Top 10 NBA stories of 2010
LeBron James' free agency decision killed his image but made him more famous
The Lakers beat the Celtics in another chapter of the league's classic rivalry
Kevin Durant's emergence included a scoring title, playoff berth and FIBA gold
1. "The Decision." Two years of speculation heightened the buzz around the ultimate free-agent destination of LeBron James. And then the self-indulgent idea of crassly announcing his departure from his hometown Cavaliers on live TV detonated the hype at the expense of James' good name. Someday, we will look back and realize the notoriety of last summer served more than anything to raise his profile, which will mean ever more attention for James should he win a championship in Miami alongside fellow free agents Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, whose group machinations resulted in an unprecedented coup for Heat president Pat Riley. The whole extended episode of LeBron's escape from Cleveland -- the long build-up, launch and instantaneous crash -- can be viewed as his attempt to leap the Snake River Canyon. It had two results: He lost control of his fame, and he became more famous than ever.
2. Lakers beat Celtics in NBA Finals. The NBA's last rivalry was reconstituted when point guard Rajon Rondo unexpectedly drove Boston out of its regular-season doldrums and through the Eastern Conference tournament. A knee injury to center Kendrick Perkins in Game 6 of the Finals, combined with the lingering ailments of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, weakened the Celtics just enough, enabling the cold-shooting but tirelessly rebounding Lakers to overcome a 13-point deficit in the second half of Game 7 for an 83-79 victory and their 16th championship -- one short of Boston's record. Afterward, Kobe Bryant (6-of-24 in Game 7) admitted that beating Boston meant more to him than anything, and that he couldn't have done so without the cold-blooded assistance of Ron Artest (20 points, five steals).
3. Breakout of Kevin Durant. At 21, he became the youngest scoring champion (30.1 points per game) in league history while driving the young and heretofore hopeless Thunder to 50 wins -- more than Durant had totaled over his previous two seasons in Oklahoma City and his team's previous home of Seattle. Then he led a young USA team to its first FIBA World Championship gold medal in 16 years while breaking the American tournament scoring record in the absence of 2008 Olympians Bryant, James and Wade. When Durant quietly signed an extension to remain with Oklahoma City (his only credible option with the 2011 lockout looming), he was cast as the anti-LeBron as well as the main challenger to James' two-year lock as league MVP.
4. Miami's slow start to 2010-11. Years from now, people won't be able to fathom the ruckus created by the 9-8 start of James, Wade and Bosh in Miami. You had to be there and, unfortunately, we were. Each new day turned the least significant detail into breaking news, whether it was Bosh's lingering failure to produce numbers, James' subtle complaints or Wade's impassive support of coach Erik Spoelstra. When James shouldered past Spoelstra during a timeout, "the bump" was replayed and re-examined like a fresh view of the Zapruder film. Funny how the three stars never complained about the excessive attention.
5. Carmelo Anthony's wedding. As first reported by Newsday, New Orleans point guard Chris Paul toasted at Anthony's July wedding in New York that he and the groom would join newly signed Amar'e Stoudemire "and form our own Big Three" with the Knicks. Paul and Anthony would dismiss the toast as a joke inspired by the frenzy of Miami's recent coup. But both stars would spend the rest of the year engaged in LeBronish conjecture that they would be the next to abandon their franchises.
6. Mikhail Prokhorov buys Nets. Commissioner David Stern hopes the arrival of the Russian billionaire oligarch will launch a wave of foreign ownership for the NBA. Prokhorov's $200 million purchase (giving him 80 percent of the team and 45 percent of the new arena ) hinged on the Nets' ability to move to Brooklyn in 2012-13 and challenge the Knicks' hold on New York. This was followed by the acquisition by Ted Leonsis of the remaining 56 percent of the Wizards, the Verizon Center and Ticketmaster in a deal valued altogether at $550 million; the highly competitive (and exorbitant) $450 million sale of the Warriors to a group headed by Joe Lacob and Peter Guber; and the unprecedented takeover of the Hornets for more than $300 million by the NBA itself, positioning Stern to personally ensure that franchise values don't dwindle heading into a potential 2011 lockout.
7. Celtics upset Cavaliers in Eastern semifinal. If the Heat's slow start was epilogue, then this series served as bizarre prologue to "The Decision." It began with innuendo of a serious right elbow injury to James, who shot a free throw left-handed during the top-seeded Cavs' opening-round beating of Chicago. In a performance reminiscent of Kobe Bryant's unhappiest years, James played passively for crucial stretches against Boston, which would lead to speculation by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and others that James had quit on his team because he'd already decided to leave. An alternative (but inexcusable) possibility is that he was fed up carrying the Cavs and looking forward to sharing responsibility with more talented teammates. Or maybe he was simply having a bad week, for any number of reasons.
8. The Dream Team, 18 years later. The 1992 Olympic team -- the first U.S. team that featured NBA players -- was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a group, while team members Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone were brought into the Hall as individuals. The team's biggest star, Michael Jordan, whose face launched the NBA into new global markets based on the success of the '92 Games, became majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats in his native North Carolina -- an unrivaled investment in the league by a star player.
9. Gilbert Arenas' suspension. The Wizards' forlorn point guard made the regrettable error of bringing three unloaded guns into the team's Verizon Center locker room and then revealing them in December 2009 to teammate Javaris Crittenton amid a lingering dispute over gambling debts. Arenas insisted he had committed a prank gone bad, but in January he pleaded guilty to felony gun possession in the District of Columbia and was sentenced to a month in a halfway house, and commissioner David Stern suspended the three-time All-Star and Crittenton for the rest of the season. Arenas began the 2010-11 season with the Wizards before being traded to Orlando in December as Washington moved forward with No. 1 pick John Wall as its new point guard and franchise cornerstone.
10. Lockout speculation. Owners and players spent 2010 looking ahead to the possibility of a 2011 lockout that could wipe out the 2011-12 season. Stern revealed an opening "offer" to the union of shorter contracts and smaller salaries that would cost players close to $800 million annually. Union chief Billy Hunter responded by enlisting players to vote in favor of decertifying the NBPA as a last resort in case of an extended lockout. James' shenanigans had raised TV ratings for the NBA as revenues continued to increase, yet the immediate future looked grim as owners of most franchises claimed to be losing money -- an assertion refuted by players and their agents.