by Julian Spivey
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes skyrocketed to NFL stardom quickly and hasn’t let go of the reins ever since. Mahomes has already been named Athlete of the Year in The Word’s annual best of in sports piece, but now we’re naming him one of our five Entertainers of the Year for 2020.
Mahomes turned out to be a steal as the tenth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft for the Chiefs. He didn’t see the field much in his first season in the league backing up veteran Alex Smith with Kansas City, which made what he did in his second season, his first as a starting QB in the league, amazing as he dominated and wound up winning the NFL MVP honor with an incredible 50 touchdown passes and more than 5,000 yards through the air. An injury forced Mahomes to miss a couple of games in the 2019 season but saw him lead his team to the Super Bowl where he managed a big come from behind victory (something he’s become accustomed to doing to the point that no deficit seems too big) against the San Francisco 49ers to give the franchise its first championship in half a century. That was in February of this year. In the 2020 season, Mahomes has led the Chiefs to a NFL’s best 14-1 through the first 15 games of the season and has the team looking like it could be the first back-to-back champions in nearly two decades. Mahomes is also in the MVP conversation again leading the league with 4,740 yards (almost 300 more than the next closest QB) and is tied for second in the league with 38 touchdown passes. Before the 2020 season the Chiefs gave Mahomes the richest contract in league history with a 10-year extension worth more than $500 million with bonuses thrown in.
Mahomes is quite simply the most exciting player in the country’s most popular sport right now and might be the best athlete in any major sport in the world at the moment. That is why he’s one of The Word’s Entertainers of the Year.
by Julian Spivey
Even at the age of 36 Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James is still arguably the best active player in the NBA – ESPN ranked him as such just a couple of weeks ago before the start of the 2020-2021 NBA season. That’s remarkable. Only Michael Jordan could compete with that this far into a career, and James has already played almost 200 more games at this point than M.J. did in his entire career.
Not only is James still dominant on the basketball court, having just led the Lakers (the third team he’s won a championship with) to their first NBA title in more than a decade in October as part of the longest season in NBA history when you factor in the four-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he’s just as important to American culture and society off the court as he is on it through his philanthropy and his willingness to speak out and stand up against inequalities in this country.
In 2018, LBJ’s I Promise School opened in his hometown of Akron, Ohio specifically aimed at at-risk children. Free tuition to the University of Akron is given to every graduating student of the school, which is currently for third and fourth grade students, but will be first through eighth grade by 2022, provided they graduate high school with a 3.0 GPA. The New York Times reported that roughly 90 percent of the school’s inaugural 240 students either met or exceeded their expected learning goals in both math and reading, making it the most successful school in its district.
In addition to helping the young children of his community, James has been a leader in the NBA when it comes to civil rights and inequalities in this country speaking out about such topics as police brutality with him speaking out against the killings of Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and others in 2020 and encouraging African-Americans to get out and vote in the 2020 Presidential election.
LeBron James has proven to be one of the greatest basketball players of all-time and has shown he’s a pillar of his community off the court, as well. That is why he’s one of The Word’s Entertainers of the Year for 2020.
by Julian Spivey & Preston Tolliver
First Quarter: NBA Finals Prediction
The West isn’t as wild as it was in years past. The Houston Rockets’ spark has officially fizzled out, whether James Harden stays on that roster or not. The Denver Nuggets, and the Golden State Warriors, thanks to injury, are a piece away from being able to claim the throne. There’s competition, for sure, in the Western Conference - the Portland Trail Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks aren’t serious contenders but can still throw serious hands against the league’s best. But the throne belongs to one person - one King - and his court: LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The path to the top of the East isn’t much more competitive. It’s unlikely that Miami builds on its Cinderella story from last season and reaches the finals again. The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors are still a piece or two away, and the Philadelphia 76ers lack the necessary maturity. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have a good shot at finally landing in the Finals, but should injuries keep at bay, we’ll likely see a rematch of the league’s two best players: LeBron James will again be defending his title - and his thrown - against Kevin Durant.
Not only is the talent there for both teams to easily reach the Finals next summer, but so is the storytelling: Durant’s career, so far, has centered on getting out of James’ shadow and establishing himself as the league’s new head of the table. There’s also a head-to-head between James and former teammate Kyrie Irving that would make any professional wrestling promoter blush.
I don’t expect Durant and Irving to bring a title to Brooklyn next summer. LeBron, Anthony Davis and the rest of the Lakers squad will enter the season with a death grip on the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and they won’t be letting it go anytime soon. PT
Is it boring to predict the same NBA Finals matchup this season as I did for the last season? Probably. But that’s what I’m doing. Los Angeles Lakers v. Milwaukee Bucks. The Lakers are a lock. If any other team comes out of the Western Conference to make the Finals other than the Lakers I’ll be in shock. Not only are the Lakers the defending champion, but they made their team quite a bit better in the offseason with the additions of Montrezl Harrell, Dennis Schroder and Marc Gasol. If this were a normal season (the schedule has been cut down due to the short offseason and I figure LeBron James will be taking more rest than normal) I’d say this is definitely a 70-win team.
The Eastern Conference is certainly wider open. Preston’s pick of the Brooklyn Nets making the NBA Finals would be the NBA’s dream come true, but I’m not sure the team could be expected to go that far with Kevin Durant having not played a game in more than a year and a half and who knows what the chemistry will be like between Durant and Kyrie Irving? Because these guys are among the best in the league, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Nets make the Finals, but it’s not my pick. The Milwaukee Bucks feels like they should’ve made the NBA Finals by now under two-time reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. He recently signed a record-breaking extension with the Bucks, so he’s going to remain in Milwaukee for some time and now is the team for him to lead the team to the championship round. JS
Second Quarter: Which Team Had Best Offseason?
As if being a defending champion isn’t scary enough, the Los Angeles Lakers managed to make their roster even better this year, all but solidifying their path to a repeat championship.
The team lost a few pieces - Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard, to name a few - but for every dime they lost, they gained a quarter; Dennis Schroeder, Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell and Wes Matthews are among the most notable additions.
And, oh yeah, they signed Anthony Davis to a long-term contract. The new Lakers dynasty is officially in full swing. PT
It really has to be a gut-punch for the rest of the NBA to sit around during the short offseason and watch the champion Los Angeles Lakers make themselves markedly better. The signing of NBA Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell and the acquisition of Dennis Schroder (who was also high in the Sixth Man of the Year voting) from the Oklahoma City Thunder are better pieces than what the Lakers had last season and Marc Gasol should bring some great veteran presence to the roster.
I don’t think there was another franchise in the entire league who did half as much as the Lakers this offseason to improve, and again, the Lakers were already the team to beat beforehand. JS
Third Quarter: Best Christmas Matchup
NBA's Christmas Schedule
One of my favorite Christmas traditions since I was a young child in the mid-‘90s has always been watching NBA action on Christmas day. Back then they had two games on Christmas day, but now the NBA has really given us an extravaganza over the last decade or so with five games. Basically, as soon as you’re done opening presents until midnight there’s NBA action. I’ll probably only watch two games tops, but it’s fantastic the NBA gives us this many options. Maybe the season shouldn’t be kicking off just over two months after the last one ended or at all due to COVID-19 numbers in this country (as this season isn’t in a bubble), but I will be glad to have this tradition in 2020.
I can tell you that the best Christmas matchup and the one that I’m most interested in seeing this year are two different things.
I’m most interested in the Bucks/Warriors matchup. The Warriors have been my favorite team to watch over the last decade and I didn’t really get to see them in full force last year due to injuries to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Unfortunately, Thompson will be out for a second straight season, but I can’t wait to see Curry foisting up threes and dribbling around defenders once again and doing so against the reigning two-time NBA MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo should be a lot of fun.
The best NBA Christmas matchup is Lakers/Mavs though. You know it’s the best because it’s the game the NBA has given its best Christmas Day primetime slot. Mavs point guard Luka Doncic is the odds-on favorite to win MVP this season and seeing him go up against the champion Lakers should be fun every time it happens this year. JS
If you’d asked me this question before the preseason walloping Brooklyn laid on Boston last week, I’d have told you I was looking as forward to that game as I was our family’s Christmas ham. Now, though, as a Boston Celtics fan, I’m forced to swallow my pride and admit that the best game that day will probably be between the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The teams’ matchups last year were nothing short of a pugilistic melee. Luka Doncic was on the receiving end of a lot of hard hits, and the future MVP should be entering the season - and any game against the defending champions - with a giant chip on his shoulder. PT
Fourth Quarter: Thoughts on ESPN's NBA Top 10
ESPN’s Top 10
First, let’s be clear: we’re determining who will be the best players this season, and therefore who will do the most to put their team in a position to win, and there’s a lot that goes into that other than on-court ability: locker room leadership, ambition, and work ethic are all factors that play key roles in leading a team to a championship.
First, let’s look at a who honorable mentions:
Russell Westbrook. Look, he’s a triple-double machine. He’s arguably the most athletic player in the NBA who’s carrying a chip on his shoulder that’s the weight of a dying star. At 32 years old, he still has the explosiveness he had seven years ago when the Thunder reached the finals, and has the insane, way beyond psychotic work ethic that led Kobe Bryant to the hall of fame. Too often, though, he just lacks the ability to lead his team to victory when it matters most.
James Harden. I know, I know. While he might be the best shooting guard in the league, this summer has proven that he just doesn’t have what it takes to get his team where it needs to be. He’s failed the Houston Rockets organization and is looking to bounce, and if his behavior doesn’t improve, it’s almost a guarantee that he’ll bring whatever his next team is down.
Now, on to the ESPN rankings. LeBron James will likely always be No. 1 for as long as he’s in the league. His ability to score points is eclipsed only by his ability to make everyone he plays with better. He’s an electrical conduit - everything he touches suddenly has more energy, and that’s going to win the Lakers another championship next summer.
Kevin Durant will be a reckoning on the court and is a close second behind LeBron. What he lacks in LeBron’s locker room leadership skills, he almost makes up for with his scoring acumen. With Kyrie Irving working to set him up every play, KD will have the rest of the league on notice yet again.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, who just signed a max extension with the Milwaukee Bucks, is going to look to make up for the lackluster postseason performance of this summer. He’s the reigning MVP, and he’s going to remind everyone of that.
The rest of my rankings closely mirror ESPN’s, with a couple more exceptions: after last season, Kawhi Leonard’s stock has fallen. He’s no longer the bogeyman he used to be, and the Clippers organization lost a lot this summer in the departures of Montrezl Harrell and Doc Rivers. The Clippers’ run as a serious threat - which lasted all of one season behind Leonard and Paul George - is already done.
It’s odd that a player who led his team to an unlikely Finals run wasn’t included in the top 10. Jimmy Butler might be the NBA’s dark horse MVP candidate this year, and he’s going to try to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke. PT
It has to be incredibly scary for the other 29 NBA teams to look at ESPN’s top-10 ranking and see the top two players in the league being teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the champion Los Angeles Lakers. I don’t really have much of an issue with ESPN doing that as both are top three in my opinion, but I do have to put the two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo at No. 2 right now just based off that and the fact that there shouldn’t be any regression in his game (he may even continue to get better).
I’m surprised to see Preston put Kevin Durant at No. 2 on his list since he hasn’t played a game in a year and a half, but he does believe Durant is leading Brooklyn to the Finals this season, so that makes some sense. I prefer where ESPN has Durant ranked at No. 6 heading into the season.
I think ESPN probably has the right five players in the top 10 just in a slightly different order as I would have them. I can’t believe Preston has dropped Kawhi Leonard all the way down to No. 9 simply because his Clippers team underperformed last year. I don’t think it has a whole lot to do with Leonard. I’d still include him in the top 5.
I’m going to agree with Preston that based on what he did in the postseason last year that Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler should be in the top-10 starting this season. I just can’t replace James Harden with him. Harden has proven to be a major pain in the ass and the Rockets are certainly going backward, but he’s likely going to lead the league in scoring. I’ll move Nuggets All-Star center Nikola Jokic (begrudgingly) down one spot and give Butler his place.
The only other minor thing I have with ESPN’s list is Steph Curry currently being behind Damian Lillard. I get it, Curry missed most of last season and Lillard played lights out, especially in the bubble, but I’d like to see Lillard win something first before surpassing Curry on the list. That’s not really Lillard’s fault, but it’s where I currently stand. JS
by Julian Spivey
Team of the Year: Los Angeles Lakers (NBA)
This was an incredibly hard choice between the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Dodgers this year as both championships meant a great deal to Los Angeles, with the Lakers winning the title in the year of Kobe Bryant’s tragic passing and the Dodgers coming so close in recent seasons and going three decades without a title. To make things even harder, both franchises were the best in their respective leagues from start-to-finish of the season. If ever there was a year to have a tie in this category it might be this one, but let’s leave ties to soccer. Ultimately, I went with the Lakers over the Dodgers for two reasons – the Lakers played the majority of the NBA season, where as the baseball season was only about 1/3 of a normal season and the Lakers had to deal with a four-month hiatus before the postseason due to NBA shutting down over COVID-19. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to shut down, get ready again and be your best when it mattered most, but the Lakers did it.
Athlete of the Year: Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs – NFL)
It’s so hard to for me to give NFL players this honor annually because they play most of their season in one year, but the league’s biggest game comes in the next (though look below and see this is the third out of the last four years I’ve done so) – but Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes made it a bit easier this year by leading his team to its first Super Bowl title in 50 years in February and by having a MVP-caliber year in the current NFL season (which has played 13 games at the time of this writing). Mahomes currently leads the league in passing yards by an almost whopping 450 yards over second place, is second in quarterback ratings and third in touchdown passes. More importantly his team is 12-1, the best record in the league, and looks to be on its way to possibly being the NFL’s first back-to-back champs in more than a decade. Mahomes is already, even this early in his career, one of the five most exciting to watch players I’ve ever seen in the NFL.
Coach of the Year: Andy Reid (Kansas City Chiefs – NFL)
Andy Reid finally won the big game! For years, the talk of NFL’s coaches was how Reid was one of the best regular season coaches in league history, but just couldn’t win the big game – the Super Bowl. In 2020, he finally had a team underneath him that could go all the way – lead by 2020’s Athlete of the Year quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Reid’s Super Bowl winning team went 12-4, while his team during the current season is 12-1 (at the time of this writing). He’s won at least 12 games in the last three straight seasons in K.C.
Best Breakthrough Athlete of the Year: Bryson DeChambeau (PGA Tour)
Bryson DeChambeau wasn’t exactly a slouch on the PGA Tour, winning five tournaments before 2020 (with four of those coming in 2018 alone), but when he returned to the PGA Tour this summer after a hiatus due to the PGA Tour suspending its season because of COVID-19 he looked like a new man, his game was different and he became the talk of the sport. DeChambeau had already planned to change his game by adding muscle mass to increase his swing speed and hit the ball farther, but he added 20 pounds during the season’s break to go along with the 20 he had already added and once play resumed he shot to the lead of driving distance on the tour and was hitting tee shots that mesmerized even those who only casually followed the game. He backed up these tee shots too by winning. In July he won the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, Mich. He was in contention the entire time at this year’s first major tournament, the PGA Championship, but ultimately finished fourth. However, he absolutely crushed the ball and the field in the year’s second major tournament, the U.S. Open at the West Course at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.J., winning it by six strokes.
Game/Event of the Year: Game 4 of World Series
We all know this has been a weird year in general, but it’s also been a weird year for sports. The worldwide COVID-19 placed the whole sports world on lockdown for at least two months, sometimes longer depending on the sport. Some of the year’s most anticipated events – the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and March Madness for college basketball – didn’t even take place. But of the ones that did – and a great many still did – I can’t really think of any instant classics. Maybe I’m just overlooking obvious choices and if so please tell me in the comments, but the best I could come up with was game four of the World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays, which ended in one of the wackiest ways I’ve ever seen a major sporting event end and have detailed below in ‘Play of the Year.’
Best Play of the Year: Final play of World Series Game 4
This is the first time where you could argue my choice for ‘Play of the Year’ could also be one of the worst plays of the year if going by the miscues of the Los Angeles Dodgers defense (but, hey they went on to win the World Series, so I’m sure they’re doing fine). It was certainly the wildest play I’ve seen all years and one of the most heart-pounding I’ve ever seen in a World Series. The Dodgers had a 7-6 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning of game 4 with a 2-1 series lead and ready to take a commanding 3-1 lead. The Tampa Bay Rays had runners on first and second. There were two outs. The Rays had pinch hitter Brett Phillips, who saw little playing time during the postseason, at the plate. The Dodgers had their closer Kenley Jansen on the mound. With two strikes against him, Phillips hit a liner into the outfield that was for sure going to tie the game. Exciting enough, but that should’ve been it. Dodgers center fielder Mookie Betts (one of the best defensive players in the game) bobbled the ball, which allowed Randy Arozarena (who may have had the best postseason in baseball history) to round third. Betts’ throw, which was cut off by first baseman Max Muncy, who had an easy throw to catcher Will Smith. Arozarena was so sure he was going to be nailed at the plate he threw himself in reverse and started back to third, where he should’ve been caught in a rundown to end the inning and send the game to extra innings. But Smith missed the ball! He was so worried about placing a tag on the baserunner that he took his eye off Muncy’s throw, whiffed and it went to the back stopped. Arozarena once again threw himself into reverse and scored the game-winning run – a run only made possible by two incredibly unlikely missteps by Dodgers defenders.
Best Moment: Success of NBA Bubble
None of us knew if we’d see another sporting event again in 2020 on the evening the NBA suspended the season due to COVID-19 when Utah Jazz All-Star center Rudy Gobert tested positive in mid-March. The whole sports world would essentially shut down soon after and depending on the sport it would be anywhere from two months to longer before resumption. Of all sports league it was the NBA that could’ve most been devastated as they were nearing the end of the regular season and about to embark on the playoffs when play was halted. There was no way the league was going to come back the way we were used to seeing it. Commissioner Adam Silver and the league worked out a bubble scenario where the remainder of the season could be played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility at Disney in Orlando, Fla. Many expected the remainder of the season to be bumpy with positive COVID tests and possible outbreaks within the bubble, but amazingly the NBA didn’t have a single person – player, coach or what have you test positive. The NBA’s bubble experience was a shining success, something that other pro and college leagues that played this year couldn’t say.
Hero/Impact of the Year: Darrell Wallace Jr. (NASCAR)
I’ve been a fan of NASCAR driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. pretty much since he entered the sport in the Craftsman Truck Series many years ago now. He has an incredible personality, a ton of talent (that showed in the truck series often and I hope will get a better chance to show at the Cup Series level in the future) and he’s incredibly important to the sport as its lone African-American driver in the top series (the first to do so full-time in decades). This year he become even more important to the sport in a year where the country has felt so much strife with politics and race. After the death of George Floyd at the hands of a bad cop this summer Wallace spoke up about a multitude of race issues – by saying NASCAR should ban the appearance of the Confederate flag from fans and putting Black Lives Matter on his racecar at an event at Martinsville Speedway. In the majority white and likely conservative fan base of NASCAR these were things that took major backbone and drew backlash. But Wallace did it anyway without blinking an eye because it was the right thing to do. I hope he can find his way into Victory Lane in a Cup Series race in the future, but even if it never happens Wallace has already had a bigger impact on the sport and its future than most ever have within the sport.
Best Sports Media Personality: John Smoltz
When I started doing this particular award a few years ago I kind of thought it would be a one-time honor, but for the second time in five years (and four awards, since I didn’t give one in 2018) it’s going to be Fox and MLB Network baseball analyst John Smoltz. Smoltz, who I will admit I absolutely loved as a player on my favorite team when I was growing up, is the smartest baseball analyst I think I may have ever seen. He doesn’t talk down to the audience like many announcers do, especially the guy who used to be in his seat for Fox Sports’ baseball coverage Tim McCarver. He is extremely good at predicting what may happen at the next given moment in a game, which is something Alex Rodriguez is constantly trying to do when he does games for ESPN and more often than not seems to get it wrong. Smoltz also has an even-keeled commentating style I appreciate, he gets excited when it’s called for, but doesn’t constantly over do it like many analysts these days seem to do.
Lifetime Achievement: Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson is one of the three greatest NASCAR drivers of all-time. You can argue against that if you want, but the fact is his seven Cup Series championships are tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time and that’s a good enough reason for me to include him and those other two legends in the all-time top three drivers conversation. Before the 2020 season Johnson surprised some folks by announcing it would be his last year in the sport. Unfortunately, the season wasn’t the fairytale he probably hoped for, he didn’t win a race for the third straight season (which still dumbfounds me) and his fans didn’t get to wish him well in person with COVID-19 causing most races to be run without fans in attendance and the tracks that did allow fans cut capacity down severely. Despite not going out on a high note, Johnson certainly made a huge impact on the sport. And, if you’re a fan you can watch him do something exciting and new in 2021 when he joins the IndyCar Series for its road and street course races.