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What does an “Illegitimate” NBA championship actually mean?



As the NBA reportedly moves steadily closer towards reopening, there have been naturally been those who wonder whether the risk of a resumed season is really worth it. And a common argument which has been thrown around has been that the champions of this season would be illegitimate.

Shaquille O’Neal was perhaps the first major commentator to observe this, stating to USA Today that any 2020 NBA champion will have an asterisk and that the champion would “not get any respect.” Chris Mannix with Sports Illustrated stated that perhaps the season should not end with a championship, and perhaps something like a round-robin to reflect these highly unusual circumstances.

But the fact is that a round-robin tournament or something different would satisfy nothing, and would be the equivalent of a Saturday T-ball game complete with every kid getting a trophy at the end. And for this season, the most wide-open season in years, to finish in such a fashion would be embarrassing.

No Real Asterisk

And the fact is, there is no real asterisk when it comes to determining champions. The asterisk label really got used in 1999, when the lockout season created a complete mess of a regular season, a wild playoffs, and the San Antonio Spurs crowned as NBA champions. But as strange as that season was (and fans should check out this excellent history of that bizarre year courtesy of The Ringer,) we treat it as a legitimate championship. We say that Tim Duncan is a four-time NBA champion, not a three-time NBA champion who won an additional ring that does not really count.

Of course, the counterargument is that even 1999 is not a good comparison to 2020. There will be players like Ben Simmons who will be ready for the delayed playoffs who would not have been available under a normal NBA season. There are concerns about how in shape players will be, especially as this is the time of year when they should be in peak shape and are instead taking a break at Dermani Medspa. And of course, there are concerns about players catching the virus despite the various safety precautions.

But none of this is all that unusual or different. There have been champions who perhaps would not have won if players on other teams had managed to stay healthy. Some players will always be in better shape than others, and the NBA will give teams time to work together before actually resuming the season in earnest. None of these things will take away much from any team’s legitimacy.

In fact, it could be argued that the championship this year will be even more prestigious and remembered. More people will watch sports now, as shown by the success of The Last Dance.

Even if many lockdown restrictions have ended by August, the probable date for a resumption, people will still be more inclined to stay home out of fears of catching the virus. Combine that with the fact that there is no overwhelming favorite for the champion even now, and the result could be a championship that no one will forget. Times of adversity like these can create some of sports’ most famous memories.