The Denver Nuggets are down 3-0, meaning no team who reached the NBA’s Final Four in The Bubble has won a game past Round 1, and one of them didn’t even do that. But these four teams — the Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, and Boston Celtics — shouldn’t be diminished for accomplishing what they did in The Bubble last season, especially since 18 other teams were trying to do the same thing.
First, let’s kill the following: This idea that these teams, specifically the Lakers and Heat after competing in the Finals, are somehow ‘Bubble frauds’ is unreasonable. Every single one of the fans whose teams did not make it to the 2020 NBA Finals would’ve championed the blazing hell out of their guys if they had made it there, as opposed to posting ‘Bubbly Guppy’ memes including LeBron James and/or Jimmy Butler. Is it out of jealousy? Probably. Most of social media today is merely about outdoing one another. It’s like when someone in the group tells a story, and instead of responding with mere questions or laughter, you just try to one-up them with an experience of your own. (We’ve all done it instinctively.)
But, no, the quick playoff exits don’t render these teams illegitimate; they’re just paying the price for the toll this past year of basketball took on them, which has been by extension greater than everyone else’s. Somehow, the ultimate outlier has been Nikola Jokić. The Joker hasn’t missed a game since April 7, 2019, and that was due to rest. His most recent absence before that was on January 25, 2019, but that was a one-game suspension. The last time Jokić was out due to injury? The first two weeks of December 2017 with an ankle sprain. But dammit if he doesn’t look tired, navigating through an obviously underwhelming and defensively challenged Portland Trail Blazers roster in Round 1, and now coming off a 13-for-29 effort against the Phoenix Suns.
The Heat and Lakers ended their six-game NBA Finals series on October 11, and both had to report to training camp on December 1, seven weeks later. The Celtics lost to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals on September 27, and the Denver Nuggets were eliminated by the Los Angeles Lakers on September 26, giving them each two extra weeks — slightly more than two-months turnaround into 2020-21 season. What kind of off-season did players from these teams really have? How much time did players like Kyle Kuzma and Tyler Herro really have to add to their game over the über-condensed off-season?
In a standard season, even the NBA Finalists have a three-plus month window between the end of their season and the beginning of the next. The Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors finished up on June 13, 2019 — most other teams in April or May — and training camp began league-wide on September 30. This past season, 22 teams returned for the summer amid the pandemic and played through at least mid-August, save for the players who might’ve opted out. The vast majority of teams, 16 to be exact, carried on through at least late August due to making the playoffs following the eight-game regular-season finale.
Then, we’re onto this season. The Lakers lost James and Anthony Davis for a significant time due to injury. James — who didn’t have a severe injury until his groin strain from 2018-19, his first as a Laker — and Davis, who gets hurt all the time, were down simultaneously in the second half of the regular season, which eventually resulted in a Lakers Play-In. They did ultimately earn the 7-seed in the Western Conference, but lost to the Suns in six games and lost Davis again, this time due to a groin injury. Davis was nicknamed “Street Clothes” by Charles Barkley because of his unwanted habitual injuredies, and James turned 36 on Dec. 30. Maybe they would’ve gotten injured regardless, but having less than two months to prepare their bodies for another grueling season was an unfair ask.
The Heat had nagging injuries all season long to Butler, Herro, Goran Dragić, Avery Bradley (before trading him and Kelly Olynyk for Victor Oladipo, whose season ended after four Heat games), and former starter Meyers Leonard: More than most other teams in the league. The Celtics were only able to play Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart together for 292 total minutes, then lost Brown to a season-ending wrist injury before the playoffs. The Nuggets lost their second-best player, Jamal Murray, to a torn ACL in April and have suffered through playoff injuries to other key players like Will Barton and PJ Dozier. (Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers are their starting playoff backcourt, man.)
And, oh yeah: COVID. We’re still discovering the effects the disease could have long-term. Tatum needed an inhaler after contracting the disease, which he never did previously, and struggled to get back to his level of play. Kendrick Nunn wasn’t the same in The Bubble as he had been during the 2019-20 season, and never was until one month into the 2020-21 campaign. Ryquell Armstead didn’t play in the 2020 NFL season due to COVID complications and was waived by the Jacksonville Jaguars last month. Asia Durr has missed two WNBA seasons after being the No. 2 pick in the 2019 Draft.
Speaking of, imagine the 11 months that Butler, in particular, just had (from June 2020 through May 2021), at least of what we know publicly.
- June 2020: Butler and the Heat return to the facility for workouts. (Before that, he sent his teammates hoops).
- July 2020: They show up to The Bubble, where they remain for three months.
- October 2020: Butler and the Heat lose, but he averages 29.0 points, 10.2 assists, 8.6 rebounds, and 2.6 steals through the first five games of the Finals before getting blown out in Game 6.
- December 1, 2020: Team returns for training camp seven weeks after Finals loss.
- Dec. 25, 2020: Butler injures his ankle.
- January 2021: Contracts COVID, loses 12 pounds and misses two weeks.
- May 2021: Completes personal best regular season, which will likely land him All-NBA, averaging 21.5 points, 7.5 assists, 6.9 rebounds, and a league-best 2.1 steals per game on 49.7 percent shooting. Then he gets swept by the Milwaukee Bucks.
And for people to think his Bubble run is a fluke is disingenuous, seeing as how he nearly led the Philadelphia 76ers past the Toronto Raptors if not for that bounce two semifinals ago, and despite lackluster play from almost everyone else on the roster. If you beat someone in different circumstances, you’d still take the victory lap after, you buncha ‘win is a win’-ass motherfuckers! (I would, too, by the way. A win is a win!)
Furthermore, some of the teams thriving this regular season — the Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks, and New York Knicks especially — had all that time to rest because they didn’t play in The Bubble, or in the case of the Nets, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving did not. (James Harden, currently out with a hamstring fresh off by far the most injury-plagued season of his career, did.)
And with that, the Nuggets are your last team standing in The Bubble Final Four and might get swept by the Phoenix Suns, who didn’t make last year’s playoffs, and Chris Paul was eliminated in Round 1. So, no, we shouldn’t look at The Bubble as some asterisk. That, in fact, might’ve been the most challenging NBA title to compete for given the conditions, amid a deadly worldwide pandemic, and calls for social equality, as NBA players watched people who looked like them and their family members get gunned down by police and the resulting protests. If anything, this season, played while traveling during a pandemic as people still contemplate vaccines to do “their own research” in favor of health officials, is more of an oddity. And next season, which will start on time following the Summer Olympics, maybe even worse.
We didn’t even speculate about the mental toll this is taking on guys having to perform amid the circumstances. So shout out to you, Denver. You as well Boston, Miami, and Los Angeles. You did what you could, and now, y’all (save for Denver, for now) can rest up for next season, whatever that will look like.