Is an NBA championship really an NBA championship this season?
As we get set to resume the season, there’s quite a bit of discussion about whether this year’s title will deserve an asterisk. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr helped reignite the debate this week with his strong take that the brutal journey to a 2020 championship would be just as valid as any.
“The one thing I feel really strongly about is a championship under these conditions is gonna count. People are gonna want to put an asterisk next to it. There’s no asterisk in my mind. This is gonna be a brutally difficult journey to try and win a title.”
Steve Kerr isn’t putting any sort of asterisk next to this year’s NBA champion
— 95.7 The Game (@957thegame) June 16, 2020
But Kerr’s far from alone in weighing in. It seems everyone, from coaches to players to pundits, can’t escape the topic, and some remain unconvinced.
In a recent interview with USA Today, NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal was candid in his opinion that this season’s winning squad will not be recognized as a true champion.
I think we should scrap the season. Everybody go home, get healthy, come back next year … To try and come back now and do a rush playoffs as a player? Any team that wins this year, there’s an asterisk. They’re not going to get the respect. What if a team that’s not really in the mix of things all of a sudden wins with a new playoff format? Nobody is going to respect that. So, scrap it.
And on Wednesday morning, Skip Bayless also disagreed with Kerr, saying that the shortened season will benefit the game’s biggest star in LeBron James and will ultimately be worthy of an asterisk.
“Brutally difficult? It’s all basketball, all the time … That’s all you’re gonna do … They fell short of playing an 82-game season … It’s gonna be five months since [James] played a basketball game. He’ll be in the bubble refreshed, reinvigorated, everything feeling good. [He] got to do nothing but train … and recover from all the aches and pains … The break is so long, it’s unprecedented, and it’s going to give a huge break to LeBron.”
“This season is going to deserve an asterisk, whether you like it or not. LeBron just got this biggest break of his NBA career. It’s almost like the NBA gods looked down and said: “This one’s for you big guy.”@RealSkipBayless on the NBA’s return to play plan in Orlando pic.twitter.com/Q78ablOiKR
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) June 17, 2020
On the flip side, former NBA superstar Tracy McGrady sided with Kerr. He contends that with every player having months off to get healthy, and with the playoffs set to take place at a neutral site, he doesn’t see where an asterisk exists.
“As far as a team winning and having an asterisk, do we really stand by that if the Lakers, Milwaukee or the Clippers win a championship? I don’t know. To me, it seems like everybody is on an even playing field because everybody should be healthy … You’re playing at a neutral site … Whoever wins is the best team. I don’t think there’s an asterisk behind that.”
And Chris Broussard said Wednesday that he’s never been a believer in the asterisk, considering each season is full of other circumstances that either help or hurt teams in their hunt for a championship.
“In the NBA, injuries have been a huge part of championships … Heck, what about the 1970s, when Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] won a title in Milwaukee and the Knicks won two rings? Half the best players in the world were in the ABA. But we don’t take away those titles and put an asterisk by them.”
“I’m fundamentally against the notion of the asterisk bc every championship is different. We don’t look at Toronto as an asterisk even though KD & Klay were hurt. … Historically, it won’t be an asterisk. We give Tim Duncan 5 rings, not 4 1/2. No asterisk.” — @Chris_Broussard pic.twitter.com/qFqZxv1rol
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) June 17, 2020
But,there’s more to the ‘asterisk’ story than just the debate on whether a title deserves it or not.
The real question is, who birthed the idea of putting an asterisk on an NBA title in the first place?
None other than the man with 11 NBA rings as a coach and two as a player, Phil Jackson.
It started back in the year 2000.
After the San Antonio Spurs won the 1999 NBA Finals, Jackson delivered arguably the most infamous barb of his career prior to the tip-off of an April 8 matchup between his Los Angeles Lakers and the defending champion Spurs.
“I’ve always considered it a title that came with an asterisk.” – Phil Jackson, on last NBA team to win Finals in lockout year (’99, Spurs)
— Sam Amico (@AmicoHoops) June 22, 2012
Downplaying championships, in fact, became a habit for Jackson.
In 2010, when now-Hall of Fame coach Rudy Tomjanovich was nominated for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Jackson was unsure of his credentials, mainly because he didn’t put much emphasis on Tomjanovich’s back-to-back titles as a coach with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995, the two seasons after Michael Jordan’s first retirement from the Chicago Bulls, as outlined by the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen.
Jackson agreed with the argument that the Rockets’ championships were tainted because Michael Jordan was out of the league for the first of their title seasons and much of the next.
“Definitely,” Jackson said. “Without a doubt. Clearly, if the Bulls were whole, we would have won. It’s pretty much registered by now. When Michael played, we won the championship.”
Still, no jab has stood the test of time like Jackson’s asterisk talk, considering it remains a trending topic today like never before.
So, why did Jackson choose to label the Spurs’ 1998-99 title as faulty? The answer is simple: it wasn’t a full NBA season.
That year, the NBA labored through its third lockout in league history, but it represented the first time that the league actually lost games – 32 of 82 games to be exact.
The 1998-99 NBA lockout lasted 204 days and didn’t end until January 6.
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) June 30, 2011
Hey, at least the players had some fun with it.
(1998) It was a struggle for Tim Duncan and @realgranthill33 during the NBA Lockout!
CLASSIC. 😂 pic.twitter.com/BOw5JUSw4l
— Timeless Sports (@timelesssports_) January 11, 2019
The Spurs, featuring Hall of Famer David Robinson and second-year superstar Tim Duncan, finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA at 37-13, and dominated the playoffs.
San Antonio defeated Minnesota 3-1 in the First Round, swept the Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals, swept Portland in the Western Conference Finals, and then defeated the New York Knicks 4-1 in the NBA Finals to win the franchise’s first-ever NBA title.
Clearly, that title didn’t sit well with Jackson — and it didn’t sit well with the Spurs that it didn’t sit well with Jackson.
After Jackson’s comments, Robinson was quoted as saying, “I guess I’m going to have an asterisk etched in my ring,” and then he hit Jackson with this ice cold maneuver at the next All-Star Game.
remember when Phil Jackson said the Spurs 1999 ring had an asterisk so David Robinson left him hanging high & dry @ the all-star game the following year 🐐 pic.twitter.com/JvmP5K4X4G
— /r/spurs (@redditspurs) May 17, 2020
Spurs veteran guard Terry Porter also lashed out at Jackson after his comments.
“He insults the players who were here last year and everything they did,” said Terry Porter. “I wonder if he would have won those six championships without Michael [Jordan] and Scottie [Pippen]. I would have liked to see that Zen stuff work in Dallas or Vancouver.”
Jackson famously oversaw two three-peats with a Chicago Bulls franchise featuring Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in the early-to-late 1990s. He then won three consecutive rings with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant from 2000-2002, before winning two more with Bryant and Pau Gasol in 2009 and 2010.
So while some might think that Jackson was just hating on a Western Conference foe in San Antonio, some might also argue that few are as qualified to discuss NBA titles more than the 11-time championship coach.
Now, back to 2020.
Will this season’s trophy-winning squad be subject to the judgment that Jackson bestowed upon the Spurs two decades ago?
That depends. The regular season will be a shortened one, but it won’t be that shortened.
Before the season was suspended on March 11, all NBA teams had played at least 63 games, with some playing as many as 67.
A reminder of how the standings look and who’s heading to Orlando 👀 pic.twitter.com/X1ottDknIA
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 4, 2020
Add in the eight more regular season games that each of the 22 teams will play in the bubble and teams will have played at least 71 games on the season, 11 short of the regular 82.
In addition, the conversation regarding this year’s NBA Finals certainly can’t be had without mentioning LeBron, who actually won one of his three titles during the NBA’s second lockout-shortened season in league history, during the 2011-12 season with the Miami Heat.
That year, teams played 66 regular season games. James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat finished the regular season with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference (46-20) and took on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals, winning in five games.
It was James’ first title and first Finals MVP — and few have ever put an asterisk next to the championship.
Once teams arrive at the bubble and games are underway, and the fans and media are able to accurately judge the circumstances of the game and the level of play, maybe the conversation will be given more context.
Or maybe, it will be a debate that rages for another 20 years.
Thanks, Zen Master.