The NBA All-Star break is always a good time to pause and take stock of the sports world for me. There are obviously no NBA games, it’s the football offseason, baseball hasn’t started yet, and I don’t really pay attention to college hoops until conference tourney time. (And I don’t follow hockey.)
This week, I have been thinking about the state of Valley sports. And here’s the thought that kept coming to mind:
Man, it’s a rough time to be a Valley sports fan.
It might not seem like it at first blush. The Suns (and Mercury) are legit championship contenders, and the Cardinals just made the playoffs for the first time in half a decade. But not everything is rosy with those teams, and things get ugly quick when you look at the rest of the Valley’s teams. Let’s take a quick look at each, starting with my alma mater.
ASU Football and Basketball
Both of these programs have been massive disappointments of late—which is pretty much far for the course for ASU athletics. ASU theoretically has the location, resources, and amenities to be a top-tier athletic program, but the football team hasn’t really been relevant nationally since the ‘90s, and the basketball team has never been nationally relevant in my lifetime.
Don’t look for that to change anytime soon. ASU is mired in a recruiting scandal that happened right under Herm Edwards’s nose. How he still has a job after seeing almost all of his assistants resign or get fired (plus losing countless key players to the transfer portal, including QB Jayden Daniels) is beyond me. Ditto AD Ray Anderson. With a regime change likely and NCAA penalties almost certainly forthcoming, this team looks like it will be languishing in the Pac-12 basement for the next several years.
The basketball team showed a whiff of promise early on in Bobby Hurley’s tenure—so much so that he was a constant presence in coaching carousel rumors for a couple years. At one point, it was thought that Duke was interested in him taking over for Coach K. He took the team to the tournament two years in a row and was looking likely for a third when COVID hit. Then the wheels fell off last season despite a strong recruiting class, and this season is another lost one. Hurley will enter next season on the hot seat if he doesn’t bolt elsewhere after the season. Not to mention the fact that That Team Down South is back to top-5 status much earlier than anticipated.
D-backs and ‘Yotes
I’m going to lump these two basement dwellers together for obvious reasons, as they’re both firmly in rebuilding mode. The D-backs have followed a similar trajectory to ASU basketball in recent years, with a few seasons of success seemingly undone by the pandemic. They were above .500 for three successive years, including an NLDS appearance in 2017, before bottoming out the past two years (and nearly setting a franchise record for losses with 110 last season). I firmly believe in manager Torey Luvullo and GM Mike Hazen, and the farm system is loaded with promise, but it’s tough to compete with the likes of the Dodgers and Giants year in, year out. Another last-place finish seems likely.
I’ll freely admit to being a Coyotes bandwagon fan. Hockey just isn’t my sport, but I’ll support the local team if they’re any good. I remember watching a good chunk of their Western Conference Finals fun about 10 years ago behind Mike Smith in goal. But the franchise hasn’t been relevant at all since then, and is always rumored to be leaving Phoenix. Now they’re in last place in the *checks notes* Central Division(?) after selling off most of their assets last season for draft picks. Maybe I’ll give them another shot if they win the #1 pick this year and actually move to Tempe.
Suns and Mercury
At least this is *mostly* good news. The Suns entered the All-Star break with the best record in the league and were the favorite for their first NBA title. The offense and defense were both humming along with CP3, Book, Bridges, DA, and the gang. But this franchise is cursed, of course, and now CP3 is out 6-8 weeks with a thumb injury. Like I’ve been saying, this is a rough time to be a PHX sports fan. Can the Valley boys (sorry, boyz) hold onto the #1 seed while the Point God is out? Can he quickly get back into MVP form when he returns to guide this team through the Western Conference playoffs? The mental well-being of an entire city might be riding on that.
The Mercs are another bright spot in these dark days in the desert. They’re coming off a heartbreaking WNBA Finals loss, but have reloaded impressively, including bringing future HOFer Tina Charles on board, forming one of the WNBA’s first superteams. But the true PHX sports GOAT Diana Taurasi (sorry Fitz fans, but count the rings) is in the twilight of her career, and their new head coach is one year removed from coaching at a high school. We’ll see how it all comes together. (This is way more words than anyone was expecting to read about women’s basketball on a football site, I’ll grant you that.)
That brings us to the Redbirds. This roster is the most talented it has been in years, but for many, the 11-6 record follow by getting blown out in the first round of the playoffs feels like a failure of a season. The loss to the Rams left an incredibly bitter taste in fans’ mouths, and now the offseason is off to a concerning start. There don’t appear to be any major staffing changes coming—again—and then there’s been all the nonsense with Kyler Murray and his social media. Even the most ardent Kyler supporters have to be questioning his maturity and leadership credentials by now.
Personally, I don’t have much confidence that things will be better next season. You have to wonder if the Keim/Kingsbury/Kyler trio has reached their ceiling. Competitive and entertaining, yes, but not really a true Super Bowl contender. Keim has made several shrewd trades over the years, but he hasn’t been able to build reliable depth and has a very spotty draft record. Kingsbury just hasn’t shown he sustain his fast starts—in season adjustments just aren’t his strength, especially when guys get hurt. And Kyler has the stats and personal accolades, but there are questions about his demeanor and failures in big games.
I hope this offseason and next season are different. But we’ve all seen this movie before. Keim will make a few splashy signings/trades, but fail to add depth and whiff on early picks. Kingsbury will talk a good game in the media, but he’ll be exposed after several games again. And I really have no idea how Kyler will react if he doesn’t get a huge extension this offseason—or if he’s truly deserving of one.
So, yeah, I’m not feeling too great about the state of Arizona sports right now. Everything is riding on the Suns, on CP3’s thumb. A Suns title—especially after coming up just short last season—would make the struggles of the other Valley teams much more bearable for several years. Football may be my favorite sport, and the Cardinals are my favorite football team, but the Suns are my Valley sports first love.
How about the rest of you Valley sports fans? How are you feeling about the rest of the teams? Where do the Cardinals rank in your PHX hierarchy? Let’s take refuge in discussing sports as the real world gets real.