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There should be no asterisk next to this year’s champion

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Injuries played a huge part in shaping how the playoffs went, but whoever wins the title should not have their triumph diminished for circumstances beyond their control.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

We discussed this after the Lakers’ title last season, with differing opinions. This season has been less unusual but has still had some external circumstances shape it. So does the 2020/21 title come with an asterisk, considering the shortened schedule and the volume and importance of injuries to star players?

Marilyn Dubinski: My opinion on asterisks in general hasn’t changed from last season: I don’t personally believe in them, but if you believe the 1999 Spurs deserved an asterisk, then you should believe the same of the 2012 Heat and 2020 Lakers because all three came in shortened seasons for reasons beyond the winning team’s control, and in each case, every team was dealt the same hand to work with and same chance to win a championship.

That belief still holds true for me today, and I believe even less in an asterisk for this season than last because every team played the same number games, the games were in home arenas, fans are in attendance, etc. I know everyone wants to point to injuries to blame for the unexpected finals matchup (a little variety is good for the league!), but I would like to see actual proof that the condensed schedule has been the main the cause of that above all else. How many of these injuries were actually non-contact and not something that could happen anytime? The Spurs’ biggest injury sufferer this season was Derrick White, and his season-ending injury came from a common basketball accident: landing on Jakob Poeltl’s foot, which is not something that can be blamed on the schedule.

To that extent, I would add that if you believe this year and last’s champions deserve asterisks, can we add asterisks to the Spurs two seasons of missing the playoffs? Probably not because there’s plenty of argument to be made that they could have done better and earned it regardless. Similarly, regardless of the circumstances, the champions have earned it and should not be punished for getting it done despite circumstances beyond their control. In other words, the answer to the question is “no”.

Mark Barrington: As I understand it, and I’m no baseball historian, the asterisk came about in baseball when Roger Maris hit more home runs than Babe Ruth in a season, and the commissioner decreed that Roger’s record should be put in the record books with a special mark because he had to play more games than Babe did to surpass Ruth’s total. I can understand the desire to honor the Sultan of Swat’s legacy, but doing that by cheapening someone else’s achievement wasn’t good for the sport, the fans or the players. The idea that some achievements are less valuable than others because of circumstances beyond the control of the players doesn’t make sense.

There’s even less reason for punctuation in basketball stats. Yeah, the rules have changed over the years, and strange things happen in some years. Should the Spurs first championship in 1999 be vacated because it happened in a strike-shortened season where teams only played 50 regular season games? The truth is that all of the teams faced the same conditions in the 1999 season, and the Spurs and Knicks were the teams that negotiated them well enough to achieve success in the playoffs, and underrated point guard Avery Johnson somehow led his team to an unexpected title, although he did have some help.

This season has been weird, and a lot of teams have lost star players to injury, some in the middle of the season, and some during the playoffs. Injuries always happen in the NBA, and while there have been more high profile injuries this year, it almost always happens that one or more playoff contenders has their title hopes shot down by key injuries. It’s unusual that it has happened to roughly half of the top 8 teams in the league close to the season, but it’s a combination of random chance and players wearing down due to the compressed schedule. I think the play-in had a small part in player fatigue, because it meant that nobody could rest players if the team had any chance of being somewhere between the 7-10 spot. But the short break between the end of last season and the beginning of this one was just as tough on players. But none of these things will negate the importance of winning a title. The Suns or Bucks will walk away with the Larry O’Brien Trophy this July, and it will be just as real as the one the Spurs got in 1999. There are no asterisks in basketball. There should be any in sports at all, in my opinion. Yeah, add a footnote if you need to in the record books, or divide the records into historical eras, but please no *.

Bruno Passos: I do enjoy the irony of any Spurs fans who may want to caveat a potential Phoenix title run after 2007, but the asterisk talk is and always will be anti-fun. It comes from people who want to funnel respect and legitimacy to their favorite team and those who’d rather feel right than enjoy the high level of sport they’re watching. (Or if they’re a Boston-based firebrand personality, both.)

The truth is you can always try to use context to warp or cheapen what you’re watching, but I don’t see the point. You don’t need to strain hard to appreciate Chris Paul’s unexpected and long-overdue first Finals run, how well (and Spursy) these Suns play together, or seeing the Bucks overcome their powerful self-jinxing powers and have guys like Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and (hopefully) Giannis finally on the big stage. Enjoy the basketball!

Jesus Gomez: My stance is that while I don’t believe in cheapening anyone’s achievements, ignoring the context in which they come is silly. You can go the other way and actually make a case for this year’s champion being more impressive than those that come from a normal season if you want, but you can’t pretend this was a normal season. When people look back on this year’s champs, the circumstances under which they won it will come up. It’s inevitable. The same is true for last year’s title and every other that has come in a shortened season. Yes, including the ‘99 title.

Now, should this title be dismissed as lesser than others? Of course not. Whoever wins it will be the rightful NBA Champion. But this year will be remembered as a chaotic, unique, insanely fun at times mess in which star injuries played a huge part in determining the outcome. Nothing can change that.

J.R. Wilco: The question at hand uses the phrase “external circumstances” and rightfully so, as the 2020-21 season had a ton of curveballs thrown its way. (I never thought I’d see a season in which the second half’s schedule wasn’t released until after the first half had been played.) But there’s nothing “external” to a sporting competition about staying healthy — quite the opposite, in fact. Just look at how often title favorites have seen their supposed dominance evaporate when a star has suffered an injury. Whether it’s the 2000 Spurs without Tim Duncan, the 2004 Lakers without Karl Malone, or the 2019 Warriors who had a fatal string of injuries in the playoffs — avoiding the injury bug is one of the crucial components in any season, not just the strike-shortened or pandemic-affected. Like Gomez says, context is important. It’s important because understanding the whole story of the season adds flavor to the championship, not because it diminishes the accomplishment.