The one sport that stands to benefit most from advances in technology is America’s Pastime. My colleague Ben Beecken shares that sentiment and understands baseball’s big problem and how to solve it. But as a semi-traditionalist baseball fan, I’m not ready to take the umpires off the field in favor of robots. Something must be done, obviously, and Major League Baseball owners are apparently pushing Commissioner Rob Manfred to make “bold” changes to address what they believe to be a pace-of-play problem caused by the increased employment of defensive shifts. But baseball doesn’t have a pace-of-play problem; it has a lack-of-action problem that an electronic strike zone can solve without taking umpires’ jobs.

Increased Action Makes Pace of Play Irrelevant

“Time flies when you’re having fun” they say, and that goes for a three-plus-hour-long baseball game, too. Shortening the game or speeding it up isn’t going to make the game more appealing to young people. You need action to appeal to the all-time low attention spans of young people, or they’ll just find their entertainment on that computer in their pocket. MLB isn’t providing that action and hasn’t for a decade or so.

Thus far this season, MLB’s collective batting average is .248 — the 21st-worst league batting average since 1871, according to Baseball Reference. Runs are down to 1956 levels, but on-base percentages, upon which run production depends, have remained steady, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney. But there’s never been more strikeouts in the bigs.

The league is on pace to break the strikeout record set last year, and the year before that, and in each of the eight years prior. That’s a decade’s worth of record-setting strikeout totals, so no one should be surprised by how often professional hitters are failing to hit. And you can’t blame defensive shifts for strikeouts.

This idea that the increased employment of defensive shifts has forced hitters to alter their approach at the plate to increase their “launch angle” and “exit velocity” to hit over the shift is ridiculous. Defensive shifts don’t force hitters to do anything except exactly what hitters have been expected to do since the game’s inception: hit it where they ain’t. If any professional ballplayer could bunt these days, and every one of them should be capable, or if managers valued baserunners over extra-base-hit potential, defensive shifts would all but disappear except for pull-happy, power hitters who aren’t paid to bunt — ever. The defense is the one taking a risk by shifting; most hitters risk nothing except their batting averages trying to hit over the shift and into the stands. We shouldn’t want more hitters bunting, however. We should want more action occurring from hitters hitting — or better yet, driving the ball.

Some of those hitters, like the Cubs’ Daniel Murphy, have explained why they don’t bunt against the shift despite having a gimme single if they can get it in play past the pitcher on the vacated half of the infield. Murphy’s reasoning is that he’s more valuable to his team pursuing extra-base hits rather than occupying first base and waiting for another two teammates to hit singles to score him given his lack of speed. “It’s really difficult to get three hits in one inning,” he told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, citing “how good pitchers are now” as a reason.

The Evolution of Pitching is to Blame for Baseball’s Problem

Young fans are avoiding baseball because it’s boring. Hitters can’t hit because pitching is too good. Many hitters, like former MVP and batting champion Justin Morneau, say a hitter can expect one hittable pitch per plate appearance, and hittable pitches are fewer and farther between in today’s MLB than ever before.

Batters aren’t looking to get the ball in the air more often to avoid hitting into defensive shifts. Batters are looking to get the ball in the air more often because there are fewer pitches thrown they are physically capable of hitting hard in the air. There are fewer pitches thrown that have extra-base-hit potential.

Since 2002, swings on pitches outside the strike zone have increased 12.7 percent, resulting in an all-time low contact rate and all-time high swing-and-miss rate.

In 2010, 50.2 percent of all pitches thrown in MLB were in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs. This season it’s down to 47.9 percent, and despite the percentage of swings at pitches in the zone at an all-time high over the 11-year history of this research, the contact percentage on those strikes is at an all-time low. Contact on pitches outside the strike zone is also at an all-time low, but why?

Reliance on Relief Pitchers Contributes to Baseball’s Problem

Before defensive shifts became the norm and launch angle was ever uttered, the approach to pitching had already evolved immensely in MLB. John McGraw had a dedicated relief pitcher on his New York Giants roster as early as 1905, according to the research of Bryan Soderholm-Difatte for “America’s Game.” That tactic became more popular in the 1920s after Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown’s career was shortened considerably having served as the Cubs’ ace starter and ace reliever from 1908 to 1911.

Even though the lengths of MLB pitchers’ careers were shortened by the now-incomprehensible number of innings pitched over a hundred years ago, there are still pitchers calling for starters to go longer in games and ignore pitch counts.

Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven reminding MLB’s aging audience that starters were expected to finish games as recent as the 1980s should consider how effective he and his peers were the third and fourth time through a lineup instead of calling it evidence that throwing more pitches leads to fewer injuries.

Real research conducted by real physicians found that throwing fastballs, not curveballs, is linked to Tommy John surgery, according to Sports Illustrated’s Ian McMahan. Blyleven made his living with his curveball, which is why he’s a terrible spokesperson for getting rid of the pitch count and treating today’s starting pitchers like it’s 1971.

Over his career, Blyleven allowed an OPS of .679 when pitching to opponents for a third time and a .711 OPS when seeing hitters a fourth time in a game. That’s respectable, but according to Total OPS+, or tOPS+, Blyleven’s teams, on average, would have been better off had Blyleven never pitched to a hitter a third or fourth time. That is, of course, if there was a relief pitcher on the team with a better tOPS+ when facing hitters for the first time in relief than Blyleven’s tOPS+ when facing hitters a third or fourth time in a game.

In 1971, at age 20, Blyleven’s tOPS+ against batters in their third plate appearance of a game was a fantastic 77 (the further below 100 the better a pitcher was in that particular instance). Only Minnesota closer Tom Hall was more effective in his first time facing batters as a reliever than Blyleven was facing batters a third time as a starter. And while Blyleven struggled a bit when facing batters a second time (107 tOPS+), he certainly had a good feel for his curveball when they stepped to the plate a third time.

Blyleven’s struggles the second time through lineups persisted throughout his career, but he actually got better as the game went on because he was throwing mostly curveballs, not fastballs. In 1986, Blyleven allowed an .853 OPS to hitters in their second plate appearance. But in their third plate appearance, opponents’ OPS was down to .733 and back up to .828 in their fourth look at Bert. So Blyleven, besides a knuckleballer, is the last person who should be calling for today’s pitchers to go longer in games because he was spending the early innings “finding” his curveball so he could throw it more often and more effectively late in games while pitchers today are throwing far more fastballs and fast breaking balls than he or anyone else in his era was throwing.

Reliance on Velocity Contributes to Baseball’s Problem

Since the 1980s, when the curveball gave way to the slider as the breaking ball of choice, pitchers have been throwing more fastballs and are understandably less effective against hitters a third and fourth time given that approach, losing their velocity and, in turn, movement. A curveball is difficult to track regardless of inning, but a fastball can be timed in a single plate appearance and exploited in the next. Sliders and cutters slide and cut less with less velocity, which is lost by pitchers faster in games these days due to the volume of fastballs and fast breaking balls thrown.

Since pitchers have been relying on fastballs more so than breaking balls, and rather effectively given the aforementioned statistics, pitchers ought not throw as many pitches as a curveball specialist given the medical research previously cited. Hence the advent of the pitch count.

Managers want to keep their starting pitchers healthy and able to start every five days, and the pitch count provides them with a guide for attempting to do so. But managers’ number one priority is winning ballgames, and throwing four or five electric arms at a lineup instead of one or two increases their chances to win games and preserve the health of their pitchers. But it doesn’t matter how fresh the arm or how electric the stuff if pitches thrown in the strike zone aren’t called strikes.

Reliance on Humans Contributes to Baseball’s Problem

Baseball purists like my attorney and Blyleven think it’s the human element home plate umpires provide that makes the game of baseball great. Each home plate umpire having his (and “his” sadly is the proper pronoun, at least in MLB) own unique, strike zone does make the game great. It sparks dugout chatter and builds camaraderie as teammates badmouth that day’s enemy behind the plate while trying to figure out the one 60 feet, six inches in front of it.

Then questionable calls lead to looks of “whoa” directed at the home plate umpire, culminating in confrontation and eventual ejections followed by the truly inspired, laid-bare performances in response, as if these men, like all great thespians, forget they have an audience. Now that’s drama.

There’s nothing more entertaining in baseball than a player or manager getting their money’s worth after being tossed from a game. Maybe a three-homer game or a straight steal of home could rival Ron Gardenhire’s red-faced rants or the legend of Lou Piniella’s interpretive, dirt dances, but hitting for the cycle pales in comparison. An ejection can invigorate both a team and crowd for the entirety of the game like winning a fight in hockey. The cycle climaxes with a curtain call lasting a few minutes, while the ejected entertainers, also deserving of a curtain call, make for a lonely locker room to find some semblance of solace in a cold shower and comfort food.

Frankly, I think the decline in ejections has been detrimental to baseball and contributed to baseball’s problem attracting young fans, who have gravitated toward the soap operatic drama of soccer instead. Bad actors with no respect for the theatre of sport are taking advantage of baseball’s dwindling drama thanks to a surplus of soccer drama performed by characters like The Zlatan — too unreal for even MTV’s Real World.

The advent of replay has scrubbed the sport of baseball relatively clean when it comes to disputing plays on the bases, and that’s an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice to get the calls right. An electronic strike zone will have a similar effect, removing some of the drama that makes a baseball game both joyous and enraging for all involved.

I like when an incorrect call goes my team’s way as much as the next fan, and I scream at the television when an umpire or official misses one. Officiating-hating is part of the fun for fans of all sports. There’s a problem, though, when pitches outside the strike zone are called strikes in a game where even the best players fail seven out of 10 times. It makes a game ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian calls “the hardest game in the world to play” even harder for hitters.

Reliance on Spin Rate Contributes to Baseball’s Problem

Pitches these days are harder to hit than they’ve ever been. On average, they’re being thrown harder than they’ve ever been. Fastballs, split-finger fastballs, sinkers, sliders and even change-ups are being thrown harder in 2018 than they have since 2007, which is where FanGraphs’ dataset starts. Pitches are moving more, too. Sliders, on average, have more horizontal movement than ever, with a focus on spin rate making pitches move more and making it harder for hitters to recognize pitches.

Not only has fastball velocity increased almost annually in MLB, but almost every pitch is being thrown faster than ever before.

So not only are we expecting MLB hitters to hit the nastiest pitches ever pitched, but we’re expecting them to hit the highest volume of nasty pitches despite an inconsistent strike zone that changes everyday, or twice daily for doubleheaders. The players are quite literally playing by different rules every game, and while Babe Ruth and Ted Williams dealt with similarly subjective strike zones in their eras, neither they nor the umpires of the day had to track an exploding slider or sinking and cutting fastballs thrown in the mid-90s all game, every game. Williams was subjected to defensive shifts, though, and they didn’t ruin the game back in the 1940s and won’t now.

The Solution to Baseball’s Problem

Baseball is a contact sport in that it requires contact between bat and ball to provide audiences action. “Strikeouts are boring. Besides that they’re Fascist,” as Crash Davis correctly claimed in Bull Durham. “Throw some ground balls. It’s more democratic.” Contact equals action, and a lack of contact is a lack of action.

Baseball’s problem attracting young fans is a result of that lack of action, not pace of play. You could shorten games to a two-hour time limit and without contact, the game would still be boring to young people. But the game wasn’t boring when Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were launching steroid-fueled bombs into the stratosphere back in the 1990s because we had contact — epic contact.

Since ending MLB’s performance-enhancing drug policy is unlikely, using technology already available and already being used to train umpires to provide players with a consistent strike zone will lower chase and swing-and-miss rates, increase contact rates and, in turn, increase action. If baseball wants to attract young fans, instead of Commissioner Manfred altering the rules to limit defensive shifts or defensive positioning, he should consider implementing an electronic strike zone that’s consistent from game to game, umpire to umpire.

The most fun I have watching the lowly Twins is when Logan Forsythe runs out to left field from second base to serve as a fourth outfielder and then running back to the infield. Players are probably getting more exercise than they ever have in the history of the game, and movement is action.

Defensive shifts are the most interesting thing baseball’s had to offer since the Steroid Era. That is until Tampa Bay’s use of relief pitchers to start games becomes the norm so starters can relieve the “openers” and face hitters during their higher-leverage plate appearances the second, third and fourth time through the lineup. But instead of hitters figuring out a starting pitcher in their second or third at-bat, they’re figuring out a new pitcher in their second at-bat. If you thought strikeouts were out of control now, just wait until flamethrowing relievers are facing hitters at their most vulnerable — their first plate appearance — and then starting pitchers come in and make hitters relive the horror of their first plate appearance all over again.

Not only do both hitters and pitchers have to figure each other out throughout the course of a game, but they have to figure out the home plate umpire as well. Pitchers test the edges of the plate to see how wide the umpire’s strike zone is that day, resulting in plenty of pitches thrown out of the strike zone slowing play to a halt. A ball off the plate that doesn’t entice a swing is a complete lack of action, and a ball off the plate that does entice a swing tends to result in poor contact and little action. Until pitchers are forced to throw strikes, why would they? Greg Maddux carved out a Hall of Fame career pitching out of the strike zone, and he didn’t have the velocity or wicked movement pitchers feature today.

So what’s the answer to baseball’s problem? No, not robots, but technologically enhanced umpires. I’m not talking about creating special headgear that projects the strike zone on a see-through visor like Google Glasses and makes blue look like RoboUmp, although that’s a cool option. That way home plate umpires still feel useful and in control of the game, with technology assisting the umpire in calling a consistent strike zone instead of dictating balls and strikes. Technology is a tool humans should use to do work better; it should not be a means to do away with work altogether.

A less cool but effective option would be to put a microphone in the ear or a buzzer in the pocket of home plate umpires that indicates when a pitch is thrown in the electronic strike zone, and the technology is close to doing so accurately. That way hitters come to the plate every game knowing exactly what a strike is and is not, so they swing at more strikes instead of chasing balls incorrectly called strikes, which will result in more contact, better contact and fewer strikeouts despite defensive shifts. It will also give managers one less reason to argue with umpires, which, unfortunately, might be one of the last reasons left. But the electronic strike zone will make a three-plus-hour game more appealing to the short attention spans of young fans.

Published in Sports

The NBA Draft is a night every NBA fan has reason for hope – or two reasons for hope – or three, or in the case of the Phoenix Suns and Philadelphia 76ers this year, four reasons for hope. Here are the reasons fans of every NBA team should have hope following the 2018 NBA Draft.

Phoenix Suns

Reason for hope: Starting lineup gets two potential upgrades

The Suns got a lot better through the draft, and while they might have passed on the best player available, they did so for locally-grown talent like the Minnesota Twins did in drafting Joe Mauer over Mark Prior. While DeAndre Ayton is from the Bahamas, he played high school basketball in Phoenix, and a year of college ball at Arizona. Suns scouts probably saw more than enough of Ayton to be comfortable in making him the number one overall pick.

The Suns also acquired Mikal Bridges, who seems to be a can’t miss kid. He was the best value pick near the top of the draft according to the ESPN Stats & Info model. Bridges will likely be more prepared to play meaningful minutes in the NBA than the athletic Zhaire Smith, who the Suns shipped to Philadelphia along with a 2021 first-round pick that originally belonged to Miami. The Suns’ starting lineup likely got two potential upgrades in Ayton and Bridges, and Phoenix used the second round to draft project prospects with potential.

The Suns also scored the 20th overall player in point guard Elie Okobo out of France with the 31st pick. And even after moving their second-round pick to Orlando for point guard Elfrid Payton, the Suns used Toronto’s 59th overall pick to draft an accomplished defender with potential in George King. The Suns went from bad to better in one day.

Sacramento Kings

Reason for hope: Offensive ability of Marvin Bagley III

The Kings passed on putting a pair of Duke University one-and-dones on their roster. After drafting Marvin Bagley III with the second overall pick, the Kings traded the rights to point guard Gary Trent Jr. to Portland for two future second-round picks and cash. But Bagley is Kings fans’ reason for hope. I’m a little jealous because fans in Sacramento are going to enjoy watching Bagley dunk, which he does whenever possible and leaves no doubt as to whether the ball went through the basket. He’s also a great rebounder whose second and third jump is quicker and higher than any center I’ve seen in college. Jay Bilas said the same on draft night and he’s seen a hell of a lot more college basketball players than me. Bagley runs the floor really well, has a complete repertoire of low-post moves, can handle the ball, is a strong finisher at the rim and will pull up and hit from three-point range. Kings’ coach Dave Joerger’s task will be teaching him how to play defense, which could take awhile.

Dallas Mavericks

Reason for hope: Luka Doncic

The Mavericks got the best player available in Luka Doncic, giving up their protected first-round pick in 2019 to move up two spots in 2018. He’s a perfect fit for Dallas, where international star Dirk Nowitzki’s career is coming to an end. Doncic is the new Dirk and will probably be worth the first-rounder Dallas dumped to get him. The Mavericks’ Dennis Smith Jr. and Doncic should run the floor well together.

The Mavericks filled out their bench with point guard Jalen Brunson of the NCAA champion Villanova Wildcats and acquired from Philadelphia the 56th overall pick in Ray Spalding – a long, pick-and-roll player who can flush the lob – and the final player drafted, Kostas Antetokounmpo – brother of Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is reason enough to draft him. But Mavericks fans’ reason for hope is Doncic – the youngest player to ever win EuroLeague MVP. He’s not even old enough to drink yet.

Memphis Grizzlies

Reason for hope: Grinders added to grind-it-out roster

The Grizzlies drafted the top-ranked power forward in the 2018 NBA Draft at fourth overall. Jaren Jackson Jr. will fit nicely with or without Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. He can guard all five positions and defends the rim with the best of them. He also dishes out the fouls, which should be appreciated by Grindhouse fans.

Also contributing the the Grizzlies’ Grindhouse atmosphere will be point guard Jevon Carter, who was one of the best defenders on one of the best defensive college basketball teams for what seems like forever in West Virginia. His struggle scoring shouldn’t be a problem playing next to MarShon Brooks, who averaged 20 points per game over just seven games played last year. ESPN’s analytics model ranked Carter 17th overall, so Memphis might have scored a steal in Carter, selected 32nd overall.

Atlanta Hawks

Reason for hope: Shooters and draft picks galore

The Hawks didn’t lose the trade with Dallas for Doncic. It was a fair deal. They got a protected first-round pick in next year’s draft for moving down two spots in the 2018 NBA Draft and got the sensationally shooting and assisting Trae Young to run their offense that exploits Taurean Prince’s ability to hit the right corner three-pointer.

The Hawks added even more shooting ability in shooting guard Kevin Huerter with the 19th overall pick, who will further stretch defenses, along with stretch big man Omari Spellman out of Villanova to conclude the 2018 NBA Draft’s first round. The addition of Young and Huerter will undoubtedly increase the number of three-pointers attempted by the Hawks, who were seventh in the NBA in that category last season.

Then the Hawks scored two future second-round picks for sending point guard Devonte’ Graham to Charlotte, so regardless of what the Hawks do this season, they could end up with three lottery picks in next year’s draft and another six picks in the second round next year.

Orlando Magic

Reason for hope: Length

The Magic got even longer by drafting Mohamed Bamba, whose 7-foot-nine-inch wingspan will be the longest in the NBA. Defensively, the Magic are going to alter shots like no other team in the league, especially after adding perimeter defender Melvin Frazier of Tulane. Orlando went all in on defense, trading Jarred Vanderbilt to Denver for Justin Jackson and a future second-round pick. The Magic’s 19th-ranked defensive rating got a whole lot better in a hurry.

Chicago Bulls

Reason for hope: The rebuild is almost over already

With the addition of Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison, the Bulls’ rebuild is almost over already. Carter can play both frontcourt positions, so he can give Lauri Markkanen a blow when needed and could probably start over Robin Lopez at center. The Bulls were hoping Hutchison would fall to them at 22 overall, and he did. He’ll fit in nicely as a versatile wing coming off the bench. It didn’t take long for the Bulls to become relevant again. The trade of Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves that netted Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Markkanen seems much less lopsided now than when it was made on draft day in 2017, especially with the Timberwolves’ lone draft pick acquired in the trade playing four minutes all of last season.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Reason for hope: The Cavs got a scorer who can play right now

Whether LeBron James stays or goes, the Cavaliers have been in dire need of another scorer to complement James since trading Kyrie Irving to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the very draft pick that ended up being point guard Collin Sexton. Now they might need to replace the scoring James provides, and Sexton is a score-first point guard who runs the floor well. While he might not be a fit with James given LeBron’s affinity for handling the ball, he compliments Kevin Love’s spot-up shooting ability with his drive-and-dish game. He’s also healthy and can play right now, which is a message Cleveland needed to send James. Drafting a question mark coming off an injury like Michael Porter Jr. or a high-ceiling project who will take years to develop wouldn’t give James much reason to stay in Cleveland.

New York Knicks

Reason for hope: Kevin Knox will get plenty of playing time

Knicks fans who attended the 2018 NBA Draft didn’t like the Knox selection, but they didn’t like the selection of Kristaps Porzingis, either. Porzingis offered some advice to Knox after he was booed at the draft, but Knicks fans should actually be happy with this pick. Knox will get plenty of playing time in the absence of Porzingis, who could miss the entire 2018-19 season. Knox has plenty of areas to improve, especially on defense. Throwing him into the fire that is the NBA will give him an opportunity to realize his potential sooner, so when Porzingis returns, he’s a competitive, complimentary big man to the bigger man.

The Knicks also got a shot-blocker to stand in for Porzingis in Mitchell Robinson, the third-best center in the draft according to ESPN and 28th-ranked player overall, but the 16th-best player according to ESPN’s analytics model. The Knicks selected him with the 36th pick, and while Robinson fell in the draft due to off-court concerns, the Knicks could benefit greatly from the cautiousness of other NBA teams.

Philadelphia 76ers

Reason for hope: Saved some money to offer LeBron James and got a draft pick to offer in a trade for Kawhi Leonard

After giving us the feel-good story of the draft by selecting the son of their human resources vice president, the Sixers dealt him to Phoenix for Zhaire Smith to save a million dollars, according to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. Coming along with Smith is the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick from Phoenix, which the Spurs could find valuable in a potential Kawhi Leonard trade. Not to be overlooked is Smith’s athleticism and potential to be the best defender in this draft.

Oh yeah, and Philadelphia scored Shake Milton from Dallas for two of the final five picks in the 2018 draft. Milton is a six-foot-six-inch point guard who averaged 18 points per game for SMU and shot 43 percent from three-point range. Milton’s combine performance left a lot to be desired, but the 76ers can afford to be patient with Milton because they have Ben Simmons.

The Sixers also selected Isaac Bonga, an 18-year-old, point-forward project out of Germany. He was the 61st-ranked player overall according to ESPN, so Philadelphia saw something they really liked in the kid. They continue to “Trust the Process” without much concern for criticism despite their general manager Bryan Colangelo resigning in disgrace days before his biggest day on the job.

Charlotte Hornets

Reason for hope: Miles Bridges

The Hornets traded down one spot in the 2018 NBA Draft to add two players who can contribute immediately. Charlotte acquired two future second-round picks from the Clippers for trading the 11th pick for the 12th pick to get Miles Bridges, who fills an immediate need, instead of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who does not. The Hornets then flipped those future second-rounders to Atlanta for 23-year-old point guard Devonte’ Graham, who can play meaningful minutes and provide some healthy competition for Michael Carter-Williams.

Los Angeles Clippers

Reason for hope: Modern NBA backcourt

The Clippers passed on filling an immediate need with Bridges and chose instead to build a modern NBA backcourt around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson. This was clearly the Clippers’ “Plan A” because selecting Robinson with the 13th pick was the biggest reach of the first round according to ESPN’s Stats & Info model, which ranked Robinson 59th overall with a 44-percent chance of being a bust.

Gilgeous-Alexander and Robinson complement each other perfectly. What Robinson lacks in length defensively, Gilgeous-Alexander has in spades. What Gilgeous-Alexander lacks in spot-up shooting ability, Robinson has in spades. Both will be effective in pick-and-roll play and force defenders to switch, allowing them both to play around their weaknesses by forcing mismatches that play to their strengths. Whether it’s DeAndre Jordan or Montrezl Harrell setting screens for the new Clippers’ backcourt, they’re likely to be the beneficiary of lobs fit for flushing.

Denver Nuggets

Reason for hope: Michael Porter Jr.

The Nuggets struck gold with the 14th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, or is it fool’s gold? Medical reports regarding Michael Porter Jr.’s surgically repaired back spooked Cleveland, so Denver took advantage of its current roster situation and draft position. With 11 players returning to a roster that was seven points from beating the Timberwolves and making the playoffs, the Nuggets can afford to bring Porter Jr. along at his preferred pace, like the Sixers did with Simmons last season.

At the small forward position, Wilson Chandler was better than a replacement player last season with a 0.6 Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) while playing nearly 32 minutes per game for Denver. And while the Nuggets don’t have the cap space to re-sign unrestricted free agent Richard Jefferson, Torrey Craig was serviceable (-0.1 VORP) in his first NBA season, averaging 4.2 points and 3.3 rebounds in 16.1 minutes per game. If Porter Jr. is healthy, the Nuggets are probably a playoff team in 2018-19. If he’s not, the Nuggets could still be a playoff team despite redshirting their top draft pick for a season.

Denver also acquired power forward Jarred Vanderbilt, the 41st overall pick, from Orlando for Justin Jackson, the 43rd overall pick, and a future second-round pick. The Nuggets are getting a long defender in Vanderbilt, who has to increase his lower body strength and offensive game in the half-court.

Seven-foot center Thomas Welsh out of UCLA provides some G-League depth behind Mason Plumlee and Nikola Jokic, whose agent advised Denver to decline Jokic’s team option to avoid losing him as an unrestricted free agent after next season. Jokic would become a restricted free agent this offseason if the Nuggets were to decline his team option, but Denver would be able to match offers made to their star regardless of their absent salary cap space.

Washington Wizards

Reason for hope: Really young, backcourt bench depth

The Wizards used the 15th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft to fill an immediate need – backcourt bench depth. They got it in Oregon’s Troy Brown, who can play four positions on both sides of the ball, but might need some seasoning in the G-League. He’s only 18 years old – the third-youngest player projected to be drafted. So with Brown, the Wizards not only got someone to give John Wall and Bradley Beal breaks, but can spell Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre, too. And his young legs should allow him to provide quality minutes regardless of his position on the floor when his offensive game is ready for the NBA. His defense should already play.

The Wizards weren’t through selecting youth. They also selected the second-youngest player expected to be drafted in point guard Issuf Sanon of Ukraine. Like Brown, Sanon’s defensive ability is ahead of his offensive prowess, and even more so than Brown’s. Sanon will take a few years to develop, but Washington hopes it has a sleeper in Sanon who could eventually join Brown as a potential replacement for Beal in 2021 and Wall in 2023 if they aren’t retained.

Milwaukee Bucks

Reason for hope: Donte DiVincenzo

The Bucks got just what they needed in Donte DiVincenzo. The point guard whose name just begs to be spoken aloud, which it was often during the NCAA championship game he helped win. DiVincenzo will serve as a combo-guard in Milwaukee, which suits the 40-percent three-point shooter just fine. DiVincenzo wasn’t shy about shooting from NBA distance last year, either. His shot plays in the NBA, but his six-foot-six-inch wingspan might make guarding taller players on the wings a challenge. What he’ll give up against taller wings, though, he’ll get back guarding point guards and shooting over them. DiVincenzo also provides Milwaukee some insurance with point guard Eric Bledsoe becoming an unrestricted free agent after next season.

San Antonio Spurs

Reason for hope: Lonnie Walker IV

After DiVincenzo was selected by Milwaukee, I immediately hoped Lonnie Walker would fall to the Timberwolves at 20th overall. I should have known better, because San Antonio didn’t hesitate to select the player I and ESPN’s Jonathan Givony think could be one of the biggest steals of the draft.

Immediately upon seeing Walker’s haircut on draft night, I flashed back to the game I watched him play against Duke in January. He led Miami with 19 points in 33 minutes, but I distinctly remember him being uncharacteristically hot from three-point range and causing all kinds of problems for the Blue Devils on defense. He was five of eight from three-point range and had four steals, and if it weren’t for Gary Trent Jr. going off for 30 points on six-of-nine shooting from beyond the arc, Walker might have led the 25th-ranked Hurricanes to an upset over the fifth-ranked Blue Devils.

You might think this example contradicts my claim that Walker could be the biggest steal of the draft because he’s not even as good as Trent, who went 37th overall. He probably isn’t as good as Trent – yet – simply because Trent’s best skill is the most sought-after skill in the NBA right now.

Trent shoots it better from long-range than Walker (40.2 percent to 34.6 percent last season), but Walker’s length and athleticism make him a better inside the arc than Trent (48.7 percent to 43.0 percent on two-point attempts). Walker is also the better facilitator, dishing 61 assists per 37 turnovers last season. Trent managed just 52 assists and turned it over 38 times. So Walker, now having at his disposal the best player development team in the NBA, can focus on improving the one skill he’s missing while Trent attempts to improve all the skills Walker already possesses.

The Spurs also drafted seven-foot center Chimezi Metu from USC. Like Walker, Metu has a lot of natural ability, but is more of a project given the defensive improvements he needs to make while also finding consistency with his jump shot.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Reason for hope: Jimmy Butler, and a three-point maker, maybe

The Timberwolves still have Jimmy Butler, and as long as that’s the case, Timberwolves fans have reason for hope. Even with coach and president Tom Thibodeau being the alleged source of a split in the locker room between old Bulls and young Wolves, Butler gives Minnesota a chance to contend – and not just for a playoff spot. They finally beat Houston in the playoffs after failing to do so in the regular season, but probably should have won Game 1 in Houston, too.

The Timberwolves are really good one through six, with Tyus Jones being the sixth man after Jamal Crawford opted out of his contract. The rest of the bench leaves a lot to be desired, though. So much so not even Thibodeau could hide its collective ineptitude, and if he can’t do it, no one can. He was the only coach to have three players finish in the top 15 in minutes played last season, and it would have been four had Jimmy Butler not torn his meniscus. It makes you wonder if Taj Gibson’s defensive rating last season (112 points allowed per 100 possessions) would have been closer to his career rating (104) had he been playing the 26 minutes per game he’s averaged throughout his career instead of the 33 minutes he averaged per game last year. But that’s a topic for another piece.

The Timberwolves didn’t get an offer they liked enough to trade down and pass on shooting guard Josh Okogie. With the three selections made prior to the Timberwolves being shooting guards, and five of the previous six being guards, it was a safe assumption that trend would continue, leaving few shooters left in the draft to fill Minnesota’s biggest immediate need.

In fact, trading down could have been devastating for Thibodeau and the Wolves, as shooting guards were selected with three of the four picks immediately following the Wolves’ selection at 20th overall, and guards were selected with five of the six picks behind Minnesota. The run on guards spanned eight consecutive picks, so moving down from 20th to just 24th could have left the Wolves with the 10th-ranked shooting guard, Anfernee Simons, instead of the fifth-ranked shooting guard in Okogie. The 12th-ranked shooting guard also came off the board in that short span, so Thibodeau made the right move not making a move.  

It couldn’t have taken much convincing for Thibodeau to draft Okogie, though. He’s a defender first and has the length for which coaches long. His offensive efficiency in college was adversely affected by carrying the scoring load for a bad Georgia Tech team, but he still hit 38 percent of this threes and was in the 93rd percentile on 62 catch-and-shoot jumpers. Too bad the Wolves don’t see many open, catch-and-shoot jumpers. Minnesota took more contested shots and the second-fewest wide open shots in the NBA last season, so Okogie better find ways to create open looks, because they’re not being created for him or anyone else in a Wolves uniform.

That said, MIke Schmitz’s scouting report on Okogie for ESPN reads: “Extremely rigid ball handler. Shouldn't be tasked with shot-creation duties in the half court.” I guess Thibodeau better start drawing up offensive plays, or better yet, hire someone to do so. Again, Timberwolves fans’ biggest reason for hope is Jimmy Butler, but the bench won’t be as abysmal in 2018-19.

Thibodeau filled another immediate need by drafting small forward Keita Bates-Diop with the 48th overall pick. Bates-Diop was the second-oldest player projected to go in the first round, so Thibodeau grabbing him with the 18th pick of the second round makes this at least look like a high-value selection. Some evidence to support that high value was provided by ESPN’s analytics model, which ranked Bates-Diop 15th overall, which would make him the second-best steal of the second round. Bates-Diop did drain almost two three-pointers per game his senior season and averaged 19.8 points per game. He likely dropped in the draft due to teams’ concerns with his underwhelming performances in his first three years at Ohio State and a foot injury that kept him out most of the 2016-17 season. But if Bates-Diop doesn’t end up healthy, at least the Wolves will finally get some meaningful minutes from their lone draft pick from 2018, Justin Patton, right?

Again, Jimmy Butler is Wolves fans’ biggest reason for hope.

Utah Jazz

Reason for hope: Grayson Allen

After DiVincenzo and Walker were off the board, I wanted Thibodeau to select Grayson Allen. Pairing him with former teammate and fellow national champion Tyus Jones would have given this Duke fan great pleasure. Instead, I long for Utah’s roster and salary cap situation.

The Jazz got one of the best shooters in the 2018 NBA Draft, and they got him with the 21st overall pick. Allen has NBA shooting range. He can shoot off the dribble just about as well as he catches and shoots. He can jump, and he can dunk. He runs the floor and plays with a now-controlled intensity that was downright dirty in his youth. But he’s never going to be a great defender. In fact, he might never be an above average defender, and not because of a lack of effort. But if the Jazz focus his attention on defending against perimeter shots and cheating help to his backside, at worst, he’ll be giving up tough twos and scoring threes.

With uber-assister Ricky Rubio and Allen on the court together (both of whom could be Timberwolves this very moment), the Jazz have a recipe to hang with the three-point exploiters like Houston and Golden State – if Donovan Mitchell is healthy.

Indiana Pacers

Reason for hope: Aaron Holiday, 2019-20 cap space

Both Darren Collison and Cory Joseph become unrestricted free agents after this season, so the Pacers filled a potentially empty position on the floor in 2019-20 by selecting Aaron Holiday 23rd overall. He was the fifth-ranked point guard in the 2018 NBA Draft and gives Indiana and Indiana fans plenty of reasons for hope.

Holiday’s long wingspan for a guard should help quiet any concerns over his height and assist him on defense, where he’s already NBA-ready. He can score, especially when he catches and shoots, and even with a hand in his face. He can hit the three, draining almost three per game and 42 percent of his attempts his junior year. The Pacers may very well have found their starting point guard of the future.

With the 50th pick, the Pacers filled another need at power forward by drafting Alize Johnson out of Missouri State. Thaddeus Young is an unrestricted free agent after the season, and Domantas Sabonis and TJ Leaf have club options the Pacers could reject next year. So, like Holiday, Johnson has an opportunity to slide into a starting role if his NBA game comes together quickly. Regardless, the Pacers could have almost $77 million in cap space entering the 2019-20 season, which is reason enough for hope.

Portland Trail Blazers

Reason for hope: Gary Trent Jr.

The Blazers were eleventh in the NBA with a 36.6-percent three-point percentage last season, but were just 16th in three-pointers made because they were 19th in three-pointers attempted. Gary Trent Jr. will improve all of those rankings. As I stated previously, Trent’s best skill is making threes, which will pay dividends for Portland right now. The Blazers will learn how to accommodate their rookie on the defensive end and shake off the turnovers if he’s hitting threes. Acquiring Trent from Sacramento for two future second-rounders and cash is a good deal for the Blazers, who had already drafted their guy.

The Blazers really liked Anfernee Simons, the least-experienced player in the draft. They liked him enough to use their first-round pick at 24th overall to draft the 34th-ranked player in the draft. Simons is coming straight out of high school. He spent a year playing against questionable competition with IMG Academy in Florida, and is at least two years from competing with NBA players, according to Givony. But if he develops as Portland and many others expect, Portland fans will be forever grateful. But right now, Trent is Portland’s immediate reason for hope.

Los Angeles Lakers

Reason for hope: Cap space, LeBron, Kawhi?

Seven-footer Moritz Wagner is a fine pick at 25th overall to replace Brook Lopez when his contract expires at the end of this season, and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, the Lakers’ 47th pick, can shoot it. But the real reason Lakers fans have hope is because of almost $62 million in cap space to offer LeBron James and/or others, and/or, perhaps pay Kawhi Leonard if the Spurs feel the Lakers have the pieces to make an acceptable deal.

Boston Celtics

Reason for hope: Robert Williams III

My cousin and I both texted “Great pick” simultaneously after Boston filled an immediate need by selecting power forward and 12th-ranked player in the draft, Robert Williams III, at 27th overall. Concerns over Williams’ knee precipitated his fall to Boston, but there probably isn’t a better place for him to land. He’s already a great shot blocker, but Brad Stevens will get the most out of him defensively, as he does everyone. Williams can already come off the bench to spell Al Horford without being a liability given his pick-and-roll potential and passing ability.

Golden State Warriors

Reason for hope: Added depth with Jacob Evans

You might think Warriors fans don’t need reason for hope, but you’re wrong. This championship Warriors squad was almost done-in by its lack of depth. Golden State addressed that lack of depth with Jacob Evans, who fits perfectly in the Warriors’ positionless basketball lifestyle. He’s played point guard, shoots it well, and dished dimes twice as often as he turned it over in three college seasons at Cincinnati. He’s seasoned, so he should see minutes right away.

Brooklyn Nets

Reason for hope: Dzanan Musa

Yes, Nets fans have reason for hope, and his name is Dzanan Musa. Despite Brooklyn’s pick from Toronto being at the end of the first round, Brooklyn still ended up with one of the draft’s better scorers, who fell to the Nets because he refused to allow NBA teams to stash him on a professional team overseas. He wants to play in the NBA as soon as possible, which could be very soon given his 22-points-per-game average per 40 minutes against top European competition at the tender age of 18. He’s no Doncic, but he can and will undoubtedly score in streaks and can and will give Nets reason for hope and reasons to cheer.

The Nets used their second-round picks to select high-risk, high-reward talents in small forward Rodions Kurucs and shooting guard Hamidou Diallo, who they traded to Oklahoma City. Kurucs, of Latvia, struggled to stay on the floor with Barcelona, battling injuries and ultimately playing sparingly with the second team. Kuruc became a legitimate option for Brooklyn thanks to negotiations that lowered his buyout with Barcelona. Before his injuries, Kurucs was considered a lottery pick, so there’s plenty of potential there.

Detroit Pistons

Reason for hope: Bruce Brown’s defense

Bruce Brown was the only selection the Pistons made in the 2018 NBA Draft at 42nd overall. Brown was Miami’s elite defender and one of the best available in the draft, but before his sophomore season was interrupted by injuries, he was as close to a lottery pick lock as they come, displaying uncanny scoring and shooting ability that he has since struggled to summon. While he’s almost 22, Brown’s lost scoring and shooting abilities don’t need to be found for him to contribute to the Pistons in 2018-19, but his career as a role player will require him to knock down shots eventually.    

Houston Rockets

Reason for hope: De’Anthony Melton

If you thought Houston had plenty of open looks last season, just wait until point guard De’Anthony Melton comes off the bench for Chris Paul or James Harden this season. Melton had a knack for finding the open man at USC, averaging 5.1 assists and just 2.6 turnovers per 40 minutes as a freshman. He can also defend multiple positions, forces turnovers and rebounds the basketball like a power forward. According to ESPN’s analytics model, Melton was ranked 13th overall. He was selected 46th overall.

New Orleans Pelicans

Reason for hope: Anthony Davis, still, and strangely, Nikola Mirotic, not DeMarcus Cousins

Penn State point guard Tony Carr, the Pelicans 51st overall draft pick, isn’t going to lift New Orleans over Golden State and Houston with his defensive ability. But judging from the Pelicans’ play without DeMarcus Cousins, lost to an Achilles injury, New Orleans is better off without Boogie. That’s not a knock on Cousins’ game; it’s just a fact. The Pelicans were better defensively on the perimeter, and Anthony Davis is better when he’s running the show, especially with a long shooter like Nikola Mirotic to whom to dish on his dribble drives. The Pelicans were better on both ends of the floor without Boogie, so offering him a five-year, max deal coming off the most threatening injury to a basketball career would be a poor business decision. The Pelicans should feel no shame for telling Boogie to begone. It’s what’s best for the team, and he’ll have no problem finding work. I hear Dallas is interested.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Reason for hope: Paul George might stay, Devon Hall adds depth, Kevin Hervey cleans up the defensive boards

The Thunder drafted two players Thursday night, but neither is as important as Paul George is to Oklahoma City. Word is George could stay in OKC because he likes Russell Westbrook’s character. Westbrook went to bat for George after he was snubbed by coaches when deciding All-Star Team reserves, and that meant a lot to George. But the Thunder need more than just George to improve upon last season’s first-round exit to a soundtrack performed by the Utah Jazz orchestra led by maestro Ricky Rubio and carried by young soloist Donovan Mitchell. If the Thunder hope to drown out that music and compete with the West’s best, their big three has to be a big three, not a big two. I’m obviously talking to you, Carmelo.

In two seasons, Anthony has gone from a 2.9 VORP to a -1.1 VORP. It was the first season Anthony was less valuable than a replacement player, and some of that is likely due to changing teams and going from first option to third option. But this has not been a sudden fall for Carmelo. His final season in New York resulted in just a 0.8 VORP despite being the go-to guy. Anthony’s defense was the problem in 2016-17 and has been progressively regressing as you’d expect from a man who’s played 16 seasons. Playing two fewer minutes per game lifted Anthony’s defensive rating last season, but he had the worst season shooting the ball in his career. Carmelo’s effective field goal percentage was right on his career average, and his three-point shooting percentage was actually better than his career average. But his straight field goal percentage was 22 points lower than that of his rookie year, and his 76.7-percent shooting from the charity stripe last season was 10 points lower than that of his rookie year. Both were career lows. Somewhere between New York and Oklahoma City, Carmelo lost his legendary mid-range game and free-throw stroke.

Help is on the way, though, and the best help always comes on the defensive end, where Virginia’s Devon Hall shines. He was one of the best defensive guards in college basketball and the best one on the best defensive team in the country. Regardless of whether his offensive efficiency in his surprising senior season was skewed by Virginia’s scheme, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan is going to love subbing Hall for Westbrook when he needs a breather. Hall hit threes at a 43-percent clip and dished three assists per turnover in his senior season. No scheme makes the ball go in the basket, and schemes don’t turn the ball over, making Hall a good replacement for unrestricted free agent Raymond Felton, especially at 53rd overall.

Joining OKC’s rookie class is small forward Kevin Hervey, selected four picks after Hall. Hervey was whispered as a potential lottery pick if not for tearing both of his ACLs. He’s big enough to play strong forward, but can hit spot-up threes, too, and he rebounds the ball really well, averaging 11.6 per 40 minutes over four years at UT-Arlington. That’s likely what the Thunder are after. While Oklahoma City led the league in offensive rebounds per game, they were 26th on the defensive boards. Hervey should help OKC climb out of the bottom third in that category and serve as a serviceable stretch four coming off the bench for Patrick Patterson.

After the draft concluded, OKC acquired Hamidou Diallo, the 45th overall pick, from Brooklyn, in a deal that can’t be completed until July 6, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Diallo is dedicated to his craft and fits the physical mold of an ideal wing, with a seven-foot wingspan and good shooting mechanics. He struggled mightily at Kentucky last year, but he’s only 19 years old, so there’s plenty of time for the Thunder to mold Diallo’s NBA game.

Miami Heat

Reason for hope: Living in Miami, which LeBron also loves

The Heat didn’t have a pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, but they and their fans probably have the best reason for hope: living in Miami, which LeBron also loves. But Miami doesn’t have the cap space to add LeBron in free agency. In fact, the Heat are $19 million and change over the cap, according to Sportrac.

The Heat might not have the pieces to acquire LeBron in a sign-and-trade deal either, since Hassan Whiteside’s value plunged in the playoffs and since the Heat would have to dump salary to add what is likely to be the largest contract in NBA history – $205 million over five years. The Heat do have first-round picks in 2019, 2020, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025 to sweeten a trade proposal. They have just two second-round picks with which to work in 2022 and 2025, however. That should be enough to get Dan Gilbert salivating, but the money has to match, and neither team can take on salary, which complicates things thoroughly.

So despite two teams having no cap space and very short lists of valuable prospects to offer in a trade, here we are once again speculating that LeBron James will move to Miami. Why? Because it’s Miami, and anything can happen on South Beach. “Don't get me wrong, Chi-town got it goin' on, and New York is the city that we know don't sleep. And we all know that L.A. and Philly stay jiggy, but on the sneak, Miami bringin' heat for real.” Even though the Heat don’t have the money and might not have the prospects to acquire LeBron, they have two things working for them.

First, the City of Miami is “bringin’ heat for real,” as Will Smith so eloquently uttered. That heat scalds the eyes of those unfamiliar with the steamy sights of South Beach. “Ladies half-dressed, fully equipped,” screaming out “LeBron, we loved your last ‘ship.” That white-hot heat burns the nose like pure cocaine and brings tears to bloodshot, sunglassed eyes. “Everyday like a mardi gras, everybody party all day, no work all play, okay?” The heat Miami’s bringing is so hot you’ll forget you’re at work, regardless of occupation. The heat Miami is sending LeBron in Cleveland is too hot to merely be a warm front. The heat emanating from the City of Miami is so hot, Pat Riley doesn’t even have to sell the City of Miami, or the Heat, to anyone. Just visit once and you’ll never want to leave. “Everytime I come I always wind up stayin’.” Miami sells itself, and the heat has LeBron reminiscing, but he isn’t sweating, because he’s in control, which is the second thing the Heat have going for them.

Dan Gilbert will try to accomodate LeBron, not because he feels he owes it to him after how he handled LeBron’s first departure from Cleveland, but because it’s in the best interest of the Cavaliers. If LeBron wants to leave he’s going to leave, but if the Cavs can get something, anything, instead of losing LeBron via free agency for nothing, Gilbert will take it. If James wants out of Cleveland but wants to go to a team without the cap space to sign him in free agency, the Cavaliers will get whatever they can to accommodate the Angel from Akron, Blocker of Shots and Courier of Cleveland Rings. He’s already made the impossible happen, so there’s no reason why LeBron can’t make something like the biggest blockbuster trade in sports history happen. James would be doing Gilbert a favor by agreeing to a sign-and-trade.

Getting LeBron Back to Miami

First, we must rid ourselves of all assumptions. Nothing is off the table, no player untouchable. We can’t assume Cavaliers’ general manager Koby Altman isn’t willing to take on Whiteside and his massive contract spanning this year and next. Not too long ago general managers all over the league would have welcomed Whiteside and his contract. But more importantly and perhaps more interesting, we can’t assume LeBron doesn’t want to play with Whiteside. Quite the opposite could be true.

What LeBron sees in Whiteside might be a personal challenge for himself to mentor a player and silence the critics who say James doesn’t make his teammates better like Michael Jordan did. LeBron might see a solid rim-protector and pick-and-roll, alley-oop partner who’s gotten a bad rep for speaking his mind rather than biting his tongue, the latter of which I’ve been told by licensed therapists to be unhealthy and potentially dangerous. Maybe Whiteside finds comfort or relief in expressing his thoughts. Getting it off his chest could put him at ease. Maybe his struggles on the court stem from his struggle to contain his thoughts and emotions at the behest of the organization. Simply put, we don’t know and can’t assume what LeBron or the Cavaliers or the Heat are willing to do, but we can venture a guess as to the names Cleveland would have at the top of their wishlist.

Rebuilds begin with youth, and Justise Winslow, 21, and Bam Adebayo, 20, are the Heat’s youngest studs. Winslow could replace James in Cleveland’s starting lineup and benefit from playing more minutes, but Adebayo’s offensive rating of 116 was tops on the team amongst players logging more than 300 minutes. He’s especially attractive because he comes with three years of team control. The problem is neither of them make much money, which necessitates the trade of Whiteside just to make the money work. His $25.5 million salary paired with Winslow’s $3.5 million and Adebayo’s $3 million gets us to just $32 million, and we haven’t even taken on any salary from Cleveland yet. So, Cleveland would likely be forced to choose between Winslow and Adebayo, taking Adebayo to pair with Whiteside. That’s $28.5 million, so the Heat need to dump another considerable contract to make the money work. Enter the Johnsons.

Tyler and James Johnson are statistical twins playing different positions. James is slightly better defensively, but Tyler scores a bit more. James is the better shooter inside the arc, and Tyler is better from outside. Cleveland will likely decide between the two based on age. Tyler is 25 and James is 30, so to Cleveland Tyler goes, taking his $19 million contract with him. That gets us over the money hump with $6.5 million for Miami to spread across two players from Cleveland.

Larry Nance Jr. would make sense given Miami’s loss of Adebayo at power forward. Nance makes just over $2 million. A center to replace Whiteside would also make sense, so welcome to Miami, Ante Zizic, and bring your $2 million contract.

Cleveland will no doubt want a first-round pick in the immediate future, because regardless of Nance and Zizic, LeBron is worth more than Hassan Whiteside, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Johnson – much more. So the Heat will send over their 2019 first-round pick, and they’ll have to get something back that doesn’t bust the cap as per NBA trade rules.

The only player left in Cleveland with a salary small enough for Miami to absorb is small forward Okaro White. So Miami absorbs $46,770,104 and sheds $47,635,473. LeBron takes his talents to South Beach, but this time brings Nance, Zizic and White with him. That can’t be right. LeBron is going to demand something. There’s one player he wants to bring with him whose gravity leaves James open despite being grounded and stationary. He knows his Miami teammates would benefit from that gravity, too. That gravity belongs to Kyle Korver, the man whose very presence on the floor improves his team more so than any other player in basketball – LeBron included. No reason to struggle when you can get open shots standing still.

Keeping Korver and LeBron Together

If LeBron James is the Sun, Kyle Korver is Earth’s Gravity, subtly manipulating the orbit of the Sun’s opponents, the defenders of the Outer Rim, to allow the sun to shine through limited traffic, basking Earth with superstar rays of light that literally brighten the days of everyone and everything on Earth, except Gravity. And while Gravity never catches nor reflects the Sun’s spotlight, Gravity prefers to remain in the shadows, unnoticed, grounded, taking silent pleasure in his work regardless of whom the Sun allows to shine brightest that day, because he knows without him, they would all fall off the Earth to be lost in space, where the Sun can’t even save them. But Gravity would never do such a thing because he’s a team player...and because the Sun scares the hell out of him.

There are a few ways Korver can come along with LeBron to Miami. The easiest way would be for James to take a pay cut in the amount of Korver’s $7.56 million contract, basically paying Korver out of his own pocket this season, which might be worth it to LeBron given Korver’s Gravity. I only know what I see on TV, and Korver seems to be LeBron’s favorite teammate, but James isn’t gifting one of these homes to Korver.

LeBron could also take a paycut in the amount necessary to make the money work for both sides. So if Miami needs to dump $5 million in salary to make the deal work, LeBron takes a $5-million pay cut. Simple, except all of these trade details would have to be negotiated before LeBron negotiates his contract. If you don’t think LeBron has people working on the exact “what-if” scenarios similar to what I’m investigating, you don’t know LeBron. He prepares, and he’ll hand-deliver his trade request(s) to Altman and Gilbert, complete with perfect arithmetic and adhering to NBA rules.

So what about the hard way? LeBron’s and Korver’s contracts total $48,560,000, which again necessitates the trade of Whiteside’s salary. And if Cleveland won’t budge on Adebayo, and they shouldn’t, the Heat have to really focus on sending ugly salaries Cleveland’s way instead of the quality players the Cavaliers might value.

Whiteside’s and Adebayo’s contracts total $25,434,263, and Tyler Johnson brings the total to $44,679,633. With about $4 million to go and contracts yet to absorb, the Heat could send Josh Richardson packing for Cleveland. That brings Miami’s total salaries traded to $54,046,833, leaving the Heat $5,486,833 to spread across two players. Again, Nance and Zizic make the most sense, totalling $4,225,151.

With $1,261,682 in cap space to spare, Miami gets LeBron, Korver, Nance and Zizic for Whiteside, Adebayo, Tyler Johnson and Richardson. If Cleveland requires a first-round pick to complete the trade, which it definitely should, Miami can only absorb part of White’s contract in exchange, so swapping draft picks would be necessary. It’ll be awhile before Pat Riley can actually use whatever pick the Heat get in return because Cleveland only has second-round picks in 2023 and 2025. When it comes to draft picks, Riley just needs to do what it takes. You know what you’re getting with LeBron James; you don’t with any draft pick. Miami’s first-rounders in 2019 and 2022 for Cleveland’s second-rounders in 2023 and 2025 should do it.

The only issue with this trade is Cleveland taking on $1,261,682 in salary while already $16.5 million over the luxury tax cap. While it’s a modest amount, I’m not sure if it would fly with the Commissioner’s Office. I am sure Miami would happily send over the difference, but the rules would require them to get something of value back. Gilbert would no doubt like to dump contracts himself, but his contracts are even worse than Miami’s.

Bringing a Third Partner into the Bedroom

If Gilbert wants to get under the luxury tax cap, a third team with cap space will be required. Teams with the cap space to take on the $16,521,661 Cleveland would have to dump in order to avoid paying the luxury tax are Atlanta (who would probably require the acquisition of Dennis Schroder), Chicago (probably more interested in making a run at free agents), Dallas (might use cap space to get DeMarcus Cousins), Houston (dedicated to free agency), Los Angeles Lakers (dedicated to free agency), Philadelphia (dedicated to free agency), Phoenix (perhaps) and Sacramento (perhaps). Let’s investigate.

Sacramento might be willing to take on Tristan Thompson’s two-year, $36 million contract with Kosta Koufos an unrestricted free agent after the season and Willie Cauley-Stein a restricted free agent at the end of the season. The Kings have a familiar face to LeBron in shooting guard Iman Shumpert, but he’s only under contract for one year. That might be the deal Gilbert and Altman have to swallow to avoid paying the luxury tax and Thompson’s contract. Buddy Hield is also stashed on the Kings’ roster and comes with two years of team control before becoming a restricted free agent, but the Cavaliers would probably have to sweeten that deal a bit, and they’re low on sweeteners.

Phoenix could also accommodate Tristan Thompson, as center Alex Len is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The same goes for Tyson Chandler after this season. As far as players the Suns could send back to Cleveland, both the Cavaliers and Heat would probably take Devin Booker, but they might not be able to coax Phoenix out of its best player last year. If so, it’s going to take a lot more than Tristan Thompson. Sacramento seems to be the one to invite into the bedroom, and Shumpert might be the one Cleveland lets under the covers. They’re at least familiar with each other, so it shouldn’t get weird. Cleveland doesn’t have to trade Shumpert to Miami, though. He could replace Korver to give Cleveland three shooting guards, and Miami would roll with Korver, Dion Waiters and Rodney McGruder. If the Kings don't feel they're getting enough to absorb Thompson's contract, Miami could swap draft picks with the Kings or send a pick in exchange for cash.

In summation:

  • The Miami Heat receive LeBron James, Kyle Korver, Larry Nance Jr., Ante Zizic, a 2023 second-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick from Cleveland.
  • The Cleveland Cavaliers receive Hassan Whiteside, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, a 2019 first-round pick, and a 2022 first-round pick from Miami, and Iman Shumpert from Sacramento.
  • The Sacramento Kings receive Tristan Thompson from Cleveland.

Is there a fair deal involving LeBron James? Of course. Is this it? Probably not, but it gives you an idea of how difficult it will be for LeBron to make the maximum amount of money and leave Cleveland for Miami. I imagine it’s hard for Gilbert to say no to a man who single-handedly, quite literally, delivered his franchise’s first ever championship and more than doubled the value of the franchise. And he did all this after Gilbert publicly berated him as selfish for doing nothing more than exercising a right he earned to become a free agent and choose where he wanted to live and work. Golden State needed four stars to triple the Warriors’ value.

If Gilbert is in it for the money, the time to sell is before LeBron leaves. I wouldn’t be surprised if LeBron’s plan is to leave Cleveland, wait for the Cavaliers’ value to fall in his absence before buying the franchise and becoming the first owner/player in professional sports. Then he can reap the rewards Gilbert enjoyed off his name being attached to the franchise, and King James could finish his reign at home. For now, all we can do is speculate while we wait for The Decision: Part III.

Published in Sports

The biggest reason for fans of every MLB team to watch Opening Day is that their team is in first place. It’s the only day of the year every team can say that, but fans of every team, even the Miami Marlins, have at least one reason to watch Opening Day baseball.

The Playoff Contenders

Houston Astros

The defending champions take on their in-state rivals the Texas Rangers on ESPN at 2:30 p.m. CST, and the biggest reason for Astros fans to tune in is to see if 35-year-old Justin Verlander can repeat his stellar 2017 season and carry a staff of mostly question marks.

Dallas Keuchel followed up his Cy Young season in 2015 by posting an ERA+ of just 86 in 2016. He rebounded with an ERA+ of 136 last season, but pitched just 145.2 innings. He’s pitched 200 innings just twice in his six-year career. Verlander has done it in 10 of 13 seasons, which is five more times than the rest of the Astros’ starters combined.

But the Astros are prepared in case their starters fail to eat innings, with Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock available in the bullpen.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Clayton Kershaw takes the mound against San Francisco at 6 p.m. CST on ESPN. That’s all Dodgers fans should need to tune in on Opening Day, because it could be Kershaw’s last season with the Dodgers.

New York Yankees

Yankees fans will get their first look at last year’s home run champion Giancarlo Stanton in Toronto on Thursday. Oh, and the runner-up in the home run race, Aaron Judge, will be there in pinstripes, too.

Chicago Cubs

Jon Lester will take on Miami to kick off Opening Day on ESPN at 11:30 a.m. CST. Lester, who has struggled throwing to first base, will feature a new bounced throw he’s been working on in Spring Training. It’ll be interesting to see if his new approach limits the running game of Miami, a team that does have some speed if nothing else.

Cleveland Indians

Indians fans will get their first look at new first baseman Yonder Alonso, who has become the new poster boy for launch angle despite his simple focus of becoming “a tough out.” He’s certainly been that in Spring Training, collecting 21 hits in 56 at-bats and amassing an OPS of 1.284. Defensive metrics have Alonso rated as a downgrade at first base when compared to Cleveland’s former first baseman, Carlos Santana, though.

Washington Nationals

The Nationals will have to wait until Friday to open the season due to weather in Cincinnati, but it does give Adam Eaton an extra day to recover from the ACL tear that kept him out all of last season. Eaton will most certainly be the biggest addition to a team that sees its championship window closing. Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez and Matt Weiters will all be free agents at the end of the season.

Boston Red Sox

J.D. Martinez debuts with Boston on Thursday at Tampa Bay, a much-needed upgrade at designated hitter, where Hanley Ramirez struggled to a .750 OPS last season. Martinez will get time in the corner outfield spots as well, but will mostly steal at-bats from Ramirez and Mitch Moreland, who will serve as a platoon at first base.

Martinez’s awesome power to all fields should play well at Fenway Park, and while he might not hit as many home runs as he did at Chase Field in Arizona, at least he’s not in Arizona this year, where baseballs will be kept in a humidor to limit home runs. Chase Field accounted for the fourth-most home runs in baseball last season. Fenway was 26th, but Martinez is more than just a power hitter. He’s hit over .300 in three of his seven MLB seasons.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins’ new braintrust of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine might have won the offseason, adding reasonably-priced bullpen depth (Addison Reed, Fernando Rodney), undervalued starters (Jake Odorizzi, Lance Lynn) and an undervalued slugger (Logan Morrison). They were the second-best offense of the second half of last season, with Gold Glove center fielder Byron Buxton discovering a swing that has him poised for a breakout in 2018.

Twins fans will get a chance to see all their new additions in action on Thursday in Baltimore, most notably starter Jake Odorizzi, who takes the mound with Ervin Santana recovering from hand surgery.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies were second in the league in save percentage (77.05 percent) last season despite Greg Holland being abysmal in the second half (6.38 ERA). They added Wade Davis in the offseason, who closed out 32 of his 33 save opportunities in 2017.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers were surprisingly good last year, and will surprise no one this year. They also got better in the offseason, adding center fielder Lorenzo Cain and left fielder Christian Yelich. Those additions should help them climb out of the bottom third of the league in runs scored.

St. Louis Cardinals

Marcell Ozuna is coming off a career year in Miami (.924 OPS) and provides added depth to a lineup that already had six players with an OPS+ over 100. The Cardinals were 13th in the league in runs scored last year, but were 20th in runs allowed. The addition of Ozuna allows the Cardinals’ best outfielder, Tommy Pham, to play center field full time instead of splitting time with the less adept Dexter Fowler, who will roam right field instead. The Cardinals are going to score more runs and limit fewer runs in 2018 thanks to Ozuna.  

Seattle Mariners

The Mariners’ aging rotation can’t seem to stay healthy, and Felix Hernandez is a shell of his former self, but they have the speedy Dee Gordon roaming center field to back up that aging rotation, which is the best reason for Mariners fans to watch Opening Day baseball. Gordon’s transition from middle infielder to center fielder should be an adventure worth watching, but his prowess at the plate and on the base paths is always worth watching. The addition of Gordon should lift Seattle’s run production substantially, which was 15th in the league last year. Gordon’s 60 stolen bases last season would have put the Mariners at the top of the league in that category.

The Pretenders

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks still have Zack Greinke, who will open the season at home against Colorado. Greinke allowed more home runs last year (25) than he had since his rookie year in 2004 (26), but the new baseball humidor in Arizona should make him even better in 2018. It might have an adverse effect on Paul Goldschmidt, though. Still, having a Cy Young contender on the mound is reason enough to watch Opening Day.

Los Angeles Angels

Angels fans were probably hoping Shohei Ohtani would be starting Opening Day at Oakland, but he hasn’t pitched well enough in Spring Training to warrant the fourth spot in the rotation let alone the first (27.00 ERA). He hasn’t hit either (4-for-32). The Angels still don’t have the starting rotation to reach the playoffs, but the addition of Ian Kinsler into an already potent lineup featuring the game’s best player, Mike Trout, one of the game’s best hitters of all time, Albert Pujols, and a rejuvenated Justin Upton, should make for an Opening Day featuring plenty of runs scored.

Philadelphia Phillies

Jake Arrieta won’t toe the rubber on Thursday in Atlanta, but Aaron Nola will, giving Phillies fans reason to watch and reason for hope. The Phillies aren’t as far from contending as some people think thanks to their young talent being quick studies at the MLB level. Nola amassed 184 strikeouts in 168 innings last year, left fielder Rhys Hoskins hit 18 home runs in 170 at-bats, and second baseman César Hernández collected 215 total bases for a second consecutive season.

Toronto Blue Jays

New addition Randal Grichuk is going to have a career year in Toronto, and Aaron Sanchez seems to have rediscovered himself (3.06 ERA in Spring Training) after struggling last season. The key for Toronto is always health. How many games will Troy Tulowitzki and Curtis Granderson play? Even Josh Donaldson missed considerable time last year. But the starting rotation and lineup are both playoff caliber. The bullpen is the reason they’re pretenders.

Baltimore Orioles

Manny Machado is moving to shortstop in the final year of his contract with the Orioles. Adam Jones is also in a contract year, so both will be looking to put up massive numbers to earn big paydays in the offseason. Machado was a premiere third basemen and should make for an above average shortstop, especially given his hitting ability. Watching him at his new position on Opening Day is reason for Orioles fans to watch.

San Francisco Giants

It’s another even year, and the Giants have added pieces to make another run at a championship. With Madison Bumgarner recovering from a broken hand and out three months, the eyes of Giants fans will gravitate towards Andrew McCutchen on Opening Day. At 31, McCutchen should enjoy hitting in the Giants’ effective lineup, but hate chasing balls in right field behind the Giants’ aging rotation.    

Texas Rangers

Can Cole Hamels return to form after a hiccup in 2017? Rangers fans will get a clue when he takes on the offensive juggernaut Houston on Thursday. If the 34-year-old Hamels has indeed regressed, at least the Rangers now have the 34-year-old Doug Fister to back him up in the rotation.

The Mediocre

San Diego Padres

Eric Hosmer will debut with the Padres on Thursday in San Diego against Milwaukee, giving San Diego the bat it needs to protect Wil Myers. They’re still a long way from contending, but having a guy like Hosmer in the lineup should help make the vast Petco Park look just a little bit smaller. Petco allowed the second-fewest homers last year.

Kansas City Royals

Replacing Hosmer with with Lucas Duda could be a very affordable way for the Royals to get similar offensive production for $140.5 million less than Hosmer got from San Diego. Duda posted an .818 OPS and hit 30 homers playing for the Mets and Rays last year. But Jon Jay (.738 career OPS, +4 total zone/total fielding runs above average per 1,200 innings in center field) is no Lorenzo Cain (.763 career OPS, +11 total zone/total fielding runs above average per 1,200 innings in center field).

New York Mets

All eyes will be on Noah Syndergaard, whose 101-mph fastball has been all the rage in Spring Training. The Mets have playoff potential in their pitching, both starting and relieving, and the addition of Adrian Gonzalez gives them four professional hitters (Jay Bruce, Yoenis Céspedes and Todd Frazier) in the lineup. The Mets are also very old and injury prone, so health will be a key factor in limiting their potential.

The Rebuilding

Pittsburgh Pirates

Ivan Nova could be the next Pirate traded and will start the season in Detroit taking on Jordan Zimmerman. Nova isn’t a free agent until after next season, but the $9 million and change he’s owed this year and next will make him very attractive to a team in the hunt if he has similar success to last season (4.14 ERA).

Tampa Bay Rays

Chris Archer has long been the subject of trade rumors, but will start for the Rays on Opening Day for the fourth consecutive season. Archer’s contract is any team’s dream and comes with two club options at just $8.25 million after next season, so if he gets off to a hot start, the Rays could be given an offer they can’t refuse. Rays fans should tune in on Opening Day to see their ace get the season started on the right foot.

Atlanta Braves

Top prospect Robert Acuna Jr. won’t be on the Braves’ Opening Day roster so Atlanta can control the start of his service time and retain his rights longer, but second baseman Ozzie Albies will be worth watching. Albies posted an impressive .810 OPS in 217 at-bats last year and has been raking in Spring Training (20-for-66 with an .843 OPS).

Chicago White Sox

Yoán Moncada found an effective stroke last season, posting a .750 OPS in 199 at-bats. He’s been even better this spring, posting an .833 OPS in 59 at-bats. All eyes will be on Moncada to become the star everyone expected way back when he was still with the Red Sox.

Cincinnati Reds

Scott Schebler has been an absolute force in Spring Training, with 19 hits in 46 at-bats and an OPS of 1.151. He’ll be manning right field for the Reds on Opening Day, looking to build on his respectable 2016 season that saw him post a .762 OPS over 257 at-bats.

Detroit Tigers

Miguel Cabrera might not be a piece the Tigers can trade -- this year or ever. But Nick Castellanos has just one more year of arbitration eligibility, and Victor Martinez and José Iglesias are free agents at the end of the season. The Tigers have to move all they can to complete their rebuild, so Tigers fans should be rooting for Cabrera, Castellanos, Martinez and Iglesias to start the season hot on Opening Day.

Miami Marlins

José Ureña taking on the Cubs should be reason enough for Marlins fans to watch Opening Day. Ureña had a fantastic 2017, going 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA. If he can shut down the Cubs’ lineup, it should give Marlins fans hope that they might have an ace in the making.

Oakland Athletics

California native Matt Chapman will look to stake his claim to third base for the long term in Oakland after posting a respectable .785 OPS over 290 at-bats in 2017. He’s got legitimate power potential, too, hitting 14 home runs and 23 doubles last year.


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