Except not in the NBA — 2016 was about as amazing a year in hoops as you are ever going to find. It had everything. Narrowing this list down to five things was hard, there were so many other things that could have made this list: The passing of Craig Sager, the exit of Sam Hinkie in Philly just as Joel Embiid urges everyone to trust the process, Dwyane Wade going back to Chicago, and on and on.
Take a stroll with us down (recent) memory lane, here are our five biggest NBA stories of 2016.
5) Kevin Durant signs with Golden State.
So many things had to come together for this to happen: A new television deal that led to a massive spike in revenue for teams that would drive up the salary cap; the NBA players union refusing to go along with Adam Silver’s plan to smooth in that cap spike; the Thunder blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals; and mostly Durant seeing something in a franchise outside Oklahoma City that he wanted to be a part of. A year out from his decision the sense around the league was that Durant was likely to stay, but as all those pieces mentioned above started to fall into place there became more and more of a sense that he was willing to leave a little money on the table to go to Golden State because of the on-and-off court chemistry the team had. When Durant made his decision last July, it shifted the balance of power in the Western Conference — two of the three best players on the planet had teamed up. In 2017 we will see if they can reach their goal, but it has already led to some impressive highlights.
4) Warriors win record 73 games.
Because they lost in the NBA Finals (in dramatic fashion) we tend to sleep on what an unbelievable accomplishment this was. Back when Phil Jackson coached the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, he was asked about his team chasing that record, and he said no team from the West Coast could do it because of the increased travel demands (everything is farther apart, the road trips are longer). The Warriors did it with a combination of great players, a small-ball “death lineup” that nobody could plan for and stop during the regular season, and a lot of luck with health. Maybe it wore them down come the playoffs (they think so), but that does not diminish what was the greatest regular season we have every seen.
3) New Collective Bargaining Agreement reached — and way before the deadline.
When was the last time anything at your office/school got done long in advance of the deadline pushing it? Exactly. That’s maybe most amazing thing about the NBA owners and players’ union reaching a deal on a new CBA before even the opt-out deadline, let alone the July 1 lockout one, that it came together this easily and way in advance. Give NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and players’ union executive director Michelle Roberts credit for not bringing the scar tissue of past negotiations to the table. The two sides agreed on the money split — which remains basically 50/50, just as it was in the last CBA — and the players got more from, and more control over, player image licensing. The new CBA adds a “designated player” exception so teams such as Oklahoma City can pay more to keep players such Kevin Durant. Also, the two sides agreed to start the season earlier to reduce back-to-backs, and they put together a medical insurance plan for former players. But mostly, this new CBA is the status quo, which shows that the influx of cash from the new television deal had both sides making so much money nobody wanted to screw it up.
2) Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett all retire.
That is one insane Hall of Fame class coming in five years. Kobe and Duncan should vie for the greatest player of their generation — both with five rings, both were cornerstones of powerhouse franchises for decades, and both evolved their games with age and with the changes in style in the NBA. Also, it was fitting that both Kobe and Durant left the game exactly the way you’d expect them to: Kobe gunning his way to 60 points in a blaze of glory final game that was enthralling; Duncan didn’t even show up to his retirement press conference, leaving Gregg Popovich to do the talking.
Every time you see a big man spacing the floor, showing his handles on the wing, and then getting back and defending, you should thank KG. Of these three, maybe nobody more influenced the direction the game has gone than Garnett and how he transformed what could be expected of a seven footer.
1) LeBron James leads Cavaliers from 3-1 down to break Cleveland’ title cures.
What, you thought it could be anything else? LeBron played as great a three games in the NBA Finals of anyone ever. He lifted a team that I thought looked broken after a Game 4 loss at home and refused to let them die (the Draymond Green Game 5 suspension was both earned and opened that door for the Cavs). But this was more than LeBron lifting Kyrie Irving up to a point he could sink the series-clinching three on the road — this was LeBron lifting an entire city, and entire region up. It had been 52 years since a title came to Cleveland, and he the hometown boy put everyone on his back and got them there.
LeBron did more than win a third ring with that title, he secured a legacy.