As the decade officially came to an end last night, it is a good time to sit back and reminisce on the decade full of NBA surprises. From stunning playoff runs, dynasties being born, free agent signings, and the rise of unforeseen prospects, here are some of the most shocking events from the decade.
Steph Curry and The Warriors Steal OKC’s Thunder
At the start of the decade, the OKC Thunder were the Western Conference dynasty waiting to blossom post Kobe’s Lakers, and were expected to be LeBron’s formidable foe for the foreseeable future. Things were going as planned for the young Thunder core of Westbrook, Durant, Harden(yes kids he was once a 6th man in OKC) and Ibaka as they made the 2012 NBA Finals. They were probably a little ahead of their schedule, as they were out matched by the Miami Heat big 3. But the narrative after that finals was, “This is just the beginning for the OKC Thunder,” and “They’ll be back stronger and with experience.” However, things did not turn out as expected for the Thunder. In fact the 2012 Thunder team would turn out to be the peak for the franchise for the decade. The trade of Harden to the Rockets, key injuries to Westbrook and Durant, and ultimately the decision for Durant to leave OKC for their recent archenemies Golden State Warriors, sealed the fate for the 2010’s Thunder, and opened the door for the dynasty of the decade, Golden State Warriors.
Nobody, not even Warriors fans seen the 2010’s playing out the way that it did for the Warriors. Rewind the tape back to 2012 when the Thunder were making the finals, the Warriors fan base was ready to riot as fan favorite Monta Ellis was traded in favor for Steph Curry to lead the team. The two franchises could not be in more opposite positions. But things quickly changed. While the Thunder dealt with injuries and short comings in the playoffs, the Warriors were building an identity that has changed the way the NBA game is being played. Mark Jackson helped bound a culture in the Bay Area, getting the Warriors back to the playoffs, and then Steve Kerr came in and the rest is history. The Warriors would win 3 out of 5 NBA Finals from 2015-19, would win a record 73 games in 2016, but the true turning point and flip for these two franchises was the best and most important Conference Finals of the decade, the 2016 Western Conference Finals. The Thunder could have ended the Warriors dynasty before it ever got started if they just finished off the conference finals. Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder had a 3-1 lead over the Warriors, and failed to close it out, altering history. The legend of Game 6 Klay Thompson was born as he shot the lights out in the arena to force a game 7, which the Warriors also won. The Thunder blowing the 3-1 lead ultimate led to Durant making the weakest move by a pro athlete ever, signing with the Warriors in the summer, essentially making the Warriors unbeatable. The Warriors became what the Thunder should have been, the dominant dynasty out West for the 2010’s, something nobody saw coming.
Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs Shock the World
Today everyone recognizes Dirk Nowitzki as the greatest foreign player to grace the NBA, he’s a top 6 scorer of all time with 31,560 points, a league MVP, and a NBA champion with a Finals MVP. But rewind the tape back to the start of the decade and Dirk was look at as a great scorer and a good player who missed his chance at cementing his legacy as an all time great. You see in 2006 he and the Mavs blew a 2-0 lead to young Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat, and in 2007, his MVP season, he was upset by the 8th seed “WE Believe” Warriors in the first round, before he could even accept his MVP trophy. So by the time the 2010’s rolled around, everyone was over the idea of Dirk and the Mavs being any true threat to win a title, and their window had past. But that was all just great bulletin board material for their unprobable 2011 Finals run. Dirk put the Mavs on his back in the playoffs, sweeping the 2x defending champion Los Angeles Lakers led by Kobe, then taking out the aformentioned up and coming OKC Thunder 4-1 in the Conference Finals. But come the NBA Finals, the idea that the Mavs would take out the newly put together, Miami Heat big 3 of Lebron James, Wade and Chris Bosh, was laughable. There was just no way Dirk being the lone star filled with great role players would take out the 3 all stars in Miami. But as we know, that’s exactly what happened. Dirk averaged 26 points and 10 rebounds in those 6 NBA Finals games, and had some help from Jason Terry who added 18 a game. While Dirk and the Mavs receive praise for upsetting the Heat, it often gets lost in the narrative that Lebron James choked away the finals, which is unfair to the 2011 champion Mavericks.
The Emergence of The Greek Freak
There have been plenty of draftees that had been anointed the “next to arrive” after Lebron. That tile went to Andrew Wiggins, and Jababri Parker in 2014, Zion Willamson in 2019, but only one recent prospect has taken the bull by the horns to become the games very best, and ironically it has been a kid who was not anointed anything, hell he wasn’t even a known quantity when he was drafted.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, a name nobody outside of the family knew of at the start of the decade, capped of the decade as the league MVP and arguably the face of the NBA for the next decade. So how did the reigning MVP just kind of sneak up on us, no hype, no mixtape, no highlight reel, nothing. Just a 109 second interview with the late great Craig Sager after being drafted my the Milwaukee Bucks. While the physique has changed immensely, the humility the 18 year old spoke with in the 109 second clip, is still present today while he sits atop the NBA. The wise words he spoke as an 18 year old kid should have been the first sign that he would be something special, as he said “you just have to look at yourself, how you’re going to improve. I hope I improve. I work hard.” Antetokounmpo has stuck by those words and sure has improved. The Bucks did not know that they had just drafted their future face of the franchise with the 15th pick in the 2013 NBA draft, but they stuck by him, watching him improve year by year, and are currently reaping the benefits of developing Giannis into the Greek Freak. With a MVP already under his belt, and consistently improving an aspect of his game each year, the next decade could be the decade of the Greek Freak.
The Decision’s by Lebron James
The moment to kickstart a decade of surprises in the NBA was LeBron James uttering the words “I’ll take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.” I can argue this is the sports moment of the decade as it created the era of player empowerment and star player movement. Without Lebron leaving Cleveland to form the big 3 in Miami, I don’t think Durant leaves OKC for Golden State, I don’t think Paul George asks out of Indiana, Davis out of New Orleans, etc. The NBA landscape changed on July 8th 2010. LeBron went from baby face good guy to the NBA villain over night, just take a look at the videos of his jerseys burning in the streets of Cleveland, or the open letter from Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. But the decision was an important one as it was the birth of a new era, the Lebron James decade. Lebron and the Heat would make 4 straight NBA finals, underachieving to an extent as they only won 2 rings. Lebron took home 2 MVP’s in Miami and 2 Finals MVP’s, but he seen the writing on the wall that the Heat dynasty was nearing the end, so he made another league altering decision.
On July 11th, 2014 LeBron inked an open letter to Cleveland which ended “I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.” As quickly as LeBron was vilified for the first decision to join Miami, he was welcomed home to Northeast Ohio just as fast. LeBron’s decade of dominance continued with the Cavs, making the Finals 4 more years, tallying the total to 8 consecutive Finals appearances. While only winning one of those finals matchups against the Golden State Warriors, that one ring in 2016, coming back from down 3-1 to the 73 win Warriors, winning a title for his hometown Cleveland Cavs, is the single greatest accomplishment of his entire illustrious career. While there are still things he wants to achieve in his career, LeBron could have retired right there crying on the Oracle arena hardwood floor, with no regrets and a happy man.
What remains so impressive about the decade of LeBron, is that here on the final day of the decade, Lebron James’ Lakers have the best record in the Western Conference, he is in the running for league MVP, and is expected to be amongst the final teams standing come June.
If the 2020’s are anything like the 2010’s, buckle up for an exciting rollercoaster ride, and expected the unexpected.