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Three things the Seattle Seahawks need to do well this year

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Three things the Seattle Seahawks need to do well this year

BY TIM KEARNY 

The Seattle Seahawks open the 2018 year with their lowest expected win total since 2011. There has been a lot of change from last year on both sides of the ball. Paul Richardson, Jimmy Graham, Luke Willson and Thomas Rawls are just a few of the offensive playmakers that are playing somewhere else right now. To be successful this year Seattle needs to do several things well on offensive.

  • Run the ball effectively

The Seahawks’ run game has not had a leg to stand on since Thomas Rawls’ excellent rookie year in 2015. They have cycled through running backs for a few years trying to find an effective starter and have fallen short of that goal. Chris Carson is the most recent in a line of backs Seattle has seen potential in. Carson may be the answer but Seattle still took Rashaad Penny with their first pick in the draft this year. So, they clearly are more serious about running the ball. If they can average more than four yards a carry this year they will be in good shape.

I expect the offensive line to improve this year. They finally have an established starter at almost every position at this point. Training camp will be just as much about learning how to work together as it is about learning the playbook. Mike Solari’s coaching is the new factor in the run game for the offensive line. Solari has good credentials and is expected to help improve this unit’s overall game.

  • Get to the quarterback

Seattle’s defense has averaged around 39 sacks a year since 2012. It is a relatively average number ranking somewhere around 13th in the league in that timespan. They consistently get pressure on the quarterback though, and they could rely on the pass coverage to give them time. Now there is no Richard Sherman or Kam Chancellor to give them that extra time. Couple that with the fact Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril won’t be rushing the passer with Seattle anymore, and there is a lot of uncertainty for this young group. Frank Clark is expected to pick up the slack and improve after getting 19 sacks the past two years. There is a lot of pressure on him because his contract is almost up and he will want big dollars attached to his next one, his production this year will determine what he can ask for.

Clark is not the only one trying to get to the quarterback. Dion Jordan, Barkevious Mingo, Bobby Wagner, Rasheem Green, Nazair Jones, Quinton Jefferson and Jarran Reed are also just a few of the other defenders vying for sacks. Wagner is a devastating blitzer who’s sack numbers through the years do not tell the whole story on how well he rushes the passer, because he does it only on occasion. Jordan has shown flashes with the Seahawks that he could be a good pass rusher for us, and Seattle made it a priority to resign him. His speed and length could really help opposite Clark.

  • All of special teams

This is not even an exaggeration, Seattle used to pride itself on having competitive and effective special teams’ units. Now they could use a little bit of help almost everywhere. The Seahawks missed 8 out of 29 field goals last year, which is a measly 72% conversion rate (opponent’s hit almost 89% of their kicks against the Seahawks). Opponents also averaged 10 yards per punt return but only 20 yards per kick return, so it isn’t all bad. Picking up Shaquem Griffin should help the coverage units, he is a fast, instinctive player who can make plays with skill and hustle.

This is an important part of the game and one that helped keep the offense and defense in good positions throughout Seattle’s better years. If the Seahawks can improve in these three areas they should easily make the playoffs in 2018. They need to average more than 4 yards per carry in the run game, have around 40 sacks and make plays on special teams.

Seattle Mariners – Homerism and All-Star voting

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Seattle Mariners – Homerism and All-Star voting

BY BRIAN HIGHT 

This happens in every American city with a Major League Baseball team (and one Canadian). It’s not just Seattle. The pleas of the local broadcasting team to vote for the hometown boys is echoed across four time zones almost nightly in June and intensify in the run up to the voting deadline, which is mercifully the day after the national fireworks holiday – July 5th.

Viewers of ROOT Sports in the Pacific Northwest have been subject to the nightly urgings of Angie Mentink or Jen Mueller to vote for Seattle Mariners, most often Mitch Haniger or Jean Segura, but occasionally Nelson Cruz. After all, they have been the M’s best offensive players in 2018, so naturally they must be all-stars, right?

Don’t’ get me wrong, Haniger and Segura, and Cruz have been really good. So, it says a lot about the young talent in the American League and across baseball that they not only aren’t leading in the all-star voting, they aren’t even close, and it’s not a slight by any means.


The Case for (or against) Mitch Haniger

Mitch Haniger, once considered a throw-in in the Taijuan Walker for Jean Segura trade two off-seasons ago, has been awesome in right field and leads the Mariners in fWAR with 2.6. The glossary at Fangraphs describes a 4-5 WAR player, the pace Haniger is on, as an all-star caliber player. Only in 2018, it’s not.

While Mitch Haniger is slashing .272/.355/.497 with 17 HR, 62 RBI, and putting up a 135 wRC+, that pales in comparison to possibly the greatest single season in the history of baseball – Mike Trout’s 2018 campaign, a rebound season that traditionalists love because it invokes the “triple crown” – the one Mookie Betts is having, and one very large human being – All Rise Aaron Judge.

Trout, who is working on his third MVP although it probably should be his fifth, currently has 6.3 of Fangraphs’ version of WAR. But if you prefer Baseball Reference’s version, he has 6.8 WAR. With 86 games this season under his belt, a little over half way, Trout is on pace to put up the second most WAR by a position player in the history of the game. Five of the seven best seasons in baseball history are claimed by one George Herman “Babe” Ruth. The 12.9 rWAR recorded by Ruth in 1921 seems likely to tumble, barring an injury to Trout, and the 14.1 rWAR crushed by the Babe in 1923 is in serious jeopardy.

To see what that kind of production looks like, in 1923 Ruth hit .393/.545/.764 with 41 HR, 130 RBI, and 151 R. That led the league in OBP, SLG, OPS (1,309), HR, RBI, R, and OPS+ (239). Oh, and he led the league in walks with 170 and remarkably didn’t lead the league in BA. That distinction is owed to an often-overlooked star of the time, Harry Heilmann of the Detroit Tigers who in 1923 hit .403. And don’t worry, he’s not that overlooked. He was a four-time batting champion and is in the Hall of Fame.

By comparison, Trout currently leads the AL in walks with 74 and OBP .456. Considering the huge difference in eras, Trout is demonstrating similar patience to Ruth and is garnering similar respect from opposing pitchers. The Angel’s outfielder is slashing .313/.456/.633 with 24 HR, 49 RBI, 66 R, and 13 SB. At Baseball Reference, 6.0 of his WAR is attributable to offense, while 0.9 of his WAR is because of his glove, a skill that it’s hard to know if Ruth had beyond the crude box scores of the day. The old Yankees Stadium didn’t have Statcast. Trout’s OPS+ is 201, or roughly twice as good as a league average hitter. Twice. Absolutely Ruthian.

But as great as Trout has been this season, he has some serious competition clear across the country in Bean Town. Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox currently leads the AL in BA, SLG, and OPS with a .339/.430/.673 slash line and 20 homers of his own to go along with 15 SB. Hitting at the top of the Red Sox lineup to prove that rookie manager Alex Cora is “stat savvy,” Betts only has 41 RBI but has scored 64 runs. Fangraphs has Betts with 5.0 WAR, while Baseball Reference has him with 4.8.

And, finally in third place on the leaderboard in AL OF voting is the New York Yankees giant – Aaron Judge. Judge with 4.4 rWAR and 4.2 fWAR, is currently hitting .279/.396/.565 with 22 HR, 55 RBI, and 57 R through 79 games. Early rainouts leave the Yankees having played four or five fewer games than the rest of the league. Oh, and never fear, while not leading the league, Judge is on pace to break his league leading strike out total from last season’s 208 with 109 so far. And did I mention that Joe DiMaggio struck out an average of 36 times per 162 games in his 13-year career and the seasons only lasted 154 games back then? It was a much different game in the 30’s and 40’s.

So, yea. Mitch Haniger is having a really good season. But, Trout, Betts, and Judge deserve to start the All-Star Game for the AL. And, as a testament to the power of large market voting blocks, the man from Boston leads with 2,337,514 votes. The man who loves to talk about the weather and is ever underrated, Trout, is second with 1,989,649 votes. And the slackers in the Bronx could only get their boy to 1,557,109 votes. No other outfielder in the AL has a million votes. While the coffee drinkers and IPA lovers of the Emerald City have Haniger is 9th place with 487.150 votes, a few spots lower than he probably deserves, but in line to represent the team in the nation’s capital.


What About the Jean Segura Argument?

Man, has Jean Segura had a great season? As of July 2nd, he’s hitting .335/.363/.474 with 59 runs and 14 stolen bases. After a career high 20 HR in 2016 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the shortstop that was the centerpiece of the Taijuan Walker trade has regressed a bit in the power department, knocking 11 out in 125 games last season with the Mariners and another 6 so far this season in 78 games. But, traditionally power from the center of the infield has been a bonus.

Segura currently has 3.1 fWAR and projects to accumulate another 1.0 to 1.3 depending on the projections system. At Baseball Reference, his WAR total is slightly higher at 3.2. As with Haniger, a solid 4 to 5-win player, worthy of all-star consideration most years. Unfortunately for Segura, we are living in the second golden age of shortstops. Not since Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejeda patrolled the center of the diamond in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s has there been so many quality shortstops as now.

Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles (for now), is currently leading the voting with 960,628 ballots cast, leading over Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros at 793,087 and Didi Gregorius of the Yankees with 639,630. The player who probably should be the starter but won’t be, Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians, is in fourth place with 619,112, followed by Segura in fifth with 504,985.

On the SS WAR leaderboard in the AL, Fangraphs has Lindor first with 4.9, Andrelton Simmons of the Los Angeles Angles second with 3.5, Segura third at 3.1, Machado fourth with 2.9, and Correa fifth at 2.4. It’s worth noting that Machado’s insistence on moving from third to short has actually decreased his value as Machado was a very good 3B in the field but is below average at SS. Conversely, Simmons derives almost half his value in the field, as he is arguably the second coming of Ozzie Smith.

Any one of these choices is defensible. Lindor is hitting .296/.372/.564 with 21 HR and 10 SB, a wRC+ of 153 and 9 defensive runs saved for just half a season. Simmons, while a defensive wiz, is no slouch at the plate these days. He’s hitting .319/.380/.440 with a 4.6% K rate, unheard of these days, and a 130 wRC+. Last season Simmons had 38 DRS, which is worth about 4 wins. This season, he has 10 through the half way mark. Machado is the offensive monster at the position and let’s face it, all-star voting is mostly about the bat. The trade deadline super-prize is hitting .310/.377/.564 with 21 HR, 59 RBI, and a wRC+ of 153.

The offensive numbers between Lindor and Machado are almost identical. The superior glove of Lindor places him higher on the WAR leaderboard, but the media hype over Machado and the trade deadline and impending free agency is the difference in the all-star voting. Again, Jean Segura is really good. He’s just not this season’s all-star at shortstop.


A Word About Nelson Cruz and the DH

As with his teammates, Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura, Nelson Cruz is having a spectacular season. Somewhat surprisingly, the four-year deal the Mariners signed Cruz to in 2015 at age 34 has been worth every penny of the $54MM, even into his age 38 season. You could even argue that $13+ mil per is a bargain in today’s market. Cruz is currently hitting .288/.375/.549 with 21 HR, 51 RBI, and a wRC+ of 152. Even without any contribution in the field as the DH, Cruz has provided the Mariners with 1.9 fWAR and an identical 1.9 rWAR. The only problem? Yet another ridiculous DH in Fenway.

In his first season with the Red Sox, J.D. Martinez is hitting .324/.391/.634 while leading the majors in HR with 25 and in RBI with 67. Atop the HR and RBI leaderboard, and within .015 points of his teammate, Betts, in BA, old school announcers are drooling at the possibility of the mythical Triple Crown. For the more sabermetrically minded, Martinez’s 3.4 rWAR as just a hitter is proof enough that he is the rightful starting DH for the AL.

The voting bears that out as well.  J.D. Martinez has 1,675,492 votes, as of the last public update, and is almost a million votes clear of the not really a DH, Giancarlo Stanton of the Yankees. Cruz sits in fifth in voting and could overcome the 30,000 or so vote deficit behind Shohei Ohtani, who awed fans with his pitching and hitting prowess before he went on the DL. Cruz probably deserves to be a little higher, but Martinez is clearly the right choice for 2018.


No Disrespect Intended

Nothing here was intended as a slight to this really exciting and surprising Mariners team. Barring an epic collapse of almost biblical proportions, the 2018 Seattle Mariners are set to relinquish the crown of most futile major sports teams and coronate the Cleveland Browns with that dubious honor. And there are many good to great players on this year’s team, Haniger, Segura, and Cruz among them. One of them, or possibly their exquisite pitching comrade, James Paxton, will be in D.C. on the 17th of this month representing the M’s, as every team gets a representative. They have played great baseball. Just not historically great baseball.

How are Sounders and Timbers players doing in the World Cup?

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How are Sounders and Timbers players doing in the World Cup?

BY TIM KEARNY

Seattle Sounders

Gustav Svensson – Sweden

Svensson is a versatile defender for the Sounders who has lined up all over the back line of the pitch. He uses his brain as much as his brawn to track attackers and go after the ball. Svensson also seems to only score big goals for the Sounders, he had one to send them back to the MLS Cup last year and another momentous shot from distance in a game earlier this year. He has a handful of appearances for the Swedish national team at the tender age of 31, but got the call for this year’s World Cup. The Swedes are at their first World Cup since 2006 and are without Zlatan Ibrahimović. Svensson is not the goal scorer that Zlatan was but he will be expected to find open teammates and link up well with the defense. They won their opener this year 1-0 against South Korea. Then were stunned by Germany with a stoppage time goal off a free kick 2-1. This put extra pressure on the Swedes to win against Mexico, which they did in resounding fashion 3-0. The win, coupled with Germany’s loss to South Korea means Sweden goes through to the knockout round.

Roman Torres – Panama

Torres is the heaviest player at this year’s World Cup weighing in at almost 200 pounds, and he is trying to throw his weight around to get Panama into the knockout stage. This is Panama’s first ever appearance in the World Cup and they do not want it to end early. They lost to Belgium in their first match 3-0. It was closer than the score looks though. Panama did nothing to inspire confidence in their next match against England losing 6-1. The one goal was the first Panama has scored in a World Cup. They wrapped up the group stage with another loss, this one 2-1 to Tunisia, and the goal for Panama was an own goal. This is a new chapter for Panamanian soccer now that they have qualified for a World Cup, but they are heading home nonetheless.

Torres is something of a cult figure in Panamanian soccer circles right now, because of his size and the passion with which he plays. Torres has made more than 100 appearances for Panama since his debut in the 2005 Gold Cup. He also was named to CONCACAF’s best XI for 2017, which is icing on the cake for Torres who also scored the goal that sent Panama to the World Cup this year. He is a big central defender who can make plays on the ball in the air.

Portland Timbers

David Guzman – Costa Rica

Guzman is one of the more technically skilled players on the Timbers and he is bringing that to a surprising Costa Rican squad. They aren’t ranked very high according to FIFA’s world ranking coming in at 23rd, but they usually play good defense and have a good counter attack. Guzman is an orchestrater from his midfield spot and is more about setting people up and playing good defense than creating scoring chances himself.

He is 28 years old and has 46 caps with the national team starting in 2010. Guzman is likely trying to forget his last game against Serbia. He made a foul that set up the winning free kick in the 56th minute and could not come back after that. They came up short against Serbia 1-0 in their first match, and failed to score against Brazil in their second game as well, losing 2-0. They were not going to advance with a good showing against Switzerland in their last game, but they gave as good as they got in the 2-2 draw before they head home and start thinking about next time.

Andy Polo – Peru

Polo has already been eliminated from reaching the next round. They did not get a goal against France or Denmark in their first games, losing 1-0. And beating Australia 2-0 was simply a moral victory for the Peruvian side. Nonetheless, Polo is an athletic winger who uses his speed and acceleration to create scoring chances. He can play a few different positions up front for the Timbers and for the national team to pressure the defense.

NBA Offseason Part Two – Examining playoff teams

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NBA Offseason Part Two – Examining playoff teams

BY JARED WRIGHT

Welcome to Part Two of my NBA Season Review/Offseason Preview/Hybrid Thingy. Part One is here, if you love the sweet, fresh smell of hopeless futility and broken dreams as much as I do.

Without further ado, let’s get stuck into it.

 

Not Exactly the Plan Going In

Washington Wizards: The path was open for the Wiz this year. The Eastern Conference was as ripe for the picking as it ever had been this decade. After a strong showing in the 2017 playoffs, Washington was a sleeper pick to make the Eastern Finals, and maybe even THE Finals if they got a couple breaks (figuratively and/or literally).

The Cleveland Cavaliers had traded Kyrie Irving. The Boston Celtics, who’d loaded up by trading for Irving and signing Gordon Hayward, lost Hayward to a gruesome broken ankle. The Toronto Raptors were, well, the Raptors. Everyone else either didn’t have the talent or the experience the Wiz could boast. So, what went wrong? Why was this team eighth in the East?

Chemistry, my friends. Chemistry.

I won’t go into the details, for it’s both silly and uncomfortable at the same time, but in this modern age of superteams, bromances, and knowing everyone since the age of 10 thanks to the AAU, there are some NBA teams that still have toxic chemistry. Injuries played a part in Washington’s decline, sure, but they only exposed the real issues with this team.

The worst part is, most of these guys have contracts too large to move without giving up assets the Wizards lack. Washington is capped out as badly as the Portland Trail Blazers are (cue the tasteless joke about a D.C. team not being able to handle a budget), and they’ll have to keep their core players and just ride it out.

 

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokoumnpo may be the do-it-all unicorn alien mutant that may dominate the league in five years, but right now, he can’t actually do it all for Milwaukee. Despite leading the Bucks in all five traditional counting stat categories (points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals) for a whole season, and being in the top 20 league-wide in those stats, the Greek Freak will need help from his teammates if he wants to butt his way into the conversation in the East, which is dominated by Philly and Boston.

20 years ago, Giannis could probably have gotten away with being a one-man show. Unless the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, Thon Maker, or Jabari Parker (if he’s brought back) join Khris Middleton in being useful parts of the team, and unless they stay healthy, the Bucks will not get to where they want to go. As fun as the Greek Freak Show is to watch (and also terrifying to experience; in the two games he played versus Portland last year, he dominated in a way I’ve rarely seen before), it’s a show that is doomed to end every April until a reliable supporting cast is assembled.

 

Stuck in Neutral, Is There a Reverse Gear?

Miami Heat: Owing Hassan Whiteside, a pouty rim-running center that hasn’t done as much rim protecting or rim-running as Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra would like, $75 million over the next three years has tossed a wrench into any plans to bring another top free agent to South Beach, this time to lead a scrappy band of overachievers and pseudo-stars. It’s a shame, really; a guy like Paul George or Demarcus Cousins (provided he makes a reasonable recovery from Achilles surgery) would be an ideal tentpole for a team this versatile and well-coached.

Instead, thanks to Whiteside, Dion Waiters, and Tyler Johnson soaking up about 40% of the cap between them, Miami has to miss out on the latest free-agent derby. They will be a tough out in the first round, but they will be an out. Pour one out for Spo, the best coach no one is talking about. (The man survived as LeBron James’ coach for four full seasons, and survived his departure. That alone should speak volumes about Spolestra’s abilities.)

 

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Oklahoma City Thunder: If I were Paul George, and I had a choice of where to sign in free agency, I would choose the blank slate of the Los Angeles Lakers, or the exciting young nucleus in Philadelphia, rather than commit the prime years of my career to a team showcasing the biggest ball hog to ever hog a ball, Russell Westbrook.

It’s not that George had a bad year, or a bad time playing with Westbrook; PG’s the kind of player that can oscillate between being the primary option and taking a supporting role. George having to play the supporting role too often was an issue for the Thunder, as he’d join his teammates in standing around on the perimeter while Westbrook did his thing, which could be summed up as “consumer of all possessions.” Westbrook averaged a triple-double (double-digit totals of points, rebounds, and assists per game) in consecutive seasons, the only guy in NBA history to do that, but he had to use up a Wilt Chamberlain-esque level of possessions to do it, as well as shamelessly steal rebounds. It was so bad, his teammates tried to make good-natured jokes about Westbrook being a blatant stat-chaser and rebound thief.

Westbrook is his generation’s Wilt, but that will likely come at the same Wiltian price: a lack of postseason success compared with the rest of his transcendent peers. Chamberlain won a title in the one year Bill Russell’s legendary Celtics teams had a letdown in the 1960s, then another in 1972 as the NBA was at a very weak state after Russell’s retirement, but his frenemy won 11 championships while playing much more inspired defense; in the run-n-gun sixties, Bill Russell was the only true defensive terror, and I just provided you with all the evidence you need. All the success Westbrook’s ruthless numerical dominance has gotten him in the playoffs are first-round exits, to teams that have (on paper) inferior talent to the Thunder.

As for George, if he does re-sign with OKC this summer, he’ll either see something in the franchise nobody else would, or he has a strong masochistic streak.

 

San Antonio Spurs: The news over the weekend that superstar forward Kawhi Leonard wanted out of San Antonio was shocking, and yet unsurprising. Unsurprising, because Leonard and the Spurs have been at odds over the management of his tendinopathy for months, to the point that Leonard left the team and sought medical advice on his own, without input from the team—you know, the guys that are paying him eight figures to dribble a ball.

It is also shocking, however, because the Spurs are the most stable, open-minded, player-friendly organization in the NBA, and maybe in all of professional sport. Professionalism defines this franchise, and the men running it, to a T, and has since I was a pudgy teenager eating a carrot a day to lose weight. And Kawhi Leonard would have been voted the “player least likely to start **** with his team” every year since San Antonio acquired him to serve as the heir to the immortal Tim Duncan. Stoic and emotionless almost to a fault, Leonard carried out his business with the precision, excellence, and professionalism expected of a Spur.

It’s stunning, sad, and disappointing that Leonard is reportedly seeking a trade, but all things in this world must end. Even the Spurs’ run of incredible play. Maybe Leonard felt the pressure of having to replace one of the best of all time in Duncan too much. Maybe he was hurting too much and felt the Spurs didn’t do everything in their power to help him. Maybe he felt slighted that his teammates kept pressuring him to play through his pain. I don’t know, and it isn’t my place to ask.

All I know is, Kawhi Leonard won’t be a Spur for very long, and seeing a basketball institution like the Spurs crumble is yet another change in my life, at a time where everything is changing.

 

Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cavs are the third team with a superstar wing player that’s a flight risk, but where the Thunder were an experiment gone wrong, and the Spurs are an aging giant about to enter its death throes, Cleveland is one of two teams that have made four consecutive NBA Finals, a feat not done since Magic Johnson was running the break for the Showtime Lakers, not sitting at a desk for them, wanting to steal away LeBron James.

There is always a chance James stays home in Cleveland, preferring the easier path to the Finals in the East (even with the Celtics and Sixers developing into legitimate challengers) to the annual charnel house that is the West. It would be a difficult sell, though; after the frustration of the 2018 Finals, LeBron would only choose to stay through some weird blend of sentimentality and masochism. He’d be nuts to willingly put his legacy in the hands of J.R. Smith.

Whether he goes to the Lakers, sets up shop in Philly, somehow worms his way onto the Houston Rockets, or chooses to go in another direction, the odds are that he’d have the best chance of winning more titles, and continuing the Chase of MJ, outside of northeast Ohio. And in case you’re the kind of person that values loyalty in athletes (especially hometown athletes), LeBron already won one for the Land. He owes Cleveland nothing.

 

Hanging on By a Thread

Minnesota Timberwolves: On the surface, the Timberpups are set for the future; Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler are a great one-two punch when Towns gives a crap about defense. There are two huge issues with this young, seemingly up-and-coming team, though.

One is Andrew Wiggins’ monstrous contract. Five years, $151 million, set to start in October, for a player who’s never shot above 35% from three-point range, is inconsistent on defense (at least by Butler’s elite expectations, and coach Tom Thibodeau’s exacting demands), and is viewed by the wider NBA community as an inefficient chucker who struggled to blend in with similarly, or more, talented teammates. While I would be inclined to say that it was just one year, and that Wiggins is young and has his prime in front of him, the combination of that five-year max contract and Thibs’ crushing demands means the learning curve gets very steep, very quick. It’s already sink-or-swim time for Wiggins, and the Wolves might sink with him.

Two, Thibodeau’s coaching style, roster usage, and roster construction as the Wolves’ president of basketball operations have combined to create a seven-man rotation that is getting run right into the dirt. Butler, who played for Thibodeau in Chicago, may be used to it now, but it’s way too easy to see a potential Luol Deng situation with Butler, where he’d get run absolutely ragged by Thibs and end up washed and a shell of himself well before his time. Minutes per game are a concern as well; no starter played below 33 minutes per game for Minnesota, and 38-year-old Jamal Crawford played almost 21 MPG, at an age when he should be a mentor instead of the top bench guy.

With Denver lurking and the Lakers looking to make drastic improvements, the Timberpups, who had to beat the Nuggets on the last day of the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs, will have to continue to dodge major injuries (only Butler missed significant time for them last season) and see if they can get anything more from Wiggins, as well as praying that one of the young guys earns enough trust from the notoriously prickly Thibodeau to get onto the court consistently.

 

The Playoff Rank and File

Portland Trail Blazers: While getting home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and seeing Damian Lillard become the first Blazer to make the All-NBA First Team since Clyde Drexler in 1992 was awesome, taking off the rose-colored glasses and digging deeper into the Blazers’ achievements in 2017-18 shows a different story.

For one, Lillard making the First Team was less a reward for all the work he did for Portland (last season was the first of Peak Lillard, so expect at least two or three more seasons like his last one) and more a referendum on the players above him in the point guard pecking order. Stephen Curry didn’t play enough games and shares the court with Kevin Durant. Chris Paul spent the first part of the season chilling in a banana boat somewhere. Kyrie Irving had his knee fall apart on him after the All-Star Break. Everyone felt dirty for giving Russell Westbrook the 2017 MVP, and overcompensated for their sins.

So, it wasn’t that Lillard outperformed all those gentlemen last season. It’s mostly that he was the only one left. His First Team nod felt like an FU to Westbrook from the media more than anything.

As for where the Blazers finished, it literally was three games between having the third seed, and sitting at home watching the playoffs and munching Cheetos. The Blazers did their usual “catch everyone off guard during the dog days of the season” schtick, and parleyed that seven-week hot streak into a playoff seed that they might have barfed away if the Spurs had Leonard, or the Wolves had Butler, or the New Orleans Pelicans had Demarcus Cousins, or the Thunder had a clue. The Blazers were closer to the tenth-place Los Angeles Clippers than the second-place Golden State Warriors, and that’s with the Warriors punting a solid 15 games to stay fresh for the playoffs.

Portland isn’t in the contending tier yet. And time’s running out on their chance to make that jump, if it hasn’t already.

 

Utah Jazz: I went to see the Jazz play the Blazers live last February, and it was part pleasure and part horror story. The horror came courtesy of guard Donovan Mitchell, a gem the Jazz drafted at the butt end of the 2017 lottery. Mitchell led the Jazz in scoring last season, and looks to be the kind of tentpole player Utah needed after Gordon Hayward left for Boston last summer. He was the catalyst behind a complete ass-kicking, which ended up galvanizing Portland into an epic 17-game winning streak.

As a Blazer fan, I’m not totally bummed that Portland didn’t draft Mitchell; they already have two star guards, and Zach Collins might end up being the reason the Blazers won’t have to pay Jusuf Nurkic $80 million to be the world’s biggest d*** tease. I bet there are plenty of other teams that wish they had scouts as good as Utah’s, though.

 

New Orleans Pelicans: As devastating as Demarcus Cousins’ Achilles injury was, it might be a two-fold blessing in disguise for the Pelicans. The fit on the court was slightly awkward with Cousins, especially defensively without Anthony Davis on the floor. Boogie has an infamous tendency to drift on defense, both physically and mentally, a habit picked up during his Sacramento Kings days, when he was the alpha and omega on offense for them. He had no such problems with the Pelicans, but he still lazed around more than he should have.

When Cousins went down, New Orleans traded for Nikola Mirotic, a streaky-shooting big man, and when they replaced the injured Boogie with the new guy, they became a different team. A better team. The Blazers can attest to this; they were the victims of perhaps the most one-sided beatdown in a first-round series I’ve ever seen that wasn’t a 1-8 matchup. Davis was fully unleashed at the center position, and no one in the NBA, including the Warriors, has an answer for him. Heaven help the league once Davis gets more talent around him.

Even before suffering an injury that cripples NBA careers, Cousins was a candidate for the Ewing Theory of addition by subtraction. Now, I’d be stunned if New Orleans brought him back for the max. Or if he gets the max at all.

 

Indiana Pacers: These guys went from being dismissed by everyone with a keyboard, to coming within aniiiinnncchhhh of being the first team to defeat LeBron James in the East in eight years, and in the first round EVER. Even in the NBA, it’s never safe to make assumptions.

The Pacers are young, hungry, and looking to prove they belong with the Celtics and Sixers in the discussions about the East’s future. Watching them continue to prove people wrong is a refreshing reminder that pro basketball is not always chalk.

 

Raptors LOL

Toronto Raptors: After earning the first seed in the East, modernizing their offense, developing a bench that allowed them to go literally 10-deep, and positioning themselves to finally seize the day, the Raptors had everything going their way. Surely, this year, the Raptors would shake off their playoff woes. Surely, they would take advantage of the Cavaliers’ disunion, the Celtics’ injuries, and the Sixers’ callow youngsters.

Then…LeBron James happened.

If Michael Jordan had Cleveland’s number every time, and if Kobe Bryant had Portland’s and Sacramento’s numbers every time, then James has Toronto’s number every time. This is the scope of LeBron’s ambition and overall greatness: where MJ and the Mamba were content to dominate mere cities, the King is tactically crouching (or tea-bagging) on an entire country. What a legend. The Cavs swept the top seed in the East in four games, capping a three-year run of prison-level ownage by LeBron over Canada.

The Raptors fired Dwane Casey in response to being crushed by a flawed Cleveland team, but their narrow window to make the first Finals in franchise history has likely just closed. I’d feel sorry for them, if I weren’t busy laughing at them.

 

Princes of the East

Philadelphia 76ers: There was so much to like about the Sixers last season, from Ben Simmons emerging as a reborn Magic Johnson, to Joel Embiid finally being healthy (though he needs to stop Tweeting and scarfing Twinkies, and start working on his cardio and three-pointer), to Brett Brown finally reaping the rewards for coaching all those horrible teams…so much to root for.

The Bryan Colangelo saga, however, put a damper on things. Colangelo’s wife made several burner Twitter accounts, and proceeded to do all sorts of unsavory things with them, from trashing former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie (the man her husband replaced) and Raptors president Masai Ujiri (who used to work for Colangelo before replacing him in Denver), to disclosing medical information about players under her husband’s employ. She even defended the size of Colangelo’s shirt collars and promoted his supposed virtues shamelessly; it was like watching an overbearing mother at work.

Colangelo resigned in an attempt to salvage whatever’s left of his reputation, and now the Sixers are heading into the most important offseason in their recent history without a general manager. Philly sure makes things interesting.

 

Boston Celtics: Another Eastern team to come within a bee’s phallus of dethroning LeBron, Boston has several decisions to make this offseason, including on Marcus Smart’s restricted free-agency. Smart is a defensive bulldog that struggles to shoot, basically Tony Allen with some handles, and was a huge part of the Celtics’ defensive excellence the last two seasons. He’s expecting to get paid, however. Maybe not Isaiah Thomas Brinks truck level, but a hefty chunk of change.

Chances are, he’s not going to get it from Boston. Smart is a solid player, sure, but why pay Marcus “I can’t hit the broadside of a barn with a bazooka” Smart $75 million when you can trot out this lineup: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Kyrie Irving? Good freaking luck beating that fivesome; it has the potential to be Boston’s version of the famed Death Lineup that established a dynasty in Golden State.

Odds are, Danny Ainge will be cool with some other team paying Smart. He’ll just find someone else like him, and the Celtics churn will continue.

 

Damn Near

Houston Rockets: There’s an argument to be made that if Chris Paul had not gotten injured, Houston would have beaten the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. They were that close, and had the Dubs that bamboozled; the Rockets were the first team to provide a legit challenge to the Warriors since they poached Kevin Durant, and their obsession with beating that team is only continuing to fester.

Reports are surfacing that Paul is recruiting LeBron to join their crusade. It would take some serious roster gymnastics, but Daryl Morey will do whatever it takes to give his team the best possible shot to win it all. Now, if only he didn’t have to pay Ryan Anderson $44 million over the next two years….

 

And STILL Your Reigning, Defending, Undisputed, NBA Champions of the World…

Golden State Warriors: Yeah. These guys are pretty good.

NBA Offseason Part One – Examining the 14 lottery teams

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NBA Offseason Part One – Examining the 14 lottery teams

BY JARED WRIGHT

The long, arduous NBA season ended last week with the result many of us were expecting, and many also were dreading: a championship victory by the monolithic dynasty of the Golden State Warriors. The 2017-18 season did have plenty of suspense (are the Houston Rockets for real? Is Damian Lillard truly a superstar? What the hell is going on in San Antonio? Can the Boston Celtics overcome physical failings with mystical coaching? And constant Cleveland Cavaliers melodrama) for those of us who are the hardcore of basketball fans, but the causal observer would be forgiven if they just saw an inevitable Warriors stomping coming and tuned out, even if the Rockets gave them the scare of a lifetime in the Western Conference Finals.

This offseason, plans are being laid by both players and franchises, especially during this dead period between the Finals and the Draft. Plenty of high-impact free agents are available this summer, including the biggest of big fish, LeBron James. The Draft has two players who could be among their generation’s best, as well as several more with All-Star potential. Trade scenarios are being flung left, right, and center by the NBA blogosphere and Twitter, while the teams themselves are doing the same among each other. Even though I did just call this current time a “dead period,” it’s a relative term; the NBA is always active in some way nowadays. Even August, the one truly calm period in years past, was abuzz with activity last year.

The goals for each team are broadly similar depending on where they are as a franchise, but different in specifics. Some want to amass young talent and bide their time, while others might be tearing their team down soon. Some are looking to land big free agents and jump back into the title picture, and others are just trying to hang on to relevance. The Warriors are looking to pay a huge luxury tax bill to keep their dynasty together, while the teams that want to challenge them wait in the shadows, ready to pounce when the Golden State elephant gets old and wheezy.

While I will cover our Portland Trail Blazers in this series in general, I do value the concept of keeping up with the Joneses, as it were. Reminders of the Blazers’ position and standing in the league provides valuable context that some Rip Citizens (mostly the ones that keep trumpeting “Third seed! Third seed!” with Neil Olshey over and over) sorely need.

Part One will address the 14 lottery teams (or the 14 non-playoff teams, I should say, since SOME teams like giving away lottery picks like Halloween candy). Part Two will be tomorrow, on the 16 playoff teams.

Congrats, You’re the Worst!

Phoenix Suns: Owners of 2017-18’s worst record, the Suns won the Draft Lottery and will get to reap the reward for their crapitude: 7’1” center Deandre Ayton, a freak of nature that could serve as the centerpiece of the Suns’ roster for the next decade. They also have the 16th pick, good to select a role player on the wing, or take a flier on Collin Sexton if he falls that far, though that seems unlikely.

Ayton is the intriguing piece, though. New coach Igor Kokoskov is known as a player developer, and where he chooses to go with Ayton and his raw potential will be worth watching; the big man’s ceiling has been described as David Robinson with a three-point shot. Robinson is one of the best 40 players ever, so getting to draft a guy with a chance to become a better David Robinson is obviously a huge deal.

It’s on Phoenix, and Ayton, and on Kokoskov to not screw this up. If they do, the Suns will continue wandering the post-Steve Nash wilderness for a long time to come.

 

What in the Hell Are You Doing!?

Sacramento Kings: So Phoenix wants to draft Ayton. That’s understandable. That leaves the other consensus top prospect, 19-year-old Slovenian wunderkind forward/guard Luka Doncic, available for the Kings to pick with the second overall selection. All well and good.

Except…

The Kings are looking to trade that pick, along with players to match salaries, for the Spurs’ disgruntled superstar, Kawhi Leonard. The Kings won 27 games last year. Even with Peak Leonard, Sacramento isn’t sniffing the playoffs with him, not in the West. Leonard is also on an expiring contract, and is already angling to get out of a small-market town, and has reportedly said he wants to play in a big city. Sacramento wants to trade away their best pick in decades for a one-year rental that will put approximately 50 more butts into the seats of their new arena. Idiotic.

On top of that, if/when their Kawhi hopes fall through, the Kings’ genius backup plan is to select Duke big Marvin Bagley III over Doncic. Bagley is sort of a tweener, and has no concept of man-to-man defense. Sacramento, perennially in the cellar in every defensive metric in the league, is not an ideal place for him to learn.

Bagley could be a good player, but there’s no guarantee he’s better than the two young bigs the Kings already have (Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein). There’s also a glut of solid big men in the NBA, with more coming up the pipeline in the early 2020s according to the draftniks. Doncic, meanwhile, looks to be good now, with the potential to be a very good to great wing in a league absolutely starved for wings. Luka also has the height to play some 4, as well.

Just draft Doncic, stick him at the 3 next to De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic, and let that core marinate while Cauley-Stein/Labissiere/Future Draftee X get their crap together in the frontcourt. It’s not rocket science! Draft the white Brandon Roy!

Jesus!

Dallas Mavericks: This has been the pattern in Dallas for years now: gear up to sign free agents. Strike out on free agents. Trade away draft assets for middling veterans and/or draft like a 10-year-old girl. Barely make the playoffs and get crushed in the first round. Watch living legend Dirk Nowitzki get another year older and another year slower. Wash, rinse, repeat.

It’s been long past time Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle gave up the ghost, bottomed out, and started over; hell, the NBA itself made that choice for them last season by kicking their asses from one end of North America to the other for six solid months. Instead, the Mavs are trying to package the fifth pick in this year’s draft—the reward for all those ass-kickings—as the centerpiece for a star player. That is not going to work, mostly because if there’s a trade to be made, Boston or the Lakers will make it. The only assets Dallas have are the fifth pick, a grossly overpaid Harrison Barnes, and last year’s first round selection, point guard Dennis Smith Jr., taken four spots ahead of Donovan Mitchell. Woof. Some folks are saying the Mavs could win 50 games next season. Yeah, and I could bed a Kardashian.

I hope the Mavs just select Mo Bamba or Michael Porter, develop them, and honor Nowitzki as he takes a season-long bow in his 21st, and last, season. I dread that the Mavs will trade for some forgettable vets, mortgage the future, and fall further down the West’s cellar as Dirk goes out like Kobe Bryant, without all the hoopla that came/comes with Bryant.

 

Bare Cupboards, Full Hearts, Clear Minds

Atlanta Hawks: Sacramento’s stupidity could be Atlanta’s gain, as the Hawks have the third pick in the draft. A stud like Doncic would be a huge get, obviously, but the Hawks have such a bare roster, they’re honestly just glad to have a top-three pick this year. 21-year-old big man John Collins, 24-year-old wing Taurean Prince, and 24-year-old guard Dennis Schroder are nice pieces, but the Hawks could use a top-flight talent. There are questions about Bagley, Bamba and Porter about whether they can be that kind of superstar talent. There are fewer questions about Doncic. Jaren Jackson, Jr., might also be an option.

Still, even if the Kings smarten up and select the Slovenian, the Hawks’ player development staff is one of the best in the NBA, even without Mike Budenholzer helming their coaching staff. Anyone they take third overall will be in a good situation, and will have a long leash to develop.

Brooklyn Nets: Next year, the nightmare will be over. Next year, the poor Nets won’t have to trade for failed projects and scour the scrap heaps to fill out their roster. Next year, the intrepid tandem of General Manager Sean Marks (a former Blazer) and Head Coach Kenny Atkinson get to make like Andy Dufrene in The Shawshank Redemption, and crawl out of a 500-yard pipe full of #*$&-smelling foulness.

In 2019, the Brooklyn Nets will control their very own first-round pick! FRRREEEEEEEEEEEDOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM!!!!!!!!!!!

Until then, it’s one more year of surviving on the margins and developing Jarrett Allen into their center of the future. Then, Marks and Atkinson will finally have some real tools to play with.

 

Uncertainty and Distrust

Memphis Grizzlies: Losing Mike Conley, he of the bloated $150 million-plus contract, to a heel injury for the season, getting little from the $94 million man Chandler Parsons, seeing franchise center Marc Gasol get discontented and unhappy, firing the respected David Fizdale early in the year, losing 60 games for the first time in years…Grit-n-Grind is truly dead and gone in Memphis. RIP.

There are rumblings in Memphis about trading the fourth pick, but the current roster is in a state of disarray. There can’t be any contending when your best players are an aging Gasol and two perpetually injured guys. When you have so much money invested in three vets, though, I guess there is no tearing it down; who wants to be the poor sap that has to pay Conley or Parsons? Eventually, they’ll have to see if they can get any value for Gasol, if the Grizz aren’t doing that already.

It’s only going to be an early step in a teardown that will likely take years. Things are just starting to get ugly for the Grizzlies, I fear.

Chicago Bulls: If the “Uncertainty” part of my header applied to Memphis, “Distrust” would totally be a Bulls thing. Their fans have started turning on the Chicago front office in fits and starts, and while having a big man with maybe-star potential in Lauri Markkanen salves some anxiety, the lack of development out of Kris Dunn and not really knowing what you have in Zach Lavine yet (who came to the team while recovering from knee surgery, and played 24 solid, if unspectacular games) is some cause for concern. Those three players were the spoils from the Jimmy Butler trade, a trade intended to help Chicago bottom out. It worked…until six other teams decided to tank harder.

You’d think winning only 27 games would net you a better choice than the seventh pick, but that’s where the Bulls are. It’s especially unfortunate this year, too, because seven is likely where the cutoff is going to be from “potential star talent” to “maybe a star, more likely a second banana or role player.” Markkanen and Lavine seem like solid young players, but neither one jumps out at you as a player that is going to make a few All-Star Games or sneak onto an All-NBA Team.

It’s likely that the Bulls will be continuing to search for another star after giving up Butler. Whether Gar Forman will continue leading that search probably depends on his ability to strike gold a third time, and keeping it around this time.

 

The Forgettable Eastern Conference Middlemen

Charlotte Hornets: Man, it seems like yesterday that 23-year-old Dwight Howard was dunking everything in sight while the Orlando Magic played four-out in the 2009 Finals. That Howard looked like a guy who was going to be an MVP candidate for most of this decade.

Instead, after years of petulance, airheadedness, cluelessness, an inflated opinion of his post-up ability (always was inefficient, mostly was trash), fathering way too many children, and basically representing every negative African-American stereotype that doesn’t involve food, Howard is now in obscurity. At 32, with years of back troubles that sapped his one bankable NBA skill (athleticism), he’s now in a position where Cody Zeller is a better center than he is. Howard’s a bunch of weight gain and one coke binge away from being this generation’s Shawn Kemp. The Hawks must be thanking their lucky stars that Michael Jordan was dumb enough to correct their own dumb mistake of trading for Dwight by…trading for Dwight.

Another note: Michael Jordan is the best basketball player of all time (MJ or LBJ is a debate I would LOVE to have with anyone, especially over drinks), but he is one shite basketball executive, even after buying his own team.

Detroit Pistons: Speaking of dumb trades!

I wonder if this was Stan Van Gundy’s plan all along: to trade for Blake Griffin, a talented forward who’s had more trouble staying on the court than Kanye West has staying sane, and who also has four years left on a contract that will pay him $31 million, $34 million, $36 million, and then a player option he is going to pick up no problem at $39 million. That’s a hefty price tag for a brittle short-armed power forward who shares the court with a center with no range, and will be entering his 30s next season. Yiff.

Whoever takes over from Van Gundy will be inheriting a capped-out roster full of untradeable contracts, with a small chance of making the playoffs, even in the East. They don’t even have their draft pick this year, due to the Griffin trade. Stan, meanwhile, will be chuckling to himself as he sits in his living room, alcoholic beverage of choice in hand, watching his brother Jeff make an ass of himself on ESPN.

New York Knicks: Having the ninth pick in the draft, and knowing that star player Kristaps Porzingis won’t be able to start the season after ACL surgery, isn’t the best situation for the Knicks. There are ways to turn this bad situation into a positive, but this is the Knicks were talking about. A franchise owned by the premier sports example of what I like to call Thanks-Dad Syndrome, James Dolan.

Ideally, they’d draft a big man to complement their unicorn big in Porzingis, and continue constructing a solid young core. In reality, they will draft Trae Young, and the Nuu Yawk faithful will groan each time Young gets crushed by a pick, dusts himself off after he gives up an easy basket on D, then spends 20 seconds dribbling before barfing up a step-back three that hits the backboard because he’s too short and slow to get the ball over his defender.

 

Suddenly, This Got Very Interesting

Los Angeles Lakers: The rumors about Kawhi Leonard being available might be a perfect storm for the Lakers. Sure, the Spurs are going to be very methodical about their situation, and that is their right. If I were Magic Johnson (president of basketball ops) and Rob Pelinka (general manager), however, I would be spamming Spurs boss R.C. Buford’s phone with calls, trying to keep his attention away from Celtics honcho Danny Ainge. Ainge is a notoriously adept dealer, and he is more than ready to use all the draft picks and intriguing young players his shrewdness gained him to swipe away another superstar.

Paul George is from the area surrounding Los Angeles (I love how people who grew up at least 50 miles from LA always say, “I’m from LA,” even though they rarely go inside the city limits. Like they don’t want to admit they’re from Anaheim, or Palmdale, or Inglewood), and LeBron James might be open to taking his talents to the desert. Trading for Kawhi would turn a PG-LBJ collaboration from second-round fodder into potentially a Warriors Antidote.

Magic Johnson just has to wait out the Spurs, and outbid Danny Ainge. No pressure.

 

Winning Records, No Playoffs, #WestIsBest

Los Angeles Clippers: After ridding themselves of Griffin’s 10-ton albatross of a contract and signing supersub Lou Williams to a modest deal, the Clippers find themselves at a crossroads. DeAndre Jordan, the last major player remaining from the most successful era in Clippers history, has a $24 million player option left on his contract. If he picks the option up, he becomes a valuable trade chip; a team looking for salary relief, and that wouldn’t mind coughing up first-round picks to get relief, would be an easy target for LA.

If Jordan declines the option, I doubt the Clips re-sign him, not after trading Chris Paul and Griffin in the span of a few months. They have the 12th and 13th picks in the upcoming draft, a curious situation they could take advantage of. Sacramento is liable to do something stupid, and Memphis could decide that depth is better than drafting a raw Mo Bamba or an injury risk like Michael Porter Jr.

Having a stud like Doncic or an intriguing prospect like Bamba or Porter or Jaren Jackson Jr. to build around would be more exciting than drafting Robert Williams or taking a flier on Trae Young or Collin Sexton, players that resemble Williams too much to want redundancy. They could also keep Jordan, either via his option or by re-signing him, draft two solid role players, and try to make the playoffs in the crowded West. The Clips could go many different ways here, and it’ll be interesting to see how they navigate the post-Lob City era.

Denver Nuggets: The Nuggies lost a play-in game to the Timberwolves on the last day of the regular season. While some parts of them were likely glad to not serve as chum for the top-seeded Rockets, that’s still a very brutal way to miss out on a playoff spot.

The worst part? At 46 wins, Denver would have been in sixth place in the East, comfortably in playoff position. Rough.

Denver still has some situations to sort out, like whether they bring back Will Barton, and whether they can get rid of Kenneth Faried, but the core of the team is already set. Big man Nikola Jokic, guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, and the sage forward Paul Millsap are a good start. With good health and a little more luck, perhaps Mile High playoff basketball could become a thing again.

Want to make the NFL Gods laugh? Tell them your plans (Seattle Seahawks Edition)

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Want to make the NFL Gods laugh? Tell them your plans (Seattle Seahawks Edition)

BY JULIAN ROGERS 

The time to stop planning and start acting is now. Get ready to start laughing.

The Seattle Seahawks are busy acting out their offseason plans. Here’s what we know about how the offense is shaping up for 2018.

Offensive line

It’s crazy, but it just might work. I mean the crazy part — literally. Everyone’s heard the bromide, “The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results.” Everyone except the Seahawks, perhaps.

Tuning up the engine that is supposed to be the driving force of the new, 2018 Seahawks offense — the offensive line — is the top priority if a viable running game and a more-often-than-not upright quarterback are desired results. As the 12s, and Russell Wilson’s joints and a long list of broken running backs are painfully aware, the blue birds’ O-line has ranked at the bottom of the league for the past several seasons. With the need so acute and the draft and free agency now concluded, the fix should be in.

And how are the Seahawks going to fix the offensive line? Continuity. It’s the same guys. Plus D.J. Fluker. And a fifth-round draft pick that almost certainly won’t crack the starting lineup unless an injury occurs. For now, you can pull out your late 2017 season game program: The 2018 line will start Duane Brown (left tackle), Ethan Pocic (left guard), Justin Britt (center), Fluker (right guard) and Germain Ifedi ( right tackle).

Remember when I said it just might work? It might. Despite the return of the underperforming squad last year, continuity is the No. 1 quality of high-performing offensive lines. More time together can only be a plus. Further, the turnstile that was the right tackle position last year will not just be handed to Ifedi, who had his well-documented ups and downs. Quality competition will come from last year’s projected left tackle starter (a nominal distinction, admittedly), George Fant, who will focus on the right side. In reality, he could win it. Fant could also be a pretty solid option as the top swing tackle.

Plus, Jamarco Jones, the Seahawks’ lone offensive line draft pick, could get the opportunity to develop behind the veterans and pay future dividends. Either that or he’ll be moved into the interior of the line to see if he can stick there, as is the Seahawks’ wont when it becomes clear a tackle cannot stop edge rushers (see Britt, Justin, et al). So there’s your top seven offensive line rotation, with the possible addition of backup center Joey Hunt also making it into the game-day roster discussion.

And one more thing: New offensive line coach Mike Solari replaces Tom Cable, so new schemes and an influx of unknown chemistry could drive this unit from the bottom of the league to a solid mediocre or better group in 2018.

Running back

How different would the Seahawks’ rock-toting hopes be with a mediocre or better offensive line? We’ll likely find out this year, which will contrast sharply from the past few seasons. Also new: A first-round draft pick to feature in Rashaad Penny, (San Diego State, No. 27 overall).

Forget the arguments and laments that the blue birds had more pressing top needs from the draft or the argument that other running backs should have been selected in this slot. Penny is their guy. What matters now is can he do what all of the other Seahawks’ former featured running backs could not: Stay healthy, know assignments, protect Wilson and make the opposing defense respect the run?

Penny will compete with the occasionally scintillating / occasionally injured Chris Carson, the occasionally scintillating / occasionally injured C.J. Prosise, the occasionally scintillating undersized J.D. McKissic and the reliable, do-everything Mike Davis.

On paper, this is a good group, with youth on its side. Coincidentally, the Seahawks still draw up their running back depth charts on paper because it’s easier to tear up and discard after the first quarter of each and every game. But plans must be made, so this is the plan.

Receivers (tight and wide)

Forget tight end. The Seahawks have. Their top two guys from last year, Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson, are playing elsewhere. They take 14 touchdowns in 2017 with them. Wilson’s four scores last year was his best showing ever. Likewise, Graham’s 10 scores was his best season as a Seahawk by far. It’s starting over time at tight end in Seattle.

If signing Ed Dickson to fill those shoes excites you, then it’s nice to meet you, Ed Dickson’s mother. Former third option, Nick Vannett, is the lone veteran holdover. With an 80% catch rate and an average of more than 10 yards per reception, Vannett may be the lead candidate as a move tight end that catches Wilson’s passes, as opposed to the in-line, blocking talents of Dickson.

If you’re still under-rating Doug Baldwin as Wilson’s top receiver, you haven’t been paying attention. The do-everything Baldwin is the last remaining safety valve for Wilson and very worthy one who will be emphasized even more in the Seahawks’ 2018 offensive plans, if they know what’s good for them.

Opposite of Baldwin will be new longtime veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall, with the uber-fast Tyler Lockett in the slot. Marshall is the key to the offense taking a step forward or backward, being the de-facto replacement for the up-and-coming Paul Richardson, who came and went (to Washington) just when he got his professional stride in gear. Marshall and Richardson are different types of players, so expect the offense to shift: Baldwin, Baldwin, Baldwin and some crumbs for the other guys.

The fourth, fifth and sixth receiver slots will be filled by a handful of players who bring a variety of body types and skill sets, but will not be relied upon for much in 2018. Anything from this group will be a plus for the plan.

Quarterback

It’s Russell Wilson. Not just at quarterback. At “offense.” He’s the show. The Seahawks may talk about wanting to spread the heavy load around, but when the rubber meets the road, it will all fall on Wilson’s shoulders to carry the offense (like last year) to what looks like another nine-win-ish season.

Austin Davis and Alex McGough are humans not named Colin Kaepernick. One or both of the former will be on the final 2018 roster, for reasons unclear. At least, that’s the plan. Kidding aside, I’m pro-Austin Davis. Another year in the Seahawks’ system could really help him solidify himself as a strong No. 2 option, behind Wilson.

Go ahead, laugh if you want. That’s the plan.

One reason why the Seattle Mariners have surged to first place – Jean Segura

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One reason why the Seattle Mariners have surged to first place – Jean Segura

BY MARIO MARTIN DEL CAMPO

This week, the Seattle Mariners played six games and won four of them, increasing their record to a superb 41-24. They currently hold one of the best records in baseball, third only to the powerhouse Yankees and Red Sox, both teams that the Mariners will face for 10 of the remaining 19 games in the month of June.

Many factors have contributed to the Mariners’ successful season; Paxton’ dependable domination on the mound, the resurgence of Wade LeBlanc, Dee Gordon’s abilities on the basepaths as well his charm in the clubhouse, the meteoric rise of Mitch Haniger, the excelling bullpen, and the quiet consistency of guys like Mike Leake, Kyle Seager, and Ben Gamel.

But then there is Jean Segura, the shortstop, who in Seattle is called, “The Hit Machine.” Sometimes he’s referred to as El Mambo and sometimes as Seggy. No matter what you call him, he’s been the silent savior of the Mariners this past season.

Last year, Jean Segura played 125 games for the injury-riddled Seattle ballclub, taking a couple of trips to the disabled list himself for a hamstring injury and an ankle sprain. In those 125 games, he hit an even .300, with a .776 OPS and was worth 2.9 wins above replacement (fWAR) for the Mariners. Despite the injuries, last year was one of Segura’s top seasons since his debut in 2012.

He’s already surpassed last year’s margin, and its only June.

The Mariners started the year with only a 9.4% chance of entering the postseason, according to Fangraphs. As of now, the Mariners have a 56.1% chance. How has Segura contributed to this rise in playoff probability? For starters, El Mambo was projected to score 48 runs, impulse 36 runs batted in, and steal 14 bases by the first 88 games of the season. He’s surpassed all of these margins while only having played 62 games this season.

In only 62 games played this year, Jean Segura has almost tied his wins above replacement for the previous year, needing only 0.3 wins to reach the 2.9 fWAR he attained in 2017. He’s currently batting .341/.363/.483 with 134 wRC+.

Segura’s contributions to the team have been immense. He’s current 2.6 fWAR leads the Mariners and is almost a full win higher than Mitch Haniger’s 1.7 fWAR. He has the highest wOBA of any Mariner with at least 50 plate appearances, and this is despite his low 3.9 BB%. His strikeout percentage of 13.5% is the lowest of all Mariners, proving that his ability to discern pitches and turn them into hits is one of the most effective on staff.

The season isn’t even halfway through and Jean Segura is already on track to have his best season yet, surpassing even his All-Star 2013 season. His approach at the plate is not only one of the greatest contributions to the Mariners’ offensive capabilities but a magnificent sight to witness. Segura covers all parts of the plate, teeing off on pitches low and inside with the grace of a golfer and taking hacks at pitches far and outside with the strength and prowess of a man hungry to lead his team to victory. This isn’t a player who swings and anything thrown at him. Segura is calculating and wise. The average player swings at pitches outside of the zone 30% of the time and makes contact with those pitches 62% of time. Segura swings at outside pitches 35% of the time and has made contact nearly 77% on those pitches.

For pitches in the zone, Segura is even better, making contact on pitches over the plate almost 95% of the time. Currently, there are 11 players with more wins above replacement than Jean Segura, and none of them match his ability to cover the plate.

Therein lies the beauty that is Jean Segura. He is currently ranked 12th on Fangraphs’ MLB leaderboards, and he’s ranked as the 10th best position player when only counting position players in the American League. Segura has proven that he’s not only been the Mariners most valuable position player, but one of the better position players in all of Major League Baseball this season.

Three Seattle Seahawks players you should be talking about

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Three Seattle Seahawks players you should be talking about

BY TIM KEARNY 

Shaquill Griffin

Griffin is now Seattle’s top cornerback. He is going to have to take over Richard Sherman’s old spot and replace one of the best cornerbacks in Seahawk history. I think he has the skills to be a very effective player for Seattle and could replicate Sherman’s productivity. He is a long defensive back with better speed than Sherman, he is developing his ball skills and continuing to improve on a good rookie year.

Griffin is 6’ tall and almost 200 pounds, the perfect size for a Pete Carroll defense. And Griffin is looking to add to last year’s interception total, where he got just a single pick. His 15 passes defended show a player who is around the ball a lot and the picks will come in time. One thing he can improve on is understanding what his teammates are doing around him. When he knows how his teammates will react and trusts them more he will be able to react with more speed and make more plays.

Ed Dickson

Dickson is taking over the top tight end gig from Jimmy Graham. Graham was the most productive tight end Seattle has ever had. Dickson has large shoes to fill just like Griffin and a lot is expected of him. No one is looking to him for the touchdown numbers Graham could put up, but he is expected to be a steady run blocker and not drop catchable balls.

Dickson spent time with both the Baltimore Ravens and the Carolina Panthers before being signed this year by the Hawks. Last year he had his second-best year as a pro in terms of receiving, and he has shown his run blocking skills for years with these two-hard-nosed run-first mentality teams.

George Fant

Fant is a bit of a wild card here. Seattle was really high on him when they first got him and transitioned him to an offensive lineman from a tight end. He has ridiculous athleticism for a man his size and that is why people see such potential in him right now. Fant is coming off an ACL injury which has set him back pretty far but he should be back for camp or at least the regular season.

Duane Brown and Justin Britt seem to be the two players who have their positions locked up on the Seahawks offensive line. I think Ethan Pocic and Germain Ifedi should fill in the guard spots and Fant takes over the right tackle spot. Those should be the starting five linemen this year unless the rookie, Jamarco Jones, really impresses this offseason. I could see Fant playing guard with Ifedi at tackle if Ifedi has shown improvement from last season.

 

It’s time to show some love for the Portland Timbers 2 squad

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Timbers 2

It’s time to show some love for the Portland Timbers 2 squad

BY EDDY PRUGH

The Portland Timbers are looking like a winning franchise from top to bottom this season. It’s time to show some love to the (so far) highly successful Timbers 2 of the United Soccer League. The USL is the equivalent to the NBA G League or Triple-A baseball. It’s the second tier of American (and Canadian) soccer. The league is divided into East and West conferences and currently has 33 teams in total.

USL teams are commonly affiliated with an MLS parent club, the same as they are in the baseball and basketball leagues mentioned above. A USL team can be a useful resource for an MLS team for many reasons. Players from the first team (the MLS team) can play in USL games when they are coming back from an injury or if they simply need to get more game time for whatever reason. Most American players in the MLS have, at some point, played in the USL.

A lot of MLS franchises use their USL team strictly as a developmental platform for young players who have come through the ranks of the youth system but who aren’t ready to make the jump to the MLS team. In the past few seasons, Timbers 2 has tried to combine young players who show potential with senior players from the MLS team to find success but it hasn’t worked very well until now.

Just like the first team, the first and probably most important difference in the Timbers 2’ 2018 season is that there is a new coach at the helm. New Zealand native Cameron Knowles has been an assistant for the Timbers since 2012 and has been involved with the USL team since its inception in 2014, but only took the head coaching reigns for the first time this season.

Next, the team has gone out and signed several older players who bring professional experience from elsewhere. Even if they may not be considered as prospects for the first team they have experience and confidence that rubs off on the younger players.

After 13 games, Timbers 2 sit 4th in the Western Conference. In first place is Real Monarchs, who are the USL affiliate of Real Salt Lake. In 2nd and 3rd are Phoenix and Sacramento respectively; both teams are independent from MLS clubs. Timbers 2 team has consistently mixed in first-team players like Vytautas Andriuškevičius, Dairon Asprilla and Bill Tuiloma to compliment off-season signings Josh Phillips and Jimmy Mulligan. Then they add homegrown players 2018 draft picks Eryk Williamson and Foster Langsdorf to the mix. With such a large pool of players to choose from, the lineups have changed on a game-to-game basis but it hasn’t seemed to break any rhythm.

Leading the team with six goals is Foster Langsdorf who is coming off an amazing college career at Stanford that included back-to-back-to-back National Championships as well is becoming the all-time leading goal scorer in PAC-12 competition. Second in goals is a tie between 20-year-old Augustine Williams and 21-year-old Victor Arboleda, both with four.

Timbers 2 game days at Providence Park are obviously vastly less populated than for MLS games, but the team is making the Timbers organization and the rest of Portland proud, or at least they should be. Winning should be universal for the whole club and Timbers 2 aren’t disappointing.

Seattle Mariners: The surprise that is Marco Gonzales

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Seattle Mariners: The surprise that is Marco Gonzales

BY BRIAN HIGHT

Over the weekend, I noticed that Marco Gonzales, starting pitcher for the Seattle Mariners, had been picked up on waivers in my oldest fantasy baseball league. The league originally started back in Memphis, TN, so long ago I’d prefer not to say. But these days, as people have gone on with their lives, players live in Seattle, (obviously me), Atlanta, and Tampa. Coordinating eastern time, central time, and pacific time auctions can be challenging, but it’s always fun.

But, back to Marco Gonzales. Mariners fans know that after suffering through a rocky April, Gonzales has been brilliant for most of May and now into June. But, it was kind of surprising that Gonzales had made it on to the national radar, albeit among a group of fans that is possibly more keenly aware of statistical trends in players’ performance than the casual fan. And, to be fair, this group jumped all over Mitch Haniger when I brought his name up for auction at a dollar, hoping to sneak him past my Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals centric playing partners. So, Gonzales being plucked from the free agent pool of fantasy players made me want to see just how good he’s been lately.

Marco Gonzales May Have Figured It Out

Back in April, Gonzales had a three-game stretch, that, at the time, raised some concerns. On April 9th, the Mariners faced the Kansas City Royals in Kansas City and Gonzales would only give them 2.1 innings, his shortest outing of the season, up to then and since, where he would yield 8 hits and 4 earned runs. Then in his next outing on April 14th, Gonzales went only one inning deeper versus the Oakland A’s at home, 3.1 innings, and also gave up 4 earned runs. This time on 5 hits.  In the last game of this rocky period, Gonzales took the bump on April 19th against the Houston Astros in Safeco and stretched it out to 4.2 innings, allowing 5 hits and 3 earned runs.

Over the three-game stretch, Gonzales pitched 11.1 innings and gave up 16 hits and allowed 11 earned runs for a WHIP of 2.79 and an 8.92 ERA. Not entirely encouraging. However, over the same stretch, he did manage to strikeout 17 batters while only walking 3 for a K/9 of 13.78 and a BB/9 of 2.43.

Since the fourth start of the season on April 19th, Gonzales has failed to go 6 innings only once, in the 2-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Safeco on May 17th. But in that outing he did not allow an earned run in 5.2 innings pitched. In fact, starting with the May 17th Tigers game, Gonzales has only allowed 1 earned run over four consecutive outings.

In his last four starts, Gonzales has pitched 5.2 innings against the Tigers, allowing zero earned runs; 7.0 innings against the A’s, allowing zero earned runs; 6.2 innings against the Texas Rangers, allowing zero runs; and 6.2 innings against the Tampa Rays, allowing 1 earned run. Over that four-game stretch, the Mariner left hander has a 0.884 WHIP and an ERA of 0.346. Wow.  He has stuck out a modest 21 hitters for a K/9 of 7.27, while walking 11 for a 3.81 BB/9. The walk figure is somewhat inflated in the small sample by a 4 free pass game against the Rangers.

For the season, Gonzales has contributed the second most fWAR on the pitching staff for the Mariners with 1.4, just a tick ahead of closer Edwin Diaz who has 1.3 and behind James Paxton who sports a 2.3 fWAR. Something about no-hitters and 16 K games will bump a pitchers WAR slightly. Gonzales’ season ERA is 3.38, but his FIP suggests he might be a tad better with 3.22.

Good in Both Fantasy Baseball and Real Baseball

Who would have thought coming into the season that Marco Gonzales would be the second-best starter on the Seattle Mariners? The three outings in April cast some doubt on the season and seemed to suggest that the Mariners could spend the Summer chasing their own pitchers on offense, trying to put up enough runs to stay in ball games. But, what appeared to be a liability in April (and that was much of the pitching staff, both starters and relievers, not just Gonzales) has turned into a major asset for the first-place ball club from the Emerald City.

So, if you play fantasy baseball and Marco Gonzales is still on your waiver wire, go get him. If you just like to watch good pitching and root for the Mariners, Gonzales’ next start will come on the road against the Rays. Don’t be surprised if he has another good outing.