Top 10 NBA stories of 2014

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By Sam Smith | 12.29.2014 | 8:45 a.m. CT

The NBA doesn’t much celebrate the calendar year as much as the season. The NBA’s calendar begins in September and basically continues through June, though with TV events they can stretch it almost 12 months. Personally, I prefer the Mayan calendar with the vital month known as Pop. So with the consideration of the calendar year 2014, we’ll start with Pop as the No. 1 story in the NBA for 2014:

  1. The Spurs win their fifth championship with Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich, coming back a year later from perhaps the most excruciating Finals loss in NBA history to play as good team basketball as we’ve seen. The Spurs’ five-game domination of LeBron James and the Miami Heat, which essentially broke up the two-time four-Finals champions, was a complete demonstration of the purity and sharing of the game as the Spurs shot 52.8 percent, almost 47 percent on threes, had almost double the assists of the Heat at more than 25 per game on 38 made baskets and averaged a winning margin of 14 points over the defending champion and league MVP. It was basketball at its finest.
  2. LeBron James returns to Cleveland. No one’s free agency is speculated upon as much as James’. His departure for Miami in 2010 changed the NBA landscape and created the first true feared super team since the 90’s Bulls. The Heat did go to four consecutive championships. If the Heat had defeated the Spurs, it would have been tough for James to not pursue the threepeat. The loss opened up speculation about joining Kobe in Los Angeles, Carmelo in New York. Even the Cavs had no idea based on their hiring of an overseas coach and not having saved cap room. But you respond for James. He declared he was coming home in the feel good story.
  3. Donald Sterling barred by the NBA. The longtime Clippers’ owner was revealed making hateful racist comments, though in private. Players appeared on the verge of a boycott in the playoffs as new commissioner Adam Silver declared Sterling was banned for life from the NBA and even being in an arena. Eventually, Sterling’s wife with the league’s support sold the franchise to executive Steve Ballmer for a reported $2 billion.
  4. Phil Jackson returns to active duty in the NBA as president of the New York Knicks. The most successful coach in league history took over stewardship of the woebegone Knicks to begin yet another rebuilding. Though the move captivated New York with possibilities, the Knicks began Jackson’s first season poorly with Jackson unable to yet make major changes. He did win the summer free agency battle by resigning the top free agent of the summer, Carmelo Anthony, who was pursued by the Bulls, Lakers, Rockets and Mavericks.
  5. Damian Lillard’s three-point shot at the buzzer knocks the Houston Rockets out of the playoffs and sends the Trailblazers to the conference semifinals. It’s the kind of shot that makes the NBA playoffs the best show in sports. But what made this one so special was it was the winning shot to turn a loss into a win and eliminate a team that was about to go home for Game 7. It was the most crucial shot since the Ray Allen three in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals.
  6. David Stern retires after 30 years and is replaced by deputy Adam Silver. It also proved one of the most seamless transitions in a major sport with the acknowledged czar of the NBA, Stern, stepping aside gracefully. Silver faced immediate issues with the Sterling controversy and a new TV deal. He handled them professionally and proved innovative in being open to new ideas, though his accommodating early tenure has led to a lack of action against teams appearing to try to lose purposely, like the 76ers, and players routinely sitting out featured games despite no apparent injuries. What would David Do? Stern’s tenure may be the best in pro sports given the growth of the NBA in popularity and economics. Stern’s social agenda has been the model for every other major American sports league and became the world wide classic for responsibility in sports.
  7. Injuries. The epidemic continues with Paul George’s season lost injury in a USA Basketball scrimmage. Derrick Rose made his second return while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook went out to start the season and left the talented Thunder still trying to get to .500 as 2015 approached. Kobe Bryant returned from Achilles and knee injuries, Carmelo Anthony may need knee surgery, Dwyane Wade is in and out of the lineup and Dwight Howard is slowed in his recovery from knee and back problems. And those are just the big names.
  8. New NBA TV deal with ESPN and Turner is expected to about triple annual TV revenues. The effect will be longer term but already was seen in the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler rejecting an extension reported to be eight figures annually. The salary cap without a negotiation to phase in the additional money could jump to $90 million, a nearly 50 percent increase that would vastly escalate salaries. The division and a new chief for the players’ association, Michele Roberts, who has aggressively challenged NBA norms, could set the stage for huge financial changes and labor issues.
  9. The NFLization of the NBA. The Celtics and Lakers, the teams with by far the most NBA championships, both missed the playoffs in 2014. Along with the major market Knicks, it was the first time in league history the three of the biggest spending franchises missed the playoffs in the same season. Now with a lot of luck and some skill and the playing field leveling salary cap and luxury tax, improvement and decline can happen rapidly to basically any franchise. Charlotte two years removed from the losingest percentage season in league history made the playoffs. The Heat and Pacers coming off the conference finals both became long shots to make the playoffs in 2015. The Warriors fired their coach and went on a season opening tear that had some talking 70 wins. Toronto, which never has won 50 games in franchise history, has become an Eastern Conference power.
  10. Kobe Bryant passes Michael Jordan in alltime scoring. It took Bryant more seasons and many more games, but Bryant continues to elbow his way into the conversation about the 10 greatest players of all time in the NBA. Bryant then started the 2014-15 season coming off dreaded Achilles surgery and a knee injury among the league leaders in scoring at a time players in their 19th season and having played more than 50,000 minutes in the NBA become, at best, role players. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for example, at a similar stage was averaging 14 points in a limited role for the Lakers. Kevin Garnett, who started a season before Bryant, averaged 6.5 points last season.

NBA news and notes

All right, quit your whining out west already. All we hear from these Western Conference teams is about if only they were in the East. As if you deserve something if you can’t get to eighth place. Sorry, but they’ll all be barely getting into the playoffs and would be first round eliminations, most likely, if they were in the East. The top five teams in the Eastern Conference have a combined 16-11 record against the top 10 Western Conference teams, basically a 60 percent winning percentage. Of those top five, the only team that has a losing record against one of the top 10 teams in the West is the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are 2-4. And it’s still not an easy game against LeBron James. The Bulls are 4-3, the Raptors 4-1, the Hawks 4-1 and the Wizards 2-2. So if New Orleans were in the East, they’d be striving for sixth. Same with the Suns and probably this season the Clippers, who are 0-4 against the East’s top five. The Grizzlies, by the way, are 0-3 against the East’s Fab Five. The Rockets are 0-1. Beating the 76ers and Knicks often is not a reason for realignment.

Niko in exclusive rookie company

More for the Nikola Mirotic Rookie of the Year file: Mirotic is now one of three rookies ever (he has a ways to go, however, this season) to shoot 40 percent on threes while averaging at least five rebounds. The two who did it for full seasons were Larry Bird and Paul Pierce. But they were starters averaging almost double the minutes of Mirotic’s just over 18 ... It wasn’t just being blown out at home Sunday by the Josh Smith-less Pistons, but LeBron James continues to look curiously distracted and almost disinterested this season. You’d think with his grand return to Cleveland, James would be more enthused and motivated. Maybe he’s hurt. Probably not thrilled with the makeup of the team. Maybe the coach as well. But 30 games into his return in Cleveland, the Cavs were being booed in the fourth quarter with James on the floor as the Pistons lead neared 30 ... Yes, we heard all Kevin Love’s denials he’d opt out after this season and leave Cleveland. But Love was benched the fourth quarter in a win over the Pacers Friday, which the coach seemed to indicate was the difference in the defense. With the Cavs trying to come back Sunday, Love went out in the fourth again even as James remained in. James also has taken to openly reminding Love of his failure to help on defense. A Love story?

Could big names be on the move?

The only second rounder playing much at all in what’s become a poor 2014 draft is the 76ers K.J. McDaniels, and who knows what goes on with them ... The Bulls see the Nets Tuesday and all-world malcontent Deron Williams, now coming off the bench behind a more effective and interested Jarrett Jack and probably working on how he can run out his fifth coach in the last four years. “[Deron and Brook Lopez] didn’t play very well, and they have to play better for us to be better or for them to get more playing time and more consistent playing time,” coach Lionel Hollins said last week in benching about $35 million for this season. The Nets reportedly are trying to trade both. Would the Cavs take a shot? With the loss of Anderson Varejao for the season the Nets might take Varejao if the Cavs throw in some “assets.” It’s a guessing game whom the Cavs will pursue and what they’ll give up as they slide. Sacramento’s Jason Thompson has been available, though he’s not a center. Kendrick Perkins? Jordan Hill? Nikola Pekovic? The Cavs also are rumored to be interested in the Celtics’ Jeff Green, benched in a loss to Orlando last week. Greg Monroe on a rental? The Pistons look much better and blew out the Cavs Sunday in their Jerry Krause model “addition by subtraction,” which was a Krause philosophy that built the Bulls in the 1980s, though not with giving someone $30 million to leave.

Luol Deng speaks with his game

It’s just shocking sometimes to watch the Thunder. It’s as if Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson with Kevin Durant still out with his ankle injury dislike anyone over 6-6 on the team. They do seem finally to be learning who Serge Ibaka is, a good shooter. We’ll see how long it continues. Westbrook gets defensive about his head down play, saying he has to be aggressive. Sure, it’s a strength and he’s a difference maker. But it’s tough to play with an alleged point guard who dribbles up and doesn’t pass on so many possessions ... You don’t hear Luol Deng talk, but his 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in Miami’s Christmas Day win over the Cavs seemed like his own payback. The story was LeBron’s return, but it was the Cavs’ scouting report labeling Deng for the Hawks that produced the embarrassment and departure of Danny Ferry. Deng, of course, never brought it up, but knowing him he likely enjoyed a little payback of his own ... LeBron James had a salient observation in his return to Miami last week and was exactly right: “The question I have that’s kind of been bothering me sometimes is when a player decides to decide his own fate, there’s always questions about it and why this guy did that. When an organization decides to go elsewhere for a player, it’s they did what’s best for the team.” James seemed anxious to raise the point as he gave that answer to a different question ... The Hornets were quietly attributing winning four straight to the injury absence of Lance Stephenson until they lost their last two without him. Kemba Walker scored 42 in the last loss, Saturday to the Magic. But he may be a larger problem. Al Jefferson was the chief reason the Hornets made the playoffs last season, but point guard Walker took 31 shots to 11 for Jefferson.

Clutch shot familiar for Damian Lillard

The Mavericks found Charlie Villanueva after trading much of their bench for Rajon Rondo, and Villanueva has been good, averaging 13 points and 12 of 28 on threes the last four games. He even drove the ball in the Sunday win over Oklahoma City, which he may not have for the last five years ... Similarly with Josh Smith, who made some big drives and grabbed a pair of game saving late offensive rebounds in his debut for Houston Friday. No one’s seen that from him since 2008, though the Spurs Sunday played about eight feet off him and he bricked up two of eight ... Scott Brooks on Oklahoma City media often asking why Jeremy Lamb doesn’t play much: “When you have a good basketball team, everybody can’t play 20 minutes.” ... Perhaps unnerved about rumors Goran Dragic might want to leave as a free agent, the Suns are said to be interesting in moving Isaiah Thomas ... Damian Lillard ran the same play that beat Houston last playoffs to tie the Thunder in regulation for an overtime win last week. Since Kirk Hinrich’s three-point foul against Dallas, coaches seem ever more fearful of fouling, which still seems the best strategy leading by three ... Well, Steve Kerr was right again. They’re not winning 70.