Season in stories: Sports Illustrated's best NBA features from 2014-15
From LeBron James' return to Cleveland to the rapid rise of Anthony Davis to Russell Westbrook's remarkable transformation, Sports Illustrated has chronicled the most compelling stories from 2014-15 NBA season. With the playoffs now in full swing, SI decided to take a look back at the NBA features that have graced its pages from this past season.
Editor's note: Stories are in chronological order. There is a list of recommended reading below that includes some of the best features from SI.com this season. Features compiled by Adam Pincus.
LeBron James comes home
By Lee Jenkins (7.21.14)
Fifty-eight stories above the Las Vegas Strip, LeBron James sat on a beige sofa in his suite at the Wynn hotel, summer haze obscuring the floor-to-ceiling view of the Spring Mountains in the distance. Between bites of scrambled eggs and sips of carrot juice, James unspooled what sounded like a modern fairy tale.
A boy grows up in a hard-bitten Rust Belt town, shuttling from one apartment to another with his single mother; he meets teachers, coaches and friends who help him become the most prominent basketball prodigy of all time; he is drafted by the pro team that plays 45 minutes away, elevates it to heights unseen and then abruptly bolts for a tropical paradise in a manner that devastates his supporters and wracks his soul. Four years pass, and he finds in paradise exactly what he sought, validation in the form of two championships, but home still pulls at his heart. He starts to recognize that, despite all his success, he means more where he was than where he is. READ MORE
LeBron James: All of the King's Men
By Lee Jenkins (10.22.14)
He is sitting in a leather-backed chair at the wood-paneled Club Bar inside Beverly Hills’s historic Peninsula Hotel, Sinatra on the stereo, reminding him to do things his way. It is the last day of summer and the last week of rest before James returns to northeast Ohio for real as a Cavalier. Awaiting him is a nine-month reunion tour unlike any an athlete has experienced since Michael Jordan hung up his spikes. James has spent nearly half his life in a basketball petri dish, steadily growing as the world watches. But even he cannot fathom the scrutiny that will accompany his first press conference, practice, scrimmage, preseason game, regular-season game, road game, Spurs game, Heat game, playoff game. He will be feted when he turns 30 on Dec. 30 and roasted whenever Cleveland loses three in a row.
James’s individual performance will spawn a hundred story lines but, chances are, little suspense. Barring injury, he’ll average about 27 points while hitting more than half his shots. He’ll win MVP or finish second. He’ll carry the Cavs through one playoff series and probably two. What will determine whether they simply contend for the championship or capture it is the impact James has on those around him. His new Big Three is nothing like his old one. READ MORE
Ryan Anderson: Love, loss, survival
By Chris Ballard (11.7.14)
Ryan had been smitten ever since that February night two years earlier when Gia had floated past him in a long green dress at a hotel in the Bahamas. He’d told his brother-in-law and good friend, Mark Groves, “If I don’t talk to this girl, I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life.” Ryan and Gia sat on the beach until sunrise, talking about friends, family and faith. While they later traveled the world, exploring China and Mexico, theirs was an almost teenage relationship. They went to Walt Disney World and Epcot. At Easter they made each other baskets, Gia including a photo album of the couple in his, Ryan filling hers with candy and coloring books. READ MORE
Kawhi Leonard: Need he say more?
By Chris Mannix (11.13.14)
Kawhi Leonard shuffles through an unmarked door in the back of the Spurs' practice facility, hair neatly braided, eyes hooded, gaze vacant. It's preseason media day, an event that excites the San Antonio players as much as another trip to the Alamo. Tim Duncan has come and gone, his three-minute group interview highlighted by the revelation that, yes, he did consider retirement before exercising his $10.3 million option.
Manu Ginóbili has long since finished discussing the right-leg injury he suffered during the Finals. ("I'm feeling well," Ginóbili divulged.) And coach Gregg Popovich has retreated to his office after explaining why the core of his title-winning team remains intact. "We had a pretty good year," Popovich said. "I didn't see any reason to kick them out of town."
The Spurs have long been known as a team indifferent to attention and approval, but in just three seasons the 6'7" Leonard has emerged as their poster boy. READ MORE
Anthony Davis: A star's rapid rise
By Lee Jenkins (12.9.14)
Every few years the NBA presents a new prodigy, supernaturally gifted and relentlessly driven. Ant—as he is called, sans irony, like a bouncer named Tiny—is listed at 6' 10", 220 pounds (“245 now,” he interjects), with a wingspan longer than Yao Ming stands and a gait that can cover the floor in a dozen cartoonish strides. He is the invention of a God who already built Kevin Durant and decided to get more creative. Teammates compare Davis to a Gumby doll, a pogo stick and a variety of other outlandish toys, all elastic or spring-loaded.
“I can throw the ball off the top of the backboard,” says point guard Jrue Holiday. “He’ll catch it.” The league has always attracted its share of acrobats, contortionists and high risers but never a postmodern giant quite like Davis, dribbling between his legs, elevating off one foot, sinking fadeaways and swatting them with equal assurance. READ MORE
The Man Behind The Swag
By Lee Jenkins (1.19.15)
Warriors: NBA title favorites
By Chris Ballard (2.23.15)
The giant in the yellow T-shirt lumbers across the concrete, advancing on his target.
It’s a Wednesday evening in late January, in the cavernous underbelly of Oracle Arena, minutes before the first-place Warriors are to host the Rockets. Golden State’s primary owner, 59-year-old Joe Lacob, has just finished speaking to a bunch of venture capitalists in North Face vests. Straddling a stool in a private room, Lacob spoke of penciling profits and leveraging assets and the general awesomeness of Steph Curry. But now he’s headed toward the tunnel to hiscourtside seat. Before he can get far, however, the giant intercepts him.
“THANK YOU JOE!” the man bellows.
Lacob peers up and recognizes the looming figure of Bill Walton, whose son Luke is a Warriors assistant coach and who, for reasons that never become totally clear, crashed the VC event and asked a handful of relatively complex financial questions.
“THANK YOU!” Walton shouts a second time, pumping Lacob’s hand. “Thank you for everything you’ve done!” READ MORE
Jimmy Butler: A long journey to NBA
By Ben Golliver (2.23.15)
Jimmy Butler's signature move isn't a single action at all, but a flurry. His constant movement is at once exhilarating and exhausting—poaching in passing lanes, bulldozing through screens, blazing on the break, storming the paint, pounding in the post. The numbers confirm the impression that the Bulls' lithe, 6'7" swingman is everywhere at once: Butler leads the NBA in minutes played and, according to motion tracking cameras, distance covered on the court. During a December win over the Knicks he had an offensive rebound, a steal and two assists in 44 seconds. In January he scored nine straight fourth-quarter points in 67 seconds to help force overtime against the Lakers.
Butler, 25, first arrived on the NBA scene as a designated shadow, following the opposition's star wings wherever they went. But this year he has taken over the spotlight, averaging 20.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists, all career highs, to become the favorite for Most Improved Player. NBA fans recognized Butler's progress on nearly a half-million All-Star ballots—votes of confidence, so to speak—ranking the former defensive specialist among the 25 most popular players in the league.
He has risen from a homeless, withdrawn teenager in Tomball, Texas, to a confident Eastern Conference All-Star, and another chapter of his remarkable story is coming in July, when he is likely to sign a max contract. READ MORE
James Harden: NBA's unlikely MVP
By Lee Jenkins (2.23.15)
The private plane that transported James Harden into Texas on the morning of Oct. 28, 2012, was silent except for the muffled beats leaking from his chunky headphones. He sat suspended in the soupy air between Oklahoma City and Houston, the NBA Finals and the lottery, the bench and the marquee. Behind him was the only professional home he’d ever known, stable and secure, with strong friendships and guaranteed success.
Ahead lay a teeming city that he compared with a desert island, a land of opportunity spiked with expectation, where he would either build a new community or languish trying. He had just spent the summer on the U.S. Olympic team, with Thunder running mates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, fantasizing about the championships they seemed destined to capture. What do I do now? Harden asked himself. He was going from sixth man on a budding dynasty to leading man on a bubble team. His safety net, once as wide as Durant’s wingspan, had vanished. “I felt like I was by myself,” he says. READ MORE
Hawks: Doing their fair share
By Lee Jenkins (3.10.15)
Atlanta has accomplished more this season than in any of the past 46. The Hawks have put together the best record in the Eastern Conference. They’ve produced a club-record four All-Stars. They’ve had a 19-game winning streak. They’ve compensated for a lack of size and depth with balanced box scores and sledgehammer screens. They’ve proved that elegant offense exists outside the Alamo, and that Americans can share the ball as selflessly as Europeans. They’ve charmed a jaded city, overcome a mortifying scandal and done it all while the franchise is for sale and the general manager is on leave. In light of everything, maybe it’s insignificant that they’ve also allowed an Indiana point guard to reclaim his basketball soul. But the story of Jeff Teague is the story of the Hawks and the modern NBA, discovering a better way to play, which was evident all along.
Teague is the unlikely conductor of this hardwood orchestra. After [Mike] Budenholzer was hired, he called his new point guard and said, “We’re going to do something totally different than what you’re used to.” READ MORE
Alonzo Gee: NBA's transaction hero
By Lee Jenkins (3.17.15)
On the day of last month’s NBA trading deadline, a record 37 players changed teams, and Alonzo Gee was one of them. His recollections of that manic morning are not unusual—the calls from harried executives, the texts from stunned relatives, the disorienting sensation that life is about to pull a reverse 360. Except he was experiencing it all for the fifth time since Father’s Day.
Today Gee is a Blazer, but in the past eight months he has been a Nugget, a King, a Rocket, a Pelican, a Cavalier and sort of a Hornet. He can barely re-create the list. “I want to get all the different jerseys and hang them up,” he says, “because it’s such a crazy story.” READ MORE
Patty Mills: Spur, Aussie, Bala
By Alexander Wolff (3.23.15)
The Spurs would soon turn their attention to the Heat, their opponent in the NBA Finals, which were set to begin two days later. They would go over the importance of clogging the middle against LeBron James, of scrambling over the tops of screens set for Ray Allen, of keeping Chris Bosh from facing up on the block. But last June 3, as the Spurs gathered in the video room at their practice facility, an entirely different item topped coach Gregg Popovich’s agenda.
“Anybody know what today is?” Popovich asked.
Overflowing legacy of Nash
By Lee Jenkins (3.30.15)
On March 12 at the Langley Events Center in Langley, British Columbia, St. Michaels University School played G.W. Graham Secondary School in the quarterfinals of the provincial championship tournament. The G.W. Graham point guard was a 5’10”, 145-pound sophomore named Gabe Mannes. When he took the court, he wiped the soles of his sneakers. Before he caught an inbounds pass, he licked the tips of his fingers. After he hoisted a shot, he held his follow-through, wrist bent at 90 degrees. “Every mannerism,” says St. Michaels coach Ian Hyde-Lay, “exactly the same.”
Legacy is a word that gets thrown around a lot in sports, often incorrectly. The formal definition – “something received from a predecessor” – is far different than the popular meaning. Legacy increasingly refers to an athlete’s compilation of awards, records and championships. But those are lines on a résumé. Nash's imprint on the future is his legacy. READ MORE
Russell Westbrook opens up
By Lee Jenkins (4.06.15)
When Russell Westbrook finishes the orange wedges, the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and the Taylor Swift and Katy Perry songs, he sits swaddled in white towels, his terry-cloth cocoon. He stretches out over two chairs in the Thunderlocker room, his iPod with its eclectic playlist resting on his right thigh, and lets the metamorphosis unfold. “He doesn’t talk,” says guard Anthony Morrow. “He doesn’t blink. He turns into Maniac Russ.” He stares at a wall-mounted TV flashing video of that night’s opponent. Teammates try to engage him. “But he’s somewhere else,” Morrow says. They ask questions and then reconsider: “You know what, man, it’s nothing,” says second-year center Steven Adams. They follow him to the floor, where the transformation is completed. “The ball goes up,” Adams says, “and he becomes a beast.” READ MORE
More recommended NBA reading
• Kobe Bryant: Twilight the Saga by Chris Ballard
• Bruno Caboclo: The Long View by Phil Taylor
• Coaching NBA star Stephen Curry by Rob Mahoney
• Blazers honor Jerome Kersey by Ben Golliver
• Matt Barnes: The Clippers' pariah by Chris Ballard
• Players' answer to avoiding injury by Chris Ballard
• Erik Spoelstra: 'The Dungeon' to NBA champ by Lee Jenkins