| The Detroit News
On March 11 everything stopped in the NBA. The first positive COVID-19 test for a player halted the regular season and threw everything into limbo. In July, the season resumed with 22 teams amid a cloud of doubt over the Orlando bubble at Walt Disney World Resort.
Seven months after its screeching halt, the NBA season finished Sunday with the Los Angeles Lakers beating the Miami Heat in six games to take their record-tying 17th championship. LeBron James put another layer on his legacy with his fourth championship and fourth Finals MVP, and the Heat, behind Jimmy Butler, showed that they can be a strong contender for the foreseeable future.
The run-up to the Finals was a grueling trek — with eight teams, including the Pistons — left out and not playing competitively for more than six months before finally getting some in-market bubble practices.
The most important takeaway is that the bubble concept was successful and still has provided the best prototype for playing sports safely during the pandemic. The season almost spanned an entire year and with the four-month hiatus in the middle, it’s thrown the calendar off for next season, with the draft and free agency pending next month, potentially, and the start of the new season looming in January.
With the season done and an uncertain offseason beginning, here are some takeaways from the NBA bubble, the playoffs and the Finals.
►1. LeBron’s fourth: James has his fourth championship and the Lakers are on top again. For some, all is right with the NBA world, but for most others, the comparisons of James and Michael Jordan were reheated once again. It shouldn’t be. Let LeBron be LeBron. It’s possible to respect his accomplishments without having to measure them against Jordan’s, Kobe Bryant’s, Bill Russell’s or anyone else’s. James’ greatness can be — and should be — compartmentalized and appreciated on its own. He’s a one-of-a-kind player who has a different skill set than the other all-time greats. Let’s just leave it at that.
►2. Taking a stand: One of the major stories of the NBA bubble was the messaging on topics ranging from voter engagement and education, the movements to support George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and social justice. The push was more than just statements on the backs of jerseys or putting “Black Lives Matter” on the court. It turned into a movement that culminated with the Milwaukee Bucks staging a protest that led to the league postponing games after the Jacob Blake shooting. It was a powerful show of unity that masterfully aligned the league’s stance on social issues and the players’ desire to not stick to sports.
►3. Wild, wild East: With another regular-season MVP performance, Giannis Antetokounmpo guided the Bucks to the best record — and another early exit in the playoffs. The defending-champion Toronto Raptors also fell short, as the Miami Heat plowed through the Eastern Conference to a remarkable Finals appearance. The Boston Celtics still have a solid young core, but with what the Heat showed in taking the Lakers to six games, there’s a lot to be optimistic about with their roster for years to come. All eyes will be on the Brooklyn Nets, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving back, along with Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, but there will be several teams with a shot.
►4. Bubble talk: With so much at stake, that the NBA got through the bubble with no positive COVID tests and no significant health issues is significant. I was skeptical that they could do it — and Lou Williams’ Magic City dalliance notwithstanding — the NBA should be credited for implementing and executing in a difficult situation.
►5. Youth served: From the resumption of the regular season through the NBA Finals, young players had their time in the spotlight. That included the resolution of the debate for rookie of the year, where the Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant shined, while the New Orleans Pelicans’ Zion Williamson struggled to the end of his injury-riddled season. The Heat’s Duncan Robinson (Michigan), Kendrick Nunn (Oakland) and Tyler Herro had notable performances as well.
►6. Who’s next? Beyond the young stars, the next crop of superstars also made significant impressions. Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell had an iconic head-to-head series, and Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and Nikola Jokic showed themselves to be among the game’s elite players. It doesn’t look as if James will be stepping aside any time soon, but when he does, there will be plenty of talent around the league to pick up the mantle.
►7. No crowds, no problem: One of the successes of the bubble was having no fans in attendance. Sure, the video boards had virtual fans, but that didn’t seem to sway the games one way or the other. Just having a generic court with benches was a simple way to broadcast the games, and although players were able to bring family members into the bubble after they quarantined, it all worked out.