Best and Worst 2021: The Year in Los Angeles Sports

From the diminished Dodgers to the rising Rams, this year brought more loses than wins to the athletics scene

The coronavirus made 2020 torturous and tumultuous. So Angelenos were thrilled to have something to celebrate—in fact, there were two huge things to get giddy and start street fires over, and though the championships won by the Lakers and Dodgers didn’t come close to making up for the pandemic’s pain and loss, they did bring the region together, and almost broke L.A. Twitter.

The year 2021 has also been incredibly difficult, and this time the local sports teams have been unable to provide much of a reason for sustained applause. That said, the lowlights were countered by a few highlights. Here is how the ball bounced throughout 2020.

Diminished Dodgers

As baseball began a full 162-game regular season in the spring, the Dodger faithful were hoping for a World Series repeat. The team won a stunning 106 games, pitcher Julio Urias was MLB’s only 20-game winner, the squad acquired brilliant infielder Trea Turner, and in their first-ever post-season matchup, the Blue beat the San Francisco Giants in a thrilling five-game series. Yet a banged-up team fell to the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, and legendary pitcher Clayton Kershaw was hobbled by injuries, and could leave L.A. for good in the off-season. But darkest of all were the ugly sexual assault allegations raised against pitcher Trevor Bauer, the team’s star free agent acquisition. He was placed on administrative leave in July and will likely never wear a Dodger uniform again.

Losing in Lakerland

LeBron James and Anthony Davis won a post-season play-in game in the spring, but with Davis hounded by nagging injuries, the defending champs lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Phoenix Suns. The purple-and-gold world has been underwhelming ever since. The team traded for guard Russell Westbrook in the off-season, and though he stuffs the stat sheet, his fit with LeBron and Davis has been bumpy. General Manager Rob Pelinka filled out the roster with older players past their prime, and castoffs from other teams, with the result that the current season has been disappointing, and there is chatter about coach Frank Vogel being fired. A fan base that anticipates championships has been frustrated.

Clippers Clipped

L.A.’s other basketball team made history in the spring, advancing out of the second round of the playoffs for the first time ever. But if the Clippers Curse exists, then it is still in effect, as star forward Kawhi Leonard suffered a partially torn ACL in that series. Despite stellar play from Paul George, the Clips lost to Phoenix in the Western Conference finals. The new campaign has been decent if unspectacular, with gritty role players keeping the Clips above .500, but the lack of Leonard—who may be gone for the season—makes the squad occasionally anemic on offense. Off the court, owner Steve Ballmer on Sept. 17 broke ground on the $2 billion Intuit Arena. The Clippers’ new Inglewood home is expected to open in 2024.

Rising Rams

The Rams’ purported highlight moment came well before the season started, when the front office traded punching bag QB Jared Goff for Lions’ veteran leader Matthew Stafford. Despite losing running back Cam Akers to injury, the Rams christened the $5 billion SoFi Stadium with a win on Sept. 12, then raced to a 7-1 record as Cooper Kupp looked like the best receiver in football, while studs Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey anchored the defense. The win-now message was made even more clear on Nov. 1 when the team traded for Broncos linebacker Von Miller. Yet the momentum has dulled recently, and during a three-game losing streak Stafford played like he was channeling Goff. It’s shaping up to be a Super Bowl-or-bust season, particularly with the big game taking place in February in the Inglewood football palace.

Challenged Chargers

Under rookie coach Brandon Staley, the Chargers have played this season with bravado, frequently going for it on fourth down. Second-year quarterback Justin Herbert has a canon arm and will be a star one day. Diminutive running back Austin Ekeler hits defensive lines like he’s a bowling ball crushing pins. But for all the upside, the Chargers have frustrated fans by maintaining their historic ability to lose completely winnable games in eternally frustrating ways. And while SoFi Stadium is a glorious new home, a limited base has meant that opposing fans often outnumber those cheering for the Chargers.

Little Spark for the Sparks

The Sparks’ 25th anniversary season was silver in name only. It proved to be a transition year, as only three players from the 2020 team returned. Although Nneka Ogwumike put up 14.5 points, she played in just 18 games, and a 12-20 record had the Sparks out of the playoffs. Even more disappointing for fans, COVID meant the team played just five games in Staples Center.

Crushed Kings

The Kings ended the 2020-21 season on a low note, missing the playoffs for the third consecutive year and compiling an icky 21-28-7 record. Goal scoring was a problem. The current campaign has been better, and the team is a bit above .500, though they don’t look like they’ll be hoisting the Stanley Cup anytime soon.

Tumbling Trojans

The USC football team may be the region’s most popular squad after the Lakers, Dodger and Rams, but 2021 was brutal. Coach Clay Helton was fired in September after a sloppy loss, and interim coach Donte Williams failed to turn things around; the team finished 4-8. The lone highlight on the field may have been receiver Drake London, who won the PAC-12 Offensive Player of the Year award despite appearing in only eight games. Yet for all the losing, the Trojans may have picked up the city’s biggest win of the year, in November, when they hired all-world coach Lincoln Riley away from powerhouse Oklahoma. Now expectations for 2022 are sky-high.

Burying Staples

Perhaps the most shocking turn of the year involved a building, not a team. On Sept. 17, Anschutz Entertainment Group announced that its Staples Center would become Arena following a reported $700 million naming rights deal. The signage for the office supply chain began disappearing in December, and the new moniker of the 22-year-old home of the Lakers, Clippers, Kings and Sparks became official on Christmas. Yes, every single crypt joke for every local team has already been used, but keep ’em coming.

Fans in the Stands

For all the defeats 2021 brought to local teams, one resounding victory was the return of fans to the stands. In the summer Dodger Stadium regularly rocked with more than 50,000 raucous supporters, and masked crowds were back in the fall rooting for the Lakers, Clippers and Kings. That, if nothing else, was reason to cheer.

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