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The Best Basketball Player Alive Every Year, 2010s

The Crossover will look at the NBA's best player in each season from 1979-80 to 2019-20. Today, we’ll look back to the 2010s.

The 2000s featured a long slate of players holding the mantle of Best Player Alive, but by the end of the decade, the game’s top player was clear. LeBron James seized the throne in 2008-09 and never looked back, dominating the 2010s with a run akin to Michael Jordan. But LeBron wasn’t without significant competition.

James kicked off the decade with Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade in their primes, and Kobe Bryant was still rolling as an All-NBA talent. Things didn’t get easier as the 2010s continued. Kevin Durant emerged as arguably the best scorer of the century. Kawhi Leonard evolved from an elite complimentary piece to a bona fide star. James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry marked a new generation of superstars, and before long, a certain Greek Freak challenged James’ throne.

So who was truly the Best Player Alive in every year of the 2010s? Check out The Crossover’s selections below:

2009-10 - LeBron James

James’ final year in Cleveland ended with disappointment, but during the regular season, the best player of his era continued to dominate the competition. LeBron finished the year second in scoring, first in PER and first in win shares, guiding the Cavaliers to 61 wins. An Eastern Conference semifinals loss to the Celtics concluded James’ time in Cleveland, at least for a few years. He’d fulfill his promise to bring home a championship before the decade is over.

Honorable Mentions – Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade

Howard reached the Finals in 2008-09, and he was even better the following year with perhaps the best center season of the 2010s. Howard led the league in blocks, rebounds and field goal percentage, becoming the lone player this century to average at least 18 points and 13 rebounds per game while shooting 60% from the field. Howard paired that efficiency with another dominant defensive campaign as he won his second of three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards. We may be underrating Howard’s Hall-of-Fame career in 2020.

We’re once again stuck with a difficult choice for the No. 3 spot with no shortage of deserving candidates. Kevin Durant won his first of four scoring titles in 2009-10, and Kobe Bryant captured his fifth and final championship. Neither player was as good as Dwyane Wade. Miami’s superstar carried an undermanned Miami team to 47 wins, and he ended the year with top-five finishes in points, steals, PER and win shares. Wade earned first-team All-NBA and second-team All-Defense honors, highlighting his impressive impact on both ends of the floor. Wade in his prime may be the best shot-blocking guard in NBA history. He was pretty spectacular on the other end, too. Wade’s two-way brilliance gives him the nod.

2010-11 - LeBron James

We’ve hit on MVP misfires numerous times in our Best Player Alive series, and the 2010-11 MVP may be the most egregious. No disrespect to Derrick Rose, but giving the award to anyone but LeBron James reeks of either boredom or vengeance. James quickly became a villain upon joining the Heat, though that shouldn’t take away from his superb season. LeBron finished second in scoring and 12th in assists, once again shining as an advanced analytics icon as he led the league in win shares and PER. If there was another deserving candidate, perhaps we’d take LeBron out of the top spot given his disastrous Finals. But in reality, there’s nobody who truly challenged James’ crown as the best player in the NBA.

Honorable Mentions – Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki

We’ll select Kevin Durant as our first runner-up in what will become a theme throughout the decade. Still, even if Durant couldn’t snag the top spot, he was clearly the game’s top scoring threat by 2010-11. KD led the NBA in scoring for the second straight season at 27.7 points per game as OKC sprinted to 55 wins, and he was the top scorer in the postseason before losing to the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals. 2010-11 didn’t mark the peak of Durant’s career by a long shot. He still earned the No. 2 spot in his fourth NBA season.

I truly feel bad for Rose here, who would certainly slide into the top three had Miami–or any team other than Dallas–won the 2011 Finals. But Dirk Nowitzki’s playoff heroics gives him the nod. Both Rose and Nowitzki finished in the top 10 in points per game, PER and win shares. And while Rose’s season ended in a five-game loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, Nowitzki defeated Miami’s Big 3. He hit a game-winning layup in the final seconds of Game 2 of the Finals, then scored 29 points on 18 shots in a critical Game 5 victory. After nearly a decade of playoff frustration, Nowitzki sealed his legacy with a dominant 2011 postseason.


2011-12 - LeBron James

There was little competition for the Best Player Alive here, even as James had yet to truly hit his Miami peak. LeBron won 85 of 121 first-place MVP votes as he scored 27 points per game, and he came through in the clutch after a miserable 2011 Finals. James and the Heat headed Boston down 3–2 in the Eastern Conference finals, with an implosion of the Big 3 possibly on the horizon. James rose to the occasion. He blitzed Boston with 45 points–including 30 in the first half–and 15 rebounds, making 19 of 26 shots. He’d defeat the Celtics two nights later before winning his first ring in a five-game series against the Thunder

Honorable Mentions – Kevin Durant, Chris Paul

Durant falls just short again here. The Thunder couldn’t overtake James and Co. in the playoffs, though that’s no fault of Durant's. He averaged 30.6 points per game in the Finals on 54.8% from the field and 39.4% from three, continuing an outstanding postseason. It remains a shame Durant couldn’t win his first ring with Oklahoma City.

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The Point God continued to shine as the league’s top point guard in his first year with the Clippers, leading the NBA in steals while averaging 19.8 points and 9.1 assists per game. Paul continued to be an advanced analytics darling, and he deserves serious credit for turning around a moribund franchise that registered just one playoff appearance in 14 years. The Clippers never reached the Finals with Paul, but CP3 should be recognized for making Los Angeles’ second team anything other than a laughingstock.

2012-13 - LeBron James

It remains debatable when exactly LeBron hit his peak as a player, but 2012-13 stands as his best statistical season. James scored 26.8 points per game with an 60.3 effective field goal percentage, and he canned over 40% of threes for the only time in his career. James led the way in Miami’s 27-game win streak, and he delivered once again in the playoffs. Ray Allen saved the Heat’s season in Game 6 of the Finals, but don’t discount James’ historic Game 7. He scored 37 points and added 12 rebounds, sealing the victory with a 19-foot jumper with 27 seconds left. James got the monkey off his back in 2012. He sealed his legacy in 2013.

Honorable Mentions – Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony

KD told Sports Illustrated he was “tired of being second,” in April 2013, but unfortunately, he would still have to wait another half-decade to seize the mantle of Best Player Alive. Durant shouldn’t be ashamed of finishing behind James, especially at LeBron’s peak. Regardless, Durant continued his historic offensive career in 2012-13, joining the 50-40-90 club as he averaged 28.1 points per game. Durant ceded the scoring title, but he would recapture it one year later for the fourth time in five years.

Carmelo Anthony’s legacy has frankly been disrespected in recent years, and qualifying his production at his peak as empty calories is either ignorant or disingenuous. Anthony was a legitimate superstar as he nearly guided the Nuggets to the Finals in 2009, and in 2012-13, he was one of the league’s most dynamic players with the Knicks. Anthony led the league in scoring as he shot 38% from three, and he finished fourth on the PER leaderboard. After delivering New York their first playoff series win in 13 years, Anthony is well deserving of our No. 3 spot.


2013-14 - LeBron James

Apologies for the redundancy, but James continued to separate himself from the pack in his final year with the Heat. LeBron scored the most points of his Heat tenure in 2013-14, and he shot a career-high 56.7% from the field. Even with a quick exit in the Finals, LeBron faces little competition as the NBA's top player.

Honorable Mentions – Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin

If you looked solely at the metrics, Durant has a pretty solid case as the league’s best player as he ran away with the MVP award. He led the NBA in PER, win shares and scoring in 2013-14, and only two players had a better offensive rating. We almost had a shot at Thunder-Heat II as OKC sat tied 2–2 with San Antonio in the Western Conference finals, but Boris Diaw had other ideas. The Frenchman–and NBA’s espresso king scored 26 points off the bench, eliminating Durant and Co. in Game 6.

Blake Griffin finished third in the MVP vote, and looking back, this isn’t a case of the hype outweighing the performance. Griffin made a serious leap in 2013-14, rising from an elite rim-runner to a legitimate offensive fulcrum. He jumped from 18 to 24 points per game, showing nascent ability as a point forward. We’d see Griffin embrace his playmaking skills later in the decade as his athleticism waned. 2013-14 marked the best blend of his impressive talents.

2014-15 - LeBron James

2014-15 marked the start of Golden State’s reign of terror, but James wasn’t ready to cede the throne just yet. LeBron took his foot off the gas in the regular season. He hit the accelerator in the playoffs. Cleveland went 12–2 in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and James averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game in the Finals. It remains a crime he didn’t win Finals MVP.

Honorable Mentions – Stephen Curry, James Harden

Curry had yet to fully peak in 2014-15, though his MVP campaign is still quite impressive. Curry hit 44.3% of triples on 646 attempts, leading the NBA in made threes for the third straight year. He didn’t quite match James in the Finals, though he did score 37 points with seven threes in a pivotal Game 5 victory. Curry won his first championship in 2015, then took over the league one year later.

Harden’s rise in Houston was a bit of a slow burn, and his steady progress obscures his excellence in the mid-2010s. The soon-to-be three-time scoring champion jumped to 27.4 points and seven assists per game in 2014-15, and he led the league in minutes and win shares while finishing second in scoring. Harden had a legitimate argument for the MVP as Curry took home the award. If you ask Rockets fans, Harden should already have four MVPs in his trophy case.


2015-16 - Stephen Curry

James bested Curry in the Finals with the greatest comeback in league history, but one series doesn’t eliminate a whole season of work. Curry didn’t just win his second straight MVP in 2015-16. He changed the course of basketball history. Golden State’s star buried 402 threes–an NBA record–and he led the league in scoring, win shares, steals, true shooting percentage, free-throw percentage and PER. The numbers don’t lie. Curry stood head-and-shoulders above the field as he was named the unanimous MVP.

Honorable Mentions – LeBron James, Kevin Durant

2015-16 marked a middling year by James’ standards, and he appeared to spend much of the regular season once again gearing up to face Golden State. And this time, James came out on top. LeBron rallied Cleveland from a 3–1 deficit with 41-point efforts in Game 5 and Game 6, and he posted a triple double–along with the greatest defensive play in NBA history–in Game 7. Even with a dip in regular-season performance, it would be blasphemous to take James out of the top three.

Durant couldn’t catch a break before heading to Golden State, consistently falling just short of a championship and the title of Best Player Alive. Yet he still proved himself to be a clear top-three talent in 2015-16. Durant finished in the top five in win shares, PER, and scoring, and he could have reached his second Finals if it weren’t for Klay Thompson’s Game 6 eruption. Durant fell short in 2015-16, then joined the NBA’s Death Star. Had he stayed in Oklahoma City, perhaps he’d enter the 2020s without an elusive championship.


2016-17 - Kevin Durant

It may have taken nearly a decade, but Durant finally ascended to the mountaintop in his first year with Golden State. KD feasted with a slate of open shots, posting a career-best 59.4 effective field goal percentage as he averaged 25 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. The postseason is what truly gave Durant the title. He averaged 32 points per game in Golden State's final two series, shooting an outrageous 57% from the field and 45% from three. Durant buried the Cavs with a dagger triple in Game 3, and he closed out LeBron and Co. with 39 points on 14-20 shooting in Game 5. Durant may never get the credit he deserves after fleeing OKC, but his talent is undeniable. The rest of the league stood little chance against the Warriors when Durant arrived in The Bay.

Honorable Mentions – Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook

James may be the victim of his own standards here, but outstanding seasons from a pair of Western Conference stars briefly knocks The King out of the top three. Kawhi Leonard finished third in the MVP vote in 2016-17, though he was arguably the game’s second-best player behind Durant. Kawhi averaged a then-career high 25.5 points per game, and he finished third in PER and fourth in win shares.

Leonard remained the game’s premier defensive wing after winning DPOY in each of the previous two seasons, and he was an absolute star in the playoffs. Leonard averaged nearly 28 points per game on 52.5% from the field and 45.5% from three, and he turned in a slate of outstanding performances against the Grizzlies and Rockets. He scored 26 points in 23 minutes against the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals before Zaza Pachulia ended his season. Perhaps we could have seen one of the great upsets in recent memory had Leonard stayed healthy.

Kicking out one of the Leonard-Westbrook-Harden trio was incredibly difficult, and this decision won't sit well with some of the more rabid members of Houston’s fan base. But it feels like basketball malpractice not to recognize Westbrook’s MVP campaign. It wasn’t just the triple-doubles that set Westbrook apart (as Daryl Morey has insinuated). Westbrook was the league’s premier clutch player in 2017-18, and he kept the Thunder from completely crumbling after Durant’s departure. Westbrook’s 2016-17 is perhaps the most memorable single season of the decade.


2017-18 - LeBron James

Talk about a high degree of difficulty. James led the NBA in minutes for the second straight year in his 15th season, playing all 82 games without Kyrie Irving. Cleveland only won 50 games in the regular season–thanks to the league’s No. 29 defensive rating–but LeBron earned his crown back in the playoffs. He hit game winners over Indiana and Toronto, averaging 34 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game before the Finals. James then turned in perhaps the greatest Finals performance of the century in Game 1 against Golden State. He scored 51 points on 19-32 shooting, adding eight rebounds and eight assists. I still haven’t forgiven J.R. Smith or George Hill for ruining James’ masterpiece.

Honorable Mentions – James Harden, Kevin Durant

Harden is becoming Durant-esque with this run of runner-up finishes, and if this were an 82-game honor, he would have leapt over James. The Beard won his first scoring title with 30.4 points per game in 2017-18, and he led the league in PER, win shares and (of course) usage rate. We likely would have seen Harden and LeBron square off in the Finals had Chris Paul not pulled his hamstring in Game 5 against Golden State.

Anthony Davis has a serious case here as he earned first-team All-NBA and first-team All-Defense honors in his penultimate season with New Orleans. Though his accomplishments aren’t enough to knock off the Finals MVP. Kevin Durant still turned in an efficient regular season–26.4 points per game on 42% from three–and he was once again a scoring dynamo in the playoffs. KD scored 34-plus points in Game 1, Game 2 and Game 7 against the Rockets in the Western Conference finals, and he crushed Cleveland once again with 43 points in Game 3 of the Finals. Durant turned in a triple-double in Game 4 two nights later, sweeping the Cavs and ending James’ second run with his hometown team.


2018-19 - Kawhi Leonard

Leonard load managed his way to just 60 regular-season games last season, keeping him off the Best Player Alive radar as Antetokounmpo and Harden jockeyed for the MVP. But by the end of the 2019 playoffs, there was little debating Leonard as the league’s top player. Kawhi averaged 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game in the postseason, and he demolished Philadelphia with four 35-plus point performances in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Leonard hit his famous game-winner in Game 7 to beat the Sixers, and he then dispatched Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in the East finals. The Warriors dynasty ended at the hands of Leonard one round later, giving Kawhi his second Finals MVP in six years. He left the Raptors a month later, but Toronto fans will remain indebted to Leonard for years to come.

Honorable Mentions – Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden

Antetokounmpo won his first MVP in 2018-19 with a Shaq-like efficiency, averaging 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds per game while posting a 59.9 effective field goal percentage. Milwaukee finished fourth in offensive rating and first in defensive rating en route to its first 60-win season since 1980-81, and Antetokounmpo led the league in PER. Giannis fell short of the Finals after surrendering a 2–0 lead vs. Toronto, but don’t fret. Antetokounmpo’s best basketball is still ahead of him.

You can complain about Harden’s stylistic peculiarities as much as you want, but 36.1 points per game is absurd regardless of context. Harden unleashed the best scoring season this century in 2018-19, and he did so with pretty impressive efficiency. Houston’s superstar led the league in threes, free throws and points by season’s end, and his postseason performance is a touch underrated. He averaged 35 points per game against Golden State in the West semifinals, shooting 51% from the field in each of the series’ final two games. He ultimately lost a duel to Curry in Game 6, ending the Harden-Chris Paul partnership in depressing fashion. Maybe a new Hall-of-Fame running mate will help bring Harden to his first Finals in Houston.