Four Corners: Our favorite things about the 2016-17 NBA season

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4390/" data-ylk="slk:Russell Westbrook">Russell Westbrook</a>, in flight. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook, in flight. (Harry How/Getty Images)

The 2016-17 NBA regular season ends in less than a week. Before we fully commit to preparing the playoffs, though, we thought it made sense to take a look back and highlight the things that made us happiest about spending the last 5 1/2 months or so glued to League Pass.

The topic for this week’s Four Corners roundtable: What’s been your favorite thing about the 2016-17 NBA season? Here are our picks. Let’s hear yours in the comments.

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That the shape of the Earth became an NBA storyline

I’m sure you won’t agree, but nothing brought me more joy this season than the wonder of NBA players believing the Earth is flat.

It began with Kyrie Irving appearing on a podcast hosted by Cleveland Cavaliers teammates Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye (another underrated aspect of the season, by the way) and proclaiming over and over, “The Earth is flat,” before explaining how what we learned in school is wrong and what he learned on the internet is right.

That alone is hilarious, and a sentence I would never have thought I’d write before this season. That it came from the same guy whose incredible shot capped a miraculous comeback to end last season makes all the sense in the world and no sense whatsoever at the same time.

It all would’ve been remarkable had it ended there. But the ball kept spinning, as round things are wont to do, and soon Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler and Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green respectively defended their own flat-Earth beliefs with, “Just walk outside and use your five senses,” and, “I can make a round picture with my iPhone today.”

Irving’s flat-Earth theory ballooned to such astronomical proportions that it dominated All-Star Weekend and led Adam Silver to comment on the subject. Repeat: The NBA commissioner had to address players believing the Earth is flat at his annual state-of-the-league speech. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson weighed in on the matter. I’m not joking when I say this brings me so much joy.

Silver suggested Irving was only making a statement on fake news, and then Kyrie came full circle, doubling down on his flat-Earth belief. Lost in the shuffle of an Australian-born All-Star who travels from time zone to time zone for a living thinking the Earth is flat is that he also believes the CIA killed Bob Marley, that alien movie imagery is based on real aliens, and that teammates visit him in his dreams. In two months, we could be watching this guy in the Finals again. How great is that?

Shaquille O’Neal, as Shaq does, tried to jump the shark. He argued on his own podcast that China can’t possibly be on the other side of the globe because when he drives cross-country, “I do not go up and down at a 360-degree angle,” before revealing weeks later, “I’m joking, you idiots.”

Even that couldn’t suck the fun out of flat-Earthers for me. My inbox still sees a steady flow of people like the “retired Navy man” who asked, “If the earth is round and rotating, how does water stay at the top and around the sides?” Or emailer “Lovefor Christ,” who encouraged me to “do your own independent research” and provided a link to this random YouTube video.

Russell Westbrook’s string of triple-doubles, while mesmerizing, has taken some of the luster off the staggering stat lines I’ve seen this season. But it somehow brings me great comfort and endless joy to know a few of the players putting up those numbers believe they’re doing so on a flat Earth, and aren’t all that different from your buddy who dropped one too many tabs of acid. — Ben Rohrbach


Sixers fans show an appropriate level of respect and appreciation for all Robert Covington brings to the table. (AP)
Sixers fans show an appropriate level of respect and appreciation for all Robert Covington brings to the table. (AP)

That you guys get it

The 2016 offseason featured Mike Conley receiving the richest contract in NBA history. Kevin Durant left the only city-switching and public-connivin’ franchise he’s ever known to jump to a 73-win team to play as a free agent. The NBA drafted yet another teenager — a one-and-done prospect in Ben Simmons who barely bothered with either class or NCAA tournament glory at LSU — only to watch him carefully shelved for an entire season with a foot injury from which many return in half a season. He failed to pair with 31-game former tank toy Joel Embiid in Philadelphia on a team that more or less decided to sit out the NBA season for the fourth straight campaign. They’ll add yet another teenager, or two, to their roster this June.

Almost immediately after the season’s start, the expected (but no less crushing) narrative behind rest and restitution hit. That storyline has invaded both autumn and spring ever since the NBA returned from locking out its players in 2011. That lockout created a healthy collective bargaining agreement that still has its quirks, one that forces star players into discussing the tens of millions of dollars they’d lose in any deal (how silly of them, and us!) ahead of discussing their fit with a new team, and that forces beloved local team announcers out of voting for awards for which many are clearly qualified to cast an objective ballot.

The players got a say in the All-Star Game, and they biffed it, prior to a weekend that was as big a dud on Saturday as it was on Sunday. The trade deadline brought more chaos than order, and despite some second-place plotting from outfits in Boston and San Antonio, the league appears as top-heavy as ever as it enters its final week. Golden State and Cleveland should be in the Finals for the third consecutive June.

It only does a favor for a selected few (which whom I would never want to share an elevator) to announce that the NBA is better than ever, despite its setbacks. It may not be. The balloon might be about to burst.

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What is obvious, though, is that the league’s teeming fan base has been on top of things. The media charged with informing and entertaining those fans hasn’t been too far behind, either.

This isn’t a mash note to either of the (often intersecting) groups. (Neither lot much wants to share an elevator with me, while we’re at it.) But all are to be applauded for being better prepared to deal with the sort of announcements that would have driven most to get all haughty in lesser times, like 1979, 1999 and 2004.

Few need to explain away why Conley will make more money than Michael Jordan (or LeBron, or Duncan, or KG, or Shaq, or Kobe) did in a year, and why the 10th All-Star Game he’s missed in his career was an absolute waste of your evening on Feb. 19. We hate, but get, the “rest” nonsense. The sickening would-be narrative behind Durant’s move to Golden State ended up being far worse than the actual idea of leaving one very good team for a legendary team. We know why Simmons failed to advance in the NCAAs (his team wasn’t that great, and he was 18) and in the classroom (pay the kid).

And even the 76ers will be good someday.

Fans both frustrated and unfazed failed to litter our inboxes or @ mentions with screeds against all that was wrong with the NBA in 2016-17, mostly because they’re more informed than ever. The league has been far ahead of the game in this instance, more than their other pro sports competitors, and our friends in the media are to be acknowledged. But it’s a major credit to the NBA’s fans that they, as a mass, decided to become smarter than the whole lot of us — and on their free time, too.

NBA fans, if the 2016-17 response that we’ve been presented with is any indication, get it.

(NBA fans who also happen to be flat earth supporters? Well, you can’t spin ‘em all.) — Kelly Dwyer


<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4390/" data-ylk="slk:Russell Westbrook">Russell Westbrook</a> styles and profiles. (AP)
Russell Westbrook styles and profiles. (AP)

That now he does what he wants

Russell Westbrook’s historic 2016-17 season has been discussed largely in terms of his statistics. That’s perfectly understandable, because the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar is putting up triple-double numbers we have never seen. After Wednesday’s incredible performance against the Memphis Grizzlies, he’s now just six assists away from clinching a triple-double average for the season.

He’s going to hit that figure on Friday against the Phoenix Suns. He’s probably going to break Oscar Robertson’s record for the most triple-doubles in a season. He’s certainly going to be remembered for putting together one of the most incredible years in NBA history, even if everything falls apart over the next week.

Yet the excitement over Westbrook’s campaign has never really been about the triple-doubles, which became clear on Wednesday in Memphis. The numbers were great — 45 points (14-of-25 FG, 8-of-13 3FG, 9-of-12 FT), 10 assists, nine rebounds, and five steals in 38 minutes. His eight triples matched a career high, and just one of his seven turnovers came in a tight fourth quarter.

With that statistical recitation out of the way, let’s move on to what made Westbrook’s night so thrilling. Apart from falling one rebound short of topping Robertson’s triple-double record, Westbrook grabbed everyone’s attention by completing taking over the game. When he reentered with 9:33 remaining in regulation, the Thunder led 82-79. Two Grizzlies 3-pointers turned that into a three-point deficit after a little more than a minute. From that point on, Westbrook scored or assisted on all but five of OKC’s final 24 points, and everything after a Doug McDermott 3 that regained the lead with 5:45 left.

That stretch included three huge plays in the final 90 seconds — an amazing dribble to find McDermott for a tie-breaking three-pointer late in the shot clock, a dagger 3-pointer with 14 seconds left, and the game-cinching steal on the next possession. Westbrook also made two free throws with fractions of a second left to put his finishing touches on the final score.

As usual, the results weren’t half as exciting as the way Westbrook went about his business. No player seems to feed off his own chaotic style like the Thunder superstar, and the great plays he made were arguably more impressive because of what things looked like when he failed. His two late 3-pointers sandwiched a truly terrible fadeaway midrange jumper that went off the side of the backboard, and with several minutes left, it looked as if Westbrook was just as likely to win it for OKC as he was to go down in a blaze of ill-advised fouls 93 feet from the basket.

Basketball fans are used to seeing Westbrook shoot on every possession and run at opposing ball-handlers for unlikely steals in the final possessions, but on Wednesday he seemed to do it on every possession of the last nine minutes. There is no precedent for this style in recent NBA history, and trying to sum it up in a few paragraphs and a stat line feels woefully inadequate. The sheer amount of activity is astounding and exhausting for the viewer, let alone the players on the floor. Westbrook has been accused of hunting triple-doubles in several games this season, and there’s certainly some truth to the claim. Much more often than not, though, his ridiculous stat lines feel more like byproducts of the way he plays than the goal. He logs triple-doubles because he has a pathological need to be around the ball.

He does this all the time, and it’s never not the best show in the sport. While the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James have expanded our ideas of what a single player can do for his team, no one seems as drawn to the role as Westbrook. The offseason departure of Kevin Durant animated his season, but it’s wrong to see what Westbrook has done as a reaction to a supposed betrayal. He has been a mile-a-minute playmaker since he entered the league. In many ways, he’s been building up to this moment for his entire career.

I don’t know if Russell Westbrook will be Most Valuable Player and don’t especially care. No matter what happens in award voting before the playoffs, he will be remembered by those who saw him as the most dominant player of the 2016-17 season. His place on an awards list means far less than the shock and awe of the experience itself. — Eric Freeman


Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid are two of the many, many young talents who helped make this season so entertaining. (AP)
Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid are two of the many, many young talents who helped make this season so entertaining. (AP)

That the kids are really, really alright

It is probable, and in fact widely expected, that the 2017 NBA Finals will feature the same two teams as the 2016 Finals, and the 2015 edition. It’s likely that the top four finishers in Most Valuable Player voting will include three players who finished in last year’s top four, three who finished in 2015’s top four, and one who has finished in the top five in each of the last 11 years. (Which: wow, LeBron.) It is possible that this year’s 16-team postseason field will include 13 teams that made it last year and 14 teams that made it two years ago.

Based on these likelihoods, you can understand why some casual fans and outsiders take the executive-summary view of the NBA. That there’s no real parity in this league. That the outcomes are by and large predictable. (Y’know, setting aside that whole “nobody comes back from 3-1 down in the playoffs” thing.) That there are just a precious few long-since-established destiny-shifters in the NBA, only a handful of true difference-makers truly worth our time and attention.

If all you’re focused on is which team wins the NBA championship, that’s hard to argue. If you’re more interested in finding something fun to check out for a couple of hours a night between late October and mid-April, though, the state of our basketball-entertainment union is downright brolic, thanks in large part to a galaxy of rising stars but who have helped make this season worth watching, night in and night out.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, age 22, has grown from precocious Greek second-division curiosity into an All-Star-starting point-everything whose only statistical antecedents are Hall-of-Fame legends. Joel Embiid, age 23, finally took the floor and was an absolutely-worth-the-wait, full-fledged joy injection who made watching the Philadelphia 76ers undeniably fun while also looking like the most devastating big-man prospect to hit the game in years.

Except, maybe, for Karl-Anthony Towns, who is the first 21-year-old in 47 years to average at least 24 points, 12 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, and who has shot nearly 60 percent from the floor on 19 shots a game for the last three months. The 2016 Rookie of the Year has turned in a sophomore season that far surpassed his runner-up, Kristaps Porzingis … and even then, the 7-foot-3 Latvian improved his efficiency across the board, held up under more minutes, and has battled the relentlessly brutalizing negativity that is Everything About The New York Knicks well enough to join Shaq, Tim Duncan and Anthony Davis as the only 21-year-olds to put up at least 18 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and 1.5 assists a night.

If you prefer your centers to style like a young Sabonis — shouts to Dane Carbaugh — perhaps you’d dig Nikola Jokic, age 22, whose reintroduction as a starter midway through December turned the Denver Nuggets into the best offense in the NBA — seriously, more efficient and explosive than the Warriors, Rockets, Cavs and everybody else — by virtue of his ridiculous vision and playmaking touch. Twenty players ever have averaged 16.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game in a season; four have done it before age 23. Jokic is on both lists.

If you want a more blunt instrument on the interior, maybe you opt for Rudy Gobert, age 24, who’s leading the NBA in blocks, block percentage, individual defensive rating and defensive win shares while captaining the league’s No. 3 defense for a Utah Jazz team that could win 50 games despite only having had its full starting five available for 13 games this season.

Andrew Wiggins just keeps plugging along, hanging 47 on the Lakers 3 1/2 months before turning 22. While the Pelicans will once again miss the playoffs, Anthony Davis, age 24, has done exactly what I’d hoped he would this season, ranking fourth in the league in scoring and seventh in rebounding while playing the most minutes and games of his career. Say what you will about how the total was arrived at, but Devin Booker, who can’t yet legally buy a beer, scored 70 freaking points in an NBA game this season.

The year-long game of “can you top this?” among top-tier MVP candidates like Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard has incredibly compelling. The tremendous production of second-tier contenders who have catapulted their teams into the conference finals conversation — Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul — has only added to the joy. But what makes the NBA as it exists right now so much damn fun is that you can look just about anywhere on any given night — hell, even Brooklyn, since the All-Star break! — and find some young monster, some emerging playmaker, some flamethrower-in-training who, if you give him a second, will keep you from changing the channel.

As remarkable as it is to watch the future Hall of Famers currently entrenched in the league’s halls of power rewriting the record books every night, the beauty of this moment is that it also feels like the start of something even bigger. My favorite thing about this NBA season has been knowing, even as I find myself slack-jawed and stunned by what I’m watching right now, that there’s going to be even more for us to enjoy in the very, very near future. — Dan Devine

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