No matter who won it, this NBA championship was never going to be like the others.
How could it be when the entire restarted season was played in a three-month bubble, sealed off from the dangers of COVID-19 through a strict set of protocols, in front of virtual crowds?
Because of the strangeness of the 2019-20 playoffs, some will say the Los Angeles Lakers' Finals win over the Miami Heat should have an asterisk next to it. To others, including two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, winning the title in the bubble is tougher than a normal postseason run.
"You can't compare it," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said during the Finals. "It's two totally different existences. That doesn't make it more difficult or less difficult, it's just monumentally different."
On the surface, the bubble offered some advantages over a normal playoff run. The most obvious was the lack of travel, which allowed players a little more rest and stability. But as the three months wore on, players found it increasingly difficult to be away from their families. Players who have won titles in normal times and in this current moment had no doubts as to which one took more out of them.
"This one by far was the hardest one," Rajon Rondo said Sunday night, just an hour after the Lakers closed out the Finals. "Family is everything, and not being able to see your family takes a toll on you mentally. We're not eating normal food, as far as our normal regimen. I didn't eat today, so that was taking a toll on the mind and the body. Proper rest, not sleeping in your own beds, an uncertain schedule. It was a lot different. People may say travel was different or no fans, but mentally, this one was tough."
You can argue the Lakers caught some breaks on their path to the franchise's 17th title. Miami's leading scorer in the playoffs, Goran Dragic, missed most of the Finals after suffering a foot injury in Game 1; Heat All-Star center Bam Adebayo also missed two games. They didn't have to face the No. 2 seed Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals after the Clippers' shocking second-round collapse against the Denver Nuggets. The Lakers' second-round opponent, the Houston Rockets, lost guard Danuel House Jr. because of a violation of bubble protocol.
But there are mitigating circumstances for every title. Do the 2019 Toronto Raptors get an asterisk because they faced a Golden State Warriors team without Kevin Durant? Does LeBron James' historic 2016 title with the Cleveland Cavaliers get an asterisk because Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5? Does the first title of the Warriors' run in 2015 get an asterisk because the Cavs lost Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to injuries? If you're looking for a reason to discount any title, you can usually find one.
There's no true precedent for a season that was unlike anything the NBA could have prepared for. The closest thing may have been the lockout-shortened 1999 season, which ended with the New York Knicks making the Finals as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. They lost to the San Antonio Spurs, who beat the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals.
Jim Jackson, a Turner Sports analyst who spent time in the bubble calling games for TNT, was on that Blazers team. It was one of two Western Conference Finals trips he made in his 14-year NBA career, the other coming in 2004-05 as a member of the Phoenix Suns.
"That year with Portland, we only played 50 games, as opposed to when I was in Phoenix and we played a full 82," Jackson told B/R. "So they're different dynamics. In '99, we had games where we played back-to-back-to-back. Those two scenarios were totally different as far as getting to the Western Conference Finals. [The bubble] is totally different, because you had the start of the season, and then the shutdown [in March] and then it started up again four months later."
One thing Lakers players have said consistently during this title run, from James on down, is that they wished they could have won in front of their own fans in Los Angeles. The NBA piped in crowd noise and featured virtual fans on video boards in the arenas, but the bubble environment had a neutralizing effect. One wonders if the Nuggets would have lasted more than five games against the Lakers if they'd had the change in altitude to use to their advantage.
"Playing the road games is definitely easier in the bubble, because you're not really on the road," said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. "We have home-court advantage, so I think that plays against us in some ways because the other team doesn't have to deal with the Laker fanbase at Staples. I think no travel has been easier on all of our schedules, sleep, all those types of things. Those are probably the two biggest things."
Without things like family and regular accommodation, the bubble playoffs became a war of attrition, an added mental test on top of the physical challenges and tactical adjustments that typically come with a deep postseason run.
"I said from the beginning, the team that ultimately wins this may not be the most talented team, but the team that stays mentally engaged the longest," Jackson says. "Because of being three months in an environment that's totally different from what you're accustomed to. To me, that was just as valuable as the physical aspect—which team could stay focused for those three months in order to get the job done."
That mental fortitude was the defining characteristic of the Heat, who more than any other team appeared built for this environment. But that focus was also seen in some other teams that made surprising runs in the earlier part of the restart.
"Phoenix didn't make [the playoffs], but that group wanted to be there," Jackson says. "I don't think some of the Clippers players wanted to be there. So when you don't have complete buy-in, they were up against a buzzsaw with that Denver team that was committed and had the talent to back it up."
The challenges of the bubble were different from those of a normal playoff run. This title is no less legitimate, even if the circumstances will (hopefully) never be repeated. Next year's field will be tougher, with the Warriors and Brooklyn Nets back in the mix, but the Lakers should open the season as favorites. What they did in the bubble earns them that right.
"We can only really deal with what's in front of us," Jackson says. "The good thing is, every team had the same hand dealt to them. It was just, which one would be able to negotiate it the best? And ultimately, it was the Lakers."
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.