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Bill Murphy: Fans of Atlanta's pro sports teams have plenty to cheer about this summer
Atlanta Braves, Atlanta United both tops in their divisions
Braves
The Atlanta Braves' Ender Inciarte, left, and Tyler Flowers, right, are greeted in the dugout after scoring against the San Diego Padres on June 16 at SunTrust Park in Atlanta. - photo by John Bazemore | The Associated Press

With a handful of captivating stories for fans of Atlanta’s professional sports teams to follow, it’s nearly a given that the late-summer doldrums that have marred the state’s hub of entertainment in the past will not be let through the door between now and Labor Day. 

Here’s a quick glance at what Atlanta sports fans have to look forward to this summer: The Atlanta Braves are playoff contenders after last appearing in the postseason in 2013, Atlanta United leads the Supporters’ Shield Standings in the MLS, the Atlanta Hawks have three first-round picks this week and the immensely talented Atlanta Falcons get back to work in training camp in five weeks. 

The only fly in the ointment, currently, is the tenuous relationship between the Atlanta Falcons and wide receiver Julio Jones, which is reportedly over wanting an “updated” or “revised” contract. Hopefully, this issue will be put to rest before training camp in Flowery Branch. If not, and in the worst-case scenario that Jones holds out, it’s going to impede the team’s momentum after a 2017 playoff appearance.

A longshot (at best) to start the season, the Braves are quickly becoming a contender to make their first trip to the playoffs in five years. Buoyed by two of the leagues best hitters (Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis) and a six-deep starting pitching rotation, it’s tough to see Atlanta experiencing a major dropoff with 22 games left before the All-Star Game in Washington. Atlanta recently won five of six games in a homestand, despite still missing rookie star Ronald Acuna as he mends from a knee injury May 28 in Boston. 

Fans have picked up strongly on the vibe of a resurgent Braves organization, drawing almost 1.1 million fans this season at SunTrust Park — on pace to beat the 2.5 million who walked through the turnstiles in 2017 in Atlanta. 

If the Braves continue to be a player in the playoff race before the trade deadline July 31, the club’s ownership group at Liberty Media Group needs to open up the wallet to bring in a more dependable closer out of the bullpen. 

On the soccer front, Atlanta United has arguably the most passionate fan base of the pro franchises in the ATL. It leads the league with 48,400 fans per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — up 200 from the inaugural 2017 campaign. The Five Stripes (33 points) have reeled off a 10-3-3 record to this point in the season, four points ahead of both Sporting Kansas City and FC Dallas. 

This week, the Atlanta Hawks are drawing plenty of chatter with the myriad possibilities on the table with three picks in the first round, starting with No. 3 in the first round, and wrapping up early in the second round with the 34th overall pick. 

Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk has said previously that interest is on the table with other teams wanting that No. 3 spot in the draft. However, moving down will likely take the Hawks out of the running for one of the top three prospects: Deandre Ayton (Arizona), Marvin Bagley (Duke) and European superstar Luka Doncic. On the other hand, Atlanta could bundle picks together to try and move up if it decides the potential of one of the aforementioned players — or another team’s superstar — is worth the risk. 

It will be exciting to watch, especially for fanatics of the theatrics of the draft process on live TV. Schlenk could go the conservative route and hold on to his four picks and try to build from the ground up after the Hawks finished last in the Eastern Conference in 2018. 

The Atlanta Falcons, as a whole, have a bevy of positive things going on as training camp nears. Atlanta has one of the league’s most stout defenses, franchise quarterback Matt Ryan is locked up to a new contract after the coming season for an additional five years and, though early, first-round draft pick Calvin Ridley has everyone excited from his performance in a pair of minicamps. 

The conundrum about Jones’ relationship with the team has garnered a well-deserved high rate of headlines. The behind-the-scenes chess match between the two camps may be nearing a solution, or the fissure between Jones and the Falcons may be growing larger by the day. 

We just don’t know.

Because both sides are staying quiet from public comment on the issue, it’s really anyone’s guess. We’ll know there’s a big problem if Jones isn’t around when players report to Flowery Branch on July 26.

Still, there are plenty of stories for all the Atlanta pro franchise fans to follow this summer. Happy viewing!

Bill Murphy is sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at bmurphy@gainesvilletimes.com or @Bill_Murphy313 on Twitter.

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