Yesterday I was preparing to post my views on the big question of the NBA playoffs as they began: Would it be Chicago or Miami? Could any team stop either one from making the Eastern Conference finals again? What team would emerge from the wide-open Western Conference playoffs, and could that team compete with Chicago/Miami in the finals?
The first day of the playoffs has already changed some of the points I was preparing to make. It's not the results of the games that changed things, as one game's result can be very misleading for the current round, let alone the series to come. But there were two injuries to key players yesterday--some of the parallels are striking but, as they say, it takes three data points to make a trend. Nevertheless, the big news in both the NBA's season and the early season results in baseball is a rash of injuries, and what may be causing that.
Rose and Shumpert
Late in the fourth quarter of the Chicago Bulls-Philadelphia 76ers game, a game the Bulls had won, point guard Derrick Rose planted his foot (to make a pass), and blew out his left knee. In the third quarter of the Miami Heat-New York Knicks game, a game the Knicks had already lost, shooting guard Iman Shumpert planted his foot (to make a fancy dribble move), and blew out his left knee.
So you see: some aspects that were the same, and those that were different. Clearly their occurrence in the same day, the first of the playoffs, is a coincidence, but the big news of this off-kilter NBA season has been the number of prolonged or serious injuries. Rose (who missed nearly half of the regular season games), Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudamire, Rajan Rondo, Manu Ginobili, and, of course, the comet that was Jeremy Lin--this is a partial list of major players who missed large portions of the season. Blame was placed on the improvised schedule, with its too-brief training period and its too-heavy concentration of weekly/monthly games. My counter would be that professional players should keep themselves fit and ready to start at all times. The regular season is a grind, to be sure--I would favor shortening it to about the 66 games played this season, spread out over six months instead of this year's four months. But I have to wonder whether the physical preparation that the players get is suited to the physical stresses required. Another alternative would be to expand the squads to 15 players, and encourage greater substitution and reducing the minutes of starters, in the way that professional hockey rotates players constantly.
Anyway, The Implications
Knicks-Heat was looking to be one of the more interesting first-round matchups; not necessarily one for which the outcome was in doubt, but good to watch. Shumpert's key role was in playing man-to-man defense on Dwayne Wade; without him, the Heat's path looks much easier. Two other good first-round matchups still remain interesting: Oklahoma City vs. defending champions Dallas--the first game was indicative of the close, intense battle we should expect; Indiana vs. Orlando would've been the clearest pick for an upset if Howard were playing, but it still may be close.
In the second round, look for interesting matches in three of the four projected combinations: Chicago-Boston, San Antonio-Memphis, and Los Angeles-Oklahoma City (or Dallas). If the Celtics are healthy, I think they will give the Rose-less Bulls a serious challenge (and if they are not, they will probably fall to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round). The Spurs were the biggest positive surprise of the season, rebuilding around their big three (Duncan-Ginobili-Parker) with a new, high-scoring approach featuring volatile addition Stephen Jackson; the Grizzlies (certainly no sure thing against the Clippers in round one) are a team that could break up their rhythm. The Lakers may be too large for either Dallas or OKC, but I question their team chemistry, and any team that can successfully ballhawk Kobe may be able to take them down.
The conference finals--still projected as Bulls-Heat, with Lakers-Spurs the most probable of the many possible combinations in the West--should both be exciting and hard-fought. Miami is looking like a strong pick for the championship now, especially in the absence of Rose. Unless the injury bug hits one of their Big Three.
Baseball: The Early Going
The NBA had a ready excuse for their injury-plagued early season; baseball not so much. Nearly every day brings news of a new injury--most of the stories ending with the words "Tommy John surgery" and "2013". It's not even all pitchers, but the list of those who have gone down or not yet recovered is lengthy and prominent.
I have a theory for this injury problem, too: the slider. It's something many pitchers are tempted to pick up as pros (few come up having mastered it), and it's difficult and taxing on the arm. If the mechanics are not right, the tendency to overthrow leads to injuries very quickly. That being said, I don't have an easy solution: a well-thrown slider is extremely tough to get good wood upon, even for major league hitters. Pitching coaches need to make sure pitchers have the motion down, consistently, and the strength and flexibility to use it.
That Being Said
Although teams have played twenty games or more, I am very reluctant to draw conclusions about the pennant races at this point. There are a few teams that have started badly that are legitimately bad, but also some that could still rally if they get their acts together (Angels and Red Sox being two of them). The Texas Rangers, last year's World Series loser, have recovered from their devastating failures in games 6 and 7 of the World Series and started out extremely well. Similarly, World Series winners the St. Louis Cardinals seem to have kept their rhythm despite the departure of their all-time great Albert Pujols; I'm both rooting for and expecting some fall-off from the Cards, though.
The big news in baseball is the change to two wild cards per league, with a one-game playoff between them to determine the fourth team in the (best-of-seven) playoffs that go from there. When the wild cards started in the '60's, they never did very well, but in the last 10 years or so, that has changed dramatically. There has tended to be tight races for the last playoff spot, so that the wild cards have tended to come into the playoffs with momentum and carry it forward--last year's Cardinals being a good example. The new format is an attempt to handicap the wild cards a bit, plus to add another team to the mix. It is always better for the pennant races to have more teams competing for entry to the postseason, and it is better for the seriousness of the regular season to favor division winners, so I think the changes are overall a smart move.
I see no reason at this point to change my preseason picks: AL - Division winners Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Los Angeles; wild cards New York and Texas. Pennant winner: Detroit (the best starting pitching). NL - Division winners Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Arizona; wild cards Atlanta and Milwaukee. Pennant winner: Philadelphia (best starting pitching). World Series winner: Detroit Tigers.
A Little Consideration from Big-Time College Football
The news that the NCAA is going to adopt some sort of national championship playoff is welcome--among other things, it will be one more campaign promise fulfillment that President Obama could cite. The fact that it's four teams is a bit lame, but I expect nothing more. What I would like to see is that the four teams in it be the winners of the biggest bowl games around New Years's Day: Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Cotton. The Fiesta Bowl--always promoted, never taking on much character--could be the site of one semifinals, while the Superdome would be the natural site of the finale. The New Year's Day-type bowls should be opened up to some extent in order to let in "mid-majors" who have earned a berth. This approach would allow two, or even three, SEC teams to make the new Final Four, which they deserve based on the quality of their postseason and inter-conference performance in recent years.