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Inside this grueling, improbable and incredible Lakers title run

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THE OTHER DAY Jeanie Buss sent a text to Phil Jackson, the previous coach to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a title. This was not an unusual occurrence. The two have remained friends and talk often. But the reason for this text was extraordinary.

Buss’ team was on the verge of winning its first NBA title since she assumed control of the team from her father, Dr. Jerry Buss, and since Jackson had retired following the 2011 season. She’d been through championship runs before, but this one was entirely different, and connecting with the coach who has won the most titles in NBA history (11) seemed like a good idea.

“We’ve been going back and forth a little bit about the last game,” Jackson said. “And how to not get over the edge of your skis and stay balanced.”

Jackson had been following the Lakers all season, and felt it was important Buss knew that her steady hand and leadership had been essential to the team’s success. All she had to do now was stay true to that.

And on the 356th day of the 74th NBA season, the Lakers franchise claimed its 17th championship in a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat.

There was confetti and champagne Sunday in the mostly empty arena in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, where the NBA sought refuge from the deadly pandemic that interrupted its season and society as we know it. As the clock ticked to 0.0 in Game 6, the Lakers’ bench circled LeBron James, joyously hugging him on the court. And Anthony Davis sat down on the scorers table, bending his head forward as the emotions rushed over him.

Before presenting the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Buss, NBA commissioner Adam Silver talked about everything his league and its players had endured just to make it to this finish line.

“We found a way to play through a pandemic, keep everyone safe and put a spotlight on these critically important [social justice] issues,” Silver said. “For that, every team deserves to be celebrated.”

Buss wore a burgundy blazer and a crisp white shirt, but the collar was open wide enough to see the gold chain she wore around her neck, with the signature of her late father, Dr. Jerry Buss.

And then she did what her father taught her to do: cede the spotlight to the players by letting them grab hold of it first.

“We’ve all been challenged so much in 2020,” Buss said before the win. “It really takes your breath away.”

And so it is fitting that the NBA champions of 2020 are the team that held it all together the tightest.

“That is what families do for each other,” Buss said. “Lift each other up when they feel like they can’t go on.”

From the tumult of last offseason, to the death of franchise icon Kobe Bryant in January, to the pandemic, to the nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd, to the creation of a virus-free bubble where the NBA could resume its season, to the near-cancellation of the season following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, this season has tested and humbled everyone.

“No matter what,” Buss said. “The proof is in the work. That’s where we found our comfort and our mission.”

The Lakers were able to consistently steady themselves in the moments that could have broken them.

“You start to reflect back on the challenges,” Buss said. “To be here in the NBA Finals is at one time so uplifting, but also heartbreaking because of all the loss that we have gone through, and that we’re not together as Laker fans living these moments that this team is providing us.”

She paused as she delivered these words. The sentiment jogged an old story Jackson used to tell people about his mentor, Tex Winter.

“A lot of Tex’s quirks were from the fact he lived through the Depression, and that he didn’t have food on the table,” she said. When the Chicago Bulls or Lakers would go out to eat at a nice restaurant or hotel buffet, Winter would always wrap up and save everything on his plate.

“It drove Phil crazy,” she said. “Phil’s like, ‘You can’t possibly take this with you, we’re in a hotel.’

“But I guess now we’re all people who can say we’ve lived through this pandemic, through this heartbreak, through these challenging times.”

MORE: Everything that happened in the NBA bubble

BUSS HAD LEARNED how to run a basketball franchise at her father’s side for decades, and he’d chosen her out of his six children to be the one to run the Lakers after his death.

“I like to say he had his children, but the Lakers were his baby,” Buss said. “And he put me in charge of the baby because he knew that I would do whatever it took to protect the baby.”

Recruiting James was a great step in restoring the Lakers’ brand, but the job wasn’t finished until she put a championship roster around him, and that took time. James was patient, but the Lakers’ fan base was not.

Buss and her inner circle came under heavy fire when Kawhi Leonard, a native Southern Californian, chose to sign with the rival Clippers in free agency as sort of a package deal with Paul George, who was acquired via trade from Oklahoma City.

Friends and colleagues urged her to consider replacing general manager Rob Pelinka with a more established executive. She called Jackson at times to ask for advice, but he always pushed her back toward trusting her gut.

“I never lost faith in the people that I was working with, so that part was easy,” she said. “What was difficult was not to defend myself, or to defend the people that I care about like Rob and like Linda [Rambis].

“But I was advised, ‘This will be the hardest time of your life, but the only thing that will stop it is to do the work.’ That became our mission was just to do the work.”

She watched as Pelinka built a relationship of trust with James and Davis, much the way he had with his former client Bryant. How he consulted with them on personnel moves and empowered them as co-architects of the team, without it bruising his own ego.

She took note of how quickly he moved to fill the roster after Leonard kept them waiting until July 5, while other free-agent targets signed elsewhere.

Replacing Pelinka with a seasoned executive from another franchise would’ve won the initial news conference. But she’d given up on trying to win news conferences.

“As I’ve learned though, with social media, very often the point is to weaponize it or to manipulate opinion,” Buss said. “But you can’t manipulate opinion when you’re winning and you’re in the NBA Finals. No matter what, the proof is in the work, and that’s where we found our comfort and our mission. The hardest part though was having to take the arrows and the mud and the ridicule and not fight back.”

Those were the times she’d call Jackson or Bryant.

“Kobe was always like, ‘Don’t listen to that,'” she said. “That was easy for him to shut it out. He was great at that. Phil was great at that.”

She’d later find out that James was great at that, too.

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2:06

LeBron James puts up 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists to notch his 11th Finals triple-double, the most in NBA history.

JAMES MADE A pledge to Buss when they met at the Beverly Hills hotspot Wally’s for dinner in March 2019.

“We’re committed to you, and we’ll come out of this on top,” recalled James’ agent, Rich Paul, who attended the dinner along with Rambis. “We’ll come out of this different than what the world sees. Let the people who talk, talk. We just gotta do the work.”

It was the precursor to the organizational mantra Buss would set for the franchise over that summer. Which was not a coincidence.

James was noticeably quiet over the summer, but he saw it all. He watched every minute of the playoffs, letting his motivation rise as other teams and players took starring turns.

For a man who’d been to seven straight Finals, it was odd to watch Leonard seize the spotlight as the Finals MVP for the Toronto Raptors and enter the discussion as the game’s best player.

But he channeled all that into proving he was still the best player in the NBA, often waking up at 4 a.m. so he could work out for a few hours on the set of “Space Jam 2” before the long days of filming commenced.

It was a summer much like Michael Jordan had in 1995, when he filmed the original “Space Jam” following an early exit from the playoffs. And something Jackson, watching from afar, took note of.

“It looks like LeBron’s taken a little bit of the Michael Jordan-Kobe Bryant, ‘We’ll show them who we really are by our strength and our temperament,'” Jackson said. “That’s always a resource to incentivize you, so he’s done a good job of that. I think his leadership has been good, and that’s something that I questioned last year with that group of young men that were playing at the time. But here he feels very tuned in. And that’s wonderful.”

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5:05

LeBron James reacts to winning his fourth NBA Finals and his first with the Los Angeles Lakers.

THE LEGACY THESE Lakers leave is not only that they lived through and became champions, but also how they responded to each new challenge.

If the championship in Cleveland made good on LeBron James’ promise to his hometown, this championship made good on the promise of his basketball journey. When he was 16 years old, James was assigned the moniker “The Chosen One.” There were campaigns built around being a witness to his career. In his 17th season, at the age of 35, it was James’ longevity of excellence that drew a captive audience.

“It means a lot to rep this franchise,” James said from the championship podium. “I told Jeanie when I came here that I was going to put this franchise back in a position where it belongs. Her late, great father did it for so many years, and she just took it on after that, and for me to be a part of such a historical franchise is an unbelievable feeling.”

The 2020 NBA Finals marked James’ fourth Finals MVP for his third different team. It was the sixth time in James’ career that he averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in the NBA Finals. The other five players to accomplish that did it only once (Kevin Durant, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). James’ 28-point, 14-rebound, 10-assist Game 6 triple-double was his 11th, the most in Finals history.

And yet upon his arrival to Los Angeles, James suggested there wasn’t much else for him to prove in the final chapters of his career. That looks silly now, after seeing how much he proved in this longest of seasons. That he did it against the Miami Heat, the team where he learned so much of his discipline and focus is even more meaningful.

Call it full circle, or just a man in full, James’ journey to this title and Finals MVP was a culmination of everything he’d learned and accomplished along the way.

“We just want our respect,” James continued from the podium. “Rob wants his respect, Coach Vogel wants his respect. The organization wants their respect, Laker Nation wants their respect. And I want my damn respect too.”

There was a moment in Game 5 on Friday when it looked as if James might have to go the last leg of this championship journey alone. Davis had landed awkwardly on his right heel, limping, then falling to the ground in pain, like a man who had just burst his Achilles tendon.

The entire Lakers team ran over to check on Davis as he grabbed his right foot. Cameras captured James’ face as he processed the thought of Davis sustaining a serious injury. His face said everything.

All season, James and Davis had pushed each other. To play at their top level, through injury and adversity. To block out the noise and the doubters. To keep, in one of James’ favorite sayings, the main thing, the main thing.

It’s rare in the annals of NBA history for a superstar duo to find such success in their first season playing together, without egos crowding the lane.

But James and Davis recognized their common purpose early on, having both paid a reputational price for the trade that brought Davis to Los Angeles in the summer of 2019. They spent time together, they trained together and, perhaps most important, they needed each other.

“I had seven years my first stint in Cleveland I felt like I couldn’t get over the hump, I felt like I needed some help, I felt like I needed someone to push me,” James said at the championship podium. “And that’s when I was able to go to Miami and get pushed by D-Wade [Dwyane Wade] and [Chris] Bosh and that franchise.

“So to be able to get [Davis], and we push him and let him know how great he is by just making him see better basketball and be a part of something that’s special, that’s what it’s all about. So to be able to put him where he is today, that means so much to me and the fact that he trusts me means even more.”

For James, Davis was his best, perhaps last shot, at making his golden years in L.A. actually golden. For Davis, James was the mentor he’d always sought.

“He was a great player before, but to get to play with LeBron, he can teach you this is what it’s all about,” Anthony Davis Sr. said. “For him to learn from LeBron and them to come together so quick, it’s just like, ‘Wow.'”

Davis’ bruised right heel was killing him. But they’d come too far together for it to end that way. Davis got up, paced along the sideline then waived every trainer away who dared come near him. He played the rest of Game 5, and was a defensive menace in the series-clinching win in Game 6.

“What people don’t understand about Anthony,” his father said, “if they go back and watch the championship game he played at Kentucky, he had a horrible game. I think he scored five points total, but he had like 15 rebounds and five blocked shots.

“He was like, ‘I don’t have it tonight, but I’m going to block and defend everything coming to the rim.’ He has that mentality still. He doesn’t have to score. All he cares about is winning. That’s the mentality he’s had since Kentucky.”

SO MUCH HAS happened since Bryant was killed along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven others on Jan. 26, we couldn’t imagine it was only the first punch to our collective guts in 2020.

“It’s still raw,” Buss said. “I think it’s going to be something I’m never going to get over.”

She says she finds strength in knowing he will always be remembered, and will continue to inspire. But it’s not the same as having him here, especially in a year like this.

“It’s such a tough loss,” she said. “But to know that everybody felt that same loss makes it feel like we’re not so alone.”

Those first few weeks after Bryant was killed are something of a blur now. There was the initial period of shock and deep sadness. There was the grief of his family, then the incredible strength of Vanessa Bryant at the celebration of life for Kobe and Gianna on Feb. 24.

And then there was the basketball season, which stopped for a day, as the Lakers and Clippers postponed their game on Jan. 28, a game that had seemed so meaningful just days earlier, as the two city rivals and championship contenders were set to square off for the third time, now felt meaningless.

Coach Frank Vogel brought the team back for a practice after a few days, just so they would all be together again. Vogel spent the first part of practice outdoors, under the California sun, hoping the fresh air and vitamin D would do them some good.

“That is one of the luxuries of living in Los Angeles,” Vogel said.

A few days later, the Lakers were supposed to play a game again. James knew the moment called for his voice.

“Now, I’ve got something written down,” he started. “But Laker Nation, man I would be selling y’all short if I read off this s— so I’m going to go straight from the heart.

“As I look around this arena, we’re all grieving, we’re all hurt, we’re all heartbroken and when we’re going through things like this, the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family.

“Now, I’ve heard about Laker Nation before I got here last year, about how much of a family it is and that is absolutely what I’ve seen this week,” James continued. “Not only from the players, the coaching staff and the organization, but from everybody. Everybody that’s here, this is truly, truly a family.”

EVERYTHING IS BIGGER when you do it as a Laker. Championships, statements, moments, your voice.

Like Bryant, James is a historian of the game. He knows which franchises are keepers of the flame with legacies that transcend great players and eras. He’d done a lot in his career before coming to Los Angeles, but if he won here, the impact would be great.

After George Floyd’s death, James called his longtime advisers Adam Mendelsohn and Maverick Carter. He wanted to say something, but he also wanted to do something.

Mendelsohn and Carter told him about a project they’d been working on called More Than a Vote, in anticipation of the election this November. James was all-in, and immediately started organizing video calls and meetings with other athletes so they could join forces and amplify their message.

When the Milwaukee Bucks staged an impromptu walkout of their game against the Orlando Magic in response to the Jacob Blake shooting, James again spoke with friends and advisers late into the night. He supported the Bucks and the cause, but the lack of planning and strategy was frustrating. Those close to him say now that James was very close to walking away from the season that night.

What changed everything was when he and Paul got on the phone with former President Barack Obama. Before he was president or a senator, Obama was a community organizer. His words late that night drew on that experience: Get something for this. Push the NBA, push the owners, push society to do more.

The next morning James, Paul and the Heat’s Andre Iguodala went about getting firm commitments from the league and owners on three initiatives: establishing a social justice coalition, using arenas as voting locations and including advertising spots in each playoff game to create greater civic engagement in national and local elections.

Then James and the Lakers resumed their season.

AS MUCH AS she appreciates the return to glory James has delivered to the Lakers franchise, it is his strength and conviction that Buss says she admires most.

“He is not afraid to use his platform to speak out about things that are important without worrying about backlash or public opinion,” Buss said. “He stands for what he believes in, and it’s made me stronger in being outspoken for things that I have now come to realize, speaking out for things that are right.”

She wrote and spoke on social justice issues throughout the season more than she ever had before, and did not worry about any backlash.

Perhaps it was just trust in her own counsel, as Jackson put it. Perhaps it was surviving the criticism from a summer before, and seeing her faith in Pelinka and the team restored by its performance.

Said one senior Lakers executive: “While some of our so-called rivals spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars trying to win media cycles, we kept our heads down and focused on basketball — because the only thing we’ve ever cared about winning is championships.”

But Buss had grown throughout this longest of seasons, too.

While her father was in charge, Buss was popular with Lakers fans. She sat in the second row at Staples Center. She was accessible to them.

“That’s one of the things that’s always amazed me about her and her father,” Jackson said. “They felt like the team was the city’s, the Lakers belong to L.A.”

It was initially hard to tell if James had miscalculated the way he’d be received by Lakers fans. Or if he was simply taking some time to warm up to his new city.

Fans bristled when they thought he announced an appearance at a Blaze Pizza and didn’t show. They painted murals around L.A. asserting Kobe Bryant was still the Lakers’ king, not King James. He might never live down the walk into Staples Center when cameras caught James, who was injured at the time, sipping a glass of wine.

“Well, one, what I’ve learned being a Laker is that the Laker faithful don’t give a damn what you’ve done before,” James said Thursday. “They don’t care about your résumé at all until you become a Laker. Then you’ve got to do it as a Laker, and then they respect you. I’ve learned that.”

Like Buss, James got here by staying focused on the work. Each day, each challenge, was something to get through. His sense of purpose never wavered.

“I didn’t like the way our season ended for us last year, especially myself with the injury and with our ballclub,” James said on Sept. 17. “My mom told me, ‘Don’t talk about it, be about it.’ So I didn’t talk much. Just go out and do your job.”

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4:09

Anthony Davis is at a loss for words after capturing his first title as he describes the feeling of winning the title for Kobe Bryant.

ALL THE HARD times tend to wash away when the championship champagne starts flowing. The shining moments rush to the front of your thoughts, the challenges recede.

Davis yelling “Kobe” after hitting a winning 3-pointer from one of Bryant’s favorite spots in the Western Conference finals. The confetti falling after the Western Conference finals and again at the end, right before they raised the championship trophy.

But those moments were sweeter because of the other moments that nearly broke them, and the way they responded.

“The fact that I’m here now means so much to me,” James said when he addressed the Staples Center crowd before the first game they played after Bryant’s death. “To continue his legacy not only for this year but as long as we can play the game we love.”

Buss got chills when Davis hit that 3-pointer and yelled out Bryant’s name.

“It was like, OK, he’s here,” she said. “People were like, ‘It’s planned, you guys are forcing this.’ And it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is completely organic. It comes from people’s hearts, it doesn’t come from a moment that can be planned.'”

One of the gifts of being so isolated in the NBA bubble for so long was that it provided plenty of time to think and reflect.

Buss arrived last week and stayed in the outer tier throughout the Finals. So close to the team that came together to win this title, and yet so far away, up in a balcony, behind a mask, cheering alongside one of her best friends of the past four decades, Lakers executive Linda Rambis.

Once the team won and the mission was complete, she was finally allowed down onto the floor to accept the trophy and fulfill her birthright.

“I am so proud of you both on and off the court,” she said to the team. “You’ve done Los Angeles proud with your hard work, your professionalism and your dedication. You have written your own inspiring chapter in the great Laker history.

“To Laker Nation. We have been through a heartbreaking tragedy with the loss of our beloved Kobe Bryant and Gianna. Let this trophy serve as a reminder of when we come together, believe in each other, incredible things can happen.

“When it’s safe, I look forward to celebrating with you. Until then, I will bring back the trophy to Los Angeles, where it belongs.”

Pelinka stood with the team he put together. His heart was still heavy, from the loss of Bryant, his longtime client and friend. But enough time has passed that he can appreciate what he still has, and what they all did together.

“When the deepest trial of life hit, we relied on the strength of each other,” Pelinka said. “And our own individual faiths, to find a path forward. We continued to believe that all things can somehow be worked together, to somehow, some way, find a good.”

What we learned about LeBron and the Lakers in their title run

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Way-too-early 2021 MLB Power Rankings: What’s next for Dodgers, Rays and all 30 teams

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We can only hope 2021 will be a more normal season, with 162 games and fans in the stands and hot dogs to eat and overpriced beer to drink. We don’t know what the state of things will be come April 1, when the 2021 season is scheduled to begin, but we can speculate on the state of the 30 franchises.

Yes, we’re back with our annual Way-Too-Early Power Rankings. There are a few obvious teams at the top, a handful at the bottom and a whole bunch in the middle. Throw in the difficulty of analyzing a 60-game season and the uncertainty of how the offseason will play out due to the financial losses of this season, and these are the most difficult rankings we have had to do. But we fearlessly move forward.

(Title odds for 2021 from Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill)

2020 record: 43-17
Won World Series
2021 title odds: 4-1

They’re reigning champs. They’ve won eight straight division titles. They have Mookie Betts signed for the long term. They have young starters such as Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin to keep the rotation strong for years to come. They have players capable of better seasons (Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Gavin Lux). They have a good farm system. They have financial flexibility, with only Betts signed past 2022 and all those young players to help them keep the payroll in check. Justin Turner is a free agent, but he would be a nice DH option if the NL makes that permanent. We know they will be good. But we know it’s really all about October.


2020 record: 35-25
Lost NLCS to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 12-1

The offense gives them a high floor:Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, even Travis d’Arnaud and Adam Duvall raked in 2020. Marcell Ozuna is a free agent and it would be nice to bring him back, but rookie center fielder Cristian Pache is ready and he looks like he’ll be valuable on both sides of the ball. The rotation will see the return of Mike Soroka from his Achilles injury and a full season of Ian Anderson to back up Max Fried. Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson have potential, and Atlanta will probably bring in a veteran starter on a one-year deal the way they did with Dallas Keuchel in 2019 and tried to do with Cole Hamels in 2020. The Braves will be favored to win a fourth straight division title even if they don’t do anything this offseason.


2020 record: 37-23
Lost Division Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 17-2

Sure, an argument can be made to put the Padres ahead of the Braves, but I think we have to first make sure Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger are completely healthy in spring training. San Diego brings back essentially every significant player after running out the youngest lineup in the NL, with Jake Cronenworth and Trent Grisham looking like foundation additions alongside Fernando Tatis Jr. (All were acquired in trades; good job, A.J. Preller!) We’ll see if Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers can match their 2020 rate of production, but if Luis Patino and MacKenzie Gore become impact starters, the Padres are poised to make a multiyear run in challenging the Dodgers for NL West supremacy.


2020 record: 40-20
Lost World Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 10-1

The Rays won their first division title since 2010 and did it in quite remarkable fashion, with 12 different relievers recording a save and the pitching staff overcoming a slew of injuries along the way. They were able to pull that off because of the depth of their staff, but having expanded rosters over the 60-game season made it possible to rely so heavily on the bullpen. Of course, you can argue that pitching depth will be even more valuable over 162 games. The offense isn’t elite, although we can’t wait to see what Randy Arozarena will do over a full season or if super rookie Wander Franco is ready to make an impact at some point in 2021.


2020 record: 35-25
Lost Wild Card Series to A’s
2021 title odds: 12-1

Much like the Braves, the offensive firepower of the White Sox should give them a high floor. Even if you see some regression coming from Jose Abreu or Tim Anderson, Luis Robert and Yoan Moncada should improve and a full season of Nick Madrigal will help. Michael Kopech, who opted out of 2020, will hopefully be back, but he hasn’t pitched in two years, so finding another veteran arm to go with ace Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel will be key. Closer Alex Colome is a free agent, but the White Sox have several power arms in their organization, including 2020 first-round pick Garrett Crochet, who could be a dominant reliever right away. Manager Rick Renteria and longtime pitching coach Don Cooper got the boot, with A.J. Hinch a possible replacement for Renteria. That would be an upgrade.


2020 record: 33-27
Lost Division Series to Rays
2021 title odds: 6-1

You can make an argument to put them a couple of spots higher, but not winning the AL East in 2020 points to some flaws. They simply can’t count on Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton being healthy for an entire season, plus DJ LeMahieu and Masahiro Tanaka are free agents, two important players to re-sign or replace. Of course, we know the Yankees will do something big, perhaps signing J.T. Realmuto and moving on from Gary Sanchez or trading for Francisco Lindor and shifting Gleyber Torres to second. Getting Luis Severino back from Tommy John surgery will be a big boost as well.


2020 record: 36-24
Lost Wild Card Series to Astros
2021 title odds: 14-1

The Twins didn’t do it quite like they did in 2019, when they bashed a record 307 home runs (although their 162-game pace for 2020 was still 259), as their team batting average dropped nearly 30 points, and they fell from second in the AL in runs to 10th. Still, they’ve established a foundation of success with three playoff appearances in four seasons. The big issue is they have a lot of free agents to replace or re-sign, starting with 40-year-old Nelson Cruz, but also Jake Odorizzi, Marwin Gonzalez, Rich Hill, Tyler Clippard, Trevor May and Homer Bailey. Those players were minor contributors, but with Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Taylor Rogers getting more expensive in arbitration, the Twins may not be able to fill out the roster with minor free agents the way they’ve done of late. They need a healthy Josh Donaldson, especially if Cruz leaves, and they will have to discard the emotional baggage of 18 consecutive playoff losses to get revved up for 162 games just to get back to October again.


2020 record: 36-24
Lost Division Series to Houston
2021 title odds: 14-1

The A’s weren’t as impressive as they were in 2019 — Matt Olson morphed into an extreme “three true outcomes” slugger, Matt Chapman‘s OBP dipped to .276 and Marcus Semien declined from his third-place MVP performance. They still coasted to the AL West title though, and the division projects as being pretty soft, at least right now. Semien and closer Liam Hendriks are free agents as are several other key role players, so this ranking is not presented with a high degree of confidence. The A’s always seem to maximize their talent, and I do think the rotation will be much better, making up for some of the likely bullpen regression.


2020 record: 26-34
Tied for fourth in NL East
2021 title odds: 30-1

I feel like we need another National League team here, but let’s be honest: There is a wide gap between the NL’s top three teams and the block of mediocre teams in the middle. Let’s roll the dice on the Mets with new owner Steve Cohen to the rescue (once he gets formally approved). Let’s just say Mets fans are pumped about Cohen’s WAW (wins above Wilpon). There have already been reports about all the money he’ll sink into the franchise, not just on players but things like building out a more robust analytics staff. Aside from any splashy moves Cohen may make — trading for Nolan Arenado or Francisco Lindor? Signing J.T. Realmuto or Trevor Bauer? — there is a strong base of talent here. They ranked third in the majors in wOBA (behind the Braves and Dodgers) and fifth in the majors in pitcher strikeout rate. They should be better — a familiar refrain for Mets fans, unfortunately.


2020 record: 34-26
Lost Wild Card Series to Marlins
2021 title odds: 25-1

Everyone was down on the Cubs, especially after that sad two-and-out to the Marlins, but we do need to point out Chicago still won the NL Central despite Javier Baez (59 OPS+), Kris Bryant (73) and Kyle Schwarber (88) all producing well below an average major league hitter and Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras performing below their career norms. That continues a downward trend for this once-great offensive core, from second in the NL in runs in 2016 and 2017 to fourth in 2018, fifth in 2019 and 10th in 2020. Baez, Bryant, Schwarber and Rizzo are all free agents after 2021, but frankly, the trade value for Bryant and Schwarber — and even Baez, to a lesser extent — has cratered. Theo Epstein also hinted that 2021 will be his last season with the Cubs. Does this group get one last chance? In a weak division, with some bounce-back potential, the Cubs could be better than everyone believes. Or maybe the front office will just tear it all down.


2020 record: 29-31
Lost ALCS to Rays
2021 title odds: 20-1

It promises to be a busy winter for the Astros. George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick are all free agents, while Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and Zack Greinke are set to be free agents after 2021, as are Justin Verlander and Roberto Osuna, both of whom will likely miss the season following Tommy John surgery. They’ll need more from Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman (and don’t forget about Yordan Alvarez) but they could have a strong rotation if they keep McCullers and Greinke to go with Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy. The outfield free-agent market is thin, so if Springer and Brantley sign elsewhere, the Astros may have to scramble to find help for Kyle Tucker.


2020 record: 35-25
Lost Wild Card Series to Yankees
2021 title odds: 20-1

We start with one of the biggest questions of the entire offseason: Will Cleveland trade Francisco Lindor? It seems weird to say this, but there isn’t an obvious fit, as most of the top teams are set at shortstop. It will be interesting to see if a team tries to pull the Mookie Betts maneuver: trade for Lindor, then sign him to a big extension before he hits free agency after the 2021 season. Aside from the Lindor issue, it’s going to be a similar Cleveland team as we’ve seen the past two years: enough starting pitching to be a playoff team, but an offense that may prevent them from getting there. Please, find some competent outfielders. Cleveland’s outfielders hit .196/.270/.304.


2020 record: 30-28
Lost Wild Card Series to Padres
2021 title odds: 30-1

In one sense, it’s harder to evaluate what the Cardinals did in 2020 than any other team, with them having to play 11 doubleheaders after the team’s COVID-19 outbreak early in the season. On the other hand, they were exactly what we thought they would be: below-average offense with no power, good defense, good bullpen, decent starting pitching. I just don’t how they’re going to get better, especially given that some of their pitching peripheral numbers don’t quite match the ERA figures. Look, as always, you can never discount the Cardinals. They haven’t had a losing season since 2007. The division is wide open. Jack Flaherty will be better. Dylan Carlson could give them an impact outfielder. The bullpen projects as a big strength.


2020 record: 26-34
Tied for fourth in NL East
2021 title odds: 30-1

No team had less incentive in 2020 than the Nationals, and once Stephen Strasburg went down, it kind of felt like the entire team went down with him. Juan Soto played at an MVP level for 47 games, leading the NL in batting average and the majors in OBP and slugging. It wasn’t a full season so I’m not saying it compares, but his 212 OPS+ was the best since Barry Bonds in 2004.

There are concerns in the starting rotation, however, beyond Strasburg’s nerve issue. Anibal Sanchez fell apart, Patrick Corbin got knocked around (85 hits in 65⅔ innings) and even Max Scherzer had his highest ERA since 2012.The real problem may have been the defense: The Nationals ranked last in the majors with minus-43 defensive runs saved. As always, depth is an issue and they need youngsters Carter Kieboom (no home runs in 99 at-bats) and Victor Robles (.608 OPS) to contribute at the plate. If Strasburg is healthy, don’t ignore the 2019 champs.


2020 record: 32-28
Lost Wild Card Series to Rays
2021 title odds: 50-1

The Blue Jays face a very interesting offseason after making the playoffs as a wild card and ranking third in the AL in runs. The offense potentially looks even better if you’re buying the breakouts of Teoscar Hernandez and Rowdy Tellez. Worth noting: The Jays hit much better at their temporary home in Buffalo, so we have to be careful about overrating the offense. Hyun-Jin Ryu was terrific (at least until his playoff start), but the rest of the rotation was so problematic that the Jays acquired Taijuan Walker, Robbie Ray and Ross Stripling for the stretch run. Walker and Ray are free agents, but Nate Pearson will help, and the Jays should have some money to spend in free agency.


2020 record: 28-32
Third in NL East
2021 title odds: 40-1

It’s hard to see the Phillies much better than the .500 team they’ve been the past three seasons, which led to general manager Matt Klentak being reassigned within the organization. They had two great starters in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler and finished fourth in the NL in runs, but the bullpen (6.92 ERA, worst of all time) undermined all the positives. The Phillies allowed a .345 average on balls in play, and maybe that would drop over a full season, but it stands as the highest ever. This has been a multiyear problem. They were middle of the pack in BABIP allowed in 2019, but fifth-worst in 2018 and sixth-worst in 2017. They’ve been unable to fix the defense. Anyway, J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius are free agents. The payroll would have been more than $200 million given a full season in 2020, so you wonder if there is room to re-sign Realmuto and fix the bullpen and replace/re-sign Gregorius and maybe add another starter.


2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in AL West
2021 title odds: 40-1

Billy Eppler is out as general manager after a five-year run that included no winning seasons. Yes, he inherited the bad Albert Pujols contract, but he also inherited Mike Trout and was never able to build a successful team around him, despite additions like Andrelton Simmons, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon. Simmons is a free agent, Pujols is finally down to his final season and Jared Walsh (.971 OPS, nine home runs in 99 at-bats, a low 13.9% strikeout rate) has to play. The immediate concerns are trying to turn Jo Adell into a major league hitter (.161, 55 strikeouts, seven walks in 132 PAs), figure out what happened to Ohtani (.190) and Justin Upton (.204) and — as always — address the pitching. Sounds like the same story as the past five years.


2020 record: 29-31
Lost Wild Card Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 50-1

This is a difficult team to read. The Brewers didn’t hit at all in 2020 (I think the NL must have stored its balls in Lake Michigan, because nobody could hit). Two-time batting champ and 2018 MVP Christian Yelich hit just .205, and I know it was just 58 games, but his strikeout rate went from 20.3% to 30.8%. Something doesn’t add up there.

They do have two great one-two combos in Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes in the rotation and Devin Williams and Josh Hader in the bullpen. Does Williams’ stunning breakout (53 K’s in 27 innings) make Hader trade bait? Burnes certainly looked like the real deal with his new cutter, but he’ll have to prove he can do it over 30 starts instead of 10. David Stearns is one of the more creative GMs around, although he’d probably like a do-over on the Trent Grisham/Zach Davies for Luis Urias/Eric Lauer deal.


2020 record: 24-36
Fifth in AL East
2021 title odds: 60-1

This was the hardest team to project. The pitching was so awful — 5.85 runs per game, the most for the franchise since 1932 — that it’s easy to assume it will be bad again in 2021. It was also bad in 2019 (5.11 runs per game), so we have a two-year track record. Maybe they get Chris Sale back at midseason and Eduardo Rodriguez returns from his COVID-related heart issue. There is a nice offensive core with Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Alex Verdugo and Christian Vazquez (and J.D. Martinez if he bounces back). I’m not sure what Bobby Dalbec will be. I guess his upside is Joey Gallo, if that’s a good thing. More importantly, is Chaim Bloom playing the long game or will there be pressure to get the Red Sox immediately back into contender status?


2020 record: 31-29
Lost Wild Card Series to Braves
2021 title odds: 25-1

The Reds sneaked into the playoffs as a wild card with a late surge, but the team embarrassingly exited with two shutouts to the Braves, including a 13-inning defeat. The Reds have morphed into the most extreme example of a “three true outcomes” offense we’ve seen in this launch-angle era. They ranked fourth in the NL in home runs and first in walks, but hit a pathetic .212. The entire package added up to ranking just 13th in the NL in runs, then you dig deeper and realize they hit 55 home runs at home and 35 on the road, so much of their power was simply a result of their home park. It’s a bad offense, and I’m not sure it improves much in 2021. Trevor Bauer is a sure bet to sign elsewhere as a free agent, and we still don’t know if Nick Senzel is the solution in center field or an injury-prone role player.


2020 record: 31-29
Lost Division Series to Braves
2021 title odds: 60-1

It was a fun ride to their first postseason trip since 2003, but once you get past the starting trio of Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez, holes remain. The pitching staff was next to last in the majors in strikeout rate, and the team’s top five relievers were all 30-something guys you can’t necessarily count on for 2021. There are no offensive stars as the lineup relied on stopgap veterans, while the young hitters still have trouble controlling the strike zone (and the young hitters aren’t really all that young). The minus-41 run differential is a little misleading as the Marlins had to use more players than any other team due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but I’m not sure I see another .500 season unless some of the young hitters suddenly develop into solid regulars.


2020 record: 29-31
Third in NL West
2021 title odds: 80-1

Call me skeptical. They went from the second-worst offense in the NL to a top-five offense — without making any significant additions. Brandon Belt with a 1.000 OPS? Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson over .900? Donovan Solano chasing a batting title? I smell a lot of regression coming on, and the Giants don’t have the rotation to back that up. They also had the oldest lineup in the league: Mauricio Dubon is the only returning regular who won’t be 30 or older in 2021. Maybe catcher Joey Bart makes an impact, but a 41 to 3 strikeout-to-walk rate suggests he’s not ready for prime time. Several of their big contracts come off the books after 2021 if you factor in buyouts, so look for the Giants to wait until that big 2021-22 free-agent class to start flipping over the roster.


2020 record: 27-33
Third in AL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

There were some nice positives in 2020: Kyle Lewis may win Rookie of the Year, Justus Sheffield was much improved, Marco Gonzales solidified himself as one of the most underrated starters in the majors, Dylan Moore turned into one of the best utility players as a power/speed combo. But there is still zero star power here, at least until Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez arrive as potential All-Star outfielders, Kelenic in 2021 and Rodriguez probably in 2022. Jerry Dipoto will have to reconstruct a bullpen that was one of the worst in the league (5.92 ERA). The Mariners are on the rise and have other potential impact prospects, including pitchers Logan Gilbert and Emerson Hancock, but look for them to hold the course in 2021 and push forward in 2022.


2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in AL Central
2021 title odds: 150-1

The Royals have some interesting young pitchers in Brad Keller, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, with Josh Staumont as a potential closer, but there are still huge gaps across the roster, especially on the offensive side of things. They need to figure out center field, second base and left field, and even Adalberto Mondesi Jr. now looks like just a placeholder at short until Bobby Witt Jr. arrives in a couple of years. This ranking could be selling the Royals a bit short, as young pitching can carry a team if it comes fast (and 2020 top pick Asa Lacy may not need much time in the minors), but they need to find some hitters.


2020 record: 25-35
Fifth in NL West
2021 title odds: 60-1

That was ugly, and the fans are turning on the team after a couple of years of trades (Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke and the deadline deals this season) that don’t appear to have returned any front-line talent. Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar, so good in 2019, fell off, with Marte inexplicably deciding he no longer wanted to walk. Robbie Ray couldn’t throw strikes and was finally traded. Merrill Kelly hurt his shoulder. Madison Bumgarner didn’t win a game. The problem for 2021? The Diamondbacks had the second-oldest lineup in the NL (six of their top eight regulars were 29 or older). Bumgarner now looks like a bad $80 million gamble. They’re only a season removed from going 85-77, so there is rebound potential, but the Snakes are a mess at the moment.


2020 record: 25-35
Fourth in AL East
2021 title odds: 150-1

Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of positives in 2020, especially after losing 108 games in 2019 and 115 in 2018. Anthony Santander had a small-sample breakout with the metrics to back it up. Ryan Mountcastle looks ready to join the lineup in 2021 and Trey Mancini will hopefully be back at full strength after finishing his chemo treatment in September. Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer could be arms to watch for the rotation.

They do have financial flexibility, especially as they get closer to the end of Chris Davis‘ deal, and with Adley Rutschman close to the majors and starters D.L. Hall and Grayson Rodriguez perhaps ready in 2022, the farm is better than it’s been in at least 10 years. But the base level of talent here remains pretty low.


2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in NL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

Right now, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story are still on the roster. Will they be there come spring training? The relationship between Arenado and the Rockies is strained, making him a trade candidate this winter. He won’t be easy to trade, though: He didn’t have a good 2020 at the plate, ended the season on the IL, has a full no-trade clause and can opt out of his deal after 2021. If Arenado is traded, you could see the Rockies dealing Story as well since he’s a free agent after 2021. Mostly, this team just needs a makeover. They ranked eighth in the NL in runs, and for a Rockies team, that’s horrible. (They had finished below fifth just one other time in franchise history.)


2020 record: 23-35
Fifth in AL Central
2021 title odds: 200-1

Sometimes you just have to point out the obvious: Jeimer Candelario was the team’s best player in 2020 — a 26-year-old first baseman who hit .203 the year before. Look, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal project as good starters at some point, but their struggles in limited action in 2020 suggest that may not be in 2021. Along with Spencer Turnbull and prospect Matt Manning, there is a rotation to dream on, but there is no offense, and Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, their top position player prospects, are more on a 2022 timetable.


2020 record: 22-38
Fifth in AL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

The Rangers continue to go backward. They were bad in 2020 in a year they thought they could contend, they weren’t particularly young and the farm system has struggled to develop pitchers and turn toolsy position players into quality hitters. The offense had a brutal year — and not just because of the new park. They didn’t hit on the road either. It’s time to admit that Joey Gallo and Rougned Odor are never going to be the core of a championship lineup, and if Lance Lynn is traded — he’ll be a free agent after 2021 — the rotation will have a huge hole to fill.


2020 record: 19-41
Fifth in NL Central
2021 title odds: 300-1

Let’s see, a small-market team coming off the worst record in the sport, won’t spend any money in free agency, and whose three best players in 2019 were all terrible in 2020. The first step is to hope Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman rebound, but with most of the organization’s top prospects still a ways off, the short-term outlook looks bleak. Heck, the long-term outlook isn’t exactly full of roses and puppies.

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Bryant, out 2 years, joins Ravens practice squad

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Dez Bryant is back in the NFL.

The Baltimore Ravens signed the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver to their practice squad, the team announced Tuesday. Bryant has been out of the league for two years.

Bryant appeared to acknowledge the deal in a tweet Tuesday: “My emotions running high right now… I’m thankful…I can’t stop crying”

The biggest question is when Bryant will suit up for the Ravens. Baltimore’s wide receivers rank last in the NFL in receptions (58) and receiving yards (737).

Bryant, 31, could become a physical possession-type receiver for reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and can complement the speed of Marquise Brown.

The addition of Bryant might lead to a high-profile reunion on Dec. 3, when the Ravens play host to the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday Night Football. Bryant starred for the Cowboys for eight seasons, totaling 531 receptions for 7,459 yards and a franchise-record 73 touchdown catches.

“Obviously, that’s kind of like an ‘OG’-type guy,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said when asked about Bryant on Monday. “He’s been around the league for a long, long time. He actually followed me on Twitter a year or two ago, so I’m excited to meet him, and I’m excited to [be] around him hopefully, and just learn.”

This marked Bryant’s second workout with Baltimore in two months. When Bryant left in August without a contract, he was told to improve his conditioning, a source said.

The Ravens are off to a fast start at 5-1, but their passing game ranks 31st in the NFL. It looks as if Jackson would benefit from another target on the outside because Brown is the only Baltimore wide receiver with more than 11 catches this season.

Bryant is attempting to become the second Pro Bowl wide receiver to miss two full seasons and then return to the NFL since the 1970 merger, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. Josh Gordon was the first.

Bryant hasn’t played in a game since December 2017.

In November 2018, Bryant signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. But he tore an Achilles tendon during his first practice with the Saints and has been out of the NFL since.

Bryant’s 531 career receptions would be the most by any wide receiver before missing two full seasons and then returning to the NFL, according to Elias’ data.

To make room for Bryant, the Ravens waived safety Marcus Gilchrist from the practice squad.

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Augusta National to host College GameDay during Masters

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ESPN’s College GameDay Built By the Home Depot show has originated from dozens of college campuses across the country since 1993.

On Saturday, Nov. 14, the show will combine two of sport’s greatest traditions — college football and the Masters.

ESPN announced on Tuesday that College GameDay will originate from Augusta National Golf Club, which is hosting the postponed Masters Tournament next month, Nov. 12-15.

Top matchups that day are No. 9 Wisconsin at No. 13 Michigan and No. 2 Alabama at LSU.

“Any time College GameDay travels to a new destination, it’s special, and the opportunity to be on the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters is extraordinary,” said Jimmy Pitaro, chairman, ESPN and Sports Content. “As this iconic event coincides with the college football season for the first time, we look forward to getting fans ready for a football Saturday while also showcasing the Masters and the greatest golfers in the world.”

Longtime ESPN hosts Rece Davis, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and others will broadcast from the par-3 course from 9 a.m. to noon ET.

In its 13th year at the Masters, ESPN will once again televise the first and second rounds, Nov. 12-13, from 1 to 5:30 p.m. There will also be expanded coverage on ESPN+, including exclusive practice-round coverage Nov. 10-11.

Golf fans will also be able to watch featured holes coverage on ESPN+ on Nos. 4, 5 and 6 in each of the four rounds of the Masters.

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