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June is always a pretty intense time for the sports world. Not only did the NBA and NHL wrap up their seasons in rapid succession, but the MLB, MLS and WNBA seasons are now all approaching their halfway mark, and the NFL looms year-round in the news cycle. Let’s take a quick look back for a rundown of the biggest stories in sports as we head into the dog days of summer.
NBA Players “stealing” money?
Russell Westbrook, James Harden. Kyrie Irving. What do these three knuckleheads have in common besides being me-first, coach-killing guards who will never see another NBA Championship? Well, they are all going to be ridiculously overpaid in 2022-2023, as they have all opted into the enormous player options in their contracts for next season, or in Harden’s case, will be leveraging a comparable multi-year deal.
No one can really fault any of them for taking the tens of millions there on the table for them. The “option” in their contract, for those unfamiliar, is to either enjoy that bloated salary for another season, or become free agents. In the case of these three men, they are all damaged goods for one reason or another and wouldn’t receive anywhere near these amounts of money on the market.
Russell Westbrook just opted in for another season with the Lakers for a cool $47.1 million. The Lakers were a disastrous 33-49 and failed to even qualify for the play-in tournament. Fair or not, Westbrook took much of the blame after butting heads with former coach Frank Vogel, averaging just 18.5 points and 7.1 assists per game despite being a focal point of the offense while LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed significant chunks of time.
Similar to the Lakers, the Sixers are in an ugly spot with James Harden. When the Sixers shipped their problem child (and I mean child), Ben Simmons, off to Brooklyn, they knew it was to receive a distressed asset of their own. However, the “asset” part hasn’t really panned out. Harden pulled his yearly disappearing act in the playoffs, averaging just 18.6 points and 8.6 assists in 12 games to go with his lackluster defense. Harden may opt out of his player option of $47.4 million for the upcoming season to allow the Sixers more financial flexibility to sign another free agent like Miami’s PJ Tucker, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
While that sounds very generous and selfless of Mr. Harden, the reality is that if he opts out, the Sixers are left with little choice but to sign Harden to a more “team-friendly” multi-year deal still worth near $40 million per year. The Sixers are in the unfortunate position of hoping Harden, who will be 33 next season, will somehow see the light and experience some sort of career revival, or otherwise risk losing him for nothing in free agency after trading a major asset for him. Frankly, it looks like they’ll be paying Harden near max-contract money for several years when it already looks like the wheels are coming off. It’s not as if Harden takes his physical conditioning as seriously as someone like LeBron. His time is likely up.
On the flipside of the Sixers putting themselves over a barrel are the Nets. After the circus that has unfolded in Brooklyn, ownership has apparently had enough and appears willing to go nuclear on their failed experiment. The Nets reached “an impasse” on contract extension negotiations with Kyrie Irving, and allowed Irving to seek and sign and trade around the league. Irving received a proverbial slap in the face when no one expressed interest except the Lakers, who are too strapped to make a move at this time.
The Nets should be commended for standing up to Irving, who obviously has superstar talent, but is also world-class at being a pain in the ass to teammates and coaches. Despite the fact that it means Kevin Durant, without a viable running mate in Brooklyn, could also end up forcing his way out of town, the Nets have not caved. Irving, finding no trade partners, opted into the final year of his deal, worth $37 million, simply because no one would have paid anywhere near that for him in free agency, then he released a weird statement pertaining to his apparently trailblazing decision to take the $37 million. How the mighty have fallen in the NBA.
Avalanche squash Lightning’s three-peat
The Colorado Avalanche are Stanley Cup Champions for the first time since 2001, taking down the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games. The Avalanche were favored to win the series despite running up against the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. They were at a significant disadvantage in the goaltending department (as just about any team is when they’re up against all-world netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy), but the Avalanche were simply too fast and skilled offensively.
The Avalanche jumped all over the Lightning early in the series, following a 4-3 overtime win in Game 1 with an absolute massacre in Game 2, winning in dominant fashion, 7-0. The Lightning showed why they were Cup champs the past two seasons, however, answering with a 6-2 win of their own.
The Lightning dropped another heartbreaker when Nazem Kadri netted one about 12 minutes into overtime of Game 4, pushing the series to 3-1. On the brink of elimination, the Lightning scrapped for one more win in Game 5, taking that one 3-2 on the back of Ondrej Palat’s 11th goal of the postseason with just over six minutes remaining.
The Lightning even had a 1-0 lead in Game 6 after an early goal from Steven Stamkos, and had their sights on making things very interesting in their bid for a three-peat. Nathan MacKinnon and Arturi Lehkonen both answered in the second, however, and for nearly the final thirty minutes of gameplay, Goalie Darcy Kuemper and the Avalanche weathered the Lightning’s storm to hold on for the title.
The Avalanche rewarded a patient fan base that saw their team near the bottom of the league for a long stretch, including just one playoff appearance from 2010-2017. Even once they broke through, it has been relative futility in the postseason while they waited for this incredible core of players- MacKinnon, Lehkonen, Gabriel Landeskog- to come of age. Of course, none of these pieces may be as important as defenseman Cale Makar. Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) with his eight goals and 21 assists.
The Avalanche are +425 favorites to repeat as Cup champs next year per Tipico Sportsbook. The Lightning are still in the mix, fourth on the list at 10/1.
The Yankees are red hot
The New York Yankees are on a potentially historic run. Sitting at 56-20 as of press time, their .737 win percentage headed into the month of July has them on pace for 119 wins, which would eclipse the 116-win mark by the 2001 Mariners. Of course, that remarkable team didn’t even make a World Series appearance, as they were ousted from the American League Championship Series in five games by, you guessed it, the Yankees.
There is a long way to go, and history says talking about “on pace for” is a little bit foolish. As the Mariners proved over two decades ago, regular-season wins don’t necessarily translate to postseason success. That being said. The Yankees currently lead the league in both runs scored and earned run average. All of this in a division with the always-competitive Red Sox, Blue Jays and Rays, who are all well above .500.
If you’re looking for an Achilles heel in this apparent juggernaut, it may be in that they are 18th in baseball in batting average (.239), which might point to timely hitting not being there when they need it most against quality pitching deep in the playoffs. Their offense is getting by on being seventh in on-base percentage (.323) and mostly driving those runners in with their major-league leading 126 home runs (Aaron Judge has 29 alone). Being long ball dependent is something that has bitten other teams in the colder weather of the postseason. Perhaps the Yankees will tinker with things at the trade deadline.
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