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.Follow @basketballtalk