Examining the West, title contenders


Examining the West, title contenders

Sunday's marquee matchup between the Thunder and Heat was billed by many -- though not in Chicago -- as a potential NBA Finals preview. For the Bulls and their fans, instead of taking umbrage, the game should have been dissected as an evaluation of both teams' strengths and weaknesses, particularly Oklahoma City, who play in the Western Conference, won't travel to Chicago and the Bulls face only once this season, next Sunday.

Two-time reigning NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant's ability to score one-on-one against any competition was certainly illuminated, as he took on LeBron James, regarded as one of the league's top individual defenders and not only scored at will, but appeared to sap James' energy on the other end of the floor. Meanwhile, All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook didn't have one of his recent high-scoring games, but was a solid distributor, providing opportunities for defensive-oriented inside players Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, while sixth-man extraordinaire James Harden also picked up the slack.

On the other hand, although the Heat looked tired, it should be noted that they endured multiple lackluster stretches last season before turning it on in the postseason. The addition of big man Ronny Turiaf shouldn't be overlooked because while he doesn't have ideal size to take on the Bulls, among other teams, Joakim Noah's French national team partner is an experienced active force who is capable of contributing on both ends of the floor -- the veteran is certainly an offensive upgrade from starting center Joel Anthony -- and at the very least, is a body willing to commit six fouls.

When it comes to other contenders in the league, it's hard to include anyone other than Chicago and Miami in the East. As a flawed and inconsistent Orlando team looks primed to make another early-round exit, as does Atlanta, which is still without injured center Al Horford, and Boston, which might have reached the end of their run as a serious threat. While the likes of Philadelphia and Indiana appear to be one year and player away from doing real damage after superb starts to the season, the race for the eighth seed between New York and Milwaukee -- both teams are hot, sparked by the Knicks' coaching change and the Bucks' acquisition of Monta Ellis -- is entertaining and in their own way, each team could pose problems for a top seed. The West, however, is another story, as Oklahoma City is the only team that seems capable of truly competing with the Bulls or Heat in a seven-game series, but it's not a foregone conclusion that the young Thunder even makes it to the Finals.

San Antonio is still lurking as the potential second seed and with the additions of veterans Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw -- the fact that Jackson, the volatile veteran swingman, was acquired for the disappointing Richard Jefferson, is a bonus in reuniting him with Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, who he won a title with earlier in his career, and Diaw's connection with both Jackson from their days in Charlotte and point guard Tony Parker from their France ties should ease his transition -- and while Staples Center co-residents the Lakers and Clippers are going through some very public and trying times, each team has the talent to make a run, particularly with the trade-deadline acquisitions in positions of need of Ramon Sessions filling the Lakers' point-guard void and hired gun and L.A. native Nick Young moving into the Clippers' starting shooting-guard spot. Another team to watch could be Memphis, which stayed afloat despite the nearly season-long absence of star Zach Randolph and with added depth and the burly power forward back in the lineup, is for the second consecutive year, a squad that could be a tough out in the playoffs.

Under Center Podcast: Bears prop bets (and a bold Mitch Trubisky prediction)


Under Center Podcast: Bears prop bets (and a bold Mitch Trubisky prediction)

JJ Stankevitz, Cam Ellis and Paul Aspan wonder if John Fox had a point about the Bears having the worst offseason in the NFL (1:00), then offer up some prop bets for the Bears in 2019 involving Eloy Jimenez's home runs and Khalil Mack's sacks (5:00), undrafted free agent rookies making the roster (10:00), when/if the Bears will cut a kicker during the season (12:45), running back production (16:30) and how many games Adam Shaheen will play (25:50).

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Under Center Podcast


GM Stan Bowman: Blackhawks 'unlikely' to trade out of No. 3 overall spot


GM Stan Bowman: Blackhawks 'unlikely' to trade out of No. 3 overall spot

The 2019 NHL Draft is 48 hours away from now and the Blackhawks are slated to pick third overall for the first time since 2006 when they took Jonathan Toews. Coincidentally, that draft happened to be in Vancouver. 

The Blackhawks are sitting in a unique spot this time around.

The consensus is that Jack Hughes and Kappo Kakko will go first and second overall, respectively, which essentially puts the Blackhawks in a position where they have the first overall pick in a different draft. There's a large group of players to choose from and there doesn't appear to be much separation amongst them.

So would the Blackhawks consider trading out of the No. 3 spot if a team wants to make the jump and the Blackhawks feel good about their player being on the board a few picks back?

"That’s a tough question to answer because it's not like we have a magic formula that we’re waiting for some to call and offer us," GM Stan Bowman said on Wednesday during his pre-draft conference call. "If somebody made a really appealing offer then we’d have to consider it, but that hasn’t happened yet. If it does, then as a group we’ll talk about it. That’s one of those things where a team has to want to put together a really appealing package to move up. It’s happened before, pretty rare though. So I wouldn't say it's out of the realm, but it’s unlikely to happen."

All signs point to the Blackhawks keeping their pick at No. 3, as expected. And it sounds like they already know who it's going to be, which isn't surprising considering the Blackhawks have done extensive research on the prospects — both on and off the ice — for months now.

The Blackhawks staff met on Wednesday a group, they'll meet again on Thursday, and then one more time on Friday before the draft to finalize their list. At this point, it's more about ironing out the later rounds.

"It’s more just fine-tuning the list," Bowman said. "We have more than just one pick in the draft. We’re looking at players we think are going to be around in the second round, and then we don’t have a third-round pick right now so there’s a bit of a gap there between our 43rd and then the two picks in the fourth round. So we have to look at that and determine which players we’re going to target for those rounds. I wouldn’t say there’s anything new that's being discovered at this time of year.

"We’re not going to be cramming last minute. I think we’re going to be very comfortable with the guy we pick when we get to Friday night."

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