B/R NBA Staff: What Are the League's Biggest Asterisks Since 1990?
NBA history books are filled with asterisks.
Some of them are literal. Look up the 1998 draft, and you'll see:
*Traded to the Golden State Warriors for a player who was, and still is, half-man, half-amazing.
Others you won't see. The Game 6 box score from the 1998 Finals shows the Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz 87-86. Nowhere does it say Michael Jordan might have sort of maybe pushed off a little.
With the kind you can't see but will never forget in mind, Bleacher Report polled NBA writers to break down some of the biggest asterisks of the past 30 years.
MVPs, champions, even individual plays can carry with them context that changes or enhances our understanding. So, with respect to decorated legends LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and, yes, even Michael Jordan, it's time to put some of their results under the microscope.
Longtime Sports Illustrated writer, author and host of The Dream Team Tapes podcast Jack McCallum joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss the final episodes of The Last Dance, Karl Malone, the Bryon Russell push-off, MJ and the Dream Team, Christian Laettner and Isiah Thomas.
Houston Rockets' 1994, 1995 Titles
The Houston Rockets earned their rings in 1993-94 and 1994-95. Let's not take that away from them. Considering what we've learned about the overwhelming physical and mental fatigue Michael Jordan felt before he stepped away to pursue a baseball career in 1994, it's entirely possible Houston would have won its pair of titles whether Jordan and the Bulls had stuck together or not.
Nobody's won more than three straight titles since the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and '60s, so it's a tough sell to argue the Bulls would have reeled off their fourth and fifth consecutive championship seasons had Jordan never taken his break. But we should at least agree Chicago would have been a viable threat to the Rockets had they met in the Finals.
The alternate histories that arise when considering the Bulls' possible involvement during those seasons are fascinating. Suppose MJ and the Bulls met Houston in the Finals and lost. Maybe even twice. How might that affect our perception of Jordan, a player who never fell on the biggest stage? His unblemished mark is a huge part of his legacy. Or, even more intriguing: What if the Bulls had reeled off eight straight chips?
We'll never know. All we can say for certain is that Houston's pair of titles came under unusual circumstances, with the best player in the world, a three-time defending champ, sitting out.
Michael Jordan's Final Bulls Shot
NBA Finals, 1998. Game 6. Chicago Bulls at Utah Jazz.
In perhaps the most famous finale to a Finals, Michael Jordan hit a game-winning jumper over Bryon Russell to clinch the Bulls' sixth title and second three-peat.
But should the shot have been waived off? Jordan's hand clearly made contact with Russell, but did he actually push him? Russell thinks so.
"He knew what he was going to do, and I knew he was trying to get there, and I was trying to make sure I got him cut off," Russell told Eric Woodyard of the Deseret News. "I was a step ahead of him, but he kind of felt like, 'Here, let me give you this extra push, Russ,' and then he hit the shot, but I knew he wanted to get to that sweet spot."
Jordan denied pushing Russell on Episode 10 of The Last Dance.
"Everybody says I pushed off. Bulls--t. The man, his energy was going that way. I didn't have to push him that way," Jordan said.
When ranking game-winning shots between Jordan and LeBron James, former Cleveland Cavaliers guard and notable Jordan nemesis Craig Ehlo told Bleacher Report that the shot was a bit of both.
"It was a pretty basic jumper, but it was the move that got him open; the crossover got Russell off-balance before the push," Ehlo said.
While it was Jordan's final shot as a Bull and one of the most famous game-winners of all time, the push-no push debate will live on.
1998-99 Lockout Season
Fans of the San Antonio Spurs aren't going to like this argument, which denigrates the team's title in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, so let's have Phil Jackson make the case.
From a 2011 interview with Waddle and Silvy (via Sports Radio Interviews):
"They lost more than a third of the season, and then they rushed to play those games into a magnified schedule, and it questioned the teams that were really going to have a chance to win it like Indiana and Utah.
"... When teams would play 18-19 games in the last month of the season, it broke down some of the older steady teams because of that impact of a heavy schedule. I always kind of term that as an asterisk season."
Jackson said he was "poking fun at San Antonio" and acknowledged the Spurs "turned out to be quite a great team." They won five titles in the Tim Duncan era.
There's no legitimate argument to question the Spurs' greatness, even if their first title was earned under odd circumstances. The 1998-99 season opened Feb. 5, and each franchise played 50 games in 90 days.
While the Spurs deserve credit for persevering and thriving through the campaign, it was a more grueling task for experienced squads with aged but still-talented veterans. For instance, the Pacers finished second in the Eastern Conference, but they lost to the eighth-place New York Knicks in the conference finals. The following year, the Pacers won the East and reached the Finals.
The Spurs didn't get a chance to immediately validate their 1999 title after Tim Duncan suffered a knee injury in April 2000.
2002 Western Conference Finals
The 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings is widely considered one of the most competitive postseason series in NBA history, with six of the seven games being decided by seven or fewer points.
The Lakers' victory seemed fishy at the time, however, and in the ensuing years, the controversy around the series has only grown.
In 2007, referee Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to two felony charges for betting on NBA games, some of which he worked. Before Donaghy's sentencing, his lawyer filed a document that stated Game 6 had been fixed by two of Donaghy's colleagues. The document also implied they were acting on behalf of the league office.
This is not the place to determine the validity of such accusations—nor the place to separate Donaghy's crime from the alleged actions of his colleagues—but as the years go by, the fact remains that this incredibly entertaining series also has a gigantic cloud over its result.
From a 20,000-foot perspective, the Lakers of the early millennium had an extraordinary run, making four NBA Finals in five years and winning the first three in consecutive fashion.
But if the Kings had defeated them, ending their chances of a three-peat, would Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryan have broken up even earlier? Would the presumably low ratings of a Kings-New Jersey Nets Finals have sent the league into a tailspin? Would Chris Webber be a top-50 all-time player if he brought a title to Sacramento?
The answers to all these questions are the same: We'll never know.
2007 Western Conference Semifinals
Robert Horry's flagrant foul on Steve Nash in Game 4 of a 2007 second-round series between the Spurs and Phoenix Suns had far-reaching consequences. Raja Bell attempted to go at Horry but was held back, and Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended for Game 5 for leaving the vicinity of the bench during what was classified as a fight.
This was a letter-of-the-law punishment that violated the spirit. Neither Stoudemire nor Diaw were involved in the conflict—they just took a few too many steps away from the bench. Nobody would have minded if they weren't suspended.
The Suns won Game 4 but then lost Game 5 without two of their most important players. They lost the series in six games. The Spurs went on to win the championship.
It's not a guarantee the Suns would have beaten the Spurs if Stoudemire and Diaw weren't suspended, but the series was tied after two games, and even without them, Phoenix lost Game 5 by only three points.
That might have been the best chance for Nash, Stoudemire, Mike D'Antoni and the Seven Seconds or Less Suns to get a ring, and their run was essentially cut short on a technicality.
Derrick Rose's 2010-11 MVP
In 2011, Derrick Rose became the youngest player to ever win the MVP award by leading the Bulls to 62 wins. Even more surprising than his age (22) was the overwhelming fashion in which he dominated the balloting (113 of 121 first-place votes).
The Bulls led the league in wins with Rose as their primary playmaker even though their starting frontcourt (Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer) missed a combined 57 games because of injuries. Rose finished seventh in scoring and was the only player to average 25.0 points and 7.5 assists. He recorded the league's 12th-best plus-minus (6.2).
LeBron James, however, was inarguably the most impactful player. But James had just made "The Decision" and had won the previous two awards. In fact, James won his four MVPs in five seasons, with Rose's causing the only blemish in what could have been five straight.
James' numbers (26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game; 7.8 plus-minus, second in the league to teammate Chris Bosh's 7.9) were better, and James and the Miami Heat stopped Rose and Co. in their tracks in the Eastern Conference Finals in just five games.
Cleveland Cavaliers' 2016 Championship
The 2015-16 Cavaliers did the unthinkable, becoming the first team to rally from down 3-1 to win the Finals.
Fresh off a 73-9 campaign and armed with the league MVP in Stephen Curry, the Warriors looked demonstrably stronger after Games 1 and 2, which they won by a combined 48 points—the greatest such number through the first two games of any Finals.
But near the end of the Warriors' Game 4 victory, LeBron James and Draymond Green got into an altercation. Green's groin swipe was upgraded to a flagrant foul, which resulted in a suspension, while James was issued a technical foul for his clothesline and step-over.
Should the two have earned matching technical fouls, Green—who then wouldn't have accrued enough flagrant points in the postseason to trigger an automatic suspension—would have suited up for Game 5 and could have helped close the series in Oakland. Instead, Andrew Bogut left a three-point game early in the third quarter with a knee injury, and the Cavaliers ran away with a 15-point victory.
With the Warriors down 12 late in Game 6, Curry was whistled for his sixth foul and then given a technical and ejected. It was the first time he'd been ejected. The Cavs won by 14.
"He gets six fouls called on him, and three of them were absolutely ridiculous," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said.
James, Kyrie Irving and Co. certainly deserved to win Game 7 and bring a championship to Cleveland, but it's fun to wonder how the landscape of the NBA may have been altered if the NBA had just assessed matching technicals in Game 4.
2017 Western Conference Finals
When Zaza Pachulia stepped under Kawhi Leonard four minutes into the third quarter of Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, causing him to reinjure his ankle, it didn't just swing that series—it had widespread implications around the league.
The Spurs had a 21-point lead over the Warriors when Leonard went down, and without him, they collapsed and lost the game. From then on, without their best player, San Antonio had no shot, and Golden State easily swept the next three games to reach the Finals, wherein they beat the Cavaliers in five games to win their second championship in three years.
Would the Spurs have won the series if Leonard hadn't gotten hurt? Maybe not—the Warriors with Kevin Durant were one of the most talented teams in NBA history—but they were blowing them out before the injury, so it's safe to say the series would have been more competitive.
After that disappointment, Leonard played just nine games the following season, as his camp and the San Antonio medical staff disagreed on how to manage his rehab from a quadriceps injury. This tension, by all accounts, was the primary motivator in Leonard's forcing a trade in summer 2018. He wanted to go to Los Angeles, but the Spurs traded him to the Toronto Raptors, who won the title in 2019 before Leonard left for the Clippers in free agency.
Would any of that have happened if Leonard hadn't landed on Pachulia's foot, or would he still be in San Antonio?