LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and the top 10 players of the 2010s

0 Comments

In 2010 if you took a 28-foot three you were instantly benched and would be lucky to see the court again.

By 2019, that shot is encouraged.

With that change and many others, the popularity of the sport exploded.

That explosion was mostly about the star players — dominant teams led by recognizable faces playing on the league’s biggest stages every year. This is the deepest the league has been in elite talent in a long, long time.

Which makes compiling a list like this a challenge — outstanding players who had amazing decades are left off this list. The biggest among those is Damian Lillard, who had a monster decade — four All-NBA teams, four-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year — but also leaving out Blake Griffin, Giannis Antetokounmpo (maybe player of the next decade), and others was hard.

Here is our list of the top 10 players of the 2010s:

10. Draymond Green

Everyone else on this list was a top 15 pick, a player scouts and GMs recognized coming in with potential. Draymond Green was a second-round pick, a player seen pre-draft as a “tweener” who would have trouble fitting his game into the NBA — it turned out his positional flexibility would help define a decade. His defensive versatility — the ability to switch onto all five positions on the court — was exactly what the Golden State Warriors needed. Also, Green’s emotional leadership glued together the Warriors’ championship defense, and with that their dynasty.

Green is a three-time NBA champion, Defensive Player of the Year, two-time All-NBA, three-time All-Star, and five-time All-Defensive team player this decade.

Why Green over Lillard or Griffin, who put up bigger numbers and were the No. 1 option on a very good Portland/Los Angeles teams this decade? Because 10 years from now, as we enter 2030, if we look back at this decade, what are we going to remember? The championships, the five straight Finals appearances, the way the Warriors changed the game. Green was at the heart of that. Green’s contributions made the Warriors the Warriors, and that impacted the last decade more than just box score numbers.

9. Dwyane Wade

Miami put up two banners in the 2010s, and those don’t happen without Wade being both bold and savvy.

Bold because he recruited LeBron to South Beach, forming the “super team” that ushered in the era of player empowerment. By the end of the decade, the hype around NBA player movement was surpassing that of interest in the games themselves, and Wade was at the forefront of that movement.

Wade was savvy on the court because he was willing to do what he called “one of the hardest things I had to do in sports” and adjusted his game to become the No. 2 option on those Heat teams. He accepted the role of Robin to LeBron’s Batman. It worked. Wade got two more rings and averaged 22.2 points per game in those four years with LeBron, with a 57.5 true shooting percentage, going to the Finals every season.

Wade’s skills faded as the decade wore on, but he was still an 8-time All-Star the past decade. He was at the heart of a team that changed the game, he picked up rings (plural), and for that deserves to be on this list.

8. Anthony Davis

The youngest player on our list — he could be on this countdown for the next decade, too — Davis is a dominant two-way force, a guy who can block shots into the third row in defense and step out to the three-point line on offense. He’s as complete a player as the decade has seen.

Davis toiled in relative anonymity through nearly the entire decade in New Orleans, a franchise that (at least until recently) thought short-term and made moves accordingly. Davis never had the kind of roster around him needed to win (he only made the playoffs twice, in 2018 getting to the second round before running into the Warriors), but fans coaches recognized the talent and made him a six-time All-Star in the decade. In 2019 he was part of the ground-shifting months of player movement that changed the balance of the league, getting traded to the Lakers to team up with LeBron (how that ultimately plays out remains to be seen). Wherever he played, he earned his spot on this list.

7. Chris Paul

The best floor general of the decade — arguably the best game orchestrator in NBA history — and one of the highest IQ players the league has ever seen, Chris Paul spent the last decade carving up defenses like a surgeon.

CP3s teams win — he is second in win shares per 48 minutes during the decade. He started the decade getting the then New Orleans Hornets to the playoffs, but is mostly known for being the lob in the “Lob City” Clippers teams through the heart of the decade. Those teams were among the best in the league through the middle of the decade, but for a variety of reasons never lived up to expectations in the playoffs. We’ll see how the rest of his career plays out, but Paul could eventually go on top of the “greatest player never to win a title” lists.

Paul gets a mixed reaction from fans, some of whom can be frustrated by his flopping and complaining. All of that is a manifestation of his drive to win — CP3 is as intense a competitor as there is in the league. Because of that, and just his understanding of the game, the future Hall of Famer was arguably the best point guard of the decade and earned his spot on this list.

6. Russell Westbrook

Westbrook is an absolutely unstoppable freak athlete who just overwhelmed the NBA for much of the decade. He’s not the technical surgeon that CP3 is, nor is he the efficiency darling of the advanced stats crowd, but what Westbrook did was rack up numbers nobody thought we would ever see again — back-to-back seasons averaging a triple-double

Westbrook came into his own after Durant bolted OKC for the Bay Area. Westbrook re-signed in the small market of Oklahoma City then proceeded to dominate the ball and give the fans there a show like nobody had seen before — 147 triple-doubles during the decade.

What fans in OKC and everywhere appreciated is that nobody played harder than Westbrook — he went out every night not playing like a superstar but like a guy on a 10-day contract trying to keep his job. Westbrook only knew one speed and that was fifth gear, pedal-to-the-metal, all-out.

Westbrook won an MVP award on the first of those back-to-back triple-double seasons, racked up a couple of scoring titles (2015 and 2017) and gave us countless highlights during the decade. There’s not going to be another guard like him because there’s not going to be another athlete like him.

5. Kawhi Leonard

An NBA Finals MVP with two different teams in the same decade is a rare feat, one that requires a special combination of play on both ends of the court — Leonard at his peak is as good a two-way player as the decade saw.

We tend to think back to the 2014 Spurs and picture the last title of the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili era, or to view that team as playing the most beautiful, elevated team basketball the league has ever seen (that’s how I remember them). However, Leonard was the reason Gregg Popovich has a fifth ring. Leonard averaged 23.7 points and 9.3 rebounds a game while shooting 68 percent in the final three games of the series, all while frustrating LeBron at the other end with his defense. Leonard did that at the age of 22, before he even made an All-Star team.

In 2018-19, Leonard brought the word “load management” into the NBA lexicon and showed why it mattered — he rested his quadricep tendon and opposing knee for 22 games during the regular season. Then in the playoffs he dominated — 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds with a 61.9 true shooting percentage, he hit one of the defining shots of the decade and played spectacular defense — leading Toronto to the franchise’s first title.

When healthy, Leonard is as good as anyone in the game, a two-time NBA Champion, a two-time Defensive player of the year, and a three-time All-Star. He helped define the player movement of 2019 and his impact will carry over to the next decade on a few levels.

4. James Harden

At the start of the decade, Harden was the sixth man on a team everyone thought would dominate the decade. By the end of it, he was an unstoppable scoring machine that generated a combination of admiration and frustration across the league. And throughout it all, his beard was spectacular.

James Harden was the Sixth Man of the Year, playing a critical role on a Thunder team that reached the Finals in 2012, with Westbrook and Durant as the stars. By the start of the next season, Harden was traded to Houston because of a ginormous tax bill coming to small market OKC. The Thunder got back Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and a 2013 first-round pick that became Steven Adams; but by 2016 Harden’s Rockets were knocking the Thunder out of the playoffs.

In Houston, Harden developed into the arguably the best scorer the game has ever seen — the perfect analytics player for a modern era, taking and hitting efficient shots. His ability to hit a step-back three, or drive the lane and draw a foul, put defenders in an almost impossible position as Harden racked up a couple of scoring titles (and is on his way to a third). He also won an MVP and has been a perennial candidate for the award in the second half of the decade.

Not all fans love his style of play, but he’s unquestionably become one of the game’s greats, an offensive machine for which there is no good answer. He will be one of the players that defined the decade.

3. Kevin Durant

We tend to forget sometimes that Durant is as good a scorer as the game has seen, with his 7-foot frame, high release and accuracy well beyond the three-point line, he’s nearly impossible to defend. Starting with the 2010 season, Durant won four scoring titles in five seasons while playing in Oklahoma City, and picked up an MVP trophy along the way.

However, he wasn’t winning and he wasn’t happy, which led to one of the big franchise-changing moments of the decade — Durant bolting OKC for Golden State, forming a “super team” as good as any the game had seen. Durant became a villain in the eyes of some for doing what those same people always say they want players to do — prioritize winning over personal glory — and it ate at him a little, but he kept winning.

On the court, Durant became the guy the Warriors needed in the final couple rounds of the playoffs. That’s when defenses could shut down favorite plays and force teams away from their preferred options, but the Warriors got the ball to Durant and he took over. Durant picked up two titles and two Finals MVP, rounding out his resume.

Durant left the West Coast for Brooklyn at the end of the decade but has yet to set foot on the court for the Nets because of a torn Achilles. How he recovers from that will help define the start of the next decade.

But he was a force in this one.

2. Stephen Curry

Curry unquestionably has an eye-popping resume during this decade — three NBA titles, two MVP awards, a scoring title, and being a six-time All-Star.

None of that is what lands Curry this high on our best of the decade list — he’s here because he changed how the game is played.

His shooting range, his handles, his gravity to pull defenders to him spaced out the floor and defenses in a way nobody had ever seen before. Curry changed the geometry of the NBA and spawned imitators everywhere from the point guard in Atlanta to playgrounds and driveways of New York. And San Diego. And everywhere in between. Curry changed the idea of what was a good shot in the NBA, and with that changed the game.

Curry also was the driving force behind the culture in Golden State that led to the most dominant team of the decade — three titles and five straight Finals appearances. Curry practiced and played a selfless attitude that inspired teammates to do the same, willingly giving up good looks for great. The joy the Warriors played with sprang from the fountain of love for the game Curry embodied. The Warriors were fun to watch because Curry was fun to watch.

Injuries and roster changes had the Warriors ending the decade on a down note, but nobody sane is counting Curry out in the future. He had defied expectations from Davidson until now, and that’s one thing he will not change.

1. LeBron James

This decade was the peak of a Mount Rushmore NBA player — the man went to eight straight NBA Finals, at times carrying teams that otherwise had no business on that stage to those lofty heights. He also scored more points in the decade than any other player, had brilliant assists, and made timely defensive plays. LeBron can do anything on a basketball court.

LeBron defined the game off-the-court as well. His “Decision” to join Miami sparked the player empowerment era that nearly a decade later led to the NBA’s wildest offseason ever in 2019 (including Anthony Davis coming to join him). LeBron picked up two rings and two Finals MVPs in Miami, but he also came of age there in terms of learning what it takes to win, not just from himself but an organization.

LeBron then sealed his legacy by returning to Cleveland and leading it to a franchise-defining —and region defining — NBA title.

LeBron is finishing out the decade (and likely his career) trying to add to his legacy by adding to the storied Lakers history, but he also is there to grow his brand — something other players look up to LeBron for. He’s the greatest player of a generation — three MVPs in this decade, too — but he has parlayed that into a business empire that reaches well off the court and sports and into the world of entertainment (that includes Space Jam 2, coming soon to a theater near you). LeBron used some of that money to open a school to help the underserved in his hometown of Akron. LeBron became more than just a player, he did it on his own terms with his own people, and other players want to emulate that as much as his on-court exploits.

LeBron was the best player of the decade. No doubt. He’s one of the greatest ever to play the game, and we need to savor watching him play and look back in amazement at what he did this decade. Because there will not ever be another one.

Report: Mavericks have no interest in Irving sign-and-trade with Lakers that brings back Russell

Celebrities At The Los Angeles Lakers Game
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
0 Comments

Kyrie Irving may say he doesn’t want to be in the middle of NBA free agency speculation, but when he sits courtside in Los Angeles at a couple of Lakers’ playoff games he has to know that will spark talk.

LeBron James has sent his not-so-subtle message he wants more help, and the rumors he’s open to a reunion with Irving are nothing new. All of that has driven a lot of speculation in recent weeks of a Lakers’ sign-and-trade to reunite the core of the Cavaliers’ 2016 title team. While Irving is a free agent, the Lakers have made clear they intend to re-sign Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura as restricted free agents, making signing Irving directly off the table (unless he wants to take a massive pay cut and play for the midlevel exception, which his actions indicate he does not). If Irving comes to the Lakers, it’s on a sign-and-trade.

Then who goes back to Dallas in this trade? The speculation centered on free agent D'Angelo Russell signing and trading to play next to Luka Dončić. However, the Mavericks have no interest in that, reports Marc Stein in his latest newsletter.

A popular topic all week, in the wake of Denver sweeping the Lakers out of the Western Conference finals, was the notion that L.A. could emerge as a potential sign-and-trade destination for Dallas’ free agent-to-be Kyrie Irving.

While we await a clear indication about the Lakers’ intentions there, with no verifiable signal to date that pursuing Irving is among their offseason priorities, league sources say that the Mavericks would have no interest in a sign-and-trade with the Lakers that features D’Angelo Russell as the primary Dallas-bound player. All indications are that the Mavericks remain intent on re-signing Irving

While the questions of fit between Dončić and Irving remain, when the Mavericks traded for Irving they committed to this path, both financially and on the court. If Irving walks in free agency Dallas has no way to replace him, and they are better off with him than without him. Irving is a much better player than Russell and with Dončić on the roster the Mavericks are a win-now team. Their preference is clear.

As for Irving, he wants to get paid (remember he opted in with the Nets rather than leave to play for less, then pushed for a trade when Brooklyn would not give him the extension he wanted). There is logic for both Dallas and Irving to work out a new contract and, if this marriage doesn’t work out, trade him down the line. The only questions are money, years, and does Irving really want to be in Dallas (he has said he does).

League sources have told NBC Sports that the Lakers’ front office’s primary focus is not on Irving. While the Lakers could clear as much as almost $30 million in cap space, free agency is not the path the Lakers appear to be walking. Re-signing Reaves and Hachimura and putting them next to LeBron and Anthony Davis — both of the Lakers stars make more than $40 million next season — plus rounding out the roster has the Lakers quickly pushing above the cap and into the tax, and the second tax apron is within sight. The Lakers are more likely to make moves like picking up the $16.5 million team option on Malik Beasley and trading him and or other players for the shot creation and shooting they want. A Russell sign-and-trade is certainly in play, or they could bring him back, just not on anything near the max Russell likely wants (more likely a deal starting around $20 million a year). Russell was good for the Lakers in the regular season and had a 31-point playoff game to close out the Grizzlies, plus a 21-point game against the Warriors, he just was in a bad matchup against Denver.

Irving to the Lakers is a long shot. But if LeBron wants it, and Irving wants it, nothing is off the table.

Reactions from NBA players to White’s game-winning putback for Celtics

0 Comments

It was an all-time classic game, one that could be part of a legendary chapter in Celtics’ lore. Boston was on the verge of being sent home for the summer by the Miami Heat when Derrick White‘s putback as time expired won the Celtics Game 6 and forced a Game 7 Monday night.

NBA players were as stunned and excited as fans everywhere. Check out the reactions from players around the league — and a few others — to the Celtics’ dramatic win.

Three takeaways from wild night where Celtics force Game 7 thanks to Derrick White

0 Comments

You were not alone in being stunned, blown away or whatever other description you can conjure up for the finish to Game 6. Look at the reaction from around the NBA.

The Celtics won 104-103 on a dramatic putback from Derrick White to force a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday.

Here are three takeaways from the game.

1) What. An. Ending.

When was the last time any of us saw a game this entertaining, this dramatic? Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, highlighted by the LeBron James chase-down block on Andre Iguodala? Game 7 of the 2019 second-round series between the Raptors and 76ers, the one with Kawhi Leonard‘s corner shot that bounced around on the rim three times before falling? There are others on the list, but whatever game you choose, this one enters the conversation of all-time greats.

On a night where they struggled from 3 — 7-of-35 for the game — the Celtics were still up 10 midway through the fourth quarter and seemingly in control. Then Boston gave it all away, slowing the pace down and not executing — or Miami seized the moment, depending on your perspective. While the Celtics got tight and struggled with their shot in those final five minutes, the Heat went on a late 15-4 run sparked primarily by Jimmy Butler (15 points in the fourth) and Duncan Robinson, with Miami attacking and pushing the pace, drawing fouls and getting to the line. It was a stunning turnaround.

Those drawing fouls included Butler drawing a three-shot foul on Al Horford with :03 seconds remaining. Butler drained all three free throws to put the Heat up one. Boston called a timeout to set up the final play, which didn’t go to plan — Marcus Smart took a turnaround 3 — but worked out thanks to Derrick White.

“I was passing it in. [Gabe] Vincent was on me, and he kind of was up top denying [Jayson Tatum], so I couldn’t get him the ball,” White said of the play. “And they did a good job of denying [Jaylen Brown], too and [Marcus] Smart flashed, hit him, and there really was nobody on me, so I just spaced to the corner, and when he shot it just tried to crash. Ball came to me, I made the shot.”

If Boston wins Game 7, White’s putback will be remembered in Boston sports lore like Dave Roberts stealing second for the Red Sox in their legendary 0-3 comeback against the Yankees. It was that kind of moment, that kind of play which capped off the wildest of nights.

2) The Heat will need more from Butler, Adebayo in Game 7

This was almost a culture win for the Heat. They were going to win because their role players stepped up — Caleb Martin (starting over Kevin Love) was the Heat’s best player on the night scoring 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting with 15 rebounds. Gabe Vincent returned from his sprained ankle to score 15, Duncan Robinson had 13 off the bench, and Max Strus added 10.

All of that made up for the fact Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo were not good enough for the first 43 minutes of this game. The two Heat stars shot a combined 7-of-35 up until that late run where Butler got a 3 to fall and got to the line a few times. It was almost enough, but the Heat need Butler to set a better tone in Game 7.

“Like I told the guys on the bench, I told the guys in the locker room, that if I play better, we’re not even in this position, honestly speaking,” Butler said. “And I will be better. That’s what makes me smile, because those guys follow my lead. So when I’m playing better, I think we’re playing better as a whole.”

“Jimmy leads with everything — his spirit, his soul, his competitive nature,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler pregame. “It’s all out there on his sleeves. That’s what we love about him.”

Butler looks a little tired and a little less explosive, but give the Celtics’ defense credit, they have packed the paint and cut off Butler’s drives, and their length clearly bothers his shot inside. Joe Mazzulla, who drew the wrath of Celtics fans early in this series, deserved credit for his adjustments.

Butler and Adebayo have to rise above them in Game 7. Caleb Martin can not again be the best Heat player on the floor. Spoelstra is right, everything with the Heat starts with Butler and he has to summon up one more elite game.

3) Jayson Tatum owned the first half as Celtics’ best players stepped up

While Miami’s best players struggled, Boston’s best players stepped up.

At the front of that line was Jayson Tatum, who 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting with two assists in the first half. While he wouldn’t score in the second half until some free throws midway through the fourth, Tatum hit some clutch shots down the stretch and finished with 31.

Jaylen Brown added 26 points despite battling foul trouble all night, and Marcus Smart finished with 21.

All of that made up for a dreadful night shooting from 3, the Celtics were 7-of-35 on the night. Shoot 20% from 3 in Game 7 and they will lose, that Boston got away with a win on an off-shooting night like that is lucky.

However, their stars are used to stepping up in elimination games, they have just done it three times in a row, and they did it in Game 7 against these same Heat a year ago. Do Boston’s stars have one more great game in them?

 

Watch Derrick White putback force Game 7 as Celtics edge Heat

0 Comments

What. A. Game.

In the best game of these playoffs — as good as one in any postseason — it looked like the Miami Heat were going to get a culture win on a night their star Jimmy Butler was off his game until the final minutes. Three Butler free throws with :03 remaining put the Heat up by one, but the Celtics got one last chance. Marcus Smart short-armed that chance, but Derrick White was hustling along the baseline.

Miami gets the 104-103 win to even the series 3-3 and force a Memorial Day Game 7 back in Boston.

This was the kind of ugly, gritty game the Celtics tend to give away. They were certainly not at their peak in this one, shooting 7-of-35 from 3 as a team — usually a stat that leads to a loss for this Celtics team, which leans into the 3-pointer.

What saved them was a brilliant first half from Jayson Tatum, some solid play from Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart in the second half, and an off night at the worst time for the Heat stars.

The first half was the Tatum show as he scored 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting, with 11 free throws and a couple of assists. He was attacking and aggressive, and the rest of the Celtics offense flowed off that and they got the lead up to 11.

However, the Heat closed that lead down to four at the half, 57-53, thanks largely to 9-of-15 shooting from 3.

This was almost a culture win for the Heat. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo were not the stars the Heat needed — they shot a combined 7-of-35 until the final minutes of the game — but the Miami role players stepped up. Caleb Martin got the start over Kevin Love and was the Heat’s best player on the night with 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting plus 15 rebounds. Gabe Vincent returned from his sprained ankle to score 15, Duncan Robinson had 13 off the bench, and Max Strus added 10.

With their stars off their game the Heat struggled to score in the third, starting the quarter shooting 5-of-24 (20.8%), yet by the time the quarter was over the Heat were still only down seven. Miami was hanging around in a game they should have been blown out of.

That’s because the Celtics shot 5-of-25 from 3 through 3 quarters, plus Boston had 11 turnovers through three (compared to four for the Heat).

Tatum finished with 31 points to lead Boston, Jaylen Brown had 26 despite battling foul trouble all night, and Marcus Smart added 21.

Boston had a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter but gave it away with missed shots and sloppy play under pressure. Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler hit a big 3-pointer, kept attacking, and got to the free throw line with the chance to put his team ahead in the final seconds. And did. It looked like a classic, gutty, Heat culture win.

And then Derrick White happened.

And now there is a Game 7.