With the 17th franchise victory of the Los Angeles Lakers, the most unusual NBA season of all time has come to an end. The long journey started in earnest on the 11th of March, when Rudy Gobert, centre for the Utah Jazz, tested positive for COVID and the season was suspended shortly thereafter. It came to an end on the 11th of October, when LeBron James, now a four-time NBA Finals MVP, hugged the Larry O’Brien trophy yet again.
The Bubble did not pop
After suspending the season, the NBA, led by Commissioner Adam Silver, started workshopping several strategies to ensure the continuity of the season and minimise all the financial and emotional loss suffered by fans, players, and franchise owners. The final choice was a hermetically sealed campus in Disneyworld, Florida, where 22 teams moved in early July. They NBA required a 48-hour hotel room quarantine, followed by a slow, methodical ease of lockdown restrictions. By looking at the numbers (and comparing to other major sports as well) we can definitely state that the Bubble was a huge success: these 22 teams played 172 games, and none of the 341 players or any staff member tested positive. But keeping Covid-19 outside the Bubble required extra effort; following the rules was not only a physical challenge, but a mental one as well.
Present, but just physically
Before the restart in July, nobody was sure whether several top players would participate due to the protests against racism and police brutality, but instead of boycotting, they chose to use the Finals as a platform to spread their message. “Black Lives Matter” was printed on T-shirts, masks, on the court, and even on the buses. In late August, many teams refused to play in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake, and the entire NBA stopped for 3 days.
Such factors deeply impacted player performance. Some players overperformed in the Bubble, whereas others had the worst showings of their careers. One of the latter was Paul George, a six-time All-Star forward for the Los Angeles Clippers, who became the first player in 60 years to shoot below 25% in 3 straight games. His previous nickname, “Playoff P”, which he gave himself for performing extremely well in the postseason, was quickly changed by the internet to “Pandemic P” after losing to the Denver Nuggets in 7 games. There were several other underperformers, but his case is especially revealing: instead of blaming teammates, the court, or any external factors, he was the first player who admitted having underestimated mental health aspects of the Bubble. According to George, “I had anxiety and a little bit of depression. Being locked in here (in the Bubble), I just wasn’t there. I checked out.”
Many paths to the top
NBA teams weathered the elements with varying degrees of success. Some teams that were the oddsmakers’ favourites to reach the Finals (like the Los Angeles Clippers or the Milwaukee Bucks) did not even reach the Conference Finals, while teams that were written off entirely reached the playoffs (Portland Trail Blazers). What was the winning recipe for mental and physical preparation? Let’s compare two successful, but completely different methods, of the two finalists.
The Los Angeles Lakers, the Western Conference Champions, had a tough 2019. The arrival of LeBron James in 2018 set high expectations for the franchise, but he was surrounded by young stars with plenty of potential (like Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram) who were not ready to help him win; they did not even reach the playoffs in Lebron’s first year in LA. Last summer, they traded their young stars for Anthony Davis, a 6’10” (2.08m) unicorn, a seven-time All-Star big man with excellent ball handling and shooting skills. After a successful regular season, the restart was not smooth for the Lakers; they also lost veteran point guard Rajon Rondo with a thumb injury, but the experience of the team’s core players ensured good form and a continuously improving performance. What do we mean by experience? The number of seasons played by the starting line-up of the Lakers: James – 16, Howard – 15, Rondo – 13, Green – 11, Davis – 7. This experience is even more conspicuous if we compare it with the Miami Heat’s starting line-up for Game 6 of the Finals: the collective experience of the group added up to just 18 total NBA seasons.
While the Lakers were listed before the season with the second-highest odds to win the title behind intra-city rival Clippers, the Miami Heat ranked a mere 14th. Their previous season was a yearlong farewell trip for franchise icon Dwayne Wade, and they even missed the playoffs that season. Their summer centred around signing Jimmy Butler, a five-time All-Star, and talented rookies Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn, who were selected for the NBA All-Rookie teams this year. Rebuilding the team during the regular season went unexpectedly well, as undrafted players like Duncan Robinson and Nunn became solid parts of the rotation. So, the Heat started the postseason with unexperienced rookies in the starting line-up and underestimated veterans (like Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Goran Dragić) on the bench.
Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno
One for all, all for one! This could be the motto for Miami Heat’s playoff run this year.
When you have no home court, no fans, and no travel, odds can easily get turned around, but everyone still agreed that the Heat were the underdogs in this duel. It just increased when both their All-Star player (Bam Adebayo) and top playoff scorer (Goran Dragić) got injured during Game 1 and had to miss 2 and 4 games of the Finals, respectively. Still, winning two games against the Lakers in the Finals with a “rebuilding team” hit by injuries was an impressive effort, which can be traced to outstanding team cohesion and some overperforming players. Jimmy Butler stood out from the pack. His peak performance in the Finals was not only excellently timed, but also demonstrated one of his great personality traits: he always knew when to let the others play (he averaged 20 points in 34 minutes during the regular season), when to step forward if needed (22 points in 38 minutes in the playoffs), and when to give his ultimate best (43 minutes and 26 points, including two 30+ point triple-doubles in the Finals). He is known as an ultimate competitor who would never let his team down, and it was obvious how it affected his teammates during these games, like when he rested for only 48 seconds during Game 5. He was only the second player in the history of the NBA Finals who led his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. The first was someone named LeBron James.
But Butler was not the only one who emerged to break records with the Miami Heat. No undrafted player ever scored so many 3-pointers with such accuracy as Duncan Robinson. He did not only become a stable starting player, his 332 three-pointers with 43.6% shooting accuracy was an all-time second after Stephen Curry. But if you looked at the guy during the Finals, you would wonder if his heart rate ever went higher than 65. Another rising star of Miami was Tyler Herro, who became the youngest starting player in an NBA Finals game at 20 years of age. Although he played his top games in the previous rounds, where he scored for example 37 points against the Celtics, he still averaged 14.7 points with a remarkably confident behaviour.
The Heat stepped up as a team against the Lakers. Seven of their players averaged above 10 points in the Finals (while only 3 Lakers players did the same), and there was always somebody to step forward and take the lead. They had extreme confidence in clutch situations, coach Eric Spoelstra modified offense and defence strategies from game to game, and they did not give up until the final buzzer. Although some people expected the Miami Heat to be the dark horse in the East, their performance surprised everyone, and they became one of the most lovable teams in the NBA.
Long live the King!
Unlike the Heat’s great team cohesion, the success of the Los Angeles Lakers depended mostly on the performance of their two stars, especially “King James”, a title the media had already given Lebron James before he had even graduated high school. At the age of 35, James played one of his most balanced playoffs, averaging 30 points, 12 rebounds, and 8.5 assists in the Finals, while being the lead scorer of the Lakers in 5 of the 6 games. He became the first player ever to win an NBA Finals MVP trophy with 3 different teams. His level of motivation, commitment, professionalism, and focus is unique among the world’s top athletes, especially considering that he is one of the main voices of the BLM movement and different charitable causes in the NBA.
His co-star (and not sidekick) Anthony Davis again proved his immense versatility throughout the playoffs. His critics say he is not a real first-option, that he needs another star to succeed because his numbers decreased in the Finals compared to the playoffs or the regular season. But looking behind the numbers, we see how he transformed his play to perfectly fill the missing link in the Lakers line-up. In the first few games, he was defending Adebayo, but later on he did an amazing job marking Jimmy Butler, limiting the Heat-star to just 22 points in Game 4.
Two-time NBA Champion Danny Green was signed with a two-year 30 million USD contract last summer, a higher annual salary than many of his teammates combined. So, expectations were quite high for the veteran sharpshooter, but he could not live up to them. After a dismal postseason showing, Green missed a shot to clinch the title in Game 5 of the Finals, and both Green and his fiancé received death threats in social media. This is the real pressure a pro-athlete has to live with. Danny Green was among the first ones to react to Paul George’s acknowledgement of anxiety and depression in the Bubble: “You have nothing to do but look at your phone and social media all day, and all they are doing is bullying you”. Unfortunately, he was totally right.
When two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked this summer whether this year’s NBA Championship would have an asterisk placed next to it in historical discussions, he dismissed that notion entirely, stating “this is going to be the toughest championship you could ever win because the circumstances are really, really tough right now”. He was absolutely right. Instead of an asterisk, maybe the 2020 NBA Championship of the Los Angeles Lakers deserves an exclamation mark!