The resumption of this NBA season is met with unrivaled uncertainty. Much of the sports media, deprived of actual content to discuss, is questioning whether COVID-19’s impact on the season leaves the eventual champion with a permanent asterisk in the history books.
Whether you think it will or will not be a legitimate playoff, this year certainly isn’t the first to have extenuating circumstances impact the legitimacy of the Finals winner, although it’s the most unique situation. To try and put this upcoming postseason into perspective, let’s rank the top-10 asterisk-worthy champions in NBA history.
This list isn’t meant to take anything away from these champions, but the more what-ifs, injuries, controversies and questions surrounding the winner, the better.
2017 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors dominated the 2016-2017 regular season, winning 67 games despite new addition Kevin Durant missing 20 contests. They swept the first two rounds of the playoffs and looked poised for an easy championship before meeting Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs in the conference finals.
Leonard dominated Golden State and his team led by 21 points four minutes into the third quarter before Zaza Pachulia interfered. The center slid his foot under Leonard on a baseline jump shot, reinjuring the Spurs star’s ankle and taking him out for the series. San Antonio then fell apart and lost the game.
Golden State would have still won the series had Leonard not gone down, but his presence would have at least made things more difficult.
10. 2012 Miami Heat
The 2011-2012 season was the league’s most recent lockout year. Longer than the one before in 1998-1999, teams played a respectable 66 games and LeBron James finally won his first title. While this is generally accepted as a legitimate championship now, one could argue that there was one major roadblock the Heat avoided en route to the title in addition to some other teams perhaps not being as prepared as they would normally be for a full season.
Derrick Rose was the reigning league MVP this season and once again led the Bulls to the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They won four more games than Miami and split the season series, only for Rose to tear his ACL in Game 1 against the eighth-seeded 76ers.
Philadelphia then took Boston to seven games in the second round, and the less-than-stellar Celtics would eventually lead the Heat 3-2 in the Conference Finals before James’ famous 45-point, 15-rebound performance in the Boston Garden. This Miami team was worse than the 2012-2013 version, so a healthy Chicago team had a good chance to keep James ringless for one more year.
9. 1978 Washington Bullets
Similarly to the 2012 Heat, the 1977-1978 Bullets benefitted from an MVP succumbing to injury. Bill Walton, fresh off a Finals MVP performance in 1977, was the NBA’s best player in 1978 before suffering a career-altering knee injury 58 games into the year.
His Trail Blazers were 48-10 and 2-1 against Washington before Walton went down but stumbled to the finish line, going just 10-14 in the center’s absence. Walton tried to gut-out the team’s first two playoff games against Seattle before sitting out for good, and the Supersonics would lose to Elvin Hayes’ Bullets in seven games in the Finals.
Had Walton not had knee troubles, Portland would likely have won back-to-back titles and cemented Walton’s legacy as one of the best centers ever. Instead, Washington and Seattle met in the Finals two consecutive years and split the two matchups.
8. 2007 San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs’ success from 1999-2014 was no fluke. The 2006-2007 team, however, is the weakest of the organization’s five championships in that span. San Antonio was not necessarily the best team in the league in 2007, it just so happened to benefit from some unusual playoff happenings.
Firstly, this was Dirk Nowitzki’s lone MVP campaign as he led Dallas to 67 wins. Steve Nash was also fresh off back-to-back MVP awards and carried Phoenix to 61 wins as both teams had stronger regular seasons than the 58-win Spurs.
The Mavericks, though, were upset by the eighth-seeded “We Believe” Warriors in the first round, eliminating the Spurs’ biggest threat. San Antonio met the Suns in the second round and split the first four games, only for Amar’e Stoudamire and Boris Diaw to be suspended for Game 5 and effectively hand San Antonio the series.
They were suspended for leaving the bench after Robert Horry flagrant-fouled Nash at the end of Game 4, which makes the Spurs’ victory in six games feel somewhat cheap since Stoudamire’s 26.4 points and 10.6 rebounds for the series were too big a loss to overcome.
San Antonio later swept the overmatched 50-win Cavaliers in the Finals, completing a championship that probably should have featured Dallas or Phoenix hoisting the trophy.
7. 2018 Golden State Warriors
The 2017-2018 Warriors weren’t quite as sharp as they were the previous season, allowing top-seeded Rockets to earn a 3-2 series advantage in the Western Conference Finals. Many fans were hoping the much-hated Warriors would then falter, but when Chris Paul was ruled out for the series after injuring his hamstring at the end of Game 5, the Warriors dominated Game 6 to force a Game 7 in Houston.
There was hope James Harden could carry his team on his home court, and things looked promising as the Rockets led by nine points at halftime. They’d then infamously miss 27 consecutive triples, lose the game and watch Golden State win back-to-back titles. Andre Iguodala only played three games in this series, but Paul’s absence was devastating and ruined Houston’s best chance at a championship.
6. 2019 Toronto Raptors
Kawhi Leonard’s performance in last season’s playoffs was remarkable, and Toronto dethroning the overpowered Warriors to win its first franchise championship made the majority of NBA fans happier than another Golden State win. Still, the Raptors would have lost to the Warriors in all likelihood had Durant been healthy.
Durant tore his Achilles tendon in Game 5 after scoring 11 points in just 12 minutes, not playing in the series up to that point. The team was unguardable with him on the floor. Without him, Toronto had enough to give the champions a competitive series. They still would have likely lost, however, if Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins weren’t also banged-up.
Thompson missed Game 3 with a hamstring injury and tore his ACL late in the third quarter of Game 6, and both games ended in a Warriors loss. Cousins played all six games but was still recovering from a torn quadriceps in the first round of the playoffs and wasn’t 100%. Had both teams been healthy, Golden State three-peats.
5. 2015 Golden State Warriors
For as innovative as the 2014-2015 Warriors were in their 67 regular-season wins, the team’s path to its first championship with Curry was somewhat fortuitous. Every team they faced in the playoffs had one or more injured starters. Jrue Holiday struggled with injuries and missed time during Golden State’s first-round sweep of the Pelicans, Mike Conley and Tony Allen were each injured and missed a game in a six-game second-round series and Patrick Beverly missed the entire Western Conference Finals for the Rockets.
The Warriors were probably better than all those teams anyway even if they were healthy. Golden State’s opponent in the Finals was a different story as the Cavaliers were without Kevin Love and lost Kyrie Irving in overtime of Game 1.
Seeing as Cleveland beat a better Warriors bunch the following season, it’s reasonable to say James would have led his Cavaliers to a championship in 2015 as well had his team been healthy. Instead, it was a one-man show for Cleveland and the Warriors won fairly easily.
4. 1999 San Antonio Spurs
The 1998-1999 season was the more severe of the league’s two most recent lockouts as teams played only 50 games. Many players weren’t in peak condition for much of the season, and without Michael Jordan’s Bulls around to continue winning championships, the door opened for new organizations to shine. So came a second-year Tim Duncan and an aging David Robinson to take advantage.
The quality of basketball season wasn’t quite up to par that year and the Spurs won out with strong fundamentals and disciplined veterans. They tied for the league’s best record with the back-to-back Western Conference champion Utah Jazz, yet they avoided them in the playoffs.
San Antonio handily beat its Western competition but didn’t face the conference’s toughest team. The team also played the eighth-seeded New York Knicks led by Latrell Sprewell in the Finals, so that series wasn’t overly competitive. Had it been a normal season, the Knicks likely wouldn’t have lucked into a Finals appearance and the Spurs might have faltered against a more worthy opponent like the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat.
3. 2002 Los Angeles Lakers
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers of the early 2000s were spectacular. In 2002, though, the team benefitted from some suspicious refereeing in the Western Conference Finals. Los Angeles faced the 61-win and top-seeded Kings led by Chris Webber, a team known for its unselfish play. They were the antithesis of the star-driven Lakers, and the series was shaping up to be an all-time classic and included a game-winning buzzer-beater by Horry in Game 4.
With Sacramento up 3-2 heading into Game 6, it looked like team chemistry would overcome individual greatness. Then disgraced referee Tim Donaghy got involved.
In June of 2008, Donaghy alleged that Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference semifinals was manipulated and ultimately decided by the officials, according to Chris Sheridan of ESPN.com.
The Lakers shot 40 free throws to Sacramento’s 25, including 27 in the fourth quarter alone. The referee crew infamously made phantom calls on the Kings while missing blatant ones against L.A., including Byrant elbowing Mike Bibby in the face during a crucial late-game inbound. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern denies any foul play, although there are many doubters. Had the Kings won they would have faced a weak Nets team and Finals, likely won and changed the legacy of Webber and others forever.
2-1. 1994 & 1995 Houston Rockets
Houston was undoubtedly the best team in the NBA from 1993-1995 with Hakeem Olajuwon being the top player. Both championships are often dismissed, however, because the game’s greatest player to that point retired at the peak of his powers directly beforehand. It’s unrealistic to think the Bulls would win five-straight rings, but it’s lucky for Houston that the reigning champions lost their best player instead of being dethroned.
The 1993-1994 Bulls featured many of the core players from the team’s first three-peat, so a matchup with the Rockets in the Finals would have been a true test for Houston to take control of the league. Chicago lost Horace Grant and wasn’t as strong when Jordan returned at the end of the 1994-95 season.
They lost to the team Houston faced in the 1995 Finals, the Orlando Magic, but that Finals series also gave Houston a lucky break when Nick Anderson missed four consecutive free throws to ice Game 1. The stars aligned for the Rockets to win their rings and for Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler to validate their careers as champions, which Jordan proved to be true when he won three more titles following Houston’s brief interruption.