The JungleMarch 20, 2019


TJ Dillashaw relinquished his UFC bantamweight title championship Wednesday after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the New York State Athletic Commission informed him of an “adverse analytical finding” in a drug test dating back to his most recent fight, in January in Brooklyn. The NYSAC issued him a one-year suspension and $10,000 fine. The decision leaves many questions for UFC fans, including where Dillashaw goes from here and the future of the bantamweight and flyweight divisions.

Here’s what you need to know based off Wednesday’s announcement.

What did TJ Dillashaw test positive for?

It is unclear at this time specifically what the “adverse analytical finding” was. According to USADA, it stems from an in-competition test conducted Jan. 18. Dillashaw headlined the first UFC card on ESPN+ on Jan. 19, a fight against flyweight champ Henry Cejudo in which he lost by first-round TKO.

What does this mean for Dillashaw’s legacy?

Until we know exactly what he tested positive for, it is not possible to determine the impact on Dillashaw’s legacy. He claimed the UFC belt in May 2014 by defeating longtime champion Renan Barao via fifth-round TKO. He lost it in his next fight against Dominick Cruz but won four straight afterward and retook the title by beating Cody Garbrandt at UFC 227 last year. Dillashaw is in the discussion for the greatest UFC bantamweight ever, but negative incidents like this will hinder that legacy long term.

How does this affect the bantamweight division?

At this very moment, there is no champion, leaving many contenders vying for a chance at the title. The most obvious candidate is Marlon Moraes, a former World Series of Fighting bantamweight champion who joined the UFC in 2017. After a debut loss to Raphael Assuncao, he has responded with four consecutive victories, nearly all of which were highlight reel-worthy. Beyond him, there are multiple options to fight for a title. Aljamain Sterling has won three straight, most recently a unanimous decision win against Jimmie Rivera in February. Pedro Munhoz, on a three-fight win streak, just knocked out former champion Garbrandt in March. And if former titleholder Cruz is ever healthy, he could be in line for a shot. Then that leads us to our next question …

Will Henry Cejudo still try to fight for a second belt?

The UFC flyweight champion was last seen knocking out Dillashaw, who was challenging Cejudo for his 125-pound title. After the win, Cejudo said he wanted to go up in weight to face Dillashaw for the bantamweight championship. Will he still have the same goal with Dillashaw out? The answer is yes. “I’m the biggest name now. I hold all the cards,” he told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani. “It ain’t the flyweight division or the bantamweight division; it’s the Cejudo-weight division. So I will just wait and see what the UFC has planned for the Cejudo-weight division.”

It’s quite possible Cejudo moving up in weight for a chance at a second belt is the outcome of all of this.

If Cejudo moves up in weight, could this be the end of the UFC’s flyweight division?

The future of the 125-pound division remains unclear, but it’s possible the UFC will shut it down. Cejudo moving up would signify that the division’s top star no longer wants to be part of the smallest weight class in the sport. The UFC was unable to make longtime champion Demetrious Johnson the household name he should have been. If Cejudo moves up and stays at bantamweight, the flyweight division could be in trouble.

How will the UFC handle losing a top star for a full year?

Losing Dillashaw is a big loss. The UFC featured him on the first card of its ESPN deal for a reason. But while he is a star, he’s not a superstar. Right now that status is reserved for only Jon Jones, Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier and maybe Amanda Nunes. Georges St-Pierre is retired and Ronda Rousey is long gone. Dillashaw is not in that top-tier category. Him being gone for a year is bad, but it could be worse for the UFC.

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The JungleMarch 20, 2019


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The JungleMarch 20, 2019


Pitching is always the most unpredictable part of baseball — and, as such, fantasy baseball. Injury risk is high among pitchers and, as a result, end-of-the-year rotations often look very different than opening-day rotations. This frequent chaos often creates unexpected sleeper opportunities for young hurlers. At the same time, rookies are no less prone to injuries themselves. Last year saw three top-50 pitching prospects miss the season due to injuries (Brett Honeywell, Alex Reyes, and A.J. Puk), and this year two top guys have already been slowed by health concerns (Mike Soroka and Josh James). That’s in addition to keeper/dynasty league favorite, Michael Kopech, who went down at the end of last year and won’t be back until 2020.

This season, there is already a sizeable number of rookie pitchers who are projected to win rotation spots. Right behind them are several dozen others who could see significant big league time this year.

DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2019 cheat sheet

MLB Top Prospects: Pitcher

Atlanta’s Touki Toussaint (No. 34 in our prospect rankings) started slowly this spring but was dominant when I saw him in Florida last week and looks set to win a rotation spot in Atlanta. At his best, Toussaint has a big fastball, plus curve, and solid changeup. His command has been an issue, but this spring he’s been attacking the strike zone and throwing more quality strikes. His fastball/curve combination is good enough to overpower hitters, and if he can maintain the command gains he’s shown this spring he could eventually be a No. 2 starter in the majors. As a rookie, he’ll probably have nights when he looks like a front-line starter and other nights where he loses command and struggles. Regardless, he’ll post high strikeout numbers and should log 10-12 wins this year while pitching for a high-quality Braves club.

Top MLB Prospects
Catcher | First | Second | Third | Short | Outfield | Top 50

Chris Paddack (No. 40) has been a revelation in Padres camp this spring and should open the season in the San Diego rotation. There’s even been talk of having him start on opening day. Paddack has exceptional command and has only walked 20 batters while striking out 230 in 177.2 minor league innings. His mid-90s heater is a plus pitch, and his sinking change is a nasty put-away offering. His curve has looked better this spring and could add a third weapon to an already impressive arsenal. Right now, he profiles as a quality No. 3 starter. If his curveball continues to develop, he could be a No. 2.

Japanese free-agent signee Yusei Kikuchi will be a part of the Mariners rotation this season and appears ready to contribute solid numbers right away. A polished lefty with good command, Kikuchi looked good when I saw him in Arizona this spring. He threw four pitches for strikes, dialed his fastball up to 95 mph, and showed a consistently plus slider. There’s nothing exceptional about Kikuchi, but his combination of above-average stuff, good command, and ability to mix pitches should allow him to post 12-plus wins, notch an 8.0 K/9, and log an ERA around 4.00.

2019 Fantasy Baseball Rankings:  
Catcher | First | Second | Third | Short | Outfield | Starter | Reliever | Top 300

The Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara posted a solid 3.44 ERA in six big league starts last season and should begin the 2019 campaign in the Miami rotation. Alcantara has a big mid-90s fastball, but his command and secondary stuff are both inconsistent. The rebuilding Marlins will probably let him learn on the job, which means there’s a good chance that he sticks in the rotation all year even if he doesn’t perform all that well. If he can improve his command and sharpen his off-speed pitches, he could be a mid-rotation starter. As a rookie, he should post good strikeout totals but probably won’t win many games pitching for a weak Marlins squad.

Injuries to the Yankees’ rotation mean that Jonathan Loaisiga should open the year as New York’s No. 4 starter. Loaisiga has not looked good this spring and he was merely average in a brief big league cameo last year, but the depleted Bombers don’t have many starting pitching options at the moment. Loaisiga actually has quality stuff, including a mid-90s fastball, above-average breaking ball, and solid change. He also typically shows good command, pounds the zone, and generates lots of ground balls. If he can return to form this spring, he could be a successful back-end starter. However, right now he’s a risky play.

Merrill Kelly has emerged as a contender for the Diamondbacks’ rotation after pitching for the past three seasons in the Korean professional league. Kelly has been solid thus far in Cactus League play and could be an effective back-end starter. Kelly shows good command of three pitches (fastball, curve, change) and demonstrates an ability to mix pitches and set up hitters. He’s a bit of a wild card, but he’s a guy worth tracking if he can continue his recent success (three hits, six Ks in his past 8.2 innings).

2019 Fantasy Baseball Sleepers:  
Catcher First Second Third Short Outfield Starter | Each team

The Padres have three rookie pitchers who are still in the mix for the fifth starter role. Jacob Nix was the leading candidate before arm soreness shelved him last week. Logan Allen and Cal Quantrill now stand an outside chance of taking the fifth starter spot, although neither has been particularly effective. If Nix can return to the mound quickly, he could claim the role. His fastball-curve combo is above-average, and he shows solid command. He probably won’t be anything more than a back-end starter, but pitching in San Diego will bolster his stats. Allen has better stuff and projects as a mid-rotation starter despite the need for more seasoning against advanced hitters. Quantrill is a bit overrated and shows average stuff and command. Whether he can stick as a starter is an open question.

Dakota Hudson is still battling for the Cardinals’ fifth starter role and has pitched well in Grapefruit League action. Hudson has plus stuff, but it’s inconsistent, as is his command. At his best he throws a lively mid-90’s fastball that generates lots of ground balls. His slider will flash plus, and his cutter can induce weak contact. If he can tighten his command and execute his pitches more consistently, he could be a mid-rotation starter. Right now he’s a risky back-end guy.

The Cardinals’ Alex Reyes (No. 16) will probably begin the season in the bullpen, but he has electric stuff and looked dominant when I saw him in Florida last week. Reyes missed most of the past two seasons due to injury and is being eased back into regular use. Reyes has been up and down this spring, but in the inning I saw he was unhittable. Reyes has four plus pitches (high-90s fastball, slider, curve, and changeup) and, at his best, toys with hitters by mixing speeds and locations. He’ll need some time regain his consistency and command, but, if he can avoid injury, he’s almost certain to get a shot at the rotation sometime in 2019.

The pitching-rich Braves have enough big league ready prospects to fill two starting rotations. In addition to Toussaint, Kyle Wright, Mike Soroka, and Bryse Wilson are all solid starters who could get a shot in Atlanta this season. 

Wright (No. 37) has been the most impressive of these five this spring and would probably be first in line for a call-up in Atlanta. Wright looked good when I saw him last week in Florida, and thus far he’s posted a 3.00 ERA with 16 strikeouts and only two walks in 12 Grapefruit League innings. Wright has struggled with command as a pro, but he’s cleaned up his delivery and looks much more consistent this year. Wright has the stuff (four quality pitches, including a plus mid-90s fastball that he’ll also cut or sink) to be a No. 2 starter if he can maintain the command improvements he’s shown this spring.

Soroka (No. 32) performed well last year in five big league starts before a shoulder issue derailed his 2018 campaign. The issue flared up again this spring, but he’s reportedly feeling better and could resume game action in the next few weeks. Soroka shows consistently good command of three above-average pitches and profiles as a No. 3 starter. If he can return to health, he could get another big league shot by midseason.

Wilson looked great when I saw him in Florida last week. His plus fastball was sharp, and his changeup was much improved. Wilson’s plus stuff, good command, and aggressive approach should allow him to eventually win a spot as a mid-rotation starter. This spring he’s shown that he can succeed against big league hitters, and he could be in line for a call-up sometime this season.

Meanwhile in Houston, top prospect Forrest Whitley looks big league ready, while Josh James and Framber Valdez may also contribute in 2019.

Whitley (No. 3) has been electric this spring in Grapefruit League action and appears ready to make his big league debut sometime this season. The Astros rotation has some question marks this year, and a hot start at Triple-A could launch Whitely to the majors. Whitley has the dominant stuff of a front-line starter (mid-90s fastball, plus curve, plus change, and quality slider). He commands all four pitches well and has improved his pitch execution from year to year. Whitley is currently the best pitching prospect in baseball and should be successful even as a rookie.

James (No. 39) was in line to compete for a rotation spot with Houston, but a quadriceps strain sidelined him until last Saturday, when he made his first spring appearance. The Astros might keep him in the bullpen to open the season, but he has the stuff (mid-90s fastball, above-average change; above-average slider) to be a mid-rotation starter. He’ll need to tighten his command to reach his potential, but a return to health and a hot start to the season could put him back in the rotation mix.

Valdez was also competing for a rotation slot this spring but poor command has torpedoed his chances. Valdez has a plus sinking fastball and a solid curve. As a two-pitch guy he is more likely to end up in the bullpen, but the Astros continue to give him opportunities to start and he could be serviceable as a back-end guy.

Fantasy Baseball Rankings Tiers, Draft Strategies 
Catcher First Second Third Short Outfield Starter Closer

Keep an Eye On

Oakland’s Jesus Luzardo (No. 7) has been lights-out in Cactus League action, but he’ll certainly begin the season in the minors. Luzardo is one of baseball’s top pitching prospects with excellent command of three quality pitches: a plus fastball, plus change, and above-average breaking ball. If he carries over his spring performance into the regular season, he could get a midseason promotion. If he can improve his pitch sequencing and tighten his curve, he’ll soon reach his potential as a frontline starter.

Brent Honeywell (No. 17) is coming off Tommy John surgery and has yet to throw a pitch for the Rays this season, but he’s been tossing bullpens and is on track to return to game action in May. The rebuilding Rays have no incentive to rush Honeywell’s return, but he could get a late-season call-up. Honeywell shows good command of five quality pitches, including a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, a plus change, and a nasty screwball. He attacks hitters, mixes well and the stuff and makeup to be a No. 2 starter.

Pittsburgh’s Mitch Keller (No. 19) will open the season in Triple-A, but he should finish the year in the majors. Keller shows good command of a mid-90s fastball, a plus curve, and above-average changeup. He’ll need to be more consistent to fully realize his potential as a No. 2 starter, but he has all the tools to be a very good big leaguer. A hot start in the minors could get him a quick promotion to Pittsburgh.

Oakland’s A.J. Puk (No. 29) missed last season due to Tommy John surgery and will begin this year in the minors. Puk has battled command issues as a pro, but before getting hurt last spring his stuff and his control were both much improved. When healthy, the big lefty shows an electric fastball and wipeout slider. If he can throw consistent strikes when he returns to game action this season, he’ll be in line for a promotion to Oakland where he has the upside of a No. 2 or 3 starter.

White Sox righthander Dylan Cease (No. 30) will open the season at Triple-A but could crack the big league rotation by midseason. Cease has plus stuff, including a high-90s fastball and a plus curve. Last season, he improved his command and posted impressive numbers in a season split between High-A and Double-A (2.40 ERA with 160 strikeouts in 124 innings). He’ll need to improve his changeup to reach his potential, but he has the stuff to be a No. 2 or 3 starter.

Seattle’s Justus Sheffield (No. 33), didn’t make the opening day roster, but he showed well in big league camp and should be in lineup for a call-up sometime in 2019. At his best, Sheffield has an overpowering fastball/slider combination, but his release point can be inconsistent and his command can waver. This spring his changeup seems sharper and his command has been better. If his command remains solid and his change is effective, he profiles as a No. 2 or 3 starter.

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The JungleMarch 20, 2019


OKLAHOMA CITY — The first player in Oklahoma City Thunder history to have his jersey retired isn’t Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant.

It’s someone who averaged 5.9 points per game, never made an All-Star team and started about 20 percent of the games he played in.

But on Wednesday, the Thunder will raise No. 4 to the rafters, honoring the career of Nick Collison, who retired last summer. Collison spent his entire 14-year career with the Thunder franchise, drafted by the SuperSonics in 2004 and relocating with the team to Oklahoma City in 2008.

From the outside looking in, it might be confusing that Collison’s is the first number retired by the Thunder. To those close to the organization, though, it was a no-brainer. As Steven Adams says, Collison was a “culture-builder,” an integral part of the franchise in its infancy and while establishing itself. Collison set standards for the Thunder, both on and off the court, carrying the torch of one of the most touted franchise cultures in the league.

“It’s going to be cool for Nick,” said Durant, Collison’s former teammate who will be attending the ceremony. “I’m excited for him.”

Collison chatted with about having his number retired, what life after basketball has been like and if Durant should also see his number retired in OKC.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KD is planning to come. What was your reaction when you found out he wanted to be there?

I thought it was great. I played a long time with Kevin, and he’s a special, special teammate. It wasn’t just because he is a great player, but he’s one of the guys I played with the longest. All that stuff about OKC and building the team, he was there for most of that too. I thought that was really cool that he was going to come. It’s not easy to do logistically in the middle of the season, and I know it’s not easy for him to do with all the stuff that’s around him with coming back. But I thought it was great. I’ve texted with him a couple times, and I’ll be happy to see him.

Some folks worry that his presence is going to overshadow your big night. Any feeling of that from your end?

I don’t mind that. I understand people are interested in him coming back, but this thing is really cool for me and my family. It’s gonna be cool for us regardless of what the conversation is or what other people are talking about. It’s fine with me. He just wanted to be there because I think he appreciates the time we had together too. I think that’s cool. I don’t see anything wrong with it.

Kevin Durant gave you the nickname “Mr. Thunder.” Do you think the Thunder should eventually retire No. 35?

It’s their decision to make, but I would certainly think so. He’s meant a ton to Thunder basketball and spent a huge majority of his career here. A lot of these honors are just kind of what the team decides to do, and I think players are appreciative of them. I don’t get too worked up about it. I’ll let other people debate that, but to me, he’s a big part of what we did here.

There are plenty of folks who don’t quite get why your jersey is getting retired. What do you say to that?

I don’t really care that much about that reaction. I understand it, though, for sure. I’m not the typical type of player to have his jersey retired. I think it’s really great for me and my family. We’re really appreciative of it. It’s something that the organization wanted to do, and I’m honored.

It seems a lot of people who are close to the team or live in Oklahoma get it, having seen the importance you had in helping establish a franchise. But why do you think you’re having your number retired?

I think the story of the Oklahoma City Thunder is a pretty cool story, being able to start from scratch and have a ton of success. I think I played a pretty big part in that, and I’m proud of my career and always tried to do my job, and it’s cool to be recognized for that.

It’s probably fair to say that when the team relocated from Seattle, you weren’t the most excited person about that, but what would you have said if someone had told you then that you’d end up having your number retired by the Thunder?

I would’ve thought you were crazy. Again, I never would’ve expected this, just knowing my place in the league and the way it usually goes for guys like me. I probably wouldn’t have anticipated a trade — no players do — but if you really would’ve looked at it, you probably would’ve said at some point you’d move around. That’s what most guys do.

Was there any point when you were close to leaving?

When we first got to Oklahoma City, they moved everybody that was with Seattle, except me and obviously Kevin [Durant]. But it just seemed like I probably would’ve been one of those guys, given the stage of my career. That first year in Oklahoma City, that last year in Seattle, there were just a ton of trades, players moving in and out, reshuffling the deck — Sam [Presti] trying to position the team for the future. So I definitely thought at that time it could happen. After that, I just always ended up getting fair offers for extensions, and I never actually was a free agent until the very last summer.

We were moving toward something. We were building and getting better, and I wanted a chance to win a championship with that group. They offered good, fair deals. I wasn’t just going to take whatever to stay, but it worked out, so I really had no reason to look elsewhere. It’s such a great thing to be in one place the whole time and be able to be with that group of people for so long and have the type of connections I have. A lot of people in the NBA don’t get that.

“It’s such a great thing to be in one place the whole time and be able to be with that group of people for so long and have the type of connections I have. A lot of people in the NBA don’t get that.”

Nick Collison

What about your post-playing career? Has it been a weird or difficult transition?

The big thing is not being tied to that schedule all the time — it’s really nice. For 15 years playing, four years of college, you’re always tied to the basketball schedule, so it’s nice to have some free time. It is strange to not be with the team, not be around the guys all the time. And I always want to know what’s going on, so I’m always talking to friends on the staff or a couple guys on the team I still keep in touch with. I do miss that part of it, but I was able to kind of end on my own terms. I knew it was time for me.

You hear a lot of guys talk about recreating that rush, but I didn’t play much at the end, so I learned to deal with that. So now it’s more just not being around it all the time. I’m really enjoying the other stuff, to have the opportunity to be with my daughter more.

When most guys retire, they go one of two ways: They stick with their workout habits and keep in shape, or they get fat. What’s your plan there?

I’m so motivated to not get fat. I got a garage gym at my house. I haven’t been able to do anything on the court, so I’m having to find different ways to work out, but I’m doing OK so far. I’m off to a good start. I’ve been cutting weight. I’m trying to make sure I can still fit into my suits.

With your role with the Thunder now, [team PR person] Matt Tumbleson likes to say you work for him now.

Yeah, I’m a PR intern.

Do you feel like this is something to springboard into a larger role?

I think so. For me now, I’m mostly doing stuff in the community. I’ve done a few things with a couple local organizations. There’s this thing called True Dads, which is really cool. They’re basically a support group for parents — it’s not just dads, but men and women who are about to have kids or already have kids to kind of help in parenting. I’ve done a couple things with public schools and teachers in OKC.

And then I went and scouted a couple games, some stuff like that. This year I’m not doing that as much. I think I’ll ramp up more in the next couple years. But it’s something I’m interested in, and it’s a great opportunity to learn from one of the best front offices in the league. Basketball is something I’ve always done, and I have a lot to offer, I just have to figure out what niche works for me and the team.

Coaching is in your family, though. What about that?

I think every player is naturally more prepared for that right away because that’s what we’ve always done. We’ve been on the court, and we know how teams work and the game works. But honestly, I just don’t have the time for it. I’m not going to commit that much time. I’m co-parenting my daughter — I’ve been divorced, so my daughter doesn’t just come with me wherever I go — so I’ve missed a lot of time playing the last few years. I don’t need to go chase something else, so I’m not just going to continue to be gone.

She’s in seventh grade, and I need to be able to give her the time she deserves too. So coaching doesn’t really allow for that. You’ve got to be there every day. You’ve got practice every day and travel. Summer is busy too. Maybe someday.

You spent last season around Paul George, and there were a lot of positive feelings that he was enjoying his time with the Thunder, but were you surprised when he decided to stay?

I’ve been around enough and seen enough to know that it’s hard to be in the prediction business with free agency, so I just kind of know there’s no way to know until you get to July. I think players would do themselves a lot of favors if they would just constantly say that. Just, “I’m going to wait until July. I’m going to wait until July.” I think that’s mostly what Paul was saying.

It did seem like he was happy, but I was just surprised he did it on the first day of free agency and committing to it. But I thought it was great, and I was very happy to see it, for sure, because he’s a big-time player and a big piece, and it allows the organization to keep moving forward. There would’ve been a lot of unknowns if he had left.

What do you think it says about Westbrook that he decided to stay? After Durant left, there was a perception — right or wrong — that nobody wants to play with Westbrook. Does George’s staying say anything about that?

Paul seems really happy here. He’s playing great. He’s playing great next to Russell. I don’t know if it makes some great statement about Russell, but it definitely goes against that idea that guys don’t like playing with him. I played with him a long time, and I loved playing with him. I know a lot of the other guys do too.

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The JungleMarch 20, 2019


DAYTON, Ohio — Fran Dunphy’s three decades of coaching Big Five basketball came to a close Tuesday night with Temple’s First Four loss to Belmont.

Dunphy, 70, made plans last year to step away from coaching after one final season with the Owls. He took over at Temple in 2006. He coached at Penn for 17 seasons before moving across town in Philadelphia to take the Temple job. Dunphy said Tuesday night that his impending departure had not yet fully sunk in.

“I haven’t thought too much about it,” he said. “I will reflect in the coming days. I’m very appreciative of what Temple gave to me and what the University of Pennsylvania game to me. I’m a fortunate guy.”

Temple faded down the stretch of a back-and-forth game with Belmont on Tuesday night, losing 81-70. Dunphy made his way through the handshake line and back to the Temple locker room without any extra emotion.

Belmont coach Rick Byrd, another longtime member of the college-coaching fraternity, started his news conference Tuesday night by congratulating Dunphy on an “unbelievable career.”

“He is really one of, if not the, best guy in our business and a quality man,” Byrd said. “This game will miss him. So, I was fully prepared to be happy for him if we weren’t able to win this game because it’s his last year.”

Byrd’s team won in the NCAA tournament for the first time during his lengthy career at Belmont, and it will play sixth-seeded Maryland on Thursday.

Temple assistant Aaron McKie, who has worked with the Owls since 2014, takes over for Dunphy as head coach.

Dunphy finishes his time at Temple with 270 wins, including two in the NCAA tournament. He won a total of 580 games during his 30 seasons as a head coach.

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The JungleMarch 20, 2019


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The JungleMarch 20, 2019


Doc Rivers has addressed rumors concerning him and the Lakers.

The Clippers coach has been linked to the other job in Los Angeles. But, he told reporters Tuesday there was “no truth” to those reports.

Rivers said he is “close friends” with Lakers president Magic Johnson. However, he said his job “is not done” with the Clippers.

Rivers added the Clippers’ organization is a “great place to work.” 

The Clippers enter Tuesday at 41-30 and hold the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Although they traded their leading scorer, Tobias Harris, to the 76ers, they appear likely to make the postseason and are set to be in the race to sign top free agents this summer.

The Lakers, on the other hand, don’t seem likely to creep into the playoff race, as they sit 9 1/2 games behind the Clippers with 11 regular season games remaining.

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The JungleMarch 19, 2019


SAN ANTONIO — Discomfort contorted Gregg Popovich’s face as he pondered a defensive demise nobody wanted to concede.

With the San Antonio Spurs mired in a three-game skid at the time, and mere minutes before the Feb. 27 start of a league-best nine-game winning streak, Popovich seemed to have given up hope for the return of a defensive foundation that had buttressed the franchise for more than two decades.

“We used to call it ‘stops on demand,'” he said, “where at certain points in the game, if you needed to get [defensive] stops, you could always depend on it. We haven’t acquired that identity yet.”

But 19 days after Popovich lamented potentially losing it, the Spurs leaned on a suffocating defense Monday night to best the defending champion Golden State Warriors 111-105, while limiting the visitors well below their 117.7-point scoring average.

Surging toward a 22nd consecutive postseason appearance, the Spurs have transformed from perhaps the worst defensive unit in Popovich’s 23 years at the helm to one of the best in the league.

“I’m just seeing an enigma that we’re trying to figure out,” Popovich had explained when San Antonio’s winning streak first started. “We were horrible a big part of the year, the first third or quarter or whatever you want to call it. Then we had that 10- [or] 12-game stretch where we were like first or second in every defensive category. And then we went back to 28th and 29th for a stretch.”

The Spurs ranked No. 21 in defensive efficiency before embarking on their annual rodeo trip Feb. 3, only to fall back even further in the NBA rankings. During their worst-ever rodeo trip (they finished with a 1-7 record), the Spurs bottomed out by yielding 122.1 points per 100 possessions, worst in the league during that stretch of the calendar.

It was not familiar territory for a Spurs team that hasn’t ranked outside of the top five in defensive efficiency since 2011-2012.

But it appears a real turnaround is at hand. The Spurs are second in defensive efficiency at 103.1 points allowed per 100 possessions since Feb. 26.

The Spurs held Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to a combined 4-of-22 in the first half Monday night, which registers as the duo’s worst combined field goal percentage in a first half in their careers (minimum 15 shots), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“To be the last team standing, you’ve got to be near the top in both [offensive and defensive] categories,” Popovich said. “You don’t have to be at the top in both, but being relatively close is important. That’s been the history.”

In each of San Antonio’s five championship seasons, the Spurs finished in the top three in defensive rating and 11th or better in offensive rating. Even last season, the Spurs ranked third in defensive rating despite two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard participating in just nine games.

Since the 1998-1999 season, the Spurs are the only team to rank in the top five in both defensive rating (first) and offensive rating (third) overall for that 20-year interval.

They’re still 20th in defensive efficiency overall this season, but the team is encouraged by the recent stretch of strong play.

“I think we’re on the corner. We’re still turning it,” Spurs guard Patty Mills said recently. “These are all great examples of us and the way that we need to play. But for us to have the games that we’ve had defensively [recently] is a huge confidence boost for us. We just need to lock in that feeling of how we play and keep it rolling.

“We can show that we can play the way that we need to play to be in the playoffs — and make a run in the playoffs.”

The Spurs are No. 5 in the West, just 1.5 games behind Portland.

San Antonio’s defensive slide coincided with the absence of point guard Derrick White, a first-year starter and a revelation on defense. The 24-year-old missed six of San Antonio’s eight games on the rodeo trip. The Spurs captured victories in eight of 11 outings since the return of White, who ranked fifth among guards in defended field goal attempts per game with a minimum 50 games played. And of the 30 guards to defend at least 10 shots per game, White ranks fourth in opponent field goal percentage allowed, according to NBA advanced stats.

But the cracks in the defensive foundation predated White’s most recent injury setback, which kept him out of six games.

Over the summer, the Spurs lost two of their top wing defenders from last season in Kyle Anderson, who signed a free-agent deal with the Memphis Grizzlies, and Danny Green, who departed for the Toronto Raptors as part of a trade that Leonard demanded. Future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili retired, and point guard Tony Parker opted to play his 18th season for the Charlotte Hornets.

Starting point guard Dejounte Murray, who earned recognition last season as a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive team, tore his right ACL against the Houston Rockets during the preseason. Murray’s injury paved the way for White to become the starter.

In all, the Spurs have nine players on the current roster who weren’t a part of the team last season. On top of that, they’re playing with essentially four new starters. Mills, a 10-year veteran, is now the longest-tenured member of the team at eight seasons with the Spurs.

Popovich often refers to the “corporate knowledge” that for years was passed along to younger players from vets such as Parker, Ginobili and the retired Tim Duncan.

For a while this season, the Spurs wondered whether it was gone.

In perhaps the most significant test since the start of its winning streak, San Antonio corralled Golden State’s top three perimeter threats — Kevin Durant, Curry and Thompson — and held them to a combined 23-of-61 (37.7 percent) from the floor for 63 points on Monday.

“I think more than anything, probably part of the answer is we haven’t been together long enough either in the system or the players with each other to form habits and be consistent in those areas,” Popovich said. “So, we’ll be really good for a while, and then we’ll be really poor. It hasn’t become a habit yet. The culture hasn’t sunk in definitively enough to have that consistency, and we’ve been used to that for a long time.

“With a group of new guys in a new system, it’s gone slowly. We’ve been in valleys, up and down defensively. That consistency has never taken root.”

San Antonio’s defensive efficiency (110.7), opponent field goal percentage (46.4), opponent points per game in the paint (46.7) and opponent assist to turnover ratio (2.01) for the season all rank as the worst in the Popovich era.

But that wasn’t the defense Warriors coach Steve Kerr saw in Monday’s contest.

“They play hard,” Kerr said. “They have been a very good defensive team down this last couple of weeks. Much improved defensively, they are hot right now. I was frustrated a little bit, our guys were a little frustrated. But we’ve got to bounce back.”

Aside from White, another boost for the defense comes from 7-foot center Jakob Poeltl, who has helped All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge to bolster protection against shots inside the arc. After struggling earlier in the season at adjusting to his role in San Antonio’s system, Poeltl is averaging 2.1 blocks since Feb. 26. Poeltl tied a career high with five blocks in each of the previous two games headed into Monday’s clash with the Warriors, joining elite company in Duncan, David Robinson and Antoine Carr as the only Spurs to have totaled five or more blocks in back-to-back outings.

Meanwhile, with White matching up against the opponent’s top perimeter threat on most nights, San Antonio’s defense has been 4.0 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. As of games through Monday night, the 6-foot-4 White ranks No. 1 in the NBA among guards in contested shots per game (9.5), and he averages 1.6 blocks per game since Feb. 26.

“It’s a combination of Jakob — he takes up a lot of space, he’s pretty mobile, he allows [Aldridge] to do some other things out there,” Popovich said. “But Derrick White is a big part of that also. He sets the tone for us out on the perimeter, and Jakob guards pick-and-roll really well. He’s got good mobility, and he moves around on the court where he can cover a little bit more ground near the rim. So it helps us.”

That, in turn, aided San Antonio on its roll to a ninth consecutive victory — and an 11th straight win at home.

“It was the defense,” Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan said after finishing with a game-high 26 points. “We didn’t cave in. We kept them to 105 points.”

Popovich offered his take.

“We worked hard. We made a lot of mistakes against the best team in basketball, probably,” the coach said. “You know, they’re the defending NBA champs, and they move and cut better than anybody in the world. So, it was a great classroom, so to speak, to be able to try to guard that all night long. The effort was there for 48 minutes, and we learned a lot, hopefully. So, that’s a good thing.”

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The JungleMarch 19, 2019


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The JungleMarch 19, 2019


Star center fielder Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels are finalizing the largest contract in professional sports history, a 12-year deal worth more than $430 million that will smash previous records and could keep the greatest player of his generation with the Angels for the remainder of his career, sources familiar with the deal told ESPN on Tuesday.

Trout, who has won two American League MVP awards and finished second four times, will receive an average of nearly $36 million a year, topping Zack Greinke‘s previous record average of $34.4 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The $430 million-plus total is more than 30 percent larger than the $330 million deal Bryce Harper signed with the Philadelphia Phillies on March 2 and bests boxer Canelo Alvarez’s deal with DAZN by more than $65 million.

Trout, 27, was due to be a free agent following the 2020 season, at which point he was expected to set off a frenzied bidding war among the largest-market teams in the game. The clamoring already had begun, with Harper lobbying for Trout to join him in Philadelphia, 45 miles from Trout’s hometown of Millville, New Jersey.

The Angels will nullify that possibility by ripping up the final two seasons of his six-year, $144.5 million deal and replace it with the new 12-year deal through the 2030 season, sources told ESPN.

A generational talent with an unparalleled set of skills among his peers, Trout has put together arguably the greatest start to a career in baseball history. In 1,065 games, he has slashed .307/.416/.573 with 240 home runs, 648 RBIs, 793 runs and 189 stolen bases. No player in history has put up more wins above replacement through his age-26 season than Trout’s 64.3.

While the Angels’ past forays into long-term contracts have not paid off — their 10-year, $240 million deal with Albert Pujols and five-year, $125 million deal with Josh Hamilton both are considered albatrosses — the possibility of losing Trout was simply too daunting to not complete a deal.

Trout casts his lot with an organization that has made the playoffs just once during his eight major league seasons — and was swept in the first round when it did. Los Angeles’ bustling farm system and the ability for owner Arte Moreno to parlay a $3 billion local TV deal into higher payrolls gave Trout enough security to lock down a deal through his age-38 season.

After joining the Angels as the 25th pick in the 2009 draft, Trout blitzed through their farm system and debuted at 19 years old during the 2011 season. He established himself as a star the next season, winning the AL Rookie of the Year award and finishing second in the MVP voting for the first of two straight seasons. He won the award in 2014 and 2016 and finished second again last year, arguably his best season yet, in which he slashed .312/.460/.628 with 39 home runs and 79 RBIs in 140 games.

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