Expert Poll: Every NBA Team's Signature Moment of the Decade
What a decade the NBA is wrapping up.
Dynasties were forged and fell. Player empowerment—well, superstar license—reached fever pitch. Free agency and trades became spectacle. Different surprises and upsets and heartbreak and milestones punctuated each and every season.
It is only right that, as the Association barrels toward 2020, we commemorate such a dizzying decade of basketball with the signature, most meaningful moment for each franchise.
Rather than blather on solo for this crash course in reflection, I took to the streets for input and enlightenment—the streets being email, Twitter DMs and phone conversations. Smart, hip people who cover and follow every team were consulted for this collection of memories to ensure no flagship moment was forgotten to (recent) history.
Everyone who contributed to this project was given prompts—initial selections from yours truly and a list of alternative nominates for consideration. Sometimes, my first choice aligned with those from our esteemed guests. On other occasions, one of the alternatives resonated more. In a select few instances, a commemorative counsel member disagreed with my decisions entirely.
Each expert was given veto power. I provided pushback whenever I disagreed, but every person was selected for a reason. They know the team they follow and cover, and if they made compelling arguments for off-book selections (spoiler: they did), they were granted benefit of the doubt.
In their words and mine, let's revisit some of the most pivotal moments each franchise has enjoyed, or survived, over the past 10 years.
It's Commish For A Day on "The Full 48 with Howard Beck!" Hear the changes the following would make to the league if they were given power for 24 hours—Metta World Peace, Channing Fry, KC Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Matt Barnes, Stephen Jackson, Shawn Marion, Harvey Araton, Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry, and actor Kelly AuCoin.
Atlanta Hawks: Starting 5 Wins Eastern Conference Player of the Month
Defining the Atlanta Hawks' decade begins and ends with the 2014-15 squad. They rattled off 60 victories en route to clinching the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed one year after tallying just 38 wins and put some real distance between themselves and the mediocrity in which the organization was continually mired.
Getting swept in the Eastern Conference Finals by LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers put a minor damper on what remains, by record, the best season in franchise history. It didn't help that the Hawks barely made it to said series in the first place. Both the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards, who were missing John Wall for half of the semifinals, pushed them to six games.
Big whoop. That Hawks squad was still a singularity, the rare regular-season powerhouse the league didn't see coming. Their signature moment is only tough to pin down because it's really a collection of them rolled into one.
"If we're allowed to consider an entire month a signature moment, it has to be the Atlanta Hawks' perfect January during the 2014-15 season, which led to a franchise-record 60-win season and featured the Eastern Conference's eventual No. 1 seed rattling off 19 consecutive victories (17 in January)," Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote. "The starting lineup, comprised of DeMarre Carroll, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague, didn't feature superstar-caliber play from any individual, but the collective unit was named co-Eastern Conference Players of the Month in an unprecedented decision; previously, that accolade had only been shared by multiple players when the voting resulted in a tie."
Nothing was more 2014-15 Hawks than splitting an award meant for one player among five. They were the zenith of star-less basketball at the time, just as much as the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs. They ranked first in assist percentage and fifth in passes per game, and although they sent four players to the All-Star Game, not one landed a starting nod.
As for alternative selections, Atlanta doesn't have many. Kyle Korver's dunk against the Indiana Pacers and a win over the 39-8 Golden State Warriors that same season stand out, as Fromal put it, "on a more granular level." Hiring Mike Budenholzer as head coach in 2013 and advancing to the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals are up there, too.
More recently, the Hawks have the Trae Young trade—or rather, the decision to not keep Luka Doncic. Certain diehards will paint that as a mutual victory for Atlanta and the Dallas Mavericks, but unless Cam Reddish turns into a fringe star or better, that move will go down as one of the great what-if moments in league history.
Boston Celtics: Isaiah Thomas' Arrival
Choosing the moment that most defines the Boston Celtics' decade is a special kind of difficult. A lot has happened in Beantown since 2010, much of it not only attention-grabbing but also genuinely meaningful.
Alternative considerations include jumping out to a 3-2 Eastern Conference Finals lead against the Big Three-era Miami Heat in 2012; the heist that was the 2013 Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade; a banged-up Isaiah Thomas dropping 53 points in Game 2 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals just weeks after his sister, Chyna, was killed in a one-car accident; Al Horford proving the Celtics were a free-agency destination in 2016; the Kyrie Irving trade in 2017; and Jayston Tatum's posterization of LeBron James in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals.
Initial inclinations should be to roll with the Garnett-Pierce trade. The compensation Boston received set the stage for its ultra-accelerated rebuild and the acquisitions of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kyrie Irving.
Settling on that moment is in no way wrong. I still sort of want to choose it. Alex Kungu of HoopsIsland swayed me on Thomas' arrival:
"The 2015 roster was feisty, and in a weaker Eastern Conference they were actually not out of the playoff picture by the time of the trade deadline (despite being way under .500). The front office had a decision: Do we let this team fizzle out and pursue tanking again or do we trade for help and potentially risk a higher draft position. Boston chose the latter. Isaiah Thomas came in, and the team instantly surged through the remainder of the regular season and finished as the No. 7 seed.
"Ultimately, the run led to being swept by the Cavs and a 16th pick rather than a lottery selection. But the year did a couple of things: It put Boston back on the map as a playoff team; it created leaguewide respect for Brad Stevens; the winning in the following years led to free agents such as Al Horford and then Gordon Hayward choosing the Celtics; and, as a result, the Celtics were able to balance two timelines (keeping picks to develop versus still fielding a competitive team). That led to them on a few occasions not pulling the trigger on deals that could have included Nets picks."
Where the Brooklyn trade laid the framework for Boston's ascent, Thomas' arrival actually started it. Never mind squeaking into the 2015 playoffs. The 2015-16 Celtics won 48 games, put up a reasonable fight against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round and then, that summer, poached Horford.
Everything that's happened since hasn't been completely smooth. Boston was mocked for not cashing in its assets on Jimmy Butler (eh), Paul George (definitely debatable) or Kawhi Leonard (probably a good idea, because he was clearly always L.A.-bound). The 2018-19 season and the subsequent departures of Horford and Irving, who cost Thomas himself, are a slight stain on this era.
At the same time, the Celtics haven't yet fallen out of Eastern Conference contention. They're mainstays in that conversation, in no small part because they still have Brown, Hayward and Tatum. But Thomas' imprints are still all over their trajectory.
Trading for him barely cost anything—a 2016 first-rounder (Skal Labissiere) was the most valuable asset they gave up—and his play helped leave them comfortable enough to not consolidate picks and prospects into superstar trade targets.
Whether the Celtics deserve to be praised for their restraint is a matter of debate. They eventually swung and, in time, missed on Irving. But what he left behind is keeping Boston relevant—and intact, even if only somewhat, thanks to Thomas.
Brooklyn Nets: Signing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant
To the surprise of no one, the Brooklyn Nets' signature moment comes down to a pair of choices: The disastrous 2013 trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, or this past summer's acquisition of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, two separate signings that were, in no uncertain terms, a package deal.
Many, if most, will vote for the former. The Nets mortgaged their future for a nonexistent title window, giving up five players, three first-rounders (2014, 2016, 2018) and a 2017 pick swap. Those draft selections turned into James Young (2014), Jaylen Brown (2016), Markelle Fultz (2017) and Collin Sexton (2018). The Boston Celtics used two of those picks, Fultz and Sexton, to land Jayson Tatum and Irving, who, somewhat hilariously, is now in Brooklyn.
Harping on all the Nets surrendered in 2013 is not bad form. That trade hamstrung their ability to rebuild after the championship timeline that never was. But their plunge into the NBA's abyss wasn't entirely about one move. They were toeing a dangerous, implosive line before then.
Using the pick that became Damian Lillard to land Gerald Wallace, trading for Joe Johnson to facilitate re-signing Deron Williams and then actually re-signing Williams all contributed to the Nets' long-term issues. The Garnett-Pierce debacle was an extension of that thinking and sealed Brooklyn's fate, albeit more so than the previous moves.
And yet, what's more difficult: digging yourself into a seemingly inescapable hole or finding a way out of it? The New York Daily News' Kristian Winfield didn't hesitate when asked:
"Signature moment this decade is definitely signing Kyrie/KD. That validated all the years of eating dirt as a byproduct of not having their own picks due to the previous regime. It legitimizes the Nets as a perennial playoff threat (if everyone stays healthy, of course) and is the culmination of everything [general manager] Sean Marks and [head coach] Kenny Atkinson have worked for since taking over. Obviously, the KG-Pierce trade is infamous and a signature moment, but this summer was a crossroads moment for the Nets, and we learned a lot about the direction they're headed."
Late-decade nominations are complicated. Durant won't play this season while he recovers from his Achilles injury, and Irving has missed more than half of the year with a right shoulder issue. The Nets haven't yet parlayed their signings into more than anecdotal victories.
For now, considering how far they fell over the past half-decade, that's more than enough. They have reinvented both the culture and perception of the franchise, rebooting the careers of Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and D'Angelo Russell, among others, to establish Brooklyn as an it destination. That's impossibly hard to do in general, let alone in the span of just a few years.
Forfeiting the moon and more to Boston for a team that barely made it out of the first round is of course a close runner-up. The Johnson, Wallace and Williams trades, along with D-Will's second contract, deserve honorable mentions.
Other options include: hiring Jason Kidd; Kidd's exit; the Marks and Atkinson arrivals; this seminal photo; the Russell trade; their Dinwiddie and Harris pickups; any of the aggressive offer sheets they put together for Allen Crabbe (2016), Tyler Johnson (2016) and Otto Porter (2017); completing the move from New Jersey to Brooklyn in 2012; and ending what was supposed to be a perpetual playoff drought in just three years.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker Sets Franchise's All-Time Scoring Record
Two options stand head and shoulders above the rest for the Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker setting the franchise's all-time scoring record or something emblematic of the 2015-16 team that won 48 games.
The latter isn't just magnetic; it was the first pick, with the caveat of warring nominations. There was the Game 5 victory over the Miami Heat, which put the Hornets one win away from taking a playoff series for the first time since 2002. Or there was the Game 6 loss, a demonstrative letdown at home, during which The Purple Shirt Man taunted Dwyane Wade late in the fourth quarter with Charlotte trailing by six points.
Either moment is a solid encapsulation of the Hornets' decade. That 2015-16 squad was simultaneously special and, in hindsight, damaging. Losing Game 7 to Miami by 33 points was tough to swallow, but the good vibes from that season empowered Charlotte to double down on its core and offer pricey contracts to Marvin Williams (four years, $54.5 million) and Nicolas Batum (five years, $120 million), the latter of which has hamstrung the organization ever since.
Are the Hornets in a better situation over the next four seasons, including this one, if they don't try leaning into that 2015-16 finish? Eh. They've been suckers for the middle under Michael Jordan's rule. But nearly any alternate path would've qualified as an upgrade over what came next: a number of curious trades and contracts, three consecutive lottery appearances and Kemba Walker's departure, which they parlayed into some awkward headlines and an overpaid Terry Rozier.
All the potential trickle-down effects from 2015-16 eventually took a backseat to Walker. The impact of Charlotte's last playoff run, both good and bad, is far more subjective. Walker's place in the Hornets' record books left more of an unmistakable mark.
"While 2015-16 is a GREAT pull, the ending leaves a little bit to be desired," Konata Edwards from the Locked On Hornets podcast and Dime Uproxx argued. "Honestly, the signature moment of the decade for the Hornets is when Kemba Walker broke the franchise scoring record in 2017-18 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sure, LeBron James steamrolled the Charlotte NBA franchise (it's a common theme), but for a homegrown player that Michael Jordan actually had a role in drafting to own the franchise record in scoring over Dell Curry? It's kind of magical and highlights exactly how special Walker will always be in Charlotte."
Anything Kemba-related is tough to rail against. He was the Hornets' lifeline, and then somehow more than that, for the better part of a decade. If his setting the franchise's scoring record doesn't do it for you, then his 60-point masterpiece during a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in November 2018 better.
If not one of these options tickles your fancy, well, then, you're the problem. But also, you could latch on to the 2012 draft lottery, when the seven-win, worst-ever Bobcats landed the No. 2 pick instead of the first overall selection—the difference between Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis. They also could've drafted Bradley Beal with the second selection instead of MKG. Double yikes.
Chicago Bulls: Game 1 Victory in 2011 Eastern Conference Finals
This moment was always going to be brought to us by the Tom Thibodeau-era Chicago Bulls. The only question that needed to be answered: What was more purposeful, their meteoric rise or potential unfilled?
Derrick Rose's injury toward the tail end of the Bulls' first game during the 2012 postseason is the choice if the latter matters more to you. His career arc went belly-up in that split second.
Up until then, he was a superstar on the climb, the youngest MVP ever (he won it in 2011), headlining a championship contender that figured to rival LeBron James' Miami Heat. After that injury, neither he nor the Bulls' trajectory was ever the same.
Chicago's trip to the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals stands out even more because of that collective derailment. The Bulls pieced together some promising campaigns thereafter—Joakim Noah's Defensive Player of the Year, fringe MVP campaign during a mostly Rose-less 2013-14 was no joke—but that Game 1 victory over the Heat represented their apex.
That peak was equal parts shocking and short-lived. As The Athletic's Stephen Noh told me:
"They vaulted from a .500 team for two straight years under Vinny Del Negro to the best regular-season team in the league under the first year of Tom Thibodeau. Nobody saw that coming, and it was an electric time to be a Bulls fan. The Bulls had swept the Heat 3-0 during the regular season and won Game 1 of that playoff series. An NBA championship seemed like a legitimate possibility, but the Heat went on to sweep the next four games."
Other potential nominations vacillate, as Noh pointed out, between the good and bad.
The good: Rose's 2011 MVP award itself; his buzzer-beating winner in Game 3 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals; Noah's DPOY award in 2014; and Chicago snapping Miami's 27-game winning streak in 2013. The bad, aside from Rose's ACL: The Nikola Mirotic-Bobby Portis fight in 2017; Thibodeau's mega-messy departure; signing Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade; and pretty much every trade general manager Gar Forman and Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson made.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 2016 Title
Few selections are as easy as this one. The Cleveland Cavaliers' 2016 title stands out as one of the most salient feats of the decade, bar none, both for its historical and sentimental significance.
Really, this is a triumph built upon its sub-moments, any one of which could receive its own nomination. Cleveland's Game 7 win alone is chock full of them: LeBron James' block on Andre Iguodala. Kyrie Irving's wildly difficult, yet still somehow routine clutch three. Kevin Love standing his ground on defense after getting switched onto Stephen Curry. LeBron emoting after the final buzzer and declaring said title was for Cleveland.
Take stock of the entire 2016 Finals, and the iconic moments only mount in number.
Draymond Green's groin shot on James in Game 4. LeBron and Kyrie both topping 40 points in Game 5. Then-general manager David Griffin sending a "This is our destiny" email after the Cavs fell behind 3-1. Then-head coach Tyronn Lue stashing money in Oracle Arena following Game 5 to will a return for Game 7.
Cleveland is the only team to erase a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. This title was not only the franchise's first but also ended a 52-year championship drought for the city at large. The ripple effects of this comeback span too far to see. It was equal parts cathartic and validating and afforded Cleveland the goodwill necessary to navigate imminent dissolution without the agony and resentment that prevailed in 2010.
"The number of times we had to see the stupid failure montage were too many to count. On a side note, if the Indians' loss to the Chicago Cubs had happened without the Cavs first winning the title, it would have been substantially worse," Dime Uproxx's Mike Zavagno said. "As far as LeBron goes, I think winning the title certainly insulated him from criticism upon his exit (though I do believe he would have left either way). And having a title certainly makes these past two years in the wilderness (with many more to come it seems) more bearable."
Alternate moments are available in heavy supply, even if none measure up to the 2016 title: James' initial departure; James' return; the trade for Love; the Irving trade; the frenetic 2018 trade deadline; James' 51-point explosion in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals; any of James' clutch shots during that same postseason push; James' second departure; and the creation of the Road Trippin' podcast with Allie Clifton, Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson.
Dallas Mavericks: 2011 Title
Championships are given priority as signature moments, but the Dallas Mavericks' 2011 title is a unique no-brainer. Isaac Harris of Mavs.com didn't even need to see the list of potential alternatives before offering his stamp of approval.
"Yeah, the 2011 title is definitely the moment of the decade for the Mavs," he said. "First and only championship in franchise history. It solidified Dirk Nowitzki's career as one of the best ever. It was sweet revenge versus the Miami Heat [for their 2006 Finals victory], and they beat the superteam."
Repackaging another moment from that six-game set to use as a symbol for the Mavs' title is perfectly fine. Nowitzki's go-ahead lefty layup in Game 4 would be the choice. It knotted the series up at 2-2 and laid the groundwork for Dallas to complete the upset. Arguments can also be made for the Mavs' Game 2 victory, during which they erased a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit.
Neither moment was close enough to the series' end to act as a championship proxy. Really, no singular play could pose as a stand-in for what that title meant.
Does Nowitzki still retire having never left the Mavericks if he doesn't get that title? It's a fair question. He had max offers on the table from the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers in 2014. Staying in Dallas, on a good team with a different core that wasn't championship-ready, gets a lot harder if he doesn't have that ring.
Besides, without a Mavs championship in 2011, we wouldn't have gotten DeShawn Stevens' pro-Dirk shirt.
For those so inclined to search for an alternative moment, you're best off choosing from Nowitzki's entry into the 30,000-point club; his final home game; Vince Carter's buzzer-beating game-winner against the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2014 postseason; and, obviously, the Luka Doncic draft-night trade.
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic Enters Starting 5
Breakthrough moments can be difficult to identify at the macro level. Singular decisions or experiences do not always cleanly forge an entire direction. So many turning points are instead owed to a series of events, a store of miniature feats and afterthought choices that blur together and emphasize the end result.
The Denver Nuggets are different. Their ascent this past decade is ongoing. They are both a potential title contender and still trying to finish off their product. It doesn't take painstaking thought to zero in on the advent of their current situation. DNVR's Adam Mares mapped it all out in great detail:
"Without a doubt, the single most defining moment of the decade for the Denver Nuggets came on December 15th, 2016 when head coach Michael Malone inserted Nikola Jokic into the starting lineup for good. Jokic had a surprising rookie campaign at the center position the year before but was moved to power forward to make room for Jusuf Nurkic who had spent a majority of the previous season rehabbing from a knee injury. With both bigs healthy, Malone was tasked with figuring out how to get minutes for his two most talented young prospects, both of whom were most comfortable at center. He settled on playing them together, but after eight games, the Nuggets were off to a 3-5 start and 'Balkan Buddy Ball' was looking like a failed experiment. Malone was going to have to choose which big to start and play the most minutes.
"Jokic made the decision easy on him by volunteering to come off of the bench. Malone obliged and the Nuggets spent the next month fumbling through an awkward stretch of basketball in which the team could never find a rhythm. Meanwhile, Jokic was flourishing with the bench unit despite playing just 20 minutes per game. Eventually, it became clear that Jokic was the team's best player and after a disappointing road trip dropped the Nuggets record to 9-16, Malone made the switch.
"Jokic was inserted into the starting lineup and the new era of Nuggets basketball took off. The Nuggets ranked 1st in ORTG for the remainder of the year, besting teams like Kevin Durant's Golden State Warriors and James Harden's Houston Rockets in that category. From that moment on, the Denver Nuggets' rebuild became clear. Everything would start with Jokic. From the pass-happy, inverted style of the offense to the personality of the team to the way the front office would construct the roster, everything began with Jokic in mind."
That season's Jusuf Nurkic trade, in February 2017, is a worthwhile substitute. Jokic was already 25 games into his starting-lineup tenure—and, by the way, averaging 21.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists with a 61.5/41.8/82.0 shooting slash—but that move cemented the Nuggets' commitment to him. Jettisoning Nurkic (for an admittedly lackluster return) was the moment it became crystal clear they were never, ever going to look back.
Alternate highlights (and lowlights) of the Nuggets' decade include: the Carmelo Anthony trade; Ty Lawson dropping 32 points to force a Game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 2012 playoffs; Danilo Gallinari's torn ACL at the end of the 2012-13 regular season; winning that 57th game in 2013, a franchise record in the NBA era; Jokic's first career triple-double (Feb. 3, 2017); losing a postseason play-in game to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2017; winning their first playoff series since 2009; and, as noted by Mares, overcoming a 19-point third-quarter deficit in Game 2 of their first-round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs last year.
Detroit Pistons: Leaving The Palace for Little Caesars Arena
Leaving The Palace of Auburn Hills was a blow to Detroit Pistons nostalgia. They played there from 1988 through the end of the 2016-17 season. That building housed three championship tenants and four final teams overall and was, if nothing else, a remnant of more successful times.
On the other hand, The Palace wasn't actually in Detroit. Little Caesars Arena, the Pistons' new home, is at the heart of The District Detroit, the official command post for Motor City's pro sports teams.
That relocation matters, and not merely because it addresses a geographical technicality. As Lazarus Jackson, host of the Pistons vs Everybody podcast, explained to me:
"The move to LCA really has everything. It helps sell the story of the "revitalization" of Downtown Detroit after the city's bankruptcy, but has also helped contribute to the gentrification of Midtown. Detroit taxpayers helped pay for the construction of the arena while the city was bankrupt. A lot of the promised secondary development around that area—the usual stuff the billionaires promise: shops, apartment housing, parks, etc.—hasn't arrived in favor of a sea of parking lots.
"The Pistons, long the least popular pro team in Detroit (because, yanno, they didn't really play in Detroit), were initially second-class tenants in their own building. Again, a bunch of suburban fans decided that they didn't want to make the drive down to Detroit for games, and the attendance suffered. The bright red chairs marking sparse attendance at games became a running joke to the point where the team had to pay for seat covers (and eventually change the seat colors) to make the place look less empty.
But the Pistons always should've been downtown. And they're there now. So it's worth it. Or, rather, it will be. Eventually."
Combine the societal significance with Detroit's basketball team now playing basketball in Detroit, and this quickly becomes a runaway moment. Though, if you're into alternatives, the Pistons have a few: signing Josh Smith; waiving and stretching Josh Smith (they're still paying him!); not drafting Donovan Mitchell (Luke Kennard is pretty good, by the way); coach-president Stan Van Gundy paying Reggie Jackson the kind of money that made John Wall have an epiphany; and the Blake Griffin trade.
Golden State Warriors: The Jackson-for-Kerr Swap
Choices abound for the Golden State Warriors. They have scores of defining moments over the past half-decade alone—too many for this exercise to reach a teflon consensus.
David Lee's left hamstring injury and Draymond Green's subsequent insertion into the starting lineup initially won me over. Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes sold me on going back to Mark Jackson's exit and the decision to install Steve Kerr:
"I don't want to give full credit to Kerr for everything that changed once he took over. Stephen Curry developed through hard work, and while I think the transition from Jackson's approach to Kerr's allowed Steph to leverage his improved (and trailblazing) game, the player deserves at least as much credit for successfully running with the freedom he got as the coach does for granting it to him. There's a case to be made that had Curry played like he did in those first two years with Kerr that Jackson would have had no choice but to turn him loose in a similar way.
"Still, I think it's fair to argue that Kerr's system, demeanor and basketball priorities—constant communication, passing and cutting, rather than more iso post-ups for the likes of Jermaine O'Neal, for example—enabled a really talented Warriors team to maximize its potential. From there, they set trends that the league followed. The things that increasingly define the league now—deep shooting, switching, faster pace without sacrificing defense—are all extensions of what Golden State became under Kerr (and because of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green)."
This is what's so tough about plucking out a single Warriors moment. Kerr's hiring isn't the root cause of their dominance since 2014. Praise belongs to the players first and foremost. But his arrival is the closest Golden State's dynasty gets to a perceptible origin.
Anyone who pushes back against this selection won't want for substitutes. The Warriors' other possibilities include (*takes deep breath*): any of their three titles; win No. 73 in 2016; Green's groin shot on LeBron James in Game 4 of the 2016 Finals; James' transition block on Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals; completing the 3-1 comeback against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Conference Finals; Curry's unanimous MVP; Thompson's 37-point third quarter in 2015; Kevin Durant's arrival; Curry's game-winner over the Thunder from almost half court in February 2016; starting the "Death Lineup" in Game 4 of the 2015 Finals; Curry's four-year, $44 million extension; that 23-point comeback against the Los Angeles Clippers in November 2015; and Curry's MCL sprain in the first round of the 2016 postseason.
Feel free to emphasize an alternative moment. Just don't discount the Kerr hire. It was, even if only symbolically by now, a franchise turning point.
Houston Rockets: The James Harden Trade
Masochists (and Golden State Warriors fans) will single out a couple of different moments for the Houston Rockets. Their 27 consecutive missed threes in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals and that series loss overall stand out.
Do the Rockets go on to win the 2018 Finals if they beat the Warriors? With all due respect to the Cleveland Cavaliers, probably. Has Houston, in turn, already blown its best chance to win a title with James Harden? Very possible.
Certain other moments, ranging from exciting to questionable, deserve cursory consideration.
The 2017 Chris Paul trade came at a time when the Warriors dissuaded teams from making those exact kinds of dice rolls. Hiring Mike D'Antoni in 2016 paved the way for Harden to break basketball as a pseudo-to-official point guard. Any hallmark moment in Harden's trek toward becoming the league's most divisive star should be in play. The Russell Westbrook trade is in the running for the Most Curiously Gutsy Move of All Time.
In the end, nothing comes close to sniffing the significance of Harden's arrival. That deal is both the basis and emblem for everything Houston has done and become since.
Forget the eventual (and current) on-court implications. The Harden blockbuster arguably saved general manager Daryl Morey's job. As Salman Ali from ESPN 97.5 in Houston recounted:
"If they don't make the James Harden trade, I'm convinced [then-owner] Leslie Alexander finds a new general manager. Sports talk radio (which had a strong foothold in Houston at the time) was railing Morey every night. He was the brash outsider who everybody thought was too arrogant and naive for his own good. They were obviously wrong, but if Houston doesn't land a superstar that summer who turns their fortunes, the seat at the very least gets warm on Morey.
"They tried to trade for everybody that summer: Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Andre Drummond, etc. They amnestied Luis Scola. They traded for three first-round draft picks, and they leveraged how well Jeremy Lamb played in the summer league brilliantly. ... They were destined for a more traditional rebuild if not for that Harden trade."
Fast forward to now, and this deal is still shaping everything the Rockets do. Morey's seat may be a little hotter following the fallout from his since-deleted Hong Kong tweet in October and because he leveraged the franchise to the hilt with the Westbrook gamble. But Houston, though forever aggressive, probably isn't as emboldened to remain all-in on its present for the better part of a decade without striking the trade for who would become a perennial MVP candidate.
Indiana Pacers: Game 6 Victory in 2013 Eastern Conference Finals
Resisting the urge to pick the entire 2013 Eastern Conference Finals turned out to be extremely difficult. That series, even in defeat, said so much about the Indiana Pacers, establishing them as both a conference power and the biggest threat to the Big Three-clad Miami Heat.
Rolling with their Game 6 victory isn't a throwaway cop-out. Taking the superstar-stuffed Heat to Game 7, without a megastar of their own, was a big deal. Paul George, remember, hadn't yet turned into Paul George. The Pacers outlasted teams in the aggregate, grinding offenses down to slogs, this collection of tireless defenders who, for the most part, played within the confines of themselves at the other end.
Indiana's unofficial feat resonates even more now, knowing what would become of its core just a couple of seasons later. As Indy Cornrows' Caitlin Cooper told me:
"Before things turned into a slow death march the following season, that group stood out as sort of the ultimate foil in the superteam era while also sitting at the fault line of bully ball and pace-and-space. Sending all five starters, a group which was second in net rating during the regular season, to the podium together after defeating the [New York] Knicks stands out as an enduring snapshot in the run-up to that series both in retrospect (for the way they would later unravel) and because of the way they contrasted with Miami's star power in the moment.
"Beyond the better aura that surrounded that team, that series also felt like more of a chess match than it did the following year. Teams hadn't quite cracked the code of their impenetrable defense; it was size and rebounding versus speed and shooting; Roy Hibbert was recording double-doubles as a dominant rim protector instead of shrinking his way to double goose eggs; and Paul George had his coming-out party (Birdman dunk!) after fading into the background versus Miami the season prior."
Anyone looking for more measurable pizzazz in their signature moments can use George's posterization of Chris Andersen. It is a worthwhile billboard for that Pacers squad. The rim might still be shaking.
Runner-up challengers are tougher to find. The George Hill-for-Kawhi Leonard draft-day swap in 2011 looms but is a viable candidate only if you believe Indy would've picked Kawhi and facilitated his ascent into one of the greatest players ever.
Investing in the plucky 2017-18 Pacers is fair(ish) game. They took LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers to a Game 7. As Cooper pointed out, though, "Things might have turned out differently if they had hard-trapped Victor Oladipo from the get-go."
Long live Hibbert's iconic block on Carmelo Anthony in Game 6 of the 2013 semifinals.
Los Angeles Clippers: Steve Ballmer Buys the Team
Here we have yet another instance of a signature moment that can be pulled in so many different directions.
My first impulse was to go with the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George tandem acquisitions, a defining coup that still serves as the consummate validation for how far the Los Angeles Clippers have come in a relatively short period of time. It wasn't terribly long ago that they were a laughingstock (we're getting there), and the current core positions them to contend for championships in a more convincing way than they ever did during the Lob City era.
But this high-watermark moment wound up ceding ground to another—and not only because the Kawhi and PG13 arrivals came so close to the end of the decade. SI.com's Sabreena Merchant made a compelling case for Steve Ballmer, one of the people most responsible for reinventing perception of the Clippers since he purchased the team in 2014:
"As much as I hate to to credit ownership instead of the players for anything, the Clippers are a franchise to be reckoned with now because of the full overhaul that took place when Ballmer bought the team—one that continues to this day, and I don't think any of the good things that have happened since then (like Kawhi coming) take place if [Donald] Sterling were still around."
This point resonates ever stronger the more you mull it over.
Emotionally and anecdotally, the Clippers will never escape the Los Angeles Lakers' shadow. Their popularity is rooted in too much history and effectively insurmountable.
Functionally, though, Ballmer has been successful in helping give the Clippers their own identity. Their front-office overhaul—which includes getting head coach Doc Rivers to concede executive duties without torpedoing the relationship—is among the best organizational reconstructions in recent memory. Ballmer's plan to move forward with a privately financed arena in Inglewood, California, that pulls the Clippers outside Staples Center only further cements this selection.
Selecting another moment is not off base. The Donald Sterling debacle remains a pivotal flash point. It also doesn't quite match the magnitude of Ballmer's arrival. The NBA knew who it was in bed with long before tapes surfaced of his spewing racial slurs.
Landing on the Chris Paul trade makes a ton of sense. His arrival helped pull the Clippers from obscurity. His Game 7, series-winning shot against the San Antonio Spurs in 2015 also deserves consideration. That bucket capped off one of the greatest first-round matchups ever played.
Other honorable mentions include: DeAndre Jordan's free-agency mulligan; the Blake Griffin trade; jumping out to a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets in the 2015 conference semifinals; and Game 6 of that same series, when the Clippers allowed Josh Smith, then with Houston, to spur a fourth-quarter comeback that ruined their best shot at getting out of the second round.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant's Achilles Tear
"League office declined to make the trade for basketball reasons." This statement from the NBA will live on forever in Los Angeles Lakers lore.
It was December 2011. The Association was on the verge of officially reopening for business following an extended lockout. The Lakers had just agreed to a deal with the then-New Orleans Hornets to acquire Chris Paul. Their would-be cost, in a three-team blockbuster that also included the Houston Rockets, was Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Just like that, a Kobe Bryant-Chris Paul superstar was born.
Until it wasn't.
Less than an hour after the deal was agreed upon, then-Commissioner David Stern vetoed the trade. The league, which controlled the Hornets at the time, cited basketball reasons, but many suspected—and still believe—reactions from rival squads served as the impetus for the decision.
Regardless of why, CP3-to-the-Lakers was killed. And it changed the Lakers forever.
The what-if implications remain overpowering. Bryant and Paul would've made up a championship core, and Los Angeles would've pulled off the deal without including any of the assets later used to acquire Dwight Howard. There is no telling how different the intervening years would be if the league never stepped in.
Do the Lakers still trade for Howard? How many titles do they win with him, Kobe and CP3 if they do? And most agonizingly, does Bryant never rupture his Achilles the following season because, in theory, the Lakers don't trade for Steve Nash, aren't fighting like hell for one of the West's final two playoff spots and don't need age-34 Kobe to play out a quarter-season stretch through which he averaged over 40 minutes per game?
When presented with this option, Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus didn't disagree. But he still felt the Chris Paul trade that wasn't ceded ground to another landmark moment.
"If you were to ask me, it'd be Kobe's torn Achilles," he said. "The Lakers could have rebounded in different ways from the CP3 veto—even though that's probably a five-year setback in and of itself—but Kobe's injury marked the end of the championship era for the team and set them on the path that led to many lottery appearances, Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak losing their jobs, etc."
This choice rings especially true given how well Bryant was playing in 2012-13, with averages of 27 points and six assists on the third-best true shooting percentage for his career, and also because his post-Achilles-injury free throws are permanently ingrained into memory. Nash was never the same, and perhaps Howard leaves anyway over the summer. But a fully healthy Kobe, even at his age, changes the post-2013 trajectory of the Lakers, at the very least giving them a more feasible line to continued relevance.
Either moment has its merits. And the Lakers being the Lakers, they have other options galore: The 2010 title; the Nash trade; the Howard trade; Nick Young's all-time-great flex gone wrong; "Soft like Charmin;" Kobe's 60 points on 50 shots in his swan-song game; his "Mamba out" address; those contracts for Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov in 2016 free agency; Jeanie Buss getting rid of Jim Buss; LeBron James' arrival; Anthony Davis trade negotiations; Magic Johnson's resignation; and the Davis trade itself.
Memphis Grizzlies: Completing 2011 First-Round Upset Over San Antonio Spurs
Properly reflecting upon the Memphis Grizzlies' decade demands we find the quintessential Grit-and-Grind moment.
For me, at least initially, this was their first and only Western Conference Finals berth in 2013. But Sharon Brown from the Memphis Flyer and All Heart in Hoop City set me straight, instead selecting their upset of the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2011 postseason.
"The team was swept in three playoff series and had an 0–12 record," she said. "Winning the first playoff game was a milestone. But to beat a No. 1-seeded team as the eighth seed was special. It was history. The Grizzlies were finally taken seriously, and the fans in Memphis loved it and bought into the Grit and Grind."
Consider me beyond convinced. That Grizzlies core—Tony Allen, Mike Conley Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph—achieved a level of national recognition not typically seen from small-market franchises that don't champion a style crafted in the image of mainstream aesthetics. Completing that series victory over San Antonio turned Memphis into, as Brown noted, "the team no one wanted to face in the playoffs" while kicking off an era of semi-, if genuine, title contention.
Making the 2013 Western Conference Finals remains a close second. It doesn't matter that the Oklahoma City Thunder didn't have Russell Westbrook in the preceding series. They still made it past the Houston Rockets after he went down with a meniscus injury. The Grizzlies are only guilty of playing the team in front of them—and, mind you, dispatching them in five games.
Sending Gasol to the Raptors at the 2019 trade deadline deserves some consideration for anyone big on emotional endings. Even with Allen and Randolph already gone, his departure marked the non-negotiable end of that Grit-and-Grind nucleus, committing the Grizzlies to a full-on rebuild and precipitating last summer's Mike Conley blockbuster.
Special shouts Allen's 26-point, four-assist, five-steal explosion against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 with both Conley and Gasol on the shelf. Ditto for any of the early-series problems the Grizzlies caused the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 conference semifinals.
Miami Heat: Big 3 Introductory Celebration
Narrowing down the Miami Heat's options was an exhaustive exercise. Bleacher Report's Nekias Duncan simplified the process by effectively arguing for the origin of all those choices: the inception of the Big Three.
More specifically, he gestured toward the introduction of the Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade trio, an indulgence of pomp and circumstance that functioned as the launching point of a quasi-dynasty.
"The LeBron-Bosh coup was the most polarizing free-agency moment in NBA history," Duncan wrote to me. "It took the NBA's Big Three era to new heights, put an ungodly target on LeBron's back and ultimately laid the seeds for (this version of) modern basketball, particularly with their downsizing (Bosh at the 5, Shane Battier at the 4).
"This Big Three Heat team had a massive effect on the league moving forward. It changed the calculus of team-building on and off the floor. Their on-court principles were adapted—and improved upon—by the Golden State Warriors, a team that defined the back half of the decade."
Every other option for the Heat can be traced back to this moment: Their 2011 Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks, which represented the apex of James' villain role and preceded what would be some of the best basketball of his career. LeBron's superhuman performance against the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the 2012 Conference Finals. The 2012 title. Ray Allen's Game 6-tying three in 2013. The 2013 title. Their loss to the San Antonio Spurs in 2014. LeBron's exit. Bosh's second contract. Wade's exit. Wade's return.
And let's not forget, this spectacle also gave us the epic "Not one, not two, not three..." declaration from James. The meme community is forever grateful.
Most importantly, as Duncan noted, the formation of Miami's Big Three jump-started post-contemporary player empowerment, at least among superstars. Does Kevin Durant feel as comfortable joining the 73-win Warriors in 2016 if those Heatles don't exist? Do Kawhi Leonard and Paul George force their way to the Los Angeles Clippers without this 2010 precedent?
Maybe, but also, maybe not.
Milwaukee Bucks: Drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo
There exists a slight temptation to skirt the obvious here. The Milwaukee Bucks' selection of Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013, at No. 15, is the source moment for their gradual climb to the top of the NBA, but the stops they've made along the way are comparably signature.
Harbingers of how far they've traveled are packed throughout even more recent history: The Mike Budenholzer hire. Last year's first playoff series victory and Conference Finals appearance since 2001. Antetokounmpo's MVP. Beating the Boston Celtics in the second round last season after getting dispatched by them in 2018. And, as a take-your-medicine pick, falling to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals despite jumping out to a 2-0 lead.
On a smaller scale, the Bucks have other transactions that molded today's core. Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton (yeesh, Detroit) have worked out in their favor. Signing Brook Lopez to fully unleash the three-point-heavy philosophy they champion today is an understated checkpoint. And on an unrelated note, let's not forget they ended the Golden State Warriors' 24-game winning streak in 2015.
Drafting Antetokounmpo still wins out among potential alternatives. Every other option can, in some form, be traced back to him. That makes all the difference, as the Gyro Step podcast's Ti Windisch told me:
"As much as I want to pick Milwaukee coming back from the one-game deficit and beating the Celtics last postseason to slay a playoff demon and prove they could win against good teams, getting Giannis in itself is more important than anything since.
"It was impossible to understand at the time—especially since a year later the Bucks picked a player with the second overall pick (Jabari Parker) who was meant to be the one to carry the team out of the darkness—but all of the nice complementary players who are either still around or were moved for other pieces would amount to nothing without the heights to which Giannis is capable of carrying this franchise. You have to start with him. Nothing else seems all that important by comparison."
Relative anonymity is part of the Antetokounmpo pick's charm. He was raw and unfamiliar, known only to those who parsed grainy highlight reels or made the trek to watch second-tier basketball in Greece. Even Antetokounmpo understands how much of an anomaly he is, something he reflected on following Milwaukee's Dec. 19 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Dare-to-be-great draft reaches seldom pan out. The Bucks know this themselves (Thon Maker). That Antetokounmpo has exceeded the wildest expectations to become not just the nerve center of a contender but also an MVP and LeBron James' heir apparent is truly absurd—and everything to Milwaukee.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Ending the 13-Year Playoff Drought
The end of the Minnesota Timberwolves' 13-year playoff drought is the franchise's decade in a nutshell: hope gave way to a letdown which then gave way to another restart.
Cracking the 2018 postseason pool remains a big deal. The Timberwolves cashed in many of their best assets for Jimmy Butler the previous summer and won a riveting play-in game over the Denver Nuggets to secure their bid. Also: 13 years is a long time.
But what was supposed to mark their indefinite return to relevance quickly devolved into a disappointment—and yet another rebuild.
Minnesota lasted just five games in the first round against the Houston Rockets. They weren't even a competitive five games. Three of the Timberwolves' four losses came by at least 16 points. They were thoroughly overmatched.
That first-round exit precipitated the Butler saga, an embarrassing turn of events that inexplicably spilled into the regular season despite coach-president Tom Thibodeau having ample notice of his superstar's unrest.
Butler's tour de force was great for the memes but terrible for the optics and invariably undercut Minnesota's return to respectability. Thibodeau was shown the door in early January, and the Timberwolves, while not fast-tracked to nowhere, are still searching for concrete direction under team president Gersson Rosas and head coach Ryan Saunders.
This limbo is peak Minnesota—a signature of its decade.
"I think it's the continued failures to launch since Kevin Garnett's departure," Derek James of A Wolf Among Wolves and Canis Hoopus told me. "This decade has had four general managers and five head coaches with even more roster turnover. This franchise is fortunate that it found Karl-Anthony Towns as soon as the Kevin Love era faded away."
Other moments epitomize this stop-and-start culture. Love's departure is chief among them. As James put it: "The Love trade really was the turning point for the franchise in the 2010s. This allowed the Wolves to quickly transition from the Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Love core to Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins and obtaining Towns. You can point to other singular examples, but many of those moments lead to or stem from that deal."
Drafting Towns keeps with this theme on its own. The Timberwolves landed one of the most offensively dominant big men in NBA history but haven't yet assembled a competitive team with staying power around him. Maxing out Andrew Wiggins falls under the same umbrella. They locked up a should-be pivotal part of their future, but at a steep cost because he promised to, er, get better.
Duality is ingrained into every one of the Timberwolves' fresh(ish) starts—and there have been many. They rise, albeit sometimes just in theory (the 90210 core), only to fall. Nothing has proved more bittersweet than their return to the playoffs. It was at the same time a resurrection and the beginning to yet another botched end.
New Orleans Pelicans: Tom Benson Buys the Team
Anthony Davis' trade request—and the deal itself—earned serious consideration here. The resulting soap opera that played out between himself, the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers was part of it, but so too was what his demand represented: the culmination of more than a half-decade's worth of missteps.
"The AD trade kind of defines the decade in a negative way," Bourbon Street Shots' Mason Ginsberg said. "Whether you want to blame it on bad management, bad injury luck or some combination, the Pelicans put themselves in the position where AD wanted out. I'm not saying that he wouldn't have asked out of a small market regardless. But they did themselves few favors."
Needlessly accelerated timelines and win-now moves and signings that didn't quite pan out no doubt molded the Pelicans' decade. And many years from now, the unceremonious end to Davis' tenure will be what's most synonymous with this timeline.
Then again, what if it's not? New Orleans has a few irons in the fire that need to play out. Maybe the Zion Williamson pick, for better or worse, comes to define this decade. Or perhaps it's the return they received in the Davis trade.
Or maybe, in time, we look back at Gayle Benson taking the reins of the franchise as the decade's flash point. From hiring David Griffin as vice president of basketball operations to OKing other ambitious behind-the-scenes changes, she's a breath of fresh hair for a franchise that never quite topped the to-do list of her late husband, Tom Benson.
All of the alternatives inevitably fall (just) shy of Benson buying the Pelicans, then the Hornets, in 2012. The NBA had been trying to sell the team for over two years at the time, and he led the rebranding of the organization.
For all the shortcomings experienced under Benson, his purchase offered a certain assurance to the city and franchise after years of existing in limbo. This moment, as Ginsberg put it, "has had a lasting impact" in ways not shared by New Orleans' other options.
New York Knicks: The Andrea Bargnani Trade
Linsanity or inexplicable self-sabotage? This was the question that needed answering when reviewing the past decade of New York Knicks basketball.
SB Nation's Seth Rosenthal voted for self-sabotage, specifically that wrought as a result of the Andrea Bargnani trade in 2013:
"It came in a period of unnecessary turmoil (the untimely push-out of Glen Grunwald), it messed with a good thing (the 2013 Knicks!), it ended up costing a lot when it should have brought back value, and any actual value it did have was in undoing prior mistakes. Unexpected, self-inflicted pain and embarrassment was the Knicks' brand in the 2010s, and acquiring Andrea Bargnani on purpose and at substantial expense was the purest distillation of that theme."
For the few, fortunate souls who have forgotten, this trade came on the heels of the Knicks' 54-win 2012-13 campaign and first playoff series win in 13 years...and at steep cost. The final tally: Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Quentin Richardson, a 2014 second-round pick (Xavier Thames), a 2016 first-round pick (Jakob Poeltl) and a 2017 second-round pick (Jonah Bolden).
Many have since pointed out that the 2012-13 Knicks always screamed anomaly. They relied too heavily on aging veterans (39-year-old Jason Kidd, anyone?) and an overachieving offense, and they were exposed by the Indiana Pacers in the second round for their lack of variance.
Regression was unavoidable—the default. But the Knicks didn't have to damage their future in the process. Trading for Bargnani was tough to understand in the moment—most thought the Raptors would have to include a sweetener to move him—and it perpetuated every negative stereotype about the impulsive, verging on clueless way New York went about its business.
Junking first-round picks has become less commonplace under the past two regimes, but short-circuited rebuilds and directionless visions have remained the standard in Madison Square Garden. The Knicks always act like they're two steps ahead (trading Kristaps Porzingis for cap space), when really they've spent most of the decade lagging behind pretty much everyone else.
Jeremy Lin's 2012 detonation could just as easily get the nod. Whether it's the birth of Linsanity (his 25 points against the then-New Jersey Nets), his 38-point eruption versus the Los Angeles Lakers or his game-winning buzzer-beater over the Raptors, he provided more than a few signature moments.
Still, it feels disingenuous to invest this pick in something so fleeting. He missed the team's final 22 games, including the playoffs, with a left knee injury, and the Knicks let him walk in free agency that summer. His magical stretch was more of a temporary respite than telltale benchmark.
Worthwhile runner-ups include the Amar'e Stoudemire signing; the Carmelo Anthony trade and his subsequent intro video; Melo's postseason-seeding-critical heroics against the Chicago Bulls on Easter 2012; the Knicks' first playoff series win since 2000; Roy Hibbert's block on Anthony during the 2013 conference semifinals; Melo's 62-point windfall in 2014; the Phil Jackson hiring (or firing); the Porzingis selection; and the Porzingis trade.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook's Torn Meniscus in 2013 Playoffs
Imagine not picking the 2012 James Harden trade for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Well, actually, it turns out you don't have to.
Harden's departure received top billing on the first go-round. That deal undercut a potential dynasty. Oklahoma City was working off a Finals appearance, and Harden has since transformed into a league MVP. He probably doesn't hit that peak with the Thunder—he certainly doesn't become a multi-time scoring champion—but they never came closer to winning a title.
Dismissing alternatives would be easier if Oklahoma City never broached championship form again. It did. Immediately. The Thunder won 60 games in 2012-13 while posting what was, at the time, the sixth-highest net rating since 1983-84.
Injuries did more damage to their post-Harden window than anything else, that first season without him included.
"I think the James Harden trade was a huge catalyst for the organization, but maybe even more significant was Patrick Beverly diving into Westbrook's knees in the 2013 playoffs," Daily Thunder's John Napier noted. "The Thunder were historically good, the season after trading Harden, and legitimately had aspirations of a championship. History is written very differently if Westbrook stays healthy."
A torn right meniscus would keep Westbrook sidelined for the rest of the playoffs. And while the Thunder squeaked past the Houston Rockets without him, it took the Memphis Grizzlies only five games to pick them apart in the semifinals.
Was that team better positioned to win a title than any other OKC squad? Debatable. The 66-win Miami Heat and, arguably, best-ever-version of LeBron James awaited in the Finals. The 3-1 Conference Finals collapse against the Golden State Warriors in 2016 might sting more.
But Westbrook's 2013 injury is the first of many what-if moments that followed the Harden trade. Injuries to Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka would help derail later seasons, and each additional setback put that much more pressure on the next year.
Who knows where the Thunder are if Westbrook doesn't get hurt in 2013. They'd have been the favorites to make the Finals, even with the Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs looming. Would KD have developed the itch to leave with a 2013 title under his belt?
Failing that, the Harden trade, while controversial, was fait accompli. The Thunder were always concerned about the tax implications of paying him, and the Harden or Westbrook (or Ibaka) debate wasn't anywhere near what it has since become. Westbrook's injury, in contrast, wasn't voluntary.
Deviating outside this two-choice discussion gets a little reachy, but the Thunder have alternative nominations. Chief among them: Westbrook's flip shot against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 of the 2012 conference semifinals; jumping out to a 3-1 lead over the 2016 Warriors; Durant's departure; Westbrook's MVP; the Paul George acquisition; George's return in free agency; the second George trade; and the Westbrook trade.
Orlando Magic: The Dwightmare
Because what else could this be?
Actually, it could be the Orlando Magic's 2010 conference finals bid. That team won just as many games as the 2008-09 crew Dwight Howard dragged to the NBA Finals and approximated something closer to a co-star with the offseason trade for Vince Carter. They were (probably) the D12-era Magic squad best equipped to win a title.
The Dwightmare is still the pick for obvious reasons. That entire saga is more memorable than anything else Orlando has done or endured this decade.
Distilling that unscripted Laguna Beach miniseries down to one moment is the real challenge. Howard's unimaginably awkward press conference with head coach Stan Van Gundy is up there and may never be topped. The impulsive retraction of his trade request on the plane, after taking goodbye photos with teammates, is among the most ridiculous things ever, and we don't reminisce about its absurdity nearly often enough.
Defaulting to the trade itself is the best bet. The Magic ended up winning the deal (fist bumps to Nikola Vucevic) but have never fully recovered.
"The rebuild that came after that will be the thing that many, especially Magic faithful, will remember," Zach Oliver of the Orlando Pinstripe Post said. "From tanking in hopes of getting the No. 1 pick—and failing multiple times—to trading away young pieces and watching them ultimately prosper in new places still brings pain to many Magic fans. Their hope of finding a star failed time and time again under [general manager] Rob Hennigan, and the rebuild ultimately failed and led to his being let go.
"While none of the players the Magic drafted have become true bona fide stars, the likes of Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and to a lesser extent Maurice Harkless turned into players who can make significant impacts. All of those players would fit in and be able to make this current Magic team better in one way or another."
This revolving door of useful players the Magic have shipped out in the years since is seriously wild. It is minor miracle they never flipped Vucevic for a vapid return under Hennigan.
Current team president Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond are having more success, in the sense they already helped end the post-Dwightmare playoff drought. But the Magic are still searching for a superstar cornerstone—Vooch is more a fringe-star floor-raiser—and are closer to rebuilding than not.
Orlando doesn't have many alternatives to offer from The Dwightmare or its 2010 conference finals cameo. Inducting Shaquille O'Neal into the Magic Hall of Fame and Aaron Gordon's (unjust) loss to Zach LaVine in the epic 2016 dunk contest are as close as it gets.
Philadelphia 76ers: Andrew Bynum Trade
Tunnel vision for The Process at first dominated the Philadelphia 76ers' selection search. Hammering down a particular moment wouldn't be easy, but the choice would obviously, definitely be Process-related.
Kudos to PhillyVoice's Kyle Neubeck for using his veto power. He settled on the Andrew Bynum trade:
"It was the first indication we got from a new ownership group that the Sixers were not interested in treading water anymore, and that they might actually be willing to take a risk in order to contend. It's that last bit that was important.
"Yes, trading for Bynum was ridiculous in hindsight, and the year of terrible communication and bowling-adjacent incidents that followed were excruciating for fans. But the failure of that move was both the springboard to everything significant that happened after that (firing Doug Collins, hiring Sam Hinkie and Brett Brown, the Process beginning with the Jrue Holiday trade) and a symbol of a monumental shift for the organization. They had long been the little brother franchise, owned by hockey-centric people who were happy to just be 'good enough,' which is a far cry from where they are today."
Bynum battled knee issues in 2012-13 (and for the rest of his career) and never played a game for the Sixers. Where he was supposed to vault them into title contention, they instead cobbled together 34 victories and missed the playoffs.
Focus on moments more directly associated with The Process if you must. Hinkie's arrival, the Holiday trade, the Joel Embiid pick and, of course, Tony Wroten Jr. coining the movement all make for nice mile markers. The more actual basketball inclined might even be drawn to the 2018 "Confetti Game" or, painfully still, Kawhi Leonard's zillion-bounce semifinals winner last year. Props to anyone riding with the Bryan Colangelo Twitter scandal.
But there is a certain allure to the Bynum trade even now—a causality. If that gambit plays out as intended, The Process, and all its trappings, never reaches Philly. Plus, that deal still serves as a billboard for how the Sixers have acted under the current regime: daringly, if haphazardly.
"They have gone for it—you give them that—but there have been downsides to many of their moves, from taking on a mercurial [Jimmy] Butler to signing [Al] Horford as Embiid insurance and running out this 1995-ass starting lineup," Neubeck said. "To pivot in and out of rebuilding as they did—in the eyes of some fans, at the behest of the league—shows a sort of uncertainty that still plagues them today.
"Bynum started it all. Salsa dances forever."
Phoenix Suns: 2010 Western Conference Finals Berth
Highs have been hard to come by for the Phoenix Suns over the past decade, while their lows are more the sum of many misses rather than a signature few. That makes for a complicated period of basketball but an easy retrospective.
Clinching a 2010 Western Conference Finals bid has to be the pick. It is the last taste of major success for the franchise, the kind that's special in real time because it was so clearly the swan song for an era. As The Timeline podcast's Mike Vigil wrote to me:
"It was the last time the Suns made the playoffs. It was a return to 7SOL [seven seconds or less] form for a team that previously experimented with Shaq, but more important than anything, fans knew it was the last hurrah for Steve Nash. One last effort to make the Finals with an aging star and the second-best player, Amar'e Stoudemire, a free agent."
Phoenix's 2010 playoff run felt a little surreal, a collection of moments you just knew would be committed to memory. Goran Dragic scoring 23 points in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs. Nash playing with, basically, one eye in that same series. Alvin Gentry coaching through food poisoning in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. Phoenix failing to come up with a Kobe Bryant air-ball and ceding a Metta World Peace, then Ron Artest, game-winner that same night.
Losing Game 5 to the Los Angeles Lakers felt like the end for the Suns, even with Game 6 at home. And it was. That does little to diminish the significance of the Conference Finals berth itself. It was as impressive as it was heartbreaking and doubled as an era's farewell.
Ups, downs, unknowns, oddities—that Suns' playoff push had a little of everything. (The Timeline reflected on the entire 2010 postseason in a 2018 retrospective. It's an incredibly strong listen.)
More recent nominations don't carry the same weight. Among those worth mentioning: Devin Booker's 70-point game in 2017; beating out the Lakers in the Monty Williams sweepstakes; assembling a team with three point guards (Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas); the "I Dont wanna be here" tweet; and, for the self-flagellates, winning the 2018 lottery and the whole not drafting Luka Doncic thing.
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard's Series-Winner Over Oklahoma City
Pick your Damian Lillard series-winning buzzer-beater. Whether it's his dagger against the Houston Rockets in 2014 or his last-second dispatch of the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, you're not wrong.
Personally, I went with demolition of the Rockets. Banging in a deep three over Chandler Parsons isn't the same as drilling one over Paul George, but that Game 6 series-winner wound up being the last postseason hurrah for the fun-as-hell Lillard-Wesley Matthews-Nicolas Batum-LaMarcus Aldridge-Robin Lopez core. (Matthews' 2015 Achilles injury is a rock-solid selection if you're addicted to what-if scenarios.)
Fittingly, after much deliberation, Tara Bowen-Biggs from the Women's Hoops and Talks podcast (W.H.A.T.) went with Lillard's nuking of the Thunder:
"It was the OKC shot, to me anyway, that represented all that Lillard had become. Between the Houston shot and the OKC shot, Lillard lost Aldridge as a teammate, he endured nonstop commentary about how the team needs to do this, the team need to do that, he's not tall enough, they can't attract a free agent, he and CJ can't exist together. He became a father. He got absolutely eaten alive by New Orleans. And then, when things were finally clicking on all cylinders, Jusuf Nurkic went down.
"That shot against the Thunder not only shut up OKC, but it showed that the guy who could drill one over Chandler Parsons had gotten better. Waaaaay better. He was hitting those crazy long shots that whole series. His first bucket was one just like that over [Russell] Westbrook. He had one earlier in Game 5 where Russ shot from three, Dame started to contest it and then just laughed in his face and transitioned into offense, where he managed to get the ball back in his hands and then, you guessed it, sink a loooong shot over Westbrook. He was preparing for that shot the whole series. He went from seeing an opportunity out of a broken play on Houston to manufacturing the whole storybook ending vs OKC.
"The Houston shot opened the Lillard era, but the OKC shot defined it."
If you're not, consider that maybe, just maybe, the Blazers don't make their first conference finals since 2000 without that shot. If that doesn't do it, then this particular series-winner gifting us one of the greatest reaction photos in NBA history should.
Additional nominations can be thrown to Brandon Roy spearheading the comeback from a 23-point deficit in Game 4 of the first round of the 2011 postseason; Andre Miller's 52-point party in 2010; the Gerald Wallace trade that led to the Lillard draft selection; Matthews' Achilles injury; and Aldridge's departure.
Sacramento Kings: NBA Rejects Relocation to Seattle
This is a signature moment that should meet no resistance. The Sacramento Kings could be in Seattle right now if the NBA didn't vote against the proposed relocation in 2013.
Sactown Royalty's Tim Maxwell unpacked how critical this decision was—and how close the Kings originally seemed to being uprooted:
"For those who may not recall, when the deal was announced by Adrian Wojnarowski's now infamous 'first and goal' tweet, the city of Sacramento and several local, potential owners were completely excluded from the proceedings. According to all of the parties involved, the team was as good as moved, at least until the fanbase got involved. Local organizers were given four months to rally the city, find several 'whales' who represented enough cash to actually buy the team and find a site for a new stadium in the next few years.
"Events were organized, city council meetings were overtaken, and the entire fanbase worked as one entity to save their team eventually caught the eye of David Stern, the NBA Board of Governors and most importantly, the attention of Vivek Ranadive, the team's eventual owner. If none of those things had occurred and that vote goes the opposite way, the Kings would have ceased to exist as an organization."
In other words...
"The NBA Board of Governor's decision to reject the sale of the Kings to Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer was not only the signature moment of the decade," Maxwell said. "It was the most important moment in franchise history."
Sacramento's best alternative moments are far less celebratory.
Firing Mike Malone in 2014 after the team got off to a 9-6 start before DeMarcus Cousins' absence remains vexing at best and indefensibly inane at worst. Sending Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans in 2017 is a win in retrospect, but only because of the injuries he's suffered since. That trade unfolded during the All-Star Game, in which Cousins was a participant, and the haul—Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a first-round pick (Zach Collins) and a second-round pick (Frank Mason III)—signaled the start of yet another rebuild.
No one, meanwhile, will soon forget the Kings' salary-dumping escapades in 2015. They used a protected first-rounder and two pick swaps to lop off Carl Landry, Nik Stauskas and Jason Thompson and create cap space. They then turned that spending power into...Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Omri Casspi and Kosta Koufos.
Things could've still turned out a lot worse. One of the swaps, in 2016, was never exercised by the Philadelphia 76ers. The other, in 2017, turned into Jayson Tatum at No. 3, but Sacramento snagged De'Aaron Fox at No. 5. The 2019 first-rounder became Romeo Langford at No. 14.
That's minimal harm compared to what could've been. But still.
San Antonio Spurs: 2014 Title
Nodding to the San Antonio Spurs' 2014 title isn't effortless. They have other watershed moments, good and bad, to point toward. Mainly: Acquiring Kawhi Leonard on draft in 2011; Ray Allen's three-pointer off an offensive rebound in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals; missed opportunities in Game 7 of that series; bagging LaMarcus Aldridge in 2016 free agency; and trading Leonard to the Toronto Raptors during the 2018 offseason, eschewing the opportunity to stockpile assets for a fresh rebuild and instead trying to tread water.
Good luck making the case that any of those options are as meaningful as San Antonio's 2014 title. The, ahem, questionable return on Leonard comes close but doesn't move the emotional needle. That breakup was uglier than not, and the Spurs were never going hit the reset button under an aging Gregg Popovich. Their logic in that situation was both flawed and predictable.
Beating the Miami Heat in the 2014 Finals was much less bankable. San Antonio won 62 regular-season games and navigated a brutal Western Conference playoff bracket, but star power in its prime is supposed to rule. The Heat had plenty of it. The Spurs did not. Leonard wasn't yet the megastar he is now, and the heart of the core was, to the consensus, operating on borrowed time.
San Antonio won anyway.
The gravity of that title cannot be overstated. The Spurs had been written off as casualties to Father Time on multiple occasions. They didn't just blow that stigma to smithereens; they did so after losing in gutting fashion the year before.
"A lot of fans view it as one yearlong journey, the beginning and end of which are inextricably linked," NBA writer Sarah Cilea said. "The heartbreak of the 2013 Finals was the emotional trial that had to be endured in order to earn the elation of 2014. I don't know if that's incontrovertible fact or revisionist history fans have written to soothe the loss—the truth is probably somewhere in the middle—but there's a bittersweet beauty to it. Certainly the Spurs had a drive and focus in 2014 that can be traced directly back to their suffering the previous season and revisiting that tape before training camp. In that sense, you could combine the two events."
The manner in which the Spurs dethroned the Heat only adds to the substance of that 2014 title. They didn't barely beat them. They thoroughly smothered them over the course of five games, with all four of their victories coming by at least 15 points.
This wasn't quite David slaying Goliath. The 2014 Spurs did not come out of nowhere. Their victory was, however, team basketball in its purest form, an unforgettable display of what happens when a collective perfectly coalesces.
"Not only was the 2014 championship a final feather in the cap of the Big Three era, but it really was the culmination and validation of how the team had approached the decade," Cilea added. "All of the Spurs' defining characteristics from this period were present in this incredible crowning achievement: the fact that their nucleus stayed together past their individual primes despite outside questions about whether they could still contend, their ability to adapt, their philosophy of 'good-to-great' ball movement and equal opportunity offense (itself an adjustment from their Duncan-focused offense in the 2000s), their penchant for foreign-born players and lack of above-the-rim athletes.
"That 2014 Spurs team encapsulated all of those and put them together to play some of the most impressive, efficient basketball we have ever seen and probably ever will see. Their 60.4 effective field-goal percentage in those Finals still has not been topped despite five subsequent years of the Splash Brothers (the closest the Golden State Warriors came was a 58.8 mark in the 2018 Finals). They set some truly absurd records but even more than the numbers, the significance can be seen in the faces of the guys as they celebrated each other, especially those who had been there before. This one was special."
That this championship counted as the finishing touch for the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker is an anecdotal bonus. It also marked Leonard's transformation into more than a supporting cast member. Duncan and Popovich got their fifth rings, and in their Finals MVP, the Spurs, by design or happenstance, unlocked a building block capable of leading them into the next era—even if that era went on to meet a premature end.
Toronto Raptors: 2019 Title
First-ever titles are always memorable, but the Toronto Raptors' lone championship is particularly inerasable—indelible in its randomness.
Netting Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs the summer before, without giving up either of their two best prospects (OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam), was a gift out of almost nowhere. It was also a leap of faith.
Leonard's affinity for Los Angeles was a veritable fact, and with his free agency right around the corner, the Raptors tethered themselves to the ultimate risk: a one-year title window at the expense of a franchise cornerstone and fan favorite.
Newly formed powerhouses don't always work right away. They take time. The Raptors had the added burden of load managing Leonard through the regular season following a year in which he was plagued by a right quad injury. They leveraged themselves even further by giving up Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright in a deal for Marc Gasol at the trade deadline.
"The title was clarifying, unifying, and how lucky and wild is it to literally close out the decade on a championship?" Katie Heindl of Dime Uproxx and the Basketball Feelings newsletter told me. "The timing of it cinches it being the signature moment for the franchise. To spend the last 10 years climbing, turning over weird trades and cobbling together misfit teams out of disparate pieces and doing it, for the most part, in isolation (because the kind of attention that's being paid to the Raptors now is only because of the title) adds even more to this narrative of culmination, even fate. The more you dig in, the more it becomes undeniable. The title is the decade even when absolutely no one could have predicted it would end in one."
Some will maintain even now Toronto doesn't win without Klay Thompson tearing his ACL in Game 6, despite holding a 3-2 lead at the time and Kevin Durant's season declared over. The Raptors, in their eyes, didn't so much slay a dynasty as put one out of its misery.
Those same people might then be more inclined to spotlight one of the Raptors' alternative moments. Seeking substitutes isn't altogether wrong, even if the motive is inauthentic. Distaste for late-decade moments is a more viable argument than quibbling over what form of the Warriors they unseated.
Yet, every other option can be linked to this 2019 title—accessories in service of this moment.
"Is it the big bounce [Kawhi's shot to end the Philadelphia 76ers]?" Heindl said. "Is it the existential blockades of Paul Pierce, then LeBron James (times three)? Was it the wrenching loss of DeMar DeRozan and this notion of blood sacrifice to finally get beyond the scope of yourself? Kyle Lowry being declined by James Dolan has to be up there, like a kind of life-ruining hex you realize you've narrowly avoided. If he went, I really don't think anything that came after would or could've happened.
"How does DeRozan deliver solo without the guy who has come to be the most important layer in franchise history in that he's embodied it? Even with Masai Ujiri coming in—another moment that made everything possible—and jettisoning Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay, he would have been short one beating heart without Lowry."
"Siakam was like panning gold but to me," Heindl continued, "Fred VanVleet was like striking it. He snagged the last roster spot from five other potential players, and the story of that, the work of him getting from there to now, is kind of the entire ethos of the franchise. Can a man be a moment? I mean of course, because that's the other one, the impossibility of Kawhi Leonard ever ending up in Toronto at all."
Utah Jazz: Enes Kanter Trade
Ride with the Rudy Gobert draft-day trade if you please. Potato, potahtoes. The Utah Jazz landed a franchise-altering star for Erick Green and cash. That's a heist. (So was the Donovan Mitchell draft-day trade. Please stop giving Utah so many building blocks, Denver.)
But Gobert only assumed the role he holds now after the Jazz sent Enes Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the 2015 trade deadline. Gobert started the next game, and Utah has played like a defensive powerhouse ever since.
"Looking back, Gobert was undoubtedly the biggest acquisition the franchise made," Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey wrote. "And though more offensive-oriented players have often been the public face of the team, he's clearly its best player.
"He led the Jazz in win shares during the 2010s, along with wins over replacement player, rebounds and blocks. His franchise-leading plus/minus over the course of the decade (plus-1,287) is 489 points higher than second-place Joe Ingles. Landing Gobert in the 2013 draft—and paving the way for him to star by trading Kanter—set the team's defense-first and winning culture."
Utah's transition to Gobert felt inevitable. Kanter was scheduled to enter restricted free agency in 2015 and wanted out of town. Between his griping and the Jazz's 19-34 record at the time, his departure qualified as addition by subtraction from the moment it was finalized.
That only reinforces the importance of moving him and the opportunity it afforded Gobert. The Jazz might've felt an obligation to pay Kanter over the summer rather than let him walk for nothing. At the bare minimum, they could've simply waited to pass the torch until 2015-16.
Acting when they did was huge. Utah went 19-10 with the league's best defensive rating the rest of the way, a stretch that doubles as Gobert's springboard into the mainstream and, eventually, Defensive Player of the Year stardom.
Contrarians have their pick of other significant flash points: Jerry Sloan's abrupt retirement in 2011; the Deron Williams trade that followed; picking up Joe Ingles off waivers in 2014; letting Gordon Hayward explore the market during 2014 restricted free agency; Joe Johnson's game-winner over the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the 2017 postseason; Hayward's departure that summer; the draft-day trade for Mitchell; and Ingles locking down Paul George in the first round of the 2018 postseason.
Washington Wizards: John Wall's Game 6 Winner in 2017 Eastern Conference Semis
Profound moments aren't so easy to come by for the Washington Wizards over the past decade. Their hits have been relatively minor, and their misses, however huge, fairly predictable.
Not surprisingly, this quickly turned into a choice between two early-postseason game-winners during series they would eventually lose: Paul Pierce's Game 3 semifinals buzzer-beater against the Atlanta Hawks in 2015, and John Wall's Game 6 dagger in the 2017 conference semifinals.
Pierce's shot initially called to me the most. John Wall was injured, Bradley Beal deferred to him, and it was a ridiculously difficult look. But...did he call glass?
Wall's pull-up three carries more emotional weight within the franchise. He wasn't an aging star; he was, until recently, the basis for pretty much everything they've done. That the signature moment of the Wizards' decade, and Wall's career, features him making a three-pointer is pretty cool/funny. (He shot a postseason-career best 34.4 percent from beyond the arc that year.)
Forcing a Game 7 so close to the Eastern Conference Finals is also no joke. Failing that, earning a win-or-go-home shot at the Eastern Conference Finals only to then fall apart in the second half of said game is so Washington Wizards.
"That Wizards team was gearing up for a push to the conference finals, and they were a game away from getting there," Bullets Forever's Ben Mehic said. "So, as amazing as that shot was, the Wizards still fell short—a microcosm of what the Wall-led teams have been the past decade. They let Kelly Olynyk morph into Larry Bird, which sunk them in Game 7. That Game 6—the fantastic shot John Wall hit—was ultimately overshadowed by a terrible defensive performance in Game 7."
Few moments were comparably happy for the Wizards over this decade. They have the Beal and Wall draft selections; ending their half-decade playoff drought/winning their first postseason series in eight years (2014); Wall's 52-point eruption (2016); and Beal's 51-point detonation (2017)
Finally firing team president Ernie Grunfeld this past April is worthy of celebration. After that, you get into some less savory moments he authored—like drafting Jan Vesely in 2011.