We were all so much more innocent back on April 13th, 2016. A historic NBA season was coming to a close with dual games competing for the main stage of national TV hoop audiences: In one corner, the final game of Kobe Bryant’s illustrious 20-year-career. In the other, Kobe’s antithesis, the record-setting, fun-loving, three-point-chucking Warriors of Golden State questing for their record-setting 73rd win. That sweet night back in spring may have been the end of the 2015-16 NBA regular season, but it was just the beginning of a 90-day stretch that has laid waste to forward and backward views of the NBA and culminated on July 11th with Tim Duncan’s retirement acting as an appropriate bookend to what Kobe started back in April.
It’s not a knock on Golden State that Kobe stole the show on that Wednesday night. The Warriors hosted a short-handed Memphis team they’d already whooped up on three times. The Grizz were without Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, etc. The game was a formality, a 48-minute procession that lead to crowning the Warriors as the greatest regular season team of all time. It was anti-climactic, but not without massive historical significance.
If Golden State embodied audacity in their pursuit of 73 wins, Kobe’s been radiating his own stubborn brand of nerve dating back to the first references to him in the history books as a competitive savant of sorts playing against grown men in Italy. That brashness is why people tuned in, hoping to get one last memory from Kobe – either something to solidify their notion of his greatness, reaffirm that he’s a ball hogging diva, or just say goodbye to an icon. In his most polarizing approach, he delivered to everyone.
In 25 years of watching basketball, Bryant’s final game with 60 points on 50 shots and 21 three point attempts; with his 37-year-old body gasping for air, visibly fatigued, committed to squeezing in as many shots as possible will always sit near the top of my memories. It was by turns hilarious and awe inspiring, predictable and incomprehensible. I don’t imagine I’ll ever see a player drop 60 in his last game, deliver what felt like a pre-planned speech, and un-ironically wrap it up with, “Mamba out,” but that’s what happened and it should’ve been a reminder to us all that this game, in all its beautiful bouncing and human fragility, is unpredictable.
A few weeks the collective NBA world had shifted focus to the Western Conference Finals. Some people expected Oklahoma City to beat Golden State and maybe the events of May 24th aligned with their thoughts, but I think most of us were surprised to see OKC run the Warriors off the floor in game four: 118-94 to go up 3-1. OKC was faster, stronger, longer, more confident, tougher, better. Something like 10 teams had come back from 3-1 deficits, but OKC had just won back-to-back games by a combined 52 points.
If Kobe’s last game is a shiny performance that demands a place in memory, Klay Thompson’s game six against OKC was probably more impressive given the context. Down eight heading into the fourth, a historic season on the line in a hostile environment, the future of rival Kevin Durant at stake, and Klay comes out gunning with three threes and all nine of GSW’s points to open the period. He would end up scoring 19 in the quarter, 41 for the game. These weren’t just spot up threes or blown defensive assignments, but hair trigger releases against great defense and bombs from 30 feet.
Despite Klay’s classic game, it’s fair to look back at the game six and the subsequent GSW win in game seven as critical dominoes in the Durant sweepstakes. It’s not likely anyone will ever know what KD would’ve decided had OKC won the west, but they didn’t and before game summary stories had been filed, the KD exodus rumors were already trickling out.
About a week-and-a-half after GSW had given Durant an up-close look at what he was missing out on, they took their own 3-1 lead over the Cavs in the Finals.
I don’t know if it’s the omnipresence of connected media and the Twittersphere or the sheer improbability of it all that etched it in my mind so clearly, but the Cavs comeback feels like something that’s been drilled into my memories: the Draymo suspension, Bron/Kryie going batshit crazy in game five, Bron going HAM in game six, and the unceasing rising tension of the 89-89 tie punctured and punctuated by a cascade of hugely historic moments: the block, Kevin Love’s defense on Steph, Kyrie’s shot, Bron trying to jackhammer home the final nail in GSW’s coffin by dunking on Draymo but getting fouled and maybe, possibly hurting his wrist. It’s all there, so clear and incredible, so historic and memorable, but so so foreboding as evidenced by GSW’s owner Joe Lacob’s, “All I can say is I will be very aggressive (in the off-season)” post-game comment.
When Cleveland was down 3-1 after having been trounced in game five at home, a comeback felt so out of reach and improbable. The odds were less than GSW’s comeback over OKC. After all, we’d seen the Warriors break teams and were just a couple weeks removed from Klay and Steph’s bombs away act finishing off OKC. Trading Kevin Love was inevitable, and at times Kyrie looked like a great individual talent that just didn’t comprehend the level of effort required at this level. Obituaries were drafted, LeBron’s window slammed shut, Warrior pressers were jokey events offset by obligatory “the series isn’t over” statements. A comeback wasn’t possible until it was and a month later my mind is still blown by it.
Of all these moments, maybe the most seismic was Durant’s July 4th announcement on the Player’s Tribune that he’d be joining Golden State – joining Steph, Klay, Draymo, Iggy. But what, but how? The stories and the analyses flowed out: if OKC beats GSW then he doesn’t leave, if GSW beats the Cavs then he can’t go. It’s what-if conjecture that can’t be solved any better than generational NBA debates.
In our reality, it happened the way it did and now the 6’11”, jump shooting, all-position defending, long-limbed 27-year-old from DC is joining one of the greatest teams of all-time. All the pieces had to fall just right to even allow it and when I write allow, I mean the cap, OKC losing, GSW losing, the conditions being created that made it rational and acceptable to Durant to leave OKC and join its greatest rival. Amid all this great on-court achievement and drama, the possibility that Durant brings to GSW is what makes it the greatest plot twist of all. Who’s the real Keyser Soze here?
So if Durant-to-the-Warriors is the climactic event, it’s Duncan low-key retirement on July 11th that acts as a coda for this dramatic 90 days that shook the NBA. The turnover is radical; from Kobe going out like a roman candle to Duncan fading into the cold quiet darkness of Spurs space. Two all-timers who played with their franchises for the entirety of their careers retiring against the backdrop of one of the most historic Finals and Finals performances, and all while Durant trades in the blue and orange of the Thunder for the blue and gold of the Bay.
How did we get here and where do we go? Our familiar faces are changing places or leaving us altogether. I don’t have a clue what this new NBA looks like, with the exception of a divisive CBA negotiation next summer. It feels like we’re coming out of an exhausting whirlwind, and entering what? I never could’ve expected a 90-day span like what happened from April 13th to July 11th and I don’t know what I expect the ramifications to be. But where I originally tuned in for a game played between lines drawn on a 94×50 hardwood court, I stick around as much now for the drama that unfolds off the court; in its history and operations, in the shaping of histories and futures by actors who are owners, front office officers, coaches, and self-determining players.