Let’s close the decade with a look ahead, a look back and the requisite All-Decade team.
As the NBA moves into the 20’s, the first challenge that lies ahead for the NBA is what to make of the immensely popular league’s decline in television ratings. Despite the billions the league is receiving from the two major networks — ESPN and TNT — what Adam Silver and the owners have to figure out is what the next lucrative frontier will be when it comes to showcasing its league.
The next question is, of course, which star will lead them into this new world?
LeBron James just turned 35. While he is still among the game’s best players as the new decade opens, it fairly certain he’ll be long retired when this decade ends. Just as the league went through a transition from Michael Jordan — with Kobe Bryant providing some cover — to the arrival of LeBron as a megastar by 2010, waiting for a player with the talent, durability and, most of all, magnetism to match that of Jordan and LeBron isn’t as easy as just pointing to the next great player.
James Harden doesn’t have the universal appeal. Kawhi Leonard is too awkward and shy. Steph Curry is on the other side of 30. Giannis Antetokounmpo has a breathtaking game and a marketable smile, but it’s hard to picture him having transcendent commercial appeal. Joel Embiid is no Shaq. Luka Doncic is no Larry Bird.
Some of the league’s staunchest defenders will claim the NBA doesn’t need another Jordan or LeBron to remain successful and that may be true. But the game will then need rivalries and that means you need parity. You turn off too many fans if the same teams, with the same mildly appealing stars, are playing for the championship.
What we know is the 2020s will see perhaps the most dramatic change to the game since the dawn of the three-point shot or the elimination of the hand-check. The Board of Governors is expected to pass in April proposals that will see the NBA season shortened to 78 games and include a soccer-style in-season tournament.
There may also be a “wild card” type play-in series for the final two playoff spots in each conference, which would keep teams in the hunt for the postseason a lot deeper into the season.
Less games, but more at stake. This could be a good thing for a league where fans find themselves rooting for losses because of the inflated value of lottery positioning. Let this be the decade where we put value back into winning.
This will also be the decade where the one-and-done era ends and the league goes back to drafting high school stars right to the pro level. But unlike the 1990s, they’re more prepared for it with a thriving G-League system that provides a development level with a proven track record.
Perhaps this will also be the decade of the female coach? Over the last few seasons, we’re seeing more teams hiring women to their coaching and basketball operations staff. Spurs assistant Becky Hammon is now being mentioned as someone who should be interviewed for a head coaching vacancy. Perhaps when Gregg Popovich decides to retire, Hammon will be the heir apparent.
This may also be the decade that sees the return of the major markets. Star players are looking back to the big cities to raise their status (Anthony Davis), re-establish roots (Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Kyrie Irving) and set up their business affairs (LeBron James and Kevin Durant). Could it also be time for the East to build itself back up after years of lacking the star-power of the Western Conference?
With established stars and teams in the West (Lakers, Clippers, Rockets and, by next year, Warriors), there could be some young stars in smaller market teams that may look to move East to get more opportunities to get to the NBA Finals.
One more thought: will this be the decade where father and son take the court together for the first time in league history? LeBron’s son, who the world is already getting to know as a scholastic star by the nickname “Bronny”, will be draft eligible in 2022.
From “The Chosen One” to “The Next One”. Only in the NBA.
So how will we remember the 2010s? It was the decade where the players emerged no longer as just beloved stars and characters in a story written by the front office, but rather partners in the game who sought more control — and used their fame and social media appeal to get it. It was a decade that saw the torch passed from David Stern, who raised the NBA out of the ashes of the 1970s into a marketing success thanks to the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, to Adam Silver, who encouraged star players to take ownership in the game and invited their input into the business.
It also saw its players evolve into socially conscious leaders who spoke out about injustices, went into the community not just to sell sneakers, but make a difference. The NBA encouraged all of this, too, until Rockets GM Daryl Morey was embroiled in a political controversy with China, which is a lucrative market for the league and its players. That incident suggested the league and the players were all about social consciousness as long as it didn’t impact the bottom line.
This was the decade of LeBron, who turned free agency into the frenzy of the college recruiting circuit and had teams scrambling to dump contracts for cap space just for a chance at the quick-fix rebuild. But it was also the decade of The Process, thanks to Sam Hinkie and the idea that losing — lots of losing — can eventually lead to winning.
Hinkie convinced the Philadelphia 76ers, and, more importantly, the fan base, that season-after-season of perpetual losing was all part of the plan. Through the middle of the decade, Sixers collected lottery picks while they lost 200 of 246 games in a three year span and came away with two stars, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, which helped them become what they are today as the decade ends: uh, a playoff team?
This was also the decade of the flop, the lob and the three-point shot, the latter being the most notable addition to the game. Consider that when the decade began, the league average for three-pointers attempted per game by a team was 18. This season, it’s 33.8.
Now consider that in 2010, team’s attempted six more free throws per game on average than threes. Now they take 10 more threes per game than free throws.
It saw the end of the post-up era and the widespread use of small-ball and “positionless” basketball. Power Forwards were now called Stretch Fours. Point Guards became Combo Guards. Twos and Threes became “wings”.
And centers were repackaged like the way the minivan became and SUV. By the end of the era, it was less about taking up space (DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert) and more about creating space (Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and even Brook Lopez).
The game got faster, more about efficiency and saw a return to 1980s-type scoring. The game also lost rivalries due to rampant player movement and the emergence of postgame player hugs, smiles and exchanges of jerseys and sneakers.
This was the era where trash talking still existed, but game recognized game. Only fans harbored true passion against historic rivals. Players didn’t buy into that kind of tradition the same way.
But they did buy into “load management” and no one was happy about that.
It was a decade of growth, evolution and notable change. But now here’s the question: was it all for the better?
OK, so the All-Decade team seems easy enough to choose. There were 29 players who scored over 10,000 points in the 2010s and one player flirted with 20,000. Do you even need more than one guess? (Don’t worry, we’ll reveal it to you shortly.
We’re basing this team on the merit of individual success, which, I know, goes against the narrative that was developed in the ‘10s that insisted all greatness be judged on the scale of RINGZZZ.
All of the players on this All-Decade team played in at least one NBA Final and three have won multiple championships in the decade. You can certainly make your arguments to me via social media, but when I tell you the criteria was strictly individual success, it’s hard to argue with this five-man group.
So here goes:
2010 NBA All-Decade Team
Guard: Steph Curry, Warriors
No-brainer. Started the decade with questions about his size and durability with Warriors fans booing their new ownership for trading away Monta Ellis and giving Curry a big contract extension. Ended with him as a two-time MVP, three-time champion and one of the greatest shooters in the history of the game. His shooting slash-line for the 2010s is a tough standard to maintain: 48 FG/44 3P/91 FT. He also changed the game with his unlimited range, which forced defenders to go beyond the three-point arc and spawned a generation of shooters who weren’t shy to let it fly from way downtown.
Guard: James Harden, Thunder/Rockets.
Yes, I know he has come up small in a big spot with a resume of regular season stat-padding in the boxscore-stuffing D’Antoni system that makes the purists clench their fists like an Arthur meme. But when someone scores 19,500 points in 10 years (from Jan. 1, 2010 of his rookie year leading into his final game of the ‘10s on Tuesday against the Nuggets) you have to acknowledge that kind of production. No one scored more points in the 2010s than Harden. No ringzzz, we know, but he went from castaway third option in OKC to superstar in Houston. He also perfected the step-back and introduced the side-step three to the league while also confounding defenders and officials with his uncanny ability to draw fouls. Oh and, yeah, the flop, too.
Forward: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs, Raptors, Clippers
The overall total stats don’t measure up to the other players who dominated this decade, but Kawhi’s achievements are a trophy case of accolades that outshine gaudy numbers. And let’s also keep in mind he played in a team concept system in San Antonio and sat out all but nine games in 2017-18 before forcing his trade away from Gregg Popovich. And that’s when he accomplished one of the greatest feats of the decade, perhaps only second to LeBron winning a title in Cleveland, by bringing an NBA championship to Toronto. Overall, Kawhi won two championships with two different franchises, earned two Finals MVPs, one MVP and two Defensive Player of the Year honors in the decade. Not bad for the 15th overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Forward: Kevin Durant, Thunder, Warriors, Nets
The most enjoyable player to watch in the game, in my opinion. Durant plays with such an effortless, classic flow, like Rakim on the mic. He’s a Jedi Master when it comes to scoring and that’s why he won four scoring titles in the decade and despite playing almost 80 fewer games — basically an entire season — he is only just over 200 points shy of Harden for most points scored in the decade. Criticized for ring-chasing by going to Golden State to win his two titles and earn his two Finals MVPs, KD was simply an example of the player empowerment we saw, as stars took matters into their own hands. KD went where he wanted to go, not where everyone expected him to go (that includes Brooklyn). Delivered one of the trademark lines of the decade when he dedicated his 2014 MVP to his mother, Wanda, by saying “You the real MVP.” Also never afraid to enjoy his own performance in the midst of a hot streak by saying things like, “I’m nice” as he’s lighting up helpless defenders. Only thing you can really call him out for is agreeing to make that movie “Thunder Struck” in 2012.
Forward: LeBron James, Cavaliers, Heat, Cavaliers, Lakers
When he uttered those famous words — “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” — in July of 2010, the NBA was changed forever. You rarely before saw a superstar of his caliber use free agency the way LeBron did that summer and it created a new era of superteams; one built not by the team but by the players. But LeBron’s impact on the decade goes way beyond his anti-Bird/Magic/Jordan franchise loyalty. He also dominated the game with three of his four MVPs, three championships and the epic title that ended Cleveland’s generation-long run as a sad-sack sports city. It’s also worth noting only Harden scored more points in the decade while only three others — Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and John Wall — recorded more assists. LeBron also spent most of the decade in the NBA Finals, with 8 straight appearances with the Heat and Cavs. He enters the next decade as one of the oldest players in the league and yet still very much at the top among the game’s greats. The 2010s were for LeBron what the 2000s were for Kobe Bryant, the 1990s were for Michael Jordan and the 1980s were for Magic and Bird. All that’s left is to argue if his was the greatest career in NBA history.
So did we leave anyone out? Would you replace anyone on this list with someone else? Hit me up on Twitter (@alanhahn), Instagram (@ahahnmsg) or Facebook (@KnicksFix) and let me know.