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2020 Lakers, meet the 1999 Spurs

Lakers fans are finding themselves having to defend their 2020 championship’s legitimacy, and Spurs fans can relate.

If Twitter existed in 1999, Spurs fans probably would have been just as uptight and protective of their championship team’s legacy as Lakers fans are of their 2020 one today. As many may remember — or for our younger crowd, be aware of — 1999 was in a lockout-shortened season. You never hear about the 1998-99 season, just the 1999 one because it began in February after a new CBA was reached, with 50 games crammed into three months before the playoffs began in May. (Player safety wasn’t as prevalent back then.)

Another fun fact about that team: Gregg Popovich came extremely close to being fired before that squad put it all together. Despite Tim Duncan entering his prime, David Robinson still an All-Star, and a deep group of veterans to back them up, they began the season just 6-8, and it took a team meeting led by Avery Johnson and the players making Pop’s case for him to buy him more time. From there, they finished the shortened season on a 31-5 run for the best record in the NBA and cruised their way to the championship, including a then-NBA record 12-game postseason winning streak while sweeping the two middle rounds, including the Shaq-Kobe Lakers.

This would mark the beginning of the most heated stretch of the Spurs-Lakers rivalry. That summer, Phil Jackson returned from a one-year coaching hiatus, labeled the Spurs’ championship as deserving of asterisk due to the lockout (something he has never he has really recanted even today), and proceeded to lead the Lakers to three straight championships. While his comments were knocked as him just being bitter about his Bulls breaking up, they stuck with many, and with Twitter not being around until 2006, Spurs fans were left to message boards and comment sections to try and defend their team’s reputation against endless trolling. It wasn’t until 2003 that they finally won it all again and proved 1999 wasn’t a fluke (which is why ‘03 is widely considered their second-best championship, after 2014).

Fast forward to 2020. The Spurs’ legacy as a dynasty is more than secure with a total of five championships under Pop and Duncan, but it’s the Lakers who are under pressure to perform. LeBron James is in his second season with the club, which had formed a new super team with the acquisition of Anthony Davis and were immediately given the “championship or bust” label. Like 1999, it’s another fluky season: the NBA is abruptly shut down along with the rest of the world in March due to the COVID 19 pandemic, and the season doesn’t resume until nearly August, inside the bubble in Orlando.

Everyone plays around eight more regular season games to get the total games-played as close to even as possible, then the postseason begins. While this marked the first time in 23 years that the Spurs missed the playoffs, the Lakers, who finished as the top seed in the West, meet the lofty expectations set upon them and win the championship under the strange circumstances of the Bubble, such as no fans and homecourt advantage being nonexistent.

However, that would be the height of the LeBron-AD “dynasty” (so far). The supporting cast around the star duo was broken up, and since then, the Lakers have struggled to stay healthy while finishing 7th, 11th and 7th in the West the last three seasons, respectively. This season, after a disappointing start, they “fought” their way back into the play-in late in the season before claiming a playoff spot and proceeded to go on an admirable run to the conference finals before being swept by the Nuggets.

Now, fully in the age of social media, Lakers fans are the ones being trolled, with their 2020 championship being called a fluke due to the unusual circumstances and Davis, for the most part, being unable to back up his MVP-level performance from the Bubble. Tweets like the one below have become a common occurrence from Lakers fans (especially before they were swept), but in our own twisted way, Spurs fans can relate, even if it was Lakers fans themselves we were having to justify 1999 to way back in the day.

“Bubble was fake” vs. “1999 deserves an asterisk” both have the same ring to it, with the fanbases of these two championship teams having to defend their legitimacy due to both seasons falling under “unique” circumstances beyond their control. (Ironically, LeBron’s first championship also came in a lockout-shortened season, but no none ever questioned its legitimacy.) Those same fans who troll the winners would probably happily take those championship for their own teams in a heartbeat, even if they won’t admit it.

So Lakers fans, now you know how it feels to have your accomplishments questioned. As much as Spurs fans don’t sympathize with your team in large part due to the flack your former coach and fanbase have given us over the years, first over 1999 and then over not repeating, if nothing else we can now relate with one another. The difference is, the Spurs eventually backed up 1999, but it doesn’t look like the Lakers will be able to do the same with 2020 (although in fairness, age plays a role in that).

As an added bonus, there might be another team that is about to join the 1999 and 2020 champs in their annoyance of never being fully accepted. Ahead of the 2023 NBA Finals, stats are flying all over Twitter about how the Nuggets have potentially the “easiest” path to a championship ever, facing off against the 8th seeded Timberwolves, 4th seeded Suns, 7th seeded Lakers, and 8th seeded Heat. Those four teams had an average winning percentage of 0.531 during the regular season, good for just 43.5 wins.

Like the Spurs and Lakers, that is beyond Denver’s control, but if they win, haters are gonna hate and cast doubt over the legitimacy of their championship even though there has been nothing strange or unique about the structure of this season. As a fellow “small market” and former ABA team, Spurs fans will especially be able to relate considering 1999 was their first championship too, and all I can say to Nuggets fans is, should you win, don’t let the haters get to you. The 2023 champion will be just as legit as every other NBA championship ever was, as are 1999 and 2020.

Bonus fun fact: I searched far and wide across the internet for a picture of Pop and Phil Jackson for the cover photo of this article, and it just doesn’t exist. It’s been 12 years since those two coached against each other, so maybe my memory has faded a bit, but was the rivalry between those two so bitter that they never shook hands, or was a picture just never archived? Pretty crazy.