Tuesday, August 13, 2019

The 2010's: Pro Basketball

Some thoughts on the last decade in the NBA:

2010:  Los Angeles Lakers (W) 4, Boston (E) 3
2011:  Dallas (W) 4, Miami (E) 2
2012:  Miami (E) 4, Oklahoma City (W) 1
2013:  Miami (E) 4, San Antonio (W) 3
2014:  San Antonio (W) 4, Miami (E) 1
2015:  Golden St. (W) 4, Cleveland (E) 2
2016:  Cleveland (E) 4, Golden St. (W) 3
2017:  Golden St. (W) 4, Cleveland (E) 1
2018:  Golden St. (W) 4, Cleveland (E) 0
2019:  Toronto (E) 4, Golden St. (W) 2

It's worth noting that after years of complaints about how the Eastern Conference is terrible, and the teams should be re-seeded, etc, the final results for the decade show that the West had six titles, while the East took four.  In other words, the competition between the West and the East is generally closer than your typical ACC/Big 10 challenge.

Best Franchise of the Decade:
On June 14, 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder took the floor in their home arena with a 1-0 lead in the NBA finals.  At that moment, the Thunder were riding a five-game winning streak that looked like this (home team listed first):

5/31/2012:  Oklahoma City 102 - 82 San Antonio
6/2/2012:  Oklahoma City 109 - 103 San Antonio
6/4/2012:  San Antonio 103 - 108 Oklahoma City
6/6/2012:  Oklahoma City 107 - 99 San Antonio
6/12/2012:  Oklahoma City 105 - 94 Miami

Now if you look up above, you will see that Miami and San Antonio dominated the NBA in 2013 and 2014, so winning five straight against those two teams in the summer of 2012 was a big deal.  And look at the talent on the Thunder line-up.  They had Kevin Durant, who was only 23 years old.  They had Russell Westbrook, who was also 23.  They had James Harden, who was 22.  And they had Serge Ibaka, who was also 22.  And those guys, as young as they were, had already shown the mental fortitude to beat the Spurs four straight times.  I thought at the time that I was watching the next great NBA dynasty, and I was very excited.

That night, James Harden went 7-11 from the field, and scored 21 points.  Durant went 12-22 and scored 32 points.  But Russell Westbrook went 10-26.  He got 27 points, but his missed shots killed the Thunder, who lost 100-95.  The Thunder then lost two heartbreakers in Miami:  91-85 and 104-98.  The Heat had 35 free throws in Game Three, while the Thunder had only 24.  In Game Four, the Thunder had a 33-19 lead after the first quarter, and for the game Westbrook went 20-32 for 43 points.  But the Heat had 25 free throws, and the Thunder had 16, and that was the difference in the game.

If Game Five had been in Oklahoma City, the Thunder might have rallied.  But it was in Miami, and they collapsed, losing 121-106.  After so many years of hype, LeBron James finally had his title.  And that was it for the Thunder.  They got rid of Harden in the offseason, and neither Harden nor Westbrook has ever been back to the NBA Finals.  Durant eventually got there, but only after he joined the Warriors.  I've never seen any good explanation for what happened to the Thunder, and I don't suppose I ever will.  But I'm still very sorry about how that all turned out.

So the Franchise of the Decade turned out to be Golden State.  One of the worst franchises in the league for over 30 years after their 1975 title, the Warriors took the gun-slinging model that Oklahoma City had showed everyone in 2012, and added mental toughness and selflessness that made them almost unbeatable.  Had the Warriors not been felled by a truly spectacular wave of injuries a few months ago, they would have won three titles in a row.  For me, the beauty and joy with which they play the game have made the Warriors my favorite NBA team since the Celtics of the 1980's.  They may be getting close to the end of the line now, but what a line it has been.

Coach of the Decade:
It wasn't a great decade for NBA coaches, so I'm rolling with Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach.  He's managed to keep everyone happy and productive in Golden State, and lots of other teams have shown us that is not always easy to do.

Best Team of the Decade:
Watching the Warrior teams of 2017 and 2018 -- after they got Durant -- was like watching someone who had a cheat code for a video game.  No one could really touch them.  I would give a slight edge to the 2018 team, which swept Cleveland, and which is one of the best teams I ever saw.

Best Player of the Decade:
While the West had the Warriors, the East had LeBron James.  LeBron won the Eastern Conference title eight years in a row -- the only man since Bill Russell to reach that many consecutive NBA Finals.  Even more remarkably, LeBron accomplished this feat with two different teams -- he won four titles with Miami, and then four titles with Cleveland, without missing a beat.  LeBron's last team in Cleveland -- if you don't count LeBron -- was undoubtedly the worst team ever to reach the finals.  Here were LeBron's teammates in Game One of the 2018 finals:  Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, George Hill, Tristan Thompson, and Jeff Green.  In that game, LeBron went 19-32 for 51 points.  He also had eight rebounds and eight assists.  His teammates went 25 for 67, including a brutal 7-30 from three-point range.  And yet Cleveland would have won the game -- on the road -- if LeBron's teammates could have made late free throws or even remembered the score.  That's how good LeBron was.

Best and Worst Changes of the Decade:
For me, the worst development of the decade was the inexplicable collapse of the Thunder, which I have described at length above.  A lot of folks complained about how players worked together to build super teams.  But that doesn't bother me.  It's been great to see historically-bad franchises like the Warriors, the Cavaliers, and the Raptors get to shine on the big stage.

The best change of the decade was how the NBA responded to analytics and the humiliating losses suffered by the U.S. team at the 2004 Olympics and the 2002 and 2006 FIBA championships.  Both the analytics and the Europeans were sending the same message:  spread the floor and shoot threes.  Teams like the Warriors and the Rockets adapted, and the game is much better as a result.  Some folks complain that there's not enough defense or violence in the current game, but I saw more than enough of that back in the day.  Personally, I enjoyed the NBA in the 2010's more than I had enjoyed it in any decade since the 1980's.

Best Playoffs of the Decade:
In 2016, the Thunder made their last stand.  After dropping the first game of the Western Semi-Finals to San Antonio, they won four of the next five to make it to the finals.  At the time, no one thought this was that big a deal, because the Thunder had to play Golden State, and the Warriors had posted an unbelievable record of 73-9, and were generally regarded as one of the best teams ever.  But OKC upset the Warriors in Game One, and were up 3-1 after Game Four.  The Warriors, however, fought back to win the last three games to reach the finals.  In the finals, Golden State ran up against LeBron, who brought the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit to give Cleveland its first title in any major sport since 2016.  Personally, I think Golden State was worn down from the seven-game struggle with OKC.  But the 14 games that Golden State played against OKC and Cleveland will always be, for me, one of the most memorable stretches in NBA history.

Best Game of the Decade:
This award, of course, must go to Game Seven of the 2016 finals.  When LeBron retires, and they want to summarize his career, this is the game that will go first.  Both teams were exhausted, and for once the old cliche about who wants it more really did seem to come into play.  Down 76-75 after three quarters, the Cavs held Golden State to only 13 points in the fourth quarter -- due in large part to LeBron's legendary, length-of-the-floor sprint to block a layup that would have given the Warriors a late lead.  Finally, Kyrie Irving nailed a long three-pointer to put the Cavs up for good, and send all of Northern Ohio into an uproar.  It was a magical moment, and it fully and finally vindicated all of the hype about LeBron that we had dealt with since the Great Man was in high school.


  1. Game 6 of the 2013 finals was another cracker. The Spurs were up 3-2, with Game 6 in Miami. With 28 seconds left, the Spurs lead 94-89. LeBron misses a three, Mike Miller grabs the rebound for Miami, and LeBron makes a three. Now the Spurs lead 94-92 with 20 seconds left. Kawhi Leonard is fouled and makes 1 of 2 free throws. Spurs lead 95-92 with 19 seconds left. The Heat's last possession was utterly chaotic, with no one close to being open. Finally LeBron fires up a 3 with 7 seconds left. He misses, but Chris Bosh gets the rebound -- and finds Ray Allen all alone in the corner. Allen ties the game at 95. The Spurs have one last chance -- and Tim Duncan misses a 12-footer at the buzzer. Heat win in overtime, Heat win Game 7, LeBron has two titles in a row, and the Spurs lose a title.

    The next year, the Spurs came back and waxed Miami 4-1 in LeBron's final outing for the Heat. But the Spurs should have beaten Miami two years in a row.

  2. Game 6 of the 2016 Western Finals was another great game. Thunder up 3-2, at home with a chance to close out the 73-9 Warriors. This was the last season where the Thunder had Durant. With 5:09 left, Durant makes a basket to put OKC up 96-89, and it looks like its all over for the Warriors. But down the stretch, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry combine to make four three-pointers, while Westbrook and Durant combine for six turnovers. The Warriors outscore the Thunder 19-5 -- on the road -- in the last five minutes, and win the game 108-101.

    Game 7 in Oakland finds the Thunder trailing by only 59-58 with four minutes to go in the third quarter. But the Warriors close out the quarter on a 12-2 run in which all 12 points are scored by Shaun Livingston, Harrison Barnes, Leandro Barbosa, and Anderson Varejo. The Warriors go into the fourth quarter with an 11-point lead, and that's it for OKC. A few months later, Durant joins Golden State, and the rest is history.

  3. A lot of folks don't like the Warriors, and I can understand why. But they have really played some incredible games. Their post-Durant run in this year's playoffs, where they kept pulling out close wins under very difficult circumstances, was one of the most entertaining stretches of NBA basketball I've ever seen.

  4. Just brilliant--every word of it.

    As a Wizards fan during this period, I now wonder about what the equivalent team to Washington was during the 1980s. Here’s how the Wizards did during the 2010s:

    — 14th of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference in 2009-10 with Gilbert Arenas (32 games), Antawn Jamison (41 games), Caron Butler (47 games), Andray Blatche and Coach Flip Saunders

    — 13th in ’10-11 with Nick Young, Arena (21 games), Andray Blatche, rookie John Wall and Saunders

    — 14th in ’11-12 with Young (40 games), Wall, Jordan Crawford and coaches Saunders and Randy Wittman

    — 11th in ’12-13 with Wall (49 games), rookie Bradley Beal (56 games), Crawford (43 games), Nene Hilario and Wittman

    — fifth in ’13-14 with Wall, Beal, Nene (53 games), Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat and Wittman

    — fifth in ’14-15 with Wall, Beal, Nene, Gortat, Paul Pierce, rookie Otto Porter and Wittman

    — 10th in ’15-16 with Wall, Beal (55 games), Porter, Gortat, Markief Morris (27 games) and Wittman

    — fourth in ’16-17 with Wall, Beal (55 games), Porter, Morris, Gortat, rookie Kelly Oubre and Coach Scott Brooks

    — eighth in ’17-18 with Wall, Beal, Porter, Oubre, Morris, Gortat, rookie Tomas Satoransky and Brooks

    — 11th in ’18-19 with Beal, Wall (32 games), Porter (41 games), Oubre (29 games), Morris (34 games), Satoransky, Ariza (43 games), Jeff Green and Brooks

    So I've got to look at which team opened the 1980s in bad shape, had a couple of good draft choices, had some seasons of roughly rising promise, saw those good players start to deconstruct and close the decade in bad shape. And I wonder how that team's fans felt generally about the NBA in the 1980s.

    1. For what it's worth, I was optimistic about the Wizards from 2014 to 2017, and I thought it was a great move to hire Brooks. But I now think I was wrong, because Brooks apparently cannot get the Wiz to play defense or play hard against weak opponents.

  5. According to basketball-reference.com, here are your ten best Packers/Bullets/Wizards (college team in parentheses):

    1. Wes Unseld (Louisville)
    2. Elvin Hayes (Houston)
    3. Walt Bellamy (Indiana)
    4. Greg Ballard (Oregon)
    5. John Wall (Kentucky)
    6. Gilbert Arenas (Arizona)
    7. Antawn Jamison (N. Carolina)
    8. Jack Marin (Duke)
    9. Phil Chenier (California)
    10. Bradley Beal (Florida)

  6. This is a really curious list to me. I would've guessed Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland, Jeff Malone, Jeff Ruland, Bernard King and maybe even Moses Malone, Michael Jordan and Bob Dandridge before I got to Antawn Jamison.