Too much is at stake — legacies, the record books and last-ditch championship runs — for the upcoming condensed, 66-game regular season to have an asterisk attached to it.
Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson famously tried to belittle the San Antonio Spurs’ first NBA championship, won during a lockout-shortened 50-game season in 1999, with the word that has largely been associated with Babe Ruth and home run records in baseball.
Try telling that to LeBron James as he tries to exorcise his demons from an inexplicable NBA Finals meltdown and finally add some diamond-encrusted, Larry O’Brien trophy-themed jewelry to his already regal nickname.
Or try telling Tim Duncan or the Boston Celtics that if they are able to win another title in perhaps their last best chance before settling into retirement homes, that the run was somehow diminished by the NBA’s rushed efforts to ensure that there will be some basketball-related income to split down the middle by owners and players.
The NBA is kicking off its second non-82-game regular season in the past 13 years on Christmas. Several games will be sloppy and unbearable and some players will develop nagging injuries because of poor conditioning or from fluke injuries resulting from the intense grind, but there is a still a purpose for this season that goes beyond an obvious money grab.
This season probably represents the most for Duncan, the Celtics, Bryant and especially James. Entering his 16th and perhaps final season, Duncan remains in search of the fifth championship that would allow him to match Bryant as the greatest winner in the post-Jordan NBA.
The Celtics’ Big Three of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce didn’t waste any time winning an NBA title in their first season together, but the team has only made one trip to the Finals since and has to race against time and the fresher legs of the Bulls and Heat in order to go down as one of the best trios in franchise history.
Bryant, 33, has been chasing history from the moment he entered the league. He needs less than 600 points to surpass his former teammate and nemesis Shaquille O’Neal on the all-time scoring list, and nearly 4,500 to catch Jordan for third all-time. But in order to get another ring, Bryant will need better health and more help. Orlando’s Dwight Howard could possibly be acquired through a trade that would facilitate one or two more championships before Bryant eventually retires.
And a year removed from “The Decision,” James will likely have less venom directed toward him when traveling to opposing arenas, but the pressure to live up to his own self-created, “not one, not two, not three . . .” hype will continue. Entering his ninth year in the league, James has had a season to work out any chemistry problems with all-stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the excuses are gone; the expectations have been raised for him to deliver.
And the end results count, no matter if Jackson, or anyone else, might eventually want to place an asterisk next to it.