Jamie Vardy and the mercurial Mahrez are second and fifth in goals scored in the league this year. The club’s third highest scorer is 30th with six goals this campaign. The comfort of knowing where goals are coming from is like a warm blanket in winter to the boys in blue. Of course the NBA Champs have the top and twelfth spots tied up in the NBA scoring charts thanks to the Splash Brothers. The only other team with a dependable duo? The Thunder with KD and Russ locking up an even more impressive third and eighth place respectively. In the post season, the tempo slows and scores are harder to come by as teams zero in like never before and matchups change. Knowing your offense can still produce is a huge factor. Another notch for the Thunder.

7) Leicester have multiple playmakers who create opportunities. Steve Jobs said it best, “Creativity is just connecting things” and the table toppers do so a fruity flair. Mahrez is second in the league for assists with eleven this year to date, many of which have led to Jamie Vardy goals. But the clinical finisher himself joins team mate Marc Albrighton at 13th in the table with six assists. In hoops an assisted field goal often comes with a higher shooting percentage and so greater worth against stout defenses. Bad news for the upset minded pack here then that the Warriors boast two of the top ten givers with Green and Curry at 7th and 10th. No other team has two players in the top twenty, let along the ten best.

8) Like the 7 star Burj Al Arab Hotel, Leicester has more clean sheets than anyone: Generational excellence isn’t just an NBA thing. While the Splash Fathers were doing their thing in the ‘90’s, back across the pond Peter Schmeichel was racking up clean sheets for powerhouse Manchester United. The two time World Goalkeeper of the Year needed specially made XXXL shirts to play in given his very basketball like 6’3” 230lbs frame. Peter’s son, Kasper now stands between the sticks for Leicester and has kept more clean sheets than any other keeper this year. That kind of defensive efficiency in 42% of games without conceding shows the benefit of keeping teams under their scoring average. NBA season averages for the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions offers up the Spurs as the best in class, followed by the Hawks, Pacers and Celtics. Are you still keeping score?

9) Leicester’s defensive stalwart, anchors the last line of defense: City center back Robert Huth sits in the top ten in blocks and headers in the premier league. The savvy veteran has a physical style and despite his three goals, loves defending the best striker on the opposition team. All while holding together the team’s defensive formation. Something the NBA’s best team defenses all do with alarming regularity come May. Of those still in post season play, Hasan Whiteside and DeAndre Jordan are the leaders in blocked shots. One further key stat is Whiteside’s leading mark of 1.34 blocks per foul. Defending without fouling proves vital when your minutes are ratchetted up a notch in the playoffs. Jordan’s rate is much lower at 0.99 showing when he’s not being intentionally sent to the foul line, he’s busy sending other people there. Closer to the floor, the guard’s steal rate offers up equal value with extra possessions. But the steal leaders like Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry and  Russell Westbrook can be plagued with higher turnovers. Negating any benefit. So it’s their careful counterparts like Jae Crowder who become even more important. His 1.5 steals for every turnover he commits provide a more meaningful offering than Russell’s 0.5. Score one for the Celtics and Heat.

10) Leicester’s opponents often pay a harsh penalty in the end Because of such attacking veer, the foxes have taken and made more penalty kicks than any other team this year. Backtracking defenders fall foul of speedy strikers like Vardy in the 18 yard box and ten times the boys in blue have placed the ball on the spot. Eight times coming away with a goal which is 40% more than the next best. A remarkable stat accredited to their intensity and fitness in part. Comparable in many ways to the Free Throws Made Points Differential in basketball. League leading Raptors, Hornets and Thunder all spend more successful time at the stripe than their opponents. While the Heat join them when considering FT Attempts Differential. But as City’s 80% success rate shows, you’ve got to make them, not just take them. So notch one up for the Dinosaurs, Bugs and OKC. If ever a team needed a creature nickname, it was then. We digress.

So this is all well and good. Finally down the pub tonight, fans of both sports can finally talk together without half looking like Joey from Friends when the topic switches from their favored hoops to soccer. But who wins? Who is the big money, long shot upset candidate for that joyous June? We scored all ten categories and in the least scientific system since the chalk board, playing second fiddle are the Spurs and Celtics. Both worthy of an investment, having taken games off the Warriors at some point this year and pushing them out of their comfort zone. The Celtics offer a much higher return (80/1) compared to the Spurs suitably conservative price from Vegas (4/1). More importantly, there may actually be something to this year of upsets calculation and comparison. Before you think that 80/1 is nowhere near the 5000/1 we teased some 2,500 words ago, the longest shot is the Mavericks at 500/1. Dallas failed to score in our system and so obviously, can’t possibly be a realistic recommendation.

So without further ado, as you’ve most likely got to get back to work or pay your other half at least some attention tonight - the team that will undoubtedly beat the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 playoffs is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Scoring highest in the most categories including key areas like fitness, intensity and free throw differential. They also have two scorers with combined higher ranks than the Champs and oddly but importantly teammates who know their role. Witnessed Houston’s Dwight Howard pouting and jogging up the court at all this season? Or the Knicks Arron Afflalo simply standing in the corner lifelessly waiting for the ball to be shot by someone else? The Thunder Buddies know their roles and to date haven’t complained. It’s not true chemistry, but if it ain’t broke.

To top it all, the Thunder come in at a healthy 20/1 from Vegas, so a long enough shot to be worthy of this article. They also have home court for what could be a reasonably simply first rounder against the injury ravaged Grizzlies or the neophyte Trail Blazers. Follow that with the real test of the Spurs, who they have beaten in two of three this season, despite losing four of their last six overall at the time of writing. But after skipping past the Warriors in the conference finals, it’ll be onto the preseason favorites, to beat LeBron James in the rematch of the 2012 NBA Finals (just without the Heat).

Easy as that. Try getting a 20/1 return from your broker. Just ask the next time you see them to gauge their reaction. You know you want to. But it’s all just numbers. You’d have been better off backing the “lucky” Warriors in the fall when they were 5 and one-third favorites. That boat has sailed. But it’s all paper talk. It’ll never happen because throw out the rule book and analytics in the postseason. It’s a lottery. But it’s impossible. The Warriors are a historic record setting team of destiny. We’re just along for the ride.

Numbers. Paper Talk. Impossible. Words Leicester City and Danny Willett heard and will continue to hear. This is what long shots do. The listen. They play. They surprise. Sometimes.