On July 22nd, exactly 84 days ago, and four months and 11 days after a worldwide COVID-19 outbreak suspended the NBA’s regular season, the Los Angeles Clippers and Orlando Magic took the floor at Walt Disney World to play a basketball game.
In the following weeks and months, history unfolded in real time. There were myriad social justice initiatives, Zoom press conferences, coaches who had to do their jobs remotely, unprecedented safety measures, a strike that was led by the Milwaukee Bucks in response to another unarmed Black man getting shot by police, and thousands of minutes of professional basketball performed by the 22 teams that were invited.
At the beginning, the bubble seemed like a long shot to even get off the ground--players had doubts about going at all, and as teams made their way to Florida, coronavirus cases in the state were climbing rapidly. But by the end, it proved to be entertaining, emotional, surprisingly safe, and, above all else, unforgettable. Consider this list a collection of the players, events, moments, and trends that will be remembered in the decades to come.
There were no positive tests in the bubble, but COVID left its mark
The bubble’s legacy will be that zero people inside were diagnosed with the coronavirus. By adhering to myriad safety protocols and requiring every person in the bubble’s inner ring to take a daily test, science won--and the bubble even contributed to the larger fight against COVID-19 when the FDA approved a saliva-based testing method that was partially funded by the NBA.
But that doesn’t mean COVID had no impact on the competition-- some players who tested positive before entering the bubble were affected by fatigue and muscle tissue injuries that were likely caused by their inability to work out during recovery.
Although the bubble wasn’t quite 100% secure...
In the middle of a second-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Rockets forward Danuel House let a woman into his hotel room, violating bubble protocol and prompting an investigation that led to his forced exit from Walt Disney World. House isn’t a star, but he helped congeal one of the best five-man units in the first round, and made Houston’s small-ball philosophy even more potent. The Lakers probably still would’ve won that series, but it highlighted the stark difference between the bubble and any normal year. For those calling this an asterisk season, this situation is a piece of evidence.
The Distraction vs. Awareness debate
There was much internal discussion among players about the morality and efficacy of playing vs. skipping the bubble in order to support Black Lives Matter. As protests tore through America’s 50 states, emotional NBA players debated: will games distract from the social justice movement, or can they draw more attention to the urgent need for change?
In the end, the NBA managed to balance both imperatives as best it could, even through a work stoppage instigated by the Bucks delayed games for five days and briefly put the remainder of the season in doubt. Players used that moment to wring some financial concessions from owners, and throughout the bubble, dozens of players and coaches used their platforms to call for justice, be it for Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, or Jacob Blake. Initial steps towards progress were agreed to after the players decided to sit, but more can always be done. And because of actions taken inside the bubble, more surely will.
Fits, and fashion became part of the platform
One popular method of sending a message was style. From Chris Paul’s campaign to amplify the importance of HBCU’s ,to independent designers drawing even more attention to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s unjust deaths, to the three players who wore Group Economics on the back of their jerseys, players used their clothes as social justice billboards. One small measure of this strategy’s effectiveness: Every time Andre Iguoudala checked into a game for the Heat, search traffic to GQ’s explainer on “group economics” spiked.
Damian Lillard: The first bubble king
Lillard’s long-range three to beat the Mavericks was easily the most ridiculous shot of the bubble. It was magical, too, with an inconceivable bounce in the final 90 seconds of a must-win game. Damian Lillard was a monster throughout the seeding games, making half his shots and nearly 44 percent of the 13 threes he averaged in eight pressure-packed contests, and driving the Blazers to an unlikely playoff appearance..
Luka proved himself
In his very first postseason, 21-year-old Luka Doncic was unstoppable, averaging 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists per game. (He also made half his shots, which is silly considering Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were his two primary defenders throughout the first round series against the Clippers.) The shining moment came at the end of Game 4, when Doncic poured more gasoline on his own 43-point, 17-rebound, 13-assist inferno by hitting a step-back 3 at the buzzer:
An ankle injury kept Luka from singlehandedly willing the Dallas Mavericks to a major upset, but if there’s one takeaway from all he accomplished while healthy, it’s that the league won’t have any answer for this dude for years to come.
The Clippers evaporated
The Los Angeles Clippers were far and away the most disappointing team in the bubble. They blew a 3-1 lead in the second round with their entire future banked on two stars who combined to score 16 fewer points than Jamal Murray in Game 7. The many reasons for their disintegration include off-court bickering, very little on-court chemistry, and no identity to fall back on and we’ll never know how many of them were solely attributable to the bubble. Related...
Lou Williams really loves Magic City’s lemon pepper wings
Lou Will’s forced quarantine for visiting a strip club after being excused from the bubble to attend a funeral was an early social media highlight that provoked discussions of leadership and the quality of the wings at Atlanta’s Magic City. Less memorable, though, is how Williams played once he came back.
Knowing what we know now about the Clippers’ conditioning, Williams’ struggles make sense. In five seeding games, Williams never logged more than 25 minutes (he averaged over 29 before the bubble began) and in his final nine games of the playoffs averaged just 9.2 points while shooting under 35 percent from the field. In the end, the bubble didn’t forgive those who didn’t take it seriously.
Bam Adebayo blocked the entire city of Boston
The most significant defensive play anybody’s made since LeBron James pinned Andre Iguodala against the glass:
There were dunks!
Jamal Murray became a star in more ways than one
No individual’s development was more startling than that of Denver’s point guard, who bucked a stagnant regular season to unapologetically raise holy hell inside the bubble. Alongside Nikola Jokic, whose pristine passing felt born from a different sport, Murray was a showman, manipulating the ball with midair flair—twists, dips, and artistry.
During the regular season, the 23-year-old averaged 18.5 points, and made just 34.6 percent of the 5.5 threes he hoisted every game. In the playoffs? 26.5 points on 45.3 percent from downtown, taking 7.2 threes per game. Improvements like this don’t happen every year.
Even more meaningful, though, was Murray’s willingness and capacity to speak up for human rights as emotionally as he did. He grew into the type of leader both Denver and the NBA wanted him to.
Golf was a thing
To pass time in-between seeding games and practice, some players went fishing, rode bikes around the campus, swam in the hotel pool, aced cornhole, bowled, and played video games. Dozens more hit the links, some for the first time in their entire life, and some were way better than others. This particular segment of bubble life feels like it took place approximately 19 years ago, but it was a true highlight to watch from afar.
Haircuts were a thing
The NBA and player’s association tried to make life as normal as possible for everyone who took part in the bubble. That included a state of the art, pandemic-proof barbershop and grooming service run by none other than Rajon Rondo’s brother, Will (who later taunted Russell Westbrook when the Lakers played the Rockets). With millions of people watching their every move on television and social media, players needed to stay as clean as they possibly could. Mission accomplished.
Playoff Rondo’s renaissance
Low expectations are a blessing for players who’ve been left for dead. In Rondo’s case, his hit or miss statistical production over the past few weeks is overshadowed by the high points. Nobody thought he would walk out of the bubble with the highest postseason True Shooting percentage of his career, let alone significant time as the third-best player on a team that eventually won it all.
A fractured thumb sidelined Rondo for every seeding game, he missed the entire first round, and he only shot 32.8 percent behind the arc during the regular season. In the bubble he finished at 40 percent, on the dot. Without Rondo channeling the very best version of his former self, the Lakers would not have survived. It’s safe to say he picked up a few more believers along the way.
Anthony Davis might have changed the NBA
LeBron James was the Finals MVP and his quest for a fourth championship was the bubble’s narrative focal point, but it’s not hard to count every grain of statistical evidence from the past couple months and conclude that no individual posed a larger problem to other teams than Anthony Davis. Davis is a gigantic yet nimble big man who obliterated teams that embraced small ball and may now change the type of players general managers value as they focus on beating the Lakers. Which, in turn, will alter the entire league.
Erik Spoelstra became the NBA’s best coach
Maybe you’ll most remember the emotion that spilled out of Miami’s head coach after his team came up just short in heartbreaking fashion. It’s fine if you do. But when we step back and look at all Spoelstra accomplished in the bubble, it’s worth noting that no individual is better suited to fill Gregg Popovich’s shoes as the NBA’s leading coach once San Antonio’s Hall of Fame overseer decides to trade basketball courts for the world’s finest wineries.
Jimmy Butler, the anti-star star
After the Miami Heat upset the Bucks, attention turned to the question of whether Jimmy Butler should be considered one of the world’s 10 best players. But all year, Butler didn’t play like a traditional franchise cornerstone. Instead of leading Miami in shots, his greatness highlighted the effect that teammates, a system, and organization-wide culture can have on a player. Then Butler went toe-to-toe with LeBron James for six games in the finals, putting up unprecedented numbers and proving that he can do the alpha dog thing, too.
What Butler did in his first season with the Heat was remarkable for no greater reason than there’s a really good chance nobody else could do it. Does that make him the best player in the world? Of course not. What it should do, though, is provoke hesitation the next time we pick one team over another because “they have the best player in the series.”
LeBron snatched his crown back
On a personal note, I’ll remember picking against the Los Angeles Lakers in every single round (I had solid reasons!) In my defense, this was also LeBron’s “easiest” path to a championship--which, well, nothing about the bubble was actually easy when you really break it down. And it’s not LeBron’s fault that the Clippers, Bucks, or Celtics couldn’t advance far enough to try and take them down, just like it wasn’t Larry Bird’s fault when the Lakers flopped against the Rockets in 1986, or Kobe Bryant’s fault that, in 2009, LeBron’s Cavaliers and the defending champ Celtics (maybe the two best teams that season before Kevin Garnett hurt his knee) were both taken down by Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic.
However he got there, it’s still worth marveling at this 35-year-old man who managed to modulate his own energy and strength in ways that allowed him to throttle opponents in spots that matter most. Defenders rolled off his back like rain down a windshield. The Lakers were an old-school smashmouth squad and LeBron was at the forefront of that identity.
It’s all a little ironic: one of the most tumultuous periods in NBA history ended with order being restored. Whenever his 18th season begins, outside of the bubble, LeBron will be on top of the basketball universe, a reigning Finals MVP once more, waiting to stiff arm rivals who want everything he currently has.
Originally Appeared on GQ