The End to an Endless Season

by Rahdin Salehian

The Larry O’Brien Trophy returns to Los Angeles after a 355-day season.

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Around one year ago, all 30 NBA teams were preparing to begin an NBA season like no other. Teams like the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Thunder, Nets, and Heat had added new stars to their rosters during the free agency of 2019. Other teams such as the Pelicans and Grizzlies drafted future stars in the 2019 NBA Draft with hopes for a future that includes deep playoff runs and appearances in the NBA Finals. These new rosters gave many teams a realistic hope to win the championship this season, but as in every season, there were teams who both overperformed and underperformed.

Before the season started, the Los Angeles Clippers were given the best odds to win the 2020 NBA Finals. The Clippers made several moves during the 2019 offseason, signing Kawhi Leonard, former Toronto Raptors’ forward and the Finals MVP of the 2019 NBA Finals, and trading for Paul George, who came in 3rd place for MVP voting in 2019. These moves, on top of already having two Sixth Man of the Year-caliber players on their roster in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, gave the Clippers’ high odds to win the 2020 NBA Title.

However, the Clippers weren’t the only team in Los Angeles with title hopes. The Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James, were also hoping to show the world that they were capable of being a contender after failing to qualify for the playoffs in 2019. After their disappointing season, the Lakers traded for an MVP-caliber player in Anthony Davis. Also trying to prove themselves this year, Giannis Antetokounmpo, a now 2-time MVP, and the Bucks were hoping to make the NBA Finals this year after losing in the Eastern Conference Finals (ECF) to the eventual champions, the Toronto Raptors. After disappointing seasons for the Celtics and Rockets, both teams signed new stars, Kemba Walker and Russell Westbrook respectively, hoping for their chance to redeem themselves by winning a championship.

This unprecedented season was also the breakout season for new rising stars such as Jayson Tatum, Jamal Murray, Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young, Pascal Siakam, and Luka Dončić. These players played a crucial role in helping their respective teams exceed expectations. For example, after losing the player that led them to their first championship, Kawhi Leonard, many people did not expect the Raptors to reach the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference. Moreover, Luka Dončić was able to receive some MVP votes and lead the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA playoffs in just his second season in the NBA, along with averaging 31 PPG in his first-ever playoff series.

The season progressed well, until March. Due to the risk of contracting COVID-19 for players, team staff, and fans, there was an abrupt four-month pause to the season. This break allowed injured players to heal and teams to rest. After the four-month hiatus, the NBA finally returned to play in the summer at the new NBA Bubble at Walt Disney World. The bubble was full of accommodations for the players, but the one downfall was that the teams played on a neutral court without fans. This quite possibly affected teams like the Clippers, Raptors, or even the first-seeded team in the entire league, the Milwaukee Bucks, who were all formidable teams who lost in the second round of the playoffs.

Although players and teams can often underperform, some occasionally exceed expectations. Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell met in the first round of the playoffs and broke records in that seven-game series by having multiple 50-point games in the series. Murray and all-star center Nikola Jokic were also able to lead the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals after coming back from a 3-1 game deficit in the first and second rounds of the playoffs. They had a deep playoff run, which was impressive for a young team with minimal playoff experience, and the NBA Bubble was one of the reasons for this. Playing on a neutral court without fans helped them feel more confident in themselves and their teams, knowing that anything could happen in a neutral setting. However, their season ended in the Western Conference Finals when the Nuggets were unable to come back from a 3-1 game deficit against the Lakers.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the first-seeded Lakers were able to advance to the Finals for the first time since 2010, back when the Lakers were led by the late Kobe Bryant. This NBA Finals appearance was LeBron James’s 10th appearance and made a great tribute to the Lakers legend who passed away earlier this year. While the Lakers had always been favorites to make the NBA finals, the Miami Heat, on the other hand, was not expected to make the Finals at all. The team missed the playoffs in 2019, and Jimmy Butler—who the Heat had acquired in the 2019 free agency period—had not yet proven himself to be able to lead a team to the NBA Finals. The Heat were the underdogs for the entire playoffs, but after sweeping the Indiana Pacers in four games, and upsetting the Bucks in five, the Heat were on their way to their first ECF since 2014, when they were led by LeBron. In the ECF, the 5th seeded Heat started with a commanding 2-0 game lead against the 3rd seeded Celtics after coming back from double-digit points in both. The Celtics, who had high hopes for this season with four players who scored 18+ PPG, were able to make the ECF, but after a failed attempt to come back from a 3-1 game deficit, the Heat celebrated a trip to the NBA Finals in six games. They were the first 5th-seed to make the NBA Finals ever. The ECF also proved the value of young emerging stars like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson to the Heat, even though they underperformed in the Finals.

The NBA Finals started with two double-digit wins by the Lakers in which superstar Anthony Davis scored 30+ points in each, while LeBron James scored 25+ points in each of the first two games against his former team. In Game 3, Heat star Jimmy Butler put up an impressive and historic performance with a 40-point triple-double, while playing 45 of a possible 48 total minutes, to secure the Heat’s first win of the series. However, in the next game, the Lakers managed to win by 6 points in a close game to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. The Lakers were close to securing their championship in Game 5, but they lost by 3 points after Jimmy Butler’s 35-point triple-double, even though LeBron James had a 40-point performance himself. Game 6 was when the Lakers proved they were ready and determined to avoid a Game 7 and win their 17th championship in franchise history, tying the Boston Celtics with the most in NBA history. LeBron James was honored with the Finals MVP award. This championship is LeBron James’s fourth, and his first with the Lakers. All-star starter Anthony Davis also won his first championship in what was his first season with the Lakers.

Many records were broken during these Finals, and the unique circumstances of the NBA Bubble made them more interesting as well. Notably, LeBron James became the first player to win a Finals MVP with three different teams. Danny Green joined LeBron James as one of the only four players ever to win a championship on 3 different teams, as Green won one with the Spurs in 2014 and the Raptors in 2019. Other notable storylines include former Celtics all-star Rajon Rondo becoming the second player ever to win a championship with both the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, as well as Hall of Fame-worthy veteran center Dwight Howard winning the first championship of his career.

Because the Lakers have tied for the most championships in NBA history, they have strengthened their argument for being the greatest franchise of all time, and since LeBron James has won a championship and Finals MVP on three different teams, he has strengthened his argument for being the greatest player of all time. Nevertheless, the Lakers ended this historic season as 17-time NBA champions, tying the Celtics for the most championships of all time.