DA's Morning Tip

Close of 2016 brings these 10 NBA memories to mind

Kevin Durant's move to California and a crowning moment in Cleveland are among the top moments from the year that was

The NBA Year 2016 was a little different from the world’s 2016. It was marked by stability, familiar faces — with some, to be sure, in new places — and a rematch of The 2015 NBA Finals, a rerun which seemed fine with just about everybody.

The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers produced TV ratings that the league hadn’t seen in more than 20 years. Last year’s Game 7 of The Finals was the highest-rated Finals game since Michael Jordan’s last game with the Chicago Bulls — Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, in which he and the Bulls won their sixth championship by defeating the Utah Jazz. The seven-game series as a whole between Golden State and Cleveland was the highest-rated Finals since that Bulls-Jazz matchup.

There were, and are, many who think the latest compilation of Super Teams is awful, cold water on the notion of league-wide competition. But that isn’t reflected where it should be — the ratings, for one, and attendance, for two. Almost 22 million people came to games around the league last season, a record, with big upticks in disparate places like Charlotte and Phoenix. And that attendance mark could well increase by the end of this season with the new Golden 1 Center in Sacramento now open.

However: there’s no question, the top two or three teams in the league are clearly head and shoulders ahead of everyone else.

The Cavaliers’ postseason record in the Eastern Conference last season was 12-2 — two sweeps, and a marginally interesting series with the Toronto Raptors in the conference finals. But Cleveland won its three home games over Toronto in the series by an average of 29.3 points. Golden State won a league-record 73 regular season games. There are more quality teams at the top of the West that will compete with the Warriors than there are in the East who can compete with Cleveland, but there aren’t many in either conference. It is a gamble to depend so much on a handful of franchises to sustain interest.

But this past year, at least, the NBA’s best rivalry carried the league along, helping present the league as a stable enterprise worth huge corporate investment and helping provide the impetus to preserving labor peace well into the next decade. It was an eventful year, not a transformative one. Unless you lived in Northeast Ohio.

So here are the top 10 NBA stories of 2016, in descending order:

10. Big Bucks. No Whammys

Owners went deep into their pockets all year, and not just for players; never have teams taken player development more seriously or paid more for people who they believe can make their existing players better. The Minnesota Timberwolves gave Tom Thibodeau $40 million over five years to take over their entire basketball operations department and coach their young, promising core. The Washington Wizards brought in Scott Brooks after he had the year off for $7 million a year over five years — the same deal the Cavaliers gave coach Tyronn Lue after leading Cleveland to the NBA title after replacing David Blatt. The Orlando Magic will pay coach Frank Vogel $22 million for four years. The Los Angeles Lakers brought former player and top Golden State assistant Luke Walton back to the organization as head coach for five years and $25 million. The New York Knicks gave Jeff Hornacek a three-year, $15 million deal, while the Portland Trail Blazers extended coach Terry Stotts for just under $5 million per year. The Houston Rockets brought Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane attack to Texas for $4 million a year over four years.

9. There’s Gold in Them Thar (Corcovado) Hills

The U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams continued their recent mastery of the world in the Rio Summer Olympic Games in August. The women tower over the competition, never even getting a game as they blew through the field. Even though Candace Parker was, shockingly, left off the squad, this may have been the most talented roster in women’s history: gold-winning vets Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Lindsay Whelan combining with future stalwarts Elena Della Donne, Britney Griner and Breanna Stewart. The women go 8-0, winning by an average of 37.2 points per game, to capture their sixth straight Olympic gold medal. The men’s team isn’t nearly as dominant. Durant and Carmelo Anthony lead the way, but the team is noted as much for the players who didn’t, for one reason or another, play as for those who did: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are among the most notably absent. (Notably present: Indiana Pacers star Paul George, his recovery from that horrific injury suffered while scrimmaging for USA Basketball in 2014 complete.) The men got a scare from Australia in the preliminary round and aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing team ever put together. But in the end, another U.S. team featuring stifling defenders from multiple positions held on to beat Spain by six in the semifinals and overwhelmed Serbia by 96-66 in the gold medal game, the U.S. men’s third straight gold in Olympic competition.

8. A Blood Feud

Chris Bosh, an All-Star who still has a lot to give on a basketball court, couldn’t get back on the basketball court, after he once again developed blood clots last Feburary and missed the rest of the Miami Heat’s season. He wanted to play in the playoffs, but the Heat never cleared him. Bosh took to social media over the summer, saying he’d found several examples of pro athletes who’d been able to continue their careers after developing clots, and the expectation was that he’d play in 2016-17. But just before the start of training camp, the Heat said he flunked his physical, and team president Pat Riley said the team was no longer planning for Bosh to play for the Heat again. So Bosh sits, still technically on the team’s roster but nowhere to be found, while the clock ticks toward a possible resolution in February — when the Heat can formally waive Bosh and get him off of the team’s cap, putting Miami in position to be a free agent player next July. The team insists that’s not the impetus for its actions, but who would blame Miami for trying to run out the clock? How could the Heat be comfortable putting Bosh back on the floor, knowing the risks that are possible? Yet how can you not feel for Bosh, who isn’t taking the easy road — he’s set for life financially, with more than $75 million left on his max deal from 2014 — and who knows he only would have a few years left in his career even if there was nothing wrong?

7. At the Departure Gates

None were a surprise, but the retirements of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett in one offseason still marked the end of the first dominant post-Jordan NBA generation. The three combined to lead their teams to 11 NBA titles and 15 Finals appearances. They currently rank third, 14th and 17th, respectively, on the league’s all-time scoring list.Duncan and Garnett are sixth and ninth, respectively, among all-time rebounders; Bryant is 14th all-time in steals. It is not a criticism but high praise to say that Bryant was the closest thing we’ve seen to Jordan. Duncan was the best power forward ever, who could say a thousand words with a simple, positive back of the head slap. And Garnett created a whole new position — Cussin’ Engine. No one was a better teammate, driven by rage and knowledge, or leader than KG. And all should clear their calendars for a trip to Springfield in the late summer/early fall of 2021.

6. The Art Of The Deal

The league and the Players’ Association, after a couple of verbal fits and starts in 2015, sit down throughout 2016 and, quietly and with next to no rancor compared to previous Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, hammer out a new seven-year deal that ensures labor peace through at least 2023 (there is a mutual out for both sides after the sixth year of the agreement). Both sides quickly conclude that it would be insane to shut down the game in the summer of 2017 with $24 billion in new TV money from ESPN and Turner Sports (which runs NBA.com) injected into the system. There’s enough for everyone to get a taste. So after agreeing to keep the current split of Basketball Related Income in place, with the players getting up to 51 percent of BRI, most other significant issues are quickly hammered out: owners made sick by Durant’s departure from small-market Oklahoma City to an already-thriving Warriors franchise get additional cap exceptions to give them a much better chance of keeping their good players. And the players will get huge increases across the board — in rookie scale contracts, Mid-Level Exceptions, Room Exceptions and veteran minimum deals.The league and players also agree to jointly fund a new program for retired players that will increase benefits and services.

5. Around The World In 73 Wins

Because of what happened in The Finals, the Warriors’ record-setting 73-win regular season will remain a curious footnote to 2015-16. With coach Steve Kerr on the mend through the first half of the season, assistant coach Luke Walton guided Golden State to 24 straight wins out of the gate. With each win, the pressure to break Chicago’s 72-10 season of 1995-96 grew. But even after the 24-game win streak ended in Milwaukee in December, the Warriors didn’t seem overwhelmed by the attention; they followed that with three separate seven-game win streaks (the second seven-gamer included Curry’s insane game-winner in Oklahoma City) and an 11-game streak in late January/early February. Kerr let the team decide if it wanted to go all-out in pursuit of the record. The young guys, led by Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, voted for immortality. And the Warriors delivered, winning their final four regular season games, including two against the Spurs. Their win over Memphis on the final day of the regular season — during which Curry became the first player in league history to make more than 400 threes in a season — put the Warriors over the top. Losing The Finals took a lot of luster off of that mark, but in time, it will assume its rightful place in league history as one of the greatest feats anyone has ever accomplished.

4. These Prices Are … Insaaaaaaane!

In the first minutes of free agency July 1, the Lakers agree to a deal with free agent center Timofey Mozgov, a good, occasionally very good, but in no way great big man. They agree to pay him $64 million over the next four years. It is the beginning of the Big Spigot, a three-week extravaganza/orgy of spending league-wide. Memphis gives former Dallas Mavericks small forward Chandler Parsons, who’s already had microfracture knee surgery, $94 million.

Dallas replaces Parsons by maxing out ex-Warrior Harrison Barnes, coming off a horrific Finals, with its own max deal for $94 million. The Grizz then keep their own free agent, guard Mike Conley, from taking a visit to Dallas by maxing him out — to the tune of $153 million over five years. The Portland Trail Blazers give Evan Turner $70 million. Bismack Biyombo gets $70 million from the Orlando Magic. The Washington Wizards give Ian Mahinmi $64 million (after spending $128 million to re-sign Bradley Beal). The Brooklyn Nets drop offer sheets on Portland’s Allen Crabbe ($75 million) and the Heat’s Tyler Johnson ($50 million).

This went on for three weeks, with every team needing to spend at least $84.7 million — the cap floor. In the end, most everyone was wildly overpaid, but wildly overpaid is the new NBA normal. The biggest free agent shock, though, wasn’t Durant leaving OKC — it was Dwyane Wade, after 13 seasons in Miami, taking a two-year, $47 million deal with the Bulls. Wade was done giving the Heat hometown discounts. He had never been the team’s highest-paid player, and after taking less so that the Heat could sign LeBron James and Bosh (2010) or to keep Bosh after James left (2014), Wade insisted he get the full boat. Miami said no, needing to keep its powder dry for the summer of 2017 and/or ’18. And Wade — by far, the most popular and successful player in the franchise’s history — walked back to his hometown.

3. RIP, The Process (2013-16)

Here’s the deal people don’t want to admit when it comes to deciding which side you’re on regarding Sam Hinkie and his tenure as the 76ers’ General Manager: Sam Hinkie (and, for that matter, Daryl Morey, Sam Presti, and many of today’s decision makers in the NBA) is smarter than you. Wayyyyyy smarter than you. Smart people intimidate less smart people.

I remember there being an almost mythic quality to a fellow student at American University during my undergrad years there, because she was universally regarded as the smartest person in school. Wicked smart. MENSA smart. She was a unicorn, almost.

Now imagine being that person. Maybe you are smarter than everyone else, maybe you’re not. But everyone thinks you are. And they treat you differently as a result. What do you do with that? How do you behave because of that?

I don’t think Hinkie tried to be smarter than everyone else; it’s just that smart people don’t think in binary ways, from Point A to Point B. They game everything out. They try different things because they’re aware there are different things to try. It’s not that Hinkie thought flipping Jrue Holiday for an injured Nerlens Noel on Draft night 2013 would show everyone he was playing chess while they were playing checkers. It just gave him another potential player that could turn into someone special. The more of those you had, the better chance you had of a quick turnaround.

So if it meant waiting two years for Joel Embiid, and sending him to Qatar for treatments, you did that. Or if it meant spending no money on free agents that wouldn’t make a dramatic difference (not that they would come to a ship leaking water like the 76ers, anyway), you didn’t. It was just being logical, not intelligent. It’s the same with the 3-point obsession in the NBA — it’s not personal, it’s math. I get it. But less smart people always take that personally, projecting their insecurities onto you — your feeble brain is not capable of seeing what I’m seeing. But I don’t think that’s true. And I’m one of the less smart people.

Nonetheless, Hinkie’s reign ended last April, and he tried at great length, which smart people do, to try and explain exactly why he did what he did, in a 13-page letter that was leaked in a matter of seconds (maybe by him, maybe by his enemies, maybe by both). He referenced the decisions and thoughts of people like Warren Buffett, and Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, and Charlie Munger, and lots of other people that lots of Sixers fans had never, ever heard of. I don’t think he did it to compare himself to those people; he did it because those people’s lives were, and are, frames of reference to him. He truly incorporated the way they lived, and live, into his own worldview, tried to find the connectivity between entrepreneurs and risk takers in the business world and other places and his job, trying to build a successful basketball team.

I don’t know if Sam Hinkie was a success in Philly. I do know he put a lot of thought into trying to be one. And that he’s way, wayyyyy smarter than you or me — unless you’re, say, that girl I went to school with at AU. How’ve you been?

2. KD Writes A Story

This was in January or February of last year, when I ran into one of Kevin Durant’s reps in some arena, and made it plain: just let me know when the inevitable Players’ Tribune story will run letting everyone know what he’s going to do. And she laughed … sort of. But we all knew that was how Kevin Durant would announce his decision, because that’s what athletes do these days.

After the Thunder blew a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals to Golden State, including a shocking Game 6 loss at home in OKC where Durant played poorly, the NBA world came to a stop in early July to see what 2016’s premier free agent would do after being courted for the first time in his professional life. Durant entertained six teams in the Hamptons, listening to the pitches from his incumbent Thunder, the Warriors, the Boston Celtics, the Heat, the LA Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs. The latter three teams quickly intuited they had little chance; it came down to OKC, Golden State and Boston, which recruited Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to be part of its pitch.

The Celtics intrigued, but the final two teams were the expected final two. Durant ultimately decided (the Players’ Tribune story dropped on July 4) that he’d join the team that vanquished him, producing the usual angry rants about how he wasn’t tough enough to try and beat the team that beat him, and how this would destroy the competitive fabric of the league, and yadda yadda yadda. (Again: the NBA has never been competitive if you look at the incredibly small number of teams that have actually won championships.) All he did was opt to play with three All-Stars, including the two-time Kia MVP, and play for a great coach, and live in one of the best places in the world. It wasn’t that difficult to understand. But the impact on the league was real, making the Dubs a prohibitive favorite to win more rings, soon.

1. LeBron Agonistes

Toward the end, he didn’t want to talk about what it would mean to him to end The Curse, the drought of major professional sports championships in Cleveland since 1964. But that’s why LeBron James returned to Cleveland in the first place, walking away from the SuperFriends and, surely, more titles in the future. James wasn’t looking for more titles — he just needed one, in his home state, for his home state, and particularly Akron and Cleveland.

A ring would give him gravitas and three dimensions and vault him onto the short, short list of greatest players in NBA history. Cleveland, though, fell down 3-1 to the defending champion Warriors, and James appeared doomed to a fourth Finals loss in six tries, his legacy low hanging fruit for the social media critics.

Yet, with everything on the line again, James summoned up his absolute, incontrovertible best, and brought the Cavaliers all the way back, past Red Right 88 and The Shot and The Drive and The Fumble, with a fury at both ends of the court that only the greatest players can produce. He would often say “follow my lead” in previous similar situations, but it always sounded forced; this time, the man and the moment were one. He was incredible in Game 5, Game 6 and … man, Game 7. It was a result of some importance back home, and it became the cement, the sinew to James’s already brilliant career. And when it was over, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.

More Morning Tip: DA’s Top 15 Rankings | Liggins makes most of second chance in NBA | Q&A with Isaiah Thomas

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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