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.

Just My Thoughts: The World of Sports (Mar. 22-29)

No Edwin No Problem: The Toronto Blue Jays Pitching Will Carry The Loadmaxresdefault

Many Blue Jays fans felt this off-season went poorly for the team, outside of salvaging Jose Bautista’s contract. I am not one of them. This roster is one that, when healthy, could be World Series caliber. I believe that, this off-season, the Jays got much better as a whole. They addressed many issues and were able to solve many internal problems by giving opportunities to younger players. Some fans are blind to what the Jays began to display last year, and that is a rotation that, has the potential to be among the MLB’s best.

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The five-man rotation that John Gibbons has designed for the Blue Jays this year is the best rotation they have had since 2008. While there is no established ace at this point, they have five pitchers who are proven winners. Marco Estrada is the Blue Jays Opening Day starter, and is coming off an excellent season. Estrada had the third best opponent batting average in the MLB amongst starters last year at .203. There were two other Jays in the Top 20 of this statistic, JA Happ and Aaron Sanchez, who combined for a win-loss record of 35-6 last season in 62 starts. The remaining two starters are Marcus Storman and Francisco Liriano. Neither had their best season last year, but both have the capability of adding 12+ wins apiece to a deadly Jays pitching staff. This Jays rotation is deep, and will give Toronto a chance to win every ballgame. Pitching is what carries teams in today’s MLB: four of the past five World Series champions were Top 10 in team earned run average (ERA). Of the past five years, last year was the only time the Blue Jays were amongst the Top 10. With four of last year’s five starters returning and the addition of Liriano, the Jays can expect to see even better pitching this season from their starters.

While Toronto’s starters were great last year, a struggling bullpen plagued the team all season. The Blue Jays team ERA last season was 3.78 with opponents hitting .242; the bullpen’s ERA was 4.11, and opponents’ batting average was .254. The Texas Rangers were the only other playoff team with a bullpen ERA over 4.00 last season, and they were swept by Toronto in the divisional round. Moreover, the Jays bullpen was the least active in the MLB last year, pitching only 464 innings. The mediocre bullpen held the Jays back last year substantially, and put an extra amount of pressure on their starters. The Jays 2017 bullpen, however, is slated to eliminate this weakness.

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The Blue Jays have a mixture of youth and veteran talent to carry their bullpen this season. Jason Grilli became a staple in the Jays pen when he arrived from Atlanta, posting a 3.64 ERA in 46 games last season. Much of the team’s off-season shopping was done to bring new faces to the bullpen. Joe Smith, Mike Bolsinger, and J.P. Howell were all added to bolster the relief staff. Smith is coming off a World Series win with the Chicago Cubs, and posted a 3.46 ERA during 2016. Howell had an okay 2016, but has made over 60 appearances in each of his last four seasons and is a workhorse. Bolsinger is entering his first season in the bullpen, and is somewhat of gamble. However, the 29-year old earned the trust of Jays manager John Gibbons and will start 2017 in the majors. The three other key members to the Jays’ bullpen success will be Ryan Tepera, Joe Biagini and Roberto Osuna. Tepera has never played a full season in Toronto, but has been impressive in 52 career appearances, posting a 3.16 ERA over that span. If this trend continues, he could become a valuable right-hander for the Jays. Biagini was the surprise of 2016 for Toronto, as the rookie logged 60 games, second most among Jays’ pitchers, and posted a 3.06 ERA. If Biagini can build on this fabulous rookie season, he could become the Jays’ star setup man. If so, Biagini would be setting up star closer Roberto Osuna. Osuna is a dominating closer who logged 74 innings, a 2.68 ERA, and a team-best 0.93 walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP) last season. Osuna and Biagini will not have to carry as heavy of a load this season, as the Jays have finally provided their bullpen with an excellent staff to grind out tight ballgames.

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Tight ballgames are not what Jays fans are used to. They are used to the team outslugging their opponents en route to victory. But, this has changed. Fans were left upset and felt betrayed when management and Edwin Encarnacion could not come to terms on a new contract. Encarnacion is now in Cleveland, which has left a sour taste in Jays’ fans mouths. The Jays acted quickly to get an insurance policy for Encarnacion, and that came in 33-year old  Kendrys Morales. Morales is not going to be Encarnacion, but, he has potential to hit .270, 30HRs and 90 RBIs. While this may still be a downgrade, the Jays finally have depth elsewhere in the lineup, and can rotate players in and out accordingly.

Melvin Upton Jr. struggled to find his stride in Toronto last season, so manager John Gibbons has decided to make Upton earn his spot and will have the speedy outfielder come off the bench. Upton’s ability to drive the ball and provide speed on the base path can have him pinch hit or even pinch run in key situations, which brings much needed versatility to the Jays. Next off the bench comes the underrated Steve Pearce who will play all around the diamond for the Jays. Pearce played every base defensively last year, and played both left and right field, showing his defensive versatility. He also brings a .288 batting average to the plate. Pearce will be Toronto’s contact hitter coming off the bench.

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The Jays bench was usually home to Josh Thole when Dickey was pitching. But, with Dickey gone so is Thole, so Jarrod Saltalamacchia jumped at the opportunity to play behind Russell Martin. Saltalamacchia, while primarily a catcher, can also play first base. Defensively his abilities are sound, while offensively he drives the ball, though he struggles to find contact. If Saltalamacchia can settle his bat down and hit .220 he will be more than serviceable for the Jays. Finally, the Jays are backed up defensively by Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney, who can play anywhere in the infield. Barney is the better hitter of the two, as he hits for contact consistently above .250. Other young names in the Jays system to keep an eye on are: Dalton Pompey, Richard Urena, Harold Ramirez and Anthony Alford, who could all potentially see some time in Toronto this season.

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While it would be nice to see those young names on the roster, let us hope it does not come to that. The Toronto Blue Jays are a good baseball team, no question, and their stars are young and in the prime of their careers. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are beginning to build for an arms race, meaning that now is the time to win. The Jays can win, but they need to be healthy. Devon Travis is vital to the Toronto’s success, the past two seasons he has posted Top-10 second baseman numbers when healthy. But, Travis has missed a lot of time over these past two years, and the Jays struggled to replace him in the interim. Furthermore, Jose Bautista was in and out of the lineup last year, and both Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki had injury woes. The team cannot win if it does not stay healthy. Toronto’s key to success will be their health. They have all the tools to make a World Series. The team’s pitching has not been this good since 2008, and the bats, while not as star studded as years past, remain strong and have newfound depth. The clock is ticking, and it is nearly high-noon in Toronto. If this team can stay healthy, they will be in the World Series.

 

NHL News

The Penalty Box

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  • The Minnesota Wild have gone from Stanley Cup contenders to Stanley Cup pretenders. In their last 10 games the Wild are 1-7-2, and, despite consistently leading the Chicago Blackhawks throughout the season, the Wild will find themselves as the #2 seed in the Central Division. The Wild’s lack of success comes in large part to Devan Dubnyk’s recent play. At one point this season he seemed like the frontrunner for the Vezina, but in March, Duby’s numbers tell a different story: 3-8-2, a .889 save percentage and a 2.94 goals against average. Dubnyk will need to improve on those numbers if the Wild want to have any success in the playoffs.
  • How often do the Colorado Avalanche score a goal? Not very often. It is so rare that their Twitter account grew impatient on Wednesday night. This tweet was hilarious, as has been the Avalanche’s season. The Avalanche somehow actually manage less than two goals per game, which makes it easy to understand why they are dead last by a country mile. Do not worry, though, Avalanche fans. You have a friend in the Arizona Coyotes, who share your feeling of mediocrity.

Stars of the Week

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  • The Carolina Hurricanes have surprisingly made a late-season charge. The Canes have earned at least a point in 12 straight games, thanks in large part to the goaltending duo of Eddie Lack and Cam Ward. Over this twelve game span, the tandem has a combined 2.5 goals against per game. They have been complimented by a red-hot Jeff Skinner who has 11 goals in this 12 game span. Skinner is having a career year with 31 goals and 55 points, and will need to continue to deal damage if the Canes want to make up the four-point gap between themselves and the Boston Bruins.
  • The Anaheim Ducks have won seven of their last eight games. In six of these eight games, the Ducks have allowed two goals or less. This speaks volumes to their defensive structure and goaltending. Surprisingly, the goaltending success recently has not come from John Gibson, but instead from Jonathan Bernier. After being dealt from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Ducks in the off-season for a conditional pick, Bernier has been solid with a record of 19-7-3, a .919 save percentage and a 2.42 goals against average. Gibson may be struggling, but Head Coach Randy Carlyle has to be satisfied with having a goaltending competition, if it is resulting in wins.

NBA News

The Weekly Rap

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  • The Toronto Raptors won three out of a possible four games this week, winning comfortably in all three. Norman Powell and Cory Joseph have both been getting more touches offensively and putting in their fair share of baskets. This backcourt scoring has helped take some pressure off of DeMar DeRozan, who continues to torch opponents from the mid-range and inside with 27.2 points per game on the season
  • The Raptors now trail the Washington Wizards by a single game, and have even closed the gap on first place in the Eastern Conference, as they now trail the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers by three games. While it is appearing less likely the Raptors could overtake the Cavs or Celtics, there is still a strong possibility they could catch the Wizards for third. With an easier schedule the rest of the way, other than an April 12th meeting with the Cavs, the Raptors could feasibly run the table or take six of their last seven games.

Top 5 NBA Power Ranking

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  1. Warriors (61-14)
  • Full credit to the Golden State Warriors. They battled back from being down double digits against the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday and surprised a lot of people, myself included. The Warriors have now won their last nine and with their win over the Spurs, have almost certainly locked up first place in the Western Conference. Steph Curry has elevated his game over this stretch scoring at least 20 in all but one of those nine wins. If Kevin Durant can be back in time for the playoffs, watch out, because the Warriors seem to be clicking once again.
  1. Spurs (57-17)
  • Gregg Popovich had a reason to smile, but also a reason to scold his team this week. The Spurs continued their winning ways, stringing five wins together, including a 103-74 thumping delivered to the Cavs; but they blew a big lead versus the Warriors. After getting off to a hot start, the Spurs struggled to find their touch and shot 41% from the field. The season series is at 2-1 in favour of the Spurs, but this one has to sting for the Spurs as there were stars resting during this affair.
  1. Celtics (48-27)
  • The Celtics are tied for first in the Eastern Conference, and their fans are pretty excited about it. However, it is important to note that this team has not reached their peak just yet. There is still lots of work to be done by the Celtics and they were humbled by the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday in a 103-100 loss. The Celtics still have a good shot at holding onto first, despite having played more games than the Cavs, as the two meet on April 5th. If the Celtics win this game, they may just be able to lock up first place.
  1. Rockets (51-23)
  • The Houston Rockets have scored 100 points or more in every single game they have played since November 21st. That is ludicrous, and speaks volumes to how good James Harden has been as the Rockets’ catalyst offensively. The team goes as Harden goes, and the bearded one is averaging 29.3PPG, 8RPG, and 11.4APG. Those numbers are MVP-like, and have made it a two horse race between him and Russell Westbrook. However, Harden is likely not concerned with that, as his primary concern will be the playoffs, which are just around the corner.
  1. Cavaliers (47-26)
  • The Cavaliers are still tied for first in the Eastern Conference, which is great, but they have been nothing of the sort lately. Cleveland got whacked by the Wizards and then the Spurs this week, with LeBron James in the lineup for both games. The Cavs do not appear high and mighty, and LeBron will have to likely carry this team if they want any shot at taking down the Warriors or Spurs. At this rate, it may be fairly difficult for them to get past the Celtics, which does not bode well for Cleveland.

 

What to watch this week?

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  • Thursday: Cavaliers vs Bulls 8:00pm ET, Leafs vs Predators 8:00pm ET, Sharks vs Oilers 9:00pm ET
  • Friday: Penguins vs Rangers 7:00pm ET, Spurs vs Thunder 8:00pm ET, Blue Jackets vs Blackhawks 8:30pm ET, Sharks vs Flames 9:00pm ET, Rockets vs Warriors 10:30pm ET
  • Saturday: March Madness 6:09pm ET, Canadiens vs Lightning 7:00pm ET, Ducks vs Oilers 10:00pm ET
  • Sunday: Bruins vs Blackhawks 12:30pm ET, Jazz vs Spurs 3:30pm ET, Capitals vs Blue Jackets 6:00pm ET, Wizards vs Warriors 8:00pm ET, Ducks vs Flames 9:30pm ET
  • Monday: National Championship Basketball TBD, Senators vs Red Wings 7:00pm ET, Leafs vs Sabres 7:00pm ET
  • Tuesday: Lightning vs Bruins 7:00pm ET, Blue Jackets vs Penguins 7:00pm ET, Raptors vs Pacers 7:00pm ET, Grizzlies vs Spurs 8:30pm ET, Flames vs Ducks 10:00pm ET, Rangers vs Sharks 10:30pm ET

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.