SALT LAKE CITY — This NBA season will always have an asterisk next to it. Period.
It doesn’t matter if I think this year’s NBA champion is legitimate no matter how they get to their trophy, and it doesn’t matter if you agree with that. There are enough people who believe this season has been disrupted so much that the championship will be looked at differently.
It is clear from the conversations that have already been had within the NBA, and are continuing to take place this week, that there is almost zero chance the league is going to bring all 30 teams together to complete the 82-game season plus the playoffs. Because of that, and all the significant setbacks due to the coronavirus, no matter who is crowned, the 2020 NBA champion will have an asterisk next to that team’s name in the history books.
If for no other reason than bringing in the most amount of revenue it can, the NBA is going to shake things up when it comes back and, for what it’s worth, I say shake it hard.
Choose something that could possibly be sustained in the future, evaluate changing the regular-season schedule, plan for an expansion, and reconsider conference structure. Go big or go home.
You want to put an asterisk on this season? Go ahead.
As someone who covers the NBA, I will make it my duty to remind people of everything the 2020 championship team had to endure in order to claim its crown.
The NBA is in a unique position.
Because things are so strange, and this season will already have an asterisk, now could be the time to blow things up and make big changes. If not now, when?
On the other hand, because things are already so strange, and there will already be an asterisk, changing things even more than necessary could further delegitimize this year’s champion.
There are definitely arguments for both courses of action.
Let’s talk about this season, before the pandemic. The storylines were incredible and priming the league for an amazing postseason run.
There were going to be intense battles for the lower playoff seeds, the reigning champion Toronto Raptors were thriving without Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard after his departure to the Los Angeles Clippers, which has largely been considered the only team that could battle the LeBron James-led Lakers, who were dominating the Western Conference, and the Milwaukee Bucks were tearing through the East with reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had a legitimate shot at winning not only a consecutive MVP honor, but was in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.
There were of course other intriguing and tantalizing storylines and scenarios playing out, but there was also incredible sorrow that had befallen the NBA. First the death of David Stern, who was commissioner of the league for 30 years until Adam Silver took over in 2014, cast a shadow of grief over the NBA. Then, the tragic death of Kobe Bryant covered the NBA in a blanket of mourning.
The NBA season being completely halted due to a global pandemic that was as unexpected as anything and has only added to the already-enormous weight that this year’s Larry O’Brien championship trophy carries.
The argument that changing the playoff format would create more chaos and bring more strangeness to an already-completely bonkers season has absolute merit. If the NBA implements group stages into the playoffs and the Bucks or Lakers are bounced before the traditional seven-game rounds begin, believe you me that fans will forever undercut any other champion.
If a play-in tournament is introduced for the seventh and eighth seeds in each conference, there will be timeless hand-wringing and what-ifs that are never answered and therefore results always in question.
The simple response is that you can never make everyone happy and fans will always bemoan circumstances that do not favor their team or situation. Of course, these are unprecedented times and will bring about unprecedented bemoaning.
Ending the regular season where it currently stands and heading into a postseason consisting of the top eight teams in each conference would give a team the best chance at being viewed through the most traditional lens as a legitimate champion.
Here’s the thing. The NBA is not going to do that.
There has long been a call for the NBA to make changes — to the schedule, playoff format, lottery format, conferences, playoff seeding, and everything in between — and in order to crown a champion this year and begin the 2020-21 season, the league’s hand is being forced to implement some of the changes that have been suggested.
On Thursday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver is expected to present a plan to the board of governors for the resumption of the season. That plan will include the league descending on Walt Disney World in Orlando as the sole location for whatever format Silver deems appropriate. The format will almost certainly include either a World Cup-style group stage for the playoffs, or a play-in tournament.
Even if this is an experimental phase that leads to larger changes down the road, the NBA should roll with it.
The team that comes out of this unusual and fascinating season, having endured a multiple months-long hiatus and becomes the 2020 champion should take pride in being able to overcome all the obstacles before rising to the ultimate prize in professional basketball.
This year’s Finals winner will have been a part of NBA history as the first team to win by way of group stage or a play-in tourney. They’ll do it without fans, without home-court advantages, without a guarantee of safety and health, in the midst of the one of the most uncertain times the world has ever seen.
There will always be an asterisk on this NBA season. Though, the asterisk next to the 2020 champion should be looked at as a badge of honor and any changes the NBA makes will only make that badge stronger and more legitimate.