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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
The past decade has been one to remember in the NBA.
The 2010s started with the latest incarnation of the league’s most enduring rivalry, gave rise to two iconic superteams and is now ending with the most chaotic and exciting regular season in a long time.
All throughout December, Bleacher Report is celebrating the decade that was in the NBA. Today, we’re looking back on each team’s best season from the last 10 years.
For the purposes of this discussion, the ongoing 2019-20 campaign is not up for consideration. Instead, the last 10 years being considered here run from 2009-10 through 2018-19. Each team was chosen based largely on record and/or postseason success, though some exceptions were made due to extenuating circumstances such as level of competition.
Let’s have some fun reminiscing.
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Jim Cowsert/Associated Press
The Hawks have yet to win a championship since moving to Atlanta, so the 2014-15 campaign is about as good as it gets for their long-suffering fans.
Coming off a 38-44 record in 2013-14, Atlanta was not expected to be a contender the following year, and its 7-6 start supported that opinion. However, the Hawks soon ripped off nine- and 19-game winning streaks, running their record to 43-11 before the All-Star Break.
This stretch famously culminated in the entire Hawks starting lineup winning Eastern Conference Player of the Month in January and Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver all becoming All-Stars.
The postseason was a relative success, too. For the first time since the 1969-70 season, Atlanta advanced to the conference finals. However, the ascendant Cleveland Cavaliers then limited the Hawks to shooting 23.4 percent from deep and a hideous 99.7 offensive rating in a four-game sweep.
The 2014-15 Hawks may look like the classic example of a stellar regular-season team that couldn’t translate its success to the postseason. But if their final opponent was anybody other than LeBron James, they might have played all the way into June.
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Alex Gallardo/Associated Press
The 2009-10 Celtics made the Finals and the 2010-11 Celtics did not. So, why is the 2010-11 team the selection here? Because the latter team was more complete.
Boston didn’t have its traditional starting five after starting center Kendrick Perkins suffered a serious knee injury in the 2010 Finals, but its makeshift center rotation of 38-year old Shaquille O’Neal, Nenad Krstic, and Glen “Big Baby” Davis proved no impediment to success. In fact, the Celtics were 33-10 without Perkins, and played so well without him that they traded him to Oklahoma City in February.
Five Celtics averaged 10 or more points in 2010-11, but point guard Rajon Rondo was the head of the snake. He averaged a then-career-high 11.2 assists per game and made the All-Defensive first team in what is retrospectively one of his best seasons.
Some Celtics players passed landmarks along the way as well. Paul Pierce became the third Celtic to score 20,000 points, joining Larry Bird and John Havlicek, and Ray Allen broke Reggie Miller’s career three-pointers record. A fourth straight Finals appearance looked to be in the cards.
Alas, Boston ran into LeBron James and the Miami Heatles in the Eastern Conference semifinals and lost in five games. But even without a title this decade, the Celtics have been consistent contenders and often fun to watch.
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Kathy Willens/Associated Press
After spending nearly 35 years in New Jersey, the Nets moved back to Brooklyn for the 2012-13 season and quickly announced their presence. They traded for six-time All-Star Joe Johnson and re-signed incumbent stars Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace.
That collection of talent made an immediate impact, as the Nets got off to an 11-4 start. Soon after that, however, the team hit a rough patch and fired head coach Avery Johnson.
The Nets recovered quickly, winning 17 of their next 25 games before the All-Star break, where Lopez made his first appearance. Thanks to a tremendous second half from Williams, who averaged 22.9 points and 8.0 assists per game while shooting 48.1 percent overall and 42.0 percent from three, the Nets continued to cruise, and they soon clinched their first playoff berth in six years.
However, they lost to the upstart Chicago Bulls in a seven-game first-round series, losing the four games by a total of 25 points.
This was not the deepest the Nets journeyed into the playoffs in the 2010s (the 2013-14 team made it a round further), nor was it their most exciting team to watch (that would be last year’s squad, though Williams certainly had his moments). But the 2012-13 version of the team combined on-court competence with spectacle in the best way.
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Bob Leverone/Associated Press
There aren’t a lot of exciting Hornets teams to choose from in this decade, as Michael Jordan’s franchise has won 40 or more games only three times over the past 10 years.
That makes the 2015-16 Hornets the obvious choice for the franchise’s best in that time.
That offseason, the Hornets traded for wing Nicolas Batum and signed guards Jeremy Lamb and Jeremy Lin to a roster that was already flush with NBA talent. Charlotte struggled in the early going, and a midseason seven-game losing streak landed the team at 17-20.
However, things picked up right around the All-Star break, and the Hornets finished the season by winning 24 of their last 32 games to claim the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed.
Charlotte fought hard against the third-seeded Miami Heat, winning Game 3 by 16 points and outlasting them in Games 4 and 5 by four and two points, respectively. But the Hornets fell on their collective faces in the pivotal Game 7, shooting only 32.1 percent from the field and managing a pitiful 73 points as the Heat blew past them into the second round.
That 106-73 result nearly four years ago is the last playoff game Charlotte has played in. Hornets fans can only hope for more postseason basketball in the 2020s.
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Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
The Chicago Bulls had real hope when the 2010s started.
Everything centered around the hometown kid, Derrick Rose. After the Bulls drafted him first overall in 2008, he was dominant from the start, winning Rookie of the Year in his first season and making the All-Star Game in his second.
Then Rose hit the turbo button.
Buoyed by an excellent supporting cast, the 22-year old rocketed to superstardom, averaging 25.0 points and 7.7 assists per game while recording the only positive defensive box-plus minus of his career. In 2010-11, Rose became the youngest player to win the Most Valuable Player award, which is a record he still owns.
The 2010-11 Bulls racked up eight winning streaks of at least four games and finished with a 60-22 record. Heading into the playoffs, the Miami Heat were far from the Finals lock many projected that summer, in large part because of the Bulls’ rapid ascent.
That ended up being a frivolous concern, as Miami dispatched the Bulls in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but this season ended up being Chicago’s best chance at a title with Rose. He tore his ACL in the playoffs the next year and has struggled with leg injuries ever since.
If the Big Three-era Oklahoma City Thunder are the greatest “what-if” team of the 2010s, the Rose-led Bulls have to be the runners-up.
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John Minchillo/Associated Press
When LeBron James wrote a letter announcing his return to Cleveland, one line stood out: “What’s most important to me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”
The Cavs had a great shot to do that in his first year back, making the 2015 Finals against the soon-to-be dynastic Golden State Warriors, but they fell short after both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were sidelined with injuries. As the Warriors stormed their way to winning a historic 73 games the following year, it was fair to wonder whether LeBron could accomplish his stated goal.
He clearly wasn’t as worried.
For the second straight year, Cleveland torched the Eastern Conference in the playoffs, winning 12 of its first 14 postseason games before returning to the NBA Finals to face Golden State. The Cavs lost Games 1 and 2 by 48 points, blew out the Warriors in Game 3, but faltered again in Game 4 to go down 3-1.
Cleveland won Game 5 behind dual 41-point efforts from James and Irving and tied up the series in Game 6 thanks to a near-triple double from LeBron. Game 7 quickly became one of the most famous games in recent NBA history and featured iconic moments such as The Block, The Shot and The Stop in quick succession.
Against all odds, the Cavaliers completed the first 3-1 Finals comeback in NBA history and won their first-ever championship. They aren’t only the greatest Cavaliers team of the decade; they’re one of the greatest teams, period.
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Dan Steinberg/Associated Press
Heading into the 2010-11 season, the Dallas Mavericks were in a rut.
They had lost in the first round of the playoffs in three of the previous four years, and Dirk Nowitzki seemed like he might retire as one of the best players never to win a title. Add in Dallas’ failed pursuit of big-time free agents to the mix, and the franchise’s direction was in question.
Or so we thought.
Dallas came out of the gate red-hot, winning 24 of its first 29 games to start the season. It finished with 57 wins and earned the third seed in the Western Conference.
It’s unclear exactly what happened over the next eight weeks, but something obviously clicked. After years of disappointment, the Mavericks were locked in throughout their playoff run, losing only three games in the first three rounds to set up a date with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
Miami took an early 2-1 series lead, but the remaining three games were all Mavericks. Dirk was his usual self against Miami, averaging 26.0 points and 9.7 rebounds, but the real star of the show was sixth man Jason Terry. He put the Heat away with a 27-point barrage in Game 6 on 11-for-16 shooting.
Immediately after the season, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban dismantled the framework of the roster, jettisoning several key veterans. That proved catastrophic, but at least Mavericks fans will always have positive memories of the 2010-11 season.
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The Denver Nuggets had plenty of good years over the past decade, as evidenced by their five playoff appearances. But last year’s group seemed like the first legitimate NBA Finals contender they’ve had in a long time.
Perhaps the reason why is because they had their best player since Carmelo Anthony in his prime.
Nikola Jokic was dominant last season, and he was named to his first All-Star team and the All-NBA first team as a result. He even proved it in the playoffs, putting up per-game averages matched only by Oscar Robertson in his first postseason appearance.
The Nuggets fell just short of the Western Conference Finals, losing in seven games to the more experienced Portland Trail Blazers in the second round, but they put up a good fight.
It’s difficult to discuss this team in retrospect since the Nuggets are still in the middle of what should be a multiyear window of contention. But if they make it to the conference or NBA Finals in the coming seasons, we’ll all point back to the 2018-19 team as the one that first broke through and got some much-needed postseason experience.
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Duane Burleson/Associated Press
After a few successful decades, the Detroit Pistons’ luck ran out in the 2010s. They made the playoffs only twice and never advanced past the first round.
The 2015-16 season was perhaps the only time this past decade when the Pistons had hope for the future.
Six players averaged 10 or more points, and only one of them was older than 26. And those numbers weren’t empty—they ended up translating to real improvement and victories.
The Pistons improved by 12 wins and made the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons thanks to newly minted All-Star Andre Drummond and co-stars like Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris. However, that’s about as far as Detroit’s hope could extend.
Though their first-round matchup against the top-seeded Cavaliers was fairly close throughout—Cleveland outscored Detroit by a total of 34 points—the Pistons were unable to come away with even one victory in the four-game sweep.
There’s no happy ending to this story, as the Pistons have made the playoffs only once since 2016. Not only were they swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round last season, but they lost all four games by at least 16 points.
Detroit is once again on the fringes of the playoff picture this season. With Drummond likely to opt out of his contract after this season, it could get worse for the Pistons before it gets better.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
With apologies to the early 2010s Miami Heat, the Warriors are undoubtedly the NBA’s team of the decade.
They didn’t just win three titles. They changed the sport forever.
The Warriors quickly turned three-pointers into the driving force of their offense just because of their two stars’ legendary shooting skills. Then they signed Kevin Durant, perhaps the greatest pure scorer in NBA history. Adding him produced some of the best, most efficient offenses in league history.
That proficiency started right away, too. The Warriors leapt out to a 16-2 start in Durant’s first season with them in 2016-17 and never looked back, tying the 1986-87 Lakers for the best offensive rating in NBA history on their way to a 67-15 record. They broke that mark two years later.
Despite finishing with an objectively incredible record, it seemed as though Golden State had underachieved entering the playoffs. After all, the Warriors won six fewer games after adding Durant than they did the year prior. However, they quickly revealed they had another gear, making like Moses Malone on the Western Conference and decisively claiming their revenge against the Cavaliers in five games.
We may never see another two-month stretch of basketball like that ever again. If you can tell your grandkids about only one team from the 2010s, this is the squad to pick.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has spent years trying to find the perfect set of stars.
In the summer of 2017, he finally acquired an elite second banana: Chris Paul.
After landing Paul, Houston immediately became the chief threat to the Warriors dynasty. The Rockets rode an MVP season from James Harden to 65 wins and the West’s top seed, a full seven games ahead of the second-seeded Warriors. They made short work of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz in the first two rounds to get what they wanted: a chance to beat the Warriors in the playoffs.
The Rockets got blown out in Games 1 and 3, but they eventually got the Warriors to play a slower tempo and owned a 3-2 series lead after five games. However, that Game 5 victory was as pyrrhic as it gets, as Paul left the game late with hamstring tightness and didn’t return for the rest of the series.
The loss of the nine-time All-Star was a death blow for the Rockets. They dropped the final two games of the series, famously bricking 27 straight three-pointers in a nine-point Game 7 defeat.
Though the 2017-18 season ended on a low note, Houston’s journey to the brink of the NBA Finals was entertaining and historic, and it should be remembered almost as fondly as its two title-winning teams.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
After the Bulls’ title window closed because of Derrick Rose’s litany of injuries, the Eastern Conference was desperately searching for a challenger to the Miami Heat’s seemingly boundless reign.
It quickly found one in the Indiana Pacers.
Not even those gritty Bulls could get under the Heat’s skin as well as the Pacers, which is ironic given Miami’s relatively modern offense and Indiana’s quickly outdated defense. But in 2013-14, the Pacers were a force to be reckoned with.
Led by a young Paul George on the verge of perennial All-NBA status and a still-athletic Roy Hibbert (remember when he was the future of the NBA?), Indiana had one of the best defenses of the 21st century. It was one of only six teams this decade with a defensive rating below 100 and could swarm even the most dangerous opponents, as Miami learned the hard way.
Miami ended up beating Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals in six games. But up until the last game, it was an absolute rock fight, with scores like 87-83, 99-87, and 93-90 making up half the series.
The Heat recorded a 118.0 offensive rating against the Pacers, but the fact that the Pacers were able to set the tempo was a major victory. In fact, it might have made Miami fragile enough to get destroyed in the following round (more on that later).
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Three years into the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin partnership, the Los Angeles Clippers still had not made it to the Western Conference Finals. However, they quickly proved that the 2014-15 campaign could be different.
The Clippers ripped off a nine-game winning streak early in the season and entered the All-Star break at 35-19. While they weren’t deep, their top six was consistently good enough to lead them to 56 wins and the third seed in the Western Conference.
Trouble awaited immediately in the form of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.
The series was a battle of equals, and it culminated in an epic Game 7 that ended when Paul, battling through an injured hamstring, banked in a runner over the outstretched arm of Tim Duncan with one second left.
Although the Clippers shined against the Spurs in big moments, they faltered against the Rockets in the next round, losing a 19-point lead in Game 6 and ultimately blowing a 3-1 series lead.
The Lob City era may not have reached its full potential, but it was easily the best period in Clipper history up until that point. For the first time in many years, they gave their tortured fanbase some legitimately exciting basketball.
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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
The 2010s have been the worst decade in Laker history by far, so we’re going back to what seems like ancient times to praise them.
The 2009-10 Lakers were so long ago that they rostered both Andrew Bynum and Derek Fisher. Bynum hasn’t suited up since 2014, and Fisher is now a failed NBA coach. But while they were both integral to this title-winning team, neither was the best player.
Kobe Bryant wasn’t at his peak this season, but most every other player in NBA history would kill for what he accomplished: 27.0 points on 45.6 percent shooting, 5.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists. He also made his 11th straight All-Star team, fifth straight All-NBA first team and eighth All-Defensive first team, and he won a second consecutive Finals MVP.
Bryant had an impressive supporting cast to boot. Pau Gasol made his third All-Star team this season, averaging a double-double and even outranking Kobe in certain efficiency metrics, while role players like Bynum, Lamar Odom and Metta World Peace were in fine form throughout the season. World Peace also hit the climactic three in Game 7 to clinch the Lakers’ second straight title.
But with this year’s Lakers off to a 22-3 start, this slide may need to be rewritten in June.
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Danny Johnston/Associated Press
Even in their heyday, the Grizzlies were never the most talented team in the Western Conference. But they stayed competitive with a scrappy defense and hoped their higher-powered opponents would eventually succumb to their Grit-and-Grind identity.
That day came in 2012-13.
Judging by the regular season, you might not have expected the Grizzlies to make the Western Conference Finals. Sure, they won a franchise-record 56 games and Marc Gasol was named Defensive Player of the Year, but the fifth-seeded Grizzlies didn’t own home-court advantage and were set to take on the heavily touted Los Angeles Clippers, who finished the season on a seven-game winning streak and were flush with depth.
The Clippers took the first two games of the series at Staples Center. But after that, the Grizzlies came alive on both sides of the ball for nearly a month.
They swept the last four games against Los Angeles with efficient offense and subsequently turned the tables on the Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder, limiting them to just 39.8 percent shooting from the floor and winning the series in five games.
The jig was up thereafter, as the San Antonio Spurs outwitted Memphis at every turn in a four-game sweep during the Western Conference Finals. But from then on, the West contenders knew they had to bring their A-game against the Grizzlies.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Due to the emergence of the Golden State Warriors dynasty and the passage of time, the Big Three-era Miami Heat don’t seem as novel or particularly dominant as they once did.
But make no mistake: At their best, the Heatles were as scary as it gets, and 2012-13 was their apex.
After a Finals collapse in their first go-round and a title in their second, the Heat’s Big Three were in a groove for most of 2012-13, and the results were staggering. Miami jumped out to a 12-3 start and for a few weeks, LeBron James was on pace to shoot 60 percent from the field, a nearly unprecedented mark for a non-center.
James eventually tailed off (to shoot a still-impressive 56.5 percent from the field), but as the season progressed, the Heat reached heights that few teams before them ever did. Their hot streak culminated in a mind-boggling 27-game winning streak that lasted from Feb. 3 until March 27, and they ended up with a franchise-record 66 wins in the process.
The 2012-13 Heat cannot be discussed without referencing their second title, an iconic battle against the Spurs. That series featured two triple-doubles from LeBron, a 32-point effort from Dwyane Wade, clutch supporting performances from Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier, and one of the greatest shots in NBA history.
May this team never be forgotten.
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Nell Redmond/Associated Press
Much like a few other teams featured here, last year’s Bucks are difficult to discuss in hindsight because their story is ongoing. This year’s team is arguably even better, as they’re currently on a 16-game winning streak.
But as a standalone entity, Milwaukee was marvelous last season.
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is getting better every season. He’s gone from the league’s Most Improved Player to an All-Star to a perennial MVP candidate, and the 2018-19 campaign was his best one yet.
Giannis averaged 30.9 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game while recording a 30.9 player efficiency rating last year. That stat line is unprecedented in NBA history, and it suggests that nearly any team featuring him would be competitive at the very least.
It’s a bonus that Antetokounmpo’s teammates were as good as they were.
Alongside the Greek Freak, Khris Middleton made his first All-Star team last year, Eric Bledsoe made the All-Defensive first team, Brook Lopez shot more threes than any center ever, and Malcolm Brogdon became one of the best two-way guards in the NBA.
Last year’s story has a surprising and disappointing end. The length and basketball IQ of the Toronto Raptors stumped the top-seeded Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they bowed out in six games.
But if early returns this season are any indication, they’re well on their way to righting that wrong.
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Jim Mone/Associated Press
With a pair of No. 1 overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Minnesota Timberwolves were perceived to be the future of the NBA. But after winning no more than 31 games through two years with Towns and three years with Wiggins, frustration started to seep into this once-promising organization.
Then-head coach and general manager Tom Thibodeau had a solution, and it involved trading for one of his old Chicago Bulls players—then-three time All-Star Jimmy Butler.
Minnesota’s relationship with Butler started out strong. The Wolves had a five-game winning streak in early November and quickly established themselves as a playoff-caliber team, which is no small feat in the always-dangerous West.
However, Butler suffered a knee injury in mid-February, and the team nearly fell out of the playoffs in his absence. Minnesota went 8-9 sans Butler and fell from the middle of the pack to the eighth and final seed, and they had to win a dramatic game against the Nuggets on the final day of the regular season just to make the playoffs. They did so for the first time in nearly 15 years.
It’s all been downhill from there. The top-seeded Houston Rockets dismantled the Wolves in five games, and Butler infamously requested a trade early in the 2018-19 campaign and departed for Philadelphia.
But Towns and Wiggins are still around and are having career years this season, so the hope for a bright future in Minnesota persists.
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Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
After years of mismanagement, the New Orleans Pelicans finally got it right.
In February 2017, they traded for four-time All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins and paired him with homegrown superstar Anthony Davis to form perhaps the league’s best big man duo since Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
For a while, everything was great. Both Cousins and Davis made the 2018 All-Star team, and Cousins in particular was having his best season yet.
But then tragedy struck.
In the waning moments of a close victory over the Houston Rockets in late January 2018, Cousins crumpled to the floor with a ruptured Achilles tendon. While that injury could have derailed the Pelicans’ season, Davis became the best player in the NBA in Cousins’ absence.
For the remainder of the season, The Brow averaged 30.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, 2.2 assists, and 2.0 steals per game, leading New Orleans into the playoffs to face the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
The poor Blazers had no idea how to stop Davis and Jrue Holiday, who averaged a combined 60.8 points, 15.8 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 3.3 blocks and 3.1 steals while shooting 57.2 percent from the field in a four-game sweep of Portland.
The Warriors made quick work of the Pelicans in the conference semifinals, but for a team that was cast aside months earlier, their triumphant first round was a sufficient enough reward.
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Kathy Willens/Associated Press
One look at the 2012-13 New York Knicks roster sparks confusion. This team won 54 games and a playoff series? A team that started Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni while giving serious minutes to aging stars like Kenyon Martin and Jason Kidd? This is the best the Knicks could do over the last 10 years?
Explaining this team’s success comes down to three players: Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, and JR Smith.
First off, 2012-13 was Carmelo’s best season. He led the league in scoring, averaging 28.7 points per game on 44.9 percent shooting, and finished third in MVP voting. However, Melo’s individual success became team success largely due to Chandler.
Chandler, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and third-team All-NBA center, made the All-Star Game in 2013, and his high IQ and strong paint presence helped the Knicks play smarter, more efficient team basketball. That benefited role players like Smith, who averaged a career-high number of points and rebounds per game while winning the Sixth Man of the Year Award.
On paper, this was a strange collection of players. But outside of Jeremy Lin, it’s easily the best and most fun the Knicks have been in many years.
Hold tight to memories of this team through a dark winter, New Yorkers.
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Alonzo Adams/Associated Press
The 2015-16 Thunder were on the verge of something game-changing but were unable to see that vision through.
That was exemplified by their infamous Western Conference Finals collapse against the Warriors. This was the year of 73 wins and when Stephen Curry became a generational sports icon, but for a few days there, Golden State was flummoxed.
Oklahoma City was the total package. It had the best scoring tandem in the NBA in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and boasted a big, long, athletic defense featuring Durant, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson. The persistent question was whether all that talent could be effectively and consistently marshaled. When it was, OKC was unbeatable.
Just watch Games 3 and 4 of the aforementioned series. The Warriors were helpless against the Thunder’s swarming defense and dynamic offense.
Durant would infamously join Golden State in two months’ time, officially putting an end to this era in Thunder basketball. But for about five years, OKC had a consistent winner in a small market with two of the best and most famous players in the world.
In a way, the Thunder pulled off a basketball miracle.
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Harry How/Getty Images
The Orlando Magic’s 2009-10 season got off to a rough start, as Rashard Lewis was suspended for the first 10 games for a failed performance-enhancing drug test and Jameer Nelson suffered a knee injury in November that sidelined him for five weeks.
However, thanks to the efforts of Dwight Howard (in the midst of the second of three straight Defensive Player of the Year campaigns and the third of five consecutive first-team All-NBA seasons), Vince Carter and JJ Redick, Orlando was 23-8 by the new year.
It ended up winning 59 games and earning the East’s second seed. Orlando then went undefeated through the first two rounds of the playoffs before meeting the Celtics in the conference finals.
Boston was well-equipped to match up with Howard, and Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins did their worst, cutting his regular-season field-goal percentage by more than four points. Add in the failure of Carter’s and Lewis’ jumpers, and it makes sense the Magic lost in six games.
Though Orlando made the Finals in the previous season, 2009-10 was Howard’s best year. He led the league in effective field-goal percentage, rebounds per game and blocks per game, not to mention those aforementioned awards.
Whenever somebody claims Howard is not a Hall of Famer, remind them of this season. At his best, he was as good as any big man ever.
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After a surprising loss to the Celtics in the 2018 playoffs, expectations were high for the Philadelphia 76ers last year. Expectations rose even further after the team made two bold trades.
First, in November, Philly moved the beloved Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Jerryd Bayless to Minnesota for Jimmy Butler, and then at the trade deadline, the team acquired Tobias Harris from the Clippers.
When the dust settled, the Sixers had perhaps the best starting five in the East: Butler, Harris, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and JJ Redick.
Unsurprisingly, it took time to establish chemistry. In fact, Philly was just 17-11 with Harris. But after the first round of the playoffs, during which the Sixers put up 145, 131 and 122 points against the Nets, GM Elton Brand undoubtedly felt great about his two major transactions. He likely continued to feel that way as Philly transcended bad stretches from Embiid and Harris in the following round to force a Game 7 against Toronto.
Even after one of the wildest shots in NBA history eliminated Brand’s team, he still probably felt great, and deservedly so. The Sixers almost beat the eventual champions despite several of their best players faltering in big spots. Play the series 10 times, and Philly might win five.
The Sixers are still trying to make their own luck, switching out Butler and Redick for five-time All Star Al Horford and two-way menace Josh Richardson over the summer. Once again, they have one of the best starting lineups in the league. Perhaps the ball will bounce their way this year.
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Chris Carlson/Associated Press
With Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill and Channing Frye, the 2009-10 Phoenix Suns boasted a killer starting five and went four deep off the bench with Leandro Barbosa, Robin Lopez, Jared Dudley and a young Goran Dragic.
This team didn’t play as fast as its Seven Seconds or Less counterparts, but under the guidance of coach Alvin Gentry, it was just as lethal. Phoenix posted the league’s best offensive rating by a significant margin and also led the league in effective field-goal percentage.
Thanks to their high-flying offense, the Suns won 54 games and cruised into the Western Conference Finals to lock horns with the Lakers…who outscored them. Kobe Bryant, never known to be efficient, shot 52.1 percent and averaged 33.7 points in the six games, while several of Phoenix’s best shooters, including Nash and Frye, couldn’t buy a bucket.
After this season, Stoudemire left for the Knicks, and GM Steve Kerr left for the broadcast booth, marking the end of a successful yet unfulfilling six-year stretch and the beginning of a dark decade in Phoenix. The team is in the playoff hunt now, however, and looks promising for the first time in years.
Could the Suns start the 2020s with a postseason berth, just like they began the 2010s?
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Throughout his career, Damian Lillard has thrived when he or his team is counted out, and last year marked only the most recent example.
In the first round of the 2017-18 playoffs, Portland was swept by New Orleans, and Lillard was as much to blame as any of his teammates, shooting just 35.2 percent. As a result of such a bad showing, the Blazers were cast aside in favor of more interesting teams. This very website argued Portland “played above its head as the No. 3 seed” and predicted 42 wins for the team.
Well, turns out that we and many others were wrong. Portland won four more games in 2018-19 than it had the season prior (49) and improved its offensive rating by over five points per 100 possessions, earning the third seed once again.
Nervousness hung over the Blazers entering the postseason because of Jusuf Nurkic’s leg injury. However, Lillard and Portland drove a stake into the heart of Oklahoma City in the first round and edged Denver in the second round thanks to 37 points by CJ McCollum in Game 7.
The Blazers were no match for the Warriors in the conference finals, even with Kevin Durant sidelined, and were swept for the second year in a row, but unlike the previous year, this result was perfectly OK. They had finally proved to be worthy postseason competitors.
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The last 10 years in Sacramento have been so bad that the team’s best record was 39-43. However, that was just last season, and the team in question was young and filled with lottery picks, making it highly entertaining.
What was most fun about the 2018-19 Kings was how unexpectedly competent they were. Once again, we at Bleacher Report got it wrong, predicting just 25 wins for Sacramento. But it was reasonable to doubt the Kings. De’Aaron Fox ranked 66th out 68 point guards in ESPN’s real plus-minus as a rookie, Marvin Bagley III was widely considered a reach with the second overall pick, and Buddy Hield was thought to be a mere three-point specialist.
Selecting Bagley over Luka Doncic and Trae Young looks even more ridiculous now, but Fox’s meteoric improvement between his rookie and sophomore seasons minimized many of the team’s concerns.
And the best part about Fox? His style is as telegenic as it gets, and we saw that night after night last season. The Kings played at the fifth-fastest pace in the league, per Basketball Reference, and with the speedy Fox, tireless Hield and bouncy Bagley leading a solid supporting cast, they never stopped thrilling viewers.
Sacramento missed the playoffs but was ahead of schedule. At the very least, this is a team with winning records in its future.
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Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
After a heartbreaking end to the 2013 Finals, San Antonio returned in the fall laser-focused for a revenge season. The Spurs racked up 19 straight victories from Feb. 26 to April 2 and finished the season with 62 wins and the West’s top seed.
On San Antonio’s way back to the Finals, it encountered several bumps, including a first-round Game 7, but nothing ever seriously threatened the team—including the Heat.
Miami was talented but never stood a chance. San Antonio won Game 1 by 15 points and made a stunning 52.8 percent of its shots in the series, including 46.6 percent of its threes.
The gap between the two teams was exemplified by the emergence of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who not only shot 61.2 percent from the field and made an eye-popping 57.9 percent of his threes but also played marvelous defense. It’s not often you see LeBron James visibly bothered by an opponent, but Leonard psyched him out in the previous year’s matchup and proved himself once again in 2014.
In many ways, the ball movement and spacing of this team was a precursor to the pace-and-space era popularly ushered in by the Warriors the following season. The Spurs get credit for a lot of innovations in the NBA, but they really deserve kudos for this one.
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For years, the Raptors failed at the hands of LeBron James. But James finally went west in summer 2018, and Toronto seized its opportunity, acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from the Spurs.
The Raptors provided few clues in the regular season. They had a good record (58 wins), but that had always been true and only led to postseason failures. Plus, Kawhi missed 22 games, leading to worries that he wouldn’t be able to withstand the rigors of the postseason.
On the way to the Finals, Toronto more than proved its worth, defeating the Sixers in seven with the help of a friendly rim and stonewalling the Bucks in six in the conference finals. But many assumed that was as far as the Raptors would go. Even without Kevin Durant, the Warriors seemed unbeatable.
Toronto went at Golden State immediately, winning Game 1 behind 32 points from Pascal Siakam, and took a 3-1 series lead with two wins on the road. It won the title in Oakland thanks to 20-point efforts from Siakam, Finals MVP Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.
Even though Leonard and Green departed weeks later, Toronto’s title is still meaningful. It’s a reminder of the NBA’s global reach, and a powerful statement on the abilities of underdogs.
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The summer of 2017 was a sad one for Jazz fans. They had returned to the playoffs after four years in the wilderness, but All-Star forward Gordon Hayward decided to skip town. It was back to square one.
Or so we thought.
Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell had been selected 13th overall the month prior. He not only stepped into Hayward’s go-to scoring role, but he was also better at it. After a slow start to his rookie year, Mitchell quickly became a top option for a playoff team, averaging 22.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game with 45.0 percent shooting from December onward.
But it wasn’t just the rookie who made Utah go. Mitchell was buttressed by an incredible defense led by Ricky Rubio on the perimeter and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in the paint, a duo that helped captain the league’s top defense and lead the team to 48 wins and the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
Then, the 21-year old Mitchell took on Russell Westbrook and Paul George and won, exploding for 28.5 points per game against Oklahoma City and putting Utah just four wins from the Western Conference Finals.
The Jazz were dispatched by the Rockets in five games, but the surprising emergence of Mitchell as a player to build around continues to be the driving force of Utah basketball.
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Alex Brandon/Associated Press
It seems like years ago now, but the Washington Wizards were once considered the Eastern Conference’s next great team. Behind the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal and the solid two-way play of wing Otto Porter Jr., Washington had an enviable young trio.
The Wizards won 49 games in 2016-17 behind a combined 46.2 points, 14.2 assists and 7.3 rebounds from Wall and Beal and good supporting seasons from Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat. Washington dispatched the Hawks in six games in the first round to arrive at the team they and their fans wanted badly to beat: the Boston Celtics.
In January, members of the Wizards wore all black to a contest against the Celtics, calling it a “funeral” game. They backed up the talk and won by 15, but Boston responded in kind before Game 6 at Washington’s Verizon Center. The Wizards won that game as well thanks to a late three by Wall, but the celebration was short-lived, as the Celtics won Game 7 by 10 to move on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Though Beal has become a perennial All-Star since this season, the Wizards have gotten progressively worse, in large part because of a litany of leg injuries for Wall. If he can recapture some of his former self, however, Washington may have a few more years of contention left.
All statistics and game info courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.