SPORTS DIGEST: Rating L.A. sports teams on a sliding scale

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

As we come to the end of 2021, it’s time to look ahead to 2022 and see how our local teams are set for the future.

Someone once told me that you are either rising or falling. If you think you are staying level, you are setting yourself up for a fall, so I am examining the teams based on whether they are rising or falling.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS: By winning eight consecutive National League Western Division titles while the Lakers were struggling to make the playoffs (prior to their 2020 title), the Dodgers regained their position as Los Angeles’ favorite sports team.

But that position could be tenuous, depending on how team President Andrew Friedman rebuilds the roster (if the owners and players can agree on a new collective bargaining agreement).

The Dodgers have already lost shortstop Corey Seager and starting pitcher Max Scherzer to free agency. They don’t know yet if they will have to pay pitcher Trevor Bauer not to pitch for them next year, which may make replacing Scherzer difficult, if not impossible.

The Dodgers have other question marks, too. Will Cody Bellinger bounce back from a horrible 2021 season? Will Max Muncy’s injured elbow heal enough for him to resume his place in the middle of the batting order. At 37, will Justin Turner continue to be productive?

If Kenley Jansen doesn’t return, who will close in the Dodgers bullpen? Besides Walker Buehler and Julio Urias, who starts for the Dodgers?

Friedman has at least two months to answer these questions and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a major trade go down once (if) a new collective bargain agreement is approved. But I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Giants or Padres win the National league West next season. The Dodgers are falling, if ever so slightly.

LOS ANGELES RAMS: The Rams are on the rise. They are in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years and they lead the National Football Conference Western Division by a game with two games to play.

They have all stars at defensive tackle (Aaron Donald), corner back (Jalen Ramsey) and wide receiver (Cooper Kupp). Matthew Stafford is an improvement over Jared Goff at quarterback.

But the Rams need to do some damage in the playoffs to continue on the trajectory they are on. They have all the ingredients to succeed, but with the coronavirus leaving rosters uncertain from week to week, anything can happen, especially in the National Football League.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: If this had been written before the Chargers lost to the Houston Texans, 41-29, Dec. 26, I would have said the Chargers were definitely on the rise. Now, I’m not so sure.

They have a Pro Bowl quarterback in Justin Herbert, all stars like Derwin James and Joey Boza on defense and receivers like Keenan Allen and Mike Williams to complement Herbert.

But after losing to the Texans, the Chargers fell to 8-7 in a four-way logjam for the final playoff spot in the American Football Conference. The Chargers end the season with games against division rivals Denver and Las Vegas.

If the Chargers plan to make the playoffs, they better win both of those games. They are a team on the rise, but that trajectory has flattened out in the last week.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS: If the Lakers were a jet aircraft someone would be yelling “Mayday, Mayday” into the radio. The Lakers, despite snapping a five-game losing streak Dec. 28 against the Houston Rockets, are trying to figure out how to stop their downhill slide.

Seven games from the halfway point of the season, the Lakers haven’t figured out who they are this year.

LeBron James started at center against the Rockets; centers DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard never got off the bench and neither one has COVID. They went with an eight-man rotation that included only two players — Malik Monk and Talen Horton-Tucker — under 30.

James and Russell Westbrook both had triple doubles and the Lakers managed to defeat a Rockets team that has won only 10 times this season, but they gave up 123 points to a bad team.

The Lakers sacrificed too much youth and defense to acquire Westbrook in the offseason and, with Anthony Davis injured again, James is still carrying too much of the load for the Lakers and that won’t change anytime soon.

If general manager Rob Pelinka can’t work a miracle deal before the trade deadline, the Lakers may qualify for the playoffs but they will be run over by Utah, Phoenix or Golden State in the first round.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: The Clippers were supposed to be on the upswing this year, but then Kawai Leonard had knee surgery last summer and — more recently — Paul George injured a ligament in his elbow. So much for the team’s two superstars.

Coach Tyronn Lue has done a good job of using the players he has left to keep the Clippers in the playoff race in hopes the George and Leonard can return sometime before the playoffs start.

The Clippers have a lot better roster than the Lakers. Ivica Zubac, Serge Ibaka and Isaiah Hartenstein are solid centers, Nick Batum, Marcus Morris and Terrance Mann can man the forward spots and Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard and Eric Bledsoe are all capable guards.

Rookie Brandon Boston Jr. has had some moments this season that indicate promise down the line, so the Clippers might be able to hang in there and hope that reinforcements arrive in the form of George and Leonard for the playoffs.

On the rise but ever so slightly.

UCLA FOOTBALL: Prior to their cancellation of the Holiday Bowl Dec. 28 for coronavirus reasons, I would have put UCLA on the rising list. After all, they went 8-4 this season, a marked improvement over the first three years of the Chip Kelly regime and much better than their crosstown rival’s record.

But Kelly has never regained the magic he found at Oregon and there are plenty of questions concerning the Bruins moving forward.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson could return for a fifth year after the NCAA granted everyone who played in 2020 an extra year of eligibility, but he also has expressed interest in pursuing the NFL, although his skills would best suit him as an all-purpose player rather than a quarterback at the next level.

Kelly already has recruited a replacement for Thomson-Robinson in Central Florida transfer Dillon Gabriel and his roster is now full of players he personally recruited. Still, the Bruins don’t seem to be at the level of Utah or Oregon in the Pac 12 and that crosstown rival is making noise with a new coach.

USC FOOTBALL: The Trojans are on the rise if for no other reason that they can’t fall much farther.

They shocked the college football world by luring Lincoln Riley away from the relative anonymity of Norman, Oklahoma, for the bright lights of Hollywood.

Riley has already made an impact on recruiting. The problem is the Trojans’ roster has been decimated by bad recruiting during the Clay Helton era and it may take a couple of years for Riley to recover.

The Trojans have recruited the top offensive and defensive players from Mater Dei High School’s national championship team, but it sometimes takes freshmen a while to acclimate to major college football as prized recruit Corey Feldman showed last season.

Still, the Trojans are on the rise.

UCLA BASKETBALL: Come March, when the conference tournament season starts and people get interested in college basketball again, the UCLA Bruins will be one of the teams to watch.

Third-year coach Mick Cronin has a talented and deep roster back from a team that made the NCAA Final Four last year. Johnny Juzang and Jaime Jacquez Jr. provide scoring punch, point guard Tyger Campbell runs the office and veterans Jukes Bernard, Cody Riley and David Singleton provide depth. Peyton Watson, a freshman point guard out of Long Beach Poly, is a future star who might be starting if Campbell wasn’t in front of him and sophomore Jaylen Clark has made strides since last season.

They should be a fun team to watch this season.

USC BASKETBALL: Another program on the rise. The Trojans are currently ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press basketball poll (the Bruins are No. 5). They are one of five undefeated teams left among major conference teams with a 12-0.

Coach Andy Enfield has his program in order, with Isaiah Mobley, a 6-10 center who will probably follow his younger brother Evan into the NBA next year, leading the way.

The coronavirus has played havoc with both the Trojans and the Bruins and both teams had to postpone this week’s scheduled games against Arizona State and Arizona.

The Trojans will resume play Jan. 6 against Cal and Jan. 8 against Stanford. Expect them to be major players once March Madness arrives, just like they were last when they made it to the Elite Eight.

 

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