Jim Johnson’s resurgence is a blessing for the Angels, but not to just help win games

Last winter, Angels General Manager Billy Eppler looked like a hero. He brought in Japanese phenomenon pitcher/hitter Shohei Ohtani. He signed 2017 All-Star infielder Zach Cozart to play third and traded for 2016 Gold Glove winner and four-time All-Star second baseman Ian KInsler. He also shored up the outfield by re-signing Justin Upton, who hasn’t his less than 26 home runs in a season since 2012. Who would’ve thought that Los Angeles would end up sellers at the trade deadline?

The Halos (54-56) sit 15 games behind the division-leading Houston Astros and they are 10 back in the Wild Card race as of August 3. So far, the Halos have dealt two players who have expiring contracts, Kinsler and 2017 Gold Glove winning catcher Martin Maldonado. August 31 is the final trade deadline, and reliever Jim Johnson getting traded next makes the most sense.

If one looked at the 13-year veteran’s numbers early in the season, nothing about his performance would seem very attractive. He got off to a mediocre start, with a 4.30 ERA through the middle of May. But, Johnson has since turned it around and has even thrived since a rough May 17 outing. He has a 2.37 after that appearance and he has improved his WHIP from a poor 1.48 to a more respectable 1.28.

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A big part of his success has been keeping the ball low and forcing grounders. This is vital to Johnson’s success because he does not strike many batters out. Since the start of June, he has struck out just eight hitters, but he has given up 24 grounders to just 15 fly balls, only one of which left the yard. Before June, he allowed 48 fly balls to 40 grounders, so since many of those hits in the air found outfield gaps, they aided in his rough start to 2018.

Johnson’s trade stock is at its highest right now. Over his last eight outings, he has given up just one run in nine innings and he has dropped his ERA by nearly a whole run since May to 3.40. Plus, he has an expiring deal, so teams won’t need to commit to a 35-year-old for multiple seasons.

There is certainly a market for a pitcher like Johnson, as many teams are looking to find stability in their bullpens for the postseason push. Perhaps Boston, who has the best record in baseball without having a stable set-up man, could find use for a veteran with late inning experience. Or possibly San Francisco, who at five games back of the division are fighting to stay in the race, could use Johnson’s services. The Giants have blown the most saves in the majors, having done it a staggering 23 times.

 

 

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Best and Worst-Case Scenarios: Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens just missed the playoffs the past two years with mediocre records of 9-7 and 8-8. Defense has always been their strong suit, so, in his final year as general manager, Ozzie Newsome went all in on offense. In the first round of the draft, the Ravens had two picks. They selected Hayden Hurst, a tight end from South Carolina, and then later chose Lamar Jackson, Louisville’s former Heisman Trophy winner, projected to be the quarterback of the future. In free agency, the Ravens focused on playmakers, so they brought in receivers Michael Crabtree (Oakland), Willie Snead (New Orleans) and John Brown (Arizona).

Best case:

Jackson pushes incumbent Joe Flacco to his best season since 2014, when the veteran set career highs in touchdowns (27) and QBR. The Ravens went 10-6 that year. Crabtree steps in and becomes the number-one target. He caught the eighth-most touchdown receptions in the league in 2017 after catching the ninth-most in 2016. He becomes Flacco’s most productive receiver since Steve Smith Sr. in 2014 (79 receptions and six touchdowns).

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The offensive line gets a boost with Marshal Yanda returning. He missed the final 14 games last year with an ankle injury, but, he comes back this year and earns his seventh Pro-Bowl selection. 2017 All-Rookie guard Jermaine Eluemunor and third-year tackle Ronnie Stanley both improve and help bolster the line beside Yanda.

Ideally, running back Alex Collins reduces his turnovers and maintains his yardage production, which was tenth-best in the NFL last year.

The Defense stays sharp after a solid 2017. They get top cornerback Jimmy Smith for the season opener after he missed the final four games in 2017 with an Achilles injury. He bounces back and replicates his early season form from last season. The Ravens led the NFL in takeaways, three of which were Smith interceptions (He had a pick-six and a fumble returned for a touchdown).

Baltimore gave up the tenth-fewest passing yards last year, and with the turnovers they forced, were ranked the second-best pass defense by NFL.com. With returning linebacker stars Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley able to control the run and disrupt the pass game, they continue to force takeaways and smother opponents on defense.

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The Ravens sweep the Bengals for the first time since 2012 and they take both games from Cleveland for the third straight year. They split with Pittsburgh and finish with an 11-5 record, winning their first AFC North title since 2012, their Super Bowl season.

Worst case:

Flacco sputters and Jackson does not appear to be ready to start. Flacco’s QBR in 2017 was his worst since his rookie year in 2008. He gets off to another mediocre start, putting Head Coach John Harbaugh in a difficult position where he has to bench the quarterback who has started in each of Harbaugh’s seasons in charge. It takes a while for Jackson to get used to running a pro-style offense, and early losses bury the Ravens’ chances at the postseason.

The rest of the offensive weaponry doesn’t live up to expectations. Brown and Snead both have poor outings after they struggled in 2017. Without another quality receiver, Crabtree gets smothered by defenses. Collins’ fumbling issues do not go away. He was third in the NFL in fumbles for running backs last season, and this year, due to poor quarterback play, he gets extra action and fumbles more often.

Unfortunately, the Ravens’ past strength, defense, takes a hit after coordinator Dean Pees retired, unretired and then took a job with Tennessee. During six years in Baltimore, Pees led three top-ten scoring defenses.

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Age also factors in the defensive production. The 35-year-old Terrell Suggs starts to slow down after a Pro-Bowl year, and with their outspoken leader struggling, the rest of the defense loses some edge. With their offensive woes, the defense spends a lot of time on the field, which taxes them later in the season, leaving them vulnerable.

The Ravens miss the postseason for the fourth year in a row with a 6-10 record, and Coach Harbaugh’s seat starts to heat up.

Prediction: 10-6

Best and Worst-Case Scenario: Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins

In 2016, the Dolphins made the playoffs for the first time since 2008. However, starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered a torn ACL before the postseason began, and Miami got trounced by Pittsburgh 30-12 in the Wild Card round. Tannehill’s injury held him out of the entire 2017 campaign, so the Dolphins grabbed former Bear Jay Cutler. The 34-year-old had a poor outing and the Dolphins didn’t get close to the playoffs.

After the season, Cutler retired, and the Dolphins replaced their offensive coordinator with Dowell Loggains, who was hired since he and Miami head coach Adam Gase both worked together as offensive coaches in Chicago. The most impactful addition for Miami for this season will be getting Tannehill back, however, their biggest loss this offseason was trading away his best target, Jarvis Landry. The three-time Pro-Bowler was let go for a fourth and seventh round pick. The Dolphins and Landry were unable to come to an agreement on a long-term deal, so he was franchise tagged and traded.

Best Case:

Ryan Tannehill returns as he left off, a slightly above-average starting quarterback who, with the right pieces, can get Miami back to a winning record as he did in 2016.

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Behind Tannehill, halfback Kenyan Drake learns from Miami’s newly acquired backup running back, the 13-year veteran and potential Hall of Famer Frank Gore. Drake proves that trading away former halfback Jay Ajayi was the right choice last season. Drake did average more yards per-carry in 2017 (4.8 to Ajayi’s 4.2), and with Gore’s guidance he improves to be one of the top-10 running backs in the league in his third year.

At receiver, the additions of veterans Albert Wilson from Kansas City and Danny Amendola from New England give Miami new found depth at the receiver position. Fourth-year wide out and former first round pick DeVante Parker steps out of Landry’s shadow and becomes a capable top target for Tannehill.

To protect their quarterback, Miami added center Daniel Kilgore and guard Josh Sitton, who help protect Tannehill from big hits he took in the past. Over his last four years, Tannehill led the league in the dubious category of sacks once and led in sack yards lost twice. This year he gets the protection he needs to make higher quality throws and give his receivers time to get open.

On the other side of the ball, Miami gave up the fourth-most points in the NFL last season. But, 2018 11thoverall pick Minkah Fitzpatrick from Alabama makes a big difference in the secondary. He intercepted three passes and was second on the National Champion Crimson Tide in tackles last year. Adding lineman Robert Quinn proves to be an upgrade over Ndamukong Suh, who left for Los Angeles. For the Los Angeles Rams, Quinn did have four more sacks than Suh in 2017.

Miami takes advantage of their tame non-division schedule, playing just three playoff teams from 2017. They earn a winning record in their division rivals and finish above .500, which puts them in contention for the playoffs after a disappointing 6-10 2017 season.

Worst case:

The offense fails to get over the loss of their most dynamic playmaker, Landry. Danny Amendola’s numbers in 2014 and 2016 dipped considerably, and after a solid 2017, his even year blues return. None of Miami’s young targets emerge as a go-to number one, and Tannehill struggles without having a player who can make big plays like Landry.

New offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains fails to get this offense to play up to their talent level. He has three seasons of prior experience as an OC, and his teams are a terrible 15-33. Last season, his passing offense threw for the fewest yards in the league. His hiring will result in a more run-heavy offense, which in turn makes them one dimensional and opposing teams will load the box and stop Drake in his tracks.

Despite the struggling offense, defensively is where they will struggle the most. They gave up the third-most plays over 20 yards last year. The secondary doesn’t improve even with Fitzpatrick. They implode and give up more big plays down the field.

The division gives them trouble, especially since the Bills and Jets drafted quarterbacks early this year who have potential to be game changers. The schedule becomes more difficult than anticipated as Green Bay, Oakland and Houston all have bounce-back seasons. The Dolphins finish worse than 2017 with a 4-12 record.

Final prediction: 5-11

 

Best and Worst-Case Scenarios: New England Patriots

The Patriots came within eight points of becoming the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since… the Patriots in 2004 and 2005. Following the loss, their offseason suffered a little more turbulence than usual. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s relationship was called into question over reports that indicated that Brady was feeling underappreciated, top receiver Julian Edelman got hit with a four-game suspension for PEDs, they lost their longtime starting left tackle Nate Solder to the Giants and their leading rusher Dion Lewis and Super Bowl XLIX (2015) hero Malcolm Butler left for Tennessee. But, this is a team that hasn’t suffered a losing record since 2000, with the greatest quarterback-head coach combo in history. Unless one of the other three teams has a breakout year, they will not be threatened at the top.

Best case:

The drama between coach and quarterback fizzles out once the games begin. In his age 41 season, Brady defends his 2017 MVP campaign with another brilliant one. He brings the best out of veterans Jordan Matthews and Kenny Britt while Edelman serves his suspension. Edelman comes back in week five, healthy and motivated to step into that top receiver role once again. Rob Gronkowski stays healthy this year and records double digit touchdowns for the first time since 2015.

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The first-round selection of Georgia’s Sony Michel pays off as New England finds their running back of the future. He averaged 7.9 yards per-carry in 2017, and broke out for 181 yards and three scores on just 11 rushes during the Rose Bowl Game. The depth at halfback with newly acquired Jeremy Hill from Cincinnati (led NFL in rushing touchdowns in 2015), James White and Rex Burkhead help the Pats break into the top-seven in the league rushing yards. The last time they did that was in 2016, their Super Bowl winning season. Having a solid running game also takes pressure off of Brady.

Defensively, Dont’a Hightower returns strong after missing 14 games (including playoffs) last season due to pec and shoulder injuries. He sets career highs in tackles (65) and sacks (six) and competes for comeback player of the year. After a rough year, Stephon Gilmore settles in and shows why he was a pro-bowler in 2016 for Buffalo. The Patriots gave up just the fifth-most points last year, and they stay in the top-five once again.

On the schedule, the Patriots sweep through the division for the first time since 2012 and win 13 or more games. They haven’t gone worse than 12-4 since 2009. They get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and make it back to the Super Bowl for the third straight year, where they win their sixth title in the Brady-Belichick era.

Worst case:

Their worst-case scenario is that Brady’s play dips as Peyton Manning’s did at a similar age. But, Manning showed decline prior to his fall. He had his lowest recorded QBR since the stat began to be tracked in 2006 the year prior to his last. Brady continued his dominance in 2017, so his fall seems much less likely to occur than Manning’s was.

Around him, Edelman returns from his suspension rusty after missing over a year. He doesn’t look like the same player who caught 98 passes for 1106 yards in 2016. For the third time in six seasons, Gronkowski misses half of the year (or more) with an injury. Dion Lewis’ dynamic play as a halfback, receiver and returner are sorely missed. Behind the youngest offensive line in the division, none of New England’s current running backs break out. Michel needs time to develop his cuts and vision. Hill battles injuries for the second straight year, and there really isn’t a true identity for the Patriots rush attack, just various players being plugged in based on who plays well recently.

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With Malcolm Butler gone, the secondary struggles as they did in the Super Bowl when Coach Belichick controversially benched his top corner. They gave up 373 yards and three touchdowns to Philadelphia backup quarterback Nick Foles. The Pats now have the oldest starting defensive backs in the AFC East, with both of their safeties, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty, set to turn 31 before the season starts. With an older, slower secondary, New England struggles against the pass even more than in 2017 when they gave up the third-most yards through the air.

With their woes, the Patriots only win 10 games, and fail to earn a first-round bye for the first time since 2009.

Final prediction: 12-4

 

Best and Worst-Case Scenarios: New York Jets

The Jets have not had a consistent starting quarterback for multiple years since Mark Sanchez from 2009-2012. That inconsistency has certainly costed New York, as they have had no playoff appearances since the 2010 postseason. But, in order to change that narrative, they traded up in the 2018 Draft to third and selected Sam Darnold from USC. The Jets have bolstered their roster in other areas as well. They added shutdown corner Trumaine Johnson from the Los Angeles Rams, and improved their backfield and receiving core.

Best case:

Sam Darnold is the real deal and he is ready by the start of the year. His arm strength results in many big plays down the field to receivers Robby Anderson, who doesn’t get suspended despite legal troubles, Quincy Enunwa, who stays healthy after missing last year with a neck injury, and the newly signed Terrelle Pryor from Washington. In a professional system, Darnold cuts down on his turnovers, his biggest weakness last season, and he contends for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Running back Bilal Powell ran effectively last year, averaging 4.3 yards per-carry with five touchdowns. He continues that success in 2018 behind a very similar offensive line. The additions of past starting backs Isaiah Crowell (Cleveland) and Thomas Rawls (Seattle) give offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates good options for different running back combinations.

With the addition of Trumaine Johnson, the Jets have their best cornerback since Darrelle Revis. The Jets have not had a player intercept more than two passes in each of the past two years. Through six seasons, Johnson has two or more picks in five campaigns. Second-year talents Jamal Adams (2017 All-Rookie) and Marcus Maye develop into formidable safeties and the secondary proves to be the best in the division.

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On the schedule, there are just two 2017 playoff teams for the Jets to play through their first seven games. With that, they take advantage and get off to a hot start, which helps them gain momentum and confidence. They finish over .500 for the first time since 2015, and they sneak into the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

Worst case:

Darnold’s control is a major issue during the preseason, and Head Coach Todd Bowles goes with the veteran Josh McCown for most of the year. McCown set career highs in touchdowns and completion percentage in 2017, but at 39, he fails to repeat that success.

The offensive line struggles as they did last year when they gave up the fifth-most sacks in the AFC. Crowell and Rawls both had down seasons in 2017, and behind a suspect line, they struggle again. Wide out Terrelle Pryor fails to repeat the success he had in Cleveland in 2016, and he has another poor campaign as he had in Washington last year.

With the losses of longtime Jets Muhammad Wilkerson and Demario Davis (team leading tackler in 2017) the Jets run defense gets even worse. They gave up the ninth-most yards on the ground in 2017 and the most 40+ yard rushes. This causes the secondary to step up and stop runs before they turn into huge gains, which could leave them exposed on play-action plays.

New kicker Cairo Santos doesn’t return to his 2016 (fifth-best field goal percentage in the NFL) self after a groin injury held him out of much of last year.

Against division foes, the Jets get outmatched. The Patriots are 12-2 against New York since 2011. They continue their dominance with two wins against the Jets in 2018. The Bills and Dolphins take three of four against New York. Going 1-5 in division games puts the Jets in too deep of a hole to get out of. They go 5-11 for the second straight season, failing to contend for the playoffs or for the top pick.

Final prediction: 7-9

Best and Worst-Case Scenarios: Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills earned their first playoff berth in 17 seasons last year, ending the longest playoff drought in the league. However, they subsequently traded away their starting quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, for the 65thpick in the 2018 draft. Taylor went 8-6 as a starter in 2017. He will play for Cleveland this season, and the Bills acquired two new quarterbacks to battle for the starter’s job. They signed longtime Cincinnati Bengals backup A.J. McCarron and they sent two second round picks to Tampa Bay in order to move up and draft Josh Allen from Wyoming.

Best Case:

Allen impresses during the preseason and wins the starting job off the bat. His outstanding arm strength allows him to make impressive throws down the field throughout the season and he becomes a candidate for Rookie of the Year.

Additionally, LeSean McCoy bounces back after a down year. In 2016, McCoy was stellar, averaging 5.4 yards per-carry with 13 touchdowns. He took a step back in 2017, rushing for just four yards per carry and six touchdowns despite playing an additional game. He improves with the help of a younger and more athletic offensive line now that veterans Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito have left in free agency.

Ideally, Kelvin Benjamin connects well with Allen and recreates the magic of his first season in 2014. As a rookie that year, he had his current career-high in catches, touchdowns and yards. Alongside Benjamin, second-year receiver Zay Jones shakes off a rough rookie season and shows why the Bills used a second-round pick on him.

Defensively, the additions of veteran linemen Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy help improve Buffalo’s 28thranked run defense from a year ago. First round selection Trumaine Edwards from Virginia Tech steps into a starting role and quickly becomes a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. With a solid frame and quick legs, the first-rounder leads Buffalo’s linebacker core in tackles.

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In the secondary, 2017 All-Rookie Tre’Davious White continues to impress after a promising first season. He was second on the team in interceptions with four. Micah Hyde, 27, contributes well after being selected to the All-NFL Second-Team in 2017. Last year, he intercepted the fifth-most passes in the NFL. The additions of former Chief Phillip Gaines and former Colt Vontae Davis create beneficial veteran depth to help a passing defense that gave up the 13thmost yards last year.

With Allen as quarterback and with a couple of young gems on defense, the Bills improve upon last season by winning four division games as opposed to three. They manage to go 10-6, even with a difficult schedule, and they even get past the Wild Card round of the Playoffs.

Worst Case:

Josh Allen is erratic and he gets benched for his first season. McCarron has thrown just 14 passes in two years, and that lack of exposure to NFL defenses costs him. He proves to be a downgrade from Taylor and the Bills front office longs for their former quarterback. LeSean McCoy gets suspended for assault allegations against him. When he returns, his game continues to diminish as he is now a 30-year-old rusher and dealing with off-field legal issues. The younger line fails to make up for the loss of Incognito and Glenn, and McCoy and McCarron take beatings in the backfield. Zay Jones looks more like a bust than a promising player, leaving McCarron thin in reliable targets.

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On the defensive side, Lotulelei’s impact continues to drop as his production in tackles and sacks has gone down over the past two seasons. Kyle Williams’, 35, game heads in the wrong direction again as he had one of his worst seasons last year. This results in opponents being able to run all over the Bills, which in turn, costs them games against Melvin Gordon and the Chargers, Dalvin Cook and the Vikings, Jordan Howard and the Bears and Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars.

In the division, Tom Brady’s Patriots sweep Buffalo, and the Dolphins and Jets take three of four against the Bills. Their rough schedule buries them and as a result, the Bills take a big step back and prove that 2017 may have been a fluke by finishing 5-11 and earning a top-10 pick.

Final Prediction: 6-10

 

Lakers in position for an exciting offseason

Dominating an offseason is not uncharted territory for the Los Angeles Lakers’ franchise.

In July of 1968, the Lakers traded for 76ers superstar Wilt Chamberlain who, in 1972, led Los Angeles to their first NBA championship. He was named the Finals MVP. In June of 1975, Los Angeles acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar via a trade with Milwaukee. As a member of the “Showtime Lakers,” Abdul-Jabbar helped win five titles. In the summer of 1996, the Lakers made their most successful free agent signing in history when they brought in Shaquille O’Neal. He went on to win an NBA MVP award and three Finals MVPs.

This summer, the Lakers have an opportunity to add multiple franchise-changing players, in hopes of receiving results similar to past successes. Free agency begins on July 1, with unrestricted free agents being able to officially sign on July 6.

However, before they can make a run at stars like LeBron James and Paul George, they have a chance to trade for a former Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year who is unhappy in his current situation.

Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs had a fallout last season regarding how the organization handled his quad injury. According to ESPN, Leonard would prefer to play in Los Angeles, where he is from.

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Despite Leonard being gone for most of last season, the Spurs still managed to earn a spot in the playoffs. Veteran bigs LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol are locked in for next season, but San Antonio could use guard and wing help. The Spurs will certainly not give Leonard up without substantial compensation, but the Lakers have young pieces that San Antonio may find desirable. Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich has always been against helping Western Conference rivals, but perhaps if Los Angeles provides the best offer for Leonard, it could force his and General Manager R.C. Buford’s hand.

The Lakers could package youngsters Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball to send to San Antonio, along with Luol Deng’s $18 million-dollar contract over the next two seasons and a draft pick for Leonard and perhaps a veteran guard like Patty Mills. The Lakers could also add restricted free agent forward Julius Randle to the mix to sweeten the deal, as long as he agrees to a sign-and-trade and the Spurs want to bring him in.

This way, the Lakers add an elite player (as long as he stays healthy) who came in third-place in the MVP voting in 2017, along with a guard who shoots well from the perimeter with a lot of playoff experience. They could also get rid of the noise that surrounds the Ball family which was a distraction last season, not to mention Deng’s lucrative salary.

Meanwhile, the Spurs get a couple of former second overall picks who could potentially blossom and lead San Antonio for years to come. Plus, it would be an improved roster from last season when Leonard was inactive for all but nine games, so they could theoretically contend for a playoff spot again.

Salary-wise, as long as the Spurs willing to take Deng’s contract, Los Angeles should come out of the trade in a very beneficial financial situation. President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka would be left with enough cap room to add two max contracts without going far into the luxury tax.

 

If this hypothetical exchange goes through, then the Lakers would head into free agency with Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Kuzma coming off of a very productive rookie season, Josh Hart who also looked good as a rookie last year, and Patty Mills to lure in available talent.

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Photo via @kylekuzma

That cast could certainly be a compelling one, especially for someone who came from a team with lackluster support as LeBron James did.

James is referred to by some to be the greatest player the NBA has ever seen, and should be the Lakers’ number one priority come free agency.

James is seemingly comfortable in LA, he even has two houses in Brentwood. Leonard is a great teammate to have help deal with the Warriors since he can defend many different positions at an elite level. Plus, the Lakers can give him his desired salary.

There is the possibility of a sign-and-trade between the Lakers and Cleveland, but that would be a better option if Leonard ends up elsewhere and the Lakers still had Ball, Ingram and Deng to give up. It still could happen even with the Spurs deal, but it isn’t likely that James would want weapons on his future team traded away when he is looking to win a title.

But, Johnson and Pelinka cannot be solely transfixed on getting James. Paul George is also available, and George-to-the-Lakers rumors have gone on for years. The timing is perfect it seems. A player who grew up rooting for the Lakers, and who has admitted that it would be fun to play for them, is a free agent in the same summer that the Lakers are looking to load up.

Cap wise, the Lakers have the space to take on James, George and Leonard, a hellacious amount of talent to add in one summer. But, they do all play the small forward primarily. Many NBA teams in recent years, though, have strayed away from traditional positions. The Golden State Warriors’ “death lineup” includes two guards, two small forwards and an undersized power forward.

With the facilitating skills of James and shooting ability of both George and Leonard, the three could mesh quite effectively. Defensively, all three have shown to be elite, with Leonard winning the Defensive Player of the Year twice and James and George earning multiple All-NBA Defensive honors each. The three can all defend different sized players as well.

Nevertheless, if Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka feel as if that is too many wing players, there are several centers on the market too. Perhaps instead of George, the Lakers could go after DeMarcus Cousins, an elite scorer with a six-foot-eleven frame. The problem with Cousins is his past of attitude issues, also the fact that he will be coming off of Achilles Tendon surgery and has been a defensive liability in the past.

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Clint Capela and DeAndre Jordan are slightly cheaper alternatives at center. They both finish very well around the rim. Capela led the league in field-goal percentage last season and Jordan led the NBA in the category for several seasons before that. They both defend the rim well too, with good size and awareness to block shots. Jordan is a better rebounder, but Capela is five years younger and could be more valuable down the road.

If Johnson and Pelinka do go with the three wings, then they could sign a cheaper big to plug in at center. Perhaps Leonard’s former teammate Aron Baynes, who just had an effective year in Boston and has playoff experience with the Celtics and Spurs, or by bringing back former Laker Ed Davis after three years in Portland. Both can defend the rim well, and should be able to benefit from the passing ability of LeBron James. Baynes can also shoot threes, adding another dimension to the offense. Additionally, in small lineups, Kuzma could plug in as a five for an athletic and strong scoring rotation.

From there, the Lakers would just have to worry about developing their bench beyond Hart, Kuzma and other players still under contract in LA, like Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant. They can fill the bench with veterans who would be willing to sign for the minimum, since some players do so near the end of their careers when looking for a chance at a ring, or by drafting a couple of players since they have picks 25 and 47 (assuming they aren’t traded to San Antonio but likely one would be).

 

Three MLB vets who have certainly pitched their way to their first All-Star Games

It took six seasons for three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer to make an All-Star team. Clayton Kershaw, 2014 NL MVP and three-time Cy Young winner, finally made the NL All-Stars in his fourth season. Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan pitched for five years before earning a spot in the “Mid-Summer Classic.”

It takes time for even the greatest pitchers to develop into All-Stars. James Paxton, Trevor Bauer and Mike Foltynewicz are MLB veterans who have surged this season, and should be in good shape to pitch in their first All-Star Games in July.

James Paxton, LHP Seattle Mariners

James Paxton threw the sixth no-hitter in Seattle history on May 8. From that game forward, the lefty has been tremendous. He is 5-0 with an ERA of 2.15 in that span. But, things didn’t always look so agreeable for the Seattle ace.

Paxton debuted in September of 2013. In four starts, he went 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA that season and a lot of excitement surrounded his development. But, injuries derailed his career for a time. They held him to just 13 starts each in 2014 and 2015.

Afterwards, he struggled getting back to form in Spring Training 2016, and he was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma to begin in the season. He was brought back up after 11 starts and finished the year with a respectable 3.79 ERA and 8.7 strikeouts-per-nine innings in the majors.

After a healthy 2016, he had his best season yet in 2017. He posted a 2.98 ERA and career bests in WHIP (1.103) and FIP (2.61). A short DL stint in May and a tough month of June most likely kept him out of the All-Star Game, but he responded well with a dominant July. Through 39.1 innings that month, he struck out 46 hitters, gave up just six runs and went 6-0. He won 2017 AL July Pitcher of the Month.

This season, Paxton has been dynamic once again. He is one of just three pitchers at this point with multiple complete games as of June 12. He has the ninth highest WAR out of Major League pitchers, behind seven past All-Stars and Aaron Nola. He is striking out batters at a career-best rate, 11.2 per-nine. That is the eighth best in baseball.

Also, despite losing their top hitter (Robinson Cano) to an 80-game suspension and being in a division with the defending champion Houston Astros, the Mariners are thriving. At 43-24, they have the third-best record in baseball. A lot of their success can be accredited to Paxton’s performance, as Seattle is 9-3 over his last 12 starts.

Trevor Bauer, RHP Cleveland Indians 

From the time Trevor Bauer was drafted, expectations were high. This resulted from his three fruitful seasons at UCLA, where Bauer racked up awards such as 2009 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, 2011 First-Team College All-American, 2011 Pac-10 Conference Pitcher of the Year and 2011 NCAA National Pitcher of the Year.

The Arizona Diamondbacks selected him third overall in the 2011 MLB Draft. In June 2012, he was called up at just 21-years-old, and he stumbled out of the gate. In his first four starts, he gave up 11 runs and walked 13 hitters through 16.1 innings.

Fast forward to December of 2012, Bauer was shipped to Cleveland as part of a three-team deal between the Diamondbacks, Indians and Reds.

As a member of the Indians, Bauer was given a regular rotation spot in 2014. From 2014 through 2017, Bauer never lived up to the potential that was seen at UCLA. He never had an ERA under 4.18 and he had control issues. He led the league in walks in 2015 and followed that up by walking the seventh most batters in 2016.

Also, during his first three full campaigns in Cleveland, he never finished a season well. ERA-wise, September was his worst month in all three of those years.

But, last season, the opposite effect occurred. Despite having a less than rousing first-half of the season with a 5.24 ERA heading into the All-Star Break, he broke out with the best span of his career to end the year. He went 10-1 over his final 14 starts with an ERA of 2.60. His walks diminished and his strikeout rate rose to the sixth best in the league.

This season, he has performed even better than how he finished last year. His strikeout rate is the highest of his career (and once again the sixth-best in the league), while his walks rate is his personal lowest. His ERA is the fifth-lowest in the AL at 2.62. Also, his swing-and-miss rate is the highest of his career and his fastball average speed is faster than it has ever been, college or pros. He has allowed two or less runs in nine of his 13 starts.

Mike Foltynewicz, RHP Atlanta Braves

Mike Foltynewicz was the nineteenth pick by Houston in the 2010 MLB Draft. He was selected out of high school, and didn’t debut until 2014, but he got hammered by opposing hitters in Houston. He gave up 11 runs on 23 hits in just 18.2 innings.

He was shipped off to Atlanta during the following offseason, and has been a part of the starting rotation ever since. But, he has never had a season like this year.

“Folty” ranks third in the NL in ERA at 2.16, only behind Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer.  Prior to 2018, he never earned better than a 4.31 ERA.

Compared to his NL All-Star competition, he fares very well. He ranks in the top-10 in the National League in WAR for pitchers, strikeouts and strikeout rate, adjusted ERA+ and hits and homeruns per-nine.

Also, Foltynewicz is gaining momentum at the right time. The All-Star Game is about a month away, and the Braves’ big righty is going through a dominant stretch. Over his last seven starts, he has thrown 42 innings and given up four runs.

In this period, he pitched a complete game shutout of the division rival Washington Nationals, a game of which he struck out 11 hitters. It was the second time in that span where he sent down double-digit batters on strikes.

Clippers Offseason Outlook

The Clippers have a tricky summer ahead of them. They traded away their 2019 first-round pick, so they’ll need a roster ready compete for the postseason next year because having a poor record serves no purpose. So, what can they do?

The salary cap in the NBA for 2017-2018 was $99 million with the luxury tax sitting at $119 million. The cap has increased by $24 million since 2015-2016, resulting in teams being able to give more max contracts to top players.

The Clippers were $7 million under the luxury tax limit last season, when they finished 42-40 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Despite missing the postseason, the Clippers had the tenth highest payroll in the league.

A lot of what the Clippers can do this offseason will result from player options. Center DeAndre Jordan and guards Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic all have to decide whether to opt into their deals or to become unrestricted free agents.

Other players who could sign elsewhere are guards Avery Bradley and Tyrone Wallace who are unrestricted free agents. Also, energy big Montrezl Harrell is a restricted free agent with a $1.8 million qualifying offer. Harrell could draw some interest since he is 24-years-old and has improved in each of his three seasons.

So, who is still on the books?

For starters, Sixth Man of the Year finalist Lou Williams signed a three-year contract worth $8 million per year just after the season ended. Forward C.J. Williams agreed on for two more years and will be paid $1.4 million in 2018-2019. Also, Wesley Johnson already opted into his deal worth $6 million for next season.

$56.4 million more is going towards seven players who were already locked in for 2018-2019, $21.6 million of which is going to Danilo Gallinari who played just 21 games last year (he made more than a million dollars per game).

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Photo via @gallinari8888

With all of those deals, and the money Los Angeles owes to past players, the Clippers are in line to spend about $74.7 million for next season at the beginning of June.

Theoretically, if all three players with options opt in, then the Clippers will be spending $112 million for next season before free agency starts.

They all could opt out and renegotiate for more lucrative deals. The most likely to do so being DeAndre Jordan, as he signed his last deal in 2015, before the salary cap rose, and stayed healthy and productive last season.

Rivers’ case for opting out is that he has steadily improved his scoring and three-point shooting in each season that he has been in Los Angeles. But, former GM Doc Rivers was highly criticized for giving his son $12 million dollars to be Chris Paul’s backup in the first place, so Austin Rivers may feel like he won’t get paid as much by another team for next season.

Teodosic should likely opt in. A nagging foot injury held him to 37 games in his debut season last year, but the Clippers were 24-13 in those games. He is a bit of an anomaly, entering the league at age 30 from Europe. Due to his health concerns and age, perhaps opting for the $6 million he’d earn with the Clippers is the smartest move.

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Photo via @MilosTeodosic4

So, the team’s financial situation gives General Manager Lawrence Frank and Consultant Jerry West a couple of options for how to handle the offseason.

One thing they can do is work to retain most of last year’s team and their new draft picks, they have the twelfth.

That means negotiating with Jordan, Rivers and Teodosic if they opt out, as well as matching any offer that Harrell receives.

Bradley was paid just under $9 million per year for the past four years, so he will most likely look to get a pay raise, one that the Clippers will not be able to afford.

Wallace was on a two-way deal last year, like C.J. Williams, meaning he bounced back-and-forth from the G-League. Wallace will most likely play Summer League ball before possibly getting re-signed for a friendly deal, similar to C.J. Williams’ contract. He could be a valuable cheaper player as he played well in his 30 games (19 starts) last year.

Injuries played a big role last season for the Clippers, so perhaps with better luck health-wise and a couple of new young talents, Head Coach Doc Rivers’ club could jump back into the postseason.

However, another way of going about the offseason for Frank and West could start with creating cap room. This requires letting Jordan walk, after a decade of being a Clipper, if he opts out. It also means letting Austin Rivers leave if he opts out, as well as not re-signing Harrell or Wallace.

If those contracts are gone, and perhaps a trade is made to take more money off of the books, then the Clippers could add another max deal by entering the sweepstakes for free agents like Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins.

But, the Clippers refrained from trading Jordan at the deadline, which could mean that they just didn’t find the right deal for him or that re-signing their center is part of their plan. Plus, most of the Clippers’ workouts for players who have entered the draft have been with wings and guards.

Maybe there is a trade brewing to send a few players away while keeping the core with Jordan and Lou Williams intact and pairing them with their youngsters.

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West and Frank could also possibly package their two picks and try to move up in the draft. There are rumors that the Clippers are interested in European prospect Luka Doncic, who is a highly regarded combo guard. He won the MVP of his league in 2017-2018.

A lot can happen this summer for the Clippers’ franchise, especially with Jerry West calling a lot of the shots. He worked wonders as a consultant with Golden State, perhaps he has the right eye to see how to help the Clippers become contenders again.

 

The Cavaliers have a lot to do in order to keep LeBron James

The Cleveland Cavaliers could end up being the NBA’s biggest losers of the offseason. Losing LeBron James in free agency would turn this perennial title contender into a mediocre team that could struggle to make the eighth seed in the East.

James is coming off of one of the greatest playoff runs in NBA history. He averaged 34 points per-game with nine assists and nine rebounds per-contest. He led an otherwise struggling Cleveland team into the Finals for the fourth consecutive year. He also scored 51 points in a losing effort in Game 1 of the Finals.

James will have a lot of options to choose from this summer, and the Cavs don’t appear to be the most appealing. The most prominent reason why is because they will have a difficult time improving their roster that got swept by Golden State.

The Cavaliers paid well over the salary cap this season and are scheduled to still be over the cap in 2018-2019, regardless of whether James re-signs or not.

This is because the Cavs owe Kevin Love over $24 million next year, they owe George Hill $19 million, Tristan Thompson will get $17.5 million, J.R. Smith will get over $14 million and Jordan Clarkson will earn $12.5 million.

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The Salary cap sits at $99 million, and those five players will make $87.8 million combined. Another $14 million is owed to four others. There is no money to work with for General Manager Koby Altman, which is a problem since the talent surrounding James this past season proved lackluster in the playoffs.

The most exciting thing they can do this offseason with the roster they have, besides possibly bringing back James, is drafting the eighth overall pick that they received from the Kyrie Irving trade.

Adding one young player most likely won’t be substantial enough to bring back James. The best chance Cleveland has is to try their best to trade some of their big contracts and create cap room.

This could prove tough. Hill is now 32-years-old and had his worst statistical season since 2012.

Thompson also experienced the worst year scoring wise of his career, and his rebounds-per-game were the lowest since his rookie campaign.

Also, there are cheaper options for teams to sign at shooting guard than J.R. Smith, so many teams will likely pass on him unless given draft compensation. Marco Belinelli, same age and position as Smith, scored more points and shot more efficiently for Atlanta this past season. He made half as much money as Smith last season, and he is a current free agent.

Lou Williams was just re-signed by the Clippers for $8 million per year. He scored 22 points-per-game while leading the Clippers in assists this season, and he will be paid just over half as much as Smith next year.

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Now, if James leaves, then the Cavs will need their eighth overall pick. Historically, players like four-time All-Star Tom Chambers, three-time All-Star Detlef Schrempf and three-time Sixth-Man of the Year Jamal Crawford have been selected there, so a high quality young player could fall to them.

Trading future picks could also prove dangerous because if James leaves, then those picks get higher and more valuable.

But, in order to keep “The King,” they will need to deal some of their picks away with some of their big contracts. A rebuilding team could possibly be willing to eat up Thompson or Smith’s deal if that means they get a future pick.

They could use their picks to trade for a star talent to pair with James possibly. Perhaps the Charlotte Hornets would give up 2018 All-Star point guard Kemba Walker for the eighth overall selection, perhaps a second rounder and then a contract like Thompson’s.

Walker is no Kyrie Irving, but he a talented guard on a team who could be willing to sell. He averaged 22.1 points-per-game this past season and shoots well from three.

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Or, perhaps the Cavs could try to trade their picks and contracts for cheap role players and create cap to go after free agents that James may like to play with. But, that would require a lot of maneuvering, and maybe force Cleveland to deal more picks than they are comfortable with.

Altman and the Cleveland front office have a critical summer ahead of them, and they’ll need to be active from the start in order to have a chance to keep LeBron James.