Top 10 NBA storylines from 2017
OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 12: Kevin Durant #35 and Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors celebrate after winning the 2017 NBA Finals on June 12, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst
Finally got to see “The Last Jedi” on Saturday.
Regular movie attendance is a hazard of aging (you stay home more when you’re married), of being a parent, of a job that often requires working weekends. I haven’t seen any of the last six or seven movies that won Best Picture at the Oscars.
So, seeing Luke Skywalker and the gang on the last weekend of 2017 was a rare treat, and a reminder of how quickly the past 12 months went by. Time is so ephemeral, and moments that seem so large at the time can quickly be swamped and forgotten with the advent of the next big thing.
That’s why it’s important to stop and reflect on what’s just happened, so we don’t forget the lessons learned in the moment and don’t repeat the mistakes we’ve made.
The NBA’s big moments of 2017 stretched from coast to coast, inspiring and challenging both those who participated in them and those who witnessed them. They impacted the league’s elite teams and its also-rans, and like the silver screen, created heroes and villains, winners and losers, as we got our figurative popcorn ready to watch the show.
Here then are the top 10 NBA stories of 2017, introduced by some of my all-time favorite films:
David Griffin, the very successful general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, enters 2017 in the final year of his contract -- and, understandably, would like to be paid commensurate with what the top GMs in the league get paid. The Cavaliers resist, and who knows why -- the already huge outlay for salaries? The sense that anyone could successfully manage a team built around LeBron James? Nor do they give Griffin permission to interview with the Orlando Magic or Atlanta Hawks, each of whom seek it.
By the end of June, after The Finals, Griffin is hard at work trying to put together potential deals to bring either Jimmy Butler or Paul George to Cleveland to play with James next season, and there is at least some traction on a three-team deal that would have sent Butler to the Cavs and Kevin Love to the Denver Nuggets. But all potential Griffin-driven deals are silenced June 19, when Griffin and the team announce that after a final discussion with owner Dan Gilbert about his future, they’ll part ways at the end of the month.
The decision throws one of the league’s top two franchises into chaos, leaving it without the guy who brought Love from Minnesota, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from New York and Kyle Korver from Atlanta. Griffin also elevated Tyronn Lue from assistant coach to coach in 2016, replacing David Blatt -- who’d led the Cavs to The Finals in 2015. The move was roasted at the time; Lue and James and Griffin had the last word six months later, with the first championship parade for a major sports team in Cleveland since 1964. The Cavs stayed in-house for their replacement, elevating assistant GM Koby Altman to the full-time GM gig.
You thought Darth Vader and Luke had a complicated relationship? Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ controlling owner and president, goes hard in February to restructure the team’s front office following years of questionable personnel decisions and coaching hires. She fires her brother, Jimmy, the former executive vice president and primary decision maker for on-court basketball decisions, as well as longtime General Manager Mitch Kupchak, replacing them, respectively, with Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and high-profile player agent Rob Pelinka. (The team also dismisses longtime PR head John Black.)
The moves aligned with what the Buss family’s patriarch and the team’s longtime owner, the late Dr. Jerry Buss, clearly wanted after his death -- for Jeanie to run the team after he was gone. The massive changes tie Jeanie and Magic, with whom she had grown close while he was the franchise’s supernova player, as the team’s chief decision makers going forward, as the Lakers try desperately to accelerate their rebuild in the post-Kobe Bryant era.
Phil Jackson’s unfulfilling stint as president of the Knicks comes to a sudden end after three years in June, just after Jackson takes French point guard Frank Ntilikina No. 8 overall in the 2017 Draft. Jackson’s reign was not a total bust -- he took Kristaps Porzingis fourth overall in the 2015, to the consternation of the always-consternated fan base, but Jackson was proven right about the 7-foot Latvian’s immense offensive potential. And New York did bring in decent role players during Jackson’s term like Kyle O’Quinn and Willy Hernangomez.
Yet Jackson was never able to get his team to embrace the triangle offense he insisted could still work in the NBA, in part because he was no longer physically able to coach. He tried to instill it through a sort of osmosis, even though his coaches -- including the last one he hired, Jeff Hornacek -- clearly wanted to play a different style. Jackson was known to come down during practices to show players the finer points of the triangle -- not the best look for the actual coach of the team at the time.
And Jackson’s once-strong relationship with Carmelo Anthony also frayed, as he began saying publicly that trading Anthony would be in the best interests of the franchise -- which was true. But Jackson’s odd tack of pointing out Anthony’s shortcomings as an aging superstar did nothing to help his leverage in trade talks, or to get Anthony to waive the no-trade clause that Jackson had inexplicably given him when the Knicks re-signed Anthony to a five-year, $128 million deal in 2014. Porzingis was so befuddled by how the team treated Anthony that he skipped his own exit interviews at the end of the regular season. The last straw for Jackson came when he said in an interview with the MSG Network, the team’s house station, that he was willing to talk about trading Porzingis, who had displayed significant offensive potential in his first two seasons, to help the team’s “future.” At that moment, Porzingis was 21 years old.
The Knicks named longtime MSG executive Steve Mills as the team’s new president; Mills hired veteran executive Scott Perry as his new GM.
Gordon Hayward is beloved in Salt Lake City, the cornerstone of the Utah Jazz’s painstaking rebuild after it traded Deron Williams to the Nets in 2011 and started over. Hayward, the team’s first-round pick in 2010, makes himself into a superstar during his seven seasons in Utah, which goes from 25 wins in 2013-14 to 38, 40 and 51 wins by 2016-17. That season, Hayward made his first All-Star team, averaging 21.9 points and 5.4 rebounds, shooting nearly 40 percent on 3-pointers.
After the Jazz won a playoff series for the first time in seven years, Hayward entered unrestricted free agency in July, with several teams in hot pursuit -- led by the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, with Utah trying to re-sign him as well. After taking his visits, Hayward is primed to make his decision via the Players’ Tribune, the preferred method these days for athletes to get their views out, unfiltered. But ESPN’s Chris Haynes ruins the rollout by breaking the news: Hayward picked Boston, breaking the heart of Jazz nation and elating the Celtics, who had targeted him for months, if not longer. It made Hayward’s gruesome season-ending injury just minutes into his Boston career even more devastating.
That Les Alexander decided to sell the Houston Rockets after owning them for 24 years wasn’t a surprise, even though Alexander had no health issues and certainly didn’t need the money. Everyone, sooner or later, cashes in, and the 72-year-old Alexander was ready to walk away from the franchise that he helped lead to consecutive NBA titlesin the 1990s. What was surprising was the speed of the sale to local businessman, reality TV star and entrepreneur Tillman Fertitta.
And what was shocking was the price tag: $2.2 billion, the biggest sale of an NBA team in history, topping the $2 billion Steve Ballmer paid for the LA Clippers in 2014. While the sale price surely reflected the labor peace the NBA currently enjoys, the huge national TV deal in place through 2024, market size and quality of the franchise, it also reinforced the idea that the Ballmer deal wasn’t an outlier, and NBA teams may well continue selling at or near those prices in the future.
The NFL was crippled this season when players began emulating Colin Kaepernick and taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest what they feel is police brutality around the country. That the protests were co-opted politically by opponents who conflated the player protests with being anti-military or somehow protesting the flag didn’t matter; the damage was done.
NBA players didn’t take such drastic steps, perhaps in part because the league has specific rules regarding standing for the anthem. But they didn’t have to, because they’d been so outspoken about so many deaths of African-Americans over the years that occurred under specious circumstances -- Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and the like. Chief among the most outspoken players has been LeBron James, and he continued that on Sept. 23, when he went after President Trump, who’d “disinvited” the Golden State Warriors from the White House for the traditional championship team photo op (the Warriors had said they weren’t going, anyway) and criticized Stephen Curry for “hesitating” to accept the invite.
James’ retort soon went viral -- and brought back the word “bum” to the American lexicon, if only for a while -- and remains one of the most popular Tweets in history, with more than 1.5 million recorded “likes” as of this morning.
U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 23, 2017
The President did not respond to James’ tweet, a marked departure from his usual pattern of almost immediately firing back on social media against anyone who criticizes him by name. And the players’ stances are reinforced by several NBA coaches, who also go in on Trump early and often: Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr and Stan Van Gundy chief among them. That there was very little public and/or financial blowback for any of those teams because their respective coaches spoke out, and no public rebukes by their team’s owners, either, spoke to the vast difference in just about everything between the NFL and NBA.
Isaiah Thomas has a great individual season in leading the Boston Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals -- he makes his second All-Star team, finishes third in the league in scoring (28.9 per game), seventh in PER, fifth in three-pointers made, second in Offensive Win Shares -- and leads the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring. And none of that matters when his world is shattered by the death of his younger sister, Chyna, in an automobile accident in Washington state just before the start of the playoffs.
Playing through his grief, he twice scores 33 points in Boston’s six-game victory over Chicago in the first round, flies across the country after the clinching win on a Friday, attends his sister’s funeral in Washington state Saturday morning, then flies back across the country Saturday afternoon, not arriving back in Boston until 3 a.m. Sunday -- with a 12:30 p.m. tipoff Sunday afternoon against Washington in the first game of the conference semis.
Thomas again goes for 33 in a Game 1 win -- getting a tooth knocked out in the process -- and then puts on a performance for the ages three days later in Game 2.
Hurtling himself into the Wizards’ defense in the second half, Thomas leads the Celtics back from a 14-point third-quarter deficit and a six-point deficit in the last three minutes of regulation, hitting shots from all over, again and again, in the fourth quarter and in overtime. In the last 17 minutes of play, Thomas scores 29 of his 53 points, driving the Celtics to an improbable Game 2 win -- on what would have been his sister’s 23rd birthday. It gave one chills, and pause, at what an athlete at the highest level of focus can achieve.
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook and the Rockets’ James Harden battle all season long, superlative for superlative, highlight for highlight, in a quest for league Most Valuable Player honors. Harden becomes the first player ever to score 2,000 points and assist on 2,000 points in a season, and becomes the first player ever to score 2,000, grab 600 rebounds and dish out 900 assists in one season. The 4,554 points he personally accounted for in ’16-’17 were the most ever by one man in one year.
And, yet, Westbrook was just as incredible. He leads the league in scoring at 31.6 points per game, while adding 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists -- equaling one of the great sports records that many thought couldn’t be matched: Oscar Robertson’s 1961-62 season, the last in which an NBA player averaged a triple-double. He does so with a team that, charitably, lacks consistent perimeter shooting, and is without another star player, Kevin Durant having left the summer before via free agency for the Golden State Warriors. In the end, Westbrook wins Kia MVP honors, having had to accomplish something no one had done in more than 50 years to hold off Harden and his excellence.
Kevin Durant joined the Warriors with one mandate: win the NBA championship. Nothing else would justify Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder for the team that had just vanquished OKC in the 2016 Western Conference finals, in seven excruciating games -- and even a ring wouldn’t satisfy those who hated KD the most.
There were some ups and downs during the regular season, as Durant found his way and Stephen Curry and the incumbent Warriors figured out how to recalibrate themselves around Durant. But Golden State got some traction late in the regular season after Durant returned from a knee injury, plowed through the Western Conference with ease in the playoffs and faced LeBron James and the Cavaliers for a third straight year in The Finals.
Back on the biggest stage for the first time since 2011, Durant rises to the moment: a five-game average of 37.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists, shooting 55.6 percent from the floor -- including 47.4 percent on threes. The Warriors take the title back, and Durant takes home Finals MVP honors, having slayed all the dragons, beaten back all the haters and reaching the peak -- on and off the court.
There have been offseasons with significant deals before. There have been trades involving superstars before. But rarely has there been one offseason with so much of both.
It began three days before the Draft, three days before the Draft, when Philly and Boston swap positions -- the 76ers gave the Celtics a first-round pick either in 2018 or 2019 in order to move up from No. 3 in the 2017 Draft to No. 1, with the intent of taking University of Washington guard Markelle Fultz.
The next night, Atlanta gets out from the remaining two years of Dwight Howard’s contract by sending him to Charlotte, willing to take on the extra years of Miles Plumlee’s contract along with Marco Belinelli.
Two days later, on Draft night, the Bulls send three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick to Minnesota for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the No. 7 pick overall -- Lauri Markkanen of Arizona.
Four days after that, the LA Clippers, with no real choice, start blowing up their roster. They send the heart of their status as a legit title contender -- nine-time All-Star point guard Chris Paul -- to the Rockets (who’ve long coveted him) for guard Patrick Beverley, forward Sam Dekker, Lou Williams and a lot of other players and picks the Rockets had to acquire and otherwise cobble together to make the numbers work. The Rockets then quickly move to try and add Carmelo Anthony.
On July 1 -- the first night of free agency – the Indiana Pacers get into the act by dealing four-time All-Star Paul George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
Cleveland is soon rocked by Kyrie Irving’s trade demands becoming public. A month later, the Cavs’ new GM, Koby Altman, sends Irving to Boston, of all places, getting All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas back in a package that includes, most importantly, the unprotected 2018 first-rounder from Brooklyn that the Celtics have held onto and refused to included in other potential trades.
And the Knicks’ new braintrust finally ends the Anthony saga in New York just before the start of camp in late September, sending him not to Houston, but to Oklahoma City to join George and Russell Westbrook, for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a 2018 second-rounder. The NBA landscape had been, in one summer, turned upside down.
(Coda: “The Last Jedi” is very good. Not the best in the series, but quite good.)
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