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Why every NBA title this century could have an Asterisk

There has been a lot of talk since the NBA announced they were going to finish the 2019/20 season in a closed ‘Bubble’ in Florida about whether this season should have an Asterisk over its eventual winners and what that would mean. I did some digging and realised that almost every NBA title could have an Asterisk. Let’s get into some historical facts and some epic conspiracy theories. 

Back in 1999 Phil Jackson had assembled a pretty good roster at the Lakers. However, a lockout shortened season which saw the San Antonio Spurs led by Tim Duncan take home the Larry O’brien trophy, would delay the Shaq & Kobe Lakers title barrage by a year. In the media after the dust had settled Jackson stated that the season would always have an Asterisk* on it. Coining the term and sparking thousands of hours of speculation on almost every NBA related award for the next 20 years. The 2019/20 season see’s the mother of all Asterisk Seasons. NOTHING has ever happened like this in Basketball before. 

So let’s take a look at why every NBA title this decade could have an Asterisk on it – starting with Jacksons own Lakers. 

Why the 2000 NBA title has an Asterisk

2000 NBA Finals: LA Lakers beat Indina Pacers in 6 games

2000 NBA Finals MVP: Shaquille O’Neal

We’re kicking this off with a tough one. It’s hard to find an Asterisk when the Finals series features the two number 1 seeds, both led by great, proven Basketball minds and the winning team featured two of the greatest players ever to play the game in their Primes. As you will know, the Indiana Pacers, led by Larry “Legend” Bird lost in 6 games to the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Phil Jackson (6 coaching titles in Chicago) featuring Shaquille O’Neil and the late great Kobe Bryant. The rocks we can throw at this juggernaut of a title are small, but let’s give it a go. Jordan had retired, the reigning Finals MVP was the enigmatic Tim Duncan. The NBA needed a new face. Coming out of the Western conference were it’s two most marketable stars in Shaq & Kobe playing in on of the biggest media markets. If people think that the Lakers get all the calls now, just imagine how badly the league wanted them to win this title against the blue-collar Pacers. 

A weak start I know, but hold with us, there’s some gold coming up!

Why the 2001 NBA title has an Asterisk

2001 NBA Finals: LA Lakers beat Philadelphia 76ers in 5 games

2001 NBA Finals MVP: Shaquille O’Neal

Sorry to do this to Laker Nation but we’re piling on loads more conspiracy theory here. The Philadelphia 76ers lost in 5 to the Shaq & Kobe Lakers. But not before league bad boy Allen Iverson hauled them to a massive Game 1 road win grabbing 48 points and inflicting what would be the Lakers only loss of the post season. Obviously David Stern and the NBA weren’t going to stand for this, there was a dress code to uphold. The Lakers took the next 4 games.

Little side note. The year before Allen Iverson had prevented Shaq from winning the first ever unanimous MVP by getting 1 single first place vote from Fred Hickman. So stopping Shaq from sweeping the entire payoffs the next year must have felt delicious to AI, even in defeat.

Why the 2002 NBA title has an Asterisk

2002 NBA Finals: LA Lakers beat New Jersey Nets in 4 games

2002 NBA Finals MVP: Shaquille O’Neal

Sacramento had the best record in the NBA in 2002, they had an elite team of seasoned players Including Vlade Divac, Chris Webber, Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic. The Lakers had gone through a torrid season, Shaq and Kobe were at the height of their beef, Shaq had been out of shape all season, they had struggled up until the playoffs. 

The Kings jumped out to a 3-2 lead. Setting up a game 6 in LA. 

Then commissioner David Stern even referred to his dream finals match up being the Lakers vs the Lakers, so you can almost predict how game 6 was going to go. 

The Lakers shot 40 free throws to the Kings 25. Including 27 in the decisive 4 quarter alone. That’s more than 2 per minute, for the record. Divac fouled out after 31 mins of playing time and Chris Webber picked up fouls early and had to play less aggressively than he otherwise would have. 

The Lakers scraped out the win and would go on to clinch game 7 moving on to Sweep the Nets in the NBA Finals. 

Sure, it’s possible that these foul calls were just how the refs saw the game, it’s also possible that the final title of the Shaq Kobe Lakers era should have a massive Asterisk hanging over it. 

Why the 2003 NBA title has an Asterisk

2003 NBA Finals: San Antonio Spurs beat New Jersey Nets in 6 games

2003 NBA Finals MVP: Tim Duncan

The controversy in this one comes not from the Finals opponents. But more from the second round where the eventual winners Spurs would defeat the 3x defending champions LA Lakers. The crucial moment in the series came down to a Robert Horry game 5 jump shot at the buzzer for the game. 

I think we can all agree that “Big Shot Bob” doesn’t miss those shots often. He would start the next season in a Spurs uniform winning 2 of his Seven titles in San Antonio. Coincidence? 

Why the 2004 NBA title has an Asterisk

2004 NBA Finals: Detroit Pistons beat LA Lakers in 5 games

2004 NBA Finals MVP: Chauncey Billups

Detroit Pistons 4 – 1 Lakers. Following their 3 peat and their early exit at the hands of eventual winners San Antonio in 2003, the Shaq/Kobe Lakers re-loaded and came into the 2003/2004 season as heavy favourites. Adding future hall of famours Karl Malone and Gary Payton filled out their roster nicely. In theory, although on the far side of their primes, these two elite, experienced players would provide some stability around the dominant core of Shaq and Kobe. Detroit came into the season far from the finished title contending article. Full of scrappy, talented role players, not to mention a bungled number 2 pick in Darko Milicic, it would take a mid-season trade bringing in Rasheed Wallace to put these Pistons of path for their first title since Jordan ascended to GOAT status. Neither side would enter the Playoffs as a number 1 seed. The 56 win Lakers would drop 5 games on their way to the Finals. The 54 win Pistons would drop 4. Neither side was dominant, but the Pistons were getting better and better, the Lakers were falling apart. 

The Shaq and Kobe infighting was cranking up, the stabilising force of Malone had torn his MCL during the season and missed 39 games. He would play through injury to help haul them to the Finals. But a freak incident in Game 2 where he caught his foot on the Pistons Wallace aggravated it and his presence would be severely limited for the rest of the series. The Pistons would win easily in 5 games. Phil Jackson would resign, Shaq would be traded to the Heat, Malone would retire and it would take Kobe years to get the side back to title winning form. Would should have been as easy title for the Lakers came up against every bit of bad luck it could have. 

Maybe the biggest Asterisk over the Pistons 2004 title is their drafting of Darko Milicic with the second overall pick. If they had taken Carmelo Anthony (as history indicates they should have) maybe they never trade for Rasheed Wallace, never realising themselves as the elite workman like defence first team that frustrated the Lakers superstars in the Finals. Maybe what seems like a bone head move in the long run, actually bought them short term success – winning a title means you never have to apologise. 

Why the 2005 NBA title has an Asterisk

2005 NBA Finals: San Antonio Spurs beat Detroit Pistons in 7 games

2005 NBA Finals MVP: Tim Duncan

Full disclaimer here, I’m a Spurs fan, a coaching disciple of Greg Popovich and consider Manu Ginobili to be my spirit animal. I’m going to find it hard to put an Asterisk up on Manu’s first NBA title. As a starter, they defeated the reigning NBA champions the Detroit Pistons in a thrilling 7 game series. The first time the finals had gone to 7 games since the Rockets 1994 victory over the Knicks. Secondly both the Pistons and the Spurs were 2nd seeds, who defeated their respective 1st seeds in the conference finals (Heat and Suns respectively). So the bonafide’s of this title seem pretty locked in. My best attempt to Asterisk this one. Both teams were defence first monsters! Wouldn’t it have been more fun to see the 7 seconds or less Sun’s facing off against Wade & Shaq? Defence is cheating, the neutral fan was robbed! 

Why the 2006 NBA title has an Asterisk

2006 NBA Finals: Miami Heat beat Dallas Mavericks in 6 games

2006 NBA Finals MVP: Dwayne Wade

Now this one is much easier to hang an Asterisk around. I’ll let those involved explain below. My Summary – Dirk and the Mavericks were robbed by some shady officiating and the leagues need to raise Wade up as a star and give Shaq one last title before he slowed down to much. Almost ten year’s later Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was still bitter, despite having already captured a title vs none other than the Heat 5 years earlier: 

“I don’t think there’s any question that it’ll go down as the worst officiated Finals in the history of the game, I think the league would even agree with that. Maybe I’ll stop talking about it on the 10-year anniversary.” 

Mark Cuban, February 2016

When asked about 2006 Finals MVP Dwayne Wade he said the following: 

“He’ll go down as one of the all-time great players, I don’t think there’s any question about that. He evolved his game from when we played him the first time, to being a more complete player, on the court and off, so he deserves a ton of credit. Doesn’t mean it was any more legit what happened in 2006, but they don’t look at fouls and put an f, put a ph for ‘phantom’ or ‘fake’, versus ‘l’ for legit. They just wear that ring. As I told these guys, I don’t typically carry a grudge for more than nine and a half years.” 

Dwayne Wade

Like I said. A massive Asterisk on this one

A video detailing everything that went into taking the Dallas Mavericks 2006 NBA title away from them. 

Why the 2007 NBA title has an Asterisk

2007 NBA Finals: San Antonio Spurs beat Cleveland Cavaliers in 4 games

2007 NBA Finals MVP: Tony Parker

A young Lebron James would make his first of 10 (and counting) Finals appearances in 2007. Putting in a career defining performance to get past the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. At the time, and to this day, it is considered that this in itself was a remarkable achievement from Lebron. He reached the Finals ahead of schedule with a team ill equipped to compete at that level. They were demolished in 4 games by the holy San Antonio trinity of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. So, to an Asterisk. The best I can come up with surrounds not the title itself, but the Finals MVP. Tony Parker, who was excellent dicing up Cavalier guards like Booby Gibson and scoring in the paint with the frequency of Shaquille O’Neil took home the honours. But come on. Between when he was drafted and when he retired with 5 titles, can a case really be made that Tim Duncan wasn’t the best player in any series the Spurs won? Duncan was robbed hang that Asterisk above Parkers entry in the history books. (I love you Tony). 

Why the 2008 NBA title has an Asterisk

2008 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics beat LA Lakers in 6 games

2008 NBA Finals MVP: Paul Pierce

In the aftermath of the Lakers 2004 Finals collapse to the Pistons and following implosion of the Shaq/Kobe core, the resignation and eventual return of Phil Jackson. It took years to finally get a worthy core back around Kobe Bryant has he continued to move deeper into his prime. A big peice of this was the aquisition and development of Andrew Bynum. A centre, who not on Shaqs level, emobodied alot of the physical size and force that had made Shaq such a perfect partner for Kobe. Combined with the skill and speed Lamar Odom possessed at power forward, the Lakers were on course for a deep playoff run, with the title in their sites.

In the other conference the Boston Celtics, the Lakers age old rivals, had finally put together a core worthy of their own home grown star Paul Pierce. This core consisted of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnet, but it was perhaps the development of young point guard Rajon Rondo that ultimately pushed them to become their best selves.

This titanic match up was almost de-railed in January when Bynum partially dislocated his knee cap in a game vs the Memphis Grizzlies. With the undersized Odom as their only real talent up front, the Lakers went all in for a trade for Grizzlies Spanish star Pau Gasol. It was in fact the pairing of Pau and Kobe that would eventually allow Kobe to win his final two titles, but not before losing to the Celtics in 2008.

So why an asterisk?

If Bynum had stayed healthy the Lakers would probably have had to much for the Celtics in the Finals. The core of Kobe, Odom and Bynum was perfectly suited to grind the Celtics down on both ends of the floor – both physical and skilled. The trade really pushed the Lakers talent weighting into the front court. Epsecially with Bynum physically struggling, trying to fill 2 forward spots with Odom, Gasol and Bynum, while keeping the notoriously difficult centre engaged proved to much for even the Zen Master.

An alternate way to look at it is this. In game 1 Paul Pierce seemed ot suffer a leg injury and needed a wheel chair to get him back to the locker room for treatment. He ended up leading the Celtics to a 6 game victory and winning Finals MVP. A remarkable turn around. There is a certain school of thought that suggests it was really because he soiled himself during play.

Can we really have a Finals MVP that soiled himself on national TV?

Why the 2009 NBA title has an Asterisk

2009 NBA Finals: LA Lakers beat Orlando Magic in 5 games

2009 NBA Finals MVP: Kobe Bryant

Why the 2010 NBA title has an Asterisk

2010 NBA Finals: LA Lakers beat Boston Celtics in 7 games

2010 NBA Finals MVP: Kobe Bryant

Lakers To cover this one off I’m going to link you to an article I previously wrote about Lebron’s meltdown in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals (click here). Of the court/internal team issues took his head out of the game. Instead of us getting Lebron vs Kobe 1. We had Kobe’s revenge against the Celtics for his 2008 Finals defeat. I will always believe 2010 should have sparked one of the greatest rivalries the sporting world had ever seen between Lebron and Kobe. Sadly that was never to be. 

RIP Kobe Bryant.

Why the 2011 NBA title has an Asterisk

2011 NBA Finals: Dallas Mavericks beat Miami Heat in 6 games

2011 NBA Finals MVP: Dirk Nowitzki

2011 – The Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki finally avenged their 2006 Finals defeat to Miami by beating them in 6 games. Dirk is a great player, deserving of his championship. The Miami Heat were a recently formed Super Group with the hubris to stand on a stage and promise “Not 1, not 2, not 3 …etc Titles”. The win was fully deserved. What I can’t understand is how a player, in Lebron James, who even the mast hardened Lebron Hater would have in his top 5 players of all time was so utterly and completely owned by a diminutive (5ft10) point guard. A melt down for the ages. Although maybe this one shouldn’t have an Asterisk, like 2011 Lebron trying to work out how to score on JJ Barea in the post, it breaks my brain trying to work out why not.

Why the 2012 NBA title has an Asterisk

2012 NBA Finals: Miami Heat beat Oklahoma City Thunder in 5 games

2012 NBA Finals MVP: LeBron James

The 2012 NBA title would eventually be won by the Lebron James led Miami Heat, not an unexpected result, despite them facing 3 future League MVPs in the Finals. However, the 2012 season started after a lockout. The shortened 66 game season is a prime candidate for an Asterisk. Adding into this the unfortunate career defining injury reigning MVP Derrick Rose would have in the first round of the playoffs and maybe Lebron James first NBA Title isn’t all it seems.

The Rose led Bulls had the best record in the NBA that year, the explosive Derrick Rose at the heart of their offence. With just 1:22 left in Game 1 of the first round Rose tore his ACL, ending his season and altering his career trajectory forever. The Bulls, took game won, with Rose grabbing 25pts 9 rebound and 9 assists. They would go on to lose 4-2 to the 8th seeded Philadelphia 76ers.

A league altering injury, worthy of an Asterisk in the record books.

Why the 2013 NBA title has an Asterisk

2013 NBA Finals: Miami Heat beat San Antonio Spurs in 7 games

2013 NBA Finals MVP: LeBron James

The Heat completed a back to back title win in 2013, closing out the Spurs in the NBA Finals in part thanks to one of the greatest and most dramatic shots of all time from Ray Allen in Game 6. However, that isn’t the Asteriskwe are going to suggest. We mentioned earlier that in the 2012 Finals Lebron had faced not 1, not 2, but 3 future NBA League MVPs. These were all on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the form of Kevin Durrant, Russel Westbrook and James Harden. However, losing to the Heat in the 2012 Finals would be the last time these 3 played NBA Basketball together. In the offseason, the Thunder leadership saw fit to trade Harden to the Houston Rockets – a trade that was as much criticised at the time as it is today. Even with this, the Durrant led Thunder were still favourites to face Miami in the Finals. During game 2 of their first round series vs the Rockets, Westbrook would clash with Rockets PG Patrick Beverly and tear his meniscus, ending his season. Durant would haul his depleted team past the Rockets, but fall 4-1 to the Memphis Grizzlies in the next round. An inexplicable trade and an unfortunate injury robbed the basketball world of Heat vs Thunder two. Even with Ray “Jesus” Allen in tow, would Lebron, Wade and Bosh have had enough for 3 future MVPs in their second trip to the Finals? We’ll never know, but we can put a big Asterisk above it.

Why the 2014 NBA title has an Asterisk

2014 NBA Finals: San Antonio Spurs beat Miami Heat in 5 games

2014 NBA Finals MVP: Kawhi Leonard

The San Antonio Spurs would be praised for their perfect ball movement, precise team play and excellent execution on defence led by their traditional big 3 (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili) bolstered by a young Kawhi Leonard (Finals MVP) after their 2014 title win. The 2014 NBA Finals started off however with a controversy marked Game 1. The fatigued play and early exit from the game (a Spurs win) was blamed not on his own fitness levels. But on some shady games man ship. The air conditioning in the AT&T Centre, Texas would fail before the game. In his post game interviews Lebron would talk of the whole left side of his body shutting down and losing lot’s of fluids. Later rumours would surface that his in game drink, designed to give him quick blasts of hydration and energy, had been accidentally replaced with a protein rich drink used primarily for post session recovery. This sparked a social media war of words between the NBA Sponsor Gatorade and Lebron’s personal sponsor Powerade. Admittedly it did seem like the heat affected Lebron a lot more than other players, although maybe  that’s simply because the explosive speed in which he carries his huge frame around the court with requires a lot more energy and fine tuning than others? The Heatles would never recover from their Game 1 4th quarter crash, Lebron playing five minutes and the Spurs winning the quarter by 19 points in a 15-point win. When I say never recover, Lebron left the franchise that summer and the Miami Heat would never be the same again.

Why the 2015 NBA title has an Asterisk

2015 NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors beat Cleveland Cavaliers in 6 games

2015 NBA Finals MVP: Andre Igoudala

When the Steph Curry Warriors won their first title in 2015, believe it or not, it was a bit of an upset in itself. Sure they would go on to win 73 games the next year and add Kevin Durrant the year after that. This title however was a surprise. The Asterisk comes in the shape of SIGNIFICANT injuries to key players on their Finals opponents. Lebron had returned home to Cleveland that year, brining with him from South Beach, not only his talents, but also the big 3 concept. Now flanked by Allstars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving they looked a lock to win LeBron’s 3rd title in 4 years. Right up until the conference finals. The Celtics Kelly Olynk almost ripped Kevin Loves arm out it’s socket fighting for a loose ball, he wouldn’t play again that season. In Game 1 of the Finals Kyrie, who was excelling would see his knee buckle, exiting him from the series. The Cavs would play game 2 and the rest of the series with the following line-up surrounding Lebron: Timofey Mosgov, Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, Matthew Dellavedova and Imam Shumpert. Incredibly the Cavs would take games 2 and 3 before losing in 6 to the ascending Warriors. There is no date that just one of Kyrie or Love could have dramatically altered this series.

Why the 2016 NBA title has an Asterisk

2016 NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers beat Golden State Warriors in 7 games

2016 NBA Finals MVP: LeBron James

As previously mentioned, the 2015-16 Warriors set a regular season record 73 wins. Losing less than 10 games and beating a record set by the MJ and Pippen led Bulls, one most thought would never be beaten. They cruised to the West Finals, went 3-1 down vs Durrant and Westbrooks Thunder before storming back. Winning 6 of their next 7 games they would find themselves about to go 3-1 up versus Lebron’s Cavs team, now with a fully healthy Kyrie and Kevin Love. The best regular season team of all time were about to submit their entry into the best team of all-time conversation. Then this happened:

With just 2 minutes and 50 seconds left in Game 4, with the Warriors 10 points up and in full control of the game, Draymond picked up a technical foul. One that would exceed his limit and trigger an automatic 1 game ban. The Warriors closed out game 4, taking that 3-1 lead. Without their heart, Draymond Green, in game 5 the momentum would turn. The Cavs would set NBA history coming back from 3-1 down in the Finals, Lebron would finally bring a major sports title to Cleveland. An Asterisk of the highest order. As we move onto to look at the next 2 seasons, the effects of Draymond’s indiscretion, or LeBron’s calculated vet play, will ripple out across the league.

Why the 2017 NBA title has an Asterisk

2017 NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors beat Cleveland Cavaliers in 5 games

2017 NBA Finals MVP: Kevin Durrant

The Golden State Warriors win in 2017 is an easy one. Despite Lebron and Cleveland returning to the Finals for the 7th and 3rd consecutive times respectively, with a stacked team perfectly built for Lebron, the Warriors had already sealed the title in the Summer. The wounds of both Durrants loss from 3-1 down and the Warriors loss from 3-1 down had found some mutual ground. A freak spike in the salary cap caused by a new TV deal and Steph Curry’s wonky ankle dependant team favourable contract allowed the 73-9 Warriors to add the most lethal sorcerer of his generation. The near 7ft Kevin Durrant, with the stroke of a shooting guard, the handle of a point guard and the length of a centre. The stars aligned, a one in a Million chance snatching a repeat from Lebron and the Cavs.

Why the 2018 NBA title has an Asterisk

2018 NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors beat Cleveland Cavaliers in 4 games

2018 NBA Finals MVP: Kevin Durant

By the 2018 Finals there was no doubt this Warriors team was ultra-dominant. No one gave the Cavs a chance in the 4th Finals meeting between these two franchises in 4 years. Lebron had other ideas. Putting on what many say is the greatest single game performance they have ever seen in game 1. He had them in a position to snatch it and throw some doubt on a series where there was none. Then JR Smith happened. One of the single most bone headed plays you will see at this level. Failing to recognise time and score, he dribbled out the clock, allowing the game to go to Overtime and ripping the heart from Lebron and the Cavaliers. If reports are to be believed Lebron would play that Overtime and the remaining 3 games of the sweep with a fractured hand from punching a white board in frustration. Would JR making any other reasonable decision have led to a Cavaliers title win? Maybe? Probably not. The Warriors finally got their repeat title and the rest will always just be a what if.

Why the 2019 NBA title has an Asterisk

2019 NBA Finals: Toronto Raptors beat Golden State Warriors in 6 games

2019 NBA Finals MVP: Kawhi Leonard

As the Durrant Warriors closed in on a three-peat the wheels were already starting to come off. Draymond and Durrant were publicly feuding, it seemed clear this were Durrants last year with the Warriors. Even with Lebron, now on the Lakers, in the Western conference they cruised to the Finals. They would face a team no one had expected just a few months earlier. Kawhi Leonard had controversially sat out almost the entirety of the previous season for the Spurs due to a disputed injury. Refusing to even attend games. Forcing a trade in the Summer he didn’t end up with the Clippers as planned, he didn’t even end up in the United States. A gamble by the Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri saw him wind up in Canada. No one had really seen him play for 12 months and the Raptors weren’t exactly title favourites before hand. As the season went on, the momentum built. The Raptors squeaked past Philadelphia on a 4 bouncer at the buzzer, brushed off a 2-0 hole to punish Giannis and the Bucks. In the Finals they still faced a mighty Warriors side. Many said they were better without the injured Durrant. We would never find out. Durrant came back for about a quarter before re-injuring himself then the Warriors star guard Klay Thompson went down in game 6 and the Raptors would win the title. What had looked all the world like a certain three-peat for the Warriors only a few months earlier de-railed by injury and the un-repeatable rise of a one year juggernaut out East.

Will the 2020 NBA title have an Asterisk?

2020 NBA Finals: LA Lakers played Miami Heat inside the NBA Bubble, Orlando

2020 NBA Finals MVP: TBC

So much has gone into finishing this NBA season. Sacrifices both financial, physical and emotional, from everyone involved in the NBA from the owners to the fans. Not least the players and coaches who have given up so much to maintain the integrity of the competition, compete for the title and entertain the globe as we sit in isolation, shielding from the Corona Virus.

As the Finals stand the LA Lakers are 3 games to 2 up on the Miami Heat in a season that started more than a calendar year ago.

Whichever side emerges victirous from the bubble will face questions about whether this title is worth as much as the others. For me as a fan, who has watched almost every game, gripped by the skill and drama on display. I think it should hold at least as much weight as any other title. Given all that has been sacrificed to be standing going into Finals Game 6, in mid October more than 365 days since the regular season started, still with a chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. I personaly feel there should be an asterisk. One that denotes that these champions wanted it more than anyone else in NBA history and had the skill to bring it home.