By: Jeffrey Newholm
“And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man, and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.” (Revelation 13:16-18, KJV).”
While American society loves to have a good laugh at those who foolishly try to predict judgment day based on ephemeral “bible codes”, the mark of the beast, 666, is certainly nothing to laugh at. But in sports, a 2/3 winning percentage is probably something to be celebrated, not feared. This would equate to over 100 wins in Major League Baseball, and a healthy 10 or 11 wins in pro football, most likely good enough for a division title. But in both baseball and women’s pro hoops today, a different number seems to be a specter haunting the league and sapping all the drama and imagination out of the regular season: 500. The old frustrating adage worn thin by a time an athlete reaches the pros, “win some lose some” has been taken to a literal extreme in the WNBA, with 8 out of 12 teams separated by two and a half games in the standings. The Lynx and Sparks are lapping everyone again, and essentially have both playoff double byes wrapped up already. The Stars and Sky, unfortunately for those two franchises, have little function other than comedic relief, having combined for only four wins. That leaves the rest of the Association a boring homogenous mess. While some may say this is a brilliant emulation of the NFL’s ideal “any given Sunday” model of parity, I fear this makes an already struggling league even less newsworthy. And the parent NBA would be well advised to pay attention, lest the canary warning of the women’s league attracts the attention of the reader.
To illustrate how serious an even distribution of talent is, consider the current state of baseball. A whopping 13 teams are within six games of .500, giving home fans little to cheer about, or even groan-the Cubs cult “loveable loser” following allowed the team to be successful financially for many years, to the point management made little effort to field a competitive team. (A perhaps more secular answer than supposed curses of goats and mischievous fans). With the Cubs right back to mediocrity, baseball has a dearth of notable storylines this year. In addition, games are lasting longer with, paradoxically, less going on during the games, with a record amount of “true outcomes” of home runs, strikeouts, and walks. All fans love a winner, of course, but mostly for one of two reasons: 1) they win often enough and with enough flair to inspire players everywhere or 2)they were bad for long enough that the turnaround was impressive, and clearly demonstrated a lot of hard work. To make matters even worse, the MLB playoffs tend to be a crapshoot, meaning one of these .500 teams could actually walk away with the commissioner’s trophy. This is a situation that requires some serious correction by upper management, and certainly not with shortcuts such as allegedly juiced baseballs.
Meanwhile, the NBA is in a somewhat similar predicament. The Warriors have accumulated so much talent that the other 29 teams seem equally mediocre by comparison. With Kevin Durant now on the team, it’s even gotten to the choice between tanking to play the draft lottery and taking a shot at the playoffs is moot: there aren’t any “white knights” coming out of the draft to make a terrible team good overnight, and there doesn’t appear to be any team in the West that has the talent and matches up well enough to beat the Dubs. I personally don’t think blowing up the playoff format in the way done by the women would solve the problem in a meaningful way. Since the NBA is a longstanding, successful enterprise, thankfully it should be just a matter of short time before a third team, such as the Spurs or Celtics, rises to the top and makes things interesting again. But the WNBA, a more fledgling operation, is in a bit of a tougher spot. So I’d like to see of one two things happen in the years to come.
- Middle of the pack team seriously competes for double-bye.
As I’ve mentioned previously, the Mystics seem to be in the process of becoming such a team (although losing a 17 point lead and a tiebreaker to the Sparks earlier this year certainly didn’t help). Other candidates include the Mercury (so long as there’s a clear succession plan for the impending retirement of Diana Taurasi) and the Storm, who struck gold with the selection of Breanna Stewart in the draft last year and seem to have a competent roadmap to improve.
- Bad team turns ship around
Americans love a rags to riches story, and the Lynx provided one just a few years ago when the selection of Maya Moore turned a lottery team into a champion in just one year. Of course, part of the problem is there are only two genuinely bad teams to choose from. In my opinion, the Stars are pretty much an irredeemable mess, but I appreciate the passion of Sky principal owner Michael Alter and think that his team, with some smart draft picks, can eventually turn into a strong team. While the team certainly has slumped after trading star Elena Delle Donne for Stefanie Dolson, from what I’ve seen this year, Dolson has taken it upon herself to lead the team through a tough campaign to better years ahead. And this, I think, is the formula for long-term success step by step, little by little, rather than a big free agent splurge (a model that didn’t fulfill on its promises for the Cubs or the Celtics from a few years past).
If the beast were to place a curse on a league, it would be curse of mediocrity-a world where everyone was the same would be very dull, and a league where every team was equally talented would defeat the purpose of competition, which is the progression from an undeveloped to a developed state for an individual athlete or bonded group of them. So as the book of time slowly leafs from 2016 to 2017, and soon to 2018, I hope more excellent teams grace its pages, lest the sports we love so much come to pass without meaningful comment.