The AFC North’s matchups against the AFC South and NFC North could lead to a better overall win total.

Oddsmakers expect a ditto of last season’s final AFC North standings, and we agree. Despite improvements throughout the division, Pittsburgh remains the class of the bunch.

The AFC North’s matchups against the AFC South and NFC North could lead to a better overall win total. That’s good news for the likes of Harbaugh and Lewis, who as noted need solid seasons to keep their names off the Black Monday watch list.

All these challenges would end a lesser franchise, but the Clippers have the advantage of having one of the best coaches in the NBA. Doc Rivers refuses to make excuses. His attitude permeates the locker room.

“We don’t change much about how we go about our business,” Rivers said. “We run the same sets, the same approach. Obviously, it’s a little different without Chris on the floor but we don’t do any major changes. Everything’s the same. We’re trying to pick off as many wins as we can and when everyone comes back, you hope that this makes you a better team.”

It also helps to have a veteran like Paul Pierce, who has won a title and been through the wars.

“I ain’t worried,” Pierce told Sporting News. “We are a championship-caliber team, I know it when I see it. We have everything we need to beat to anybody in the league and that includes Golden State. It sucks to have our stars hurting. But it gives other guys a chance to step up. That will only help us when the guys are back. Because now a bench guy will have confidence that he wouldn’t have otherwise had.”rangers_092-115x115

Young Yankees live their dream through support of familiar farmhand faces

Clint Frazier didn’t get to celebrate the night of his promotion to the majors.

There were too many boxes to check off on a suddenly existent to-do list. The outfielder had to race back to his Boston hotel room, pack a bag and get to bed. A 7 a.m. flight would deliver Frazier to Houston, where he would debut with the Yankees on July 1.

Orioles (vs. Rangers)
Status heading into series: 42-49, 9 back in the NL Central, 5.5 out of a wild-card spot
The bright side: The window on this current group is closing (more on that in a moment), and if they sweep the Rangers, one of the teams above them in the wild-card race, maybe it’s worth a push. That Orioles’ lineup is still powerful, with Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Johnathan Schoop, Manny Machado, Mark Trumbo and Trey Mancini leading the way.

On the other hand: Their rotation is kind of awful, and it’s hard to imagine that group making a playoff push. The Orioles just don’t have the prospects necessary — their farm system is in the bottom third of the majors in terms of talent — to trade for the starters they’d need to upgrade that group, either. Speaking of that, look at the group of players eligible to become free agents after either 2017 or 2018 — Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Zach Britton, J.J. Hardy, Wellington Castillo and Brad Brach. Moving those guys now or in the offseason would provide an instant influx of talent in the farm system and greatly improve the franchise’s chances of contending for a World Series title in 2019-20. broncos_006

76ers’ Markelle Fultz’s ankle sprain downgraded

Markelle Fultz and the 76ers have seemingly dodged a bullet.

The Philadelphia rookie and No. 1 draft pick is expected to bounce back after his ankle injury was downgraded to a regular left ankle sprain, ESPN reported Sunday, citing league sources.

According to the report, Fultz is walking without trouble but is likely finished with Summer League play.

Fultz also took to Twitter Sunday afternoon to reassure his fans that he was doing fine.

Fultz suffered the injury Saturday in the team’s Summer League game against the Warriors when he landed awkwardly while trying to block a shot in the third quarter. He had to be helped off the court and appeared unable to put any weight on his left ankle.

But the Jazz are paying him to be a low-end starter and difference maker in this deal. A guy who genuinely produces. And that’s where things get dicey. This seems like an overpay for what Ingles actually provides in terms of production. Last year, the Australian wing averaged 10.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists, relatively low numbers despite his efficiency. They’ll also be paying him for his age 30-33 seasons, which likely portends a decline given typical aging curves. Can the Jazz expect him to keep up this level of play?

Obviously, there is more to basketball than numbers. Ingles is considered a terrific teammate, and his play on the floor helps his teammates play better. Plus, the skilled nature of his game likely makes it so that it’ll age better than most. But there’s a lot of downside here.

It’s hard for me to say this given that Ingles is one of my favorite players to watch in the NBA, but on the whole, I’m not a huge fan of this deal. It’s not a disaster, and it’s not one that will be significantly problematic for the Jazz going forward. But it does seem to be an overpay for the older years of a wing, even if years 1 and 2 might end up being decent value-wise. jets_010

Ginobili also mentioned that San Antonio could utilize rotations without a true point guard.

Parker had been averaging 15.9 points during the postseason, a significant bump from the 10.1 he put up per contest in the regular season, before going down with 8:43 to play Wednesday. He’d already amassed 18 points and four assists before his injury. While the Spurs on’t be able to replace his veteran leadership and savvy, playing without him won’t be foreign territory for them, Parker missed 19 games during the regular season. San Antonio went 15-4 in those games.

Ginobili also mentioned that San Antonio could utilize rotations without a true point guard.

Rookie DeJounte Murray could be another option if coach Gregg Popovich decides to reach far down the bench.

Taken with the 29th overall pick, the 6-5, 170-pounder gives the Spurs a leaner, longer, more athletic look at point guard, but he has played just 24 minutes in eight playoff games. His brightest moment this season came during a four-game period in January, during which he played extended minutes while Parker was sidelined with an ailment. In that stretch, Murray averaged 13.2 points and three assists while helping the Spurs extend a winning streak to five games.

He then had 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists in Game 1 against the Celtics before his outstanding Game 2 showing. If Rondo does not play again in the playoffs, the Bulls now must figure out whether the last 15 games of good Rondo is enough to outweigh the months of headaches he gave Bulls coaches.

There’s some positive feeling on that from Rondo. And now that the Bulls now have a better grasp on how to handle his quirks, they might be more inclined to keep Rondo on board—especially if they decide against trading star Jimmy Butler and eschew the notion of a full rebuild altogether.

Paul Millsap heading to Nuggets on 3-year, $90 million deal

Maybe Paul Millsap didn’t need any convincing, or maybe the Denver Broncos’ recruiting pitch was really that good.

Whatever the reason, the 6-9 forward has agreed to join the Nuggets on a three-year contract worth $90 million. The deal was first reported by The Vertical.

The Nuggets got a boost from some members of the Broncos, who joined several high-level Nuggets representatives as Millsap visited Denver on Saturday. The four-time All-Star must have been impressed because the 32-year-old is ready to join his third team.

Entering his 12th NBA season after the Jazz selected him in the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft, Millsap averaged 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists last season for the Hawks.

The new deal marks a huge pay raise for Millsap, who averaged just under $20 million over the last two seasons.

The Nuggets will probably still have to make a move or two to clear up cap space to make room for Millsap’s contract.

Griffin is much in the same boat as Paul. Griffin could sign something like a four-year, $175 million deal with the Clippers, $40 million more than any other team could manage.

But this is also Griffin’s first foray into free agency. A team with space to add him as a second option could significantly raise its ceiling. Griffin has extended his shooting range and improved his passing every season, so he would instantly improve many offenses.

The biggest question, though? What are teams willing to pay Griffin? He’s 27 years old with a long list of injuries, and his athleticism could be on the decline as a result. He’s also never been a great defender. He’s obviously a top talent, but there are a lot of variables at play here.chargers_003