5 things Arizona sports fans can be thankful for in 2023
Nov 23, 2023, 7:20 AM
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
We hope the vibes at your Thanksgiving table, big or small, are good ones.
The vibes out there in the Arizona sports universe? In the year of 2023, they’re pretty good no matter where you align your fandom.
There’s not one major sports team where things are feeling too down in the dumps, and maybe that’s just because we’ve been in a lot worse places collectively.
At the moment, even the teams on the biggest struggle buses have a clear vision that leads to hope. That accounts for something. So let’s count our sports blessings on this Thanksgiving Day and discuss what we should be thankful for.
The Diamondbacks’ surprise World Series run
Raise your hand if you had that on your 2023 bingo card.
*Presents those who raised their hand Anakin Skywalker liar dot GIF*
Torey Lovullo and the boys seemed like they knew they had enough to make a run. Go back and look at the spring comments about the in-house expectations. They were high.
A lot of that probably had to do with belief in Corbin Carroll being that dude, but a lot of things also flipped in Arizona’s favor that we — and possibly they — couldn’t have imagined.
Carroll lived up to the expectations and more, Ketel Marte finally got away from the injury bug, the top two pitchers in Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly continued to shine. Among the surprises were the bullpen, which had been the weakness of the team for several seasons yet flipped at the tail-end of the year. Gabriel Moreno became a force at catcher immediately and at the plate in the postseason.
It was an up-and-down regular season in terms of results, but the World Series run — while painful in the end — legitimized the rebuilding effort done by general manager Mike Hazen and awakened a dormant fanbase that in 2024 has every reason to believe in this new era.
The Suns ownership change
Thanksgiving of 2022 marked uncharted waters for the Phoenix Suns.
A few months into interim leadership, it appeared that things could only be improved from the Robert Sarver era considering all the things that had gone wrong under his ownership. But as the pessimists might say, it can always get worse.
In December, Mat Ishbia finalized an agreement to buy the Suns. He officially took over in February and wasted no time putting his stamp on the franchise, trading fan favorites Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson for Kevin Durant. The Suns have since reshaped the entire roster around Devin Booker, changed TV agreements, inducted two past All-Stars who left town on sour notes under Sarver and changed coaches. They’ve announced a major investment into new facilities for the business staff and Phoenix Mercury as well.
Regardless of how the Durant trade and Bradley Beal trade pan out, and even regardless of whether this version of the Suns challenges for a title, it just feels different. Better. Fan-focused. Like someone cares about the product.
If the basketball stuff doesn’t meet the grand expectations, there’s surely going to be blame put on Ishbia, and then it’ll be fascinating to see how quick of a trigger he has when presented with a brief timeline of relative failure.
Still, it could be a lot worse! A lot, lot worse.
Clear skies ahead for Arizona State athletics and the Cardinals?
New blood is in for the Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State Sun Devils.
For the former, we are a little further down the road of evaluation. General manager Monti Ossenfort and head coach Jonathan Gannon have months on the job working through a hard reset, where culture-building appears to be going well despite an abysmal record. They remain walking along the wobbly fencepost between blatant tanking and always trying to win, where draft capital is building along with that locker room culture.
Kyler Murray’s return through two starts has put a spotlight on him once again. How the quarterback plays the rest of 2023 out will help provide clarity on the franchise’s future, but even after a bumpy Game 2 against the Houston Texans, the year has been a reminder that finding a starting quarterback is by no means easy.
At Arizona State, former vice president for university athletics Ray Anderson understood that he is not the right person to take the Sun Devils into a new age and resigned this month. It would seem his hire of Kenny Dillingham to lead the football program could be the right one, though the hole Dillingham is digging out of is quite deep.
An NCAA investigation should be wrapping up at some point soon — we hope — and a bowl ban this year in hindsight looks like a good call considering the talent level of the current football team. A new athletic director must begin his or her tenure by laying out and plan to fix the basketball program’s facilities, set up a move to the Big 12 with success and attack fundraising in general.
If there’s reason for apprehension about the futures of either the Cardinals or Sun Devils, it’s because the person at the very top of each of their paths — Arizona State University president Michael Crow and Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill — dictate things for the better or worse.
Empowering the leaders beneath them to do their jobs would probably end well.
Phoenix Rising FC gets the biggest nod here for pushing through the postseason as the road underdog, rallying to knot things up 1-1 in the final minute of regulation of the championship game and coming back from an 0-2 deficit in penalty kicks to win the title.
There are just good vibes in the state regarding most of the teams, no matter if they have title aspirations or are in the early stages of a rebuild.
A couple of teams are a way into their rebuilds: The Arizona Coyotes may not have a permanent home in the Valley, but they’re a feisty and competitive bunch. A significant run during this season might flip general manager Bill Armstrong to thinking about making win-now moves.
The Arizona Wildcats on the basketball court for Tommy Lloyd’s third season look a legitimate eight-to-10 players deep. On the football field, Jedd Fisch, who started his project in a much different place than his basketball counterpart, has progressed the program to be challenging for a Pac-12 title game appearance as the final regular season week of action kicks off.
Meanwhile, the Grand Canyon men’s basketball team is picked to win the WAC and off to a 3-1 start this year.
Brittney Griner back
Speaking of rising programs, the Mercury have only up to go with a new general manager Nick U’Ren and head coach Nate Tibbetts in place. Starting with the building blocks of Diana Taurasi (under contract) and Brittney Griner (free agent) in 2024 isn’t bad.
Taurasi and Griner both expressed a desire to return to the Mercury for the 2024 season.
Griner being able to spend her Thanksgiving with her family, though, is something to be thankful for. She wasn’t released from a Russian penal colony until last December after she was arrested for carrying cannabis oil at a Russian airport in February 2022. That is sure some perspective.