Benefits of the NBA bubble, Barcelona, Major League Baseball’s wild stats and much more in Five Things From the Week.
1. The NCAA and its conferences are actually looking out for their players and no one seems to care
The word Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren kept coming back to was uncertainty. He used it in the statement announcing there will not be any Big Ten sports this fall and again in an appearance on Big Ten Network after the announcement was made. Part of that uncertainty absolutely has to do with liability. It is still unclear what the long-term effects of COVID-19 are, and the NCAA banned waivers that would protect conferences should athletes suffer permanent damage from COVID. Waivers are not an option because the NCAA listened to its student-athletes and agreed they deserve protection.
Of course this is about money, but it’s also about keeping people healthy. Players are generally safer on campus than at home with all the protocols teams have put in place. That being said, there is a massive difference between being on campus where contact will be as limited as possible and interacting with 100+ teammates while traveling weekly. There is no “right” answer to an issue as complex as a global pandemic. Is it so hard to believe these conferences that have canceled fall sports did so in part because they genuinely thought it was in the best interest of their student-athletes instead of exclusively thinking about the bottom line?
2. The NBA bubble has benefits beyond determining a champion
For most NBA teams, there is nowhere worse to be than battling for one of the final playoff spots. Those franchises are stuck in the awkward position of not being good enough to seriously compete for a title and not bad enough to get a transcendent talent in the draft. The one exception to this rule is young teams in the process of learning how to win. Teams like the Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies.
Phoenix literally did everything it could to get into the play-in tournament by going 8-0 but came up just short. The Suns’ time in the bubble was an overwhelming success though. Their core group under the age of 25 (Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Kelly Oubre and Mikal Bridges) enter next season full of confidence. Head coach Monty Williams got to deepen his relationship with his players, which is crucial to keeping them together long-term. Memphis gave Ja Morant his first taste of playoff basketball and its players the opportunity to make mistakes when the consequences aren’t as severe. Both the Suns and Grizzlies are going home better basketball teams thanks to their experiences in the bubble.
3. A moment of reckoning was coming for Barcelona
It was worse than expected, but there were plenty of warning signs a disaster like the 8-2 beatdown Barcelona suffered at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals on Aug. 14 was going to happen eventually. It started with the 3-0 second-leg defeat to Roma in the quarterfinals two seasons ago, if not earlier. Then there was the blown 3-0 lead against Liverpool last season. A poor return from the coronavirus-imposed break coupled with the catastrophe in Portugal ensured Barcelona ended the 2019-20 campaign without a trophy of any kind.
The magic of Lionel Messi was enough to get past a Napoli team that was extremely disappointing this season. It was never going to be enough to take down a Bayern team that is as good as anyone in the world. The ease with which Bayern picked apart Barcelona’s defense demonstrated just how far the latter is from competing with Europe’s best. The problems are plentiful: unsuccessful signings, an aging squad with little depth and poor decision-making by the board of directors, just to name a few. It was so bad — and there is so much work to be done — that Messi might seriously contemplate leaving. Not even he could hold off the inevitable any longer.
4. Incredible things are happening in Major League Baseball
Reducing MLB’s schedule from 162 games to 60 opened up the possibility for statistical anomalies that would never hold up during a traditional season. Still, some of the stuff players and teams are doing through 20 or so games is just absurd. A recent 3-for-15 slump dropped Charlie Blackmon’s average to .446 with 22 RBI in 21 games. He was hitting an even .500 on the morning of Aug. 12, 68 at-bats into the season. Mike Trout has eight home runs in 12 games since the birth of this son.
Not to be outdone, Fernando Tatis Jr. went yard six times in a six-game stretch from Aug. 3 to Aug. 9. Then there are the Oakland Athletics, who lead the AL West by 4.5 games thanks to 13 victories in their last 15 contests. The Orioles, Tigers and Marlins — arguably baseball’s worst three teams on paper — are a combined 30-25. Who knows how long any of this will last, but in 2020, it appears anything is possible.
5. Major League Soccer’s Cascadia rivals are built for the postseason
The last time an MLS tournament final did not feature either the Portland Timbers or Seattle Sounders was 2014. Portland hoisted MLS Cup in 2015 and defeated Orlando City to win the MLS is Back tournament on Aug. 11. Seattle won MLS Cup in 2016 and did so again in 2019. In a league designed to promote parity where the best regular season team has won once in the last seasons, the Timbers and Sounders have found the magic formula.
What exactly is that magic formula? Balance. No one in MLS is better equipped to play a wide-open attacking game one day and a grind-it-out defensive battle the next than Portland and Seattle. The Timbers gave up five goals in four games against LAFC, NYCFC, the Philadelphia Union and Orlando City, four of the best attacking teams in the league. While his well-organized defense was frustrating Portland’s opponents, tournament MVP Sebastian Blanco went and directly contributed to eight goals in seven MLS is Back games. Whether it’s the MLS playoffs or March Madness, the key to winning these prolonged tournaments is having more than one way to come away with a victory.
Lyon’s stunning victory over Manchester City is the most recent reminder success in the Champions League cannot be bought. Having boatloads of money obviously helps, but the opposition is too good for anyone to win on talent alone. This is another one of those places where the mental side of sports does not get nearly enough attention.
Photo by jenniferlinneaphotography / Flickr