A recap of the best and worst of South Florida sports in a 2020 dominated by the pandemic

Barry Jackson
·9 min read

After a half decade of national irrelevance, South Florida sports is back, achieving heights nobody could have expected, from the Miami Heat’s improbable run to the NBA Finals to the Miami Marlins’ unfathomable playoff berth to the Miami Dolphins’ and Miami Hurricanes’ rise from a combined 11-18 in 2019 to 18-8 in 2020. All four teams delivered some measure of joy locally during a raging pandemic.

Recapping the best and worst in South Florida sports in 2020:

BIGGEST STORIES

1. Dolphins legendary coach Don Shula passes away at 90. He died peacefully at his Indian Creek home May 4. The NFL’s all-time victories leader and coach of the NFL’s only perfect team will forever hold a spot on South Florida’s Mount Rushmore of sports.

2. Heat’s run to the NBA Finals, including wins against higher seeds Indiana, Milwaukee and Boston.

3. Dolphins drafting Tua Tagovailoa after falling to fifth in the draft because of a late-season surge.

4. Dolphins surprisingly putting themselves in playoff contention in second year of a major rebuild.

5. Marlins ascending from 57-105 in 2019 to 31-29 and a playoff berth, then advancing to second round after dumping the Chicago Cubs in the first round.

6. Marlins losing 18 players to COVID-19 during a hellish week early in the season and quarantining in a Philadelphia hotel while throwing balls off mattresses taped to walls.

7. UM landing its best quarterback in 15 years (D’Eriq King) and rebounding from a 6-7 debacle to go 8-3.

8. Marlins hiring the first female general manager (Kim Ng) in MLB, NFL or NBA history.

9. South Florida’s MLS team, Inter Miami, debuting after repeated delays, but producing an underwhelming first season.

10. Heat giving max contract extension to Bam Adebayo.

BEST PLAYER

1 (tied). Heat’s Jimmy Butler and Dolphins’ Xavien Howard. Butler validated his max contract with exemplary work in the playoffs and Howard (nine interceptions) returned to his 2018 form as the best ball-hawking corner in football.

3 (tie). Heat’s Adebayo and UM’s King. Adebayo joined Oscar Robertson as the only players to average at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists before turning 23, then was rewarded with a max contract extension.

King, UM’s most impactful QB since Ken Dorsey, produced 2570 passing yards, 22 touchdowns passes compared with just five interceptions and 520 rushing yards and four rushing TDs in 10 games.

5 (tie). Heat’s Goran Dragic and Duncan Robinson, Dolphins’ Emmanuel Ogbah (nine sacks) and Panthers’ Jonathan Huberdeau (23 goals, 55 assists in 69 games).

BEST PERSONNEL MOVES

1. UM landing King and kicker Jose Borregales in the transfer portal. Those two largely accounted for UM’s increased win total.

2. Heat acquiring Jae Crowder — who was integral in its run to the Finals — and Andre Iguodala from Memphis in a February deal for Justise Winslow, who hasn’t played in an NBA game since.

3. Dolphins landing Ogbah with a two-year, $15 million contract. The best value among all NFL free agent edge players signed last spring.

4. UM football snagging elite football recruits (defensive tackle Leonard Taylor and safety James Williams) and a highly-regarded quarterback (Jake Garcia) and UM basketball adding small forward Earl Timberlake, Rivals’ No. 32 overall player in the 2020 class.

5. Marlins signing first baseman Jesus Aguilar, whose bat (.277, 8 homers, 34 RBI in 51 games) fortified what had previously been a tepid lineup.

6. (tie) Marlins acquiring outfielder Starling Marte (both he and Aguilar are signed for 2021) and Panthers signing wing Brett Connolly (19 goals, 14 assists).

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS

1. Florida Panthers, after adding a star goaltender (Sergei Bobrovsky) and Stanley Cup winning coach (Joel Quenneville), again underachieved (78 points) and exited meekly from the Toronto bubble after a play-in loss to the Islanders.

2. Miami Hurricanes’ embarrassing debacle against North Carolina. In a regular-season closing 62-26 UM loss, the Tar Heels amassed 778 yards — the most ever yielded by Miami and a Tar Heels record — and 554 yards rushing, also the most allowed in Hurricanes history.

3. After expectations that David Beckham’s star power would lure top talent to his MLS team, Inter Miami instead cobbled together an underwhelming roster, won just seven games, scored 25 goals in 23 games and lost its playoff opener 3-0 to fellow expansion team Nashville FC.

4. Bobrovsky, who signed a six-year, $70 million contract the previous offseason, finished 58th in the NHL in save percentage (.900) and 65th in goals against average (3.23).

5. Heat not being at full strength for the NBA Finals. Perhaps a healthy Dragic and Adebayo could have pushed the Lakers series to seven games.

6. Dolphins running back Jordan Howard. Signed to a two-year, $10 million deal, he mustered 32 yards on 28 carries and then exited quietly.

7. Quarterback Josh Rosen — acquired from the Dolphins for second- and fifth-rounders — performed so poorly during his 2019 cameo and in 2020 training camp that Miami simply cut him. He recently left Tampa’s practice squad to join the 49ers 53-man roster.

8. UM’s Greg Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season to turn pro after a 15-sack season with the Canes in 2019.

9. Marlins catcher Jorge Alfaro. He saw his numbers plunge (.226, three homers,16 RBI) and then was benched for the playoffs, replaced by Chad Wallach, who’s more skilled at handling a pitching staff.

10 (tie). Dolphins cutting fifth-rounder Curtis Weaver four months after the team drafted him. And the underwhelming debut of Robbie Robinson, the first overall pick of MLS Super Draft who was away from the team for a time and managed no goals and one assist for Inter Miami in 12 games and four starts.

MOST IMPROVED

1. Heat’s Robinson. Other than Steph Curry, nobody in NBA history made as many three-pointers (270) at such a high percentage (44.6) in one season.

2. Adebayo. Morphed from emerging young player to an All Star and top-five NBA center.

3. Miami Dolphins’ Myles Gaskin. Rose from being on the bubble simply to make the team to starting at running back.

4. Miami Hurricanes’ Mike Harley (799 receiving yards and 7 TDs) and Zion Nelson (went from allowing most sacks of any NCAA tackle in 2019 to best player on the Canes’ line in November).

5. Marlins pitchers Pablo Lopez (regained his confidence and stuff after injury-interrupted 2019) and Sandy Alcantara (a legitimate ace). Both should anchor a potential top-10 rotation if Sixto Sanchez, Edward Cabrera and Max Meyer fulfill their potential.

Honorable mention: Dolphins’ Andrew Van Ginkel, Zach Sieler and Nik Needham; Heat’s Kendrick Nunn; and UM’s Jared Harrison-Hunte and Te’Cory Couch.

BEST UNDER THE RADAR PERSONNEL MOVES

1. Heat watching Nunn — signed in April 2019 — blossom into a 15-point-per-game scorer before assuming a less prominent role in postseason and early this season.

2. Dolphins plucking running back Salvon Ahmed off waivers in August, then moving him to their 53 after the Chargers tried to poach him. He’s averaging 4.2 per carry.

3. Dolphins finding a potential long-term starter on the third day of the draft in guard Solomon Kindley.

4. Marlins bolstering their bullpen with July trades for James Hoyt and Richard Bleier after earlier signing Yimi Garcia, Brandon Kintzler and Brad Boxberger.

5. Dolphins adding tight end Adam Shaheen and receiver Lynn Bowden. Shaheen became a useful piece (three TDs) after his July pickup from the Bears for a late-round pick. Bowden — acquired from Las Vegas with a sixth-rounder in exchange for a fourth-rounder — has become a helpful weapon.

BEST MOMENTS

1. Butler’s epic Game 3 (40 points, 11 rebounds, 13 assists) and Game 5 (35 points, 12, 11) performances in the Heat’s only wins of the NBA Finals.

2. Herro’s 37-point masterpiece in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston.

3. Adebayo’s block of Jayson Tatum at the rim to preserve Miami’s Game 1 win against Boston in the Eastern finals.

4. UM’s King throwing for 430 yards and running for 105 in comeback win at NC State.

5. Ryan Fitzpatrick leading team to improbable comeback win at Las Vegas, including deep pass to Mack Hollins with 19 seconds left as Fitzpatrick’s helmet was being twisted by a Raiders defender.

BEST YEAR (NON-PLAYER)

1. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. Led a team without LeBron James to an NBA Finals, reinforcing his Hall of Fame credentials.

2. (tie) Pat Riley/Andy Elisburg/Adam Simon/Chet Kammerer etc. Heat front office crafted a roster that included players available for anyone to sign (Robinson, Nunn), two late lottery picks who should have been top five picks (Adebayo and Herro), a max player acquired without cap space (Butler) and augmented by a key February trade (for Crowder and Iguodala)

and

Dolphins’ Brian Flores and Chris Grier. Some smart personnel moves, creative defensive fronts and Flores’ ability to extract the most from his roster led to a winning record in year two of a major rebuild.

4. Don Mattingly. Validated being retained by ownership and provided steady leadership during Marlins’ stunning run to postseason.

5. UM’s Manny Diaz. Made a bunch of smart decisions that led to an 8-3 season - including the move to a spread offense and hiring of offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee - but the UNC loss stings, as does yet another bowl loss.

BEST QUOTE

Butler, after he and Indiana’s T.J. Warren needed to be separated after Warren grabbed his arm during a January game: “It’s tough for him because I can guard him and he can’t guard me ... He’s soft. He’s not even in my [expletive] league, nowhere near me. If I was their coach, I would never put him on me ever again. Put somebody else on me because I’m going to tear his [butt] up every game. He can’t do nothing with me. When I say he’s trash, I mean that.”

ODDEST STORY NOT INVOLVING COVID

Inter Miami coach Diego Alonso emerging from a postseason meeting with ownership believing he had been fired, with the club later clarifying that he hadn’t been (but apparently still could be).