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Which players defined the past 10 NBA seasons?

We posed this question to a panel of ESPN’s NBA experts: Who was the player of the decade? Voters ranked their top three picks in order — considering the 2009-10 season through 2018-19 — and here are the results.

LeBron James was an overwhelming pick at No. 1, with a tight race between former teammates Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant for Nos. 2 and 3.

Three members of our panel — Kirk Goldsberry, Kevin Pelton and Tim Bontemps — highlight what made each of these three players a defining superstar of the 2010s.

1. LeBron James

Teams

  • Cleveland Cavaliers: 2009-10
  • Miami Heat: 2010-14
  • Cleveland Cavaliers: 2014-18
  • Los Angeles Lakers: 2018-19

Kirk Goldsberry: LeBron James is the defining player of the 2010s, and it’s not close. The only people who have had better NBA decades than 2010s LeBron are Michael Jordan in the 1990s and Bill Russell in the 1960s. Neither of those guys played in a league as deep or as competitive as the one James dominated over these past 10 seasons.

James was clearly the best on-court performer we watched this decade. In case you might disagree, consider these facts:

  • He led all scorers this decade … by a lot
  • He ranked fourth in total assists and 10th in total rebounds
  • He was the only player in the top 10 in points, rebounds and assists

James is the greatest basketball player since Jordan, and most of his prime fell squarely in the 2010s. He began this decade as a 25-year-old NBA superstar with one Finals appearance and zero championships. He will end it as a 35-year-old global icon with nine Finals appearances, three titles and three Finals MVP awards. When we look back at his incredible career, we will look back mostly at the 2010s.

Not only did James appear in the NBA Finals every season between 2011 and 2018 but he also was arguably the best player in every one of those series. In addition, the dude racked up more than 1,500 more buckets than Stephen Curry and James Harden and 500 more than Kevin Durant.

LeBron received nearly every first-place vote available from our panel, and that’s how it should be. Don’t get me wrong — Durant and Curry are marvelous, game-changing megastars, but neither of them controlled this decade nearly as much as James. He is deeply intertwined with every major trend this decade on and off the court.

Although the rise of 3-point shooting is the definitive on-court trend of the 2010s — and Curry is the definitive shooter of our time — that’s only part of the story. Curry made an astronomical 2,483 3-pointers during the 2010s. Harden ranked second with 2,025. But, in that same time period, James assisted on 2,107 triples, by far the most in the NBA. So while Curry might deserve all the credit in the world for changing how we look at long-range shooting this decade, James deserves some for changing the way we look at long-range shot creation. His play is integral to the tactics driving the trend.

Durant is a better pure scorer than James, and Curry is a better pure shooter, but James is a more complete superstar. When you consider his playoff success and the stat totals, it’s virtually impossible to argue any other player was as dominant on the court.

Oh, and James has made First-Team All-Defense three times this decade, too. Neither Curry nor Durant has ever done that.

James wasn’t simply the league’s most impactful player on the court. Off the floor, he reshaped how we look at superstardom and player movement in pro sports. If you’re searching for the origin of contemporary player empowerment in the NBA and beyond, look no further than July 8, 2010, in Greenwich, Connecticut. His televised free-agency decision might have been kind of clumsy, but it was unquestionably the seminal moment for a decade in which dozens of the game’s biggest talents all seemed to switch teams, demand trades and join forces in ways we’d never seen before.

Before King James shocked the world in 2010 and took his talents to South Beach, July was a sleepy month on the NBA calendar. Nowadays the league sets its phones on fire for two straight weeks with breaking news bombs in ways that would be incomprehensible to basketball fans in the pre-LeBron era.

In the end, it’s the overwhelming breadth and relentlessness of James’ greatness that make him the most definitive player of the 2010s.

2. Stephen Curry

Team

  • Golden State Warriors: 2009-19

Kevin Pelton: When the 2010s began, LeBron James was an easy choice as the decade’s best player. He had already led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals and won his first MVP before celebrating his 26th birthday. Stephen Curry’s future was far less clear. Back when the calendar turned from 2009 to 2010, Curry was a rookie who was averaging 11.8 points per game through the first two months of his NBA career while taking a back seat to backcourt-mate Monta Ellis.

Sure, Curry had already made a name for himself in college by leading Davidson to the 2008 Elite Eight. But skepticism persisted over whether a skinny, 6-foot-3 guard who relied on 3-pointers could become a star in the NBA even before recurring ankle injuries put Curry’s career in jeopardy early in the decade. After all, he was the seventh pick in the 2009 NBA draft, going behind two players — Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet — who have long since washed out of the league.

Fast-forward a decade, and the NBA has been remade in Curry’s image. Back in 2009, 3-point attempts seemed to have stalled out at about 22% of all NBA shots. Over the past five years, 3-pointers have increased at a faster rate than at any point aside from when the league briefly moved the line in to 22 feet, reaching more than 36% of shot attempts last season. And pace of play has skyrocketed from 94.1 possessions per 48 minutes in 2008-09 to 102.4 last season.

It’s not just that 3s are up. Specifically, Curry has helped popularize 3-pointers off the dribble (up almost 50% as a percentage of all shots between the first season for which camera-tracking data is available and 2018-19, per Second Spectrum data) and shots from beyond 30 feet (attempts from 30-40 feet are up nearly 250% between 2008-09 and 2018-19, according to Basketball-Reference.com).

Most of that change has occurred over the five seasons since Curry went from budding star to two-time MVP, leading the Warriors to three championships in the process. Other teams have sought to imitate the style that made Golden State so great, which starts with Curry being a threat teams have to account for anywhere beyond midcourt.

Having joined the Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics as the second team to reach five consecutive NBA Finals, the Warriors are the team of the decade. And nobody has been more important to their success than Curry, who has played two different roles for Golden State.

At first, Curry was the focal point of a team that came out of nowhere to win the 2015 championship and an NBA-record 73 games the next season. He won back-to-back MVP awards, the latter as the first unanimous selection in league history and as one of just four players all decade — a group that doesn’t include LeBron, believe it or not — to average at least 30 points per game for a season.

After the Warriors lost to James’ Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals, with the MCL sprain Curry suffered earlier in the playoffs helping limit his output, he changed his game to accommodate Kevin Durant’s arrival via free agency. It was Curry, not Durant, who was forced to adjust by playing less frequently with the ball in his hands and taking fewer shots. He sacrificed a chance at additional MVPs in the name of team success and was rewarded with two more championship rings.

Although we’ll look back on LeBron as the decade’s best player, Curry’s rise best symbolizes where the NBA appears headed as skill and speed gain favor over size and strength. While those trends had begun with rules changes in the previous decade, it took a player as singularly capable of exploiting them as Curry to open the league’s eyes to what now seems possible.

3. Kevin Durant

Teams

  • Oklahoma City Thunder: 2009-16
  • Golden State Warriors: 2016-19

Tim Bontemps: Kevin Durant would deserve this spot based on his incredible on-court production alone — one MVP, two Finals MVPs, four scoring championships. But by factoring in all the ramifications from his decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and join the Golden State Warriors as a free agent in 2016, he becomes a lock as a defining player of the decade.

LeBron made a somewhat similar decision to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat in 2010. It was a pioneering move that changed NBA free agency and leaguewide player movement. Yet consider all the ways Durant’s choice to team up with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green completely reshaped the NBA.

There isn’t a comparison in league history for a player of Durant’s caliber choosing to join a team that was already better than the rest of the competition. Durant, Curry, Thompson and Green combined to give the Warriors four of the top 20 players in the NBA — a quartet of stars that simply overwhelmed the opposition en route to a pair of titles even while rarely looking fully engaged. They confidently trailed at halftime of Games 6 and 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals before dispatching the Houston Rockets. They felt inevitable until wear, tear and injuries caught up to them this past season.

Beyond the accomplishments in Golden State — and his many accolades in OKC at the beginning of the decade — consider the ripple effects from KD’s stunning move:

• The Thunder appeared set to battle the Warriors for West supremacy for the next several seasons after their epic 2016 playoff matchup. Instead, OKC has yet to win another postseason series. Now Russell Westbrook is in Houston and the team could be headed toward a full rebuild.

• In 2015, James and the Cavaliers gave the Warriors all they could handle after Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving suffered season-ending injuries. In 2016, Cleveland came back from down 3-1 in the Finals to win the city’s first championship in any sport in 50 years. Under normal circumstances, the Cavs might have earned another title (don’t forget how good that 2017 team looked rolling through the East). Instead, Durant’s arrival eliminated Cleveland’s chances. Within two years, Irving had demanded a trade and James had left for Los Angeles.

• In 2017, the league and the players’ association agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that included the designated veteran extension, otherwise known as the supermax. It was supposed to help teams like OKC keep players like Durant. Instead, there has been a steady stream of players who — of their own volition (Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis) or their team’s (Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins and Kemba Walker) — have gone elsewhere anyway.

• The LA Clippers shifted into asset-collection mode and away from their star-studded roster — beginning with the Chris Paul trade in the summer of 2017 — after seeing they had no chance of beating Golden State. If the Warriors don’t add Durant, maybe a version of that Clippers squad is still together.

• And now, after the Toronto Raptors’ championship and Durant’s departure for the Brooklyn Nets, the power dynamic in the league looks more balanced. Seeing their opportunity to strike after hoarding assets during Golden State’s reign, teams made huge, win-now moves during a seismic summer. The list of real contenders runs deeper than it has at any time since Durant left OKC.

No other single decision has had so many ripple effects on the rest of the NBA.

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LeBron James may be done talking about Enes Kanter, but Kanter had one more message for the four-time MVP on Tuesday: You’re not the king of New York.

The morning after James engineered a fourth-quarter comeback in a road win over the Knicks, he published a post on Instagram suggesting that he was the king of the Big Apple.

Kanter, who had to be separated from James during a skirmish in Monday night’s loss to the Cavs, said James can’t hold that title.

“We’ve already got a king; it’s Kristaps Porzingis,” Kanter said at practice on Tuesday. “Sorry about that.”

Kanter delivered the line with a smile but quickly added that the Knicks needed to move on from the recent back-and-forth with James.

“I think [we need to] kind of forget about this, play our game because we have one tomorrow, just have to get back on track,” the center said.

James first angered Kanter and the rest of the Knicks over the weekend when he said New York made a mistake in not drafting Mavericks point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

The implication was that the Knicks picked the wrong player in point guard Frank Ntilikina, whom the club selected eighth overall, one spot ahead of Smith Jr.

Kanter and the Knicks took umbrage to James’ draft comments. They defended Ntilikina publicly before the Cavs game.
LeBron James and Enes Kanter got into it during Monday's game.
James, though, said on Monday that he meant no disrespect to Ntilikina. He said that his critique was a shot at then-Knicks president Phil Jackson. He also laughed off the criticism from Kanter, in particular.

“For Enes Kanter, who always got something to say,” James said on Monday morning. “He says … I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

The back-and-forth between James, Kanter and the Knicks spilled over to the court on Monday night.

Late in the first quarter, James crowded Ntilikina after an alley-oop dunk and prevented him from receiving an inbounds pass. Ntilikina shoved James away and a few Knicks, including Kanter and Courtney Lee, came over to intervene. Kanter and James stood face-to-face for a few moments and were assessed double technical fouls.

“We all got Frank’s back, we all got each other’s back,” Kanter said Tuesday. “That’s what we’re playing for. I’m saying this — it’s us against the world. As soon as you step on that court, we’ve got no friends.”

The brief skirmish between James and Kanter was all a footnote in the end because the Cavs came back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to win the game.

James engineered the comeback with seven points and eight assists in the fourth quarter — many of which were to Kyle Korver (19 points in the fourth quarter).

After the win, James took another dig at Jackson, who was removed as team president in late June. He said the Knicks (7-6) were playing well, in part, because Jackson didn’t influence how the club ran its offense anymore.

“I think Jeff, the coach, Jeff Hornacek is finally — with the release of the old fella, he’s finally allowed to implement what he wants to do on the team and he’s showing it’s very effective,” James said, smiling as he said “old fella,” a reference to Jackson.

James, though, didn’t want to address the on-court incident with Kanter after the game.

“Nothing,” he said. “We got the win. I’m not going to get, uh, I’m not going to say that guy’s name again, anyway.”

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Back on Cleveland Cavaliers media day in late September, LeBron James came into the new season with a fresh mind and body.

“This is one of the best offseasons I’ve had in my career,” James said. “And I’m extremely excited.”

After spraining his left ankle, however, and only playing in one of the Cavs’ five preseason games, followed by a 3-4 start to the regular season, James admits that all the air from his summer training was let out of his balloon when he got injured.

“This was probably the worst training camp for me in my career because of the injury,” James said at Cavs shootaround Wednesday morning before their game against the Indiana Pacers. “I didn’t get an opportunity to do the things that I like to do and with the summer that I had, I kind of had a setback.”
LeBron James is averaging 24.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 8.6 assist per game.
With the Cavs coming off three straight trips to the NBA Finals, training camp might have been looked at as nothing more than a tune-up had Cleveland returned its core. However, Kyrie Irving’s offseason trade request set off a string of roster moves that resulted in the Cavs bringing in eight new players this season.

The practice time was necessary. And there was no way to substitute learning how to play with James for the roster additions unless James was actually on the court.

“Training camp has always been like my favorite point in the season, it sounds weird, but to be able to get back into it, get the team going, having that camaraderie, getting back on the floor, getting that system back in place,” James said. “For me to be in and out and much more out that in and to be able to implement what I do, especially with [eight] new guys, that kind of hurt.”

The Cavs aren’t the only perennial power off to a slow start, however. The Golden State Warriors are 5-3; they didn’t have their third loss last season until Dec. 1, when they were 16-3. The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder — both picked to finish near the top of the Western Conference — are 4-3. The Cavs, Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls are the only playoff teams from a year ago currently under .500.

Yes, the season started a week earlier and preseason was shortened to accommodate the schedule shift, but the Cavs can’t blame everything on the calendar.

“I was kind of already behind the eight ball, so it didn’t matter if it was a shortened preseason or not with the injury that I had, personally,” James said. “So I’m not sure. I’m not sure. We know that the season kind of started earlier. Everybody was kind of a little bit off rhythm for a little bit. But we’re into now so it’s not much of an excuse.”

The Cavs tried to rid themselves of excuses with an air-it-out full team meeting prior to practice Tuesday. James was “vocal” in the meeting, a source present for it told ESPN, however “most everyone spoke.”

James was encouraged by what was said.

“It was needed and we’re receptive, and the best thing about it is guys got out everything that they wanted to, even with it being early in the season,” James said. “It was good, so, see how it translates on the floor too.”

While most would think a team meeting just seven games into an 82-game schedule would be cause for alarm, James didn’t see it that way.

“Everything happens for a reason, so, excited what the future holds for our team,” he said.