Here are the NBA’s Top 5 stories of 2016

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I’m in the camp 2016 sucked — just the deaths of Bowie, Prince, and Ali alone would rank it there.

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.

Report: Tom Thibodeau raised asking price for Jimmy Butler after infamous practice

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After sitting out while awaiting a trade rehabbing after injuring his wrist, Jimmy Butler practiced with the Timberwolves for the first time last week. He reportedly showed up late, talked a ton of trash and led third-stringers to a win over the starters then left early.

Amidst widespread speculation they had to trade Butler after that, the Tom Thibodeau-run Timberwolves put out word they considered it their best practice of the year.

Maybe Thibodeau is that insanely competitive. Maybe he was just trying to preserve leverage.

If it were the latter, he sure stuck to his story.

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

Teams who talked to Minnesota after his first practice, literally the day after his practice, Minnesota was asking for more then than they were before the day. Which tells you this: Minnesota is not trading him. They’re asking for packages that know teams aren’t going to agree to.

The Timberwolves are in a though spot. Butler is an excellent player, but everyone knows he wants out. I don’t blame them for trying to maximize their limited leverage.

How will Butler react to this revelation, though? Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said he told Butler the team would seek a trade. Butler pledged to play hard in the meantime.

But if Butler playing hard just makes it less likely Minnesota will trade him, will he feel as if the team isn’t holding up its end of the bargain? Then what?

It has long seemed Taylor and Thibodeau are on different pages on several issues. Though Taylor just backed Thibodeau, Butler could drive a wedge even deeper between the owner and president-coach.

Russell Westbrook sneak-snacking steals show on NBA’s opening night

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NBA’s opening night was quite tame. The Celtics and Warriors won as expected, neither the 76ers nor Thunder mounting much of a challenge.

That allowed Russell Westbrookout with an injury — to have the most fun moment when he looked around deviously, turned to his side and ate something.

What did did Westbrook eat? Was he not supposed to be eating? Did he not want to share? Big questions remain unanswered surrounding this important incident.

Joel Embiid on 76ers-Celtics: ‘This is not a rivalry … They always kick our ass’

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The 76ers-Celtics rivalry is being renewed.

But it’s not there yet, according to Philadelphia center Joel Embiid.

The 76ers are 3-19 against Boston since drafting Embiid, and though that includes multiple tanking years, Philadelphia hasn’t fared much better since getting good. The 76ers went 2-7 against the Celtics last season, including 1-4 in their second-round playoff series. Philadephia followed that with a season-opening loss to the Celtics last night.

Embiid, via Matt Haughton of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“JJ (Redick) mentioned it earlier, this is not a rivalry,” Embiid said to reporters after the Sixers’ 105-87 season-opening loss to the Boston Celtics (see observations). “I don’t know our record against them but it’s pretty bad. They always kick our ass.”

I appreciate Embiid’s directness. We can all see the problem. There’s no point denying it.

The subtext is Embiid’s motivation to change this status quo, and a lot of it does fall in Embiid. Al Horford has given him fits. Even Aron Baynes worked him at times last night. Embiid is talented and far younger than those two. He’ll eventually get there.

In the meantime, he’s not mincing words.

Vinsanity grinds into a 21st season, rare company in the NBA

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ATLANTA (AP) — Vince Carter feels like a 20-something again.

Always does when this time of year rolls around.

Never mind the specks of gray in his beard, all the wear and tear on his body, a resume that shows he entered the NBA the same year teammate Trae Young was born.

Carter has made it to another opening night. The thrill of a new season flows through those creaky ol’ bones. Once again, it all seems worthwhile: the monotonous practices, the tedious film sessions, the long plane flights, the grind of 82 games.

“If I had that old `heck, here we go again’ feeling, then I wouldn’t play,” Carter said Tuesday, having finished up practice with a few extra jumpers. “This is like I’m in my third, fourth, fifth year. I’m excited about the opportunity. I’m excited about playing. I still love playing. I still love competing. I still enjoy the traveling, the ups and downs of the league. That’s what it’s all about. It’s hard to let go.”

The league’s oldest player – Carter is 41 and will turn another year older in January – is back for his 21st season. That puts him on the cusp of some very exclusive company: Robert Parrish, Kevin Willis and Kevin Garnett are the only players to last that long in the NBA (Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki also has a chance to join the 21 Club this year).

Carter is hardly chasing a championship, signing on with a rebuilding Atlanta Hawks team that is years away from having a realistic shot at competing for a title. He’s here to mentor to a bunch of young players and serve as a virtual player-coach on a first-year staff led by Lloyd Pierce.

“When we have our locker room and on-the-bus debates and conversations, he’s on our side,” quipped Pierce, a rookie head coach who is only about eight months older than Carter. “He can relate a little closer to the coaching staff than he can with the players.”

Kent Bazemore, the last holdover from a 60-win team that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2015, lost most of his golfing buddies – including Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver – when the Hawks embarked on a rebuilding plan that send them tumbling to 24-58 last season.

With Carter on the roster, Bazemore again has someone to tee it up with on off days.

“I’ve got a new golfing buddy,” said Bazemore, who at 29 is one of the oldest players on the roster not named Vince Carter. “I’m excited about that. (The younger players) haven’t gotten into it yet.”

As expected, Carter takes some good-natured ribbing from his teammates, a grandpa joke here, an “ain’t it past your bedtime” there.

But all in all, he seems to fit it quite nicely with all these kids.

“We have a lot in common, believe it or not,” Carter said, breaking into a smile. “I make it my business to know what’s going on in the millennial world.”

While expected to fill a largely backup role for the Hawks, Carter will be in the starting lineup when they open the season Wednesday night against the New York Knicks. He’s subbing for power forward John Collins, a first-round pick in 2017 and one of those building blocks for Atlanta’s future, who is sidelined by an ankle injury.

Never mind that Carter is only 6-foot-6 and has spent his entire career at shooting guard and small forward.

Wherever he’s needed, he’s ready to give it a shot.

“I prepare myself in the summer for any situation,” Carter said. “I tell the coach first thing: `I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”‘

Young, the No. 5 overall pick and cornerstone of the Hawks’ makeover, looks forward to gleaning all he can from a player who was once one of the league’s brightest stars, a guy who threw down sick jams and averaged more than 20 points a game in 10 of his first 12 seasons.

Carter’s above-the-rim antics earned him a variety of nicknames – from “Vinsanity” to “Half-Man, Half-Amazing” – and a likely spot one day in the Basketball Hall of Fame, even though he’s never won a championship and there was griping early in his career about whether he was giving it his all.

These days, he’s a respected senior citizen, a player who draws nothing but awe for hanging on as long as he has, even though he’s bounced around to six teams in the past decade and hasn’t been a regular starter since 2012.

“He’s experienced so many things,” Young said. “I can go to him about anything and just ask him questions. He’s a future Hall of Famer. I’m just blessed to be around him and get advice from him.”

Carter hasn’t decided how long this ride will last.

Twenty-one years might be enough.

Then again, if he still feels that same sort of excitement that he’s feeling right now, he might go where no one has gone before in the NBA.

A 22nd season.

“At year 18, 19, I just said I’ll assess how I feel and the situation at the end of each year,” Carter said. “Just because I’m close to a bunch of different accomplishments, I don’t want to change my routine. I’ve had a lot of success doing it this way.”

With that, Carter hustled off to the locker room, the last guy to leave the court.

There was another flight to catch.

Another opening night to get to.