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It all belonged to LeBron James in 2016 – NBA year in review

Jonathan Raymond reviews the year that was in the NBA, which was defined by LeBron James' epic comeback in the Finals.
LeBron James won his third championship, and the city of Cleveland's first in over 50 years, with the NBA title in 2016. Jason Miler / Getty Images / AFP
LeBron James won his third championship, and the city of Cleveland's first in over 50 years, with the NBA title in 2016. Jason Miler / Getty Images / AFP

June 11-19. Any discussion of basketball in 2016, truly, has to be centered around those eight surreal early-summer days.

The Golden State Warriors, you most certainly have not forgotten, ended the night of June 10 up 3-1 in the NBA Finals. They were champions, again. It was over.

The greatest regular-season team of all-time, winners of 73 games, had slogged through a more difficult play-offs than expected. Stephen Curry got hurt in the first round against the Rockets. Golden State were put on the ropes, down 3-1 themselves, against Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant’s Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. It was a narrow escape.

But now? Now the Warriors were cruising. They beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers in six games the previous year. Now they were poised, with Game 5 at home, to go one better. In whatever case, they had three chances in hand to put Cleveland away. For context, no team in NBA Finals history had ever not put away a series with such an advantage.

The Warriors sure weren’t about to. Not the Warriors of the Splash Brothers, of unanimous, two-time MVP Curry. Not the defending champion Warriors, not the 73-win Warriors, the greatest-team-ever Warriors.

It was over.

Well, you already know the story. It was not over.

The resilience LeBron dug out, the greatness he harnessed, over those final three games made for as profound a display as any we have seen in basketball. The significance of the achievement ranks with any we have witnessed.

He averaged 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game over those last three contests, each a victory, each a step in a previously-unforged path. He wound up being the leading scorer in the series. He also was the leading rebounder. And he led in assists, and steals, and blocks. LeBron led – both teams – in everything.

Those facts, remarkable as they are, only scratch the surface of what it was like to see with your eyes, though. The way LeBron continually battered his way into the middle, the way he shaped the floor with his passing, the way he marshalled the defence, that iconic block – how he commanded the game.

2016 was supposed to be the year the basketball world moved on from LeBron. At the turn of the calendar he looked like his physical peak was behind him. He played the fewest minutes-per-game of his career and was a footnote in the MVP discussion. He was still great – he averaged over 25 points, nearly seven and a half rebounds and almost seven assists per game. But he didn’t quite seem LeBron James, conqueror of worlds, anymore.

He had dipped, if only slightly. He was the past. The very near-past, to be sure, even a major part of the present (no one really thought the Cavs wouldn’t at least make the Finals, after all). But the present belonged to Steph Curry, to the Warriors, to the pace-and-space revolution.

And then LeBron took by force the present and fashioned it into a crown atop his head. King James, and all that.

The future still probably belongs to the Warriors. The other ground-shifting event of 2016, you’ll remember, was when they signed Kevin Durant. A couple months into the 2016/17 season, he has, as predicted, integrated just about seamlessly into Golden State’s offensive flow. The Warriors, 22-4 as of this writing, are scoring the most points per game – 118.5 – and have the second-most efficient offence in the NBA (114.0 points per 100 possessions). Their plus-12.4 points per 100 net rating tops the league, easily.

But that is a story for 2017. The finale to the Warriors-Cavs trilogy awaits.

Whether Golden State resume their dominion over basketball or not, 2016 will always belong to LeBron. And, who knows, maybe 2017 yet will too.

So that’s it?

No, no, it wouldn’t be much of a year-in-review without at least acknowledging some of the other major events:

• Rest in style, Craig Sager. We must start with the beloved television reporter, who died only last week after his leukaemia returned from remission in March. His joy, his indefatigable spirit and his penchant for loud, bizarre suit-jackets will be dearly missed.

• RIP to the legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt and Warriors Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond, as well.

• Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan retired. All left their marks on the game in different, indelible ways. All will be elected into the Hall of Fame on first try.

• Team USA, both men and women, continued to dominate the international scene, with gold again at the Olympics. Durant, who scored nearly 20 points per game, was arguably the MVP for the men, while Diana Taurasi led the American women.

• Basketball went big in Canada. The Toronto Raptors were just two wins away from the NBA Finals – people actually do kind of forget they pushed the Cavs to six games in the East finals – and the city gave them full-throated backing. Scores of people showed up outside the Air Canada Centre just to watch the team on public screenings whether they were home or away, enjoying the finest season yet in 21 years of NBA basketball in Toronto.

• Russell Westbrook was left on his own in Oklahoma City, and he is now assaulting the league as a one-man wrecking crew. He has 13 triple-doubles already this season, and so far he is averaging over 30 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists per game. If he can maintain that for a season, he will be only the second player to ever average a triple-double, first since Oscar Robertson in 1961/62.

• The league and players’ association reached a new collective bargaining agreement, foregoing the possibility of any strike in the near-future and throwing a few new changes into the team-building and player-movement processes.

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Updated: December 19, 2016 04:00 AM

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