Hindsight is 2020: Remembering basketball's unforgettable year
Photo illustration by Nick Roy / theScore

Much like the rest of the world, basketball endured a strange, tragic, and turbulent 2020 that no one can soon forget. Let's look back on the people and moments that made 2020 in the NBA a year to remember forever.

Moment of the year

It may not have ultimately extracted the kind of concessions that some initially hoped, but the Milwaukee Bucks' wildcat strike on Aug. 26 was a seminal moment in NBA history.

Exactly two months earlier, the players' association agreed to a proposal set out by the league for the resumption of the 2019-20 season in the Disney World bubble, under the condition that the restart be used as a platform for "collective action to combat systemic racism and promote social justice."

The restart took place amid widespread protests over racial inequality and specifically the disproportionate use of deadly police force against Black people. The league used various modes of messaging to draw attention to those issues, but for the players inside the bubble (the vast majority of them Black), that messaging began to feel especially futile when video surfaced of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, being shot seven times in the back by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Shortly thereafter, just before the scheduled tipoff of a slate of Game 5s in the first round of the playoffs, the Bucks, led by George Hill, opted not to take the court for their matinee against the Orlando Magic. The rest of the teams scheduled to play that day soon followed suit. WNBA players walked out. Athletes across multiple sports did the same. MLB games were called off when teams refused to take the field. A WTA Premier event was put on hold after Naomi Osaka indicated she wouldn't play. The sports world ground to a halt.

Meanwhile, the Bucks got on the phone with the Wisconsin attorney general, demanding answers about why the officers involved hadn't been arrested and why the state legislature hadn't convened to take action on police reform. All 13 teams remaining in the NBA bubble then met to discuss their next steps. Their plan included the creation of a joint NBA and NBPA social justice coalition, a campaign to raise awareness about voting rights, and an agreement that the league's 29 U.S.-based teams would use their arenas as polling stations for the 2020 presidential election.

Again, that represented a disappointing outcome for some. Perhaps more could have been accomplished if the players had pushed harder. But solving crises of racial inequity and unchecked police violence was never their responsibility. And the moment was powerful in its symbolism all the same.

As a display of solidarity, empathy, and humanity, nothing that happened in the NBA this year resonated as deeply as the day its players withheld their labor and forced the world to reckon with their pain. - Joe Wolfond

Play of the year

Andrew D. Bernstein / NBA / Getty Images

In any other year, the shocking death of Kobe Bryant would've been the obvious choice for moment of the year. It's still impossible to retell the story of 2020 without pausing to consider the tragic magnitude of losing Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others en route to a basketball game at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy.

With that in mind, it's not a game-winner, a buzzer-beater, or some circus shot that gets our vote for play of the year. Rather, it's a February dunk that was as eerie as it was iconic.

In the third quarter of a nationally televised game between the Lakers and Rockets, as Los Angeles' defense forced a turnover, LeBron James burst out of the backcourt with no Rockets giving chase. Avery Bradley crossed half court and found the gliding James with a simple pass that met its target around the 3-point line. The rest was up to The King.

What James did was recreate one of Bryant's most famous in-game dunks - a double-clutch reverse jam from 2001 - while wearing the same Lakers uniform, in the same arena, attacking the same basket.

"Kobe came down, put himself in my body, and gave me that dunk on that break," James later recounted.

Some of the forced narratives later in the season that tied the Lakers' championship run to Bryant's death were grossly inappropriate, but James recreating one of his predecessor's most visually stunning examples of basketball artistry less than two weeks after Bryant's death was an unexpected and beautiful tribute. I can think of no single play that better defined 2020.

In paying tribute to Bryant, let's not forget about the other giants of the game we lost in 2020, including David Stern, Jerry Sloan, Wes Unseld, John Thompson, Tommy Heinsohn, Cliff Robinson, Fred "Curly" Neal, and Eddie Sutton. - Joseph Casciaro

Result of the year

On the basketball court, no occurrence in 2020 was more surprising than the collapse of the Los Angeles Clippers - the league's preseason championship favorites - after going up 3-1 against the Denver Nuggets in the second round.

The flip side of that collapse, of course, was a remarkable comeback. To overcome a 3-1 series deficit is rare enough on its own; to overcome a 3-1 deficit when you were already an overwhelming underdog, and to do so after trailing by double digits in the second halves of Games 5, 6, and 7, was unheard of. Until the Nuggets pulled it off. An inspiring show of resilience and a preposterous display of shot-making from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray catapulted Denver to its first conference finals appearance in over a decade.

But rightly or wrongly, the bigger story was the Clippers, whose demoralizing defeat elicited no shortage of schadenfreude.

With their acquisition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the summer of 2019, the perpetual little brothers of L.A. had been crowned unofficial offseason champs. But something about them rubbed opposing teams and outside observers the wrong way. The organization put out tacky slogans. The players didn't seem to get along. They rarely played with a sense of urgency or connectedness or joy. The stars load-managed. The role players talked a lot of trash. They generally carried themselves like a group that had already won something and considered the process of formally certifying their theoretical excellence a drag.

And so their stunning defeat, capped by a lifeless second half in a Game 7 blowout, was validation for everyone who'd taken umbrage with their whole vibe. Especially because it came against a Nuggets team that exemplified the kind of organic chemistry and mental toughness that the Clippers decidedly lacked.

Call it karma, comeuppance, or a cautionary tale about hubris and the perils of taking shortcuts. However you describe it, it was one of the most spectacular postseason flameouts in recent memory. - Wolfond

Player of the year

Garrett Ellwood / NBA / Getty Images

If ever there was reason to doubt the sports maxim that "Father Time is undefeated," James getting our vote for Player of the Year in 2020 qualifies.

In season No. 17, at age 35, with more than 59,000 NBA minutes on his body, LeBron rose above the competition once again to remind us that there's still no baller on the planet we would take before the aging king.

James averaged a league-leading (and career-high) 10.2 assists to go along with 25.3 points and 7.8 rebounds while suiting up for 67 of Los Angeles' 71 regular-season games, logging nearly 35 minutes per contest, and playing his best regular-season defense in at least a half-decade.

He then averaged 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.8 assists on 64.7% true shooting during the playoffs, leading the Lakers to a 16-5 record en route to the franchise's record-tying 17th championship. For his efforts, James earned not only his fourth title with three different teams, but also his fourth Finals MVP.

Off the court, James led the voting rights organization More Than A Vote, which aimed to combat voter suppression through education and a call to action. The initiative led more Americans to exercise their right to vote, helped successfully push for the use of NBA arenas as polling stations, and recruited 42,000 poll workers. Just this month, meanwhile, the LeBron James Family Foundation announced plans to open a community center in Akron, Ohio - where the famous Tangier Restaurant once stood - that will provide families with recreational space, financial health programming, and job training.

It might seem anticlimactic to go with James here, but he doesn't leave us any other choice. - Casciaro

Executive of the year

Usually, staying out of the spotlight is a sign that a commissioner is doing a good job and that everything is running smoothly. But that wasn't exactly an option for Adam Silver in the year of COVID-19. His leadership was tested in a serious way. And he responded to the challenge by guiding the NBA through the choppiest of waters.

When the virus hit North America, Silver was the continent's first pro sports commissioner to indefinitely suspend his league's season. He pulled the plug without hesitation following Rudy Gobert's positive test, triggering a domino effect that shuttered every other major sport within a couple of days.

For months thereafter, the NBA teetered on the brink of not only a canceled season but a dismantled collective bargaining agreement that likely would've led to a lockout. As discussions about restarting the season began to percolate, questions abounded regarding the safety, optics, and morality of playing basketball in a sequestered environment in the middle of a pandemic.

While the latter two questions are still open to debate, the safety element was definitively answered thanks to the rigorous protocols that upheld the integrity of the Disney bubble for over three months. The bubble facilitated the completion of the season with zero coronavirus cases among league personnel. In the process, the league salvaged an estimated $1.5 billion in revenue and quite possibly saved the 2020-21 season, too.

Look, Silver is a long way from perfect; he has a history of tamping down various forms of non-corporate-friendly protest among his workforce, his initial handling of China's backlash to Daryl Morey's Hong Kong tweet was embarrassing, he threw Masai Ujiri under the bus following Ujiri's altercation with a security guard at Oracle Arena, he's friends with Jared Kushner, yada yada yada. But when it comes to presiding over the league's image and serving its financial interests, 2020 was a rousing success for the commish.

One thing you tend to hear about Silver from players and governors alike is that he engenders trust from both sides of the aisle. As the NBA and NBPA negotiated the terms of the league's precarious restart plan, it was trust in Silver's judgment that helped move the two sides toward a deal. The bubble wouldn't have been possible without it. - Wolfond

Quote of the year

Garrett Ellwood / NBA / Getty Images

"This is a business trip for me. I'm not messing around." - Jimmy Butler

During an in-game report in the third quarter of Game 1 between Miami and Milwaukee, we learned that was Butler's response to a question about why he didn't have family join him in the Disney bubble, unlike many other players did once the second round of the playoffs began.

The quote took on a life of its own in terms of enhancing Butler's maniacally competitive, no-nonsense reputation, but it's also a worthy soundbite to remember 2020 by.

The very reason Butler and the rest of the NBA found themselves in Orlando without family, friends, or fans was to facilitate the conclusion of the 2019-20 season safely.

Butler's otherworldly performance in leading Miami to The Finals - and then helping a battered Heat team steal two games from James' Lakers - should help our quote of the year stand the test of time. Butler erupted for 40 points on 13-of-20 shooting in that Game 1 win over Milwaukee when his matter-of-fact soundbite emerged, then averaged roughly 26 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds, and two steals on 55% shooting in The Finals. - Casciaro

Hindsight is 2020: Remembering basketball's unforgettable year
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