By Don Wanlass
It’s been a year since the coronavirus shut down what a long ago Saturday afternoon television series called the Wide World of Sports.
For four long months we survived without sports on television, forcing many sports fans like myself to find new pastimes or rediscover old ones.
Since the end of last July, when the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League resumed their 2019-20 seasons and Major League Baseball began its abbreviated 2020 season, sports have bounced back and we are now getting close to fans being allowed back in stadium and arenas in Southern California. Even high school are starting to gear up for a shortened season.
Los Angeles sports team shined during the pandmeic. The Lakers and Dodgers both won championships. The Clippers and Rams both made the playoffs.
There are still some coronavirus concerns — they will be here for at least the rest of this year — but the National Football league season went by without a hitch and the other sports have adjusted to coronavirus testing, contact tracing, social distancing and all the other phrases we have learned in the last year.
The players have learned they can perform with no audience, but have also learned how much energy fans bring with them to the games. And the players feed off that energy and miss it when it isn’t there.
They also have learned that there are worse things than two-week road trips. Try two-week road trips without being able to leave your hotel except to go to games.
One thing the four months of no sports showed us is that we could survive without sports if we have to. That’s something professional sports owners and athletes alike should realize.
We enjoy watching, but we can find other things to do. Players’ unions and leagues have argued long and hard over amendments to collective bargaining agreements during the pandemic as the owners tried to put product on the field to reap the rewards of fat television contracts while the players sought to stay as safe as possible while still collecting their large paychecks.
But any lingering animosity between players and owners should be put aside as collective bargaining agreements come to an end and new contract talks begin.
The NFL has labor peace through 2030; basketball and baseball have new talks just around the corner.
There is plenty of money to go around and we’re our ready to spend it to see great athletes perform for us. As Staples Center, Dodger Stadium and other Southland venues get ready to welcome fans back through the turnstiles, let’s remember that, for most of us, sports is just a diversion.
SECOND HALF: The second half of the NBA season begins this week with the Lakers and the Clippers in slumps that have seen them fall to the third and fourth best records in the NBA’s Western Conference.
There is still plenty of time to get pointed in the right direction for both teams, who will trade a mid-season slump for a late-season slump anytime. Both teams have weaknesses that might be addressed as the trading deadline approaches.
The Lakers need more productivity from their big men and better three-point shooting up and down the roster.
Marc Gasol is showing his age at center and Montrezl Harrell’s defensive deficiencies sometimes get in the way of his productivity. JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard mostly flew under the radar last year but they provided a last line of defense that the Lakers miss a lot this season.
Of course, a healthy Anthony Davis will solve a lot of the Lakers’ front-line problems.
The three-point shooting is another story. As a whole, the team has a .351 shooting percentage from three-point range, 24th in the league.
Kentavious Caldwell Pope and Alex Caruso are the only players who average better than 40% long distance and they are at 40.2% and 40%, respectively.
LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma take the most three-point shots per game and they are shooting at 35.8% and 36.5%, respectively.
Those stats might not matter now, but come playoff time, the Lakers might need more firepower from outside in case they got caught in a playoff series against a team full of outside shooters.
The Clippers don’t have problems with their front line, thanks to Ivica Zubac, the former Laker. I wonder if Rob Pelinka wants that trade back now.
The Clippers do need a point guard, particularly late in close games. The ball tends to find Kawhi Leonard or Paul George down the stretch.
Both of those superstars can score, but they have trouble finding open players when the double team comes and they often force low-percentage shots instead of finding the open man. They would be better off with the ball in the hands of a point guard and them cutting toward the basket with open looks.
There is plenty of time to make any necessary roster changes and most teams are still among the favorites to make deep playoff runs. But, halfway through the season, the blemishes are easy to find.
SECOND LOOK: While on the subject of basketball, I was recently looking back on the Lakers draft picks in recent years. Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss drew a lot of criticism from Lakers fans after the deep went seven years without a trip to the playoffs, but they could find talent in the draft.
IN 2014, the Lakers had the seventh pick overall in the draft, their highest draft pick since drafting James Worthy number one overall in 1982. They drafted Julius Randle out of Kentucky. Now a member of the New York Knicks, Randle made the all-star team this year.
The next year, the Lakers had two first round draft picks. They picked Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell at No. 2 overall and Larry Nance Jr. at No. 27. Russell is averaging 19.3 points a game for the Minnesota Timberwolves and played in the All Star Game in 2019.
Nance is averaging 9.3 points a game for the Cleveland Cavaliers and has averaged 8.2 points per game during his six seasons.
In their last draft leading the Lakers, Kupchak and Bass drafted Brandon Ingram No. 2 overall and Zubac early in the second round. Like Randle and Russell, Ingram has become an all star and Zubac is a key contributor for the contending Clippers.
Kupchak and Buss may have done a poor job of building the rest of the roster, but they deserve some credit for their last three drafts.
The Lakers used a lot of those draft picks in the trades that brought them LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Of course, it also helped having three top 10 draft choices three years in a row, which unfortunately is the sign of a bad team. The Lakers also had a top two draft pick in 2017, the first year of the Magic Johnson-Pelinka era. That became Lonzo Ball, a key player in the trade for Davis.
MARCH MADNESS: USC and UCLA open play in the Pac 12 men’s basketball tournament in Las Vegas March 11 with both teams optimistic about their chances of making the NCAA Tournament.
The Trojans finished half a game from winning the Pac 12 regular season; the Bruins fourth. Both teams struggled down the stretch after running off early winning streaks that may have built a false sense of confidence in both teams.
The Trojans are led by freshman big man Evan Mobley, who only has a few games left in his college career. He figures to be a top five draft pick in the NBA Draft this year. Mobley’s brother, Isaiah, also provides inside power for the Trojans, along with Chevez Goodwin, one of three transfers who have provided big minutes for the Trojans this year.
Goodwin came from Wofford, point guard Tahj Eaddy came from Santa Clara and wing man Drew Peterson came from Rice.
The Trojans also get help from sophomore guard Ethan Anderson out of Fairfax High, who provides high energy on both ends of the floor for coach Andy Enfield.
The Trojans were sailing along on their way to a conference championship until they lost three games out of four from Feb. 20 to Feb. 27.
That allowed Oregon to sneak in and win the conference title despite losing to the Trojans, 72-58, in their only meeting.
UCLA opens the Pac 12 Tournament against Oregon State at 2:30 p.m. The Bruins started the season 8-0 and then went 9-8 the rest of the season.
They have lost key players like 6-9 Chris Smith to injury and 6-10 Jalen Hill who left the team for personal reasons in January. But the Bruins have a good mix of veterans and young players.
Tyger Campbell runs the team as point guard and Johnny Juzang, a transfer from Kentucky, is the leading scorer.
Jaime Jaquez is a wing who needs to score if the Bruins are going to make a mark in the conference tournament and assure a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The Bruins are currently considered a bubble team and might be forced to play in a play-in game to qualify for March Madness.
They need big man Cody Riley to stay out of foul trouble and freshman Mac Etienne to continue to show improvement if they are to play themselves deep into the Pac 12 Tournament and force themselves into the big dance.