Can Dennis Schroder be Theoretical Cam Payne for the Thunder?

Sam Presti has been busy this offseason. Carmelo Anthony became an Atlanta Hawk; Paul George remained in Oklahoma City; Jerami Grant and Raymond Felton re-signed with the Thunder; Nerlens Noel even joined the club. Outside of surprising us all in succeeding in keeping George in Oklahoma City, the most interesting risk Presti took this summer was acquiring Dennis Schroder from the Hawks so Atlanta could pay Anthony a lot of money to not play in Philips Arena this season. Trading for Schroder isn’t as flashy as signing Noel, or retaining Grant, or even retaining Felton -- but it could be the most interesting. Since trading James Harden, Presti has been on a seemingly never-ending search to find the right backcourt partner for the enigmatic Russell Westbrook; he has looked at Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, D.J. Augustin, Dion Waiters, Victor Oladipo, Ish Smith, and, perhaps most notably, Cameron Payne, who Presti took in the backend of the lottery in 2015. (You can definitely make the case the answer is Oladipo, but Presti acquired the Indiana Hoosier via trade not through the lottery.) The offcourt, handshake compatibility never found its way onto an on-court, basketball compatibility. Maybe Schroder can be the backcourt partner Presti has been searching for. Maybe.

Finding the right partner to play off Westbrook is a difficult task, what makes Westbrook great is what makes Westbrook hard to play with -- if you’re the other guard. Steven Adams, Grant, Enes Kanter, Andre Roberson, George, etc., all have benefited from Westbrook’s unique, Tasmanian devil style approach to the point-guard position because they’re never asked to do too much. Unfortunately, if you’re a guard trying to contribute next to Westbrook, the proposition becomes increasingly difficult because what helps George have one of his best seasons of his career, is a detriment to a player like Oladipo who has shown with the Pacers that he could have done more, but it couldn’t have come to fruition next to Westbrook. Therein lies the dilemma for Presti and Westbrook -- the Thunder need another capable, competent guard to pair next to Westbrook for thirty-plus minutes in the playoffs, but you also don’t want them to be as old as Felton or as bad as Payne. You want to find a guy who doesn’t have Oladipo or Harden-level upside, but you also don’t want a guy teams just completely ignore come playoff time. You want a combo guard who can do a little of everything without ever doing too much. Maybe you want a Dennis Schroder.

Schroder, after years and years of denial, is not good enough to be the lead guard on a good team in the NBA. Schroder is 24-years-old now, will turn 25 before the 2018-19 season starts, and he’s just as much as a mystery now as he was when the Hawks drafted him years ago. He has the length and look of a guard who can defend multiple positions at a high level, but he’s not a good defender; he has the vision and skill set to attack the paint at will, but he averaged 4.0 FTAs a game in 2017-18; he has become a passable deep threat, but he shot 29 percent from deep last season. Nothing about Schroder makes sense, but he’s a player you can’t quit.

The best-case scenario for Schroder, now is a player the Hawks just replaced with: Jeremy Lin. At first glance, this is an odd comparison. Oddly enough, though, these combo guards have a lot in common. Lin has always struggled defensively, has never had an above-average outside shot, and will never be good enough to be the lead guard on a contender. However, Lin found his niche in Charlotte, playing off high-usage guard Kemba Walker for one season before bolting to Brooklyn. Five-man lineups that included both Walker and Lin in 2015-16 for the Hornets routinely posted positive point-differentials -- the Walker/Lin/Batum/Williams/Jefferson lineup was a +63 in 90 minutes together that season. When you watched that Hornets team, it made sense. Courtney Lee was the perfect off-ball guy to have next to Walker to start, but the team didn’t fall off a cliff when Walker played with a true combo guard in Lin, either. In Oklahoma City, Roberson will continue to be the starter next to Westbrook, but instead of inserting an Alex Abrines here or a Raymond Felton there, the Thunder can go close to 48 minutes of a guard rotation of Westbrook, Roberson, and Schroder. Come playoff time, that matters. (See, Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder First Round Series, 2018).

Once it was clear that Schroder was going to be playing in Oklahoma City next to Westbrook, NBA Twitter rejoiced. On the surface, this doesn’t appear to be the best fit. Adding another, high-usage, chaotic guard next to a player like Westbrook just doesn’t seem like an idea destined to work. But then you hear about Westbrook being Schroder’s favorite player; then you hear about Presti and Billy Donovan meeting with Schroder to hash out his role on the team next season; then you think about the kind of guard best-suited to come into the game late in the first quarter to relieve a player like Westbrook -- it’s Dennis Schroder. If there was ever a guard who would instantly fall in love with the Cult of Westbrook, it’s Dennis Schroder.

But it’s important to temper expectations. When the Thunder drafted Payne, they had Augustin and Westbrook in place, and Payne had a chance to develop. It didn’t work out, for a variety of reasons, but the rationale for taking a player like Payne at No. 14 in 2015 was sound -- he was an efficient, low-usage guy who could theoretically play off Westbrook for twenty-to-twenty-four minutes a night. There was no James Harden upside, there was just the hope that he could be a third guard who kept the team afloat when Westbrook needed to rest. Schroder is 24, and still has the potential to do all of those things. In Oklahoma City in a decreased role, he can pick his spots better, he can dominate the pick-and-roll with Grant and Noel, he can play the Your-Turn-My-Turn game with Westbrook when necessary. He can be the kind of NBA player he was always meant to be -- a third guard on a contender that did a lot of things, but never did anything extremely well.

On a  team like Oklahoma City, that’s fine. The team has Westbrook, the team has Roberson, the team even has Abrines and Felton, and now they have Schroder. He isn’t the missing piece to dethrone the Warriors, no, but he does have all the makings of a guard who should thrive in a more limited, confined role in Oklahoma City. Presti continues adding intriguing pieces to surround George and Westbrook and Schroder is the most-intriguing piece yet.

Saturday Morning Thoughts: What Are the Chicago Bulls Doing?

Well, the Chicago Bulls were fun for a bit. Wendell Carter looked like a modern big who would play in the NBA for 20 years, be a real plus-minus machine in his prime, and coexist with The Finnisher perfectly as the Baby Bulls 2.0 evolves into something fun and interesting. The rest of the backcourt was still a work in progress in the purest sense, but, at the very least, the Bulls looked as though they had at least found their 4 and 5 of the future in Carter and Lauri Markkanen. Kind of like the New York Knicks with Kristaps Porzingis and Kevin Knox -- that’s a hell of a frontcourt combination for the future, but the backcourt still needs serious -- SERIOUS -- work. You can work with Carter and Markkanen as a starting point in a rebuild, but you don’t lock yourself into more-than-one-year deals with Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker simultaneously. Seriously, what the fuck, GarPax?

Chicago, unlike other teams undergoing pain, long-term rebuilds in smaller markets, still soared in attendance last season despite being given a product of Kris Dunn bricking three-pointers, giving the starting veterans the Keith Bogans rotation minutes, and 23.3 MPG of Cameron Payne doing whatever it is that Cameron Payne does. In most markets, the product that Chicago put out last season would have been a nightmare, but Chicago is always going to kill in attendance, like the Knicks, so the pressure to reload and not rebuild has never made sense. You don’t have to lock-in LaVine for four years or sign the lovable hometown kid to get butts in seats. If the United Center is open, people will come.

Maybe GarPax think they can move LaVine to a contender desperate for scoring on the perimeter in six months if LaVine continues to struggle this fall, or maybe they see Parker as the third or fourth big behind the Finnisher, Carter, and Robin Lopez? Or maybe they want to ensure the Bulls get another quality lottery pick next summer and they know playing Parker major minutes at the three alongside LaVine and Dunn will ensure this team stinks for the two years Parker is under-contract. From the outside, the optics of the LaVine and Parker deals look remarkably similar to the Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo deals from a few seasons ago when the front office decided Fred Hoiberg was enjoying his time as head coach of the Chicago Bulls too much and he needed to be taken down a peg. (Mission accomplished.)

But we’ll see, maybe it all works out and the Bulls are fun in 2018-19 -- not defensively, of course, because it’s going to be like when Nicky moves to Vegas in CASINO and everything is on fire all the time. Offensively, they’ll be fun, and fans will enjoy watching this group make a lot of 3s and maybe Markkanen takes a huge leap in Year 2 that makes us all forget this team is paying Parker, LaVine, Lopez and Omer Asik $65 million in 2018-19. GarPax forever!

Here are some other random, ridiculous Saturday morning thoughts for you, the reader, to enjoy.

***

It’s interesting how people seem to assume any movie that adds Idris Elba to the cast means it’s going to be incredible. People all over Twitter rejoiced once it was revealed Stringer Bell would be the villain in The Rock’s FAST & FURIOUS spin-off. He was just in DARK TOWER, folks.

I bartend on the weekends, and, because I’m in charge of the TVs while I’m there, I’ve become an expert on what’s on all the freaking time: DUMB & DUMBER. This is a good thing. I’m fairly certain I could quote this movie in full -- the worst kind of movie-watcher, I know -- but it never doesn’t make me smile. I will never not perk up when I see this movie is on, and I will never be ashamed of cracking up as Lloyd Christmas asks the hitman if he’d like to hear the most annoying sound in the world. It’s that simple.

Is ALWAYS SUNNY coming back without Dennis or not? If so, I’m intrigued. If not, I’m intrigued. Either way, I hope this show never ends. Fuck it, let’s give it 23 seasons. If you’re a fan of the show, would you really be upset if they just kept making this show? Even if they replaced Dennis with a long-lost cousin? If the answer is yes, you’re a liar. There are ten episodes a season, twenty-ish minutes a piece and will always be the perfect show to have on in the background while you’re doing other stuff and want to sometimes look over and see what Dr. Mantis Toboggan is up to.

Jeremy Lin is an Atlanta Hawk. For now. If he remains on the roster, this season is going to be really fun. Sure, Philips Arena will still be emptier than a Tim Pawlenty rally most nights, but Trae Young and Lin manning the backcourt for another sixty-plus loss season should be entertaining. You know what would be more entertaining, though? Luka Doncic. Imagine if the Hawks could have taken the best player in the 2018 NBA Draft? If only.

Have you listened to Interpol’s new single “The Rover”? No? Why? What are you doing with your life? Am I biased considering the trio is my favorite band of all-time? Who is to say? Either way, Paul Banks and friends should keep making emo-y tunes for the rest of my life because life is hard and Interpol is good.

Bret Bielema is now on the New England Patriots coaching staff. I thought you should know.

I have watched exactly zero World Cup games? Is that weird? Whether it’s the Olympics, the World Cup, etc., I’ve never been drawn to these sort of events. If presented with the choice of a 2007 game between the Jazz and the Raptors versus England and Croatia in 2018, I’m taking the former every time.

I hope Tim Tebow finds his way onto the main roster for the Mets this season. The team, somehow, is fighting with the Marlins for last place in the NL East this season. A September call-up for Tebow would be insane and fun and I’ve talked myself into wanting to see Tim Tebow, Mets Superstar become a thing. Downside? It may unravel Keith Law, and I need his baseball writing and analysis in my life. This is a tough one.

Have a good weekend, everybody.

Smackdown Live: Let's Remember The Usos

Nobody stays on top of the mountain forever. Hulk Hogan, John Cena, The Rock, Steve Austin, Randy Orton, Ric Flair and the list goes on and on. The only consistent in life is change, and, sometimes, that change can be good for a person, and, sometimes, that change can be very bad for a person. In 2017, The Usos were on top of the mountain on Smackdown Live. They were given consistent promo time, competed in one of the best matches of the year (see, Hell In A Cell 2017), and held the Smackdown Live Tag-Team championships for a respectable amount of time. Their character adjustment -- one that seemed to more closely align with their real-life personality -- paid dividends both in the ring and outside of it. You remember those early “Usos Penitentiary” promos; you remember that July 4 episode of Smackdown Live where The Usos broke the fourth wall on Xavier Woods; you remember 2017 as the Year of The Usos on the blue brand.

2018 hasn’t been as kind to The Usos as the dynamic duo has drifted back into the background while the creative team gives other tag-teams an opportunity at catching fire the same way The Usos did last year. 2018 has been about getting fans emotionally invested in the Bludgeon Brothers. Since dropping the titles to Harper and Rowan, we’ve seen the twins sporadically -- like most Smackdown Live roster members -- but it’s clear following their loss to the Bludgeon Brothers that creative doesn’t have a plan for them in 2018 like they did in 2017. The decision to move away from The Usos to try and create a new hot, tag-team act is an understandable one, but like Tennessee after they fired Phil Fulmer -- they just chose the wrong one. The Bludgeon Brothers aren’t working, fans don’t care, and it’s clear this veteran duo isn’t going to have a 2017 Usos-like run in 2018.

That’s what made this week’s episode of Smackdown Live fun. In the opening segment, we were given a heavily-scripted back-and-forth promo between Daniel Bryan and Kane that mercifully came to a close once The Usos’ music hit. It was a surprising moment to see the twins in this spot, but it also felt right. While even The Miz couldn’t even get fans to really hate The Bludgeon Brothers to promote their feud with Team Hell No at Extreme Rules, The Usos stepped right back into the spotlight as though they had never left. Their quick wit, their speedy delivery and funny one-liners hit. The fans in the audience were intrigued -- The Usos vs. Team Hell No could be a lot of fun. The Usos greatest achievement on this night? The phrase, “Ay, what up Kane!” was uttered and I didn’t reflexively cringe at just the thought of another Kane storyline.

Should Kofi Kingston have the Jeff Hardy US Title Open Challenge Spot?

Kofi Kingston is in great shape. Jeff Hardy is 40-years-old. Sure, when John Cena was doing his own iteration of the mid-card open challenge gimmick he wasn’t a young guy, either, but open challenges should feel less like a Curtis Axel vs. Matt Hardy match and more like an average Seth Rollins match. Kingston, who we know still has the athleticism to put on quality match after quality match, has nothing going on right now. Since subtlety has never been the WWE’s strong suit, Big E not joining Kingston and Xavier Woods in wardrobe choices was a strong indication as to what’s in store for the New Day this summer. Kingston’s addition to the Money in the Bank ladder match last a few weeks ago was a nice moment for a veteran who has earned it, but he’s too good to not be wrestling on Smackdown Live on a semi-consistent basis. Yes, Hardy is still over, but so is Kingston, and wouldn’t most wrestling fans prefer to see Kingston vs. Shinsuke Nakamura at Extreme Rules instead?

The Asuka and Carmella feud is about out of gas.

This was a good week for Asuka. The Empress of Tomorrow got promo time, connected on the hit of smack of the night, and looks to have finally found her footing again as the serious, dominant character she thrived with on NXT.

After losing to Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania 34 in a stunner, Asuka has stumbled. Granted, so has Flair, but losing her undefeated streak briefly hindered the Asuka mystique. The draw, for years, was that Asuka just didn’t lose professional wrestling matches. It was simple, but it worked. She didn’t say much, but her wrestling said it all. Asuka is still the best wrestler on the blue brand, and you can make the case that -- outside of Tamina Snuka and Lana -- the Smackdown Live Women’s champion is the worst. But it hasn’t mattered as what Carmella can’t do in the ring she can do on the mic -- bring it. That sort of contrast is inherently interesting, but only to a point. Eventually, these two have to have a real wrestling match, a match that gets time, and a match that doesn’t include a whole lot of James Ellsworth. That time is here, and Asuka is ready to run the gauntlet through the talented women’s division on Smackdown Live.

Lifted from the Legal Pad:

  • When did Daniel Bryan become a better talker than Kane? It was unbelievable how much Bryan had to carry Kane through that opening segment. Good luck, Knoxville.

  • The Miz brought back the ridiculous, goofy headband this week. Please stop, Miz.

  • Speaking of, The Miz and Jeff Hardy doing a tribute to the Axel vs. Hardy match on Raw with its snail-like pace was a beautiful thing.

  • Jeff Hardy has his back turned for these promos because he doesn’t want the crowd to see his Thesaurus.

  • “You tried to abduct my wife!”

  • The Usos calling out Paige for her Kurt Angle-esque blunder of giving Team Hell No a title shot for reuniting last week was perfect.

  • Jeff Hardy gets toasty during his matches.

  • Vince McMahon wrote the James Ellsworth promo, and he believes all of it.

  • Where the Hell is Andrade “Cien” Almas?

  • James Ellsworth push-ups are good.

  • The reactions to that Asuka slap from the crowd were the best.

  • Was this AJ Styles first match on Smackdown since before WrestleMania? Seemed like even the fans were shocked to see the champ.

  • Rusev was excellent in his back-and-forth with Styles. Shame he has zero chance of winning in two weeks.

  • Peyton Royce has all the stamina in the world. Becky Lynch continued her win streak, but it felt like Royce actually tired her out. Fun match.

  • The Bludgeon Brothers ended Smackdown Live by just staring at Team Hell No for ten seconds. Who thought this was a good idea? Why intentionally end the show with crickets?

Monday Night Raw: Roman Reigns Pulls Double Duty

With WWE Universal champion Brock Lesnar sitting at home watching the Minnesota Twins try and turn around what has been a disastrous 2018 season, Roman Reigns, being the company man that he is, is now having to pull double-duty on Monday Night Raw.

Reigns, who kicked off Monday night’s episode, really enjoys calling Bobby Lashley something far easier -- “Bob.” Reigns, like Sami Zayn before him, is no fan of the former ECW legend. With Lesnar away, Reigns and Lashley believe they are The Guy on the A Show. There is just too much testosterone in play for the former world champions to get along. This feud -- if you can really call it that -- feels off. Not in the way Zayn and Lashley felt off -- as that was just bad and unfortunate and should get its own episode on How Did This Get Made? -- no, this feels like a feud that would make sense if you replaced Reigns with the Universal champion Brock Lesnar. Reigns versus Lashley feels as though Vince pitched this feud to Lesnar first as the big feud of the summer, the Beast passed, and Reigns was booked to feud with Lashley in his place not over the Universal title, no, something far more riveting -- pride.

Reigns’ other feud, however, couldn’t be more compelling. In Reigns’ opening promo, Intercontinental champion Dolph Ziggler and His Diesel Drew McIntyre interrupted the Big Dog before he could utter “Bob” for the fourteenth time to remind Reigns that the latter is incorrect in his assertion that this was his yard, when, in fact, it was the former’s ring. The dangerous duo jumped Reigns, Seth Freaking Rollins made the save, and, after pressing Raw general manager Kurt Angle for a few seconds backstage, were awarded an opportunity at wrestling Ziggler and McIntyre later on in the evening.

The tag-team match, after a rough first hour that included Curtis Axel and Woken Matt Hardy wrestling at a pace that even the tortoise found that he was bored with the in-ring action and a cringe-inducing visit to Dr. Shelby’s office for Bayley and Sasha Banks, was perfect. The storytelling, which began with Ziggler and Rollins showcasing just how good these two are at this whole pro wrestling thing and the perfect preview of what’s to come in their 30-minute Iron Man match at Extreme Rules in two weeks for the IC title, was off the charts, highlighted, perhaps, by the stare down between McIntyre and Reigns.

Reigns and McIntyre present an intriguing dynamic; Reigns is Vince McMahon’s golden goose, for now, but it’s easy to forget that McIntyre was McMahon’s original “Chosen One” years and years ago on Smackdown. Looking at them both, you can tell there is something there. We know McMahon wants to see more of his wrestlers go after that metaphorical brass ring; we know that McIntyre changed his body, improved his mic work, and improved his in-ring work in an effort to do just that. Every time you see McIntyre in the ring, he stands out. The man is a scene-stealer, similar to Braun Strowman, but he actually has the look and in-ring ability to go with it. As we learned on this episode of Raw, Reigns is a prideful professional wrestler who is insecure about anyone who dares to step foot in his yard. With McIntyre, not Lashley, Reigns has a reason to see McIntyre as a very real threat to replace him as Vince’s next long-term project. McIntyre is the real deal, and Reigns should be concerned. There is something there between these two, and, perhaps, something that should be explored this fall over the Universal title once Reigns closes SummerSlam with his arm raised high after finally putting down the Beast.

Kevin Owens is doing what he can for Braun Strowman. 

Outside of Reigns’ double-duty, the other major storyline on Monday Night Raw right now is Braun Strowman spending back-to-back summers trying to murder another professional wrestler. Last year, it was Reigns, and as we know, it didn’t end well for the Monster Among Men. (No, I will not use the new nickname, “Monster In The Bank”, as said nickname is not good and Michael Cole would be wise to stop force-feeding it down the viewers’ throats.) In this iteration of Strowman Really Wants To Kill An Important Wrestler On Raw, he is likely to succeed. Not succeed in murdering Owens, obviously, but rather, succeed in his feud with the best talker on Monday Night Raw. I suppose that’s progress.

We know that the WWE isn’t reaching out to the Bill Burr’s or Tom Segura’s of the world for advice on how to write comedy for their television programs, but sometimes they accidentally stumble onto something that works -- Kevin Owens and Braun Strowman fall into that category. Whether it was Owens ever so slowly backing into a non-existent parking spot before Monday night’s show, his bewilderment after Angle put him in a match with Strowman, and his slimeball decision to immediately run for the hillside thirty seconds into their main event match.

Yes, Owens hiding in the Porta Potty rather than calling an Uber or getting his Forrest Gump on and just running wasn’t the most cerebral decision the Quebecian has ever made, but the crowd ate it up, and this episode they were loudly chanting Owens’ location so that Strowman could do more cool shit with heavy shit. This feud is a simple one, but Owens is playing his role as the cowardly heel perfectly and it’s giving Strowman something positive to do while he remains on the outside looking in on the Universal title picture.

The Authors Of Pain and The Revival had very good weeks.

The Raw tag-team division is in shambles. That is completely unacceptable when you consider just how many tag-teams occupy space on the red brand outside of AOP and The Revival. Heath Slater and Rhyno haven’t been a hot act in two years; The Ascension can only be seen on Main Event whenever that airs; Ziggler and McIntyre are above the belts; the Fashion Police have been sporadically appearing on NXT live events; Titus Worldwide only wins matches in random WWE Universe Mode matches. Burn it all down.

Except for AOP and The Revival. They’ve always been the exception, but for a multitude of reasons, they’ve yet to find their footing on Raw. That is no longer the case, as AOP have their old NXT titantrons back and look as though they’re next in line to face the Deleters of Worlds in a big SummerSlam title match. The Revival, on the other hand, have taken control of their future on Raw by going after Reigns and Rollins in a smart effort to generate real, lasting heat. The more The Revival interfere and are able to deliver their eye-popping tag-team finisher, the Shatter Machine, the better their chances are of breaking through. They’ve always had it, now they’re taking it.

Lifted from the Legal Pad:

  • I really like that Raw is starting each show with an “ICYMI” promo to prepare viewers what’s in store on that night’s show and what really matters for the next month.

  • “I want to fight Bob.”

  • What makes this Ziggler and McIntyre pairing work so well is just how genuine they come off. It’s not a stretch to believe these two are hungry to finally break through after years of floundering.

  • Bo Dallas does a great Bray Wyatt impersonation. I wonder if they’re friends?

  • I don’t think fans know who to cheer for in the B-Team vs. Deleters of Worlds feud.

  • “Let’s go Hardy!” chant was the night’s biggest shocker.

  • Not even Dr. Shelby can save Bayley and Sasha Banks from Worst Feud of the Year for 2018.

  • “How’d it go with Bob?” - Seth Rollins.

  • Who backs into parking spots behinds heels like Kevin Owens?

  • Elias needs something to do. Feud with Dean Ambrose once he’s cleared?

  • Ember Moon may have killed Liv Morgan with that Eclipse. Morgan can sell.

  • I may be warming up to Heel Mojo Rawley. Send help.

  • Mickie James vs. Nia Jax happened at least 13 times before WrestleMania 34 this year.

  • No more Nia Jax promos. What’s worse than nails on a chalkboard?

  • This was the best Roman Week in 2018.

MLB With Nick Stellini of The Athletic And Sporting News (Ep. 171)

Chase Thomas is joined by The Athletic's Nick Stellini to try and diagnose what's going on with the St. Louis Cardinals (5:00), Tommy Pham falling off (10:00), the weird Dexter Fowler situation (15:00), whether or not they can trade for Manny Machado (20:00), the Milwaukee Brewers going after Noah Syndergaard (25:00), a potential Zack Wheeler deal with the Mets (30:00), Blake Snell not being moved by Tampa Bay (37:00), Freddie Freeman for NL MVP (40:00), and the Twins calling up Willians Astudillo (45:00).

What Are We Doing With Brock Lesnar?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Plans have changed backstage in the WWE.

According to the sheets of the dirty variety, WWE Universal champion Brock Lesnar will no longer be defending his championship at SummerSlam. Conventional wisdom suggested that WWE Network special would be the time and place for Brock Lesnar v. Roman Reigns III, especially after the once-booked now-cancelled No. 1 contenders match scheduled for July’s Extreme Rules event. Per the report, the plan is still for the Big Dog to be the wrestler to finally dethrone Lesnar from the top spot on Raw, but it doesn’t seem to be in coming to fruition sooner rather than later.

This is not a new development for the Raw, as the Monday night program has dealt with the absence of their main champion for months and months and months and I don’t even remember the last time the Universal champion was on the show. In 2017, The Miz and his entourage served as the de facto champion of Raw, which in turn elevated the status of the Intercontinental title. The show’s main champion not being there has become the norm -- Lesnar has never even wrestled a match on Raw since his return in 2012 -- but it’s hard to see how that’s been a positive for the company. Sure, Vince McMahon and his empire have had a good year -- the XFL, the NXT UK Division, and the new television deals for Raw and Smackdown Live -- but the fans who have sat through those three-hour slogs every Monday night wouldn’t say the product itself has had a good year. Sure, Lesnar absence isn’t entirely to blame for the show’s struggles, but a more active champion that fans are interested in seeing on their television each week is never a bad thing -- who is complaining about Smackdown Live WWE champion A.J. Styles being around more often than not? (Before you say it, I know Styles has been suspiciously absent from the blue brand in recent weeks and hasn’t wrestled on the show for weeks now, but that seems to be more of an injury situation and less of a voluntary situation. If the choice is between more Brock Lesnar segments or more Bayley and Sasha Banks interactions or Deleters Of Worlds promos or Titus Worldwide appearing on my television screen, you go for the former every single time. Obviously, Lesnar’s contract doesn’t require that sort of consistency, so creative has had to try and book a compelling television program while simultaneously never knowing the long-term plan for the show’s most-important wrestler and titleholder.

While the red brand has tread water without their top champion, the blue brand has thrived. While Styles has been temporarily sidelined, the shows haven’t missed a beat. Just this week, after Rusev defeated Xavier Woods in a fun, albeit short, match the Bulgarian Brute cut a promo that resulted in dueling “AJ Styles” and “Rusev Day” chants ahead of their WWE title match at Extreme Rules. Jeff Hardy has seen his role elevated; The Miz has tried everything in his bag of tricks to get fans to muster any sort of emotional response to the existence of the Bludgeon Brothers; Daniel Bryan has now reunited with Kane to temporarily -- the latter must have mayoral stuff to do, right? -- reform the fan-favorite Team Hell No. (Although, with Bryan now being a “Yes” man, is the duo now Team Hell Yes? Hell yes it is.) So the show hasn’t needed their biggest draw and top dog around to put on a compelling show on Tuesday nights -- but this is a two-hour show. The one advantage Smackdown Live will always have over Raw is the absence of that one hour. For Raw, it’s a death sentence, for Smackdown Live it’s a gift.

Styles not being around consistently is a new development, and after Extreme Rules, it’s hard to see that continue to be the case. Lesnar not being around is the norm, and it’s easy to forget just how long that has been the case. A few weeks ago, Lesnar’s reign surpassed CM Punk’s to further wipe Chicago’s favorite son from the WWE record books. Punk held the WWE title for 434 days, and, like Lesnar, it felt like the company was comfortable with him holding the belt for a long stretch of time because of the comfortability factor and the time it bought them to figure out who was next. Now, we know who is next, and it’s not Braun Strowman as much as the company wants you to really believe. No, it’s still Roman Reigns; it has always been Roman Reigns; It will be Roman Reigns until Vince McMahon relinquishes control of Raw.

But there is value in having a champion like Lesnar, who, in theory, should be able to put over another wrestler in a major way once he does finally drop the Universal title. Similar to Kazuchika Okada, he dropped the top title in New Japan Pro Wrestling at the perfect time to the perfect person. Had the WWE handled Lesnar’s reign in similar fashion to Okada, the payoff would have been enormous. Instead, nobody is invested in the Lesnar Universal title reign and, the Kenny Omega in this analogy is Roman Reigns, which, really, tells you everything you need to know about how things are going creatively in the WWE. The company fails over and over again long-term storytelling, from Bayley and Banks, to Nia Jax and Alexa Bliss, to Daniel Bryan and The Miz, the list is never-ending. The WWE could have spent the last two years telling a story similar to Okada and Omega, but they did not do that. They could have done it with Finn Balor; they could have done it with Seth Rollins; they could have done it with Strowman; they could have done it with Kevin Owens. They could have done it with anyone the fans have shown to get behind in unanimous fashion -- they chose Roman Reigns.

Taking the title of Lesnar and placing it on Reigns is not going to be pleasant. Fans won’t be excited Reigns finally beat Lesnar, no, fans will be excited this feud is finally finished. It’s done. The story has reached its conclusion. It will be a sigh of relief, with the company now being able to move forward. We can finally get the Universal champion on WWE Network specials consistently; we can finally get a Universal champion who, at the very least, will put on good title matches consistently; we can finally say the elephant in the room -- Lesnar v. Reigns III -- is behind us. Like ripping off a Band-aid, it’s better pull the thing off fast rather than slow. It’s going to hurt -- as much as McMahon may not want it to -- but the longer you pull and tug the worse it’s going to be. For everyone.

But you can’t blame Lesnar for dragging this out, it’s in best interest to squeeze as much money out of the WWE as possible before his next gigantic payday in the UFC. Lesnar is 40-years-old now, and Father Time still arrives even for the athletic freaks like the Beast. If he knows he only has one more wrestling match left, why not keep pushing it back? Lesnar is the company’s biggest draw and only superstar -- everyone knows who Brock freaking Lesnar is. Some people know who A.J. Styles is. (John Cena is in the same camp as Lesnar, but it doesn’t feel like he should qualify at this point, free agent and all.) Vince McMahon is paying Lesnar a lot of money and will continue to do so as long as Lesnar keeps his appetite for another UFC run at bay. Why walk away now if you’re Lesnar? It’s the best gig in professional wrestling. He should drag this out for another five years. I would.

In a way, it reminds me of LeBron James’ second run in Cleveland. When James returned home, had all the leverage in the world. He was and still is the best player in the world, and part of his return included a power grab. Rather than commit long-term, James opted for shorter contracts, which put Cleveland in a perpetual bind, but that’s the price you pay for greatness. Having Lesnar is a lot better than not; having James is a lot better than not. (Get excited, Cleveland fans! The Collin Sexton era is here!) LeBron has all the leverage wherever he goes, and he has earned that. He will also continue to exercise that for as long as he can because he is a smart guy and businessman. Lesnar will also continue to exercise his power over Vince McMahon as long as he can because he is a smart guy and businessman. Not many athletes reach the heights that James and Lesnar have in their day, but they made it and they’re going to make the most of it.

Ultimately, this situation won’t doom Roman Reigns as he was doomed regardless of what happened with Lesnar going forward. Really, this dooms Balor, Owens, Rollins, and, especially Strowman, who certainly won’t find himself in a position to cash-in his Money in the Bank contract anytime soon. It would be nice to see Lesnar vs. Rollins or Lesnar vs. Balor or even Lesnar vs. Elias for the Universal title at a WWE Network special. That’s not going to happen, though. Lesnar isn’t signing on for that, and he’s ready to move on it will end with the referee holding Reigns’ arm high. One day, Lesnar will be gone, Reigns will be champion, and people will still be fantasy booking Strowman as The Guy in the WWE. That day will just be here later than previously anticipated, and it is all up Brock freaking Lesnar.

Does Freddie Freeman Really Deserve the NL MVP?

Freddie Freeman deserves to be the National League MVP in 2018.

He just does, and, barring injury, he will win it.

Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt started off horribly; Nolan Arenado feels like a guy who will always belong in the conversation but will never feel like the most important player in the NL; Matt Kemp dropped a bunch of weight and is slashing 306/346/531 on a Los Angeles team that seems to be righting the ship; Brandon Belt has missed time, too, and you really can’t make the case he’s been better than Freeman this year; Bryce Harper isn’t having his best season and has been overshadowed by 19-year-old phenom Juan Soto; Odubel Herrera, Lorenzo Cain and/or Christian Yelich deserve love, and Scooter Gennett just terrorized the Braves in the Reds’ three-game series in Atlanta this week, but do any of these names feel like they deserve the NL MVP over the best player on the surprising, division-leading Braves?

They don’t.

This is why giving an AL and NL MVP award is so stupid. The NL is a mess, with over half of the league still having a realistic chance of qualifying for the playoffs this fall. There really are no great teams, just a lot of solid B+ or A- teams that have a plethora of talented guys, as mentioned above, but they just don’t feel like they should ever win an MVP. If you look at the AL, you have Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Aaron Judge, J.D. Martinez, Jose Ramirez, George Springer, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Manny Machado, Jose Altuve and I’m probably forgetting several others. Freeman belongs in this group, but it feels wrong that only one of those guys can the AL MVP while looking at the choices in the NL? Is there a GM out there that wouldn’t take what Betts, Trout, Ramirez, Lindor and Judge are doing this season over Freeman? I doubt it.

So what are we doing here?

Trout is having arguably the best season of his career -- and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are playing .500 baseball and Shohei Otani is on the shelf -- and he’ll probably take home the AL MVP. He leads the majors in WAR (6.7), Offensive WAR (5.9), OBP (.460), tied with Betts in OPS (1.101), Runs Created (92), and Adjusted OPS+ (205). What you’ll find when comparing Trout’s insane season with other AL MVP candidates, like Betts and Altuve and Lindor, for instance, is how close they are to Trout in a variety of categories. Trout has been the best player in baseball, yes, but Betts, Altuve, Lindor, and Machado are having stellar seasons, too.

It can’t happen, but I’d like to propose a change to this year’s NL MVP voting: Let the AL stars not named Mike Trout compete. Everybody plays everybody now, anyway, so, really, what is the rationale behind still splitting the awards by league? When we look back years later, unless you’re a Braves fan, you’re not going to remember the season Freeman is having, no, you’re going to remember how freaking stacked the top of the AL was and, even though Trout was the obvious choice for AL MVP, there were a bunch of other guys, who, in any other year, would have been deserving of MVP, too. Nobody is taking Freeman over Betts; Freeman over Judge; maybe even Freeman over Lindor or Ramirez or Machado. It’s not too late, Rob Manfred, you can still drop the charade!

So let’s give -- what used to be the NL MVP now known as the Not Mike Trout MVP -- to Betts. The Red Sox are going to win over 100 games, and Betts is a major reason why. He’s the best player on a real, October contender. ( On a serious note: Won’t it feel weird for both MVP winners to not play for team’s without a chance of winning the World Series this year?) Yes, Martinez has been worth every penny, a bout with carpal tunnel is precisely what David Price needed to get back on track in Boston, and the only thing to complain about in Boston is Blake Swihart never putting it together. Betts has been worth a WAR of 4.6 -- Freeman a few spots behind in seventh overall among qualified hitters, per Fangraphs -- and, he only maintains a WRC+ of 193. For reference, only Trout is ahead of him with a 199 WRC+. Freeman has a WRC+ of 155, which is elite, too, but a WRC+ in the 190s, like only Betts and Trout own, is just ridiculous. Betts does it all -- he hits for average, doesn’t strike out a lot, hits for power (20 HRs for Betts, 15 for Freeman), and plays above-average defense. Betts is the total package and then some -- he’s just not Mike Trout.

You could sell me on Ramirez for the Not Mike Trout MVP award, or Lindor, or Judge, or Machado, or even Altuve but you can’t sell me on it being Freeman. If the conversation is whether or not Freeman is a top-10 player, it’s not a debate: Freddie Freeman is a top-10 player in MLB. If the conversation is whether or not Freeman winning an MVP but Betts and Lindor and Ramirez and Judge and Altuve doesn’t seem like a crime, that is very much a debate. The answer is probably Mookie Betts, with Ramirez and Judge close behind, and then Freeman comes in with Machado and Lindor and Altuve. Freddie Freeman is a very good MLB, but that’s not good enough to win the Not Mike Trout MVP -- no, that award belongs to the Red Sox superstar Mookie Betts. Make it happen, Manfred.

Oh, Hell Yeah, Go Giants

The San Francisco Giants don’t really give a fuck.

The Giants lost 98 games last year, finished 40 games back of the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West and, rather than face the music, the Giants traded for Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen and got older and more expensive. It is an even year after all -- although, the team failed to win the World Series in 2016, so maybe the Even Number theory has been debunked -- and, with the NL West as open as its been in years, it’s nice to see the Giants not taking the 2018 MLB season off like two-thirds of the American League.

When you have as disastrous of a season as the Giants had in 2017, it would have been understandable to see Brian Sabean and friends elect to trade their amateur dirt-biker, Madison Bumgarner, this past offseason, or see what the market was for somebody like Brandon Belt, and as painful as it would be, do their due diligence on what AL teams might be willing to give up to acquire Buster Posey. The Giants stunk in 2017, but it was largely due to their bullpen devolving into a dumpster fire that even other fire-ridden dumpsters were concerned. Did I mention their ace starting pitcher hurt himself riding a dirt-bike? When an event like that transpires during the season, it’s clear it’s just not your year. For some teams, you just know early on that this is going to be a lost season -- I’m looking at you, 2018 Toronto Blue Jays. Troy Tulowitzki has had exactly zero plate-appearances for the Jays in 2018; Josh Donaldson couldn’t throw to first base to start the season; the front office may never actually call-up Vladimir Guerrero Jr.; J.A. Happ is maybe their best trade-deadline asset; point is, Dementors have been hovering over the Rogers Centre all season long.

Still, like Toronto, the Giants still had a lot of talent on the roster and had invested a lot of money into building a winner. Heading into the 2018 season the Giants had the second-highest payroll in MLB, with the Blue Jays a few spots behind at No. 8. In 2017, the Giants had the sixth-highest payroll in MLB, with the Blue Jays a few spots ahead at No. 4. The similarities don’t stop there, as the Blue Jays are the oldest team in MLB with an average age of 30.3, and, wouldn’t you know it, the Giants cracked the top-5 with an average age of 29.5. When a team has a high payroll and a roster littered with veterans, one thing is very clear: They want to win now. (For reference, the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, and Arizona Diamondbacks round out the top-5 in age and each of them went into 2018 with the expectation of playing in October.)

Shit happens, though. Sometimes, you lose your ace to start the season and the ship sinks. Sometimes, you lose your ace to start the season, Joe Panik is your only source of offense for the month of April, and low behold, you are above-.500 and it’s June 25 and oh my God the Giants are only 5.0 games back of the Diamondbacks for first in the NL West. The Giants didn’t -- I’m very sorry about this, but I must -- panik after starting 2018 eerily similar to the way they started 2017 and we know how that story ended. Instead of being well on their way to another season of 95-plus losses with one of the most expensive rosters in the league, the Giants didn’t implode. Yes, Hunter Strickland avoided the anger sharks swimming in his head for as long as he could, and, yes, the Giants have still been a middle-of-the-road team both hitting-wise (14th in team WRC+) and pitching-wise (23rd in FIP), but they’re hanging around in a division that is mostly up for grabs.

The Dodgers have been surviving without Clayton Kershaw for most of the 2018 MLB season while also losing superstar Corey Seager for the rest of the 2018 MLB season; J.D. Martinez is raking in Boston while the Arizona Diamondbacks’ offense is getting a boost from the Jon Jays and Daniel Descalsos of the world; the San Diego Padres are doing their best 2017 Milwaukee Brewers impression and A.J. Preller is salivating at the opportunity of gutting his established farm system for a half-season of Manny Machado; the Colorado Rockies investing in their bullpen hasn’t panned out and they may be better off just trying to survive without a first-baseman at all for the remainder of the season. The Giants, on the other hand, have gotten big years out of the Brandons -- Belt with the slight edge over Crawford -- and the team has been without Panik and Bumgarner for significant stretches of the season, and yet, here they are, surviving.

Sometimes, when a team goes for it, like the 2018 Minnesota Twins, and it doesn’t work it out, it’s just sad. You don’t even want to think about them or the fact they sent Miguel Sano all the way down to Single-A. They overachieved a season ago, tried to build off it, but the Baseball Gods had other plans and now the highlight of their season is Joe Mauer thriving in the leadoff spot. Sometimes, though, when a team goes for it, even after flaming out the season before in a way that Ron Burgundy wouldn’t even be mad, he’d be impressed, really, the team swings back the other way, like the 2018 Giants. This roster, when healthy, has always looked like a team that can snag a wildcard spot in the National League. They addressed their outfield depth in the offseason, they bet on Chris Stratton at the top of their rotation, they attempted to fix their bullpen and if Longoria ever starts hitting and they can add one more starting pitcher -- calling J.A. Happ, maybe? -- it wouldn’t be stunning to see Bumgarner vs. Lester in the 2018 NL Wildcard game come October.

Maybe that’s why I admire this Giants team as much as I do -- they bet on their expensive core having a little more luck in 2018 than they did in 2017; they bet on adding more veterans with chips on their shoulders would lead this team back to the postseason; they bet on Bumgarner not riding anymore dirt-bikes during the season; they bet on the 2018 Dodgers not being what they once were or the 2018 Diamondbacks without Martinez or the Rockies making a serious run with Ian Desmond at first-base. Sure, the Giants, aren’t well on their way to a postseason birth -- Fangraphs gives them a 12.1 percent chance of making the playoffs -- but unlike a third of Major League Baseball this year, they spent money, paid veterans, and tried to put together a team that could maybe awaken that Even Year magic once again.

Go Giants.

The Luka Doncic Trade

The Atlanta Hawks took European phenom Luka Doncic with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. That is a thing that happened. The Phoenix Suns took DeAndre Ayton; the Sacramento Kings reached on Marvin Bagley III because, for whatever reason, he actually wanted play for the Kings; the Hawks took Doncic.

Then the Hawks traded him.

The euphoria that arose following the announcement that Doncic was going to be an Atlanta Hawk quickly evaporated once it was clear the Slovenian superstar wasn’t coming to Atlanta. No, Doncic was going to Dallas, to learn under future Hall Of Famer Dirk Nowitzki for a year, to drive opposing defenses crazy with last year’s lottery pick Dennis Smith Jr., and have the fairytale sports arc that is obviously going to happen under head coach Rick Carlisle. For a brief moment, it felt like the Hawks had their first transcendent superstar since Dominique Wilkins. I was ready to purchase my No. 77 Luka Doncic jersey. Instead, Luka Doncic is a Dallas Maverick.

The 2018 NBA Draft didn’t have any fireworks, just a firecracker here and there. The Philadelphia 76ers traded local hero Mikal Bridges to the Phoenix Suns; the Denver Nuggets pounced at the opportunity to draft a free falling Michael Porter Jr. with the No. 14 pick; the Boston Celtics lucked out once again with Texas A&M big Robert Williams falling into their laps late into the first round. No, the highlight of this year’s NBA draft was the trade between the Dallas Mavericks and the Atlanta Hawks. That’s what fans of the two teams, analysts and basketball fans, in general, will be talking about years down the line. Will that 2019 top-5 protected pick turn into a superstar for the Hawks in five years? Will Trae Young survive on defense in the NBA? Will it be immediately clear that Doncic is going to be a future NBA MVP and HOFer? The Hawks, the Mavericks, Young, and Doncic will be forever linked because of this deal, that much is clear.

So who could the guy the Hawks preferred over the 19-year-old enigma turn out to be? General manager Travis Schlenk hasn’t shied away from the press following his decision. The Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps spoke with the former Golden State Warriors assistant general manager about the Hawks’ 2019 draft which included this interesting tidbit:

“Schlenk, obviously, has other ideas. And he was far from alone — Young wasn’t going lower than sixth Thursday night, a clear indication of his value. In praising Young, and explaining his thought process, Schlenk pointed to two specific skills that excite him about Young’s game: his ability to shoot off the dribble, and his passing.”

Do you know who else can shoot off the dribble and pass the ball extremely well, but isn’t 6’2”, 180 lbs?

Luka Doncic.

After trading back for Young, Schlenk selected Maryland guard Kevin Huerter, then Villanova big Omari Spellman -- all guys who could shoot threes and thrive, theoretically, in today’s game. The blueprint has been revealed -- this front office is going to try and build Golden State 2.0. Maybe Young can be Steph Curry-like, Huerter can be Klay Thompson-like, and Spellman can even be Draymond Green-like, but, chances are, none will blossom into future HOFers like the Warriors’ superstars. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, even Kevin Durant, don’t come about very often. They’re one of a kind. If even one of Spellman, Huerter, or Young come anywhere close to the former, it’s a huge win for the Hawks.

What’s more realistic for a player like Young, it seems, is a Damian Lillard-like path. You’ll never be sure if you can have a championship-level defense with him playing 36-plus minutes a night, but you’ll know he makes shots. This wouldn’t be a disaster for the Hawks -- Lillard is a borderline First Team All-NBA player now. He guided the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference this year. He silenced a lot of critics after the Blazers finished in the top-10 in defensive efficiency to end the regular season. It’s early, I know, but it certainly feels like the Blazers won the Gerald Wallace trade with the New Jersey Nets that resulted in Portland taking Lillard with the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. If the Hawks had flipped Kent Bazemore, Miles Plumlee, and Malcolm Delaney for the No. 6 pick to take a player like Young, there would have been no backlash. It would have felt like a steal. It would have felt like the Hawks had gotten away with something.

That’s not how it played out.

The Hawks had Doncic, and they didn’t have to move anyone to get him. The Suns took the safest pick in the draft in Ayton and the Kings stayed the Kings by taking Bagley III. (General manager Vlade Divac went so far as to say it was an “easy choice” to take Bagley III over Doncic at No. 2. Easy! I can’t.) Schlenk could have just taken Doncic, Huerter and Spellman to highlight his second draft as general manager of the Hawks and it would have been universally praised. Instead, he and the front office went a different route, a far riskier one. If Doncic is out of the league in five years, it will be a shock to everyone; if Young is out of the league in five years and playing in China, it will be a shock to no one. With Doncic, the ceiling is high and the floor is high; with Young, the ceiling is high and the floor is low. That’s why that 2019 pick Schlenk got in the deal with the Mavericks is so crucial to this Hawks’ rebuild -- if it turns out to be a superstar, fans will forget about Doncic wearing a Hawks’ hat faster than they forgot about Rasheed Wallace wearing a Hawks’ jersey. If it’s another Otto Porter, or Harrison Barnes, or Terrence Ross, or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, then it’s a disaster. The only way this Doncic deal doesn’t haunt the current Hawks administration is if Young turns out to be a superstar along with whoever they take with that 2019 pick. If one or the other doesn’t pan out, or both, this front office is in more trouble than the Star Wars spin-off movies.

But that’s the price of being bold -- if it works out, you’ll be OK for a long time; if it bombs, you’ll be looking for new gig sooner rather than later. Schlenk, in Year 2, bet on throwing more darts at the board rather than putting all of his eggs in the Luka Doncic basket. If Young and those future first-round picks hit, Schlenk will have proved himself. If he is responsible for drafting and developing several superstars, not just one, he won the trade. That’s what will make the trade worth it in the end -- more building blocks.

That’s what makes the rest of this first round so important. It’s not just the “Luka Doncic trade down” move that will be remembered, no, it will be the rest of the draft. It will be the Huerter pick late in the first round, it will be the Spellman pick, it will be how this class grows as a group. Lloyd Pierce was already walking into a situation where his player-development skills were going to be put to the test early, first with second-year big John Collins, but also ensuring that Taurean Waller-Prince doesn’t become the latest Harrison Barnes-type in the NBA. The development of Trae Young is priority No. 1 for the Hawks -- their job only hinges on it, so no pressure -- but the development of Huerter and Collins and Waller-Prince and Spellman can't be understated, either. Like Lester Freeman said, “All the pieces matter.”

So when is the right time to judge this trade? If Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons had taken Donovan Mitchell instead of Luke Kennard last summer, he is still running things in Detroit. If Danny Ainge doesn’t trade down for Jayson Tatum instead of taking the then-obvious No. 1 pick in Markelle Fultz, do the Celtics make the Eastern Conference Finals? While some trades and picks require years to go by before it’s fair to judge, some trades and picks don’t even require a season to pass before it’s glaringly obvious that the Charlotte Hornets made a mistake not taking the plethora of picks reportedly offered to them by the Celtics so the latter could take Justise Winslow. It’s been a few years, and Winslow is on the trade block for the Miami Heat now, but something tells me the Hornets aren’t thrilled with how the Frank Kaminsky era has gone thus far in the Queen City. (Worry not, Charlotte fans, Mitch Kupchak is here to right the ship! His first move? Trade Dwight Howard and bring Timofey Mozgov to Charlotte! Get excited! Hey, where is everybody going?) Bovada already released their Rookie of the Year odds, and Doncic has the second-highest odds of winning the award, with Young a couple spots behind. If Doncic earns Carlisle’s trust early, if he gets paired with the right pick-and-roll big, and flourishes in a point-guard heavy system, the vultures will be circling around Phillips Arena before the end of next season.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about what Schlenk did in last week’s draft is the clear indication that he and this new Hawks’ regime is going to attempt to build Golden State East. It was only a few years ago that Danny Ferry was hired, then Mike Budenholzer, and then the Hawks won sixty games and then became known as Spurs East. For a number of reasons, Spurs East didn’t last, so why should Atlanta fans expect this to be any different? Is the imitation ever better than the original? By drafting a Super Manu Ginobli, the Hawks would have had to the chance to create the next big thing in the NBA, similar to Ben Simmons in Philadelphia this past season, instead, they’re banking on being able to recreate what Bob Meyers and Golden State were able to do in drafting three future HOFers.

Maybe that’s what still irks me, days later. We’ve seen this movie before -- front-office guy from a successful franchise comes in, tries to recreate what worked there, here, only for things to come crashing down after a couple of seasons. Schlenk, like Ferry before him, is reading off a script. But you never know with sequels. Can there really be another Steph Curry? In the same era? Can there be another Klay Thompson? Can there be another all-around monster like Draymond Green? The answer is probably not. That’s why Doncic was so exciting. The story hasn’t been told for someone like him before. Not in this incarnation of the NBA. He could be the next big thing, not the next Steph Curry. No matter how Young develops, the decision to trade down and not be bold in developing the next big European superstar in Atlanta will always feel like a missed opportunity. What Ifs are never fun, but Schlenk invited these questions by trading down. What if Young doesn’t even make it Lillard-lite levels? What if Doncic guides the Mavericks into the postseason in Year 1? What if that first-round pick next season ends up in the teens and the Hawks are screwed? These questions are fun and just a part of the game. But what if the Hawks had just taken Doncic?

Damn it, what if the Hawks had just taken Doncic?

Jalen Hurts Should Transfer to Kentucky

Jalen Hurts is a very good college football quarterback. Since becoming the starting quarterback at the University of Alabama, Hurts has won and won often. When you’re the starting quarterback at Alabama, that’s the expectation -- to win a lot of games and a lot of national championships. When you commit to be the quarterback for Nick Saban’s team in Tuscaloosa you know what you’re getting into. You’re going into a situation where you know you’re going to win a lot of football games, you know you’re never going to be the center of attention because the team has five-star guys everywhere, and you know that you’re job is never really secure even if you are 25-2 as the starter for the Crimson Tide.

It’s not fair, but fans of Alabama will never forget Tua Tagovailoa flipped the script for the Crimson Tide in the National Championship game and stepped on the Georgia Bulldogs’ face with a hobnail boot. Hurts struggled and the offense was stagnant, so Saban and his thirty-seven offensive analysts adjusted. They gave Tagovailoa the keys and even Dom Toretto was amazed at what followed. Not only did Tagovailoa produce the most memorable moment for the Crimson Tide, sports analysts immediately started putting him in the Heisman conversation for the 2018-19 college football season. People are excited to watch an Alabama quarterback for the first time in what feels like forever. Tagovailoa is no Greg McElroy, A.J. McCarron, Blake Sims, John Parker Wilson, Brodie Croyle, even Hurts, he’s something else entirely. Saban finally has a quarterback that will make their 56-0 blowouts against the Vanderbilts of the world must-see television because this kid is a left-handed, flame-throwing assassin and Alabama never plays this kind of quarterback.

So where does that leave Hurts? What can he do? Is there a chance he could really win the quarterback job away from Tagovailoa this summer? Is there really a chance that fans won’t be pushing for Tua Time every time Hurts makes a mistake? Where is the fun in that? Fair or not, it’s best for Jalen Hurts and Alabama to break up, amicably. That means, of course, Saban allowing his 25-2 starter to transfer anywhere he wants. (Resist your dick-ish instincts, Saban. Don’t Maurice Smith the kid.)

Hurts should have options -- he could join up with Jimbo Fisher in College Station, he could join up with Auburn to replace Jarrett Stidham after he enters the NFL Draft after this season (this will never ever happen, I know, but I can dream, right?), he could even join up with the Florida Gators and Dan Mulllen and instantly become the best quarterback they’ve had since -- checks notes, oh dear God -- Tim Tebow was in Gainesville.

Or he could go to Kentucky.

I’ll give you a few minutes to regain your composure, and then I’d like for you to allow me to explain why Jalen Hurts transferring to Mark Stoops’ team would actually be a really cool development.

College football, especially the SEC, needs more of these kinds of transfers. It’s frustrating to see Jake Fromm and Justin Fields on the same team, it’s frustrating to see Kyle Shurmur play quarterback, it’s frustrating to see Luke Del Rio start for the Florida Gators, it’s frustrating to see so much talent in Baton Rouge while also remembering Danny Freaking Etling is under-center, and it’s frustrating, in general, to watch the South Carolina Gamecocks try and do that whole offense thing. If Fields can’t beat out Fromm this summer, I’d love to see him transfer to LSU. If Matt Corral doesn’t win the Rebels’ starting QB job, let’s put him in a Commodore uniform next year. We watch sports to be entertained, and LSU offenses aren’t entertaining anyone.

What helps is that the quarterback situation at Kentucky is murky. What doesn’t help is their offensive philosophy under Eddie Gran -- a Jim Cheney disciple -- is more pro-style than anything else. At Alabama, we saw the difference between Hurts in Lane Kiffin’s scheme versus Brian Daboll’s, where he thrived with the former and survived with the latter. Still, Fields, a five-star, dual-threat quarterback is in Athens, so he obviously thinks he can make it work or he’d be at Ohio State or Texas or Florida State instead. Hurts and Gran wouldn’t look the best, but they would win games.

It’s taken a bit, but Stoops is winning in Lexington. In the last two seasons, the team has finished 7-6, which to most SEC schools would be considered a down year, but not for basketball school’s like Kentucky. At Alabama, Hurts is just another guy. At Kentucky, Hurts would be The Guy. As fans, we remember good quarterbacks at traditionally bad schools. Everyone remembers Jared Lorenzen and Tim Couch; nobody remembers Blake Sims or Greg McElroy. Everybody remembers Jay Cutler at Vanderbilt and Chase Daniel at Missouri; nobody remembers Jordan Jefferson at LSU or Casey Clausen at Tennessee. When a traditionally bad school has a good, exciting quarterback you’re happy for them. You think, “This is a nice thing,” or “Good for them,” or even “How the hell did this happen?”

Hurts would have nothing to prove because already proved himself by transferring to Kentucky. If he went 8-4 in Year 1 and third in the SEC East, fans are pumped. The expectation is not winning National Championships, it’s keep us competitive and fun against our rivals and other good programs. Hurts would do that. He would do that because the Wildcats are recruiting well under Saban, they know how to put together an effective run game, and did I mention they out-recruited Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Colorado and Stanford this year?

Why not Kentucky? Why not transfer to a school, play for a few seasons, win a lot of games for a program that does have the history of winning a lot of games, and be remembered by college football fans years after you’ve moved on to bigger and better things? Why not make Kentucky Football relevant again for a few seasons? Why not go somewhere where you don’t have to worry about the guy behind you and you can just focus on being awesome to finish out your collegiate career?

Seriously, why not Kentucky, Jalen Hurts?

Smackdown Live: "The Miz Is Doing A Lot of Comedy"

Comedy is good.

Comedy is necessary.

Except in professional wrestling.

Whenever a wrestler goes down the comedy route in their character arc, the end result is more often a crash-and-burn situation than a “This Might Be Better Than The Rock” situation. Only a few can pull it off -- Chris Jericho, Steve Austin, Kevin Owens, R-Truth, etc. -- but when they do, it hits hard. The thing about jokes, though, is somebody usually has to be the butt of them. If a professional wrestler does comedy it’s not going to benefit somebody, whether it’s the wrestler themselves or the target of their jokes.

The New Day are funny. They’ve got great comedic timing, they appear genuine, and they know how to make the most out of the lackluster material they’re typically given. Over the last few weeks, they’ve turned their comedy up a notch, and their target, The Miz, has gotten the worst of it. An errant pancake toss is one thing, being tricked into dipping your hand into pancake mix is another, but it all adds up. For the New Day, The Miz has been the perfect foil -- the wrestler who takes himself way too seriously and really doesn’t know how to take a joke. Big E, Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods have played off that perfectly, but the trio’s gain has been The Miz’s loss.

It’s taken years for fans to finally take The Miz seriously as a top guy, with his main event match against John Cena at WrestleMania 27 no longer in the back of many fans’ minds. On Monday Night Raw, with WWE Universal champion Brock Lesnar away, The Miz, with the Intercontinental title, held the show together, put on the big-time matches, put together the big-time promos, and drove home the point that this guy was clearly ready for another chance at the biggest prize on Smackdown Live -- the WWE championship.

Since moving to the blue brand, The Miz’s character has overcorrected to too much comedy. This is not a positive development. To be one of the top guy’s in this industry, consistently being the butt of joke after joke is never a good sign. There are always exceptions to this rule -- see, Daniel Bryan -- but those are rare. For every Bryan, there are far more serious competitors whether it be Lesnar, Roman Reigns, AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, Seth Rollins, Triple H, Randy Orton, Cena, Braun Strowman and the list goes on and on. There is nothing wrong with a joke here or there, but The Miz is past what he’s been on doing the past month on Smackdown Live. He’s in line to have the most highly anticipated match in the company against Bryan later this year, a feud predicated on The Miz’s anger and passion to be taken seriously as The Guy.

The company has to be careful with how they’re booking The Miz, especially with how much momentum he had moving from the red show to the blue one, because he’s ready for a long title run on Smackdown Live. He’s been ready. So after Money in the Bank on Sunday, The Miz needs a reset. What can’t continue to happen is the continuation of The Miz we saw Tuesday night, a character that screamed and ranted looking for a contract in briefcase that was purely for show. This is the kind of character ineptitude the audience has come to expect from the Bayley character, not The Miz, and that is not a good place to be if you’re The Miz

***

Even AJ Styles is tired of talking about Shinsuke Nakamura

Jerry “The King” Lawler returned because the WWE was back in business and fans were treated with the Lawler of old. Lawler interviewed WWE champion AJ Styles by the entrance ramp -- I assume to give fans the opportunity to see his entrance and him in-person, as the Phenomenal One hasn’t wrestled on the show since Barack Obama was in office. This segment was brief, Styles rambled about the “unwritten rules” of pro wrestling, which put a smile on Brian McCann’s face, I’m sure, and the champ just seemed ready. Ready for this feud to conclude, ready to move forward onto something else, ready to regain his lost momentum due to his ostensible injury and long-winded feud with Nakamura.

On Sunday, this feud will end, and it looks as though Styles will retain. Nakamura is still entertaining, he is still thriving as a heel, and the crowd loves his surprise low-blows, but if he loses as expected, then what? He’ll have lost WWE title feuds with both Jinder Mahal and Styles, but he’s got a cooler entrance? Maybe tonight’s match with United States champion Jeff Hardy was a test to see how these two would work in a feud. Hardy is still a star, and he makes that title matter. Nakamura and Hardy share the rockstar-like vibe, and whenever they’re on the screen, you can’t look away. You’ll never not be intrigued or entertained by their presence. Maybe that’s where they go and that would be just fine.

Paige is getting better and better as general manager

Maybe it’s just refreshing to have an on-screen authority figure deliver their lines without a hitch on a consistent basis, or maybe Paige is just a natural at this. Whatever the case may be, Paige was especially good this week, and she was all over the place. (And we never even saw her texting or calling anyone all night!) Her interactions with Asuka and Miz backstage weren’t awkward, her opening promo was fine, and the authority role suits her.

The Outsiders vs. The Establishment is brewing in the Women’s Division

Maybe the most interesting visual from this week’s episode was The IIconics, Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville staring down Naomi, Charlotte, Becky Lynch and Lana in the ring. The latter are either feuding (Naomi and Lana) or building to a major feud (Lynch and Flair), while the former have nothing going on. Since arriving on Smackdown Live, they haven’t found their footing, just a random match and promo here and there. There is no plan for the women on the outside, while the four women on the inside are gearing up for big things.

With Asuka feuding with WWE Smackdown Live women’s champion Carmella, Deville, Rose, Peyton Royce and Billie Kay are left picking up the scraps. Right now, they're out of focus, by interrupting the opening promo, their hope is to re-focus. When do they get their first major feud, when do they get inserted into the title picture, when do they get to the point where you notice that they weren’t on the show one week? Only time will tell.

Lifted from the Legal Pad:

  • “Eww, Renee, move.” - Carmella

  • Just let Rusev be a babyface. Please?

  • Over/Under on the “No More Words” Jeff Hardy theme returning in two months or less? It’s time. He’s back.

  • Big Cass is actually bad.

  • Poor Good Brothers. This was their shot, and they’ve been relegated to the kickoff show for Money in the Bank and not even feature on the go-home show.

  • Where was Andrade “Cien” Almas and is SAnitY ever debuting? The former just needs to be around consistently -- not fall into the Tye Dillinger zone.

  • “You know what, Miz-y…” - Paige

  • Shelton Benjamin had his best match since his return, and it still fell short. Watching Old Shelton is like watching Wizards Michael -- just depressing. Father Time is undefeated. (I’m going to go back and watch Benjamin vs. Shawn Michaels now. Excuse me.)

  • Speaking of Benjamin, instead of giving Big Cass promos each week, give that time to somebody like Benjamin who really needs to establish who his character is right now. His match with Bryan was far too quiet.

  • Are we sure The IIconics are good?

Monday Night Raw: "The Monster Wins Again"

It’s been a good month for Braun Strowman. A few weeks ago, he defeated main-eventer and former WWE Raw Universal champion Finn Balor to close an episode of Raw, then he beat another former WWE Raw Universal champion in Kevin Owens, and then, of course, Strowman eviscerated the “Glorious One” Bobby Roode midway through the previous episode of Raw. That is the kind of three-week stretch that most of the wrestlers on the roster can only dream of having. It shows a firm commitment to the show’s biggest babyface that they’re building to something, that this Braun Strowman Cannot Be Stopped storyline is going somewhere.

But that’s not the case.

Unfortunately for the Monster Among Men, he is inching closer and closer to reaching that same ceiling he hit in 2017 and that ceiling comes in two forms: Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar. Like 2017, Strowman looked as though he may finally be handed the rock and given the opportunity to run with it, but he lost his big-time feud with Reigns and he lost his WWE Universal title match at No Mercy against Lesnar a few months later. In 2018, his rise and subsequent fall will not be all that different. Reigns, if you were paying attention to David Otunga’s comments in the booth last week make it painfully obvious Reigns vs. Lesnar III is happening sooner rather than later. With Lesnar’s next exit from the WWE looming large over Raw, you could make the case this latest Strowman dominant streak indicates that Strowman, and not Reigns, will take Lesnar’s place as the next gigantic Raw Universal champion.

Of course, this would require Vince McMahon to let the Roman Empire fall. On this episode of Raw, Reigns mentioned in a backstage segment once again about how the Universal championship should be around his waist and that Lesnar is essentially an illegitimate champion. The Lesnar and Reigns story isn’t over, as much as we all may wish it were, and it can only end with a Reigns victory. After months of struggling since his stunning loss to Lesnar at WrestleMania 34, would it really be logical or realistic for McMahon to finally put the title on Reigns only to drop it to Strowman soon after?

No, Reigns is still the long-term guy for this company, and Lesnar dropping the belt to the Big Dog is still the long-term plan for this show. Strowman is talented and deserving and more than ready to get a Universal title run, but this month of dominance that ended with his strongest showing yet -- defeating Balor, Owens and Roode in a Fatal 4-Way match to close Monday’s show -- is once again giving fans false hope.

It’s still the Big Dog’s yard.

***

What happened in that Nia Jax and Ronda Rousey promo?

Nia Jax is not a good actor. This is not news, sure, but this was the go-home show leading up to the biggest match of her wrestling career. Her delivery was off, her character continues to be all over the place, and, man, I am really not excited for this match.

Although, Jax tapping out to a vicious Rousey armbar may indicate she may not be walking out of Money in the Bank after all.

The Kevin Owens, Finn Balor and Bobby Roode segments were refreshing

One of the most frustrating things about the current WWE product is how much it feels like the show is created for the company’s YouTube page. On this episode, we were treated with the brilliant and cerebral Kevin Owens trying to work his magic backstage prior to his main event match later that night to take out Strowman prior to Money in the Bank for obvious reasons: Strowman cannot be stopped. He lost. Balor lost. Roode lost. Owens is the best kind of heel in professional wrestling because what he’s saying is both piercing always containing at least a kernel of truth. It would be foolish for Balor and Roode to not follow Owens’ lead.

And he was right.

Elias vs. Rollins feels like a 2020 WWE Raw Universal title program, right?

If Elias isn’t “there” yet he is awfully close to getting off that exit. It’s not 2017 Strowman levels, but the “Walk With Elias” chants are more resounding than the “Get These Hands” chants these days. Fans obviously want to like the Drifter, but the company isn’t ready to start the babyface turn. Instead, they’re pitting him against the second-best babyface on Raw in Rollins.

This segment was exactly what you wanted days before a PPV. Not only is it unclear which wrestler is winning on Sunday, it’s evident that the Chicago crowd will be hot for this one. I’m thinking Sunday is a big night for the next potential breakout star in the company. My property on Elias Island isn’t for sale. Sorry.

Lifted from the Legal Pad:

  • Curt Hawkins got a complete entrance! In 2018! On Raw!

  • “Finn had to the win” from Coach hit me to my core. Poor, Balor.

  • Rousey’s UFC monologue hit hard. The “born ready” material got fans back into this segment. Rousey is good, folks.

  • Last week, Bayley had herself a J.R. Smith Game 1 In The Finals moment. This week, she got scarlet letter’d. Brutal.

  • I still can’t believe we’re getting Reigns vs. Jinder Mahal this Sunday. What a treat!

  • B-Team vs. Deleters Of Worlds officially has potential, but the former has to be treated like legitimate threats and they probably have to win.

  • “No, Jinder is an idiot,” may have been Reigns’ best mic work in years.

  • “Here comes the Big Dog” from Michael Cole is still the worst thing in professional wrestling. (Outside of Mahal’s presence, of course.)

  • Shoutout to extending a literal olive branch to a potential friend. Owens is a sweetheart.

  • Is the new Baron Corbin just Corporate Kane? That’s it, right?

  • That Fatal 4-Way opener was insane. What stood out? The number of blows from Alexa Bliss, Ember Moon and Natalya that hit made the match, from Moon’s suicide dive, to Bliss’s punches, to Natalya’s clotheslines. Everybody looked good here.  

Why Are We Doing This With Julio Jones?

The NFL becoming a twelve-month sport has become good for the league. The NBA is slowly but surely working to get to that point in recent years, too. People talking about your product every day is a good problem to have. Nobody is talking about MLB or NHL during the offseason months, but everybody is more than willing to gossip and argue and talk about the NFL and the NBA at any time. Mike Trout is having the best season of his career, but I haven’t had an argument with any of my friends and family about whether or not Mookie Betts has a better case for AL MVP. That’s not what MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred wants. For most fans, arguing about trades and unanswerable questions like, “Who is better the better rookie: Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell?” is a huge part of the appeal in being a hardcore fan. You can talk about Tom Brady’s greatness, Andy Dalton’s ceiling, Jon Gruden’s cliches, LeBron’s supporting cast, Joel Embiid’s social-media habits, the list goes on and on.

The side-effect to this year-round coverage is that, during the summer, especially June, the topic choices are limited, so you could understand the reflex of certain sportswriters or sports radio hosts to be a bit hyperbolic with their coverage on topics that don’t require such behavior.

Enter Atlanta sports radio host Mike Bell of 929 “The Game”, who tweeted the following on June 6:

“For Falcons fans who feel I'm "over reacting" regarding Julio's absence. Everybody else in "The Brotherhood" is there including players with injuries. You you think it's not important for the star WR to put the work in following a season where the offense went backwards?”

Julio Jones, the Atlanta Falcons star wide receiver, was absent from the team’s OTAs this year. Instead, he has been spending time this offseason working out with Hall-Of-Famer Terrell Owens. Head coach Dan Quinn isn’t concerned with Jones’ absence from the voluntary workouts. Falcons owner Arthur Blank isn’t concerned. The guy the team just gave a gigantic contract extension to isn’t worried about it. Jones hasn’t been holding from mandatory training camp, no he’s just been working out in the sand dunes with a HOFer that every Falcon fan hope results in Jones arriving to training camp looking close to Cleveland Browns’ wideout Josh Gordon. (Seriously, if you have not taken a gander at what Flash is looking like these days, open a new tab, go to his Instagram, and be amazed at just how cut another human being can get. Did I mention Baker Mayfield is going to be throwing to Gordon, Corey Coleman and Jarvis Landry this season? Insane.)

If it were first-round pick Calvin Ridley who skipped OTAs, it would be perfectly fine to be slightly concerned. The more the Falcons’ rookies and free-agent acquisitions are participating in team-related activities, the better. It was Jones who was absent and that has been the subject of discussion for Atlanta sports fans for the last few weeks. Of course, it doesn’t actually matter that Jones is away. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski were non-participants, Odell Beckham Jr. and Fletcher Cox missed them last year, and more veteran stars will miss them because the CBA makes it very clear these workouts are optional.

 

The Falcons getting back to the Super Bowl in 2019 does not depend on Jones spending less time with Terrell Owens and more time with the team at voluntary workouts. Jones has earned the benefit of the doubt, every general manager in the league would love to have him on their roster, and Julio Jones is going to be a very productive player for the Atlanta Falcons in 2018-19.

But I get it.

There is nothing to talk about the NFL right now, unless Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension has ruined your 2018 NFL Fantasy Draft Board and you really don’t feel great about Brady having to start the season with Chris Hogan and Jordan Matthews as his primary wideout weapons. Ryan finally got his extension, Gregg Knapp is helping Steve Sarkisian adapt to the NFL, and Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman are going to be a bigger part in the passing game this fall. That covers it, right?

Things are fine with the Atlanta Falcons on June 8, 2018. The team has top-5 roster in the NFL, the offense is in a position to bounce back, at least slightly, in 2018, and Deion Jones and Keanu Neal are becoming vocal, veteran leaders on the defensive side of the ball. There isn’t any drama, there isn’t anything to really talk about, and, yes, that includes that can’t-miss battle for the one fullback spot on the 53-man roster.


If you are feeling the itch to release a Julio Jones Should Have Been At OTAs take into the Twittersphere, the radio waves, wherever, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to. So, please, save that anger for Week 4 when this offense still isn’t clicking like it was in 2016 with Kyle Shanahan. Deal?

Should a Sweep in the NBA Finals Affect LeBron's Free Agency?

The Cleveland Cavaliers are not going to come back from a three-games-to-zero deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 NBA Finals. For most NBA analysts and fans, the thought of LeBron James getting swept by the Warriors in the Finals was more unfathomable than those last few seasons of “Lost”. To their credit, the Cavaliers should have left Oracle Arena after Game 1 with a one-game-to-zero lead in the fourth-consecutive Finals match-up. You know how the rest of that story goes, George Hill misses a free-throw, J.R. dribbles out of traffic to run out the clock, and NBA Twitter lost their fucking minds. What you didn’t know, what I don’t know, and what James probably doesn’t know is where he’ll be playing basketball next season. If the Cavaliers don’t waste an all-time performance from LeBron James in Game 1, does Mr. Momentum propel James’ cast of misfits to one of the biggest upsets ever? We will never know how the rest of this series would have played out had Game 1 ended with a Cavaliers victory. I would like to know if getting swept by the Warriors, watching Kevin Durant drain yet another cold, calculated three-pointer to ice another pivotal NBA Finals game, and getting psychoanalyzed by ESPN reporters will make James’ decision this summer any easier.

We’ll know soon enough.

If James leaves this summer, again, to, say, the Houston Rockets, joins Chris Paul and James Harden, and who just so happen to have the current best odds at signing the best player in the world as of this writing, what does that say to us basketball junkies who are enthralled with the questions of “Why” and “How” and “When”? James saw how close the Rockets, even without Paul for Games 6 and 7, came to defeating the Warriors. If you slide Trevor Ariza out for James next season, should they be considered the favorites win it all? If James picks Houston, it would say that, at this point in his career, he wants to win another title and it doesn’t matter where it is. If he were to pick Philadelphia, it would send the same message: The rest of my career is about playing on the team with the best chance to beat the Warriors. It would also say this postseason has taken a toll and having to rely on Jordan Clarkson, J.R. Smith, Rodney Hood and friends at this point in his career isn’t as easy to deal with as it was during the Mo Williams, Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden era. Getting swept in the NBA Finals, through no fault of your own, is not as motivating as it was when it happened at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in 2007. That kind of experience is fine when you’re young, it’s not fine when Father Time is right around the corner. (For James, maybe it isn’t. Would it really surprise you if he was still awesome at 43-years-old?)

But should this inevitable sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors push James into making a win-now move and signing with the Sixers or Rockets? If he leaves Cleveland again, shouldn’t it be to go to a city that really loves basketball, romanticizes what a player like Kyle Kuzma could become in today’s NBA on the regular, and won’t really care if he can’t bring them a title because they already have plenty of those and are in the midst of the worst stretch in the franchise’s history and just want to root for a team that has a superstar and can carry them to fifty-plus wins again? If James were to choose Los Angeles, it would show that this exhaustive postseason didn’t push him either way. It would signal that this next chapter is bigger than basketball. It’s bigger than SPACE JAM 2. It would signal that he wants to enjoy the remainder of his prime in a fun city, start to prepare more on his life after basketball, and play with a bunch of young, intriguing guys who could ostensibly make Year 16 and Year 17 and Year 18 nothing like Year 15.

If he re-ups in Cleveland, with this group, with this old, anemic roster, does that show, once again, that losing to the Warriors in 4 games didn’t play a role in his decision? It would. If James is a Cleveland Cavalier next season it’s because he likes it there, he likes the idea of not potentially uprooting his family again, and likes the challenge of trying to Russell Westbrook his way to another NBA championship. There have never been more Please Appreciate LeBron James’ Greatness pieces than there have been after this unbelievable postseason run. James lost a playoff game in which he scored 51 points in regulation under That Didn’t Really Just Happen, Did It? circumstances. Everyone approves of this iteration of LeBron James story.

Maybe that’s why I’m so captivated by the next incarnation of The Decision that’s coming this summer. For most players, getting swept in the NBA Finals in the manner that James has would result in a rash decision. Losing this way sucks. Feeling powerless to change the outcome of a series while simultaneously being the most powerful player of a series can only be demoralizing. If this sweep affects James’ decision, it would be easy to understand. It is adapt or die: create your own super team or wipe this Finals experience from your memory bank and run this thing back. These are decisions fit for only a king.

Smackdown Live: Becky Lynch Is Back

Smackdown Live has found its groove again. On Tuesday’s show, just about everything hit like it was supposed to, Shinsuke Nakamura continued playing entertaining mind games with WWE champion AJ Styles, Sin Cara got beat up by Andrade “Cien” Almas, Asuka won a handicap match clean, Naomi ran circles around Lana, but, man, was it nice to see Becky Lynch get a full entrance, defeat Charlotte clean as a sheet, and that be it.

That is what it was. Nice. It was like if Matt Saracen transferred to the East Dillon Lions his senior year and took down J.D. McCoy and the Dillon Panthers in the Texas High School state playoffs. Like Saracen, you should never trust a person who can’t help but root for Lynch whenever they pop up on your television screen. Lynch was on Smackdown Live first, she was the first Smackdown Live women’s champion, but she’s gradually faded into the background while other wrestlers had their moment in the spotlight whether they really deserved it or not. (I’m definitely not hinting at Lana or Natalya here. Nope. I’m not.)

This week’s episode felt like Lynch and the creative team on Smackdown Live were moving forward. Lynch defeating Charlotte is a big deal. Lynch making Charlotte tap out to the Disarmer, clean, is even bigger. Does this mean Lynch is gearing up for a WWE Smackdown Live women’s title run after taking down Asuka or Carmella after Money In The Bank next Sunday? Does this mean this was just the start of a year-long, bitter feud with soon-to-be former best friend Charlotte? That part is unclear, for now, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that we’re talking about Becky Lynch again. Better yet, we’re fantasy booking future Becky Lynch storylines and title runs without it feeling like a gigantic waste of time.

It’s nice.

I wonder, though: Is The Miz starting to do too much comedy? Was “Careful, Mizjitzu,” funny? Of course. The Miz is one of the few who can pull of bad professional wrestling comedy, and so can The New Day. This dynamic works because of the seriousness of Miz’s character meshes perfectly with a trio that hasn’t taken themselves seriously in three years, even with the biggest decision of the group’s history still very much unresolved. Still, there is something to be said about being the butt of too many jokes. As long as The Miz is still main-eventing shows, wins the matches he needs to, etc., he’ll be fine, but if we’re only a few months out from the most must-see PPV match of the year, he needs to stop dipping his hand into pancake mix.

And then there is Carmella, who, by my count, uttered her catchphrase “'Mella Is Money”, both in the ring and on commentary no less than the number of times of Vin Diesel has uttered the word family in the Fast & Furious series. If you’re going to watch WWE programming in 2018, this is part of the deal, that dead horse is getting beaten, damn it. It’s interesting, though, that as much as Carmella has improved on the microphone, and she was great in this opening segment, I can’t help but think of how much it reminded me of Enzo Amore during his brief stint on 205 Live. Carmella isn’t Lana, but she’s certainly not ready for Asuka, either. On this show, we Asuka, Mandy Rose, Sonya Deville, Lynch, Charlotte and Naomi all show just how good they are at professional wrestling right now and just how silly it is that Carmella is the WWE Smackdown Live Women’s champion. Does her promo chops mitigate her in-ring issues? For right now, the answer is yes. She just can’t beat Asuka. There’s suspending your disbelief in professional wrestling, and then there is Carmella outworking Asuka in 13-minute PPV match.

Can we talk about just how good Shinsuke Nakamura is? Was I alone in thinking about Road Dogg watching “The Dark Knight” this week, being amazed by the interrogation scene between Batman and the Joker and immediately sending a text to Vince asking if he could something similar with AJ Styles and Nakamura? (I’m 93 percent certain this is the case.) Jokes aside, this segment worked. It had faulty pins, Styles stumbling over poor dialogue, a very disrespectful Nakamura yawn, and an ending where no table was flipped or broken, just one man left standing.

Is 2018 the year of Samoa Joe on Smackdown Live? Maybe. Did he forget to mention that he lost to Roman Reigns at Backlash in the main event, which clearly showed that he is not always a man of his word? Of course. But Samoa Joe can talk, and it reminds me of Owens’ rise early on in his WWE days. You can trust Joe to make anything sound important, the interviewers always look legitimately terrified at his just how intense and fast he spews his venom, and he delivers in the ring. If Nakamura doesn’t steal the title away from Styles, a summer build of Joe vs. Styles that ends in a SummerSlam WWE title match with Joe going over wouldn’t be the worst idea. It’s too early for Almas, Big Cass sucks, Rusev doesn’t have the support of the powers that be, and, seriously, has anyone seen or heard from SAnitY lately? What about Jeff Hardy? Tye Dillinger? OK, I’ll stop, but you get my point -- the opportunity for Joe to have a big summer is there. Let’s see if he makes the most of it.

Braun Strowman Was Never Going to Be the Lead Guy

Braun Strowman was never going to be The Guy for World Wrestling Entertainment. At least, not in Vince McMahon’s WWE. To Vince’s credit, the company continues to make strides in evolving as a wrestling promotion, putting more of an emphasis on the in-ring work rather than the overly-scripted promos, creating multiple female stars in recent years, bringing back the cruiserweight division, and even gobbling up all the top independent talent that you would never have seen in a WWE ring as recent as the “Ruthless Aggression” era in the WWE. (Adam Cole, Aleister Black and Ricochet are the biggest stars on a WWE brand at the moment.) For all the Cole and CM Punk and Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles-types the company has brought in and pushed, they were still never Vince McMahon’s Guy. It was John Cena, and with Cena focused on Hollywood and staging break-ups for reality television drama, McMahon has someone else -- Roman Reigns.

Roman Reigns will be The Guy in 2019, and barring injury or suspension, will be The Guy in the WWE for a very long time. It’s easy to gloss over just how much the McMahon Machine has invested in making the former Georgia Tech football star the professional wrestler who will guide them into the next era of WWE television. Reigns is a three-time WWE World Heavyweight champion, Reigns pinned the aforementioned Braun Strowman clean, which, if you didn’t know, was a big deal at the time, set a Royal Rumble record after he eliminated 12 other wrestlers in 2014, Triple H is quoted saying, “Roman is one of the most skilled performers bar none in the WWE right now and that is on every level,” and, of course, he is one of two wrestlers to defeat The Undertaker at WrestleMania. (Wait, did I mention that he has also main-evented the last four WrestleManias? F-O-U-R. Only Hulk Hogan, yes, that Hulk Hogan, has main-evented more WWE PPVs in a row.

So Vince McMahon likes Roman Reigns in what might be the understatement of the year. (Unless, of course, the company’s half-baked storyline that pitted Vince vs. Roman a few months back had you hook, line and sinker.) McMahon likes Braun Strowman, but for the mastermind of the XFL, he’s still no Roman Reigns. If things were different, Strowman would have gone over Reigns in their red-hot feud in 2017. Strowman could have gone over Lesnar for the Universal title at No Mercy. Strowman could have had a prominent match WrestleMania 34, but he won the Raw tag-team titles with a young fan instead. If you have the backing of Vince McMahon, it’s clear that you have the backing of Vince McMahon. (The latest example being My Favorite Pro Wrestling Bully Baron Corbin’s new title on Monday Night Raw thanks to the boss’s daughter.) Reigns has wrestled Brock Lesnar for the Universal title at the Greatest Royal Rumble ever, and before that in the main event of WrestleMania, and, before that, was the last wrestler eliminated in the Royal Rumble won by Shinsuke Nakamura. One of these things is not like the other.

That is why The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer reporting that Roman Reigns, and not the wrestler obsessed with giving other wrestlers his hands, will likely be getting another WWE Universal title match against the Universal champion Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam. To some, this may come as a surprise, but to anyone who had their volume turned up to seventy-five Monday night and caught fill-in Raw commentator David Otunga whisper that he thinks Roman Reigns hasn’t gotten enough credit for how much he pushed Lesnar in their previous matches. What Otunga or Corey Graves or Michael Cole didn’t say was, “Outside of Lesnar and Reigns, who can stop Braun Strowman?” Like it or not, pro wrestling fans will get Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar for a third time in 2018 at SummerSlam. Roman Reigns was always going to be the one to take the title off Brock Lesnar, the story has just taken more sideroads to get there than anyone could have expected. (For the record, I picked Reigns to win the Universal title from Lesnar in Saudi Arabia during normal workday hours because it was the best shot the WWE had at having Reigns’ big moment not be met with a mixture of crickets and boos. Instead, instant replay and incompetent referees ruined another big moment in sports.)

The plan has never changed for Vince McMahon on Roman Reigns, not in the grand scheme of things, at least, as the Big Dog is still on track to win the biggest title in the promotion at the second-largest PPV of the year. With Lesnar away, with rumors swirling about whether or not he’ll fight in the UFC again, with Roman Reigns being relegated to an uninspiring feud with Jinder Mahal, fans and analysts have started to once again talk themselves into other guys on the roster swiping the brass ring away from Roman Reigns in 2019. The problem is that Vince McMahon is the only one who controls that brass ring. McMahon puts professional wrestlers in a position to grab the brass ring, professional wrestlings are not in a position to grab the brass ring from Vince McMahon. It is always the CEO’s call.

The CEO is still calling Roman Reigns’ number. Sometimes, McMahon extends an olive branch to guys like Strowman, Styles, Seth Rollins, and even Kevin Owens, but it never feels like it will last. McMahon has been working on the Roman Reigns dilemma for close to half a decade, why would he admit failure now? If he were to move on from Reigns, who does he pinpoint as his next long-term project? Kona Reeves or Tino Sabbatelli in NXT? Baron Corbin? Drew McIntyre? If Vince McMahon sells his place on Roman Reigns Island, it won’t result in an increased investment in the almost 35-year-old Strowman whom he already booked to lose to both Reigns and Lesnar in 2017.

But that’s what makes WWE legendary commentator Jim Ross’s Braun Strowman prediction so interesting and so wrong at the same time. 

On a recent episode of his podcast, The Jim Ross Report, he said the following about Strowman and his future in the company: “I like the continued advancement of Braun Strowman. He’s not being force fed to me. I think he’s going to be the next big thing in 2019. I wouldn’t do it before then. I don’t think he’s quite ready for it. But man you can see him getting better and better every week. Braun Strowman in my opinion the future lead mule in the WWE.”

Ross is right about Strowman not being force-fed to the audience right now, but that goes against everything we know about Vince McMahon and his creative quirks. His lead “mules” are often force-fed on those watching at home, whether it be John Cena, Randy Orton, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, Batista, Triple H, and the list goes on and on. In reality, the biggest indicator as to whether or not a character has a future in the WWE is how much the product pushes them onto their consumers. It’s been five years, and they’re still pushing Roman Reigns.

None of this is Strowman’s fault, as Ross is right, he’s getting better, he’s able to pull off compelling main-event matches with the likes of Finn Balor now, and watching anything from his Wyatt Family days feels like you’re seeing a different wrestler entirely. He earned his overness, organically, but so did Rusev, so did Daniel Bryan, so did Seth Rollins, but none of them have any real shot at being the top guy in the company in 2019. If there is any other realistic Top Guy on the Raw brand in 2019 outside of Roman Reigns -- there isn’t -- it’s McIntyre. You see the size, you see the intensity, you see the looks, you see the way he’s booked, and you see that he just turned 33-years-old. Drew McIntyre checks every box for a Vince McMahon project, Braun Strowman does not. That doesn’t mean it’d be a mistake to build 2019 around Strowman, it’s just that Jim Ross isn’t overseeing creative, it’s the guy who just had Strowman compete on a PPV tagging with Bobby Lashley to continue what’s been series of missteps for Strowman after breaking out in 2017 in his feuds with Reigns and Lesnar.

Like Roman Reigns on-screen, off-screen this is still Vince McMahon’s yard. He’s probably gotten more out of Strowman in the past year than even he would have expected when he first signed him. Strowman is a tremendous talent who continues to improve, but it’s easy to forget he doesn’t control his destiny. He can’t have a LeBron James-like playoff run on Monday Night Raw, he’s limited to what he’s given. He’ll continue to be on the shows, he’ll continue to get positive reactions, he’ll continue to have good matches, and he’ll even find his way into a few Universal title shots, but he won’t win them, like before, and that’ll be that. He won’t be The Guy, but he’ll be A Guy and that’s all he can really do.

Monday Night Raw: "Balor Is Better"

Why isn’t Finn Balor the WWE Universal champion? Why isn’t Kevin Owens? Why isn’t Braun Strowman? Why isn’t Seth Rollins?

Why is it Brock Lesnar?

On this week’s episode of Monday Night Raw, Kevin Owens said something during a backstage interview -- one of what felt like 63 backstage interviews on this show -- with Renee Young that summed up this show quite nicely: “Who cares?”

His comments, along with mocking Finn Balor’s “Too Sweet” hand gestures, were meant to garner him heat ahead of his main-event affair with the leader of the Balor Club. Who cares about one-time Universal champion Finn Balor? A lot of fans. Who cares about the majority of the segments on Raw this week? Not that crowd in Houston.

Can you blame them?

This show started with promise, as Elias strummed his guitar, got the crowd belting out his catchphrases before being interrupted by his Money In The Bank opponent Intercontinental champion Seth Rollins. The words “Burn It Down” rang through the arena, the crowd popped, and Rollins made it immediately clear that he now take the Drifter and his handy guitar very seriously after his actions last week on Raw. Rollins’ stalking Elias around the ring clicked, their chair-meets-guitar spot and worked, but then Jinder Mahal stormed the ring.

And then Roman Reigns cleaned house.

And then, making former Smackdown general manager Teddy Long proud, Raw general manager Kurt Angle’s music hit, announced the now-obvious tag-team match and that was how that segment ended. On a thud. No continued fighting between Elias and Rollins. No mic time. Just Roman Reigns standing tall, as Roman Reigns does.

Bleh.

On commentary, there was no Booker T, instead, we saw the return of David Otunga and, other, than making the point that, “I don’t think people give Roman Reigns enough credit,” that resulted in me seriously considering closing my laptop and not finishing the rest of this show. (You know I wouldn’t do that, I have to write. It’s what I do. I watch and I listen and I write. Professional wrestling just likes that to make that more difficult than it needs to be sometimes, that’s all.) The commentators, to be fair, were in an uncomfortable spot for most of the night, as it’s clear the new long layoff between pay-per-views is causing things to really drag and everybody is ready for the go-home shows on next week’s agenda -- especially, Michael Cole.

That awkward gap between PPVs resulted in a Curt Hawkins segment and mic time, which is always a win. It may seem odd to you, the reader, to see that I’m spending time writing about this portion of the show, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was one of my favorite segments of the night. Hawkins can talk, he knows how to deliver punchlines, his timing is excellent, and he never fails to bring a sliver of joy to each show he appears on. Curt Hawkins knows his role, but he makes the most of it. He has the rare, genuine look of Just Happy To Be There guy, which is something John Cena and Drew McIntyre must seriously loathe. Hawkins did his job, he filled time, and he was a perfect foil to the natural bully heel in Baron Corbin. I’m not saying I want to see Corbin and Hawkins get rewarded with a 10-minute match on Raw following the opening segment on next week’s go-home show, but I would not be opposed to it.

What followed was a match between Nia Jax and Natalya where the ladder soared while the former dragged. The Nia Jax WWE Raw women’s champion run has bombed. That can be true, and it can also be true that placing her in a feud with Ronda Rousey, now, ahead of Summerslam even, was unfair. But Jax wasn’t working, her character direction took a turn for the worse following WrestleMania, and her acting, especially following Rousey checking on Natalya following her knee injury was excruciating. Timing is everything, and Jax has never had it. We’re getting Natalya vs. Rousey for the Raw women’s championship at Summerslam. It’s clear that’s the plan, and it’s not an intriguing one, but it’s where this story is headed. But where is Nia Jax headed?

And then are questions surrounding Braun Strowman. Yes, other unfortunate wrestlers are still being given those damn hands, but Strowman is clearly losing steam. It’s also unclear as to whether or not his matches with talent the WWE decision-makers ostensibly want to succeed are helpful. The story Balor and Strowman told in their main event match a few weeks ago was an outlier in the history of Braun Strowman matches. If Strowman is booked to face someone like, say, Bobby Roode, he works the same sort of match he works against Kevin Owens or Rollins or whoever is not named Roman Reigns or Brock Lesnar. Roode was thrown around like a ragdoll, Owens took a shoulder block from Strowman and sold the hit like he was Prime Dolph Ziggler. The only real competition for Strowman is Roman Reigns and Lesnar. Reigns is busy feuding with Jinder Mahal and Brock Lesnar isn’t mentioned or seen on WWE television for weeks -- he’s also already feuded and lost to both the WWE Universal champion and the Universal-champion-in-waiting. There is nowhere for Braun Strowman to go, so he’s decided to go up, and that requires climbing a ladder and grabbing a briefcase he doesn’t need. Or maybe he does. I don’t know, but I know the WWE doesn’t, either.

But Balor is working, and Owens is consistent. It was peculiar as to why this main event match between two former Universal champions wasn’t billed as a match between two former Universal champions. Perhaps, it was because Lesnar wasn’t there, and rather than mention that red belt that is rarely seen on Mondays over the last year, they ignored it. The crowd did not care, as their match stole the show, the crowd was hot for it, and Owens’ anger issues cost him once again as he got himself disqualified. The post-match fight felt important, like these two should feuding over the top prize on Raw, similar to Owens and AJ Styles’ feud over the United States title on Smackdown Live last year. Finn Balor and Kevin Owens both have it, and they both have it in very different ways. This should be the WWE Universal title feud over the summer, but it won’t be. So it goes.

Scribbles From The Legal Pad:

  • Did I mention the opening segment did not need Roman Reigns or Jinder Mahal?

  • Something tells me David Otunga will not be back in the commentary booth next week. But if he were, would you notice?

  • The Reigns vs. Mahal match better not be going on last at Money in the Bank.

  • Is Curt Hawkins a top-5 mic guy in the company right now? I could make the case. Just not here. Not now.

  • Siding Corbin with the McMahon’s is the right decision. It’s like the inverse of the Roman Reigns’ storyline, but believable and interesting.

  • “Almost, Nattie…”

  • Best Bobby Roode main roster week of his WWE career? (Note: He was squashed by Braun Strowman.)

  • Bring back the cruiserweights if it will result in cutting these Sami Zayn vs. Bobby Lashley segments. I’d settle for showing Enzo Amore’s rap single on a loop for fifteen minutes over anymore of this. (OK, maybe not that. I’d settle for Gran Metalik vs. TJP.)

  • “Here comes Bayley!” “Why?!”

  • The Bayley character continues to just be...not the smartest professional wrestler.

  • “I am so brilliant!”

  • B-Team post-match reactions give me goosebumps on a weekly basis. This works. Keep it going, creative team.

  • Was that the best Bray Wyatt promo since 2015? Asking for a friend.

  • Bobby Roode facial reactions.

  • I don’t know Finn Balor personally, but I’d like to, because, man, does that guy not seem to be the most authentically nice guy on the roster? He’s the best. He should get a belt. Or a briefcase. Or a push. Something? Vince, where are you going?

Five Questions Following The Cavs Game 7 Victory To Return To The NBA Finals

LeBron James is a really good professional basketball player. He should be in every basketball fan’s top-3 of all-time rankings, unanimously, at this point. Like him or hate him, he’s there. And he’s going to remain there for a very long time. That’s just where we are. He’s one of the very best basketball players we’ve ever seen. That will never change.

It’s been a pleasure watching him make the lives of every fan of a team in the Eastern Conference a living Hell for the last eight years. An NBA Finals matchup that doesn’t feature James would feel weird. It would feel wrong. It would feel like we, the NBA fan populous, missed out on something. The best basketball player in the world should be in the NBA Finals. This is basketball, this is how it should work.

We were one game away from LeBron James missing his first NBA Finals since 2010, which, oddly enough would have snapped the Boston Celtics streak of not advancing to the NBA Finals. This Celtics team did not belong in the NBA Finals. Not because they wouldn’t have deserved it, but this incarnation, without Kyrie Irving, without Gordon Hayward, without Daniel Theiss -- I kid, I kid -- would have felt right. Outside of Boston fans, who really wants to see Terry Rozier go up against Stephen Curry in the final series of the 2017-18 NBA season? This Boston group is going to be very good for a very long time, they’ll get back to the NBA Finals at some point, and Jayson Tatum will hit a Kyrie-like shot from 2016 NBA Finals to win the Celtics another NBA title.

But this isn’t their time, this isn’t their moment. This postseason’s story has been about LeBron James, in Year 14 of his NBA career, dragging Jordan Clarkson, Jeff Green, J.R. Smith, and George Hill to the NBA Finals. For James’ story to end in Boston, just short of eight-straight Finals appearances, would have been as deflating as the series finale for “The Sopranos” -- “Wait, what just happened? Is that really how this ends?” It never ends like we far too often expect, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. If this is it for LeBron in Cleveland, he should go out like Jon Snow in the Battle of the Bastards -- unsheathe the sword and go down in style. (Unfortunately for James, though, is there is no last-minute help headed his way -- no Kyrie, no prime Dwyane Wade, no prime Chris Bosh, not even his old friend prime Zydrunas Illgauskas. It’s LeBron, alone and on a mission to humiliate the Golden State Warriors the only way he can -- by himself.

With that, here are five questions I have following, you guessed it, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Question No. 1: Is it weird that it felt weird for the final score of this game to be 87-79 in 2018?

No, it didn’t. Weirdly, it felt right. It reminded me of the last time the Boston Celtics were real contenders almost a decade ago. It reminded me of the days when the Los Angeles Lakers were contending, it reminded me of the Detroit Pistons, it reminded me of so many other teams that I grew up watching. Sure, the game was still different, the Celtics missed a lot of shots, but there is something nice about the Celtics finishing an important playoff game with only 79 points, right?

Question No. 2: How annoying will the “Please Appreciate LeBron” police be over the next couple of weeks?

Very. This is a very bad basketball team that LeBron just dragged to the NBA Finals. This is a team that came very close to falling to Victor Oladipo and friends in Round 1. This is a team that found a way to survive a Game 7 on the road without Kevin Love to deliver the only home loss of the postseason for the Celtics. What James has done this postseason is obviously impressive, it is obviously insane, but we don’t need to shame people for not appreciating LeBron James enough. Is there really a basketball fan that isn’t appreciating James’ greatness enough at this point? If there is, why do you care? Why are you engaging with someone who can’t appreciate LeBron James dragging Jeff freakin’ Green to the NBA Finals?

Let’s talk about something anything else. Yes, that includes whether or not the Orlando Magic should hire Kelvin Sampson. (Remember when this team was contending for championships? Sorry, Magic fans.)

Question No. 3:  Will I ever get a full understanding of George Hill, the basketball player?

No, I will not. Hill is a very good three-point shooter. Hill is, when he wants to be, a very good defender. Hill can pass, he can play off the ball, he can do just about everything except shoot the basketball a lot. He has no interest in it. I’m convinced that when George Hill looks in the mirror George Hill sees Andre Roberson. He has to be one of the most infuriating players to play with because you never know what you’re going to get, but you do know you’re never going to get Aggressive George Hill on a consistent basis.

No, Hill likes to keep things capricious, like posting a team-high plus/minus of +24 in Game 7 of the most important game of the season for the Cavaliers.

What the hell, George Hill? You’re good at basketball -- believe in yourself! Take more 3s! Drive-and-kick more! Be awesome all the time! Please?

Question No. 4: Will I ever admit I was completely wrong about Rodney Hood on this team?

Yes, right here. Hood, if you noticed, was given a DNP-CD by head coach Ty Lue in Game 7. Hood refused to come into the game for some garbage time a little while back, and Rodney Hood will probably not be a Cleveland Cavalier next season.

It’s amazing. Hood can ostensibly shoot 3s, he has the length and frame of a good defender, and he should be a valuable rotation guy on the Cavs this postseason -- but he’s not. He’s not even playing, he’s gone 3-of-19 from deep this postseason, and he’s a restricted free agent this summer. Everything may be coming up Milhouse, but nothing is coming up Rodney Hood.

Damn.

Question No. 5: Everyone should be cheering for the Cavs in the Finals, right?

This is tough. So, one of the things I love most about the NBA is the best team almost -- ALMOST -- always wins in the end. There are no Nick Foles Just Did What moments. There are no Vegas Golden Knights-like stories. If you’re a fan of the best team in the NBA, you’re rewarded. If you like parity, this is not the sport for you, and I appreciate that. There is something nice about rewarding those who excelled at their job.

Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Meyers has to put together the best roster in the NBA, he signed the second-best player in the NBA after assembling NBA’s best regular season team in history, and it feels right to reward him for being really good at his job. Rarely in life is the most deserving also the most successful. In the NBA, that’s how it goes. Rewarding good players and good general managers and good coaches for being, you know, good, is, well, good.

But I’ll be rooting for the Cavs. Everybody loves an underdog, and, somehow, yet again, the best player in the world is on a team that will be heavily favored against in the NBA Finals. Whether it’s the Houston Rockets or the Warriors, nobody will be predicting LeBron James hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy with Jordan Clarkson and Jeff Green at his side. No, I expect a lot of “4-0” or “4-1” predictions from very qualified and smart people.

I want to see what would happen if the Warriors fell to this Cavs team, what the team would do this summer, what LeBron would be faced with -- would James really leave the Cavs after winning the title? Would he? -- and so many other things. Chaos may be a ladder, but it’s also, at its core, interesting. The Warriors winning again isn’t interesting, but it’s right. A basketball team with potentially four HOFers in their prime should always win the title, but that doesn’t mean I have to root for it.

Talkin' 2 Myself Mailbag: God, I Hope the Rays Make An AL Wild Card Run

It’s Sunday, May 27, 2018, which if you’re keeping track, is, of course, not Friday, May 25, 2018. (Big, if true.) My goal is for this column to be a Friday staple, but, well, we’ve gotten off to a rocky start. As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better with time management, Pomodoro Technique and Coffitivity was a game-changer for perpetual procrastinators like myself, and if you ever see me on my laptop, I can almost guarantee you there will be two Google Chrome tabs open that include both. Every time.

But I still fuck up.

It happens, and you have to roll with it. I didn’t have time Friday to bang out a long, mailbag-style column, so I wrote about something else. I wrote about the Atlanta Hawks and Marvin Bagley III and Luka Doncic and everything surrounding the Hawks No. 3 selection in this summer’s NBA Draft.

So it’s not like I didn’t write Friday. I did, and I like what I was able to put together and hope you did, too. The point is, I wrote, and I wrote to completion. Not writing is one of the easiest things a writer can do. You have this idea that hit harder than a James Harrison tackle while sitting in rush hour traffic, you scramble to write it down, and you make the plan to do something with this idea. I can’t tell you how many times the light bulb has gone off in the shower, in traffic, on the phone with a family member or friend, or even just walking my old-ass dog (he’s fifteen-years-old, his name is Bandit, and he’s the best), but I never get around to following-up on it.

I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to write. I want to write every day. I’ve written all weekend. Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and, yes, I’ll be writing tomorrow, too, because if you type it, you do it, right? (Shit, this is going to be really embarrassing if I don’t end up writing tomorrow.)

***

The idea for this kind of mailbag is simple: I talk to myself a lot. I got it from my dad, but he’s the Michael Jordan of Guys Who Walk Around The House Talking To Himself level. I’m not there, yet, but it’s in my genes, so it’s probably going to be a thing for me, too. (Early apologies, Future Wife.)

When I talk to myself, though, I’m usually thinking about sports questions or opinions. I can’t help but ask myself, sometimes out loud, how the Hell Mike Moustakas still is not an Atlanta Brave? I ask myself what it says about the Golden State Warriors to need Andre Iguodala as much as they do with four potential HOFers already on the roster. I wonder about why the WWE is even considering bringing back Hulk Hogan in any capacity? I sometimes even wonder if Junior Soprano would have been a good boss of the DiMeo Crime Family had he gotten a real run as boss earlier than when he did.

Coming up with questions to ask myself is not like escaping Alcatraz. It comes naturally, and it’s probably a big reason why I love doing my podcast. Asking other people questions never gets old, asking myself questions never stops.

So that’s why I’m titling this column the “Talkin’ 2 Myself” mailbag. In this column, I’m going to answer my own questions. I’m not going to answer each one the same, some answers will be longer than others. Sometimes, I may even answer my own questions with a 2,000-plus word response, and sometimes it may even result in a simple “no”.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have all of the questions.

Let’s go.

***

First question from the mind of Chase, “Should the Suns really consider trading the No. 1 pick this summer?”

I’m not a fan of the Phoenix Suns, but I love exploring this possibility. Yes, it’s not going to happen and it probably shouldn’t happen, but, if you’re a fan of the team, aren’t you at the very least intrigued by the idea?

In the NBA, the No. 1 overall pick has been traded six times, but the results aren’t terrible. The Cleveland Cavaliers ended up with a five-time All-Star in Brad Daugherty and became a perennial playoff team. The Celtics traded the No. 1 overall pick that ended up becoming Jayson Tatum, and, recency bias aside, looks to be a home run. The Celtics decades ago flipped the No. 1 overall pick for Robert Parish in a deal that, if you ask Celtics fans, would probably be universally praised. (Kevin McHale and Parish went on to win three NBA titles together.)

If general manager Ryan McDonough, takes DeAndre Ayton out of Arizona, it’d make sense. Building around Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, and Ayton is something you can sell. I’m not sure what that means for the futures of Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, but a young core of Jackson, Bender and Ayton is something.

If McDonough takes Donic, it’d make sense. A Donic and Booker backcourt is something worth exploring. Can it work? Who knows, but if it doesn’t, taking Doncic No. 1 overall would still make sense. Imagine giving McDonough shit for trying to create the next great NBA backcourt with Doncic and Booker. You can’t because it’s very crazy and very stupid.

But to trade this pick would be something else. It’d have to be for Kawhi Leonard. LeBron James isn’t going to Phoenix. The Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t trading Russell Westbrook to the Suns. If Neil Olshey of the Portland Trail Blazers calls asking about the No. 1 pick in exchange for a package built around C.J. McCollum you hang up the phone. If Phoenix were to trade the No. 1 overall pick, you do it for Leonard and only him.

The mind of Chase asks, “ How fucked are the Seattle Mariners?”

This is a simple question, but an interesting one that only requires a simple answer: Very.

This team is 31-20, as of this writing, and this team has a very real shot at the second Wild Card spot this fall over the Los Angeles Angels. The Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, the Houston Astros and the Cleveland Indians are going to be playing in October. That is happening and done and I don’t like that it’s definitely settled just as much as you, but that’s what’s happening.

So that leaves one spot.

It could be the Mariners or it could be the team with WAR-leading Mike Trout and Shohei Otani and Justin Upton and other guys who are very good at baseball. The Mariners just lost Robinson Cano to an 80-game suspension, the starting rotation is less than ideal, and there is a very real chance if this team doesn’t make the playoffs this season there will be major changes in Seattle this winter.

So, yes, the Mariners are fucked, but they could still make the playoffs, I guess. 

The mind of Chase asks, “When do you think The Miz vs. Daniel Bryan will happen?”

Summerslam is the only answer. WrestleMania is too far out, and the Royal Rumble match itself would overshadow it. That leaves that big pay-per-view this summer.

Once The Miz was moved over to Smackdown Live from Monday Night Raw, the fantasy booking surrounding the A-Lister and Bryan kicked into high gear. This is the match every professional wrestling fan has been waiting for ever since that infamous segment on Talking Smack. You can only tease an event like this for so long before pulling the trigger. It should take place at Summerslam, and it should draw the biggest reaction of any potential match in the WWE in 2018

No pressure.

The mind of Chase asks, “What if the Tampa Bay Rays are still in the AL Wild Card race this fall?”

Oh, man. I want this to happen so bad. As a non-fan of the Rays, and any team trying to tank only to end up being a lot better than they expected, I really enjoy this. The Rays gave away Corey Dickerson -- who is picking up where he left off with the Pittsburgh Pirates this season -- and have been rumored to be interesting in trading ace Chris Archer since the Ronald Reagan administration, but they’re still fine.

This club, somehow, has the third-best team batting average, per Baseball Reference, but I’m not totally sure how that’s possible even with Mallex Smith, C.J. Cron and Matt Duffy doing stuff. This team hits with a hodgepodge cast of characters, and, as of this writing, are 24-26. What if, instead of exploring trading one of their two or three starting pitchers, the Rays explored going for it? In a season where manager Kevin Cash has elected to test out “The Opener”, why not try an even bolder strategy in Central Florida: Be buyers at the deadline.

Rather than continue to trade guys like Archer and Blake Snell and Sergio Romo, what if this organization made calls to the Chicago White Sox about Jose Abreu, or the Detroit Tigers about Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez, or even the Kansas City Royals about Danny Duffy.

The Rays are going to hang around, so rather than continue to gut the team, what if ownership and the front office elected to just go for it this summer and play spoiler to one of the American League behemoths? That’s the kind of stuff that makes sports fun, and that’s what I want to see. Go for it, Tampa. You have my blessing.

Let's Appreciate How Good Smackdown Live Was This Week

This week’s episode of Smackdown Live was very good.

Sometimes -- this a lie, it’s often -- the feeling of guilt about constantly criticizing professional wrestling too much is overwhelming. If everything's the worst, why am I still watching? If I find more things to complain about than brag about every week, and I never waver in my weekly viewing habits, am I just a unknowing masochist? Yes, professional wrestling is not that serious, but I write about it every week, I watch it on my laptop every week, but if I’m more often than not annoyed about the product why is still a stable fixture in my life? This week’s episode of Smackdown Live is the reason why.

This week’s episode of Monday Night Raw was one of the worst I’ve ever had the unfortunate task of watching. It was a pleasure to watch Smackdown Live. Sure, you could make the case that it’s significantly easier to book an entertaining two-hour wrestling show than it is a three-hour show. That’s not always the case, though, as Raw won the Inconsequential Better Brand For 2017 award over the blue brand. Smackdown Live in 2017 will be remembered for wasting prime AJ Styles, saddling Kevin Owens with bad gimmicks and storylines, and the emergence of The Usos to keep me from quitting the show altogether. (Seriously, go back and watch some of those promos for The Usos, especially before their organic face turn. They’re incredible.) So it’s no guarantee that just because Smackdown Live has an unfair advantage in length that the show will outperform the slog usual slog that is Raw.

First, we had The Miz opening the show in another installment of Miz TV, and he brought out The New Day. It all worked, as Miz is the perfect foil to the New Day. Miz excels at coming across as a heel who takes himself way too seriously, and there is nobody in the WWE right now who does a better job of not doing so than Big E, Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods. You could tell, just from their mannerisms and facial expressions alone, there is a mutual respect there, and The Miz trolling the crowd over the most must-see professional wrestling match in 2018 still not having a definitive fight date.

Then, we had Aiden English introduce Lana to a crowd that is completely enthralled on a week-to-week basis with the Rusev Day gimmick. It’s simple, it got over organically, and it’s maybe, possibility helped revitalize Lana’s career on Smackdown Live. Lana is still greener than Flubber, but it doesn’t matter because it’s different and she makes it all work. (Poor Billie Kay, though.) English hilariously introducing the “Lana Day” sign is an early contender for Best Blue Brand Moment Of The Year idea.

Andrade “Cien” Almas put together one of the more entertaining squash matches I’ve ever seen. Almas has all the makings of a star -- as long as his in-ring co-pilot Zelina Vega remains by his side -- and he displayed just a sliver of his heavy, devastating array of moves anyone who watches NXT already knew were located deep down in his bag of tricks. Sure, I’m not sure a potential babyface turn will pan out for Almas, but for right now, it’s clear he’s the top heel on the blue brand, and, if Shinsuke Nakamura comes up short again in his match against WWE Champion AJ Styles at Money In The Bank, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to build for Almas vs. Styles for Summerslam.

Speaking of Nakamura, my God, his run as a chicken-shit heel could not be going any better. (Outside of those non-finishes to his title matches with the Phenomenal One, of course.) He’s having fun, and it reminds me of Randy Orton whenever he’s been given the opportunity to turn heel. You can just tell certain guys up their game when they’re booked to work heel, and Nakamura falls into that Randy Orton Zone where it’s just abundantly clear this is the best way to properly utilize them.

This episode even saw the Good Brothers finally get their shot. They were given mic time, they held their own against the Usos, and they put together a match with one of the best tag-team acts in the company that, by the end, got the crowd into it and throwing up the “too sweet” hand gestures that should only put a smile on every pro wrestling fan’s face. Do I think they’re going to beat the Actually Bad Bludgeon Brothers at Money In The Bank? No, it’s probably still going to be SAnitY that ultimately dethrones the hammer brothers, but this was good. The “magic killer” finisher still hits, and the crowd is into this duo again for the first time in what feels like forever.

And, because Road Dogg was feeling generous, I guess, this show still put out a main event that featured WWE United State Champion Jeff Hardy against Daniel Bryan in a match that will allow the winner to face Samoa Joe to earn an opportunity to compete in the Money In The Bank ladder match and who knows what else because there are so many things going on here that it’s hard to keep up. This match got time, this match ended with Bryan utilizing his new heel lock finisher, which, obviously, because it’s Daniel Bryan, looks devastating every time he locks it in, and this match ended with Samoa Joe doing what he does best: Saying dick-ish things on the mic.

This show had it all, and I’m probably leaving some stuff out -- like Naomi working a fantastic, creative match with Sonya Deville, for instance -- but there was nothing to complain about here. It all hit, and it all worked. Wrestling shows like this week’s Smackdown Live remind me why I still give a company run by Vince McMahon so much of time each week -- when pro wrestling is good, it’s fun. (Big, if true. I know.)

Now, let’s just do this consistently, Road Dogg and Ryan Ward, please?