Here we go again!
Last year, this writer dove into what the association was like ten years before the incoming season. Now here we are again. We’re traveling back to the year 2010. Back when the iPad was first sweeping the nation, the economy was still in the toilet, and the Toy Story trilogy had concluded on a high note. Or so we thought.
Coming into the 2009-2010 season, it seemed the season itself wasn’t what everyone was paying the most attention to. What was on everyone’s minds was the upcoming free agency of one LeBron James.
Following Cleveland’s shocking playoff exit in the Conference Finals, there started to be rumblings that James’ days as a Cavalier were numbered. We all know what happened the following summer, which is worth discussing next year. At the time, however, Cleveland’s top competitor for James’ services was believed to be the New York Knicks.
Even though the Knicks hadn’t been to the playoffs in almost a decade, and were still washing off the stink of Isiah Thomas’ managerial tenure, they still had their prestige of being a legendary franchise by their side. Meanwhile, everyone else in the league was gearing up for an upcoming epic free agency period.
This may sound irrelevant now since we didn’t get our answer until after the season ended, but this hoopla all started circulating just before the 2009-2010 season started, and it would never go away. In fact, we saw several cap-clearing moves by teams in order to facilitate a potential deal for James, so how could it? As for the season itself, we still got one entertaining enough that James’ decision didn’t distract all that much.
Now last year, this started off by asking how well the team who won the championship in this specific year would do in the modern NBA. The Lakers repeated as champions in 2010 with almost the exact same team, so there’s not much use in asking if they could do it in today’s league, so we’re not going to start there.
Where we’re going to start, however, is the little change the Lakers made before they went on their road to repeating — Replacing Trevor Ariza with Ron Artest.
More Talent Does Not Equal Higher Ceiling
In the summer of 2009, we saw quite a few (declining) stars who went to new situations either to rehabilitate their career image and/or to get a ring. Ron Artest, Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, Shaquille O’Neal, and Allen Iverson all found new homes before the fall of 2009. It was so repetitive among aging stars that we were quite shocked when Grant Hill opted to re-sign with the Suns when contenders were inquiring about his services.
Because of this, the ceilings for all the teams involved — minus Memphis, who Iverson was employed with for exactly three games before his release — was projected to be even higher than they already were.
The Lakers were adding a 17-point scorer and a former defensive player of the year. The Celtics were adding a big who made the all-star the previous season that was coming off their bench. The Cavaliers were adding a reigning all-star and all-NBA center. The Magic were adding an electric 20-point scorer. The already elite teams managed to get better on paper.
But when they took the court, they weren’t. At least not really. The star-studded additions didn’t hurt the teams too much when their seasons ended, but they didn’t add any new dimensions.
Before coming to the Lakers, Artest was usually a focal point in the offense, so he was used to doing things his way. That’s what made him such an awkward fit in LA since the Lakers already had an established pecking order with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum. They wanted Ron to be a 3&D wing, but he was used to being so much more. Artest would later hit two enormous shots in the Lakers’ playoff run, but he never really found his stride in Los Angeles.
Rasheed Wallace should have been a perfect third big off the Celtics bench. He had plenty of playoff experience, and his skillset alone should have made it easier for Boston to weather Kevin Garnett’s recovery following a devastating knee injury. Instead, ‘Sheed came into the season out of shape, played lackadaisical on both sides of the floor, and didn’t really try until the postseason came around. Though he gave his all when it counted, his frustrating play made him one of the least-liked Celtics in recent memory.
Of the stars that have been brought up, Vinsanity did the best for what his team asked him. Vince Carter was handed a bigger role than the previous two mentioned. He was supposed to fill in for the departed Hedo Turkoglu. He put up pretty good numbers, but he just wasn’t the same player at 33 nor could he do what Hedo did. Vince definitely tried, and he did an adequate job. In the end, Orlando acquired him just a year or so too late. Sadly, if it weren’t for Nick Anderson, these two free throws would have been the most infamous in Orlando Magic history.
As for Shaq’s time with the Cavs, well that deserves a conversation on its own, which leads us to our next topic.
Less (Shaq) Is More!
When Orlando proved in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals that they could handle whatever LeBron and the Cavs threw at them, it was clear they needed someone who could stop them, or more specifically Dwight Howard, in their tracks. The recently resurgent Shaq could definitely suffice.
Shaq was coming off of his best season in years, averaging 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds while also staying on the court for 75 games. Even at 37, it looked as if Shaq had some juice left after all. Sure, the Suns didn’t make the playoffs, but he looked like a valuable asset to have nonetheless. Cleveland thought as much when they traded for him and, best of all, he was traded for spare parts.
Unfortunately, he didn’t bring the same production as a Cavalier. In fact, Shaq was probably the last player you’d want on that team. The early James years in Cleveland were a team that relied on running the floor. A younger Shaq would have been just fine in a system like that, but the 38-year-old iteration? Not so much. He wasn’t useless when paired with James, but he could not keep up with him.
The Cavs still had the best record in the entire league, but they actually won five fewer games with Shaq than the previous year. In the end, it was all for naught because the Cavaliers never got their rematch with the Magic in the playoffs. A few months later, Shaq would leave Cleveland for the team that eliminated them — the Boston Celtics
As for Phoenix, many thought this was the end for them. Steve Nash wasn’t getting any younger, Amar’e Stoudemire’s contract was up soon and selling off Shaq for basically nothing made it seem like the Suns were Run-n-Done.
But that wasn’t what happened. With Shaq gone, Phoenix re-discovered its style. Nash and Stoudemire were free to run their pick-and-roll game again, while Hill, Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley were excellent complementary pieces on the wing. Add Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, youngsters Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez and, suddenly, the Suns had an elite squad again.
With a fully healthy season from almost everyone, Phoenix worked its way to a 54-28 record, placing them third in the Western Conference. The team managed to get past the Trail Blazers in the first round, then stunned the Spurs in a sweep in the second round. The Lakers later stopped the Suns in a hard-fought conference finals.
It’s just amazing how, when you look back at both the Cavs and the Suns in 2010, Shaq, one of the greatest players of all-time, affected both of their seasons because of how badly he fit with both of them.
It’s also depressing to note that ten years later, the Suns have yet to reach the playoffs again.
About The Label “Future Star”
The 2009 draft had some studs coming out of the woodworks. They still have plenty of basketball left in them, but Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Blake Griffin have all done enough in their careers to earn a place in the NBA Hall of Fame. Even players below their tier, e.g. DeMar DeRozan and Jrue Holiday, have had pretty impressive careers in their own right.
But, back in 2010, not much attention was put on any of those five. To be fair, Blake was out for the season was a fractured patella, while Harden was a mere bench player for the Thunder and Curry had a satisfactory rookie campaign on a crappy Warriors squad. Holiday was just a rotation player for Philadelphia, and DeRozan was highly regarded for his highlight-reel dunks and not much else.
When the 2009-2010 season came around, the players who were believed to be the future stars from the group were Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings.
Evans had one of the best rookie seasons the NBA had ever seen, averaging 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Those were numbers repeated only by the likes of Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and LeBron James in their respective rookie seasons. A team like Sacramento, who needed any kind of excitement after giving away Ron Artest to the Rockets the year before, needed someone who could promise a good future. Evans was exactly what the doctor ordered.
But sadly, that first year was Evans’ peak. Injuries sustained over the years halted his progress as a player and he never approached the status of a future star ever again.
In Brandon Jennings’ case, his status as a future star was even more short-lived. Jennings, who created controversy when he decided to forego college to go play overseas before the NBA, exploded when he first arrived in Milwaukee.
His first full month in the league, Jennings averaged 22.1 points on 42/49/78 splits, which included a 55 point explosion against the Warriors. Because of that, it seemed as though that Jennings would become the player we now see in Stephen Curry.
But, as it turned out, those numbers were just a flash in the pan. Jennings didn’t come close to matching those numbers throughout the remainder of his rookie season. He had a fine year, and even finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, but Jennings failed to match the hype.
No matter how good or bad a rookie may look, we never know a young player’s future until we truly see it for ourselves. It may sound odd now, but there was a legitimate belief that Evans and Jennings were future superstars because of their performances. We now know that’s not the case but, because of their stories, patience is now preached as far as player development and growth are concerned, for better or worse.
What Could Have Been
We talked about how Phoenix and Cleveland did during the 2009-2010 season. But did you know that they almost agreed to another deal at the trade deadline in which the Cavs would have acquired Stoudemire for JJ Hickson?
James and Stoudemire would have been an interesting pairing as both were set to enter free agency. Stoudemire was an offensively stout rim runner who absolutely could have dominated the fast break with James much like he did with Nash. The Cavs opted to take a half measure by trading for Antawn Jamison and retaining Hickson’s because they believed in his potential. But we’ve already gone over what happened after that.
That wasn’t the only almost trade that could have changed a lot. Before Jamison was traded to Cleveland, Washington had discussed trading both him and Caron Butler to the Boston Celtics for Ray Allen and cap filler. Jamison and Butler would have given the Celtics a lot more scoring depth. Plus, at the time, NBA players could go back to the teams that had just traded them, so adding them and getting Ray back could have pushed them over the top. As we’ve previously established, more talent does not lead to a higher ceiling.
But enough about mega-trades that fell through. What about teams that failed to reach their potential because of unfortunate circumstances?
People forget how good the Bucks were during that season. Brandon Jennings’ strong rookie campaign helped them, but Andrew Bogut coming into his own as one of the league’s best all-around bigs as well. Add newly acquired John Salmons, and Milwaukee was a team nobody wanted to face.
That was until Bogut suffered a freak elbow injury just before the playoffs started. Before that, Bogut was on his way to All-NBA honors because of his excellent play on both offense and defense. With him gone, the Bucks never recovered. Bogut himself was never quite the same. Had that injury never happened, the Bucks could have had something special on their hands, which probably would have led to a lack of Giannis Antetokounmpo for them now.
Every year, we wonder what could have been had certain things gone the other way, and the 2009-2010 season was no exception.
There were other storylines that were going on. The NBA suffered a PR crisis after the Wizards had a gun standoff between Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenden. As awful as that was, it inadvertently won them the John Wall sweepstakes. Looking back, who knows how the landscape of the NBA would look today had that not happened?
We talked about stars joining good teams, but one that falls under the radar was when San Antonio traded for Richard Jefferson. Many believed the Spurs were going to take it to a whole new level when they acquired him in the offseason, but Jefferson was bizarrely awful with Gregg Popovich. Thus, the Spurs fell apart and were swept by the Suns in the second round.
The last thing to note was that the 2009-2010 season was when Kevin Durant and the Thunder finally put it together to earn their first playoff berth. While the Lakers eliminated them in the first round, we knew that it was just the beginning for them.
Of course, everything mentioned here culminated in the infamous summer of 2010. But that will be tabled for next year.