by Julian Spivey
16. Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch is always a solid driver and a guy who typically wins at least one race a year, which if done during the first 26 races of the season locks you into the playoffs. I do believe his numbers will decline a bit this season moving from the hot Stewart-Haas Racing to Ganassi Racing, but I believe he’ll still be good enough to point his way into the playoffs even if he fails to win a race.
15. Daniel Suarez
Daniel Suarez kind of got the short stick at Joe Gibbs Racing when Furniture Row Racing shutdown at the end of last season leaving 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. without a job and an obvious place at Gibbs. Suarez was the odd man out. But he got lucky being able to replace Kurt Busch at Stewart-Haas Racing. I fully expect Suarez to have the type of year Aric Almirola did for SHR last season and make his first playoff appearance and maybe even win his first Cup race.
14. William Byron
After winning seven races in his rookie truck series season and four races in his rookie Xfinity Series season, in which he won the championship, William Byron’s winless rookie season in Cup last year with only four top 10s had to have been a disappointment. But Byron has teamed up with Chad Knauss, arguably the greatest crew chief in NASCAR history, for 2019 and I think the pairing will provide huge dividends for Byron.
13. Aric Almirola
Aric Almirola had a career year for Stewart-Haas Racing last season making the playoffs and winning the first full race of his career (his previous win was a rain-shortened event). I don’t really see things falling off for Almirola in 2019.
12. Denny Hamlin
Last year was the first season in Denny Hamlin’s 13-year career in which he failed to enter Victory Lane. I just can’t see that happening two years in a row, especially racing for Joe Gibbs. But, even if he does, he should easily point his way into the playoffs.
11. Erik Jones
Erik Jones got his first career NASCAR Cup Series win last season at Daytona in July, but his first two full-time seasons at the Cup level have been a bit less than I expected. I think Jones will break out a bit more this year. Expect at least multiple wins out of him.
10. Clint Bowyer
Clint Bowyer proved last season, his second with Stewart-Haas Racing, that he just needed to get back with a top flight team and settled in with that team. Bowyer, who hadn’t won a Cup race since 2012, entered Victory Lane twice. Bowyer also had his most top 5s and top 10s since 2013. There’s no reason to believe his production will fall off in 2019.
9. Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney’s biggest mark in his inaugural season in the Cup Series for Penske Racing last year was being the lucky guy at the end of the first ever Charlotte roval race and winning when Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. made contact racing for the win and took each other out. I expect Blaney to take another step up this year in the Cup Series and be a threat to win more often.
8. Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson’s 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season was pretty disappointing going winless after recording four wins the previous year. I believe Larson will have a bounce back season in 2019 and record multiple victories and be a real threat for the championship come the playoffs.
7. Jimmie Johnson
There were many wondering if Jimmie Johnson was finished last season with his first winless season of his Hall of Fame career, but this is something we’ve seen from other NASCAR legends before. I don’t believe for one second that Johnson is done as one of the sport’s best competitors and believe we’ll see him back in Victory Lane in 2019 with a rejuvenated No. 48 team with new crew chief Kevin Meendering.
6. Brad Keselowski
5. Joey Logano
Penske Racing drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are always great picks to be in the championship hunt and both are now previous Cup Series champions with Logano surprising the so-called “Big Three” of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., who dominated the sport last year, at Miami winning the championship. I think both Keselowski and Logano are going to have good seasons with multiple wins apiece.
4. Chase Elliott
Chase Elliott finally broke out last season with his first Cup victory at Watkins Glen and then won twice more at Dover and Kansas. I believe Elliott, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, is only going to continue to get better from here. I think we’ll see him compete in his first championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway come November.
3. Martin Truex Jr.
2. Kevin Harvick
1. Kyle Busch
I think the “Big Three” from last year are all going to be the championship favorites of 2019, as well. I would be shocked if there isn’t multiple to a handful of wins by Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. The only real change for either of these drivers is Martin Truex Jr. moving to Joe Gibbs Racing after his championship winning team of 2017 Furniture Row Racing shutdown after last season due to funding issues. But, Truex will continue his partnership with crew chief Cole Pearn, the best crew chief in NASCAR in my opinion, and shouldn’t miss a step.
Kevin Harvick has been the most consistent driver In NASCAR over the last half decade or so and I don’t see him going backward anytime soon.
I believe that Kyle Busch is the most talented driver in all of NASCAR and that’s why he’s my overall favorite to win the 2019 Monster Energy Cup Series championship, which would be the second of his career if he can accomplish it.
This should be an incredibly interesting season for NASCAR’s Cup Series as they will debut a completely new intermediate track package starting with the second race of the year at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which the sport hopes will mix up competition and lead to closer and more exciting racing for the sport. Because of that though we don’t quite know what we’re going to get from the sport this season and these predictions could wind up way off base. That also kind of makes the 2019 season the most exciting one for the sport in some time.
Para-athlete Alex Zanardi competing in 24 hour endurance race an early feel good sports story of 2019
by Julian Spivey
One of the biggest feel good stories in sports will be taking place this weekend, January 26-27, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. during the 57th annual running of the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race when Alex Zanardi takes to the track.
Zanardi has one of the most decorated resumes of any driver racing the 24 Hours of Daytona this weekend having won back-to-back CART Championships (a now defunct series akin to the IndyCar Series) in 1997 and 1998.
However, Zanardi’s experience is like no other driver in this race. Due to a horrific crash at EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Germany in September 2001 while Zanardi was at the top of his game he lost both of his legs when he lost control of his car on cold tires coming off pit lane while leading the race and had his chassis ripped in two when contacted by Alex Tagliani. Zanardi was so close to losing his life that day that he was given last rites.
You would think that losing both legs in an accident would put an end to a driver’s career, but within two years of his horrific crash Zanardi was back on track in the FIA World Touring Car Championship for Team BMW with the help of hand brakes and accelerators. In 2003 he would finish seventh in his first race. Competing in the series from 2003 to 2009 he would help his team to four wins.
Zanardi would turn his athletic pursuits to handcycling with a desire to eventually compete in the Summer Paralympic Games in London in 2012. Zanardi didn’t just achieve his goal of competing in the 2012 Paralympics but won two gold medals for his home country of Italy. He would return to the Paralympics at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, where he would once again win two gold medals.
Last September Zanardi competed in a triathlon, using a handbike for the cycling portion and a wheelchair for the running portion, in his home country and broke the Ironman world record in the disabled category with a time that was good enough to finish fifth overall in that competition.
Zanardi has been quite the hero for people everywhere, especially those disabled and having lost their lower limbs.
Now, at 52-years old, he sets his sights to endurance racing in one of motorsports most important races and venues. Zanardi is competing for the No. 24 BMW team in the GT Le Mans class, the endurance race has multiple classes of vehicles competing, where he will be teamed with John Edwards, Jesse Krohn and Chaz Mostert.
The BMW is fitted with a custom-designed steering wheel that will allow Zanardi to accelerate, brakes and shift gears. The wheel will be removed when he hops out of the car and replaced with a standard one for his teammates. The driver changes that take place on pit road during the race are always among the most interesting aspects of the race, but Zanardi’s changes should be even more so. Video of Zanardi and his teammates, posted below, practicing these driver switches is riveting to watch.
The Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona begins just after 1 p.m. central standard time on Saturday, Jan. 26 and a bulk of it can be seen on NBC Sports Network.
by Julian Spivey
*portions of this article were previously published
I’m obviously not a part of the BBWA (Baseball Writers Association of America) that has the opportunity to fill out a ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame. But every year I like to fill out a mock ballot of which players I would vote for if I did have a real ballot. I don’t understand how there are members of the BBWA who aren’t filling out 10 spots on their ballot recently. There are so many worthy players on the ballot now that I had to leave some players that I think are worthy of the hall off my ballot. And, I’ll come right out and say if you’re looking for players like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens on my ballot, I will never include players we know to have used performance enhancing drugs.
I’ve contended for years that Fred McGriff is the most screwed player from baseball’s steroid era. McGriff didn’t use PEDs, which makes his terrific offensive numbers not as impressive as the astronomical numbers of those who did. And, while the BBWA punished players (rightfully so) who did use PEDs they fail to consider that numbers like the ones McGriff compiled over his career (493 homers, 1,550 RBI, .284 average) would’ve gotten him into the hall of fame had he played in any other era. It’s clear McGriff is going to fall off the ballot, as this is his final year, and that’s a travesty. But I have high hopes that the veterans committee will one day elect him to Cooperstown, which seems incredibly likely after the shocking election of Harold Baines.
The BBWA continues to show that they don’t believe designated hitters belong in the hall of fame and that’s wrong. I’m not a fan of the DH. I wish baseball had never allowed it and wish they would abolish it, but I’m not going to let my feelings toward the DH keep one of the best pure hitters of his era out of the hall of fame. I do believe Martinez is a borderline hall of famer, but he’ll appear on my ballot, nonetheless. A .312 career average with two batting titles, 1,200-plus RBI and more than 2,000 career hits is enough for me. It looks like there’s a great chance Martinez will indeed make the hall in this his final year on the ballot.
Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer in baseball history and one of the most dominant pitchers the game has ever seen. With an MLB record 652 saves, which is 51 more than the next closest reliever, Rivera is an obvious lock for the hall of fame in his first year on the ballot.
Some people view Roy Halladay, who sadly lost his life in an airplane crash in 2017 at only 40 years old, as a borderline hall of famer, but he was arguably the most dominant starting pitcher of the ‘00s and that should be plenty to make him a hall of famer. Whether or not he’ll make it posthumously on the first ballot is to be seen, but with a career record of 203-105 and ERA of 3.38 it should be a no-brainer.
Mike Mussina never won a Cy Young Award, given to a league’s best pitcher, and I believe it’s the one thing that’s keeping him out of the hall of fame thus far. I don’t believe that’s right. There’s only so many Cy Young and MVP awards to go around and Mussina pitched in the same league as Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez for his career. Mussina’s 270-153 career record and 3.68 ERA are good enough for me, not to forget he’s one of the best defensive players ever at his position with seven Gold Gloves.
Jeff Kent has more home runs than any second baseman in the history of Major League Baseball. He hit 377 in his career. Kent also had a very good .290 career batting average and almost 2,500 career hits. He also won the 2000 National League MVP and was a five-time all-star. For the second base position these seem like obvious hall of fame numbers. Yet, he’s never come close to being inducted in many years on the ballot. Why? The era he played in. People just don’t trust that he did it clean, especially because his career seemed to get off to a slow start and he didn’t really become the slugger he did until he teamed with notorious PED user Barry Bonds in San Francisco. But, I’m a fan of innocent until proven guilty and there just isn’t enough for me to keep Kent out of Cooperstown.
This is Larry Walker’s second to last year on the hall of fame ballot and I don’t believe I’ve ever included him on my mock ballot, but some of the sabermetric guys have finally gotten me to believe in his candidacy. His career WAR (wins above replacement) is fifth highest of anybody on the ballot (and third highest of non-PED users) and his .313 batting average, even with a bulk of his career coming at hitter friendly Coors Field is impressive enough.
Todd Helton and Lance Berkman
Todd Helton and Lance Berkman are similar career hitters who though I watched their entire careers I wouldn’t say with 100 percent certainty that I believe are obvious hall of fame locks, but with each on their first year on the ballot and it being another stacked year for voters I worry about one or the other potentially not getting the five percent of the vote they need to remain on the ballot for future looks. I don’t want to see what happened to Carlos Delgado happen to either of these guys – I don’t believe it will – but just in case.
I’m not 100 percent sure that I believe Andruw Jones is a hall of famer. He might be one of those guys that falls more into the “very good” instead of “legendary” category. But I don’t believe he should fall off the hall of fame ballot, and I believe there’s a chance he could after receiving just 7.3 percent of the vote (you need at least five percent to remain on the ballot). That’s why I would use a spot for him over say Curt Schilling who won’t fall off the ballot. Jones has some offensive numbers that say “yeah, put him in the hall,” but mostly should be considered for the hall of fame because he’s of the greatest defensive players to ever play the game. Jones won 10 gold gloves in center field and is one of only six outfielders to win 10 or more Gold Gloves (the other five are either in the hall or will be).
by Julian Spivey & Preston Tolliver
selected by Julian Spivey
Picking the NBA rosters for the Western Conference is about as simple as it comes because the West is as stacked as ever, especially with the Eastern Conference’s best player of the last decade LeBron James coming over. The Western All-Star starters come off like an MVP ballot and picking the reserves isn’t that tough either because most of these guys are just snubbed from potential starting spots.
Backcourt: James Harden (Houston Rockets)
Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors)
If the NBA All Star Starters were revealed at the moment James Harden, the NBA’s reigning MVP and likely the front-runner to win it again this season, would not even be a starting player. Derrick Rose, who I don’t believe should be an All-Star would be. Rose is a great story having a revitalized year, but Harden not being a starter would be laughable. Harden is leading the NBA in scoring at 34.1 Points Per Game (PPG), which is five more points per game than the next closest player and his team is currently the fifth best in the West, whereas Rose’s Minnesota Timberwolves aren’t currently in the playoff hunt.
Stephen Curry has become a Western Conference starting All-Star mainstay at this point, and that shouldn’t change this season. Curry is leading the Warriors in scoring (just barely over Kevin Durant) and his 28.8 PPG is good enough for third in the NBA. Despite being on a team filled with All-Stars Curry is playing his way back into MVP contention this season.
Frontcourt: LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) – CAPTAIN
Kevin Durant (Golden State Warriors)
Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans)
My five picks for Western Conference All-Star starters just happen to be the top five in Points Per Game in the NBA this season with Anthony Davis second in the league at 28.9 PPG, Kevin Durant fourth in the league at 28.2 and LeBron James fifth in the league at 27.3.
James is my choice for captain in the West as the most senior player on the All-Star team and potentially still the best overall player in the league. LeBron has single-handedly made the Los Angeles Lakers relevant again, and even though he’s missed a few weeks due to injury has that team in playoff contention.
Davis continues to waste away on a bad New Orleans Pelicans team despite being one of the best overall players in the NBA. Many of us can’t wait to see him join a good team when his contract is up after next season.
Durant continues to be one of the most solid players in the league, but if the All-Star voting was finished at the moment would have to rely on being chosen as a reserve as the fans would apparently rather see new blood like 19-year old rookie Luka Doncic, who I couldn’t find room on my roster for, starting for the West. As things stand Paul George would currently be a starter over both Durant and Davis, as well, though he is more deserving than Doncic.
Backcourt: Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors)
Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard, who’s unfortunately been snubbed a couple of times in the last few years simply because 12 spots are not a lot for the number of star players in the conference, could easily be named starters if they just had the fan vote. Each should easily make the game for the West this year as both have their respective teams in the top half of the West standings. Westbrook is on pace to average a triple-double for the third consecutive year, something that had only been done in one season in the history of the NBA.
Klay Thompson was my 12th and final choice to make the All-Star game from the West. Thompson is one of three Golden State Warriors to be averaging 22 or more points per game this season. I could easily see Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz, Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies or Jrue Holiday of the New Orleans Pelicans in this spot, but the Warriors are currently the second best team in the West and all of those other teams are on the outside looking in. This spot won’t matter anyway if Derrick Rose does indeed get voted into the game via the fans.
Frontcourt: Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets)
Tobias Harris (Los Angeles Clippers)
Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves)
Paul George pretty much shocked the NBA last offseason when he decided to stay with the OKC Thunder, despite almost everybody thinking him signing with the Lakers and joining LeBron was a done deal. George is having a bit of a rejuvenation with the Thunder averaging almost 27 points per game on the same team as Russ Westbrook. He’s currently a starter in the fan voting.
The Denver Nuggets have been perhaps the biggest surprise in the NBA this season with their current first place position in the Western Conference and their best player has been seven-foot big man Nikola Jokic, who has the fourth best Real Plus-Minus in the league behind James Harden, Anthony Davis and Paul George. Jokic averages a double-double per game for the Nuggets.
The surprise team of the year has been the Los Angeles Clippers, who are currently fifth in the West and the best team in the Staples Center. The Clippers best player this year has been forward Tobias Harris, who’s averaging a career-best 21 PPG and eight rebounds a game. This would be Harris’ first All-Star selection and of all my picks he’s the one I’d be most surprised to actually make the roster.
Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves gets my final frontcourt spot in a close decision over Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic, who currently would be a starter via the fan vote. Towns’ numbers are just a bit better overall than Doncic’s and their respective teams are about the same record-wise, so I’m giving him the slight edge.
I do wish the NBA would allow an extra roster spot in special circumstances so legendary platers like Dirk Nowitzki can make the All-Star game in their swan song seasons without taking a spot of a more deserving player. I know that fans would like the opportunity to see Nowitzki on a big stage one more time.
selected by Preston Tolliver
Unlike the Western Conference, the early returns for All-Star voting are nearly perfect in regard to who should actually start on the team this year in the Eastern Conference, with the exception of Dwyane Wade, who received the obligatory retirement tour vote (more on that later). After that, the waters get a little murky: most reserves on the West team could, by all rights, be starters on that team; on the East, though, the reserves are set more firmly in their positions, with a pretty huge margin separating them from the starters.
Backcourt: Kemba Walker (Charlotte Hornets)
Kyrie Irving (Boston Celtics)
Kemba Walker started the season by forcing his way into early MVP talks. In the first seven games of the season, he averaged 31.7 points per game, and though he’s tapered off a bit since (he now averages 25 points per game and 5.7 assists), he’s made it to the midpoint of the season with three 40-plus games, eight 30-plus game and a friggin 60-point game (which came in a loss to Philadelphia on Nov. 17) (But still, he’s the only player this season to break 60) (So that has to count for something, right?) (Right).
Though the Celtics have been underwhelming this year, Irving has been a steady leader on the court, averaging 22.7 points and 6.4 assists per game. I don’t know that he’s the best point guard in the conference this season, but he certainly has the potential for it (right now, he’s vying for that honor with Walker). When he plays to his fullest potential, though, he’s one of the top five players in the league and should be back in the MVP talks by the end of next season.
As of Jan. 10, Irving led the fan votes for starting guards, doubling the tally of Wade, who placed second.
Also, I have Irving listed as a conditional captain here, because if LeBron is chosen to captain the West, this would make for great drama – a teacher/student sort of story, that will either end with Kyrie becoming the teacher for a nice, heartwarming story, or the teacher paddling the student near to death (which, by the way, is still legal in Arkansas).
Frontcourt: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
Kawhi Leonard (Toronto Raptors)
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)
As probably James Harden’s biggest obstacle to his second consecutive MVP, Giannis is a no-brainer. The Greek Freak averages a double-double with 26.7 points and 12.6 rebounds and has nearly singlehandedly carried a Bucks team from obscurity and intentionally-slippery courts to an Eastern Conference Champion contender.
Giannis is our second conditional captain, because, as I suspect, Kevin Durant will be named captain of the West (I imagine they’ll switch it up from last year, though Harden could get it as well), and I want to see two dudes with weird alien arms battle it out.
Leonard returned to his form from the good old days when he played for the San Antonio Spurs and liked it or liked it in as much as you could maybe from his deadpan facial expressions of yesteryear. He’s a likelihood for Defensive Player of the Year and as defense is more of a myth than a fundamental of basketball in the All-Star Game, he probably won’t be that fun to watch, but he’s earned his place on the starting roster regardless.
Embiid’s personality may distract from his on-court performance, but he has a stronger stat line than Giannis, averaging 26.9 points and 13.3 rebounds per game (Giannis does lead Embiid in assists, though). Embiid is currently placed third in fan voting for the front court, but it’s not just his celebrity on Twitter and Instagram that netted him more nearly three times as many votes as fourth-place Jayson Tatum – he’s a monster and will be fun to see make his return to the All-Star court.
Embiid is our third and final conditional co-captain (in the event that anyone other than LeBron or Durant is chosen to captain the West), only because I want to see him try to draft Rihanna seven times.
Backcourt: Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)
Victor Oladipo (Indiana Pacers)
Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers)
Dwyane Wade (Miami Heat)
With the arrival of Kawhi Leonard and the subsequent divorce of the East’s best backcourt, Kyle Lowry has been out of the spotlight this season. He’s averaging only 14 points this season (continuing a slow decline over the last few years) but has a conference-best 9.6 assists. He probably won’t flash too much on the All-Star court, but it’ll be nice to see him set up others to.
Since being traded to Indiana last season, Oladipo has established himself as the best two-guard in the East. He earned Most Improved Player last year and continues to improve with each game. You wouldn’t guess it looking at his stat line – he’s currently sitting at 19.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists – but he’s dragging a Pacers team that’s supposed to be tanking to home-court advantage in the playoffs (the team is seeded at the third spot in the conference, as of Jan. 14). And any player who drags a team that should be tanking to the playoffs – even if it’s to the chagrin of their owners – has to be a star.
Simmons deserves the honor for a lot of reasons: 1. He’s one of the best point guards in the league and his stock only continues to rise and there’s no telling how high his ceiling is; 2. He’s going to be really fun to watch in the game; 3. He has to put up with Joel Embiid (which is probably kind of fun) and Jimmy Butler (which is probably not fun), so we kind of owe him this.
Wade gets in on the Kobe Bryant rule, which officially states that any player who led their team to more than one championship (sorry, Dirk) is automatically entered into the All-Star games during their last couple of years in the league, even when they’re not in the top 12 best players in their conference (or in the top 12 players on their team). His inclusion on the team is more obligation than earned, and that’s okay. I don’t mind seeing him suit up for it one more time.
Frontcourt: Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)
Blake Griffin (Detroit Pistons)
Nikola Vucevic (Orlando Magic)
As a Boston fan, I could write love poems about Jayson Tatum, the 20-year-old Duke standout with shoulders strong and wide enough to carry the Celtics’ championship hopes for the next 10 years. Tatum was forced to grow up fast last year with the absence of Gordon Hayward and, later in the season, Irving, not unlike a young boy whose parents were murdered in front of him outside a theater, who was then raised by a butler (in this case, Alfred Horford) who helped him to toughen up and learn the skills required to one day save all of Gotha…err, Boston. In any case, Tatum established himself as a star worthy to construct a dynasty around last season, and it’s time he’s given his rightful place in the All-Star Game.
Griffin has undergone a reinvention since being traded from the Clippers last season, reestablishing his stardom not only as a player who dunks with the power and velocity that you would expect from Godzilla, but also a reliable player wherever the Pistons need him, currently averaging a career-best 25.6 points, alongside 8.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists.
Vucevic is the dark horse of not just the Eastern Conference, but the entire NBA (seriously – I draft him late every year in my Fantasy league, and he puts up some of the best numbers every season). He’s averaging 20.1 points and 11.9 rebounds per game this season and is a bright spot in the depressing and perpetual tank-machine Orlando Magic. He’s one of the best centers in the NBA with absolutely none of the credit for it, and it’s time we give him his due (for at least two minutes on the court).
by Julian Spivey & Preston Tolliver
How Much Can One Great Week Affect an MVP Race?
James Harden had one of the greatest runs in NBA history at the end of December and into the first part of January and that got us to thinking how much can one great week or stretch impact an MVP race. Harden, the reigning NBA MVP, is coming off the best stretch of his career in which he averaged more than 40 points per game in the last week of 2018 leading his team to its hottest point of the year and doing it all without one of the best point guards in the league in Chris Paul. Harder was named the NBA’s Player of the Month for December, in which he averaged almost 36 point per game, eight assists and six rebounds and the Houston Rockets went 11-4 and sprung from out of the playoff hunt into the top few teams. When he averaged more than 40 points a game over a 10-game streak last month he joined Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as the only players in league history to score 400 points over a 10-game span.
Can a great – really, historical – weeks have an impact on the league’s MVP race. Yes. But, I’m not sure a terrific week for a player in the first half of the season will be in the minds of MVP voters come the end of the season. If Harden’s week had come heading into the playoff stretch than it would’ve had a bigger impact. I do think Harden is well on his way to winning his second consecutive MVP, but it’s certainly too early to count out others like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lebron James, Steph Curry and others.
Let me tell you a story – an uplifting tale about a basketball player who, for a couple of weeks in 2012, flew among the stars. In 12 games leading to the All-Star break, this young wunderkind was one of the best players in the National Basketball Association, carrying a team with more dead weight than the Flying Dutchman to a 9-3 record. This bright-eyed knucklehead was named Jeremy Lin, and after that All-Star break, he fell from the skies with the velocity of Icarus tied to a thousand anvils.
Can a good (or even great) (or even phenomenal) (or even marvelous or other-worldly or ungodly) stretch of basketball change the outcome of an MVP race? Sure. But the pieces have to be there on both sides of that stretch. For a player to be deemed most valuable, they have to play at a ridiculously high level, for the most part, from the first game of the NBA season to the last game of the NBA season. James Harden has put together one of the best stretches in recent memory and provided he doesn’t enter his playoff form super early this year (and assuming Chris Paul’s eventual return doesn’t throw things super sideways), he’s probably looking toward his second consecutive MVP. But it’s not a lock, because basketball players historically play their best basketball in the second half of the season. Don’t count out LeBron, or Giannis, or Kyrie, or even Kemba freakin’ Walker (but you can definitely count out Jeremy Lin).
Who is the Greatest NBA Player to Never Win Most Valuable Player?
The omissions of great players from NBA’s Most Valuable Player award are many, and almost always not because they didn’t play at a peak level, but because there was another Hall of Fame player there who cast just big enough of a shadow over everyone else to get the award. John Havlicek and Jerry West are huge snubs for eras in which Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain took nine of the awards in an 11-year span. Of the nine MVP awards given between the 1983-84 season and the 1991-92 season, only three men got them: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan (Jordan would go on to win two more, in 1996 and 1998). That doesn’t mean there weren’t players undeserving of the award in that stretch – it just means that those players played alongside three of the top six or seven players in the history of basketball.
And that’s where my answer for this question comes in. Punching and kicking and hobbling during the passing of the torch from Magic to Michael, Isiah Thomas led the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons to two championships between the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers eras (note: he did win a Finals MVP in 1990, a series in which he averaged 27.6 points and 7 assists per game). In the 1989 Finals, he sprained his ankle but still put up 25 points in the last quarter of the game (though they’d go on to lose that game and the series that year). He didn’t just shine in the postseason. In 1985, he averaged 21.2 points and 13.9 assists a game (Bird, who won the MVP that year, averaged 28.7 points and 6.6 assists). Those numbers tapered off as he went through his career, but he was still a threat into the early ‘90s. His Pistons effectively put an end to the Magic Era and prolonged the start of the Jordan one. Isiah Thomas, all 6 feet, one inches of him, is the greatest player in the NBA to never receive a regular season MVP award.
I understand it being hard to win a Most Valuable Player award when you share your entire career basically with the two greatest centers in NBA history: Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of which you shared a team with for a while. But Jerry West is the greatest player in NBA history to never win MVP. After all, he’s the guy the NBA patterned its own logo after. Remarkably West finished second in MVP voting on four different occasions, including three years in a row from 1970-1972. In the 1971-72 season, the only year in which West would win a championship leading the Lakers to the greatest year in NBA history at that time and a still standing record 33-game winning streak he would finish runner-up to Abdul-Jabbar.
The second greatest NBA player to never win MVP was West’s longtime Lakers teammate Elgin Baylor, who would finish second in voting twice and just so happened to do so during the Boston Celtics ‘60s dynasty and Oscar Robertson averaging a triple-double for an entire season.
What Do You See the Los Angeles Lakers Doing This Offseason?
Here’s the problem with the Los Angeles Lakers’ signing of LeBron James last year. They signed him for four years, but the team probably won’t be a serious title contender until maybe the third year of his contract. They did little else to prepare for the future last year, and Anthony Davis – the seemingly destined next star – doesn’t become a free agent for another year-and-a-half (a trade is possible, but I don’t expect New Orleans to ship their star player to the competition).
So, let’s answer this question by assuming that in 2020, Anthony Davis will definitely be a Laker. What the Lakers need to do is fill their other gaps. If they want Anthony Davis, then they don’t need Demarcus Cousins, who becomes available this summer. They also don’t need Kevin Durant, who also becomes available this summer. They don’t need Kawhi Leonard, who very much does not have a Los Angeles personality.
What the Lakers need is a better backcourt. That leaves a lot of good options in this summer’s field of free agents. Klay Thompson defecting from Golden State to Hollywood would be pretty fun. Kemba Walker also comes open this summer and could really help the Lakers space the floor. Malcolm Brogdon could be a good pickup, too, and Terry Rozier is dying for a shot at a starting role that he definitely will not be getting in Boston. But let’s be real. It’s the Lakers, and if their moves last season tell us anything, it’s this: this summer, the Los Angeles Laker will sign 2012 MVP snub Jeremy Lin.
LeBron James wants to win and he’s going to want to win now. I don’t think he’s going to want to wait until the third year of his four year deal (which could potentially mark the end of his career). Also, this is the longest possibly ever that the Lakers have been irrelevant, and that franchise has to be itching to get back into contention like no other. I agree Anthony Davis is likely to join the Lakers at least when his free agency period comes up in the summer of 2020, but if I’m the Lakers I’m going to try to see if I can make a deal for him early and lock him up long term. I don’t know how hard that would be to accomplish and the Lakers might not want to give much up. Preston said, “the Lakers don’t need Kevin Durant.” Hell yes, they do need Kevin Durant. There isn’t a team in this league that doesn’t need Durant. He’s one of the three best players in the league and if they have any opportunity at all to sign him, they should try. If that means not having a shot for Davis by 2020 than so be it. I feel the same way about Kawhi Leonard. If you can get him, go get him. Klay Thompson does seem like the most likely option for the Lakers, but I’d personally hate to see that as it wouldn’t be fun for me to see the “Splash Brothers” split up in Golden State. I wouldn’t be surprised to see James, Leonard and Thompson all on the Lakers roster next season. We’ll see what happens.
by Julian Spivey
Best Team: Boston Red Sox
The 2017 Boston Red Sox certainly weren’t bad, winning the American League East Division, but their season ended in disappointing as they fell to the eventual champion Houston Astros in the Division Series and subsequently fired manager John Farrell. They named Alex Cora as their new manager, made a huge offseason acquisition in power hitting designated hitter J.D. Martinez and had high expectations for 2018, despite it kind of being a new start for the franchise too. The team ended up being the best overall in baseball in 2018 with a 108-54 record (a new franchise record for wins) and essentially cruising their way to their ninth title and their fourth since 2004. The team also saw outfielder Mookie Betts take home the American League Most Valuable Player honor.
Best Athlete: Simone Biles
I can hear the sighs now for naming a gymnast as athlete of the year, especially in a non-Summer Olympics year. But there is not an athlete in any sport right now as dominant at their respective game as Simone Biles is in gymnastics. It’s very possible Biles is the greatest gymnast in the history of the sport and the 21-year old showed that this year by thoroughly dominating the World Championships, where she became the first American gymnast to ever win a medal in every event at a single Championships. Biles won gold in Team competition, All-Around, Vault and Floor Exercise, silver in Uneven Bars and bronze in Balance Beam. To make all of this even more amazing Biles was hospitalized the day before the Championships began in Qatar with a kidney stone!
Best Game: U.S. Women Win Olympic Hockey Gold
The United States and Canada have had quite the history against each other in women’s hockey during the Winter Olympics, but Canada almost always comes out on top. The gold medal matchup between the two in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February proved to be the most exciting sporting event of the year. The hard fought battle went all the way to a shootout where American Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson confounded Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados for what would be the winning goal. It was an absolute thing of beauty to see and gave the American’s their first hockey gold in 20 years.
Best Moment: Tiger Woods Wins Again
Pretty much the last thing I needed to see as a sports fan in my lifetime happened in 2018 with a no. 16 seed finally beating a no. 1 seed in March Madness college basketball when the University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers absolutely stunned the Virginia Cavaliers by 20 points. For that not to be the best sports moment of 2018, you know the moment I’ve chosen – Tiger Woods making an improbable comeback from major back surgery to win his first tournament in five years on one of golf’s biggest stages, the season-ending Tour Championship. It’s not only a huge moment for me as a life-long Tiger Woods fan, but a huge boost for golf. The scene of Woods walking up to the 18th green to clinch the win with thousands of fans following behind is one of the most epic sports images you’re ever going to see.
Best Coach: Alex Cora
Alex Cora became just the fifth manager in baseball’s long history to lead a team to the World Series title in their rookie season with the team joining Bob Brenly (2001 Arizona Diamondbacks), Ralph Houk (1961 New York Yankees), Eddie Dyer (1946 St. Louis Cardinals) and Bucky Harris (1924 Washington Senators). Not only did Cora manage to join that great group, but he managed the Red Sox, a team with the third most championships in baseball history, to their greatest season ever with a record of 108-54. Cora seems like he’s a true players manager and will likely have extended success with the BoSox.
Best Breakthrough: Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the obvious choice for best breakthrough athlete of 2018, as he might end up being named the MVP of the NFL in his first full season as a player. As of this writing, Mahomes leads the NFL in touchdown passes with 45 (which is already sixth most for a season and he has two games remaining), in passing yards with over 4,500 and has the second best passer rating in the game behind Drew Brees. Mahomes has led the Chiefs to one of the best seasons in the current NFL year and will see his first playoff action in January.
Best Play: Philly Special in Super Bowl LII
There have been a lot of truly fantastic plays in sports this year from Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Vince Velasquez showing off his ambidexterity throwing a baserunner out with his non-throwing hand after being nailed by a line drive, the U.S. women’s hockey team winning an Olympic gold medal in a shootout, Joey Logano’s last lap effort to beat Martin Truex Jr. in NASCAR at Martinsville and more. But, the biggest of these best plays was the trick place named the “Philly Special” that the Philadelphia Eagles pulled on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII in February. On a fourth-and-goal play in the second quarter, Eagles backup QB Nick Foles, who had already led the team on a miraculous run after Carson Wentz went down to injury toward the end of the season, lined up on the offensive line as the ball was snapped to running back Corey Clement. Clement then pitched the ball to tight end Trey Burton, who passed the ball to a wide open Foles for the touchdown. The score made Foles the first player in Super Bowl history to both pass and receive a touchdown in the big game, it also propelled him to a Super Bowl MVP and the Eagles to their first Super Bowl title.
Lifetime Achievement: Adrian Beltre
Adrian Beltre, who announced his retirement from baseball after this past season, had an incredibly quiet and underrated career for one of the greatest players in baseball history. Never once in his two decades of Major League Baseball did he ever seem like the face of the sport or was ever named Most Valuable Player, but he put together a career – both offensively and defensively – that will go down in history as legendary. Beltre, who reached the 3,000 hit club milestone in his penultimate season, finished his career with 3,166 hits (16th most all-time), 477 homers, 1707 RBI and a .286 batting average.
by Julian Spivey & Preston Tolliver
Will LeBron James Break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s All-Time NBA Scoring Record?
Yes. According to basketball-reference.com, the lowest amount of points LeBron has scored in a season is 1,654 (this was in his first season; the second-lowest was in 2011, his first season with the Miami Heat, in which he scored 1,683). His average per season is 2,069 points. As of Sunday (prior to the Lakers’ game against the Heat), LeBron had 31,447 points, 31,038 of which came before the start of the 2018-19 season. Of course, he’s made the playoffs every year since 2006, and getting to the postseason isn’t a guarantee this year with the Lakers (though I’m betting it is in the next three).
If he hits that exact average of 2,069 per season for the four years he’s contracted with the Lakers, he’ll finish with 39,314 points – about 1,000 points more than Kareem’s record of 38,387. There are also injuries to consider, and that LeBron is 33 and will be entering the downturn of his career. But he’s also a cyborg, so I’m betting he hits that record and then some.
LeBron James just put up a 51-point effort against his former team the Heat on Sunday and despite being this far along in his career is easily one of the five best players currently in the game. I don’t believe there’s any doubt that LBJ will eventually surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career scoring record. As the Lakers number one option this season, James is actually averaging more points per game thus far than his career average and I believe, barring injury of course, that he’ll likely best his average scoring number this year. Interestingly, last season with the Cavaliers was the first time in his career he led the NBA in scoring. James will turn 34 next month but shows no signs whatsoever at slowing down. Maybe he really is a cyborg? I think it’s not whether he’s going to break Abdul-Jabbar’s record, but how much is he going to surpass it by. I could easily see LBJ playing until he’s 40, if he wants.
After his Release from the Houston Rockets will Carmelo Anthony Return to the NBA? What Will Anthony’s Legacy Be?
I don’t see why any other team would want Carmelo Anthony at this point. Him signing with the Houston Rockets was a complete failure, being let go after just 10 games. Anthony’s problem is he still thinks of himself as a superstar, as a team’s number one option, as a guy who supposed to score 20-plus points a night, and he’s just not that player anymore. The Rockets wanted him as a useful bench player and he could’ve been that. He was scoring 13 points per game for them. He just couldn’t put his massive ego aside. The only team I could really see Anthony playing for this season is the Los Angeles Lakers alongside friend LeBron James, but I’m not sure LBJ wants to add the trouble of Carmelo to an already trying season. Anthony should simply call it a hall of fame career or go make a ton of money somewhere over season where he can probably have 70-point games like Jimmer Fredette.
As for Carmelo’s legacy, sure, there’s no doubt he’s going to be a first ballot hall of famer simply based on his scoring output alone. If his career is indeed over, he’ll have finished as the 19th highest scorer in NBA history. But Anthony will always have the legacy of being a “me first” type of personality, who was often a detriment to his team’s success by always having to have things his way. For this reason, anytime I think of Anthony I always view him as a disappointment.
Carmelo Anthony’s legacy will be that of a player who could have been an all-time great if his ego hadn’t gotten in the way. He’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer – any person who makes the top 20 in scoring should be – but he’ll enter the hall as a member of an exclusive club of members who never got their ring (along with Karl Malone, second on the scoring list). Despite his scoring, though, he’ll be remembered as a diva, a difficult player who couldn’t work with his coaches and doomed whatever team he played for.
If he plays again in the NBA, it’ll be in Miami or L.A. (alongside friends Dwyane Wade or LeBron, respectively; or, the Clippers may decide they want him just as an experiment). Otherwise, I expect the next time he steps onto a professional court to be overseas.
Does the Acquisition of Jimmy Butler Make the Philadelphia 76ers the Favorite in the East?
No, because the East is an uncredited powerhouse now. With Kawhi Leonard on the Toronto Raptors, the Milwaukee Bucks apparently a wrecking ball this season and the Boston Celtics stacked with stars who still are figuring out their system with Gordon Hayward added back, nothing is guaranteed in the East. For the first few weeks of this season, the Sixers were still figuring out the Process – now, they’re starting over with a new star, and it’ll be interesting to see if it’s still Joel Embiid’s team at the end of the year or if there’s Warriors-level dissension among the new ranks.
First, of all – and I know this is off-topic – but it’s far too early to use the phrase “Warriors-level dissension."
Back to the topic though, it wasn’t completely out of line to think that the Philadelphia 76ers could have been one of the top four contenders in the Eastern Conference coming into the season, along with the three teams that Preston mentioned. I’ve been somewhat surprised at how hot the Raptors (13-4) and Bucks (11-4) have been out of the gate and yet the 76ers are only 1.5-2.5 games behind those two teams at 11-7. On paper the acquisition of Jimmy Butler – a four-time consecutive All Star – should make the 76ers the favorite in the East matched up with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but I have major questions about Butler’s attitude. I thought his addition to the Minnesota Timberwolves, playing alongside Karl-Anthony Townes and Andrew Wiggins would make that team at least a small-time contender in the West, but Butler’s attitude pretty much tore them apart. For Butler to have success in Philly he’s going to have to step back and realize he’s second-fiddle to Embiid and I’m not sure he’s capable of doing that. Butler seems to have some of that Carmelo Anthony in him.
Joey Logano's Last Lap Move on Martin Truex Jr. at Martinsville is Far From Dirty Given Circumstances
by Julian Spivey
Almost proving you can’t have anything nice in the sport of NASCAR, the final lap at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, Oct. 28 was one of the most epic final laps in the entire history of the sport but left many within the sport and its fans torn as to whether it was fair or dirty.
In the final laps of the race 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. was racing leader Joey Logano for the race win and as both are in the final eight of the playoffs a win would give each driver an automatic bid to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in mid-November.
Truex Jr. raced Logano hard, but rarely contacted the No. 22 Ford driver in the waning laps of the race before finally making the pass for the lead. There’s no doubt that Truex Jr. raced Logano cleanly, but on the final lap of a race, particularly a short-track race where it’s hard to pass without making contact, and in a race whether the winner makes it to the championship race drivers should and most would do almost anything for the win. Even if a championship bid wasn’t on the line, most would do whatever it took to see Victory Lane.
Knowing he would have to get a little physical with Truex Jr. if he wanted to win the race and make it to Miami, Logano gave Truex Jr. the customary bump out of the way and then as the two were coming to the finish line they made contact at the door with both losing control of their cars. Logano had just enough control to reach the finish line before a hard charging Denny Hamlin in third place could take advantage of the contact between Logano and Truex Jr. and steal a win.
The final lap was epic. But, Truex Jr. felt it was a dirty move by Logano stating in an interview after the race: “[He] may have won the battle, but he ain’t going to win the damn war.” And, “What goes around comes around.” Maybe, NASCAR drivers need to learn some new clichés. Also, Truex Jr. needs to get more physical if he wants to win some of these hard fought races on skill and ability instead of relying simply on fast speed. These were the quotes of someone who doesn’t like the old “rubbing is racing” adage that’s been acceptable in NASCAR almost as long as there has been a sport. It could also be proof as to why Truex Jr. has the most wins of any NASCAR driver who has never won a short track race.
Logano didn’t dump Truex Jr. on the final lap of the race, as we have seen from drivers in the past like Hamlin on Chase Elliott just last year, but rather raced him in the manner that has come to define great short track races within the history of the sport. The last lap of Martinsville on Sunday is why fans and people within the sport are both begging for more short tracks on the Cup Series schedule. Logano’s move was physical, it was aggressive, but it was far from “dirty.”
But, because Logano is likely one of the two most hated drivers within the sport (along with the perpetually booed Kyle Busch) there were a lot of fans, both at the track yesterday and on social media, that didn’t like the move. If it had been a move made by Kyle Larson, as we saw at Chicagoland back in July, the stands and social media wouldn’t exploded into uproarious applause and cheers.
Today we should be talking about how great the finish of Martinsville was for the sport of NASCAR, but instead we’re split on whether or not it was a “dirty” final lap of racing. Sometimes with this sport we just need to enjoy the moments that made many of us love it in the first place.
by Julian Spivey
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger struck out in his lone at-bat in game five of the 2018 World Series on Sunday, Oct. 28 in a pinch hit appearance in the eighth inning when the Dodgers desperately needed to mount a comeback to extend the series. The K dropped his series batting average to .063 and was a predictable ending to Bellinger’s World Series.
Cody Bellinger is the worst postseason player I’ve ever seen in over 20 years of watching baseball. He’s probably one of the worst, if not the worst, postseason players in baseball history.
Bellinger, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year, has appeared in the World Series in both of his MLB seasons and in his first last year he set a record by striking out 17 times (59 percent of his time at bat) in a seven game series and hit just .143 against the Houston Astros. This year he only struck out six times in his 16 at-bats, as he’s been turned into a platoon player in Dave Roberts’ splits heavy offense, but that’s still 38 percent of his time at the plate. Even when he wasn’t striking out against the Boston Red Sox he wasn’t getting on base, with just one hit and no walks in the series. He also made a huge baserunning blunder in the marathon game three that the Dodgers would end up winning anyway.
Bellinger’s postseason batting average through two seasons (30 games) is .174 and it’s mostly that high because of a good 2017 NLCS against the Chicago Cubs. In three series this postseason he hit a measly .118, but somehow managed to be named the NLCS MVP against the Milwaukee Brewers pretty much solely for a big three-run homer, despite being right at the Mendoza line for that series.
Watching Bellinger perform in the postseason and especially the World Series was infuriating and this is from an objective party who just wanted to see good baseball. I can’t imagine how Dodgers fans feel about him right now.
The most annoying factor is that Bellinger has been a very solid player for the Dodgers in his first two seasons, being named to an All Star team and winning Rookie of the Year in 2017 and hitting 64 homers and driving in 173 runs in his first 294 games of his career. In those two seasons he hit a solid .263.
The only thing I can think of for Bellinger’s postseason struggles is he’s just in his head with baseball’s version of the yips. Maybe he’s trying too hard? But, it’s been very painful to watch over these last two postseasons.
Can you think of a postseason player who’s ever been this bad?
by Julian Spivey
The Boston Red Sox were the class of the American League all season winning 108 games. The high-powered offense led by Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez was the biggest factor in the Red Sox success and both are deserving of Most Valuable Player votes.
This would be my A.L. MVP ballot if I got a vote …
5. Jose Ramirez (Cleveland Indians)
The Cleveland Indians have the luxury of having two of the best infielders in all of baseball in third baseman Jose Ramirez and shortstop Francisco Lindor and either could be interchangeable on this ballot. Ramirez and Lindor’s number were almost identical this season, but I’m giving the edge to Ramirez because he drove in 14 more runs and had a higher on-base percentage. Ramirez was tied with Lindor for the fourth best WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in the A.L. at 7.9. He also was fourth in the A.L. in RBI with 105 and fourth in total bases.
4. Alex Bregman (Houston Astros)
Over the last few years, including during their championship run last year, Jose Altuve was the spark plug for the Houston Astros, but he suffered from some injuries this year. Third baseman Alex Bregman stepped right in as the spark plug for this dynamic offense hitting .286, with 31 homers, 103 RBI (fifth in the league, 170 hits (eighth in the league) and led the A.L. with 51 doubles.
3. Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels)
Typically, I don’t really like to see players whose teams weren’t even in playoff contention toward the top of a Most Valuable Player ballot, but the fact is Mike Trout is so damn good you just can’t leave him off. It was somewhat of a down year for Trout and he still hit .312 (fourth in the league), 39 homers (fourth in the league), led the league in on-base percentage and walks and was second in WAR at 10.2, behind only Mookie Betts.
2. J.D. Martinez (Boston Red Sox)
There are some out there who think it’s near impossible for a designated hitter to win a Most Valuable Player award, but when they have the type of offensive numbers that J.D. Martinez did for the Boston Red Sox this year I really don’t think they should be excluded just because they only play one facet of the game. Martinez was an RBI machine this year with a league leading 130. Martinez was also second in baseball with 43 home runs, he led the A.L. in total bases, was second in hits, second in hitting and third in on-base percentage. It just so happens he was only the second best player on his own team.
1. Mookie Betts (Boston Red Sox)
Mookie Betts was hot right out of the gates for the Boston Red Sox in 2018 and he never really slowed down, even with a disabled list stint. Betts led all of baseball this season in WAR at 10.9. He was also the leading hitter in the game with a .346 average. Betts hit 32 homers, drove in 80 and was in the top 10 in the A.L. in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, total bases, doubles, walks, runs scored and stolen bases. Betts also plays a gold glove outfield.