Much like cellular phones, what the NBA looked like and how it performed in 2010 is very, very different from what it looked like a decade later.
Up-tempo, space-and-pace, analytics-driven, and three-point bombing have taken over a league that was much more conventional a decade ago. The game has evolved. Dramatically. Right in front of our eyes.
Which made compiling a list of the biggest stories of the decade a Sisyphean task. Big, important stories — player movement in the summer of 2019, the Warriors/Cavaliers rivalry, Dallas winning a title to shock the league — didn’t even make the cut. It was a wild decade.
Here is our list of the top 10 NBA stories of the 2010s:
10. Derrick Rose wins MVP in 2011, tears ACL in 2012
In 2010, if you polled fans and asked: “who is going to be on top of the best of the decade lists 10 years from now?” Derrick Rose likely would have won the vote. He was a fan favorite in Chicago and around the league in an Allen Iverson sort of way — a normal-sized human who could drive into the Redwoods that protect the paint in the NBA and come away with amazing buckets. By 2011, Rose was the NBA MVP, and we thought Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls might be the team of the decade.
Then in 2012, Rose was on the court under the basket grabbing his knee. His torn left knee ACL was the start of a series of knee injuries and surgeries that altered the course of Rose’s career and torpedoed those Bulls. He and the Bulls were never the same.
Rose, to his credit, has resurrected his career as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate by the end of the decade, showing there was craft to his game, not just explosive athleticism. Still, it’s hard not to look back at those Bulls and wonder, “what if?”
9. James Harden traded from Oklahoma City to Houston
It is the biggest “what if” of the 2010s: What if Oklahoma City had never traded James Harden?
In June 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder lost in the NBA Finals to Miami, but with a young core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, what was going to stop the Thunder from making trips to the Finals a regular thing? By October of that same year, after failing to reach a contract extension (and not wanting to deal with the tax consequences of a max contract), Oklahoma City had traded Harden to Houston.
Oklahoma City never made it back to the Finals. Harden won an MVP and became the game’s most lethal scorer in Houston. Durant won an MVP, eventually bolted for Golden State and won rings in the Bay Area. Westbrook stayed, won an MVP himself averaging a triple-double, got paired with Paul George, and when that fell apart got traded to Houston (with Harden).
If that trio had stayed together, how differently would we remember this last decade?
8. Adam Silver takes over as NBA Commissioner
Midway through the decade, the NBA got a change in leadership style — but not direction.
After 30 years as the NBA’s commissioner, David Stern stepped down from the role. He had taken over in the mid-1980s and turned the popularity of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — and later Michael Jordan — to turn the league into one of the world’s biggest sports brands. Stern led the league with smart marketing but did so with a velvet glove over an iron fist — he was an old school, my-way-or-the-highway kind of CEO (with a legendary temper).
Silver is much more of a modern business leader, a consensus builder, a guy who wins people over to his way of seeing the world. What has not changed is that Silver largely sees the world the same way Stern did — there are some differences, but they are relatively minor. Silver, working on behalf of the owners, is not looking to make changes to the direction of the NBA. The ship is headed in the same direction, just with a different captain at the helm.
7. Russell Westbrook averages a triple-double for consecutive seasons
It was one of the unbreakable records of the NBA: In 1961-62, Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double for the season of 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists a game.
Then along came Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 — Durant had bolted for the West Coast and it was Westbrook against the world in Oklahoma City. That was just fine with Westbrook, he dominated the ball and averaged 31.6 points per game, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists a game. It was a historic achievement that won him the MVP award.
Then Westbrook did it again the next season, if not quite as efficiently (25.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.3 assists). Then again for a third straight season, this time with Paul George next to him (22.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 10.7 assists), but the Thunder were bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Soon everything fell apart in OKC.
That should not take away from what a feat it was by Westbrook to reach that number three straight seasons.
6. Ray Allen’s shot from the corner sparks another Heat title
If there was a shot of the decade, this was it — Ray Allen, backing up into the corner, to tie Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals.
It was the shot that sent the game to overtime, where Miami won. Then the Heat won Game 7 to claim their second title in as many years and cement LeBron and Dwyane Wade’s legacy as champions in Miami. It’s also the shot that burned in the guts of San Antonio Spurs players all summer and inspired their 2014 title.
(There is an argument for another “shot of the decade,” and it’s in No. 5 on this list, but due to this one being a shot to tie an elimination game I’ll take Allen and the Heat.)
5. LeBron James returns to Cleveland, wins city its first title in 50 years
When LeBron first announced his decision to go to Miami, it seemed written in comic sans that he could never return and wear the wine and gold again. Jerseys were burned, words were said, and there was much anger.
Just a handful of years later, James was welcomed back as the prodigal son — and this time with a better roster around him featuring No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving and acquired Kevin Love (how does that Love for Andrew Wiggins trade look now?). In 2016, that trio did what hadn’t been done in 50 years — they brought a title to northeast Ohio. LeBron was the deserving Finals MVP, leading a comeback from 3-1 down against Golden State, but it was Irving who knocked down the game-winner in Game 7.
It was that return, that title, that cemented LeBron’s legacy as not only the best player of the decade but as a Mount Rushmore player in the NBA.
4. Donald Sterling forced out as Clippers owner
Owners of professional sports teams in America don’t want to force out fellow members of that club, no matter how heinous the person is or how much they may deserve it. This is a form of self-preservation, none of those owners are saints and they don’t want to be judged, so they don’t judge.
Until it starts to impact the bottom line — and Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling was doing just that.
Sterling is a vile, racist man, who had been the worst owner in professional sports for decades, but David Stern and the other owners had never really pushed back on him. However, once his mistress, V. Stiviano, leaked a recording of a conversation between the two — with Sterling sounding like his racist self — and it blew up, the league had no choice but to act. The Clippers players were on the verge of not taking the court in a playoff game in protest and the league was getting pummeled because of Sterling.
It took a Machiavelian move by Sterling’s wife Shelly to push him aside and sell the team to Steve Ballmer (for a then-record $2 billion), but it worked. Sterling was out, and Ballmer has turned the Clippers into one of the best-run franchises in the league, a place free agents like Kahwi Leonard want to go, and they are a contender now.
3. Rise of Analytics and the three-point shot
In 2010, if a player had risen up and taken a casual 28-foot three early in the shot clock, he would have been benched before the ball hit the rim.
In 2019, that shot is encouraged (for some players).
The 2010s saw the rise in the influence of advanced statistics around the NBA. For fans that has meant an understanding and shift in discussing how many points per game a team gives up to its defensive rating (to account for pace), plus player statistics like true shooting percentage and PER becoming commonplace.
However, the bigger impact is in how the game is played. In the 2010-11 season, the average team took about 18 threes a game, in the 2019-20 season the Spurs are dead last in the league attempting 26.7 a game, and the league average is 33 a game. The buzz word became efficiency, and the most efficient shots are at the rim, free throws, or threes (the math that 3 is worth more than 2 is inescapable in today’s NBA). The days of a volume scorer — a guy who takes a lot of shots to get his points — are gone, replaced by the cool efficiency of someone like James Harden, who can drain threes and knows how to draw fouls. Plodding centers men who clog the paint have been replaced by bigs who can drain a three. In addition, pace is up as teams use less scripted offenses and try to go early in the clock before a defense sets up (ideally taking advantage of a mismatch).
The evolution of the game — and the skill sets of its players to match — will continue into the next decade. However, barring rule changes (pushing back the three-point line, creating a four-point line, shrinking the lane, widening the court), the trends brought on by analytics are going nowhere. Because three is still worth more than two. Every time.
2. Kevin Durant signs with Golden State
The Golden State Warriors were a championship team that had just come off a season where they had won 73 games, setting an NBA record. However, they got beat in the 2016 NBA Finals by Cleveland because, in part, when the defenses tightened up, favorite plays were taken away, and systems broke down (as almost always happens in the conference finals and Finals), the Cavaliers had LeBron James to throw the ball to in isolation and watch him create. Kyrie Irving could do some of that, too. While the Warriors had Stephen Curry, it was not the same.
So they recruited Kevin Durant to come to Golden State.
Durant is the best pure scorer in the game and turned the Warriors into as great a team as the NBA has ever seen — they won two straight championships and were the Mount Everest the rest of the league was trying to climb. Durant took backlash from fans — for doing what those fans claim they want, putting winning before everything — and it irritated him, but he also solidified his legacy as a champion. He’s got the rings and nobody can take them away from him.
The Warriors fell short in the 2019 Finals — their fifth straight — as their bodies broke down and major injuries accrued (against a Toronto team that would have been tough to beat if Golden State was healthy).
Still, the Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry Warriors defined a decade and will go down as one of the greatest teams the game has ever seen.
1. “The Decision” from LeBron James and the Heat superteam
When LeBron James said, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” it changed everything about the NBA.
On the court, it created a dynasty where LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh formed a superteam that won two titles and went to four straight NBA Finals. They were the team that defined the first half of the decade, one where LeBron broke through as a champion and changed his legacy.
However, it was the player empowerment of that team — superstars deciding to play together then finding a place to make it work — that was the more significant change. This was the first superteam not put together by white guys in suits drafting and making trades; it came together because the players wanted it to happen and found a way. The balance of power started to shift, and throughout the decade that gathered more and more steam. This cleared the way for Durant to become a Warrior. By the wild summer of 2019, Durant and Irving were teaming up in Brooklyn (not with the Knicks) and Paul George was forcing his way out of Oklahoma City to join Kawhi Leonard in Los Angeles (not with the Lakers).
The NBA had always marketed itself around stars — it was “Magic vs. Bird” more than the Lakers vs. Celtics — but that gave the players power. With LeBron and The Decision (as flawed as the execution of that announcement was), the players started to take advantage of that power.
That changed the NBA. Not just for the rest of the decade, but forever.