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Chris Jones, Davante Adams, T.J. Watt and one non-quarterback MVP for every NFL team

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Chris Jones, Davante Adams, T.J. Watt and one non-quarterback MVP for every NFL team

Entire offseasons are dedicated to dissecting, praising and dismissing NFL quarterbacks.

It’s understandable. Only four times in the last 25 years has a quarterback not won league MVP. There have been 33 Super Bowl MVPs at quarterback, with the next closest position group being the wide receivers at eight. Not to mention the market for quarterbacks approaching astronomical levels of wealth.

But while quarterbacks get all the attention, a team’s season is made on much more than what happens behind center. Which non-quarterbacks are the MVPs for their respective NFL team in 2024? The Athletic’s beat writers compiled their picks and explain how those players could make a significant difference this season.


Marvin Harrison Jr., wide receiver

Running back James Conner is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season and is among the more underrated backs in the league. Defensively, safety Budda Baker is a difference-maker and a great example of how the game should be played. But if the Cardinals are to make a jump — as many expect they will — it will be because of Harrison, their talented first-round selection. Is it fair to pick a rookie as non-QB MVP? Probably not. But during summer workouts, almost everyone agreed Harrison is not your typical NFL rookie. Expectations are high. All he has to do is deliver. — Doug Haller

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Drake London, wide receiver

In London’s two years in the NFL, the Falcons quarterbacks (a rotating combination of Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke) ranked 28th in the league in completion percentage (61.8), 27th in passing touchdowns (34), 22nd in passer rating (83.7) and 21st in EPA per dropback. London has led Atlanta in receiving each year since being drafted eighth overall in 2022, but he hasn’t topped 1,000 yards in a season yet, maxing out at 905 yards. He only has six career touchdown catches, too. London is hopeful the addition of Kirk Cousins can help him change all that. “Let’s just say I have a bad taste in my mouth,” London said. “I have to go out there and ball, that’s it. I know what I can do.” — Josh Kendall

Derrick Henry, running back

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Lamar Jackson has never had a dynamic force in the backfield like Henry, the 30-year-old who comes to Baltimore with a penchant for inflicting punishment on defenders and breaking long runs. Assuming Henry has a seamless transition into the Ravens offense, he should open up space for Jackson and create favorable matchups for the team’s wide receivers and tight ends. Like Roquan Smith on the defensive side, Henry is a force multiplier. If he becomes the piece that helps the Ravens get past Kansas City and to the Super Bowl, he’ll go down as one of the better free-agent signings in team history. — Jeff Zrebiec

Terrel Bernard, linebacker

Oh, who on the 2023 roster could possibly replace Tremaine Edmunds? Still just 19 years old when the Bills drafted him 16th overall in 2018, Edmunds wore the green dot that opening day, started all 82 games he played and eventually became a captain before joining the Chicago Bears as a free agent. Then came Bernard, who didn’t just fill the void but overflowed it with splash plays. After starting once as a rookie, his sophomore campaign led the Bills with 143 tackles, along with three interceptions, three fumble recoveries, 6 1/2 sacks and 10 tackles for losses. But his value was most realized in his absence. An ankle injury kept him from dressing for the narrow playoff loss to Kansas City in the playoffs. Had Bernard been on the field instead of A.J. Klein, Buffalo probably wins. — Tim Graham

Derrick Brown, defensive end

The first-round pick from 2020 piled up a record 103 tackles in 2023, the most by a defensive lineman since 1994 when the stat was first tracked. The breakout season led to a Pro Bowl berth and a lucrative extension for the former Auburn star. However, for Brown to be considered one of the league’s truly elite defenders, some believe he has to become more of a pass-rushing force (after eight sacks in his first four seasons). “You can look at the sacks. You can look at the pressures. I don’t really care,” Brown said in December. “If you don’t see I’m a game-wrecker, then I don’t know what to tell you.” — Joseph Person

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Montez Sweat, defensive end

This would be a best-case scenario. Sweat is the highest-paid player on the team and tasked with sparking its biggest weakness from last season — rushing the passer. Even though he joined midseason, Sweat still led the Bears with six sacks. He would benefit from more help along the line, but he’s now familiar with the system, and Matt Eberflus knows how to best employ him. That should be a concern for opposing QBs. What the Bears need to do a better job of is finishing opponents after three disastrous blown leads in 2023. Sweat can be that closer. — Kevin Fishbain

Ja’Marr Chase, wide receiver

The re-calibration of Joe Burrow’s weapons didn’t just add versatility to the new pieces offensive coordinator Dan Pitcher can play with; they also augment the one he’s played with the longest. The position-less nature of the rest of the receiver and tight end group allows the Bengals to move Chase around more and dial up more explosive plays from different alignments. While his overall usage might not go up, the aggressiveness of his targets should and sets up for the three-time Pro Bowler and 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year to enjoy his best season yet. — Paul Dehner Jr.

Myles Garrett, defensive end

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This is an obvious one, regarding Garrett’s talent level and what the Browns need from him. It’s been hard to put real expectations on the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year because Garrett makes the difficult look easy — and because anything short of 15 sacks and multiple games wrecked would qualify as a disappointment. 2023 was probably Garrett’s best season because it was his most complete, and sometimes he dominated when it didn’t show up in the box score. The Browns need more of that, and Garrett seems capable of delivering. — Zac Jackson

Micah Parsons, linebacker

Some might suggest CeeDee Lamb, but this one is really not up for debate. Since Parsons put on a Cowboys helmet, only the Kansas City Chiefs have had more regular-season success. Dallas has won 12 games each of those three seasons. Parsons is arguably the NFL’s best defender. But like many others on the team, he hasn’t played his best when it has mattered most in January. If Parsons can stay healthy and be at his best late in the season, he has the talent to be the difference-maker in Dallas finally making a deep playoff run. Most believe the Cowboys go as Dak Prescott goes, but a case could be made for Parsons actually being the driving force. — Jon Machota

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Pat Surtain II, cornerback

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There is no questioning Surtain’s talent. In just three NFL seasons, he’s been named to two Pro Bowls, was a unanimous first-team All-Pro selection in 2022, and was named an all-rookie performer the season prior. The real question for the Broncos is whether they can create the kind of pressure on quarterbacks that forces teams to test Surtain more often. Surtain has been everything the Broncos have asked and more since taking him with the No. 9 overall selection in 2021, and he has a chance to become the league’s highest-paid corner sometime within the next year. — Nick Kosmider

Frank Ragnow, center

You could throw a dart at this Lions roster and your odds of it landing on a quality non-QB MVP would be high. Some obvious answers include Amon-Ra St. Brown, Aidan Hutchinson, Alim McNeill, Alex Anzalone, Brian Branch, Sam LaPorta, Penei Sewell, Detroit’s running backs — all worthy candidates. But I’m going with Ragnow. He’s arguably the best center in the league and Detroit’s offense simply isn’t the same without him. He’s highly knowledgeable, helps Jared Goff navigate defenses at the line of scrimmage, keeps him upright and creates interior lanes for David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs. That’s value across the board. — Colton Pouncy

Jaire Alexander, cornerback

Alexander has made two All-Pro second teams and is still only 27 entering his seventh year in the league. After a rocky 2023 campaign that saw him miss nine games to injury and one to suspension after a string of incidents both in the private and public eye, he appears locked in with a new staff around him. If defensive back specialist and new coordinator Jeff Hafley can get Alexander to stay on the right track, there’s no reason why he can’t make another All-Pro team while leading Green Bay’s defense. — Matt Schneidman

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Will Anderson, defensive end

The Texans have several candidates worthy of consideration: Left tackle Laremy Tunsil’s production is vital for C.J. Stroud’s success. Stefon Diggs could help elevate the offense, and another new face — running back Joe Mixon — also could prove extremely valuable and ease pressure on the quarterback. But Anderson has a slight edge heading into his second year. As a rookie, Anderson proved highly disruptive, racking up 22 quarterback hits and seven sacks. Look for that sack total to spike in 2024 as he becomes an even greater tone-setter for Houston’s defense. — Mike Jones

Jonathan Taylor, running back

Last summer, Taylor’s public contract dispute bled into the season until he finally landed a three-year, $42 million extension that officially kicks in this season. Taylor has missed 13 games combined due to injury over the previous two years, but in his last healthy season in 2021, he took home the league rushing title. If the 25-year-old can get back to playing at an All-Pro level, it would make life much easier on second-year QB Anthony Richardson and significantly increase the Colts’ chance of ending their three-year playoff drought. — James Boyd

Josh Allen, defensive end

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Allen became an elite playmaking pass rusher last season with a career-best 17 1/2 sacks, and he’ll need to pace their defense again for the team to take another step forward. If Trevor Lawrence and the offense don’t have to win a track meet every week, it’ll take a lot more pressure off that side of the ball, which would be massive after a mistake-prone 2023 season. Allen can’t do it all by himself — that much was proven last year — but this defense needs him to be its MVP if it will have a chance to be a top-10 unit. — Jeff Howe

Chris Jones, defensive tackle

Even with a roster featuring quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce, Jones is a core reason why the Chiefs are in the midst of a dynasty. At 29, Jones is in the prime of his career and one of the league’s best pass rushers, who can pressure the opposing quarterback from the interior or the edge. In the past two seasons, Jones was double-teamed on 70 percent of his pass rushes as an interior defender, the highest rate in the league, according to Next Gen Stats. He still ranked second in the league in pass rush win rate, trailing only Aaron Donald. This offseason for Jones has been smooth compared to last year when he held out of everything — the offseason program, training camp, and even Week 1 — before rejoining the team on a revised one-year deal. His production should improve from last season — 10 1/2 sacks, 29 quarterback hits and four pass breakups — to ensure the Chiefs’ defense remains a strength. — Nate Taylor

Davante Adams, wide receiver

The obvious answer would have been Maxx Crosby. The defensive end has been the team’s MVP the last three seasons, even beating out league-leading rusher Josh Jacobs in 2022, and he somehow gets better every year. This offseason, the Raiders gave defensive tackle Christian Wilkins $83 million to take some double-teams off of Crosby. But … we’re going with Adams in what is essentially a contract year for him. He will have to carry the offense with quarterbacks Aidan O’Connell and Gardner Minshew scaring no one and Jacobs playing for the Packers now. Adams is still the best route runner in the league, and the Raiders may have enough weapons where he can’t be double-teamed. Of course, the wild card (Vegas … hello) here is rookie tight end Brock Bowers becoming option 1 and the Raiders ultimately deciding to move on without Adams next year. Wait, can I change my answer? — Vic Tafur

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Davante Adams (17) is in the third year of a five-year, $140 million contract with the Las Vegas Raiders. (Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)

Khalil Mack, linebacker

Mack is coming off, perhaps, the best season of his career. Beyond the career-high 17 sacks, he was a dominant force in the run game. If last year was any indication, Mack has plenty left to give as he enters his age-33 season. He is highly motivated to claim the one NFL achievement that has evaded him: a Super Bowl. His 2023 tape was awe-inspiring in both the superhuman flashes and the consistency of performance. He was the team’s MVP in 2023, quarterback included. And while he might not match his counting-stat production from last season, I think he will impact that game similarly, especially if Joey Bosa stays healthy. — Daniel Popper

Kyren Williams, running back

The significant caveat here is that Williams must stay healthy through an entire season — he could not do so in the first two years of his career. Yet in 2023, despite missing four games to injury, Williams was the second-most productive rusher in the NFL behind Christian McCaffrey. When Williams was on the field, the Rams’ EPA per play shot up into the top 5 in the league, and head coach Sean McVay was able to deploy a wide variety of zone and gap concepts with him. It would be easy to pick veteran receiver Cooper Kupp, who needs a comeback year in a big way, or young star receiver Puka Nacua. But I believe NFL teams will throw the kitchen sink at the duo trying to defend them, where it’s simply hard to stop a punch in the mouth courtesy of Williams and the run game. — Jourdan Rodrigue

Tyreek Hill, wide receiver

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I could have made a less obvious choice, but that would have been disingenuous. Hill is arguably the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL, as his other-worldly speed and acceleration command a defense’s attention like no other player in the league. The Dolphins offense runs through Hill. He was one of only three players in the league to earn more than 30 percent of his team’s targets (31.1 percent, trailing only the Raiders’ Davante Adams at 33 percent). And when he’s not getting the ball, he pulls defenders into his orbit and opens huge chunks of space for his teammates. Outside of maybe 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, there is no more valuable non-QB offensive player than Hill. — Jim Ayello

Justin Jefferson, wide receiver

Breaking news: He is a good player. Quick, fast, versatile, dependable, tough … you know. Head coach Kevin O’Connell has, and this is not hyperbole, built an offense around Jefferson’s skill set. He is the primary pass catcher on most downs, and once defenses decide to double (or triple) him, he becomes an essential decoy. The Vikings’ addition of Aaron Jones is an interesting layer to this upcoming season. The more success the Vikings have on the ground, the fewer men defenses can allocate to Jefferson in coverage. And the fewer men defenses can allocate to Jefferson in coverage, the more he can take over a game. The record-breaking extension will not prevent Jefferson from wanting to set reception and receiving yard records, especially after missing nearly half of last season with a hamstring strain. — Alec Lewis

Rhamondre Stevenson, running back

The Patriots are going to run the ball a lot. They hired offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who spent the last four years with Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, where the Browns ran at one of the highest clips in the league (and ran it successfully). That offense is coming to New England, where the running game will be even more important, given the potential of a rookie quarterback and the team’s lack of weapons at wide receiver. So if Stevenson stays healthy, he’s in line for a big season. — Chad Graff

Demario Davis, linebacker

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The 35-year-old is still one of the best defensive players in football. He’s been a second-team All-Pro selection in each of the last four seasons and seemingly never slows down. There’s no question he’s the stabilizing force for the Saints’ defense and an unquestionable leader within the organization. That said, the Saints would probably rather have an offensive player written about in this space. Davis is such a constant that you expect him to always be great. If an offensive player earns this honor by the end of the season, that probably means an offensive weapon would’ve provided more impact than expected. That would also mean the offense, in general, would be better than expected. — Larry Holder

Malik Nabers, wide receiver

Dexter Lawrence and Brian Burns are also prime candidates for this role, given Lawrence’s dependability and Burns’ potential impact in tandem with Kayvon Thibodeaux after his arrival in New York. But with Saquon Barkley gone, the offensive focus will be dialed in on the rookie Nabers. He’s shone early in spring and has that “it factor” of a top wide receiver. If this Giants offense is successful, it will be part of that QB connection with Nabers. Nabers’ arrival also should allow Jalin Hyatt and Wan’Dale Robinson to be more successful. Nabers relishes the opportunity to prove himself, and there’s no doubt he wants to accomplish big things at the next level. — Charlotte Carroll

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Garrett Wilson, wide receiver

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Sauce Gardner or Quinnen Williams would’ve been easy picks, and I even considered left tackle Tyron Smith (if he can stay healthy). But this feels like the season where Wilson truly breaks out into superstardom and becomes a wide receiver mentioned in the same breath as the Jefferson and Chase types. He has the talent to produce like them. He just has been saddled with arguably the worst quarterback situation in the NFL the last two years. Despite that, he’s managed to get at least 80 catches, 1,000 yards and three touchdowns in his first two seasons, making him one of only five wide receivers in NFL history to do that to start a career. Now imagine if he gets even just competent quarterback play from Aaron Rodgers and even Tyrod Taylor if Rodgers can’t stay healthy. — Zack Rosenblatt

A.J. Brown, wide receiver

It’s arguable that Brown’s been the MVP for the Eagles in the last two seasons. He secured both the No. 1 and No. 2 spot in the franchise’s record book for single-season receiving yards in those years, and he’s totaled 18 receiving touchdowns since the Eagles acquired him from the Tennessee Titans in 2022 for a first- and third-round pick. The franchise signed the three-time Pro Bowler to a three-year, $96 million extension in April, briefly making him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL. He’ll earn that in his age-27 season within new OC Kellen Moore’s offense, which should feature him heavily. — Brooks Kubena

T.J. Watt, linebacker

How can’t it be Watt? He’s averaging just a tad under a sack per game in his career and had seasons of 22 1/2 and 19 1/2 sacks in two of his last three seasons. He will reach 100 career sacks early in the season and has yet to turn 30. Watt should benefit from a defense that got better in the offseason with the acquisition of Patrick Queen in the middle to go along with a healthy Minkah Fitzpatrick, who would be a close second in terms of MVP. In terms of Watt, he was named team MVP in four of the past five years. The only time he didn’t was when he missed half the season with a torn pectoral. — Mark Kaboly

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Christian McCaffrey, running back

This one is easy. The 49ers already call McCaffrey their MVP, as his impact in both the run and pass games unlocks the full potency of their offense. Adaptability is catching on as a league-wide offensive trend, but McCaffrey is the pioneer in this regard, and remains the most dangerous two-way weapon the NFL has to offer. — David Lombardi

Devon Witherspoon, cornerback

Witherspoon’s elite traits stood out during a solid rookie season that saw him earn Pro Bowl honors while ranking fourth in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. His rare combination of cover skills and violence near the line of scrimmage separates him from other cornerbacks. The thinking here is that Witherspoon will make a jump in his second season and that Seattle’s scheme shift on defense will maximize his abilities from the nickel position, including as a blitzer. — Mike Sando


Seattle Seahawks cornerback Devon Witherspoon (21) earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie in 2023. (Steven Bisig / USA Today)

Chris Godwin, wide receiver

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Mike Evans gets most of the attention, but Godwin remains one of football’s better receivers. He had more receptions than Evans in four of the last five seasons, including the last three. The Bucs believe he will have more yards this year because they intend to use him more in the slot and less outside. At 28, Godwin is at the height of his abilities and he should be at the height of his desire — his contract is up after this season. — Dan Pompei

L’Jarius Sneed, cornerback

Sneed’s knees are an offseason story again and likely will be a question for the rest of his career — especially if he continues to miss practices as a precaution. But people were talking about those knees before last season, then watched Sneed answer with high-level cornerback play Sunday after Sunday. For as long as he’s at his best, he should be the Titans’ best corner in many years, and his style of play in Dennard Wilson’s defense should provide dynamic results. With Chidobe Awuzie signed and on the other side, the Titans have the answers outside they’ve been seeking for a long time. — Joe Rexrode

Frankie Luvu, linebacker

Micah Parsons wasn’t one of the several familiar faces head coach Dan Quinn brought over from his three-year stint with the Cowboys. Bummer. However, the three-time All-Pro is mentioned frequently in Washington because his linebacker/edge rusher role did travel with Quinn and defensive coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. Luvu, one of the Commanders’ primary free-agent signings this offseason, arrived with the versatility required to play multiple spots. At 27, Luvu is an ascending talent coming off back-to-back 100-tackle seasons with 12 1/2 combined sacks. He will play every down, and the defensive personnel will shift depending on where the coaches deploy this aggressive playmaker. — Ben Standig

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(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Top photos of T.J. Watt, Ja’Marr Chase and Chris Jones: Jeff Dean, Patrick Smith and Perry Knotts / Getty Images)

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Culture

My front row seat on 'Inside the NBA,' the greatest studio show in sports TV history

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My front row seat on 'Inside the NBA,' the greatest studio show in sports TV history

The first day I went down to Atlanta in 2005, to TNT’s Techwood Drive studios to do “Inside the NBA,” the show’s producer, the legendary Tim Kiely, made things simple for me.

“If you look at the (bleeping) camera, I’ll wring your neck,” he said.

I smiled. This was going to work out.

Kiely and I were former employees at ESPN. So I knew exactly what he meant.

TK, as everyone knows him, had gone to what was then called Turner Sports years before I did, and was the driving force behind “Inside” becoming the greatest sports studio show in the history of television, a Sports Emmy-winning Leviathan.

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At ESPN, the network was the star. You could be on the network for a while, and if you were deemed essential for a while (it was, with few exceptions, not for all that long), you could be on the network a lot. But no one anchor or reporter was indispensable. The iconic SportsCenter set? That was indispensable.

So, when you were on an ESPN show, it was important for you, representing the show when you were on it, to connect with the people watching at home, not the people sitting next to you in the studio. You were told, early and often, when you wanted to make a point, to literally turn your body away from the person sitting next to you, who may have asked you a question, and to look into whatever camera to which you were assigned. Then, you could disseminate your information, or make your point, to the people watching.

By contrast, in Techwood’s Studio J, from where TNT’s “Inside” was broadcast, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith and, later, Shaquille O’Neal were the stars, along with the best studio host of all time, Ernie Johnson. But, and this is why the show worked, they weren’t cast in bronze. If you were on the set with them, you were, as far as everyone on set was concerned, their equal. If you thought they were wrong about something, you were allowed – you were expected – to challenge them. Just because they were former players, and great ones, didn’t mean your opinion didn’t count. But, it had to be genuine, not forced, canned “debate.”

TK would say, over and over, “Charles is right there. Talk to him! Kenny’s right there! Talk to him! You disagree with Chuck? Say so!”

During Kiely’s 28 years of producing the show, “Inside” took the top place in the NBA firmament. It has remained there since he retired last year. There was, and is, no game crew or league-ancillary programming on any other network that was, or is, as good as what came out of that studio every Thursday night during the season. And that extended to the “40 games in 40 nights,” as TNT called it, of the playoffs. Nothing, including the finals, or draft coverage, was as good. “Inside” was the gold standard.

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I was on a bunch of NBA studio shows when I was at the Four-Letter, including “NBA Today” and “NBA 2 Nite.” I loved them all. We did good work, occasionally excellent work, in the years I was there, with Mark Jones, Jason Jackson and Stuart Scott. It was an honor and an education to work on those shows with coaches such as the late Jack Ramsay, and Fred Carter. I learned so much from them.

But we all knew “Inside” was better.

That’s why TK’s words made me smile. At Turner, I didn’t have to play the role of the “information guy,” even though that was my job. I could just be me. And that was what I did when I made appearances on the show over my 14 years at Turner.


In over 14 years on “Inside the NBA,” David Aldridge, left, held his own with Shaquille O’Neal and others. (Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)

And thus, the lamentations about the future of “Inside” after next season, when the NBA’s new media rights deal begins, are heartfelt and genuine. The NBA’s Board of Governors, on Tuesday, approved the new deal, which begins with the 2025-26 NBA season. It introduces Amazon Prime Video as a media rights streaming partner and reintroduces NBC, which had the NBA package from 1990 to 2002, for both broadcast and streaming rights (via its Peacock streaming service).

As part of the new deal, which will run for 11 years, starting with the 2025-26 season, and pay out $76 billion to the league’s 30 teams, NBC would broadcast games nationally on Tuesdays, while Peacock would have games on Mondays. Both NBC and Amazon would put NBA games into their current slots for NFL broadcasts, on Sunday nights (NBC) and Thursdays (Amazon), after the NFL season concludes.

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ABC/ESPN would continue to broadcast the NBA finals, while airing slightly fewer regular season games, and have a conference final every year. Amazon and NBC would alternate years carrying the other conference final.

And Turner, now Warner Bros. Discovery, would be the odd network out.

But, WBD will have a five-day window to match the terms of the new package and hold onto its Thursday night package of games, as well as an annual conference final – and, of course, “Inside” – once the league formally delivers the package to WBD’s corporate offices. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at a news conference following the Board of Governors meeting in Las Vegas Tuesday that the media deals were not yet done, and wouldn’t confirm if or when the five-day window for WBD has opened.

So, the waiting will continue for WBD/Turner employees, who’ve been in limbo for months as the parent company negotiated with the league, yet have continued to produce the kind of memorable programming for which Turner and “Inside” have been known for three decades. Silver felt compelled to apologize to WBD/Turner employees for leaving their futures twisting in the wind in his news conference at the start of the finals last month.

It’s something no one wants to truly contemplate. There’s never been anything like “Inside the NBA” in sports media, and there’s not going to be anything like it if it’s gone after next year.

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It was, as a friend put it a while back, the TV manifestation of where people who love the NBA assemble every week, a communal hangout. A place where you’d feel comfortable getting a beer, or another substance, maybe, with your friends, and loud talk about your favorite teams and players, or the teams and players that you hated, while inhaling a sandwich and watching the game together, either in person or via group chat.

It was a place where you felt … safe.

You felt like you knew Chuck and Shaq and Ernie and Kenny because their actual personalities, who they really were off-camera, came through so clearly on camera. The show had some scripted elements to it, and Ernie did the best he could to keep the show on topic, but for the most part, every week, they went out there and … winged it. Barkley, Smith and Shaq never went to the production meetings before airtime. It was just four guys who actually enjoyed being in each other’s company, riffing off one another. But that requires tremendous trust. The television business does not often engender trust among people who are competing for air time and money and keeping their jobs.

It all started with Charles.

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Shaquille O’Neal, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley became must-see tv on “Inside the NBA.” (Brandon Todd/NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s funny. People under a certain age — say, 40 or so — don’t seem to realize this now. But Barkley was as big a superstar in his NBA days as anyone not named Michael Jordan.

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Barkley was on both the NBA’s all-time Top 50 and Top 75 teams. He was the 1992-93 NBA MVP. He was an 11-time All-Star. He averaged 23 points, 12.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 123 career postseason games, including a 56-point gem against the Warriors in a first-round game in 1994. He was the best player on the Dream Team, in 1992 — a team that included Jordan, Magic and Bird.

Now, to be sure, Magic and Bird were on the back nine of their careers by the time they went to Barcelona for the Olympics, and Jordan was picking his spots after a grueling year leading the Bulls to a successful defense of their championship. But Chuck was nonetheless dominant, a blur in transition, a beast in the paint. And he was, as ever, the go-to guy for anyone with a notepad or camera. (Charles once spent half an hour explaining to reporters in Philly why he wasn’t talking to the local media.)

“I don’t know much about Angola,” he said of the U.S. team’s opening-round Olympic opponent in Barcelona, “but I know they’re in trouble.”

He had as many commercials back in the day as Shaq has now. He hosted “Saturday Night Live” (and beat up Barney the Dinosaur in the process). He got arrested in a Milwaukee bar after punching a weightlifter; he got arrested in Orlando after an incident in a club where he wound up throwing a belligerent patron into a mirror, which crashed through a plate glass window. (Chuck actually didn’t know how many times he’d been arrested over the years. When he got to Turner, TNT, smartly, assigned him a couple of bodyguards.)

He was, then as now, completely fearless, saying whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. In Philly, he’d verbally immolate his boss, 76ers owner Harold Katz, and do the same to his coaches and teammates, or anyone else who got in his craw.

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“I love when they say Magic makes James Worthy better, and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) better,” he’d say at his locker. “I have to make Sheldon Jones better.”

So, when Barkley came to “Inside” after his retirement as a player, he could have put up all kinds of caveats and I-won’t-do-thats, befitting a player of his stature. But he didn’t. In fact, he did the exact opposite. He would do anything, including things that made him look ridiculous.

Barkley battled weight problems throughout his playing career and well into his retirement. An overly sensitive superstar could have insisted that fat jokes were off limits on the set. Instead, Barkley leaned into the constant digs at his girth. Weighing 30-plus pounds more than his supposed 290 pounds early in December 2001, Barkley vowed to be under 300 by the end of January 2002. He made it a thing around which “Inside” could build programming! And he followed through on his promise to get weighed “in my drawers” on the show.

During Yao Ming’s rookie season, in 2002-03, Kenny insisted that Yao, the celebrated big man from China, would score at least 19 points in a game during his rookie campaign. Chuck said if that happened, he’d “kiss Kenny’s ass” on national TV. Ten days later, Yao went 9 of 9 from the floor and scored 20 against the Lakers. Two days after that, with then-Minnesota Governor Jesse “the Body” Ventura on set, Kenny brought a donkey onto the set. If Chuck kissed the donkey’s ass, Kenny said, the bet would be satisfied.

Chuck puckered up.

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I am fairly certain that Jordan would not have done this.

The one time I saw Barkley actually distraught was the night his Suns lost Game 6 of the 1993 Finals, at home, to the Bulls. He drove up to the Houston’s restaurant in downtown Phoenix, alone, after John Paxson’s dagger 3 beat Phoenix in the last seconds. He joined a bunch of sportswriters eating outside. He was down. He really thought the Suns were better than Chicago that season. But he couldn’t get them over the top.

And yet, years later, Chuck let “Inside” clown him for a segment where a set was transformed into “The Champions’ Club,” which you could only enter if you’d won an NBA title. Magic, on set with the crew that week, obviously got in easily with his five championships with the Lakers. So did Kenny, who’d won back-to-back titles with Houston in 1994 and ’95. Ernie got in on Magic’s invite. But after Kenny walked in, with Barkley right behind him, Chuck got stopped at the door by the “bouncer.” Ernie soon stuck his head out of the “club” door, noting all the guys with rings that were supposedly in the club: Fennis Dembo, Mike Penberthy, the late Earl Cureton.

“Oh, y’all are playing a joke on the Chuckster,” Barkley said.

That same ethos applied to Kenny. When Kobe Bryant came out with a new Nike shoe, the Hyperdunk, in 2008, he did a viral ad for Nike with then-teammate Ronny Turiaf  in which he, allegedly, jumped over an incoming Aston Martin, so great were the Hyperdunk’s qualities.

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Naturally, when the Lakers were on TNT, and Kobe had a great game, “Inside” had Bryant on afterward. Kenny said that he, too, had a new Nike shoe coming out — the “Hyperdunk Smiths” — that would soon be in stores. And he, too, could jump over a car!

It didn’t go quite as well as Kobe’s leap.

Shaq also got got, after he joined the show.

“Inside” quickly built a “storyline” where the 7-1, who-knows-how-much-he-weighs self-described “MDE: Most Dominant Ever” center bullied poor Ernie, literally shaking him down for lunch money. But, ultimately, Ernie got his revenge. And, infamously, a moment of extreme clumsiness by the Big Fella in 2017 was replayed, a few thousand times, on “Inside” over the next few years.

Shaq made fun of my headshot. I made fun of his movies. Joe Underhill, a diminutive researcher and field producer who worked his butt off for years, was reborn and became semi-famous as “Underdog,” who’d feed Ernie and others statistical information, appear in skits and be prepared, as O’Neal would say seemingly every week, to put some pithy saying on a T-shirt. And, the portal went both ways: in the last few years, fans have been encouraged to clap back at the crazy things Shaq, Kenny and Chuck said and did, whenever possible.

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“Inside” was not for the Sloan crowd. There was no genuflecting at the altar of True Shooting Percentage or PER or Defensive Box Plus-Minus. If endless video breakdowns of the three best ways to ice a pick-and-roll was your thing, this was not your show. And the Insiders reveled in their ignorance; they were definitely eye- and smell-testers, not Second Spectrum guys.

General managers and executives around the league would occasionally rail to me about how little educating about the game Chuck, Kenny and Shaq did with their large platform. (Interestingly, coaches rarely complained.) I would acknowledge the point, but also point to “Inside’s” growing collection of Emmys. Their approach seemed to resonate with an awful lot of viewers, and voters.


Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was one of many to share a dose of wisdom with David Aldridge during his TNT days. (Soobum Im / USA Today)

Nor did “Inside” make the games the network paid billions to air every week sacred, as other networks did. If TNT had a dog of a doubleheader on in January, the “Inside” guys would say it was a dog. Chuck would talk about shows on other networks that he was watching in the green room while TNT aired its crappy-for-that-night NBA fare. A staple at the start of every season was “Who He Play For?,” a faux game show segment that served only to display Barkley’s thimble-like knowledge of non-superstars around the league.

But — and this was rarely acknowledged by the show’s critics — nothing excited the studio more than a well-played, riveting game. Chuck, in particular, would fall in love with the last good team he saw on the air, pledging that they were the best (or second-best, or third-best) team in their conference. He made Manu Ginobili into a household name with his weekly “GINOBILI!!” fanboying. On the other hand, Chuck’s many wrong “gar-run-teeed!” game/series predictions became their own cottage industry.

When “Inside” did focus on the games and players, though, its analysts’ praise was as welcomed as their scorn was withering. It made clear the lie of so many of the current players who dismissed the “Inside” guys as fossils, incapable of playing or understanding today’s game. If they were so out of touch, why did the players care so much what they said about them?

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O’Neal’s “Shaqtin’ a Fool” segments became must-watch TV, as he (more accurately, the show’s producers) lampooned the biggest blunders players made in games every week. Shaq crushed JaVale McGee to the point where it became kind of cringeworthy. It wasn’t that McGee wasn’t messing up, occasionally in spectacular fashion, but a) he wasn’t doing it every second of every game, as Shaqtin’ made it seem, and b) Shaq was rubbing his nose in it every week.

When McGee had a good game in 2013 while with the Nuggets and was invited on “Inside” afterward, he told Shaq to his face that he didn’t watch what he called “Shaqtin’ a Coon.” O’Neal’s and McGee’s mothers actually had to step in and squash the beef between their sons.

And there was so much beef over the years. Chuck vs. Durant. Shaq versus Chuck. Shaq versus Kenny. Chuck versus Draymond Green. Shaq versus Shannon Sharpe. Shaq and Chuck versus Kendrick Perkins. Chuck, infamously, versus the women of San Antonio. A postgame skirmish between the Clippers and Rockets, with Houston players supposedly trying to break into the Clippers’ locker room, became part of “Inside” lore when reporter Ros Gold Onwude noted a “police presence” outside the Rockets’ team bus, and Shaq and Chuck eviscerated the softness of whoever thought cops were needed to settle things that the players should have handled themselves.

But it was because everyone watching had seen Barkley’s struggles with weight over the years that his digs at the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson hit so hard. It was because Barkley was fearless with his words (critics might say careless) that he could so effectively lampoon the account of actor Jussie Smollett that he’d been mugged late at night in Chicago by two men, one of whom allegedly yelled racial slurs at Smollett. And it was because “Inside” was so well-respected by so many that it’s “Gone Fishin’” segments, sending every team off into the summer after it was eliminated in the playoffs, were so eagerly anticipated.

Yet, on a dime, “Inside” could, and did, get serious.

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In the midst of COVID-19 in 2020, the crew assembled remotely after George Floyd’s memorial in Minneapolis. “This plague of racism, which comes at the same time as the pandemic, demands our attention,” Ernie said.

They talked about Jan. 6. They used the start of their pregame show before Game 4 of the Western Conference final in 2022 to discuss the mass shooting earlier that day in Uvalde, Texas, that resulted in the death of 19 children and two teachers. When players in the Orlando bubble refused to play scheduled playoff games in 2020 to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., and to protest police violence around the country, Kenny followed suit, walking off the set in solidarity with the players. Ernie talked openly in 2006 about his cancer diagnosis; his partners spoke in his absence, eloquently and emotionally, after Ernie’s son, Michael, died at 33, in 2021.

And they were there for Shaq after Kobe died. They understood. We understood. Shaq and Kobe had mad beef when they were together with the Lakers. But you can fight your brother, call him all kinds of names, in the moment. He’s still your brother. He’s still family.

None of this felt forced. No one brought scorching hot takes to these topics. They talked through things, as friends do with one another at hard moments. They stumbled over their words. They talked over one another. Often, they disagreed. Unique among such shows, the “Inside” crew had the cachet to pivot from the ridiculous to the solemn, and back, in a matter of minutes. All due respect, but you didn’t see that — or, at least, you didn’t remember seeing that — on the Sunday NFL shows, or the Saturday college football shows.

“Inside the NBA” always stood on its own. Just as multiple generations have grown up watching The Simpsons,” the “Today Show” or “Sesame Street,” “Inside” has just been so indefatigably there for so long, and has so rarely failed to entertain or at least make you react, that it’s hard to imagine turning on a television going forward without being able to see what the fellas are up to this week.

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(Photo illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic. Photo: Issac Baldizon / NBAE Getty Images)

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MLB front offices under the most pressure — and the least — this trade deadline

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MLB front offices under the most pressure — and the least — this trade deadline

Major-league front offices have completed the amateur draft and All-Star week and now can turn their full attention to the July 30 trade deadline.

Contending teams are trying to find ways to improve their rosters for the pennant race and the postseason through trades with “sellers” as well as other contenders. They’re also trying to add organizational depth to protect against unexpected injuries the rest of the way, knowing they can no longer make August waiver trades.

The phone calls, texts and even occasional emails are in full swing between front offices despite a difficult trade marketplace due to the cloudy, crowded playoff picture; exiting the All-Star break, only six teams — the White Sox, Marlins, Rockies, A’s, Angels and Blue Jays — sit more than 7 1/2 games out in the wild-card standings.

Life as a general manager at the trade deadline is a hectic, intense time, and every front office — regardless of market, track record or place in the standings — is under the microscope to some degree. But certain front offices, from clear sellers to aggressive buyers, face more pressure to deliver difference-making deals.

Here are the front offices and executives that are under the most pressure to make significant moves this trade season, as well as the teams that by contrast I believe don’t face as much pressure to swing deals.

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Six front offices under the most pressure


Chris Getz has been in the GM chair for less than a year but this trade deadline could define his tenure. (Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

1. White Sox, GM Chris Getz

The White Sox are set up to be the headliners of this year’s trade deadline. They are 27-71 and a whopping 32 1/2 games out of first in the AL Central. Getz has told the other GMs that there are no untouchables on his major-league roster; he is open to trading anyone if it expedites their rebuild, and that includes ace Garrett Crochet, mid-rotation starter Erick Fedde and Gold Glove center fielder Luis Robert Jr. Now, the White Sox don’t have to trade any of them, but if they do, the returns in those trades will significantly shape the legacy of Getz and perhaps even eventually determine the longevity of his tenure in this role.

2. Blue Jays, president Mark Shapiro, GM Ross Atkins

In my opinion, the Blue Jays need to extend the contracts of both first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and shortstop Bo Bichette between now and July 30, and if they can’t sign them to long-term deals, they should trade both and do a complete rebuild. I understand the Jays instead could trade one or both of them in the offseason or at next year’s trade deadline, but their trade value will never be higher than it is now as an acquiring team would get them for two pennant races, not one. (Both players will be eligible for free agency after next season.) Some will argue that Bichette’s down year would hurt his trade value too much, but according to several major-league executives, teams would value him the same as they always have despite his subpar season. And the interest would be there: For example, the Dodgers would move Mookie Betts to second base, once healthy, if they traded for Bichette; the Yankees would play him at third base if they pulled off a deal with their division rivals.

But even if the Blue Jays stick to their stance from June of not trading either superstar at the deadline, at a minimum they need to be shopping them. They are in last place, eight games under .500 (44-52) and have a weak farm system, so they need to make trades to improve their short- and long-term future. If the Blue Jays could make two blockbuster trades and land five to 10 solid prospects in return by dealing both, then it might make some sense. But if they maintain the position that Guerrero and Bichette won’t be dealt, then their focus at the deadline will be on trying to trade some of their top starting pitchers, including Chris Bassitt, Yusei Kikuchi and maybe even Kevin Gausman. The Blue Jays must make trades to get better and younger and they must improve their prospect cabinet at the same time.

3. Mariners, president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, GM Justin Hollander

The Mariners have arguably the best starting rotation, one through five, in the American League, which gives them a legitimate shot to run the table in the playoffs if they can win the AL West or secure a wild-card spot. However, the big question is whether this team can score enough runs to not only make the postseason, but also compete with the offensive juggernauts — such as the Orioles, Yankees, Guardians and Astros — in the potential AL playoff field if they get there. Executives around the league still can’t understand why the Mariners let Teoscar Hernández sign with the Dodgers last offseason, and it must have been hard for them to watch him win the Home Run Derby this week. (Hernández, who did not receive a $20.325 million qualifying offer from Seattle after last season, signed a one-year, $23.5 million contract with Los Angeles.) The front office’s job at this trade deadline is to add offense, and whether that’s Luis Robert Jr. from the White Sox or Jazz Chisholm Jr. from the Marlins or hitters such as the A’s Brent Rooker or the Nationals’ Lane Thomas, Seattle is under serious pressure to add bats.

4. Yankees, GM Brian Cashman 

The Yankees front office and Cashman will make this list every year because that’s the deal when you run this storied franchise in New York City, where the fan base always views it as World Series or bust. The Yankees need a starting pitcher, and whether it’s an ace such as Garrett Crochet or a mid-rotation starter like Chris Bassitt (who has a limited no-trade clause), the need is real. They also should improve their offense at second, third or the DH spot, and they have a deep enough farm system to fill both needs (a starter and an offensive upgrade). What will Cashman do? The Yankees’ longtime GM has had some trade deadlines where he’s made big moves and others where he’s largely stood pat, and this year could go either way.

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5. Dodgers, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman 

The Dodgers have had more injuries to starting pitchers than any team in MLB, with Tyler Glasnow, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Emmet Sheehan all on the injured list. Glasnow should be back soon but Yamamoto can’t return until Aug. 16 at the earliest; they are the two most important starters the Dodgers need to be healthy. The Dodgers don’t know how effective Buehler and Kershaw will be when they are activated, and Gonsolin, May and Sheehan are out for the season. With all that uncertainty, the Dodgers have to make a move for a starting pitcher and they match up well with teams like the White Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers and Angels, all of whom could be trading starters. They have been searching for another outfield bat as well. In the offseason they committed more than $1 billion for two players, Shohei Ohtani and Yamamoto. When you invest that type of money, you can’t stop there in this scenario, when the goal is to win the World Series. The Dodgers must trade some top prospects to improve their pitching staff for both the regular season and postseason.

6. Marlins, president of baseball operations Peter Bendix

The Marlins will be selling at the deadline and they’ve made it clear to the industry that they are going to trade infielder/outfielder Jazz Chisholm Jr., closer Tanner Scott and first baseman Josh Bell. Chisholm probably won’t get traded to the Yankees or Phillies because many evaluators question how he would perform in those markets and fit in their clubhouses. Instead, most execs think he’ll end up being moved to the Pirates, Mariners or Giants. The Marlins have another good trade chip in Scott, one of the best-available closers, and teams like the Orioles, Astros, Rangers and Dodgers would love to land the All-Star lefty. Bendix, who was hired away from the Rays last offseason, is on the clock and under huge pressure to get strong returns, especially in the trades of Chisholm and Scott.

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Five front offices under the least pressure


Dave Dombrowski and Sam Fuld will look to make the right additions to a strong roster with an eye toward October. (Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

1. Phillies, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, GM Sam Fuld 

The Phillies have the best team based on win-loss record (62-34), scout evaluations and many of the game’s key metrics. That doesn’t mean they don’t have needs, especially in the outfield, where they could use a long-term solution for center field and a right-handed platoon outfielder for left field. A trade for the White Sox’s Luis Robert Jr., or the Diamondbacks’ Jake McCarthy, or maybe even the Marlins’ Jazz Chisholm (if the Phillies front office thinks the fit with their clubhouse would work) could make sense if they address center field. For left field, they can upgrade their right-handed-hitting options to pair with Brandon Marsh, and the trade candidates include Lane Thomas of the Nationals, Tommy Pham of the White Sox and maybe Mark Canha of the Tigers, among others. As one of the favorites to win the World Series, there’s always pressure to pull the right levers at the trade deadline. But this team is pretty strong as is.

2. Orioles, GM Mike Elias

The Orioles sit atop the AL East and are in for a great race with the Yankees and Red Sox for the division title. They arguably have the best team in the division but also are not strong enough, at present, to put away either New York or Boston. They could use another starting pitcher, having lost Kyle Bradish, John Means and Tyler Wells to season-ending injuries, and more bullpen depth. But no one has a better or deeper farm system than the Orioles, which puts them in a strong position to address both areas. At the same time, they don’t want to trade any of their top five prospects, and who can blame them when they didn’t have to do so when they acquired ace Corbin Burnes from the Brewers earlier this year.

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The Orioles would love to add another ace such as the Tigers’ Tarik Skubal or the White Sox’s Garrett Crochet, and they are one of the few teams with the farm system and major-league roster to acquire one of them without giving up their top two or top three prospects. If they can’t land either of them, they could pursue one of the Blue Jays’ starters like Yusei Kikuchi, or the Angels’ Tyler Anderson, or the Rockies’ Cal Quantrill or Austin Gomber. Bottom line: Given their trade assets compared to other teams, the Orioles will be able to add pitching at the deadline, so there’s relatively little pressure on Elias and the front office.

3. Padres, president of baseball operations A.J. Preller 

Preller and the Padres have already made two big deals — they just did them earlier in the season. They acquired ace Dylan Cease from the White Sox just before Opening Day and then traded for one of the best hitters in the sport, Luis Arraez, in a May deal with the Marlins. Preller may not have the open checkbook he enjoyed under the previous owner, the late Peter Seidler, but he does have the backing to trade the prospects it would take to make a difference-making trade. The Padres could go big at this deadline — Preller could still make a splash and pull off a trade with the White Sox for Garrett Crochet — or they could just tweak the bench and bullpen. Either way, he faces much less pressure to make a major move after already acquiring Cease and Arraez.

4. Guardians, president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti, GM Mike Chernoff

The Guardians are a legitimate World Series threat and they begin the second half with the best record in the American League (58-37). They have the best bullpen in the league, led by Emmanuel Clase, the league’s best closer; the best hitter for average in baseball, Steven Kwan; two of the best middle-of-the-lineup bats in José Ramírez, who’s also the best third baseman in baseball, and first baseman Josh Naylor, who’s having a career year; not to mention first-time All-Star David Fry, who’s played six positions and reached base at a .388 clip. The Guardians’ biggest area of need is a starting pitcher, and they’ll try to acquire one even if they have to trade from their strength in the bullpen or their middle-infield depth in the farm system. They probably aren’t going to be in play for Garrett Crochet or Tarik Skubal, but they do match up well with the Blue Jays for one of their starters based on the strong relationship they have with Toronto’s front office. The Guardians also could be in play for the Nationals’ Trevor Williams (currently on the injured list), the Rockies’ Cal Quantrill (a former Guardian), the White Sox’s Erick Fedde, the Angels’ Tyler Anderson or the Tigers’ Jack Flaherty. But at the end of the day, I don’t think they’re under much pressure.

5. Braves, president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos

Despite losing Spencer Strider and Ronald Acuña Jr. to season-ending injuries, the Braves sit atop the NL wild-card standings and entered Friday with nearly a 94 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. Chris Sale is having a Cy Young Award-caliber season and Reynaldo López has surpassed all expectations en route to an All-Star nod, which have helped the Braves deal with the loss of Strider. They have the NL’s fourth-best record even though several of their stars, such as Matt Olsen, Austin Riley and Michael Harris II, underperformed in the first half of the season. The Braves need to add another outfielder or two and perhaps another veteran starter for the back of their rotation, but there really isn’t much pressure on the front office to address either area. The industry does not expect a big move from them, and it will be relatively easy for Anthopoulos to deal with those two minor needs. Remember, three years ago, he traded for four outfielders at the deadline after the Braves lost Acuña to an ACL surgery, and they went on to win the World Series.

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(Top image: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic. Photos: Ross Atkins: Cole Burston / Getty Images; Dave Dombrowski: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images) 

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The Open Championship psychology: How to thrive at one of golf's toughest tests

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The Open Championship psychology: How to thrive at one of golf's toughest tests

The gusts are practically blowing you over. Your socks are getting soggy. A treacherous pot bunker lingers in the corner of your eye. These are the physical sensations of the Open Championship, but the real challenge of this major test is psychological.

This week at Royal Troon, you’ll hear the broadcast analysts talk about the best links players as the ones who stay patient. They take their medicine. They grind it out. But beyond the cliches, what do the mental hurdles of an Open actually entail? What are the specific goals and necessities that allow one to prevail during a championship like this one at Royal Troon?

Acceptance

At the Open, players face a mental examination that doesn’t just require plotting around well-protected greens and fairways. Much of this test is simply out of the player’s control. You cannot control the wind and the rain. Nor the tee time draw: Only Mother Nature knows if you’ll play in a light breeze or just short of a hurricane. Discovering what lie you end up with in the sand is a relentless shock to the system.

Dr. Morris Pickens, a veteran PGA Tour sports psychologist, said accepting unfavorable outcomes is a learned skill specific to the Open. It all stems from knowing how to evaluate shots.

Pickens defines four categories for how to “label” a golf shot, and he maps it out in a four-quadrant graph, with two axes: “execution” and “result.” The four sections of the chart are as follows: good execution-good result, good execution-bad result, bad execution-good result, and bad execution-bad result.

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Pickens, who coached Zach Johnson and Stewart Cink to Open Championship victories and currently works with Keegan Bradley and recent PGA Tour winner Davis Thompson, asserts that in this tournament, you have to both anticipate, accept and appropriately react to the “good-bads” — in other words, a well-executed shot that didn’t turn out how you desired.

“In the Open, you’re going to get a lot of ‘good-bads,’ especially when you turn back into the wind,” Pickens says. “Maybe you played well on the front, maybe it’s been pretty easy and you’re 4-under. But you’re still going to hit some good shots that get bad results. And if you’re not careful, you’re going to lose your mind. Instead of shooting 1-over coming in, you’re going to shoot 4-over.”

At The Open, Pickens advises his players to control their emotions using this visual evaluation. The uncontrollable nature of the tournament conditions means that you’re going to get some “good-bad” outcomes, but you’re also going to get some “bad-goods” — in other words, lucky breaks. You have to appreciate and anticipate both, truly embracing the peaks and valleys of links golf, to keep your mental game in check.

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“You hope to grind out a decent score,” said Jon Rahm, who posted a 2-over 73 on Thursday.

Commitment

When dealing with factors out of one’s control, the best practice is to be ultra-specific with your pre-shot vision. Pickens describes commitment as “knowing where you want to hit the ball,” but many players mistake commitment for confidence or comfort. And that conflation can be a dangerous path.

“Confident means, ‘I know where this ball is going to end up.’ But you can’t know that. There are imperfections on the green. There are wind gusts,” Pickens says. “You don’t have to feel ease over the ball to hit great golf shots. You don’t have to feel comfortable, emotionally. There’s not one player, if they’re honest, who feels comfortable over the 18th tee shot at Augusta or at TPC Sawgrass. Those are physically demanding shots. I talk my players away from that — it’s not the goal. The goal is to be committed, and to trust your routine.”

Seeking confidence and comfort over the ball will only lead to disappointment and unrealistic expectations, and at the Open Championship, that can cause a quick downward spiral.

Commitment means utilizing the information at your disposal, devising a plan, and sticking to it. Crosswinds — which many players have described as one of Royal Troon’s most devilish challenges — make that practice particularly difficult. During links golf, the known variables can change in an instant, but it is the player’s job to know when to adjust. There’s a difference between feeling physically uncomfortable before a swing — because of improper aim, swirling winds, etc. — and feeling mental discomfort. Pickens advises his players not to ask questions while walking up to the ball, whether they’re asking themselves or their caddie. The self-talk has to be determined before the execution: Whatever happens in the lead-up to the shot is the only thing a player truly has control over at the Open. You can’t risk derailing it.

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Scottie Scheffler and other top contenders in the Open Championship will have to handle tough lies. (Harry How / Getty Images)

Resilience

You’re going to get kicked in the teeth at the Open. Whether it’s a funky bounce or a sudden gust at the worst time possible, there are going to be moments that force you to pick yourself up off the ground. But not every player has it in them. Acceptance, moving on from a wayward shot or a big number, is one thing. Finding the will to bounce back from the blips is another. It’s difficult to do — especially multiple times throughout a round.

“At some point, people lose their resilience,” Pickens says. “Then they start short-changing the process. They don’t pick good targets, they slap the ball around. They do that because they know they’re not going to be disappointed — because they didn’t put that much into it. It’s a way to protect your ego.”

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Open champions don’t let that happen. They pick themselves back up. Over, and over and over again.

“Resilience is saying no, I’m willing to put myself out there again to be disappointed again,” Pickens says. “A resilient player thinks to themselves, I’m not going to slap it around and let that habit start. Even if I miss the cut by five shots, I’m going to play this out.”

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A score will determine this Open. Some sort of concoction of birdies, pars and bogeys or worse. A three-putt. A hole-out. A 350-yard drive. But the eventual winner and his competitors will know that this championship is conquered first and foremost between the ears. The Open Championship is a mind game.

(Top photo of Rory McIlroy: Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images)

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