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Winnipeg Jets ownership sounds the alarm on attendance: 'Not going to work over the long haul'



Winnipeg Jets ownership sounds the alarm on attendance: 'Not going to work over the long haul'

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Behind a large desk in an office tower with a view out over True North Square, Mark Chipman is working the phones.

Chipman is chairman of the Winnipeg Jets. A local businessman who got caught up in the failed movement to save his city’s NHL team three decades ago, he later fixed his gaze on bringing big-league hockey back to one of the smallest markets in North American professional sports and defied the odds by actually making it happen.

On this day, he’s still fighting to ensure the Jets work in Winnipeg by taking on a cumbersome task: making personal calls to those who have let their season tickets lapse.

The organization’s once-solid foundation seems to again be quaking beneath Chipman’s feet. Even playing out of the NHL’s smallest permanent arena, which holds 15,225 fans for hockey games, the Jets are drawing just 87.4 percent of capacity this season, the third-lowest mark in the 32-team league. Their overall average attendance of 13,306 is the lowest of any NHL team other than the Arizona Coyotes, who are playing in a college arena. And that’s despite the Jets being one of the top-performing teams in the Western Conference.

Winnipeg’s season-ticket base has suffered a 27 percent decline in just three years, falling from approximately 13,000 to just under 9,500, according to the Jets.


“I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t say, ‘We’ve got to get back to 13,000,’” Chipman said. “This place we find ourselves in right now, it’s not going to work over the long haul. It just isn’t.”

One by one, Chipman gathers first-hand information from the people who are no longer walking through the doors of Canada Life Centre after filling the building for 332 straight sellouts upon the Jets’ return in October 2011.

Why did they stop coming?

What would convince them to return?

It’s difficult to imagine another member of the NHL’s Board of Governors rolling up their sleeves to this degree, but failure to turn the situation around could threaten the 2.0 version of the Jets’ ability to remain healthy and competitive in the long-term, Chipman said.


The Jets’ health, on and off the ice, is an extremely sensitive subject in a city where heartbreak has been felt before. The Jets left town once already — for Arizona, perhaps the ultimate symbol of hockey’s southern expansion — only to be reborn with a second chance. Losing the team again would likely mean the end for top-tier pro sports in Winnipeg.

So Chipman is looking for opportunities to win back business by offering invitations to former ticket buyers to return for a game of their choice before the end of this regular season.

“They’ve been really very friendly,” Chipman said of his calls during an exclusive interview with The Athletic this week. “When I first started making them, I wasn’t sure what I would encounter, but they weren’t hard calls. They were, ‘Look, I want to come back, but I’ve got two kids, 9 and 11. They’re playing hockey. I can’t come to that many games.’ And I get it. We understand.

“Had another guy annoyed over the fact that we had a discounted ticket and beer offering last year. Fair enough. You’re a full-season ticket holder. Somebody in your section got in on a promotion we did. Our bad.

“It’s a whole range of stuff, but pretty much everyone I spoke to today is coming back to a game.”


Mark Chipman greets fans at a game in 2013. (Marianne Helm / Getty Images)

Amid the swirl of excitement that accompanied Winnipeg’s return to the league after a 15-year hiatus was a warning from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

“It isn’t going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night,” he said.

That statement didn’t initially pop the way it does when read in the current context, because in the spring of 2011, there was a fervor around the reborn Jets. When it was announced that the Atlanta Thrashers were migrating north to Manitoba, 13,500 season tickets were sold in 17 minutes on a Saturday.

Much had changed since the original Jets left town, starting with the construction of a well-appointed downtown arena and the introduction of a league-wide salary cap that tied player salaries to overall revenue.

What remained the same was the fact that Winnipeg would need to punch above its weight to compete with teams based out of much larger markets like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto. With a population of 749,607, according to the 2021 Canadian Census, there’s a friendly feel in the air here: the kind of place where Chipman routinely hears opinions on the team’s roster while pumping gas and where, yes, you may end up receiving a phone call from the NHL franchise’s chairman about renewing your season tickets.


Chipman said he feels “indebted” to the NHL for the city’s second chance.

He first made a presentation to top league officials in January 2007 during a meeting that included representatives from Las Vegas, Seattle, Houston and Kansas City, and ultimately saw Winnipeg pushed to the front of the queue when the Thrashers came up for sale and relocation four years later.

While NHL officials continue to believe in the viability of the market — “We wish all of our clubs were selling all of their tickets for every game, but I can’t say there’s a level of concern,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Athletic during the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting in December — Chipman acknowledged that the Jets are on the radar at league’s head office for reasons they’d rather not be.

“They pay attention,” he said. “They see the numbers. They see where the league’s at and where we’re at. And we’re an outlier right now. So, rightfully, they want to know, what are you doing? What’s going on? What happened and what are you doing about it?”

Bettman is scheduled to visit Winnipeg on Tuesday and get a firsthand look at the situation, meeting with key corporate sponsors and potentially even addressing fans directly before that night’s game against the St. Louis Blues.


That comes as the organization’s sales team has started shifting its attention to the 2024-25 season. For the first time this season, the Jets will give priority on playoff ticket purchases to those who put down a deposit on season seats for next season. And they’ve grown more flexible with options covering a select number of games.

Currently, the team has a season-ticket base of roughly 9,500 — an unsustainably low number, according to Chipman. The team saw a big decline in renewals when the pandemic hit and has endured subsequent drops after the past two seasons.

They are now feverishly trying to reverse the tide.

When Jets fans fill Canada Life Centre, as in this playoff game against the Golden Knights, it’s a formidable place to play. (Jason Halstead / Getty Images)

To understand how the Jets got here, you must first understand what made their lengthy sellout streak unique to begin with.

They managed to fill the building for more than a decade despite having just 15 percent of their season seats purchased by businesses. That lags well below the norm in a league in which some teams sell 50 percent of their tickets to corporate interests, according to Chipman.


What that means in practical terms is, in Winnipeg you need real people to spend real money on 41 home dates per year. And the way they did that initially was through a significant number of individuals going in on shared season-ticket packages with friends and family — a market reality that Chipman viewed as a strength until seeing what happened when a member or two of each group moved out of town or ran into a situation in which they could no longer afford to keep up their end of the arrangement.

“It was like a bubble that burst on us,” Chipman said. “We had what I thought was this strength in numbers that didn’t turn out to be.”

In response, they’ve tried to rally local business leaders.

The Jets have recently recruited 34 well-connected men and women and asked them to tap into their networks to try and generate new business. Chipman said he’s been extremely forthcoming with that group about the challenges of operating an NHL team. The idea is to not only tug at civic pride but also reinforce the positive economic and psychological benefits that the presence of the Jets brings to the community.

“What we try to convey to those people is, we’re trying to win,” Chipman said. “And in order to win or be competitive, we’ve got to keep up. We will never match the Leafs’ gate. It’s really remarkable. We can’t match that. But Edmonton really outperforms us, and that’s harder to accept, right? Because we think of ourselves as equals.


“I know Edmonton is a bigger city and they have that pedigree of all those Stanley Cups, but I think most people in Winnipeg and most people in Edmonton look at one another (with) a healthy respect.”

There’s a natural inclination for him to look around the league and draw these comparisons. Unlike the NFL or NBA, which have massive national television rights deals, the NHL remains a gate-driven league. And elsewhere, business is booming.

Chipman specifically mentions the success of markets that were once referred to as “non-traditional,” like Nashville, Dallas, Carolina, Florida and Las Vegas.

“The game’s growing,” he said. “You’ve seen it. You’ve had a front-row seat. Those markets in the U.S. that we used to look down upon, they’re fun, and they’re alive.”

To some degree, the lingering effects of the pandemic and an inflationary environment account for what’s happened in his own backyard, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. The Jets have the second-cheapest tickets in Canada, according to Chipman, and they plan to institute only a negligible bump in cost for some sections, with a decrease in others, next season.


Chipman doesn’t shy away from the organization’s role in the current state of affairs.

They’ve heard complaints from customers ranging from the high costs associated with transferring tickets between members of a group to frustrations about the Jets’ previous unwillingness to sell smaller packages. They’ve also had to build up a sales staff that wasn’t needed in the days when the tickets basically sold themselves.

“We’ve had to reinvent ourselves,” Chipman said. “For 10 years, we weren’t a sales organization; we were a service organization, and I’m not sure we were that good of a service organization, to be honest with you.”

As the Jets’ business took a turn in recent years, one of the toughest parts about addressing the problem has been talking about it at all.

There’s a sensitivity to the fact that people in the community are struggling. There are more important things than professional hockey. And as the team found out when it evoked images of the 1996 Jets departure as part of a ticket-selling campaign dubbed “Forever Winnipeg” last spring, even the vague notion of a looming threat to its viability wasn’t received well.


“Because of the history, it’s a bit of a tinderbox,” Chipman said. “In retrospect, we weren’t trying to be dramatic, but it got people’s hair up. That wasn’t the intent, but our bad. So it is not just the issue of not wanting to appear to be whining about this or evoking sympathy, it’s also the issue of not wanting to appear to be in any way threatening.

“And that’s hard given the history.”

Chipman himself is still searching for the right words here. He remembers first-hand the emotional roller coaster those involved with the “Save the Jets” campaign rode in the mid-1990s and said, “I can honestly say to our fan base, I understand whatever that is — whatever that feeling is.”

If not by his words, he should be judged by his actions.


In the face of declining ticket revenues, the Jets have continually upgraded and modernized Canada Life Centre and have now invested as much in building improvements as they spent on building it, according to Chipman. They also handed out $119 million in long-term contract extensions to Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele in October. They extended Nino Niederreiter in December. And they got a jump on the competition by trading a first-round pick to Montreal for Sean Monahan during the All-Star break.

They are a team spending to the salary-cap ceiling and turning over every rock necessary to build a Stanley Cup contender. They’re doing so with the belief that fans will see the promise in what they’re building and start returning in greater numbers. And they’ve been encouraged by some recent numbers, including 13,786 against San Jose on Feb. 14 and 14,707 against Minnesota on Tuesday.

“I would hope that if you walked around any one of the four floors here or over in hockey ops and said, ‘What is it? What is it you are trying to be? What is True North and the Jets?’ I would hope that without much hesitation, most people would say, ‘A source of pride,’” Chipman said.

“That’s what teams ought to be, and that’s what we’re trying to convey to people. We’re trying to be something you can be proud of.”

(Graphic: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic, with photos from Trevor Hagan / Associated Press and Darcy Finley / Getty Images)


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



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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



OG Anunoby’s ‘sacrificial cuts’ have transformed Knicks’ identity

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.


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



NBA Power Rankings: Thunder move up as playoffs near; what’s next for each team?


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.


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


(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



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.


“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.”


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



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.


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.


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.



49ers’ Christian McCaffrey looks to follow his father’s Super Bowl-winning footsteps


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.


“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.”



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.”


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.


“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.


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.”


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.


“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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