Patience Is A Virtue: The Houston Astros Your 2017 World Champions

Patience Is A Virtue: The Houston Astros Your 2017 World Champions

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On Wednesday, the Houston Astros won their first World Series. The road to the World Series was a challenging one for the team: the Astros only other prior World Series appearence in 2005 saw them get swept, and prior to 2017, they had only made the playoffs 10 times in 54 seasons. The Astros lost 324 of their 486 games from 2011-2013. Fans attempted to remain optimistic as the Astros stockpiled prospects. Then, in 2014, Sports Illustrated published what will go down as one of the most legendary baseball articles in history.

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The June 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated included an article claiming that the Astros would be the 2017 World Series champions. The raised doubt throughout the baseball world, as many of the Astros prospects had yet to play in the MLB. The Astro on the cover was George Springer, one of the first pieces of the Astros’ project. Springer was taken 11th overall by the Astros in the 2011 MLB Draft, a selection seen as questionable. The risk panned out, as Springer was named World Series MVP.

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Jeff Luhnow was tasked with the Astros rebuild. Luhnow had won a World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011, and had drafted and scouted many of their core pieces. Luhnow demanded patience upon arriving in Houston, and preached a vision for a brighter future, trading away veterans and stockpiling draft picks. The Astros showed a glimpse of the future in 2015 with an ALCS playoff run. Following this, Luhnow moved to acquire veterans, including Josh Reddick, Brian McCann, Justin Verlander.

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“You won’t regret this decision if you decide to join the Houston Astros.” Dallas Keuchel, Houston’s ace,  made this sales pitch to Justin Verlander shortly before the trade deadline this season. Verlander had been a Detroit Tiger for his entire career, but the two were going in opposite directions: while the Tigers wanted to get younger, Verlander wanted to win. After rejecting other trade attempts, the 34-year old gave in and went to Houston. Verlander dominated in Houston, posting a 1.06 earned run average and five wins in five starts. The playoffs were no different, as Verlander led his team to the World Series by fending off the Boston Red Sox and capturing the ALCS MVP.

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Not all of these Astros were highly touted prospects or superstars, though. Jose Altuve tried out for the Astros in 2007 at the team’s Venezuelan facility. He was told he was “too short” and was cut. Altuve’s father pushed him to not take no for an answer, and Altuve returned and was eventually signed for $15,000. From age 17 to 21, Altuve played for the Astros affiliates in 7 different minor leagues before he finally got the call. Even after making the MLB, Altuve would return to Venezuela to play for the Astros’ winter league team. Altuve has gone from being “too short” to being a World Series champion, and is the odds-on favourite to be the American League MVP.

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At the end of the day, all the accolades and hype that came prior to this, they mean absolutely nothing to these gentlemen. As all of these men are now World Champions and have had this chapter told. For some, this is just the beginning of their illustrious careers, but for one it is likely the end of the road. Carlos Beltran, one of the most consistent players of his generation is now 40 years old, and well past his prime. This was rumoured to be his last chance at a World Series, and bi-god he got it done. Beltran became emotional at the end of his interview, dedicating the win to his birthplace, Puerto Rico. Beltran also spoke of what it means to him, and how when you reach the “Big Leagues”, you want nothing more than to experience this moment.

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Beltran’s case, sums up everything of what this World Series win means to Houston. After the devastating weather, which ravaged their fine city, many of its residents rallied around this team. Rebuilding their city may seem difficult, and it will take time, but they can look to the Astros for hope. An organization who was once a laughingstock is now on top, because they remained patient and worked hard. The Astros finally realized that moment, and the city felt it with them. Your 2017 World Series Champions, The Houston Astros.

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Embrace The Hate: The Western Conference Arms Race

NBA: Golden State Warriors-Championship Celebration

 

The Golden State Warriors are the NBA’s most polarizing team: if you are not with them, you are certainly against them. This reality is apparent to those on the Warriors as well; Klay Thompson stated it best in claiming that “All the greatest teams are hated. So we embrace it.”  Thompson and his teammates are aware they are not well-liked, and they are even more aware of the ripple effects of the “super-team”, as Western Conference team owners have adjusted to the new reality and have opened their wallets to attract the NBA’s best talent.

The Western Conference was plus-42 in games against the Eastern Conference last year, and this number should be eclipsed this year. Players in the Eastern Conference have jumped ship to the West, including Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap. There are 12 teams in the Western Conference fielding playoff-calibre rosters, and 2 out of the other 3 teams (everyone other than the Suns) could feasibly compete for the last 2 playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. When was the last time a conference in the Big 4 was that deep?

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In 2010, Kevin Durant made a large statement. The Finals MVP called out the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers’ Big 3s; yet, 6 years later, Durant would follow the same path of those he criticized. Do not think players around the league did not notice. Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City set off a chain reaction, and, while it made the Warriors nearly unbeatable for an entire season, it inspired others to create their own super teams. The Oklahoma City Thunder, the Houston Rockets, and the Minnesota Timberwolves all beefed up in big ways this off-season, creating even more competition.

Speaking of competition, there are 5 teams in the West who are sure bets to make the playoffs: the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Thunder and Timberwolves. After that? It is wide-open. The race for the remaining 3 playoff spots may deliver some of the best basketball that the NBA has seen in years. This race will likely come down to the final weeks of the season, and will see the likes of Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin, and Anthony Davis fighting for a playoff spot. There will likely be 2 or 3 teams who miss the playoffs despite having a strong roster, and, because of geographical reasons, will be forced to watch, instead of participate in, the playoffs. The idea of abolishing conference seeding, and going by league-wide seeding, has never made more sense than now. Of the 16 best teams in the NBA, only 5 play in the Eastern Conference.

Here is my list:

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Top 16 NBA Teams:

  1. Golden State Warriors
  2. Cleveland Cavaliers
  3. Houston Rockets
  4. San Antonio Spurs
  5. Oklahoma City Thunder
  6. Boston Celtics
  7. Minnesota Timberwolves
  8. Toronto Raptors
  9. Washington Wizards
  10. Los Angeles Clippers
  11. Utah Jazz
  12. Portland Trailblazers
  13. Milwaukee Bucks
  14. Denver Nuggets
  15. Memphis Grizzlies
  16. Sacramento Kings

The only other Eastern Conference team worthy of the list could be the Miami Heat. The Western Conference’s chase of the Warriors has inspired competitiveness and a desire to win, players in the West will carry a chip on their shoulder each and every game. Do not be surprised if the Warriors have some hiccups during the regular season, and their road to the Finals may not be as simple as one would expect.

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These super-teams have been formed with a simple purpose: to beat the Warriors. While LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will likely be awaiting whoever beats the Warriors, the goal remains the same, and the greatest climb will be beating Golden State. And do not be confused, not all these players are in their prime. There is a strong youth movement in the Western Conference. Look at the Minnesota Timberwolves, for example. Jimmy Butler is the veteran of their Big 3 at 28, with Andrew Wiggins only 22 and Towns merely 21. The T-Wolves are not even close to their full potential. The Portland Trailblazers’ average age is 24.9 years old, and they are still considered by many to be a playoff team. The talent stretches to all ages out West.

Last year’s NBA Rising Star Challenge featured Team USA vs. Team International, and 14 of the 22 participants were from Western Conference teams. Furthermore, 4 of last year’s East All-Stars are now playing their basketball out West. While this sucks for the Eastern Conference, it is gold for the NBA. Many east-coast viewers will be staying up late to watch the big boys play late at night, as the West Coast is truly best. What does this all mean?

  1. You should watch Western Conference basketball
  2. 11 Western Conference teams will have 40 or more wins
  3. The NBA should abolish conference seeding
  4. The Warriors are not going 16-1 in the playoffs
  5. The NBA will be the most entertaining it has been in quite some time

 

Welcome back basketball, it is going to be a great year, and thank you Golden State for inadvertently saving a horribly imbalanced product.

 

Thank you all so much for reading! It truly means the world to me, and now having much more time at my disposal I can promise this will once again become a weekly activity! So please every week feel free to read and give me feedback, this is how I can always continue to improve! I enjoy so much writing and I enjoy it even more when I get feedback and know people are reading my works. So thank you again for reading, it is my absolute pleasure to share my work with you.

Thanks also to my editor Geoff, who commits time to making sure my work is at its best quality. If you have any recommendations or would like to continue the conversation hit me up on Facebook or on Twitter or Instagram @sassysaslove!

Just My Thoughts: The World of Sports (May. 4-10)

Something Smells: The NBA Playoffs Are Not Special

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It would be an understatement to say that I like sports: if I’m not watching a game on TV, I’m likely checking scores in other games or following breaking stories on the Internet. This spring, though, I have found myself watching little of the NBA playoffs. While I stay up to date on Twitter watching highlights and clips, I cannot bear to sit through an entire game. The game has become dominated by two super-teams, and the first three rounds serve only as formalities in reaching their inevitable faceoff. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are both 8-0 through the first two rounds and their average margin of victory is 13.06 points. It is rare that their opponent is competitive. While Cleveland and Golden State’s runs are impressive, they represent the worst of sports.

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A third-straight Cavaliers/Warriors Finals is the product of the larger issue in the NBA playoffs: a lack of parity. The problem lies with the lack of competitiveness in the playoffs now. Only one lower seed has been able to beat a higher seed in the NBA playoffs thus far, when the Utah Jazz took down the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games. The series was unquestionably the best of the NBA playoffs in the first round. The largest margin of victory in any game was eight points, and every game was tight. Though, the victor of that series had little to celebrate: Utah would go on to play the Warriors in the second round, and be bumped to the curb in four games and forgotten.

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Where is the parity? The NBA has a flawed model allowing teams to spend into the luxury tax. The luxury tax is in place to attempt to increase parity by taxing teams who spend over the salary cap. This cap is a “soft cap”, allowing teams to go over it by paying a penalty. The absence of a “hard cap”, however, has resulted in unprecedented disparity. Teams are able to assemble rosters of superstars that can only be beaten by one team – coincidentally, another super-team. The Golden State Warriors have benefited from Stephen Curry’s inexpensive contract, but have spent well past the salary cap in acquiring the likes of Kevin Durant. The Cavaliers, with Lebron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, have also employed this strategy.

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The era of Cleveland/Golden State finals match-ups has shown the need for a hard salary cap to ensure parity in the league. A hard cap would keep super-teams from assembling and make the early rounds of the playoffs competitive. Consider the National Hockey League for proof of a successful hard cap. While the NHL had endured decades of super-teams, the 2005-06 season brought a hard cap, and with it, newfound parity.

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The hard constant dogfight to stay at the top. NHL teams are constantly forced to re-organize, bring in short-term players, and be loose with their players in order to create their best product. Consider the Chicago Blackhawks. Their general manager, Stan Bowman, has been remodeling the team since their Stanley Cup in 2010. The Hawks have had to trade the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Andrew Ladd, and Nick Leddy to stay within the salary cap. These trades have seen elite players improving their new teams, furthering parity throughout the league. But, these moves have also kept the Blackhawks competitive for nearly a decade.

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Conversely, consider the Golden State Warriors. They have traded away worse players for upgrades. This summer the Warriors managed to acquire Zaza Pachulia for Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes, and then traded Festus Ezeli. It does not seem to make sense to trade away all these role players, but of course they used this freed up money to acquire Kevin Durant. Instead of having to downgrade, the Warriors in their third year at the top of the NBA got a serious upgrade easily. The Hawks finally won a title after 49 years and instantly had to trim the fat. If the NBA wants to have competitive playoffs with consistent parity, there needs to be a shift in how money is spent on players, by spreading the talent of the league.

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The NBA is a wealthier enterprise than the NHL, and with their latest TV deal of $24 billion it is very difficult to argue that owners are not making money. With this mind, there is lots of money in place that could make the league much more competitive. With a proper salary cap in place, it is reasonable to believe that the NBA playoffs could truly be unpredictable. When was the last time the NBA had a Cinderella win the NBA Championship? 1995 is the answer. The Houston Rockets came in as a sixth-seed, having only won 47 games in the regular season. Led by Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets were able to upset three 60-win teams, and then take down the Orlando Magic and Shaquille O’Neal in the NBA Finals. This was an incredible run, and can be best defined as unpredictable, something like this would never happen in the NBA today.

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The consistent results, and predictable outcomes are getting old. Charles Barkley from the NBA on TNT, provided a quality soundbite this past Monday, when he said he would rather watch the NHL playoffs than the NBA playoffs. Barkley went onto talk of how the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets match-up hardly mattered, as whoever would win that would simply be served to the Golden State Warriors on a platter. The Spurs and Rockets could play seven games against one another, and could have the best series of the playoffs. Yet, like the Utah Jazz in the second round, it will all be squandered by a super-team from Golden State.

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It is difficult to argue that super-teams are good for basketball, even from a financial standpoint. Super teams could bring a massive drop in the NBA’s viewership. This past season national viewership dipped by a modest 6%. However, the NBA took a big hit in local ratings. As of the first week of February, NBA regional sport networks reported they were down 15% in viewership. The ratings were not just dropping in small markets either, with Cleveland seeing a 28% drop-off in viewership compared to 2015-16 and seeing a 35% drop-off in viewership. Chicago and Cleveland are considered two of the NBA’s hottest markets, yet even they are seeing a large drop.

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It is time for change in the NBA. The Canadian markets are on fire right now, as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ local viewership rose by 27%, and Edmonton Oiler broadcasts were up an astounding 40%. CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada block at 7pm EST saw a 9% increase in viewership, while the 10pm EST block saw a 6% increase. The NBA lacks this growth, because they are bound to have the same narrative of Cavaliers and Warriors for three years in a row. While their ratings will not likely take a hit in the Finals, they will experience pain on the way there. No one will want to see the 28 other teams. All they will want to see is the two super teams play each other. Make every game matter again NBA.

 

Note to my readers: Sorry I could not provide you with the tidbits this week! I believe that with my schedule this summer I will subtract the tidbits for the summer, as I simply do not have the time to complete them and be satisfied with them. I will continue to attempt to punch out an article each week, however, and hope you stay along for the ride! Thank you for your support as always!

Special thanks to Geoff Marlowe for helping with the editing work and a big thank you to you the reader for taking your time to read my work! Appreciate it! Hope you continue to read along, if you have any suggestions/comments/questions, please feel free to inbox me or talk to me on Twitter @sassysaslove.