Let's start with the asterisk title debate.
Nobody has any idea what NBA play will look like when the season is re-started in late July in the "bubble" in Orlando, Florida. But many people have already decided that the 2019-20 NBA champion will forever wear a scarlet letter in the form of an asterisk.
That’s such an amateur take.
First off, the concept of asterisk on a championship is ridiculous. No intelligent basketball analyst ever sums up Tim Duncan’s career by saying, “Duncan was a 15-time All-NBA player who won four titles and one additional asterisk title in the '98-99 lockout season.” No team has ever won a title it didn’t earn. And no team has ever won a title without a little luck. There. Are. No. Asterisk. Titles.
In addition to being a delusional way to think about sports, the idea that this season’s champion will somehow be a less deserving winner is a backward way of thinking. Resuming the end of the season and playoffs after a four-and-a-half month layoff at a neutral site will be brutal on teams and players. There will be no team facilities and amenities, a limited numbers of team doctors and training staff, no player-friendly, three-day layoffs between playoff games, no fans and no home-court advantage. In fact, the best teams in each conference will be stripped naked of any advantage they would customarily have.
The adversity the 2019-20 champion will face to win it all will be unlike anything any team has gone through. If anything, the "bubble" playoffs will give us basketball at its highest level and purest form. You're about to find out who emerges as the best team and best player when the only focus is basketball.
Now that we’ve settled that nonsensical debate, here are the players with the most to gain from a "bubble" title.
1) LeBron James, Lakers
Before the COVID-19 pandemic caused the NBA to suspend its season, LeBron was once again the alpha dog of the league. He averaged 30.2 points, 9.9 assists and 8.6 rebounds in his last 10 games. LeBron was playing his best two-way basketball in years and sending messages loud and clear in nationally televised games to Zion Williamson, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard that he still sat atop the throne. His on-court production, combined with his off-court leadership throughout the Lakers’ turmoil-filled season (Daryl Morey tweet and Kobe Bryant’s death), had made for one of the finest seasons of his career up to that point.
A "bubble" title for LeBron would mean that at age 35, nearing the 60,000-combined regular-season and playoffs minutes’ mark, he has reestablished himself as the Best Player on the Planet — fending off worthy adversaries Giannis, Kawhi, James Harden and others. A title would also likely mean that LeBron would become the first player to win three Finals MVPs with three different franchises. A title still wouldn’t make James the unequivocal G.O.A.T. But a fourth ring, combined with his transformation into the best point guard in basketball in Year 17 (league-leading 10.6 assists per game) should make even the craziest of MJ “stans” tip their caps in a sign of respect.
2) Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
With a title, Leonard would reaffirm last year’s belief that he’s the best postseason player in the NBA. LeBron and Kevin Durant will always be the faces of the player empowerment era, which has been defined by mass player movement. But Kawhi can separate himself as the era’s top mercenary if he leads the Clippers to a championship in his first year in Los Angeles. Like LeBron, Kawhi also has a chance to become the first player to win three Finals MVPs with three different franchises. Additionally, he could become the first player to win back-to-back Finals MVPs with different teams.
No one is really having the "greatness" conversation about Kawhi yet. But if he has another epic playoff run like he did last season, when he averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists, AND he takes down LeBron and Giannis, he could move up into the top-15 best players of all-time discussion. He might not end up with the cumulative stats of the others, but we’d be at the point where there wouldn’t be many players you’d pick ahead of him if you had to win a big game or playoff series.
3) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Could this be Jordan’s 1990-91 for Giannis? Much like that Bulls team, the Bucks have been the best team in the NBA for most of the season, stifling teams on defense (best defensive rating in the NBA) and riding their superstar on offense as he puts up unfathomable numbers every night (29.6 ppg., 13.7 rpg., 5.8 apg., 31.6 PER in only 30.9 mpg.). Is the focus on the Los Angeles teams overblown? Is the NBA about to become Giannis’ league for the next decade?
If Giannis leads the Bucks to a title this season, it will mean that he’s on the Jordan-LeBron type of career trajectory. What makes them so special are the skills and work ethic to go with generational athleticism. In a league of genetic marvels, Jordan and LeBron stand out from the rest. Giannis is no different. In fact, he might have the most unstoppable physique the league has seen. We know he has a tremendous work ethic too. If he shows he has the complete skill set this postseason, there’s no guessing how many MVPs and rings he’ll win by the time he's done.
4) James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Rockets
For two of the NBA’s more enigmatic superstars, this could be a chance for them to make their career resumes bulletproof. For Harden, a title would silence his loudest critics — the ones who love pointing out his playoff failures. It looks like he’s kept himself in amazing shape during the quarantine, so be ready for a locked-in Beard in the playoffs. A title would make us start to look at Harden’s past four seasons (32.4 ppg., 8.8 apg., 6.7 rpg., 44-36-86 shooting splits) a little differently because he will have validated it with a ring. Harden’s spot among the all-time greats would get a nice bump too.
Before the NBA was suspended, Westbrook was playing some of the best basketball of his career. He was averaging 32.3 ppg., 8.6 rpg., 6.9 apg. and shooting over 53 percent from the field over his past 20 games, playing as an attacking big man in Houston’s five-spread offense. Harden’s the better player, but a title under team leader Westbook would be huge. It would be bittersweet that it wasn't in Oklahoma City, but it will still make Westbrook’s legacy unimpeachable because he'd climb the ranks of all-time great guards.
5) Other players who could enhance legacy
There’s usually a couple of players every postseason who take their games to a level that we didn’t know they had. Just look at Pascal Siakam in the Raptors’ championship run last season. The Raptors won Games 1 and 6 of the Finals because Siakam was one of the best two players on the floor. If Siakam makes a Finals run this season without Kawhi, does that make him one of the best players in the NBA? Or could we see Boston's Jayson Tatum carry over The Leap he’d made in his last 15 games, when he averaged 29.5 ppg. and 7.9 rpg. on 48-47-75 shooting? If he does, it’ll make Boston a threat to win the East. Could the East have already found a worthy adversary for Giannis?
And let’s not forget about Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, centers with extremely different bodies but MVP-level skill sets. Denver's Jokic set the bar extremely high in his first career playoffs (25.1 ppg., 13.0 rpg., and 8.4 apg. on 51-39-85 shooting), and if he exceeds that production this postseason, we’re looking at an all-time great big man. Finally, if Embiid somehow leads the dysfunctional 76ers to a title, it will signal that he's in excellent shape. By dominating on both ends of the floor like no big man since Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan, he could greatly enhance his legacy.