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.

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Just My Thoughts: The World of Sports (Mar. 15-21)

The Man Who Can Stickhandle Between Raindrops: The Underrated Marian Hossa

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As a young hockey fan, I did not understand trades. When Marian Hossa was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers, I presumed that meant I could not like Hossa anymore. He was not on the Ottawa Senators, which meant he was the enemy! Around the age of 14, I realized how amazing Hossa was, and how stupid I was for pretending he did not exist. Watching him tear through the playoff with the Chicago Blackhawks was truly a gift. I watched those Blackhawk games with my father, who is not much of a hockey buff, but he always enjoys watching the Senators and the playoffs. After Hossa made a fabulous play, stickhandling around just about everyone on the ice, my dad said one of my favourite lines ever. “Josh, ya know what they used to say about Hossa on the Sens broadcast? They said he could stickhandle between raindrops.” My dad is not one to remember sports history, but there is a reason that stuck with him. It was an apt description for a magnificent hockey player.

Marian Hossa has played 1300 games in the NHL and recorded 1128 points. But, these solid statistics still do not do him justice. Hossa deserves an immense amount of praise for his ability to be effective without the puck. The Slovakian superstar has received votes for the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) in 12 of his 18 seasons, and in 6 of those was in the Top 15 in voting. Selke Trophy winners are typically rough and tough competitors, and you would not think of a smooth-skating European being good defensively. But, Hossa uses his lower-body strength and his terrific stick to create turnovers and transition into an offensive breakout. It is a unique talent to do the things Hossa can do with his stick in such tight spaces, and in one motion. Hossa is one of the smoothest operators there is, and is able to be smooth even when in the dirty areas. Hossa’s ability to be continuously active without the puck in the defensive zone, neutral zone and even offensive zone while fore-checking makes him invaluable.

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Hossa’s contributions without the puck are exceptional, but it is important to understand that he was not just an average two-way forward; he was, and is, among the league’s best. Hossa may not be the top guy anymore, or an all-star, but he is undoubtedly one of the best 35+ year old players in this league. When Hossa joined the Blackhawks in 2009, he was 30. Since joining the team, his numbers have been startling. Since the 2009-10 season, Hossa has 409 points in 525 games and is a +133. There are only five players with a higher plus/minus than that (Crosby, Toews, Marchand, Bergeron and Chara). Hossa’s penalty killing ability is otherworldly as well, as he has the third most shorthanded points in the league (24) since 2009-10. His crafty stick work translates to offensive opportunities, and he plays a true 200 foot game. Hossa’s stick has led him to becoming an astoundingly good playmaker, as he can find his teammates without hesitation.

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Hossa is also an underrated goal scorer, and earlier this season reached the 500 goal plateau. Hossa has been a consistent threat throughout his career, having scored 20 goals in 15 of his 18 seasons; for context, there are only 25 other men in league history who have recorded 15 or more seasons of 20+ goals. Hossa’s gift as a goal scorer comes from his wonderful hands, quick release, and most importantly, his patience. Hossa, when given space, will make a goaltender look like a confused gymnast, and stretch them all over the net. He will conclude by using his quick release to deposit the puck in the gaping net.

As a fan, it is important to have fun watching these players. Ryan Getzlaf may be an elite centre, but his style of play can be boring to watch. Hossa is fun to watch, and he does it all. He can hit, use his acceleration to create a scoring opportunity, or stickhandle through a platoon of players. Hossa covers all bases.

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But, this begs the question: how great is Hossa? He has 1000 points, 500 goals, and three Stanley Cup rings. After losing in 2009 Stanley Cup Final, Hossa signed a 12-year $62.3 million contract with the Blackhawks. Hossa took heat for the contract, which led to an apparent investigation, as the contract was front-loaded and the NHL doubted Hossa’s likeliness to play until 42. Amid controversy, Hossa produced 51 points in 57 games during the 2009-10 season, then chipped in with 15 points in 22 games during the playoffs to, bring Chicago its first Cup in 49 years.

Had Hossa not signed with Chicago, he might have been one of the greatest ever to not win the Cup. But, he saw potential in the Blackhawks, and by joining a dynasty he solidified himself as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Hossa has never been “the guy,” but he is one of the greatest sidekicks of all-time. Hossa has lined up alongside the likes of Daniel Alfredsson, Ilya Kovalchuk, Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk and Jonathan Toews. Hossa is more than just a secondary contributor, though. He is one of the league’s best winners. Since the 2000-01 season, no one has played in more playoff games than Marian Hossa, and the margin is significant. Hossa has played in 191 playoff games since 2000-01; the closest to him is Pavel Datsyuk at 157. More importantly, Hossa has the most points since 2000-01 with 147. In his career, Hossa has played 201 playoff games, good for 19th all-time. At this pace, and given Hossa’s longevity, he has a good chance to pass Chris Chelios (266 games) for the most all-time.

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As an Ottawa Senators fan it still hurts me that management decided to trade Hossa for Dany Heatley in 2005. Hossa’s proven playoff performance begs the question: did losing Hossa cost the Senators the Stanley Cup? Ottawa should never have given up Hossa. The Atlanta Thrashers were in a tight spot when Heatley asked for a trade after the car accident that killed, Dan Snyder. Other trades could have been pursued to keep Hossa in Ottawa. The Blackhawks ended up with one of the best players of his era, and he has rewarded fans with magnificent play on a nightly basis. No fan, in Ottawa, Chicago, or any other city in the NHL, will ever forget watching the man who could stickhandle through raindrops.

 

NHL News

The Penalty Box

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  • The Boston Bruins have hit a rut. After going 12-3-0 under interim Head Coach Bruce Cassidy, the B’s have now lost three in a row and have the Toronto Maple Leafs hot on their tails. If the Leafs overtake the Bruins, Boston will fall to the second wild-card spot and have a date with the Metropolitan Division’s winner in the playoffs. That is, assuming the Bruins can hold off the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning, who have games in hand on the Bruins. Brad Marchand has led the way all year for the Bruins, and he will need to be play his absolute best if he wants to assure the Bruins post-season hockey.
  • The Tampa Bay Lightning have allowed 15 goals in their last three games, and the heavy workload has taken its toll on young goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy is a talented individual, but he has never logged more than 32 games in an NHL season (post-season included). He has already appeared in 42 games this year for the Lightning, and fatigue has caught up to him. His teammates have not given him their best effort in the last three games, as they came out flat against Toronto, were beaten by a better team against Washington, and lost a must-win against Arizona. The Toronto game was winnable, but the Arizona loss is inexcusable. Tampa Bay is now four points back of the playoffs, and their playoff hopes looks grim.

Stars of the Week

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  • In an odd turn of events, the St. Louis Blues have made a serious playoff push despite trading Kevin Shattenkirk. The Blues now find themselves third in the Central Division, and have won eight of their last nine games. Much of this turnaround can be credited to tighter defensive play, and serious improvements from Jake Allen. Allen has had seven starts over this nine game stretch, winning six of the seven and sporting, a 1.29 goals against average and a .956 save percentage. He has been lights out. Vladimir Tarasenko has done his part offensively, as he has six goals and eight points over the nine game stretch. It appears as though St. Louis will see post-season hockey, but their success from there on out will dependent on how well Jake Allen plays.
  • Huge praise goes to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Last season the Blue Jackets had 34 wins and 76 points. This year, with 11 games remaining, they have 100 points, have clinched a playoff position and may win the Metropolitan Division. Head Coach John Tortorella should win the Jack Adams Award (Coach of the Year) for their incredible turnaround. Sergei Bobrovsky has been phenomenal after dropping weight this summer. Bobrovsky has a league-best 39 wins, and has a .931 save percentage and 2.04 goals against average. Expect Bobrovsky to be the front-runner for the Vezina.

NBA News

The Weekly Rap

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  • The Toronto Raptors had a rallying cry on Tuesday. The Raps were getting pummeled by the Chicago Bulls, and the Bulls looked to be on route to their twelfth consecutive victory over the Raptors. Then, chaos erupted. Raptors’ power forward Serge Ibaka gave Bulls’ centre Robin Lopez a shot in the back, and a scuffle ensued, with Lopez and Ibaka throwing punches. Players, officials and coaches came to break up the fight, which saw ejections for both Ibaka and Lopez. Trailing 88-72, the Raptors went on a tear led by DeMar DeRozan and erased the 16 point deficit to force overtime, where they would win 122-120. The Raptors had been cursed against the Bulls since 2014, but on Tuesday evening they broke the curse. The team should rally around this victory, and use it as an example of perseverance for the remainder of the season.
  • The Raptors now trail the Washington Wizards by half a game, and still have the Boston Celtics in their sights trailing by three games. Over the next two weeks the Raptors will have an easier schedule, playing some of the NBA’s lesser talented clubs. If they want to catch-up and pass both of the aforementioned teams, they will need to go on a run. With a three-game winning streak right now, the Raptors have a good chance to go a run, and the post-season approaches it is vital they play their best basketball.

Top 5 NBA Power Ranking

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  1. Spurs (54-16)
  • San Antonio may be second in the Western Conference, but they have both wins over the Golden State Warriors, and they will likely stay in first until the Warriors beat them. This could come sooner rather than later, as the two teams are slated for a showdown on March 29th. Hopefully, for the sake of the fans, the superstars will play. Controversy aside, the Spurs had two close losses this week, but as usual they bounced right back with two wins and will look to build momentum towards next week’s rematch against the Warriors.
  1. Warriors (57-14)
  • The Warriors’ bad form has been pushed aside, as they overtook the Spurs for first place in the Western Conference and are on a five-game win streak. The turnaround can largely be attributed to their fourth quarter comeback against the Philadelphia 76ers, which kicked off this win streak. Since that game, Steph Curry has not had to play a single fourth quarter minute, as the game was out of reach after the third. The Warriors will need to uphold this high standard of play if they want to beat the Spurs in a week, and you can bet they have that date circled on their calendars.
  1. Cavaliers (46-23)
  • Another big game on national television, and another trio of stars were given the night off. A common theme in the NBA, accompanied by another common theme: that the Cleveland Cavaliers cannot win a game without LeBron James. Without the big three, the Cavs were thrashed on Saturday by the Los Angeles Clippers. They, still managed to win their games against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers, though, so it was a standard week for Cleveland.
  1. Celtics (45-26)
  • The Boston Celtics continue to chip away at Cleveland’s lead in the East, and now trail by only two games. They had an impressive win against the Wizards on Monday, which saw the Celtics’ depth shine, with five players reaching double digit point totals. This depth will be vital down the stretch, as Isaiah Thomas cannot carry this Celtics team every night without suffering fatigue. The Celtics will look to close the gap on the Cavaliers before their April 5th showdown, which could play a huge factor in deciding the top seed for the Eastern Conference.
  1. Raptors (42-29)
  • There is some East bias here, but the Raptors have won four of their last five, all without Kyle Lowry, and look ready to hit that next level. This is not just a Raptors team that is winning without Lowry, but it is one that looks strong. That makes Lowry’s return that much more exciting. Could this Raptors team really top last year’s run? Time will tell. But, continuing to win without Lowry would give them the swagger and confidence to believe they could.

 

What to watch this week?

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  • Wednesday: Maple Leafs vs Blue Jackets 7:00pm ET, Islanders vs Rangers 8:00pm ET, Oilers vs Ducks 10:00pm ET
  • Thursday: March Madness 7:09pm ET, Lightning vs Bruins 7:00pm ET, Blue Jackets vs Capitals 7:00pm ET, Penguins vs Senators 7:30pm ET, Raptors vs Heat 7:30pm ET, Grizzlies vs Spurs 8:30pm ET
  • Friday: Islanders vs Penguins 7:00pm ET, March Madness 7:09pm ET
  • Saturday: March Madness TBD, Jazz vs Clippers 3:30pm ET, Senators vs Canadiens 7:00pm ET, Flames vs Blues 7:00pm ET, Islanders vs Bruins 7:00pm ET, Wizards vs Cavaliers 7:30pm ET, Sharks vs Predators 8:00pm ET, Rangers vs Kings 10:30pm ET
  • Sunday: March Madness TBD, Thunder vs Rockets 3:30pm ET, Grizzlies vs Warriors 8:00pm ET, Rangers vs Ducks 9:00pm ET
  • Monday: Blackhawks vs Lightning 7:30pm ET, Cavaliers vs Spurs 8:00pm ET
  • Tuesday: Panthers vs Maple Leafs 7:30pm ET, Capitals vs Wild 8:00pm ET, Warriors vs Rockets 8:00pm ET, Kings vs Oilers 9:00pm 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.