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Determining if the Lakers’ title deserves an asterisk

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The PtR staff talks about the success of the bubble and whether championships won under unique circumstances deserve to have an asterisks attached to them.

NBA: Finals-Los Angeles Lakers at Miami Heat Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019/20 NBA season is over. The Lakers won the title. Now that a few days have passed, it’s time to look back and try to make sense of a very unusual conclusion to a year of basketball.

Are you surprised the bubble worked as well as it did, considering no one inside it tested positive for COVID?

Marilyn Dubinski: A fanless Bubble was the best chance the NBA stood at keeping the COVID cases at a minimum, but to come away with zero positives at all despite a few breaches is quite the accomplishment. They have an advantage over other leagues due to the relatively small size of basketball teams, but kudos to everyone involved who followed the rules. I was glad the NBA was willing trying something to get the sporting world going again. I was even able to swallow the bitter pill of the Spurs missing the playoffs for the first time since 1997 a lot easier than expected just because I had a new appreciation of simply being able to watch them at all. (The surprisingly enjoyable play they produced was just the cherry on top.)

Mark Barrington: Yes. I was expecting something like the baseball season and the NFL season, with fractured schedules, players having to miss games, and lots of rescheduled contests. The concept of holding all of the games at a single site with a hermetically sealed environment and daily testing really worked, with the only known exception being Danuel House, who let down his team and suffered the consequences for his transgressions against the protocols. The league deserves a lot of credit, but so do the players, who bought into the project because they believed they were fighting for more than just entertainment, and that spirit of cooperation kept them together for the 95 days from the first practice to the last finals game.

Bruno Passos: At the time it seemed reasonable to be cynical or pessimistic about the risk of COVID contraction in the Bubble, and you could definitely count me among those who thought things may have gone pear-shaped. Players were reportedly testing positive in the months and weeks leading up to the start, and then you learned about the snitch hotline and player indiscretions ranging from unsanctioned food delivery pickups to strip club detours and [gestures at Danuel House]. But the Bubble held because most players were responsible and because the league prioritized testing while using its considerable resources in a way that maximized both people’s health and its own bottom line.

Jesus Gomez: As someone who thought an outbreak in the bubble was almost inevitable, I was pleasantly surprised. The league really knew what it was doing and (almost) everyone involved deserves an enormous amount of credit for taking the necessary precautions. We can debate whether it was morally justifiable to use resources and put people at risk at all just to have sports back, but the execution was as close to perfect as it could have been expected.

J.R. Wilco: Color me both surprised and impressed. I gave the NBA no chance to pull off a Covid-free return to action, but (House aside) they made the bubble work and deserve full marks. Kudos to Silver and the league.

Did you enjoy watching these playoffs as much as you did all the more normal ones from the past?

Marilyn Dubinski: I didn’t have time to watch much of the playoffs this season, and even then I’m not one to watch much once the Spurs are out. (You might say I’m a Spurs fan much more than an NBA fan.) Still, from what little I saw, it definitely felt different without homecourt advantage being much of a factor (unless you’re one to let poorly timed artificial fan noise get in your head), and in a way it made for a more unique experience in that it required teams to find their own energy and motivation, and in ways almost evened the playing field a bit and forced teams win on talent and teamwork a little more than usual.

Mark Barrington: I think the lack of a crowd and no home court advantage made the games less exciting to watch, but I enjoyed the games for the most part. I kind of got lost watching the virtual crowds sometimes, always watching to see who brought their pets or did something outrageous, so that kind of worked out.

There was a lot of good basketball played in the bubble, and it was fun to see some new stars emerge. I kind of wish Luka Doncic had played at least one more round, though. The finals were a bit of a letdown after the Heat lost two of their best players in game one, but at least we got to see Jimmy Butler will them into a game six. In the end, the Heat just didn’t have the talent level to compete with LeBron and the Lakers, but games 3 and 5 were entertaining to watch.

Bruno Passos: In terms of the level of competition, I found the playoffs extremely compelling. The games were exciting and routinely went to the wire, and we got plenty of revelatory moments from both young and established players. Considering how much time they had off and the unique circumstances they were playing in, I don’t think we could’ve asked for more. Did I enjoy them as much as years past, watching them from the same side of the couch where I’ve waited out these past 7 months, with pumped-in noise and digital fans a constant reminder of those unique circumstances? No, but that part was never within the league’s control.

Jesus Gomez: Definitely not. I typically watch an almost unhealthy amount of basketball, especially in the playoffs, but this year I skipped most of the first round and focused on a few series in the second round. For some reason the interruption of the season followed by a restart that was unique to the point of being alien took away from the experience for me. Or maybe It’s simpler than that and I was just not as interested because the Spurs weren’t playing. I genuinely don’t know. Whatever the reason, I just wasn’t as into these playoffs despite some really interesting matchups.

J.R. Wilco: The lack of a live crowd bothered me far less than I expected, and over the final few weeks I got so used to it that I was surprised at how odd I felt at the Lakers’ reaction to winning it all. Without people right there in the arena, it was a bit surreal and (when you factor in the matter-of-fact Game 6) anticlimactic as well.

Spurs fans know how annoying it can be when others put an asterisk on a title. But does this championship have as much value as any other or do the unprecedented circumstances change its meaning?

Marilyn Dubinski: To me it’s very simple: if you believe the Spurs deserve an asterisk in 1999, then you should believe the same of LeBron’s 2012 Heat and 2020 Lakers. All three came in shortened seasons for reasons mostly (if not entirely) beyond the winning team’s control. In each case, every team was dealt the same hand to work with and same chance to win a championship. If anyone is bitter that another team was able to do better than theirs under such circumstances (cough, Phil Jackson and Shaq), then that’s their problem. For that reason I’ll never advocate for anyone to have an asterisk, but if someone comes to me saying the Spurs deserve one — especially now after they have more than proven a Tim Duncan-led team could in fact win championships — I’m all geared up state my case.

Mark Barrington: Man, there aren’t enough asterisks in the dictionary to account for the unusual nature of this year’s title. I think it’s somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the dominance of the Lakers was so complete that there’s no doubt that they would have easily won the title if the regular type of season had been able to proceed, but this season had so many extraordinary circumstances, it just can’t be considered in the same breath as a season that was played by teams in their own arenas with their own fans.

The bubble benefited some teams, like the Nuggets, who were able to gel in the friendly confines of the Orlando quarantine zone, and get great performances from their stars in Murray and Jokic, and standout contributions from their role players like Jerami Grant, who had his best 2 months as an NBA player. On the other hand, the Grizzlies lost the momentum they had when the season was suspended and fell to pieces in the bubble, despite an incredible performance from Ja Morant. Your Spurs made the most of their bubble experience, using the friendly environment to develop their young players and demonstrate how to be competitive enough to win some games without losing the 11th pick in the 2020 draft. I think that was the part I enjoyed the most.

Bruno Passos: This question’s always a slippery slope in which, sure, I see the logic in contextualizing each title, but I don’t know how to work towards an endgame. If it’s a binary asterisk/no asterisk situation, where do you draw the line? Last year the Raptors went through a LeBron-less East and took on a Warriors team whose second best healthy player by the end may have been Shaun Livingston. Two years before that, the Warriors won after Zaza Pachulia stepped under Kawhi Leonard when the Spurs were up by 20-something and ended one of the best individual playoff runs of all time. Do you rank all the titles based on merit and difficulty, or by tiers like Bill Simmons? Do I have to possess more than a cursory understanding of what happened before 1991? Who has the time!

Jesus Gomez: I don’t mind asterisks. The problem is that asterisks attached to championships are used to downplay the accomplishments of the team that actually won the title instead of simply denote that something was unusual about that season. The Lakers, just like the 99 Spurs, beat opponents that faced the same circumstances as they did to get their ring, so there’s no need to take away from their ultimate success. But the circumstances were different from other seasons. It’s undeniable. When we think about this title, we will inevitably think about how unusual everything about it really was. There’s nothing the Lakers can do about that, and that’s fine. I’m sure just like Spurs fans, they’ll take the banner and let others say whatever they want about it.

J.R. Wilco: To me, everything boils down to a level playing field. If every team has the same options to them that every other team does (while recognizing practically every team must play in different cities) then no season deserves an asterisk. So I guess that could be interpreted to mean that all sports without a salary cap are illegitimate ... sorry, MLB.