Fantasy: The Rosetta Stone of Sports

Photo from https://twitter.com/dailyfntasy

Fantasy sports have made me a more informed citizen of the United States of America. Granted, they really just make me more knowledgeable about sports in general and I just happen to be a citizen of the USA, but still.

I wasn’t a big sports fanatic as a kid. I watched some baseball but largely didn’t know what was going on in the world of sports beyond the St. Louis Cardinals. I even started playing sports in 3rd and 4th grade but it was all brand new to me. I never watched basketball or football (so yes, I was awful at the start of both) so I never had much interest. I started watching some basketball in early high school, but it wasn’t until I tried fantasy sports that my passion for the game really took off.

After just a couple of fantasy seasons, I could tell you the starting five players for all of the 30 NBA teams. You had to know who was going to be getting big minutes, who could hit threes for you, or who the next big thing was that you had to pick up for your team. The competition between your friends is the driving force that makes every weekly matchup interesting. There are basketball games essentially every day during NBA season, so you are always checking your phone or computer in the evenings to see if your players are flourishing or floundering. The same goes for you watching your opponent’s team. Oh, and also it makes you swear sometimes.

When I started dating my wife, I knew nothing about football. I could tell quickly that that could get me into some awkward situations. Her family frequently spent Sunday afternoons watching NFL games and I barely knew what a down was or how many points a field goal was worth. I thought back to fantasy basketball and realized that this situation wasn’t as hopeless as it seemed. It took a few seasons, but I got into a league with a bunch of friends in college and my mind was quickly filled with glorious sports knowledge. My wife’s family claims me in public, and I’m sure that’s the reason.

I am from Missouri and am a Kansas City Chiefs fan. Naturally, I know more about the Chiefs than I do any other team in the league. A coworker and I were recently having a conversation about our fantasy teams and we quickly realized how ridiculous it was that we were able to have the discussion we were having due to the randomness of the players we were talking about. We named eight or so starters on offense for the Minnesota Vikings. Why on Earth would we know about, let alone be discussing the starters for Minnesota? Fantasy knowledge, baby. Fantasy knowledge.

Speaking of conversations, guys don’t always have a lot to say to each other. I know there are exceptions to that and interests vary, but in my experience, you can almost always bring up sports. Sports are a nearly universal language and it is much easier to speak it if you play in fantasy leagues. I am confident in my ability to hold down an airport conversation with a fella from Orlando about his favorite basketball team or a gal from New Orleans about her favorite quarterback.

I’m not telling you to take your kids out of school and enroll them in a fantasy league, even though that would be hilarious. I’m just telling you that if you are a sports fan or would like to be, I recommend deepening your knowledge with some good ol’ virtual team management. It will make you so obnoxiously smart that people will start to roll their eyes with jealousy when you launch into a spiel about basketball statistics or a football team’s third-string running back. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to trash talk those closest to you. If you take nothing else away from this: NEVER pass up an opportunity to trash talk those closest to you.

NBA Preview 2017-18

Tuesday, October 17th begins the new NBA season. It will kick off with some solid matchups and a lot of familiar faces in new places. The defending champion Golden State Warriors look largely the same (ridiculous), while the rest of the league has been scrambling to either form teams to compete or to start building for the future. A few contenders have emerged, but another championship is essentially Golden State’s to lose.

Let’s start by looking to the East, where most of the offseason changes happened at the very top. Last year’s Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers swapped star point guards with the #1 seed Boston Celtics. Kyrie Irving now looks to lead Boston alongside fellow newcomer Gordon Hayward, a first-time All-Star last year for the Jazz. Isiah Thomas, some other guys, a 2018 first-round draft pick, and a washing machine were traded to take Irving’s place. Oh, and the Cavs added James’ buddy Dwyane Wade too. Multiple Finals appearances were not enough to make Irving want to stay with LeBron in Cleveland, and we won’t have to wait long to see the two clash, as the two teams face each other to tip off the season.

Photo from usatoday.com

The Raptors, Wizards, Bucks, and Heat bring back squads that resemble what we saw last year. The young Bucks are another year older and hope that Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton can stay on the floor all year to help them challenge the top teams in the East. The Wizards finally got a healthy season from shooting guard Bradley Beal and are going to continue to lean on their strong backcourt. The Hawks, Pacers, and Bulls appear to be entering a rebuilding stage, while the Philadelphia 76ers try to emerge from one. After multiple years of tanking to acquire draft picks, the 76ers have built up a very solid team of potential stars. Only time will tell how quickly they can grow and compete.

Out in the Western Conference, as I mentioned, it is the Warriors who look to reign supreme. Last year’s addition of Kevin Durant took the already star-powered team to unheard-of heights. By the time the playoffs rolled around, they were clicking and a 70+ win season could be on the horizon this year. The 61-win Spurs remain much the same, though they did add Rudy Gay to fill in some of the scoring void left by an under-performing LaMarcus Aldridge. They will again be lead by the man with the world’s largest hands: MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard.

The Clippers dealt Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets for some role players, highlighted by Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams, who alongside newcomer Danilo Gallinari, will look to keep L.A. relevant after losing Redick and Crawford as well. The Rockets will be a top team in the West again led by bearded scoring savant, James Harden. They hope to see young center Clint Capela become DeAndre Jordan-esque when paired with Paul. The Thunder made plenty of moves as well, acquiring Paul George and Carmelo Anthony while only giving up essentially a rack of basketballs and half a pair of Jordan’s. Adding these pieces to MVP Russell Westbrook’s squad could put them near the top of the standings, though they will have depth issues to address.

Photo from ftw.usatoday.com

The Denver Nuggets, with the improvement of Nikola Jokic and the addition of Paul Millsap will fight to enter the playoffs, which they just missed last year (arguably due to the legalization of marijuana). The Pelicans hope to see their frontcourt tandem of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins pay off as well. The Timberwolves will likely be one of the most improved teams, having added Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague to their young core of talented players. The Jazz and Grizzlies will both take steps back, as the Lakers and Suns look to take steps forward as they develop their young players. Lavar Ball will have beef with everyone.

This was undeniably the busiest NBA offseason as far as big-name player movement. “The Decision” by LeBron to go to Miami in 2010 seemed to have kicked off a new era in the NBA in which the players choose to exercise more control of which team they are on. So many players on new teams will be a little nuts. We will also be seeing some small logos on many team’s jerseys, which is a first. The league has cut down on back-to-back games for teams and has put punishments in place for teams who rest star players for nationally televised contests. Teams have also been given slimmer chances at top draft picks for losing, to discourage intentional tanking. The format for the All-Star game has changed in hopes to make it more competitive. There have been some other tweaks, but you’ve probably already stopped caring.

This should be a wild season! I’ll be tweeting about it pretty constantly, so don’t forget to tune into the games and follow your favorite blogger on Twitter @WilHarrington 

My Man Crush

I love Blake Griffin.

… and yes, that’s pretty weird. I had my eye on the high-flying basketball star since his days at Oklahoma. I have never watched much college basketball, but this huge red-haired fellow soaring through the air to dunk on anybody that was foolish enough to get in his way; I found that quite noteworthy. I remember one particular dunk in which he hit his head on the backboard, which doesn’t happen every day.

He went number one overall in the 2009 NBA draft to the Los Angeles Clippers, historically one of the worst teams in the League. During the Summer League and preseason, Griffin tore it up. He was already producing highlight-worthy dunks and making everyone around him look like they playing sand basketball (which would be just… terrible). In the final pre-season game, he hurt his knee landing after another dunk and had to have season-ending surgery. I was sad.

Blake and I running a fast break

The next year would be his true “rookie season” and I of course placed him squarely on my fantasy team. I watched his first game and he started it off with an alley-oop jam for his first NBA basket. I wet myself. His rookie season was filled with some of the best in-game dunks I have ever seen on any level. He was a fantasy surprise to most, though his free throw percentage was pretty low. I was so smitten with the monster dunks, that I didn’t care even a little bit. He averaged 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds (basketball-reference.com) and won rookie of the year honors, being the first rookie All-Star selection since Tim Duncan. I was hooked, and he overtook Steve Nash as my favorite player.

He has now played seven seasons and has been on my fantasy team every year but one (for better or for worse). The rebounds his rookie season would wind up being a career-high and it turns out 22 points per game would be par for the course through his career. He has however steadily raised his free throw percentage almost every season, going from 64% as a rookie to 76% last season (basketball-reference.com). Injuries have unfortunately plagued Griffin through his career, especially the last three seasons. His knee issues have definitely limited his highlight-reel dunks as his career has gone on, but his handles, passing, and improved jump shot have helped to keep him at an elite level when healthy.

Blake and I casually chilling in my man cave

He won me over with the dunks, but his dedication to continuous improvement, his likable personality, and his strong jaw has helped my man-crush continue through the years. Blake has done stand-up comedy, produced some hilarious commercials, and kept his social media game strong. He has a great personality for L.A. and has made the once irrelevant Clippers franchise into a perennial contender.

As the season nears, Griffin will have a lot of pressure to lead the team with the off-season departure of Chris Paul. I will do my best to draft him again in fantasy this year, possibly at the expense of my team due to his injury-prone ways. I can’t help it though; I love the guy. I am forming some new favorite players as well, such as the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, Blake Griffin has cemented his status as one of my all-time favorites no matter what.

My Love for the NBA

Photo from NBA.com

In case you didn’t know: I love the NBA. I have preferred teams and favorite players, but mostly I just love the National Basketball Association. Love is a strong word, but how else could I describe something that I am intensely passionate about and devote a considerable amount of time to? From highlight-reel dunks to memorable underdog stories, there are many facets of the game that draw me and so many others into the drama and spectacle that is the NBA.

It is unusual to be such a big professional basketball fan where I’m from. The demographic is generally much more interested in baseball and football, save for March Madness. I didn’t even really realize that there was such a thing as the NBA until I was probably 12 years old or so. At my house, we watched a lot of Cardinals baseball and my Dad would record the Chiefs on a VHS on Sundays, but that was about our only sports intake. I, therefore, missed the Michael Jordan era entirely, though he was probably the only pro I could name at the time.

Once I was aware of it, I still didn’t watch, because no one else did either. Things changed when my Dad got caught up in Steve Nash highlights around 2005 or so. He and I played High Heat Baseball on the computer, Knockout Kings boxing on the GameCube, and NFL 2K on the Ps2. One day, he came home with NBA Live 2005 for the GameCube, and I was never the same.

Pops and I played the game for multiple hours each week. We would play with each other many nights when he got home from work and almost every Sunday afternoon. He usually stuck with the highly-rated Spurs or Pistons, while I loved to be different teams all the time, learning about every player in the game. I beat him down without mercy, winning right around 95% of the time. Dad chose instead to pursue moral victories by being under the “line of embarrassment” (20 points) or even the “line of humiliation” (30 points).

Photo of virtual Steve Nash delivering the perfect pass in 2005 from nba-live.com

I learned so much about the teams and players, that I quickly became a big fan of the league. Once I got to high school, one of my favorite teachers introduced us to fantasy sports. My LeBron James-led fantasy squad took first place in my first fantasy season and I became deeply hooked on NBA basketball. I began watching games all the time, buying all kinds of merchandise, and exhausting people around me with statistics. I started my own fantasy league, which I usually won in the beginning, but my fondness for certain players has led to less competitive seasons recently (looking at you, Blake Griffin).

So here I am, an NBA fan in Southwest Missouri with a man-cave filled with junk and a mind filled with what some might consider pretty useless knowledge. I do have some good friends that keep up with the NBA also (or at least humor me) and a wife that puts up with me and even knows who Luis Scola is. The 2017-18 season starts soon – many people feel like last season just ended. They’ll get over it though, and people like me are wildly excited to get started. So it will continue year after year. I just hope that I will have a future kid that will beat me down mercilessly in an NBA video game someday and fall in love with the game also. Long live the NBA!

Draft Day

Arguably the most important day of any fantasy season whether it’s football, basketball, or fantasy Bachelorette… is draft day. I should note that I’ve surprisingly never played fantasy Bachelorette, so I’m just guessing.

Draft day is when you meticulously select your players for the upcoming fantasy season. You are never alone, as your rivals are also selecting who they think will give them the best chance to walk away victorious in the end. You might spring for someone that no one else thought of. Or, you might be eyeing a player only to see them be selected right before your turn to pick. It is a masculine emotional rollercoaster. Tears can’t be seen streaming, however, only insults.

Sure, you can drop, add, and trade players for the majority of the year. The draft though is where you establish the core of your team to set the tone for the season. The first couple of rounds are always the most exciting. That’s where you select the cream of the crop that will be the centerpieces for your team. On draft day, you can be optimistic and at least have a day or two to have a full team that you can have total faith in. Two days later, your top pick might get hurt in practice and be out for a few months or the whole season – considerably less fun than draft day.

Many leagues draft differently. Some have a physical big board with the names of draft picks that can be selected that are then removed once they are on a team. The leagues I am in always do a live online draft. That means that everyone has their own computer or even phone and can draft remotely. The remote option works great for leagues that have managers located all over the place. Even so, we always try to get as many people as possible together for the aforementioned insulting, ceremonial drinking of beer, and general camaraderie of it all.

To me, draft day is the most enjoyable part of any fantasy season. Well, unless you wind up winning the whole thing I suppose. Then payday and bragging are the best parts. Draft day is when you finally get to put all of your plans into motion and form the best, most competitive team you can. It is the kickoff to another fantasy season that will end in triumph or failure. Before any team has a win or a loss, it’s your big chance to say “My team would kick your team’s ass”, and really, that’s what it’s all about!

Fantasy Football Players to Draft/Avoid

The terrible sports month of July is coming to a close, signifying the approach of fantasy football season. To me, August seems to be the month to really start researching and preparing for the upcoming draft.

I participate in a PPR (points-per-reception) re-draft league, so my opinions are based on those parameters. I’ve had good years and I’ve had bad years, but here is my take on some players to snag early as well as some to let slide on your draft board:

 

Amari Cooper (WR): Draft

Hype has been building around Cooper for a while, with good reason. Watching Cooper tells you much of what you need to know. He has all the tools to be one of the elite receivers in the league. He also has one of the best up-and-coming quarterbacks in the league throwing to him. There is less risk here than choosing Todd Gurley or Lamar Miller, who are expected to go before him in Yahoo drafts.

Photo from raiderswire.usatoday.com

Jay Ajayi (RB): Avoid

Ajayi is on the hype train going into this fantasy season. He put up some impressive numbers last year and is positioned to go right around the end of the first round. I believe that the workload will be there, but he is too unproven to go that early. His numbers were inflated by three 200 yard rushing games. A very impressive feat, but one I’m not convinced that he can repeat. I wouldn’t let him slip too far, but a first-round pick is just too risky.

Rob Gronkowski (TE): Draft

Gronk’s fantasy and reality flaws are obvious; the guy can’t stay healthy. He is slated to go around the turn of the second and third rounds, but I wouldn’t be afraid to grab him midway through the second. Injury risk is huge here, but it’s hard to turn down a player with such massive upside early in the draft. There are a lot of mouths to feed in New England, but there is no doubt which one is Tom Brady’s favorite when healthy.

Photo from rollingstone.com

Marshawn Lynch (RB): Avoid

After seeing Lynch’s body sort of break down on him in 2015, forcing him into temporary retirement, it’s pretty tough to trust the 31-year-old running back. Expected to go around the third round of drafts, he’s a tough pill to swallow since he also has a bit of an unknown role. He could be an effective goal-line back, but he’s in a pass-heavy offense that also has a couple of young running backs that could be thrown in the mix. Lynch can be seen as a high risk/high reward, but his floor is pretty low at this time.

Mike Gillislee (RB): Draft

Draft boards already have Gillislee pretty high, going around the start of the third round. I’m not suggesting you move him any higher than that, but I am saying he should be worth the pick. He will replace Blount’s role, which already tells you that the guy is going to get touchdowns. He will of course have ups and downs in usage in NE, but the touchdowns should be enough to buoy solid value.

Photo from boston.cbsglobal.com

Sammy Watkins (WR): Avoid

Watkins has some years under his belt that show that he should be able to string together enough catches to have a 1000 yard receiving season if he can stay healthy. I just have a feeling that consistency will continue to plague Watkins. He is positioned to be drafted towards the end of the third round, but I see the names of multiple high-upside receivers not far behind him that you should hold out for.

Jeremy Maclin (WR): Draft

ESPN and Yahoo place Maclin at #100 and #99, respectively. To me, Mac has more left in the tank than he is getting credit for. Last season was a disappointment for Maclin in his Chiefs campaign. He claims that he was dealing with nagging groin strain issues, and after watching him all season, I believe him. A anticipate a healthy Maclin getting back to his efficient ways for the Ravens.

July – The Off-Season

Basketball has ended, football hasn’t started, and regular season baseball is pretty boring.

This is probably the roughest time of the year for myself and many others as sports fans. I am a much bigger NBA fan than many but, for me, the conclusion of the finals in June is bittersweet. It is fun to see an exciting conclusion, but that also means that there are about to be months of waiting for the next season. Luckily the Association crams in as much as they can into the off-season. We’ve seen the draft, a new awards show, summer league games, and a wild free-agency season. Packed as this is, it is still a far cry from when we get to see all those things culminate when the next season begins.

As for the NFL, the season is much shorter than the NBA, and there are far fewer games. This makes the break from football season even tougher than basketball. July is a time of limbo for the league. In the last few months, there has been enough going on in other sports to keep us distracted. In August, we are close enough to start researching for fantasy teams and deciding if buying the Sunday Ticket or Redzone package is worth it for the upcoming season. For now, though, we just have to wait.

Of course, though, we still have baseball. Oh, you boys of Summer. I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan and have been as long as I can remember. That doesn’t mean that I can sit down and watch 1 out of 162 regular season Cardinals games a year and stay interested for a full nine innings of play. Go to a game? Sure! But sitting through a broadcast is an exercise in self-loathing. The games and season as a whole are too long. I feel a bit of shame as a fan for feeling this way, but I know I’m not alone. Things pick up in the playoffs and I start paying much closer attention (a luxury I am often afforded as a fan of the redbirds). However, that’s back in the heart of the entertaining sports season this fall anyway.

We need SOMETHING in July to help hold us over. There isn’t even hockey on for me to try and get into. It would be nice if baseball was already winding down and the wild card race was heating up. Baseball, for better or for worse, is a game cemented in tradition. They firmly believe that October belongs to them, and rightfully so. Though almost no playoff baseball action can touch a regular-season Sunday slate of football games in my eyes.

We must be strong! Incredibly slowly but surely, the baseball playoff landscape is taking shape, young talent was just on display in the NBA Summer League, and NFL players are dutifully going through camps and workouts. We can get through another month of waiting because after that, it will be time for the magic to start again. Stay eager, my friends.

NBA 2016/17 Season Wrap-Up

The Warriors are the 2017 NBA Champs! I must say, anyone who didn’t see this inevitability coming wasn’t paying very close attention.

Kevin Durant going to a Golden State Warriors team that won 73 games a season ago was the biggest star going to the best team that I can remember in NBA history. It was a crazy move. Maybe Nike wanted Durant in the bay area to combat Stephen Curry’s massive Under Armor presence. Maybe KD really did just want to be on a team that shares the ball and has fun. No matter the reasoning, the outcome can’t be debated. The Warriors won the championship and Kevin Durant was the clear finals MVP. The rest of the league has been left scratching their heads trying to think of a way to rebuild or maintain a team that’ll be able to lose respectably next season.

As a confessing Thunder fan, I am a little mad. I fully understand that Durant has to make the decisions that are best for him and his family. However, from a competitive stance, this move seems a little cowardly on the surface. The Thunder had a good team with Durant. One that pushed those 73-win Warriors to the brink in the playoffs. After suffering a heartbreaking loss in that series, the last thing that should pop in the mind of a competitor should be “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. Again, I know he has to do what’s best for him. That’s what you expect for someone in any profession, and Durant is no exception. As a professional fan though, I just want for it to be known that I do not approve. I (reluctantly) digress…

Photo from sportingnews.com

Even if the ending was less than surprising, this season was a fun one in the association. This year’s most improved player, Giannis Antetokounmpo (which I just looked up to verify my spelling… nailed it!) was phenomenal. He led his team in points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks – a feat that has only been accomplished four times in NBA history. Kevin Durant himself is now on record as anticipating a league MVP honor in young Antetokounmpo’s future. Also, I think he is longer than my driveway. Draymond Green of Golden State was defensive player of the year, beating out two-way Spurs superstar Kawaii Leonard. Draymond locked it up with elite rim protection, vocal leadership, and restraint that we didn’t see in his groin-kicking campaign in 2015/16. Another Buck, Malcolm Brogdon was named as the NBA rookie of the year. Brogdon’s consistency and maturity beat out Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, who in only a 36 game sample size, showed us that he has what it takes to be a perennial all-star if he can stay healthy. The kid is scary; not to mention one of the most talented Twitter warriors I have ever seen.

The honor that really had my and everyone else’s attention though this year was the 2016/17 season MVP. We saw some of the most impressive individual seasons in recent memory. The aforementioned Kawaii Leonard took a massive step in his development, becoming a deadly outside shooter and overall scorer. He was already known for his crazy wingspan and perimeter defense, so the offensive leap thrust him straight into MVP consideration for the Spurs and their perpetual winning ways. We haven’t been able to have an MVP conversation since the 2003 draft without at least mentioning LeBron James. I mean, he averaged 26.4 points, 8.6 Rebounds, and 8.7 assists this season… and he was by most accounts the fourth option for MVP. Crazy.

The real battle for MVP was of course between former teammates James Harden from the Rockets and Russell Westbrook from my Thunder. One night, Westbrook would have a triple-double while scoring 40 points and you would think “This is it. This is our MVP.” The next thing you realize, Harden had racked up a few 50 point games in the meantime. Harden took over as point guard for the Rockets’ high-powered offense to fantastic effect. He averaged a league-leading 11.2 assists per game to go with 29.1 points per game, second only to Westbrook’s 31.6. However, when talking about averages, this is where Westbrook stepped into rare air this season. In addition to those points, he also averaged 10.4 assists, and 10.7 rebounds (at 6’4”!). That made him the only player besides Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple-double for a whole season. That undoubtedly helped separate Westbrook from the field, securing his first regular-season MVP honor.

A fun, crazy season that has set the stage for a fun, crazy one again next year. The Warriors are already heavy favorites to repeat, but challengers are already forming in free agency season. We could see clashes between super teams, rebuilding projects that will never make their way to the national spotlight, and challengers to Westbrook’s MVP throne. The draft, free agency, Summer League, and Olympic camps are great, but I am already anxious to see what next season holds.