Good morning and happy Thursday, friend! You're almost through the week and now you just need a little nudge to push you through the home stretch. I'm here to give you that nudge. You can do it.
If I look a little extra tired this morning it's probably because I've been grinding hours of "MLB The Show 21" over the past several days. I'm clearly enjoying it, but it's also definitely not perfect ... I wrote up some takeaways on the game yesterday in case you're on the fence.
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Don't worry, I'm not too tired to bring you the topics and info you should know this morning. I've never failed you, have I? (Don't answer that.) We're going to hit on NBA playoff narratives, a new rule for jerseys in the NFL, the PGA Tour's new $40 million incentive program and how new baseballs are affecting MLB trends this season.
Thanks for being here with me this morning. Now let's get to it.
📰 What you need to know
1. Who can rewrite their history this NBA season? 🏀
One of the greatest things about the playoffs, in any sport, is the opportunity that it provides for individuals or teams to rewrite a narrative. So often we see players face criticism for not being able to "take the next step" or "get it done when it matters most," even if they typically play well during the postseason. We also see teams get criticized for not being able to seal the deal, even if they come tantalizingly close to glory.
So, as we steadily approach the NBA playoffs, who's got a chance to shut up the critics and change the narrative? Our Bill Reiter highlighted some candidates that could finally break through and alter perception this year.
- Chris Paul: CP3 is one of the great point guards in NBA history but he's only made a single conference finals appearance over the course of his career. Now on a Suns team that has looked legit all year, this might be his best chance at winning a championship -- and a ring might cause everyone to look at his career through a different lens
- Doc Rivers: Yes, Doc already has a championship and he's one of the most well-respected coaches in the NBA ... but one title feels too few for all of the talented teams that he's coached throughout his career. Plus, he has three times coached a team that has blown a 3-1 playoff series lead ... and that has only happened 13 times in NBA history. He's at the helm of arguably the East's best team in the 76ers this year and a second ring would do his legacy a lot of good
- Celtics' leadership: Danny Ainge has been all about patience and a long-term vision in Boston ever since the infamous Brooklyn Nets trade that set Boston up for a new era. But Ainge (and Brad Stevens) have yet to take the Celtics to the next tier and patience is starting to run thin now that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are turning into stars. If they can go all the way, it'll provide a reset (and plenty of job security) for those two
Reiter has a bunch more nominations here. That list includes the Clippers because ... well, duh. The Clippers might be more desperate to win something than any other team in sports, especially after last year's collapse. Surprisingly, his list does NOT include the Knicks, who have somehow become the darlings of the NBA over the past month (they reached eight straight wins behind Julius Randle's 40 points last night.)
In a normal NBA postseason, I feel like there are only a handful of teams that have a realistic shot at winning a title. You tend to have a pretty good idea of who's going to be playing for the 'ship at the end of it all. This year though? There's been so much unpredictability and chaos during this weird season, and it feels like that has opened things up a bit as we head into the playoffs. That might be good news for a lot of the players/teams on Reiter's list.
2. NFL passes new jersey number rules 🏈
The NFL has done a good job of tricking our brains into believing that players should only be allowed to wear certain numbers based on the position they play. It's a weird thing that doesn't really apply in any of the other major sports, and it doesn't even apply to football at the college level. You ever watch a college game and see a running back wearing a single-digit number or a kicker wearing a number in the 80s or 90s and feel a bit thrown off?
Well, tell your brain to get used to it ... because the NFL is making some big changes to those rigid jersey number restrictions.
- The NFL's competition committee voted to pass a proposal (made by the Kansas City Chiefs) to significantly loosen number restrictions
- Almost all skill players will now be allowed to wear single-digit numbers
- The rules will go into effect for this upcoming season. If a player wishes to switch his number ahead of this season, he will be required to buy out the existing inventory of his previous jersey from official distributors. If they wait until 2022, switching numbers will cost nothing
Here's a complete breakdown of which numbers will be allowed for which positions:
- QB: 1-19
- RB/WR/TE: 1-49, 80-89
- OL: 50-79
- DL: 50-79, 90-99
- LB: 1-59, 90-99
- CB/S: 1-49
- K/P: 1-19
Seeing tight ends and linebackers wearing single-digit numbers will take a bit to get used to, but I'm sure the news is being welcomed by many players who weren't previously able to wear the number they desired. Also, sorry to all the offensive linemen out there who were hoping to wear sexier numbers, but referees still need to be able to easily spot ineligible receivers downfield.
In other NFL rule change news, the league also tweaked a rule to help increase the chances of teams recovering onside kicks. I say this is good news because onside kick success rates have plummeted and that's a bummer because a successful onside kick is one of the most electric plays in football.
3. PGA Tour adds exposure bonuses for star golfers 🏌
The PGA Tour is taking some strides to make sure that its top stars feel a little extra love ... and weight in the wallet. It was reported yesterday that the Tour has put in place a bonus plan that will compensate 10 golfers based on impact and exposure metrics rather than their performance on the course.
- The PGA Tour's Player Impact Program is "designed to compensate players who are judged to drive fan and sponsor engagement, like Tiger Woods, Bryson DeChambeau and Rickie Fowler"
- A $40 million bonus pool has been established to compensate the top 10 players determined to be the biggest draws for the PGA
- The program went into action on January 1 of this year
- Our Kyle Porter: "The algorithm used to presumably rank the players will include popularity in Google Search, Nielsen Brand Exposure ratings (how often they are on TV during tournaments), Q Ratings (how well-known they are to the general public), MVP Index ratings (social media engagement) and Meltwater Mentions (how often they are covered by the media)"
Porter also listed his thoughts and takeaways about the Impact Program and what it means moving forward.
As for why the PGA would establish this program, it likely has a lot to do with the idea of keeping star golfers from breaking away to seek bigger paydays elsewhere -- like in one-off events or, say, the long-rumored Premier Golf League. The PGL business plan includes offering significant guaranteed money to top-drawing players, which might be tempting over a system like the PGA where you earn based on performance.
But one of the bigger questions that needs to be answered about this PGA program: How do you separate good publicity and negative publicity when it comes to these metrics? As Porter brings up: "Is Tiger Woods going to get paid a bonus because folks were Googling his name based on a car accident instead of playing golf, even if he doesn't step foot on a course for 12 months or ever again?" If all engagement and exposure counts the same in these rankings, then we might be seeing guys get creative to seek attention, for better or for worse.
In which case, this seems like a good excuse for John Daly to consider a comeback.
4. Are MLB baseballs dead again? ⚾
The integrity of game-used MLB baseballs have been heavily discussed over the last several years. First we had the "dead balls" hurting power numbers and then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, we had the "juiced balls" spiking the power numbers. Now, we may have reached a new ball era.
Ahead of this season, MLB made efforts to deaden the baseballs in order to bring home run numbers back down a bit. The early season trends suggest that power numbers have dropped slightly, but they also suggest the ball may be responsible for lower contact and strikeout rates.
Here's a little context for how that might work, courtesy of our Mike Axisa and his column about early season trends:
- Axisa: "Spin rates are up across baseball and pitch movement is up across baseball as well. Velocity is up too. There are indications the new baseball, which was intended to suppress home runs, has exacerbated the league's strikeout problem. Several pitchers said the new ball is easier to grip in spring training, and a better grip ostensibly equals more spin and more movement."
The balls are designed to be less bouncy off the bat, but Blake Snell also said he thinks thicker laces have hurt ball carry and allowed for more effective breaking balls. As it stands, this is on pace to go down as the most swing-and-miss and strikeout-heavy season in history, which doesn't really seem like a great thing for trying to grow the game.
📝 Odds & Ends
- Olympic athletes will face bans if they take a knee or protest in Tokyo
- Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner said the NHL forced players to get the COVID vaccine and then lied about loosening restrictions
- Rockets player Kevin Porter Jr. violated the NBA's COVID health and safety protocols by making a trip to a strip club
📺 What to watch today
🏒 Hurricanes vs. Panthers, 7 p.m. | FLA -105 | TV: ESPN+
⚾ Angels vs. Astros, 8:10 p.m. | HOU -125 | TV: YouTube
🏀 Lakers vs. Mavericks, 9:30 p.m. | DAL -2 | TV: TNT