NBA’s biggest second half storylines

The All-Star break has finally come and gone. The second half of the NBA season starts Thursday evening.

This is the part of the regular season NBA fans look forward to. Some teams will be jockeying for seeding, and others will make the push to squeak in to the playoffs. These are the games that feel like they mean something, apart from potential playoff matchups.

So let’s dive right in to the NBA’s biggest second half storylines.

Games remaining

Okay, it’s misleading to call it the second “half.” This NBA season was heavily front-loaded in a way it hasn’t been in years. This could be the reason Jimmy Butler decided not to play a minute in the All-Star Game. That, plus the fact that he’s leading the league in minutes per game.

NBA Second Half

Jimmy Butler got the rest he asked for, but is catching flack for taking up an All-Star roster spot. (Photo by Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY Sports)

Every NBA team’s remaining schedule averages out to feature 25.3 remaining games. So 56.7, or 69 percent, of this season’s games were played before the All-Star break. All research indicates players actually enjoy playing the majority of their games before the break. This gives them the opportunity to rest up for the playoff push.

This rest is absolutely more important to some teams than to others. Take into account injuries, fatigue and minutes played, that short break could make the difference between an eight seed and watching the playoffs from the couch.

Longest and shortest remaining schedules

The Philadelphia 76ers, currently the the seven seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs have the most games left to play at 27. The Minnesota Timberwolves only have 21 games. It’s interesting that these two teams would be the extremes, considering their structures.

The 76ers are not only young, but they are notoriously injury-prone. This is the first season that Embiid has been able to stay on the court, Ben Simmons has finally been able to play after missing all of last season, and it is still very much up in the air whether or not Markelle Fultz can make his debut this year. But if they stay healthy, that youth and lack of fatigue could propel them upward in the standings.

The Timberwolves play hard, and they play often. As previously stated, Butler leads the league, playing 37.3 minutes per game. Karl-Anthony Towns plays 35.1 minutes, Andrew Wiggins plays 36.1 minutes, and the 32-year-old Taj Gibson plays 33.6 minutes. This is due not only to lack of bench depth, but also Tom Thibodeau’s starter-reliant coaching style.

Depending on one’s point of view, this either gives NBA fans more or less to look forward to.

Dallas Mavericks troubles

Over the All-Star weekend Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said on Dr. J’s podcast, “losing is our best option.” At 18-40, it certainly seems as if they are embracing the “tanking” philosophy. For those who are unaware, “tanking” is the not-so-subtle art of losing to secure a better pick in the draft.

Adam Silver, NBA commissioner and outspoken enemy of tanking, doled out a huge penalty for the statement on Wednesday. Cuban was fined $600,000 for “conduct detrimental to the league,” supposedly for the comment and as a retroactive punishment for lack of effort on the season.

NBA Second Half

Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 on Wednesday. (Photo by Getty Images)

Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing for which the Mavericks and Cuban are under fire. News also broke Thursday night about a sexual harassment and misconduct scandal within the organization. There have been multiple reports of inappropriate behavior, along with Cuban admitting that he kept on a Mavericks reporter after “two separate incidents of domestic violence.”

The fallout from the misconduct allegations has yet to be seen, but it’s something to keep an eye on regarding the future of the franchise. It will also be interesting to see how many games Dallas wins after being exposed for exhibiting low effort.

Cavs-Warriors Part IV?

Cavaliers

The Cavaliers were re-energized by a huge roster shake-up at the NBA trade deadline. Going into the second half, they are on a four game win streak. One win came with the pre-deadline roster, one came with a short-handed roster before the newly-acquired players were eligible to play, and two came with the new look roster.

The team is slightly younger, more defensively-minded and much quicker than its previous iteration. Two games is hardly a sample size at all, however. Common sense says they should continue to trend upwards, but they only have 24 games to build playoff-level chemistry.

Their main competition on the road to the NBA Finals are the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics. These teams have the number one and number two records in the East, respectively. Cleveland made short work of both of these teams in last year’s playoffs. Toronto, however has grown as a team, and Kyrie Irving went from playing against Boston, to playing for them.

NBA Second Half

Golden State’s Draymond Green coaches the Warriors during their game against the Suns. (Photo by AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Warriors

Golden State has been having some struggles of late. They are currently the number two seed in the West. They are second to the Houston Rockets, their main competition. The Warriors are 7-5 in their last 12 games; hardly what fans have come to expect from a team with this much talent.

As a method of engaging his team, Steve Kerr even let his players coach during a win against the cellar-dwelling Phoenix Suns. This decision garnered much criticism from NBA players and pundits alike. They lost their next game against the Portland Trailblazers, despite Kevin Durant’s 50 points.

It’s a safe bet to pencil these two teams in for an historic fourth straight finals matchup. However, they both have more to prove before switching that pencil in for a pen.

Major awards

The second half of the season is where the NBA awards races really start to take shape. These awards are hotly contested this season, and it might just come down to the wire before voters decide for whom they will cast their ballot.

MVP

James Harden is currently the front-runner for the NBA MVP award. Fitting, since he was second in voting last year, but had the misfortune of being up against Russell Westbrook’s historic season.

LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant are also in contention. The voting will come down to their teams’ records and, of course, each player’s individual contribution. To see a more in-depth breakdown of the race, see the dedicated article here.

Rookie of the Year

This award is essentially a two man race.

Donovan Mitchell is averaging 19.6 points per game for the surging Utah Jazz. They have won 11 in a row in a push for the Western Conference’s eighth seed. He’s playing heavy minutes and contributing 3.5 rebounds and assists per game. But, what’s got the attention of the NBA is his athleticism. Winning the dunk contest as a replacement will also probably sway voters. If he continues scoring in the second half and dish out more assists, this award might be his.

His main competition is the 76ers’ Ben Simmons. Simmons is good for 16.4 points, 7.3 assists, and 7.8 rebounds per night. The points are obviously lower than Mitchell’s but the assist and rebound numbers are impressive for a rookie. Those numbers can and should come with the territory of being a 6-foot-10 point guard, however.

The problem is, in a league so in love with the three-pointer, he never shoots the long-range shot. He has taken just 10 threes, and has made none of them. Another potential reason Mitchell could sneak ahead in the polls is that his assist numbers are so low because he has one of the league’s best passers, Ricky Rubio, playing point guard on his team.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kevin Durant is squarely in contention for Defensive Player of the Year honors. His stats aren’t massively impressive, but the effort that does not show up on the stat sheet are the real reason he is in the conversation. Durant averages 0.8 steals per game, and 1.9 blocks per game with the Warriors. Being on a premiere defensive team also helps his cause.

NBA Second Half

Paul George, contender for Defensive Player of the Year, guards Victor Oladipo. (Photo by Getty Images)

Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder is the biggest roadblock between Durant and Defensive Player honors. George leads the league in steals, which is arguably the most important defensive stat. Robbing teams of possessions is a major key to winning games, and George does it more than any other player. His blocks sit at just 0.5 per game, but consider that he does most of his defending around the three-point line. That doesn’t lend itself to racking up blocks.

Coach of the Year

The obvious candidates for this award are Toronto’s Dwane Casey and Houston’s Mike D’Antoni.

They both are the owners of the best records in their conference. This is significant because neither of their teams were expected to be the number one seed going into the second half of the season. The Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors were supposed to have those honors. But neither coach need to own the one seed going into the playoffs to win the award.

D’Antoni’s Rockets have a prolific offense, and he has also managed to seamlessly integrate Chris Paul into the offense. The defense on his team is an afterthought, but it always has been on D’Antoni-coached teams. Casey’s Raptors own a top-10 defense and a top-10 offense. The roster has stayed intact through a tumultuous trade deadline, and the chemistry on the team shows from top to bottom.

Erik Spoelstra is also making his case for Coach of the Year. Miami currently sits at the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. With a less-than-stellar roster, if he can continue to manufacture wins through pure coaching, expect to hear his name when this award is mentioned.

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NBA All-Star

NBA All-Star Game predictions

You either love the NBA All-Star game, or you’re completely uninterested in it. There’s no real in between, and it’s not hard to understand why. Watching super-rich athletes engage in playground basketball with their friends is either exciting or nauseating.

NBA All-Star

Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks during the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. (Photo by Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports)

In the past, it’s basically been a continuation of the dunk contest. Once the player is past half court, the lane clears, and the man with the ball gets to show off. Last year’s All-Star game ended in a 192-182 victory for the West. To put that into perspective, the average score of a game last season was 105.6 points. That’s how little NBA All-Stars are interested in guarding their man.

Now, be well aware that these are the best scorers in the league, in most cases. And defense is not only less exciting than offense, but it takes more effort. The All-Star break is a rare occasion that these star players can get meaningful rest, it is what’s paramount to a successful back end to a season, and playoff runs. So working hard on the defensive end of the floor doesn’t quite make sense for them.

The problem is that the game doesn’t mean anything. There’s no competition because bragging rights are essentially irrelevant to these players. They have already proven they’re the best in the game by being chosen, so why try?

The new draft format and $100,000 cash prize are attempts at trying to remedy this issue. It’s unclear whether or not these changes will make any difference in competitiveness. But before evaluating and predicting, let’s look at the updated rosters.

Rosters

Team LeBron: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, Bradley Beal, Goran Dragic, Andre Drummond, Paul George, Victor Oladipo, Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook

NBA All-Star

Westbrook and Durant will be on the same All-Star team for the second year in a row. (Photo by Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Team Curry: Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar Derozan, Joel Embiid, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Al Horford, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns

Worth mentioning here is the fact that LeBron’s squad has lost four All-Star selections to injury. In the first year of the draft format, that’s not good. It’s especially bad considering all of the injuries came from the same team.

Also worth noting is that Westbrook and Aldridge missed four games between them in the last week. They will be ready for the All-Star Game, but that’s two more question marks for Team LeBron.

The replacements for injured players were not conference-specific. While in the past, someone from the same conference would have had to be chosen, this time it’s simply overall vote-getters. This probably led to the continued snub of Lou Williams, and Dragic sneaking his way in.

Team Curry

With all of his original players still in the lineup, Curry’s team has to be the favorite.

With Antetokounmpo, Derozan, Horford, Embiid and Towns, the team has tremendous length. And those of them who can’t slash to the bucket can certainly handle themselves around and beneath it.

Add in Curry and Harden, and that should be all the shooting they need. But, still, they have Butler, Lillard, Lowry and Thompson to pick up the slack. All of them can also get to the hoop, as well. But with the length on display, expect to see a lot of three-pointers from this team.

Team Curry is also being coached by Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets. The Rockets have the best record in the NBA, and the most potent offense in the league. Not that a team of this many great players will need much coaching, but expect D’Antoni to draw up offensive set pieces consistently and try to win this game with 150-plus points.

Team LeBron

Again, this team has been decimated by injuries. Four have been replaced, and two more are reportedly not at 100 percent.

Those replacements have been: Paul George for DeMarcus Cousins, Goran Dragic for Kevin Love, Kemba Walker for Kristaps Porzingis and Andre Drummond for John Wall.

NBA All-Star

Kristaps Porzingis won’t participate after tearing his ACL on Feb. 6. (Photo by Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports)

These injuries have made the team markedly smaller. Porzingis’ and Love’s replacements cost the team almost two feet of length. Having Drummond in for Wall stops the bleeding a little, but Drummond is not effective more than five feet from the basket. Kevin and Kristaps are both big men who can shoot from anywhere, and rest assured they would be if they were playing.

Some NBA fans might like the current lineup better for one reason or another. The point of All-Star selections is that they are subjective. And in just one game, the pieces don’t necessarily have to fit perfectly to win. But, losing four bonafide All-Stars for players that were “the best of the rest” shouldn’t inspire confidence.

LeBron’s team is being coached by Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors, who have the best record in the East. A no-nonsense defensive coach is a definite shake up for the All-Star Game. If Casey holds the other squad to less than 140 points, he will have lived up to that reputation.

We all know that LeBron is tired of losing, but we’ll see if he can will his team to that $100,000 prize.

Effort

Speaking of $100,000, does it really matter to some of the richest athletes in the sport? These players not only have massive contracts, but they’re all so good that they have deals and endorsements and appearances to help bolster their bank accounts.

What many fans might not know, is each member of the losing team will get $25,000. So that narrows the net winnings to $75,000. Sure, it would be life-changing money for most people in the world, but is that $75,000 worth the effort to these players?

Players don’t want to sound ungrateful, or out of touch with the rest of the world. So odds are, all 24 of them would answer with some form of, “yes, of course it matters.” And I’m sure it would be nice to have $75,000 more than you had yesterday. Especially if you receive it for playing a game you play every single night. But the fans will never really know how interested the players are. It’s an exercise in futility to read into it too much. The players will give however much they want to on the court, end of story.

LeBron will be out there trying his best to win. Curry will, too. They did put these teams together, after all. They want to be seen as a better “fantasy” manager than the other. But with the injuries, LeBron’s team has an excuse if they lose, and Curry’s team has a small incentive to take things easy on defense.

NBA All-Star

Curry and James picked the All-Star teams, and will go head-to-head again in 2018. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

With the new format, this should be a more competitive game. It will still be high scoring, and there will still be more joking around than defensive pressure. But the winning team won’t be eight points shy of 200 this year.

Prediction

Team Curry wins, 163-148

This was an easy call to make. The shooting and athleticism on Curry’s team is overwhelming. LeBron’s team will show more effort, and with Coach Casey on the sidelines, will be more engaged on the defensive end. But in the end, the shooting is what will matter.

People will clear the lane for Antetokounmpo, Harden and Curry will take 15 three-pointers each, and Embiid will trash talk his way either into or out of America’s heart.

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Blow it up: Why the Clippers should embrace a rebuild

The Clippers are only one game back from the eighth seed in the West. Lou Williams is playing outside of his mind. Blake Griffin is back from concussion protocol and Patrick Beverley says he could potentially play again this year. Not to mention, they’re one of the most injured teams in the league, all around, and they still beat the Warriors on Wednesday.

So why blow it up? Why not keep getting healthier and make one last meaningful run at the title while everyone has written them off?

Easy answer to an easy question; They won’t win a title in the West. They can’t. Not with this roster in this conference with this level of competition.

The Clippers are already teetering on breaking their streak of six straight playoff appearances. So here’s why they should wave the white flag and lean into the disappointment.

Trade chips

Lou Williams’ value will simply never be higher than it is right now. He’s averaging 31.6 points per game off the bench in his last 10 contests. He’s a virtual lock for Sixth Man of the Year, although he’s pretty much playing starters’ minutes. And he dropped 50 points on Golden State on Wednesday night, which is significant because the name of the game for 29 teams in the Association is to beat the Warriors at all costs. That’s something to, at the very least, take into consideration while going over a shopping list.

Clippers

Lou Williams tries to score over Omri Casspi. (Photo by: Alex Gallardo/Associated Press)

The Clippers also have two of the premiere offensive-minded rebounders in the league in Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan.

At 28 and 29-years-old respectively, are both in that sweet spot where the Clippers can trade them away without an iota of seller’s remorse. Historically, big players have started to have a downturn in their numbers around 30-years-old. So, the Clips can say that they held onto Griffin and Jordan in their prime, tried their very best to make it work and can sell very high to teams in need of their production.

Also, if they keep Beverley off the court this year and maintain an air of mystery around what he is capable of, then they can sell high on his defensive potential during the off-season.

Coaching

Doc Rivers is a prolific players’ coach, and puts more stock in talent than schemes. This isn’t a knock against him in any way, and, in fact, it is what won him a championship in Boston.

The problem is that without transcendent talent on the floor, coaching has to be about schemes and patterns. Now that Chris Paul is a Rocket, Blake Griffin can’t seem to stay on the court for an entire season, and defensive wizard Patrick Beverley is probably done for the year, Rivers is not the right fit for the team.

Clippers

Doc Rivers yells at an official while Deandre Jordan begins to hold him back (Photo by: Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

Trading away talent for picks and placeholders is an easy way to phase out Rivers and begin again with a clean slate. His contract is up after next season, so if the team commits to the rebuild, then next year’s record should be pretty bad. That’s an excuse to let Rivers go find his next job and lets the Clippers pick a new direction.

The draft

The Clippers don’t have a wealth of draft picks this year. In fact, as of now they only have one pick. Obviously, if they trade away stars and want to rebuild, that will (or should) result in more picks.

The 2018 draft should be pretty balanced and should feature some franchise-altering talent in the first round. That leaves two ways Los Angeles can play this particular game.

They can stockpile picks and see what sticks and what doesn’t, a-la the Philadelphia 76ers. Or, they can bear hug the tanking philosophy after trading away Williams, Griffin and Jordan and aim for a high pick. Once that pick is secured, they can flip it for more chances at less-valued players, or go for broke and try to draft a star.

Either way is equally risky and equally viable, but it should all depend on what they can get for their on-court talent.

Clippers

Blake Griffin throws down a dunk. (Photo by: Harry How/Getty Images)

It’s not easy to say goodbye to Lob City. The Clippers were, genuinely, one of the most exciting teams in the NBA for a long period of time. They also successfully overshadowed a certain purple and gold clad team that shares their arena.

But with Chris Paul dropping dimes in Houston, an aging frontcourt and no real identity, it’s time to watch these players be great somewhere else. Steve Ballmer is, arguably, a top-10 owner in the league, so let’s all hope he won’t want to mortgage the future for another meaningless first round exit.

Two good teams in Los Angeles is good for the Association, and good for the fans. If this happens, however, there will be two pretty bad teams in Los Angeles, for what is probably the very first time. But this is a Band-Aid that needs to be ripped off. They still have the Dodgers, after all.

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Injuries 2018 MLB season

Injuries to keep an eye on heading into the 2018 MLB season

With the ALCS and NLCS around the corner and the 2017 fantasy baseball season officially in the books, it is time to assess the 2018 outlook for the following four players. They are all currently injured with fairly loose time tables for return, but also could be impact players next season.

Jimmy Nelson, Starting Pitcher, Milwaukee Brewers

Injuries 2018 MLB season

Jimmy Nelson’s 2017 WAR of 4.9 ranks fourth in the MLB, only behind Chris Sale, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer. (Photo by The News and Observer)

Nelson quietly emerged as one of the most dominant pitchers in Major League Baseball this season.

Yes, you heard me correctly. Jimmy Nelson. His 2017 WAR of 4.9 ranked eighth in the MLB. Nelson also finished in the top 10 in K/9 (10.21) and xFIP (3.15) to go with a 3.49 ERA. In 175.1 innings, Nelson fell only one strikeout short of 200, which was a huge improvement from his prior career high of 148 in 177.1 innings.

According to fangraphs.com, Nelson’s curveball in 2017 was valued at 9.2, where a value of zero represents average, a positive value represents above average and a negative value represents below. To put this in better perspective, Clayton Kershaw’s curveball has been valued at a total of 63.8 over the course of his career, with a high of 16.5 and a yearly average of 7.2, although his curveball is currently valued at 6.4 in 2017. This shows that Nelson’s stuff is similarly effective to the likes of Kershaw.

The 28-year-old suffered a partially torn labrum and a strained rotator cuff after sliding back head-first into first base on September 8. He underwent surgery on September 19, which will undoubtedly set him back at the start of the 2018 season. According to MLB.com, Nelson shouldn’t be expected to return until midseason.

Nelson is well worth a flyer in fantasy drafts next season, as his price is sure to be discounted due to his long-awaited return.

Adam Eaton, Outfielder, Washington Nationals

Injuries 2018 MLB season

Adam Eaton tore his ACL and meniscus on April 28, causing him to miss the remainder of the 2017 MLB season. (Photo by the Cincinnati Enquirer)

In his first season in Washington after being traded for prospect pitchers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, Eaton had found himself in a fantasy friendly leadoff role. It was undeniable that he could score triple-digit runs and steal double-digit bases atop a loaded Nationals lineup.

Unfortunately, he tore his ACL and meniscus on April 28, causing him to miss the remainder of the 2017 season.

Eaton was batting .297 with two home runs, three stolen bases and 14 walks through 23 games this season. His combination of speed, plate discipline, contact hitting and opportunity in the Nationals’ lineup push me to compare him to the likes of his former teammate A.J. Pollock.

Pollock is a career .286 hitter with a 162-game average of 16 home runs and 28 stolen bases. Eaton’s 162-game average is .284, 11 home runs and 17 stolen bases, showing that he offers similar value to Pollack a much cheaper price.

Early reports this season suggested that there would be a possibility for Eaton to return at the end of the 2017 season if the Nationals were to make a deep postseason run. However, the Nationals were eliminated in the NLDS and Eaton did not enter a game. This indicates that Eaton should be ready to go by the start of 2018, and by his own account according to the Washington Post, he plans to return “a better player for sure.”

Eaton’s confidence in himself is reassuring for his fantasy value moving forward, although the current outfield situation in Washington is not. Superstar Bryce Harper is locked into right field as long as he remains a National. Michael Taylor has emerged as much more than a depth outfielder after batting .271 with 19 home runs and 17 stolen bases in Eaton’s absence. Veteran slugger Jayson Werth was on pace for 23 home runs through 162-games, but was plagued with injuries. Top prospect Victor Robles has also shown that he is deserving of MLB at-bats.

It is uncertain if and to what extent Eaton will play in 2018. If he returns to an everyday role, he will reemerge to fantasy relevance once again.

Troy Tulowitzki, Shortstop, Toronto Blue Jays

Injuries 2018 MLB Season

Troy Tulowitzki is only three seasons removed from when he batted .340 with 21 home runs in 91 games with the Colorado Rockies. (Photo by Zimbio.com)

Tulowitzki was placed on the 60-day disabled list on August 6 after suffering ligament damage in his ankle. The 33-year-old played in only 66 games, slashing a career worst .249/.300/.378. Despite his clear struggles and lack of durability, manager John Gibbons told MLB Network Radio that they are committed to Tulowitzki as their starting shortstop in 2018.

He is only three seasons removed from when he batted .340 with 21 home runs in 91 games with the Colorado Rockies. The once perennial National League MVP candidate has been reduced to a shell of his former self. In his three seasons as a Blue Jay, he has a combined .250 batting average and just 36 home runs in 238 games.

He spent the majority of the season batting either fifth or sixth. With the anticipated departure of Jose Bautista and the Josh Donaldson trade rumors, it is hard to identify where Tulowitzki will fit in the order or how productive the Blue Jays’ lineup can be.

His fantasy value moving forward is a conundrum, as no one knows what to expect at this point in his career. Will he resurrect his MVP form? Or will his skills and durability continue to diminish? Only time will tell, but his price on draft day in 2018 is sure to be a bargain.

Michael Conforto, Outfielder, New York Mets

Injuries 2018 MLB season

Prior to the injury, Michael Conforto was slashing .279/.384/.55 with 27 home runs and 68 RBIs through 109 games. (Photo by NY Daily News)

Conforto underwent season ending surgery on September 6 to repair a torn posterior capsule in his left shoulder. His anticipated return is around early March, although this only gives him a month to ramp up baseball activities before the start of the season in April, suggesting that he will miss the beginning of the 2018 regular season.

Prior to the injury, Conforto was slashing .279/.384/.555 with 27 home runs and 68 RBIs through 109 games. This rate of production put Conforto on pace to hit 40 home runs and drive in 101 RBIs.

Whether he is in left, right or center field, Corforto is a lock to be in the Mets’ lineup. He has proven that he is not just a left-handed side of a platoon, but yet a budding superstar, as he was playing nearly everyday in July and August. However, he still only bats a career .180 against lefties, so be weary.

The soon-to-be 25-year-old is sure to be undervalued in fantasy circles next season. He is obviously coming off of an injury, but more importantly, he plays for the Mets, whose offense ranked in the bottom half of the league in runs, RBIs and batting average in 2017. With a healthy Conforto and Yoenis Cespedes, the Mets could easily become a top-15 offense in 2018, making Conforto’s fantasy value rise immensely.

 

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The Ultimate Battle

The ultimate battle in hockey is overcoming injuries. A study shows $218 million in salaries is lost each season due to injuries. The research was done three years ago. That number is now greater due to the league’s higher market value.

Franchise players dash their team’s ability to make the postseason or winning it all every year. Sidney Crosby gets hit in the head in consecutive games midway through the season in 2011 turns into a first round exit. Connor McDavid breaks his collar bone last year, which puts the Oilers back in the cellar for one more season. Steven Stamkos’s absence from the ice the last two years has not allowed Tampa to take the next step. Lightning lost in the finals three seasons ago, one game away form the finals two seasons ago and missed the postseason altogether last year.

Hockey is a sport of matchups. Four trios of forwards and 3 pairs of defenseman, which makes chemistry paramount in a team’s success. One injury to a forward or defenseman puts a team’s alignment into a puzzle. However, the reality is that lineups are drastically shaken up throughout the course of the season.

The St. Louis Blues

The faithful in the Gateway to West will be without four top 9 forwards (Steen, Berglund, Sanford, Fabbri) and one defenseman (Bouwmeester) to start the year. However, one of which (Robby Fabbri) has been ruled out for the entire regular and postseason.

ultimate battle

Robby Fabbri had surgery, rehabbed all offseason and was medically cleared in July. A big hit for the 21 year old that was entering a contract year. Photo courtesy by NHL.com

Two rookies (Tage Thompson, Klim Kostin) now have every opportunity to show and prove they belong on the Blues’ roster. Depth was an issue during the playoffs last season as the Blues were ousted in the 2nd round by Nashville. Pressure and responsibility may or may not be what these hungry rookies need, but that is what they are getting. This could shapeup as a very exciting or struggle-filled start to St. Louis’s season.

These injuries have General Manager Doug Armstrong looking at not just the rookies, but potential replacement players to fill the current voids. Jaromir Jagr, a 45 year-old future hall of famer has been discussed as a potential signing. It would most likely come after the olympics if it does happen because of Jagr’s desire to play in the tournament. The #2 all-time scorer has shown he still has enough in the tank to compete as he recorded 16 goals and 30 assists last season.

The Importance of depth

The saying “we gotta roll four lines and bang bodies” is crucial to the success of any hockey club. Contributions must be made by each top 12 forward and top 6 defenseman in a push for the playoffs and run to the Cup. Goons and enforcers are few and far between in today’s NHL. Every line has to have offensive output for a team to win with great regularity.

ultimate battle

Mark Letestu of the Oilers is a 4th liner, but tallied 16 goals last season (11 on the powerplay). Edmonton later made their 1st playoff appearance in 10 seasons. Photo Courtesy of Canoe Sports

Injury occurrence forces reshaping of lines, which reforms game plans. Coaches have to be on their toes and be prepared to battle just like his players. The man in charge on the bench is the most underrated person of value in a hockey game. He is the one who executively decides who goes onto to the ice at every point in time.

Some matchup their lines differently. The home coach gets to decide. Some go with their first line against the opposing team’s 4th line or the opposite. The point is that a coach’s decisions are constantly altered due to the injuries. Mike Yeo (Blues head coach) is facing these challenges all at once before the season even starts, but countless more will follow.

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Mitch Haniger fantasy baseball

Mitch Haniger is a must-add for your fantasy baseball playoffs

Background

Mitch Haniger fantasy baseball

Mitch Haniger was traded last November to the Seattle Mariners along with blossoming star Jean Segura. (Photo by Zimbio.com)

Mitch Haniger was originally drafted out of high school by the New York Mets in the 31st round of the 2009 MLB draft, but he opted to attend Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. The most notable player to come from Cal Poly is Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith.

In his freshman season, Haniger only played in 17 games. He began to become one of the more highly-touted college prospects after earning an every-day role his sophomore year. In his final collegiate season, he batted .346 with 13 home runs and 64 RBIs in 56 games. He was dominating the Big West Conference and MLB teams were taking notice.

At 21 years old, Haniger was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round of the 2012 draft. After failing to standout in low and high-A, Haniger was traded with former 10th-round selection Anthony Banda to the Arizona Diamondbacks for outfielder Gerardo Parra.

In 85 games at the triple-A level, Haniger batted .330 with 23 home runs, 70 RBIs and eight stolen bases. Haniger debuted for the Diamondbacks in 2016, where he played in 34 games and batted .229 with five home runs and 17 RBIs.

After an underwhelming start, he was subsequently traded last November to the Seattle Mariners along with blossoming star Jean Segura and former sixth-round pick Zac Curtis for former first-round pick Taijuan Walker and infielder Ketel Marte.

Haniger was deemed the everyday right fielder after slashing .406/.472/.719 in 32 at bats in spring training. He originally slotted into the two-hole for the Mariners, batting behind Segura and ahead of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. This spot helped Haniger become one of the most productive players in the MLB in April, as he was leading the Mariners in WAR at 1.8 and batting .342 with four home runs, 20 runs scored, 16 RBIs and two stolen bases.

 

Injuries

Mitch Haniger fantasy baseball

Haniger missed half of August due to a mild concussion, small nasal fracture and lacerated upper lip which occurred after being hit in the face by a Jacob deGrom fastball on July 29th. (Photo by NY Daily News)

Haniger is currently owned in only 18.6 percent of fantasy baseball leagues on ESPN.com, which is mainly due to his inability to stay on the field. He missed all of May and the beginning of June due to a strained oblique, which he suffered on April 25.

After returning on June 18, the 26-year-old clearly was feeling the lingering effects of the leg injury, as he only batted .176 in 68 at bats in July.

Most recently, he missed half of August due to a mild concussion, small nasal fracture and lacerated upper lip, which occurred after being hit in the face by a Jacob deGrom fastball on July 29.

 

Picking back up where he left off

Mitch Haniger fantasy baseball

Haniger is batting .455 with two home runs, five runs scored and six RBIs in his 18 games since returning. (Photo by the Seattle Times)

The Mariners outfielder returned from his facial and head injuries on August 19 and returned to his everyday role in right field. So far in September, Haniger is batting .455 with two home runs, five runs scored and six RBIs in 33 at bats.

In his 18 games since returning, Haniger’s lineup position has varied. He has batted second and fifth on four separate occasions, while batting sixth 10 times.

If he can continue to get at bats in the two-hole, his fantasy value will sky rocket. Haniger will be an integral piece to the Mariners success moving forward. If you need outfield depth, Haniger would be a perfect option for your fantasy baseball playoff run.

 

Featured image by MLB.com

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Matt Murray sets lofty goals for rest of his career

Is Matt Murray setting expectations of himself too high after winning two Stanley Cups in his first two seasons in the NHL? Who knows; the small sample size only points to success.

The Pittsburgh Penguins win over the Nashville Predators on Sunday to claim Lord Stanley’s cup set off numerous storylines. Debates ignited about Sidney Crosby’s place amongst the greatest players in NHL history. Patric Hornqvist, the last pick for Nashville in the 2005 draft, scores the game-winning goal. Jake Guentzel’s performance in the playoffs has infused youth as the Penguins look to ignite a dynasty.

In the middle of it is a Thunder Bay native with just two years of experience in the legal drinking age. Despite that, he’s the first goalie to ever win the Stanley Cup-clinching game his first two seasons in the league.

Not bad for your first seasons on the world’s biggest stage.

Murray’s performances in the playoffs recently have shifted the organization’s faith in the 2012 third-round pick as their franchise netminder. This was apparent on Monday when Marc-Andre Fleury waived his no-movement clause, allowing the Penguins to protect Murray in the expansion draft. In doing this, Murray had to supplant the team’s best goaltender in history not once, but twice.

With that in mind, how can Murray continue to aid Pittsburgh as they seek their third straight championship next season?

2016

Fleury leads the franchise in wins and games played. He was a staple in net since he first entered the league in the 2003-04 season. However, an ill-timed concussion sidelined him late in the season. This meant the Penguins, finishing a 104-point campaign, had to use a 21 year-old Murray for the postseason.

Matt Murray

Matt Murray with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Photo courtesy of the Penguins official website.

Matt Murray in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was steady in net. A 20-9-1 record with a 2.10 GAA was respectable. Matt Murray in Pittsburgh during the Stanley Cup Playoffs was stellar. He saved over 92 percent of his shots and secured over 15 wins during the run.

Even with an impressive start to the postseason, his spot was still tenuous. Fleury became healthy in the Eastern Conference Finals and was available off the bench in Game Four. Murray subsequently allowed four goals to Tampa Bay, and Fleury replaced him. Fleury, however, lost Game Five, and Head Coach Mike Sullivan went back to Murray, who helped Pittsburgh overcome a 3-2 series deficit to advance to the Final.

This leap of faith for a rookie goalie, especially in favor of one of the team’s best all-time netminders, is unheard of in hockey. Sullivan, at the helm for six months, saw Murray up close in the AHL as his head coach then. He took a calculated risk where only he could predict the upside. It worked for both parties. Murray and Sullivan won the Cup and earned full-time promotions at their jobs.

2017

Penguins goalies Matt Murray (left) and Marc-Andre Fleury look at the scoreboard during the first period of Game 4 against the Washington Capitals on May 4 at Consol Energy Center.

Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Photo by Gene J. Puskar.

While Matt Murray enjoyed a change in position in early 2016, the following year was a challenge for his health. He suffered a broken hand in the World Cup of Hockey before the season started, and then sustained a lower-body injury in late December. Fleury took over the starting job when Murray went down, and the latter played 47 games compared to 38 for the former. The injuries would continue to pile up in the postseason.

As Murray prepared to begin his title defense, he injured himself yet again. Thus, Fleury stepped up moments before Game One against Columbus. The Flower ended up saving a weakened Penguins defense and performed admirably in 15 games.

Ironically, a bad game in the Eastern Conference Finals led to another goalie change. Murray returned from his issue and subbed for Fleury after a rough first period against Ottawa. Sullivan named Murray the starter afterwards. Based on how last year played out, Murray’s leash had to be short. However, he walked away with the opportunity. He willed Pittsburgh to win Game Seven over the Senators and outlasted Nashville in six games.

Matt Murray in the Future

With Fleury’s recent contract developments, it is looking more likely Vegas will snag him in the upcoming expansion draft. This means Murray is the long-term solution for the Penguins. He’s proved his worth in the postseason. In extended time during the regular season, he posted a 2.41 GAA with 26 quality starts. His numbers are solid, but there’s a key factor: health.

Three injuries last season is a cause for concern with a franchise goalie. Including a concussion before the 2016 playoffs, Murray has had four injuries in that span. Pittsburgh has had the benefit of having a starting-caliber goalie to fill in for an injured starter, but if Fleury leaves, that’s no longer the case.

Sullivan has faith in Matt Murray. The two have the potential to be a staple in Pittsburgh for years to come. When he’s on the ice, Murray is a solid weapon. If he can stay on the ice, the Penguins are the typical juggernaut. Penguins fans will be disappointed to hear he probably won’t win a Stanley Cup every year. However, he’s off to a pretty good start in his NHL career.

Feature Image courtesy of Yahoo Sports

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Battling the Injury Bug: NL East

Injuries are an inevitability in the MLB with the season lasting almost half of the year, but four teams in the NL East are seeing some of their top players return from injury riddled seasons. Here, we’ll address who the player is and what’s been ailing him over the past year.

Braves – Freddie Freeman

While the Braves may not be slated to have the best season, first baseman Freddie Freeman’s health could have a significant impact on just how well Turner Field’s final season will go. Photo courtesy of ajc.com.

Freddie is one of the few Braves staples that hasn’t been shipped out or retired over the past few seasons. The first baseman is entering his 6th year as an Opening Day starter on the Atlanta roster. He’s done great for the Braves, batting a career .285, belting 104 HRs, and piling up 424 RBI thus far. However, Freeman missed a month, from mid-June to mid-July, and a couple of weeks in August due to a wrist injury that seemingly is still plaguing him somewhat in the preseason. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has been smart up to this point with Freeman in Spring Training, limiting his appearances to ensure that he is as close to 100% as possible by April. Losing Freeman would be losing the Braves returning leader in HRs (18), and RBI (66), and the Braves would be hard pressed to find someone else to share the burden with Nick Swisher, who was the Braves’ other top hitter in 2015.

Mets – David Wright

I know I said that the Mets’ greatest asset would be their pitching, and that it could carry them far this season. I still believe that, but I also believe that David Wright  is one of the biggest weapons the Mets have offensively if he remains healthy. Wright is the Mets’ career leader in runs, and RBI, as well as second in batting average and home runs, so to say he’s been a boon to the franchise would be an understatement. Wright has had five 100 RBI season already in his 13 year tenure as a Met and hit .282 in 44 games last year with New York. Wright has yet to play this spring, but is set to make his Grapefruit League debut this Friday. Wright claims to be feeling great, but Terri Collins is playing it safe with him all the same, wanting to make sure that his lingering back issues do not become a problem less than a month before the start of the regular season.

Nationals – Stephen Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg has been on and off injury watch since elbow surgery in 2010. If he can scrounge together a healthy year, the Nationals rotation has a lot of potential. Photo courtest of usatoday.com.

Name a body part, and chances are, Stephen Strasburg has injured it in the past few seasons with the Nationals. Last year Strasburg suffered an array of injuries ranging from ankle tightness, to oblique strains, and still managed to toss 23 starts. Nationals fans have been worried about Strasburg ever
since he first had surgery on his elbow in 2010. It has been a rocky road to recovery since then, but the #1 draft pick from 2009 continues to post solid seasons despite injuries constantly plaguing him. Luckily for Washington, Max Scherzer emerged as a real gem on the mound last season, but Scherzer alone will not be enough to carry the rest of these young starters. Strasburg provides a bridge between the youth and experience on the Nats rotation, and if he can remain healthy for 2016, the Nationals could have a staff that rivals New York in the East.

Marlins – Giancarlo Stanton

Stanton popped 27 dingers in less than half a season in 2015.  A broken bone in his hand prevented him from putting up some potentially monstrous numbers.  2015 wasn’t the first year Stanton was cut short by injuries, however; he missed over 40 games in 2013 and has currently reported knee soreness in the preseason.  Stanton returned to the lineup for Sunday’s game against the Mets, but claimed to only feel, “relatively good.”  I’m sure the Marlins and their fans would prefer their star slugger to feel a bit more than “relatively good” by the time April rolls around, and would feel even better if he still felt that good by September.  Stanton’s bat provides some much needed pop in the middle of the Marlins lineup alongside first baseman Justin Bour.  If Stanton ends up missing extended time again in 2016, I don’t see anybody on the roster who can shoulder some of the load that would then fall on Bour as the sole remaining power threat.