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The three superstars who defined this NBA decade

Which players defined the past 10 NBA seasons?

We asked 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 superstars of the 2010s.


1. LeBron James

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3:19

Buzzer-beaters, poster dunks and incredible passes highlight LeBron James’ most spectacular plays in 11 years with the Cavaliers.

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, 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.

While the rise of 3-point shooting is the definitive on-court trend of the 2010s — and Curry is the 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 may 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 separate times this decade, too. Neither Curry nor Durant have ever done that.

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Check out the best of LeBron James during his four-year stretch in South Beach.

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 may 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

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Steph Curry has left his mark on the NBA Finals for three years running.

Team

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 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.

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