by Julian Spivey
William Byron, who arguably had the best 2023 season of any NASCAR Cup Series driver with his series-high six wins, began the 2024 Cup Series season on Monday, February 19 winning the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500.
Byron’s first career Cup Series win came at the track in 2020 in the fall race but he’s never had any success in the “Great American Race” before Monday. In fact, in six previous Daytona 500 starts Byron had never finished the race.
Byron came up as something of an unusual prodigy in NASCAR learning how to drive more at first on a simulator in his home than at the race track, as most drivers do. He tore up the Craftsman Truck Series in 2016 at age 18 winning seven races, nearly one-third of that series’ schedule. The next year in the Xfinity Series at 19 he would win four races and finish in the top 10 in 22 of 33 races. He was then moved up to the Cup Series, maybe a bit too quickly in the eyes of some, for the 2018 season at age 20. Byron struggled in his first two Cup seasons failing to win a race and recording just 17 top 10s over 72 races in Hendrick Motorsports equipment, so the best the sport has to offer.
That first win came in 2020. He would win another race in 2021 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and then in 2022 finally had his first multiple-win season with wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway.
His 2023 season, where he led the sport with six wins, felt like it came out of nowhere. But at age 25 maybe he finally had gotten comfortable with the equipment and his talent level reached that of his competitors.
Now, in the first race of the 2024 Cup Series season, Byron has won the biggest race of them all and has become the first driver to clinch a spot in the 2024 NASCAR Playoff field. His six wins from 2023 would be pretty hard to top, but at the moment there’s no better driver in the NASCAR Cup Series than William Byron.
This past weekend, February 17-18, seems like the one where NBA fans have finally become fed up with the NBA All-Star Weekend.
The All-Star festivities on Saturday night in Indianapolis got off to a great start with a fun three-point contest, an event that seems unbreakable, with Milwaukee Bucks All-Star guard Damian Lillard defending his 2023 title in a tight-fought battle against Karl Anthony-Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves), Trae Young (Atlanta Hawks) and Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana Pacers). Then came the new event many NBA and WNBA fans alike were looking forward to – the three-point shootout between all-time NBA three-point leader Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors) and Sabrina Ionescu (New York Liberty), who scored a record 37 points in the 2023 WNBA three-point contest (Curry held the NBA record at 31). In a fun competition (except for TNT’s Kenny Smith’s commentary that drew the ire of many, especially female fans) Curry defeated Ionescu 29-26.
Hopefully, the NBA star vs. WNBA star aspect of NBA All-Star Saturday Night continues into future years.
What earned NBA All-Star weekend the “Sports Zero” of the week was everything that came next. For the second year in a row the NBA Slam Dunk Contest was won by a player who isn’t even technically in the NBA but in the league’s minor leagues known as the NBA G League. Max McClung, on the Orlando Magic’s minor league team, defeated three actual NBA players for the second year in a row. McClung now has almost as many Slam Dunk Contest trophies (2) as NBA games played in his career (4).
Many have long bashed the Slam Dunk Contest for a lack of quality, excitement and array of dunks – which is understandable but also somewhat unfair as there are only so many kinds of dunks that can be done after 40-plus years of dunk contests. My biggest issue has been a lack of star power in the event, which was alleviated a bit this year with Boston Celtics All-Star Jaylen Brown taking part in the event and then absolutely embarrassing himself with a lackluster performance that reminded us why most All-Stars stay far away from the event.
I don’t want to see the NBA Slam Dunk Contest eliminated but I’m also not sure there’s any way to fix it.
The more concerning aspect of NBA All-Star weekend for many fans was the effort-free All-Star game itself on Sunday night (February 18). The league went back to the traditional Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference format this season after many years of having a superstar from each conference draft teams consisting of all of the game’s All-Stars. The league also went back to the traditional four quarters instead of having a certain number to hit after three quarters.
But it was clear from the start that there was no real effort to play defense by either squad, which has become more and more the case over the years, and many of the players just took the opportunity to see who could hit the most three-pointers and from how far they could. It was kind of like watching a shootaround with the occasional fancy pass or dunk thrown in.
The word “pride” was thrown around a lot by fans on social media perturbed by the effort given during the game, as in “these players need to take more pride in their effort.” But times have changed and you don’t have the kind of athletes out on the court anymore who truly despise each other and don’t want to lose to them, even in an exhibition game. How does one enforce something that isn’t truly mandatory? The NBA All-Stars play an 82-game season where they try to give their all and then those who make the postseason spend another two months trying to win a title. They just want to have fun on All-Star weekend (if they even want to be there at all). They don’t want to worry about potential injury by playing at full speed. So, they turn it into a Harlem Globetrotters performance.
I don’t think there’s any way to fix that way of thinking. It’s just come to a point where we fans have to determine if the game is worth watching or if we’d rather do anything else on a random Sunday night in February every year. On Sunday, I held in as long as I could, but by the fourth quarter, I was ready for anything else.
by Julian Spivey
The 2024 NASCAR season begins this weekend and at the moment there are so many talented drivers in the Cup Series that it feels like the majority of the field could win any given week. That makes trying to predict the 16-driver NASCAR Playoffs field pretty hard but we’ll find out in September how many I got right.
16. Brad Keselowski
Veteran Brad Keselowski enters his third season as co-owner of Roush Fenway Keselowski (RFK) Racing and has yet to win a race with his team, which has to be a disappointment for him even if he did point his way into the playoffs last year. Keselowski’s 98-race winless streak is the second longest of any active Cup driver who has won a race (only Justin Haley’s 105-race streak is longer). I feel like Keselowski will finally get that RFK win this season but even if he doesn’t will likely point his way in again.
15. Kyle Busch
It might sound ridiculous because Kyle Busch won three races in 2023 but I briefly considered leaving him off the list because I do not trust Richard Childress Racing. The team pretty much disappeared on Busch last season when it mattered most in the playoffs but ultimately I couldn’t predict against him. He’s just too talented.
14. Chris Buescher
For about the stretch of a month late last summer, Chris Buescher was the hottest driver in NASCAR. He won three races in the span of five (including three straight ovals) but then he kind of faded a bit in the postseason – he wasn’t bad but he just wasn’t close enough to the front to capitalize and win. I certainly don’t think you could predict Buescher to win three races again – but there’s no reason to believe he won’t break through at least once to clinch a playoff spot.
13. Alex Bowman
Alex Bowman won seven races between 2019 and 2023, including a career-high four races in 2022. When you drive for Hendrick Motorsports you’re expected to win races but last year Bowman hurt himself in an extracurricular dirt track race that forced him to miss three races. When he returned he just never looked right. I assume he’ll be back to his normal self this season, which should mean at least one win.
12. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. had the best season of his NASCAR Cup Series career in 2023 making the playoffs for the first time despite failing to win a race. Wallace seems to be gaining more and more confidence with age and the next box he needs to tick off is winning multiple races in a season and I think that’s coming in 2024.
11. Ty Gibbs
Some might say that Ty Gibbs had a disappointing rookie Cup Series season coming off an Xfinity Series championship the year before, but I don’t see it that way. It’s hard to win a race in the Cup Series, especially for a rookie, and even though he didn’t find Victory Lane in his rookie season he almost pointed his way into the playoffs being the first driver to miss the cut. With Joe Gibbs Racing equipment and his talent level, I’d be shocked if Gibbs didn’t win a race in 2024 and he might win multiple ones.
10. Joey Logano
Joey Logano only won one race in 2023, which is quite shocking for a driver of his caliber, and that came on the newly pack-racing style of Atlanta Motor Speedway in the fifth race of the year. So, he enters 2024 with a 30-plus race winless streak that I know he’s going to be raring to snap. I just don’t know what to expect from Logano in 2024. I would assume multiple race wins – but even if it’s more of the same from last season he still finds a way into the playoff field.
9. Ross Chastain
Ross Chastain had an interesting 2023 season. He won the same number of races as he did the previous year (two) but his overall numbers were down with five fewer top-5s and seven fewer top-10s. It seemed like he let some of the talk of him being too aggressive get into his head and interfered with his mojo a bit. I think we’re going to see a return to form for Chastain, in which he doesn’t give a damn what others think … or at least I hope we are for excitement's sake.
8. Tyler Reddick
Tyler Reddick seems like a no-brainer for the playoffs after his last two seasons: 2022 with Richard Childress Racing and last year in his first season at 23XI Racing. The 27-year-old have combined for five race wins over the last two seasons. The question now for Reddick is can he move forward and jump from a winning driver to one of the elite drivers in the sport? I’m not sure he’s there yet but expect him to win at least a couple of races again, especially with as talented as he is on road courses.
7. Christopher Bell
Christopher Bell has made the Championship Four the last two seasons so having him at only No. 7 on this list could be seen as a bit disrespectful. However, I feel like Bell is going to need to take one more step before I can buy him as a title threat and that is to win more often. He won six races over the last three seasons, but no more than three in any given season. Typically, the champion has to win more than that.
6. Chase Elliott
Chase Elliott was, without a doubt, the biggest disappointment in NASCAR last season. The sport’s most popular driver missed seven races – six due to an injury sustained in an extracurricular activity and one due to suspension for intentionally wrecking a competitor in a race – in 2023, but he didn’t quite look right following his return from said injury. At times it feels like Elliott would rather be doing anything but racing his No. 9 Rick Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but I see no reason why he shouldn’t get back to his winning ways that saw him win 18 times from 2018-2022 in 2024. NASCAR needs him to return to winning form, for sure.
5. Martin Truex Jr.
I don’t understand what happened to Martin Truex Jr. in the NASCAR Playoffs in 2023. He won the regular season point standings, which gave him a big bonus for the playoffs. He won three races during the regular season. Then he just fell off a cliff in the playoffs looking like the kind of driver that deserved to be nowhere near the chase for the championship. I assume Truex will get back to his winning ways in 2024 but you never know. Sometimes when a driver hits a certain age, Truex is 43, they just seem to lose “it” and never return. If that could happen to maybe the sport's all-time greatest driver Jimmie Johnson it could certainly be the case for Truex.
4. Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney surprised many by winning the NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2023 taking full advantage of the playoff system by clinching his way into the championship race by winning the penultimate race of the year at Martinsville and then finishing the highest of the four contenders at the season finale at Phoenix to win the title. Some within the sport’s media didn’t think he was a championship-caliber driver. Despite winning three races and the title in 2023 some still don’t seem to be giving him the credit he’s due. I’ve seen the phrase “worst champion” thrown about multiple times on social media when describing Blaney. I think 2024 will be the year Blaney proves he wasn’t some fluke champion.
3. William Byron
William Byron led all of NASCAR’s Cup Series in wins in 2023 with six, which was more than his first five seasons in the series combined. It was truly the breakout year for William Byron, who would go on to finish third in the championship. You don’t just luck your way into six wins, 15 top-5s, 21 top-10s and an average finish of 11th. I’m not going to predict Byron will once again lead the sport in wins but I don’t see much falloff coming his way.
2. Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin is the greatest bridesmaid in the history of NASCAR. He may not have as many runner-up finishes as Hall of Famer Mark Martin (he only has one) but he’s been the most successful driver in the history of the sport to not win a championship. The last two seasons have seen Hamlin as the first man out of the championship four at Phoenix. Hamlin is good for multiple wins a season. I’ve got him once again as the bridesmaid.
1. Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson seems like the year-in-year-out title favorite right now in NASCAR’s Cup Series. The 2021 champion has won at least three races in every season he’s been with Hendrick Motorsports and has appeared in the Championship Four in two of his three years with the team. Larson was the runner-up to Ryan Blaney in 2023, despite having better numbers overall during the season, which included four wins and 15 top-5s. I do believe there may be a stretch during this season where Larson might be off as he’s focused on his debut run in the Indianapolis 500 but that’ll wear off well before playoff time and he’ll be the driver to beat.
by Julian Spivey
The Word on Pop Culture’s sports hero for the week truly could be the entire Kansas City Chiefs roster and staff for winning Super Bowl LVIII over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, February 11 but I want the honor to be a bit more limiting than that – so who better to give it to than the man who led the Chiefs offense down the field in overtime searching for and reaching that game-winning touchdown.
Patrick Mahomes won his third career Super Bowl M.V.P. honor on Sunday night and he’s only 28 years old. Mahomes’s accolades and dominance over the first six years of his career (not counting the 2017 rookie year, in which he only played in one game), including three Super Bowl titles and two league M.V.P. awards among other things have sealed the deal as far as him having the greatest start to a career in NFL history. In the minds of some, he’s already one of the three greatest quarterbacks in league history along with Tom Brady and Joe Montana. I’m not sure he should be placed above five-time NFL M.V.P. Peyton Manning just yet but he’s already won more Super Bowls than Manning did, so I can understand why some are already doing so.
At times early in Super Bowl LVIII, Mahomes and the Chiefs didn’t look all that impressive – much like they had at many times throughout the regular season – but at the end of the day Mahomes had 333 passing yards, two touchdown passes, was 34-for-46 passing and ran for a team-high 66 yards. It seems that when the game is on the line – and in fact, more so when the Chiefs are behind on the biggest stage – Mahomes becomes the Football Superman that he is. In all three Super Bowl wins Mahomes has led the Chiefs from second-half deficits to win the game.
Often in today’s sports world the more dominant and awesome an athlete is the more the majority of fans seem to dislike them – which seems to be a new world phenomenon, as I don’t remember this same feeling of athletes like Michael Jordan in the past – but I hope most football fans will take a moment to appreciate the greatness they’re witnessing out of Mahomes and get used to it because there are no signs of it ending soon.
Charley Hoffman won the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale in Scottsdale, Ariz. over the last weekend in a playoff finish over Nick Taylor but the biggest story to come out of that tournament was the behavior of the spectators, who turned the event into a drunken party that included 54 arrests for things like intoxication and fights.
Those in charge of the tournament have vowed to change the fan experience for the event in 2025 but honestly, the tournament and the PGA Tour have done so much to build up the party aspect of this tournament and venue that I can’t help but put much of the blame on them. Of course, spectators shouldn’t be having drunken brawls, falling out of the stands, doing “sand angels” in the bunkers, etc. but when you market something as a party atmosphere you shouldn’t be surprised when the types of things you’d occasionally see at parties happen at your event.
I’m not sure what the tournament can and will do to try to get rid of this behavior without harming itself. I imagine some sort of alcohol limitation but that also will cost the tournament money.
But again, like with my sports hero of the week, I’d like to pinpoint a sports zero of the down to one person, and that person this week is PGA Tour veteran and multiple-time major tournament winner Zach Johnson.
There were a handful of PGA golfers who seemed irritated with the behavior of the spectators over the weekend, including Billy Horschel and Jordan Spieth, but Johnson seemed to be the most outspoken. The 47-year-old golfer could be heard admonishing the crowd at one point saying: “I’m just sick of it. Just shut up!.” After the event, Johnson would tell the media: “This tournament has been inappropriate and crossed the line since I’ve been on tour, and this is my 21st year.”
My advice to Johnson would simply be, “Don’t come back.” This tournament can and will exist without Zach Johnson.
I’ve been a golf fan for more than 25 years but one thing that I’ve always found laughable, in particular, is how golfers react to any noise whatsoever while they’re “in the zone” – this was what Horschel had an incident with fans about too. In every other major sport in the world, the athletes compete at the top level with incredibly loud venues. Are you telling me these guys can’t focus and hit a motionless golf ball with a bit of noise while you have baseball players at any and every level hitting a moving target with all hell breaking loose around them?
I don’t feel sorry for these guys.
Yes, the spectators at the Phoenix Open have gotten worse over the last few years. Just two years ago there were zero arrests made at the tournament. But I can’t help but think that reactions like the kind had by Johnson over the weekend aren’t making their sport look worse.
by Eric Fulton & Julian Spivey
*This conversation had been edited for grammar and clarity.
JS: Super Bowl LVIII between the AFC Champion and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers is Sunday, February 11 on CBS.
Let’s break down the key positions for the big game!
At quarterback for the Chiefs is, of course, Patrick Mahomes who has led the Chiefs to two Super Bowl titles already at just 28 years old. The 49ers have Brock Purdy, who was famously Mr. Irrelevant or the final draft pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, and now less than two years later is leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Which team has the advantage here?
EF: As much as I like Brock Purdy and respect him for what he has done in two years, the obvious answer is Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes is playing in his fourth Super Bowl in the last five years. Not a lot of quarterbacks can say that. It is beyond amazing what Mahomes is doing and he will (hopefully) still play another 10 years in the league.
JS: I agree with you that the obvious answer is Patrick Mahomes with his experience, but the wild thing here is that Brock Purdy is one of the NFL MVP finalists this year and Mahomes isn't and we're still taking Mahomes as the no-brainer.
JS: Speaking of no-brainers, the running back position has to go to the 49ers and Christian McCaffrey, right? He's one of the five NFL MVP finalists too and the best back in the league at the moment. Is Isiah Pacheco even in his zip code?
EF: While Isiah Pacheco has played well at times for Kansas City this year, this is yet another no-brainer. When the 49ers acquired Christian McCaffrey from the Carolina Panthers, I thought this would be the best place for him because the 49ers want to run the ball and they rely on McCaffery to use his speed and his ability to make plays that help set up the pass. The Chiefs' defense will have to make sure to stop the run and force Purdy to pass when he does not want to.
JS: Let's go ahead and put the receivers and tight ends together here. The two best tight ends in the NFL will be featured in this game in Travis Kelce for the Chiefs and George Kittle for the 49ers. The 49ers also have fantastic wide receivers in Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel. The receivers corps for the Chiefs has been probably the team's biggest question mark this season. Of the receivers not dating Taylor Swift, the only one with more than 500 receiving yards this year was Rashee Rice, who hasn't played in the postseason due to injury. Marquez Valdes-Scantling had been the team's second option in the passing game behind Kelce this postseason. This seems like another no-brainer ... so how far behind are the Chiefs?
EF: If the Chiefs had one or two decent wide receivers to go along with Kelce, this would be a push. I don't think the Chiefs are that far off because of Kelce, but if Kelce has a monster game, the 49ers are going to lose.
JS: When it comes to the defensive side of the ball neither of these teams are slouches. Both are in the top eight in the league when it comes to defensive yards allowed averages. The Chiefs were the second-best this season allowing 289.3 yards to their opponents, while the 49ers were eighth allowing 303.9 yards. During the postseason, the Chiefs have seen their average at 322.7 yards over three games and the 49ers are at 386 over two games. The Chiefs have been giving up less than two touchdowns on average this postseason, while the 49ers are closer to four in one less game.
Eric, which team has the defensive advantage?
EF: This game is going to come down to whoever plays defense the best. The 49ers have not played the best defense in the playoffs but if they can get on a roll, they are hard to stop. The Chiefs are much better this year than in years past. Now you are seeing the offense not being relied on so much. I was surprised Kansas City only scored 17 points in the AFC Championship and won. I did pick the Chiefs to win, but I thought they would score at least 20 or more to do so. The Chiefs have been really good down the stretch and I see them being the better unit of the two teams, so I will give the slight edge to the Chiefs.
JS: Based on everything you said I’m assuming you’re going to predict the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl?
EF: Yeah, I am. As much as I think the 49ers are very good and can win this game, I see the Chiefs playing the better game and, once again, I can't bet against Mahomes and coach Andy Reid.
JS: I’ve been on record throughout this conversation we’ve been having all postseason as saying I’d need to see the Chiefs lose before I could predict them to lose. But the 49ers have so many bright spots that I’m having a harder time sticking the that. I know the Chiefs have had a bit better of a defense this season and the Chiefs have looked like the better of the two teams in the postseason. But my gut is telling me Christian McCaffrey is going to have a big game and the 49ers are going to pull out a close one.
by Julian Spivey
Netflix’s latest foray into sports docuseries, “NASCAR: Full Speed,” premiered on January 30, and there’s hope the five-episode series will do for the sport of NASCAR what the similar “Drive to Survive” series did for Formula 1.
Now, there are certainly major differences between F1 and NASCAR, despite both being motorsports. F1 is primarily European with one American driver, and he’s new to the sport. Whereas NASCAR is primarily American with few drivers hailing from elsewhere. So, theoretically, Americans should have more understanding of NASCAR than they did F1. However, it is still seen in the minds of many as a regional, Southern American thing – even if that’s a stereotype that should’ve died off by now.
“NASCAR: Full Speed” follows many of the NASCAR drivers as they made their way through the 10-race NASCAR Playoffs last season – spending most of the time on the younger faces of the sport and some brash characters like Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.
The episodes are slick, well shot and directed and interspersed with driver interviews and some behind-the-scenes looks into their lives off the track.
As a NASCAR fan already, the show didn’t do a whole lot for me as far as recapping the NASCAR Playoffs, which began less than half a year ago and ended less than three months before the debut of this series, which was an impressive turnaround by Netflix to get this out before the 2024 season begins.
I also didn’t feel the show gave us enough behind-the-scenes moments from inside the homes and family lives of the drivers. I never finished the 2022 USA Network’s NASCAR docuseries “Race for the Championship,” but I didn’t feel the Netflix version gave us any more insight into the home lives of these drivers. We got a nice look into Hamlin’s home life, but there wasn’t a lot else – meaning Hamlin probably gave the Netflix crew more access than the other drivers.
I’m sure many viewers enjoyed getting the chance to get to know some of the driver’s other halves a bit more, even if it mostly focused on Ryan Blaney’s supermodel-looking fiancée Gianna Tulio and William Byron’s girlfriend Erin Blaney, who is Ryan’s sister. But the documentary kind of makes these women look like the “I’m a NASCAR wife. I don’t work” “Talladega Nights” stereotype. It would’ve been nice to dig a bit deeper, for instance, Erin is the Executive Director of the Ryan Blaney Family Foundation and she specializes in raising awareness and creating funding for brain injuries. Now, that may not sound all that exciting, but it certainly adds a dimension to who she is for the audience.
The only real difference between ‘Full Speed’ and some of the previous NASCAR docuseries I’ve seen was with the series being on Netflix, instead of cable television, the language could flow freely without censorship. That’s not a big enough change to excite me.
Judging by social media response from many fellow NASCAR fans and those within the sport, ‘Full Speed’ was well-received within the community and I was certainly rarely bored with the brisk 45-minute episodes. However, I didn’t think the docuseries gave me much as a NASCAR fan that I didn’t already know and that’s something I’m always looking for from these series (and rarely seem to get) going in.
I hope “NASCAR: Full Speed” works the kind of magic that “Drive to Survive” did when it comes to bringing more fans into the sport and hopefully different kinds of fans into the sport. It’s hard to judge as a fan of the sport for more than two decades if it’s the kind of thing that would’ve made me say, “Hey, I have to check this out now,” if I’d never seen a NASCAR race. Honestly, I’m surprised there are viewers out there clicking on things to watch they aren’t somewhat familiar with already – but “Drive to Survive” proved they exist. Hopefully, we’ll see a bigger interest in NASCAR going forward and can say, “That’s the ‘Full Speed’ bump.”
by Eric Fulton & Julian Spivey
*This conversation had been edited for grammar and clarity.
JS: The NFL Playoff Divisional Series just wrapped up. On Saturday, the Baltimore Ravens took care of the Houston Texans rather easily and the San Francisco 49ers struggled to put away with Green Bay Packers before finally doing so later in the game. On Sunday, the Detroit Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game that was close until the fourth quarter. And the Kansas City Chiefs survived the Buffalo Bills in a back-and-forth matchup that could’ve gone either way and ultimately ended with Buffalo’s most dreaded phrase: “wide right,” when Tyler Bass missed what would’ve been a game-tying 44-yard field goal. Eric, the games were much better than the Wild Card round, but which one did you think was the best?
EF: Three of the games this weekend were close. I am picking the Chiefs over the Bills and I will put them just slightly above the 49ers over the Packers. Man, we were so close to a number seven seed playing in a conference championship game. The Chiefs/Bills game was everything we expected it to be, a five-star heavyweight fight and it was exactly that.
JS: I’m kind of glad we avoided a 7-seed in the Championship Game. I know it’s not like the Packers had a losing record but I do prefer seeing the best teams from the regular season prevail in the postseason.
JS: Who was your MVP for the Divisional Round?
EF: I am going to go with Lamar Jackson because his team played the best out of everyone. I know he only threw for 152 yards in the air, but he did back it up with 100 yards on the ground rushing and four touchdowns against an incredibly good Houston Texans defense so at least for now, he did silence his critics.
JS: Lamar Jackson is likely going to win his second MVP award in a couple of weeks and yet people still find ways to criticize him. Amazing!
JS: The AFC Championship is up first on Sunday, January 28. It will see the Kansas City Chiefs travel to Baltimore to take on the Ravens. That game will be on CBS at 2 p.m. (CST). How do you see this one playing out and which team will head to the Super Bowl?
EF: I think it will be an exciting game. I am looking forward to this one. The Chiefs last week won a tough game at Buffalo. And for parts of the game, they were the better team. I do think the pressure to win this game is on Baltimore because they are at home and they are trying to get over this Hump with Lamar Jackson at quarterback. He played great last week. Now can he do it again with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line? I keep picking the Chiefs because they are the current dynasty in the NFL. To me, whoever wins this game is the favorite to win the Super Bowl. I think Kansas City will find a way to win the game, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Ravens win it.
JS: I’m right there with you, Eric. I’ve been saying this is the most beatable Chiefs team I can remember during their dynastic run but here we are in the postseason and they’re 2-0. Baltimore is a team they’ve had success against in previous matchups - but this is a different Ravens team and a bigger stage. I have to keep riding the KC train until it derails. I’m picking the Chiefs to win.
JS: The NFC championship game has the Detroit Lions going out to the West Coast to play the San Francisco 49ers. That game is on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. (CST) on Fox. How do you see the NFC title game playing out?
EF: Well, I have gone back and forth with this pick. I love both teams. How they got to this point is incredible. Detroit's first NFC championship game since 1991. San Francisco's fourth in the last five years. Both teams have played close playoff games at this point. This one is no different. The 49ers are incredibly good, but I want the Lions to get to the Super Bowl. So, I am going with Detroit. I would be happy for the franchise and their fans.
JS: I just can’t get over the amount of talent the 49ers have at the moment. Two of the five finalists for MVP are on the team in quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Christian McCaffrey. Then you have George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel catching the ball. And the 49ers with potentially one of the five best defenses in the game. I think that’s mighty hard to beat. You’re right that the Lions making the Super Bowl would be one helluva story but I don’t know if they can get past the 49ers, who have been the cream of the crop all season in the NFC. I have to pick San Francisco.
by Eric Fulton & Julian Spivey
*This conversation had been edited for grammar and clarity.
JS: Well, Eric, I think it’s safe to say the Wild Card round of the NFL Playoffs was an absolute shit show if you wanted a bunch of close, tight games down to the wire. We essentially only got one of those in the Detroit Lions/Los Angeles Rams game. Does that automatically make Detroit/L.A. the best of the weekend? And was Wild Card weekend the worst round of NFL playoffs you can ever remember?
EF: From a competitive standpoint, this was a terrible Wild Card weekend. We all knew how good some teams were and others proved worse than we thought. And for some of the teams that lost, there are more definite questions than answers and they will have interesting off-seasons (Dallas, Philly, Miami, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the Rams). Especially for a holiday weekend and a lot of people being snowed in as well, you would think there would be good games. Hopefully, the games this weekend in the Divisional Round will be better.
JS: Which team that lost during the Wild Card round surprised you the most?
EF: I won't say I am surprised that this team lost, but I am surprised by how they lost. It’s the Dallas Cowboys being dominated by the Green Bay Packers at home. Green Bay scored 48 points and Dallas had won 16 straight at home coming into the game. I’m patting myself on the back for picking Green Bay.
JS: Yes, I’m not surprised the Cowboys lost to the Packers because the Cowboys always do that “Playoff Cowboys” thing where they completely turn into a different and much worse team and always seem to fall to Green Bay in the postseason but I still predicted they would win. The fact that they just looked completely lost and like they didn’t care that much had me turn the game off at halftime. I didn’t watch a second of the second half. Which winning team during Wild Card weekend surprised you the most?
EF: It is a toss-up between the Houston Texans and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but I will say Houston because of their first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans and their rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud. The Texans looked like they are back to the years when they were a good team to watch in the 2010s.
JS: I didn’t watch a second of the Buccaneers' win over the Eagles because it conflicted with the Emmy Awards but the fact that they routed a team that went to the Super Bowl last year and began this season 10-1 as the worst team, at least record-wise in the entire playoffs, was surprising to me. I know the Eagles had some injuries to deal with but I thought they’d still be able to pull this game out at least. They didn’t even seem - at least by the score - like they had a chance.
EF: I am glad we chose different teams. I will say Philadelphia was not right it seems all year even though they did start 10-1. The last eight games for them were not good. I would expect them to make major changes in the offseason.
JS: If you were tasked with handing out an MVP for the Wild Card round who would it be?
EF: There are lots of great candidates but I am going with C.J. Stroud, who dominated a really good Cleveland Browns defense. He had a near-perfect passer rating. What a great playoff debut for him.
JS: What Puka Nacua did for the Rams in a losing effort with 181 receiving yards on nine catches and a touchdown was impressive but I agree with your Stroud pick.
JS: OK, let’s get into the four games of the Divisional Round this upcoming weekend… There will be two games on Saturday, January 20 and two on Sunday, January 21.
The first game on Saturday sees the Houston Texans travel up north to Baltimore to take on the No. 1 seed in the AFC in a Ravens team that, of course, had a bye week during the Wild Card round. This game will be on ESPN at 3:30 p.m. (CST). Eric, how do you see this one playing out?
EF: Well, the Ravens will be fully rested coming off the bye as you mentioned. Both teams met in Week 1 with the Ravens blowing out the Texans. Houston will have much more confidence going into this game than they did earlier this season, but I think their magical season will end in Baltimore. The Ravens will win a close but exciting game.
JS: The Ravens have seemed for most of the season like the team to beat in the AFC, surprisingly as you’d think it would’ve been the usual suspects like the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, albeit both are still in the playoffs. I think Houston could give Baltimore a run for its money but at the end of the day, I’m going with the veteran coach in John Harbaugh and a guy who’s been to the playoffs before in former MVP and possibly soon-to-be two-time MVP Lamar Jackson at quarterback. Baltimore pulls it out.
The second game on Saturday will have the Green Bay Packers go across the country to face the NFC’s top seed the San Francisco 49ers. That game will be on Fox at 7:15 pm (CST). How do you think that one plays out?
EF: Again, the 49ers took advantage of the bye week to get healthy. Not to underestimate the Packers, especially after beating the Cowboys in the way that they did, they will be a tough out, but the 49ers and Lions are the two best teams in the NFC without a doubt. I think San Francisco will win it.
JS: I hate to sound like a broken record but the 49ers are similar to the Ravens in the AFC in that they have been the best in the NFC, especially since the Eagles started their downfall after the 10-1 start to the season. The team has one of the best defenses in the game and the offense, which was their downside for the last few years now has so many weapons for QB Brock Purdy with Christian McCaffrey probably being the best running back in the game right now and George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk both having 1000-plus receiving yards. The 49ers should take this game.
JS: The first game on Sunday sees the Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel up north to Detroit to take on the Lions - good thing for the Buccaneers that Ford Field is a dome because traditionally warm weather teams don’t do well in the postseason in the cold. This game will be at 2 p.m. (CST) on NBC. Which team will win this game, Eric?
EF: This will be another game in which both teams met earlier in the regular season. It was week 5 in which the Lions won at Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers are a great story this season and they won the NFC South and a playoff game. They should be proud of themselves. But the Lions are the better team. The Lions will win this game.
JS: I didn’t expect the Buccs to make it this far. I don’t see any reason why they can’t at least hang with Detroit but I’m also going to agree with your prediction. The Lions got their first playoff win in more than 30 years this past weekend - why not make it two in a row? Lions QB Jared Goff had a good game against the Rams in the Wild Card round with 277 passing yards and a touchdown. Though, Buccs QB Baker Mayfield did have a better week with 337 yards and three touchdowns.
JS: The final playoff game of the Divisional Round is frankly the one I’m most excited about - the Kansas City Chiefs going up north to face the Buffalo Bills. I know these two have faced off in the playoffs before but this will be the first time at home for the Bills. Remarkably Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes has played in 15 postseason games already in his career and this will be the first time he’s ever played on the road if you don’t count the neutral-site Super Bowls. Is this the best game of the weekend, Eric? And how do you see it going down?
EF: Bills vs. Chiefs is definitely the best game of the weekend. I’m glad that this game is the last game of the weekend too. As you mentioned, this is the first time the Chiefs have played on the road in the Mahomes Era. But I don’t think they will be intimidated at all. Buffalo won at Kansas City several weeks ago and therefore this is the reason why the game is at Buffalo. I expect this game to go down to whichever team gets the football last will win. I trust Mahomes a little more than Bills quarterback Josh Allen. I am going with the Chiefs to win.
JS: You’re right about the Chiefs not being intimidated. They’ve been around the postseason too much and had too much success to be intimidated. I don’t think playing away from home will change that. The Bills are on this terrific hot streak right now having won six straight games - the last five of the regular season and the Wild Card round matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers. As you mentioned that streak started with a win over the Chiefs and that streak includes wins over the Cowboys and Miami Dolphins, teams that also made the postseason. It’s the type of streak the Bills could very well run right to the Super Bowl. But I also feel the same way you do about not feeling like I can turn against the Chiefs. Even though the team hasn’t looked as dominant at times during the season I need to see them lose in the postseason before I can count them out. I know that’s kind of a cheap prediction. It’ll be a close game, I think, but I too have K.C. winning.
by Eric Fulton & Julian Spivey
*This conversation has been edited for grammar and clarity.
**Since the publication of this the NFL has moved the Steelers @ Bills game to Monday @ 3:30 p.m. (CST) due to severe weather in Buffalo. The game will still be seen on CBS.
JS: The NFL Playoffs kick off on Saturday, January 13 with the Wild Card weekend. The no. 1 seed in both the AFC and NFC conferences gets the bye week, which means they don’t have to worry about a thing this weekend other than who they’ll be playing in the Divisional Round the following week. Those teams are the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC.
The first playoff game on Saturday will see the no. 5 seed Cleveland Browns travel to Houston to take on the AFC South champion Texans. That game will begin at 3:30 p.m. (CST) on NBC. It’s one of those matchups where the 10-7 Texans have home-field advantage for winning its division but the Browns at 11-6 had the better season. Eric, how do you see this first game playing out?
EF: The Browns and Texans just met on Christmas Eve with Cleveland winning that game. The biggest difference was quarterback C.J. Stroud did not play for Houston because of injury. Browns receiver Amari Cooper had a big game with over 200 yards. Cleveland is making the playoffs with four different starting quarterbacks. Joe Flacco is going to get the start and he does have a Super Bowl ring and Super Bowl MVP on his resume. I think the Texans will play much better than they did on Christmas Eve. But with the Browns defense and Flacco's experience in the playoffs, Cleveland will win this game.
JS: Joe Flacco, whose career seemed done, has been a huge surprise for the Browns this season and rejuvenated their season when he joined the team. Thirteen touchdown passes in just five games is remarkable. I only halfway joke wondered if a guy could win Comeback Player of the Year based on only five games. I will add that his eight interceptions in just five games are quite a lot. But he does have veteran experience. It wasn’t all that long ago that some people were discussing C.J. Stroud in the MVP talk but with him being hurt that kind of fell by the wayside. This should be a good game. I think it’ll be a close one - maybe even one of the better ones of the weekend - but I’ll agree with your Browns prediction.
JS: The second game on Saturday will be streaming on Peacock only (which plenty of people are bitching about nonstop this week - but come on people just shell out a few bucks for a month and then get rid of it if you don’t want it - this is how a lot of sports might be broadcast going forward so you might as well get with the picture). Anyway. That game sees the 11-6 Miami Dolphins travel to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City to take on the defending champion Chiefs, also an 11-6 team. These two teams met up in week nine in early November with the Chiefs winning 21-14. How do you think this one plays out?
EF: The weather is going to be brutal Saturday night in Kansas City. Temperatures will be in the single digits possibly in the negatives. I do not think it will bode well for the Dolphins. They had a chance to win the AFC East and get the two seed playing the first round at home. Now they go on the road at a loud stadium at Arrowhead with a ton of injuries. I think this will be the blowout of the first round. The Chiefs didn't play most of their star players in Week 18 and they will be ready to go. I’m predicting Kansas City in a rout.
JS: I thought that this could be a tight, hard-fought game like their meeting in the regular season but that was before seeing the forecast. As a fan, I enjoy seeing the elements come into play in the games - but as someone who wants to believe in fairness, it’s kind of sad to see it impact one team or another. The Chiefs appear to be the most beatable they’ve been in the last half-decade this season - especially with the weakest receiving corps they seem to have had during that span. That’s put a lot of focus from opposing defenses on tight end Travis Kelce and it’s shown as Kelce hasn’t had a touchdown since week 11 and only had five this season, which is quite a drop off from the last few seasons. The Chiefs do have experience, which could be a huge factor. The Dolphins haven’t won a playoff game since 2000 but I don’t see that streak ending on Saturday.
JS: There are three games on Sunday. The first of those sees the Pittsburgh Steelers, the last team into the AFC side of the playoffs, traveling to Buffalo to take on the Bills, who won the AFC East on Sunday night with a win over the Dolphins to end the season with an 11-6 record. The game will be on CBS at noon (CST). I understand that weather could play a major factor in this game as well, Eric.
EF: Yes, but I do think the Bills will win this game because they have the better quarterback in the game with Josh Allen. Mason Rudolph is starting his first playoff game for Pittsburgh and star linebacker T.J. Watt won’t play due to a knee injury he suffered in Week 18. I thought the Steelers were done when they lost to the New England Patriots on a Thursday night but once again they found a way to have another winning season in the Mike Tomlin Era, now 17 straight seasons. Having said that, Buffalo is the better team. The Bills came back from a 6-6 record. There was a lot of tension but they found a way to win the final five games and they are a dangerous team going into the playoffs. It will be a closer game than people expect even without Watt in the lineup. The Bills will pull away late in this one.
JS: The Bills finished the year on a hot streak coming all the way from being a .500 team that looked like it might not make the postseason to winning its division. The playoffs are old hat for the Bills at this point but they haven’t been able to get over the hump that is the AFC Championship game. I’m not sure they’ll make it even that far this postseason but I do agree they should beat Pittsburgh.
JS: The second game on Sunday will have the Green Bay Packers traveling to Dallas to face the Cowboys. That game will be on Fox at 3:30 pm (CST). The Packers and Cowboys have played some memorable playoff games throughout NFL history and the Packers always seem to be a thorn in the Cowboys' side when it comes to playoff games. But this isn’t quite the same Packers team we’ve seen in the past led by guys like Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre and the Cowboys haven’t lost at home this season. Eric, will there be an upset here or do the Cowboys have this one in hand?
EF: It wouldn't surprise me or anyone else if the Packers upset the Cowboys on Sunday. In fact, I’m going to say Green Bay will win on Sunday. I just don't think the Cowboys will handle the pressure. Yes, they have 16 straight wins at home and yes Jordan Love is starting his first playoff game for Green Bay but all of it doesn't matter. The playoffs are always about anything goes. The Packers are playing with confidence and they won't be afraid of going to Dallas.
JS: The NFC and the whole league feels wide-open this postseason. So, if the Cowboys can’t get it done this year I don’t know when they will. A loss to the Packers should be one of those moments where change is necessary. But I think the Cowboys will at least pull out this win on Sunday. The team has been too good this season to blow this opportunity but then again it’s the same team that lost to the Arizona Cardinals this season.
JS: The final game on Sunday sees the Los Angeles Rams traveling to Detroit to take on the Lions at 7 pm (CST) on NBC. This is a genuinely interesting matchup in that the QBs for these teams were once traded for one another by these very teams. It, of course, worked out well for the Rams with Matthew Stafford, one of the greatest QBs in Lions franchise history, leading them to a Super Bowl title. Jared Goff has seemingly found new life in Detroit and led the team to one of the best seasons in the league this year. You know Goff is going to want to stick it to L.A. this weekend. How do you think it’ll play out, Eric?
EF: The greatest quarterback in Lions' history is making his return in Stafford. To me, this is the best game of the weekend. It’s Detroit's first home playoff game in 30 years and Ford Field will be electric on Sunday night. I agree that Goff wants to stick it to the Rams this weekend. I think the Lions have their focus off a bit after the controversy at the end of the game in Dallas a couple of weeks ago. Plus, Sam LaPorta, their young impressive tight end was injured in Week 18. That is a huge loss for the Lions. I would love it for the Lions to make the Super Bowl but I am picking the Rams in this one. They will win it late.
JS: It’s unlikely LaPorta will play this week due to that injury, which is a huge loss for the Lions offense, but I feel like they should still have enough weapons to get past the Rams. I honestly haven’t heard a whole lot about the Rams this season so maybe I’m sleeping on them too much though?
EF: The Rams had a slow start to the season but they have been one of the hottest teams in the NFL over the last two months. They played the Ravens really tough on the road and they can be really dangerous with their experience in big games. Puka Nacua was a fifth round pick and he has become their best option at wide receiver outside of Cooper Kupp. Look for him to have a big game. Nocua is the favorite to win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
JS: And the final playoff game of Wild Card weekend is the Monday Night Football game between the Philadelphia Eagles, who choked away the NFC East division late in the season, against the NFC South division champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That game will be on both ESPN and ABC at 7:15 pm (CST) and I don’t really care because I’ll be watching the Emmy Awards over on Fox at the same time. The Emmys will need all the ratings help they can get. Who’s going to win this one, Eric?
EF: I don't know which team I trust more. The Eagles have lost six of their last seven after starting 10-1 and most of their wins have been close. Their defense has regressed. Now, quarterback Jalen Hurts has hurt his middle finger in his throwing hand. They are limping to Tampa Bay against a team that has won their third straight NFC South title. But Tampa only won 9-0 in Week 18 against an awful Carolina Panthers team. This is a tough choice because the winner would have to possibly go to San Francisco in the next round to take on a well-rested 49ers team or Dallas if the Rams beat the Lions because the lowest seed would take on the highest seed. The way Philly has collapsed the last several weeks I think they will make a ton of moves this offseason. Tampa has at least most of its immediate future set up. Part of me wants to trust Philly for just this one game, but I am going with the healthier team in the Buccaneers. I feel the least confident about the pic because Tampa Bay quarterback Baker Mayfield can have really bad games. Yes, he has a playoff win in his career, but the winner of the game will have their season end in the Divisional Round next weekend.
JS: I feel like the Eagles have too much talent to lose in the first round even with the struggles they have had over the last couple of months. So, I will pick them to win this game just based on that fact. But I do agree with what you said about whoever wins this game likely not making it past the Divisional Round, which if you had said that about the Eagles when they were 10-1 I would've thought you were insane. One question I have if the Eagles do lose to the Buccs in the first round after starting the season 10-1 is do they fire head coach Nick Sirianni?
EF: It would not surprise me if they did. If they win, he will return next season. If the Eagles lose, things will be interesting in Philadelphia. Think about the fact they fired Doug Pedersen a couple of years after winning the Super Bowl. So, if things go south, Eagles fans will turn on the coach really quickly. I think he is safe for now, but Sirianni's and Mike McCarthy's seats are the hottest of all the coaches in the playoffs.
by Julian Spivey
One of the biggest stories about the NFL Playoffs heading into the Wild Card Round this upcoming weekend has been the bitching and moaning on the internet about the second game of Saturday’s postseason slate between the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs appearing exclusively on the Peacock streaming service.
Now, there are only three options for you regarding this game.
1. If you’re already a Peacock subscriber (as I am) go to the Peacock app on your TV, computer or phone and pull up the game and enjoy. You could also see if you have any family or friends with Peacock and make a party of it.
2. Pay $5.99/month to subscribe to Peacock. And here’s a hint: if none of the programming on the service interests you you can cancel your subscription at any point and only be out the $5.99.
3. Don’t watch the game.
If you’re in the Miami or Kansas City markets don’t worry the game will appear on your local NBC affiliate.
All of those options are fine by me. But whining about a game being on a service you don’t have is such a first-world problem that it merely comes off as annoying to the rest of us who understand what leaving in 2024 is like and how streaming is likely the future for many sporting events – certainly not all, don’t suspect we’ll ever see the Super Bowl exclusively on Paramount+ or anything like that but whether it’s a playoff game in a major sports league or 14% of the NASCAR season (as it will be beginning in 2025 on Amazon Prime Video) or something else you might as well realize your options are to subscribe or give up.
I’d rather watch the sporting events I love than be without them. If you don’t feel that way that’s perfectly fine but please do the third option up above without driving the rest of us up a wall about it. Please enjoy the other five playoff games over the weekend. You should be able to watch with an old-school antenna if you choose as they will all be on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
However, I suspect many of those complaining are going to find one way or another to watch these games, even if they have to shell out the $5.99 to do so.
There’s no inalienable right that states your favorite sporting events must be on a TV channel everyone has access to. Other outlets, including streamers, have every right to spend their money as they please and NBCUniversal spent a lot of money - $110 million according to the Wall Street Journal – for the one-year rights to exclusively air the Saturday at 7 p.m. (CST) playoff game exclusively on Peacock.
It’s only a one-year deal, so if the league doesn’t believe enough people tuned into the game on Peacock to make it worthwhile for them they might do something else with it next year – or another outlet can outbid NBCUniversal for the rights to show it wherever they would like.
It’s truly a perfect business model for Peacock, especially with the get of the game including the Kansas City Chiefs, which are one of America’s most-watched teams, especially since the relationship between Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift began during the season and many Swifties, who may never have watched football otherwise, have tuned in to root for Kelce and see in-game shots of Swift cheering him on from a spectator’s box. Don’t scoff at that as a factor. I know one close personal friend who’s a Swiftie who has done exactly that.
NBCUniversal has every right to try to promote its Peacock brand by airing this football game exclusively on the streamer and the NFL has every right to sell the game to the highest bidder. As a fan, you just have to deal with it.
by Julian Spivey
NBA All-Star voting has been underway for about two weeks now on NBA.com and the NBA app allowing fans a chance to help get their favorite players and the league’s best players into the starting lineup of the midseason celebration, which is returning to the classic Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference format in 2024.
Fans may vote once daily between now and Saturday, Jan. 20 but there are a few days during the vote that will count for three times as many votes. The remaining days where your vote will count for three times the number are Friday, Jan. 5, Friday, Jan. 12, Monday, Jan. 15 and Friday, Jan. 19.
The starters for the 73rd annual NBA All-Star game will be revealed on TNT on Thursday, Jan. 25 during tip-off of that night’s national broadcast. The 2024 All-Star Game will be held on Sunday, February 18 at 7 p.m. from Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the home of the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis. That game will be broadcast on TNT.
I recently filled out my first ballot for the 2024 NBA All-Star Game and will now reveal my selections.
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)
The NBA’s reigning MVP Joel Embiid is an obvious pick as he may very well be working on his second consecutive MVP award. Embiid is currently leading the league with 34.8 points per game and is fifth in the league with 11.8 rebounds per game. Embiid’s 76ers are currently third in the East with a 23-10 record and are three games behind the Boston Celtics for first place.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
Former two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is once again putting up massive numbers for the Milwaukee Bucks, whom he’s helped to lead to a 24-10 record thus far to rank second in the East, 2.5 games behind the Celtics. Antetokounmpo’s 30.9 points per game are fourth in the league and his sixth in the league in rebounding with 11.3 per game.
Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics)
The Boston Celtics have pretty much been the best team in the Eastern Conference all season thus far and have two players who are certain to be All-Stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Tatum has the better overall numbers this season, as is usual, with 27 points per game (10th in the league) and 8.5 rebounds but the way he consistently falls asleep in the postseason for his team has kind of led to me not believing in him or respecting him so I’ll give my vote to his teammate Jaylen Brown, who is averaging 22.7 points per game this season with 5.1 rebounds per game and 3.6 assists per game. Admittedly, Tatum deserves the spot more based on his numbers, but this is an exhibition game created solely for the pleasure of the fans and this fan would rather see Brown get this starting nod.
If you’re looking at overall numbers for your All-Star ballot then your best option of any of the backcourt players in the East is Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young with his 28.2 points per game and 11.3 assists per game. But if you look at the standings and see the Hawks are currently in 10th place maybe you’d rather give a starting nod to someone on a winning team at the moment. Young can be a reserve.
Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana Pacers)
One of the league’s breakout players this season has been Indiana Pacers point guard Tyrese Haliburton, who leads the league with 12.7 assists per game while also scoring 24.7 points per game. He led the Pacers to the championship game of the in-season tournament if that means anything to you and it would also be terrific fan service for Pacers fans to have one of their own in the East starting lineup for the midseason celebration – so Haliburton is on my ballot.
There are so many good options for starting backcourt in the East right now with Young, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell and Jalen Brunson that not only are really good players going to miss out on the starting lineup but most likely the All-Star game altogether.
Tyrese Maxey (Philadelphia 76ers)
I was tempted to vote for Mitchell of the Cleveland Cavaliers here because his numbers are both very good and similar to those of Maxey and it would’ve made for five different starters from five different teams, which is always nice for the fans of those respective teams, but I feel like Maxey has been such a surprising and standout option for the 76ers that he deserved this opportunity a bit more. After all, Maxey has never made an All-Star team and Mitchell has made a handful. Maxey is averaging 25.9 points per game this season with 6.4 assists per game.
LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers)
You honestly didn’t think he wasn’t going to be here, did you? It’s amazing the kind of impact the man, who recently turned 39 years old, is still having on the league. He’s still in the top 20 in scoring with 25.4 points per game, he’s top 10 in assists per game at 7.4 and manages 7.4 rebounds per game, which is more than potential All-Star caliber centers in the league like Kristaps Porzingis and Myles Turner. Yes, the Lakers have been quite the enigma this season looking at times like the best in the league by winning the in-season tournament with a perfect record and then also looking like a team that might not make the postseason with their current record of 17-17 having them as the 10th place team in the West but James is still the face of the game and must be front-and-center at the All-Star game.
Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets)
Many people, including myself, view Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic as the current No. 1 player in the league and with him averaging 25.7 points per game (14th in the league), while also being top five in the game in rebounding (12.3) and assists (9.1) it’s hard to pick against him. Jokic is also the best player on the league’s reigning champion and has the team currently only one game behind the surprising Minnesota Timberwolves as the best team in the West. He’s a lock to start.
Kevin Durant (Phoenix Suns)
The Phoenix Suns have undoubtedly been a disappointment this season, especially given the fact that they should’ve been considered the favorite to win the Western Conference, but some injury issues have led to the team’s big three (Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal) almost spending no time on the court together. Durant has been Phoenix’s constant this season averaging 29.9 points per game (6th in the league), along with 6.3 rebounds per game and 6 assists per game.
Stephen Curry is my favorite player in the NBA and a huge reason for my getting back into the game I had faded away a bit from during my college years and statistically, he’s having a good season – leading the league in three-pointers made per game and in the top-10 in scoring but I have to be a bit more objective here. Curry can come off the bench this time.
Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)
Luka Doncic is the leading scorer in the Western Conference thus far this season (second in the NBA) with 33.4 points per game and he’s third in the league in assists with 9.4 per game. He also pulls down 8.3 rebounds per game – pretty impressive for a point guard. His team is also three games better at this point than Curry’s so it makes it a slightly easier pick.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder)
So, most fans should know the name Shai Gilgeous-Alexander by now but because he plays in a small market like Oklahoma City and Thunder haven’t been all that great for most of his tenure in the league thus far maybe some haven’t gotten to know him just yet. But he’s led his Thunder team to the second-best record at the moment in the West at 23-10 and is averaging 31.4 points per game, which is third in the league. He’s also averaging 6.4 assists per game and 5.9 rebounds per game. He might not have the star power to get a starting spot over say Stephen Curry just yet but he certainly deserves a spot in the West’s starting five.