Back in the Bubble: Is this the most complicated NBA Title?

The NBA is back. Kind of.

The league is facing their version of a new normal. In their words, it’s a whole new game for everyone. What wonders will the Disney Bubble bring to the teams, players, fans and even the league itself?

Eight years ago, the Sports Guy Bill Simmons introduced the idea of the “Footnote Title”. This was a modification to the mainstreamed “Asterisk Title”, with the former being conceived in the midst of the 2012 NBA playoffs, days after Derrick Rose’s grim ACL tear in the Bulls’ Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round. Chicago, which notched a 50-16 season for the first seed in the East and poised to be a title contender, had its wheels fall out of their wagon after seeing their undisputed best player go down for the season, and eventually bowed to the 8-seed Philadelphia 76ers.

Simmons’ Footnote Title suggested that whoever won the title that year, adding to the fact that the 2011-2012 season was lockout-shortened to 66 games, would forever have lingering questions, or a footnote, with the legitimacy of its conception. This idea strayed away from the concept of the Asterisk Title, which Simmons would only reserve for legitimately illegitimate titles such as those resulting from game-fixing, cheating, and the like.

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The Footnote Title preserves the respectability of the championship whilst also questioning matters out of control of the winning team. While the 2012 Miami Heat amazingly turned out not to have that big of a footnote hanging on their title’s validity, a handful of other teams didn’t share the same fortune; just ask Olajuwon’s Rockets, the 1999 Spurs, and the most recent world champions, the Toronto Raptors, among others.

However cruel it may sound, the footnote on the mentioned title teams were called so because they didn’t have any say on the circumstances that may have fast tracked their path to a championship. It wasn’t the fault of Hakeem Olajuwon and the 1994-1995 Rockets that Michael Jordan sat out two years to pursue baseball, nor was it the 1999 Spurs’ that the league had to resort to a lockout. The same goes for the 2019 Toronto Raptors who faced a depleted Warriors roster without Durant for the most part of the finals.

Here’s a fun game: if one ran down literally all the titles in NBA history, I guarantee you could find at least one reason for all of them to have a footnote. It just so happened that some of them are way more significant than the rest. After crunching all the possible reasons to doubt ever NBA title ever, a trend starts to form, and that’s the fact that most of them involved shortened seasons or player absences that were enough to posit skepticism.

If there are two things that are constant to the NBA, it’s the 82-game seasons, and the thought of as much legends as possible in the Finals. Anytime a title strays away from these criteria, people would have a field day on the debate machine. It’s what makes the NBA so much amusing, and what could make this year’s championship case the most compelling footnote in NBA history.

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The NBA recently released a flurry of statements regarding the status of their 2019-2020 campaign. After three months of suspension, all signs are now pointing to one thing: the NBA restart season is a go. Set in a bubble campus in Orlando Disney World, the revived season will begin on July 30 (July 31 Philippine time) participated by 22 teams, which include the eight teams in each conference already in the playoff picture, and six other teams still with a mathematical chance of making it.

To say the least, this season, this year, rather, has been a lunatic’s dream. The past lockouts and player absences are nothing compared to the COVID-19 pandemic and, particularly for the United States, a burgeoning uprising from social injustices. Given the current state of the world, the NBA’s patchwork to finish the season has been nothing short of impressive, but that’s not enough to evade the barrage of doubts set to come its way to the eventual champions.

Frankly, the thought of this NBA season riding out into the sunset in the happiest place on Earth during one of the most depressing times in history seems like something straight out of a dystopian movie, but let’s remove that variable for just a second. For one, the quality of basketball will certain plunge a few notches because of the three-month layoff. The limited team practices, or even practices in general, hurt the conditioning of the players trying to shake off the quarantine rust. Even then, players still have injuries to increasingly worry about when they’re more susceptible as a result of an abnormal training program.

As if the on-court product alone isn’t compromised enough, there’s everything else around that the NBA has to worry about. As the days passed since the NBA formally announced the season restart, more and more players have expressed their reservations against playing, with even some already confirming their absence for a vast array of reasons; understandably so with the current sociopolitical climate.

The Lakers’ Avery Bradley, the Nets’ Wilson Chandler, and the Blazers’ Trevor Ariza will sit it out to spend time with their families. The Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie, and the Wizards’ Davis Bertans and Bradley Beal passed on the return citing health concerns. Players who have recently tested positive for COVID-19, such as the Nets’ DeAndre Jordan and Tauren Prince have also chosen to skip the restart. Reports of the Nets’ Kyrie Irving calling on his colleagues to skip the restart for a bigger cause have also circulated, and it would come as no surprise if there are a handful of players who would forego the remainder of the season for that exact reason. The league would have a serious problem if even more big name players back out, or worse, tested positive just before or during the tournament. Fill-in players from free agency, albeit completely allowed, simply wouldn’t be the same thing.

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Just like that, the 2019-2020 season would have already violated the two main criteria that makes for a legitimate title, and then some. Even if the basketball were almost on par as it was before, the product may not be enough to recuperate for the social and health risks that this plan brings. That unpredictability is exactly why a significant percentage of NBA players aren’t a fan of this idea, even so possibly used to gauge the realness of the championship. The truth is, the NBA’s bubble plan may be infallible on the surface, but it’s far from perfect.

Needless to say, no matter how large it is, the footnote doesn’t just lie on the championship itself, but it especially lies on the champions. Depending on the context, the meaningfulness of the title holds to each its own bearer.

If the Lakers win, it ironically might unrightfully play to the detriment of LeBron James’ legacy because of the huge possibility of his detractors invalidating the title. It doesn’t help either that the GOAT debate between Bron and MJ are at an all-time high now after The Last Dance. If the Bucks win, it wouldn’t exactly be the ideal coronation for Giannis, and he would have to repeat next season just to show everyone he’s for real. If the Clippers win, it would be in the most Clipper fashion ever that they win a championship this way, but hey, at least they’ve got one now.

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It seemed to be ages ago, but I remember when this season started off with heaps of promise. This was supposed to be the revival of the Los Angeles rivalry. This was supposed to be a parity year with the downfall of the mighty Warriors. This was supposed to be the revenge tour of Giannis and the Bucks. This was supposed to be an incredibly fascinating season because more teams actually had a puncher’s chance for contention, and it’s a shame that all that might go down the drain because of how this all ends.

This is where the NBA’s determination to return steps in as commendable. In attempts to validate whatever there is left of normalcy, they decided to retain the conference and Playoff formats. More importantly, they were able to devise a well-thought of plan, despite not perfect, to get basketball back. While it is blatantly obvious that goal number one here for the NBA is for profit, it’s worth commending them for the effort to produce entertainment and distraction for those who just want to escape from the qualms of life for a bit, resuming also a faction of jobs related to the NBA like the media, concessionnaires, employees, and the players. However, I still standby what I said in the paragraphs before, but you’ve got to give credit where it is due.

Unfortunately, whoever earns the fortune of winning the 2020 title may have to live with the biggest championship footnote in NBA history. There’s no avoiding the imminent reality that there will forever be doubts and questions surrounding it, but if we could spin it in positive terms, another footnote to that is that that team would have persevered amidst the confusion of the season, regroup after a long layoff, and were focused enough to win it all. There will be be footnotes, but it might not necessarily be all negative ones.

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