The end of 2019 arrived quickly after a whirlwind of a year as it relates to sports. Free agency flew by in the NBA, the Antonio Brown drama seemed to evolve each week from March through October in the NFL, and the respective postseasons in the NHL and MLB came and went with first-time champions crowned in each league.
While the end of 2019 may seem like a stopping point for both the year and decade, it truly serves as a time to reflect on the start of something fresh: a new era in each of the Big Four leagues.
Familiar faces were still prevalent throughout the decade and through 2019, with names like Tom Brady, LeBron James, Mike Trout and Sidney Crosby leading the charge in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, respectively.
But, new stars, dynasties, and playing styles were born in 2019, and the sports world may never be the same as a result.
As fans get used to all of the changes, it’s time to look at the athletes that defined each league in 2019 before the new decade gets underway.
MLB: Bryce Harper
Sure, Bryce Harper didn’t define 2019 with his talent and he didn’t lead his team to a stellar season. But, his actions set the tone for a lot of the events that occurred in the MLB throughout the year, whether he liked the end result or not.
Harper’s free agency was the biggest story of the offseason as 2019 began, with many wondering where the former Nationals star would land. In the end, he signed a record-breaking deal with the Phillies, tying him to the organization for 13 years and more than $300 million.
But, things started to unravel from there. At Harper’s introductory press conference in Philadelphia, he slipped up his wording, promising to “bring a title back to D.C.” while wearing his new Phillies uniform.
From there, everything changed. His Phillies fell apart, going 81-81 and finishing fourth in the NL East. Meanwhile, the Nationals surged in the second half of the season, compiling a 93-69 record to sneak into the postseason as a wild card.
The chance was all the Nationals needed, and Baby Shark-mania ran wild as Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon led the charge en route to a World Series win against the Astros in October.
A title was brought back to D.C., just like Harper promised, and it all happened in the Nationals’ first year without the Phillies outfielder in their lineup.
NBA: Kawhi Leonard
Who else? When you look back at 2019 in the NBA, there’s only one person that makes sense to label as the player who defined the league: Kawhi Leonard.
Much like Bryce Harper, Leonard’s moves off the court changed the landscape of the league in a matter of seconds, but it was his play on the hardwood that truly solidified him as a star for years to come.
Leonard led the Raptors to their first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history, landing a clutch buzzer-beater against the 76ers to win the Eastern Conference Finals in his first (and only) season in Toronto.
Then, he gave the Raptors their first-ever NBA Finals win, earned NBA Finals MVP honors for the second time in his career, and helped to bring a fresh face into the NBA title picture for the first time since the Warriors entered the fray in 2015.
After the dust cleared following the Finals win, Leonard’s free agency became the story of the summer, and the drama continued until July 5, when it was reported that the “Fun Guy” was heading to Los Angeles…to join the Clippers.
But, like a salesman looking to give a customer more bang for their buck, Leonard turned the situation into a two-for-one deal for the Clippers, managing to pry Paul George away from the Thunder to build another super-team in Los Angeles to combat LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ Lakers.
In a fitting ending to the year, the Clippers and Lakers squared off on Christmas Day, with Kawhi getting the last (awkward) laugh of 2019 in a 111-106 win at the Staples Center.
Leonard may be the athlete to define the entire upcoming decade at this rate, depending on if he can bring a title, or even multiple, to Los Angeles throughout his new deal. For now, he’s the clear choice for the player who defined the NBA in 2019.
NFL: Lamar Jackson
The 2010s turned into a decade dominated by quarterbacks, with names like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning putting on passing clinics throughout both the AFC and NFC in countless big-time moments and numerous Super Bowls.
Each of their teams was consistent contenders in each conference, but the name that many think about when they discuss the decade is Brady. With three Super Bowl wins throughout the decade in five appearances, Brady’s continued dominance with the Patriots is tough to ignore, and could likely make him the athlete that defined the NFL in the 2010s as a whole.
Brady continued that trend in 2019 by winning his sixth Super Bowl in February against the Rams, but something was off about his postseason run, and the season as a whole for that matter. He wasn’t the star of his own team, and surely wasn’t an MVP candidate throughout the season. Defense won the Patriots the Super Bowl, not Tom Brady.
Meanwhile, a new era of quarterbacks entered the equation, with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes taking the football world by storm in 2018 during an incredible MVP campaign. Sure, he fell short to the Patriots in the AFC Championship in Kansas City in January, but it wasn’t his performance that was the turning point in the game.
Similarly, a young quarterback shook up the NFL’s core in 2019, but it wasn’t Mahomes this year. It was Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Jackson started off the year by becoming the youngest quarterback to ever start a playoff game, losing to the Chargers on the road as a Wild Card team in the AFC. But, he didn’t peak there, taking the loss in stride en route to a dominant 2019 season under center in Baltimore.
He led the Ravens to a 14-2 record, winning the AFC North handily while delivering losses to Brady’s Patriots, the defending NFC champion Rams, Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, and numerous other squads throughout the year.
He’s the front-runner to be named league MVP for the 2019 season, and could bring the Ravens back to their first AFC title game and Super Bowl since 2012.
Through all of this, Jackson has changed the way teams look at quarterbacks. His read options have crushed defenses across the league, and he’s proven that he’s “not bad for a running back” in the process.
Jackson’s leading a new wave when it comes to the NFL’s youth, and it looks like mobile quarterbacks are the way of the future as teams look for answers in hopes of potential Super Bowl runs.
He was the best player in the league in 2019, and he defined the year in a way that no one else could.
NHL: Jordan Binnington
2019 was a year of new faces in the NHL, with teams falling apart at the beginning of the year and injuries piling up at the end.
The Lightning looked like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference as the 2018-2019 season made its way to the All-Star Break, but turned into a tiny bit of Thunder as their campaign wound down. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Blues shocked the world from February through June, going on an incredible run en route to their first-ever Stanley Cup win.
The face of that title run? Jordan Binnington.
In the net, Binnington was just what the Blues needed as the playoffs kept chugging along, and proved to be the difference-maker in the seven-game Finals against the Bruins in June.
>>RELATED: Pick-Six: Best active sports announcers
Many wondered if his success would be a one-and-done deal, but Binnington has kept up his pace as the Blues get set to enter the new decade as the reigning Stanley Cup champions.
He’s an All-Star for the first time in his career, and is tied for the most wins of any goalie in the league. He’s eight in the league in goals against average, tenth in the league in save percentage, and, as a result, the Blues have the most points in the Western Conference as the clock strikes midnight on 2019.
As Penguins forward Sidney Crosby deals with a long recovery following core surgery, and Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin decides to skip the All-Star Game to rest up his body, it’s clear that new faces will be starting to take over in the NHL. For 2019, that new face was Binnington, and he defined the year whether fans love it or hate it.