Gifts ideas for the Valley’s sports teams this Christmas
Santa Claus is a leader of men, as they say. You’ve probably seen his team work together to accomplish a goal. I’ve seen many of those documentaries.
Nick Saban would have nothing on him as a coach. But what if Santa was a fan of, like, an Arizona sports team?
He would get those elves to whip up something nice to help the Phoenix Suns, Arizona Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks.
With that backdrop, let’s imagine for a second that Santa shot down the chimney at Footprint Center to drop a gift under the Suns’ tree. What would he give?
Suns: A No. 2 or No. 3 scorer
It’s not that I am not buying Mikal Bridges’ development as a pretty darn efficient offensive contributor. He’s even looked like a switch flipped in terms of his aggression — whereas he used to find his shots in the flow of things, he’s doing a lot more shot-hunting.
He’s gone from 9.5 attempts per game in six October games to 12.7 attempts per outing for November and now 15.2 in the final month of 2022.
But the Suns might already be stretching him too thin when you consider he’s also having his best year a playmaker as well. Phoenix needs to conserve his minutes and energy to maintain his defensive impact.
Anyway, Bridges and Deandre Ayton taking on more hasn’t done enough to boost the team’s championship aspirations, especially if the Suns don’t have peak Devin Booker and peak Chris Paul on a game-by-game basis.
It’s worth it for Phoenix to be patient and look for a prime opportunity to land a star. But at what point do they aim for keeping this core together for one final run?
Doing so still requires that No. 2 or No. 3 scoring option, a guy who can pick up the pieces if Paul doesn’t have enough juice to give 20 points each in back-to-back games or if he or Booker have to sit.
Kyle Kuzma, Eric Gordon and others may not jump Phoenix to the top of the contender list, but trading for one of those players will help preserve Booker and Paul for a long playoff run.
Cardinals: A leadership class
At this point of this season, there are clearly big-picture items to attend to beyond the scheme red flags, depth problems and money allocation issues that appear on the horizon.
The team dealt with three arrests, one PED suspension and too many injuries this season. Without delving into what you can bucket as controllable versus non-controllable, this team has failed in the arena of hiring leaders that at least keep the problems to the football field on Sundays.
What is that saying? Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence and three times is a pattern?
This is not all on Kliff Kingsbury, who may lack the offensive innovation promised and — like his style or not — let’s his work ethic speak for his leadership skills. That may not be enough, but just know Bill Belichick probably wouldn’t have gotten much more out of this group if you airdropped him in to replace Kingsbury.
General manager Steve Keim’s health is the most important thing as he is on leave, but his situation, regardless of context, should give his boss the opportunity to reflect.
Ultimately, owner Michael Bidwill has to look at himself in the mirror, admit that the culture and leadership is not what he thinks it is and challenge himself and the franchise to do better.
D-backs: A gift card to spend on power in the pen
It’s clear what the Diamondbacks put on their Christmas list this year.
The D-backs were second-to-last in average fastball velocity out of the bullpen (92.6 mph) last season and last in 2021 (92.3 mph). They’ve already made additions like Miguel Castro and Scott McGough to join a returning crew that includes potential closing option Mark Melancon and groundball pitcher Joe Mantiply.
It wasn’t long ago when closer Fernando Rodney frustrated Diamondbacks fans in the 2017 season. With the perspective of the past few years, fans probably would have loved for a stressful closer to give Arizona 61 games with 53 finishes, 39 saves and six blown saves.
That Arizona team won 93 games. It at least had a single guy to call on as closer, plus a few electric power arms in the bullpen like Archie Bradley.
General manager Mike Hazen might want to aim for such a bullpen construction this coming season. While not full of big (expensive) names, that 2017 squad had some juice and, at the least, established roles.
Adding a few more power arms to mix it up can help a defense-first squad take another step in 2023.
Arizona State football: A transfer boost
Former Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne and BYU transfer Jacob Conover are among the Sun Devils picked up via the portal. There are 15 (!!!) as this is written on Thursday.
That makes for the 14th-ranked transfer class, per 247 Sports, and a lot of that has to do with the volume.
Volume at least means there’s a better chance of hitting on a few guys. It’d help if one of those successful transfers were a starting quarterback.
ASU has taken the same approach as the rival Arizona Wildcats over the past few recruiting cycles by aiming to jumpstart the roster with transfers. It paid off when Arizona went from a one-win squad to 5-7 this past season thanks to several key transfers, most notably quarterback Jayden de Laura and receiver Jacob Cowing.
Arizona State can hope something similar happens in 2023 after a 3-9 season this year. If a couple of transfers hit immediately to help the team make a jump, then Kenny Dillingham can sell the high school class of 2024 that success is near.
Also, sorry for comparing those schools.
Coyotes: A lucky ping-pong ball bounce
There have been signs this team is on the right track under Andre Tourigny. At the very least, there’s a fundamental understanding of which pieces on the current roster project well to the future.
It’s hard to say where the Coyotes are in the timeline of becoming aggressive in roster-building beyond using those draft picks, but that light at the end of the tunnel actually seems kind of visible at this moment. Fans get impatient with rebuilds that hit four and five years. Arizona, in Year 3 of general manager Bill Armstrong’s tenure, suddenly looks in a good spot to avoid that spinning at the bottom of the NHL.
Now if they can just see their promising prospect pool develop quickly enough, land a top pick to place next to Clayton Keller and expedite the team-building process. That will allow them to think about filling in the margins of the roster to build a playoff contender.
They need that momentum as there’s optimism about their new home arena coming to fruition.
Arizona State men’s basketball: Shooting glasses
Who knows what’s up with their two very bad losses to Texas Southern and San Francisco, but maybe we just accept the Sun Devils will toss out a clunker now and again.
Anyway, the roster is pretty deep, and certainly great on defense (when they show up). There’s Bobby Hurley grit to them, and their guards even get the team to run offense.
But it could be even better if their own three-point accuracy ticked up a few notches.
The Sun Devils are shooting 32.2% from deep this season, with Devan Cambridge leading the way with 45.5% accuracy at a decent 2.5 attempts per game.
Brother Desmond shot 37% clip last season and is four percentage points below that despite leading the team at 6.3 attempts per game.
The second-leading shooter by attempts, D.J. Horne, is slumping at 31.1%. It’s well below his 36% last season and the 40% or better in two years at Illinois State.
It’s completely plausible regressing to the mean bumps the offensive production way up for a team that looks like the best fit for Hurley’s style since he arrived in Tempe.
Wildcats men’s basketball: Confidence for a contributor
Oumar Ballo somehow went from raw jumbo force to legitimately one of the most efficient players in college basketball.
Azuolas Tubelis again can score with ease. Kerr Kriisa’s allergy to two-pointers remains, but his infectious energy and passing make it worth it. And newcomer Courtney Ramey has the shooting, off-the-bounce skill and defensive effort that most people probably expected.
How can the Wildcats make a deeper run than last year’s squad which included three current NBA rookies?
They just need a little more juice. Off the top, Pelle Larsson is candidate No. 1 to make a midseason leap. He’s an underrated defender, better athlete than given credit for and is as well-rounded as they come. Does he realize he could probably drop 20 points anytime he wants?
Then we get to a few youngsters. Stretch big Henri Veesaar might not physically be ready to be a star, but he’s shown flashes of being a game-changer. Adama Bal similarly seems unaware his length and shooting ability make him dangerous.
But of the underclassmen, freshman point guard Kylan Boswell has the maturity to hit a stride in Pac-12 play. If he does, it gives Arizona enough ball-handling to make a deep tournament run.
Phoenix Mercury: Hoop therapy
The Mercury and WNBA got the early Christmas gift: Brittney Griner’s safety.
With it came an unfathomable toll off the minds and hearts of her teammates and friends. Griner allowed Mercury fans to look forward to her return on a pro basketball court when her first public statement lent hope for — if not wins — a return to WNBA play.
How likely is it that this team can run it back with Griner, Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith?
Most of the roster is entering free agency, including Taurasi and Griner. Diggins-Smith, Brianna Turner and Diamond DeShields are under contract. It’s a darn good core if it’s back together.
It’d be a nice gift for them to run out a 2023 squad that can give Griner her professional life and passion back as a therapy of sorts. And it’d be nice to give the G.O.A.T. another strong shot at a WNBA title.