Way-Too-Early Look at 10 Major 2017 Sports Storylines

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistDecember 30, 2016

Way-Too-Early Look at 10 Major 2017 Sports Storylines

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    The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are on a collision course for their third-straight NBA Finals matchup.
    The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are on a collision course for their third-straight NBA Finals matchup.Jason Miller/Getty Images

    From a sports standpoint, 2017 has a tough act to follow.

    Even if other events soured people on 2016, the year certainly produced some magical sports moments. The Denver Broncos dragged Peyton Manning out on top. Leicester City improbably won the Premier League title, and Villanova edged out North Carolina in an NCAA tournament-final thriller.

    Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky and Usain Bolt dominated against the world's premier competition during the 2016 Summer Olympics. The Chicago Cubs ended sports' longest championship drought after LeBron James conquered the Golden State Warriors, who earned the best regular-season record in NBA history.

    The calendar year represents a merely arbitrary point of reference. One of the year's most anticipated moments has yet to occur, as Ronda Rousey returns to the ring Friday night to redeem her 2015 loss to Holly Holm. A few days later, and that would top this look ahead to 2017 storylines. It instead exists in a different subset of time as the NFL postseason, which starts eight days later.

    Oh well, that still leaves 365 days of drama and entertainment before needing a new calendar. While nobody knows what lies ahead—that would ruin all the fun—let's  round up some potential storylines brewing before the New Year.

America's Super Bowl?

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    Dak Prescott's Dallas Cowboys have clinched the NFC's No. 1 seed.
    Dak Prescott's Dallas Cowboys have clinched the NFC's No. 1 seed.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Much has been made of the NFL's declining ratings, which have trended upward since Election Day. For all of the discussions of why some fans have turned away, the league is probably crossing its fingers for the Dallas Cowboys making Super Bowl LI.

    Although an antiquated label for most of the past 20 years, they have actually earned their "America's Team" designation in 2016. Per Sports Media Watch, they participated in five of the season's six most-watched games. (The Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions' Thanksgiving game made the list, but Dallas' victory on the same day drew a season-high 35.1 million viewers.)

    In place of long-time starter Tony Romo, rookie Dak Prescott has delivered arguably the best first season ever from a first-year quarterback. Yet, he still might not snag Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, as teammate Ezekiel Elliott has eaten 1,994 total yards and 16 touchdowns.

    With Derek Carr sidelined due to a broken leg, the NFL shouldn't bank on the Oakland Raiders also returning to glory. Those weary of Deflategate will say otherwise, but commissioner Roger Goodell is likely rooting for the New England Patriots to win their seventh AFC title of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.

    On paper, Patriots-Cowboys is the safest prediction. The 13-2 squads currently hold their respective conference's top seed—Dallas has already clinched home-field advantage—while sporting the NFL's top-two point differentials and defensive-adjusted value over averages (DVOA), per Football Outsiders.

    Both current No. 1 seeds would probably prefer to avoid the New York Giants, who handed the Cowboys their only two 2016 losses and Brady his two Super Bowl shortcomings. Then again, the red-hot Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers are scarier alternatives. And don't forget about the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs, who have both slipped under the radar.

    Let's not start previewing a Dallas-New England matchup just yet, but it would certainly make a marquee billing capable of shattering ratings records.

Are Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens Headed to Cooperstown?

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    Bud Selig's Hall of Fame election has elevated the chances of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens joining him in Cooperstown.
    Bud Selig's Hall of Fame election has elevated the chances of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens joining him in Cooperstown.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    At one point, the chances of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame seemed slimmer than the odds of Bartolo Colon hitting a home run. But hey, the latter happened, and those two polarizing figures now enter 2017 with a fighting chance of reaching Cooperstown.

    Ryan Thibodaux has collected 135 of the estimated 435 votes from eligible Baseball Writers' Association of America (BWAA) voters, who must submit their ballot by New Year's Eve. The early returns bode well for Jeff Bagwell, first-year newcomers Ivan Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero, and Tim Raines in his final year before falling off the ballot. In a far bigger surprise, Bonds and Clemens have received check marks on 71.1 percent of the votes.

    They're still short of the necessary 75 percent, but it's a major spike for the controversial players who garnered endorsements from less than half of the contingency in each of their previous four years. 

    The boosted support for two men prominently linked to the Steroid Era stems in part from the BWAA stripping votes away from some inactive members who took a stricter stance against performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Yet the bigger cause was Bud Selig—the commissioner who oversaw rampant PED use which helped spark a rise in popularity—getting inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Today's Game Era committee.

    “When Bud was put in two weeks ago, my mindset changed,” writer Kevin Cooney told Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan in an email. “If the commissioner of the steroid era was put into the HOF by a secret committee, then I couldn’t in good faith keep those two out any longer.”

    Bonds and Clemens, whose numbers would position them among the greatest players ever if not for heavy suspicion of steroid use, will probably still fall short of 2017 enshrinement. Yet early evidence of a shifting ideology bodes well for them eventually clearing the three-quarters barrier.

Serena Williams' Quest for Grand Slam No. 23

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    Serena Williams is tied for Steffi Graf with 22 Grand Slam singles titles.
    Serena Williams is tied for Steffi Graf with 22 Grand Slam singles titles.ANDY RAIN/Getty Images

    For her other-dimensional standards, Serena Williams had a bad year on the tennis court. (Off it, she recently announced her engagement to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian on his popular site.) For the first time since 2013, she won't end December touting the No. 1 world ranking. She instead will enter 2017 a mediocre No. 2 after only winning one of her three Grand Slam finals appearances.

    Yet even in a "down" year, Williams made history by tying Steffi Graf with her 22nd Grand Slam singles title. Considering she has earned at least one major crown in all but one (2011) of the last 10 years, she's a strong bet to soon take the record for herself.

    She can end the suspense early by seizing her seventh Australian Open title in January. Tennis fans would appreciate a rematch of last year's Melbourne finals matchup between Williams and Angelique Kerber, whose triumph cemented her first career major win. Later in the year, the 28-year-old wrestled away the top ranking.

    As much as some have tried to portray Maria Sharapova as a legitimate foe, Williams has not combated a rival worthy of her greatness. She finally received some competition in 2016, which delayed her placement in the record books.

    Barring an injury, it's happening next year. Look for Williams to break the tie and reclaim her No. 1 crown.

Chicago Cubs Turn from Lovable Lovers to Dynasty

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    The Chicago Cubs have an elite young core capable of bringing them back to the World Series.
    The Chicago Cubs have an elite young core capable of bringing them back to the World Series.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The Chicago Cubs somehow circumvented the 2016 postseason as a favored underdog. While over a century of losing endeared fans from across the nation to their cause, the 103-win team also stood tall as the premier squad.

    After breaking a 108-year title drought with a classic Game 7 World Series victory over the Cleveland Indians in extra innings, the Cubs shouldn't expect the same adoration during their title defense.

    Instead of a feel-good story, they're now Goliath. Their mix of home-grown stars and veteran talent—they have made few significant offseason changes beyond losing Dexter Fowler to the St. Louis Cardinals and replacing star closer Aroldis Chapman with fellow elite reliever Wade Davis—makes them a favorite to repeat and spark a potential dynasty.

    Team president Theo Epstein knows what to expect, and he watched the beloved "idiot" Boston Red Sox turn into a mainstream villain on par with the New York Yankees. A Cubs-Red Sox World Series would draw massive intrigue, but neither organization will attract affection from fans of other clubs. 

    Many will instead clamor for another team who hasn't recently tasted victory champagne. Cleveland, last postseason's true underdog, now holds MLB's longest active title drought of 68 years. That does not include contenders (Houston Astros, Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals) who have never won the World Series.

    A lot can happen during a 162-game season, and even more madness typically unfolds in October. Unfortunately for everyone else, an offense with five position players ages 27 and younger has yet to peak, so the Cubs aren't going anywhere for a while.

Quarterback Carousel

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    Kirk Cousins is in store for another major payday this offseason.
    Kirk Cousins is in store for another major payday this offseason.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Bad news for NFL teams searching for a quarterback: This isn't the best year to draft a future cornerstone. In his latest big board, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller placed only one signal-caller (North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky at No. 9) inside his top 25.

    That could compel organizations to seek help through free agency and the trade market instead. The former portal boils down to Kirk Cousins, who has sustained 2015's breakout with 4,630 passing yards and a 98.6 quarterback rating. Nobody, however, should get too excited about the possibility; CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora said last month that Washington will enact a $24 million franchise tag if it is unable to reach a long-term deal.

    He's not the only option this offseason. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Buffalo Bills will bench Tyrod Taylor to avoid the risk of an injury guaranteeing $30.75 million of his remaining contract. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport called the recently fired head coach Rex Ryan a "big proponent" of the quarterback, so his ousting could signal a separation.

    Jay Cutler and Colin Kaapernick have worn out their welcomes, but the New York Jets or Cleveland Browns may see either maligned passer as an upgrade. The Patriots could shop backup Jimmy Garoppolo—who impressed in the first two weeks of Brady's suspensions—but he won't come easily. Schefter told WEEI's Kirk and Callahan that their asking price starts with a first- and fourth-round draft pick.

    None of them will draw as much speculation as intrigue as Romo, an unnecessary cap hindrance in light of Prescott's breakout. Rapoport reported the likelihood of Dallas trading rather than releasing the 36-year-old, who will get control over where he lands. He has expressed interest in joining the Denver Broncos, which draws more parallels to Manning's return from a season-ending neck injury.

    If Romo seeks a short-term Super Bowl contender, nowhere beyond Denver makes sense. Wherever he winds up, his first regular-season action since 2015's Thanksgiving would dominate the headlines.

Last Chance for the Los Angeles Clippers?

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    Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could leave the Los Angeles Clippers in 2017.
    Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could leave the Los Angeles Clippers in 2017.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    The Oklahoma City Thunder had the Warriors right where they wanted them. After knocking off the San Antonio Spurs, ending Duncan's career in the process, they opened a potential series-clinching Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals with an eight-point lead. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant had finally reached their ceiling as a superstar duo eager for their first championship.

    Then Klay Thompson turned up the shooting sliders to extend the series to Game 7, during which he and Stephen Curry made 13 three-pointers and eliminated the Thunder. Durant later switched allegiances to Golden State and just like that, a team long envisioned as a future dynasty missed its last chance.

    The Los Angeles Clippers could face the same downfall in 2017.

    Despite hoisting a 66.5 regular-season win percentage since acquiring Chris Paul, they have yet to parlay that success into the Western Conference Finals. Having gone 8-9 after a torrid 14-2 start, they dipped to the No. 4 seed, which would line them up for a second-round date with the Warriors.

    Constant playoff heartbreak has prompted annual "is it time to break up the Clippers?" discussions, but that question must be asked if they fall short again. Blake Griffin's contract expires after 2016-17, and Paul can opt out of his deal to test the market.

    They're ending 2016 with a bleak harbinger of life without them. As both of them sat out with injuries, they lost three straight games to the Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers. Despite Paul's return from a hamstring injury, the New Orleans Pelicans extended their losing streak to four on Wednesday.

    Flanked by an old an ineffective supporting cast, the Clippers will need Herculean efforts from Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to upend Golden State. If they don't fare better this postseason, it would only be human of them to wonder if they peaked as a strong-but-not-championship-worthy team.

Cavaliers vs. Warriors: Round 3?

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    Kyrie Irving vanquished the Golden State Warriors with another game-winning shot on Christmas Day.
    Kyrie Irving vanquished the Golden State Warriors with another game-winning shot on Christmas Day.Jason Miller/Getty Images

    It's usually irresponsible to fixate one's sight on a specific championship matchup. One play in one game can ruin the Cowboys-Patriots Super Bowl scenario. Even without winner-take-all contests, MLB and NHL postseasons are often equally unpredictable.

    The Cavaliers and Warriors deserve an exception. If given an option between their third straight meeting or any other combination, bet on Round 3 happening in June.

    LeBron James has represented the Eastern Conference in the past six NBA Finals. Although the Cavs have lost three of his scheduled rest days, they still hold a narrow lead for the top seed above the Toronto Raptors, the only plausible threat to their third consecutive conference crown.

    The Warriors won't likely match last season's 73 wins. They probably won't try. They're no slouches either, going 28-5 with a plus-12.8 average point differential. Adding an MVP to a championship squad apparently helps, as they have posted 117.3 points per game.

    ESPN's NBA Basketball Power Index gives the Warriors a 64.3 percent chance of winning the title. While it favors the Raptors in the East, the projection model doesn't account for the Cavaliers resting their stars to preserve them for the games that matter.

    They all showed up on Christmas Day to defeat the Warriors in their first encounter since last year's memorable seven-game series. Just like in Game 7, Kyrie Irving nailed a game-winning shot, leading Cleveland to a 109-108 triumph.

    Even with Durant in tow, the Cavs proved they can still hang with the bolstered Warriors. With apologies to the Raptors, Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets, basketball fans are already dreaming of the Cavs-Warriors extending their feud to a trilogy.

Who's on the Way Out?

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    Dirk Nowitzki addressed the possibility of retiring in 2017.
    Dirk Nowitzki addressed the possibility of retiring in 2017.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    The sports world witnessed many farewells in 2016. Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz all ended incredible careers which will trigger Hall of Fame inductions once eligible. (Only Rodriguez's case is murky due to admitted PED use.)

    Fans will hope to see far fewer legends leave next year, but everything good eventually ends. Retirement is a natural part of sports, so everyone must be prepared to send off a few more 21st-century stalwarts.

    Larry Fitzgerald set a career high with 109 receptions last year, and he could match that mark and possibly pass Antonio Brown for the NFL lead with seven more during the Arizona Cardinals' season finale. The 33-year-old wide receiver is far from washed up, but he hasn't committed to playing beyond 2016.

    During a SiriusXM NFL Radio interview, per Sporting News' Alex Marvez, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said "it’s going to take me to talk Larry into coming back, which is hopefully not too hard." A Super Bowl has eluded the wideout during the past 13 years, but the franchise took a major step back from title contention during a 6-8-1 campaign.

    Fitzgerald told AZCardinals.com's Darren Urban that he won't announce his intentions ahead of time. "That’s not how I’m wired. Tim Duncan is more my speed," he said, referencing the Spurs icon's quiet exit.

    Vince Carter, the oldest player in the NBA, will turn 40 next January. The former dunk champion has reinvented himself into a steady veteran off the bench, but he hasn't averaged double-digit points per game or netted a field-goal percentage above 40.0 since 2013-14.

    The Association may lose yet another icon, as the once-ageless Dirk Nowitzki has suddenly suffered the wrath of playing 18 seasons. Limited to just eight games this season, the 38-year-old acknowledged that he might be running out of time.

    "If things don't go so well and it hurts everywhere, it could be that 2017 will be the end," the Dallas Mavericks big man told German magazine Sport Bild, according to an AFP report via Yahoo Sports.

Viva Las Vegas

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    The Vegas Golden Knights will enter the NHL as an expansion franchise for the 2017-18 season.
    The Vegas Golden Knights will enter the NHL as an expansion franchise for the 2017-18 season.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Las Vegas will welcome its first major sports franchise in 2017, when the NHL initiates the Vegas Golden Knights into the 2017-18 season.

    Owner Bill Foley punctuated years of speculation by revealing the logo and team name—the trademark application for which was denied by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office—in late November. According to NHL.com, the expansion team will draft one player from all 30 preexisting teams and pick no lower than No. 6 in the 2017 NHL entry draft. They will play in the Western Conference's Pacific Division.

    The NHL hasn't expanded since 2000, when the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild entered the league. Although both teams are ending 2016 on major rolls, they finished last in their respective divisions in each of the first two seasons, and neither has reached the Stanley Cup Finals.

    This marks the NHL's first expansion since installing a salary cap. As opined by Bleacher Report's Jonathan Willis, that can work in Las Vegas' favor if it accumulates extra draft picks and prospects by absorbing bad contracts. He preached patience for a team which will likely struggle at the start:

    The important thing here is that the Golden Knights be cold-blooded about this from the start. The delusion of being competitive immediately should not be entertained. Rather, the play here is to accumulate young assets, and the best way to obtain a critical mass of those is by leveraging the team's cap space during these cellar years.

    The Knights may not enjoy Vegas' undivided attention for too long. The Raiders have been linked to a Nevada move, and such a relocation would give Sin City a ready-made title contender embarking on its first playoff run since 2002.

    "Look for a final decision to be made in early 2017," Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio wrote on Dec. 20. "Barring a major and unexpected shift, look for that decision to be the creation of the Las Vegas Raiders."

    While the NFL is trying to keep the Raiders in Oakland, owner Mark Davis has remained steadfast in his desire for a move to Las Vegas. If he gets his wish, the country's top gambling destination will suddenly host two professional sports organizations by the end of 2017.

First Time for Everything

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    The Columbus Blue Jackets are rolling into 2017 with a 13-game winning streak.
    The Columbus Blue Jackets are rolling into 2017 with a 13-game winning streak.Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

    The Cubs ended an 108-year World Series drought. The Cavaliers halted decades of Cleveland sports misery by sealing their first championship in grand fashion.

    What franchises can reverse their historic misfortune in 2017? Here are some teams with a plausible chance of ending the wait for their first title:

    Atlanta Falcons

    After winning their last three games by a combined 73 points, the Falcons can secure a first-round bye by beating the New Orleans Saints at home on New Year's Day. 

    Despite Vic Beasley's NFL-high 14.5 sacks, Julio Jones' humdrum 101 receiving yards per game and MVP front-runner Matt Ryan's 115.5 quarterback rating, they're rarely discussed among the league's elite contenders. Yet having scored an NFL-best 33.5 points per game, they can hang with anybody.

    Columbus Blue Jackets

    Yet to win a playoff series, the  Blue Jackets will look to fast forward to a Stanley Cup run in what should be their third postseason trip.

    Winners of 14 straight, they wield an NHL-best plus-48 goal differential and 28.0 power-play percentage. With goalie Sergei Bobrovsky enjoying a career year and eight players having already doled out double-digit assists, they enter 2017 as the hottest team in sports.

    Houston Astros

    Sports Illustrated looks smart now. Adding to their dynamite young nucleus of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman, the Houston Astros fortified their lineup by acquiring Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, the first two through free agency and McCann via a trade with the New York Yankees.

    If Dallas Keuchel pitches closer to his 2015 Cy Young form, the Astros could become the American League's Cubs.

    Houston Texans

    What, not a Tom Savage believer?

    Minnesota Wild 

    The NHL's two youngest franchises could meet in the Stanley Cup Finals right before welcoming the Golden Knights. Minnesota is also running wild into the New Year with an 12-game win streak, bringing them a point behind the Chicago Blackhawks for the Western Conference's top spot.

    Formerly a journeyman fighting for a full-time gig, goalie Devan Dubnyk now spearheads the league's stingiest defense with a spectacular 94.4 save percentage and 1.67 goals allowed against average. The Wild have made each of the past four postseasons, but they have never looked this potent in the regular season.

    Los Angeles Clippers

    They can match any team when operating at their best, but bad breaks and inconsistency have prevented them from tapping into their full potential.

    San Jose Sharks

    After coming close in 2016, the San Jose Sharks will fight for another trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2016. On the strength of a tidy defense fourth in goals relinquished per game, they lead the Pacific Division.

    This should mark their 16th playoff appearance in 18 years. They're going to eventually convert one of those visits into a Stanley Cup.

    Texas Rangers

    Despite recording a plus-eight run differential, the Texas Rangers went 95-67 in 2016. They can't expect to win 36 one-run games again, but they shouldn't need to.

    A full season with Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gomez and a hopefully healthy Yu Darvish will lead them to compete with the Astros on merit more than good fortune. Yet they can use another bat and starting pitcher to keep pace with their rising rivals. 

    Toronto Raptors

    The Cavaliers will probably win again, but the Raptors have registered a higher average point differential and the NBA's best offensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference.com. That means Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have the Canadian club producing points at a more efficient rate than a team with Curry, Durant and Thompson.

    A more competitive Eastern Conference Finals rematch at least seems like a reasonable request.

    Washington Nationals

    If healthy, the New York Mets will give the Washington Nationals a better fight for the National League East in 2017. Yet the Nats could also improve on their 95-win campaign.

    The defending division champions will get a full season from breakout star Trea Turner, who hit .342/.370/.567 with 33 stolen bases in 73 exceptional rookie games. If Bryce Harper rediscovers his superstar gear, this could finally be the year they do postseason damage.