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Asterisks have long been a fickle form of punctuation in the N.B.A. They tend to be subjectively attached to certain championships and, even then, don’t always stick.
Some of the loudest asterisk talk in league history followed the San Antonio Spurs’ championship in the 1999 season, which was shortened to 50 regular-season games because of a lockout. Phil Jackson, who did not coach that season, unforgettably started and amplified that campaign, hypothesizing that a compact schedule diminished San Antonio’s achievement. Then he admitted in a 2011 radio interview that he was “poking fun” at the Spurs, presumably for potential mind-game benefits later.
Seemingly no one, by contrast, brings up the “A” word when 2011-12 comes up. When was the last time it was suggested in any meaningful way that LeBron James’s first championship, won with the Miami Heat after a work stoppage shortened that season to 66 games, did not measure up to a typical title?
Such sentiments tend to be associated more with the ’99 Spurs, thanks to the pot-stirring Jackson, or with the 1993-94 Houston Rockets. That team just helped Rudy Tomjanovich earn a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame’s 2020 class after a lengthy wait, but Hakeem Olajuwon, Rudy T. and Co. have been reminded ever since that the first championship in Rockets history was not secured until after Michael Jordan abruptly switched sports and became an outfielder for the Birmingham Barons.
Yet we suddenly appear headed for an asterisk that will be mandatory rather than abstract — in this season’s best-case scenario and maybe in its worst. Whether the N.B.A. resumes the season or ends without a champion for the first time in its 74 years, there will be no entry in the record book like the 2019-20 campaign.
“Every N.B.A. finals ever has been a best-of-seven,” said Todd Spehr, an N.B.A. historian. “I suppose you could list several subjective asterisks if you wanted to reference various injuries that have happened in the finals, but this would be new territory. If you take a hole out of the last portion of the season and then present a modified postseason, it will always be considered abnormal.”
Let’s keep things hopeful for now. Let’s imagine that the dire circumstances caused by the coronavirus outbreak improve expeditiously, enabling the N.B.A. to play on this summer.
The problem: Even an optimist can imagine the dismissive things sure to be said about the team that conquered a postseason that, as Spehr hinted, is likely to feature games in an empty arena and a format scaled back from four rounds of best-of-seven matchups.
The Milwaukee Bucks badly need a championship not only to halt a 49-year title drought but also to enhance their chances of persuading Giannis Antetokounmpo to commit to a long-term contract in Wisconsin. The Lakers’ LeBron James faces the obstacle of Father Time, as well as a formidable obstacle in his own building in the form of the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard. Both stars from Staples Center have a chance to become the first player in league history to lead a third franchise to the N.B.A.’s ultimate prize.
For James in particular, at age 35, the clock is ticking fast.
You have to wonder, though: How would we really look at Giannis and the Bucks, in our rings-are-everything sports culture, if they emerged victorious from a regular season and postseason that fell short of the N.B.A.’s 82-game and 16-playoff-win norms?
How much credit would LeBron get for the leading the Lakers to such a crown?
What sort of minimum playoff structure would it take, for Kawhi and the Clippers (or anyone else), to satisfy the masses that this was a representative season?
Perhaps the basketball public, grateful just to have the game back in any form, would be unusually forgiving.
But don’t count on it.
“The ’99 Spurs played 50 games in 88 days, swept the Lakers even though L.A. had essentially the same personnel that would win it all in 2000, and beat a deep Trail Blazers team before beating the Knicks in the finals,” Spehr said. “That was a hard title to win. Yet Phil’s asterisk comment has sort of stuck.”
“The word ‘asterisk’ is always interpreted negatively,” Spehr continued. “It should signify that it was ‘different,’ not ‘worse.’ But the 2019-20 season has been irrevocably altered, so if we are even fortunate to get a finals, it’s going to be in its own historical place.”
We are 27 days into the N.B.A.’s shutdown. There have been more than 350,000 known coronavirus cases in the United States — and more than 10,000 deaths. Fears are mounting that a comeback in July or even August is an unrealistic expectation for any pro sports league unless the coronavirus outbreak eases significantly in coming weeks.
The league will surely postpone the May 19 draft lottery and outright cancel its annual Chicago predraft camp from May 21 to 24. Yet I agree with the smart tweets posted on Friday night by the Lakers’ Jared Dudley, who suggested that the N.B.A. is likely to wait until at least June 1 before it makes binding decisions about the fate of the rest of the season.
Too much money has already been lost in 2019-20 to be hasty. N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver has made it clear that he will not try to restart league play without the requisite government directives and support from public health experts, but there are no prizes and little discernible upside in rushing to a cancellation. Giving itself as much runway as possible to craft some semblance of a palatable finish — for as long as the league can hold out until the delay injures the 2020-21 season — is the N.B.A.’s best play.
Just know, for future reference, that things are sure to eventually get noisy on this seemingly trivial front, whether we get the dream scenario of a rebooted season or the N.B.A.’s answer to Major League Baseball’s strike-shortened 1994 season, which was halted with the playoffs approaching and ended without a champion.
Silver seemed to acknowledge how weighty these historical matters can be, at least within the N.B.A. community, in a recent interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. Asked whether he planned to anoint Houston’s James Harden (34.4 points per game) as the 2019-20 scoring champion if the rest of the season is canceled, Silver said: “I’m not there yet. I mean, we’ll figure it out. I hope I’m not just in denial, but I’m just not there yet.”
Instinct tells me that there will surely be calls for Silver to affix a league-administered asterisk to the record book entries from whatever conclusion takes shape.
An official, first-of-its kind *.
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at email@example.com. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: I think you can make the case for several players for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. My top four are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis and Ben Simmons. Who would be your pick at this point? — Andy Roth (New York)
Stein: I have the same final four. Trying to narrow the field down to a winner will be rough for the actual voters*, provided that the league intends to go ahead with individual awards regardless of whether it resumes the season. My view is that award voting can and should go ahead, no matter what, given that nearly 80 percent of the regular season was completed.
(*The New York Times does not permit is reporters to vote on this or on similar awards.)
As the two-time reigning D.P.O.Y., Gobert is always in this conversation, but he is bound to slip out of the top three on final ballots this time because of voter fatigue and up-and-down Utah’s slide to an uncharacteristic No. 11 in defensive efficiency. Philadelphia’s Simmons is likely a long shot for the top prize, too, even though he leads the league in steals and ranks second in deflections as one of the league’s most active and versatile individual defenders.
The competition is just too tough. Davis is widely regarded as one of the prime sparks for the Lakers’ rise from 13th in defensive efficiency last season to third this season. Davis’s own versatility and mobility are key in driving the Lakers’ ultra-big lineups, and, as a bonus, he rightfully gets a big slice of the credit for goading LeBron James into becoming a more defensively engaged Laker this season.
All that good work, though, may not be enough to nudge Davis past Antetokounmpo, who anchors the league’s top-ranked defense in Milwaukee. The Bucks have several other quality defenders — Brook and Robin Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Wesley Matthews — but Antetokounmpo is the space-eater whose size, length, speed and strength make the opposition feel him every time it has the ball.
Consider that the Bucks allow a mere 101.6 points per 100 possessions to sit atop the defensive efficiency charts yet that figure dips to a measly 96.5 points per 100 possessions when Antetokounmpo is on the floor. There will be strong sentiment among voters to make Giannis just the third player in league history to win the Most Valuable Player Award and D.P.O.Y. honors in the same season, joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, although my gut tells me Davis was in the lead when the season was suspended.
Q: Hey @chicagobulls you can’t even get an interview with an assistant G.M. Nobody wants to be associated/work with John Paxson and Reinsdorf. — @matt_samuelson_ from Twitter
Stein: Your dismay is understood, but the Bulls’ situation isn’t quite that dire. Although they’ve indeed missed out on three candidates they wanted to interview to lead a front-office overhaul, two well-regarded candidates remain in contention even after it was made clear that Toronto’s Bobby Webster, Miami’s Adam Simon and Indiana’s Chad Buchanan would not be participating in the interview process.
Utah’s Justin Zanik and Denver’s Arturas Karnisovas, Chicago’s first two interviewees, are highly rated. The Bulls will be lauded if they land either of them.
Chicago has made the playoffs once in the past five seasons. Fan frustration with the owner Jerry Reinsdorf and the front-office duo of John Paxson and Gar Forman has been bubbling for far longer than that. Hopes that ownership would pursue the likes of Toronto’s Masai Ujiri or Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti were snuffed out quickly, presumably because the Bulls are not prepared to compete financially for executives from the league’s top tier — but also because they can’t attract such candidates. The job simply isn’t as desirable as it should be in a major market and considering Chicago’s storied history, given the state of the roster and the organization’s sullied reputation.
The Bulls will have to prove to candidates that they’re prepared to move on from Paxson and Forman, grant true autonomy and provide the financial resources necessary to plot a path back to Eastern Conference contention. Your skepticism can be heard in league circles, too, and Chicago has certainly earned it. But the search, led this time by Reinsdorf’s son Michael, is also in its infancy. It’s too soon to sound (all) the alarms.
Q: You need to learn how to thread better. — @IamQuailman from Twitter
Stein: Absolutely, positively true. I tweet a lot and should be more adept at it, but threading tweets remains a weak spot.
I will keep working on it, though.
Typos are another Twitter hazard that, as Peter King of NBC Sports so aptly put it in a tweet of his own on Sunday night, torment and “bother me to this day.” It happened again on Saturday when, in the midst of a rapid-fire series of Basketball Hall of Fame tweets, my evil autocorrect function deleted an R just as I was hitting send and thus helped me deliver the following: “Kobe Bryant is a Hall of Fame.”
The tweet has generated more than 21,000 likes, which are chiefly owed to Bryant’s tremendous popularity but also presumably because of my less-than-precise proclamation that Bryant is a hall unto himself.
Thank you to those, like @NationofEagles, who gave me a pass on this one with an understanding reply: “This typo enhanced the tweet. Please don’t delete it.”
Kevin Garnett (1995), Kobe Bryant (1996) and Tim Duncan (1997), who headlined Saturday’s announcement of the Basketball Hall of Fame’s class for 2020, were selected in three successive N.B.A. drafts and combined for 11 championships and 48 All-Star selections. As my pal @ByTimReynolds of The Associated Press noted, only six players in league history have earned at least 15 All-Star nods — Garnett, Bryant and Duncan account for half of that group. The three others are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James.
Rudy Tomjanovich, who was named to the Hall of Fame’s 2020 class after spending more than three decades with the Houston Rockets, is one of just nine coaches in league history to win back-to-back championships and one of 14 to win at least two titles. Tomjanovich also earned five All-Star selections as a Rockets forward, but Hall of Fame rules mandate that playing and coaching careers are judged separately.
Three of the 14 coaches in the two-championships-minimum club are still active: San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich (five titles), Golden State’s Steve Kerr (three) and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra (two). The others are: Phil Jackson (11), Red Auerbach (nine), John Kundla (five), Pat Riley (five), Chuck Daly (two), Alex Hannum (two), Tommy Heinsohn (two), Red Holzman (two), K.C. Jones (two), Bill Russell (two) and Tomjanovich.
The Hornets played a league-leading 17 one-possession games before the N.B.A. indefinitely suspended the season on March 11, meaning that 26 percent of Charlotte’s 65 games were decided by 3 points or fewer. Milwaukee (3-1) and Golden State (1-3) are tied with a league-low four games decided by 3 points or fewer.
Western Conference teams have posted a cumulative record of 199-164 in games against Eastern Conference teams this season, good for a .548 winning percentage.