THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR: The playoffs begin at Darlington

Photo via: Wiki Commons

The playoffs begin for the NASCAR Cup Series and It all begins at Darlington Raceway for the famed Southern 500. They call this track, "the track too tough to tame" as it is one of the roughest tracks on the schedule. Many would consider this track the most challenging on the schedule as there is always a chance that the wall can jump out and bite each driver. It will be interesting to see which driver can come out on top as more than likely the car that can stay the cleanest will go to victory lane. We will also see some great paint schemes as well as it's the annual throwback week, just one of the things that make this race so special.

Last week we saw one of the craziest finishes of the year as William Byorn held off his teammate Chase Elliott for the victory at Daytona. The race was marred by many crashes in the closing stages including a pile-up with two laps to go that collected Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson. This ended the 7 time champion's chances of making the playoffs. It was heartbreaking to see arguably the greatest NASCAR driver of all time fall to where he did and it appeared that he was in prime position to advance and move on as he was above the cutoff line before the wreck. But as it happens on a track like Daytona the big-one struck, and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This has been pretty much the theme this year for Jimmie, just when he thinks he's got some momentum, something comes along and messes it up.

Like at Charlotte after the Coca-Cola 600 when he was disqualified after finishing third or at Darlington when he crashed while leading. The biggest turning point this season for Johnson though had to be when he was diagnosed with Coronavirus back in July at Indy. Regardless, the fact remains that Johnson was not able to close the deal and get a win to lock him into the playoffs and while it was a disappointing way for him to go out, this season will not define Johnson's legacy among the greats. This man did everything right and represented the sport well. He also brought the sport to new heights as well as he was the first ever NASCAR driver to win the AP Male Athlete of the year back in 2008. It is clear that this sport won't be the same with him gone in 2021. I salute Jimmie on his incredible career.

Last week also seemed as a passing of the torch as Jimmies teammate William Byron went on to his first career victory. The 2018 Xfinity Series champion was finally able to close the deal and get to victory lane in the Cup Series. Overall, he is flying under the radar here in the playoffs, but he has one of the best crew chiefs of all time on the pit-box in Chad Kanaus, and he can very well do some damage going forward. I look forward to seeing his progress in the round of 16 as he won just in the knick of time.

As everyone knows, last week's race was the final race before the playoffs and the field is set. The two obvious favorites that stand out are Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Both drivers have won 13 races combined and appear to be on their way to the championship race in Phoenix, the question is who will be the other two joining them? There have been a few drivers that have really kept a low profile but have had a great season as well, one of those drivers is Brad Keselowski. If this were any other season, Brad would be heavily favored as a championship contender but as everyone knows this isn't any other year, it's 2020. Needless to say, he has been insanely fast as he has won three races with nine top fives and 19 top tens! The consistency is there. If Brad can stay out of trouble I can see him being the third driver in the final four. The other driver to look out for is Chase Elliott. This young man has had a lot to live up to. He is the son of a living legend, there is a lot for him to carry but overall I think he has exceeded expectations and this year he has really put it together. He has put together ten top five finishes with two wins. He has ascended into a championship favorite and I think he is going to be the fourth guy to race for a title at Phoenix!

The driver I have winning this week is Kyle Busch. This has by far been the most challenging season of his career. His average finish this year is a disappointing 15.2, and he also has five DNF's (did not finish) and one big goose egg in the win column. While he is safely in the playoffs and has done a good job at accumulating stage points to fall back on, he would tell you himself that this has been a bad season. Many people are even saying he won't make it past the round of 16, but I am here to tell you that those people don't know Kyle. This is one of the most talented race car drivers of all time and if there is anyone who is primed to make a comeback, it's Rowdy. I look for Kyle to get it together and win this week at Darlington. This is a track that he has run well at over the course of his career. He only has one win here back in 2008 but that doesn't matter, he knows how to get around this place. If he can keep his Elliott Sadler inspired M&M's Camry off the wall and make minimal mistakes, this is a race I can easily see him winning. Look for Kyle to be a threat come Sunday night.

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Here's what to make of the Rockets free agency moves. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No NBA team with title aspirations entered the offseason with more questions than the Houston Rockets. Ironically, Houston's situation got more precarious as the offseason went along. From head coach Mike D'Antoni walking away after the season to general manager Daryl Morey following suit shortly after that, the Rockets have been a sinking ship in desperate need of stability. They found some of that once new head coach Stephen Silas was hired, but the boat took on more water when star players James Harden and Russell Westbrook demanded to be traded a couple of weeks later.

It's been a giant roller coaster and it was unclear how Houston would approach their free agency. Would they double down on contending for a championship to try and convince their star players to stay or would they be forced to rebuild?

It looks like Houston tried to thread the needle and accomplish both: They appear ready to rebuild if they can't convince James Harden to stay, but also addressed roster needs and acquired better fitting pieces for their stars. It's hard to say whether or not they got better, but they're certainly a lot younger and look to play a lot different. Let's take a look at each player and how they fit into the framework.

Christian Wood

Contract:

3 years, $41 million

Grade:

B+

If there's a signing that embodies Houston's offseason, it's Christian Wood. For obvious reasons and some subtle ones, Wood is the exact kind of player Houston had to acquire this summer. Let's start with the obvious: Wood is the perfect player to have alongside both James Harden and Russell Westbrook because of his unique set of skills. Wood can hit threes at a high clip for someone his size (36.8% for his career) and stretches the floor for the moments you want Russell Westbrook barreling to the rim or James Harden trying to break a trap.

Lob threat

The Rockets didn't have a big man with that capability on the roster last year, so they had to resort to trading for Robert Covington and going small so they could properly space the floor. However, in doing that the Rockets lost their best lob threat and limited themselves on offense even further. This is where Wood solves the second problem: He may not be as good of a lob threat as Clint Capela, but he's damn close.

Over the past few years, the Rockets have slowly phased out pick and roll out of their offense and resorted to isolation. Part of it is because of how teams have defended the pick and roll, but part of it is also them not having the option anymore. James Harden is too good of a pick and roll ball handler for it to not be a part of the Rockets' attack. Adding more pick and roll to Houston's offense should be a priority next season, regardless of what else Silas decides to do.

Clint Capela was the perfect center for James Harden. P.J. Tucker was the perfect center for Russell Westbrook. Christian Wood is the perfect center for both.

Defensive rebounding

Another weakness Houston needed to address this offseason was their defensive rebounding (26th in NBA last season). It got to the point where it was a rarity that Houston would win the rebounding battle against good teams. This was partly by design and partly because of roster weakness. Houston was so porous at rebounding in the beginning of the season, they decided to emphasize turning over opponents to even the possession battle. If Houston were to even marginally improve in defensive rebounding, it could have a drastic positive impact on their defense.

Per 36 minutes:

22.0 PPG

10.6 RPG

1.5 BPG

65.9% True Shooting

Houston also replenished their coffers in the process of acquiring Wood. By flipping Robert Covington to the Blazers, the Rockets netted two draft picks back after losing two the prior offseason in the Westbrook trade. It may not matter in the grand scheme of next season, but these assets could be especially useful if Houston pivots to a rebuild. They could also be useful to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline if Houston gets Harden's buy-in. (As an aside, the series of transactions that led to Wood are impressive and reflect well on new GM Rafael Stone's ability to get deals done.)

The subtle reason Wood embodies their offseason is his age, 25 years old. Wood would immediately become the youngest starter on the team and be a building block piece on the next iteration of the Rockets. He's also old enough to make an immediate impact should Houston acquire a ready-made blue chip prospect in a James Harden trade. With the 76ers rumored to be a team interested in Harden's services, it probably isn't a coincidence that Ben Simmons (24 years old) falls neatly into Wood's age group. It also probably isn't a coincidence that the ideal team for Simmons has always been imagined to be a team that can spread the floor at the four other positions on the court. Having Wood is great start to try and accomplish that.

David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, and Jae'Sean Tate

Contracts:

Negligible

Grade:

B-

Nwaba, Brown, and Tate are all being placed in one category because it's quite clear what the Rockets are trying to accomplish: Take bets on young, cheap wings on the market and hope one pans out enough to make the final rotation for Stephen Silas.

While David Nwaba technically wasn't signed this offseason, he's essentially a free agency signing because the Rockets signed him up a few months ago with the knowledge he wouldn't be able to play in the first year of his deal. He's the oldest of this group (27 years old), has the largest wingspan (7'0"), and has logged the most NBA minutes (3295). Because of all this, he's probably the safest bet to make Houston's final rotation. However, just because he's the 'safest bet' doesn't mean he's a 'safe bet' per se.

Nwaba suffered a season-ending achilles injury on December 9th of last season and has spent the past year rehabbing. It's unclear how he will respond from this, but before the injury, Nwaba had found a nice role in Brooklyn as a combo forward who could shoot well enough from beyond the perimeter (34.4% for his career). The Rockets have desperately needed competent perimeter defenders off the bench since their 2017-18 campaign and a healthy Nwaba was just that.

Sterling Brown, 24, found his way on the fringes of the Bucks' rotation the past few seasons and gained the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer enough to play nearly 15 minutes a game. Brown is a pesky defender and average three-point shooter (34.5% for his career) and like the other wings in this category, he doesn't need the ball. He's probably the second most proven wing here and if he cracks the rotation, it's unlikely he will have to play more than he did in Milwaukee.

Jae'Sean Tate, 25, is probably the most intriguing prospect of this bunch as he's never played in the NBA before. Tate played under new Rockets assistant coach Will Weaver on the Sidney Kings and averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on 66.0% shooting from the field last season while earning first-team All-NBL honors. He's 6'4" with a 6'8" wingspan and was considered to be one of the top basketball prospects outside the NBA before signing with Houston. The Rockets appear to be quite high on him considering they used part of their mid-level exception to sign him to a three-year deal.

The Rockets already have much of their rotation locked in:

James Harden and Russell Westbrook will likely play at least 35 minutes a piece, P.J. Tucker will probably play around 32 minutes, and finally Danuel House and Christian Wood will likely play around 30 minutes each. That leaves 78 minutes for a bench that already has Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore. Also, Houston will probably sign another center before the season starts. Now, the Rockets may try to ease the load off of some of their older starters, in which case there might be more time available. However, whatever way you slice it, they really only need one of these wings to crack the rotation for regular season purposes.

It's unlikely all three signings end up backfiring for them, but we'll see. Stranger things have happened.

It's also convenient that all three of these players are 27 years or younger should the Rockets decide to trade Harden at the trade deadline. Like Wood, these signings give Houston the option to pivot in another direction. Because of Houston's lack of room under the apron, they didn't have the option to use their full mid-level or bi-annual exception. Ring-chaser types also weren't going to sign with the Rockets for the minimum given the uncertainty surrounding their stars. This was a nice way for Houston to hedge their bets while also filling out the roster with possible contributors.

The Rockets aren't done making moves yet, but they're close. Understanding the circumstances, it's hard to be too critical of what they did in free agency.

Overall Grade: B

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