Since LeBron James announced he’d be taking his talents to Los Angeles, my boss Jason McIntyre has been banging the drum that the City of Angels is now the epicenter of American sports on the basis of the Lakers, Chargers, Rams, Dodgers, and Galaxy all being good and more importantly relevant in the proverbial conversation. I’m here to say while that’s self-evidently going to be true from a sports talk perspective, I’d put the state of Wisconsin’s capacity for collectively winning on the field/court ahead of theirs and everyone else’s for the next several years. (My colleague Henry McKenna made the point that Boston is also poised to sustain its big run.)
The Packers, Brewers, and Wisconsin Badgers football program will all be in their sports’ championship pictures for the next several years. The Bucks are one of 26 or so teams that have no chance at winning a title in the NBA, but they’re moving into a shiny new arena and have one of the game’s most fun and likable stars in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Badger basketball also may not be title contenders, but they’ll be feisty this season. Here’s a breakdown of why Wisconsin’s teams are primed for a very optimistic window of success (yes, I’m a fan of all these teams):
We are starting to feel the first winds of Aaron Rodgers’ Super Bowl window dwindling, but it is still ajar. All eyes are on his probably-impending contract extension, but because of the threat of the franchise tag it’s a solid bet he will be in Green Bay for at least the next four seasons. With him, the Packers are in the conversation.
I was a little bit skeptical about how this power dynamic with Mike McCarthy, president Mark Murphy, and new GM Brian Gutekunst was going to work. That being said, the early returns in the Draft — fulfilling needs at corner back with Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, picking up the Saints’ 2019 first round pick — are promising. I don’t know how much I love the Jimmy Graham signing, but I bet McCarthy will figure out a better way to use him than Pete Carroll did in Seattle.
The most valuable offseason acquisitions for the Packers might be coaches: Mike Pettine, whose defense has nowhere to go but up, and Joe Philbin returning as offensive coordinator. The Packers had started the season 4-1 before Rodgers got injured in the Vikings game last year, and if Rodgers is healthy the sky is the limit for them.
Paul Chryst isn’t going to win any sexiness contests, but he is the absolute perfect person for the Wisconsin Badgers’ head coaching job. The Badgers were driving in the final minutes to potentially beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game last season before they were stalled by a holding penalty. If they had won the game, it would have preserved an undefeated season and they would have been in the college football playoffs.
This is the point in this column where I gripe that the Big Ten, in the heartland of America, plays its championship game indoors on turf every year instead of ever having it outside in the elements, where the Badgers’ speed disparity versus the Buckeyes/Wolverines/Nittany Lions of the world could be neutralized a little bit. But I digress.
Wisconsin is returning nine of their starters on offense. People make fun of Alex Hornibrook and there are definitely throws he shouldn’t attempt, but there are also throws, like the slant, he is superb at. The defense only returns four starters, but I trust defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to plug just about anyone in there.
I don’t normally get wrapped up in recruiting, but it’s impossible not to be excited about four-star quarterback Graham Mertz, who recently reaffirmed his commitment to the Badgers despite being heavily wooed by the likes of Urban Meyer and Nick Saban. He will be a freshman in 2019.
As far as the basketball program goes, it goes without saying this team doesn’t have the firepower it did in the Frank Kaminsky/Sam Dekker years. Nevertheless, they’re returning Ethan Happ as a senior, and Brad Davison is a gutty competitor and a ton of fun to watch. After a season where everything went wrong, it’s not unreasonable to forecast this team to make the Sweet 16 next March.
GM David Stearns, 33, has done a masterful job assembling the Brewers’ roster. From random scrap heap pickups like Jesus Aguilar and Eric Thames to going out and acquiring Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich (thank you, Jeter!) this past offseason, just about every move he’s made has been immaculate. With the All-Star game approaching, the Brewers have the best record in the National League.
The bullpen, bolstered by Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress, has enabled the Brewers to unconventionally optimize a team with no true ace starting pitchers. Because the starters generally get pulled before they face the opposing lineup for the third time and because the bullpen has been as lights out as can be, the Brewers have given up the least amount of runs in the NL.
Craig Counsell has the perfect temperament to manage a baseball team. His facial expressions are the same whether the Brewers are up or down 8, or in a close game. He never looks comfortable but he always looks confident.
Most of the Brewers’ best players are locked up for a considerable amount of time: Josh Hader and Jesus Aguilar are controlled via the arbitration process through 2023, Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain are signed through 2022, Travis Shaw is controlled for three more seasons, and Jeffress for two. This team will be in contention for the foreseeable future.
I’m under no delusion that the Bucks are going to win a championship in the next 2-3 years, but they’ll still be a lot of fun to watch primarily because of the Greek Freak. Giannis is a pterodactyl. He makes dunks from launch angles that I didn’t even know the human race was capable of. And he does it with such an affable disposition.
For the time being, he swears he’ll never leave Milwaukee:
Maybe one day he’ll win a title there — though, I’d again say that I’d bet on the Packers, Brewers, and Badger Football doing so beforehand. If Giannis proves me wrong, though, I won’t be too sad.