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As the Dodgers enter their Shohei Ohtani Era, failure is not an option

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As the Dodgers enter their Shohei Ohtani Era, failure is not an option

PHOENIX — Flags only fly forever if you raise them.

At Dodgertown, the ancestral home of the Los Angeles Dodgers in Vero Beach, Fla., a mural celebrating six World Series winners greeted visitors. No such signage exists at Camelback Ranch. The team has won the National League West 11 times since shifting its spring training base to Arizona in 2009, but the franchise does not memorialize mere postseason berths. The Dodgers intended to build a monument to the 2020 World Series championship team but pandemic-related construction delays sidelined the project, and the organization moved on. There are no murals and no banners, no portraits of protocol-following perseverance. If you rely upon commemorative decorations as your guide, the triumph in a 60-game season may as well not exist.

When Mark Walter, the owner of the Dodgers and the chief executive officer of Guggenheim Partners, met with two-way star Shohei Ohtani this past winter, he attempted to sell a vision based on these conflicting truths, the immense pride and deep frustration within his franchise. The Dodgers had become a colossus since Walter’s group took over in 2012 — a perennial contender, playing before crowds that lead the sport in attendance, driving a money machine now valued at nearly $5 billion. Yet the success could not offset the sting of October defeats. A series of early postseason exits since 2020 had disappointed Walter and those within his baseball operations department. As he outlined the dichotomy, Walter wanted to stress something to Ohtani: The owner considered his tenure running the Dodgers to be an on-field failure.

“We’ve only done it once,” said team president Stan Kasten, who was present when Walter spoke to Ohtani. “And we need to do it more often than that.”

In Ohtani — who will debut as a Dodger this week during a two-game series in Seoul, South Korea — Walter and the rest of the organization found a $700 million symbol of a new era. His arrival has vaulted the club into a new financial stratosphere, with a deferral-laden contract serving as the backbone for a $1.2 billion offseason bonanza. His presence has heightened expectations for a team that has not missed the postseason since Barack Obama’s first term in office. Ohtani chose the Dodgers because the franchise offered a pathway to October that had been foreclosed to him during six seasons with the Los Angeles Angels. The Dodgers pursued Ohtani because they had grown tired of watching other franchises conduct parades in November.

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And because a union between the two parties made far too much business sense to pass up.

When Kasten first heard about how Ohtani wanted to structure his contract, he assumed he was missing something. Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman called Kasten after a discussion with Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo. “Can you repeat that?” Kasten said. Over the course of a 10-year pact, Ohtani intended to receive only $20 million, with $680 million deferred through 2043 so he would not handcuff his new team.


Mark Walter and Stan Kasten introduce their new $700 million man at Dodger Stadium in December. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

In recent years, the Dodgers have made deferrals a habit. The contracts for both perennial MVP candidates Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman feature deferred millions. When the team offered $300 million to Gerrit Cole after the 2019 season, the bid included deferrals. Yet the contract Ohtani sought provided so much financial flexibility to the team that Friedman later admitted he would not have had the courage to suggest it himself. Kasten described Walter as “very supportive” of the contract structure. “I would tell you to ask Mark about it,” Kasten said. “But we know that’s not going to happen.” (Through a different team official, Walter, who rarely addresses the public, declined an interview request.)

With Ohtani’s contract functioning effectively as a credit card, Friedman rebuilt the starting rotation and bolstered the offense of a team that won 100 games in 2023 despite myriad shortcomings. The Dodgers bested the sport’s other financial behemoths to land Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto with a 12-year, $325 million deal. After acquiring Tampa Bay Rays starter Tyler Glasnow, the team hammered out a $110 million extension. The signing of former All-Star outfielder Teoscar Hernández for $23.5 million felt like an afterthought. Ohtani, of course, was the biggest prize. He will not pitch this season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. But he can still inspire hyperbole. Freeman suggested that when his career was over he would tell his grandchildren about playing with Ohtani, “just like we talk about Babe Ruth.”

The first step on the road to the purported promised land took place at Camelback Ranch three days after the Super Bowl. Crowds lined both sides of a path connecting the Dodgers clubhouse to a practice field for the team’s first workout. The speaker system blared a playlist that sounded as if it had not been updated since 2016. Reporters stood atop step-ladders. Fans lofted selfie sticks. A man hoisted a child onto his shoulders. The throngs pressed against the chain-link fence, desperate for a glimpse of Los Angeles’ newest lodestar. When Ohtani jogged to the field, the roar was loud enough to drown out the bridge of “I Knew You Were Trouble.” The soundtrack was fitting, at least to the team’s president.

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“I don’t want to compare it to Taylor Swift, but I think it’s our equivalent, in terms of conversation,” Kasten said. “It’s just everywhere you look, people are talking about him.” Kasten framed the alliance as mutually beneficial. “He had been this outsized talent for the last six years. But I think pairing him with the size of the Dodger brand makes his impact and his visibility even larger than it has been, until now.”


Dave Roberts rounded a corner and spotted a mass of media in the shade of the grapefruit trees planted outside Camelback Ranch. There was the usual group of American and Japanese reporters. But the media relations staff had installed a riser so seven different camera crews could film the manager’s daily briefing without turning the crowd into a rugby scrum. Roberts has chosen to greet the amplified attention this year with the amplification of his own enthusiasm.

“Oh, wow!” Roberts said. “Look at this setup, huh?”

When Ohtani was introduced at Dodger Stadium on Dec. 15, he expressed confusion to Dodgers broadcaster Joe Davis as he gazed out at rows and rows of attendees. Ohtani had been told only media would be there. Davis had to break it to Ohtani that the massive crowd was, in fact, just the media. A similar crush will greet Ohtani during the season, especially at these games in Seoul. The Dodgers are already covered by one of the larger domestic press contingents. The group now includes around a dozen Japanese reporters, tracking Ohtani’s exploits in granular detail, from the number of home runs he hits in batting practice to the larger meaning of a fist bump with Hernández. When Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register asked Ohtani in passing about his dog, Dekopin, Plunkett’s picture was plastered across Japanese newspapers.


Shohei Ohtani attracted massive attention at his first Dodgers spring training. (Kyodo via Associated Press)

Ohtani conducts group interviews once or twice a week. He rarely reveals much about himself. He values his privacy. Reporters have been discouraged from approaching Ohtani or Yamamoto for one-on-one conversations. The team preferred to hold the group sessions in front of a backdrop featuring advertising for Guggenheim. (The team’s uniforms also now include a Guggenheim patch.) For the players, the parade of reporters has wrought some genial irritation. The clubhouse is often barren when reporters are permitted inside.

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“It’s just a lot of people,” pitcher Walker Buehler said. “They’ll ask you two questions about you, and then six about Ohtani. And you’ll be like, ‘You just baited me! You baited me into this. You guys got me.’”

The primary person who will deal with the scrutiny is Roberts. The courtship of Ohtani created unease for him. When Roberts decided at the Winter Meetings to reveal a Dodger Stadium sit-down with Ohtani — which no other official from any team involved in the sweepstakes had done previously — Friedman and general manager Brandon Gomes declined to offer him much cover. The group patched things up later that week, but when the Dodgers introduced Ohtani, Roberts was not on the stage.

As Roberts spoke to the group beside the grapefruit trees, an intrepid eighth cameraman scaled a staircase leading toward the complex’s executive offices.

“Excuse me,” a security guard told the cameraman, “you have to come down from there.”

The cameraman pointed to a Dodgers official.

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“Excuse me,” the guard repeated.

The cameraman pointed again. A team official walked over. “He’s with us,” the staffer explained. SportsNet LA, the team’s television network, has produced 10 seasons of “Backstage: Dodgers,” which offers lighthearted looks at the inner workings of the franchise. The guard was adamant. Regulations trumped content; eventually the cameraman left his perch and rejoined the scrum. Soon after, Friedman and members of his baseball operations department, clad in three-quarter-zip pullovers, descended the steps.

To some, Roberts occupies the hottest seat in the sport. Friedman has impregnable job security. The Ohtani deal features a provision called a “key man” clause. He can opt out of his contract if Friedman or Walter leaves the organization. The same protection does not apply to Roberts, whose contract runs through 2025. “If the highest preseason expectations in club history crash,” esteemed Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote recently, “the Dodgers will need an easy target to take the blame, and that will be him.”


Few have as much riding on Shohei Ohtani’s success as manager Dave Roberts. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

In eight seasons at the helm, Roberts has never won fewer than 91 games — except for the shortened 2020 season, when the club played at a 116-win pace. His .618 winning percentage is the best in Major League Baseball history. He would likely find a bevy of suitors for his services, especially in the wake of new Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell’s market-setting five-year, $40 million contract. Unlike Counsell, Roberts has actually won a World Series — even if his postseason resume contains its share of strategic misfires.

Roberts has described anything short of a championship in 2024 as a bust. Of course, he has spoken with that confidence before. He guaranteed the Dodgers would win the 2022 World Series. That team set a franchise record with 111 victories, but crashed out of the postseason in four games. The disappointment increased the motivation to add Ohtani. Before the season, Roberts suggested his players should worry less about external noise and concentrate on individual progress. Ignoring the noise, he acknowledged, will be tougher than ever.

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“This year feels different because you’ve got, essentially, the best player on the planet,” Roberts said. He added, “People love beating the Yankees. And people love beating the Dodgers. When you put on this uniform, that’s what you sign up for. But this year, it’s a little bit more extreme.”


The most expensive pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball has never thrown a pitch in Major League Baseball. Whenever Yoshinobu Yamamoto took the mound this spring, the occasion merited monitoring. As he unveiled his arsenal in a bullpen session during the team’s first workout, a gaggle of reporters watched from a distance. Roberts, Friedman and various members of the coaching staff and front office stood behind the row of mounds. Standing behind the catcher, peering through a mesh-covered fence were Buehler, reliever Daniel Hudson and starter James Paxton. Each took a peek as Yamamoto spun curveballs and splitters along with his 95-mph fastball. “Everything just explodes out of his hand,” Paxton said a day later.

Yamamoto has been an object of fascination among big-league teams for years. The list of executives who traveled to Japan to watch him in 2023 included Friedman, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and San Francisco Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. After the season, New York Mets owner Steve Cohen and president of baseball operations David Stearns made similar jaunts to court Yamamoto. The Yankees presented Yamamoto with his own No. 18 jersey in pinstripes.

His free agency sparked even greater zeal than expected. When the offseason began, some executives pegged Yamamoto in line for a contract worth about $200 million. As the price escalated, the Giants bowed out. The Yankees offered $300 million. So did the Philadelphia Phillies. The Dodgers won the bidding by matching Cohen’s offer after Yamamoto met with Betts, Freeman and, of course, Ohtani.

Yamamoto represents the promise and the peril inherent in the Dodgers pitching staff. His stature is unremarkable; he stands 5-foot-10 and weighs about 175 pounds. He became elite through a focus on flexibility and unconventional activities like chucking a javelin. The transition from Japan to the major leagues can be challenging. During the winter, Yamamoto familiarized himself with the baseball used in the major leagues, which is smaller and slicker than its equivalent in Japan. During his spring debut, a center-field camera for SportsNet LA could capture the different grips of Yamamoto’s pitches.

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The tipping discussion that followed did not prompt alterations to Yamamoto’s delivery. The organization expects him to lead its rotation, which will likely function as something resembling a six-man unit to provide breaks for the starters. The regulars may need the rest. Yamamoto has never pitched on the big-league schedule. Glasnow logged a career-high 120 innings last season. Paxton has thrown 117 2/3 innings since 2019. Buehler will not begin the season with the club as he attempts to return from his second Tommy John surgery. Clayton Kershaw hopes to rejoin the team by July or August as he recovers from the first surgery of his career, a corrective procedure on his left shoulder. The list of rehabbing pitchers at Camelback Ranch will include Dustin May, Emmet Sheehan and Tony Gonsolin.

Despite the uncertainty, the team expects its pitching to be excellent. The same cannot be said for its infield defense. A series of wayward throws by infielder Gavin Lux, who is returning from knee surgery, convinced the organization to play Betts at shortstop, a position Betts had handled in only 14 games in the first 10 years of his big-league career. Lux did not look much better after swapping places with Betts to play second base.

The overwhelming strength of the Dodgers, the propulsive force expected to vault the club past 100 victories yet again, will be the first three hitters in the lineup. Betts posted a .987 OPS last season with 39 homers and 40 doubles. Freeman put forth his usual output, with a .976 OPS, 29 homers and 59 doubles. Ohtani surpassed them both while pulling double duty as a pitcher: 44 home runs and a 1.066 OPS in an offense that provided scant protection. When executives around the sport grumble about the Dodgers, they are grumbling about the prospect of trying to shut down this trio, during a season in which Ohtani can concentrate on his hitting.

At one point this spring, Roberts compared Ohtani to the most talented teammate he had ever had. Near the end of his playing career, Roberts shared a clubhouse with Barry Bonds, the sport’s all-time home run leader, a slugger tarnished by his involvement with performance-enhancing drugs but revered by his peers for his talent. Ohtani, Roberts thought, might one day surpass Bonds — in ability, if not homers.

“Shohei,” Roberts said, “has a chance to be the best player ever.”

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The people ringed the practice field, clicking cameras and lifting selfie sticks once more, as Ohtani settled into the batter’s box to face live pitching for the first time since his elbow surgery. One fan clutched a painted portrait of the world’s most famous designated hitter. This was several days after the first workout. The attention on Ohtani and the Dodgers had not slackened. If anything, it had intensified, and would only continue to do so.

For a decade, Kershaw acted as the gravitational force within the Dodgers clubhouse. The duo of Betts and Freeman supplied that presence in recent years. Given the magnitude of Ohtani’s fame, the ramifications of his contract and the extent of his ability, Ohtani must serve that role now. He has bonded with Hernández, a former American League West rival. Freeman pronounced himself amazed that Ohtani remembered the name of Freeman’s son, Charlie, after meeting the boy at last year’s All-Star Game.

“He seems to be holding onto his balance, to the extent he can,” Kasten said. “But it’s almost like, in America, he can escape. Because in Japan, he can’t. I’ve been there recently. He’s everywhere.”


Shohei Ohtani’s arrival in Korea with wife Mamiko Tanaka became a news event. (Stringer / Getty Images)

When Ohtani announced his marriage, Japanese television stations interrupted their programming. The Dodgers intend to capitalize on that devotion. “One of our goals is to have baseball fans in Japan convert to Dodger blue,” Friedman said at Ohtani’s introductory press conference. That effort is unlikely to end with Ohtani and Yamamoto. The team is expected to make a full-pocketed pursuit of Rōki Sasaki, the 22-year-old right-handed phenom, whenever the Chiba Lotte Marines make him available. Visitors to Dodger Stadium can expect a bevy of new sponsorships decorating the ballpark. The prices of tickets to enter the ballpark are rising on the secondary market.

As Ohtani prepared to face his new teammates in batting practice, fans and reporters catalogued his movements. When he connected with a fastball from pitcher J.P. Feyereisen, the sound reverberated across the facility. The crowd gasped as the ball took flight. Ohtani watched it clear the center-field fence as he left the batter’s box. He peeled a pad off his surgically-repaired right arm, which remained sheathed in a compression sleeve. He jogged back toward the clubhouse, past the crowd screaming his name, one step closer to Opening Day.

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The judgment on this first season of the 10-year union will not come until October. Ohtani has never experienced the MLB playoffs. The Dodgers never miss an invitation. The franchise embarked on this era hoping to accumulate flags to raise and banners to proclaim championships.

Anything less would be a failure.

(Top illustration by Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; Photos by George Rose / Getty Images; Gene Wang / Getty Images; David Durochik/Diamond Images)

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Ten Hag thinks Manchester United are unlucky. He's only partly right

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Ten Hag thinks Manchester United are unlucky. He's only partly right

You may have watched Manchester United reach their second FA Cup final in as many seasons by the leather of Haji Wright’s left boot and considered it a fortunate escape that their collapse from 3-0 up against Championship opposition did not deserve.

Erik ten Hag did not think United got lucky, though. If anything, he was at his most impassioned in his post-match press conference when discussing his side’s misfortune, specifically for Coventry City’s stoppage-time penalty, arguing it was an “absolutely crazy” decision to award a handball against Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Ten Hag took much the same line of argument before United’s last Premier League outing against Bournemouth. While accepting that “like a minister” he will bear ultimate responsibility for results, he could not help but bemoan his side’s bad luck over the past eight months.

“It’s huge. A lot went against us this season,” he said. And though United’s misfortune is not limited to refereeing calls in Ten Hag’s mind, that was where he trained his focus.

“You see all the penalties we conceded last week (against Chelsea and Liverpool) could also have been going in another way. You think over the course of a season sometimes you will get one, sometimes you will concede one. This season it feels like we only concede.”

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United have been awarded five penalties this season and have conceded 11, with four given away in the opening four games of the Champions League group stage. While most of those in Europe were not especially contentious, many of the six conceded in the Premier League have sparked debate.

Some have been soft — Rasmus Hojlund and Casemiro’s concessions against Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers in particular — and others more debatable. None, it should be noted, have resulted in the officials responsible being stood down for the subsequent round of fixtures, as happened after Wolves were denied a penalty at Old Trafford on the opening weekend of the season.

All those decisions, however, are a matter of opinion. Outside of offside, most refereeing calls are subjective by nature and, as the era of VAR has taught us, there are different definitions of what constitutes a clear and obvious mistake.

Ten Hag has more substantive grounds for complaint on arguably the biggest single reason for United’s struggles: player injuries and enforced absences. The revolving door of United’s treatment room has seen all but four senior squad members — Bruno Fernandes, Andre Onana, Diogo Dalot and Alejandro Garnacho — pass through it at some point this year.

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The 2-2 draw at Bournemouth was the first time United have named an unchanged line-up since the opening two games of a season ravaged by injury. According to data from transfermarkt, United’s squad have collectively spent 1,710 days sidelined since the start of the season.

Ten Hag said last week he has not been able to pick his “favourite” line-up since the 2-1 victory over Manchester City at Old Trafford in January of last year. Just as United’s injuries have appeared to abate, new concerns have cropped up.

Fresh problems for Willy Kambwala, Mason Mount and Sofyan Amrabat meant United’s absentee list swelled into double figures again ahead of the semi-final, while Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay both appeared to be carrying issues when substituted at Wembley.


Marcus Rashford walks off after being injured at Wembley (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

The absence of either of his first-choice left-backs for the majority of the season has, Ten Hag feels, had a material effect on United’s ability to play the way he wants. Lisandro Martinez’s unavailability has deprived him of a player who had a transformative effect during his first year in Manchester.

But is it all down to luck or could certain things be done differently? United have set to work restructuring the medical department since the appointment of head of sports medicine Gary O’Driscoll. Sources, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their relationships, believe there have been noticeable improvements since the former Arsenal club doctor’s arrival and that restructuring continues apace.

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Ten Hag’s training methods have also come under scrutiny and can be intense, particularly for those not involved in matches, who are put through rigorous sessions the day after games to maintain a consistent level of physical load across the squad. The fast, direct and often chaotic style of play that has been adopted this season also has to be considered as part of that equation.

Everybody knows by now that United face a lot of shots on goal — 574 in total in the Premier League this season. No top-flight team has faced as many on a per-game basis, but in the context of recent history, that figure only becomes all the more remarkable.

Since 2016-17, eight of the 15 top-flight sides to have faced more shots than United have been relegated. None have finished higher than 15th. At the current rate, United will surpass all of those 15 sides and yet even in the absolute worst-case scenario, they cannot finish any lower than 14th.

Ten Hag has defended United’s apparent willingness to give up shots by arguing they are predominantly low-quality chances and he has a point. The average shot United have faced in the league this season has had a 10 per cent chance of resulting in a goal.

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Andre Onana has been busy this season (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Brentford and Newcastle have the worst record in that regard, with the average shot having a 13 per cent chance of being scored. The difference between a 13 per cent and 10 per cent chance is small but significant. A marginal gain, if you like.

But if you concede at least 20 shots a game, as United have regularly been doing of late, and one in every 10 goes in, you’ll need to score three to win. The eighth-worst attack in the league, with only 47 goals in 32 league games, cannot count on that.

United’s 47 goals is level with Luton Town and in line with expected data, too. Defensively, Ten Hag’s side have conceded 48 goals — one of the Premier League’s better records — but from an expected total of 59.8.

Take one away from the other and United’s expected goal difference is -12.2, the fifth-worst in the league. Suddenly, that actual goal difference of -1 does not look so bad after all.

But nothing can change perceptions and narratives around a side like a favourable run of fixtures, in the short term at least, and United now face the Premier League’s bottom two at Old Trafford in the space of four days.

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It should not need saying, but United are a better side than both Sheffield United and Burnley by any comprehensive measure. They should not need to get lucky to prove it.

(Top photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

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How hockey helped make J.J. McCarthy one of NFL Draft's most intriguing prospects

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How hockey helped make J.J. McCarthy one of NFL Draft's most intriguing prospects

Dan Capuano’s funeral at St. Rita of Cascia High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side was standing-room only. Hundreds of firefighters from Chicago and around the country attended. Members of the St. Jude Knights youth hockey club were there, too, wearing their jerseys.

Capuano’s sons, Andrew and Nick, played for the Knights, a Northern Illinois Hockey League program that feeds many of Chicago’s powerhouse Catholic schools. Nick was on the 2012-13 team that won the Squirt A state championship.

Dan had devoted much of his time to the Knights before he died in the line of duty while fighting a warehouse fire on the South Side on Dec. 14, 2015.

That title-winning Knights team wanted to get back together to honor Capuano and his family, so in March 2016, a new team was formed. “Team Capuano” would play in the Shamrock Shuffle at the University of Notre Dame over a weekend. Their jerseys would be red and white and include Dan’s badge number: 1676.

There was an early hiccup. “The guy that was running the tournament, he didn’t want to let us in,” said Ralph Lawrence, a former St. Jude coach. “He said that the competition would be way too high.”

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Team Capuano just wanted to play together again. It got in. Things got chippy. During one game, a hit from behind sent center Luke Lawrence, Ralph’s son, hard into the boards.

“Could have paralyzed him,” Ralph said. “It was a bad hit.”

That’s when 13-year-old wing J.J. McCarthy rushed in. The future five-star recruit, Michigan quarterback, national champion and soon-to-be NFL draft pick was livid. He didn’t drop his gloves, but a scrum ensued.

“It was a little cheap hit in the corner,” Luke said. “J.J. was the first one to me, come into the corner and exchange a few words with the kid.”

“J.J. went off on the kid and got kicked out of the game,” Ralph said.

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The whole scene was unlike McCarthy. He was typically more collected on the ice — his father, Jim, one of the primary organizers of Team Capuano, didn’t like the outburst — but Luke was J.J.’s close friend, and the tournament was an emotional experience. And in hockey, leadership often involves going into the corners.

“Those kids played for something more than hockey that weekend,” Ralph said.

When it was over, Team Capuano — the team some thought didn’t belong in South Bend — won the tournament. A year later, they returned and repeated as champions.


Ice is in McCarthy’s blood. His mother, Megan, was a competitive figure skater. He started playing hockey in kindergarten. Organized football came later.

McCarthy is on record calling hockey his first love. What he experienced on the ice would ultimately help make him a better quarterback — one now on the verge of being drafted in the first round.

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He was 10 when the Knights defeated Winnetka in the Tier II Squirt A state championship in March 2013. He and Luke Lawrence assisted on the only goal of the game. It was a special season for a special group, one that eventually split up as players changed teams and levels.


McCarthy (far right) got used to winning early as part of a championship squad with the St. Jude Knights. (Courtesy of Ralph Lawrence)

McCarthy and Lawrence were inseparable for years. Competitive in everything, they played so much and so well together on the same line that they earned a nickname referencing Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the twin stars from the Vancouver Canucks.

The Lawrences and McCarthys stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts before practices or games. The dads would get coffee. Luke would get a bagel or a banana. McCarthy always ordered a strawberry frosted donut. Ralph Lawerence advised against the pre-skate pastry, but it became McCarthy’s go-to. (After McCarthy signed an NIL deal at Michigan, a medium iced coffee and a strawberry frosted donut became his official Dunkin’ Donuts meal in the Detroit area.)

“We laugh till this day,” Ralph said. “And it didn’t hurt him. His speed was fine. His stomach didn’t get upset.”

As a coach, Lawrence emphasized playing positionally strong in the neutral zone and the importance of forechecking and backchecking. But McCarthy played the game with feel.

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“He knew where the puck was going to be,” Ralph said. “He knew what the other team was going to do.”

As Lawrence watched McCarthy play football, he saw similar things happen on the field.

“He had an instinct,” Lawrence said. “It was the same way he had it on the ice.”

McCarthy and Lawrence moved on to the Northern Express, another Tier II team that played in the Central States Development Hockey League, which expanded outside of Illinois. It was time for a new challenge.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as a coach,” Northern Express coach Brent Dolan said.

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Dolan’s team excelled defensively. The team’s forecheck was relentless, but it didn’t score a lot.

“When J.J. and Luke came, that instantly changed,” Dolan said. “I would say our goals per game went up by two — and that’s massive in hockey.”

Checking was now permitted, too. There would be contact and a lot of it, a new and different level of physicality. McCarthy could give hits, take hits — and avoid them. The extra contact also meant extracurriculars, and McCarthy had no problem mixing it up.

“If I needed anything or if I was getting banged up in the corner, J.J.’s always there for me, getting in there and making sure that nothing’s gonna escalate,” Luke said. “He would always stick up for me.”


By the time he hung up his skates, McCarthy had developed into a fast, physical forward. (Courtesy of Ted Eagle)

Hockey requires quick decision-making under duress and amid contact. For McCarthy, as a forward, that often meant receiving the puck while exiting his own zone and deciding what to do as an opposing defenseman barreled his way.

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Pass the puck quickly to a teammate? Make a quick cut around the defenseman? Chip the puck past the opponent and go after it?

“People who don’t play hockey don’t really understand how fast of a sport it is and how many different components go into it,” Dolan said. “You have to make a decision with the puck, and you got to know where to go with it and execute that all in a split second. That’s not overexaggerating it. That probably helped J.J.’s vision in football.”

A shift on the ice can feel like standing in the pocket: chaos everywhere, violence nearby. You have to see it — or, more importantly, feel it — to overcome it. McCarthy, who was on Northern Express’ power play, had the poise and spatial awareness to operate in the maelstrom.

“Hockey definitely slowed down football,” Luke Lawrence said.

In particular, McCarthy developed a Patrick Kane-like knack for avoiding major hits. Dolan later saw him make hockey-like cuts playing for Michigan.

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“He’s trying to avoid getting drilled,” Dolan said. “The quick, subtle movements that you make in hockey probably helped him in the pocket and then also while he’s out on the edge rushing or scrambling.”

In the summer between seventh and eighth grade, McCarthy started training with Greg Holcomb, a private QB coach from Next Level Athletix. Holcomb saw a lot of natural ability. He also saw hockey’s influence.

“One of the reasons why he was so good at throwing off platform and moving around and changing direction is probably because in hockey he would get absolutely killed if he wasn’t able to skate past guys or make them miss,” Holcomb said. “Hockey definitely helped him.”


The first game of McCarthy’s final hockey season came, fittingly enough, at Yost Ice Arena on the University of Michigan campus.

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He was playing for the 14-and-under Chicago Young Americans, a Tier I team, during his freshman year at Nazareth Academy high school. McCarthy had always been talented enough to play at the highest level of youth hockey, but football overlapped with hockey too much, especially on the weekends.

CYA coach Ted Eagle didn’t mind the conflict because of who McCarthy was.

McCarthy had good hands and a quick release. He played hard, generated turnovers and scored. “He was a beast in hockey,” Eagle said. “He threw the body around and he wasn’t kind of this less skilled, bigger guy. He was just fast and physical.”

And he was a spark — a tone-setter. In hockey, you need that.

“I relied on him, too,” Eagle said. “It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the team when one or two guys are kind of pushing the pace.”

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J.J. McCarthy’s draft ceiling: What film shows about Michigan QB’s NFL potential

McCarthy missed the first game of the tournament at Michigan because of a Nazareth football game then showed up in the first period of their second game against the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite junior team. Eagle considers it one of his favorite hockey memories. “He raced up, and he showed up mid-game and scored a couple of goals against one of the top teams in the country,” Eagle said.

There were three hockey practices every week, mostly after football practice, which resulted in some very late nights for a high school freshman. And there were the out-of-town games missed because of football games on Friday nights or Saturday mornings. CYA would play nearly 70 games that season, many that required travel, and McCarthy made more than 40 of them, according to Eagle.

The back-and-forth between football and hockey required discipline, but McCarthy was different. Eagle described him as a “front-of-the-line guy” in practice. He paid attention to the smallest details, asked plenty of questions, talked through different scenarios. Eagle said McCarthy craved the information to get better. Teammates were drawn to him.

“I’m sure a lot of people are aware of this by now,” Eagle said, “but he was just like an ultimate leader.”

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McCarthy hung up his skates after his freshman year of high school to focus on football. During his sophomore season the next year — and just days before Illinois’ Class 7A state championship game in 2018 — McCarthy’s throwing hand collided with a defensive lineman’s helmet as he released a pass.

“As a quarterback, it’s the kiss of death,” said Brody Budmayr, Nazareth’s former quarterbacks coach.

Everything stopped. McCarthy was in pain — serious, excruciating pain. After a few nervous moments, the sophomore starter with Division-I interest wanted to test his hand. He dropped back to pass, and then …

“It’s just the pain and anguish of you know it’s broke,” Budmayr said. “It’s him actually dropping to his knees and us thinking, ‘Wow, this is not good.’”

But there was no way he was missing Nazareth’s state championship game against St. Charles North. His parents found an orthopedic surgeon to work on Thanksgiving, and playing became a matter of pain tolerance.

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That wasn’t a problem. McCarthy was a hockey player.

In the state championship game, McCarthy was 15-for-21 passing for 201 yards and a touchdown as Nazareth dominated 31-10. A legend was born.

“Ultimately, he was the one that had to go out there,” Budmayr said. “He taped it up and he led us to a state championship.”


McCarthy’s hockey coaches are convinced his experience on the ice informed his play on the gridiron. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

On May 11, 2019, McCarthy announced he was committing to Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh. During the recruiting process, Nazareth head coach Tim Racki told the story about McCarthy and his broken thumb.

“When I told him he was a hockey player, (Harbaugh’s) eyes lit up,” Racki said. “And then when I told him that story, that sealed the deal in terms of the kid’s toughness and the grit that he had.”

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When McCarthy announced his college decision on social media, he thanked three hockey coaches — Lawrence, Dolan and Eagle — for allowing him to play both sports together.

“I would not be where I am without having had hockey in my life,” he wrote.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: courtesy of Ted Eagle, Scott Taetsch / Getty Images

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Anonymous NBA player poll 2024: LeBron or Jordan for GOAT? Most overrated? Finals favorite?

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Anonymous NBA player poll 2024: LeBron or Jordan for GOAT? Most overrated? Finals favorite?

Sample size matters, people.

So when The Athletic launched its first NBA player poll in 2019, with 127 players answering questions about league matters so honestly because of the anonymity they were granted, the bar was set very high. We hit triple digits again last year (108 players), when the popular poll returned in full force after a COVID-19-induced hiatus because of limited locker room access for reporters during that time.

This time around, with familiar topics like MVP, “most overrated,” “player you’d least like to fight” and the referees to discuss, as well as new debates over the 65-game rule and the commissioner’s letter grade, our NBA staff interviewed a whopping 142 players from March 5 through April 11. That’s nearly a third of the entire league, with unfiltered views of stars and role players alike. And yes, all 30 teams had a voice.

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As is always the case, not every player answered every question. But the unprecedented participation means there are more opinions and insights than ever. There’s a bonus question, too, with players telling us which non-NBA player is their current favorite athlete (yes, as you might have imagined, Caitlin Clark received a few votes).

Away we go…

(Editor’s Note: In some cases, the combined percentages of all the answers to a question may not add up to 100 percent, because individual percentages have been rounded up or down to the nearest tenth of a percentage point.)


Here’s a not-so-bold prediction when it comes to the actual MVP race: Nikola Jokić is going to win it by a far more significant margin than the one you see above. This has been the trend with our polls, with players typically seeing it very differently from the 100 media members who vote on the award every year.

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So while Jokić is considered the heavy front-runner, it should come as no surprise that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came so close to taking the top honor here. And bear in mind, these votes were taken before Oklahoma City secured the top seed in the Western Conference on the last day of the regular season.

Luka Dončić was simply incredible down the season’s home stretch, but — like SGA — didn’t see his full body of work reflected in the polling because of the timing factor in the process.

Jokić voters

• “He’s Jokić. He affects the game in many ways that people just can’t understand — both offensively and defensively, honestly. His defense has gotten a lot better.”

• “He’s unstoppable.”

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• “To be this effective the year after winning a championship, when it’s supposed to be harder, is impressive.”

• “Nikola Jokić is MVP. Consistent, still winning, still affecting the team in a number of ways. And it’s noticeable when he’s off the floor.”

• “He’s changed the game. His defense is underrated. He just knows the game so much.”

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SGA voters

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• “No one expected the Thunder to be what they are this season, and he’s the head of that snake. And he’s consistent every single game — same numbers, and they’re incredible numbers. And he plays on both ends of the floor.”

• “I think he’s the most consistent No. 1 option on his team without a consistent helper. Like, there isn’t really a clear second superstar even though Jalen Williams is coming on as well. I think what he’s doing every game is the most impressive, and it translates into wins.”

• “Obviously, he’s scoring the ball. But the way he shares it and has his team involved is very unselfish. And I think he’s up there in steals as well (tied with Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox for the league lead at two per game). And he’s been doing it all season long. …He’s just been really consistent in the style of play that he has. He’s just been dominating the game, and it’s not just points. It’s rebounds, assists, and he’s done a great job of leading that team over there.”

• “Underdog. Just with what OKC is doing, nobody would be mad if they were a 10 seed with their roster. If they were a 10 seed, nobody would be like, ‘Oh, they’re having a bad year.’ They’d be like, ‘They’re still rebuilding.’ … With what he’s doing, I think that’s my MVP.”


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Victor Wembanyama said last month that his friend and fellow Frenchman Rudy Gobert would be a worthy winner of the 2023-24 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. But Wembanyama also added that, in future seasons, he, and not Gobert, would be the front-runner.

Their NBA peers, however, feel Wembanyama’s time has already arrived. Players voted the towering Spurs rookie as the league’s best defender right now.

Wembanyama led the league in blocks, averaging 3.58 per game. His next closest competitor, Utah’s Walker Kessler, recorded 2.41 blocks per game.

“He just makes it so hard to finish at the rim,” one opponent said of Wembanyama.

Another player said: “He’s changing the game. Players — you can’t say ‘scared’ — but he’s changing their shots. He deserves it.”

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The Grizzlies certainly looked terrified in this three-on-one Wemby highlight that went viral earlier this month.

Gobert, who would join Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace as the only four-time winners of the DPOY award if he wins it this season, finished fifth in our vote (6 percent). As you’ll see later on in this poll, this isn’t the last time Gobert is questioned by his peers.

Jrue Holiday, the top vote-getter by a wide margin in last year’s poll, placed second in the voting this year at 12.9 percent, barely trailing Wembanyama.

Wembanyama voter

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“He really, like, affects everything in the paint. He has dudes not even trying to go to the rim. He damn near leads the league in blocks right now, and this is his first year. He’s doing it in limited time too.”

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Holiday voter

“I think guard defenders are more impressive because they’re on the ball all the time. As a big man, you make up mistakes by helping off your man. So it’s easier. Protecting the paint is somewhat easier than staying in front of the ball.”

Lu Dort voter

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“(He) guards multiple positions, (is a) physical defender, guards without fouling — even when at the beginning of the season when the referees were calling fouls. Now, it helps him even more, because they’re not calling fouls.”


Wembanyama entered last year’s draft with enormous hype. The answers to this question once again demonstrate that, in the players’ eyes, the adulation was deserved.

“Some of the stuff he does offensively, the way he moves, it just looks so fluid,” one player said. “Just seeing him from afar, he’s playing the right way. He has the right principles. He’s focused on the right things. I like him.”

Wembanyama’s age factored into some of the players’ votes, as he turned 20 in January. Naturally, any team executive looking to build a title-contending team wants as long of a runway as possible.

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“You can have him for 20 years,” one of the players said.

Another player who chose Wemby explained his vote like this: “The upside and at 20 years old, you can see that if he stays healthy and continues to get better, he can be a truly great player. I don’t want to put a ceiling on him.”

Jokić, on the other hand, is 29. So, it says something about how much his peers respect his game that so many of them still would make him their first signee even though he’s nearly one decade older than Wembanyama. Jokić is seven years older than Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards and four years older than Dončić.

Do you think Jokić faring so well is impressive? How about the fact that LeBron James is still getting votes in this young man’s category at the ripe old age of 39 (he’ll be 40 on Dec. 30). Ditto for Steph Curry, who turned 36 on March 14. The same can’t be said for 29-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won this category by a landslide in both 2019 (36.4 percent to Anthony Davis’ 10.4 percent) and 2023 (52.4 percent to Jokić’s 8.7 percent) but registered a measly 2.2 percent this time around.


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There’s just something about Gobert’s game that his peers don’t like. Maybe the skepticism stems from a lack of playoff success, as none of Gobert’s teams have advanced to the conference finals. Or maybe it all traces back to the bubble in 2020 when the Clippers’ Terance Mann buried all those 3s over Gobert in the West semifinals and sparked serious scrutiny about the perceived limitations of the big man’s game.

Gobert has the elite résumé, though, with the three DPOY awards, three All-Star appearances, an All-NBA Second Team selection and three All-NBA Third Team nods. He has the receipts from this season, as he was the indisputable anchor of a Minnesota defense that was the best in the league while Gobert finished second in rebounds (12.9) and sixth in blocks (2.1) on a team that came just two wins shy of earning the No. 1 seed in the West (it finished third). And as our resident Timberwolves expert Jon Krawczynski wrote in January, the truth about those Jazz teams was that their lack of perimeter defense was the real problem that was exposed in those playoffs. These Timberwolves don’t have that deficiency.

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Still, Gobert joins Draymond Green (2019) and Trae Young (2023) as the latest winner of this undesirable award.


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Seven seasons in, Derrick White’s top claim to NBA fame is finishing 16th in the media’s 2018-19 Most Improved Player voting and being named to the 2022-23 NBA All-Defensive Second Team. Jalen Williams, in his second season, placed second in last season’s Rookie of the Year voting but was also routinely mistaken on opposing telecasts for the Thunder’s “other” Jaylin Williams. Both Jalen Williams and White were lightly recruited coming out of high school.

So yes, in other words, they’re very familiar with the experience of being underrated. And while both are receiving more acclaim, they’re not the ones commanding the brightest spotlight on their respective teams.

White plays in the shadows of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porziņģis and Holiday. Williams, meanwhile, is on a dynamic young Thunder team where Gilgeous-Alexander commands most of the spotlight alongside big man Chet Holmgren.

One of the players who voted for White said, “I say that every single day: He’s one of the most underrated players in the league. They talk about him more (now), but they still don’t talk about him enough.”

Said another: “(White) defends really well (and) does a little bit of everything on offense.”

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It’s notable, too, that Gilgeous-Alexander finished fourth in the players’ most-underrated voting even though he’s a virtual lock to be an All-NBA First Team selection by the media for the second season in a row.

“I don’t know if you can even say it anymore because he’s starting to get his due, but from a players’ perspective, it doesn’t feel like it’s covered enough,” an SGA voter said. “But what Shai has done this year, just how his progression has gone … I don’t know if you can call him underrated, but it almost feels like how for all those years they were talking about Damian Lillard (during his Portland years), how he was kind of flying under the radar (because of Steph Curry). But if you asked players, (they would’ve said) he’s one of the best guards in the league, in the top two. So I’m starting to see some of that with how we’re talking about Shai.”


The legend of James Johnson grows yet again.

Not only is the 6-foot-7, 240-pound, 37-year-old tough guy now a three-time winner of this award, but he continues to inspire fear in his opponents despite playing in just nine games this season. The Pacers forward has been mostly out of sight, but he’s not out of mind.

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As many players discussed, it’s Johnson’s formal training as an actual fighter that most concerns them. He previously said that he holds a 20-0 record as a kickboxer, is 7-0 in mixed martial arts fights and has a black belt in karate. His nickname is “Bloodsport.” Need we say more?

In a January podcast interview with former NBA player Ryan Hollins, Johnson shared his opinion that, with a year of training in ground defense, he could beat UFC heavyweight legend Jon Jones in a fight.

Here’s the best part of Johnson’s latest season, though: Johnson re-signed with Indiana just two days after the game ball kerfuffle between the Pacers and Bucks on Dec. 13. Johnson had been available all season long, but the Pacers just so happened to come calling for him to return after that wild night in which Antetokounmpo gave them all the Big Brother treatment.

Johnson has been on board ever since, with a brief interruption for paperwork purposes. Indiana had to waive him to complete the Pascal Siakam trade with Toronto on Jan. 17 but signed him to a 10-day contract two days later before signing him for the rest of the season.

“He can actually fight,” one player said. “He’s different. He’s crazy. He’s one of those where you won’t win, but if you do win, you’ll have to kill him.”

Another player said: “Is he still in the league? He’s a triple black belt. I’m not f—ing with James. There’s other guys (where) I might actually lose the fight, but I’m not f—ng with James. He might kick me in my head.”

One of Johnson’s former teammates said: “J.J. is actually the coolest dude ever. He’s super cool. I just know his reputation. I know if you mess with him, it can get like that. But he’s one of my favorite teammates that I’ve had.”

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Speaking of consistency in this category, Steven Adams (6-11, 250) takes second place behind Johnson for the third consecutive time. The Houston Rockets big man hasn’t played since Jan. 22, 2023, when he suffered a posterior cruciate ligament sprain in his right knee that would later require surgery. But like Johnson, the intimidation factor remains.

“(Adams) knows all the MMA stuff, and he can get you in a chokehold real quick,” one Adams voter said. “He’ll be nice with it, but he’ll choke you out and be like, ‘It’s OK, buddy.’”

And how’s this for a terrifying thought for Rockets opponents during an on-court melee? A healthy Adams and his 7-4, 290-pound teammate, Boban Marjanović, in the same scuffle. The Serbian big man, who played a villain in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” and starred in the below fight scene with Keanu Reeves, garnered votes as well.

“John Wick 3,” one Marjanović voter said in explaining his choice. “It’s not like he can fight, but he’s huge.”

You may have noticed Wembanyama received a vote for the player guys would least like to fight. Picking Wembanyama seemed like an iffy choice considering how thin he is. But, sure enough, Wemby garnered the player’s vote. The reasoning? He would have a massive reach advantage.

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Do you think MJ’s getting nervous? King James almost took his (player poll) GOAT crown this time around, and he’ll do just that next year if this voting trend continues.

In this endless debate, His Airness has experienced serious slippage for the third consecutive poll. Jordan had a huge edge in 2019 (73 percent to LeBron’s 11.9 percent) and was still nearly doubling him in 2023 (58.3 percent to 33 percent). Now the gap is only 3.8 percent.

It makes some sense, though, as James is doing things at this late stage of his career that players this age have never done. And these many feats, it’s quite clear, are changing the way some players see this debate. Consider the highlights of his past 14 months…

  • Broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record on Feb. 7, 2023
  • Led the Lakers to the West finals three months later
  • Led the Lakers to an (inaugural) In-Season Tournament title in December
  • Became the first player to be named to a 20th All-Star team in February
  • Was one of three players to average at least 25 points, eight assists and seven rebounds this season (the others were Jokić and Dončić)
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As one of us wrote when James became the first player to cross the 40,000-point barrier in early March, the constant comparisons do a disservice to both. Their respective journeys have become too different for the discussion to maintain any merit. But James’ ability to remain elite for this long, and to put together this incredible body of NBA work that started during George W. Bush’s first term as U.S. president in 2003, is forever changing the way his career will be remembered.

As a final note here, someone did, in fact, vote for Paul Pierce as the GOAT. (Insert shrug emoji here…)


The folks who run Madison Square Garden call it “The World’s Most Famous Arena” and the “Mecca.” But what sounds like brash marketing hype also matches the opinions of NBA players.

One player responded: “MSG. It’s the Mecca. It’s classic.”

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Another who chose the Garden answered: “At MSG and Crypto, there are bright lights and celebrities.”

The Celtics’ arena historically has gotten a lot of praise for its fans, and nothing’s changed this season. One player said: “Crazy atmosphere. Some big sports fans. It’s so loud in there.” Another said he likes facing the Celtics in Boston because he enjoys playing in a “hostile environment.”


The architects who designed Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, Charlotte’s Spectrum Center and Memphis’ FedExForum shouldn’t feel bad. Those arenas top this list because the home teams in those venues struggled to draw fans this season relative to other clubs.

Little Caesars Arena, which the Pistons share with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, “won” this dubious honor even though its average announced crowd was said to be a respectable 18,159 fans per game.

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“No fans, no atmosphere at the moment,” one player said.

Another added: “It’s very open. It’s got to be packed out for it to stand out, and that’s just not what it is.”

The Hornets ranked next to last in home attendance this season, prompting one of the players who voted for Spectrum Center to say, “It’s quiet. Good arena. But it’s quiet.”

One of the NBA’s off-court dramas this season swirled in Washington, where Wizards principal owner Ted Leonsis attempted to move the team and the NHL’s Washington Capitals to Alexandria, Va. Leonsis later scuttled those plans after they failed to move forward in Virginia’s legislature, and Leonsis subsequently reached a deal to remain at Capital One Arena and receive $515 million in funding from the local government to upgrade the arena.

Opposing players don’t like the arena much. One of them said: “Just the way it’s built, it’s a very cold arena. It feels like there’s no soul to it. It feels very empty when you’re there — not by how many people are there. There’s no warmth. I don’t really know how to explain it. … As a player, you like to feel enveloped by the crowd. It doesn’t feel like that.”

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You may be wondering why Denver’s Ball Arena, where fans have been rocking for years now, ranks seventh in the voting. The answer: the altitude, which is something the Nuggets and NHL’s Colorado Avalanche lean into as a psychological play. When visiting teams’ buses arrive in the arena’s loading dock, players see a sign that says: “Ball Arena WELCOMES YOU TO THE MILE HIGH CITY, ELEVATION 5,280 FEET.”

“Oh my God, that team needs to be moved,” one player said. “The altitude is crazy. I don’t like it at all. Every time I play there, I’m dog-tired.”


This is a case where players’ opinions appear to have changed in one year. Gregg Popovich won this vote last year, followed by runner-up Steve Kerr.

Erik Spoelstra placed third last year, receiving 9.5 percent of the vote, but has since vaulted to the top. He has come a long way in this poll since getting just 1 percent of the vote (12th place) in 2019. Considering that his Heat reached the NBA Finals by way of the Play-In last season, it’s safe to assume that earned him even more respect.

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“Just the Heat culture — they’re always competing,” one Spoelstra voter said. “They’re always trying to find a way (to win). I feel like they’re always taking guys that fit their system, and that makes them play very good.”

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Popovich remains highly regarded.

“Pop,” one player answered. “Easy. I love those types of coaches, like Pop and Spo. I would rather you ‘mother—’ me than smile in my face.”

The Knicks’ Josh Hart, who voted for Spoelstra, insisted that he be quoted on the record for this one.

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“Spo, hands down,” said Hart, who worked with Spoelstra at the FIBA World Cup tournament last summer when the Heat head coach was a Team USA assistant. “Quote me on that one. F–ing love Spo.”


Few coaches get more out of their teams than Tom Thibodeau does. But no coach gets more grief for it than Thibodeau, either.

Thibodeau’s Knicks finished 50-32 and earned the East’s second seed, but New York’s success this season and his two NBA Coach of the Year awards didn’t seem to matter much to players. He’s been named the coach players least would like to play for in all three polls, with this margin (37.7 percent ahead of Doc Rivers) the largest yet (he was 13.5 percent ahead of Chicago’s Jim Boylen in 2019 and 29.1 percent ahead of Houston’s Stephen Silas last year).

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“I’m too old for those practices,” one player said.

“He’s playing everyone 48 minutes,” another said.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. According to the NBA’s figures, four Knicks players ranked in the top 50 in minutes per game this season: Julius Randle (15th at 35.4 per game), Jalen Brunson (16th at 35.4 per game), Anunoby (35th at 34.0 per game) and Hart (50th at 33.4 per game).


It’s said that the NBA has improved parity in recent years, and that’s true.

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But players still think the NBA title race will come down to two teams: the defending champion Nuggets and the team with the league’s best regular-season record, the Celtics.

“Whoever comes out of the East is going to lose to the Western Conference teams,” one player said. “I just think when you look at the landscape out West, the best teams — Denver is my pick. OKC’s too young and they’re not big enough. … The one team that could give (Denver) problems would be the Clippers if they play at their best and they’re healthy, just based on matchups. But continuity in this league is everything, and Denver has it. So that’s my pick.”

Another player who voted for the Nuggets said: “It’s like a factory, plug and play. They play the right way, no matter who’s out there. Shoutout to Jokić.”

Still, Boston was a buzz saw during the regular season, compiling a league-best 64-18 record while finishing first in offensive rating and second in defensive rating.

“When you’ve got Jrue Holiday on the team with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are shot makers, he’s a great defender obviously,” one player said. “And with Kristaps Porziņģis, they have got danger everywhere and defensively as well. Also, their fans make it hard to beat them, for sure.”

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All things considered, this report card could have been much worse for the refs. In essence, you had 21.9 percent of the players polled indicating that the officiating job was below average this season and 78.1 percent giving a grade of average or better. Given all the high-profile frustration with the officiating on display this season, as well as the midseason change in “points of emphasis” that empowered defenders again and suppressed scoring, no one should be surprised that they didn’t get straight As.

Voters who gave an F

“Sh–, they don’t know if they want us to play or not play.”

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“But they good people…”

Voter who gave a D

“It’s a different sense of entitlement that they feel, and they get a little bit more sensitive than they had previously. Some of the missed calls, it’s just like, that’s not OK. And some of them are blatant. It’s not an easy job by any means. (But) I’ve seen better years.”

Voter who gave a C

“The issue is there’s just too much volatility. But also, the inconsistency. I would say there’s eight elite officials, great officials, and then you have the rest of the 50 that are just, you could carry them in. It makes it hard on those guys. There’s eight elite officials who are great at communicating and at officiating, and then there’s four (who can do) one of each, where they can either officiate or they can communicate. And the rest of them are just … bad.”

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Voter who gave a B

“I don’t think people realize how hard that job is. All things considered, they’ve done a good job. That’s not a job I would ever want to have. There’s still definitely room for growth, but within the job and what’s asked of them and where the game’s moving, I think they’ve done a great job.”

Voter who gave an A

“They make the calls that the league wants them to make, right? … And now, we’re just adjusting again, because there’s more holding and grabbing now. So they’re allowing stuff now. I guess they just do whatever they’re told.”


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What’s more telling? That 46.2 percent of the players gave the commissioner an A or that none of the 130 players who responded gave him a D or an F?

“Some of the things he does, we’re not going to like, but that’s just us as players,” said one of the players who gave Adam Silver an A. “We like to complain about s—. But I think what he’s doing is great for the league. The In-Season Tournament. The Play-In. All this is to build the luster of the league and to build the TV ratings to make sure they’re in a certain place so when it comes time to do this new TV deal, we can do it.”

Another said: “I’d give him an A. The money’s good. The fans are enjoying the games. We’ve got a new In-Season Tournament that everybody looks forward to now, especially because there’s money on the line. I really wanted to win that In-Season Tournament. I had some plans for that money, for real.”

It’s not all perfect, of course.

“Everything is good except the All-Star Game, and that weekend wasn’t great,” said one player who still gave Silver an A. “Other than that, I feel like it’s been entertaining. I feel like the league’s been real competitive.”

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One player who gave Silver a B said: “There’s a big disparity with the referees still. Referees aren’t consistent with their integrity, the way they approach you, and the NBA has a huge problem on its hands. That’s the biggest thing in the NBA right now: the referees. Some people get calls and some people don’t get calls. It may be the same (play), but if it’s Trae Young or somebody else, it looks different.”

In terms of criticism for Silver, several players indicated officiating is one of the few areas in which they believe he has fallen short.

“The only reason (I’m giving Silver) a B and not an A is that I’m not sure that players have the liberty to speak out (against referees) the way it should be,” one player said. “I do, to a certain extent, understand why that is, because you’ve got to create a culture of togetherness and can’t just randomly criticize referees and all that stuff. But some of this stuff, especially with referees, they have an ego and they know that so they act a certain way toward you because they know you’ll lose money if you criticize them. … Adam’s doing a great job of maximizing our money in a great way.”


The new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players, enacted last summer, includes a provision that says players must appear in at least 65 games to be eligible for most end-of-the-season honors, including MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, the All-NBA teams and All-Defensive teams.

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From league officials’ perspective, the new rule is designed to get the league’s best players on the court more often. In addition to benefiting the fans who purchase tickets to games, the theory goes that having such a rule will make the league even more attractive to suitors for the upcoming media rights deal.

The rule has come under fire from some players, even though they voted to accept the new CBA. Keep in mind that the rule is one small part of a large, dense document that came as the result of thorough negotiations between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association that represents them. Neither side got everything it wanted.

But still, we wondered how players feel about the rule now. In the wake of the sensitive Embiid situation earlier this season, when the reigning MVP was roundly ridiculed for missing a nationally televised Jan. 27 game at Denver because of a left knee injury only to get hurt three days later when Jonathan Kuminga fell on the knee in a game at Golden State, the discussion about whether the rule was putting players in harm’s way was front and center for the second half of the season.

Exactly half of the players who answered the question said they’re against the rule.

“Obviously, I get why they do it in terms of wanting guys to play,” said one player who is against the rule. “But I also think guys will force themselves to play through things sometimes — obviously, the Embiid thing that happened, whether he was right or not to play. I just think it gets risky for guys. If you’re talking about MVP, I think for everyone in the league it’s clear who the MVP is, whether they play 65 or 82 games. From a player’s point of view, I think guys know who the MVP is. It’s always going to be whatever the top two or three or whoever those guys are. So, I just think it’s forcing guys to play sometimes when there (are) legitimate reasons (not to play).”

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Some of the players against the 65-game rule said they’re in favor of having a rule but would prefer the threshold be set at a lower number of games.

One player said: “I think that’s a lot of games, honestly, when you think about how the game is played. Back in the day, guys would play 80-some games. They would walk the ball up and post up. But we’re non-stop, and there’s a lot of wear and tear So, guys like Embiid, guys that are superstars in this league, there’s a situation where they might have to fight through games to get to a threshold to get an award. It’s kind of tough, kind of bulls— sometimes. But what if one of those guys, they’re at 60 games, they’ve got a bad knee injury and, in one of those five games, tears his meniscus because he’s trying to get an award? I don’t like that.”

Nearly 45 percent of the players who responded said they were in favor of the rule.

“Sixty-five games, that gives you a 17-game cushion to miss if you need rest or things like that,” one of the rule’s supporters said. “I’m all for it. You’ve got to be out there on the floor if you can.”


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Let’s face it, folks: During the 2023-24 college basketball season, no player was more compelling than Clark. And when we were enjoying March Madness, the women’s NCAA Tournament seemed to have more engaging storylines and colorful characters than the men’s.

This got us wondering: Is women’s basketball having a moment within the NBA too?

The answer appears to be a resounding “yes!”

In our survey, Clark not only ranked as the second-favorite current non-NBA athlete, but women’s basketball players — Sabrina Ionescu, Kelsey Plum, Angel Reese, JuJu Watkins, A’ja Wilson and Clark — were named on 12.2 percent of all NBA players’ ballots. Only NFL players were named on more ballots (39.1 percent of them) than women’s basketball players.

“She’s unreal,” one NBA player said about Clark, who went first overall last week to the Indiana Fever in the 2024 WNBA Draft. “I’m excited to see how her journey pans out and what she does for the women’s game.”

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Now that Clark has finished her college career, who, if anyone, will become the most popular NCAA women’s player? Maybe Watkins, the dynamic 6-foot-2 guard who just finished her first season at USC.

One NBA player said: “Her game is so pretty to watch. She’s so fluid, smooth. … I hadn’t watched a full game (of hers) until tournament time. I’d seen little clips and highlights and stuff. But watching her against UConn the other night, she definitely made a big fan out of me.”

Soccer players — none of them American — were named on the third-highest number of ballots, coming in at 11.3 percent.

Given that the NFL dominates the North American sports landscape, it should come as no surprise that it dominated our poll. Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback who won his second NFL MVP last season, has a bunch of fans in the NBA.

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“He’s one of the best QBs ever since he came into the league,” one player said. “His running ability is crazy.”

But it was one other NFL quarterback — a quarterback far less talented than Jackson — who drew one of the funniest responses in our entire poll: Cousins, the former Commanders and Vikings quarterback who recently signed a four-year, $180 million contract to join the Atlanta Falcons, with $100 million of that total guaranteed.

When an NBA player named Cousins as his favorite current non-NBA athlete, the response elicited a dumbfounded “Why?” from one writer from The Athletic.

The NBA player said: “Kirk Cousins because he gets paid and doesn’t have to win or don’t have to do anything and made $400 million off of one playoff win. Legend.”

(Illustration by John Bradford / The Athletic; top photos of Rudy Gobert, Victor Wembanyama and Adam Silver: Kenny Giarla, Ronald Cortes, Justin Tafoya / Getty Images)

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