Timeline: A Year That Changed the N.B.A.

Timeline: A Year That Changed the N.B.A.


In any other year, N.B.A. teams would be gearing up for a new season right now. A champion would have been crowned in June. Free agents would have signed big deals in July. Everyone would have gone on vacation in August.

But this year, the N.B.A. is still trying to complete its old season, the one that began nearly a year ago. It’s been a long 12 months of basketball — and so much more.

Major trades and a chaotic free agency period shifted the N.B.A.’s hierarchy.

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Jimmy Butler joined the Miami Heat from Philadelphia in a deal that was overshadowed at the time but has proved critical during the postseason.

(And in the middle of all of that: Remember Damian Lillard and Sacramento’s Marvin Bagley III exchanging diss tracks? And Lillard doing the same with Shaquille O’Neal’?)

But before the season could begin, everything changed again.

Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet expressing support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Chinese officials demanded that Morey be fired, and pulled N.B.A. games from television while several teams, including the Nets and the Lakers, were in China for exhibition games.

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Morey said he did not intend to “cause any offense” and went quiet. The N.B.A. said it was “regrettable” that the tweet had offended people, and the Lakers’ LeBron James said Morey “wasn’t educated about the situation.”

Many fans and politicians accused the N.B.A. of prioritizing a lucrative business relationship with China over support for the protesters in Hong Kong.

The N.B.A.’s relationship with China remains strained, a rift Commissioner Adam Silver has said could cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars.

The regular season began on Oct. 22 — but without Zion Williamson, who injured his knee during the preseason.

More injuries piled up quickly.

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Credit…Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, mocked for rarely shooting from outside, hit the first 3-pointer of his career.

The N.B.A. ratings had been down all season, and everyone had a theory: anger over the China dispute; off years by popular teams, like the Warriors; cord-cutting; injuries to stars.

On Dec. 6, the Knicks — on pace for their worst season ever — fired Coach David Fizdale.

James Harden was scoring at will in Houston, and Bam Adebayo was on a tear in Miami for the Heat.

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On Dec. 12, the league was shaken by the news that David Stern, the former commissioner of the N.B.A., had been rushed to the hospital because of a brain hemorrhage.

Stern had stepped down as commissioner in February 2014, ceding the job to Silver, his longtime deputy. But he remained active in sports as an investor and as a sounding board for Silver and others.

Credit…Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

David Stern died on New Year’s Day at age 77.

A memorial service at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan three weeks after Stern’s death drew basketball luminaries such as Magic Johnson and Bill Russell.

Johnson described Stern as “my angel.”

On Jan. 26, tragedy: Kobe Bryant, the 41-year-old former Lakers superstar, was killed in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

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Credit…Harrison Hill/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
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The N.B.A. took the unusual step of postponing a game between the Lakers and Clippers because the players were grieving.

The night before Bryant died, he congratulated LeBron James for passing him for third on the N.B.A.’s career scoring list.

The Lakers returned to the court on Jan. 31 in an emotional game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center.

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As Bryant’s family prepared for his memorial, and the N.B.A. made plans to honor him during All-Star Weekend, the season carried on to the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

In Memphis, that meant focusing on Andre Iguodala. The Warriors veteran had been traded to the Grizzlies in the off-season but had not reported while the team sought to trade him.

Iguodala was traded to Miami. D’Angelo Russell was moved again, to Minnesota from Golden State for Andrew Wiggins.

During All-Star Weekend in Chicago, the N.B.A. announced that it had renamed the All-Star Game’s Most Valuable Player Award after Bryant.

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Credit…Kathy Willens/Associated Press

But Curry started feeling sick. There was concern that he might have the coronavirus, which by then was known to be in the United States but had not yet led to widespread lockdowns.

Curry just had the flu, but he did not play again before the N.B.A. had its first known case of the virus. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive on March 11, before a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The N.B.A. became the first major sports league to suspend its season because of the coronavirus.

That unexpectedly made March 11 the final night of Vince Carter’s 22-year N.B.A. career.

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It would take months for the N.B.A. and the players’ union to create a plan to restart the season inside a bubble at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla.

During that time, the severity of the pandemic became clear. Several more players tested positive, including Gobert’s teammate Donovan Mitchell and Kevin Durant of the Nets.

On March 25, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns shared that his parents had tested positive. His mother, Jacqueline Towns, died less than a month later.

Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

But by May 23, when the N.B.A. announced its intent to restart the season in Florida, everything was about to change again.

George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by the police in Minneapolis on May 25. Worldwide protests over his killing also drew attention to the deaths of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by the police in Louisville, Ky, and Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot and killed while he was jogging in Georgia.

N.B.A. players, like Boston’s Jaylen Brown and Indiana’s Malcolm Brogdon, immediately joined the protests.

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Some players, such as Milwaukee’s George Hill, worried that resuming the season would distract from the raging social justice movement.

The league and players agreed to incorporate social justice symbols into the restart, and team owners pledged millions of dollars for related causes.

Kneeling during the national anthem became commonplace, though not universal, at N.B.A. games.

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Credit…Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
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It wasn’t enough.

On Aug. 26, the Milwaukee Bucks walked out of a playoff game with the Orlando Magic to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Wisconsin. They were soon joined in their walkout by the Magic and other teams in the N.B.A., W.N.B.A. and major sports leagues.

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The N.B.A. resumed play three days later with additional commitments from the team owners to invest in social justice and voter outreach. Some teams pledged to try to use their arenas as voting sites in November.

By then, there should be a new N.B.A. champion.

It took much longer than expected to get here, but the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers are facing off in the N.B.A. finals.

The team that wins will have triumphed in a season unlike any other.



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