How will the 2010’s be remembered? Well, more than anything it will be defined by the stars of the era and what they did to elevate the game.
These fives players (plus honorable mentions), in my opinion, do a solid job of outlining how the past decade went down.
Let’s go in order of picking easiest to hardest.
F: LeBron James
Decade stats: three-time NBA MVP, ten-time All-Star (the entire decade), one-time All-Star Game MVP, nine-time All-NBA First Team, three-time NBA champion, three-time Finals MVP
One of the big questions for this project is how to most closely tie a player to the decade that matches their peak. However, for LeBron James, that conversation is irrelevant; he’ll be remembered for the 2010’s as much as any other decade.
James won his first (two) titles in the decade after forming a Big 3 with the Miami Heat and won a championship for the city of Cleveland in his return to his home state. The Cavaliers title was the first major sports championship in 52 years, practically cementing “King James”s legacy in Cleveland.
Doing my best to avoid the MJ-LeBron “greatest” debate, James is inarguably the best forward of all time, and his body of work in just this decade does a perfect job to sum it all up, too.
G: Stephen Curry
Decade stats: two-time NBA MVP, six-time All-Star, one-time league scoring champion, three-time All-NBA First Team, three-time NBA champion
The 2010’s cannot be discussed without Stephen Curry. Curry’s game revolutionized the sport and impacted how people of all ages approach shooting. After the Golden State Warriors hired Steve Kerr as their head coach, Curry led that on-court revolution to the tune of back-to-back MVP’s and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, winning three.
The only dent to Curry’s reputation is the overwhelming “star” power the Warriors possessed. However, that is also an indictment of how magnetic it has been to play alongside the Davidson product, who blossomed in this decade and turned into the greatest shooter probably ever in the NBA. The 2010’s is not complete without Curry involved somehow.
G: James Harden
Decade stats: one-time NBA MVP, seven-time All-Star, two-time league scoring champion, five-time All-NBA First Team, one-time Sixth Man of the Year
This is an example of not overthinking it. One of James Harden’s final achievements of the decade—what could be his crowning achievement—is his pace to average the third-best scoring season. His name is right in the middle of multiple years Wilt Chamberlain was on a tear and simply unstoppable.
And that’s what Harden was for a large chunk of the 2010’s: unstoppable. Maybe even to a fault since we saw the Rockets fail time and again to reach the Finals, only going as far as the conference finals in 2015 and 2018.
But, nevertheless, Harden was the second-best guard from the decade. His scoring is almost unmatched, he was the face of Mike D’Antoni’s isolation and devastation and “Moreyball”—the shot selection proclivity for layups and 3-pointers—and he was a regular-season matchup nightmare for every opposing team. Unfortunately for Harden and the Rockets, that nightmare only extended from October to April.
F: Kawhi Leonard
Decade stats: three-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA First-Team, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, two-time NBA champion, two-time Finals MVP
Kawhi Leonard’s robotic demeanor and dogmatic intensity for competition fueled two iconic teams of the decade; the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs and the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors. The Raptors’ trade for Leonard two summers ago kickstarted the avalanche that saw the Canadian franchise win its first title in history, defeating the undermanned Warriors in June. Prior to that, Leonard was known as the fresh face to the Tim Duncan–Tony Parker–Manu Ginobili Spurs; the youthful not-so-exuberant forward that saw Gregg Popovich’s team lose in heartbreaking fashion in 2013 for James’ second title and come back with fire in their bellies the next year to snatch back the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Outside of LeBron, Kawhi was the best two-way player of the decade. He only seems to be getting better, too, at 28 years old on a Los Angeles Clippers team that gets to match up with James and the Lakers four times a year.
No other player is so terrorizing to face on both ends of the floor, as Leonard will lock up an entire team—not just a single player—on defense, and hit improbable shots on offense. This was not the easiest choice to make, but Leonard is deserving of this honor, much to Kevin Durant’s chagrin.
C: Marc Gasol
Decade stats: three-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA First Team, one-time Defensive Player of the Year, one-time NBA champion
The other controversial call here is Marc Gasol’s inclusion. Gasol finally earned a chip playing alongside Leonard with the Raptors, and he has another shot this year with Toronto still looking powerful in the East.
More importantly, Gasol defined a Memphis Grizzlies team for a decade that was always in the hunt in the Western Conference players. The “Grit ‘n’ Grind” Grizzlies have a special place in most basketball fans’ hearts, and he was the best defensive center in the league during the 2010’s who was not a simple dud on the other end of the court.
The two most obvious names that come to mind are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The former Oklahoma City Thunder teammates have two MVP awards, eighteen All-Star Game selections, four All-Star MVP’s, six league scoring champion titles, and eight All-NBA First Team nods between them, along with Durant’s back-to-back titles and Finals MVP’s. The only plausible explanation here is simply: they were beat at their position and never had the same window of contention at the highest stage.
Another honorable mention is Anthony Davis, who has traditionally been a power forward in his career, although award-voters for All-NBA teams have selected “The Brow” as First Team center twice. Sticking to the stringent “center” fulfillment, choosing Davis here did not mesh well, however, he does indeed deserve to be discussed as one of the best players from the 2010’s.
Two more honorable mentions are Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant. The two lifelong Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers All-Stars, respectively, reached top six in the NBA’s all-time scoring in their careers and were instrumental parts of title-winning teams in the 2010’s. Bryant, I think, will be remembered more for the previous decade, along with Nowitzki.