FINAL DECISION?

It's time for LeBron James to move on from Cleveland

Lebron James should move on. Gregory Shamus

Friday night the NBA Finals mercifully came to an end as the Golden State Warriors swept a woefully outmanned Cleveland Cavaliers team. It was a boring, predictable bow pinned on the end of an otherwise entertaining 2017-2018 season.

As the last of the dust settles, and the talking heads begin their postseason prognosticating, the seemingly perennial question of LeBron James’ free agent status once again looms. Unlike the past few seasons, however, his decision isn’t as simple. Cleveland is no longer a shoo-in to retain its homegrown superstar, and Houston (yes, Houston) has emerged as a potential landing spot for --at the very least -- one of the top three basketball players on the planet.

So as it stands, prevailing wisdom suggests that the top destinations would be Cleveland, Philadelphia, Houston, or the Lakers. I personally think the Lakers have zero shot at luring James with the current roster--even if they managed to secure another superstar--so I'm not going to entertain that theory. Cleveland is always a possibility, especially because he has so much leverage in the front office there. But assuming he just re-signs doesn't make for a compelling article, so we'll assume he leaves.

And he should.

What more does he have to give/prove to Cleveland? He brought his hometown a Finals championship against one of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled. That's a legendary narrative. Asking for more would be selfish. Unlike his move to Miami, this time James has earned walking papers.

So assuming James astutely leaves Cleveland that leaves two logical destinations; Houston and Philly.

So why Philadelphia? Philly was one of the most surprising teams of the season due largely in part to the unexpectedly immediate contributions from big man Joel Embiid and rookie point guard Ben Simmons. Pairing LeBron with the uber athletic, pass-first Simmons and an imposing big in Embiid the likes of which James has never played with would make the 76ers an instant contender. Embiid is on the books for $25 million, yet Simmons is still on his rookie deal for a mere $6 million so Philly doesn't have to concoct any salary cap magic. And wherever James goes, hungry veterans will follow at a discount, knowing that he is their last chance at a ring. The players are there, and the money works. It wouldn't be the most illogical move.

While it's an appealing situation worth investigating, there are reasons, however, that could and should lead James to view them as the second best option.

First is their youth. Rookies and young platers very rarely play large roles on LeBron's teams. Most of that has to do with the fact that they're still trying to catch up to the pace and skill level of the league. LeBron teams are usually filled in with veterans who understand their role on the team and let LeBron do LeBron things. Would he be willing to endure the growing pains of playing with such a young core?

Secondly, while Simmons and Embiid are fantastic on the court, their track records for being able to stay on the court leave something to be desired. James played all 82 regular season games this year and then played three finals game with an injured hand. Would he be able to carry the 76ers if both pieces were lost for any significant stretch of time? I believe the answer is yes, but would a team missing either of those pieces make it back to the finals? Boston is poised to become a powerhouse next season and proved how deep their bench could go with the right coaching. That alone could be reason enough for James to pack up and head west, and I haven't even touched on the uncertainty regarding the 76ers front office after they sent Twitter genius and team president Brian Colangelo packing.

So that leaves us with Houston. The team with the best regular season record in the NBA. The team with the likely regular season MVP. The team that pushed the Golden State Warriors to seven games despite late season injuries to key players.

Assuming all star point guard Chris Paul re-signs with the Rockets, Houston would be sporting two superstars to shoulder some of a load that no one on that Cleveland team wanted to touch with a ten foot pole. This current Rockets team is as close to his Miami team as he's going to find, if not better. Plug in James and the Rockets could seemingly be level with the Warriors in terms of talent.

Rockets owner Tillman Fertita has already gone on record saying he's willing to incur the luxury tax if it means winning a championship, and the addition of James for all intents and purposes would signal the green light for such a move. What that implies is that the Rockets would not only have three superstars, they'd also have a bench to spell them.

The only snag at the moment preventing this from being a no-brainer is the Rockets’ current salary cap situation. There are moves that would need to be made, one of which would be offloading Ryan Anderson's contract on another team. That same contract was the ultimate hang up that prevented last summer's Carmelo Anthony acquisition and looks to be just as big of a pain in General Manager Daryl Morey’s side this year as well. Morey has proven to be a genius, though, so I'm not betting against ability to make it work.

So as Rockets fans continue to lament over their Western Conference Finals defeat, they should appreciate the Warriors for sweeping the Cavaliers. They showed LeBron that the answer for finals glory may not be in Cleveland anymore. More so, they may have sent him packing to Houston. Time will tell.


 

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Tucker looks like the real deal. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Kyle Tucker finally had his breakout season in 2020. The 23-year-old flashed potential to be a legitimate five-tool threat. He slashed .268/.325/.512, swiped eight bags, and played above average defense. Is Tucker's performance sustainable? Not only that, but is there room for growth?

Hard Hit % - 44.5%

Barrel % - 9.1%

K % - 20.2%

BB % - 7.9%
Chase % - 26.2%

The first thing to realize with Kyle Tucker is the small sample size at the MLB level. Despite appearing in three separate seasons, he's played in a total of 108 games, which is obviously quite a bit shy of even one full season. He also has an extremely unique swing that you wouldn't teach to anybody, but it "works" for him. This makes him a tough hitter to judge, as it's uncomfortable judging mechanics that work for him, and it's uncomfortable judging numbers that haven't had time to develop trends.

Hard Hit, Barrel, and Chase numbers are unavailable for the minors, but walk and strikeouts percentages are. This creates the ability to at least look at one trend.

Tucker broke onto the scene in 2018 with a monstrous season for AAA Fresno, the Astros affiliate at the time. In 2018, Tucker slashed .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 20 steals. He had an 18.1% K% and a 10.3% BB% that season. In 2019, Tucker struck out a little bit more (21.6%) but also walked a little bit more (11.2%). Tucker's 20.2% K% in 2020 is more in line with his minor league K%, indicating he's adjusted to major league pitching.

Tucker essentially put the pieces of contact ability and quality of contact from his previous MLB stints together in 2020. In 2018, Tucker didn't strike out very much (18.1% K%), but his 3.9% Barrel % didn't strike fear in any opponent.

In 2019, Tucker had a 12.8% Barrel %, and his 92 MPH average exit velocity is the best of his three seasons in MLB, but he struck out 27.8% of the time and walked just 5.6% of the time.

In 2020, there's a marriage between the two. His K% and BB% aren't as good as his 2018 marks, but they're better than his 2019 marks. His exit velocity and Barrel % aren't as good as his 2019 marks, but they're better than his 2018 marks. Tucker became a hitter that was able to do more damage without sacrificing consistency.

Tucker had a xBA of .267, which is right in line with his .268 average. His .459 xSLG lags behind his .512 actual SLG, but it isn't a catastrophic drop. The version of Tucker Astros fans saw is essentially who he is, but how does he improve?

What really unlocked Tucker in 2020 was a change in his setup.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here he is on August 2nd against the Angels. As you can see, he's standing pretty straight up, and he has a "neutral" stance. Following the game on Aug. 2, Tucker was batting .200/.250/.300 with no homers.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Here's Tucker on August 6th, just a few days later. He's started to close off his stance just a bit, but he's still pretty neutral, and he has a little more forward body lean with his torso. Following the game on Aug. 6, he was batting .214/.267/.357 with a homer.

Image via: GraysonSkweres/Twitter/Screenshot

Now, here's Tucker on August 10th. His stance is considerably closed off, and he's maintaining the forward body lean he adopted on August 6th. Following the game on Aug. 10, Tucker was batting .190/.230/.328. It would be the last time any of those numbers would be that low the rest of the year. He maintained that stance for the rest of the season, and he finished the month of August hitting .272/.333/.588.

The swing change allowed him to be a factor on the outside pitch. Tucker would pull off on his front side, which made it tough for him to keep balls fair on the pull side. He'd often yank inside fastballs into the stands down the right field line. It also made him uncompetitive on outside strikes, as he'd either swing-and-miss, or roll them over into the shift.

After he made the change, Tucker started steering inside pitches fair, and he was able to do something with pitches on the outer third.

The next step is finding a way to continue to diversify his batted ball profile. Tucker's pull percentage in 2020 was 47%. That's a higher pull % than guys like Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. It was only 1% lower than Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo.

The one dimensional batted ball profile allows teams to shift Tucker aggressively. Teams shifted Tucker in 74% of his at-bats. His wOBA against the shift is .304. In AB's where teams didn't shift him, Tucker had a .455 wOBA. The shift hurts Tucker more than most as well, because he hits the ball on the ground 39% of the time. Gallo and Olson hit it on the ground 32% and 35% of the time respectively.

Lastly, Tucker's performance on breaking balls leaves a lot to be desired. He crushes fastballs, as he batted .303 with a .574 SLG against fastballs in 2020, with a .292 xBA and .528 xSLG. His .208 AVG and .396 SLG against breaking balls aren't very good, and his .209 xBA and .340 xSLG don't tell a prettier story. His 32% whiff % against breaking balls is nearly double his whiff % on fastballs.

If Tucker can learn to be more competitive against breaking balls and learn to use the whole field, then he'll be a really scary hitter. If he doesn't, teams will be able to gameplan for him, and he'll see streaky production similar to other one dimensional hitters like Matt Carpenter and the aforementioned Gallo and Olson.

While the bat may be streaky, Tucker brings it with the glove and on the bases. He had 5 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) in the outfield in 2020, a 0.6 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), and he was plus-4 in Outs Above Average. His well above average speed and instincts give him the ability to be a rangy outfielder and dangerous baserunner.

Tucker had a breakout season in 2020, but there's still changes left to be made if he wants to be a breakout star and not a one hit wonder.

This is part four of an offseason series covering the 2020 Houston Astros. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 on SportsMap.

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