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The 2010s were about more than the Golden State Warriors and LeBron James.
But when one team, the Warriors, ushers in a perimeter-shooting paradigm shift and wins three rings, and one player, James, reaches the Finals eight times in a row, winning three titles himself…it’s not like we can ignore all that.
These All-Decade Awards will feature James and the Dubs heavily. Which they must.
The years we’re considering span from 2009-10 to 2018-19, a stretch defined by player empowerment, superteams and the three-point revolution. Virtually every award winner will connect to at least one of these three key themes.
As we get ready for the 2020s, let’s lay out the teams, players, coaches and shots that defined the 2010s.
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Whether measuring by basic numbers, individual awards, team success, impact on the league or sheer quantity of memorable moments, James is the clean, no-questions-asked pick for MVP of the 2010s.
He was an All-Star in each of the 10 seasons we’re considering (a distinction only Kevin Durant shares). He reached the Finals eight straight times. He won three rings, one of which was the first in the history of his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. He earned three MVP awards and finished in the top four nine times.
He even played almost 1,000 more minutes than anyone else in the decade—and that’s to say nothing of the extra 7,420 James logged during annual deep playoff runs. It’s not just that his quality of play was greater than anyone else’s; he also crushed the competition in quantity.
For the decade, James ranked first in points, fourth in assists, 10th in rebounds and seventh in steals. Among the 88 players who attempted at least 5,000 field goals from 2010 to 2019, James’ true shooting percentage ranked sixth. And among those who played at least 400 games, his usage rate clocked in at No. 3.
Throw in his landscape-altering free-agency decisions (and one especially big Decision), the heroic way he hauled some deeply flawed Cavs teams through the playoffs and the worldwide iconic status he’s achieved, and James laps the field.
Still, this one wasn’t all that close.
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Dwight Howard started the decade as the league’s most imposing stopper, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2009-10 and 2010-11 (he also won it in 2008-09, but that year isn’t inside our 10-season span). Unfortunately, we can’t ignore the ensuing decline Howard suffered after he left Orlando for the Lakers…and then the Rockets…and then the Hawks, Hornets and Wizards.
His journeyman status was largely due to a locker room persona that rubbed too many the wrong way. But if Howard had still been anything like his early-decade self on D, teams probably would have overlooked the extracurriculars and stuck with him longer. Basically, his prime came too early to seriously contend for this award.
That leaves three main candidates, all very different types of defenders: Kawhi Leonard, a conventional wing shutdown artist with the best hands in human history; Draymond Green, perhaps the single most versatile defensive player we’ve ever seen; and Rudy Gobert, the NBA‘s current two-time reigning DPOY and a quintessential rim-protector.
Green’s ability to play center and switch across five positions forced the entire league to adjust its tactics. The Death Lineup wouldn’t have existed without his versatility, and it’s also notable that Golden State ranked first, sixth and second in defensive rating from 2014-15 to 2016-17. There are certainly shoutouts owed to Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston for those team ratings, but Green was the real driver of an elite, championship-caliber, NBA-altering defense.
Green only has one DPOY award (Gobert and Leonard each have two), but Leonard never displayed the ability to defend centers, and Gobert’s conventional defensive game didn’t have nearly the postseason impact of Green’s new-age, do-it-all brand.
Gobert has ranked first in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus in each of the last three full seasons, but he didn’t become a regular starter until 2015-16. So in addition to a far greater playoff impact, Green, who became a full-time starter in 2014-15, has an edge in longevity. Green, for the record, has ranked in the top 14 of DRPM every year since 2013-14. He earned four top-four finishes in that span, more than Gobert’s three.
There’s really no wrong answer, and we’re already hitting extreme Warriors overkill, but Green is the pick.
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There are a handful of ways to approach this, but if the object of playing NBA basketball games is to win enough of them to contend for and secure a championship (which requires even more winning, in the postseason, against better competition), then nobody was better this decade than the Golden State Warriors.
The Dubs’ .628 winning percentage only ranks third over the last 10 seasons, trailing the San Antonio Spurs (.695) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (.641). But we don’t judge a team’s quality on its regular-season efforts alone. Of course, if we did, there’d certainly be an argument for Golden State under that approach.
Headed by their NBA-record 73-9 mark in 2015-16, the Warriors submitted three of the four best single-season winning percentages in our sample. They won 67 games in both 2014-15 and 2016-17, and the 2015-16 Spurs were the only other team to win at least 67 games in a season.
The Warriors also collected three titles this decade, one more than the Miami Heat, while reaching the Finals five straight times. If we’re operating on a strict “count the ringzzz” standard, Golden State grades out best.
Now, if it’s a specific team season you want, there’s a debate to be had. Is a 73-9 record without a championship better than a 67-15 mark that includes one?
Remember, that 2016-17 Warriors team finished 67-15, won a title and registered the fourth-highest Simple Rating System figure (which accounts for margin of victory and strength of schedule) in league history. That was the first year of Kevin Durant’s tenure with the team, and it featured a DPOY campaign from Draymond Green, plus a playoff run that included just one loss.
The fact that we’re trying to figure out which of the Warriors’ ridiculous seasons would count as the best in the decade (for the record, let’s agree it was 2016-17) tells us what we need to know.
Behind Stephen Curry’s revolutionary shooting, a defense that started trends by downsizing and switching, and a collection of raw talent never before seen and unlikely to be duplicated, the Warriors were the team of the decade—however you slice it.
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Just one of the seven contests in the 2016 Finals was decided by fewer than 11 points, so it’s not as though this series wins the award on the basis of consistently competitive games. But when you consider all the factors that went into the second of four straight Finals meetings between the Cavs and Warriors, and when you also weigh the fallout, it’s hard to find a playoff series that meant more.
For starters, we’re dealing with the 73-9 Warriors here. They blitzed the league all year, amassing the most wins we’ve ever seen in a season as Stephen Curry drilled a record 402 three-point shots—crushing the record for makes (286) he set the season before by an incomprehensible 116 more treys. Curry also set the record for offensive box plus/minus that season (which still stands) and became the league’s first unanimous MVP.
Despite such a dominant campaign, Golden State fell behind 3-1 against the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, only to surge back and advance. Klay Thompson’s Game 6 performance, which improbably staved off elimination against OKC, will get more coverage in a bit.
That team, the one that obliterated the league for six months and then got incredibly fortunate against Oklahoma City, seemed to have it all: skill, luck and everything in between.
So when the Dubs went up 3-1 against the Cavs in the Finals, racking up those three victories by an average of 19.7 points per game, there was only one possible outcome.
Until there wasn’t.
James led the Cavs back from the brink, winning Games 5, 6 and 7 to complete the first comeback from a 3-1 deficit in Finals history. Yes, Curry’s ankle, tweaked in the first round against the Houston Rockets, was a factor. So was Draymond Green’s suspension in Game 5.
But every Finals has complicating factors like those. We can’t let them detract from James’ otherworldly performance, which included twin 41-point efforts in Games 5 and 6 along with a 27-point triple-double in Game 7. And we certainly can’t overlook Kyrie Irving‘s go-ahead three from the right wing with 53.1 seconds left in Game 7, which decided the championship. Same goes for James’ block on Andre Iguodala, which preserved the tie a minute before Irving un-knotted the score.
Don’t listen to anyone who says Golden State lost that series. The Cavaliers won it.
In doing so, they secured Cleveland its first ring, delivered by James, its native son. And that achievement came against a team that, had it managed to win the title, would have been unequivocally regarded as the greatest ever.
Oh, and in defeat, the Warriors reached out to Kevin Durant, who came aboard in free agency less than a month later. Talk about a pivot point in league history…
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With 41 points on a playoff-record 11 made threes in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals, Klay Thompson changed everything about the second half of the decade.
If you’ve watched enough of Thompson, you know he’s oblivious to the pressures of time, score and situation. If anything, he gets even more experimental and cavalier in his shot selection when the stakes are highest. In that sense, maybe it’s not surprising that he saved a game, a series and perhaps even a dynasty by carrying the Warriors to victory in Oklahoma City that night.
As he’s so often done (37 points in a quarter, 60 points in three quarters while touching the ball for just 90 seconds), Thompson caught fire and refused to be extinguished, even though the Thunder’s athletic and punishing defense had stifled the Warriors and shoved them into a 3-1 hole.
He buried deep shots while hardly looking at the bucket. He gave up on basic shooting musts like good balance and, say, not flinging up 30-footers from straight away with your feet three times shoulder-width apart and facing 45 degrees in the wrong direction.
None of it mattered. Thompson was on one.
“I remember looking at a woman sitting next to me in those really expensive courtside seats next to the coaches,” head coach Steve Kerr told Ethan Sherwood Strauss, then of ESPN. “She was in shock. I just looked at her and said, ‘I don’t know how he does it either.'”
However he did it, Thompson’s outburst helped the Warriors avoid elimination and the massive disappointment of falling short of the Finals in a 73-win season. That disappointment would come a round later, but it might have benefitted the Warriors to succeed in the conference finals and fail in the Finals.
Golden State eliminated Durant’s Thunder, and who’s to say what might have happened that offseason if OKC had reached the Finals, perhaps even beating James’ Cavs? Would Durant have left the Thunder? Would the Warriors have ever gotten the chance to build the most super of superteams and win two more rings with KD?
Drilling 11 threes in a playoff game against a defense that shut down virtually every other member of one of the greatest offenses in history is incredible on its own. But when you consider what Thompson’s incendiary efforts ultimately prevented and allowed, you can understand its win in this category.
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What happens if, with 5.2 seconds remaining in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, with his team trailing by three points and facing elimination, Ray Allen doesn’t nail his iconic three from the right corner?
For that matter, what happens if the Spurs, up by three with 19.4 seconds left in the game, had elected to foul, putting the Heat on the line for two free throws and never allowing anyone the chance to tie the game?
What happens if the Heat go for the egregiously ill-conceived quick two, as suggested on the broadcast by ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy?
What if Chris Bosh doesn’t escape from a crowd with the offensive rebound? What if Allen doesn’t instinctively retreat to the corner, knowing a made shot from inside the arc means almost nothing with so little time left?
Like so many other huge moments from the decade, Allen’s shot gets this award because of its objective quality and its impact on the league as a whole. It literally prevented the Spurs from winning a title and may have been the impetus for the “Beautiful Game” season that followed, which did result in a San Antonio ring. It also got LeBron James his second championship (once the Heat finished off a demoralized Spurs team in Game 7) and avoided a second Finals failure in three years.
This might be the greatest shot in NBA history, so it’s certainly good enough to win the decade.
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Gregg Popovich only collected one championship in the 2010s, but his teams won at least one playoff series in six of the 10 postseasons they reached while posting the highest regular-season winning percentage in the league.
Few coaches have ever adjusted playing style to fit personnel better than Pop, and this decade showcased his extreme tactical flexibility. Popovich’s 2009-10 roster, which finished 20th in pace and ninth in three-point-attempt rate, was built around Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. But Antonio McDyess, Keith Bogans and Richard Jefferson all started at least 50 games.
By the middle of the decade, things had changed. The 2013-14 Spurs team that won it all was still led by Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, but just about everything else was different. Kawhi Leonard had emerged. Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter all made major contributions to a team that, unlike its plodding, wear-you-down predecessors, whipped the ball all over the floor.
These were the “Beautiful Game” Spurs, and they could hardly have been more different from the teams Pop coached just a few seasons before.
Flash forward to 2018-19, and Popovich’s Spurs eschewed every significant trend in the league, embracing mid-range shots and still winning 48 games.
It’s an unanswerable question, but it’s worth asking: Could any other coach have pushed so many of the right buttons, presided over such a variety of player types and still won so much?
Maybe it’s just as telling that Popovich did all this after winning three championships the previous decade with, effectively, one style. Some coaches succeed in a specific way and never change. But Pop always adapted.
Plus, he’s one of just three coaches who managed to stick with one team through the entire 2010s. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle are the only others. If a large part of coaching success is survival, Popovich wins on that score as well.
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James Harden—along with Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant—has a good case for runner-up as player of the decade, but he may not have reached his current heights if he’d never left the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In late October 2012, a combination of factors (an unwillingness to spend the full max on Harden, chemistry concerns, luxury-tax avoidance) led OKC to send Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-rounders and a second-rounder.
Harden had just won Sixth Man of the Year in a season that saw the Thunder reach the NBA Finals. His immediate development into a top scoring option, and his subsequent destruction of the understood limits of individual offensive brilliance, would have been hard to see coming. But the deal elevated the Rockets to new heights while creating one of the greatest “what if” scenarios in recent NBA history.
If Harden sticks with Durant and Westbrook (and Serge Ibaka; don’t forget him) in OKC, do the Thunder reel off a couple of championship runs? Remember, they won 60 and 59 games in the first two post-Harden seasons, knocking Harden’s Rockets out of the playoffs in 2013. They were an elite team without Harden; imagine what they could have been with him.
And if Harden sticks with Oklahoma City, does he ever become the extreme Moreyball phenomenon he is today? Does the rest of the league reconsider the value of isolation basketball? Does the step-back three become a lethal weapon—not just for him, but for anyone?
Considering what the Thunder could have been and what Harden became, it’s impossible to find a trade that mattered more this decade.
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We could simplify this by noting James’ 2010 move to the Miami Heat was the only free-agent move that got its own TV special. That would set it apart.
But The Decision was about so much more than spectacle. It ushered in a new age of player movement and superstar empowerment that only accelerated as the decade progressed. So much of the interest in today’s NBA centers on cap space, free agency and superstar team-ups. Maybe the league still would have developed into a 12-months-a-year interest-driver, and maybe we still would pay as much attention to free agency in July as the Finals in June, but James’ move to Miami is clearly what pushed us hardest to this point.
You can’t read players’ thoughts, but you have to imagine James’ exit from Cleveland, his hometown, gave other players the green light to seek out their own preferred destinations. If LeBron could walk away from a city with which he shared such a deep and intimate connection, then, sure, Dwight Howard could extricate himself from Orlando. Kevin Durant could bounce from OKC if he wanted. Anthony Davis could work his way out of New Orleans.
Everything was on the table.
Yes, James won a pair of rings in Miami before returning to Cleveland to get some closure. But this is about more than winning. It’s about the way the league conducts the business of roster building.
LeBron’s decision, The Decision, changed everything.