While this year’s NBA season restart is still hardly more than a twinkle in the league’s eye, the battle lines are already being drawn. Twenty-two teams are scheduled to meet at Disney World in late July, like an awkward family reunion. Thankfully those awkward hugs are both discouraged and against protocol.
With the season interrupted and then shortened due to COVID-19, things are certainly different this year. After all, the best teams all season are losing their home court advantage, after taking a four month hiatus. Meanwhile some role players have opted out of this second part of the season, RSVPing ‘no thanks’ for various reasons—citing health, social justice, and familial reasons. Others, who have already tested positive for COVID-19, missed time staying in shape and practicing with teammates.
Players and fans are left with many unanswered questions. Perhaps the most important one—once they return to league play, what in the world happens if (and when) players test positive for COVID-19?
If (and when) the actual basketballing finally begins again, we already know the game day experience will be unfamiliar with game times played throughout the day, and no longer reserved for just primetime. Only playoff contending teams have been invited to the restart, resulting in an altered schedule, an irregular format, and unprecedented circumstances.
And who can predict what will happen when youthful millionaires bunk up at various Disney properties, with various levels of security, and various ideas of what a “bubble environment” actually means?
Think of the looming NBA playoffs like a stop in Disney’s EPCOT: It’ll be foreign, but not. A familiar facsimile of the authentic thing we know exists somewhere else.
“…At the end of the day, this is gonna be the toughest championship you could ever win,” said Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, acknowledging the impact of the turmoil, the disruptions, the challenges facing teams.
On the other side of the league and the issue, Lakers star Anthony Davis thinks the time off will help the Lakers. “Actually, I think our chances are higher just because we’re all rested, and we’re all ready to go.”
Is the throne more open than ever or even less accessible?
While infected players seem to have enough time to recover, nothing is given. And at any moment, a team could lose a star player or multiple players at the drop of a mask.
The most reasonable answer is the least sexy: It depends!
If the top teams win the championship—like LeBron and the Lakers or Giannis and the Bucks—of course there will not be an asterisk. Same goes for the Raptors, Clippers, Celtics, or Nuggets, who are the top six teams in the league, respectively. Those were the teams that had a realistic chance at winning the title before the league and country ground to a halt. How can I be so sure? The last team to win the NBA championship that wasn’t a top 3 seed was the Houston Rockets in 1995, and they only won because Michael Jordan was taking a baseball sabbatical. Before that, you’d have to go all the way back to the 1969 Boston Celtics team, to find that deep of an underdog champion.
(To be fair, even thinking about future generations maybe feels a little too optimistic for my 2020 worldview.) No matter how good the 76ers or Jazz or any other contenders are, they’d have no business winning the title in a regular year. A championship for those teams would only be plausible because of the idiosyncrasies of this pandemic season.
When I think about the relationship between sports and asterisks, my mind goes to Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire. Asterisks often connote cheating, but an underdog team winning the 2020 NBA title would be an entirely different beast.
So, instead of an asterisk, what about an @? An @ would remind us that every team was on the road in the playoffs, and remind us about our current Twitter obsession.
I can already see an obnoxious Philly fan starting in with “You got a problem with me winning the title? At me, next time.” See? It already works!