What Arizona sports fans can be thankful for in 2021
If you’re an Arizona sports fan who’s all-in with every team the Valley offers, well, you’ve seen the extremely good and the very bad in the past year.
Giving thanks this Thanksgiving is about being grateful for what you do have. So as the Suns and Mercury come off Finals appearances and as the Arizona Cardinals enter their bye week with the NFL’s best record, it’s a good time to celebrate what they’ve done.
Arizona sports fans have been treated with plenty of big moments — mostly from those three teams. What do fans of those teams and beyond have to be thankful for this holiday season?
The Cardinals’ plan coming together
The Cardinals are far removed from the last time they were contenders. It starts with general manager Steve Keim, who after a few years off hit-and-miss drafting has hit on enough contributors in the past few years. There have been enough draftees who have bolstered not only play-maker positions but the depth across the roster. Keim quickly moved on from a quarterback (Josh Rosen) and head coach (Steve Wilks) in 2018 and put together a more cooperative coaching staff and franchise quarterback.
Kliff Kingsbury’s crew is of different minds but have proven the ability to develop and hold players accountable.
It wasn’t a no-brainer to draft Kyler Murray in 2019, but Keim did that, and the off-beat hire of Kingsbury has found the right mix of using Murray’s strengths to the Cardinals’ advantage while developing him into a problem as a pocket-passer.
In the end, what’s become clear is a 9-2 start has a lot to do with people having a say and being heard: Keim listened to Kingsbury and DC Vance Joseph about what type of talent they needed, and Kingsbury heard Murray about how to best utilize the QB’s legs. Down to coaches like Sean Kugler and Joseph having their voices and being empowered, it’s been a full collaborative effort that shows when the unexpected (injuries) and unimaginable (a pandemic) have impacted the Cardinals.
What that years-long process has turned into is a team with confidence in what they’ve done. There’s now comfort in their systems and a foundation to bring on new or young players successfully if injuries or departures happen. And that makes Arizona darn dangerous coming off a bye week, when additions of the team’s starting QB and best receiver are among the things Arizona is looking forward to.
The Suns’ title chances haven’t set
There could’ve been a fear from skeptics that the Suns would respond to an NBA Finals run with a hangover of losing four straight to let a Larry O’Brien trophy slip from their grasp, or that a very short offseason — again — would wear on them. For sure, it took a few weeks for Phoenix to find its rhythm, but the results of their stars maneuvering into this season slowly has been far from catastrophic.
Instead, the Suns look like the same team from a year ago but with all those series of playoff experiences in their back pocket when the legs are a little tired or the shots didn’t fall on a given night.
It looks like one of the best teams last year got better.
Chris Paul looks spry, Devin Booker has not needed to score all the points for Phoenix to win, Deandre Ayton has not responded poorly to his contract situation and the role players are as-advertised. Most definitely, the team’s No. 4 offensive option from last season, Mikal Bridges, has made another leap.
The NBA-wide context is that teams that stood pat (Milwaukee, Heat and Brooklyn) and those that reloaded with title hopes (the Warriors and Lakers) have found varying degrees of success early on. Meanwhile, the Suns keep Suns-ing, and it sure feels like last season wasn’t a one-off.
That could’ve been a worry even for those who believed fully that Phoenix’s Finals appearance had nothing to do with luck.
The D.T. era keeps giving
It felt like a concerning run of injuries to Diana Taurasi over the past several years and the Mercury tripping up early in the playoffs in the past two would make things come to a head at some point soon — that the clock was ticking.
Nevermind that after watching Taurasi pour in 37 points in one game on a bum ankle during the WNBA Semifinals, en route to a Finals appearance.
No, Phoenix didn’t take home the title, but Taurasi showing that old form, Brittney Griner’s MVP push and a true season with that duo joined by point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith fuels hope that the G.O.A.T.’s run as part of a title contending squad is not yet done.
Even if she caught the retirement bug this offseason after the birth of her second child, the Valley at least caught one last series of G.O.A.T. moments in 2021.
Tommy Lloyd’s fun and gun Wildcats
If you land on a reasonable spectrum of Arizona Wildcat fandom, it’s no doubt that the core group that played for Arizona last season under lame duck head coach Sean Miller had something fresh. They also just so happened to be the type of players who would stick around Tucson for more than a year.
Thanks to new coach Tommy Lloyd keeping the gang mostly together, the Wildcats are off on more than the right foot this season.
The aggressive and attacking style starts on the defensive end, where Arizona’s help and communication reflects a team that isn’t completely new to one another. But after that, Arizona’s commitment to running on opponents has been a sight to behold.
There is shot-blocking, speed, athleticism, shooting and passing. There looks to be some depth, too, but the starting five probably has at least two NBA players.
There will be bumps in the road, but the Wildcats are aesthetically pleasing by most accounts. The Lloyd era couldn’t have started much better when it comes to getting immediate film to show recruits how Arizona can win and have fun. There’s a fun edge to these Wildcats, and if that holds through the season, a deep NCAA Tournament run could be possible just a year after a self-postseason ban.
Diamondbacks (finally) turn the page
It’s not that being bad is better than being mediocre, but it’s certainly a bad look when you’re bad while trying to be mediocre.
Finally, the Diamondbacks got the message midseason and flipped into a true rebuilding mode.
The D-backs can at least say they found some pieces who can contribute if there’s enough roster shuffling around them to get back to respectability quickly.
Ketel Marte remains in his prime, while Pavin Smith, Carson Kelly, Josh Rojas and Daulton Varsho present viable and developable roster options down the road. On the pitching end, Zac Gallen’s promise remains high, and Merrill Kelly is as reliable of a player as you can ask for.
From there, pressure is on skipper Torey Lovullo and general manager Mike Hazen to fill in the gaps around them. At the least, they’re aware that what they had going the past few years wasn’t good enough.