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'Comfortable being mediocre': Why the Pirates keep losing

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'Comfortable being mediocre': Why the Pirates keep losing

A decade ago, then-Pirates general manager Neal Huntington presented ownership with plans for $8 million in upgrades to the club’s spring training facilities in Bradenton, Fla. The project would include constructing a 12,240 square-foot performance center to replace a weight room a tenth that size, and expanding a home clubhouse that was the oldest remaining building at a ballpark built in 1923.

Huntington asked for additional funds from ownership to cover the cost. Owner Bob Nutting, according to three sources, told Huntington the money would have to come out of the existing baseball operations budget, which covers everything from scouting to player development to salaries. The $8 million ultimately was drawn over time from the major league payroll.

“That’s what happens,” a former front-office employee said. “Bob is still Bob.”

Nutting, whose family made its money owning newspapers before buying a ballclub and ski resorts, has always asked his management team to do more with less. The Pirates’ 76-win 2023 campaign was 14 wins better than 2022, but still marked their fifth consecutive losing season. Regardless, Nutting says he expects a “meaningful step forward” in 2024. “We collectively believe we can compete for the division and a postseason berth,” he told The Athletic.

But as Ben Cherington, who replaced Huntington, enters his fifth season as Pirates GM, the Pirates are projected to finish last in the NL Central. Their farm system is ranked ninth by The Athletic’s Keith Law, but the Brewers, Cubs, Cardinals and Reds also are in the top 15. And though the Pirates have signed seven free agents this offseason, every other team in the division has spent more.

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To win with a low-budget model requires excelling in all areas of player development. But conversations with more than 20 current and former players, coaches and club officials, some of whom were granted anonymity in order to speak freely, revealed numerous issues plaguing the Pirates: Years of misses in the draft and amateur international market. Conflicts between old- and new-school philosophies in the coaching ranks. Distrust among some players in the development process, including a situation last season in which third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes secretly sought help from the Pirates’ then-Double A hitting coach, who the team let go a short time later. Most of all: A front office handcuffed by a frugal owner.

Nutting, whose estimated worth is $1.1 billion, became the club’s principal owner in 2007. Since then, the Pirates have had a bottom-five Opening Day payroll all but three years: 2015 (24th of 30 clubs), 2016 (20th) and 2017 (24th). The four largest contracts in club history — Bryan Reynolds, Hayes, Jason Kendall and Andrew McCutchen — combined are still almost a half million short of the $288.7 million the Royals recently guaranteed Bobby Witt Jr.

“I’ve been in some meetings where my jaw dropped because we had to wait a day to trade a guy because it was going to save us $30,000,” a former instructor said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m hearing this.’ This is a $10 billion industry.”

The Pirates ended two decades of losing and made the playoffs in 2013, 2014 and 2015, but the fact that they began 2016 with their highest payroll ever, $99.9 million, obscured the fact they’d lost a parade of veterans without adding any impact players. Payroll declined in each of the next five seasons, dropping as low as $45.2 million in 2021. Players felt Nutting had a chance to double down on winning after 2015, and didn’t.

“He pulled out so quick,” a former player said. “He was kind of comfortable stepping back and being mediocre. That permeates. That’s just what the organization is.”

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Pirates team president Travis Williams, in introducing Cherington as Huntington’s replacement in November of 2019, said, “We needed to find a great baseball mind to crack the code in order to be successful in a market like Pittsburgh within the economics of baseball. Others are doing it. We will do it.” Cherington, working under different financial circumstances, had led the big-market Red Sox to a World Series title in 2013.Nutting had cleaned house — parting with Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle, president Frank Coonelly (who resigned), and more than $10 million in buyouts — because he felt the Pirates had fallen behind. He cited more creative, dynamic and innovative models working in Tampa, Milwaukee and Houston. “We need to be back out on the cutting edge,” Nutting said.

The club Cherington inherited in Pittsburgh had been weakened by missing on high draft picks, whiffing entirely in the international amateur market, and failing to transition prospects into big leaguers. For Cherington, cracking the code meant reversing all of this.

But many of those issues remain.

In 2011, the Pirates spent a record $17 million in the draft, shattering the league’s previous high by more than $5 million, and landed Gerrit Cole (first overall), Josh Bell (second round), Tyler Glasnow (fifth round) and Clay Holmes (ninth round).

The league introduced bonus pools the following year to curb draft spending, and since then the Pirates have had shockingly little draft success. Of the 71 players they have drafted in the top five rounds and signed since 2012, only four have produced at least 1 WAR for the Pirates: Hayes (12.5 WAR), Mitch Keller (4.1), Kevin Newman (3) and Jared Triolo (2.1). The Orioles have drawn more total value from just their top two draft picks in 2019: Adley Rutschman (9.6 WAR) and Gunnar Henderson (7.1).

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Under Cherington, the Pirates have spent 14 of their 21 picks in the first five rounds on pitchers, so their farm system is now front-loaded with arms, led by last year’s No. 1 overall choice, Paul Skenes. That approach makes sense; starting pitching is the most expensive asset to acquire in today’s game. But few position player prospects are prepared to fill out the lineup. Termarr Johnson, the No. 4 pick in 2022, projects to be a future starting second baseman. But serious questions persist about whether Henry Davis, the No. 1 pick in 2021, has either the defensive ability to stay at catcher or the bat to stick in a corner outfield spot.

Cherington believes the Pirates will end up with multiple major-league contributors from his four drafts, and possibly more. Yet in November, the team reassigned Joe DelliCarri, who had run its drafts since 2012, to a new position and hired Justin Horowitz, who had been with the Red Sox, as director of amateur scouting.

On the international side, the club has not developed an amateur free agent into a consistent impact player since Starling Marte, who first signed in 2007.

“It is incredibly difficult to find and project players at such a young age within Latin America,” said Nutting, noting that “we know that we need to be excellent in identifying, acquiring and developing players in Latin America.”

Nutting said the Pirates are among the top few MLB clubs in spending on development. While those numbers are not publicly available, team sources found that assertion to be credible. But, too often, that spending has not resulted in prospects becoming big leaguers.

Like Huntington, now a Guardians special assistant, Cherington’s regime has struggled to transition prospects to the big leagues: Nick Gonzales, Quinn Priester and Roansy Contreras, among others. Their clearest development win is Keller. The former top prospect had 6.12 ERA in his first 46 big league starts, and has a 3.83 ERA in 54 starts since then. He was an All-Star in 2023.

And yet the velocity spike and arsenal change that unlocked Keller’s ceiling came from an independent pitching lab in North Carolina.

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Most Pirates who achieve success are traded before they reach free agency. A former team employee recalled a strange sense of urgency in the front office in January 2018 to trade Cole, the staff ace who still had two years of club control remaining. “It was a little frantic,” the evaluator said. “That was the priority. It was like, why?” The Pirates traded Cole and his $6.75 million salary to Houston for four players, but no top prospects. “It was almost like, we have to get rid of that money,” the evaluator said.

Cole, now the Yankees’ ace and reigning AL Cy Young winner, has spent more of his major league career out of Pittsburgh. But he’s sentimental about the three playoff seasons he experienced there.

“I saw how much the Pirates mean to the city and the people of Pittsburgh,” Cole said. “I so badly want them to have that relationship with their team again. It just means so much to those fans. It really does.”



Ke’Bryan Hayes hit .318 with 10 homers and a .933 OPS in almost two months working with minor-league coach Jon Nunnally. (Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

The secret sessions that saved Ke’Bryan Hayes’ 2023 season took place at a private hitting facility in the Pittsburgh area. The Pirates third baseman was on the injured list last July, stewing about being a below-average hitter since 2021, when he decided to take action.

“I was trying this and that,” Hayes said, “and it wasn’t working. I was just like, I don’t feel like being frustrated anymore.”

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So he called “Nunns.”

Jon Nunnally, a former big league outfielder, was the hitting coach at Double-A Altoona, the Pirates affiliate about 100 miles from Pittsburgh. When Nunnally, 52, joined the organization in 2019, Hayes’ father, Charlie, an old acquaintance and 14-year major-league veteran, told Ke’Bryan: “He knows what he’s talking about.”

Pirates hitters long had lobbied to work with Nunnally. One former player said, “Everyone in the organization had been going to him for (information) forever.”

“He barely knows how to turns on his computer,” a former instructor added, “but that son of a gun can teach approach.”

Ke’Bryan Hayes and Nunnally first worked together at the Pirates’ alternate site in 2020. Hayes, 27, debuted that September and was National League Rookie of the Month. After only limited contact with Nunnally in 2021 and 2022, Hayes said he made it clear to the club that he would work again with the coach last spring. But once the season began, Nunnally returned to the minors and Hayes struggled anew.

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In August, he started meeting weekly with Nunnally. In Hayes’ mind, reuniting with Nunnally after he had slumped in the first half made perfect sense.

“I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers,” Hayes said. “But then it got to a point where it’s just like, you know what? This is my career. At the end of the day, I’ve got to do what’s best for me.”

Both Hayes and Nunnally said they took pains to keep their sessions confidential. “No one really needed to know about it,” Hayes said of his time with Nunnally. “He was secretly helping me help the team. So it helps everybody. That was the way I looked at it. No harm, no foul.”

The sessions proved fruitful. In almost two months working with Nunnally, Hayes hit .318 with 10 home runs and a .933 OPS.

Cherington declined to comment on Nunnally specifically, but said the Pirates are not necessarily opposed to players working with personal coaches. “Many, many major-league players work with different coaches at different times of the year. We support this and we’ve seen many examples of effective collaboration between our major-league coaches and other perspectives,” he said.

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However, Nunnally said when the Pirates eventually learned of the sessions, “For sure they were upset.” And when word that the star infielder sought help from a minor league coach was reported by the Post-Gazette, it looked to some like going behind the back of Pirates hitting coach Andy Haines, who already was taking heat from the fanbase for the team’s offensive collapse.

“I didn’t want to cause any problems for anyone,” Nunnally said.

But then, during the last week of the regular season, the Pirates let Nunnally go.

Hayes, who in April 2022 signed an eight-year, $70 million contract, the second largest in franchise history, said he conveyed to Cherington and manager Derek Shelton that he was upset by Nunnally’s departure. His relationship with the coach will continue; Nunnally, after turning down an offer to be Double A hitting coach for the Nationals, said he plans to work privately with Hayes and others.

The move, part of a trend under Cherington of replacing some veteran instructors with less experienced, more analytically savvy replacements, reflected a divide in the Pirates’ approach to player development. (A number of executives and instructors left voluntarily.)

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“We had guys who lacked — and when I say lacked, it’s an understatement — experience in leadership,” a former instructor said.

“I’m not saying you need 10 years in the big leagues to be qualified,” a player said, “but you do need to have a certain level of teaching, understanding and communication that fit for players at the professional level.”



Gerrit Cole started the Pirates’ last postseason game in front of a packed PNC Park in 2015. The team has only finished above .500 once since then. (Jared Wickerham / Getty Images)

Before the start of the 2021 Triple-A season, the Pirates asked outfielder Jared Oliva, shortstop Cole Tucker and infielder/outfielder Kevin Kramer to remain at their spring-training site in Bradenton, Fla., for what they called “hitting school.”

Oliva, Tucker and Kramer all had struggled in the majors as hitters. The Pirates wanted them to work with Bart Hanegraaff, a native of the Netherlands who joined the organization under Huntington as a consultant and in 2020 received a promotion from Cherington to be “head of methodology.”

Hanegraaff, 35, specializes in training players to move their bodies more efficiently, employing methods taught by Frans Bosch, a movement expert the Pirates have used to instruct their coaches. Under Cherington, Hanegraaff rose to greater prominence, emerging as an influential voice in the Pirates’ hitting program.

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Tucker, skeptical of Hanegraaff’s teaching, told the team he would only remain in Bradenton if Nunnally accompanied him, according to Nunnally and two other sources. Nunnally monitored as Hanegraaff ran the players through core exercises, twists, jumps and aqua bag workouts.

“I was there to just watch,” Nunnally said. “All I could do was say, ‘Listen, it’s great that you can do all these movement things. But you’ve still got to be able to perform in a game. The plan and approach has got to be there.’”

The Pirates at the time did not reveal the sessions to the media, advising the players to keep them “hush-hush.” The sensitivity on all sides highlighted the growing tension in the organization as Cherington introduced new coaches and concepts.

While declining to comment specifically on Hanegraaff or any other employee, Cherington said, “We’re fortunate to have a lot of great expertise in our coaching group and we aim to be open and inclusive about where that expertise comes from.” He added, “While playing games in the minor leagues will always be important, there are times when stepping away from the games and engaging in some intentional practice can have great benefit.”

Some players, however, lost trust in the Pirates’ approach to player development, as the blending of old- and new-school philosophies sent mixed messages and disrupted their progress. And from a player’s perspective, one former instructor said, “the one thing you can’t afford to do in this game is lose time.”

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Another former instructor, recalling a presentation Hanegraaff and minor-league hitting coordinator Jonny Tucker gave in 2021, said, “All you heard was, ‘the move, the move, the move,’” meaning, the move to the baseball as a hitter began his swing.

The premise was that if a hitter moved into the right position, he would be better able to see the ball and make swing decisions. Another former coach who attended the presentation considered that logic sound. The problem, both coaches said, was Hanegraaff and Tucker made no mention of rhythm, balance, timing and thought process, all of which also are essential to hitting.

“I love Bart. He has a place in a major-league organization,” one of the instructors said. “But he can’t be in charge of the hitting program.”

Such tension is not unusual when clubs become more analytically driven. Even some who were part of Huntington’s regime acknowledge the team had fallen behind in technology, and needed to modernize. Young players accustomed to tech welcomed Cherington’s introduction of pitch-tracking devices. One former Pirates pitcher said the shift in the team’s processes “definitely felt much more collaborative and a lot fresher.”

But several former players and coaches said the Pirates went too far in their emphasis on data and technology.

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“A lot of it was pitch design and pitch shapes and percentages of pitch usage, as opposed to, what is the hitter telling you? What is the game telling you?” said Joel Hanrahan, a former major-league reliever who was a minor-league pitching coach with the Pirates from 2017 to ‘21 before moving to the Nationals.

A former Pirates hitter agreed, saying, “With the new regime, everyone was trying to have the new best thing. They kind of lost sight of players as people.”

Other adjustments created confusion in other areas.

Cherington’s regime gave minor leaguers more freedom than they experienced under Huntington. Players, after years of toiling under strict rules, were encouraged, one former Pirate said, to “be you, the person you’ve always been.” While many players welcomed the changes, a former pitcher said of Huntington’s regimen, “It made us get our s— together. And it made us good pros.”

“I think the intention was fine,” a former instructor said. “The problem is you went from zero to a hundred.”

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For some minor leaguers, the transition to the majors, where greater professionalism was expected, became problematic. One former player called it, “a weird divide.”

“They’d say, ‘Wear what you want. Be relaxed. Wear your chains,’” the player said. “And then guys started to go up to the big leagues for the first time, and all of a sudden they’re getting a message in the player messaging system: ‘Hey, guys, you’re in the big leagues. No backwards hats. Look the part.’”

Even in the majors, the Pirates were not always buttoned up. Two on-field incidents in the final two months of the 2022 season drew national attention. A cell phone fell out of infielder Rodolfo Castro’s pocket as he slid into third base. And Hayes was captured on camera standing with his glove off at third and reaching into his back pocket for sunflower seeds as the Mets’ Eduardo Escobar rounded the bag to score.

Both players took responsibility, but Hayes said the 2021 and ‘22 Pirates teams lacked “a veteran presence to hold people accountable.” Hayes viewed the return last season of McCutchen, 37, as a needed addition. But the team McCutchen rejoined was radically different from the one he’d left in 2018.


Teams that struggle in drafting and player development often use free agency to overcome those shortfalls. But the open market is the area in which Nutting’s frugality is most glaring. Under Nutting, the Pirates have spent less in free agency than any other club. Their record contract for an external free agent — two years, $17 million for Russell Martin in 2012 — is $13 million below any other club’s record free-agent deal.

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The Pirates have not signed a multi-year free-agent contract since Daniel Hudson in 2017. Nutting has referred to free agency as “the hardest, most challenging and most inefficient marketplace in baseball,” and many executives agree. Still, the Pirates have taken frugality to an extreme.

The Pirates have spent slightly more than $30 million this offseason — less than the Brewers gave Rhys Hoskins — on veteran free agents Aroldis Chapman, Rowdy Tellez, Martín Peréz, Yasmani Grandal, Josh Fleming, Ali Sánchez and McCutchen, all on one-year deals, then added Marco Gonzales and $3 million of his salary in a trade.

Chapman’s $10.5 million contract was the largest average annual value the Pirates have ever given an external free agent. The MLBPA filed a grievance in 2018 against the Pirates, Marlins, Rays and A’s for not spending revenue-sharing money as intended; the matter is still pending.

The Pirates’ projected Opening Day payroll is $81 million, ahead of only the A’s. Asked whether payroll will continue to climb in the coming years, Nutting said, “We have and will continue to invest into the club in the most effective and efficient way possible to bring a winner in Pittsburgh.”

Asked whether he would authorize a multi-year free agent deal with an average annual value in the $15 to $20 million range, Nutting mentioned the Hayes and Reynolds extensions and said, “The most impact on winning in Pittsburgh will always come from the continued improvement of the players that are (on) our roster and in our system.”

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For all the Pirates’ shortcomings, their roster has improved, and the division lacks a dominant power. Oneil Cruz is back at full strength after missing most of last season with a fractured fibula. “That will be huge for our lineup,” Hayes said.

“I feel like this year our division is up for grabs,” Hayes continued. “We’ve just got to be hungry, coming into the spring. We’ve got to bring it every day (and) not give in when times are tough.”

Cherington is approaching the same crossroads Huntington reached during his tenure. Huntington, having nearly been fired after a 2012 collapse, broke through in 2013 as the Pirates reached the playoffs for the first time in two decades. Pressure is mounting now for Cherington to follow a similar path.

“Our goal is to build a championship caliber team in a way that is sustainable and fits Pittsburgh,” said Cherington. “We have the resources to do that, and we have to execute.”

Nutting has set the expectation at contention, even while providing limited resources.  

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“At some point you need to get some horses to run in the derby,” a former evaluator said.

“It comes down to ownership saying, ‘When are we going to go for it and spend money?’ That’s always been the underlying issue.

(Top image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photos: Mike Carlson / MLB Photos via Getty Images; Mark Alberti / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Orlando Ramirez / Getty Images; Joe Sargent / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

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NBA playoff predictions: Why I like Celtics and Nuggets, early West upsets and more

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NBA playoff predictions: Why I like Celtics and Nuggets, early West upsets and more

We, as a species, have trouble imagining something until it actually happens. The NBA playoffs are a perfect vessel from which to view this particular shortcoming.

The Boston Celtics just completed a regular season in which they won 64 games, winning their conference by a staggering 14 games and posting the fifth-best scoring margin of all time at plus-11.3 points per game. They won or split the season series with 28 of their 29 opponents (good job, Denver), had no losing streak longer than two games and now take no significant injuries into the postseason.

And yet, it seems hard to find people who would describe Boston as an overwhelming favorite, because they haven’t seen this group of Celtics win it all but have seen them fall short several times.

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We’ve seen this movie before, of course. Nobody will admit it today, but a lot of people had a hard time imagining the Denver Nuggets winning the Western Conference, let alone the NBA Finals, last spring … even though they were the top seed in the conference, had a two-time MVP as their centerpiece and their starting five was dominant anytime it played together. Some folks even talked themselves into the Lakers–Warriors second-round series — between two teams that combined to go 87-77 in the regular season — as the “real” conference finals.

Yeah, not so much.

Flip to 2024, and we almost have the opposite problem. People speak of the Nuggets in hallowed terms, with the word “inevitable” being thrown around. Don’t get me wrong — they’re good — but that description may be a bit rich for a team that’s always one injury away from playing extremely makeshift lineups. Nitpickers also will point out that Denver glided through a cleaned-out bracket last year, facing two eighth seeds and a seventh seed on the way to glory. The Nuggets were worthy, asterisk-free 2023 champions, but 2024 is a different year.

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And the Celtics? Until the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown core wins the big one in June, they’ll always have doubters. But that’s no different from several other eventual champions; people thought the same thing about the Shaq-Kobe Lakers (did too) and Kevin Garnett’s Celtics and Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavs and countless others, right up until last year’s Nuggets.

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I must point out the odds are pretty heavily in Boston’s favor to get it done this time. Of the 15 teams to post a margin of plus-9.3 or greater in an 82-game NBA season — taking us two points below what the Celtics did — only the 2015-16 Warriors (who lost the NBA Finals in seven games) and the 2015-16 Spurs failed to win a title. The other 13 won, many in romps.

Even if you just look at basic wins and losses, teams that both win 60 games and have the league’s best record have ended up winning the title more than half the time: 16 times in 31 cases. The last one of those was Phoenix in 2022, which went out with a whimper in the second round against Dallas after winning the same 64 games these Celtics won, so that recency bias may be tilting us a little.

I’ll give you another reason to like Boston: The Celtics are one of only four teams in the “52-3-3” club, and the only one in the East. Of the NBA’s 44 champions since 1980, 43 of them won at least 52 games (pro-rated to 82 for shortened campaigns), had at least a plus-3.0 scoring margin and were one of the top three seeds in their conference. That winnows down your field of potential champions to the top three seeds in the West (Oklahoma City, Denver and Minnesota) and the Celtics.

To counter my point, some argue load management, not to mention general coasting by elite teams, has made the regular season less determinative than it used to be. Last spring, for instance, we had first-round upsets by teams seeded fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth, with a No. 7 seed making the West finals (Lakers) and a No. 8 seed (Miami) crashing the NBA Finals. Lower-seeded teams won seven of the 15 series overall. (From that perspective, reviewing my own performance, getting nine of the 15 bracket lines correct before the playoffs started feels pretty good.)

But even in recent history, a postseason like last year’s is rare. A typical NBA playoffs only sees four teams without home-court advantage advance out of the 15 series; we only had two in 2019, 2017 and 2015, and before last year, we hadn’t had more than five since 1995.

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However, perhaps this season the playoffs are rife for more upsets because the standings are so jumbled (well, except for Boston). Every East playoff team besides the Celtics finished with between 46 and 50 wins; the striations in the West were a bit deeper, but every series still looks competitive up and down the board.

Projecting this postseason was maddening, especially in the East. But the bigger issue is adjusting for the unknown of who is actually playing. Late-season injuries to elite players could massively tilt the odds if they can’t play. Already we’ve seen that in the Play-In, with Zion Williamson and Jimmy Butler out and Alex Caruso questionable.

More questions loom for the first round. How much are we going to see of Giannis Antetokounmpo? Joel Embiid? Kawhi Leonard? And what of guys like Tyrese Haliburton and Donovan Mitchell, who are almost certainly playing but might not be at full strength?

So, we bravely go into this knowing the potential to look stupid is off the charts. Even the Celtics, as dominant as they were in the regular season, don’t necessarily get a free pass to the title. As good as they are up and down the roster, they won’t have the best player on the floor in several potential matchups, which is always worrisome. Additionally, injuries, slumps, hot streaks and general weirdness can always throw a wrench into a short series.

But we don’t aim for clairvoyance here. I am just trying to project what is likely. Inevitably, I won’t go 15-for-15 or anywhere close to it. However, after agonizing over several matchups — particularly in the 1-4-5 bracket in the West — here’s what I think is most likely to happen this postseason. Apologies if it’s chalkier than you’d prefer.

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West first round

No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 8 Sacramento Kings or New Orleans Pelicans

I’m not sure these will be totally comfortable series for the Thunder, even if they play the Pelicans without Williamson. New Orleans has waves of defenders to throw at Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Brandon Ingram has always played better when he’s not sharing the court with Williamson. Sacramento, meanwhile, has the ability to physically mash OKC with Domantas Sabonis and won two of the four regular-season meetings between the teams.

But there’s a big difference between being uncomfortable and being on the wrong side of the scoreboard four times in seven games. Sacramento is also short-handed because of late-season injuries to Malik Monk and Kevin Huerter, leaving it underpowered against a Thunder team that has too many offensive weapons of its own. I’ll give the Kings their respect and say they can extend the series a bit, while New Orleans probably only has enough left in the tank to grab one game. Pick: Thunder in six vs. Kings; Thunder in five vs. Pelicans


Chet Holmgren and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander celebrate after a play against the Timberwolves in March. (Alonzo Adams / USA Today)

No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers

My basic rule of thumb is that teams without home-court advantage in the first round are toast unless they at least split the season series. The Lakers lost to Denver 3-0.

Here’s the other, more compelling reason to pick against Los Angeles: Even when Anthony Davis and LeBron James were on the court together, the Lakers just weren’t that good. They finished the season with a plus-0.6 scoring margin, the worst of any of the 18 teams with a winning regular-season record. Even with their dynamic duo on the floor, they were only plus-3.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s the worst number on the board from a playoff team with its two best players, except for New Orleans.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets are ridiculous when their starters play. To the extent they struggled this season, it was almost entirely with bench-heavy whatever units soaking up minutes. Heck, even when they played Aaron Gordon as the backup five and not one of Zeke Nnaji or DeAndre Jordan, they still had a better scoring margin than the Lakers.

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As a result, I don’t think this chapter in the series will go much better for Los Angeles than the previous ones. The Lakers have played a series of close games against Denver over the last two years and will eventually win at least one of them. But if Nikola Jokić finishes the series upright, it’s hard to see how Denver doesn’t advance. Pick: Nuggets in five

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No. 3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 6 Phoenix Suns

One of my best preseason predictions — or so I thought — was that Minnesota would win a playoff series for the first time since 2004. And then this happens! The Wolves drew perhaps the worst possible opponent in Phoenix, a team that beat them soundly three times in the regular season.

Moreover, the reason the Suns beat them makes conceptual sense. The Wolves love drop coverage and excel at keeping opponents away from the rim; the Suns aren’t all that interested in getting there in the first place. Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant are Team Pull-Up, devouring opponents by raining jumpers when they can get space coming around a screen. Additionally, the Suns afford no clear hiding spot for Karl-Anthony Towns, forcing him to check a perimeter scorer.

Obviously there are adjustments Minnesota can make to take this away, but this isn’t how the Wolves want to play or what they do best. The most radical adjustment would be to limit the minutes of Towns and Naz Reid and go massively smaller with Kyle Anderson at the four, but that may compromise Minnesota’s spacing too much. The other adjustment, of course, is to score so much that it doesn’t matter; the Suns are not an overwhelming defensive squad, and the Wolves might be able to mash them to pieces in the paint.

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Nonetheless, the story here feels more about Phoenix. After a series of fits and starts, Phoenix closed the year on a 30-15 clip and finally projects as the team we thought it might be at the start of the season. The Suns aren’t deep, but their starting five had a plus-11.1 per 100 scoring margin, and several units with Eric Gordon or Royce O’Neale were nearly as good. Phoenix may not have the depth to make a deep run, especially up front, and health worries always hang over this team’s four best players. But in a single short series against a perfect matchup for them, where they come in healthy? Yeah, they’re a handful. Pick: Suns in six

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No. 4 LA Clippers vs. No. 5 Dallas Mavericks

This one is a great unknown on some levels, and not just because of Leonard’s uncertain status.

These teams haven’t played since Dec. 20, and even that game was missing both Paul George and Kyrie Irving. While the Clippers won two of three in the regular season, both teams have changed dramatically since opening day. The Clippers added James Harden, moved Russell Westbrook to the bench and upgraded Amir Coffey to a rotation spot; Dallas traded for Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington and retooled around them.

Both teams also have had awesome stretches — a 16-2 run by Dallas before shutting its players down for the year, a 32-9 half-season eruption from the Clippers — and have impressive numbers with their stars on the court. Dallas outscores opponents by 10.5 points per 100 when Luka Dončić and Irving share the court, while the Clippers are plus-12.6 per 100 with George and Leonard.

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These teams also met in the playoffs in 2020 and 2021, with the 2021 series in particular being a seven-game classic in which the road team won the first six games. The Clippers won both of those series and, on paper, would seem to have a slight edge in this one; first, because three stars are better than two; and second, because their second-line players are better than Dallas’, even with the trade deadline upgrades.

But Playoff Luka has been a cheat code, and I’m not sure Leonard can match him in his current state. Go back and look at the series from 2021: That Clippers team was much stronger than this one, with peak Leonard and an impressive bench; they screwed with load management all year and still ended up with a plus-6 scoring margin, and yet in the playoffs, they had their hands full with Luka. Dončić is going to attack Ivica Zubac again and again in pick-and-roll, just like he did in that series, and I’m not sure what the Clippers’ counters are.

Now that Dončić has Irving as his wingman, even if the second-line guys aren’t as good, I still like Dallas’ chances. That’s especially true when the alternative is betting on Leonard to stay healthy through a postseason series. I expect this series to be tremendous theater, and if Leonard is healthy, the Clippers are a real threat to make the conference finals. But if forced to choose, I trust Dallas a bit more. Pick: Mavs in seven

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East first round

No. 1 Boston Celtics vs. No. 8 Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls

Let’s see, the most dominant team in the league facing either the Heat without Butler or the Bulls potentially without Caruso. Yeah, this should be brief. Boston swept both teams 3-0 in the regular season; all three wins over Chicago were by double figures. Maybe the underdogs take a game while the Celtics play with their food; more likely, though, the end is merciful and quick. Pick: Celtics in four

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No. 2 New York Knicks vs. No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid showed in the Play-In against Miami that he still isn’t quite at full strength with his movement, and that hurt the Sixers at times. Even so, Philadelphia is now an impressive 30-7 this season when Embiid and Tyrese Maxey both play, with the Sixers outscoring opponents by 12.4 points per 100 possessions in the minutes they share the court together. That’s impressive, but two things worry me about Philly.

First, I just don’t think its supporting cast is good enough, especially if De’Anthony Melton can’t make it back into the mix. Second, the Knicks have some awesome numbers of their own. The small sample size of OG Anunoby minutes has seen them crush teams. More notably, even in the much larger sample of minutes with virtually any combination of Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Isaiah Hartenstein, they’ve run teams off the floor. New York is plus-15.2 per 100 when those four play together, and thanks to Tom Thibodeau, we have a pretty large minutes sample to work with from that group.

Not having Julius Randle is a bit of a worry, but the Knicks on-off numbers with and without Randle this year aren’t all that different; where his absence hurts is if another injury hits and forces secondary players into prominent roles. In particular, if anything happens to Brunson, the Knicks have nobody who can dribble; their offense already craters when he’s off the floor.

It’s tempting to ride Embiid and pick Philly for the upset, but I think this series ends up underscoring that the Sixers need to get him and Maxey more help this summer. Pick: Knicks in six


Joel Embiid has only played a few games since returning from a meniscus injury. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 6 Indiana Pacers

You could tell me literally anything about how this series ends and it wouldn’t surprise me.

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Immediately, it sets off my danger radar because Indiana beat the Bucks four times in the regular season, including the In-Season Tournament semifinal in Las Vegas, which is one of the conditions to look for when scouting potential first-round upsets. Additionally, Antetokounmpo is likely to miss some time at the start of the series. (While we’re here: Game 3 is at 5:30 p.m. Eastern on a Friday. What the hell, NBA?)

My numbers say the advantage tilts toward Indy in the non-Giannis games, exposing the rot in the Bucks’ second unit due to age and cap constraints. If the Pacers can keep pushing tempo, they can make their superior depth a factor as the series wears on.

However, note that all five meetings happened before the Bucks changed coaches; as our Seth Partnow and Kelly Iko noted, Milwaukee’s transition defense improved under Doc Rivers after the Pacers ran the Bucks off the floor in their early season wins over them.

Two things hold me back from picking the Indy upset. First, Haliburton still doesn’t quite seem all the way back to being the player he was in December. Second, the trade of Buddy Hield left an open sore at shooting guard, one the Pacers can only sort of fill with the T.J. McConnell Experience because of how he overlaps with Haliburton. If Giannis comes back and plays at some point, I think the Bucks hang on. Pick: Bucks in seven

No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 5 Orlando Magic

This is another series in which the health of a star is a major factor, as Mitchell’s sore knee looms over this one. He wasn’t himself for most of the second half of the season but did come back and score 29 and 33 points in two games last week.

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It’s a high-pressure series for the Cavs, given the questions hanging over Mitchell’s future and the roster in general. Cleveland leaned into a 3-point-heavy style built around Mitchell and floor spacers during Evan Mobley’s absence but flamed out late, going 12-17 after the All-Star break while dealing with Mitchell’s injury and trying to reintegrate Mobley.

Nonetheless, tanking their final game against Charlotte handed them the benefit of a first-round series against Orlando. The Magic are tough, physical and live in the paint, but that’s probably a thing the Cavs can handle given that they have two elite rim protectors in Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Orlando desperately needs some perimeter players to make shots and open up the paint; we’re looking at you, Jalen Suggs and Gary Harris.

Also: Don’t expect a lot of scoring. Mitchell will have his hands full with Suggs’ defense, while Paolo Banchero has to deal with the Cavs’ Mobley. Orlando will be searching for floor spacing all series; the Cavs likely will be, too, depending on who plays. Which coach goes for offense guys first?

Historically, these series go to the No. 5 seed about half the time, so on paper, Orlando has a chance. The teams tied the season series 2-2, but the last meeting was in February. This feels like one where the Cavs maybe don’t always look great but do enough to survive and advance. Pick: Cavs in six

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West semifinals

No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 5 Dallas Mavericks

Consider this the first installment in what could be a tremendous Red River rivalry over the next few years.

This is new territory for the Thunder’s youngsters, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hang at this level. Oklahoma City’s guard-heavy style translates well to the postseason, and look at how well the Thunder played with their best players on the court: Units with Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren smoked opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions, a number that improved to 12.0 in units with those two and Jalen Williams. That’s even better than how Dallas fared in Dončić-Irving pairings.

Oklahoma City won two of the three regular-season meetings, but the last one was a gimme in which the Mavs sat all their players and the Thunder won by 49. Of more import, perhaps, is a game on Feb. 2 when the Mavs smoked them 146-111. That also was the only game Dončić played against Oklahoma City this season. Because of that, there’s a temptation to roll with Dallas, but a few things tilt me back to the Thunder.

First of all, Gilgeous-Alexander is Dončić’s equal as a scorer and shot creator, if not as a passer, and I’m not sure Dallas has anyone who can slow him down defensively. Along the same vein, Oklahoma City’s small lineups could run Dallas’ bigs off the floor and force the Mavs to dip even further into their bag of not-so-great forwards and wings. Tactically, Mark Daigneault has shown he has a lot more tricks in his bag than Jason Kidd, and that could also matter in a long, close series.

All of these tie into a bigger question: How, exactly, are the Mavs getting stops in this series? I’m not sure they are. Even when Gilgeous-Alexander is off the court or double-teamed, look at his supporting cast. The Thunder don’t have Irving, but they do have Holmgren, Williams and three or four random guys they can bring in and get a double-figure scoring lift from (Isaiah Joe, Cason Wallace, Aaron Wiggins, maybe even Gordon Hayward) without compromising themselves on defense. They may need at least one of them if Josh Giddey gets schemed off the court.

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Finally, we can’t forecast injuries, but we can say the Thunder’s depth makes them more resilient to any non-SGA injury than the Mavs would be. Add it all up and I’ll pick the Thunder for another round. Pick: Thunder in seven

No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Phoenix Suns

In a repeat of the second-round series from a year ago, I’m not sure this one goes any better for the Suns.

Last year, the Suns evened the series 2-2 behind a scorching hot Booker before Denver’s defense took control over the final two games. This time around, Beal replaces Chris Paul and Jusuf Nurkić supplants Deandre Ayton, and the Suns have better answers off the pine than the assorted T.J. Warrens and Terence Rosses they turned to last spring. Phoenix also won two of the three regular-season meetings.

Nonetheless, I can’t see the movie ending differently for the Suns this time, not when Durant is a year older and the Nuggets’ starting five still dominates games to such a massive extent. Even the elite numbers put up by Phoenix’s best lineups are no match for what the Nuggets have done in Jokić-Jamal Murray minutes (a staggering plus-15.2) or in several similar combinations with different starters; the starting group as a whole is plus-13.6 per 100.

A year ago, it felt like the Suns were overmatched once Booker’s scorching hot hand cooled off a little; this time around, the vibes feel similar. Phoenix can shoot its way to a couple wins, most likely, but not four times out of seven. Pick: Nuggets in six

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Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and the Suns love to live in the midrange. Is that a winning strategy against Denver? (Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

East semifinals

No. 1 Boston Celtics vs. No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland’s best game of the second half of the season came March 5, when the Cavs rallied from a 22-point fourth-quarter deficit with nine minutes left to defeat Boston 105-104 without Mitchell. However, they lost their other two meetings against Boston and, on paper, don’t seem to have the horses to hang with the Celtics. With Derrick White and Jrue Holiday, Boston can throw multiple elite perimeter defenders at Mitchell too. (Yeah, this bracket isn’t doing poor Donovan any favors.)

The Cavs might not have enough spacing against Boston unless they can play smaller, but they lost one of their best alternate options to an Allen-Mobley frontcourt with Dean Wade’s knee sprain. Wade, a stretch four who torched Boston in that comeback win, missed the final 19 regular-season games. It’s not clear when he’ll be back.

This one feels like another fairly comfortable series for Boston. With a full-bore Mitchell, the Cavs have enough talent to take a game or two, but in a best-of-seven series, Boston’s superior perimeter size, backcourt defense and shooting should win the day. Pick: Celtics in five

No. 2 New York Knicks vs.  No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks

This shapes up as a good series on paper; I’m not sure it will play out that way in reality.

The Bucks did win three of the five games between the teams in the regular season, but four of those happened before New Year’s Day. New York won the most recent meeting, with intact rosters on both sides.

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The Bucks also don’t seem well-equipped to handle Brunson’s slippery pick-and-roll game, with Holiday gone and Damian Lillard in his place. They’ll try Patrick Beverley, surely, but he also tends to rack up fouls.

On the flip side, the addition of Anunoby gives the Knicks a go-to defender to use on Antetokounmpo, and they still have a couple of secondary options (Hartenstein, Precious Achiuwa) in reserve. One other factor to watch: The Knicks wrecked people on the offensive glass, leading the league in offensive rebound rate, but the Bucks were very good on the defensive boards, finishing fifth.

Bigger picture, this is a call on what the Knicks built during the second half of the season, a whole-greater-than-the-sum unit that stampeded the league when intact. The Bucks have the best player in Antetokounmpo, and the Knicks’ lack of perimeter size is a bit worrisome, but I still like New York. Pick: Knicks in six

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West finals

No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 2 Denver Nuggets

The Thunder and Nuggets played three times this season, with the Nuggets completing outclassing them in the first meeting, the Thunder doing the same in the last and the middle game going down to the wire before Gilgeous-Alexander made a shot in the final seconds to give the Thunder a one-point win.

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Sounds like a good formula for a great series, right? This wasn’t a case of the Thunder’s subs beating up on Denver’s subs, either. Jokić was a minus-7 over the three games, while Gilgeous-Alexander was a plus-2. That’s important because the starters are likely to play a much bigger chunk of the game in the playoffs than in the regular season, and Denver’s starters are awesome.

How awesome? Every Denver four-man combo with at least four of the starters had a double-figure per 100 scoring margin. The Nuggets were dramatically worse when they had to play multiple bench players at the same time, with virtually every two-man combo featuring two bench players having a negative margin, but that figures to happen much less in the playoffs.

The Thunder, meanwhile, had more distributed excellence; a lot of their second-unit groups were highly productive, especially ones with Joe in them. However, those groups tend to play a lot less in the playoffs, and if they are used more, they’re going against starters instead of backups.

This could be a classic between the likely top-two finishers in MVP voting; it also may be the first series in which the Thunder’s lack of playoff experience comes to bear. Between that and the Jokić cheat code, I still like the Nuggets to prevail in a tough series. Pick: Nuggets in six

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East finals

No. 1 Boston Celtics vs. No. 2 New York Knicks

A Boston-New York conference finals will definitely break the league record for eff-youz between fans. Could it be competitive on the court too? I’m less sure of that.

New York won the final meeting between the teams after Boston had already clinched the East’s top seed, but the Celtics won the first four times they played, and three of them were by double figures.

Two things stand out here. First,  the Celtics can throw both White and Holiday at Brunson, forcing him to earn his points against two of the best guard defenders in basketball. Second, New York’s smallness on the wings could be more of a factor when the Knicks are trying to check Tatum and Brown; Anunoby can handle one of them, but they’re asking a 6-4 guy to take the other.

You can see other angles that might not favor New York either; Boston can bring better players off its bench, and if any injury attrition happens, that also favors the Celtics. It’s been a heck of a year for New York, but this is where I get off the bandwagon. Pick: Celtics in six


Jamal Murray drives against Jayson Tatum in Boston earlier this season. (David Butler II / USA Today)

NBA Finals

No. 1. Boston Celtics vs. No. 2 Denver Nuggets

You might have guessed my prediction from the intro. I had Boston over Phoenix before the season started, but the Suns haven’t quite looked strong enough, so I’ve pivoted.

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The Nuggets have proven themselves in these situations, and their starting groups are lethal. But Boston’s excellence extends throughout the rotation, and the Celtics will have a massive advantage any time bench units are involved. Yes, that figures to happen less in an NBA Finals series than in a regular-season pairing, but those minutes still count.

Denver did win two close games against Boston in the regular season, and both were legit, asterisk-free matchups in which each team played its starters. Oddly, both teams shot horribly from 3, a trend that would favor the Nuggets if it held up in the Finals simply because they shoot so few of them.

In the end, you wonder if 3s will mater in a different way, in that math might be Boston’s difference-maker: The Celtics took 3s on a league-leading 47.1 percent of their field goal attempts, while the Nuggets were last at 35.2 percent.

Regardless, this shapes up as an awesome, get-your-popcorn series, featuring the league’s best player and defending champion against its most dominant regular-season team.

I know the Tatum-era Celtics have struggled in some of these moments before, but they’ve been the best team all year by a wide margin. This time, I think they finally get over the hump. Pick: Celtics in seven

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(Top photo of Nikola Jokić and Kristaps Porzingis: Winslow Townson / Getty Images)

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Andre Onana uses Vaseline on his gloves – our goalkeeping expert finds out why

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Andre Onana uses Vaseline on his gloves – our goalkeeping expert finds out why

When the match broadcast cut to Andre Onana shortly after he had made a save against Liverpool’s Dominik Szoboszlai this month, the camera caught the Manchester United goalkeeper with a tub of Vaseline in his hands. It zoomed in tight on him as he smeared the contents of the container on his gloves, the commentators laughing and questioning why he would be using the product.

Before the camera panned away, I grabbed my phone, took a photo of Onana holding the tub of Vaseline, and sent a text to Robin Streifert, goalkeeper for my club Angelholms FF in the Swedish third division, with the caption, “Looks like Onana is in on the secret.”

“Yeah, I had a talk with him about it last week!” he joked.

I vividly remember when Robin started using Vaseline on his gloves like it was yesterday. It was our first training session after our summer break last year when he brought a jar of Vaseline out with him to the training pitch. I initially thought he might smear some on his elbows and knees to help soften the fall when he dived, but when he opened the jar and started smearing it on the goalpost, then his gloves, I couldn’t help but laugh.

“What the hell are you doing? You want to catch the ball, don’t you?” I asked him as I smiled.

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He looked at me with a little grin and replied, “You laugh, but trust me, it works! My grip has never been better.”

He told me how Bordeaux’s Swedish goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson (or “Kalle” for short) introduced him to it during a training session they had together over the holiday.

Robin said he was initially skeptical like I was and “expected the ball to slip out of my hands like a bar of soap”. But after getting some of the Vaseline transferred onto his gloves via the ball during their session, he noticed the effect it had on his grip and knew he needed to try it out for himself. After smearing some of it on his gloves, he was hooked.

“I couldn’t believe how much better my grip was,” he recalls. “I’m sure part of it was mental, especially when you try something new, but it really felt like there was a benefit.”

When the ball started smacking into his gloves just a little bit tighter than I remember it doing before our summer break, I became intrigued and knew at the end of training I would have to try it for myself.

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After the session finished, I ran into the dressing room, grabbed a pair of gloves I had sitting in my locker and went back out to the pitch. I took a dab of Vaseline, smeared it on my gloves, and hopped in goal. As Robin and our second goalkeeper, Lukas Bornandersson, started to pepper me with shots, I immediately noticed the difference and the impact the Vaseline had on my grip.

My gloves had some age to them and it had been a while since they had been used, but the Vaseline suddenly gave them new life. The only downside I could find was that I needed to occasionally reapply a new coating on my gloves when the effect wore off. That’s where the Vaseline on the posts came in handy. If I needed to reapply quickly, I just had to go over to the post, swipe off a chunk, and wipe it on my gloves.


Onana rises high to claim a cross (Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

But I couldn’t wrap my head around why it worked. Vaseline was a lubricant, why didn’t it make the ball slip through my fingers?

In the months since, I’ve done some research and learned the intricacies of why it’s effective. My understanding is that latex is a porous material, so over time, when the palm of the glove breaks down, it allows dirt and water to flood the latex and you end up losing grip. What Vaseline does is moisturise the latex of the gloves while also acting as a repellent to water and grime from covering the glove, allowing the latex to do the job it’s designed to do: grip the ball.

After seeing Onana use it and having time to reflect on my own experiences with it, I knew I needed to go further up the chain and talk to Kalle directly. I sent him a message on Instagram to ask if he had some time to talk about Vaseline. He replied almost immediately.

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When we hopped on a call a few hours later, there was an excited tone in his voice, almost like that of a small child who had been privy to a secret and couldn’t wait to tell someone about it. Before I could even get my first question in, he enthusiastically asked me, “So have you tried it?”

I began to laugh.

Though Kalle and I have casually known each other for over a decade through our playing careers, we’ve only ever talked a few times — but this time when we talked, it felt like two old friends catching up.

“It’s so good, isn’t it?” he asked. His excitement and curiosity about what I thought was genuine.

“I know that it might not be for everyone, but for me, it’s made a huge difference,” he explained.

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When I asked him how he first came across Vaseline, he couldn’t remember exactly who introduced it to him, but one thing he knew for certain is that it was at a Sweden national team camp in the 2015-16 season.

“I was totally against it in the beginning and a bit naive,” he said. “I had heard of it being used before but never really believed in it. I thought it was just another one of those fads that would be out of the game as quickly as it appeared — but after a few training sessions and seeing the other goalkeepers use it, I thought, ‘OK, why not? I’ll give it a go’.”

He went on to tell me there were a few different brands of petroleum jelly being used during that camp and though he could see the benefits directly, it wasn’t until he tried Vaseline with “the blue top” that he was completely sold on the idea.

“Initially, I tried one brand for a few training sessions, but once I got introduced to the other one (the one with the blue top), I switched immediately,” he said.

“I still can’t remember if it was Robin (Olsen) or Kristoffer (Nordfeldt) who introduced me to that brand, but it’s by far my favourite. I remember buying four or five tubs of that stuff and taking it back with me to my club at the time. I still use the same one today.”

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At the professional level, the pitch is watered before every training session and match, often making the ball that goalkeepers are trying to catch incredibly slippery. When it’s pouring rain on top of that, sometimes it can feel almost like an impossible task to catch the ball, even with the best latex gloves on the market.

Every goalkeeper is familiar with the feeling of your gloves being drenched and struggling to catch the ball cleanly as your hands feel like they weigh a hundred pounds. The job of the Vaseline is to prevent this from happening.

The biggest difference for Kalle since he started using Vaseline is its mental impact on him, especially when trying to catch the ball in rainy conditions. Kalle admits that he often had problems in the rain because the ball was hard to grip, but after he started using Vaseline on his gloves, he’s seen a huge change in his confidence when catching the ball.


Kalle shows off his Vaseline-covered gloves (Romain Perrocheau/AFP via Getty Images)

“The mental part is so important to have a good feeling when you’re playing,” he said. “And having the ability to catch the ball is huge and gives me, as a goalkeeper, so much more confidence.

“During matches, it’s more natural to be safer and push or punch the ball away, but now I catch the ball way more than I used to. Vaseline really has made a huge difference for me.”

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I was curious if anything had changed in his routine since he started using Vaseline and he said without hesitation, “I’ve learned how to use it properly.”

“I used to use a lot more of it than I do now, but now I know how much I need to use and when I need to use it,” he said.

He admitted it took a while to get the exact combination correct and learnt from trial and error, but said that today, he has his routine down to almost a science.

On matchdays, he first puts water on his gloves, then wipes them off with a towel, before smearing a small amount of Vaseline on the palm of his gloves. He then puts a small amount of Vaseline on the tape of his shin pads, in addition to a larger amount on the goalposts. However, he stresses the Vaseline on the posts is just his backup in case he runs out during the match, which he said doesn’t happen so often anymore.

Kalle said that one of the funnier things that has happened is that at almost every club he’s played for, he’s become known to team-mates and fans as the guy who leaves Vaseline on all the posts around the country.

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“I still receive messages from former team-mates in Denmark all the time joking that I left something behind when I moved to France,” he said with a laugh. “It’s quite funny actually.”

It was clear throughout our conversation how strongly he believed in using Vaseline, but I had to know if he thought there were any negatives to using it.

“That it doesn’t work when the pitch is dry,” he said. “But I always have a water bottle with me so I can add water on the gloves if needed. Plus when we play or train there is always water on the pitch.”

As fascinating as all of this was, I was still curious if he knew who introduced Robin and Kristoffer to Vaseline.

“I think Robin was introduced to it while at Copenhagen by Danish goalkeeper Stephan Andersen and then he was the one who first brought it to the Swedish national team. That’s, at least, what Stephan told me when I moved to Copenhagen in 2019,” he said as he laughed. “Stephan takes a lot of pride in that it was a Dane who introduced Vaseline to the Swedes.”

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Kalle concluded our conversation by saying that he’s introduced Vaseline to the goalkeepers at every club he’s been to — each time, the same thing happens.

“They are always so sceptical, much like Robin was when we trained together, but after they see the results that I have in training and how many balls I catch, they always eventually end up taking some Vaseline off the post and putting it on their gloves,” he said. “They always end up loving it in the end.”

(Top photo: Andre Onana; by Robin Jones – AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images)

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Why Luke McCaffrey is such an intriguing draft prospect

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Why Luke McCaffrey is such an intriguing draft prospect

A quarterback who switches to receiver midway through college? Anquan Boldin knows a thing or two about the maneuver.

The one-time San Francisco 49er started out as a quarterback at Florida State, moved to wideout and ended up playing both in his collegiate swan song, the 2003 Sugar Bowl, a game in which he caught a touchdown in the second quarter, then threw one in the third.

When he finally settled into one position, he became such a consistent route runner and reliable target that he sits in ninth place on the NFL’s all-time catch list.

Which is why Boldin, 43, was a particularly strong match for one of the young wideouts he worked with at XPE Sports in South Florida earlier this year, Rice’s Luke McCaffrey.

This past season, two years after playing quarterback for the Owls, McCaffrey grabbed the attention of NFL scouts by hauling in one impossible catch after another and finishing with a team-high 992 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He stood out in the Senior Bowl in January, then aced the NFL Scouting Combine in February. His 4.02-second short shuttle — it measures how quickly a player changes direction — was the fastest for his position.

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Boldin, however, was most impressed by another trait.

“He just wanted to learn,” he said in a recent phone interview. “A lot of guys, especially with his background, would have the attitude that, ‘You can’t tell me anything; I know it all.’ He was the complete opposite. He was the guy who sought me out, the guy who asked a lot of questions. He was the guy who was always looking for more, even when the session was over.”

McCaffrey said his late start to the position means he’s had to play catch-up. Which is why he jumped at the chance to work with Boldin, who teaches draft hopefuls the finer points of route running.

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Said McCaffrey: “For me, as somebody trying to make up experience faster than other people have to, when you get somebody like (Boldin) in the room, it’s the most valuable thing in the world.”

That McCaffrey nearly reached 1,000 receiving yards in 2023 and yet still might only be at mid-ascent at his new position makes him one of the more intriguing prospects in next week’s draft, and he’s projected to be taken somewhere in the middle rounds.


Despite his inexperience at the position, Luke McCaffrey had 13 touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards last season at Rice. (Troy Taormina / USA Today)

The 49ers seem to be a strong contender considering their need for a young wideout, their glut of mid-round picks — including three in Round 4 — and Kyle Shanahan’s well-established fondness for the McCaffrey clan.

To review: As a boy, the 49ers coach worshiped former Denver Broncos receiver Ed McCaffrey to the point of wearing his number 87 when he became a college receiver. Shanahan invited the oldest of Ed’s four sons, Max, to 49ers training camp in 2018 and 2019. And in 2022, he traded for the second son, Christian, the NFL’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year.

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Now Shanahan has a chance to add the youngest, Luke, who got his start at quarterback in part because his oldest brother needed someone to throw him the ball.

Growing up in the McCaffrey household meant that you were in constant competition. And a big chunk of those competitions occurred on a golf course near the family home outside of Denver. No, they weren’t working on their short game. They played football. Every day. On the 14th fairway.

“There wasn’t a lot of flag or two-hand touch back there,” their mom, Lisa, said. “It was a lot of tackle. It was game on.”

“We didn’t grow up golfing or anything so we didn’t know the etiquette,” Luke said. “We just thought of it as our field. We didn’t think of it as a golf course. We probably added a couple of divots of our own to that course, and it wasn’t from playing golf.”

The McCaffrey boys were born roughly two years apart. To make the teams even, Luke usually was paired with Max, and the middle boys, Christian and Dylan, played on the same team. The youngest boys were the quarterbacks.

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“Max is an incredible athlete and now he’s an incredible coach,” Luke said with a laugh. “He does a lot of things really well. Throwing the ball isn’t one of them. So it kind of naturally got (left) to me to be the guy that would throw the ball when it was us two on a team together.”

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49ers mock draft: Evaluating Johnny Newton, Luke McCaffrey and the 10-player class

The position stuck. Growing up, Luke loved running quarterbacks like Denard Robinson and Lamar Jackson, and he went to Nebraska where he played for another former running quarterback, Scott Frost.

In 2021, he transferred to Rice. The Owls didn’t shine that season and neither did McCaffrey. He appeared in nine games, starting three, and completed 50 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and four interceptions.

“For various reasons, it didn’t go well here in 2021 at quarterback,” Rice coach Mike Bloomgren said. “Some of it was the cast of characters around him. And some of it was the stress he put on himself — stress to be perfect.”

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The quarterback position never quite worked out for Luke McCaffrey, the youngest of the four McCaffrey brothers. (John Gutierrez / USA Today)

After the season, Bloomgren told McCaffrey he’d support any move he wanted to make. If he wanted to remain at quarterback, that was fine. There was also talk of switching to running back and even safety, a spot McCaffrey had played in high school and where he’d taken some practice snaps during the season. It didn’t matter to Bloomgren. He just wanted McCaffrey — and all the hustle, smarts and leadership that came with him — on the team.

He wound up moving to wide receiver, and perhaps not surprisingly, he was a quick study. He had 58 catches for 723 yards and six touchdowns in 2022.

“My joke coming out of spring ball that year was: Yeah, it was a pretty easy transition,” Bloomgren said. “It looks like he has a dad who played in the National Football League for 13 years.”

More noteworthy to Bloomgren, however, were the strides McCaffrey made between his first and second seasons at his new position. In Year 1, his natural athleticism, competitiveness and, yes, the knowledge passed on from his dad, carried him a long way. The next season, his drive to learn the nuances of the position was evident.

He hit up everyone on the team, from quarterback JT Daniels to the Owls’ defensive backs, for tips. He sent tape home for Ed and his brothers to dissect. He relentlessly played a hand-eye coordination game he came up with in which he’d throw a tennis ball off a wall and try to make increasingly high-degree-of-difficulty grabs. The real challenge: He’d have a teammate draped all over him, determined not to let McCaffrey make the catch.

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“The best thing about a tennis ball is it’s portable,” McCaffrey said. “You can take it wherever you want — whether it’s before a meeting in the receiver room, in the weight room after the workout, whether it’s in the car.”

He played it relentlessly with his closest friend group: running back Dean Connors, fullback Geron Hargon and kicker Tim Horn. It’s no coincidence they composed a quartet.


Luke McCaffrey celebrates a touchdown with Rice fullback and close friend Geron Hargon. (Thomas Shea / USA Today)

“These guys kind of served the roles that my brothers did growing up,” McCaffrey said. “They were kind of my crew that I hung around with and we would just compete in every aspect of life and we enjoyed doing it. … I didn’t major in psychology or anything, but I’m sure there’s some sort of science behind how I grew up. That was how I learned — playing games and competing.”

The result: His statistics jumped in every category in 2023, and as the season went on, Rice’s quarterbacks trusted him in increasingly tough situations. McCaffrey ranked ninth in the nation in Pro Football Focus’ contested targets statistic with 28 on the season. His contested catch percentage on those throws — 60.7 — was second best among receivers with 25 or more such targets. The only receiver with a better one, 75 percent, was Washington’s Rome Odunze, who’s expected to be a top-10 pick next week.

“In 2023, any ball that went into his general vicinity — we all believed he was going to catch it without a doubt,” Bloomgren said.

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Luke is the second McCaffrey that Bloomgren has coached. A decade ago, he was Stanford’s offensive coordinator, which meant he was on hand when Christian arrived in 2014. The McCaffrey work ethic and athleticism were evident right away with Christian. So was another McCaffrey characteristic.

During his freshman and sophomore years, Bloomgren said, Christian learned some wildcat plays. If he messed up a play call in the huddle or didn’t have the right timing on a motion, it drove him wild and would stay with him for the next couple of snaps. Luke is the same way.

“And I actually think one of the hardest things for Luke was to go to the next play as a quarterback and trying to be perfect,” he said. “And it’s virtually impossible to be perfect at the quarterback position. And I think that was a negative. Because it’s not like Luke didn’t have the talent to play quarterback. I think he was just so hard on himself to a fault.”

“And that’s a McCaffrey trait,” he continued. “It is largely a positive in terms of how critical they are on themselves and how it drives them. But there are times that it’s something they’ve got to work through.”

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The neverending quest for perfection was a better fit at receiver. And it was something that Boldin and XPE founder Tony Villani quickly picked up on when McCaffrey arrived in early January.

Boldin is decidedly old school when it comes to the receiver position. He doesn’t want to see a lot of dancing and extra movement at the top of the route. His message to McCaffrey, Washington’s Ja’Lynn Polk, Central Florida’s Javon Baker, Virginia’s Malik Washington and the other would-be rookies was to make everything as clean and consistent as possible so the quarterback knows what to expect on every route.

Villani said he used video analysis to measure the consistency of all the routes a player would run. McCaffrey stood out with a 90 percent correlation.

“He was the most efficient route runner we had,” he said. “It was the consistency of how he changed directions. The quality of changing direction was what stood out — they were great and they didn’t differ from one rep to another where everyone else differed quite a bit.”

Now the question is how that collection of traits — combined with McCaffrey’s inexperience at receiver — translates to the draft. Neither 49ers general manager John Lynch nor his longtime right-hand man Adam Peters, now the Washington Commanders general manager, would tip their hand on where they thought Lisa and Ed McCaffrey’s youngest son would end up being taken.

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“He’s relatively new to that position, but I don’t ever count out a McCaffrey,” Lynch said at the combine. “What I know is the kid’s got great bloodlines.”

Said Peters: “Anytime you can get a McCaffrey, you’re not gonna go wrong.”

Both noted that Christian, who plans to be in Colorado next week to watch the draft with his brother, would talk up Luke at every opportunity — in the cafeteria, before practice, whenever he could. And those who know them both well say they are very similar in how they think and how they prepare.

“I know it sounds like I’m just talking about everything good when it comes to this kid,” Bloomgren said of Luke. “But that’s who he is. He’s everything good. You want an opportunity to coach this kid. You want an opportunity to have this kid as a member of your team.”

(Top photo: Kara Durrette / Getty Images)

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