Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 15, 2020

LeBron James, King Of The NBA’s Bubble

To a casual fan the result must have seemed preordained. Hadn’t the Los Angeles Lakers been the favorite to win the franchise’s seventeenth NBA championship since the day LeBron James arrived from Cleveland two summers ago? Yes, King James’s first season in purple and gold had been a disappointment, thanks to a combination of injuries to L.A.’s new superstar and the presence of a hodgepodge supporting cast. But during the offseason the Lakers traded three members of that crew plus three first-round draft picks to New Orleans in exchange for Anthony Davis. James signaled his approval of the reshaped roster and newly installed head coach Frank Vogel by volunteering to move to point guard. Then he led the Lakers to a 17-2 start last autumn, a record that matched the best ever beginning by the club. By early March, L.A. was comfortably ensconced atop the Western Conference standings, headed for a sixty-plus win season, and looking toward the playoffs.

Then the world changed. The NBA was the first major North American sports league to suspend play in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as the initial temporary stoppage of the schedule lengthened from a few days to several weeks to multiple months, the central question for basketball fans wasn’t whether a NBA Finals between Los Angeles and Milwaukee was inevitable but if and how the season could possibly resume.

That it did is a testament to commissioner Adam Silver’s tenacity and daring. Faced with a national health emergency that wasn’t going to end anytime soon, Silver convinced both twenty-nine out of thirty team owners and Michelle Roberts, the head of the players association, to sign on to a plan to invite some but not all teams to Disney World for a limited number of regular season games followed by a full playoff schedule, all conducted in a tightly controlled environment. That the plan worked, with the NBA’s bubble keeping the coronavirus at bay from the day teams reported in early July through the Lakers’ title-clinching 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat last Sunday is a result made of equal parts “extraordinary sacrifices by everyone involved” and “a bit of luck, too,” to borrow Silver’s own words.

The successful completion of the league’s season, and that of the WNBA, which five days earlier crowned Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, and the rest of the Seattle Storm as champions in a similar environment two hours west of Orlando, proves both the wisdom and limits of the bubble approach. With strict limits on access and frequent testing of everyone admitted in, from team personnel to officiating crews to members of the media, a bubble can remained sealed. But the necessarily strict nature of those requirements effectively imposed a low ceiling on the number of participants. That was easiest for the WNBA, which is only a twelve-team league. But for the NBA it led to Silver’s arbitrary cutoff at teams within six games of a playoff spot in the standings when play was suspended. In similar fashion, the NHL, which completed its playoffs in a pair of closed environments in Toronto and Edmonton, reduced its guest list by simply declaring the suspended regular season over and proceeding directly to the Stanley Cup tournament, albeit with a few more teams than usual skating in a preliminary round.

The decisions to curtail the regular seasons of the NBA and NHL were made easier by some of Silver’s “bit of luck.” The timing of the pandemic’s onset meant that both leagues were well along in their normal schedules. While purists will wonder aloud what might have happened if a full eighty-two game slate had been played, the average of sixty-five basketball contests and seventy hockey games completed by teams at the time play was paused seems like enough to make the standings legitimate. And it is simply a convenient fact, but a critically important one to the success of all three bubbles, that basketball and hockey rosters are relatively small.

Those two factors alone foreclosed talk of bubbles for either MLB or the NFL. Baseball rosters, and especially those of football teams, are far larger, drastically increasing the number of individuals who would have to undergo months of quarantine. And it would indeed be many months, since baseball was still in spring training when games were suspended, and NFL training camps were still on the far horizon. As it is, fans of the Great Game will surely long argue about the legitimacy of a regular season that was ultimately limited to just sixty games, little more than one-third its normal length.

The validity of the Lakers title, which ties the franchise with its long-time rival in Boston for the most won by a NBA club, is unlikely to be debated, both for the reasons outlined above and because, as noted at the start, L.A. was always regarded as one of the league’s top contenders for this season’s championship. Still, despite what the casual fan might think, victory for James and company was far from automatic.

Apart from all the hurdles to even completing the season thrown up by the pandemic, the Lakers weathered a controversy over pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong while on a preseason trip to China, an episode the usually politically adroit James badly mishandled. They overcame a second stoppage in play and a strong desire on the part of many players to abandon the bubble in response to the widespread demonstrations for social justice and civil rights across the country. And of course, the Lakers endured the most shocking calamity of all, the sudden death of former great Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, among nine people killed in a helicopter crash on January 26th. All that on top of the always dicey nature of short postseason series, in which the odds are far more even than the regular season standings might lead one to believe – a lesson the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics both learned the hard way while in the Disney World bubble.

Still, fans inevitably want an issue to debate, and even as the Lakers were pulling away from the Heat in Game 6, their championship just a matter of running out the clock, this year’s argument was crystalizing in a flurry of social media posts from NBA followers. With his fourth title and fourth Finals MVP Award, James still has two less rings and trophies than Michael Jordan. But James has shown a resiliency that Jordan never had to during his glory years with the Bulls, for James has now carried three different franchises to the NBA’s peak. So, which of the two is the greatest of all time? Discuss amongst yourselves, for the next ten or twenty years.

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