Here are our bold predictions for 2021 in sports. Please note the bold (or should that be bold?) in bold predictions: these are to be taken with a pinch of salt.
The Mavericks will reach the NBA finals
I will be the person who tells you to bet against the Los Angeles Lakers. By adding point guard Dennis Schröder and power forward Montrezl Harrell, the Lakers appear to be even better than last year’s championship team. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are one of the most dominant duos in NBA history, and LA are infused with younger, more dynamic talent instead of declining veterans like Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard and JR Smith.
But look to the Dallas Mavericks, a team that had the most efficient offense in league history last year (115.9 points per 100 possessions) and is already producing at a comparable rate without its second-best player (Kristaps Porzinģis). The addition of swingman Josh Richardson from the Philadelphia 76ers bolsters Dallas’s defense and an inside-out scoring threat that will ease the burden on young superstar Luka Dončić. An inconsistent defense should improve with the additions of Richardson and veteran forward James Johnson; the rest of the roster is an ideal mix of polished youngsters and established veterans for head coach Rick Carlisle to mold.
With a 21-year-old wunderkind in Dončić and one of the best coaches in league history, Dallas have the depth to compete in any shootouts. If the defense makes its necessary strides, the Mavs are equipped to dethrone the mighty Lakers. GB
The era of the Big Three in men’s tennis will finally end
The 2020 tennis season finished with Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem both beating Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic en route to the final of the ATP finals. In 2021, they will continue that progress, with Dominic Thiem becoming the first player not named Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray to rise to No 2 in the ATP rankings since 2005 and Daniil Medvedev winning the US Open in September. Djokovic and Nadal are going nowhere, but they have been joined at the top table by their younger, ambitious counterparts. TC
The Dolphins will reach the 2021 AFC title game
The Miami Dolphins’ lightspeed rebuild will be complete when they make it to next year’s AFC championship game. This assumes Tua Tagovailoa takes the next step, Xavien Howard remains an elite corner and other key members of their defense stick around. But with Brian Flores calling the shots and a chance to add a stud with the No 3 pick in the draft (acquired from Houston for Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills), the Dolphins are as poised as any AFC team to be a force in 2021. Convincing Ryan Fitzpatrick to stick around as the closer would be the icing on top! MJ
Im Sung-jae will win a major
Im’s status as the most exciting male golfer to emerge from Asia in years – Hideki Matsuyama, now 28, hasn’t really delivered on early promise – was endorsed with a second place finish at the Masters. Im also won on the PGA Tour for the first time, at the Honda Classic, pre-lockdown. There is giddy analysis, and understandably, about the collective talent of Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland. That the trio are former boy wonders of the US college golf scene only adds to the narrative. Im, still only 22, should be classed in the same talent category. A victory in one of golf’s marquee quartet of events would be seismic in terms of the development of the sport. Not only is there cause to root for such a scenario soon coming to pass, there is suitable reason to believe it will. EM
The Padres will win their first ever World Series
It’s been a decade since the Padres finished with a winning record in a full 162-game season, but general manager AJ Preller is pushing all the right buttons during hot stove season. This week San Diego added a pair of aces in trades (Blake Snell and Yu Darvish) and signed the best international free agent on the market (versatile infielder Ha-seong Kim from the KBO’s Kiwoom Heroes). They have barely increased the team’s payroll and only dealt away one of their top-100 prospects, meaning even more moves could be in store. The Dodgers and Padres are both positioned to win 100 games in a top-heavy NL West, but San Diego’s frontline trio of Dinelson Lamet, Snell and Darvish looks like the best in baseball and should give them the edge in October. BAG
A woman will coach a US pro soccer team
Former US women’s national team coach Jill Ellis has been linked to the DC United job. United could and may very well do worse, but that might be too much of a leap for the club to take right now. Other Major League Soccer clubs also might hesitate. But clubs in the lower divisions – the USL and the nascent NISA – would consider a female coach for two reasons. First, they’re hungry for publicity. Second, Ellis – along with Laura Harvey, Lisa Cole, Emma Hayes and a few other women with US coaching experience – would be better choices than the retreads who have been given multiple opportunities to fail and have done so. BD
Amazon gets (further) in the game
Amazon’s steady creep into every fiber of Western life will only accelerate in the post-pandemic landscape. Sports is clearly on the docket. Amazon already holds a rights deal with the NFL, as well as the Premier League, and recently broadcast the NFL’s first “streaming only” game, which drew 4.8m viewers. Jeff Bezos could make a couple of plays in 2021. He could try to buy the Washington Football Team and take an ownership stake in the league. But Bezos doesn’t buy franchises anymore; he buys industries. He doesn’t buy teams; he buys leagues. And in picking up a full NFL rights package, he will be buying Sundays. The NFL’s current TV deals with the three major networks expire in 2022, so expect jockeying for position and early bidding to begin as early as spring 2021. Currently, the three broadcast networks pay between $1bn to $1.2bn for rights, with ESPN paying upwards of $1.8bn for Monday Night Football, a playoff game and the rights to show highlights throughout their programming schedule. Could Amazon step in with a blow-the-league-away offer somewhere north of $2bn to land a real package? Could they pay $1bn just to snag away ESPN/ABC’s playoff game while maintaining the current Thursday night simulcast? It’s a streaming world, and we just live in it. At some point, Amazon will swoop in for a serious NFL package. The NFL could re-up with its traditional vehicles for one more cycle or jump at the Bezos dollars early in a bid to make up for the revenue hits of 2020. Based on past precedent: Everyone bids, and Bezos wins. OC
A Jordan-like surprise retirement will rock the NBA
2020 has made all of us rethink our priorities in life, which is why the NBA is due for a shocking and unexpected retirement and/or baffling career change in 2021. Think of it as a modern-day equivalent to Michael Jordan’s decision to pursue minor league baseball (if you believe that’s what happened). Don’t look for LeBron James, Jordan’s modern counterpart, to be the one to leave the NBA; he’s too busy trying to top MJ’s legacy. Instead, it will be one of the game’s other superstars for making a shock announcement this upcoming offseason. Maybe James Harden’s quest to get traded from the Houston Rockets goes nowhere and he decides to take matters into his own hands. Or the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving, the league’s premier iconoclast, takes inspiration from his Native American heritage and decides to go on a spiritual quest. Whoever it is, expect them to borrow another move from Michael Jordan: the equally abrupt comeback. HF
The Mets won’t take over baseball in 2021
Despite an upgrade in ownership that suggests an imminent reversal of fortune, the 2021 New York Mets will continue their recent tradition of torturing their fans. There is certainly merit to the idea that hedge fund king Steve Cohen has come to their rescue, after purchasing the team for $2.4bn from the miserly, scandal rocked Wilpon family. That Cohen has more money than Davy Crockett, or any other Major League Baseball owner, is made even more Amazin’ by the fact that he actually wants to part with it to “win for them”. Of course, Mets fans, kicked in their heads for so long, can hardly believe that a one-percenter of their own is in charge, and that suddenly, for the first time in their history, free-agent prizes such as Trevor Bauer and George Springer are suddenly favored to land in Queens rather than the Bronx.
But can it really be so easy? Write a few big checks and win a World Series, some 35 years after (Cohen’s) ball bounced past a broken-down Bill Buckner? Sure, money helps, but it’s not everything, as the Rays often demonstrate. And building an organization such as the Dodgers, powered by the brains of ex-Rays and deep pockets isn’t something you can just buy and install overnight, if you can even build it at all. And just what kind of owner will Cohen be anyway? How will he react when the balls don’t bounce quite right quite right? We’ve seen his Hollywood likeness, Bobby Axelrod, take a scorched-earth approach in Billions: is that how he’ll run his ballclub? And Cohen likes to play around with his fan base on Twitter, which will either be seen as charming, funny or exceptionally patronizing depending on how many free agents he buys and how many games he wins.
Above all, there’s the old adage that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. And as an eternally recovering Mets fan, I can just feel the folly coming. Short the Mets in 2021. DL
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