Asterisk championship? Don’t tell Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“It's going to be the toughest championship you could ever win,” Antetokounmpo said.
A less meaningful trophy? Brad Stevens is having none of it.
“Whoever wins,” Stevens said, “is going to really earn it.”
In recent days, as players have reported for mandatory workouts (and the mandatory media sessions that come with them), a feeling of normalcy has returned. Steven Adams, farm-bound in New Zealand during the pandemic, joked his training including boxing out cows. Anthony Davis revealed he was now a dominant player at Call of Duty and NBA2K. Zion Williamson unveiled a new chiseled physique. Photos of NBA teams practice floors being assembled in conference centers in Orlando spread through social media. The still raging COVID-19 pandemic and social justice movement remain front burner issues, but for a moment the game returned to the forefront.
Said Davis to a Zoom call of reporters, “I did not miss you guys at all.”
Yet as teams pack bags for Florida, the question lingers: What are they playing for? There will be an end to the regular season, a traditional, four round, best-of-seven playoffs and come October the league will officially crown a ’19-20 champion. History won’t denote this title any differently.
But should it? Objectively, what picks up later this month will bear little resemblance to what the NBA left behind in mid-March. The Sixers, seemingly dead in the water pre-pandemic, will have Ben Simmons back, stronger, per Simmons, than he was at the start of the season. The Jazz, which had just started to figure out how to incorporate Mike Conley, will be without Bojan Bogdanovic. Portland won’t have Trevor Ariza, but will welcome Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic back.
And what about the Lakers? A title favorite when the season stopped, LA could look decidedly different. Davis, plagued by shoulder problems before the hiatus, declared himself fully healthy. “It’s been good for me to let some of the lingering injuries I had toward the time when the NBA stopped kind of recover and heal,” Davis said. “(I can) get back into the best version of myself.” But the Lakers will be without Avery Bradley, a key member of LA’s backcourt rotation, and could be without Dwight Howard, who has yet to commit to the resumed season due to a family situation.
“This is something personally that I relish,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of lasting, of being the team that can be the mentally toughest, the mentally strongest and saying ‘Yeah, we may be on this isolated campus for three months, but we have a goal, we have a mission and it’s not going to affect us trying to get to that end goal and finish the job.’”
Suggesting there should be an asterisk on this title doesn’t diminish its difficulty. “I do think it deserves a harder-than-ordinary asterisk,” Vogel said, “If you’re going to put an asterisk on it.” Indeed, the physical toll of traveling between cities will be replaced by the mental one of isolation. Players won’t face hostile crowds on the road (fist pump, Philadelphia) but won’t get the bounce from the crowd at home. The comforts of home will be replaced by amenities like a 24/7 concierge service and unlimited golf.
“The circumstances are really, really tough right now,” Antetokounmpo said. “So whoever wants it more is going to be able to go out there and take it.”
The circumstances could get more difficult. The NBA has expressed confidence in its quarantined campus, even as coronavirus numbers spike to record levels. More than 10,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Florida on Thursday, a new single day record, pushing the state’s number of confirmed cases to nearly 170,000. Governor Ron DeSantis has defiantly declared that Florida will not go backwards, pointing out that many new infections are being found in young, healthy people, most of whom do not become seriously ill.
The NBA’s concern extends beyond illness, however. An outbreak could decimate a team. An infection to a significant player could have the same impact. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has acknowledged that a spike inside the bubble will force the league to shut down.
How will the NBA define an outbreak?
Honestly … I’m not sure,” Silver said during a Time 100 talk this week. “We have a panel of scientists, doctors, experts that are working with us. We’re going to see as we go … you cannot run from this virus. I am absolutely convinced that it will be safer on this campus than off this campus, because there aren’t many other situations I’m aware of where there’s mass testing of asymptomatic employees. So in some ways this is maybe a model for how other industries ultimately open.”
Any title is an accomplishment, and this will be no different. A grueling stretch will begin next week, when teams fly to Florida, and for two of them it won’t end until mid-October. That’s something. But is it a ’19-20 championship? Or a 2020 tournament? Players see it as the former. History will decide.