College Professional Sports

SPORTS DIGEST: LeBron James’ signing is 2018’s top sports story

The Dodgers went to the World Series — and lost — for the second straight year and the Rams and the Chargers both made the playoffs in the National Football League.

But neither one of those stories was the top Los Angeles sports story of 2018. For that we turn back the page almost six months.

On July 1, the same day National Basketball Association free agents could begin negotiating with new teams, the Los Angeles Lakers announced they had reached agreement on a four-year maximum contract with LeBron James.

After five years without making the playoffs, the Lakers needed to make a big splash in free agency and splash they made, signing the best player in the game. It made the Lakers a legitimate playoff contender, something that has held up during the first two-plus months of the season.

After a 127-101 win over the defending champion Golden State Warriors Christmas night, the Lakers had a 20-14 record, fourth in the Western Conference. If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Lakers would host a first-round series.

James has been his normal, all-world self, averaging 27.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game, while playing 34.6 minutes a game. All of those stats lead the Lakers.

And James has tried to mesh well with his teammates, providing leadership and taking the time to teach on the job when necessary. He has not openly clashed with coach Luke Walton, who has done a fine job coaching the circus that the Lakers must be.

The young players are continuing to improve, the aging veterans — Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Javon McGee and Tyler Chandler — are fulfilling their roles and things look as bright as they have for the Lakers since Pau Gasol left town.

Anything can happen between now and April, but for now, the Lakers are once again the talk of the town in L.A. sports.

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen was very good in 2018 instead of being outstanding like he had been in previous seasons. A lot of Dodgers fans blamed him for the team not winning the World Series, but the Dodgers wouldn’t have been in the series if not for Jansen. (Photo by Nick Koza)

NOT ENOUGH: After 30 years without winning a World Series, Dodgers fans are no longer satisfied just going to the World Series.

That was more than apparent after the Dodgers were defeated by the Boston Red Sox, four games to one in the 2018 World Series after losing to the Houston Astros in game seven the previous year.

Dodgers fans turned on everybody: manager Dave Roberts for pitching changes that didn’t always work and for the constantly changing batting orders; closer Kenley Jansen for being very good instead of great this season and ace starter Clayton Kershaw for getting older and hurt too often.

Winning six straight National League West titles does not satisfy the fans like it used to and the Dodgers have already begun the process of altering next season’s team to try and get back to the World Series and to win it this time.

In an era when getting to the World Series is an accomplishment, fans aren’t willing to settle for not winning it all, forgetting that the Dodgers were extremely lucky to win it all in 1988, the last time they held a parade here.

The Dodgers should win a seventh straight National League West title in 2019. How things go after that remain to be scene. Roberts, Jansen and Kershaw will all play big roles again, although Walker Buehler may surpass Kershaw as staff ace by next September. That would be a good thing, by the way.

Rams running back Todd Gurley is one of the reasons the Rams are 11-4 this season and headed for a second straight NFC West title. The Rams hope to play farther in the playoffs this year. (Courtesy photo)

FROM ZERO TO TWO: Three years ago, Los Angeles still didn’t have a professional football team. As 2018 exits, the city not only has two teams, it has two of 12 NFL playoffs team.

It has been 33 years since Los Angeles sent two teams to the playoffs. In 1985 both the Raiders and Rams made the playoffs for the third straight year.

This year, it will be the Rams and the Chargers. The Rams have won the NFC Western Division for the second year in a row and could clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win over the San Francisco 49ers Dec. 30.

After losing to Baltimore 22-10 Dec. 23, the Chargers look like they will be the top wild card team from the AFC, despite an 11-4 record that is tied for the best in the conference. Unfortunately, the Chargers are tied with the Kansas City Chiefs, who hold the tiebreaking advantage. Unless the Chiefs somehow lose to the Raiders Dec. 30 while the Chargers are defeating the Broncos, the Chargers will travel to Baltimore wild card weekend.

Both the Rams and Chargers are balanced. Philip Rivers is a steady veteran quarterback who knows how to lead the Chargers. Jared Goff continues to grow in to one of the best young quarterbacks.

Both quarterbacks have plenty of weapons at wide receiver and Melvin Gordon and Todd Gurley are Pro Bowl quality running backs.

The defenses both have players who can chase, catch and bring down a quarterback and the defensive backs to cover the opposing team’s wide receivers. And both teams have second-year head coaches who have changed the culture on the teams.

The Chargers and Rams both expect to win every week. It will be interesting to see how where they can go in the playoffs.

FIRST IMPRESSION: For the fourth biggest L.A. sports story of 2018 we will go to the debut of L.A. newest team, Football Club Los Angeles, which joined Major League Soccer this year and made the playoffs, having a better year than the Galaxy, who are trying to rebuild both the front office and the roster on the field.

LAFC finished the season with a 16-9-9 record, good for third in the Western Conference. The 57 points the team posted in the standings was the most an expansion team had ever posted in the league.

Carlos Vela was the team’s leading scorer and most valuable player. He scored 14 goals and had 13 assists despite missing a month of the season while he was playing for Mexico in the World Cup.

LAFC also had the newest sports facility in Los Angeles with Banc of California Stadium sitting where the old Los Angeles Sports Arena once stood.

Like the Rams and Chargers, LAFC and the Galaxy figure to have quite a local rivalry as they fight for supremacy in a city where losing is rarely tolerated by sports fans.

TERRIBLE TWO: Which brings us to the fifth sports story of 2018, what happened to the USC and UCLA football teams?

The Trojans started the season ranked 15th in national polls. It took about three weeks to realize the Trojans were overrated.

By the time the season ended, the Trojans were 5-7, capped by a three-game losing streak that included losses to rivals UCLA and Notre Dame and kept the Troajsn from playing in a bowl game.

The USC fans howled for the head of head coach Clay Helton, but athletic director Lynn Swann, who had given Helton a contract extension last year after Helton became the first USC coach in history to win at least 10 games in each of his first two full seasons, wouldn’t appease the fans.

Helton has changed his coaching staff considerably, bringing in former Texas Tech quarterback and coach Cliff Kingsbury to run the offense.

Freshman JT Daniels, who should have been quarterbacking Mater Dei High School instead of the Trojans this past season, returns for his sophomore season. He has some quality wide receivers, but needs a more consistent running game to take some of the heat of him. A better offensive line would improve the running game.

On defense, the Trojans were a veteran team who couldn’t stay out of their own way. Too many opponent scoring drives were extended by crucial, third-down 15-yard penalties.

In Westwood, the Bruins had it worse than the Trojans under first-year head coach Chip Kelly. The Bruins finished 3-9, but that included a win over USC and came after a 0-5 start.

Kelly didn’t seem to have the players to run the offense he wanted and the Bruins may be much better next year.

By Don Wanlass

Staff Writer