Jim Alexander: Well, I was going to make the suggestion that by rounding up his fellow superstars to play in the Paris Olympics, LeBron James was creating the plot for “Space Jam 3” before our very eyes. But the NBA made other news this week, aimed specifically at load management – and aimed particularly at the Clippers, almost certainly.
By setting up a system of fines for teams that allow a designated list of stars to sit out games, this is the league’s response to the trend that Kawhi Leonard began. (He did so in Toronto, by the way, before coming to the Clippers. And, yes, the rules were massaged enough to make sure Kawhi was on the list of players affected. But LeBron somehow escaped that list, because of his advanced age.)
What do we make of all of this, beyond that the league has become full circle? Back in the day, NBA commissioner David Stern slapped Lakers coach Pat Riley with a fine for sitting out his stars in a meaningless end-of-season game. Now it’s going to be league policy, and the fines are larger and directed higher up in the organization. What’s next, docking teams’ draft picks?
Mirjam Swanson: With apologies to USC cornerback Ceyair Wright, who co-starred in “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” that movie wasn’t very good. I think a “Redeem Team” sequel would draw better reviews.
As far as the NBA’s new “resting” policies, I’ll push back a bit and suggest it’s not directly aimed at the Clippers alone. Look, as a beat writer covering that team, I didn’t love having to wait with bated breath for the injury report before every game to find out whether their stars were in or out, no. But in fairness, stars missing time is an NBA problem.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George played 52 and 56 games last season, right? Damian Lillard played 58, Steph Curry 56, Devin Booker 53, Kevin Durant 47. Anthony Davis played 56.
And that is a problem for the league – but not because a dedicated fan might spend his or her hard-earned money to take the family to a game specifically to watch Kawhi or Dame or A.D. play.
It’s because gamblers need to know what they’re betting on.
That was the most telling section of ESPN’s report summarizing the new rules: “There is also a transparency factor as it relates to gambling. Per sources, the NBA is projected to receive $167 million in revenue from casinos and betting, an 11% increase from last season.”
Now, I don’t know how truly transparent that is, considering the relatively paltry $167 million mentioned – as my friend and Clippers podcaster Chuck Mockler pointed out: “Steph’s total guaranteed money for the rest of his contract is $167M.”
I think, though, that that’s why the league is going to do whatever it can – fines and, sure, maybe even draft picks at some point? – to incentivize teams to put their stars on the court, for better or worse.
Jim: I wonder if another factor is the new in-season tournament – which I am not enamored with, and we’ll discuss that in a future Audible – and the desire to make sure the stars suit up for all of those games. I do think we will have some truly inventive injury reporting going forward.
Next question: You saw the Dodgers last night, and two bad pitches from Ryan Pepiot that spoiled an otherwise decent outing. They’re going to rely a lot on young pitchers in October, as well as trying to get as much as they can out of Clayton Kershaw. Is this another recipe for postseason disaster?
Mirjam: Not necessarily! Baseball is trending toward matchup-hunting and outs-by-committee, whether purists dig it or not. But also: Baseball remains unpredictable. Short hops and long shots and the truism that the best teams don’t always win, the teams that play the best do. See: 2022. So, sure, there’s a world where the young guys, not knowing what they don’t know, shine in their big exhilarating moments AND the Dodgers’ bats don’t go cold.
There’s also a world where the young guys are understandably and absolutely overwhelmed by the moment and even if the Dodgers’ hitters do their thing, it isn’t enough. Or maybe it’s another all-around unmitigated postseason disaster?
But it’s baseball, and the potential for chaos – even in its ever-more-calculated existence – is part of why I love it.
Jim: I just looked this up. In Kershaw’s first postseason start, Game 2 of the 2009 National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium, he posted a quality start: 6⅔ innings, nine hits, two earned runs, four strikeouts. He didn’t get the decision but the Dodgers got the win en route to a sweep. He’d pitched twice in relief the previous year in the NLCS against the Phillies, so the environment wasn’t totally new to him. (Then again, in his second postseason start in the 2009 NLCS, again at home in Game 1, the Phillies knocked him around for five runs in 4⅔ innings.)
The point: October baseball is way different. It’s louder – and I’m curious to see how many PitchCom issues arise in the playoff environment – and it’s more stressful. Asking rookies to navigate that is risky, especially on the road in places like Philadelphia and Atlanta.
That said, postseason games will come down to bullpen matchups. And as great as Dave Roberts has been as a regular-season manager, there will always be skepticism about his ability to effectively utilize his bullpen because of Octobers past. (A reminder: The 2020 World Series title was clinched because the other manager, Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash, made the mistake of pulling his starter early in the decisive Game 6 – a guy named Blake Snell.)
The alternative is that the Dodgers’ lineup outslugs its opposition every night. As dynamic as Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman have been at the top of the lineup, and as effective as the platoon has been farther down, there’s no way you can bank on that against playoff-caliber pitching.
Mirjam: If I were one of the sports gamblers the NBA is looking to attract, and I’m not, I wouldn’t bet my lunch money on the Dodgers.
But I’m not counting them out, either.
Jim: Last topic of the day: What to make of the Rams and Chargers going forward?
The first week is always fodder for overreaction, and the Chargers’ defense provided plenty of reasons to overreact, basically serving as pylons for Tua Tagovailoa’s passing performance. Trust me, it was even uglier than it looked, and Brandon Staley is already on the hot seat; the BetOnline.ag line for the first coach fired moved Staley up to 5-1 odds, second only to Washington’s Ron Rivera at 3-1. Not scientific at all, of course, but the pressure’s squarely on.
(Sudden thought: There were A.I. robots in the stands Sunday, part of a movie promotion. Do we know for sure that none of those robots wound up in uniform and in the Chargers’ secondary?)
As for the Rams? Common wisdom again takes a beating. There were a couple of predictions in training camp that they might sneak into the playoffs at 9-8, and those look good right now. Again, there are a lot of young guys in key spots, and this might be another case of not knowing what they don’t know – stole that from you, so thanks – and just going out and playing.
This week’s tests are sterner: Chargers at Tennessee, Rams at home against the rival San Francisco 49ers with the probability of a lot of red in the SoFi stands. For what it’s worth, as of Thursday morning StubHub is offering seats in the 500 level at $166 and up.
Mirjam: Ha! The Chargers playing defense like they were A.I. I love it.
The Chargers’ defense was hugely worrisome. I wasn’t in the building, but even watching at home, it was clear how little resistance they were putting up. Bending and breaking. I have faith Justin Herbert will put some points on the board, but he needs some sort of defense to complement him and as porous as they were last weekend, it’s hard to imagine them cleaning it up overnight (or by this Sunday).
As for the Rams, well, wow! Love the unexpected – and if they can carry that over and surprise almost everyone (save for those who gave us 9-8 prognostications maybe), they’ll be a great story.
But I’m not holding my breath. Week 1 is Week 1. If they pull off another victory this weekend against the 49ers, l – well, most of us – will really have to reexamine our expectations. But I still have my doubts about a young squad minus, for a while, Cooper Kupp.
And if they do pull it off again, I’ll be back to own it here in next week’s Audible!
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