By Steve Lichtenstein
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The New York City area has had a championship dry spell since, well, I submitted my first Thanksgiving post six years ago.
So, as Nets general manager Sean Marks likes to say, fans now look for “small victories” as our favorite teams build toward their ultimate goal.
With that in mind, thank you, New York Yankees. Though they fell a little short in 2017, they captured the city during their run to Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.
They are the model for teams like the Knicks and the Devils, anchored by a core of young studs and boosted by high-character veterans.
Others would do well to appropriate this game plan. You CAN rebuild in New York, if you proceed the right way.
To be fair, you can see similar seeds germinating across the area’s sports landscape. With a few exceptions (like our football franchises), the vibe surrounding our teams has been more positive than in recent years. There haven’t been as many outcries to can the coach/general manager or blow the whole thing up.
Which made this sixth annual list of players and moments for which New York sports fans should give thanks a lot easier:
20. Drama-free Knicks. Phil Jackson’s ouster, followed by the Carmelo Anthony trade, has allowed the organization to focus on the important matters — like the actual product on the court.
19. Jets rookie safeties. Sure, it would have been nice if GM Mike Maccagnan broke with tradition and picked some offensive talent early in the draft, but the preliminary returns on Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye are promising. Far fewer bombs are connecting over Gang Green’s top this season.
18. NBA rule changes to reduce timeouts and halt the farce that allowed for three free throws on flings to the basket after contact.
17. A Garth Snow success story. The beleaguered Islanders GM scored big by securing center Mathew Barzal in the 2015 draft and waiting until this season to spring the 20-year-old upon the league. As of Sunday night, Barzal led all rookies with 19 points in 20 games.
16. Some life at St. John’s. He is probably a few pieces away from restoring glory to his alma mater, but Chris Mullin, in his third season as coach, has his Red Storm playing an entertaining brand of basketball.
15. Mulligan Mets. OK, 2017 was a wasted season, but the Mets’ army of arms will return with a clean(er?) bill of health.
14. “Strategic” Sean Marks. The Nets were nearly barren asset-wise when he took over in February 2016. With a few savvy offseason maneuvers, Marks at least has them going in the right direction.
13. The Rangers’ cachet. Though they haven’t copped the Stanley Cup in 23 years, they’ve been competing for the top prize while rebuilding on the fly for a decade. Good players want to play here, as evidenced by July’s signing of top free agent prize Kevin Shattenkirk, a difference-maker from the point on the power play.
12. Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Repeat after me: It’s not his fault. It’s not his fault. It’s not …
11. Red lights in New Jersey. The Devil, yes, the Devils, are eighth in the NHL in goals scored per game thanks to their forward depth. Fourth liner Brian Gibbons leads the way with nine goals.
10. The Yankees’ bullpen by committee. What do you do when your starting pitching is the team’s biggest question mark? You load up on so many relievers that even when one (Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, etc.) falters, the ‘pen is still stocked with quality options.
9. No tanks. For those fans who just can’t root for their team to lose even if it compromises such team’s draft strategy, tanking appears to have left the area. (The Nets, who do not own their draft pick, just stink.). The Jets appeared to try, but, to no surprise, they botched that as well.
8. The natural talent of John Tavares. Hopefully this won’t be the last season the Islanders’ impending free agent center is eligible for this list.
7. Baby Bombers. The average age of Yankee sluggers Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Greg Bird is 25.
6. Finally, a lucky ping pong ball bounce. The Devils defied their minimal (8.5 percent) odds to win April’s NHL Draft lottery and selected center Nico Hischier with the No. 1 overall pick.
5. In a matchup of goaltending titans, Henrik Lundqvist outdueled Montreal’s Carey Price to give the Rangers a first-round victory in the 2017 NHL playoffs, the area’s only postseason win besides the Yankees (OK, I’ll mention the Red Bulls’ knockout round triumph in MLS) among the major professional leagues.
4. The blossoming of Kristaps Porzingis. With Anthony out of the picture, the Unicorn is no longer a fantasy, but on a path to becoming a true superstar the World’s Most Famous Arena deserves.
3. Judge’s Roy Hobbs-ian season. Barely the victor in a preseason battle to make the big club, Judge powered his way into icon status with 52 homers and AL Rookie of the Year honors. The Home Run Derby was his Memo Paris, but, like Hobbs, Judge overcame a summer slump to lead the Yankees to an unimaginable playoff berth. Even if the final chapter read more like the book (27 postseason strikeouts) than the movie, Judge’s story was the year’s highlight.
2. The legions of New York sports fans, like you, who are so devoted to their teams that they can’t get enough content on outlets like WFAN.com and CBSNewYork.com.
And, as always,
1. My wonderful family — with extra thanks to my put-upon wife — which indulge me in my illogical passions for my favorite teams. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. May 2018 literally be a banner year in New York.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1