Miami Heat president Pat Riley rankled Lakers fans on Friday when he used the dreaded a-word in a Friday Zoom call with media discussing all things Heat, including the offseason ahead and, of course, the NBA Finals loss to LeBron James and the Lakers. While paying respect to the Lakers and calling them the superior team, Riley openly wondered about how the series might have played out had Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic been healthy throughout, and yes, even threw out the word “asterisk.”
“They were the best team, but there’s always going to be asterisk, that caveat,” Riley said. “If we had Bam and Goran — Goran was our leading scorer in the playoffs — at 100 percent, it could have gone to seven games or whatever, but thank you for reminding me. I appreciate that, but I’m not going to look back on it. I’m just going to look at all the positive things, get Goran healthy and Bam healthy, and bring everybody back and try to add to the mix.”
The word “asterisk” first entered the mainstream sports lexicon when Phil Jackson suggested that it applied to the 1999 Spurs, who won their first championship in a lockout season. Riley’s usage was not nearly as divisive. He was not openly calling the validity of the championship into question so much as he was wondering how things could have played out under different circumstances while still operating under the premise that the Lakers were the rightful favorites.
Yet ‘asterisk’ carries a certain implication, one that a certain type of NBA fan has latched onto for the 2020 title in light of the Orlando bubble, the break that led up to it and the injuries that occurred within it. Even flippantly, Riley’s usage of that word validates that point of view to an extent. It wasn’t his intent, but there are those who will use this quote to invalidate the championship that the Lakers won, so Riley clarified his comments to the Herald on Sunday.
“The asterisk is next to the Heat’s name, not the Lakers,” Riley said in a statement. “Their title is legitimate. Our loss has an asterisk [next] to it. The Lakers were the better team. Period.”
Those last two sentences do most of the heavy lifting here. Riley, again, confirms his acknowledgment that the Lakers were the superior team. But the suggestion that any asterisk is involved is still a bit disappointing. If we’re being absolutely technical, the Heat did not defeat a single opponent in the postseason that was at full strength from start to finish. Domantas Sabonis missed their first-round series against the Pacers. Giannis Antetokounmpo missed most of the final two games of their series against the Bucks. Gordon Hayward missed the first two games of their series against the Celtics. Those teams aren’t applying asterisks to their own losses.
Those injuries don’t remotely invalidate Miami’s achievement in reaching the NBA Finals. The goal of an NBA season is not to have the best team on paper. The goal is to survive four rounds as a team. The Heat made it through three despite entering each series as the lower seed. When they reached the NBA Finals, the injury bug happened to bite them. Maybe it affected the outcome, but injuries affect the outcome of almost every season on some level or another. They are a part of the game, and the Heat, unfortunately, got unlucky at the worst possible time. The same was true of their earlier opponents.
Ultimately, what matters is that Riley freely admits that the Lakers earned their championship legitimately. That, in itself, separates his words from Jackson’s original asterisk comments and offers some clarity on his original words.