Written by: Jordan Vitkauskas
The end of another decade in the NBA is almost here. We’ve seen a lifetime’s worth of noteworthy memories in the last 10 seasons, including the Miami Heat big three, a title finally brought to the city of Cleveland and a seemingly unstoppable Warriors dynasty. We also saw the beginning of true player empowerment, franchise-altering trades (see – James Harden) and the introduction to load management. It’s truly been a whirlwind decade that will go down as one of the most influential in NBA history. With less than a month before 2020 begins, we’re taking a look back at some of the best moments, players and teams from the 2010s.
*For statistical purposes, all stats are from the 2009-10 season through the end of the 2018-19 season.
Honorable Mentions: What if Kobe doesn’t tear his Achilles at the end of the 2012-13 season? What if Kyrie Irving AND Kevin Love don’t get hurt in the 2015 playoffs…What if the Miami Heat Big 3 never happens… What if Derrick Rose’s knees don’t betray him?
What if the Wolves draft Steph Curry?
The short term: It’s still baffling that Minnesota had BACK-TO-BACK picks – nos. 6 and 7 – and not only didn’t draft Curry (a star in college albeit with some concerns about playing at the NBA level) but took two point guards in Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn. How are GM’s that incompetent? Rubio was defensible, given his status as a prodigy over in Spain, along with his wizard-like passing abilities showcased in the 2008 Olympics. Flynn was a solid guard for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, but wasn’t a great shooter and relied strictly on speed to get past defenders and score. He was also severely undersized heading into the NBA, generously listed at 6’0”, and struggled from the get-go, posting a negative OBPM and DBPM* in the three seasons he played.
Meanwhile, Curry had risen to must-see status by his junior year at Davidson, with NBA talents like LeBron James coming to watch his games. He was a prolific shooter from anywhere inside of halfcourt, and despite his slender frame could slither into the lane and get whatever shot he wanted. For anyone on the fence about Curry heading into the 2008 NCAA tournament, the doubt was put away after the famed Wisconsin game (Curry did not get to participate in the ’09 tourney as Davidson failed to win its’ league title)…
The long term: I think we all know the long term. Golden State got their golden boy in Curry, who proved right away he could handle the ball and score at the NBA level (two legitimate questions about him before the draft). The only black mark was the concern about his ankles, which cost him all but 26 games of his third season. Curry had surgery and learned to run differently during recovery while signing what turned out to be a bargain 4 year/$44 million extension heading into the 2013-14 season. What followed was two MVP’s, arguably the best offensive season ever, three titles and a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame career.
The Warriors won this one in every way possible, and it swung several titles and Finals throughout the decade. A lesson to all GM’s who are drafting – if you’re stuck between a good but undersized point guard who’s not a good shooter, and a guy who absolutely electrified college basketball with star potential for almost three full seasons, take option two.
What if the Thunder never trade James Harden?
The short term: It would have kept the core of Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant together for the next 3-5 seasons, with all of them being under the age of 25. The Thunder had just made their first Finals in Oklahoma City, losing a closer-than-it-appeared series, 4-1, to the Miami Heat. Even with the loss, the league had been put on notice, as OKC had defeated the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers and Tim Duncan’s Spurs en route to the Finals appearance. The pieces that OKC got back (Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two firsts that became Steven Adams and Mitch McGary) never equaled what was given up in Harden, who has averaged 30/7/6 since moving to Houston.
The long term: The Thunder haven’t made the Finals since, and won’t anytime soon. They’ve lost all four core members of that famed roster, and are best known for blowing a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in 2016 (another big what-if we’ll get to in a minute), before seeing Kevin Durant bolt for greener pastures with Golden State. From 2013-2016, the Thunder were one of the 3-5 best teams in the league but always seemed to have an untimely injury or shooting slump hold them back in the playoffs, where a third playmaker would have helped tremendously. We should’ve seen 1-3 titles and got to watch three guys who genuinely enjoyed playing with each other. We were robbed. All because of about $5 million.
What if Ray Allen doesn’t hit the tying three-pointer during game Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals?
The short term: Kept the Miami Heat alive in what was an otherwise legacy-altering loss for LeBron James. It had been a wild series of blowout wins, great defensive plays and some stellar three-point shooting by Danny Green. For James, the loss would’ve been his third in four Finals appearances, and while his overall numbers during game six were good (32 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists), his last few minutes leading up to the Allen shot were atrocious. From the 5:28 mark until just under 21 seconds, James went 1-of-3 from the field (0-1 3PT) 1-of-2 from the foul line, and committed three turnovers, while the Heat’s 82-82 lead turned into a 94-89 deficit. With fans heading for the exits, he nailed a three to bring it to within two points.
Following Kawhi Leonard’s 1-of-2 trip to the foul line (and Greg Popovich curiously deciding not to put Tim Duncan in the game for rebounding), James missed another three but was bailed out when Bosh grabbed the rebound and passed to Ray Allen who tip-toed the corner line to nail the game-tying three-pointer. You know the rest – the Heat won a tight game seven to become the first team to repeat as champs since the 2009-10 Lakers, while James was named Finals MVP after a 37-point, 12-rebound and 4-assist performance.
The long term: It kept the Heat core together, as trade rumors for Bosh had been circulating since the 2011 Finals. Miami would make the Finals in 2014 for the fourth consecutive year, where they would meet the Spurs once again. Another ripple of the 2013 series was how the shot and subsequent loss affected the Spurs. They were crushed, but came together for a revenge tour in 2014, culminating in one of the best Finals performances ever in a 4-1 win over the Heat. Does San Antonio play repeat in 2014 if Allen misses? Does Miami instead take the title, thus potentially keeping James in town for another year or two? Does a team like the Thunder or even the Pacers make the Finals instead? There were a lot of interesting subplots to the Allen shot, and it truly took all the stars aligning for it to happen.
What if the Thunder win Game 6 of 2016 WCF?
The short term: Allowed the Warriors to complete the comeback from down 3-1 in the series and advance to their third consecutive Finals, before blowing their own 3-1 lead to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Also known as the Klay Thompson game, he and Curry combined for 72 points and 11 made three-pointers to help force a seventh game back at Oracle Arena, where Golden State would triumph.
Upon reaching the Finals, they went up 3-1 against James before a Draymond Green suspension changed the entire dynamic of the series, giving Cleveland momentum to fight back and ultimately win the title. It seemed that Golden State had used up all their bullets clawing back against Durant and Westbrook, as they looked out of gas in the final three games.
The long term: The simple answer- OKC possibly wins the title and Kevin Durant never leaves for Golden State. Draymond Green called Durant just hours after the Finals ended and started the process of recruiting him, but that’s not happening if Durant was able to secure that first title that he coveted so badly. That’s altering three consecutive Finals from 2017-2019. Cleveland now has a chance to repeat as champions in 2017,
Taking it a step further, let’s say the Warriors don’t use their cap money on Durant. Say they re-sign Harrison Barnes and also bolster the center position. Maybe Zaza Pachulia isn’t starting for them (or even on the team) and doesn’t leave his foot under Kawhi Leonard (26/8/3 on 54% shooting to that point) in game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, rendering the Klaw out for the series. The Spurs possibly win and compete for their sixth title since 1999.
What if David Stern doesn’t Veto the Chris Paul to LA trade
The short term: Still baffling to anyone not named David Stern, the commissioner at the vetoed the trade for “basketball reasons”, not allowing two of the six best players in the league (Paul, Bryant) to share a backcourt for at least a Presidential term. Additionally, the nixed trade crippled Lamar Odom’s (reigning Sixth Man of the Year) relationship with the Lakers front office, as he then asked for a trade on his own. Los Angeles dealt him, to the dismay of players like Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, to Dallas for nothing more than a player exception and protected first-round pick. Odom would never play a vital role for a team again, as his career (and personal life) spiraled downward.
The long term: Directly affected Los Angeles’s title aspirations for the next few seasons, as they ended up trading for Steve Nash, who was past his prime and played only 65 games in two seasons due to injuries. It was especially critical in 2012-13 when, after Nash going down with a leg injury, Bryant had to play heavy minutes in order to keep the team alive during the playoff push (43 mpg over his final 11 contests), eventually resulting in his torn Achilles against the Warriors.
More importantly, it robbed fans of seeing two of the game’s best seven players from sharing a backcourt for at least 3-4 seasons. Experts question how it may have worked, given each was a ball-dominant player, but given the respect they had for one another, there’s little doubt it could have worked. Assuming the Lakers still made the trade for Dwight Howard (and there’s every indication they would’ve), Los Angeles was all but guaranteed 1-2 Finals trips, including what could have been a tantalizing matchup with LeBron James and the Miami Heat in either 2012, 2013 or 2014. The legacy of CP3 could’ve been elevated and Bryant could possibly have gotten that elusive sixth championship to match Michael Jordan.
*Feature image courtesy of The Score.
*All stats are from Basketball-Reference, ESPN.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
*All statistics are updated as of 12/30/2019
*All video highlights are courtesy of YouTube.
*Shooting splits (i.e. 44/40/37) are in order of FG%/3PT%/FT%.