Jul 31, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Good morning! The NBA, MLB, MLS and WNBA all play games today, and the NHL joins them tomorrow. Sports are back!

Today's word count: 1,881 words (7 minutes).

1 big thing: 🏒 The NHL returns tomorrow
Table: Axios Visuals

The NHL's race to the Stanley Cup begins tomorrow, with 24 teams split between two bubbles — one centered around the Toronto Maple Leafs' Scotiabank Arena, the other around the Edmonton Oilers' Rogers Place.

  • Once they reach the conference finals, the two remaining East teams will travel to Edmonton, where their families will be able to join them.

Format: To whittle the field down to 16, the first nine days will look a little different than what you're used to.

  • Round robin: The top four seeds in each conference will play a three-game round robin to determine seeding.
  • Qualifying round: Nos. 5–12 in each conference will play a best-of-five series to narrow the field to 16 teams.
  • Playoffs: A four-round postseason, with every series a best-of-seven. Teams will be reseeded after each round, instead of using the traditional bracket.
East

Round robin: No. 1 Boston Bruins, No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning, No. 3 Washington Capitals, No. 4 Philadelphia Flyers.

  • Championship odds: The Bruins (12.2%) and Lightning (12.1%) have the best shot at winning it all, per FiveThirtyEight.

Qualifying round:

  • No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
  • No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers
  • No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers
  • No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets
West

Round robin: No. 1 St. Louis Blues, No. 2 Colorado Avalanche, No. 3 Vegas Golden Knights, No. 4 Dallas Stars.

  • Championship odds: The Avalanche (12.0%) and Blues (8.7%) have the best shot at winning it all, per FiveThirtyEight.

Qualifying round:

  • No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks
  • No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes
  • No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild
  • No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets
Players to watch
  • Leon Draisatl (Oilers): The presumptive favorite for the Hart Trophy (MVP) leads the league in points (13 ahead of teammate Connor McDavid), and he gets to play on his home ice for as long as the Oilers stay alive.
  • Vladimir Tarasenko (Blues): Injuries limited the two-time All-Star to just 10 games, yet the Blues still had the West's best record. Now he's healthy and ready for a deep run.
  • Patrick Marleau (Penguins): The 40-year-old doesn't stuff the stat sheet anymore, but he's still more than just the old guy out for one last hurrah. He's never won the Cup, and this could be his last best shot.

Go deeper:

2. 🏀 Jazz, Lakers win openers; Six games today

The Lakers and Clippers lock arms and kneel during the national anthem prior to their first game back. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The NBA returned to action last night, and as with the rest of the bubble thus far, everything went pretty flawlessly.

  • Before each game, players from both teams locked arms and knelt in solidarity during the national anthem.
  • Both games were decided by a single basket, the Pelicans and Clippers each barely missed a would-be, game-winning three and the broadcast looked and sounded, well, like an NBA broadcast. Top marks all around.

Last night:

  • Jazz 106, Pelicans 104: Rudy Gobert's positive test on March 11 shut down sports, so it's only fitting he scored the first NBA points in nearly five months, leading Utah with 14 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and the game-winning free throws with 6.9 seconds left.
  • Lakers 103, Clippers 101: Anthony Davis scored 34 points and LeBron James scored the game-winning basket with 12.8 seconds left before locking down both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to seal the win. That'll do.

Today:

  • Game 1: Magic vs. Nets (2:30pm ET)
  • Game 2: Grizzlies vs. Trail Blazers (4pm, NBA TV)
  • Game 3: Suns vs. Wizards (4pm)
  • Game 4: Celtics vs. Bucks (6:30pm, ESPN)
  • Game 5: Kings vs. Spurs (8pm)
  • Game 6: Rockets vs. Mavericks (9pm, ESPN)

The NBA is back. Missed you...

LeBron throwing down. Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
3. ⚾️ Exploring MLB's extra innings rule

Rays CF Kevin Kiermaier lays down a bunt. Photo: Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Extra innings in 2020 will begin with a man on second base — a temporary rule adopted by MLB to speed up games in this sprint of a season.

Why it matters: Some people hate the rule, but at the end of the day it leads to quicker games and more nuanced strategy.

  • "It forces me to manage," a minor league manager who's played under these rules since 2018 told The Athletic's Jayson Stark (subscription).

The state of play: So far, the rule has worked, with six of the eight (75%) extra inning games ending in the 10th. From 2012 to 2017, that number was just 43.7%.

The big picture: The rule's existence is one thing, but the strategies employed within are something else entirely. Most notably, should teams bunt the runner to third or swing away and try for a big inning?

  • Argument for bunting: From 2015 to 2019, with a runner on second and nobody out, at least one run scored 61% of the time, per WSJ's Jared Diamond (subscription). With a man on third and one out, that probability climbed to 65%. Translation: get the runner to third however you can.
  • Argument against: Bunting is more difficult than it looks, and "relatively few players even practice [it] anymore." Plus, why give up an out when, with the right batter at the plate, you've got a 30% chance of knocking him in with a base hit? Billy Beane would never.
  • Worth noting: Just one team (the Royals) has used the sacrifice bunt in this situation so far, with a speedster on second and an inexperienced batter at the plate — a prime situation to dust off the old-school tactic.

The bottom line: The new extra innings rule may or may not exist after 2020, but the data collected from it will almost certainly inform future strategy. In a 60-game lab experiment of a season, that's about all you can ask for.

P.S. … The Padres used the 'swing away' approach in last night's game against the Giants, scoring six runs in the 10th inning of an eventual 12-7 victory.

4. ⚡️ Catch up quick
Ashleigh Barty celebrates winning the 2019 French Open. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images
  • 🎾 WTA: 24-year-old Australian Ashleigh Barty, the No. 1 player in the world, will not play in next month's U.S. Open due to concerns over traveling during the pandemic. The top-ranked player hasn't missed the U.S. Open since 2010 (Serena Williams, foot injury).
  • ⚾️ MLB: Two Phillies staff members tested positive Thursday, forcing the team to cancel all activity "until further notice." Their weekend series against the Blue Jays is postponed, but the league and union have agreed to stage seven-inning doubleheaders to help fit in make-up games this summer.
Philadelphia forward Sergio Santos puts his team up 2-0 on Sporting KC. Photo: Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
  • ⚽️ MLS: Philadelphia punched the first ticket to the MLS is Back Tournament semifinals, beating Sporting KC, 3-1, behind two goals from Sergio Santos. Coming up tonight: Orlando vs. LAFC (7:30pm ET, FS1).
  • 🏈 CFB: The SEC will hold a 10-game, conference only schedule beginning Sep. 26, joining the Big Ten and Pac-12 as Power Five conferences to make the same decision. The ACC shrewdly included the independent Notre Dame in its schedule, along with an open-ended game to allow for flexibility. The Big 12 won't announce its decision until Monday.
  • 🏒 NHL: The Blackhawks have banned fans from wearing Native American headdresses at future home games. "These symbols are sacred, traditionally reserved for leaders who have earned a place of great respect in their tribe, and should not be generalized or used as a costume," the team said.
5. 🏀 Ranking the NBA's all-time rosters (No. 3)
Expand chart
Player data: Basketball Reference; Graphic: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

We're ranking the all-time rosters for all 30 NBA teams. Note: Rosters and stats based only on time spent with this specific team. Thoughts? Email me at jeff@axios.com.

3. San Antonio Spurs

Spurs in the Tim Duncan Era — 19 years, 19 playoff appearances, nine conference finals, five NBA Championships and a .709 winning percentage. The Belichick-Brady partnership might be unmatched across all sports, but Popovich and Duncan aren't far behind.

  • Year established: 1967 (as the Dallas Chaparrals)
  • All-time record: 2,567-1,718 (.599)
  • NBA Championships: 5
  • Hall of Famers (indicated by *): 3

Starters:

  • Tony Parker, G (15.8 pts, 2.8 reb, 5.7 ast, 18.3 PER/110.4 WS)
  • George Gervin*, G (26.3 pts, 5.4 reb, 2.8 ast, 21.8 PER/107.4 WS)
  • Kawhi Leonard, F (16.3 pts, 6.2 reb, 2.3 ast, 22.1 PER/56.3 WS)
  • Tim Duncan*, F (19.0 pts, 10.8 reb, 3.0 ast, 24.2 PER/206.4 WS)
  • David Robinson*, C (21.1 pts, 10.6 reb, 2.5 ast, 26.2 PER/178.7 WS)

Sixth man: Manu Ginóbili, G (13.3 pts, 3.5 reb, 3.8 ast, 20.2 PER/106.4 WS)

Bench:

  • Larry Kenon, F (20.7 pts, 10.3 reb, 3.0 ast, 18.5 PER/37.4 WS)
  • James Silas, G (16.7 pts, 3.2 reb, 3.9 ast, 17.1 PER/57.9 WS)
  • Avery Johnson, G (10.1 pts, 2.0 reb, 6.9 ast, 14.8 PER/47.3 WS)
  • Bruce Bowen, F (6.4 pts, 3.0 reb, 1.3 ast, 8.1 PER/35.3 WS)
  • Sean Elliott, F (14.4 pts, 4.4 reb, 2.5 ast, 14.2 PER/54.3 WS)
  • Alvin Robertson, G (16.2 pts, 5.4 reb, 5.4 ast, 18.2 PER/27.2 WS)

Notes:

  • Duncan is seventh in rebounds (15,091), sixth in blocks (3,020) and is one of five players with at least three Finals MVPs.
  • Robinson is seventh in blocks (2,954) and fourth in blocks per game (2.99). He's also one of six players with a 70-point game.

ICYMI ... 30. Grizzlies, 29. Timberwolves, 28. Hornets, 27. Raptors, 26. Pelicans, 25. Pacers, 24. Clippers, 23. Mavericks, 22. Nets, 21. Cavaliers, 20. Bucks, 19. Hawks, 18. Wizards, 17. Suns, 16. Kings, 15. Magic, 14. Nuggets, 13. Trail Blazers, 12. Rockets, 11. Knicks, 10. Thunder, 9. Jazz, 8. Heat, 7. Pistons, 6. Bulls, 5. 76ers, 4. Warriors

Stats, explained: Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a measure of a player's per-minute productivity (20+ is elite); Win Shares (WS) attempts to divvy up individual credit for team success (6 per season is elite).

6. July 31, 2012: 🥇 Phelps makes history

Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Eight years ago today, Michael Phelps became the winningest Olympian in history with his 19th medal — a gold in the 4x200 meter freestyle relay at the 2012 London Games.

By the numbers: Phelps would go on to win nine more medals across the rest of the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

  • His 28 total medals are 10 more than second place (former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina).
  • His 23 golds are 14 more than second place (four-way tie between Latynina, Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi, American swimmer Mark Spitz and American sprinter Carl Lewis).
"I feel most at home in the water. I disappear. That's where I belong."
— Michael Phelps

🎥 Watch his record-breaking swim (YouTube)

7. 📚 Good reads

Erling Haaland celebrating a goal. Photo: Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images

⚽️ Fathers, sons and soccer: Reflections on the family business (Rory Smith, NYT)

"In interviews with both generations of the Reyna, Haaland and Thuram families, it is clear ... that becoming the father of a top player, rather than being the son of one, is considerably easier."

🏀Satou Sabally captures WNBA with her game and her voice (Dorothy Gentry, The Athletic)

"A German basketball player and an athletic unicorn plying their craft in the Dallas area. No, we're not talking about the NBA's all-time sixth-leading scorer Dirk Nowitzki. Nor 7'3 Mavericks star Kristaps Porzingis. The new unicorn in town is Satou Sabally."

🏈 Will coronavirus dim the Friday Night Lights of Texas high school football? (Molly Hennessy-Fiske, LA Times)

"As Hall of Fame Cowboy's Coach Tom Landry said, 'Football is to Texas what religion is to a priest,' and nothing is as revered as the high school version made famous by 'Friday Night Lights.'"
8. The Ocho: 🤸🏻‍♂️ Backyard pole vaulting
Source: Red Bull (YouTube)

Armand "Mondo" Duplantis, the current world record holder in the pole vault, built a backyard training ground to stay sharp ahead of next year's Olympics.

🎥 Watch:

9. 🏒 NHL trivia
Giphy

In the last decade, just five men have played 600+ games with at least 1.00 points per game, and Steven Stamkos is the only one who hasn't won a Stanley Cup.

  • Question: Who are the other four?
  • Hint: One American, one Canadian and two Russians.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ❤️ Why we love sports

Fran Tarkenton. Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Shirley R. (South Dakota native) writes:

"In December 1974, my senior year in high school, my best friend's dad gave us two tickets to see our beloved Minnesota Vikings. Our parents even let us drive the 300 miles from our small town in South Dakota all on our own. 
"We had it all planned out — take the day off from school, drive to the South Dakota/Minnesota border to stay with a friend Friday night, head to Minneapolis for the rare Saturday afternoon game and then stay in a pre-booked hotel Saturday night before heading home on Sunday.
"But our best laid plans fell apart when we arrived at our friend's house to find there had been a death in the family that day, so we decided to take a chance and drive on to Minneapolis, hoping our Saturday hotel might have a room for us on Friday night. 
"After several calls and conversations by the front desk staff, they eventually let us check into a room. As we got settled, we quickly realized we were the only guests at the hotel that weren't members of the Vikings!  
"We wished coach Bud Grant good luck. We wandered the halls and found the Purple People Eaters — Carl Eller, Alan Page, Paul Krause and the rest — playing cards. We ate breakfast the next morning with Fran Tarkenton.
"I remember it was cold, and that the Vikings beat the Falcons. I remember battling a snow storm on the way home the next day, and that a month later the Vikings went to the Super Bowl, only to lose to the Steelers.
"But mostly I remember not being able to believe that two teenage girls who loved to cheer on the Vikings from their living rooms in Aberdeen, South Dakota, got to make those memories together!"

✍️ Submit your story: Do you have a fondest sports memory? Or a story about sports having a positive impact on your life? To share, simply reply to this email. We'll be telling your stories until they run out.

Kendall Baker

Have a great weekend,

Jeff "This is everything" Tracy

Trivia answer: Sidney Crosby (CAN), Patrick Kane (USA), Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin (RUS)