It appears unlikely that the 2019-20 NBA season will end with a definitive champion. How should we look back on what we saw this year in light of that?
The narrative of a season, or even an era, is often shaped by championships and the teams that won them. If you think of the 1980s, you recall Magic and Bird whose Lakers and Celtics combined to win eight of the decade’s titles while thoughts of the following decade are similarly monopolized by Michael Jordan and the Bulls. It would be a bit of an overstatement to call everything else that happened in these years footnotes to those teams’ dominance in the cultural memory, but it wouldn’t be too much of one, unfair as it may be to other great teams and players who, for whatever reason, were unable to get over that particular hump
This season, unlikely to resume or to end with a definitive champion, will almost certainly be defined not by who won it all, but by what has been lost. Never before has an NBA season gone on an extended hiatus like this before (other in the 1998-99 and 2011-12 seasons when labor disputes postponed their beginning). But even in those seasons, we still had an ending. We saw the Spurs and the Heat raise the Larry O’Brien trophy in June, which while not necessarily making up for the lost games, made them matter less than they would have if those lost games had come at the end of the year rather than merely delaying the season’s start. This is unprecedented, and it’s hard to know what to make of it. If the goal is to win a championship, how does one evaluate a season where no championship is won at all
Without a championship, at least one superstar will be missing out at a chance to solidify or further enhance their resume. Imagine how differently we would talk about Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Russell Westbrook if they had been able to pull off a title run this summer. Imagine what a fourth championship would mean for LeBron James’ legacy, or what leading a second team to their first title in team history — potentially becoming the first player to win Finals MVP for three different teams in the process — would mean for Kawhi Leonard’s. Instead, it now appears likely that James Harden and Russell Westbrook will not be given the opportunity to prove that their flamboyantly individualistic styles can combine to compete for a championship; Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks will be unable to show that their regular-season dominance has been no mere fluke. The Raptors will not have the chance to defend their championship and prove to doubters what a great team they are even without Leonard (as if that claim really requires any proof at this point anyway). The Sixers will be forced to answer lots of questions about their middling regular season without the chance to show that they were actually capable of flipping the switch after all
It will be easy for some to look at this year, one that is likely to finish without a champion crowned, as ultimately not mattering at all. Though that statement does not seem to hold up to close scrutiny in my eyes. Even if we don’t get a postseason or a definitive champion, we still got to see the blossoming of Luka Doncic and Trae Young as they grew into legitimate stars; we witnessed the tandem of LeBron James and Anthony Davis which somehow surpassed even the most optimistic fan’s hopes; there was the continued dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. We saw Ja Morant and the young Grizzlies quickly look a team of the future in the West. And while he was unable to play as much as fans would have hoped, we were lucky enough to catch brief glimpses of a dominant Zion Williamson, including his astonishing first game against the Spurs when he scored 17 consecutive points in the fourth quarter.
There was no shortage of memorable games either from LeBron and Luka both earning triple-doubles in an early November overtime duel to the Raptors coming back from 30 down against the Mavericks in December. We also saw the Bulls coming back from eight down with 22 seconds left in order to win behind 27 fourth-quarter points from Zach LaVine and we got to see the small ball Rockets take on the Lakers and win as Russell Westbrook put up 41. The lack of a postseason does not detract from the joy I felt watching these astonishing performances
It seems important to remember now that there are a number of reasons to watch an NBA game that have nothing to do with its final score. While many, if not most, fans have definite rooting interests while watching, there is much to savor in the game’s 48 minutes even if your preferred team does not win. There’s still the chance to witness phenomenal athletes performing feats most can only dream of and the ability to watch distinct stylists play in ways that are inimitable even among their peers. Every night, there is some play, some possession, some solitary moment that is worth immortalizing that one can relish having seen in real-time. And while it is obviously disappointing that there is not likely to be any satisfying conclusion to the 2019-20 season forthcoming, hopefully, that can be leavened a little bit by the feats we were still lucky to witness in this shortened season.