The Cubs enter the all-star break a season high 18 games over .500 and with a 2.5 game lead over the pesky Milwaukee Brewers.  Hate to say I told you so…  There was never any reason to panic in the first half, the Cubs have an edge in payroll over every team in their division and it was just a matter of time before the Cubs took control.

Milwaukee’s front office still doesn’t believe they match up to the Cubs, and seems to be willing to wait another year before making a really serious run at them.  Milwaukee is ahead of their own rebuild projections and know they have pitching coming up in their farm system.  They seem to be content to let this season play out and not deal any major prospects to upgrade their infield or starting pitching.  Next year will be a different story as their starting pitching prospects start to show up.  The Brewers will be major players for a number 1 starter, Manny Machado and the top closer available.

As it stands the Brewers will probably make a smaller deal to shore up one starters position, hello James Shields from the White Sox.  And they will also try to pry a veteran reliever or two, the Sox Joakim Soria fits that bill as well.  The Brewers should be able to stay in the Wild card spot as long as their health doesn’t turn catastrophic.

I know that Cubs fans have have to be delighted at the struggles of the St, Louis Cardinals.  As always, be careful what you wish for.  It’s a long season and I have to believe that the Cards will try to hire Joe Girardi for the second half.  Girardi is one of the top minds in baseball and combined with the Cardinals culture and their aggressive front office, they aren’t done yet, not by a longshot.  The Cardinals will be in play for pitching as well, if they get it, look out Milwaukee! 

Bulls:

After drafting two very good young pieces in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison, the Bulls matched an offer sheet to retain Zach LaVine, and also signed new unrestricted free-agent Jabari Parker, who played locally at Simeon High School.  People can question the cap flexibility, and wisdom of retaining LaVine and signing Parker, for similar $20 million a year money, but that is the going price in the NBA.

Since LeBron has moved west, the Bulls wisely sense an opportunity in the east.  There is no overwhelming favorite, except maybe Philadelphia,  in the wide open east for the time being.

Philadelphia’s status as conference favorite, rides on the tenuous health of center Joel Embiid’s knee’s.  Embiid, is an awesome talent, unstoppable, but rarely played back to back games last year.  Bulls have better depth across multiple positions.

Oft-injured Kyrie Irving will enter the last year of his deal with the Boston Celtics. Next year is their window.  It’s unlikely Irving signs long term.

The Celtics big free-agent splash from a year ago, Gordon Hayward is coming off a catastrophic leg injury.  It’s unlikely he will be the same player he was before.

Toronto Raptors fired it’s head coach Don Casey, after he won coach of the year honors.

The core of the Raptors team that had the best record in the east last year, will average 30 years old when the season opens.  They are nearly capped out, with a front court that scares nobody.  Nobody wants to go to Canada in the winter, making free-agents unlikely.  Just this morning the Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard, a native of Los Angeles.  It’s been reported that Leonard is unhappy with this deal.  It’s also been trashed by DeMar DeRozan, the player headed to San Antonio.  Will Leonard play for Toronto?  Will the Raptors winning culture be torn apart by Casey’s firing and the launching of DeRozan, a year after he was given max money by the Raptors?

Boston is dealing with cap issues of their own.  They have a mix of young and old players, with Irving, Al Horford and Hayward earning the bulk of their cap space.  Free agent all-around player Marcus Smart is in limbo because of cap issues.  They are trying to trade for Kawhi Leonard, but it will cost them young depth or Horford.  They are stuck right now.  Good enough to win the east, but not the championship they desire.

Indiana’s big free-agent move was to give Bulls castoff Doug McDermott $22 million over 3 years.  Enough said.  They aren’t going anywhere.

Detroit’s big moves were to hire Golden State’s analytics guy, and suddenly available coach of the year Dwane Casey.  After trading for Blake Griffin a year ago, this might put Detroit on top of the Bulls central division.  But again, they don’t scare anyone.

Milwaukee drafted Donte DiVincenzo and signed Brook Lopez, the brother of Bulls center Robin Lopez, but they let Jabari Parker leave for the Bulls.  In an unprecedented move, the Bucks received nothing in return for the former #2 overall pick.  Done!

The teams that populate the Southeast Division, Washington, Miami, Charlotte, Atlanta and Orlando have been poorly run for the last decade.  Atlanta and Orlando are starting to approach the corner of their rebuilds but are 2-3 years away.  Charlotte is a complete mess.

Washington’s window is closing with age to their stars John Wall and Bradley Beal.  They have been slow to provide help for the best back court in the east, 2 years ago.

Miami is an enigma.  Center Hassan Whiteside is a beast,  Josh Richardson is the best player nobody has heard of.  But they don’t benefit by playing with a shoot first point guard in Goran Dragic.  The head coach, Eric Spoelstra is talented, but spreads the minutes out a bit too much with his journeymen bench of shooters.  Whiteside has complained openly about his minutes, he’s right!

The Bulls have arguably now, constructed one of the best under 24, core units in the league.  Projected starters Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., backups Cameron Payne, Denzel Valentine, Antonio Blakeney, Chandler Hutchison, and Bobby Portis.  Throw in veterans Lopez and Justin Holiday, and the Bulls have a team that may compete deep in the playoffs for the next two years.  Provided that head coach Fred Hoiberg can get certain players to accept bench roles and get them to gel together as two units.  With Parker’s 2nd year team option, the Bulls have the flexibility to add an impact player in free agency a year from now.

They won’t challenge the Philadelphia 76er’s for conference superiority right away, but the Bulls could land in the playoffs as a 5th or 6th seed that nobody wants to play next spring.

Blackhawks:

At long last, finally… cap room to breathe.

Blackhawk fans and the reporters that follow the team are nothing, if not devoted, to the Indianhead.  Their fandom hasn’t reached the hysterical levels of some Cub fans, but they are getting close.  Every move is scrutinized to the nth degree.  You would think that 3 Stanley Cups would’ve satisfied the drought and thirst for winning.  It has only slaked an unquenchable thirst for more.

If only Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook and Crawford were vampires, immortal hockey machinery that couldn’t be undone by the sports’ lack of popularity, tv ratings, and a commissioner who is incapable of providing more revenue streams.  Alas, age is catching up to the Hawks as they try to rebuild on the fly, before the cup window closes for good on this core.

The Hawks have been torn apart by the very league they have conquered 3 times in the last 10 years.  The team of the decade has been butting their heads against the league’s salary cap ceiling since the first cup and we all lamented the parting of Dustin Byfuglien.  They won twice more in spite of their fate, have seen the man-child Saad and Sharpie leave and come back.

You could make a whole other playoff, or all-star team, of the former Hawks players around the league.  Rocky Wirtz, Stan Bowman,  Joel Quenneville and the rest of the Hawks front office have worked tirelessly against the forces of money, age and injury.

What has it gotten them?  I sense a little ingratitude among the masses.

The pitchforks are out and the spoiled enemy’s of complacency are at the gates demanding another cup.  One last time the hero makes his stand and sacrifices himself for the good of the team.

Marion Hossa, arguably the greatest free-agent signing in Chicago’s sports history,  changed his contract’s limited no-trade clause.  This allowed the Hawks to send his rights, forward Vinnie Hinostroza, Defenseman Jordan Oesterle and a 3rd round pick in next years draft to the Phoenix Coyotes for, forwards, former Hawk Marcus Kruger, MacKenzie Entwistle, Jordan Maletta, defenseman Andrew Campbell and a 5th round pick.

Hossa who has been on long term injured reserve with a career ending skin disease, provides Phoenix with salary cap relief and leaves the Hawks around $8.5 million under the cap as well.  His contract became too much of a hindrance to other deals, with three years left at over $15 million owed.

The Hawks gave up a big piece of their future again, in Hinostroza, but get back the 28 year-old Kruger, who was a key part of their last 2 cup winning teams.  Kruger is more defensive minded and will immediately help on the penalty kill.  Performance metrics show this to be a big area of decline for the Hawks last season.

General Manager Bowman likes Entwistle so much, he declared that he was about to draft him last year, when Phoenix drafted him 1 spot in front of the Hawks with the 69th pick.  Bowman likes his 6 foot 3 inch frame and his scoring in big games where he led Hamilton with 10 goals in 21 games in last years playoffs.  He will be tried at center and is said to be very happy joining the Hawks.

Prospect camp opened at MB Ice Arena on Monday and all eyes are on defenseman Henri Jokiharju, as he tries to make the team.  His performance will dictate and how soon, the Hawks will address their defensive issues, with cap space for multiple players for the first time in years.

Don’t forget they have already added an aging Chris Kunitz, the wildcard this year.  He is looking for his 5th cup, the Hawks have plans, and just might get there!

 

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