You can bet your asterisk the 2020 NBA championship is going to be legitimate.
That’s Giannis Antetokounmpo’s view of it. In fact, whichever team snags the Larry O’Brien trophy by early-to-mid October — whether that’s Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks or someone else — will have survived and accomplished more than possibly any of the 73 champions who came before them.
“I feel like this is going to be the toughest championship you could ever win,” Antetokounmpo told reporters on a Wednesday conference video call after participating in the Bucks’ first day of individual workouts at their training facility in Milwaukee.
“Because circumstances are really tough right now. Whoever wants it more is going to be able to go out there and take it.”
There has been a notion advanced by some — including Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal — that the unprecedented, stop-and-start, pass-spring-and-go-directly-to-summer restart of the 2019-20 season (pushing The Finals into autumn), will produce a bogus, flukey, one-off winner.
In May, the legendary big man turned commentator on TNT’s “Inside The NBA” show wondered if this year’s unique set of circumstances might produce an undeserving champion.
“Most of the time you could predict who is going to win a championship,” O’Neal said. “Now what if we come back and a team that wasn’t supposed to win wins. There’s going to be an asterisk behind that championship.”
That’s one way to look at it. Others could argue that surviving the on- and off-court challenges posed by the coronavirus shutdown and the “bubble” return in Orlando, on top of four best-of-seven playoff series, could result in the most rigorous, remarkable title run yet.
Antetokounmpo, whose Milwaukee team again posted the best regular-season record (53-12) prior to the March 11 hiatus, holds that view as he and the Bucks revive their title hopes.
“Like I said before, this is the toughest title,” said the 2019 Kia MVP and favorite to repeat this year. “You go somewhere without your family for three months and you haven’t played basketball for three-and-a-half, four months. Whatever team wants it more has got to be mentally prepared for this situation. And has to go out there and execute.
“Teams got to be in shape. So whoever took care of themselves for these four months we weren’t able to play, [they are] gonna be in a better position. … Whoever wants it more, whoever is mentally prepared for all this, that team is going to come out on top.”
The asterisk talk in NBA circles goes back at least to 1999, when the San Antonio Spurs beat the New York Knicks in The Finals at the end of a lockout-shortened season. That truncated schedule allowed for just 50 games before the playoffs, and San Antonio played a mere 67 games in winning the franchise’s first championship.
The following spring, in a bit of snide gamesmanship, Lakers coach Phil Jackson wondered if the Spurs’ feat needed some sort of qualifier or disclaimer. Hence, the asterisk.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was an assistant coach on that San Antonio staff. He believes now what he believed then about trying to assess the worthiness of a championship.
“I feel like the champion from this experience, from this season, is going to be more worthy and more special than any champion,” Budenholzer said.
Every year is different, he said. Every year seems to favor one team or the other as the playoffs approach, though reality rarely plays out as expected.
This herky-jerky and all too vulnerable restart is unlike anything that has preceded it. One positive test can sideline your star player or group of players – or the other team’s star or group – for a week in the midst of a series.
And that’s just for starters. Antetokounmpo talked about a variety of factors over which he and other NBA players will have little or no control. Any one of which — isolation in the “bubble,” separation from family and friends, pushing yourself too hard, too soon — could derail a player, his team or the entire endeavor.
Just shooting and lifting weights Wednesday in the “new normal” of physical distancing, masks and limited coach-and-teammate contact gave the Bucks a taste of precautions and changes to come.
“It’s kind of weird, I’m not gonna lie to you,” Antetokounmpo said. “Training tables are like six feet apart from one another. Coaches are wearing masks. We’ve got to be really careful after we shoot, we’ve got to leave the court and allow the next person to come in and shoot.
“You’re not as close to your teammate as you want to be.”
From all that physical and emotional space since early March, Milwaukee and the other 21 teams that descend on the Walt Disney complex outside Orlando will be sequestered until they are eliminated or a champion is crowned. Distanced from the social issues that animated so many NBA players in June. No fans in the arena, no home or road court experience.
“Now that we don’t have the [home court] advantage anymore, it sucks a little bit,” Antetokounmpo said. “We worked all year to play at home, play with our fans. We tried hard to be at home. … Not being able to have them out there, I think it’s going to be hard to live with.
“But at the end of the day, we won’t have fans, other teams won’t have fans.”
Antetokounmpo became a father in February when his girlfriend Mariah Riddlesprigger gave birth to their son, Liam Charles. Per the bubble regulations, players’ family and friends will not be permitted to join them until after the playoffs’ first round. That might take until late August, which is worse than any extended rodeo or circus road trip in the regular season.
“I’ve traveled though China, traveled through France and stayed for two or three weeks. In the hotel, just playing basketball,” said Antetokounmpo, mentioning youth FIBA tournaments that kept him away from home for long stretches. “Obviously it’s tough. I can’t imagine going there for three months.”
Now add this wrinkle: Seeing your arch nemeses, the guys vying for the same trophy and legacy-enhancer, day after day after day. All these competitive rivals will be holed up in the same place.
Antetokounmpo thinks the early hiccups of performance TV viewers see early, mistakes of timing or rust, will improve rapidly. But seeing James Harden, Anthony Davis, Pascal Siakam off the clock, hanging out, may take some getting used to.
“It’s going to be hard,” he said. “When you go against somebody, you don’t live with them. You don’t want to see them every day. You don’t want to go down and grab lunch or dinner and see them right there in front of you.
“I’ve just got to stay locked in. Mind my business, not say much. Obviously I’m going to see them, but they’re going to see me too. It goes both ways.”
Now mix in all the unforeseen twists and hurdles of the “bubble” project, including random events the league — however crafty — won’t have anticipated, and it’s clear why Antetokounmpo and others contend whoever wins in 2020 will be enlarged, not diminished.
Said Budenholzer: “The challenges of this season, y’know, this pandemic, everything that’s happening in our country, the ability for a team to go back and compete and play against the other  teams and come out as a champion, in my mind it will be more special and more meaningful.
“They’re all special, they’re all incredible. If you won one, you can say whatever you want about it. That team is happy.”
If anyone wins one this year, the whole league should be happy.
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