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The NBA’s Top 10 Defining Moments of 2017

With the New Year on the horizon, we take a look back at the NBA season that was, pointing out the most defining moments of 2017.

No single player encapsulated all aspects of the NBA in 2017—the game, the drama, the politics, the Internet hijinks—better than Kevin Durant.

The Warriors’ All-Star forward won his first title and first Finals MVP award, he beefed repeatedly with former co-star Russell Westbrook, he shot himself in the foot with his burner Twitter account, he passed on a potential White House visit, he re-signed on a discount to keep the Warriors’ band together, and he prompted rivals to take radical steps to counter his successful move to the Bay Area.

At various points over the past 12 months, Durant was unstoppable, jubilant, petty, “idiotic” (by his own admission), selfless, thoughtful, and incredibly influential. He simultaneously reached new heights on the court and accumulated a record level of naysayers, a fitting dichotomy given that 2017, outside of basketball, was marked by its frightening and heightened polarization.   

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But Durant was only one of many compelling actors in the NBA’s theatre this year. In hindsight, 2017 had just about everything a basketball fan could want, minus a competitive postseason. To compensate for all those blowouts and sweeps in late April and May, the NBA captivated audiences with shocking statistical achievements, a slew of blockbuster trades, near-daily doses of trash talk on social media, and pointed activism.

With that in mind, here’s a chronological rundown of the NBA’s top 10 defining moments of 2017, a list that aims to capture the bigger themes driving the league’s present, its future and its widening reach.


1. Feb. 19: Kings trade DeMarcus Cousins on All-Star Sunday

All-Star Weekend was mostly a bust: Aaron Gordon couldn’t execute his Drone Dunk, Stephen Curry epitomized the apathy towards the Sunday showcase game by laying down on the court, and the awkward Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook reunion didn’t quite have a Kobe/Shaq level of juice. Enter the Kings, who seemed hellbent on causing a public relations inferno by finally agreeing to trade DeMarcus Cousins, after years of rumors, just minutes after the All-Star Game ended.

Political commentators are quick to note that 2017 really did a number on norms, with long-held beliefs and standards getting trampled time and again. The NBA experienced a similar phenomenon: Joel Embiid repeatedly insulted and mocked his opponents, Kyrie Irving asked away from LeBron James, Devin Booker chased a 70-point game in a loss without shame, and Russell Westbrook dominated the ball so heavily that even Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan would blush at his record 41.7 usage rate. But Sacramento topped them all, overshadowing the weekend’s events to kick aside their franchise player in a manner that was embarrassing to Cousins, confounding to the fan base, and humiliating to the organization.

On its own, Cousins’ trade to the Pelicans hasn’t really shaken up the league: Sacramento is still terrible, New Orleans is still forgettable, and his future remains uncertain with 2018 free agency fast approaching. But the deal did establish an early benchmark for other wayward franchises—like the Pacers, Bulls, Knicks and Clippers—who went on to trade their stars in the summer. 

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2. May 2: Grieving Isaiah Thomas scores 53 points in Game 2 against the Wizards

Plug “You couldn’t write a script like this” into Google and one will find an endless series of articles ripping that oft-used sports cliché to shreds. Rightfully so. But is there a more effective way to summarize what former Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas did in Game 2 against the Wizards? This was a “30 for 30” documentary playing out in real time: During a thrilling career year, a brash and late-blooming 5’9” Mr. Irrelevant lost his sister in a tragic car accident, only to play through the grief and score a career-high 53 points while leading an overtime victory in the playoffs against a top rival. All on what would have been his sister’s 23rd birthday. “The least I could do is go out there and play for her,” an emotional Thomas told reporters. Later, it came out that he had battled a nagging hip injury throughout the playoffs, too.

Somehow, that was only the first half of Thomas’s story in 2017. A stunning summer blockbuster between the East’s top two teams—Boston and Cleveland—sent him to replace Kyrie Irving as LeBron James’s running mate. Like DeMarcus Cousins, Thomas was left to contemplate loyalty, and he has since expressed second thoughts about his decision to play through an injury that has kept him sidelined through Christmas. On the bright side, his return to Cleveland will be one of the most important early stories in 2018: The NBA needs his personality, James needs his scoring and playmaking, and the Cavaliers need all hands on deck to challenge the Warriors. For Thomas, 2018 will represent his first true chance to win a title and his best shot at a major payday after spending years as one of the league’s most underpaid stars.

3. May 4: LaVar Ball unveils Lonzo Ball’s $495 signature sneaker

Even though his son Lonzo was still six weeks away from being drafted, LaVar Ball wasted no time staking his claim as the NBA’s biggest disruptor. The outspoken entrepreneur and trainer made headlines for outlandish comments all year long, including: the “Stay in Yo Lane” controversy with a female media member, his spat with the president over China, and his plans for his own minor league to compete with the NCAA. However, the biggest power move from the head of Big Baller Brand came during the playoffs, when Ball unveiled his son’s “ZO2 Prime” signature sneakers, an independently created and marketed shoe that was sold online for $495.

Predictably, the “ZO2 Prime” prompted a swift backlash, given that it cost more than the signature sneakers for LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry combined. Skeptics rushed to question whether Ball could turn a profit on the venture, and critics wondered whether Lonzo would have been better served by signing a seven-figure guaranteed contract with a sneaker powerhouse like Nike or Adidas. Was Ball helping, hurting or exploiting his son? Ball doubled down, of course, earning respect and praise from some athletes who admired his outside-the-box thinking and self-empowered focus.

Whether or not Ball’s “speak it into existence” approach helped land Lonzo on the Lakers, his willingness to be a heel has unquestionably raised his son’s profile. It seems like he’s just getting started. While Ball’s longer-term impacts remain to be seen, he should not be written off as a clown or a loudmouth, even if some of his recent statements and decisions—like publicly questioning Lakers coach Luke Walton and sending his two younger sons to play in Lithuania—look misguided. By mounting challenges to traditional powerbrokers like the NCAA and the major sneaker companies, Ball could wind up as a trailblazer.


4. May 14: Kawhi Leonard exits West finals amid controversy

This year, Gregg Popovich directed his harshest words to the president of the United States, but Zaza Pachulia was a not-too-distant second. The triggering event: Kawhi Leonard was forced from Game 1 of the West finals with an ankle injury after Pachulia slid underneath the Spurs forward as he shot a jumper. Popovich pulled no punches in response to the since-outlawed defensive action, which keyed Golden State’s big comeback win and kept Leonard out of the rest of the series, which ended in a 4-0 Warriors sweep. “I’m not a happy camper,” Popovich said. “The two-step lead with your foot closeout is not appropriate. It’s dangerous. It’s unsportsmanlike. … This particular individual has a history with that action. … Who gives a damn about what his intent was? You ever heard of manslaughter?”

While Popovich’s rant was surely intended to stand up for Leonard, rally his troops, and bring much-needed attention to a play that needed to be legislated out of the game, his laments were also reflective of the overwhelming challenges posed by the Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry Warriors. “9.75 people out of 10 figure the Warriors will beat the Spurs,” the legendary coach moaned. “Well, we’ve had a pretty damn good season. We’ve played fairly well in the playoffs. I think we’re getting better. And we’re up 23 points in the third quarter against Golden State and Kawhi goes down—like that—and you want to know if our chances are less and how we feel? That’s how we feel.”

It took just one misplaced foot to extinguish the most serious challenge to the Warriors, who gallivanted to the title with a 16-1 postseason record. 

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5. June 7: Kevin Durant hits the shot of his life over LeBron James

The tensest moment in Kevin Durant’s first season with the Warriors came during a January loss to the Grizzlies, when Draymond Green excoriated him for settling for a contested isolation three-pointer late in the game, rather than involving Stephen Curry in a pick-and-roll or running the offense. “I’m kind of thrilled that we lost,” Green said afterwards, pointing out that needed corrections might not take place otherwise. For Durant, this had all the makings of the New Guy Nightmare: A star out of place in Basketball Shangri-La due to bad habits accumulated from years of playing a more individualistic style.

Fast forward to June, though, and Durant delivered proof that he and the Warriors could meet in the middle. Golden State torched through the playoffs with its beautiful ball movement, as Durant and Stephen Curry formed a devastating one-two punch that opponents never solved. Ironically, though, the most memorable play of a five-game Finals victory over Cleveland was all Durant. Down two with less than a minute to play in Game 3, the four-time scoring champ claimed a defensive rebound and pushed the ball up the court by himself, hunting for a shot. With LeBron James back on his heels inside the three-point line, Durant stepped into a pull-up three from the left wing. The cold-blooded shot swished through, silencing the crowd and sending Golden State to a commanding 3-0 series lead. In the immediate aftermath, no one questioned his shot selection, and surely Green was “thrilled” with the win.

Durant’s three-pointer delivered validation in many forms. It proved that he hadn’t messed up the Warriors’ mojo. It proved that the so-called “Mr. Unreliable” could come through in the clutch. It proved that his decision to leave Oklahoma City would end with his first title, an achievement most observers expected (or demanded). And it proved that he could triumph head-to-head over James, whom he had spent most of the last decade chasing. The shot also begged a question that will define the NBA in 2018 and beyond: When will Durant surpass James as the sport’s top talent?

6. June 16: Philadelphia trades up for Boston’s No. 1 pick

The Celtics have been profiting from their 2013 blockbuster trade with Brooklyn for years, a one-sided deal that has delivered a steady stream of picks and pick swaps to fortify an extended rebuilding effort. In June, the gift that has kept on giving led to another trade that is bound to inspire heated debates for at least the next decade. Shortly before the draft, the Celtics found themselves in a unique position: They held the No. 1 pick, courtesy of the Nets, after just completing a trip to the East finals. The 2017 class lacked a consensus franchise-changer, like Anthony Davis, and the Celtics felt no pressure to follow conventional wisdom given their successful foundation. They were playing with house money and free to gamble.

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Danny Ainge unveiled a bold response to these rare conditions, trading the top pick to the Sixers for the No. 3 pick and a 2018 first-rounder. For Boston, this was part asset maximization and part practical roster management: Ainge added to his war chest and avoided any fit questions with Markelle Fultz, a ball-dominant guard who was viewed as the consensus top pick. At No. 3, Ainge selected Jayson Tatum, a versatile wing who could contribute right away without needing the rock.

Philadelphia’s logic was clear, too, as Fultz represented a talented and dynamic third wheel to support Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. With a few seasons under their collective belt, the Sixers’ new-look “Big 3” would have just about every base covered: ball-handling, play-making, pure scoring, outside shooting, perimeter versatility, and interior defense. Unfortunately, a mysterious shoulder injury to Fultz has delayed those plans this fall. In light of Tatum’s strong start in Boston, a horde of second-guessers has already descended upon Sixers president Bryan Colangelo.     

Looking ahead, the Fultz/Tatum trade seems destined to be this decade’s Greg Oden/Kevin Durant debate, a watershed moment that will define both franchises as Fultz, Tatum and Boston’s prospect to be named later develop. Given that both the Celtics and Sixers have rosy long-term views and diehard fanbases, it’s best to start buckling up now for endless relitigating.


7. June 26: Russell Westbrook claims MVP after historic triple-double season

Both facts and attention spans came under assault in 2017, with “Fake News” becoming a household term and news cycles flipping more quickly—and across more platforms—than ever before. Even so, Russell Westbrook’s historic 2016-17 season managed to rise above the information mosh pit, and it should enjoy serious staying power. After all, OKC’s relentless point guard became the first player in the NBA’s modern era—and the first since Oscar Robertson in 1962—to average a triple-double for an entire season. Just think: Which current player, besides Westbrook himself, could duplicate this feat?

Remarkable energy, sustained brilliance and boundless opportunity drove Westbrook’s achievement. He missed just one game, he turned in 42 triple-doubles and four 50-point efforts, he led the league in scoring and usage, he carried the Thunder to the postseason in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure, and he emerged as one of the greatest martyrs in recent memory. The Westbrook Way was bound to fall short in the 2017 playoffs, as it did, but that seemed beside the point to his many true believers.

Westbrook’s efficiency left much to be desired, and he took heat for rebound-poaching and stat-padding. Some critics, including Rockets GM Daryl Morey, bemoaned the triple-double’s arbitrary nature. Nevertheless, a triple-double average was an unthinkable accomplishment for decades, right up until Westbrook set about his chase last October. Indeed, the game’s greatest players over the past 50 year—Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson and all the rest—never came particularly close to pulling it off. Westbrook’s season of achievement was capped with his first MVP award, after he fended off former teammate James Harden in an epic horserace. He, and Oklahoma City, celebrated with a $205 million contract extension in September.

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8. June 22-30: West contenders add Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Paul George

The big question coming out of the Warriors’ smashing postseason: How would their success and their sustainability impact their competitors’ thinking? Would rivals view them as an inevitable dynasty and adopt a longer-team approach? Or, would they continue along with business as usual in hopes of challenging the champs?  

As it turns out, the answer to those questions arrived before free agency even opened on July 1. The last week of June produced a flurry of superstar trades, as three teams that suffered first-round exits (the Bulls, Clippers and Pacers) elected to play for the future by trading off established stars (Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Paul George, respectively). On the other side of those transactions were three buyers (Minnesota, Houston and Oklahoma City) eager to make noise in the West, and their shared willingness to sacrifice younger players and to acquire stars on short-term contracts proved that the conference wouldn’t be paralyzed by Warriors-induced fear.

It hasn’t always been pretty, but all three moves have paid dividends. Houston has been a revelation despite an extended injury for Paul, beating Golden State on opening night and challenging the Warriors for the league’s best record and top point differential. Minnesota has been one of the league’s most improved teams, and Butler’s all-around game will likely be the key factor in ending a 13-year playoff drought. Oklahoma City has been on a rollercoaster all season long, merging Russell Westbrook, George and Carmelo Antony into a tricky-fitting Big 3. Nevertheless, the Thunder have one of the league’s top defenses and a strong shot at claiming home-court advantage in the West.

There’s a decent chance that the Warriors shift into sixth gear come May, blowing away the Rockets, Thunder, Timberwolves and everyone else. But Daryl Morey, Sam Presti and Tom Thibodeau deserve kudos for making the start to the 2016-17 more competitive and more interesting, even if their risk-taking backfires down the road.

9. August 23: Kyrie Irving successfully forces his way out of Cleveland

On June 12, Kyrie Irving used his time at the podium—after losing Game 5 of the Finals—to launch into extended praise for LeBron James. Irving said that James was “way over” the line of greatness, that he was “freaking awesome” and a “consummate professional,” that he was determined and insatiable, that he was media-savvy and a model for how an athlete should take care of his body, and that he was a leader inspired his teammates to play with confidence by never settling. “It would be a disservice to myself if I didn’t try to learn as much as possible while I’m playing with this guy,” Irving said. “That’s the type of guy I want to be with every single time I’m going to war. … I know if we continue to be with one another and keep utilizing one another, man, the sky’s the limit.”

Roughly one month later, according to reports, Irving requested a trade out of Cleveland and furnished the Cavaliers with a short list of desired destinations.

A lot can happen in a month, and a lot did happen in that month for the Cavaliers. A trade for Paul George failed to materialize, leaving owner Dan Gilbert bitter at the Pacers. Well-respected GM David Griffin was abruptly let go. Chauncey Billups, a top target to replace Griffin, passed on the opportunity, opening the door for first-time GM Koby Altman to take the reins in July.

Even so, Irving’s reversal was shocking: He had just been to three straight Finals, he hit a championship-sealing three-pointer in 2016, his star rose considerably when James returned to Cleveland in 2014, and he had just completed a career year. Irving seemingly had everything most young stars want: a chance to compete for a title, a defined role, a quality roster, a max contract, plenty of shots and touches, a signature sneaker deal, a jersey that ranked among the league’s best sellers, and numerous national endorsements. But Irving lacked two things: A team to call his own, and a clear understanding of James’s plans once the four-time MVP hit free agency in 2018.

Chris Paul and Paul George both played an active role in pursuing better opportunities for themselves, but Irving’s move was far bolder because he had so much more to lose. His exposure was real: Leaving James meant sacrificing cover on the court and putting his reputation at stake. If his move failed, he would be subjected to endless ridicule. “He had it made with LeBron. What kind of selfish idiot would leave?”

So far, Irving’s bet has paid off. The Celtics were an excellent landing spot, providing him with the right balance between freedom and structure, excellent coaching, smart systems, a quality cast, a winning environment, and a huge platform. As Irving looks ahead to the rest of his prime, he can anticipate being a centerpiece for recruiting efforts (Anthony Davis?) without worrying about James’ latest decision. Altman’s ability to land Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and a pick for Irving will likely be enough to ensure that James and the Cavaliers win the East in 2018, but past that the Celtics’ outlook is brighter than ever. In other words, Irving is unlikely to harbor any regrets.


10. September 23: LeBron James tweets ‘U bum’ at the president

A year of activism in the NBA reached a crescendo in September, when the president repeatedly attacked professional athletes. First, he insulted NFL players who kneeled during the National Anthem. Then, he retracted the Warriors’ White House visit after multiple players, including Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, expressed reservations about attending.

LeBron James finally had enough of the divisive rhetoric. “U bum,” James tweeted, referencing the president. “Stephen Curry already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” That two-word heckle—“U bum”—appeared as a New York Times headline, and the tweet drew 659,000 retweets and 1.5 million likes, making it the most retweeted post by an athlete in 2017.

The tweet was only the first course. At Cavaliers Media Day later that week, James addressed the president at length, expressing “solidarity” with NFL players and pointing to sports’ ability to bring people together. “I'm not going to let … one individual, no matter the power, no matter the impact that he should have or she should have, ever use sport as a platform to divide us,” James said. “We know this is the greatest country in the world. It's the land of the free. But we still have problems just like everybody else and when we have those problems, we have to figure out a way how we come together and be as great as we can be as a people. Because the people run this country. Not one individual. And damn sure not him.”

James’ layered commentary went on from there, touching on the president’s need to lead, to be a role model, and to be a source of encouragement and inspiration, while also wondering aloud whether voters were properly educated before casting their ballots. He praised Colin Kaepernick’s willingness to sacrifice his career, and he encouraged other athletes to take a stand however they see fit. “For me personally, my voice is more important than my knee,” he said.  

In a year filled with unsettling political developments, caustic dialogue, hate-fueled confrontations, and countless protests and counter-protests, James emerged as a voice of reason.

Honorable Mention: LeBron James averages a triple-double in the Finals, Devin Booker scores 70 points against the Celtics, Stephen Curry cashes in with a max contract, Charles Oakley gets dragged out of Madison Square Garden, Kobe Bryant gets two jerseys retired, Giannis Antetokounmpo gives the Raptors all they can handle, James Dolan dumps Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony finally leaves New York and Kristaps Porzingis blows up, Gordon Hayward picks Boston over Utah with a messy free agency rollout, Hayward suffers a gruesome injury on opening night, Joel Embiid hints at his dominant future with a career-high 46 points against the Lakers, and many, many others.