Among the myriad uncertainties and surprises that will end up defining this bizarre NBA season rests the chance for LeBron James, if he can lead an already depleted Los Angeles Lakers to a championship, to notch one of his greatest accomplishments.
Michael Jordan had his Flu Game. LeBron James could have his Pandemic Championship.
Forget the silly talk about an asterisk being attached to the 2020 COVID-19 NBA champ. Months away from the game and the still-uncertain resulting fallout for players, home-court advantage a mere memory, the angst and difficulties of being locked away for three months in pursuit of greatness, the possible positive tests capable of recalibrating the balance of power in any series at any moment -- all this and more will make this the most striking, strange and telling test of LeBron James' career.
Giannis Antetokoumpo is right. This thing is going to be brutal.
"I hear a lot of people saying it could have a star next to it," the Greek Freak said earlier this month. "It's going to be the toughest championship you could ever win."
There are many, many ways an NBA postseason locked inside an Orlando bubble may alter the outcome. Already, the Lakers are a changed basketball team thanks to this virus.
Avery Bradley has opted out of playing, a huge loss for a Lakers organization that understands internally the blow of losing the two-way player. Bradley lifted the team in ways big and small, evident in the fact he was a fixture of Frank Vogel's most-used five-man lineup: LeBron, Danny Green, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee and Bradley.
That group was good for a +12.6 net rating, 5.5 points better than the team average over the course of the season. That lineup, with Bradley, also had a 101.4 defensive rating -- one statistically better than the Bucks, who have the league's best defense.
The loss of Rajon Rondo, injured in practice this week, is also a blow. While one of the weakest Lakers on paper, he led the second-team offense, had the trust of LeBron and A.D., and filtered a good chunk of the ball-handling out of LeBron's hands.
The combination will put more strain on LeBron, and the losses come in a weird postseason format that is likely to put an unusual premium on depth. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Jordan's Flu Game was its own unexpected test, one that pitted the mental and the physical limits of Jordan's skills against his desire for a legacy no one could match. More iconic and easier to digest as a narrative, Jordan's game captured the country's imagination in part because it was easy to grasp. The man was sick, the man still rose above it.
This, too, will be a hurdle on LeBron's trek to greatness few could possibly have imagined he would need to clear. This, too, will require mental and physical fortitude and the ability to press through stresses that shouldn't accompany an NBA championship run. Only this time the difficulty will play out over a marathon, not a sprint, with trap doors potentially everywhere.
Bradley and Rondo's absences are stark reminders of how different this postseason could be for those teams that are dealt bad luck in the weeks ahead. We do not know which teams will miss the rhythm and comfort that should come with entering the playoffs after a full season. We don't know what other injuries -- or positive COVID-19 tests -- will alter teams, or series themselves. We don't know how a neutral court without a crowd to assert itself will impact things.
Like with the virus itself, we know so much less than we like to pretend.
Are the Philadelphia 76ers, who had a 29-2 home record before the shutdown, less dangerous? Can the Houston Rockets, without having to worry about away games or the pressure of a crowd, expect a James Harden who does not cool off, who feeds off a pick-up game, shoot-the-lights-out vibe? Are the Los Angeles Clippers, much healthier now than in March, therefore that much more dangerous?
The list of the subtle possible differences for teams on the court are long, and LeBron James and his teammates will have to deal with all of them.
The Lakers are the odds-on favorites, and 2020 hasn't exactly been a great year for the expected.
There is, of course, the real risk that key players will somehow contract the virus despite the bubble and find their fate altered as a result. Even with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins returned to a suddenly dangerous Portland roster, Lakers-Trail Blazers, even if the Blazers could get there, shouldn't alter LeBron's first-round chances. Right? Same for a hungry young Memphis Grizzlies team in that 8-seed instead, or if Zion Williamson and his New Orleans Pelicans are the team that advances?
In normal times, no problem.
But what if Anthony Davis tests positive and misses that series? Or Danny Green? What happens then? Or in the next series? Or the one after it?
There's also the often unspoken but very real tendency for LeBron to be among the game's most intense -- some whisper moody -- personalities. Even in normal times, when he can escape the stress and frustrations of his teammates and the weight of expectations that surround him, the gravitational force around a frustrated LeBron can weigh heavily on those in his orbit.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and all that, but it's no picnic being the teammate or coach of that guy either. And this time around, LeBron, his teammates and the entire league will be trapped together in a bubble they cannot leave.
It could be a joyous, together-until-the-end experience. It could also be a Disney-hued hellscape of nerves, annoyance, frustration and that special kind of hatred born of being unable to escape the people around you, week after week, excruciating day after day.
Micahel Jordan had to overcome the flu, or the spiked pizza, or whatever brought him so low in Salt Lake City, for 48 minutes.
For almost 100 days, to win it all, LeBron James has to dodge the virus. Stay healthy. Hope what he methodically built over a regular season with his teammates didn't dissipate in quarantine. Plow ahead without his backup point guard and best 3-and-D teammate. Avoid other teammates going down to injury or infection. Hope the Clippers' time off hasn't vastly fixed the health issues that were their biggest weakness. Avoid some nothing-to-lose bubble heroics from a team like Houston or Denver or even Portland. Keep his cool. And do it all under a lockdown -- I say this as someone who quarantined for two weeks two months ago, without being stuck with teammates and media and coaches in a complex -- that can drive the most patient of men to resentment and anger.
Forget the asterisk. It's the road mines that need to be missed, the mental toughness marshalled, the Job-like patience found and the bad luck avoided, to say nothing of the basketball, that will define this NBA postseason.
And it's why, if he wins another one, it may well be LeBron James' most impressive feat yet.