Picks, predictions for each conference final series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Stanley Cup Playoffs have thinned the field of teams battling for a championship down to just four. After some earlier rounds of insanity, it’s time to shift our focus towards the conference finals.

Two No. 1 seeds still remain in the Vegas Golden Knights and Hurricanes. Will we see more upsets in this round?

Our experts weigh in with their picks for the Eastern and Western Conference Final:

(1) Golden Knights vs. (2) Stars
Chris Bengel: I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from this Stars team in these playoffs. Sure, they had a few hiccups when facing the Kraken in the second round, but Dallas rose to the occasion when they needed to. There’s one major difference when it comes to the Golden Knights and Stars: goaltending. Jake Oettinger has showcased his ability as an elite netminder when the lights are the brightest. According to Money Puck, he leads all postseason goaltenders with a .957 save percentage when facing unblocked shots.

On top of that, the Stars have a very dangerous offense, which includes the postseason’s second leading scorer Roope Hintz. I’m banking on Oettinger to shine and the Stars to do enough to take this series.
Pick — Stars beat Golden Knights 4-3

Austin Nivison: The Golden Knights have a five-on-five goal differential of plus-15. That is the best of any team in the postseason by several country miles. But according to their expected goal numbers on Natural Stat Trick, that differential should really be closer to plus-1. Vegas has the talent to outperform its underlying numbers, but by that much? Call me skeptical.

On the other hand, the Stars have gotten worse results than their performance would suggest. Dallas ranks first in five-on-five expected goal share (55.5%), but its actual goal differential in those situations is just plus-1.Jack Eichel has certainly been a bright spot this postseason, and Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy may have found something by putting him on a line with Ivan Barbashev and Jonathan Marchessault. However, the Stars do seem like the more talented team coming into the series.

Roope Hintz has emerged as a superstar with 19 points in 13 games, and Joe Pavelski is playing like he is 28 — not 38. Jason Robertson has only found the back of the net twice, and if he can get going, that makes Dallas even more dangerous. The only thing giving me pause about picking the Stars is that Jake Oettinger has been somewhat shaky this postseason, and Adin Hill came out of nowhere to provide elite goaltending for the Golden Knights. I’m betting those trends won’t continue, and the Stars reach the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in four years.
Pick — Stars beat Golden Knights 4-2

(1) Hurricanes vs. (WC2) Panthers
Bengel: No one expected this matchup –especially the Panthers going this far. But I’m going to focus on the Hurricanes. The deck was stacked against Carolina, already being without star forwards Max Pacioretty and Andrei Svechnikov entering the postseason. On top of that, winger Teuvo Teravainen suffered a hand injury that sidelined him for the Devils series, but it looks like he should return at some point in this series. Some may say that the Panthers have the advantage, especially considering how Sergei Bobrovsky has played in net. However, Frederik Andersen has been strong throughout the postseason with a 1.80 goals-against-average and allowed two goals or fewer in four of the five games against the Devils.

With Teravainen likely returning and the Hurricanes offense clicking on all cylinders, I’m taking Carolina to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.
Pick — Hurricanes beat Panthers 4-2

Nivison: Carolina is here on the strength of its team defense, goaltending and balance on offense. Jordan Martinook, Jesper Fast, and Seth Jarvis have stepped up to aid Sebastian Aho in the goal-scoring deprtment. Jaccob Slavin and Brent Burns have formed the best defensive pair in the postseason, earning a 59.9% expected goals share and a plus-10 goal differential at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. Expect them to see a lot of Matthew Tkachuk, who willed Florida into the postseason and beyond.

In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky put on a show against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round. With Frederik Andersen playing well in net for Carolina, I don’t think there is a huge goaltending edge either way. I do think defense will decide this series, and while Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce have struggled for the Canes, they might be the deeper team on the blue line. Marc Staal has played big minutes for the Panthers, and he has not handled it well. Staal has been getting caved in to the tune of a paltry 43.8% five-on-five expected goals share. Against a strong possession team like Carolina, that could mean bad news for Florida. This will be a close series, but the Hurricanes’ strong defensive structure gets it done.

‘KC coyotes has a nice ring to it!’

After Tempe voters rejected the Arizona Coyotes’ plan to build a new arena and entertainment district in the city, the franchise’s future in the city and state is extremely murky. No relocation plans have been formally announced (yet), but that hasn’t stopped people on social media from speculating where the franchise could potentially move if they leave Arizona.

NFL superstar Patrick Mahomes has offered the NHL a solution. He think Kansas City should be the next home for the Coyotes. On Wednesday, Mahomes called on the NHL to move the Coyotes to K.C. The league wouldn’t even have to change the name, according to the QB:

KC coyotes has a nice ring to it! @NHL what y’all think? @tmobilecenter

— Patrick Mahomes II (@PatrickMahomes) May 17, 2023
If the NHL is going to relocate the Coyotes, it could do a lot worse than Kansas City. The geographic location could create a natural rivalry with the Dallas Stars, and sports teams in the city have done quite a bit of winning in the last decade.

The Royals and Chiefs have combined for three championships in the last eight years. Maybe some of that would rub off on a Coyotes franchise in desperate need of a winner.

This would not be the first time the NHL attempted to bring a team to Kansas City. The Kansas City Scouts were founded in 1974, but the franchise spent just two years there before moving to Denver, becoming the Colorado Rockies. Eventually, the Rockies relocated to New Jersey and became the Devils.

 Starting lineup prediction, bench rotation, depth outlook for 2023-24

Last season Kansas went 28-8 and earned a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament before a crushing 72-71 second-round loss to Arkansas brought the Jayhawks season to an abrupt end. Since then, KU lost leading scorers Jalen Wilson and Gradey Dick to the NBA Draft and a bevy of others to the transfer portal. In fact, only four scholarship players are back.

But amid all the attrition, one personnel move stood out above the rest for Kansas, both literally and figuratively. When KU landed a commitment from 7-foot-2 Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson on May 4, it signaled to the Big 12 and the nation that the Jayhawks aren’t going anywhere. Dickinson ranked as the No. 1 offseason transfer in the CBS Sports Transfer Rankings. He will combine with veteran returners Dajuan Harris, Kevin McCullar and K.J. Adams to give coach Bill Self an excellent nucleus.

But there are some depth concerns for the Jayhawks following the June departures of freshmen signees Marcus Adams Jr. and Chris Johnson. Without those two, the team was down to just 10 scholarship players before the late signing of freshman small forward Johnny Furphy on Aug. 3.

The Jayhawks put their revamped roster on display during a three-game exhibition tour through Puerto Rico this month, giving us a glimpse into how things are shaping up for Self’s 21st season on the job. As offseason player movement cycle slows to a trickle, it’s time to start breaking down the rosters of the sport’s top programs. For this installment, we’re taking a look at the Jayhawks and trying to decipher what their lineup could look like when the season begins.

Projected starting lineup

  1. Dajuan Harris Jr.
    6-2 | 170 | R-Jr.

Harris is a trusted, veteran point guard who averaged 8.9 points, 6.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game last season on the way to earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. While it’s possible his scoring average could tick up this season, it’s more likely that he continues to serve as a gritty distributor and defensive menace who occasionally looks to score. Now in his fifth season with the program, Harris has fended off critics and plenty of challengers at his position to cement himself as a vital figure in this era of Kansas basketball.

  1. Elmarko Jackson
    6-3 | 195 | Fr.

Jackson steadily rose through the prospect rankings to finish the 2023 recruiting cycle ranked No. 19 overall, according to 247Sports. The McDonald’s All-American is regarded as a fast and physical guard who is still developing skill after picking up organized basketball late in his youth. When Jackson signed, Self said, “we feel he will be an immediate impact player for us and potentially one of the best guards we’ve had in our program.” While the other four starters remained constant during the Puerto Rico exhibition tour, Jackson was one of three Jayhawks who got a shot as the starting shooting guard. He averaged 10.6 points on 52.1% shooting and will be in a battle with Morris and Timberlake for the fifth starting slot.

  1. Kevin McCullar Jr.
    6-7 | 212 | R-Sr.

Getting McCullar back after he tested the NBA Draft waters marked a huge win for KU. A two-time Naismith Defensive Player of the Year semifinalist, McCullar rated as the Jayhawks’ best defender by a significant margin last season, per EvanMiya.com. He is only a career 29.8% 3-point shooter but does everything else well. As a fifth-year Big 12 player with 112 college appearances, McCullar will be a tone-setter for Kansas.

  1. K.J. Adams Jr.
    6-7 | 235 | So.

Adams earned the Big 12’s Most Improved Player award in 2023. The springy forward was often asked to punch above his weight in the front court as the Jayhawks regularly deployed small-ball lineups. Adams may need to expand his offensive repertoire a bit this season to allow Dickinson the space needed to operate in the paint. His 2 of 3 shooting performance from 3-point range in Puerto Rico was an encouraging sign.

  1. Hunter Dickinson
    7-2 | 260 | Sr.

The prized transfer of the college basketball offseason chose the Jayhawks over his pick of other top programs after three standout seasons at Michigan. Dickinson is an automatic Big 12 Player of the Year candidate and brings the heft to KU’s front court that was missing last season as Self shied away from playing young bigs Ernest Udeh and Zuby Ejiofor. Both transferred to other schools following Dickinson’s commitment as it’s clear he should log 30+ minutes per game at center for the Jayhawks.

Arterio Morris
6-4 | 195 | So.
Morris played his freshman season at Texas after finishing the 2022 recruiting cycle as a five-star prospect in the 247Sports rankings. He logged just 11.7 minutes per game for the Longhorns but showed some flashes of his potential by reaching double figures in six games. A domestic violence allegation against Morris lingered throughout his freshman season and has cast a pall over the beginning of his college career. Now he’ll get a fresh start with the Jayhawks and compete for the starting shooting guard spot. He averaged 13.5 points on 55% shooting in two games, which included one start, during the team’s exhibition tour.

Nicolas Timberlake
6-4 | 195 | Graduate senior
Timberlake shot better than 40% from 3-point range his last two years at at Towson and evolved into an All-CAA performer. The veteran marksman will be asked to provide some punch from the perimeter amid the departures of Gradey Dick and Jalen Wilson, who combined for 61% of Kansas’ made 3-pointers last season. He hit 6 of 15 attempts from beyond the arc (40%) during the August exhibition tour while starting one of KU’s three games.

Parker Braun
6-10 | 235 | Graduate senior
The older brother of former Kansas standout and current Denver Nuggets wing Christian Braun is joining the Jayhawks as an experienced forward. Braun started 65 games the past two seasons for an upper-echelon WCC program at Santa Clara and has power conference experience after beginning his career at Missouri. He connected on 67.9% of his shots inside the arc last season while averaging 7.7 points and 5.8 rebounds. Braun logged 12.6 minutes per game during the exhibition tour.

Jamari McDowell
6-4 | 180 | Fr.
McDowell was four-star prospect rating who ranked No. 84 in the 2023 class. The Manvel, Texas native is a versatile backcourt option for the Jayhawks with a shot to crack the rotation early. “At 6’4″, he’s got great size for his skillset and is a guy that I kind of see like as an Ochai (Agbaji) that you can throw lobs to and he’s a terrific three-point shooter,” Self said.

Zach Clemence
6-11 | 230 | So.
Clemence showed promise as a four-star freshman in the 2021-22 season but failed to carve out an increased role last season. He initially planned on transferring to UC Santa Barbara before changing course and returning to KU. While announcing his return, Self suggested a redshirt year would be ideal for Clemence.

Johnny Furphy
6-8 | 202 | Fr.
Furphy reclassified late in the recruiting cycle and signed with the Jayhawks on Aug. 3 as an intriguing prospect out of the Center of Excellence in Australia. “He is one of the most gifted, skilled young kids in the 2023 class and certainly as gifted and skilled as any player remaining that we could recruit,” Self said.

Marlon Vera vs. Pedro Munhoz, Ian Machado Garry vs. Neil Magny among fights to watch

UFC 292 takes over the TD Garden in Boston on Saturday with a pair of title fights. UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling vs. Sean O’Malley headlines the card with women’s strawweight champion Zhang Weili vs. Amanda Lemos in the co-main event. But do not let gold blind you from the other nuggets on the card.

Former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman returns two years after suffering a gruesome leg break, Ian Machado Garry continues his ascent up the welterweight ladder and the violent Marlon Vera is back in action. There is a fair bit to sink your teeth into before fighters rocking gold trim make the walk.

Let’s put the magnifying glass to three fights that deserve your attention beyond Saturday’s championship doubleheader.

Can’t get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news, including a complete preview of UFC 292 below.

Chris Weidman vs. Brad Tavares
Weidman returns to active competition for the first time since snapping his leg against Uriah Hall’s shin 28 months ago. It’s been a long and difficult road to recovery for the former UFC middleweight champion. Tavares is litmus test to gauge if Weidman can still compete for spots in the official UFC middleweight rankings. There will be a mix of trepidation and relief to see Weidman back where he belongs. Weidman is a competitor and won’t settle for anything less than a win, but a compotent performance win or lose is worth celebrating after such a horrifying injury.

Ian Machado Garry vs. Neil Magny
Garry was originally set to fight Geoff Neal on Saturday night. It was a juicy offering between two fighters who pack a punch. Unfortunately, Neal suffered an injury and Magny slid in to save the day. Magny’s style is nowhere as conducive to an exciting fight, but he is an important measuring stick in the welterweight division. Garry has qualities that have him pegged as a potential future champion, but Magny has long been the gatekeeper between the great and elite at welterweight. There is statistically no welterweight with more Octagon reps than Magny. A win for Garry would be a huge feather in his cap.

Marlon Vera vs. Pedro Munhoz
“Chito” Vera has established himself as a hardcore fan favorite by delivering devastating knockouts to some of UFC’s most celebrated legends. His appetite for violence can be expressed in many ways. Vera boasts eight knockouts and eight submissions on his record. Cory Sandhagen rendered Vera’s offense obsolete in his last fight, “Chito” wants to make up for it. Munhoz is on the tail end of his career but a win over Chris Gutiérrez showed a commendable combination of experience, power, and grappling skills. You need to be a complete fighter if you’re going to beat Munhoz. Vera will enter as the betting favorite in pursuit of another stoppage against the old guard.

Honorable mentions: Andre Petroski vs. Gerald Meerschaert, Karine Silva vs. Maryna Moroz, Gregory Rodrigues vs. Denis Tiuliulin

Every team’s most likely next inductee, from Lakers’ LeBron James to Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of achievement for every NBA player, coach and executive — a sign that your career was not only great but also worthy of immortalization. The 2023 class is riddled with familiar NBA names, including Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich, who will all be inducted on Saturday.

Like most of the sports world, we generally have a hard time living in the present and always want to look to the future, so we thought it would be interesting to take a look at all 30 NBA teams’ current roster to see who their most likely next Hall of Fame inductee would be.

Please note the key words there: First, “current roster” — the player has to be with the team at this very moment to be considered. Second, “most likely” — meaning we’re not saying that the person is certainly going to get in, but it is just the best candidate available. And lastly, “next,” indicating that the person selected has to be the one who’s going to reach the Hall of Fame the soonest.

For the purposes of this exercise, we looked at players, coaches and members of the front office (we decided to leave owners and governors out, because that’s not much fun). As you’ll see, some are extremely obvious — hi, LeBron! — and others are true head-scratchers — Wizards, yeesh!

Kevin Durant vs. Nets, Marcus Smart’s return to Boston among 10 reunion dates to circle

The NBA schedule was released on Thursday and we’ve tracked key dates from all angles, including games to circle for the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks and Warriors. Below we are looking at reunion dates, when a marquee player who has switched teams will be making his first trip back to his former home arena as a visiting player (Gabe Vincent or Max Strus returning to Miami is cool and all, but it’s not going to make this list, nor is Grant Williams going back to Boston or Bruce Brown returning to Denver). We’re looking at the big fish here.

Games are listed in chronological order. Let’s get to it.

*LP denotes League Pass

  1. Chris Paul in Phoenix: Warriors at Suns — Nov. 22 (ESPN)
    Paul returns to the Valley with the Warriors after spending three seasons with the Suns and helping lead them to the 2021 Finals. Paul basically aged out in Phoenix, which brought in Bradley Beal to form a big three with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, but he was the key figure in getting that franchise on a title-contending trajectory.
  2. Mikal Bridges in Phoenix: Nets at Suns — Dec. 13 (LP)
    Bridges wasn’t a marquee player in Phoenix, but he became one in Brooklyn and he’ll surely have an extra hop in his step for this one. Bridges was traded to Brooklyn in the Kevin Durant deal but didn’t come back to Phoenix post-trade last season.
  3. Jordan Poole in Golden State: Wizards at Warriors — Dec. 22 (ESPN)
    Poole was a big part of the Warriors’ 2022 championship but only lasted one season after signing a four-year $140 million contract. Things ended pretty badly for Poole with Golden State, starting with the punch heard round the basketball world from Draymond Green and finishing with an abysmal postseason showing in 2023. He’ll be a go-to guy in Washington and will surely be looking to jack up plenty of shots against his old team.
  4. Jalen Brunson in Dallas: Knicks at Mavericks — Jan. 11 (LP)
    Brunson didn’t play in New York’s only trip to Dallas last season, so this will actually mark his first time on the American Airlines court as a visiting player. This will be a tough one for Mavericks fans. Letting Brunson get away looked bad at the time. It’s borderline stomach-turning now.
  5. Kevin Durant in Brooklyn: Suns at Nets — Jan. 31 (ESPN)
    Durant only played eight regular season games for the Suns after the trade last year and none of them were in Brooklyn. Durant’s time with the Nets was muddled. He performed at an MVP level when he played, but they never made it past the second round and he eventually tried to get his coach and GM fired before he forced his way out.
  6. Marcus Smart in Boston: Grizzlies at Celtics — Feb. 4 (ESPN)
    Smart will receive a massive ovation when he returns to face the Celtics as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies. With Derrick White arguably supplanting him as the better player, Smart became expendable. Kristaps Porzingis is in Boston as a result.
  7. Bradley Beal in Washington: Suns at Wizards — Feb. 4 (NBA TV)
    It’s only fitting that on the same night Smart returns to Boston, Beal’s return to face the Wizards will get the stepchild NBA TV treatment, where Wizards playoff games were stuck for years in the Wall-Beal era.
  8. Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn: Mavericks at Nets — Feb. 6 (TNT)
    Like Durant, Irving will also be making his first trip back to Brooklyn as Dallas didn’t play the Nets following last year’s trade. This is the one I’m looking forward to the most. Irving absolutely torpedoed the Nets over multiple seasons. I would assume a massive round of boos are in order.
  9. Fred VanVleet in Toronto: Rockets at Raptors — Feb. 9 (LP)
    VanVleet was an integral part of the Raptors’ first championship as a franchise. He got a huge deal with the Rockets and rightfully left as Toronto continues to toe the line of keeping its core intact and finally entering the rebuild phase.
  10. Damian Lillard in Portland? Heat at Blazers — Feb. 27 (TNT)
    Well, look what we have here, the Miami Heat in Portland, for the Blazers’ lone nationally televised game of the season, almost directly AFTER the trade deadline. Might the league be anticipating a Damian Lillard deadline trade to Miami? It hasn’t happened yet, but keep the date circled on your calendar. Adam Silver certainly has done so.

‘I’ve been patient all summer’

Another day, another talking point regarding James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers. This time the All-Star guard is saying that he thinks his relationship with the team is beyond repair. After returning from China — where he publicly called 76ers president Daryl Morey a liar — for an event he’s hosting in Houston this weekend, Harden spoke briefly about his relationship with the Sixers and the amount of patience he has with the situation.

“I’ve been patient all summer,” Harden said via KHOU 11. “For me, it’s just focus on what I can control and getting ready for this season.”

When asked if he thinks his relationship with the Sixers is beyond repair, Harden responded “I think so.”

So basically, nothing has changed since Harden requested a trade demand in late June, or since he called out Morey earlier this week and how he would never play for a team of his. Harden, who opted into a $35.6 million player option with Philadelphia in late June, is seemingly upset at Morey and the 76ers for two reasons. Harden was likely expecting a lucrative long-term offer from Philly this summer after taking a pay cut last offseason to give the team more financial flexibility. When that offer never materialized, Harden requested a trade, but those talks have fizzled.

While Harden has the patience to call Philadelphia’s bluff of ending trade talks with the Clippers (his preferred trade destination) with the intention of bringing him into training camp, there are costly ramifications on the horizon.

If Harden follows through with holding out of training camp like what’s been reported, it could cost him his free agency next summer. Because Harden is in the final year of his contract, the CBA states that if he “withholds services” for more than 30 days and isn’t traded by the Sixers this season, then he won’t be allowed to become a free agent next summer until Philadelphia “expressly agrees otherwise.”

It’s a potentially risky standoff for both sides, and Harden is likely betting on the Sixers not invoking that clause as it wouldn’t land well with other players around the league. However, the Sixers also have an obligation to get the best deal possible for the their organization going forward, so dumping Harden at the first offer also isn’t ideal. It’s a tricky situation, and as we inch closer to training camp opening on Oct. 3 the tension will only rise as both sides try to figure out the best path forward.

How to watch USA vs. Germany, live stream, TV channel, 2023 FIBA World Cup dates

Team USA basketball is one week away from starting the FIBA World Cup and appears to be on track to improve upon 2019’s seventh-place finish. Anthony Edwards, who paced all players with 21 points in an exhibition win over Greece in Abu Dhabi on Friday, is just one of the up-and-coming stars on the roster. Mikal Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr., Cameron Johnson, and Austin Reaves also reached double figures in points en route to the 108-86 victory. The Americans are now 4-0 in exhibition games ahead of Sunday’s final tune-up against Germany.

Chemistry is improving ahead of the team’s trip to the Philippines for the World Cup and an undefeated 5-0 run could work wonders for the group’s confidence before its first real game against New Zealand on Aug. 26. Germany could be the toughest test yet, though. Dennis Schroder, Franz Wagner, Moritz Wagner, and Daniel Theis won’t make it easy in a contest loaded with NBA talent.

Here’s everything you need to know about Team USA’s upcoming schedule.