It’s a season that will go down in history as the longest and certainly the strangest. The 2019-20 NBA season was rocked by tragedy, suspended by a pandemic, disrupted by a wildcat strike, and concluded in the NBA bubble. And when the Lakers finally lifted the trophy, the moment marked a victory for resilience, courage and basketball itself.
Season Start: Basketball As We Knew It
When the pre-season started on September 30, 2019, no one could have predicted that the 2019-20 NBA season would be the longest in NBA history and that 377 days would elapse before the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in an empty arena on October 11, 2020. Nor would online sports betting fans have given short odds to a Lakers-Heat final.
NBA betting odds favored a penultimate showdown between the Milwaukee Bucks and whoever won the Battle of LA, where the Lakers were set for a spellbinding face off with the Los Angeles Clippers. The Lakers, who had replaced Luke Walton with Frank Vogel as head coach, counted on the pairing of LeBron James and power forward Anthony Davis to break a six-year playoff drought. Simultaneously inside Staples center, the Clippers were counting on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to fight fire with fire.
Over in the East, where the Bucks had established themselves as one of the top teams in the conference, Giannis Antetokounmpo looked set for his second MVP.
There were high expectations, too, of the debut of Zion Williamson, the first overall draft pick in 2019. And, of course, the moment when LeBron James would pass Kobe Bryant on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. A legendary NBA season lay ahead.
The highs and lows of the pre-COVID season
As the season got underway, predictions continued to favor the dominant Bucks in the East and the Lakers in the West. Antetokounmpo continued to dominate, and fans were treated to outstanding performances from LeBron James, the Dallas Mavericks’ young Slovenian star Luka Dončić, and the Memphis Grizzlies’ point guard Jamel Morant, with the latter positioning himself as Zion Williamson’s main rival for the Rookie of the Year Award. Zion had meanwhile staked his own claim with four incredible three-pointers in the fourth quarter of his first game.
A long list of underachieving teams included the Cleveland Cavaliers, the San Antonio Spurs (who would ultimately miss the playoffs for the first time in 23 years), and the New York Knicks who sent head coach David Fizdale packing in December after a 4-18 start to the season.
History was made on January 25 when LeBron James moved to number three overall on the NBA’s all-time scoring list by passing Kobe Bryant, who graciously acknowledged the achievement in a tweet. “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother,” the Lakers legend wrote. Twenty-four hours later tragedy struck.
Losing a legend: Kobe Bryant
On January 26, a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter crashed in heavy fog about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, killing the pilot and eight passengers on impact. Among the dead was one of basketball’s greatest legends, Kobe Bryant, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
As the world mourned Kobe, who spent his entire career with the Lakers and won five NBA championships, the Lakers’ game against the Clippers due to take place two days later was postponed. It was the first postponement of an NBA game since the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing led to the postponement of a Celtics’ game.
When the Lakers played the Trail Blazers on January 31, with Usher singing “Amazing Grace” in tribute to the late icon, players and fans from across the world were brought together to mourn and pay respects to one of the greatest players of all time and his daughter.
COVID-19 and the 2020 NBA bubble
On March 11, 2020, the NBA became the first professional sports league to postpone its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When it resumed on July 30, it was isolated to the Walt Disney Resort with the 22 teams that had been within six games of a playoff spot when the season was suspended.
The plan was to complete the regular season with eight additional games to determine playoff seeding by August 14 with the playoffs tipping off three days later.
Thirteen Western Conference and nine Eastern Conference teams entered the 2020 NBA bubble for one of the most extraordinary periods in the history of the sport.
To protect its players and rescue the season, the NBA created an isolation zone with stringent health and safety protocols at Walt Disney World in Bay Lake, Florida, near Orlando.
The teams would be accommodated at Disney World Hotels with games played behind closed doors at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Regular testing for COVID-19, social distancing, and masks wearing were among the measures instituted to prevent an outbreak of the virus that was sweeping through the US and the rest of the world.
Players and staff could not enter each other’s rooms or socialize with players from other teams. Food and recreational activities were provided inside each hotel’s bubble, and a hotline was made available for anonymous reporting of protocol violations.
The teams committed to using the bubble as a platform to support the Black Lives Matter movement and on August 26, the Milwaukee Bucks, along with other NBA, MLB and NHL teams, went on strike to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake. It was the first time an NBA team refused to play a game since the Boston Celtics protested against racial injustice in 1961.
Games were postponed for four days.
The drama of the 2019-2020 NBA season was by no means over.
The restart: An even playing field
It was a whole new ballgame in Orlando, Florida, where the season resumed behind closed doors with no spectators in sight. But the quality and intensity of performances gave no hint that the players had been out of action for over four months, and many games were decided in the final minutes or even seconds as teams and individual players pushed themselves to the limit.
Highlights: Seeding games
Some top-seeded teams struggled in the bubble. The Battle of LA went to the Lakers’ when they secured the West’s No. 1 seed, but LeBron James’ men went 3-5 in the final eight games.
The Reigning champion Toronto Raptors went 7-1, including convincing victories over expected finals contenders Los Angeles and Milwaukee despite losing Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers during the previous offseason.
TJ Warren helped the Indiana Pacers to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs with four 30-plus point explosions, including a 53-point outing against the Philadelphia 76ers. And the undisputed MVP of the bubble, Damian Lillard, led the Trail Blazers into the playoffs, ably assisted with a clutch jumper from CJ McCollum in a do-or-die face-off with the Grizzlies for the West’s No. 8 seed.
Nevertheless, a Bucks-Lakers final was expected and still on the cards as the playoffs started.
The playoffs began with the Lakers and the Bucks as the top seeds for West and East respectively, but the longest and strangest season was just getting started as both No. 1 seeds lost their opening game of the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
There was more bad news for Milwaukee when on September 8, missing Antetokounmpo due to an ankle injury, the Bucks were eliminated by the Miami Heat in round two. Next to fall, on September 15, were the Clippers, ousted by the Nuggets and leading to a swift parting with head coach Doc Rivers.
The Heat would ultimately advance to the finals for the first time since 2014 to face the Lakers, who were returning to the finals for the first time in a decade. It would be the first finals appearance for a fifth or lower seed team since the New York Knicks in 1999.
Also securing a position in the record books was the Denver Nuggets, becoming the 12th team in NBA history to rally from a 3-1 series deficit. Then, it became the first NBA team ever to do it twice in the same playoffs.
Basketball statistics got an overhaul from individual players too. Kawhi Leonard accounted for 30-plus points, 10-plus rebounds, 5-plus assists, and 5-plus steals in a single playoff game, a feat last performed by Gary Payton in 2000. And in another playoff record, Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz and Jamal Murray from the Denver Nuggets each tallied over 50 points in the same game, a first for two players on opposing teams.
When the longest, strangest season in NBA history reached the Finals, it was a clash of titans with LeBron James vs. Jimmy Butler as the Lakers and the Heat squared up for a showdown that, as with everything else about this NBA season, no one predicted.
The NBA Championship Finals
On Sunday, October 11, 2020, the Los Angeles Lakers, playing for the late Kobe Bryant, clinched a 17th NBA championship, putting Miami Heat away in six games and winning LeBron James his fourth title and the “damn respect” that he and most basketball fans agree is his due.
It took King James just two seasons to return the Lakers to the top. A strategy that started with and centered on the 10-times Finals participant paid off, as did pairing him with an All-Star partner in Anthony Davis.
Champion highlights: Los Angeles Lakers
In game 6 of the Lakers-Heat final, James contributed a 28th playoff triple-double with 28 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists. Davis tallied 19 points and 14 rebounds, and there were standout performances too by Rajon Rondo who finished with 19 off the bench and 17 points from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The real highlights of the Lakers’ 2020 season came from the power duo of James and Davis — two of the most powerful and talented players working side by side. The pair are a battering ram on offense, both able to go hard and fast to the net for massive jams and skilled enough to be a threat from the three-point line. They’re no slouch on defense either, with the towering James-Davis wall going up in front of any who dare take the ball to the Lakers’ rim.
This Lakers squad is looking primed to bring even more unbelievable action and basketball odds to the coming season, and will be looking to secure back-to-back titles to add to their already impressive record of 17 NBA Championship titles.
Because the NBA Awards show was canceled due to the pandemic, winners were announced during the playoffs with Giannis Antetokounmpo predictably taking Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year.
Ja Morant managed to clinch the title of Rookie of the Year ahead of finalists Zion Williamson and Kendrick Nunn, and the Toronto Raptors’ Nick Nurse was named Coach of the year.
Other awards from the 2020 season include Sixth Man of the Year which went to Montrezl Harrell of the Clippers, Most Improved Player which went to Pelicans’ Brandon Ingram, and the Finals MVP went to none other than the King himself, LeBron James.
Looking ahead to 2021
Whether you joined the Lakers in celebration or not, we will all be able to look back at this NBA season as one that will never be forgotten. Though it might not have been for the reasons we were expecting, this NBA season was one of the most turbulent and exciting times in the history of sport.
From the tragic loss of a basketball icon and the disruptions to the season caused by a global pandemic, to the restart of the season some months later and the inception of the NBA bubble, there has never been more action and drama in an NBA season. Now that it’s over, where do we go from here?
In November, the NBA Board of Governors announced adjustments to the collective bargaining agreement, including a 2020-21 start date of December 22. NBA and basketball betting fans alike should be thrilled to potentially watch games on TV again or in-person considering the league hasn’t had a game in an arena filled with fans since March.
We can assume that when we first get a chance to fill those stands again and see our superstar NBA players walk out onto the court, the compassion, resilience, and courage shown by the players and fans this season will echo into next season and hopefully bring us another one for the ages.
Until then, we can get excited for what’s next — the draft, free agency, and the start of the 75th NBA season in 2021.