Just 48 hours after Kawhi Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to their first-ever NBA championship in June, Anthony Davis briefly stole the spotlight. He was leaving New Orleans and heading to Los Angeles to join LeBron James and the Lakers. The Pelicans would receive a trio of young stars — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart — along with multiple first-round picks, in the exchange.
While the Lakers focused on building around Davis and James to become title contenders once again, still, all eyes remained on Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP, entering free agency.
On July 5, 2019, the same night an earthquake abruptly ended Zion Williamson’s Summer League debut in Las Vegas, a bold move from the LA Clippers would equally shake up the NBA world. Leonard and seven-time All-Star Paul George joined the Clippers in one of the biggest moves in the franchise’s history.
In addition to George, Russell Westbrook was also leaving Oklahoma City after 11 years with the Thunder in an exchange with the Houston Rockets for superstar guard Chris Paul. In the Eastern Conference, the Brooklyn Nets went all-in on superstars, landing free-agent Kevin Durant and trading for Kyrie Irving. Kemba Walker found a new home with the Boston Celtics and Jimmy Butler took his talents to South Beach with the Miami Heat.
In addition, several coaching changes altered the shape of the NBA that season. The Lakers parted with Luke Walton and hired former Magic coach Frank Vogel in hopes of leading James, Davis and company to the top. The Suns hired longtime Philadelphia 76ers assistant Monty Williams and both moves were right on the money. The Lakers rose to the top of the West while the Suns finished 10th in the West after ending in last place the season prior.
The season will be remembered for the transformative developments that took place throughout, not the least of which was the COVID-19 pandemic, which put the NBA season on hiatus from March 11 to July 30. While the season would return, news items off the court — inside and outside the league — changed things drastically.
NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern, the league’s longest-serving commissioner, died on Jan. 1, 2020. Days later, tragedy struck again.
The sports world mourned the untimely passing of all-time great Kobe Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter crash at 42. Kobe, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, who was a prodigious young basketball player, and seven other people tragically lost their lives on the morning of Jan. 26.
Three weeks later at the 2020 All-Star Game in Chicago, the All-Star Game MVP Award was permanently named for Bryant. Kawhi Leonard was the first-ever recipient of the newly-named award.
Although the 2019-20 season was anything but ordinary, the excitement of the offseason lived up to the hype. The Lakers and Clippers didn’t disappoint and were the top two teams in the West. The Denver Nuggets demonstrated once again to be among the toughest matchups in the league, finishing No. 3 in the West ahead of the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz. Injuries decimated the Golden State Warriors, who fell to an NBA-worst 15-50. In San Antonio, the Spurs saw their 23-year streak of playoff appearances snapped as well.
In the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks were the first team to clinch a playoff berth in February with the best record in the NBA, thanks to the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The defending-champion Toronto Raptors hung on at No. 2. Jayson Tatum, who earned his first All-Star berth in 2019-20, led the Boston Celtics to No. 3 ahead of the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat.
Then came the shutdown of the season on March 11 after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert became the first of many in the league to test positive for coronavirus. Without games, the NBA would spend the next 4-1/2 months strategizing a restart plan to play at a single-site location without fans.
While basketball would return despite the pandemic still raging, players were on the forefront of the fight against racial inequality and their quest for social justice. Around the world, people were witnessing the killings of unarmed Black Americans — Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others — at the hands of the police.
The NBA and NBPA announced they will “take collective action to combat systemic racism and promote social justice” when the season restarted at the Disney complex near Orlando, Florida. “Black Lives Matter” was painted on the courts and players were allowed to wear various social justice messages on the back of their jerseys.
“The issues of systemic racism and police brutality in our country need to end,” NBPA President Chris Paul said then. “As players, we have taken a leadership role when it comes to using our voices and implementing practical solutions, but there is much work ahead both in Orlando and long-term to continue the momentum and bring about real, long-lasting change to our society.”
And when the season finally resumed on July 30, the message from players was strong and powerful.
— NBA (@NBA) July 30, 2020
The four teams (Jazz vs. Pelicans and Lakers vs. Clippers) that played on the first night of the league’s restart took a knee during the National Anthem in protest against police brutality. The powerful demonstration continued throughout the restart.
The debut of the NBA’s first-ever Play-In Tournament gave the Memphis Grizzlies (No. 9 in West) one last shot at reaching the postseason in a thrilling contest against the Portland Trail Blazers. Grizzlies’ star Ja Morant poured in 35 points but couldn’t hold off the Blazers’ dynamic duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who combined for 60 points in the 126-122 victory to lift the Blazers into the playoffs. (Brooklyn and Orlando had already clinched the last two spots at No. 7 and No. 8, respectively, meaning no East Play-In series.)
Months later than usual, the playoffs began on Aug. 17 and exciting moments on the court ensued immediately. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell scored 57 points in a Game 1 loss to Denver in what would be the appetizer in an exciting Jazz-Nuggets series. But that series and others would soon come to a sudden halt once again.
Making their strongest statement yet in the fight against racial injustice, players from the Bucks, Magic, Thunder, Rockets, Lakers and Trail Blazers refused to play postseason games on Aug. 26, taking a stand that quickly reverberated across other professional leagues.
Players made the extraordinary decision to protest the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man from Kenosha, Wisc. — a city about 40 miles south of Milwaukee. The Bucks refused to emerge from their locker room to play Game 5 of their first-round matchup against the Orlando Magic. In addition, WNBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer games in and around that day were postponed as well.
Teams returned to the court on Aug. 27 with playoff games resuming the next day. Paul detailed the events during the stand, when the events surrounding Blake’s shooting had players considering leaving the Disney campus and going home.
“We’re human, we have real feelings and I’m glad that we got a chance to get in a room and talk with one another and not just cross paths and say good luck in your game today,” Paul said.
Paul’s time in the Orlando bubble came to an end in the first round when the Thunder were eliminated by the Rockets in a wild Game 7 in which James Harden made up for a miserable shooting night with a clutch block to seal the series. Houston moved on to face the Lakers, and were joined in the conference semifinals by the Clippers, Nuggets, Bucks, Heat, Celtics and Raptors.
The Clippers-Nuggets semifinal series surpassed all expectations as Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic led another stunning turnaround. Denver, who had already rallied from a 3-1 series deficit against the Jazz in the first round, stunned the Clippers 104-89 in Game 7 to advance to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2009. Following the series, Doc Rivers got fired by the Clippers, then quickly hired by the 76ers.
The Nuggets battled against the Lakers in the West finals, but were ousted by James & Co. in Game 5. It took James two seasons to make it to The Finals with the Lakers, after falling short of the playoffs in an injury-plagued first season in 2018-19 following eight consecutive trips with Miami and Cleveland.
Butler and the fifth-seeded Heat found their rhythm in the playoffs, upsetting the top-seeded Bucks 4-1 in the conference semis as Antetokounmpo (sprained right ankle) was hobbled and did not play in Game 5. Tatum and the Celtics needed every bit of seven games to top the Raptors in the semifinals, but ultimately were dropped in the East finals in Game 6. That exit marked the third time in the last four seasons in which the Celtics fell in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Lakers were determined to get the job done early in The Finals, winning the first two games against a beaten and battered Heat team. But the Lakers could not control Butler in Game 3, in which Los Angeles committed 20 turnovers that led to 21 Miami points and eventually a win.
The Lakers took back control in Game 4, thanks to James’ 28 points and a 3-pointer by Anthony Davis with 39.5 seconds left that finally settled matters to take a 3-1 lead in the Finals.
A thrilling, back-and-forth Game 5 came down to a possession in the final 15 seconds. The Heat forced the ball out of James’ hands by basically sending three defenders at him as he drove down the right side of the lane, the Heat up by one, the Lakers only needing one basket for a title. He found Danny Green alone at the top of the key; Green’s shot was short and the Heat closed it out with a pair of free throws to stave off elimination.
And finally, in Game 6, James accomplished what he and the Lakers had set out to do during the offseason: return to the top of the basketball world. James had 28 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists as Los Angeles held off Miami to win its first NBA championship since Bryant’s fifth and final title in the 2009-10 season.
The Lakers said they were playing the rest of the season in his memory. They delivered what Bryant did five times for Los Angeles — a ring, and the clincher was emphatic.
In a season filled with so much uncertainty and grief, it would be, James predicted, the toughest title to ever win.
The NBA and players accomplished what was thought to be impossible: getting through the pandemic safely and salvaging the season. That happened; a champion was crowned, a bubble was built and nobody tested positive for three months inside that NBA campus.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Eastern Conference Play-In
Western Conference Play-In
Portland defeated Memphis (for 8th seed)
Eastern Conference first round
Milwaukee defeated Orlando (4-1)
Miami defeated Indiana (4-0)
Boston defeated Philadelphia (4-0)
Toronto defeated Brooklyn (4-0)
Western Conference first round
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Portland (4-1)
Houston defeated Oklahoma City (4-3)
Denver defeated Utah (4-3)
LA Clippers defeated Dallas (4-2)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Miami defeated Milwaukee (4-1)
Boston defeated Toronto (4-3)
Western Conference semifinals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Houston (4-1)
Denver defeated LA Clippers (4-3)
Eastern Conference finals
Miami defeated Boston (4-2)
Western Conference finals
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Denver (4-1)
Los Angeles Lakers defeated Miami (4-2)
Points — James Harden, Houston Rockets (34.3)
Assists — LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (10.2)
Rebounds — Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons/Cleveland Cavaliers (15.2)
Steals — Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (2.1)
Blocks — Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers (2.9)
FG% — Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks (74.2)
FT% — Brad Wanamaker, Boston Celtics (92.6)
3PT% — George Hill, Milwaukee Bucks (46.0)
Kia Most Valuable Player — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Kia Rookie of the Year — Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Kia Defensive Player of the Year — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Kia Most Improved Player — Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Kia Sixth Man of the Year — Montrezl Harrell, LA Clippers
Coach of the Year — Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors
All-Star Game Kobe Bryant MVP Award— Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers
Finals MVP — LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Kia NBA Player of the Seeding Games — Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Coach of the Seeding Games — Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns