The 5: Things Arizona sports fans can be thankful for this Thanksgiving
There are sports.
For that, we can be thankful.
There are very reasonable arguments that some sporting organizations remain too flippant during a pandemic, which shouldn’t be words written in that sequence. I will leave that for Dr. Fauci to debate, but from what we’ve seen so far, there have also been relative success stories.
The NBA bubbled up and put together an amazing product. Lou Williams’ strip club wing trip and a few other incidents aside, it was a success from a safety perspective.
Those of us focused on the Phoenix Suns saw how such a unique experience seemingly supercharged a cultural construction project. While a GQ feature about the bubble left out any mention of the Suns’ perfect eight-game run at Disney World, we here in Arizona know that it completed a successful first season under coach Monty Williams.
In the NFL, it’s mostly been good news. Inevitably, people have caught the virus and spread it to teammates or staffers. Testing issues cropped up. Games have been postponed or canceled.
Teams with virus concerns (Jets and Dolphins) threatened Arizona Cardinals games, at least for a moment. But we’re still chugging along in Week 12.
Major League Baseball had a poor start (Marlins outbreak) and end (Justin Turner’s World Series coronavirus celebration with Dodgers teammates). Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez sitting out the year due to a heart ailment related to catching the virus was and is scary.
College sports are a whole other animal. Poor planning and no standard testing practices are not good. As college basketball tips this week, we’ll see how it goes.
But the sports have been good and an escape for when it was needed.
Here are four more things we can be thankful for as sports observers in Arizona.
Star power grows
At Thanksgiving last year, we knew Devin Booker was that dude. Then he got better and in the NBA bubble proved he could down the superteam Los Angeles Clippers by shooting a fadeaway over its two stars.
Now Chris Paul joins Booker in Phoenix’s backcourt. Paul is 35 but not in the Emmitt Smith-joining-the-Cardinals twilight of his career having made the All-Star game last season.
A year ago, we were quite sure Kyler Murray would be a starting NFL quarterback. Now, he is on track to break NFL records when it comes to his passing and rushing package. He has already tied an NFL single season record by recording both a passing and rushing touchdown in eight games.
Larry Fitzgerald remains as one of the NFL’s most recognizable faces, DeAndre Hopkins is made for highlight reels and the quiet tandem of Budda Baker and Chandler Jones are among the most respected at their positions.
Arizona State’s men’s basketball team, for the first time since the James Harden era, has star power. Remy Martin enters the season arguably one of the top-five players in the country, while freshman Josh Christopher is a one-and-done lottery prospect and the highest-rated recruit to play for the Sun Devils since Harden.
For the Arizona Diamondbacks, Ketel Marte faced a down year with the rest of the team, but we can keep him in conversation as an All-Star caliber talent. Pitcher Zac Gallen flashed Cy Young potential and even got two points in the voting for the National League award.
And for the USL Championship’s Phoenix Rising FC, having a back-to-back MVP in Solomon Asante counts as star power, too.
Cardinals make a leap
The Cardinals have floundered at a few opportunities to anoint themselves as the class of the NFC West, but the feeling between fans and Arizona’s locker room is that inconsistency is the reason for that. Their ceiling remains high.
The defense and offense have bailed one another out too much, but regardless, the Cardinals (6-4) sit in control of their own destiny heading into a Week 12 game against the New England Patriots (4-6).
By wondering (too much) about Kliff Kingsbury’s in-game decision-making and Vance Joseph’s hot-and-cold defense, it’s been easy to forget that Arizona went 3-13 two years ago.
It was not fun back then to watch the game and wonder what could be. There were not many positives. I can assure you it was not fun for the guys in that locker room, either.
The Cardinals are now competitive, fun, at times frustrating, but always worth watching. General manager Steve Keim has admitted his mistakes with action and attempted to fill voids. They’re back to being maddening because they matter.
For that, we are thankful.
Bobby’s best team
On paper, Arizona State’s men’s basketball team has a damn good chance to have its best season since 2008-09, when Harden and Jeff Ayres (formerly Pendergraph) led the team to 25 wins.
By far, this should be head coach Bobby Hurley’s best team in his six-year run.
The Sun Devils have a deep guard rotation starting with Martin, Christopher and Alonzo Verge. Transfer Holland Woods and Jaelen House will have a chance to impact the team, too, and there might be a lot of three-guard looks because of it. Marcus Bagley could be an immediate impact freshman, and the development of big man Jalen Graham or contributions from junior college transfer Chris Osten could swing ASU’s potential.
College basketball has been watered down in terms of elite-level talent, but those devoted to the sport know that the parity has increased because of it. Many of the best players are third- and fourth-year college players.
Teams like the Sun Devils, who have a mix of new and one-and-done talent, should have a chance to compete with most anyone.
Coyotes new leadership, playoff berth
Indeed, the pandemic allowed the Arizona Coyotes to earn their first playoff berth since 2012 because they were included in a qualifying round series. But they won that series against the Nashville Predators before a 1-4 series loss to the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the playoff format.
That’s not to say a lot isn’t up in the air.
General manager John Chayka abruptly left, the team navigated a weird offseason by not trading defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson when he set a deadline to do it or not, and the team’s already shrug-worthy draft — they had sold or lost their high picks — ended even worse. The team released fourth-round draft pick Mitchell Miller because of his uncovered past of racially motivated abuse of a classmate.
Here’s the “but” for an optimist after all that bad stuff.
The Coyotes have a relatively new owner in Alex Meruelo and now have a new general manager, Bill Armstrong, who knows the challenges ahead. With the draft behind him — he wasn’t allowed to participate in it because of an agreement with his old team — Armstrong has the tough job of getting Arizona on the right track.
In earnest, that begins now.
The reset button is there for him to push, and he’s got a roster with decent pieces to it, including netminder Darcy Kuemper coming off his first All-Star appointment.
In the year 2020, we all can appreciate any opportunity to reset.