The NBA Should Return, But Should It Crown a Champion?

Should whatever team emerges from the NBA playoffs be crowned a legitimate champ? Chris Mannix answers that and more.
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The NBA is coming back, with league and union officials in constant contact these days, furiously making plans to move ahead during the current pandemic. Union boss Michele Roberts has been briefing teams via conference call, per ESPN, as players decide what to fight for in this new financial reality.

And that’s a good thing. Just like there is a middle ground between the restart the economy now crowd and those that want the world to stop until Dr. Anthony Fauci says otherwise—how about we let small business restart with the necessary precautions while fining every last doofus in the Ozarks pool party video that went viral last weekend—there is a way for sports to come back. A quarantined campus, limited access and a truckload of tests.

The NBA should return.

But should it crown a champion?

Conversations with league and team officials the last few weeks reveal one consistency: Teams will do whatever the NBA asks coming back. While a number of teams aren’t all that interested in returning (see Warriors, Golden State) there is an understanding among team officials that finances will play an overwhelming role in the NBA’s decisions, and they need to be good soldiers. What Adam Silver asks for, he will get. If that means parking all 30 teams in Orlando for a few weeks to finish the season, so be it; if it means miking Doc Rivers and leaving it open on a separate live stream, well, they will go along with that too.

Still—should whatever team emerges from these playoffs be crowned a legitimate champ? The NBA is targeting a return in mid-July, likely in Orlando, where players will (sort of) isolate on the sprawling Disney World campus. By that timeline, the league will have been off for four months. That’s roughly the same time between the traditional end of the Finals (mid-June) and the start of the next season (mid-October). Only in those four months players are working out regularly. In these, outside of the few weeks the NBA will set aside for a training camp, many players will have barely worked out at all.

“You can’t really call it a continuation of the season,” a high ranking team official tells Sports Illustrated. “This is a whole new thing.”

What’s the urgency? Why is there a need to crown a 2020 champion? The argument that the NBA had champions in lockout shortened seasons doesn’t really hold up. Those seasons started late, but they didn’t stop in the last month and take the next four off. Shawn Kemp famously gained 35 pounds during the 1999 lockout. When asked how it happened, Kemp told then GM Wayne Embry he didn’t think the NBA was coming back. How many current players—with limited training options anyway—will suffer a similar fate?

There’s an opportunity here for the NBA to get creative, to offer up something different. The league would like to bring all 30 teams back—how about a round-robin, 30-team tournament that allows for a college-like Cinderella to make a run? Or a series of play-in series’, like the NHL is proposing, to give teams like the Blazers, Pelicans and Kings and chance to fight for a playoff spot? Or MLB-like single elimination, to add more drama?

Look, money talks, and if the NBA believes the best way to satisfy its financial commitments to its television partners is to hold a traditional postseason, that’s how it’s going to go. The league, like most businesses, has been hemorrhaging cash during this pandemic, and with gate revenue next season still in doubt, television will become the NBA’s primary—perhaps only—source of revenue. Silver won’t mess with that.

But there should be consideration for calling the next few months what they are: a unique basketball experience that has little connection to the season that stopped mid-March. Ben Simmons, sidelined for what looked like the rest of the year when the pandemic struck, will likely be back in the Sixers lineup. Bojan Bogdanovic, a 20-point per game scorer for Utah, will not. Mike Conley has a home gym in Columbus, Ohio, that rivals most high schools. Jayson Tatum, quarantined in the chilly Boston area, has admitted that it had been months since he fired up a shot.

The NBA will draw huge ratings when it returns. The Last Dance, the NFL draft, even the Match 2 offer overwhelming evidence that the country is starved for sports content. Even without fans, a safe NBA return will be an unequivocal success. Should that success culminate with an NBA champion? That remains up for debate.