MIAMI — At a time when everything seems so surreal and yet is so very real, the question with sports is what defines reality — and legitimacy.
It is a question the NBA and others are toiling with, even as players sit idle.
This past week, NBA TV featured the Miami Heat’s run through the 2012 NBA playoffs, which included seven games of drama against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals and then NBA Finals success against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
That season — before a complete, standard-format playoffs — went only 66 games, 16 shy of routine, due to the lockout that created a Dec. 25 start.
Before that for the Heat, there was the heartbreak of the 1999 playoffs — a season shortened to 50 games by a lockout — when Allan Houston’s leaning jumper lifted the New York Knicks to a shocking No. 8-vs.-No. 1 opening-round upset, with the San Antonio Spurs then ending the Knicks’ unlikely playoff run 4-1 in the NBA Finals.
In the immediate wake of each of those seasons, there was talk of tainted titles.
In the long view, 2012 simply is recorded as the first of two Big Three championships for the Heat and 1999 viewed as nothing more than the first of the Spurs’ five titles under Gregg Popovich.
Now, with the NBA at a standstill amid the new coronavirus pandemic, the question becomes what comes next, and whether an asterisk will be attached to the ultimate result.
First you start here: No games until there is no health risk — to players, coaches, referees, scoring crew, television crew, broadcasters, anyone.
But then you also have to accept another reality: The primary reason for an NBA restart will not be to ultimately crown the most deserving champion. It will be an exercise in revenue maximization, to recoup national television money, meet obligations to regional sports networks.
It matters less who is the ultimate 2020 NBA champion as that there is one.
Because it’s business.
To its credit, the NBA does not take itself too seriously when it comes to tradition. So the 3-point shot was added. Zone defense was returned to the mix. Foul shots were reduced. Defensive rules were altered to increase scoring.
Then take Major League Baseball, where change comes at tortoise pace, where even the thought of altering the number of games creates seismic debate, as if the home run records of Bonds, McGwire, Maris, Ruth stand sacred.
And yet MLB went without a World Series champion in 1994, after that season was halted by a lockout.
The national pastime somehow managed to endure.
Which brings us to some of the ideas floated about what a 2020 NBA playoffs could look like. The suggestions have run the gamut, including all 30 teams qualifying, best-of-3 opening-round series designed to heighten initial interest, games played at neutral arenas, games played without fans, games held with players sequestered for weeks or even months.
Arguments could be made for all.
Questions of legitimacy created by each.
It is looking more and more as if the NBA will go to whatever lengths necessarily — once safety can be assured — to crown a 2020 champion, from both calendar and logistical standpoints.
But the champion crowned will matter far less in the league’s big picture than revenue realized.
As long as that reality is accepted, then let the games eventually begin.
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