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No False Champions: Debunking The "Asterisk"

The NBA Finals are upon us, and for the first time in a decade, they will not feature LeBron James or Steph Curry. While a Suns-Bucks matchup wasn’t what most people expected this series to look like, there are many reasons to be excited about the two surprising teams left standing. First off, we finally have a championship that includes Chris Paul. After 15 seasons of heartbreak, injuries, and coming up short, the Point God finally has the opportunity to achieve one of the only accolades that has eluded him in his illustrious career. There’s also the excitement of witnessing a new dawn of NBA stars achieve the ultimate goal of winning a championship. Whether it’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton or Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, one duo of rising stars will no longer have the ever-mounting pressure of winning a championship on their shoulders like Paul has for his entire career. However, with all this excitement and potential comes the ugly side of the NBA fandom that hasn’t quite admitted to the fact that they just straight-up hate basketball. I’m talking about the fans that want everything the way they like it, and then still find a way to complain. The ones that lamented over the fact that league powerhouses were too dominant during the Cavs-Warriors battles, but are now complaining about ratings when LeBron, Steph, and other superstars are eliminated. These are also the same people that are relentless in placing an asterisk next to every single champion, regardless of the circumstances.

"Asterisk champions" is a claim made by a certain base of NBA fans (and some players, but more on that later) stating that a team’s championship should receive an asterisk next to it in order to denote a circumstance (typically out of the team’s control) that aims to diminish the incredibly difficult task of winning a championship. We’ve seen this claim be made numerous times throughout sports history, but it seems to be a trend that occurs far too often in the NBA. The dispute over championship legitimacy is an issue that began to take form in the 90s, but it's since taken off to a point where every single champion in the past decade has a reason why their championship loses its significance. The four reasons for asterisks that we’ll explore in this article are retirement, lockout seasons, officiating, and injuries. Of course, there are a wide variety of creative reasons that the worst fan can provide for why a certain team’s championship “doesn’t count,” but for the sake of time (and my sanity), we'll only look at these four.

(Note: I left out the 2020 NBA playoffs because the case for an asterisk during a pandemic is ridiculous. Putting players in a bubble for months with minimal outside contact and having them play in circumstances that are highly unusual and obscure for their profession obviously makes winning more difficult. On top of this, the circumstances of the 2020 playoffs are highly unlikely to happen again and aren’t related to anything within the actual league.)

Houston Chronicle

Our first example of the asterisk champion came by way of a pretty significant retirement. Beginning in 1994, the Rockets’ back-to-back championships led by Hakeem Olajuwon have been labeled by some as asterisk championships because of Michael Jordan's absence. During Houston’s consecutive championship runs, Jordan was taking his infamous hiatus from the league to pursue a career in baseball. Before and after this break, the Bulls were at the height of their dominance, stacking up three championships on both sides of Jordan’s absence. The fact that Houston didn’t need to go through the team that was the bane of the rest of the league’s championship aspirations through much of the 90s has led many people to question the legitimacy of Houston’s championships. The most intriguing element of this argument is the possibility of what could've happened if Jordan didn’t take a two-year break from basketball. Would it have been possible to win eight straight championships? Would Jordan staying accelerate the Bulls’ timeline, leading to an altered roster sooner? Would the “Last Dance” season ever occur? These questions are fun to entertain as part of a “what if?” conversation, but it doesn’t make for a legitimate reason to contest another team’s title. You can’t bet on something that didn’t happen, and as we’ve seen year after year, injuries and other factors beyond anybody’s control can completely alter the expected outcomes. Aside from the hypothetical, it wasn’t as if the Rockets lucked their way into back-to-back championships, either. Olajuwon was dominant in those two seasons, averaging over 27 points per game while also winning the league’s MVP award during the 1993-94 season. As time goes on, this asterisk championship isn’t discussed as frequently as some of the contemporary disputes, but among some NBA fans, it seems to be a certainty that Jordan and the Bulls lost out on two guaranteed titles during this time.

Air Alamo

Later in the 90s, the San Antonio Spurs’ 1999 championship has been another (more publicized) point of contention in terms of validity — this time because of a league lockout. The ‘99 season was shortened to 50 regular season games as a result of the failure of the league’s players and owners to reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining contract until January of that year. This shortened schedule has led to many people claiming the Spurs’ title was illegitimate. Shaquille O’Neal took this criticism to new heights last year when he called out the city of San Antonio and Tim Duncan on The Big Podcast when he said, “I would tell Mr. Duncan this to his face, you have four rings. Yeah, it says you have five, but the asterisk doesn't count. Anything I do, I never want an asterisk about it… You can have a look on your face if you want. It’s not a real season.” In this same interview, Shaq attributed the Lakers’ playoff failure that year to his lack of drive in the playoffs, saying he “wasn’t into” the playoffs that season. Some people claim this asterisk has more legitimacy because Shaq has been so open about his thoughts on the matter, but I personally believe the argument to be pretty weak. The excuse of not being “into” the playoffs that year would carry more weight if the Lakers got bounced in the first round convincingly. Instead, they won pretty handily in a 3-1 series victory against the Rockets where Shaq averaged 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists. Even in the next series, where the Lakers got swept by San Antonio, it wasn’t as if Shaq and Kobe didn’t put up typical numbers; they were just beaten by the better team that year. San Antonio lost two games that entire postseason and had the same late start as everybody else. That’s the befuddling thing about arguments like the playoff bubble or the lockout season; yes, it may be difficult for teams to adjust to a change from the norm, but every single team is going through the same circumstances. While some teams may benefit more from time off or from a fanless environment, it seems trivial to argue that a championship holds less weight than in a normal year just because of different circumstances. After this season, the Lakers would go on to win the Finals in each of the next three seasons, but not without controversy of their own.

Los Angeles Times

In 2002, the Lakers were fresh off of two straight championships that included a 67-win season in 2000 and a one-loss Finals run in 2001. On their way to a third championship in 2002, however, Shaq, Kobe Bryant, and the Lakers encountered one speed bump on their way to an otherwise pedestrian Finals run. This bump came in the form of the Sacramento Kings in the Western Conference Finals. Up to this point, the Lakers had only lost one game through the first two rounds of the postseason. The Kings, led by Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic, were having just about as easy of a time on the other side of the Western Conference bracket as they cruised through their first two matchups with only two losses. This led to the two formidable California teams battling it out in a seven-game battle that eventually resulted in the Lakers’ emerging victorious. However, the result of this conference finals has led some to put an asterisk by the Lakers’ title after referee Tim Donaghy pled guilty in 2007 for betting on NBA games, including some that he was working. In the 2007 plea, Donaghy’s lawyer filed a document that stated that Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, which resulted in a Lakers four-point win, had been fixed by two of Donaghy’s colleagues who were officiating that game. Of all the frustrating games that have been decided by officiating, the Kings may have the best case for being screwed over. While we tend to get frustrated at refs who make bad calls against our favorite team, the Kings actually had refs that were out to get them in one of the most important games in franchise history. I’m not saying this alters the entire course of the Kings’ depressing history, but a potential Finals appearance makes their timeline less sad, if only slightly. Nonetheless, the Lakers ended up winning this series and rolling through the Nets in the Finals because they were also a great team that deserved to be there. Even in the most egregious case of officials ruining a game (and series), an asterisk next to the Lakers' name doesn’t tell the whole story of that season. One messy referee scandal — regardless of how maddening — doesn’t diminish the impressive 58 wins the Lakers had that year, or the 11-1 postseason record outside of that Sacramento series.

Although we’ve already looked at a few ways in which the asterisk is etched onto the end of a team’s name, no reason for a tainted champion has been more dominant in the recent history of the league than that of the advantageous injury. From the Cavaliers' loss of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to the Warriors' untimely injuries of Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, there had been at least one playoff-altering injury each postseason from 2015 to 2019. These injuries came at various times throughout the playoffs, but had severe implications for who ended up hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the postseason. The injury that sticks with me most during this period occurred in the 2017 Western Conference Finals, where the San Antonio Spurs met the Golden State Warriors. Up 23 points in Game 1, the Spurs were giving the one-seeded Warriors a run for their money when Zaza Pachulia (an infamous San Antonio villain) planted a devious left foot right in Kawhi Leonard’s landing space after Kawhi attempted a shot. This led to Kawhi reinjuring his ankle and missing the remainder of the 2017 playoffs, which only ended up being three more games for the Spurs after losing their star player. Aside from Ray Allen’s heartbreaking three-pointer in 2013 (I can still hear Mike Breen’s horrific “BANG” call), this is one of the most devastating plays in my personal fandom history. I still question how the series would have ended up if not for Zaza — the devil incarnate — toppling the Spurs dynasty, but it’s hard to say that the 67-win Warriors didn’t deserve to win that championship. Injuries are simply a part of the game — no matter how frustrating they are to witness when you’re on the wrong side of them.

I understand the frustration of these playoffs for many fans. A shortened offseason made it so teams like the Lakers had very little rest, which clearly caught up to them. The shortened offseason and accelerated game schedule also led to more injuries than we have ever seen in a postseason, meaning that many teams lost their stars and were forced into a premature exit. However, to cry asterisk for either team that wins this championship is to diminish an entire body of work strictly because of what is deemed fair or unfair. Yes, both teams have avoided facing major stars as a result of the injury bug, but they both also endured their own tribulations on their way to the Finals. The Suns lost Chris Paul twice in this postseason and navigated through two tough series without him for extended periods of time. The Bucks had to close out the Eastern Conference Finals without Giannis for the final two games when the series was tied heading into a pivotal Game 5. Both of these teams also had very solid regular seasons that led to them receiving top seeds in their respective conferences, which should also be respected and appreciated. Finally, the quest for a championship is never easy, and if it was based on team talent alone, the course of NBA history would look entirely different. There’s so many factors that go into what team ends up on top; all of these factors that act as "asterisks" also make the game dynamic and unpredictable. This series is shaping up to be a fun one, full of players that are more than deserving of their first championship. Preemptively complaining about how they don’t deserve to be champions is the only way to miss out on what a thrilling run both of these teams have had.