Top 10 stories of NBA season: Westbrook's vengeance, Warriors' dominance and LeBron's title chase
From Kevin Durant’s momentous decision to go play for the Warriors to Russell Westbrook’s historic chase to become the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson more than 50 years ago, it’s been one of the most eventful NBA seasons in recent memory.
Here’s how we view the top 10 stories of 2016-17. Slide right through our list to find out who has been dominating the headlines this season.
1 Kings trade DeMarcus Cousins ... right after All-Star Game
Only a couple of weeks after Sacramento general manager Vlade Divac went public and said the Kings had no intentions of trading DeMarcus Cousins and all but said he’d be getting a $207-million extension this summer, the Kings dealt their volatile All-Star center in a package to the Pelicans just moments after the All-Star Game concluded in New Orleans.
The setting and timing were highly unusual as there were still five days before the trade deadline. But New Orleans GM Dell Demps, feeling heat for his team’s disappointing season, even with All-Star Anthony Davis, rolled the dice that Cousins would change his bullying ways with coaches and teammates. The whispers out of the Kings about the key player they targeted in the deal, struggling rookie shooter Buddy Hield, made the blockbuster even more controversial.
ESPN reported that Hield was viewed by Kings owner Vivek Ranadive as having "Steph Curry potential." Just chalk that up to the Kings being the Kings.
2 Heat crawl out of huge hole and shock the experts
The Heat lost resident icon, Dwyane Wade, to free agency in a shocker, and then didn’t have the services of Chris Bosh, sidelined the entire season with an ongoing blood clot problem. Goran Dragic and newly-acquired Dion Waiters headed a cast that was projected to finish in the lottery, with the Heat’s over-under number placed at 34.5 — lower than Detroit, Charlotte, New York and Orlando.
When they opened the season by losing 30 of their first 41 games, those predictions appeared rock solid. Then something clicked: They became the first team in NBA history to start the season 19 games under .500 and then reel off 13 straight wins, including victories over Golden State and Houston.
Under Erik Spoelstra’s brilliant coaching, the Heat went into the last weekend with a shot to win 42 games and make the playoffs, while Detroit, Charlotte, New York and Orlando all finished came in with "unders" and are headed for the lottery. The Heat’s surprise season spoke volumes about their winning culture, ability to develop players and Pat Riley’s demands for excellence, no matter who is wearing the uniform.
3 Rockets bounce back in a big way
After struggling to make the playoffs last spring with a 41-41 record as the No. 8 seed, the Rockets could steal the show at the NBA’s new Awards Show in June in New York. They’re up for MVP, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Executive of the Year, just one season after they were a dysfunctional and unhappy team.
Picked to win 44 games, they will finish with the No. 3 seed and a chance to win 57 games. They took a lot of criticism when they hired Mike D’Antoni, who had posted five losing seasons out of six and had an 0-8 playoff mark in his last two coaching stops (New York and Los Angeles). But GM Daryl Morey is a believer in D’Antoni’s offensive system and brought in the perfect shooters (Ryan Anderson, sixth-man Eric Gordon and Lou Williams) to put around James Harden.
The Rockets set records for 3-point makes and attempts in a season. Harden is an MVP candidate and the latest point guard to flourish in D’Antoni’s offense. Following what Steve Nash did in D’Antoni’s system en route to back-to-back MVPs, Harden underwent a total career makeover. He changed his moody ways and embraced a leadership role while leading the league in assists and landing right behind Russell Westbrook among the league's top scorers.
4 A (brief) rebirth in Philadelphia
After losing on purpose for three seasons and alienating their loyal fans, the Sixers finally got around to trying to win. Unfortunately, Joel Embiid’s long-awaited emergence as a difference-maker at both ends was short-lived.
Playing for the first time since being drafted in 2014, Embiid immediately became the toast of the town and showed he was well worth the wait. In only 25.4 minutes per game, he averaged 20.2 points per game, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. While his surgically-repaired foot and back held up, a season of spectacular play for "The Process" was cut short in late January due to a knee injury that required surgery. The Sixers’ record with him was 13-18, but that includes an 0-7 start.
The other key building block for Brett Brown never even took the court, as No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons broke his foot in training camp and missed the entire season. While Brown can only imagine what he’ll have if he can ever put Embiid and Simmons on the floor together, the Sixers did get a nice boost from rookie forward Dario Saric, a candidate for Rookie of the Year.
5 Knicks go for it — and crash hard
Phil Jackson once drew comparisons to Red Auerbach as a championship coach, but he’s proving more and more that he’ll never begin to approach the legendary Celtic executive as a builder of championship teams. Jackson’s attempt to make the Knicks a contender in the East backfired badly, resulting in the Knicks’ fourth straight non-playoff season.
With Carmelo Anthony growing antsy with Jackson’s rebuilding campaign, the "Zen Master" decided to shift away from featuring Kristaps Porzingis and instead embarked on a hectic offseason hunt for veterans with playoff experience. At the end of his trading and free agency shopping spree, which netted Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee, Jackson proclaimed: "These provide us an opportunity to challenge in the Eastern Conference." He could not have been more wrong.
Jackson’s strained relations with Anthony were only topped by owner James Dolan verbally attacking former Knick Charles Oakley after Oakley got into a physical altercation with Madison Square Garden security personnel near Dolan's seat during a home game. In the fallout, Dolan disclosed that he believes that Jackson will fulfill his five-year contract, meaning he has no intention of firing his team president, who still has two years to get things turned around. Not that any Knick fan expects Jackson to turn into Auerbach anytime soon.
6 Magic Johnson returns to run Lakers
The NBA’s Tiffany franchise has fallen on hard times to the point where the Lakers couldn’t even get a meeting with Kevin Durant last July. So Jeanie Buss took a page from the Lakers’ "Showtime" playbook and brought back Magic Johnson in a surprise midseason shake-up to try to turn things around.
Johnson fired Jeanie’s brother, Jim, and longtime GM Mitch Kupchak. Jim Buss then tried to oust Jeanie in a power play and lost. Jim Buss had promised to step down as the team’s top basketball executive if the Lakers were not contending for a championship this June. They never got close, with four straight seasons in which they have won less than 30 games, and with a core of young players who haven’t shown signs that they’re headed for an All-Star Game anytime soon, let alone the Hall of Fame.
Although he was an iconic player, Johnson has never run an NBA team before. In his first major move, he stunned more than a few observers by hiring Kobe Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, as his general manager. Pelinka has never worked in an NBA front office and was hired after the Lakers failed in a bid to lure Golden State’s GM Bob Myers, the NBA’s Executive of the Year in 2015, to Los Angeles. Magic expects to make a major difference and at least get meetings with the top free agents, perhaps with Paul George in 2018 — unless he trades for George first.
7 LeBron James keeps pushing Cavs after Cleveland's first title
Coming off his first title with the Cavaliers, LeBron James didn’t change one bit. He’s as driven as ever to add to his ring collection and isn’t afraid to speak his mind or throw his weight around when he doesn’t like what he sees. So it was no surprise when James in late January during a 2-5 stretch went public with his grievances. He questioned whether the Cavs had become satisfied and said he wasn’t happy with the roster.
"I’ll be 33 in the winter and I got no time to waste," he said.
The Cavs did exactly what James wanted, picking up several role players, including Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut. Bogut went down to a broken leg in the first 58 seconds of his Cavs debut, but Cleveland still should have enough to win an Eastern Conference that doesn’t have a real challenger among Toronto, Boston or Washington.
The Cavs suffered through some key injuries (to J.R. Smith and Kevin Love) and at times didn’t seem to care much about the regular season. James also had to contend with critics when he took his normal allotment of "rest" games. But as he approaches the playoffs, he has to feel good about his chances of at least getting to his seventh straight Finals. As for winning his fourth ring? With the Warriors giving every indication that they’ll be returning to the Finals, that’s going to be the trick.
8 Adam Silver can't get rid of rest issue
Owners and players showed what a $24 billion TV contract can do when they wisely hammered out a new collective bargaining agreement that averted a third lockout since 1999. The league’s TV partners were also thrilled to know that there won’t be a July 1 lockout, but not all is well.
The issue of the league’s top players taking games off for rest went to a new level this season. Knowing that rest has also turned many fans against the league, Silver characterized players taking nights off as "an extremely significant issue for our league." It’s probably the No. 1 issue.
The crisis reached a peak on back-to-back weekends in March with two primetime Saturday night games on ABC severely impacted. For their game in San Antonio, the Warriors held out Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. A week later, in their only appearance in LA against the Clippers, the Cavs sat LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
Certain teams, including the Cavs, Warriors and the originators of the practice, the Spurs, believe in rest. Others, including the Heat and Pistons, are opposed to doing it. Silver hasn’t come out against rest; he merely has stated that teams that don’t alert the league well in advance that they are resting players will face a significant penalty. He needs to figure this out before next season.
9 Start of a Golden (State) dynasty?
With one title and two Finals appearances over the last two seasons, the Warriors now have the makings of a "Super Team," if not a Lakers-type mini-dynasty over the next few seasons.
Golden State blew a 3-1 Finals lead and saw its 73-win season go up in smoke. But only a few weeks later, the Warriors won the free agent sweepstakes by landing Kevin Durant, a four-time scoring champ and former MVP in the prime of his career at age 28. Durant’s addition gave them two recent MVPs with back-to-back winner Stephen Curry.
The Heat’s "Super Team" in Miami featured only one MVP, LeBron James, and that core group went 2-2 in four straight Finals. The Warriors could be even better, as Curry is still only 29, and both Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are 27. They were good as advertised through 60 games, winning at a pace that could have resulted in the first ever back-to-back 70-win seasons.
Then Durant went down with a knee injury in late February in Washington, and they lost five of seven. But since then, their top-ranked offense and defense kicked in, while Curry returned to his assertive, MVP form of last season. If he maintains that level of play and Durant becomes his old self, the Warriors are going to be set up for the first three-peat in the NBA since Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers from 2000 to 2002.
10 Russell Westbrook chases "The Big O" in OKC
When Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City after eight seasons, who would have imagined that there would be more attention focused on the Thunder than when he played there? Russell Westbrook is the reason it has been mandatory to check on Thunder games on a nightly basis.
Let’s go back to the offseason, first. Westbrook's decision to sign a two-year, $85 million extension a month after Durant left was a big relief, especially after there were weeks of speculation that he’d demand a trade. His commitment also helped to ease some of the pain caused by Durant’s defection to the Warriors. At his signing announcement the team’s owner, Clay Bennett, couldn’t contain himself, shouting, "We’re back in business!" Little did he know that the Thunder would dominate the national scene as never before.
With his relentless play, Westbrook embarked on a quest to equal what has long been viewed as an unmatchable feat: becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple-double over a full season. With no one to replace Durant’s scoring, the Thunder needed all of his triple-doubles to avoid the lottery and land the No. 6 seed in the West. Normally, when a small-market team loses an MVP-caliber player, it automatically goes from a title contender to being largely irrelevant (see: Orlando, when it lost Shaquille O’Neal and Cleveland when LeBron left).
But it’s been vastly different with Westbrook, who hasn't taken a game off for rest all season, and that could be his best argument when the voters decide if he’s the MVP or if it goes to his old Thunder teammate, James Harden. Put it this way: Kevin Durant left town, and Russell Westbrook still made you want to know what was going on with the Thunder.