By Drew Stevens (@hismindonpaper)
Under the heel of unparalleled circumstances, and with a list of variables as long as each roster threatening to snatch legitimacy from the title run of this season’s eventual champion, some people have already written-off the National Basketball Association’s restart in Orlando, Fla. as a competition for a trophy that might as well be pock-marked with asterisks.
To that I say, so what.
This condensed, bubble-contained season will certainly be unique but it won’t be the first, nor the last, season in which the Larry O’Brien trophy is claimed in a presumably opportunistic fashion and met with a sentiment of pessimism from some fans. Conspiracy theories surrounding the NBA is a long and storied tradition and whether provoked by injuries, monetary disputes or player suspensions, arguments against the validity of titles won under mitigating circumstances have long-existed in sports in general.
But time has a way of coercing fans into releasing contempt that in the moment was held for titles that may have caused ever-so fine print to be etched into certain championship banners. Meanwhile the teams who raised those banners couldn’t care less about how things broke in their favor, only that they did and that they were able to take advantage.
Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and their Toronto Raptors teammates from 2019’s historic title run appeared no less euphoric after capturing the franchise’s first-ever title even though it came at the expense of an historic Golden State Warriors team that — with series-altering injuries to both Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson — was undeniably wounded and ripe for the taking.
Former San Antonio Spurs legend and 2020 first-ballot Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Fame inductee Tim Duncan’s enshrinement in Springfield was absent any prominent mention of the first of his five championships having been won in the 50-game, strike-shortened season of 1999 and its unlikely that has been included on his career-encapsulating plaque.
History will present the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers as the first team to ever recover from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, not a team that did so as a result of Warriors forward Draymond Green’s suspension in that series’ Game 5 or his teammate Andrew Bogut’s series-ending knee injury in the second half of the same contest.
The caveat to the 2020 season is, of course, the pandemic forcing its indefinite suspension four months ago and the layover leading to a handful of key players opting out of its restart, chief among them being Portland Trailblazers forward Trevor Ariza and Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley, both of whom were starters and expected to factor heavily in each team’s playoff run.
Both Ariza and Bradley have since been replaced — the Trailblazers plucked point guard and G-League Most Valuable Player runner-up Jaylen Adams from the developmental Wisconsin Herd, while the Lakers summoned J.R. Smith from the corner once-former and again-current teammate LeBron James likely sent him to after his unforgettable late-game blunder in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals as a member of the Cavaliers.
If this season does reach its intended conclusion and a champion is indeed crowned in October, it will be owed almost entirely to the implementation of — and players’ adherence to — unconventional, yet absolutely necessary, protocols designed to maintain the integrity of the ESPN Wide World of Sports campus in Orlando in the name of the overall health of the players being kept there.
Schedule for 8-game seeding round for every team (NBC Sports Chicago)
To my pleasant surprise, things have largely gone off without a hitch and the NBA has acted swiftly to preserve the sanctity of its bubble on the few occasions in which it could’ve been jeopardized.
Dallas Mavericks forward Kristaps Porzingis and Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap were each required to quarantine for one day after forgetting to get tested last weekend. Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams was placed in a 10-day quarantine after being photographed in Atlanta’s Magic City strip club during what was a pre-approved departure from the bubble to attend the funeral of a family friend. Williams will miss the first two games of the restart as a result, including Thursday night’s tilt with the Lakers.
With the NBA’s report of zero positive tests last week, the stringent measures look like they are working as intended.
This comes in stark contrast to the sobering news Monday that 13 Florida Marlins players and coaches tested positive for the coronavirus, which led to the postponement of three games and an outbreak of doubt that the Major League Baseball season can continue without interruption.
In spite of being an opponent to the resumption of a season bound to an ongoing pandemic that continues to defy the nation’s leading infectious diseases experts, I remain cautiously optimistic about NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s re-imagining of this 2019-2020 campaign and like him I’m as eager as any other time we’ve approached the playoff season to watch the drama of the post-season unfold.
Even as some people have already begun to invalidate the yet-to-be crowned champions.
Drew Stevens is a writer based in Chicago