After a fascinating year in Bay Area sports that featured a Warriors’ championship, a Giants’ last-place finish, a Raiders’ relocation announcement and a 49ers’ trade for a franchise quarterback, the calendar has turned over.
With 2017 behind us and 2018 full of promise and potential, I attached my name to five bold predictions for the Bay Area sports landscape for the year ahead. Hopefully I’ll nail at least two or three of these picks, but if not, feel free to tweet @OldTakesExposed and call for my job.
1. The Warriors don’t repeat as NBA champions
After needing just five games to dispose of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals last summer, the Warriors brought back every key figure and even added a few assets like rookie Jordan Bell (more on him later), slasher Omri Casspi and three-point shooter Nick Young. The Cavs aren’t nearly as strong this season, while their top challenger in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics, lost marquee free agent addition Gordon Hayward on the first day of the regular season. The Houston Rockets look like a legitimate threat to Golden State’s Western Conference supremacy, but who does James Harden guard over a seven-game series?
The odds are clearly stacked in the Warriors’ favor, but this team isn’t nearly as hungry for regular season wins as it once was. Will Golden State’s laid back approach early in the regular season come back to haunt them in April, May and June? Or will the world’s best team flip the switch and win its third championship in four seasons? Common sense suggests betting against the Warriors is a terrible decision, but I’ll take the field this year.
2. Jimmy Garoppolo leads the 49ers to a 10-win season
If Garoppolo’s first full month as an NFL starter is any indication of what’s to come, the future looks extraordinarily bright for the 49ers. First-year general manager John Lynch and rookie head coach Kyle Shanahan found a signal-caller to build around, and it’s entirely possible Garoppolo becomes the highest-paid player in NFL history if the 49ers ink him to a long-term deal this offseason. After San Francisco started the season 0-9 for the first time in franchise history, Garoppolo finished the year with five straight victories to help the 49ers to a 6-10 finish.
Garoppolo has all the tools to lead the 49ers to a playoff berth, and his presence alone makes San Francisco a magnet for potential free agents. The 49ers have more cap room than they’ll know what to do with, so Lynch should develop a much more competitive roster next season. After the 49ers found every way imaginable to lose close games during the first half of 2017, Garopppolo is the force who pushes San Francisco over the top next season.
3. Tim Lincecum pitches at AT&T Park
The Freak hasn’t been an elite pitcher since 2011, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that Lincecum can help a club in 2018. After taking a full year off to nurse himself back to health, it’s impossible to bet against Lincecum, the ultimate competitor who is apparently determined to make a comeback this year.
Lincecum has a preference for pitching on the West Coast and after the Giants brought Pablo Sandoval back in the middle of the 2017 season, San Francisco should be keeping an eye on Lincecum’s progress. Even if Lincecum doesn’t pitch for the Giants next year, if he does find a way to stick with a Major League club, the odds are good that Lincecum’s new team will play at AT&T Park. The two-time Cy Young Award winner could find a club in the National League West, but the Giants’ interleague schedule will bring a few AL West clubs to China Basin as well.
4. Jordan Bell earns Warriors’ starting center job
This one feels inevitable, because sooner or later, Steve Kerr will have no choice but to insert an ever-improving and developing Bell into a lineup loaded with All-Stars. Zaza Pachulia brings the Warriors value because of his screen-setting abilities and his veteran savviness, but Bell is a far superior athlete and could emerge as one of the NBA’s elite rim protectors.
A front line of Bell, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant allows the Warriors maximum flexibility on the defensive end of the floor, while giving Golden State three excellent passers who can set up Steph Curry and Klay Thompson from beyond the arc. Pachulia didn’t play against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Christmas Day because it’s not a great matchup for him, and if the Warriors meet the Cavs in the Finals for the fourth straight year, Bell could go from being the 38th pick in the NBA Draft last summer to a starter for the defending champs a year later.
5. A rookie leads the 49ers in interceptions
The 49ers’ deficiencies in the defensive backfield are perhaps the team’s greatest weakness heading into the offseason, and even though San Francisco will have Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt back from injured reserve, Lynch and Shanahan must add depth at the back end of the defense to avoid being exposed.
2017 third round draft choice Ahkello Witherspoon turned into solid selection, but the 49ers are still missing a true No. 1 corner. My guess is that Lynch drafts the best cornerback available in the first round, and that player winds up leading San Francisco in interceptions next year. In the 49ers’ Cover 3 scheme, it’s easy for opposing offenses to pick on one cornerback throughout a game, and if Ward, Tartt and Witherspoon are all healthy, the new kid on the block is bound to be tested. The 49ers’ new regime has an eye for talent, and I’d bet the player they pick will have a nose for the football.