From the start of the 2016-17 NBA season until the very end, two players and two teams created the most intrigue and raised a pair of reasonable questions: Can Kevin Durant return his newly-joined team, the Golden State Warriors, to championship glory? And can LeBron James and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers do anything to stop them?
While those scores wouldn’t be settled until June, the NBA regular season was consumed by a historic MVP race, the rise of the Washington Wizards, some breakout young stars and a major trade at the deadline involving an All-Star big man.
After Durant left Oklahoma City and signed with the Warriors as a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Thunder belonged to Russell Westbrook in more ways than one. How about three?
1. Westbrook became only the second player, and the first since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62, to average a triple-double for the season (31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists).
2. Westbrook finished with 42 individual triple-doubles, breaking Robertson's single-season record (also set in 1961-62) by one.
3. As a solo star in the heartland, Westbrook lifted the Thunder to 47 wins and the sixth seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference and set a high standard of excellence nightly.
His constant companion in the MVP race was James Harden. Bolstered by a switch to point guard and the arrival of an offensive guru in coach Mike D’Antoni, Harden was the centerpiece of a Houston team that won 55 games and shot 3-pointers at a frenetic rate. Harden averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds, all career-highs.
The Rockets set an NBA record by hitting at least 10 3-pointers in 17 straight games. Against the Pelicans they took 61 shots and made 24, both single-game records.
The league saw a shakeup in February when DeMarcus Cousins was shipped from the Sacramento Kings to New Orleans Pelicans. Rarely does a center with his credentials change addresses, but it happened when Cousins left a franchise that he never led to the playoffs in his six years to join Anthony Davis, who scored a record 52 points in the All-Star Game. The trade merged a pair of elite big men and put a promising foundation in place for the future.
Meanwhile, other developing players enhanced their profiles and reputations. Gordon Hayward returned the Jazz to the postseason with continued improvement as a scorer and leader. DeMar DeRozan hiked his scoring average to 27.3 points, almost four full points from his previous season, and gave the Toronto Raptors a premier scoring threat. In Boston, Isaiah Thomas did him better by averaging 28.9 points, almost seven higher than last season, in what was easily the best scoring performance by a player under six feet in league history.
Also, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s average jumped by seven points at 22.9 points when he showed massive improvement in his mid-range shooting and shot-creating. He added 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists by playing multiple positions for the Milwaukee Bucks.
One of the most improved teams was the Wizards, who finally flourished as the star backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal averaged a combined 46 points. Wall cemented himself as one of the league’s better point guards by adding 10.7 assists and two steals per game. The Wizards had a losing record on Jan. 18, but two months later were 17 games over .500 and on their way to the postseason.
But the biggest in-season leap was made by the Miami Heat. Floundering at 11-30 in mid-January, they found found themselves in playoff contention by mid-spring, helped by a 13-game winning streak. And they managed to pull this off without an All-Star in the lineup.
Only two playoff series went the seven-game limit (Celtics vs. Wizards, Jazz-Clippers), with the Clippers once again feeling the misfortune of losing a star player in the process. Blake Griffin pulled up lame in the Utah series; a year ago, both he and Chris Paul missed time in the spring. Also, Kawhi Leonard suffered a series-ending foot injury against Golden State in the West finals, where the Spurs were swept.
For the third straight time, the season ultimately belonged to the Cavs and Warriors. The Cavs finished runner-up in the East behind Boston for the best record, then accelerated through the post-season as expected, losing only once. James had another massive season and received ample help from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, who had his best campaign since joining the Cavs two years earlier.
Durant stunning addition via free agency instantly made the Warriors an overwhelming favorite in the West, and they clinched the top seed and ran the table in the playoffs despite losing coach Steve Kerr for almost two months due to illness.
The two powerhouses met for the third straight time in the NBA Finals, each winning once. This time, however, there would be no interfering circumstances, such as injuries to Irving and Love in 2015 and Draymond Green's one-game suspension in 2016.
The Warriors were simply too much. They lost only once in the series and withstood perhaps the best performance in Finals history from James, who became the first player to average a triple-double in the championship round.
Durant, however, was brutally efficient, scoring 30 or more points in every game to earn series MVP and avenge his loss to James in the 2011 Finals with Oklahoma City. Stephen Curry also performed well, and Kerr returned to the bench for The Finals after his lengthy absence.
It was two championships in three years for the Warriors, who set records for most wins in a regular season and postseason in the process. This stretch of dominance alone gave the Warriors their own era. With Durant on board, it’s an era that shows no signs of abating.
Eastern Conference first round
Boston defeated Chicago (4-2)
Cleveland defeated Indiana (4-0)
Toronto defeated Milwaukee (4-2)
Washington defeated Atlanta (4-2)
Western Conference first round
Golden State defeated Portland (4-0)
San Antonio defeated Memphis (4-2)
Houston defeated Oklahoma City (4-1)
Utah defeated L.A. Clippers (4-3)
Eastern Conference semifinals
Boston defeated Washington (4-3)
Cleveland defeated Toronto (4-0)
Western Conference semifinals
Golden State defeated Utah (4-0)
San Antonio defeated Houston (4-2)
Eastern Conference finals
Cleveland defeated Boston (4-1)
Western Conference finals
Golden State defeated San Antonio (4-0)
Golden State defeated Cleveland (4-1)
Points -- Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder (31.6)
Assists -- James Harden, Houston Rockets (11.2)
Rebounds -- Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat (14.1)
Steals -- Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors (2.0)
Blocks -- Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (2.6)
FG% -- DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers (71.4)
FT% -- CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers (91.2)
3PT% -- Kyle Korver, Atlanta Hawks/Cleveland Cavaliers (45.1)
Kia Most Valuable Player -- Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Kia Rookie of the Year -- Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Kia Defensive Player of the Year -- Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Kia Most Improved Player -- Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Kia Sixth Man of the Year -- Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets
Coach of the Year -- Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets
All-Star Game MVP -- Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Finals MVP -- Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors