Will Nikola Jokić lead Denver to its first title or will Jimmy Butler fulfill his playoff prophesy?

Nikola Jokić vs. Jimmy Butler will be a key part of this NBA Finals

One of the least anticipated matchups in recent memory is upon us. The Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat. Let’s be real here. No LeBron, no Jayson Tatum, and no Boston Celtics legends in the stands. Media members have been openly grousing all week about having to cover the Nuggets. That’s a cornball position to take for what could be the rise of a new Western Conference giant versus an all-time underdog run.

There isn’t much history between these two franchises except for an ignominious blindside retaliation by Nikola Jokić toward Markieff Morris in 2021. However, Morris is long gone. Jimmy Butler and the two-time MVP are the obvious primary storylines, but there are Chekhov’s guns lying all around with hairpin triggers that have the potential to be pulled at any moment.

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The Heat have the hottest trigger finger in the league right now. Miami was the NBA’s best 3-point shooting team en route to the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals. After falling to 27th in 3-point percentage during the following season, they rediscovered their touch behind the arc, despite losing marksman Tyler Herro for almost the entire run. The Heat have been the NBA’s most efficient 3-point shooting team for the last month and a half. Denver is second in percentage. Neither team is as reliant on the deep space triple as Golden State, and they didn’t even rank in the top half of playoff teams in average 3-pointers in 2023.

Tyler Herro (l.) and Bam Adebayo

Tyler Herro is invaluable to Miami. Don’t listen to those weirdos who believe they made this run because the former Sixth Man of the Year was injured. In true Heat Culture fashion, Herro broke his hand midway through Game 1 of their first-round series diving for a loose ball. Since then, the next man up Caleb Martin has taken advantage of those minutes and transformed into Miami’s secondary option. Herro is expected to return to the Heat lineup by the time this series shifts back to Miami for Game 3.

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But he’ll likely be back to getting into rhythm with the second unit and it won’t be at an expense to Martin’s minutes. Spoelstra is going to ride this hot streak until the wheels fly off. In this postseason, Martin has the second-highest shooting percentage among non-big men who have played over 200 minutes. No. 1 is Devin Booker. His 43.8 percent shooting from downtown is spectacular, and his true shooting percentage is the best of any player in the Finals.

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Adebayo’s ability to stymie Jokić is obviously important. The Heat’s switch-heavy defense won’t be activating that function when Adbayo is attached to Jokić because the latter is a four-time All-Defense honoree. He can’t stop Jokić, he can only hope to contain the players most likely to win Employee of the Month at the dock. Adebayo can’t slouch on offense for another series though.

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Bam was borderline comatose in the Eastern Conference Finals. Not only will his capacity to keep Jokić from scoring at will dictate the pace of this series, but after getting reduced to rubble in the series against Boston’s more defensively inclined lineup, Spoelstra has to count on Adebayo as more than just a glorified screener on the other end. Adebayo shot 8-for-26 from the field over the final two games of the ECF and was turnover-prone throughout the series, before rallying with seven assists in the series clincher.

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Home-court advantage flew out the window for Boston and Miami. Probably because these two teams are so familiar with one another after a litany of battles over the years. Miami’s rotation was basically listing Boston as a second residence on their tax forms. Denver is a different case. The high altitude has always been considered an advantage for the Nuggets, but that strength has been amplified during a season in which Denver was already the class of the Western Conference.

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Meanwhile, Miami is the city of temptation. Scoff at it if you want, but the lure of South Beach is impossible to ignore in early June. Not to mention the humidity that had Mike Greenberg’s Knicks in a state of disarray. At home, the Nuggets are 42-7, including 8-0 in the postseason. South Beach is trying to avoid becoming an underwater city, the Pepsi Center lies 5,280 feet above sea level. Historically, Nuggets teams have turned to fast-paced offenses to give themselves an advantage. Studies have shown that in every major professional sport, Denver has the league’s biggest home-field advantage. The only exception is hockey where Calgary, the second-highest elevation of any NHL franchise, comes in second.

Eric Spoelstra

Miami comes into the Finals with a wealth of championship experience. Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent, and Eric Spoelstra all appeared in prior NBA Finals. Duncan Robinson, Vincent, Adebayo all cut their teeth in the Bubble Finals loss to L.A. Herro was the youngest player since Magic Johnson to start an NBA Finals game in 2020. Butler went shot-for-shot with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in those Finals. Kevin Love has now reached five postseasons and each one has ended in the NBA Finals, while Lowry earned his title in 2019 with the Toronto Raptors. There’s also the ornery sherpa Udonis Haslem, who has led Miami to seven NBA titles. OK, led is a strong word. He’s the spiritual plane leader. He ascended to the great basketball beyond years ago, but they keep his husk around as a source of wisdom.

Denver’s core is in their Huggies by comparison. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was a critical member of the Lakers 2020 championship roster and Jeff Green made a cameo in the 2018 NBA Finals with Cleveland, but that’s it. Miami has a monopoly on the Finals experience equity, for whatever that’s worth.

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Jokić is a fundamentally flawed defensive big. Miami killed Boston from behind the arc in the Eastern Conference Finals as a necessity. Driving the lane consistently and finishing inside was arduous against Time Lord and Big Al. However, opponents shot 68.5 percent at the basket when Jokić was the closest defender, the second-highest in the league among players who contested at least four shots per game. Jimmy rolling downhill on Jokić, and Malone sending help defenders could result in an avalanche of points for Miami over the course of a seven-game series.

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Both the Heat and Nuggets have fashioned themselves as a team that demands more respect. The truth is the casual fan knows very little about both of these teams. It’s not the Celtics and Lakers, but variety is the spice of life. Denver is somehow both the NBA’s best playoff offense, and one of its least intriguing teams who haven’t had much of a say in the top of the West in the 50 years since transitioning to the ABA. Intro to Jokić will probably be lightly watched. Miami has been in the thick of these title races before, but usually with a supernova talent like Dwyane Wade, LeBron, Bosh, or Shaq in tow. The Jimmy Butler era has been all about grit and John Does.

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Jokić is the best passing big man the NBA has possibly ever seen and is simultaneously regarded for his lack of flair. Jokić may not even be the most beloved Nugget yet. David Thompson, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the Doug Moe-era Nuggets teams, and Carmelo were more celebrated, but Jokić’s incredible offensive efficiency sets him apart—as well as those two MVPs. Winning an NBA Finals would vault him to the next level of NBA superstardom.

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Jimmy Butler’s superstar application process has been denied every season. Suddenly, his workman in Timbs game has become the most discussed topic of the postseason and he fulfilled his own year-old prophecy by spearheading Miami’s Game 7 shellacking of the Boston Celtics. He’s been within a game or two of Larry O’Brien before. Earning a Finals MVP and a ring would thrust him into the superstar penthouse.

It’s been nearly two years since Jokić shoved Markieff Morris from behind, forcing him to miss four months of action and sparking a melee that culminated in an iconic image of Heat players standing outside the Nuggets locker room looking for Jokić. They got him now.

Lakers’ former core excelling outside of Los Angeles

Julius Randle during his tenure in Los Angeles

It’s not always the case that you can trace the current crop of key NBA players to a single team during a single season. But that’s exactly what the 2017-2018 season was for the Los Angeles Lakers. That season was two years removed from the retirement of Kobe Bryant, who won five championships with the franchise and is in contention as the greatest Laker of all time. Bryant’s retirement paved the way for losing seasons and Lottery picks. These picks and the young core drafted during Bryant’s last couple of seasons, mostly losing ones, formed a group of players currently running the NBA.

That group became All-NBA, All-Stars, Most Improved Players, Sixth Man of the Year, and NBA champions. It makes one think what would have happened had that group stayed together. Once LeBron James chose the Los Angeles Lakers as his next team in 2018, the team’s core was traded away to New Orleans to bring Anthony Davis as James’ new co-star. The duo would win a championship together in the 2020 NBA Bubble season, While the main rotation of that 2017-2018 season is playing huge parts for their current teams. We’ve highlighted the nine key players from that Lakers’ season, chronicling where they were in their careers then and where they are now.

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Ingram averaged 9.4 points per game as a rookie, with .402/.294/.621 shooting splits for L.A. While he improved on those numbers during the 2017-18 season, it didn’t appear that the former Duke star and No. 2 overall pick in 2016 would be a star.

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But two seasons later, Ingram was the centerpiece of the Anthony Davis trade, becoming an All-Star and winning the Most Improved Player Award in 2020. Today, Ingram is among the most lethal three-level scorers in the NBA. His long, wiry build makes his jump shot impossible to guard, and his 24.7 PPG this season on .484/.390/.882 shooting makes him one of the 20 best players in the league.

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Hart was the 30th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. As a rookie, he averaged  7.9 ppg and 4.2 rebounds per game. Those rebounding numbers would be an impressive career precursor for the 6-foot-4 Hart, a champion in 2016 with the Villanova Wildcats during his college career.

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After being traded to the Pelicans in the A.D. trade, he would play for Portland before landing with the New York Knicks this season at the trade deadline. Once he joined his Villanova teammate Jalen Brunson on the Knicks, the team went on a nine-game win streak with Hart on the bench. His offensive rebounding prowess and gnarly defense have solidified the Knicks bench and were key advantages to the Knicks upsetting the Cleveland Cavaliers this postseason, Hart’s first taste of the playoffs.

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The most tragic of this group is Ball. The second pick in the 2017 NBA Draft was a rookie. At 6-foo6, he showed massive potential as the next big point guard in the mold of Magic Johnson, Penny Hardaway, and Shaun Livingston. Magic is an apt parallel because he was president of Basketball Operations for the team then and was the main supporter behind the team drafting Ball second.

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Once Ball was traded to New Orleans, he would continue to breakout, averaging 14.6 ppg in his final season with the Pelicans, making him one of the most wanted free agents in the summer of 2021 before signing with the Chicago Bulls. He hoped to partner with Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, as he did with the Lakers’ young core, to form an eventual championship-level squad. Unfortunately, severe knee injuries have derailed his career, and his injuries continue to keep him out of basketball activities. He has not played in a season and a half.

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The most talented and enigmatic player from that Lakers team is certainly Randle. He was an athletic dynamo with the Lakers, tied for the leading scorer at 16.1 PPG during that pivotal season. Now in his ninth season, the burly 6-foo-8 power forward was named an All-Star and All-NBA for the second time since joining the Knicks as a free agent in 2019.

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He was also named the Most Improved Player of the Year in 2021, becoming a bonafide 20-point, 10 rebounds, and five-assist player. But, for all the statistical accolades, Randle has had issues controlling his emotions while in New York. The pressure cooker of playing for the Knicks has shown cracks in Randle’s tough exterior, where he has had spouts with the fanbase and failed to play as well in the playoffs as he has in the regular season.

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After being named to the All-Rookie First Team in 2015, Clarkson was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he spent a season before being moved to the Utah Jazz, where he has remained even as they enter a rebuild. With the Jazz, he became one of the best off-the-bench scorers in the league, earning the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2021.

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Not bad for the 46th pick in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft. It’s unknown if Clarkson will stay with the Jazz as they continue to tear down the core that made the playoffs from 2020-2022. Clarkson averaged 14.5 PPG during that key Lakers season, showing the dynamic offensive skill set that saw him reach a career-high 20.8 PPG this season.

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The 6-foot-5 guard has become one of the best off-the-bench defensive specialists in the league. Caruso was one of the few players to stay with the Lakers, playing for them for four seasons, helping them win the 2020 championship in the Bubble. He was a key bench spark that post-season, averaging 6.5 ppg and 1.1 steals per game.

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It helped him earn the bag as an unrestricted free agent when he signed a four-year, $37 million contract with the Chicago Bulls that summer. He never became a greater scoring threat, but he did tighten up his efficiency, averaging career-highs this season in FG percentage (46 percent) and FT percentage (81 percent). His defensive efforts were finally recognized this season, earning him All-Defense First Team.

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Along with Caruso, Caldwell-Pope was the only other player from the previous core to stay with the team for their 2020 championship. During that Lakers run, the sharp-shooting swingman averaged 10.7 points and started in all of L.A.’s 21 playoff games.

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That championship experience is vital to his current team, the Denver Nuggets, who have reached the Finals for the first time in franchise history. He’s averaged 11.7 points a game and 3.2 rebounds while guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player. KCP is part of the team’s five-man best offense and defensive lineups, showing his diversity on both sides of the ball.

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Of all the names on that Lakers roster, Lopez was the odd man out. He was trying to find a place in a league that had passed him by. The half-court post genius that made him an All-Star in 2013 had evolved into the pace and space offense that requires centers to be able to hit threes to be more than useful.

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With the Lakers, he was no longer the 20 PPG scorer he was with the Brooklyn Nets, averaging the lowest point per game average since his rookie seasons, at 13 ppg. His stay with the Lakers would be short-lived, while he would start 72 games in L.A., making him an attractive free agent, signing with the Milwaukee Bucks the following season. He mans the middle with the Bucks, evolving his game to become the best shooting center in the NBA while retaining his elite defense, helping the Bucks win the championship in 2021.

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Buried on the bench, behind Brook Lopez, Channing Frye, and other bigs, was Zubac, who was in his second year at the time. He averaged just 9.5 minutes per game and 3.7 ppg. And while he’s no longer with the Lakers, he is still in L.A., now with the Clippers. For the last four seasons, he has been the starting center for the Clips, providing a deft scoring touch and double-digit scoring.

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He has been a key team member since acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in 2019, helping to space the starting lineup. Zubac is not only one of the most skilled European players in the league, but he’s also one of the toughest as well, helping to shed the assumption that big men from Europe are soft on the court.

Mark Cuban tries to get NBA fans to narc on themselves

Nice try, FBI Marc

Being the businessman that Mark Cuban is, sometimes he would like information directly from the public. The people in the big office chairs may not give credence to what the masses think. If they want to remove the most highly-regarded name in the history of television from an app they will, despite our objections, but they do still want the information. Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals is the NBA’s biggest game of the season to date, so as one of the league’s 30 franchise owners, Cuban decided to hold an impromptu focus group about pirated streams.

Cuban went to the social media platform with the most robust NBA conversation — Twitter — and decided to directly ask the users if they were using an alternative source to watch the Miami Heat defeat the Boston Celtics 103-84 on Sunday night.

The result was the owner of the Dallas Mavericks being given a new nickname — Narc Cuban. Only if he was wearing a Mavericks uniform and assigned to defend the basket during a game would he have been dunked on with more consistency and voracity. Actually, what happened on Twitter would still be worse. At least during a game he could tackle a player in mid-air and get ejected.

Nice try, FBI Mark Narc Cuban

There is no way to stop the memes of him being a ham-handed informant. I should have made one with Cuban’s face on that trash can in the car insurance commercial about the poor undercover agent.

Maybe Cuban has been curious about this subject for a while. He is as much of an NBA fan as those of us who didn’t side-step out of the dot-com bubble at the perfect time. Cuban might simply want to know all of the ways that fans are accessing the game these days.

Or maybe his cable went out. If YouTube TV can malfunction for viewers of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals nationwide, then there certainly could have been a malfunction at his palatial estate. At that point, he would be just another NBA fan scrambling to find a way to view an important game. It happened to me during Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Being that I wasn’t an NBA owner at that time, I could treat the downtown connector in Atlanta like a Grand Prix to get to a bar and enjoy the game in anonymity.

There is also the possibility that Cuban was using this question to get the Elon blue checks to reveal the sources of unauthorized NBA streams. Thus allowing him and his billionaire brethren to do what they did to the NBA Streams subreddit in 2019, saddening broke fans of the league across the globe by getting it shut down.

Only Cuban knows his motivations. Being that he is an NBA franchise owner, I doubt that he has a favorable opinion of the ways that unlicensed servers distribute the televised product. I also highly doubt that the NBA is counting on a question that Cuban posed on Twitter to be what swings the battle against pirate streams in their favor. If that is the best that the league’s legal team can do, then how has no one challenged the existence of the NBA Draft, age eligibility, or the salary cap and won yet?

What is indisputably true about Cuban’s inquiry is that it provided an excellent opportunity for NBA fans to dunk on a billionaire. That group goes through great effort to suppress the free market when it comes to player salaries, fight with television providers and the result is fewer people having access to their local team’s games, and reward referees for making the game about themselves.

Fortunately, it has proved impossible to ruin a product as great as the NBA, but that fact doesn’t stop the powers that be from trying. So anytime that one of them wants to offer themselves as tribute to the fans, we are here to roast that person like a s’more.

Get ready for a summer of LeBron James retirement drama

(insert eye roll)

Apparently, this LeBron Jamesretirement” saga is going to drag out through at least part of the summer. King James is back posting “cryptic” messages on social media. It feels like more of the Hollywood drama we’ve come to expect from James, but if you want to call it “cryptic,” go ahead and knock yourself out. No matter what he may want us to believe, it’s highly unlikely that he walks away from the NBA right now.

“I’m supposed to be #1 on everybody’s list. We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist.”

Honestly, what the hell is this? He’s supposed to be No. 1 on “everybody’s list.” Not if he’s talking about the all-time G.O.A.T. list. He’s not at the top of that list for the majority. If Mr. James is referring to the top spot of active players, that’s no longer a given. Over the past couple of years, that argument has been focused on Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić.

It’s no longer a given that LeBron James is the best in the NBA

It isn’t clear-cut anymore that James is the best player in the world. It hasn’t been for some time. James is still a great player but not necessarily the greatest, and that’s okay. Contrary to popular belief, No. 1 means just that. All this talk we hear tossed around about “goats” is nonsense. Thirty-seven people can’t be the goat of anything. It just doesn’t work like that. 

It’s obvious what’s happening here. James is keeping the spotlight on himself as the season winds down, and we head into the offseason. Or this whole “retirement” angle could be his way of applying pressure to the Lakers, so they bring in more help. He’s the GOAT and constantly begging for more help. The team fulfills his request, yet they still can’t finish the job, and now he needs even more support. It’s interesting because it’s been this same formula since his second stint in Cleveland. But James is still supposed to be “#1″ on everyone’s list. Well, according to him, anyway. Honestly, all these antics have become comical. You’re better than this, Mr. GOAT.

The Celtics find an even better way to lose than just getting swept

It wasn’t even close

Remember the “Minneapolis Miracle?” You might, but if you don’t it’s when the Minnesota Vikings pulled out a last-second win in the divisional round over the Saints when the entire New Orleans secondary decided to reenact a Three Stooges routine. However, it doesn’t really get the play that, say, the Immaculate Reception or Tuck Rule might, because the Vikings went on to get utterly popped the following week in the NFC Championship game. It still means a lot to Vikings fans, but for the rest of us, it requires a little excavation in the memory files to call up. It’s a quirk, an outlier to the familiar story of the Vikings eating shit in January, a story we all know much better.

The Boston Celtics have one of those now.

Derrick White pulling the entire Celtics season, and some serious navel gazing this summer through the entire organization, out of the darkness at the very last possible moment in Game 6 is supposed to be the kind of foundational wonder that they write songs about for decades. There should be an oral history of it in five, 10 years. Maybe a mural somewhere in downtown Boston. Now, just a footnote, a (glaring) detail in the story of when this era of the Celtics changed. Maybe for the better in the long run, more likely for the worse. But it no longer really stands alone. If it does, it does so merely as an example of what the Celtics wasted.

No one’s going to feel sorry for C’s fans of course, who swaggered into the Eastern Conference Finals thinking they got a break seeing the 7th-turned-8th-seeded Heat, which should have taken place in the first round had the Heat not taken the night off against the Atlanta Hawks way back in the play-in. Then they watched the Green cough up two home games and quit in Game 3, only to have their hopes defibrillated back along with that swagger before Game 7, and then…well, this:

An NBA team still hasn’t come back from a 3-0 deficit

There’s a reason that a 3-0 comeback in the NBA hasn’t happened, because in a playoff basketball series what got you into that hole is real. It’s not a flash, it’s not a series of rolled sevens. In hockey, a goalie can catch fire or fall apart, and really only a few bounces have to go the trailing team’s way to get things to at least the “dicey” level. When the Philadelphia Flyers did it in 2010, an accomplishment that TNT forgot to mention to only further Flyers fans’ summer of discontent, they won three one-goal games. It’s only happened once in baseball, when the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees so ravaged each other’s pitching staffs that just about anything could happen.

In the NBA, Game 7s should look familiar, and this one did, aside from Jayson Tatum’s injury in the opening 15 seconds. It changed things, but only accentuated everything wrong with the Celtics in the first three games. They couldn’t make a three, they had too many braindead possessions, their coach went into vapor lock when adjustments were needed. Perhaps finding a way his team could not treat a zone defense like it was an alien life form or spending two to three quarters playing a drop coverage on screens that gave all of the Heat’s supporting cast all the time in the world to bury from the outside. Tatum’s lack of explosion severely limited his game, and Jaylen Brown apparently took this as a signal that only hero-ball from him would save the team, which turned his handling of the ball to be soundtracked with a whoopee cushion and his shot selection to look like a Pollock painting. It’s a lot of what they looked like in Game 6, but they got away with it once. They didn’t far more than they did though in this series, which is why they’ll be packing up today.

Boston Bruins, Celtics both lose Game 7s to No. 8 seeds

While it’ll never be enough to shut them up, Boston now becomes the first city to have teams lose Game 7s at home to an 8-seed in two different sports in the same spring (though again, the Heat are really the 7th seed but it’s better to consider them the 8 for this reason alone). And they did it in about as excruciating fashion as you can, as if losing a Game 7 at home wasn’t enough. The Bruins blew a 3-1 lead. The Celtics did just enough to get their fans believing twice, and wasted a truly epic, never-to-be-repeated moment. And it’s quite possible that this loss will break the Celtics’ brain. Certainly Brown gave them enough ammo to justify getting a little loopy with his eight turnovers when his team needed him to drive the bus.

Somebody check on Bill Simmons

Anyway, one more time:

Jerry Reinsdorf spends money on network, not his teams

Funny how the White Sox couldn’t afford the extra arm they needed in the rotation or the middle infielder with a bat as well as a right fielder, and yet…

The White Sox are 22-34, and haven’t won a series in the playoffs in 18 years.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Feslgate to tell him to stay out of White Sox business again.

The NBA holds officials like Eric Lewis to higher standards than we do Supreme Court justices

Internet sleuths claim they have discovered a burner account belonging to NBA ref Eric Lewis.

NBA official Eric Lewis is rapidly joining Scott Foster as one the most controversial officials in The Association. For nearly two decades, Lewis has put his head down and gone to work every day as a relatively anonymous background figure calling games. That’s all gone up in a puff of smoke this season, as he’s attracted far more attention in a four-month span than any referee ever should or would even like to.

Last week, Internet sleuths again discovered a burner account @CuttliffBlair that allegedly belonged to the 19-year NBA official that regularly defended Lewis and other officials from critical fans. If the account is Lewis’, he would face significant discipline for breaking an NBA rule prohibiting officials from publicly commenting on officiating without prior authorization.

Lewis has been a frequent target of digital mobs this season since an errant non-call during a Lakers-Celtics rematch, which is presumably what got Twitter detectives searching for dirt on him. On Jan. 28, Lewis drew the ire of Lakers fans for a non-call on LeBron James’ potential game-winning shot in the waning seconds of their loss to the Boston Celtics. The league’s official Last Two Minute Report later agreed that a foul was missed. During the contest, Pat Beverley was also assessed a technical foul for bringing a photographer’s camera to Lewis in an attempt to show him up for a foul he called on Dennis Schroeder. However, on James’ drive to the rim, Lewis wasn’t even the official nearest to the play or in a vantage point to make the call nearer to halfcourt than the baseline official who held his whistle. However, his interaction with Beverley before overtime put him in the crosshairs.

Fans were particularly interested in the Celtics 63 percent winning percentage in games Lewis has officiated, the highest of all 30 teams Lewis has officiated games for. Afterwards, Internet creeps discovered his wife’s account and disseminated a purported photo of her and their son in Celtics jerseys to further tar and feather him as a double agent for the Celtics.

In response to the accusations, Beverley and James’ tweets on the matter have further inflamed matters. Lewis’ alleged burner account existed long before the Lakers-Celtics incident in January though. The @CuttliffBlair account exhibited a proclivity for frequently attacking Laker fans, which definitely won’t hush the exaggerated accusations levied against Lewis this season.

On May 25, the account claimed to belong to Mark Lewis, Eric Lewis’ brother, although it’s unclear why that account would operate in secrecy and doesn’t explain why the @CuttliffBlair account includes the maiden name of Eric’s wife, Vanesse Blair in its handle. On the floor, officials are the judge, the jury and sometimes the executioner of pivotal games. This entire sordid affair is Exhibit A in why the NBA enforces stricter rules than the Supreme Court does on its renegade Justices to defend itself against alleged improprieties.

The need for transparency is why they introduced the Last Two Minute Report. The NBA is more on edge than any other professional league in regards to the integrity of their officials since the Tim Donaghy scandal in the mid-2000s. The aforementioned Scott Foster’simage has never recovered from the revelation that he received 134 calls from Donaghy during the period the ex-official was betting on games.

Even the Last Two Minute Report is an attempt at keeping officials accountable for their mistakes. However, the hyperactive imaginations of conspiracy-riddled NBA fans are undefeated. A.I. hasn’t progressed to the point that it can replace the complex job that NBA officiating crews conduct every night, but if they ever did pass a certain threshold, no league would benefit as much as the NBA. Robot drones would have no family to protect from social media ravagers. No dignity to defend and no allegiances that could be questioned. And presumably, they’d present a significantly lesser need for the two-minute report.

For now, the NBA is one of those sports where the human element will always be paramount, another reason why their referees are held to a uniform code of conduct. Yes, officials are allowed to be fans of NBA teams. They lived decades before joining the NBA officials fraternity. However, they are required to maintain an appearance as objective arbiters in upholding the rulebook, and Lewis’ predicament is a stress test on the restrictions they have in place.

Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex

Anthony Bennett and the NBA Lottery’s biggest draft busts of the last decade

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Every day, fans of Aleksej “Poku” Pokusevski, Josh Green, or James Wiseman swear next year is the year their favorite players are not the bums the rest of the NBA thinks they are. I went through the last decade, from 2013-2023, and highlighted the 10 players who are on track to be the biggest busts during that stretch. Some of these players still have time to develop into a semblance of the player who earned their high Lottery selection. But for now, I’ve gathered the guys around the league who were selected between Nos. 1-10 in the last decade who are on track to bustville.

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Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

Pick: No. 1

Draft class: 2013

Bennett is the only No. 1 pick on this list, and is definitely the worst first pick of the last 10 years, especially now that Markelle Fultz and Andrew Wiggins have revitalized their careers on new teams. Bennett was out of the NBA by his fourth season and fourth team, lasting only a season in Cleveland and never averaging more than 16 minutes per game and 5.2 points per game. Bennett was supposed to be part of the rebuilding bridge between LeBron James’ first and second tenures with the Cavs, who had the brilliant stroke of luck of winning three No. 1 picks between 2011 and 2014. Bennett was an odd choice, as, by 2013, the league had evolved past the post-play of slow, vertically challenged bigs. And while the 2013 Draft was the worst of the last decade, the Cavs would have been better off picking any other player that was taken top 10.

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Team: New York Knicks

Pick: No. 9

Draft class: 2018

This season, under the anonymity of Detroit, Knox began to revive his career. Up until this season, he had been an unmitigated bust. He has never looked like a Lottery pick, especially considering who was taken after him, including notable names like Mikal Bridges, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Michael Porter Jr. Knox had the build and abilities to be the offensive perimeter weapon the Knicks were hungry for. But it was evident on his Draft Day suit, featuring Fortnite stitched into the inside of his jacket, he was not mentally mature for the task at hand. The Knicks fanbase is not known for its patience. Knox’s softness on defense and passivity on offense kept him out of the rotations of multiple head coaches on the Knicks, most notably Tom Thibodeau, who was in charge when Knox was traded to Atlanta.

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Team: Orlando Magic

Pick: No. 5

Draft class: 2021

This one hurts, as it’s still so soon in Suggs’s young career. An explosive, dynamic lead guard on a Gonzaga team that made the 2021 NCAA Tournament Final, it was expected Suggs would be the Magic’s unstoppable point-of-attack. The Magic already had a ton of talented two-way wings and saw 2020 first-round pick Cole Anthony as more of a backup, leading the way for Suggs to take over as the starter. But Suggs has fallen to the third-string point guard behind Anthony and Fultz. In his rookie year, his defense was atrocious and he was limited by first a hand injury and then ankle issues. Suggs finished his sophomore season with averages of 9.9 points, 2.9 assists, and three rebounds per game while appearing in more games (53) than he had in his rookie season (48). But there were some signs of life. He shot 32.7 percent from three on the year, a marked improvement from the 21.4 percent of his rookie season, and his defense improved, especially on steals. He also improved his impact on the starting line-up, showing opportunities for him to partially live up to his potential, finishing the season with a +11.3 net rating (113.7/102.4 split) in 58 minutes with the starting lineup.

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Team: Sacramento Kings

Pick: No. 8

Draft class: 2014

While Canada is making a claim as the second-best basketball country in the world, it’s not because of the Canadian-born Staukas, who has been in and out of the NBA since he was drafted in 2014. It’s rare to see a Lottery pick bounce around the Association and in minor leagues around the world like Stauskas. He’s tried a few times to mount comeback stories with the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, and Boston Celtics. What makes the Stauskas pick more painful are the players who were chosen after him, including multi-time All-Star Zach LaVine and back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokić. After a storied college career with the Michigan Wolverines, Stauskas was never able to carve out a role with any of the seven teams he has played for.

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Team: New York Knicks

Pick: No. 8

Draft class: 2017

Ah, “Frankie Smokes,” Knicks fans hardly knew ya. The Knicks had two shots at Lottery point guards in this draft, taking Ntilikina in 2017 and then trading for Dennis Smith Jr. in 2019, who went ninth in the same draft. Unfortunately for them, neither worked out for the Knicks. Ntilikina was never the planking lead guard he was projected as, instead, he fits more as a defensive-minded wing with a streaky shooting ability. He is currently part of the role-playing supporting cast around Luka Dončić in Dallas. He is a free agent this summer and might be on his way out of the league due to his poor shooting from the perimeter.

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Team: Sacramento Kings

Pick: No. 2

Draft class: 2018

Of all the players on the list, Bagley is having the best current career, currently playing for the Detroit Pistons as a part-time starter, averaging 12 PPG (shooting 53 percent on field goals), and 6.4 RPG. While Bagley has eased into a role-player role with Detroit, he is far from the offensive heavyweight projections that influenced the Sacramento Kings to select him second overall in 2018. It’s not just that he was selected second, but he was selected before Dončić (third), Jaren Jackson Jr. (fourth), and Trae Young (fifth). He will always be remembered as the player taken before Dončić, but that’s not his fault, but former Kings exec Vlade Divac’s. Bagley is still waiting for his three-point shot to come around after five seasons (29 percent career average). But he has maintained a solid career average of 13.3 PPG. If Bagley can become a threat from long distance, he could slot in as the future of the power forward position for Detroit and pair with fellow potential Lottery bust Wiseman in a frontcourt revival.

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Team: Philadelphia 76ers

Pick: No. 3

Draft class: 2015 

When the 76ers took Okafor in 2015, he was supposed to pair with Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel to form a dynamic and powerful frontcourt trio. Okafor was dominant in his time at Duke, shooting up to Lottery status with an array of back-to-the-basket post-game and rebounding prowess. But Okafor’s old-school post-game was being phased out of the modern pace and space game. He only lasted three seasons in Philly after a scorching rookie season where he averaged 17.5 PPG, 7 RPG, and 1.2 BPG. Knee issues hindered his development, and he was forced out of Philly during a strange disinformation campaign by then GM Bryan Colangelo involving the exec’s burner Twitter account. He would play four more seasons but only an average of 35 games per season. He left the league in 2021 after playing for the Nets, Pelicans, and Pistons.

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Team: Phoenix Suns

Pick: No. 4

Draft class: 2016

While Dončić has changed the dialogue around the toughness and superstar potential of European players, Bender was the blueprint for the kind of in-and-out league tenure overhyped Euros had in the 2000s. Bender was named as the best international player in the 2016 Draft. And he came with much hullabaloo around his potential, as he was the highest-drafted-ever Croatian and the Suns’ highest-selected draft pick since Armen Gilliam was taken second by the team overall in 1987. So the pressure cooker was already there and boiled up when he only averaged 3.4 PPG and 2.4 RPG in his rookie season. He only lasted three seasons in Phoenix and four seasons in the NBA, he was part of three different teams, including the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks, averaging 5.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game. He is most known for a particular fan using Bender’s jersey as a refurbished Kevin Durant jersey, as the two both wore number No. 25.

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Team: Phoenix Suns

Pick: No. 4

Draft class: 2017

Jackson only lasted five seasons in the league, Jackson spent two seasons with the Suns before being traded to Memphis in a four-player deal following the 2018-19 season, during which he played 22 games. After becoming a free agent, he signed with his hometown team, the Detroit Pistons, where he remained for a season and a half. Eventually, he concluded his career in the 2021-22 season with the Sacramento Kings. Before he was drafted, ESPN rated him as the nation’s second-highest-ranked player in the class of 2016. Throughout his tenure with the Kansas Jayhawks, he averaged 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, shooting an impressive 51.3 percent from the field. That potential never manifested itself in the league, shooting 41.6 percent from the field for his career and out of the NBA by the time he was 25.

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Team: Phoenix Suns (traded to Minnesota Timberwolves)

Pick: No. 6

Draft class: 2019

This one is still fresh, as Culver played his last game in the NBA this season after being waived by the Atlanta Hawks in January and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the G League acquiring him via trade from the College Park Skyhawks. Culver was supposed to be the athletic complement to Karl-Anthony Towns’ shooting ability. Culver had a minimal impact rookie season. In his second year, the SG/SF experienced a drop in nearly half in all of his major stats, including points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and even minutes. His three-point percentage dropped from an already below-average 30 percent to an unacceptable 25 percent.

These are your NBA Conference Finals All-Stars

Yes, Nikola made the cut.

Unfortunately, as hard as the Los Angeles Lakers played in the conference finals, a 2010 rematch did not emerge from the conference finals. Both legendary franchises fell to a 3-0 deficit. The Celtics have been holding on for dear life, but should never have been down that bad.

Regardless of the result of the conference finals, here are the players whose effort resulted in a highly entertaining series.

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Proof that the playoffs are more about playmaking than efficiency. This is not to say that Butler was reckless or cold from the field, but there were no 56-point games on 68 percent from the field.

What he did instead was make whatever play the Heat needed and operated largely as the best player on the floor. If they needed a basket he would sink it, a turnover he created, an assist he drew in the defense and made the pass. Butler spent a great deal of this series at the free throw line, mostly making up for any tough nights from the field. He proved to be the same terror on the floor whether he makes five field goals or 12. He is the Heat’s star. The living embodiment of “Heat Culture.”

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He largely did whatever he wanted to the Lakers in the first half of Game 1. Then the team with the best defensive rating of those in the conference finals put the two-time MVP to work. For those who watch Jokić with any type of regularity, it was unusual to see him unable to assert his will on his opponent for long stretches of action.

In Game 2 he shot a startling 42.9 percent from the field and wouldn’t get to 50 percent for the rest of the series. The Nuggets still managed to sweep the Lakers and Jokić recorded triple doubles in three of the four games. It was his 15-point fourth quarter in Game 3 that put the Lakers in the dreaded 0-3 hole, and he closed the door in Game 4 stifling Anthony Davis in the post along with a 30-point triple double. Jokić had the type of performance that launches great players into pop culture. Viewers get to see the star struggle in real time, and also that athlete come out on the other side successful.

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He was on some serious Stephen Curry vibes in this series. The Nuggets’ top scorer in the Western Conference Finals averaged 32.5 points per game on 52.7/40.5/95 shooting splits. Murray struggled on offense in only one game.

Through three quarters in Game 2 he scored 14 points on 5-17 from the field, 2-9 from the 3-point line. It was Bruce Brown and the Nuggets’ starters besides Jokić and Murray who cut into the Lakers’ 13-point lead near the start of the third quarter. Then in the fourth, Murray scored 23 points and missed only one shot. He spent the rest of the series tormenting Lakers fans and defenders with shot making that left everyone’s mouth agape.

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He gave the Celtics backcourt the blues throughout the series. One of the Heat’s big-three undrafted players, at times it appeared that he deserved a double team as much as Butler. Through the first four games of the series he shot no worse than 54 percent from the field. Games 2-4 he made at least 63 percent of his shots in each one.

Martin scored in every way possible. Midrange fadeaways, catch-and shoot threes, taking people to the basket, however points were made available in this series Martin took them with great force. The Celtics have a better roster than the Heat, but not when Martin spends an entire series singeing the nets in that way

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I swore that he had 30 points in Game 3, but then I looked at the box score later and he only attempted five field goals. Those four makes though, if the referees went Rock and Jock and decided to count them for five each I would not have minded. The hammers that he dropped the heads of the Celtics made John Henry and Thor look like they were swinging something from a tool box.

It was a vicious performance as his teammates poured in the points from elsewhere. Throughout the rest of the series he was the aggressive big that they needed to own the paint. Adebayo is the NBA All Star, not Robert Williams or Al Horford, and he played like it in this series.

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Reference material for the only NBA honor that will likely ever be named after Scottie Pippen.

Nikola Jokić won the Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP. The NBA is free to make its choice, but I have mine. If I was an NBA player, watching Murray bury shot after shot would make me more uneasy than poor temperature control in an opposing stadium.

Without his shot making the Nuggets and Lakers are still battling in the Western Conference Finals. He brought the Orlando bubble to Denver and Los Angeles, and rained points like a torrential Florida storm.

Murray is certainly not an ideal NBA defender. At his size he is limited. However, the broadcasters noticed his effort on that side of the ball. Combine that with a 50/40/90 shooting performance while averaging 30 points per game, and that makes Murray the ideal lead guard.

Epic upsets, stellar QBs, and the most notable sports moments of the first half of 2023

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Take a deep breath before I reveal a stunning fact, it’s almost June. Some of you were just pulling out the trusty snow blower and now it’s swimsuit season — I hope your diet went better than mine.

With the sports calendar nearly halfway over, there has been a full year’s worth of activity. Take a look back at some of the most notable sports moments from the first half of the year.

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Kirby Smart is sitting on top of the college football mountain in a way that no team has outside of Tuscaloosa. Well, at least since those two years with that team from Los Angeles that the NCAA has declared never happened. The Dawgs won their second-consecutive championship, and did so in dominating fashion.

Georgia lost 15 players to the NFL Draft in April 2022 and did not miss a beat. The Dawgs almost threw up that game in Missouri, but even with that loss, they would have gone to the SEC Championship Game. The rest of the schedule was a wash until New Year’s Eve. Ohio State put on its best performance of the season at Georgia’s second home in Atlanta, but hooked that 50-yard field goal right as the ball dropped in Times Square.

In the National Championship Game Georgia got back to kicking ass with a literal historic 65-7 shellacking of TCU in the title game.

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An MVP candidate during the regular season, but outside of Philadelphia respect was grudgingly granted to him as a star. During the playoffs the Eagles plowed through its opposition using their dominance at the line of scrimmage — and the San Francisco 49ers not having a quarterback physically able to throw a football in the NFC Championship Game.

In the Super Bowl, Hurts went toe-to-toe against arguably the greatest player in the history of the NFL and stuck with him play-for-play. This player — pulled at halftime of a National Championship Game for a true freshman — put the exclamation point on a spectacular season.

Jalen Hurts was one of the two best players in the NFL last season.

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The best player in the NFL. The MVP. While the Kansas City Chiefs were not doubted in the way that Travis Kelce wants the world to believe, there were certainly questions about Patrick Mahomes. Some defensive coordinator really wanted to get something off of his chest when he said that Mahomes played streetball, but also wasn’t chesty enough to put his name on it.

At one time the ABA was considered too playground, but modern NBA players have games much more reminiscent of Julius Erving and George Gervin than John Havlicek and Lou Hudson. The same way that Joe Burrow is far more like Patrick Mahomes than Peyton Manning.

Mahomes took it all last season. The MVP, the championship, and all of the grit points for playing two-and-a-half postseason games with that brutal high-ankle sprain. He is a player of the likes the NFL has never seen and deserves to be respected as such.

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It was a seismic event when 16-seed UMBC defeated 1-seeded Virginia in the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. The moment that sports fans didn’t think would ever happen, but still waited for with bated breath. That loss was so embarrassing that it served as the ultimate redemption narrative for Virginia’s 2019 championship.

The unthinkable happened again when Purdue lost to Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round. With the transient nature of men’s college basketball, we have come to expect upsets, but this is still only the second time that a 16-seed has advanced. Upsets may be common, but not this one.

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College basketball with actual star power. The National Championship Game was not as competitive throughout as the semifinal matchup between LSU and South Carolina. It was still able to give the sports-viewing public what is uncommon in the modern men’s game, true star collegiate basketball personalities in Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark. That is why this matchup was the highest-rated women’s college basketball game of all time.

Both stars fit hand-in-glove with their programs, and it was obvious the moment that the starters for Reese’s Tigers and Clark’s Hawkeyes were introduced. Clark fired away from behind the arc as best as she could to keep them in the game, but LSU was too much.

There was even a national dog whistle conversation about sportsmanship that followed. Reese and Clark brought the culture wars back to college basketball matchups. For those who pine for the 1980s and 1990s version of college basketball, the women have it for you.

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Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak might be the only record left that is considered unbreakable. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played for 20 seasons and scored 38,325 points in his career. Who would even have the longevity to approach that mark?

Enter LeBron James. His constant greatness from Year 1 to Year 20 allowed him to break the NBA record that no one ever expected to fall. There will always be a debate over who is better between Michael Jordan and LeBron. That record won’t bump Lebron to No. 1 in the minds of most Jordan fans, but it is an undeniable win over His Airness.

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From the Western Conference Finals to trading two starters and a first-round pick for Kyrie Irving and getting fined for tanking after missing the postseason entirely.

Watching the Mavericks struggle with last season’s team — sans Jalen Brunson — was one thing. However, a team unable to string together wins with both Irving and Luka Dončić was downright hilarious. Mark Cuban bet the farm on an unpredictable, undersized scoring guard who might not even re-sign with the Mavericks this offseason. Also, with the Mavericks’ depth weakened, their defense was atrocious. They struggled to stay in front of their own reflection.

The Mavericks got lucky last season when the top-seeded Phoenix Suns imploded during their second-round matchup. This season it was the Mavericks who put the spotlight on themselves with the Irving trade and melted.

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The alleged incidents at first were head-scratching — the fight, the mall, the mysterious laser. All curious, but nothing that could fully be substantiated. Then Morant decided to provide evidence beyond reasonable doubt of him being a knucklehead on camera when he flashed a gun not once, but twice on Instagram.

That’s when his safety first started to become a concern, because if anyone is going to suffer the tragic consequences that can come with brandishing a firearm, probability and systemic racism says that it will most likely be a man of Morant’s age and ethnicity.

Now with a wellness check being called for Morant after his cryptic “Bye” social media post, safety is really the only concern for this young man at this point

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In an NBA Playoffs lacking dominant teams, there is one playing 5,280 feet higher than everyone else. That sweep of the Lakers was hard fought, but also a moment when the Nuggets stuck their flag in the ground as the class of the NBA.

When healthy, their starting lineup has been as good as any in the NBA. On a true national stage against the NBA’s most recognizable franchise and face, the Nuggets put on a show. They dominated, they stumbled, they struggled, and through four games forced sports fans all over the world to acknowledge them as a special team.

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That damn hockey. No. 8 seeds advancing is far more common in the NHL than MLB and most certainly the NBA. Still, the Panthers didn’t qualify for the playoffs until the final moments of the regular season.

They then launched the President’s Cup curse at the Boston Bruins like the stinger from Mortal Kombat’s Scorpion. Next up was Canada, and this squad out of South Florida melted the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Back to the states they came to play the Carolina Hurricanes. It took five combined overtimes, for the Panthers to take a 2-0 series. They won again at home 1-0 in Game 3, and the rink in Sunrise, Fla. was rocking on Wednesday night.

The game was another barnburner with the Hurricanes appearing to send the game into overtime by scoring with less than three minutes remaining in regulation. Then came the shot heard ‘round Broward County. The Panthers took the lead on a goal from Matthew Tkachuk with 4.3 seconds remaining in the game.

Life after greatness: What happens when a sport loses its GOAT?

What do you do once the GOATs are gone?

There’s no denying that GOATs are great for a sport when they’re still active. Michael Jordan, Tony Hawk, and other best-to-ever-do-its pushed their sports to popularity not seen since, but led to fans coming down off a trip so perfect that they were left fiending for the next fix of greatness personified.

We always want to know who’s next in line to take the throne, and more often than not the line of successors is filled with false idols. Sure, the NFL post-Tom Brady is doing fine, but that’s the Shield, and while it, like soccer, is probably immune to Post Traumatic GOAT Syndrome due to sports’ popularity, Patrick Mahomes helps (as does Kylian Mbappe).

If No. 15 wasn’t around, fans would be talking themselves into Josh Allen or Joe Burrow, and those two aren’t on Brady’s block let alone in his city. Mahomes is at least close, which is fortunate for the NFL. When the falloff following a GOAT is so striking, it can send fans into a malaise until a successor proves worthy.

After Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls for good, the NBA dipped into a funk that only LeBron James could help them out of. Adam Silver is facing an oncoming reality without LeBron, and soon thereafter Steph Curry, and that should scare the shit out of him.

I find the post-GOAT dip fascinating for a variety of reasons, but the main one is can a player be too great? At what point does an athlete become so celebrated that they’re bigger than the game? In some instances, when a superstar moves on, so too does some of the fanbase. So with a number of GOATs recently retired, or on their way, now seems like a good time to look at life after greatness.

I don’t know if I’m onto something, or just on something, but indulge me. (Maybe take a gummy, too. I don’t know.)

What happens when a GOAT sets off for greener pastures?

The subsequent years after a GOAT retires are often filled with existential crises for their sports. There’s an inevitable dip in popularity because 20 years of storylines don’t accompany every playoff game, and we’re used to legacy-defining stakes. Think about the best meal you ever ate, sex you ever had, or party you’ve ever attended. Now think of your last meal, romp, and soiree. Congrats to you if one of them was the best, but also, I’m sorry, because now you will measure everything with that standard in mind.

It’s going to take a minimum of five more years for Mahomes to tie Brady’s Super Bowl mark, and that’s assuming he runs off the next five straight. That means we’re not going to get Super Bowls of GOAT-making proportions until 2028, but likely way beyond that because I doubt we get back-to-back 20-year dynasties.

Think about the distance that Brady and LeBron put between themselves and the next guy as far as the record books go. It’s wild. Luka Dončić and Mahomes only need another 15 to 17 healthy and prime or prime-adjacent seasons to get there.

Not every GOAT is created equal, and the level of impact determines the level of PTGD. Because I’m the foremost scientific mind in this made-up field, I separated the GOATs into three tiers — tier one being the entry-level and three being the Master Class — to illustrate the risks of perfection.

GOAT Tier 1

The first tier features players whose records are breakable, and honestly, there are not a lot of those still around for a number of reasons but mostly the lifespan of sports. The UFC has probably had the most GOATs this century, and that’s because MMA’s popularity is new relative to other sports.

Men’s tennis is the other sport this century where the GOAT belt has changed hands a few times. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic each have their own claim to a surface — clay, grass, hardcourt, respectively — and their collective dominance ushered in a Golden Era. Now, it’s on Carlos Alcaraz to follow their acts, but he’s already had a few health issues despite looking like a composite of the Three Musketeers.

There will definitely be a hole left when the last of that trio retires, yet three different guys were able to each hold the Grand Slam record over the span of a few years, so it’s reasonable that Alcaraz or a player to be named later could win more because they won’t be vying with two other peers for hardware. Thus the Tier 1 status for Rafa, Federer, and Djokovic, because their feats feel attainable despite being the standard.

GOAT Tier 2

This is Mount Olympus, with figures so untouchable their true believers will never disavow them. Jordan and LeBron are up here. So is Wayne Gretzky. Whoever tops the list of best baseball players ever is on here even though there isn’t a unanimous GOAT of MLB.

There are patron saints, and their devout followers worship them as if they were GOATs, so Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, etc. technically qualify. Be that as it may, baseball has such a complicated history with stats, and is so team-reliant, that there’s not a discernible path to the top. A lot of the most prestigious records are unbreakable, and all that shows why MLB is hustling backward. (More on that later.)

Tier 2 GOATs are titans of their sports, and leagues want to keep these athletes around for as long as possible. They rewrite the record books season after season, and are always a ratings draw. There’s a reason Brady and LeBron have been the faces of their league’s promos for the past five to 10 years. The sport is more popular when they’re in it, just like the NBA is more popular when the Lakers and Knicks are good.

The retirement of Tier 2 GOATs prompts panic attacks in commissioners, and often the response is to hype up the next logical challenger regardless of the meaning of “generational talent.” There aren’t many other exit strategies because there’s no dressing up “Our biggest name of the past 20 years, maybe ever, is retiring.”

GOAT Tier 3

In niche sports, the star can burn so hot that it turns into a sun and sparks solar systems. When that star goes dark, the sport loses its gravitational pull on the mainstream. Has skateboarding ever been as popular since Tony Hawk’s 900? As much as he sucks, Shaun White’s gold medal runs at the Olympics were probably the peak for snowboarding. He’s retired (good riddance), but it’s challenging to name another pro snowboarder.

Golf and tennis will never fall out of the mainstream like extreme and/or Olympic-specific sports because too many rich people regularly pick up a racket or a driver. (They ski, too, but not as many.) I bring up those country club activities because Tiger Woods and Serena Williams are so incredibly popular that it’s going to take years, decades, maybe longer to replace the viewership those two routinely brought, and in Woods’ case kind of still brings, to major tournaments.

They were physically and mentally stronger than the field, and dominated in a way that made good players look like hacks in comparison. Combine that with their ability to cross racial barriers few, if any, Black athletes in tennis and golf did before them, and you get demigods that go by one name.

Tier 3 GOATs lead to golden ages, and if not golden ages, at least the most public and profitable eras of those sports. Muhammad Ali is a Tier 3 GOAT. There are a lot of reasons why boxing isn’t what it used to be, but one of the main factors in its downfall is that nobody fights each other when they should. It’s hard to have a pound-for-pound greatest when the gloves can’t speak for themselves.

You never want fans reminiscing over “When such-and-such sport was still great” like they talk about the Rumble in the Jungle, the Tiger Slam, or either Serena Slams. A lot of times it’s obvious when a sport is peaking, and that kind of high leaves leagues chasing something that will never be duplicated again.

When the greatest of all time isn’t replicable

Human empathy and emotion have thrust pitcher safety to the forefront of baseball’s mind, which is great. It’s also preventing guys from ever coming near the records that would vault them into GOAT territory. Statisticians can serve spin rate and exit velocity all they want, but records for complete games and wins, among others, make chasing history impossible. The pursuit of ultimate, unquestioned greatness is the most magnetic storyline in sports, and when that theater is eliminated, it’s hard to regain a hold over fans.

The GOAT-est of accomplishments is the home run record. Barry Bonds holds both the single-season and career marks, and his vilification has forever tarnished the record books for some. Hammerin’ Hank is still the greatest home run hitter to many baseball historians, and Yankees fans will tell you Aaron Judge is the true regular season home run king. As crotchety and stupid as it sounds to say that questionable bloodlines among certain home run kings have dampened MLB’s popularity and its potential for ever regaining the moniker, America’s Pastime, it’s true.

I’m a known Yankees hater, and even I think Judge’s 2022 season should’ve been a bigger deal and meant more. It didn’t take despite the live look-ins because everything that happened with Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Bonds turned fans into cynics.

Do you see the problem?

It’s fairly obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: No one cares about the race to be second (third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh) best.

Longevity is great, but how entertaining is it?

The argument against GOATs is shorter careers, and constantly keeping the product fresh and new. It’s a dumbass argument, which is why leagues placate their GOATs, and we end up getting Roger Clemens and Brady holding franchises hostage while they figure out if it’s finally time to eschew the costumes. The way athletes/GOATs are extending their careers only serves to strengthen leagues’ reliance on them.

If I were Dana White, I’d be a raging lunatic, but I’d also want the UFC GOAT belt to change hands with regularity. Jon Jones’ problems outside of the octagon have left the door ajar for another fighter to reach and surpass his legend in a decade or so, and that’s a valuable asset not every governing body can boast about its sport. (Ditto for the WNBA as its inaugural season was in 1997.)

A lot of the qualifying stats and achievements to become GOAT eligible are so difficult to reach that challengers have a visible limp during the last days of their pursuit. If LeBron plays another three to four years, that’s basically a quarter-century pursuit.

It’s rare for Brady and LeBron to be title worthy at such advanced ages, but in other cases, we’re begging guys to retire for no reason other than letting the sports move on. This is the issue currently facing the PGA with Tiger. He’s still the biggest draw, but as soon as his tournament goes south because the lower half of his body is in shambles, fans tune out.

It’s impossible to move on in any facet of life if you’re still clinging to the past. Letting go is hard, but letting go knowing it will never be that good again is painful — and probably why a lot of athletes have such a difficult time stepping away.

The thirst for who’s next, and ways to juice the system

Alexander Ovechkin is going to break Gretzky’s career goals mark, which is legendary in its own right, and will be the storyline in the NHL’s regular season until it happens. Yet I don’t think he ever got the next Great One vibes like Connor McDavid. The NHL squandered Gretzky’s popularity before he retired, and should be very smart about how they handle the game while McDavid is active.

Brady became the undisputed best QB by his play, and with the help of adjustments to the passing game and player safety. I’m not saying it was a flawless move because there’s been some pushback on the preferential treatment of offenses. If you go by the ratings though, the NFL has never been stronger.

While Gary Bettman might be willing to trade integrity for rules changes and has a veil of safety to hide behind if he made the game more scoring-friendly, he doesn’t have the vision, or the backbone to stand up to puck fanatics. I also don’t know enough about hockey to know if what I’m proposing is even possible, but I think my thought process is sound.

The next best thing rarely pans out to be the best, and is more likely to kick off a spell of mundane or average things that simply happened to follow the best. So, when there’s a candidate for the next GOAT, the powers that be should Americanize the shit of them — be unapologetically capitalistic about marketing, bend the rules to hit the numbers, and rig the system for people who won the genetic lottery.

Fans look for any excuse to dub 16-year-olds the next Jordan — and usually, the excuse is so they can tear them down when they fall short — but the other reason is that they know what it’s like to be a “Witness,” or at least want to be privy to one in their lifetime. Watching history is an incredible feeling, and the more you can pitch that to your fans, and have it be true, the better.

The future of GOAT chasing

Seeing as fans won’t have legit challengers to the unified GOAT belt in any major American sports for another decade-plus, morning shows looking for hot takes have made the arguments more specific. In addition to talking about every 12-0 NFL team’s chances of going undefeated, there’s no shortage of hyperbolic conversations as soon as a stat juxtaposes Friday night’s OT thriller with Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals.

Sports fans will entertain debates like the clutch GOAT, the comeback GOAT, or GOAT dunk contests because of recency bias, but also because they’re within the realm of possibilities. An argument has to be realistic because people only tolerate so much blasphemy, and that’s what it’s like to speak ill of the GOATs. (That doesn’t mean ESPN and league marketers won’t make the case however hollow.)

Judging by the record books, and the length of time it took to write them, sports are about to enter a long, GOATless winter, and I’m fascinated to see what happens in the five to 10 years after Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena, Brady, LeBron, Tiger, Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal.

Athletes are always getting bigger, stronger, and faster, and as much as that boosts sports’ entertainment value, it also levels the playing field. While fans say they want parity, the public loves greatness almost to a fault. Look at all the idiots who jump from team to team following Lebron. What are they going to do when he retires? Latch onto the next guy? Get together and drink Kool-Aid laced with arsenic in a display of devotion?

I’m not saying sports, as a whole, have peaked — that’s a think piece for a different sativa — but we’re a long way away from another wave of athletes approaching certified GOAT-dom, and it’ll be compelling to see how each league moves forward without its North Star.