SPORTS DIGEST: L.A.’s favorite teams headed in different directions

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Los Angeles’ two favorite sports teams will both be in Colorado this weekend, though they are going in two different directions.

The Los Angeles Dodgers open their 2022 baseball season April 8 with a game against the Colorado Rockies.

Two days later, the Lakers follow the Dodgers to Denver to play the Denver Nuggets in the final game of their 2021-22 season.

The Dodgers are once again favored to win the National League Western Division and win the World Series for the second time in three seasons.

The Lakers will miss the playoffs for the seventh time in the last nine seasons and who knows when they will make the playoffs again, let alone contend for another championship.

This season wasn’t supposed to end like this. The Lakers rebuilt their roster last summer, adding some of the best NBA players of the last 15 years.

Unfortunately, Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony are all well past their prime and never meshed with returning starters LeBron James and Anthony Davis. It didn’t help that James and Davis couldn’t stay healthy.

The Lakers were eliminated from the playoff chase April 5, losing to the Phoenix Suns — the best team in the NBA this season — 121-110.

James missed his 23rd game of the season, sidelined this time by a sprained ankle. Davis is back in the lineup after missing 39 games with assorted injuries this year.

The Lakers were supposed to be built for a championship run this year. With James, Davis and Westbrook, the Lakers had three all-stars in the starting lineup.

Howard and Anthony were former all-stars coming off the bench to provide scoring punch (Anthony) and defense (Howard) and veteran leadership.

It never meshed.

James and Westbrook both are at their best when they are running the offense. They never learned how to share the ball.

And then there were the injuries. Kendrick Nunn, an offseason free agent signing, never got on the court all year, suffering from a bone bruise in his knee. Trevor Ariza, another offseason signee, missed the first three months of the season and never found his form.

Head coach Frank Vogel used 39 different starting lineups trying to find the right combination amidst all the injuries. Vogel will probably be the fall guy in this horrible season. He could be fired as early as April 11, the day after the season ends, but the blame for this season’s failure can be spread around.

General manager Rob Pelinka should never have traded Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to acquire Westbrook and his $40 million salary. With James, Westbrook and Davis all on the roster, the Lakers couldn’t afford to resign guard Alex Caruso over the summer, losing him to the Chicago Bulls.

Caruso isn’t a superstar, but he plays defense, can hit an outside jump shot and does a lot of the little things a championship team needs from its role players. He has been missed.

Pelinka could have signed Compton native Demar DeRozan in the offseason, but chose to trade for Westbrook instead. He also turned down a deal that would have brought sharpshooting guard Buddy Hield from Sacramento.

Both DeRozan and Hield would have fit in better with the Lakers than Westbrook, but James wanted to play with Westbrook and the Lakers coddled their superstar. It cost them in the end.

With three games left in their season, James has to decide whether to let his ankle heal or shoot for the first NBA scoring title in his illustrious career. He currently trails Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid by one-10th of a point, but James needs to play in at least two of the Lakers last three games to qualify for the scoring title.

It will be interesting to see what decision he makes. He will have five months to rest until training camp opens in September.

Lakers owner Jeanne Buss must decide what kind of changes the Lakers need to make in the offseason. Westbrook is owed $45 million next year and it is hard to imagine any other team wanting that kind of contract. Malik Monk may have been the most pleasant surprise for this year’s Lakers, but he is a free agent again this offseason and the Lakers may not be able to afford to bring him back.

Davis remains one of the top players in the league, when healthy, but he hasn’t been able to stay on the court for most of the last two seasons.

The Lakers might be better off trading him, blowing up the entire roster this summer and starting over again.

But will King James be willing to do that as his career winds down? One way or another, it will be a long (and busy) offseason for the Lakers.

HAPPIER PATH: The Dodgers, on the other hand, just keep getting better.

Going into the start of spring training, their biggest question mark was who would replace Kenley Jansen at the back end of the bullpen.

Jansen signed a free agent contract with the Atlanta Braves once the lockout ended and the Dodgers needed someone to replace him. Last week, team president Andrew Friedman found that someone.

Craig Kimbrel, the only active major leaguer with more career saves than Jansen, was acquired for outfielder A.J. Pollock in a trade with the Chicago White Sox.

With Kimbrel available for the ninth inning, that means the Dodgers can use Blake Trienen as a stopper in the seventh or eighth innings of close games, depending who is coming to bat for the opposing team.

It makes the bullpen deeper, and answers the one question mark the Dodgers had going into the season.

The Dodgers might miss Pollock’s bat, but with a lineup that includes former most valuable players like Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Cody Bellinger, plus returning batting champion Trea Turner, Justin Turner and Max Muncy, the Dodgers will score runs.

Their starting pitching rotation will sort itself out as the season progresses, with top prospect Bobby Miller waiting in the wings in Oklahoma City and Dustin May expected back from Tommy John surgery in July or August.

Miller pitched three innings against the Angeles April 5 in the final spring training game. He struck out reigning American League most valuable player Shohei Ohtani, the first batter he faced, on a 100 miles-an-hour fastball. Overall, he gave up one hit, walked two and struck out three in his first appearance in a major league ballpark, It won’t be his last.

The Dodgers had their streak of eight consecutive National League Western Division titles snapped by the Giants last year, even though they won 106 games. The Giants don’t figure to win 107 games again this year, but the Dodgers might win 106 again.

And with the new playoff format — where the top two teams in each league get a bye in the first round of the playoffs — the Dodgers could be primed for another championship run.

The only caution: That’s what we thought about the Lakers last October.

MUST-SEE TV: Tiger Woods returns to action on the Professional Golf Association tour this week at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia.

Barely 14 months removed from a traffic accident here in Los Angeles that almost cost him his life and then his leg, Woods announced April 4 he would tee it up April 7 when the Masters begins and see how his leg would hold up.

Woods hasn’t played a full tournament since November 2020, when he last competed in the Masters, which was held seven months late that year because of the pandemic.

The only tournament he has played in since his accident was the PNC Championship Golf Tournament last December, where his 12-year-old son Charlie stole the show. Woods used a golf cart to get around the golf course in that tournament, which was not a PGA-sanctioned event.

He will have to walk the Masters course this week and the biggest issue is whether his leg can withstand fours days and 72 holes of golf.

Woods, of course, said he is playing in the Masters to win the tournament. He has won the tournament five times, trailing only Jack Nicklaus, who has won six Masters titles.

With 15 major tournament wins, Woods is still chasing Nicklaus’ record of 18.

ESPN is showing the tournament April 7 and 8 starting at noon each day.

CBS takes over the broadcasts April 9 and 10th.

The Masters may be the best golf tournament all year. It’s even better when Tiger Woods is competing and if Woods is anywhere near the top of the leader board come April 10, there won’t be anything more compelling to watch this month, whish is saying something after the NCAA Final Four this past week.

PLAYOFF-BOUND: The Clippers will play the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA’s play-in tournament April 12 in Minneapolis. A win in that game will make the Clippers the seventh seed in the NBA Western Conference, giving them an opening round matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies.

If they lose that game, they get one more chance to make the playoffs, playing April 14 against the winner of the play-in game between the New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs.

Norman Powell, who the Clippers acquired from Portland prior to the NBA trading deadline, has been practicing with the team and may be ready to return from a toe injury. He will provide the Clippers with some much-needed offense.

Kawhi Leonard, recovering from offseason knee surgery, was seen shooting free throws before a recent Clippers game. No word on his potential return for the playoffs, which would make the Clippers a very dangerous team indeed.

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