1) Cleveland Cavaliers shock the Golden State Warriors
You can be forgiven for thinking that the Cleveland Cavaliers were finished. After all, no team in NBA history had ever come back from a 3-1 NBA Finals lead and they were playing a Golden State Warriors team that wasn’t just good but historically unprecedented. Having gone 73-9 in the regular season, the 2015-16 Warriors were arguably a single win away from being in the “best NBA team ever” conversation.
Plus, Cleveland was Cleveland. The city hadn’t won a championships in 52 years. The entire history of professional sports indicated that their situation was hopeless. Even when the Cavaliers won the next two games to force a Game 7, there was a sense that it was merely setting the stage for yet another crushing disappointment.
It wasn’t until very late in the fourth quarter of Game 7 that the “wow” moment came about. With the game tied and the clock beginning to run out, LeBron James practically teleported to the other side of the court in order to block an Andre Iguodala attempt. James wasn’t just making a basketball play, he was sending the Warriors a message: They weren’t going to let them have this.
And they didn’t. Kyrie Irving subsequently hit one of the biggest shots in Finals history, the Cavaliers ended up winning 93-89. The Warriors’ miracle season was dead and so was the so-called Cleveland sports curse.
2) Team USA sweep the Olympics
This year’s US men’s basketball team didn’t quite have the star power of past Dream Teams, and they even struggled on occasion, but that ultimately didn’t change the final result. Once again, Team USA went undefeated on their way towards an easy final victory against an entirely overmatched opponent (that would be Serbia, this time around). It was a worthy end to the Olympic careers of Carmelo Anthony, whose four medals established him as the most decorated basketball player in US Olympic history, and head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
They weren’t, however, the most dominant basketball team in Rio. The gap between the US women’s team and their opponents was so wide that it almost felt unfair that they were allowed to compete. Their 101-72 win over Spain in the final was actually one of the more competitive games they played.
With a murderer’s row of top players including Maya Moore, Brittney Griner, Sue Bird, Elena Delle Donne and Diana Taurasi, it could be argued that the 2016 squad wasn’t just the greatest women’s basketball team of all time but one of the most talented basketball teams ever assembled, period.
3) Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett retire
They were, perhaps, the best players of their generation and we said goodbye toall three of them in the span of a few months. Before the start of the 2015-16 season, Kobe Bryant announced that this would be his final NBA season, essentially transforming his team’s campaign into a farewell tour.
Well, Bryant nailed the encore, that’s for certain. On the last day of the season, Bryant scored 60 points in a win over the Utah Jazz. It took him 50 shot attemptsto do so. It was the platonic ideal of a Bryant game, in other words.
Tim Duncan’s exit, in comparison, was more in line with his private, unassuming personality. The news of Duncan’s retirement, after 19 seasons in the league, came in the form of a press release posted on the San Antonio Spurs’ website during the dog days of summer. Just like that, he was gone.
A few months later, the word came that Kevin Garnett was retiring. It was surprising news because Garnett still had a year left on his contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team that drafted him and the team he returned to after stints with the Boston Celtics and (less notably) the Brooklyn Nets. Throughout his 21 NBA seasons, Garnett gained a reputation as one of the game’s most enigmatic figures, it follows that there would be an air of mystery surrounding his departure.
4) The basketball world mourns Pat Summitt
The basketball world mourned the loss of a true legend this year. Pat Summitt, former head coach of Tennessee’s women’s basketball program, died in June after a battle with early onset Alzheimer’s. She was 64.
As the head coach of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team since 1974, her Lady Vols teams won eight championships, only UCLA’s John Wooden and UConn’s Geno Auriemma have won more. As impressive as those wins were, they won’t be her lasting legacy. Instead, people will remember Summitt for how she helped grow women’s basketball and how her teams helped transform it from a niche sport to what it is today. If she’s not the most important figure in the history of the sport, she’s certainly in the top two or three.
Maybe no other anecdote is more telling than her response when asked whether she would be interested in coaching the Tennessee men’s team. She replied:“Why is that considered a step up?” It was a good question then. It remains a question now.
5) Kevin Durant joins the Warriors
There were talks about it happening, but no one really thought it was possible. The easy money would be to bet on free agent Kevin Durant re-signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Even if Durant wanted to go to the Warriors, how would they make room for him? Heck, even if they could afford to bring him in, the Warriors offense was already historically great, how much better could Durant possibly make them?
If the Warriors had won their second straight title, Durant would probably still be with the Thunder. Instead, their painful loss to the Cavaliers convinced them they needed to make a move. So, in July, Durant and the Warriors agreed to a two-year, $54.3m contract.
Durant’s defection not only added a new chapter to the Warriors’ increasingly tense rivalry with the Cavaliers, it had the side effect of making every Warriors/Thunder game featuring Durant’s former team-mate Russell Westbrook a must-watch event.