What The Roger Stone Indictment Does (And Doesn’t) Tell Us

Roger Stone’s indictment wasn’t a surprise. On Friday morning, the Republican strategist and longtime adviser to President Trump was arrested by FBI agents and indicted in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential coordination between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. Stone has been predicting for months that he would eventually be criminally implicated in Mueller’s investigation, and sure enough, he was charged with seven counts, including witness tampering, obstruction of an official proceeding, and making false statements.

The charges are related to Stone’s communications with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign, when the organization released thousands of emails from Democratic officials that were allegedly hacked by Russian agents. According to the indictment, Trump campaign officials were interested in learning about WikiLeaks’ releases of the stolen information that might be damaging to Hillary Clinton and an unnamed senior campaign figure was even “directed” to reach out to Stone to ask about the timing of future releases and the nature of the information WikiLeaks had about Clinton.

The documents don’t spell out a clear connection between the Trump campaign and Russia. Stone left his official role with the campaign in August 2015 and was only serving as an informal adviser in the summer and fall of 2016, when he was allegedly in touch with WikiLeaks. But the latest development is significant because unlike previous indictments of people close to Trump, which were for charges like unrelated financial wrongdoing or making false statements about a real estate deal, Stone’s indictment is the first time Mueller has charged someone connected to Trump’s campaign with misconduct related to Russia’s election interference. The indictment also indicates that Mueller has evidence that Trump campaign officials were aware of the existence of the stolen emails before they were released.

Stone is the 34th person charged in Mueller’s probe.

On its face, the Stone indictment doesn’t include much information that wasn’t already in the public eye. Stone talked in public and in private about the leaks of the stolen Democratic emails throughout the 2016 campaign and claimed in August 2016 to have communicated with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Previous reporting had also outlined how Stone promoted himself to the Trump campaign as a backchannel to WikiLeaks and revealed his attempts to intimidate Randy Credico, a radio talk show host and “Person 2” in the indictment.

Overall, though, Stone also hasn’t been charged with anything that actually occurred during the campaign, like conspiring with WikiLeaks. The wrongdoing outlined in the indictment revolves around various attempts by Stone to mislead congressional investigators in 2017 by making false statements about his communication with WikiLeaks and then bullying Credico into backing up his story.

The details do make for a much more colorful read than your typical court document: According to the indictment, Stone threatened Credico’s therapy dog, Bianca, and told Credico to “do a ‘Frank Pentangeli’ before HPSCI [the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] to avoid contradicting Stone’s testimony” — a reference to “The Godfather: Part II,” where a character lies in congressional testimony.

But the real unknown is how Stone’s alleged misconduct fits into the broader picture that Mueller has been painting through court documents for over a year. In his previously filed indictments, which have been quite detailed, Mueller has told the story of a complex campaign by the Russians to influence the 2016 election to Trump’s benefit, both through online influence campaigns and email hacking.

What’s still not clear is whether Trump campaign officials — or even the candidate himself — actively coordinated with Russia in these efforts. The Stone indictment doesn’t answer that question, which could mean a few things. It may be that Mueller’s team doesn’t have evidence to show that direct communication with WikiLeaks went any higher than Stone or that the Trump campaign was working with Russia in other ways. Or it could mean that Mueller is still filling in the story and that more answers are coming in future indictments.


Why The NFL Can’t Rely On Defense

In an NFL season marked by historic offensive production and a championship round that was conspicuously absent a top-10 defense,2 aficionados of low-scoring rock fights, filled with punts and field goals, have been left disappointed. The best defensive teams to make the playoffs were eliminated early in the tournament, with the Bears, Ravens and Texans all losing in the wild-card round. A week later, Joey Bosa and the emerging Chargers defense were dismantled by the Patriots, and the Cowboys — perhaps the best defensive team left in the divisional round based on their end-of-season play — lost to the Rams. Extracting the strong defensive teams with relatively weak offenses led to historically exciting playoff football, producing two overtime games in the championship round for the first time in NFL history. Now we have a Patriots and Rams Super Bowl pitting perhaps the greatest QB of all time in Tom Brady against the hottest young offensive mind in the league in Sean McVay.

We shouldn’t be surprised that great offensive teams have made it this far. Teams are more reliably good — and bad — from game to game and year to year on offense than on defense. Individual defenders often have wild swings in performance from season to season, and defensive units forecast to be dominant often end up being merely average. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense took them as far as the AFC championship a year ago, but that same defense led them to five wins this season. Meanwhile, performance on offense is generally easier to forecast, making investments on that side of the ball more reliable.

Even then, football is largely unpredictable. When an otherwise sure-handed Alshon Jeffery3 lets a well-thrown Nick Foles pass sail through his fingers for an interception to end the Eagles season, or when Cody Parkey double-doinks a partially blocked field goal to end the Bears’ playoff hopes, we are essentially cheering, or bemoaning, randomness. Most vexing for forecasters and league observers trying to make sense of things is that the plays that matter the most in football are often the most unpredictable. But again, this is particularly true on the defensive side of the ball.

Turnover margin is the canonical example. Teams that win the turnover battle go on to win their games at a very high rate. Home teams win about 73 percent of their games when they are plus-1 in turnover differential, according to data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, and the home team win rate climbs to more than 86 percent when it’s plus-2 or better.

Yet despite their clear importance, the number of turnovers a team creates in one season has no bearing on how many turnovers the team will create in the next. Both interceptions and fumbles are completely unpredictable from season to season at the team level. And this pattern holds true for defense in general. If we measure the stability of defensive stats from one year to the next,4 we find that compared with offensive performance, most defensive stats are highly variable from year to year.

Defensive performance is unpredictable

Share of performance across various team-level metrics predicted by the previous season’s performance in the regular season, 2009-2018

metric Share predicted
Total offensive DVOA 18.9%
Offensive passing DVOA 18.8
Defensive passing DVOA 10.0
Offensive rushing DVOA 9.7
Total defensive DVOA 9.7
Defensive rushing DVOA 8.3
Sacks 3.6
Interceptions 2.4
Fumbles 1.6

Source: Football Outsiders

High-impact plays on defense turn out to be the least predictable. And while we’re by no means great at identifying which teams will succeed on offense, offensive DVOA is about twice as good at forecasting future performance as defensive DVOA.5

For teams like the Chicago Bears, who won 12 games despite fielding the 20th best offense in the NFL, this has major ramifications. The Bears were third in the league in turnover margin and third in sacks — feats we shouldn’t expect to repeat based solely on this season’s results. (Just ask the Jags.) Casting even more doubt on their ability to field an elite defense in back-to-back years, Chicago also lost its defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, who left to become the head coach in Denver, further destabilizing the strength of the team.

Still there is some hope for lovers of the three-and-out. While rare, there are plays a defense makes that do tend to carry over from year to year. One of the most stable defensive stats is hits on the quarterback, which has a relatively impressive year-to-year r-squared of 0.21 — better even than total offensive DVOA, which is the gold standard for stability in team metrics. Quarterback hits include sacks — 43.5 percent of QB hits end in a sack, and those by themselves tend to not be predictive — but also plays in which the passer is contacted after the pass is thrown, and that contact is incredibly disruptive to a passing offense.

When a quarterback is hit, his completion percentage is affected on a throw to any part of the field.6 Teams that can generate pressure that ends with contact on the opposing QB greatly improve their chances of causing incompletions and getting off the field. And best of all, teams that are good at generating hits on the quarterback tend to stay good at it.

Philadelphia led the league in QB hits but not sacks

Total quarterback hits, sacks and expected sacks for teams’ defensive lines in the regular season, 2018

Sources: NFL, Elias Sports Bureau

The Eagles, Jets and the Seahawks all appear to have better days ahead of them on defense. Each team racked up more than 100 QB hits in 2018. But they also experienced bad fortune, converting their hits into sacks at a rate below what we’d expect. If these teams generate similar pressure next season, we shouldn’t be surprised to see their sack totals rise just based on reversion to the mean. Meanwhile, Chicago, New Orleans and Kansas City experienced good fortune in 2018, converting their QB hits at a rate higher than we’d expect. Assuming the defensive lines return largely intact, we probably shouldn’t be surprised to see their sack totals dip next season.

Stats like QB hits are rare to find on defense. And because of the high variance in defensive performance, teams built with a defense-first mindset end up controlling their own destinies less than we might expect. When it comes to team-building, this suggests that investments on offense are better long-term bets for stability. The results this year are particularly encouraging. Lighting up scoreboards by focusing on scoring points instead of preventing them has proved to be both successful and incredibly entertaining to watch. For this season at least, defense isn’t winning anyone a championship.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

What Happens When Dozens Of Wave-Year Freshmen Join The House?

It might be hard to tell at the moment, but there are freshmen Democrats in the House other than New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive women have become the face of the new class in Congress, a total of 64 newly elected Democrats joined Congress this month, each of them with their own platform and political leanings. Yet all of them won their seats in the same wave election that swung at least 40 House seats to the Democrats1 — an election that has media wags wondering if the new Democratic representatives will cause headaches for the old guard.

The data suggests … probably not.

American politics have been inundated by big waves before, and a close look at how those freshmen classes voted may shed light on how today’s wave might affect the government. In 1994, for example, under the banner of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” the GOP ushered in a so-called Republican Revolution, swinging Congress 54 seats to the right. In 2010, Republicans did it again, this time powered by the tea party; the GOP picked up 63 seats. But American politics are turbulent. In 2006 and 2008, it was the Democrats’ turn to surf — they picked up 31 and 21 seats those years. While there is no widely accepted definition of a “wave” year, there seems to be some consensus that these four elections were waves, so that’s where I’m going to focus my analysis.

After they were elected, all of these wave-riding freshman representatives actually had to go to work and cast votes. Votes are data, and data, in this case, turns into ideology scores. Specifically, we can use Nokken-Poole ideology scores to see whether wave-year freshmen voted demonstrably differently from their more veteran peers. (This method boils down actual congressional votes into a single dimension, meaning that bigger negative numbers represent more liberal positions and bigger positive numbers represent more conservative positions.)

With a possible exception of Republicans elected in 2010, when the tea party was big, first-year representatives entering Congress in a wave year don’t look all that different from any of the other representatives — they tend to be distributed across the ideology score spectrum in about the same way as their longer-serving peers. That could be good news for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she tries to keep her caucus in line.

But it’s not just the wave-riding freshmen who aren’t that different from the veterans. Freshmen of all classes tend to vote similarly to — or, if anything, slightly to the right of — their party elders. These are the ideological distributions of all freshmen and all non-freshmen from 1994 through 2018.

But what became of these freshmen who rode into Congress on electoral waves? Did those who were re-elected (and, in some cases, re-elected and re-elected and re-elected …) begin to alter their legislative behavior after they’d served for a while? Where could Ocasio-Cortez and her peers end up, ideologically speaking, in a decade’s time, if they follow roughly the same path as those who came before them?

There is some weak evidence that those congresspeople who rode in on recent waves — be they Democrats or Republicans — shifted to the left over time. (For the universe of all congresspeople, there is some evidence that spending more time in Congress means a person takes, on average, a slightly more extreme ideological position.) The Republicans of the class of 1994, for example, became on average more moderate than their fellow congressmen, while the Democrats of the classes of 2006 and 2008 became on average more liberal. Practically speaking, however, these effects appear small, especially when each wave-year class is viewed as an aggregate. The single red and blue lines on the chart below represent the careers of each newly elected member of that year’s wave party, while the thick black lines show a smoothed trend for each class. The members of the wave classes thin out over time and, in some cases, shift their ideologies.

There are a couple of notable outliers clearly visible above. In 1999, Rep. Michael Forbes, who had been a freshman in the Republican Revolution class, announced he was becoming a Democrat. And in 2009, Democratic Rep. Parker Griffith became a Republican while still a freshman — he’d been elected in a Democratic wave just over a year before.

There’s an important caveat to all this: the Nokken-Poole scores are built only on how congresspeople vote. The scores don’t tell us anything about what the congresspeople are voting on, or the ripple effects that freshmen may have on senior members by, for example, threatening to vote as a bloc, introducing legislation the House might not otherwise have considered, or using their public appearances to rile up segments of senior members’ electorates who might not normally contact their representatives. For instance, some pundits have argued that the tea party changed “the very DNA of the GOP.” (Congress has tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act many times since 2010, for example, which was one of the main planks of the tea party movement.) Others have argued that Gingrich’s Republican Revolution is linked to “the upheaval now taking place around the globe.” Only time will tell what effects the recent and ongoing blue wave might have. Already, we can see how young left is trying to expand which ideas Democrats are willing to entertain — including, perhaps, remaking the country’s very economic system.

We don’t yet have ideological measures for the freshmen swept into the House on 2018’s wave, of course — they haven’t participated in enough votes in D.C. But if today’s freshmen stick around long enough to become senior statesmen, there are hints here that they may shift the House even further to the left. Cowabunga, dude.



Does Larry Hogan Have A Shot Against Trump In A 2020 GOP Primary?

In 1974, Rep. Lawrence Hogan Sr. became the first Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee to call for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Now there’s speculation in Washington that his son, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, might challenge President Trump in the 2020 Republican presidential primary. So we decided to take a look at what might prompt Hogan to run and how he might fare against Trump. Hogan would not have an easy go of it, but we can see why he might run — and why he might find some success.

First, a look at his record. Larry Hogan became the governor of Maryland after pulling off an upset victory against Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in 2014. In 2018, Hogan cruised to re-election, winning by 12 percentage points despite Maryland’s deep-blue hue and a Democratic-leaning national environment. Hogan was the first Republican governor to win re-election in the state since 1954. But that came as no surprise: Just before the election, Hogan had the second-highest approval rating of any governor in the country, at 67 percent, according to polling by Morning Consult. Hogan can’t run for governor again because of term limits.

According to OnTheIssues, which tries to measure a politician’s positions based on votes and public statements, Hogan’s views are notably more moderate than those of either Trump or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — the most powerful Republican in Congress — which might help explain Hogan’s continued success in Maryland. His candidacy also had a feel-good element: Hogan overcame cancer during his first term — twice, actually.

Hogan has been critical of Trump. In the aftermath of August 2017’s violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Hogan called Trump’s “both sides” response a “terrible mistake.” And in his second inauguration speech, Hogan said that Americans like his father, who bucked partisanship for the sake of the country, made people “yearn for something better and more noble than the politics of today.”

Practical considerations might also push him to run. Although Marylanders have sent Hogan to the governor’s mansion twice, a Senate seat might still be out of reach (partisanship tends to matter more in congressional races than in gubernatorial contests). And at 62, Hogan might feel like this is his moment to try for the presidency — not, say, in 2024, when he will have been out of office for two years.

So if Hogan were to challenge Trump for the GOP nomination … could he actually win? Well, it depends on what your definition of “win” is. (Bear with me for a second.)

In the modern era of presidential primaries, no incumbent president has ever lost renomination.1 Heck, the last time a president didn’t win renomination was in 1884, when Republican President Chester A. Arthur lost to James Blaine at the GOP convention. Moreover, among rank-and-file Republicans, Trump’s approval rating remains high — north of 80 percent. So actually defeating Trump in a Republican primary contest would be quite difficult, based on what we know now.

But if Hogan’s goal is to win a substantial share of the vote while making the case for a different kind of Republicanism, that seems more attainable. National polls find Trump in reasonably good shape against potential primary foes, but surveys suggest that at least some Republicans in the early primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa might be open to alternatives.

And the president’s national numbers could present an opening. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018, Republican leaners — independents who say they “lean” toward the Republican Party — were less likely than self-identified Republicans to approve of Trump. And among all voters — so, not just Republicans — somewhere between one-third and half of those who approve of the president’s job performance say they only “somewhat” approve, as opposed to “strongly” approve, according to recent polls. It’s possible, though far from certain, that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election could help Hogan attract some Republicans if serious negative revelations about the president come out. Although polls show that most Republicans believe the Mueller investigation is a “witch hunt” and that the president is handling the matter appropriately, Trump’s numbers could worsen in the face of damning evidence and make an alternative choice like Hogan more attractive.

Hogan’s centrism could also make him competitive in New Hampshire, long known for its relative moderation. Other recent Republicans running as middle-of-the-road candidates have garnered a substantial share of the primary vote there, albeit without an incumbent president in the field. In 2016, Ohio Gov. John Kasich finished second in the New Hampshire primary, with 16 percent; in 2012, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, now the U.S. ambassador to Russia, finished third, with 17 percent.

Still, Hogan could have a tough time breaking through. If Trump’s popularity among Republicans holds steady, he’ll go into the 2020 primary with one of the highest intra-party approval ratings of any recent president running for re-election. Also, Hogan has generally shied away from social issues such as abortion — though he’s personally against it — which means he might have trouble attracting support among socially conservative Republicans. Although that might not be much of a problem for Hogan in less socially conservative states like New Hampshire, it’s difficult to see him building meaningful support in other early primary states such as Iowa or South Carolina (if they even participate in the GOP primary in 2020). One can imagine Hogan winning over some suburban voters in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and West Coast, but it’s not clear that he could win a state beyond his own, which probably won’t vote until April 2020.

All in all, it would be tough sledding for Hogan to defeat Trump in the 2020 GOP presidential primary. Nonetheless, he’s a popular governor who would present a clear-cut alternative to the president. So perhaps Hogan could make a splash and win over a substantial chunk of the Republican electorate. That alone would be significant: The past three presidents to endure a notable primary challenge — Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 — all went on to lose in the general election.

The Rams And Patriots Have Reversed Roles Since Their First Super Bowl Meeting

One of the most wonderfully ironic moments in Super Bowl history happened just before kickoff in February 2002, when St. Louis Rams wide receiver Ricky Proehl turned to NFL Films’ cameras during warmups and declared: “Tonight, a dynasty is born!”

Proehl was right, of course. A dynasty was born that night — just not the one he was imagining. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots ended up toppling the heavily favored Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, using it as a springboard for the greatest run of sustained success any NFL team has ever known.

The Patriots were the up-and-coming team back then, while the Rams were the established champions with the veteran, future Hall of Fame quarterback. This time around, though, the roles will be reversed for the two franchises — with the Patriots serving as the elder statesmen, while the Rams are the team on the rise. It’s a fitting turnabout, one featuring what the Elias Sports Bureau determined was the largest gap in age between both starting quarterbacks (Tom Brady is 17 years and 72 days older than Jared Goff) and head coaches (Bill Belichick is 33 years and 283 days older than Sean McVay) in Super Bowl history.

The Rams opened the betting Sunday night as slight favorites with some sportsbooks (so yes, you can say you were an underdog, Tom), though that didn’t last long. A flood of bets for the Patriots pushed the line to favor New England by 2½ points, according to the current consensus in Vegas. Here’s what our Elo ratings think about the matchup, using both the classic version from our interactive and one with the experimental quarterback adjustments we’ve been tinkering with:

OK, Elo — who ya got in the Super Bowl?

Win probabilities for Week 21 games according to two methods: standard Elo and adjusting for starting quarterbacks

Standard Elo QB-Adjusted Elo
Team Rating Win Prob. Base Rtg Starting QB QB Adj. Win Prob.
LAR 1667 47% 1656 Jared Goff +4 46%
NE 1686 53 1645 Tom Brady +42 54

Elo quarterback adjustments are relative to average, based on a rolling average of defense-adjusted QB stats (including rushing).

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Patriots still somehow have two very important components from that original Super Bowl against the Rams: Brady and Belichick. At age 41, Brady had his worst passing numbers in several years, yet he also was still a top-10 QB (at worst), a Pro Bowler and — it bears emphasizing — impossibly productive for his age. All of that came despite throwing to a revolving-door cast of receivers and a less-dominant version of longtime security blanket Rob Gronkowski. All told, Brady led an offense that still ranked fourth in scoring and eighth in expected points added, albeit with a lower per-game EPA average than any Pats team with Brady as starter since 2013.

For Belichick’s part, this season saw his Patriots improve significantly on defense, jumping from 24th in EPA in 2017 to seventh in 2018. Although New England tied for the second-fewest sacks in the league, it generated the third-most pressure (according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group), forced the second-lowest completion percentage and generally was the best Patriots pass defense in a while. And this team was also a celebration of Belichick the (de facto) general manager: In addition to shrewd veteran acquisitions such as CB Stephon Gilmore and LB Kyle Van Noy, a large share of the Pats’ production came from draft picks made over the past few years, including DLs Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown, OLs Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney, and rookie RB Sony Michel.1 All of those pickups helped fuel a Pats roster that still relied heavily on Brady to work his magic but also blocked well and played sound defense.

The Patriots’ run wasn’t always easy, of course. The 2018 edition had the second-worst points per game differential and lowest Elo rating of the franchise’s Super Bowl-bound squads since … you guessed it, the 2001 team. But maybe that’s just further proof that everything truly has come full circle in New England. They’re certainly hoping the story ends the same way this time around.

As for these current Rams, they are not too dissimilar from their Greatest Show on Turf forebears, either. Los Angeles outscored opponents by 143 total points in the regular season (third-best in football) and got high marks in every power ranking out there, including Elo (which ranks them No. 2), Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (No. 2), ProFootballFocus’s rankings (No. 2), Jeff Sagarin’s ratings (No. 2), Andy Dolphin’s predictive rating (No. 3) and Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (No. 3). Though they never actually ranked first in Elo at any point during the season, the Rams were consistently one of the game’s top contenders all year long.

And they got that way just about as quickly as those fabled 1999 Rams, who went 4-12 the year before Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk changed the franchise’s fortunes forever. The 2018 season culminated a remarkable two-year turnaround arc under soon-to-be-33-year-old coach Sean McVay, who took L.A. from a 4-12 disaster in 2016 under former coach Jeff Fisher to an 11-5 record last year, and now a Super Bowl. Over that span, the Rams went from an Elo rating of 1346 to 1667, a gain of 321 Elo points. Only four other Super Bowl teams in history have gained more rating points from the end of two seasons prior to the start of the big game itself — the 1998 Atlanta Falcons (+368), 1981 San Francisco 49ers (+360), 1992 Dallas Cowboys (+357) and 1971 Miami Dolphins (+339). Even the ’99 Rams had “only” gained 246 points of Elo from the end of 1997, though they do own the largest single-season gain ever for a Super Bowl team.

How did L.A. do it? The cornerstones of the 2018 team — Goff, DT Aaron Donald and RB Todd Gurley2 — were all drafted by the club from 2014 to 2016. But general manager Les Snead did his best work over the 2017 and 2018 offseasons, snagging the majority of the current team’s other starters either via the draft or in a flurry of win-now moves that mostly look smart in hindsight. The other key ingredient was coaching, where (with a few weird exceptions on Sunday) McVay has shown a fantastic knack for incorporating analytical thinking into his play-calling, and he remains the master of keeping defenses off-balance by running almost all of his plays out of the same personnel package. While there are very legitimate questions as to whether Goff or Gurley could be as successful in a different system, the pair has powered a Super Bowl run under McVay’s scheme.

Each team needed luck to get here, too. The Rams likely wouldn’t be headed to Atlanta without a blown pass-interference call that kept New Orleans from running down most of the clock in regulation, instead giving L.A. the chance to force overtime and eventually win the game. The Patriots benefited from a phantom roughing-the-passer penalty and a (legitimate) offside call that negated what would have been a game-ending interception, then rattled off what felt like a million straight third-and-long conversions in overtime. But there isn’t a single Super Bowl team in history that didn’t have big moments when fortune smiled on it. You have to be lucky and good to win a championship, and these teams fit both criteria.

Now, they’ll get a chance to battle on the game’s biggest stage. Will a new dynasty be born? Or will an old one keep rolling? Will the new Greatest Show on Turf avenge the old one? Or will Belichick draw up another brilliant game plan to shut down this latest version? Either way, it should be a fitting way to end one of the most entertaining NFL seasons in a while.

FiveThirtyEight vs. the readers

As you prepare for the Super Bowl, be sure to check out FiveThirtyEight’s NFL predictions page, which uses our Elo ratings to simulate the game 100,000 times, tracking how likely each team is to win. You can also make your Super Bowl pick against the Elo algorithm in our prediction game and make one last bid to climb up our giant leaderboard.

According to data from the game, here’s how readers did against the computer last weekend:

Elo’s smartest conference championship picks

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 20 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
NO 64% NO 62% LAR 26, NO 23 -4.6
KC 61 KC 59 NE 37, KC 31 -7.1

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

After a divisional weekend in which all the home teams won, both home squads lost their conference championship games for just the fifth time in the Super Bowl era. Elo tends to love home teams, especially in the playoffs, so you might think that would be bad news for its picks. (Indeed, the average probability set by the reader was closer to picking the road team than Elo’s default probabilities.) However, Elo still came out ahead on net points because more individual readers made extreme picks in favor of the Saints and Chiefs, costing the field points on average. It’s an instructive example of something we discussed back in Week 9 — that, because of the nonlinear scoring system in our contest, overly confident picks can really wreak havoc on your point totals. When in doubt, set a conservative probability! (Unless, say, you are in 59th place going into the Super Bowl and need a Hail Mary to move up the rankings. Know anybody like that?)

Congratulations are in order to reader Deryl Mundell, who leapfrogged long-standing leaderboard-toppers Neil Mehta and Greg Chili Van Hollebeke to claim first place on the season, checking in with 1,202.5 points. Deryl is also our No. 1 (identified) player on the postseason, with 294.2 points since the playoffs started. Thanks to everyone who has been playing — and the game isn’t over yet! You now have one last chance to make your Super Bowl pick. Make it count!

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

How Kamala Harris Could Win The 2020 Democratic Primary

Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who officially said she is running for president in an announcement on Good Morning America on Monday, has the potential to be among the strongest contenders in the 2020 Democratic field. There may be no other candidate who better embodies how the modern Democratic Party has changed over the last few decades in identity and ideology.

Harris, the daughter of an India-born woman and a Jamaica-born man, spent much of her childhood in Berkeley, California, before going to college at Howard University. She was the first woman, first person of South Asian descent and first black person to be elected district attorney in San Francisco. In that job, she irritated one of the Bay Area’s most influential Democrats, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, by refusing to push for a death sentence for a man accused of killing a police officer because of Harris’ personal opposition to capital punishment. In endorsing Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007, she broke with much of the state’s political establishment, which was then behind Hillary Clinton. Harris, as a senator, has embraced the causes of the party’s liberal wing on issues of gender and racial equality. She gave a speech last year criticizing people who say Democrats spend too much time and energy on “identity politics.”

In short, post-Obama, the Democratic Party is increasingly the party of women and the “woke”, and Harris’ biography and politics align well with where the party has moved.

So Harris could have broad appeal across the Democratic primary electorate. You can see that in my colleague Nate Silver’s analysis of how each potential 2020 candidate might appeal to five key constituencies in the primary — Harris comes out looking stronger than any other potential candidate:

Her biography and record make it easy to imagine Harris doing well with African-Americans, who likely will represent about one-in-five primary voters in the Democratic primary electorate, as well as Asian-Americans. Harris narrowly lost the Latino vote in her 2016 election to a fellow Democrat1 who is Mexican-American (Loretta Sanchez), but there isn’t any particular reason to think she is disliked by Latino voters. The way Harris is likely to position herself on policy issues during the campaign — liberal as any candidate on noneconomic issues but not as liberal on economic issues as, say, Bernie Sanders — echoes Hillary Clinton’s platform in 2016 (Harris’ sister Maya was Clinton’s policy director.) So I’m sure party loyalists, particularly black voters and older women, who backed Clinton will give serious consideration to Harris. The California senator is not particularly young (54), but you could imagine millennials galvanizing around electing the first Asian and first female president in the same way they embraced Obama in 2008. (We’ll come back to The Left in a moment.)

Moreover, looking at the current primary calendar,2 I’m not sure about her prospects in Iowa and New Hampshire (more on that in a bit), but the order of the states is set up well for Harris after that. The third contest is in Nevada, a state that borders California, so voters there may more familiar with Harris than other candidates. South Carolina is next, and African-Americans will likely constitute a majority of voters there.

After those four early contests, nine states are currently scheduled to vote on March 3, and that could be a great day for Harris. Those nine primaries and caucuses include California — Harris’ home state, which also has a large Asian-American population — as well as four states in which the Democratic electorate will likely be more than a quarter black:

The racial breakdown of the March 3 primaries

Percentage of Democratic voters by race according to 2016 exit polls

State Asian Black Latino White
Alabama 1% 54% 1% 40%
California* 11 9 26 56
Massachusetts 4 4 6 85
North Carolina 1 32 3 62
Oklahoma 1 14 4 74
Tennessee 1 32 2 63
Texas 3 19 32 43
Vermont 1 1 0 95
Virginia 2 26 7 63

*No exit poll was conducted for California in the 2016 Democratic primary; these figures come from a pre-election Field Poll that found top-line results well in line with the actual vote. The Field Poll also released results by race with “Asian” and “Other” respondents combined; that number is the one shown here.

Sources: Edison Research, Field Poll, Pew REsearch Center

Also in terms of her strengths, Harris has stood out among colleagues during Senate hearings, putting her prosecutorial skills on display with her sharp and quick questioning of witnesses. Debate performances can really matter in primaries, and the hearing performances suggest she might be strong in debates.

She’ll need to be. To be clear, all of Harris’ strengths outlined above are really potential strengths. In most national primary polls conducted so far, she’s been in the single digits. Those polls mostly reflect a lack of national name recognition, but Harris will have to build her support almost from scratch. And a lot could go wrong for her.

The biggest potential problem for Harris may be that her campaign simply never really catches on with voters. Despite seeming to reporters like me to be a strong candidate on paper, Harris could be the 2020 Democratic version of Marco Rubio or Scott Walker, who both struggled in the GOP’s 2016 primary despite being hyped for years as potential GOP nominees because of their potential to appeal to a broad swath of their party.

After all, Harris likely will be competing for attention with a lot of candidates. And if she doesn’t do well in one of the first two contests, in mostly white Iowa and mostly white New Hampshire, then I don’t think there is any guarantee African-American voters or even California voters will get behind her. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey or former Vice President Joe Biden (his close relationship with Obama will help) could become the top choice among black voters — or African-Americans could split their votes among several candidates. I think a candidate who won Iowa and another early state and had momentum could carry Harris’ home state of California.

Harris’ performances in Iowa and New Hampshire are also relevant in regard to a second challenge for the California senator: Overcoming doubts from some Democrats about her “electability.” As I have written before, research on elections does not support the idea that female candidates do worse than male ones. Black and Latino candidates seem to do slightly worse with white voters but boost turnout among their identity groups, so the story is complicated there too. But discussions of electability are often used as a cudgel against candidates who are not male, Christian and/or white, because such candidates are perceived as having less appeal to swing voters. Right now, some prominent Democrats are publicly fretting about nominating a woman in 2020, fearing the American electorate is too sexist to elect a female candidate and voters with sexist views will find Trump’s persona and politics appealing, as they did in 2016. And some Democrats privately say they are even more concerned that swing voters in the Midwest won’t embrace a black woman. Harris has to worry that Democrats might decide she is too “risky” and embrace one of the male candidates mainly for this reason.

To be clear, this is a surmountable problem. Some African-American voters were doubtful of Obama’s viability in a general election in 2008 — until he won the Iowa caucuses. This is both an unfair part of the process (why should a minority candidate have to do well in a state with basically no minorities to prove viability) and kind of an odd one (winning the Democratic caucuses in Iowa does not tell you that much about a candidate’s ability to win the general election.) But I tend to think Democratic voters will be much less focused on Harris’ perceived electability if she wins a lot of voters in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Third, I expect Harris to struggle with The Left. Some voters in this group are broadly wary of criminal prosecutors, arguing they have played a key role in America’s much-maligned criminal justice system. Harris’ professional life has been as a prosecutor and some on the left already are highlighting what they view as flaws in her record — being too hard on low-level offenders of crimes like truancy but not aggressive enough in taking on those accused of white-collar offenses, for example.

Harris can overcome The Left if she is strong among other blocs of the party. But if she wins a few primaries, I can see liberals casting her as too establishment and opposing her fiercely, similar to how this bloc unsuccessfully tried to stop Clinton in 2016.

Overall, I would not be surprised if Harris won the nomination. But I don’t see her as the favorite. She ranks No. 1 in some betting markets, but with so many candidates, “the field” is really favored against any individual contender.

Will Trump’s Compromise Help End The Shutdown? And Was It Even A Compromise?

Welcome to a special weekend-edition of FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): Hey, everyone! We’ve convened here on a weekend(!) to talk about President Trump’s address to the nation on Saturday. Trump called the country together to make an offer to Democrats to try to end the partial government shutdown, now more than 28 days old.

Here’s Trump’s offer, summarized by Bloomberg News reporter Sahil Kapur:

So, the question in front of us: Is this offer likely to end the shutdown? And, more generally, is this a smart move politically by Trump, who’s seen his job approval rating erode as the shutdown has dragged on?

Let’s briefly start with that first question. What do you make of Trump’s offer? Will it bring about the end of the shutdown?

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): No.

micah: lol.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Nyet.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): It’s not at all likely to end the shutdown. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bashed the proposal before the speech started (once reports came out with Trump’s offer). He didn’t consult Democrats before the proposal was released. It’s not clear he was even really trying to get Democrats to sign onto this.

sarahf: Yeah, what I don’t understand about the proposal is that it was negotiated without any Democratic input. It was just Vice President Mike Pence, Senior Adviser Jared Kushner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talking with fellow Republicans.

natesilver: I mean, there are some permutations where this is the beginning of the end of the shutdown, I suppose.

Those have to involve some combination of (i) Trump offering a better deal than what he’s offering right now, and (ii) public opinion shifting to put more pressure on Democrats.

micah: So is the best way to look at this address as basically a political ploy — an attempt to change the politics of the shutdown? (I don’t mean “ploy” in a negative sense.)

perry: I think that’s the only way to look at this.

natesilver: The real audience for the speech is likely the media. Because we’re the only people sick enough to actually waste our Saturdays watching this thing.

slackbot: I’m sorry you aren’t feeling well. There is Advil, Aleve and Tylenol in the cabinet in front of Nate’s office/Vanessa’s desk.

micah: lol

natesilver: lol, slackbot

Anyway, in theory, “we’re willing to compromise and Democrats” aren’t is a perfectly decent message. It’s BS in various ways (mostly because the compromise Trump is offering isn’t too good). But it’s a fairly conventional message — to sell a not-very-great compromise as being a good deal.

sarahf: Right now, Americans overwhelmingly continue to blame Trump and congressional Republicans for the shutdown. Saturday’s speech seemed like an attempt on his part to try and shift some of that narrative by outlining a proposal that definitely seemed like a compromise.

perry: And I think it has as few potential good effects for Trump. First, it may help keep Republicans on Capitol Hill aligned with him. They were getting leery of his wall-only strategy. This makes it easier for the party to unify around him.

Second, Trump’s proposal allows McConnell to hold a vote and suggest he and his chamber are trying to resolve the shutdown too, just like the House is doing.

Finally, I assume, when pollsters ask people about this proposal, it will be more popular than the wall itself. My guess is it will be near 50 percent support and perhaps higher. Most people I assume aren’t totally against any money for the wall and feel like Dreamers must have a path to citizenship or else.

sarahf: And I don’t know if it’s a good look for Democratic leaders like Pelosi to immediately come out the gate saying, “nope this doesn’t work.” Then again, they weren’t consulted in the making of the deal it sounds like, so maybe she’d be better off highlighting that.

natesilver: I did think it was weird that Trump opened the address with a sort of uncharacteristically gentle paean to the virtues of legal immigration, but then careened to talking about drugs and gangs and violence and some of the other stuff that doesn’t usually pass a fact check. If you actually wanted to portray an image of bipartisanship, you could skip most of that stuff. Or you could talk about how there were extremists on both sides — call out Republicans for X and Y reason.

micah: Well …

I do wonder if this could change the politics of the shutdown in more than one way, as Perry was getting at.

It could make Democrats look like the intransigent side, as you were all saying.

But, it could also shift the narrative towards more “border crisis” and less “wall.” And that’s better political ground for Trump. Polls show more people believe there is a crisis at the border than support a wall.

sarahf: Right, last week we looked at different pollsters who asked Americans what they thought of the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. I was surprised by the number of Americans who thought it was a serious problem or a crisis. Fifty-four percent of respondents in a Quinnipiac poll said they believed there was a security crisis along the border with Mexico. And in a CBS News/YouGov poll, 55 percent said the situation was “a problem, but not a crisis.”

natesilver: It could shift things — although, again, it’s worth mentioning that the deal Trump offered isn’t really much of a deal at all.

In fact, it offers a bit less than what they floated last night.

The DACA part itself is a compromise, but to get that compromise, Democrats have to give up something (wall funding) that they’re firmly opposed to.

Although, it probably is fair to say that the wall is also a compromise of sorts. As Trump actually emphasized. It’s not all that much wall. It’s certainly not a big concrete wall stretching the length of the border.

sarahf: I know! OMG, what a 180 from him on that!

And, as Democrats will be quick to point out, they were already working on their own legislation that would give $1 billion in funding for border security (but not a wall – to be clear).

natesilver: Right, and Trump hasn’t really made the case as to why a wall is necessary to stop the humanitarian crisis at the border.

The other thing is that … none of this is really new. This compromise, if you want to call it that, has been around for a long time. Democrats have rejected it because it doesn’t give them enough. They rejected better versions of this compromise before the shutdown began, in fact.

And Democrats have more leverage now than then because Trump needs the shutdown to end a lot more than they do — it’s hurting him politically.

micah: I guess my point is more that the convo may change.

perry: To put this bluntly, I think this speech had two audiences the media (so they will do “both sides” coverage) and Republicans (so they will stay loyal to Trump on this issue). I assume this speech will buy him at least of few days of that. And both of those, as Micah suggests, will help with the public opinion.

sarahf: I was kind of surprised that he made no mention of the thousands of furloughed government workers.

Like some kind of nod to their hardship. But nada.

perry: They’re all Democrats.

I’m joking, but that is what he thinks.

natesilver: The question is partly: will the press run with Trump’s frame?

micah: Nate, I don’t know if the media will run with it.

Probably?

The headline in the lower-third on CNN right now is “Pelosi rejects Trump’s proposal to end shutdown.”

perry: Trump may have bought himself at least another week to sustain this shutdown. Next week will be 1. Pelosi rejected Trump’s idea before he spoke, and 2. Senate holds vote and Democrats filibuster.

You all disagree?

micah: I think that’s right, Perry.

As we’re chatting, here’s Politico’s headline: “Trump’s bid to negotiate on wall met by Democratic rejection”

The Washington Post: “Trump offers to protect ‘dreamers’ temporarily in exchange for wall funds”

Dallas Morning News: “Trump seeks border wall funding in exchange for DACA protections to end shutdown”

natesilver: There’s at least some semi-intelligent understanding on the White House’s part of how media dynamics work.

At least parts of the speech play well into the media’s “both sides-ism.”

micah: NBC News: “Trump offers new shutdown deal, Democrats expected to reject it”

Los Angeles Times: “President Trump proposes to extend protections for ‘Dreamers’ in exchange for border wall funding”

ABC News: “Trump will extend ‘Dreamers,’ TPS protection in exchange for full border wall funding”

CBS News: “Trump proposes deal on immigration, Pelosi calls shutdown offer a ‘non-starter’”

natesilver: But the thing about that NBC headline is that the “new” part is pretty misleading.

perry: Those are great headlines for Trump. Considering the reality is closer to this:

micah: Yeah, at least in the very very early going, this seems like a good move by Trump.

natesilver: Keep in mind that media might feel a little chastened this week by the mess that’s become of the BuzzFeed story.

micah: Yeah, I was thinking that.

perry: I also think that keeping the Lindsey Graham’s of the world happy is something Trump cares about. The Republicans on the Sunday shows now have something to say. So do the Will Hurd’s.

micah: Very good point.

perry: Pelosi and Democrats, I would argue, were more unified than Republicans before this speech. But I wonder if some moderate Democrats start getting nervous now.

natesilver: The path here is like:

1. Trump and Republicans maintain some degree of message discipline for a week or so;
1b. Trump and Republicans don’t face too many defections from their own base;
2. Polling and other indications show that blame for the shutdown is shifting away from Trump and toward Democrats;
2b. There aren’t any strikes or planes falling from the sky that create a crisis and force an immediate end to the shutdown;
3. Trump offers Democrats a little bit — maybe quite a bit — more.

If all of that happens, maybe he gets a deal!

And no one of those steps is *that* crazy.

perry: So the fundamentals of this issue have not changed, you are saying, Nate?

natesilver: I don’t really think it changed anything.

perry: I agree.

natesilver: Except Trump made a chess move to advance the game instead of just sitting there petulantly staring at his opponent and watching his clock run down.

micah: “It gives him some more time” is a good read, I think.

natesilver: It was an extremely standard chess move, but at least it was a move!

sarahf: Well, I mean leading up to this speech there had been some speculation he’d declare a national emergency. And he didn’t do that.

So all things considered, I think this was a much smarter political move to make.

natesilver: Oh yeah, this is definitely better than that.

sarahf: Because I do think at this point Democrats have to say something other than, “we won’t support this.”

natesilver: It was, like, almost what a normal president with a competent group of advisors would do!

sarahf: Hahaha yeah

natesilver: But it will require a lot of follow through.

perry: I think Trump is aware that declaring a national emergency is a “loss.” He doesn’t want a “loss.” I don’t know how he gets a win. I actually think, this proposal, if it was passed, would very much irritate the right.

I will be curious how the right receives this idea.

perry: Ann Coulter attacked it hard.

natesilver: Coulter attacked it … although… you could almost say that’s helpful for Trump.

perry: Good point.

It makes it seem like more of a compromise if the right hates it.

natesilver: Now, if he loses the votes from several conservative Republicans in the Senate, then he’s screwed.

Or if he himself has second thoughts because Sean Hannity calls him tonight, he could screw himself.

perry: That’s an interesting question: Can Sen. Ted Cruz vote for this?

Can it actually pass the Senate?

micah: That is interesting!

perry: Because I assume part of the play here is for Republicans in the Senate to be seen doing something about the shutdown.

Would Sens. Susan Collins and Cory Gardner support this from the left-wing of the GOP? I think yes. But would Cruz, and some of the more hard-core immigration members on the more conservative wing of the party?

I assume yes, but I’m not sure.

micah: Wouldn’t you assume he cleared this with the Cruz’s of the world before unveiling it?

perry: I would not at all assume that.

micah: LOL.

That was a soft-ball.

perry: McConnell maybe.

sarahf: Yeah, I’m not picturing mass Republican defections here in the Senate … I guess just because McConnell seems to have been so heavily involved in negotiating this.

natesilver: Right, yeah

perry: Do we think any Democrats vote for it?

Doug Jones? Joe Manchin?

I assume no, right?

natesilver: Manchin maybe.

He voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, so it’s not exactly like he’s worried about stoking the ire of the Democratic base.

sarahf: But it does make you wonder why Trump ever listened to Mark Meadows and the Freedom Caucus in the first place getting into this mess.

Wouldn’t have $1.7 billion or whatever it was and no extension for DACA, TPS, etc. have been more popular for them?

I guess none of it went to the wall. So maybe not. No way to appease anyone!

natesilver: Right, the $1.7 billion didn’t specifically include border wall funding though.

perry: Another question: I think I’m a believer in the distraction theory, so would Trump have scheduled this speech if he knew Buzzfeed’s Michael Cohen story would be so heavily criticized?

micah: He sorta stepped on a pretty good news cycle for him.

Though Buzzfeed is standing by its reporting.

natesilver: Hmm. But the fact that he had a good news cycle probably means that today will be portrayed more favorably by the press.

So that gave him more incentive to do it.

perry: So you think the media, cowed by the coverage of the Cohen story, will cover this announcement more favorably than otherwise?

natesilver: The headlines we’re seeing are not “Embattled Trump desperately proposes already-rejected compromise in meandering speech,” but rather “Trump proposes new compromise and Pelosi rejects.”

micah: And you think the former is more accurate than the latter?

natesilver: I think “Trump again proposes already-rejected compromise in competent speech; Pelosi reiterates that she won’t agree” is roughly correct.

micah: The other thing maybe worth keeping in mind: The politics of the shutdown right now are really bad for Trump. Trump is unpopular, and the wall is even more unpopular. This is from our friends at The Upshot:

micah: And this is from us:

I guess what I’m saying is that it wouldn’t be too surprising if the politics of this improved for Trump after his speech, given where they are now. There’s plenty of room to improve.

Anyway … final thoughts?

perry: We know that presidential addresses generally don’t work. But Trump is making those political scientists look really smart.

sarahf: I think the fact that Trump didn’t consult Democratic leadership is a big ding against this proposal. But the fact that Trump did put forward some kind of compromise is something. It has the potential to change the politics around the shutdown.

It’ll be interesting to see what congressional Republicans actually put forward and what Democrats choose to counter with.

natesilver: I thought it was a bit weird at the end when Trump said this was just the start of negotiations on a much bigger immigration solution.

If this is just small potatoes stuff, Pelosi might ask, why do we need to keep the government shut down, when we’re going to have a much bigger discussion about immigration anyway?

That’s ultimately the question that Trump doesn’t really have a good answer for. Why do we need to keep the government shut down to have this negotiation?

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Pelosi will need to be clear about that in their own messaging.

At the same … I wonder if they also want to float, maybe on background because it does sort of contradict the message of “no negotiations at all while there’s a shutdown,” some notion of what a real compromise would look like. e.g. the full DREAM Act.

Or my idea: Offer HR1, the Democrats’ election reform/voting rights bill, in exchange for the border wall.

perry: The one reason I have a hard time seeing any deal being cut: “the wall is a monument to racism” is a real view on the left and has real influence. That makes it much harder Democrats to sign off on any money for the wall.

natesilver: Also, Republicans would presumably never agree to HR 1. But it moves the Overton Window (sorry if that’s become an overused concept now) and frames the idea that Republicans are nowhere near offering a fair compromise.

If the wall is so important to Trump — and he’s often talked about it as his signature priority — a fair offer now that we have bipartisan control of government would be to give Democrats what’s literally their No. 1 priority (given that they named the bill HR1) as well.

(That’s Pelosi’s hypothetical argument, not me necessarily endorsing the deal as fair to Republicans.)

micah: Yeah, that kind of deal seems a looooooong ways off.

Ben Simmons Has Old-School Range. In 2019, That’s A Problem.

The Philadelphia 76ers have been one of the most interesting teams of the 2018-19 NBA season so far — and that hasn’t always been a good thing. On the court, they’re a fast-paced squad with a ton of young talent, but they haven’t quite made the leap forward people expected after last year’s breakout performance. Off the court, they followed up a crazy offseason with the blockbuster trade of the year to date, snagging Jimmy Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves. But perhaps predictably, it didn’t take long before reports emerged about drama between Butler and Philly’s coaching staff. Stir in Joel Embiid’s troll tweets and the depressing saga of former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz’s shot, and there’s never a dull moment with these Sixers.

Somewhat quietly amid the craziness, though, point-forward Ben Simmons’s shooting has also become a major subplot in Philadelphia’s mercurial ascent. Late in his rookie season, we noted that Simmons had never made a 3-pointer in his NBA career; he’s now 126 games in, and that’s still true — in fact, he hasn’t even attempted one this season. Only 10 percent of Simmons’ shots have even come outside of 10 feet from the basket. Here’s what his highly compressed shot chart looks like this season, according to Austin Clemens’ Swish 2.0 tool:

It’s like something you might have seen from an NBA star of the 1970s or 1980s — if only we’d had shot charts for players back then. Of course, this hasn’t stopped Simmons from being an extremely productive NBA player: He currently ranks 16th in the league in Win Shares and is tied for 14th in Value Over Replacement Player.

But as SB Nation’s Matt Ellentuck pointed out a few weeks ago, Simmons’s unwillingness to shoot could be hampering Philly’s potential against better opponents. “In Simmons’ 11 career games against the Celtics,” Ellentuck wrote, “Boston has outscored Philly by 125 points in 402 minutes with him on the floor, according to StatMuse.” By comparison, that number was somehow 134 points worse than Embiid’s plus-minus against Boston in a comparable number of minutes.1 Ellentuck went on to show a similar split for Simmons against other contenders (such as the Toronto Raptors), and more favorable splits against poor teams such as the Atlanta Hawks, although a lot of that is to be expected — obviously a good player on a good team will have a better plus-minus against bad teams than fellow good ones.

Individually, though, Simmons does have one of the NBA’s largest splits in performance based on the quality of the opponent, and the Sixers have won disproportionately more games against bad teams than good ones. Using data from HoopsStats.com, I broke out the DRE (Daily RAPM Estimate, a useful all-in-one “game score”-type stat from Nylon Calculus) per 36 minutes for every player who logged at least 500 minutes against opponents who are better and opponents who are worse than .500 this season.

Many players across the league see a decline in production when facing tougher teams, but Simmons has seen the fourth-biggest drop-off. And while No. 1 on the list belongs to Steph Curry of all players, Curry still does plenty of damage against good teams, ranking eighth in DRE per 36 vs. teams with winning records. Simmons, by contrast, ranks 77th against those same opponents.

Which players drop off against good teams?

Biggest declines in Nylon Calculus’s Daily RAPM Estimate (DRE) for 2018-19 NBA players against opponents with winning records vs. losing records

DRE per 36 minutes
Player Team vs. .500+ vs. <.500 Diff
Stephen Curry GSW 10.1 15.1 -5.0
De’Aaron Fox SAC 7.2 12.0 -4.9
Nikola Jokic DEN 9.6 13.9 -4.3
Ben Simmons PHI 7.2 11.1 -4.0
Enes Kanter NYK 5.9 9.7 -3.9
Victor Oladipo IND 7.1 10.9 -3.8
James Harden HOU 11.2 14.7 -3.5
Kevin Durant GSW 9.7 13.2 -3.4
Klay Thompson GSW 5.8 9.1 -3.3
Russell Westbrook OKC 7.9 11.1 -3.2

Minimum 500 minutes played; 2019 DRE as of Jan. 15.

Sources: hoopsstats, Nylon Calculus

In addition to Curry, you can also see the maniacally stat-stuffing James Harden and even Curry’s own teammates Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson near the top of the list. So in itself, this isn’t necessarily an indicator of postseason limitations or of players who haven’t yet reached their full potential. But there’s a difference between players who are amazing against all kinds of teams (just playing extra-great against bad ones) and ones who feast on bad opponents in particular.

Right now, Simmons is fitting into the latter category. He sees greatly reduced rates of scoring (from 19.2 points per 36 minutes to 15.5), shooting efficiency (from a 60.1 field goal percentage to 54.2) and foul-drawing (from 6.2 free throw attempts per 36 to 5.5) against winning clubs, along with an increase in turnovers (from 3.5 per 36 to 4.0). (Simmons’ rebounds and assists stay roughly stable between each level of competition.) These opponents are the ones best equipped to approach Simmons like Boston did in the playoffs last year, cutting off driving lanes and exploiting the reduced amount of space his shooting range requires them to defend.

But there’s also evidence Simmons’s game is adapting in his second healthy season as a pro. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, his drives per game are down from 15.5 last season (sixth-most in the league) to 9.0 (54th-most), and his pick-and-roll ballhandling plays are down from 18.1 to 8.1 — largely due to the arrival of Butler, who commands 10.0 picks per game as a ballhandler and tries 8.6 drives per game. So while Simmons now gets the vast majority of his buckets in transition, which makes sense given his skill set, he’s also ramped up his workload in areas more closely linked to traditional big men, such as rolling off screens and posting up. And more importantly, he’s gradually been taking more jumpers over the past few weeks: In January (through Tuesday’s game), 14 percent of Simmons’s shots have come from outside 10 feet of the basket (with a field goal percentage of 29 percent), compared with only 11 percent of shots (and a 20 percent field goal percentage) in October through December.

Simmons still has a lot of work to do in these new parts of his game, but he is at least showing some signs of developing a more diversified offensive profile. And the fact that he’s managed to increase his true shooting percentage and offensive efficiency somewhat significantly while doing so has to be encouraging for the Sixers in the grand scheme of Simmons’s evolution as a player. Although his shortcomings may still leave him vulnerable to good teams for now, that may not always be the case.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

How Many Crossword Puzzles Can You Make?

Welcome to The Riddler. Every week, I offer up problems related to the things we hold dear around here: math, logic and probability. There are two types: Riddler Express for those of you who want something bite-size and Riddler Classic for those of you in the slow-puzzle movement. Submit a correct answer for either,7 and you may get a shoutout in next week’s column. If you need a hint or have a favorite puzzle collecting dust in your attic, find me on Twitter.

Riddler Express

From Tyler Barron, you spin me right round, numbers, right round:

Given a two-character, seven-segment display, like you might find on a microwave clock, how many numbers can you make that are not ambiguous if the display happens to be upside down?

For example, the number 81 on that display would not fit this criterion — if the display were upside down it’d appear like 18. The number 71, however, would be OK. It’d appear something like 1L — not a number.

Submit your answer

Riddler Classic

Crossword puzzle grids typically obey a few rules and conventions.

  1. They are 15-by-15.
  2. They are rotationally symmetric — that is, if you turn the grid upside down it appears exactly the same.
  3. All the words — that is, all the horizontal and vertical sequences of white squares — must be at least three letters long. All the letters must appear in an “across” word and a “down” word.
  4. The grid must be entirely connected — that is, there can be no “islands” of white squares separated from the rest by black squares.

First question: How many such crossword grids are there?

Second question: Crossword constructors do well to avoid using “cheater squares,” black squares whose addition makes some words shorter but does not change the puzzle’s total word count. How many grids are there without cheater squares?

Extra credit: The Sunday “New York Times” puzzle is 21-by-21. How many of those are there, with and without cheater squares?

Submit your answer

Solution to the previous Riddler Express

Congratulations to 👏 Grace Lyden 👏 of Minneapolis, winner of last week’s Riddler Express!

Last week, you multiplied together some of the integers from 1 to 99 and got this monstrosity as a result:

530,131,801,762,787,739,802,889,792,754,109,70_,139,358,547,710,066,257,652,050,346,294,484,433,323,974,747,960,297,803,292,989,236,183,040,000,000,000.

What was the missing digit?

It was 6.

The puzzle’s submitter, Max Weinreich, explains the logic: Hopefully, this number is divisible by 9. If it is, then we know that its digits add up to a multiple of 9, which, upon adding all the digits up, would force the missing digit to be a 6. How can I be sure that my number really is divisible by 9? The largest number that is a product of integers from 1 to 99 but that is not divisible by 3 is 1 * 2 * 4 * 5 * 7 * 8 * 10 * 11 * … * 97 * 98. And so any two extra numbers I throw into this calculation will force the answer to be a multiple of 3 twice over — that is, a multiple of 9. So the largest non-multiple of 9 that I could get by my calculation is 96 * (1 * 2 * 4 * 5 * … * 97 * 98) which, if you put it into the calculator, turns out to have fewer digits than the enormous number in our problem. Therefore, the number is divisible by 9 and the missing digit is a 6.

Solution to the previous Riddler Classic

Congratulations to 👏 Viviana Acquaviva 👏 of Brooklyn, New York, winner of last week’s Riddler Classic!

Last week you were selected for the first manned mission to Mars: five Earth-years, or 1,825 Earth-days, on the red planet. Conditions would be brutal. So brutal that it was known exactly one vital piece of equipment would break each day. Therefore, you and the rest of the international team were sent with three 3D printers to print replacement parts for critical equipment. Each printer was manufactured in a different country, however, and parts from one printer were not compatible with any of the other printers (that meant no scavenging allowed).

If something broke on a 3D printer, you had to use one of the other 3D printers to print a replacement part. Any part could be printed effectively instantly, though any given printer only had the power to print one piece per day. The Riddler Aeronautics and Space Administration tested all three printers and found that, in addition to the daily breakage of the vital life-support equipment, one had a 10 percent chance of something breaking on any given day, the second a 7.5 percent chance and the last a 5 percent chance. If you couldn’t quickly print a replacement part for any piece of vital equipment, you’d die. What were the chances you made it home alive?

If you were judicious in your use of the printers, you’d have about a 50-50 shot at survival. Let’s walk through some interplanetary disaster scenarios.

If zero printers break on some day, you’re clearly fine. You have more than enough hardware to fix your vital life-support equipment. You could even create some Martian art with your extra 3D printers.

If one printer breaks on some day, you’re also fine. You can print a part to fix it with one of the printers, and you can print a part to fix the vital equipment with the other printer. No sweat. (After all, it is about -80 degrees Fahrenheit up there.)

If two printers break on some day, you may begin to worry. However, you can science your way out of this scenario, too. Call the printers A, B and C, and suppose it was A and B that broke. Fix A using C. Then fix B using A. Then fix the vital equipment using B. Phew! Close one.

If three printers break on some day, you’re toast. Or an icicle. In any case, you’re dead — you have no way to fix the vital equipment that breaks. The chances of all three printers breaking on a given day are \(0.1\times 0.075 \times 0.05 = 0.000375\), or 0.0375 percent. Not bad, but you’re going to be on Mars for a while — 1,825 days to be precise. The chance that this deadly state of affairs never comes to pass is \((1-0.000375)^{1,825}\), or about 0.5043, or about 50.43 percent.

Would you flip a life-and-death coin for five years on Mars? (I would.) Or would you just find a way to decommission Riddler Nation’s space agency for putting you in such unnecessary peril in the first place?

Want more riddles?

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!

Want to submit a riddle?

Email me at [email protected]

CORRECTION (Jan. 18, 2018, 10:40 a.m.): An earlier version of this article contained a logically incomplete Riddler Express solution. That solution has been replaced.

Don’t Worry, MLB — Hitters Are Killing The Shift On Their Own

When asked about Major League Baseball’s interest in restricting defensive shifts, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle recalled that when he was growing up in Merritt Island, Florida, they were often short on players for neighborhood games. Hurdle said they would arbitrarily cut the field in half to solve the problem. “Sometimes we’d shut down the pull field. … We just would do it to change the game and realized we learned how to hit the ball the other way,” said Hurdle. “What the shifts are telling hitters is, ‘Here’s what you do. Where is your counterpunch? Where is your answer?’”

Many coaches, commentators and baseball observers have asked the same question, bemoaning batters’ seeming inability to adjust to opponents’ shifts — the tactic of moving defensive players out of their usual position to overload one side of the infield, a strategy that has proliferated across the sport in the past decade. The shifts have also become one of the most conspicuous on-field byproducts of baseball’s data age as more and more teams decide how to align their defenses using actual batted-ball data. In December, The Athletic’s Jayson Stark reported that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had “strong” backing from baseball’s competition committee to limit defensive shifts. Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo’s Christmas wish was to see shifts banned.

But in all the hand-wringing over the shift, one detail has been overlooked: Batters have adjusted, and they’ve done it without league intervention or legislation. What’s more, there’s reason to believe shifts are actually encouraging increasingly efficient offensive behavior.

Shifts have grown at a staggering rate. In 2011, defenses deployed the shift — counting both the traditional (three infielders to one side of second base) and non-traditional varieties — during 3,065 major league plate appearances that ended with a ball being put into play,1 according to Baseball Info Solutions data housed at FanGraphs. That’s only 2.6 percent of all at-bats where balls were put in play. The number of plate appearance where hitters faced the shift has increased every year since, save for 2017. Last season, batters faced the shift in a record 40,730 total plate appearances ending on balls in play — that’s about 34 percent of such plate appearances.

The era of the shift has coincided with a league-wide decline in batting average, though that is more a product of the record strikeouts rates in recent years as fewer and fewer balls are put in play, as batting averages on balls that are put into play has remained steady despite all the shifting, as you can see on the chart below.

While shift usage has grown dramatically, there’s evidence that batters have adjusted by going over the shift, which reduced the overall effectiveness of the shift across baseball.

In 2011, batters hit ground balls 53.2 percent of the time when they put a ball in play against the shift. Last season that number was 43.9 percent, which is the lowest such rate since at least 2010, the first year for which data is available on FanGraphs. When batters are not facing shifts, ground-ball rates have remained steady. Batters had a 45.9 percent ground-ball rate in 2011 when not facing a shift and a 45.9 percent ground-ball mark last season. You can see the divergence in strategies in the following chart. The drop in ground-ball rates against the shift suggest that more players are trying to bypass the infielders altogether by knocking one over their heads.

Not all hitters try to adapt — Bryce Harper, for example, has a career 1.4 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio both when facing a shift and when not facing a shift. But those who do, Joey Votto, tend to go high. Votto’s career ratio when not facing a shift is 1.57 ground balls to fly balls, but that drops to 1.44 against the shift.

“I’ve tried to avoid the right side of the infield shift,” Votto said in 2017. “I’m not excited about hitting balls to that side because I could hammer a one-hopper to the second baseman or shortstop, or whoever they have stationed over there. … Personally, I embrace the fly-ball thing just because of that reason.”

The average launch angle of a batted ball has increased in every year of Statcast era,2 rising gradually from 10.1 degrees in 2015 to 11.7 in 2018. But with the shift on, batters are even more likely to hit the ball in the air. The average launch angle against the shift last season was 14.7 degrees, a notable jump up from 13.1 in 2015.

In addition to MLB-wide trends, I looked at the behavior of the regularly shifted-upon batters in 2018 to see how their approaches changed.3 This group combined for a 42.5 percent ground-ball rate when facing shifts and a 44.1 percent rate when not facing shifts.

“Is [banning the shift] that going to produce more batting average? Maybe,” said Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch at the winter meetings. “More runs? Debatable. A more energized and entertaining game? I doubt it.”

Left-handed hitters are an interesting study since they now put more balls in play with the shift on (26,076 last season vs. shift) than off (23,214 against no form of shift).

Last season, left-handed batters hit for a higher average (.300), greater slugging percentage (.388) and lower ground-ball rate (44.0 percent) when the shift was on compared to when there was no shift (.295 average, .380 slugging mark, 45.7 groundball rate). And because Baseball Info Solutions can only track shift data when a ball is put into play, those stats do not include home runs, since they are not in play.

In some ways, the shift has backfired. Batters have an incentive to hit more balls in the air, and balls hit in the air are more valuable. When batters faced a shift last season, 5.2 percent of balls they put in play went for a home run. When they didn’t face a shift, 4.1 percent of balls went for home runs, according to Statcast data.

While more batters try to go over shifts, they are not always going to the air in the most optimized manner. Every hitter who has faced a shift has probably been advised to try and go the other way. And as a result, the percentage of batters pulling line drives and fly balls against the shift has fallen off notably since 2010, from a 31.5 percent pull rate in 2010 to 26.2 percent in 2018. But by going the other way, batters might actually be hurting themselves. They are purposely avoiding the most valuable batted ball in baseball: a pulled ball in the air.

Consider that in 2018, 32.7 percent of fly balls to a batter’s pull side went for home runs, compared to 8.1 percent of fly balls to center field and 3.8 percent to the opposite field. Batters across the league had a .429 average and 1.514 slugging percentage on fly balls hit to the pull side and a .135 average and .324 slugging mark on balls hit to the opposite field. That’s not much more valuable than a ground ball. Last season, MLB batters hit .236 and had a .258 slugging percentage on ground balls.

Many have made the case for batters facing the shift to simply bunt more often. After all, batters have hit at least .357 when bunting against a shift every season since 2010. Would bunting be more effective than, say, trying to go over the shift? Not for most batters.

According to weighted runs created plus (wRC+) — a metric that adjusts for ballpark and scoring environments, with 100 representing league average — batters produced a 53 wRC+ mark on bunts against all shift types last season compared to a 127 wRC+ mark when putting the ball in the air against shifts.

Batters seem to unwilling to sacrifice potential power in pursuit of infield bunt singles. The percent of at-bats against the shift where the batter bunted has fallen four straight years, from 2.92 percent (2015) to 2.12 percent (2016), 1.88 percent (2017) and 1.73 percent (2018).

One other issue: Teams are pitching less effectively to the shift.

As more and more batters use an uppercut swing to better combat sinking fastballs, which are designed to produce ground balls, the percentage of sinkers thrown has decreased. Sinkers represented 22.4 percent of all pitches thrown in 2010. Last year? 16.9 percent.

The shift will always be effective against pull-side ground balls and low line drives. Batters who hit those batted ball types often, especially left-handed hitters, can see their batting average drop. But more and more batters might be learning to combat the shift. When factoring in all batted ball types — not just grounders and low liners — the MLB batting average on balls in play has remained stagnant. In 2010 — a relatively shift-free season — league-wide batting average on balls in play for all defensive configurations was .297. Last season? .296. The figure has held relatively steady even while scoring and slugging have increased, despite the growing use of shifts. Maybe shifts aren’t such a problem after all.

“The beauty of the game is all the strategies that we can employ,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said at the winter meetings. So “attacking strategies to win baseball games, man, I just don’t see that as improving the game.”