UFC Vegas 79: Maria Rodriguez Obliterates Michelle Waterson-Gomez; Calls Out Tatiana Suarez

Marina Rodriguez put on an impressive performance at UFC Vegas 79 on Saturday, defeating Michelle Waterson-Gomez via TKO in the first round. Rodriguez (16-1-2 MMA, 6-1-2 UFC) dominated the fight from the start, landing a series of strikes that left Waterson-Gomez (20-11 MMA, 8-7 UFC) bloodied and battered. The referee eventually stepped in to stop the fight at the 3:41 mark of Round 2.

Rodriguez’s victory was a statement win, and she wasted no time calling out Tatiana Suarez in her post-fight interview with Michael Bisping. “I’m back, and I go onto the title shot soon,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s time. I’ve been undefeated for a long time and I would love to call out Tatiana Suarez. .. I think she still needs some fights before a title shot, like I did”

Suarez (11-0 MMA, 5-0 UFC) is one of the top contenders in the women’s strawweight division, and a fight between her and Rodriguez would be a highly anticipated matchup. Suarez is coming off a win over Jessica Andrade in August, and has been out of action for over four years prior to her last two fights due to injury.

Rodriguez’s win over Waterson-Gomez was her first win after losing back-to-back fights, and she’s won five out of her last seven fights. She’s quickly becoming one of the top fighters in the strawweight division, and a win over Suarez would put her in prime position for a title shot.

UFC Vegas 79 was an exciting event that featured some great fights. Rodriguez’s victory over Waterson-Gomez was a highlight of the night, and her callout of Suarez has fans excited for what could be a great matchup in the future.

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UFC Vegas 79: Charles Jourdain dominates Ricardo Ramos then Calls Out Cub Swanson

Charles Jourdain showed he’s got more than just dynamic striking on Saturday when he submitted Ricardo Ramos at UFC Vegas 79. Jourdain (15-6-1 MMA, 6-5-1 UFC) wasted no time engaging with Ramos and quickly took the fight to the ground. Ramos (15-5 MMA, 6-3 UFC) tried to scramble back to his feet, but Jourdain locked in a guillotine choke and forced the tap at the 3:12 mark of Round 1.

Jourdain followed the win by expressing his ground threat. “They know I’m a striker. I need to have this little card in my pocket for guys who want to take me down,” Jourdain said in his post-fight interview with Bisping. “I’m the youngest Canadian on the UFC roster and I’m the Canadian with the most fights, and I’m very proud of that.” Afterward, Jourdain once again called out Cub Swanson, who he has shown interest in fighting in the past.

“They talk about UFC Toronto. I saw Cub Swanson around,” Jourdain said. “Cub, let’s fight in Toronto. Canadian fans deserve a very good battle between the new school and the old school”.

Jourdain has been very vocal about his desire to fight Swanson, and it seems like he’s not going to stop until he gets his wish. Swanson (28-14 MMA, 13-10 UFC) is a veteran of the sport and has been in the UFC since 2011. He’s coming off a win against Hakeem Dawodu in August but has been known to put on exciting fights throughout his career.

Jourdain is a young fighter with a lot of potential, and a win over Swanson would be a huge boost to his career. He’s shown that he’s not just a striker, but can also hold his own on the ground. If he can continue to improve his grappling, he could become a well-rounded fighter that’s a threat to anyone in the featherweight division.

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Grizzlies 2023 offseason recap: Ja Morant replaced by Marcus Smart amid suspension

Despite a lackluster 12-9 start to the the 2022-23 season, the Memphis Grizzlies still managed to win 51 games, the second consecutive year they crossed the 50-win mark. Even with all the regular-season success this organization has found the last couple of seasons, there are still plenty of question marks surrounding them for various reasons.

Perhaps the biggest question mark of them all is Ja Morant. Now through four seasons in the league, Morant has been nothing short of a superstar on the court, as he has been an All-Star for two straight seasons and has rapidly become one of the most electric scorers in the NBA. However, his antics off the court have been a dark cloud looming large over this franchise.

Following a game versus the Denver Nuggets on the road in March, Morant was seen flashing a gun on Instagram Live while at a strip club. As a result of what occurred, the Grizzlies star was held out of the next couple of games while the team and league investigated the matter. No evidence was found regarding Morant potentially bringing the gun on the team plane, so he returned to the court after a short eight-game suspension for his conduct.

Not even two months after the video in the Denver nightclub, Ja was once again seen on Instagram Live, this time holding a gun up while listening to music in a car. Morant had met with NBA commissioner Adam Silver following the first incident and was warned that any actions involving a firearm would not be tolerated by the league. As a result, he was suspended for the first 25 games of 2023-24 season shortly after the conclusion of the 2023 NBA Finals due to conduct ruled detrimental to the league.

“Ja Morant’s decision to once again wield a firearm on social media is alarming and disconcerting given his similar conduct in March for which he was already suspended eight games,” Silver stated in the league’s press release on June 16. “The potential for other young people to emulate Ja’s conduct is particularly concerning. Under these circumstance, we believe a suspension of 25 games is appropriate and makes clear that engaging in reckless and irresponsible behavior with guns will not be tolerated.”

It was also made clear in the terms of the suspension that there would be a set of requirements and conditions for his potential return to play during the upcoming year. The young All-Star now faces an uphill climb to not only regain the trust of his team and teammates, but the league as a whole.

Aside from Morant and his upcoming absence from the team, the Grizzlies are still going to deal with question marks surrounding their frontcourt. Jaren Jackson Jr. is obviously a key talent as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but Steven Adams missed the final 36 games of the season, not including all of the playoffs, due to a right PCL sprain. Brandon Clarke also missed the final 20 games of the season due to a torn left Achilles and will likely miss a chunk of time to begin the new season.

As good as the Grizzlies have been in the regular season, there are also questions being asked about if they have what it takes to win when it matters most. Memphis has won close to 65 percent of their regular season games over the last two years, yet they have gone 8-10 in the postseason. Whether it is inexperience or lack of management, this will be a big year for the Grizzlies to prove that they are real contenders instead of the pretenders they have been.

The Western Conference features a lot of contending teams right now, which is why general manager Zach Kleiman and this team’s front office were aggressive during the offseason. While some of their moves may have come as a shock, Memphis was not afraid to shake up the roster in order to add experience and win-now potential.

Grizzlies offseason additions and departures

Additions: G Marcus Smart (trade – BOS), G Derrick Rose (free agency – NYK), F Isaiah Todd (trade – PHX), G Josh Christopher (trade – HOU)

Departures: G Tyus Jones (trade – WAS), F Dillon Brooks (free agency – HOU)

If we have learned anything from what the Grizzlies did this offseason, it is that Kleiman and this front office are not afraid to shake things up. Even with virtually no cap space, Memphis still found ways to add big names and replace productive players on their roster.

What was intriguing about the Grizzlies’ offseason was the fact that they gave up on Dillon Brooks so soon. Obviously, he can be a handful at times due to his outspoken voice on the court and his ferocity on defense. While he definitely put his team in a better position to win some games because of his hard-nosed defensive approach, Brooks was also a major liability at times on offense.

Brooks shot just 32.6 percent from three-point range during the regular season and then declined drastically in the postseason, as he shot just 23.8 percent from deep. All signs pointed toward these two sides splitting, and Brooks agreed to a four-year, $80 million contract with the Houston Rockets in free agency.

Along with Brooks’ departure, Tyus Jones leaving Memphis also came as a surprise to some. The Grizzlies had just signed Jones last summer to a two-year, $29 million contract, and he has arguably been the best backup point guard in the league. With Morant being in and out of the lineup, Jones was the guy who held things together and ended up having the best season of his career, averaging 10.3 points and 5.2 assists per game.

The former first-round pick was sent to the Washington Wizards in one of the biggest trades made this summer. In a three-team deal with the Boston Celtics and Wizards, the Grizzlies turned Jones and the 25th overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft into former Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart.

Memphis has always been known for being a superior defensive team and ranked second in the league in defensive rating this past year. Jackson claimed the 2022-23 Defensive Player of the Year Award, meaning that the Grizzlies now have the last two defensive award recipients on their roster. Morant is suspended to begin the year, making Smart’s role even more important.

Aside from his contributions defensively, Smart has quietly been a steady contributor on offense. Smart certainly will not lead his team in scoring, but he is not afraid to pull up and knock down shots from three-point range. It is worth noting that he is a strong facilitator as well, averaging a career-high 6.3 assists per game this past season in Boston.

Smart enters the 2023-24 season with the Grizzlies as their starting point guard. What his role looks like once Morant returns is a big question mark that will need to be answered, especially with Desmond Bane at the shooting guard position.

Alongside Smart in the backcourt, veteran point guard and former league MVP Derrick Rose is back in the city he played his college hoops in. Rose will always be remembered for taking the University of Memphis to the National Championship Game in 2008. While he may not be the same player he once was, the 34-year-old brings quality depth to this backcourt. There is no doubt that Rose will be a great mentor for Morant.

The other two main additions the Grizzlies made this offseason were Isaiah Todd and Josh Christopher, two recent draft picks acquired at a low price in trades. Both players figure to be nothing more than youthful options that will spend time developing on the bench. Then again, Christopher possesses some length and fits the athletic mold the Grizzlies have looked for in perimeter players through the years, making him is a key name to keep tabs on.

Other than Jones and Brooks leaving, this team basically has the same core group they had a season ago. At full strength, the Grizzlies can once again compete for the top spot in the Western Conference, but it should not come as a shock if Kleiman looks to make more moves. He’s one of those general managers who is always looking to improve his team, which could lead Memphis to a blockbuster deal ahead of the trade deadline in February.

Impact of Ja Morant’s suspension

Memphis Grizzlies, Ja Morant

Ja Morant has a lot to prove to the city of Memphis and his entire organization. He not only failed them once with the incident involving a gun in a nightclub, but he proceeded to go back on his word and once again put the organization in a bad spot by flashing a gun on Instagram Live for a second time. There are questions being asked about if he can handle the pressure of being the face of the Grizzlies franchise.

The good news is the Grizzlies still believe in their young star. Morant has been working on himself this offseason, seeking the help he needed. This is why we could very well see a new and improved version of him not just as a basketball player, but as a leader when he returns during the 2023-24 season.

The 25-game suspension is a heavy burden for the franchise, though, especially since that is just about 30 percent of the season. Even with all the talent that still remains on this roster, the Grizzlies are going to have a massive hole to fill without Ja on the floor, a vacancy that could throw off the whole balance of the organization. While Memphis has had success without Morant on the court in the past, this is a whole different situation.

Morant being out obviously puts the spotlight on Smart in his first season with the team. His responsibilities as a primary defender and now the team’s main facilitator have grown as a result. However, Bane is the one player who should be feeling the most pressure now, especially after agreeing to a five-year, $207 million contract extension this summer.

Memphis obviously believes in Bane’s abilities as he has quickly blossomed into a star for this team. He averaged a career-high 21.5 points per game this past year and has shot over 40 percent from deep every season he has been in the league. Bane is now the Grizzlies’ top scoring option entering the new year, which is why he needs to continue to step up and put himself in All-Star consideration.

It is definitely a bad situation for the Grizzlies to have to deal with, but Morant’s absence could wind up paying off in terms of this franchise’s pursuit of their first title. How teams battle adversity is what builds character and, ultimately, this is what builds a championship foundation.

2023-24 season outlook

It is never a bad thing to have too much depth, especially in the backcourt. The Grizzlies now have Morant, Smart and Bane as primary ball handlers on offense, and it is worth mentioning that they have depth at virtually every position.

Luke Kennard was fantastic in his short stint with the organization last year, Santi Aldama stepped up when Adams and Jackson were injured, and the team is still high on what players like David Roddy, Jake LaRavia and Kenneth Lofton Jr. can do in the second unit.

The Grizzlies are a tough-minded team that finally seems to have an identity. They want to wear down their opponents defensively, and it would not be shocking if Taylor Jenkins’ group winds up finishing as the best defensive team in the NBA during the 2023-24 season. With Morant sidelined to begin the year, they will need to really limit their opponents’ overall opportunities. Every player in this starting rotation is an above-average defender, which is why Memphis is going to have a similar feeling to the “Grit and Grind” Grizzlies from several years back.

Whether or not this team can compete at the highest level possible and break through to win the Western Conference is a whole separate question. Even though Jackson made the All-Star Game last season, there are still questions about his willingness to always play aggressive on offense. He disappeared at times playing for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup this offseason and even struggled defensively with fouls and poor rebounding. While his role was significantly different with the national team compared to his role in Memphis, everything for Jackson goes back to his mindset.

The All-Star big man needs to be better offensively, Bane needs to step into the role of being this team’s primary scorer, and the Grizzlies will need to find consistent play from their bench in order to be real title contenders. It’s certainly possible for them to achieve, but until we see all of this, the Grizzlies are nothing more than regular-season heroes.

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Cowboys’ 3 best replacement options after Trevon Diggs injury

There’s no replacing a top talent like Trevon Diggs, but that is exactly what the Dallas Cowboys are tasked with doing after the All-Pro cornerback tore his ACL in practice Thursday.

As of Thursday evening, the Cowboys were still nailing down an exact timeline for Diggs’ recovery, but reports indicated that the injury would sideline him at least for the rest of this season. That leaves a gaping hole in Dallas’ secondary. The Cowboys’ defense remains one of the most talented in football even without Diggs, but someone has to step up next to Stephon Gilmore and prevent opposing offenses from taking advantage of Diggs’ absence. These are a couple of the Cowboys’ options, including one player already on the roster.

1. DaRon Bland

Second-year man DaRon Bland has been in this position before. The Cowboys’ secondary was plighted by injuries and subpar play last season before Bland jumped outside from nickel corner to help cover wideouts. Bland impressed over the final third of the season and grabbed a team-high five interceptions over the course of his entire rookie campaign.

Bland is the Cowboys’ best option for replacing Diggs, at least for the time being. He’s already on the roster, he has already stepped up in the past, and Jourdan Lewis’ return to play at nickel corner frees Bland up to move back outside where he is needed.

If Bland is the starting second cornerback for the rest of the season, he faces a significantly larger challenge than he did last season when he stepped in. As a rookie, Bland managed to help a porous Cowboys secondary level out in the middle of a late-season nosedive. This year he’s being asked to help a secondary that appeared to be on their way to elite production in 2023 continue that trajectory. The secondary in 2023 will never be as good as they were with Diggs on the field, but they might still be one of the top units in football if Bland can take another step forward.

2. Casey Hayward

It seems unlikely that the Cowboys look to free agency to find a starter to replace Diggs, but Casey Hayward is the best option by far if they do. Hayward turned 34 two weeks ago and had a pick in six games last season with the Atlanta Falcons. The veteran is far from the player he was when he was a back-to-back Second-Team All-Pro in 2016 and 2017, but there aren’t any free agent cornerbacks left on the board with his pedigree. Hayward, playing next to veterans like Gilmore and Malik Hooker would give the Cowboys one of the more experienced and prestigious secondaries in football.

If the Cowboys are more inclined to lean on Bland and the other cornerbacks already in-house to take starting reps, Hayward would still be a quality depth piece for the Cowboys to bring in. Having a seasoned veteran like Hayward on the bench could come in handy should Bland’s lack of NFL experience rear its head over the course of the season. Gilmore already provides that sort of veteran savvy that the Cowboys’ young cornerbacks room needs, but Hayward would have something to offer too.

3. Patrick Peterson

This is the Dallas Cowboys we’re talking about, right? Jerry Jones never has been able to resist a brand-name veteran, even if it’s just to get America’s Team back at the front of the news cycle. After Dallas’ courtship of Odell Beckham Jr. and optical flirtations with Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas that seemingly lasted years, would anyone really be surprised if the Cowboys indicated they were interested in bringing in Patrick Peterson out of Pittsburgh?

It’s not the worst idea. Peterson has a $7 million contract this year and is a free agent at the end of the 2024 season. Dallas should be able to offload the final year of that contract fairly easily if needed. In the meantime, Peterson and Gilmore make for an aging but formidable one-two punch at the top of Dallas’ cornerbacks rotation. Pittsburgh has rookie Joey Porter Jr. sitting behind Peterson at the moment as well. If the Steelers’ season gets out of hand quickly, they may be inclined to let Peterson walk and get Porter more snaps.

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Jets: 4 bold predictions for Week 3 game vs. Patriots

The New York Jets face a critical Week 3 test when they host the New England Patriots on Sunday. The Jets (1-1) are coming off a bad loss to the Dallas Cowboys and, you may have heard, have not beaten the Patriots (0-2) since Dec. 27, 2015.

So, will Robert Saleh’s team prove they can bounce back after being beaten soundly on both sides of the ball one week ago? And can the Jets finally end a 14-game losing streak to their archrival?

Saleh and the Jets will tell you that all that matters is properly answering that first question. The present is much more important than the past. However, current success is also tied to bringing their Patriots nightmare to an end.

That said, let’s examine four bold Jets predictions for their Week 3 game against the Patriots.

4. Breece Hall, Dalvin Cook will spur potent running attack for Jets

After giving up on the running game early in their 30-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys last week, the Jets will pound the rock against the Patriots. Breece Hall and Dalvin Cook had four carries each last week. Expect triple that amount for each back this week.

Even if they start slowly in the run game, the Jets will stick with it. The Patriots are allowing 4.4 yards per rush, 12th-worst in the NFL. Hall is explosive when he reaches the second level, having ripped off runs of 83 and 26 yards in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills and nine yards against the Cowboys.

Cook has been less explosive, so far, finding his legs perhaps after missing most of training camp. But expect him to find holes and move the chains, as well. And don’t forget about quarterback Zach Wilson, who’s going to get his with some smart scrambles.

The Jets will rush for at least 130 yards this week.

3. Quinnen Williams, Will McDonald pick up first sacks this season

You get the feeling that the proud Jets defense was embarrassed with their inability to get off the field last week against the Cowboys. They allowed the Cowboys to convert 50 percent of their third downs and possess the ball for nearly 43 minutes.

There’s no way that sat well with the Jets All-Pro lineman Quinnen Williams, the heart and soul of their defense. Williams was very good against the Bills and good against the Cowboys, but not great. This is a massive game for the Jets, so expect Williams to provide a massive performance and be an absolute game-wrecker.

Williams will get at least one sack against the Patriots and will dominate the line of scrimmage. Motivated rookie Will McDonald IV will chip in with his first NFL sack after being inactive last week. The Jets believe they can stop the running game and want to get after Patriots QB Mac Jones. That plays perfectly into McDonald’s skill set as an elite pass rusher.

Jones will be sacked five times this week. Williams and McDonald will be in on at least two of them.

2. Garrett Wilson backs up his words, has big game for Jets

With the running game humming, Zach Wilson is going to be able to more easily target Garrett Wilson on Sunday. The stud wide receiver is going to have a 100-yard receiving game after saying that it’s time to “earn” his salary this week and help end the “unacceptable” losing streak against the Patriots.

What will also help Garrett Wilson have a big day is that Zach Wilson will get Tyler Conklin, Mecole Hardman and Randall Cobb more involved in the passing game. More options will make it harder for New England to cover the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

1. Jets end 14-game losing streak, defeat Patriots

It’s easy to overthink things when it comes to the Jets. Zach Wilson will implode. The offensive line is a mess. Something bad always happens when the Jets play the Patriots. Bill Belichick has a spell over the Jets.

So, let’s keep it simple. Even with Wilson at quarterback, the Jets are the better team than the Patriots. And though the Patriots will be desperate to avoid a third straight loss to start the season, the Jets know they need this win with the Kansas City Chiefs (next week) and Philadelphia Eagles (Week 6) ahead on the schedule before they reach the bye.

The seven-season skid against New England will come to an end.

Jets 27 – Patriots 13

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Why Lakers can’t trade for Buddy Hield right now

When reports surfaced on Wednesday that Indiana Pacers sharpshooter Buddy Hield is seeking a trade, I assume I wasn’t the only person invested in the Los Angeles Lakers to hear The Rock in my head.

After all, Hield — a former Rob Pelinka client — has been linked to the Lakers for years (as was his teammate, Myles Turner). At this time last year, the Lakers and Pacers were reportedly at the one-yard line on a trade involving Russell Westbrook.

But, to quote a recent colleague of Mr. Rock: Not so fast.

Here’s why you shouldn’t expect to see Hield in purple and gold anytime … soon.

The Lakers are (currently) prioritizing continuity

As Pelinka repeatedly stressed — then validated with actions — and as Jeanie Buss reiterated this week, the Lakers took a refreshing approach to the offseason. Instead of star-chasing or overhauling the roster (yet again), they re-signed core pieces, got younger, and improved around the margins.

As training camp fast approaches, the Lakers roster is set. They have 14 players on NBA contracts; they’ll keep the final spot open for midseason flexibility. Even if Hield were immediately attainable (more on that momentarily), a substantial trade at this juncture would undermine their newfound team-building philosophy.

They don’t (currently) have a need

The Westbrook squads were glaringly bereft of dependable snipers and consistent off-ball movers. Nobody carried requisite the gravitational pull to space things out for LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

That’s no longer the case. The 2023-24 Lakers may not be the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, but they have quality shooters and, in some cases, movers: Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Gabe Vincent, Max Christie, Taurean Prince, Christian Wood, even Rui Hachimura, should he prove the 2023 playoffs were no fluke. Hield is probably in a different class a high-volume floor-warper, but the Lakers are no longer in dire need of perimeter shooting.

They (currently) cannot trade for him

The most pertinent obstacle preventing the Lakers for striking a Hield deal? League rules.

Hield is set to earn $18.6 million in 2023-24 — the final season of a four-year, $94 million deal. The Lakers are over the salary cap, so they have to (basically) match salaries in any trade. Excluding LeBron, AD and Reaves (all off the table), the Lakers are, at the moment, severely limited in movable assets. Newly-extended Jarred Vanderbilt can’t be dealt until next summer. Christie is presumably a non-starter for the 30-year-old Hield. Jalen Hood-Schifino will only make $3.7 million. Anybody signed in free agency — Russell, Hachimura, Vincent, Prince, Wood, Jaxson Hayes, Cam Reddish — are ineligible to be traded until Dec. 15.

Don’t get it twisted, though: Once that date passes, the Lakers could very much be in the Hield business, if the Pacers hold onto him until then. Hachimura ($17 million) may be expendable if the Lakers do, in fact, allow AD to play more power forward (despite the presences of Rui, Vando, LeBron, and Prince). Perhaps, considering Hachimura’s youth, the Lakers could even net a pick in that scenario.

The cleaner trade is Russell for Hield. The Lakers would prefer for DLo to be a game-changing X-factor this season, but the 27-year-old was partially brought back — at two-years, $36 million — as a trade chip.

Russell and Reaves shared nice moments together, but the Lakers thrive when Reaves is either the lead or secondary playmaker (after LeBron). The Lakers can certainly succeed with both, especially if Russell is willing to stagger his minutes with Reaves and, ideally, embrace a Sixth Man role. Otherwise, pairing Reaves — a lifelong point guard — with a shooter of Hield’s quality, buoyed by Vincent and Christie, is the most logical backcourt rotation.

For the next three months, though, all the Lakers can do is … nothing.

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Why Giannis Antetokounmpo uncertainty underscores Nets’ top priority in 2023-24

The Brooklyn Nets enter the 2023-24 campaign absent a superstar following the trades of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. In a league where a top-tier star is required to compete for a title, that reality casts a bleak shadow over the upcoming season.

However, there’s reason for hope that Brooklyn could soon re-enter the inner circle of contenders.

After trading Durant and Irving, the Nets are armed with seven tradable first-round picks. That includes three distant unprotected firsts from Phoenix (2027, 2029) and Dallas (2029), which should be highly coveted around the league. Brooklyn also offers the allure of the New York market and a chance to play alongside a budding star in Mikal Bridges.

But what player could be available to launch the Nets into the NBA’s upper echelon?

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s future has been the talk of the league following a series of headline-worthy offseason comments. The two-time MVP made it clear he’s willing to leave Milwaukee if there’s a better situation for him to pursue a title:

“I’m a Milwaukee Buck. But most importantly, I’m a winner. I want to win,” Antetokounmpo said on the 48 Minutes podcast. “And I have to do whatever it takes for me to win. And if there’s a better situation for me to win the Larry O’Brien, I have to take that better situation.”

Antetokounmpo is extension-eligible this season but has emphasized that he will not be re-upping at this time. The 28-year-old is under contract in 2024-25 before a player option in 2025-26. His recent comments put pressure on Milwaukee to exhaust all assets to maximize their title hopes this season. If the Bucks fall short, they enter a precarious situation next summer with a potentially unhappy Antetokounmpo’s contract expiring.

And in that case, expect the trade rumors to begin to swirl.

But Antetokounmpo is just one of several stars who could be on the move as early as next season. After missing Ben Simmons for the entire 2021-22 campaign, Joel Embiid is entering another year with a disgruntled co-star, James Harden, demanding a trade. Having never made it past the second round in seven seasons with Philadelphia, how long before the 2022-23 MVP’s eyes begin to wander?

Embiid is entering the first year of a four-year, $213 million supermax extension. However, as we’ve seen with Durant and Damian Lillard, that carries little weight in assuring he will remain committed to the 76ers.

Cleveland is in the same position as Milwaukee in regards to Donovan Mitchell. The four-time All-Star is under contract in 2024-25 before a $37 million player option in 2025-26. There is doubt within NBA circles that Mitchell would sign an extension with the Cavaliers, and the 27-year-old has well-documented interest in coming home to play in New York. With another young star in Darius Garland already in the backcourt, all options will be on the table if Cleveland exits the playoffs early this year.

Luka Doncic could soon join the group after Dallas finished as the league’s tenth-worst team in 2022-23:

“Team sources have acknowledged to ESPN that fear exists that Doncic, who publicly and privately expressed extreme frustration this season, could consider requesting a trade as soon as the summer of 2024 if Dallas doesn’t make significant progress by then,” ESPN’s Tim MacMahon wrote following Dallas’ elimination.

The prospect of landing one of these tentpole stars is why maintaining flexibility will be Nets GM Sean Marks’ top priority in 2023-24. It’s why Brooklyn has refused to enter the Lillard sweepstakes with Portland desperately trying to find an offer outside of Miami.

The Nets have an intriguing 2023-24 roster with ascending talents in Bridges, Cam Johnson and Nic Claxton, as well as a blend of youthful additions and steady veterans. But rest assured, Brooklyn will be one of several teams waiting for the superstar dominoes to fall in the next year.

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Why Giannis Antetokounmpo uncertainty underscores Nets’ top priority in 2023-24

The Brooklyn Nets enter the 2023-24 campaign absent a superstar following the trades of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. In a league where a top-tier star is required to compete for a title, that reality casts a bleak shadow over the upcoming season.

However, there’s reason for hope that Brooklyn could soon re-enter the inner circle of contenders.

After trading Durant and Irving, the Nets are armed with seven tradable first-round picks. That includes three distant unprotected firsts from Phoenix (2027, 2029) and Dallas (2029), which should be highly coveted around the league. Brooklyn also offers the allure of the New York market and a chance to play alongside a budding star in Mikal Bridges.

But what player could be available to launch the Nets into the NBA’s upper echelon?

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s future has been the talk of the league following a series of headline-worthy offseason comments. The two-time MVP made it clear he’s willing to leave Milwaukee if there’s a better situation for him to pursue a title:

“I’m a Milwaukee Buck. But most importantly, I’m a winner. I want to win,” Antetokounmpo said on the 48 Minutes podcast. “And I have to do whatever it takes for me to win. And if there’s a better situation for me to win the Larry O’Brien, I have to take that better situation.”

Antetokounmpo is extension-eligible this season but has emphasized that he will not be re-upping at this time. The 28-year-old is under contract in 2024-25 before a player option in 2025-26. His recent comments put pressure on Milwaukee to exhaust all assets to maximize their title hopes this season. If the Bucks fall short, they enter a precarious situation next summer with a potentially unhappy Antetokounmpo’s contract expiring.

And in that case, expect the trade rumors to begin to swirl.

But Antetokounmpo is just one of several stars who could be on the move as early as next season. After missing Ben Simmons for the entire 2021-22 campaign, Joel Embiid is entering another year with a disgruntled co-star, James Harden, demanding a trade. Having never made it past the second round in seven seasons with Philadelphia, how long before the 2022-23 MVP’s eyes begin to wander?

Embiid is entering the first year of a four-year, $213 million supermax extension. However, as we’ve seen with Durant and Damian Lillard, that carries little weight in assuring he will remain committed to the 76ers.

Cleveland is in the same position as Milwaukee in regards to Donovan Mitchell. The four-time All-Star is under contract in 2024-25 before a $37 million player option in 2025-26. There is doubt within NBA circles that Mitchell would sign an extension with the Cavaliers, and the 27-year-old has well-documented interest in coming home to play in New York. With another young star in Darius Garland already in the backcourt, all options will be on the table if Cleveland exits the playoffs early this year.

Luka Doncic could soon join the group after Dallas finished as the league’s tenth-worst team in 2022-23:

“Team sources have acknowledged to ESPN that fear exists that Doncic, who publicly and privately expressed extreme frustration this season, could consider requesting a trade as soon as the summer of 2024 if Dallas doesn’t make significant progress by then,” ESPN’s Tim MacMahon wrote following Dallas’ elimination.

The prospect of landing one of these tentpole stars is why maintaining flexibility will be Nets GM Sean Marks’ top priority in 2023-24. It’s why Brooklyn has refused to enter the Lillard sweepstakes with Portland desperately trying to find an offer outside of Miami.

The Nets have an intriguing 2023-24 roster with ascending talents in Bridges, Cam Johnson and Nic Claxton, as well as a blend of youthful additions and steady veterans. But rest assured, Brooklyn will be one of several teams waiting for the superstar dominoes to fall in the next year.

The post Why Giannis Antetokounmpo uncertainty underscores Nets’ top priority in 2023-24 appeared first on ClutchPoints.

Lakers 2023 offseason recap: LeBron James, Anthony Davis receive championship-level help

After the first 12 games of the 2022-23 season, the Los Angeles Lakers were the laughingstock of the NBA with a 2-10 record. There were not only questions about if they were going to miss the playoffs, but if general manager Rob Pelinka and president Jeanie Buss were going to blow everything up by moving on from LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Coming off a 33-49 season in which they missed the playoffs, failing in this way was unacceptable for the Lakers.

Los Angeles was able to steady the ship and floated around the Western Conference with a .500 record, but dysfunction existed and this team did not resemble one that could be a threat. As a result, Pelinka went out and had a shopping spree at the trade deadline, moving on from the likes of Russell Westbrook and others in order to improve the roster.

D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley came to Los Angeles in hopes of rewriting the season. Suddenly, this team went on a run to claim the 7-seed in the West.

After defeating the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, the Lakers then went on to take down the Golden State Warriors, the defending NBA champions, in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Cinderella story ended in the Western Conference Finals when they got swept by the Denver Nuggets.

The success the Lakers found after the trade deadline was unexpected, especially given their slow start to the season. A new energy now exists within this organization and winning remains their own priority. However, injuries continued to plague this team during the regular season with both James and Davis missing chunks of time.

Davis played in 56 total games and James played in 55 games, directly resulting in some of the Lakers’ hardships in the middle of the year. The availability of LA’s stars has been a concern through the years and will once again be a key talking point for them as the 2023-24 season begins.

What makes the Lakers a championship contender is not only their stars or found success from last year, but also their newfound depth and willingness to make winning moves.

Pelinka and this front office did an exceptional job of bringing in talent at the trade deadline, and this mindset carried over to the offseason. The Lakers lost some good players in free agency, but they surely made up for it by utilizing their mid-level exception and signing proven veterans to minimum deals.

Lakers offseason additions and departures

Additions: G Gabe Vincent (free agency – MIA), F/C Christian Wood (free agency – DAL), F Taurean Prince (free agency – MIN), F Cam Reddish (free agency – POR), C Jaxson Hayes (free agency – NOP), G Jalen Hood-Schifino (draft), F Maxwell Lewis (draft)

Departures: G Dennis Schroder (free agency – TOR), G Lonnie Walker IV (free agency – BKN), G Malik Beasley (free agency – MIL), C Mo Bamba (free agency – PHI), F Troy Brown Jr. (free agency – MIN)

As the Lakers prepared for the offseason and free agency, only four players held contracts for the 2023-24 season: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Jarred Vanderbilt and Max Christie.

Change was inevitable with that many players becoming free agents, yet this front office turned talent into more talent that can help the organization achieve greatness right away. Dennis Schroder was replaced with Gabe Vincent, Mo Bamba was replaced with Christian Wood, and both Taurean Prince and Cam Reddish are set to provide more depth on the wing in place of Lonnie Walker IV and Malik Beasley. All of the new additions have a chance to make a greater impact in Los Angeles right away compared to the likes of their predecessors.

Starting with Vincent, he comes to the Lakers after spending the first four years of his career with the Miami Heat. He went from being an undrafted guard to the starting point guard of a team that made the NBA Finals, proving his worth in a contract year. Miami was not prepared to lose the 27-year-old guard, but his value continued to rise throughout the playoffs.

What’s interesting about Vincent and his free agency this offseason is the fact that the Lakers were not even targeting him at first. There was a wide array of interest throughout the league in Vincent, league sources told ClutchPoints, with the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Heat all being in contact with his representation.

When the opportunity to pursue Vincent fell in the Lakers’ lap, Pelinka quickly evaluated the team’s financial situation and was able to come up with a competitive offer that was too good for the guard to turn down. They used almost all of their non-taxpayer mid-level exception to sign Vincent, and he was happy to be joining a team where he could be the lead guard amongst superstars. With Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell also in the backcourt, it will be interesting to see what Vincent’s role looks like early on in the season.

While Vincent signing with the Lakers happened near the start of free agency, Wood agreeing to his contract is more recent news. Despite being one of the better big men available this offseason, Wood was passed up on by many teams and remained a free agent until the first week of September when he agreed to a two-year contract with the Lakers.

Set to make roughly $2.7 million this upcoming year, Wood will have the option of becoming an unrestricted free agent once again at the conclusion of the 2023-24 season. With his market being very low this summer and teams not looking for much frontcourt help, this contract with Los Angeles made a lot of sense for the 27-year-old.

Alongside Davis, Wood figures to be a key part of the Lakers’ rotations. It would not be shocking to see him come off the bench to begin the regular season, but by the end of the year, he could very well be starting alongside the All-Star big man. This one-two punch in the frontcourt would instantly make the Lakers one of the better rebounding teams in the league, and they would have five players in their lineup who could spread the floor out on the perimeter.

The additions of Vincent and Wood instantly make this team better offensively than they were a season ago, which also protects the Lakers in case James and Davis once again deal with injury problems.

Prince, Reddish and Jaxson Hayes will be secondary bench talents for the Lakers. Their roles are undefined right now ahead of training camp even though all three players have found success through the years in their secondary roles. Whereas Prince and Reddish are 3-and-D threats on the perimeter, Hayes is a young big man who can be a lob threat at any point in the game.

More depth was added to the Lakers’ roster during this year’s NBA Draft with Jalen Hood-Schifino being selected 17th overall. A bigger, lengthier guard, Hood-Schifino will spend a lot of time going back and forth between the South Bay Lakers in the G League and the NBA squad, similar to what happened with Max Christie last season. The same can be said for second-round pick Maxwell Lewis, who is a versatile forward with two-way potential on the wing.

The Lakers probably had the best free agency period out of any team in the league simply due to the fact that Pelinka and this front office were able to replace unreliable secondary talents with better options while also retaining some of their own key players. James and Davis cannot carry this franchise to a title on their own, which is why Los Angeles added players who are more than capable of stepping up into key roles at any point during the 82-game season.

Lakers’ championship depth

Gabe Vincent, Christian Wood, Rui Hachimura, D'Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt

From the Golden State Warriors to the Milwaukee Bucks to the Denver Nuggets, there have been many different NBA champions in recent years. However, the one constant that has existed with all of them and what separates championship-level teams from the rest of the field are those key, secondary players that provide depth.

You can even point to the 2019-20 Lakers team in the NBA Bubble that went on to win a championship. Outside of LeBron and Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo all held key roles and played their parts to perfection. Even Dwight Howard provided much-needed depth in their frontcourt.

At the start of the 2022-23 season, the Lakers had virtually no depth and were so dependent on their two All-Stars. This resulted in frustrations mounting and both James and Davis having to carry the team every night, leading to more wear and tear. From the time of the trade deadline through the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers finally had depth and production that they could rely on outside of their stars.

Pelinka’s main goal this offseason was to add more high-level depth to his roster, which was achieved. Vincent and Wood are going to be two instant sources of production in their respective roles, as described earlier, but what has gone overlooked is the depth Los Angeles retained.

Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt and D’Angelo Russell are all returning on new contracts, and each player is important to this organization in their own way.

Although Russell’s role will be changing from what he is accustomed to, he’s still a really smart and agile scoring guard in pick-and-roll situations. Having the ability to get to his spots in the mid-range area and hit jumpers opens up the Lakers’ offense tremendously. The same can be said about Hachimura, as he emerged as a key secondary scoring weapon at either forward spot in the mid-range last year.

Vanderbilt came over to Los Angeles last season and instantly made his presence felt as an athletic forward who could run the floor and defend virtually any position. Vanderbilt’s length and size allowed him to play against frontcourt talents, and his quick feet allowed him to stay in front of opposing guards. In the playoffs, he even matched up against Stephen Curry and held his own for a vast majority of that series.

Then there is Reaves, the golden child of this Lakers organization. Looking at him, you may think Reaves is a farmer, but he is a special basketball talent. The 25-year-old’s unselfishness and high IQ is why he is such a great fit alongside LeBron, and he is going to be a different player come time for the start of the 2023-24 season.

Spending this summer with Team USA in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, Reaves ended up being arguably the best bench player in the tournament. The energy and change of pace he brings is special, which is why the Lakers are lucky to have him in their backcourt. Not to mention, Reaves is one of the best at drawing fouls and getting to the line, another advantage for James and Davis to get quick breaks in the middle of games.

In order to fight for and potentially win a championship in today’s league, you have to be able to give the ball to more than just one or two star players. There is so much talent  around the league right now that you can point to every single team and make a claim that they have at least one All-Star talent. The Lakers have championship-level depth in addition to their two stars, which is why they will enter the year as title favorites.

2023-24 season outlook

The hunt for their record-breaking 18th NBA championship has begun. The Lakers are definitely favorites to come out of the Western Conference and win the 2024 NBA Finals because of their vast amount of depth and simply because they have LeBron James.

Even at 38 years of age and starting to show signs of slowing down, James is still one of the most dominant talents in the league right now. As long as he is healthy, Los Angeles will have a chance to win any game they play simply because of how great he still is.

LeBron is the league’s all-time leading scorer and all of that, but he is truly one of the greatest passers of all time. Every single year, James makes his teammates better because of his ability to create space and find them off the dribble. With other versatile scorers around him, the Lakers star could wind up finishing near the top of the league in assists.

The 2023-24 season is obviously championship or bust for the Lakers. They have invested a lot into James, they have invested a lot into Davis and this offseason was all about finding and retaining players who put this organization in a position to win right now.

Time is running out for James to win another title in his career, which is why this franchise decided to go all-in this summer. There are not many better rosters on paper ahead of training camp than the one the Lakers have right now.

The post Lakers 2023 offseason recap: LeBron James, Anthony Davis receive championship-level help appeared first on ClutchPoints.

EXCLUSIVE: Tony Pollard gets real on Cowboys’ Super Bowl chances, Dak Prescott criticism, Ezekiel Elliott’s departure

Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard is one of the best players in the NFL. He recently took some time for an exclusive interview with ClutchPoints. In addition to discussing his new partnership with Chili’s, Pollard talked about Ezekiel Elliott’s departure, Dak Prescott criticism, the Cowboys’ Super Bowl chances, and more.

Without further ado, let’s get into the interview.

Cowboys: Tony Pollard exclusive interview

Joey Mistretta: I wanted to get your thoughts on this, and I know you’ve talked about this quite a bit, but Ezekiel Elliott obviously leaving the Cowboys this year… what was something that maybe you really learned from him? 

Tony Pollard: The way that he prepares throughout the week for the game. The way that he film study, the way that he is able to break the defenses down and just recognize different things on the fly. Just as far as like the mental aspect of the game and slowing it down, that’s what I really picked up the most.

Mistretta: Looking at the Cowboys this season, you guys have started off pretty well obviously… has anything really stood out for you from this specific Cowboys 2023 team?

Tony Pollard: It feels like, guys are more locked in. I feel like everybody has bought into the new offense, you know, bought into the system, everything that we have going. It feels like, as far as like attention to detail… there’s a lot more attention to details that guys are locked into now.

Tony Pollard, Cowboys

Mistretta: If you have any favorite players in the NFL, not on the Cowboys… anybody in the NFL you really enjoy watching?

Tony Pollard: Anybody in the NFL that I enjoy watching? I mean, I enjoy watching lot of different guys. Guys like Saquon (Barkley), Nick Chubb, Jonathan Taylor. I mean, I like pretty much all the top guys at all the different positions because you know, I’m watching everything for the most part.

Mistretta: Obviously going up against some of the toughest defenses in the league, is there a specific defense that you would say is the hardest defense you’ve gone up against?

Tony Pollard: I mean as of right now I would say… we’ve had two good games that we’ve played against two good defenses. Especially with the defensive fronts that we played against the Giants and Jets. I would say probably the Jets, that was probably our most challenging game, our most physical game as far as like O-Line, D-Line.

Mistretta: Is there a certain player, throughout the course of your career not just this season, that when you’re going up against a defense and there’s a certain player on that side… is there a certain player you circle and you say, “oh shoot, this is going to be a tough game”?

Tony Pollard: Honestly, not really. That’s not really my game. I’m big on watching my own tape, my own film study and trying to pick up on my habits and what I’m putting on film so I can be on top of what I’m showing guys and what they can watch film on me doing… I feel like it’s more about what I’m doing rather than whoever I’m going against if you get what I’m saying.

Mistretta: Going back to the Cowboys, Dak Prescott is such an interesting quarterback because he’s so talented, yet it seems like he gets a lot of criticism, just for interceptions. What are your thoughts on Dak here in 2023 and his progression?

Tony Pollard: Dak, that’s our leader. That’s our quarterback. I mean, the criticism, the scrutiny, that comes with it once you’re a Dallas Cowboy especially once you’re the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. But the way we look at him in the locker room, we don’t bat an eye, we don’t second guess any decision he makes. That’s our guy. We believe in him all the way, through and through.

Tony Pollard, Dak Prescott, Cowboys

Mistretta: I know it’s not the beginning of the season but it’s still early and obviously the main goal is to win a Super Bowl, but did you have any specific individual goals that you wanted to accomplish this season?

Tony Pollard: Honestly, I just… I’m big on just getting better every year. I feel like if I just find a way to better my numbers every year I’ll be right where I want to be. So wherever you saw my numbers last year, I just want all of those numbers to be better and that will be a good year for me.

Mistretta: The final question I have, the Cowboys have been really a solid team now for a little bit… what do you believe it will take for this specific Cowboys team to reach the Super Bowl during the 2023-24 season?

Tony Pollard: We just gotta keep chopping wood, keep taking things one day at a time. Don’t look too far ahead, don’t listen to the noise. Don’t buy into all the hype. Just keep moving forward and getting better.

Tony Pollard, Cowboys, Super Bowl

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